Five Things Mainline Christians Need to Stop Doing

1) Running churches and denominations like businesses.

I’ve been told that if I really want to be a highly-sought after pastor I need to get an MBA. First, I’m very happy right where I am. Second, even if I happened to be looking for a new call, no thanks.

There’s nothing wrong with having an MBA. There’s also nothing wrong with pastors learning from the field of business management. I do some reading in the area from time to time myself, and appropriate what works for use in the church. But I’ll never get an MBA.

Why? Because it’s not my call. My church is filled with well-educated people, including MBAs. They use their gifts in our church all the time. But even if we didn’t have a single MBA in my congregation, I still wouldn’t need one.

The church is an organization. That is indeed true. We are a collection of human beings trying to build, plan, and use our resources well. But, unlike businesses or even non-profits, we aren’t here to sell a product or fix a problem. We are here for the worship of God, and for the service of God’s people.

We don’t do our work in isolation. We do it by being led by the Holy Spirit.

True, we can use things like budget spreadsheets, revised organizational structures, and every physical resource we have to work towards that mission. But if we are spending more time thinking about how to use those things, and how to manage the people who are doing so, than we are about discerning God’s will for us, we are utterly lost.

It gets worse when the most unhealthy aspects of corporate culture make their way into our life together. In my larger church life I was once ruled out of order when I called for a prayer of discernment before a major vote. Other times I’ve seen transparency go out the window, or a small minority make decisions without consulting a larger group.

Check out what the Bible has to say about the qualities needed for pastors and for overseers (or “bishops”). None of them would make for great corporate leaders. But they do make for good enough church leaders. When we function as business executives, rather than church leaders, we not only disenfranchise one another, but we say we know what God desires better than the gathered church does. That is hubris at its worst.

2) Neglecting evangelism and church growth.

I’ve heard pastors say that they devote a set amount of their pastoral time every week to advocacy around one particular concern. It could be 10% of their time is spent on the environment, or 20% on LGBTQ inclusion. Those are certainly worthy of concern. But when I ask them this, I’m often greeted with a blank stare: “And how much time do you spend on evangelism and church growth?”

Usually none. Not unless you count the evangelism that comes as a by-product of advocacy. That’s surely important, but our advocacy work should not be undertaken as a means to increase our membership. That’s disingenuous.

Instead, what would it mean for our clergy leaders to actually take 10% of their ministry time and to engage in the work of proclaiming the Good News, and inviting people to discipleship? What would it look like to invest in growing our churches by encouraging life-transformative programming that proclaims God’s love? What would it look like if we could positively describe why we are Christians without first saying how we aren’t like other Christians?IMG_8457

Billy Graham once said that if you want to figure out what you worship, look at your checkbook. If I were to update it for today I’d say that if you want to figure out what you worship, just look at your planner. How you spend your time in ministry will tell you what you worship. If you, your church, or your denomination isn’t spending much of it telling the story of God’s love in some way, that’s deeply troubling.

This is the one thing the church can do that no other organization can. We have a commission to spread the Gospel by proclaiming the love and grace of Christ. Can you imagine how the mainline could be renewed if we focused our attention on reaching out to those who are hungry for spiritual depth and discipleship that requires something of us? Our churches would be growing spiritually by leaps and bounds.

3) Paying little attention to faith formation.

Does your denomination have concrete resources for faith formation? Is time and energy invested in curriculum development for children? Are youth learning what it means to be a disciple?

In Glorify I quote a sobering statistic: only 45% of the youth who grow up in mainline congregations continue to claim our tradition as adults. That doesn’t mean practice our tradition; that just means that they will admit they are one of us.

That number dips down to 37% when we are talking about Millennials. These are the kids who were raised in our churches, and they don’t want anything to do with us. They are either disengaging altogether or finding new traditions, often in Christian traditions with deeper formation programs. What does that say about our effectiveness at making them disciples?

Add to that the fact that we’ve all but given up on our college students. Every mainline denomination used to have an active college fellowship program. You could step on campus and easily find Canterbury, Westminster, Wesley Fellowship, and more. Now college ministry is dominated by well-funded programs from conservative and fundamentalist churches.

True, you don’t make any money supporting college students. They are a really bad investment from a financial sense. But the churches that are succeeding in college ministry care enough to spend that money anyway. They are planting the seeds that will yield a great harvest in coming years. Meanwhile, we mainliners are so short-sighted that we are slashing funding for our young adults who need support.

Finally, we don’t do the work of helping adults to keep growing as disciples. This is especially true of the former “nones” who come through our doors. For those of us who were raised outside of the church formation is essential. As a new Christian I had no idea how to say the Lord’s Prayer. I needed someone to help teach me the faith in a non-judgmental fashion. But even if you have gone to church every Sunday of your life, if the last time you learned anything about discipleship was high school Sunday school, then we are failing you.

4) Engaging in interfaith dialogue without doing our own work first.

I love interfaith work. I think it’s absolutely crucial in our world. We need to be addressing our historical relationships to Judaism and Islam. We need to be standing against religious oppression of all faiths. We need to learn from one another. And we need to be hearing from those who are atheist and agnostic too.

But we can’t do this honestly until we know who we are, and whose we are.

You know how you can’t really love someone until you know and love yourself? No one should get married, for instance, until they know who they are and what they stand for first. Otherwise they will just become enmeshed with the other. That’s never healthy.

And yet, well-meaning mainline Christians will often engage in interfaith dialogue without first knowing what we ourselves believe. In that case we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to those we meet who genuinely want to know more about us. If they ask us what a Christian believes, or what our own denomination believes, and we can’t give an answer, then really we aren’t there as equal participants. We’re just asking them to teach us.

At the same time, we also risk becoming appropriative. Just like Christians who appropriate the Jewish Seder for our own reasons, without full understanding, we risk appropriating the traditions of other religions and cultures as well. When we meet our siblings from other traditions on the path we should do so with both self-knowledge and generous spirits. And when they teach us about themselves, we should use that new knowledge in order to better understand them, not to make what is theirs our own.

5) Dismantling seminaries.

Seminaries have seen better days. Once communities of formation and learning, they’ve become optional in some mainline traditions. While some never receive any educational formation for ministry, others take their entire course of study online. After all, many say, I can’t be expected to quit my job and move my family.

IMG_8461Except, Jesus was pretty clear about leaving everything behind and following him. Over half my seminary classmates packed up families, took out student loans, and left lucrative jobs to do so. Is it convenient? No. Is it easy? No. But, it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.

Seminary is more than an academic experience. It is a place where a community is formed by worship, learning, and living together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his words to a seminary that still formed during the rise of the Third Reich, wrote to the students about the importance of living in community. He believed that it would transform both their faith and their ministry to come. (See Life Together for more.) Surely, if any generation had an excuse to skip the spiritual formation of seminary it was German seminarians in the 1930’s. And yet, they not only formed an underground seminary, many also eventually went to prison for being seminarians.

No one is asking you to do the same. But perhaps making the small sacrifice of giving three years of your life in order to be formed as a pastor is worth it. Yes, you might have to change everything in order to do so. But if you think that ministry is going to allow you the luxury of staying in one place or doing things your own way, then you are in for a disheartening shock.

That’s why denominations, and their churches, have to support their seminaries and their seminarians. This means both financially and in terms of encouraging attendance and demanding rigorous preparation. The church needs clergy who know who they are, and what they believe. We need clergy who can live in community, and wrestle within it. And we need clergy who take the call seriously enough to know they are not yet prepared to undertake it.

Without clergy who understand that enormity of this call, we will never have leaders who understand the enormity of what God has called the church to do next.

If you found meaning in this post, you’ll love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. There is hope for mainline renewal, and this book can show you how to claim it for your local congregation, your denomination, and beyond: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

The “Glorify” Group Reading Guide Is Here!

9780829820294Just released by Pilgrim Press, the group reading guide makes it possible for church reading groups, Christian education classes, and other small groups to better use Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. To know more why your church should be using Glorify in groups, read this post: https://emilycheath.com/2016/05/03/glorify-for-groups/

There are two format options, one with ten sessions and one with three. Suggestions for opening each session, and questions for discussion are included in this guide. The questions help readers to go relate the book to their own lives, and to their churches. It’s also helpful for those who are reading Glorify on their own and want to reflect more deeply on the text.

You can download the guide as a PDF, or print copies for your group, here: glorifystudyguidev2b

The book itself may be purchased from Amazon, Pilgrim Press, Cokesbury, and more.

This Book Will Not Save Your Church: Or, Why I Wrote “Glorify”

Glorify is a book I never meant to write.

In the fall of 2014 I was taking a research seminar for my Doctor of Ministry degree. One of our assignments was to present our plans for our doctoral project. So, I went with my previously stated intentions and wrote out a lengthy proposal for a project centered on Ron Heifetz’s theory of adaptive leadership and its application to the church.

If you’ve never heard about “adaptive leadership” before, here’s the quick and dirty version. There are two kinds of fixes: technical and adaptive. Many challenges can be solved by relatively easy “technical fixes”. I like to think of this as the “duct tape approach”. Something is broken? Duct tape it back in place. It will work…at least for a while.

But adaptive challenges are more difficult than that. They require us to take a look at the entire broken system and use creative approaches to fix them. Many of the challenges we try to solve with “technical fixes” are actually adaptive challenges in disguise. Because adaptive fixes take more time, energy, and effort, though, it may be tempting to just try to fix them with the duct tape of technical fixes instead.

I wanted to write about the mainline church and how we, as almost anyone will tell you, are broken. We are losing members. We are losing churches. We are losing our sense of purpose. My project was going to be a practical guide to bringing adaptive thinking to the congregational setting.

But one day in class, while I was sketching out my ideas, a thought came to me: was I attempting to fix an adaptive problem with just another technical fix? Am I writing another book that pastors and church leaders will buy in an attempt to fix things? One that, like most other books, won’t contribute much to solving the problem?

It was while I was pondering this that another thought came: Maybe Jesus is the adaptive fix.

9780829820294Bear with me. I don’t think we should follow Jesus to save our churches. But I do think that mainline churches have in many ways already put the cart before the horse (or forgotten the horse entirely). We have been so focused on saving ourselves that we have forgotten that someone has already done that. Perhaps the greatest adaptive fix the mainline could make would be to remember its purpose, and build back a sense of itself as belonging to a God of grace.

That fall I wrote a blog about this idea that was later picked up by Still Speaking Magazine. (You can read it here: https://emilycheath.com/2014/09/16/the-next-big-thing-for-the-progressive-church-putting-the-horse-before-the-cart/ ) Not long after that I signed a contract with Pilgrim Press for a book based on these same ideas. The result was Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, which was just published last month. 

From the beginning I knew this was a different kind of church leadership and church growth book. It’s doesn’t follow the “ten easy steps to turn your church around” format. There’s no conversation about whether traditional or contemporary music will get the millennials in your pews, or whether to buy hymnals or project the music overhead. I’m not telling you to run a sermon series on marriage or hang a rainbow banner from your steeple.

 

You can do all of that, of course. It’s still great stuff. But, in the end, it’s just a technical fix in an age when we need an adaptive change.

One of the statistics I quote in the book says that we mainliners, “have the worst ‘retention rate’ when it comes to our young people; 45 percent, less than half, of our youth continue to claim our tradition into young adulthood. That number dips to 37 percent, or just over a third, when you look at millennials. More and more of our youth are graduating from high school, stepping out into the world, and becoming “nones.”

In other words, despite every bell and whistle we try, we’re losing about two-thirds of the people who grow up in our mainline congregations. It’s not that people don’t know about us. It’s that they know us, and aren’t so sure they want what we are offering.

To put it another way, the technical fixes that mainline and progressive churches have been trying for the last thirty years aren’t working. The kids are alright, but we’re not. And they can see through any facade that says otherwise.

So, maybe it’s time to try something new. Maybe it’s time to eschew the technical fixes of the latest new craze in church, and instead look for something different. Maybe it’s time to put our hope in something a little more long-lasting. Maybe it’s time to stop looking countercultural, and actually be countercultural.

And maybe it’s time to do the kind of adaptive work that only God can help us do.

Glorify will not be the book to help you save your church. But it might just point you towards the one who can.

Death in the Time of Facebook

About two weeks ago my college chaplain, a man who had greatly influenced my faith and life, and who helped set me on the track to seminary and ordination, suffered a serious stroke.

I found out on Facebook. Now, before you complain about modern technology, let me say I was grateful I found out that way. A college classmate who still lives nearby thought to message me on Facebook immediately. His note was rapidly followed by several others from friends who knew I’d want to know. I, in turn, passed the news on to others whom I knew.

It worked like that for several days. From New Hampshire I was able to feel connected to what was happening in the north Georgia mountains. I couldn’t fly down on such short notice due to events at church. But, a friend was able to kneel at his hospital bed and tell him I loved him and how much he meant to me.

I found out he died on Facebook too. A simple message: “he’s gone”. As the hours went on and more people learned their profile pictures were changed to ones of him. We shared story after story of what he had meant to us. We read and “liked” and commented. We held a virtual wake. We passed the funeral information to one another and made plans.

I’m not saying Facebook or any other form of social media is enough in the face of death. I am nearly a digital native but I still flew south for the service. I still needed to sit in a church pew, sing a hymn, and hug my friends. And, yes, I needed to stand at the side of his casket and see him there in his robe and stole. I needed to know at a deeper level that it was real; that he was gone.

I often hear social media criticized as counter to the goal of building community. My experience has mostly been the exact opposite. I live in a different geographic region from the one in which I grew up, and yet I remain friends with high school and college classmates. I serve in a profession where my colleagues are dispersed geographically, and yet a shared prayer or a request for advice is only a post away. And while I have written a book published on actual paper, it was online that I was first able to show I had relevant things to say. Barriers to the sharing of ideas fall over the Internet.

Like any tool, it can be misused. Most of us have heard a story of a death announced on Facebook before loved ones knew, for instance. But that’s an issue of etiquette, not an inherent flaw of social media.

Instead, I believe we are more connected when we use every tool that we can. The last two weeks have reminded me of that, and made me grateful for connections, however they come.

After the funeral a beautiful picture from the reception was posted online. Several dozen from four years were gathered together. We tagged ourselves. We re-shared it. We sent links to the web stream of the recorded service to those who couldn’t be there. And when we drove or flew home, we stayed connected in at least some small way.

I have one final act of mourning to perform before I move into the new phase of the process, in which the shock is gone and the reality that a love one is really dead sinks in. 

I have lists on Facebook, the kind that when necessary let me target my post to the audience most interested in it, mostly around my writing. It lets me separate the people who don’t care where my wife and I ate dinner from the ones who REALLY don’t care where my wife and I ate dinner. 

But I have one list that is about my own need to remember. I call it “Communion of Saints”. The first time a friend of mine died who was on Facebook I wondered what to do with his profile. It felt wrong to “unfriend” him. But somehow I had to mark the loss. 

That list has become a little like the candles we light on All Saints’ Day for me. It’s a constant reminder of lives well lived, and of God’s love from which “nothing, not even death, can separate us”. 

The list has 13 names on it right now. After I post this blog, I will type my old friend’s name into Facebook and navigate to his page. And then I’ll click a few boxes and add a 14th name to the list.

The irony is not lost on me that in our death-denying culture one of the most tangible acts of saying goodbye that I can perform takes place online. Nor is it lost on me that in a time of loss it was Facebook that helped me to mourn.

As a person who is mourning, I am grateful for that. As a pastor, I think that’s something worth reflecting upon.

“Glorify” for Groups

Update, June 2, 2016. The Glorify group reading guide is now available, free of charge: Glorify Reading Guide

It’s been a few weeks since Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity was released by Pilgrim Press. I’ve been so grateful to hear the initial round of feedback. The book seems to have articulated something many have been feeling for some time.

IMG_6934One of the things I’m hearing the most often is that people want to use this book in a small group setting. My hope has always been that Glorify could be used that way. In fact, I’m working on a reading group study guide now that should be available for download soon. This will contain tips for classes, questions for group discussion, and other resources.

I’m also aware that now is the time in the church year when congregations are looking at summer small-group reads as well as Christian education options for the fall. In that spirit, here are three ways churches can use Glorify in your congregation.

Adult Education Sunday School

Glorify is broken into ten chapters, each of which (10-15 pages each) could easily be read by busy church members during the course of a week. Taking a chapter a week, Glorify would inspire a rich conversation in adult Sunday school classes throughout the fall.

Book Group Discussion

Many churches have book groups that come together to talk about a common read. Glorify could be read all in one sitting, or broken into its three parts for a multi-event group. The three sections (Finding Our Purpose, Being Transformed by God, and Transforming the World with God) provide a structure for shorter-term program of one to three sessions. The book is also a great read for “One Church/One Book” programs in which the entire congregation reads the same book and talks about what it can teach their church.

Confirmation, Youth Groups, or Campus Ministries

Glorify is a down-to-earth, conversational read that is appropriate for youth and young adults. It talks about the real social issues that matter to younger Christians, including LGBTQ inclusion, eradicating racism, and changing the world. It also provides a basic overview of mainline Christian faith and how it shapes our identity. The premise of Glorify is that we are transformed by God’s love for us, and so we in turn transform the world. One of the most amazing things about today’s youth and young adults is that they want to serve, and they want their faith to inform their work in the world. This book will help them to integrate belief and action.

If you want to order Glorify for a small group, you can do so directly from Pilgrim Press here: http://www.uccresources.com/products/glorify-reclaiming-the-heart-of-progressive-christianity-heath

Or, look for the book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

If possible I am also glad to talk about coming to your church to speak about the book, or connecting with a small group via Skype to answer questions and talk more.

Thanks so much for all the support! May Glorify be a blessing to the ministry of your church.

On Restrooms, Gender, and Fear

My wife and I have a joke. We tell it when we are out in public, at an airport or a restaurant or concert, and I need to use the bathroom. When I stand up to find a restroom I say to her, “Okay, honey, if I’m not out in five minutes, come look for me.”

We always laugh but, actually, it’s not that funny. The “joke” plays on the fact that I’m a gender non-conforming and genderqueer person, and bathrooms are not safe spaces for me. This has always been true, but in the current political climate, when states are passing laws regulating the use of bathrooms by trans and gender non-confirming people, we’ve been telling this joke more.

Sometimes gallows humor is all you have.

Here’s what happens when I go into a public restroom. I am female-bodied, but dress in a way that fits my own understanding of my gender identity which, while not male, definitely trends masculine. Dressed down I wear jeans and oxford shirts with baseball caps. Dressed up I prefer khakis and dress shirts. Bow ties are my favorite accessories. And my hair is cut short enough that the woman who cuts my hair charges me for a “men’s cut” because she doesn’t think I should have to pay more than a man for the same haircut.

Like I said, though, I’m not male. Unlike my trans brothers who have transitioned female-to-male, I have been clear that that was not the right path for me. I’m genderqueer and for me that means I feel happy to live in my body as it is. How I dress and carry that body, though, is often at stark contrast with what the world expects. It’s been that way since I was a 3 year old telling my mom that overalls were better than dresses

So, when I go to use the women’s bathroom, the bathroom of the sex to which I was assigned at birth, things get interesting. Unlike trans men and trans women who wish to use a bathroom that is different from the one they were assigned to at birth, but which fits their true gender, I just want to use the women’s room. But like my trans brothers and sisters, this is not always a safe experience for me.

Here’s what happens. I walk up to the bathroom, with it’s picture of a woman in a dress, and I push open the door. Sometimes it starts there. A woman is coming out and she looks at me, looks up at the door, and looks confused. I push on anyway. Sometimes she will helpfully say, “I’m sorry, sir, this is the women’s room.” I have learned to say, “yes…I know” and keep walking without waiting for a response.

I use the bathroom as quickly as possible. I don’t know what the supporters of bathroom bills think trans and gender non-conforming people are doing in there, but I can assure you it’s not exciting. In fact, I can testify that most of the time we get out as soon as humanly possible. Then I wash my hands, carefully avoiding the mirror-reflected gazes of the woman next to me. I say nothing, unless something is said to me. And then I leave.

I am lucky in that the worst that has ever happened to me in a women’s room is that I’ve been embarrassed. Friends of mine have not been so lucky. One was pulled out by force by a man who believed she was going to harm his wife. He had thought she was a man. Other friends have come out to find a someone standing with a police officer who then demands to see their ID. And I’ve certainly thought about how to best defend myself if someone gets violent. Everyone I know who is gender non-conforming has had those thoughts.

That’s why I try to avoid public bathrooms as much as possible. Believe me, if there is any way to get around it, I will. I suspect this is true of most trans, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming folks. For all the fears around us wanting to use the bathroom, the reality is that we’re far more afraid to use it than you know. I’ve learned not to drink water before I have to fly in order to avoid airport restrooms. I change my clothes before I get to my gym. I’ve walked back to my house rather than use a restaurant bathroom.

IMG_5871

The gender neutral restroom at the United Church of Christ’s last General Synod.

Sometimes, though, I get lucky. I’ll find a place with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms. That’s like hitting the bathroom lottery. When I came to the church I now serve, I was thrilled to find three gender-neutral bathrooms on the first floor and another upstairs. But this is rare.

The reality is that I spend far more time thinking of bathrooms than I ever thought possible. And for someone who grew up hearing that it was good manners to not talk about anything related to bathrooms, writing about this is particularly odd territory. But now is a kairos time in bathrooms. This is the time when we have to tell our stories, stories that maybe even our closest friends don’t know.

And so, friends, I’m telling you this story. I’m telling you that no trans or gender non-conforming person wants to use the bathroom for any other reason than you do. I’m telling you that this has never been about sexual predators (who don’t need bathrooms to hurt people, and who won’t be discouraged by an anti-trans bathroom law), but about harming trans people. I’m telling you that I’d like to spend a whole lot less time thinking about bathrooms than I do.

And I’m also telling you this. I’m telling you that going into a restroom makes me afraid. I’m a former rugby player, I’ve studied judo, and I routinely dead-lift more than most grown men weigh. But multiple times a week I am too scared to take care of a basic human need in a public place.

The other night I read about a woman who has decided to bring her gun into restrooms from now on in order to “protect” herself from “perverts” who come in. To be clear, that meant anyone that she thought didn’t belong in a women’s room. Shoot first. Ask questions later.

I joked with my wife, “So, that’s how I’m going to die. I’m going to go into a Target bathroom with that woman and she’s going to think I’m a dude and shoot me.”

This time my wife didn’t laugh.


For more from the writer check out Heath’s book “Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity” now from Pilgrim Press: http://www.uccresources.com/products/glorify-reclaiming-the-heart-of-progressive-christianity-heath

or Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

On Presbyterians, Exiles, and Apologies

Behind my desk there are two framed certificates on the wall. One is from 2001. It is reads “Certificate of Ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament, Presbyterian Church (USA)”. The other is from 2010. This one reads “Certificate of Ordained Ministerial Standing, United Church of Christ”.

When I transferred my ordination to the UCC in 2010, I wasn’t sure what to do with that first certificate. The Presbyterian Church had trained me to be a pastor at one of its denominational seminaries. It had shaped me as a candidate for ministry. I had been a member of PCUSA churches, interned in a PCUSA congregation, and served honorably for over eight years as a PCUSA minister.

But, in 2010, I left.

I didn’t want to. I loved being Presbyterian. I can still tell you all about the Book of Confessions, and my favorite parts, from Heidelberg to Barmen. I love the Presbyterian commitment to education and loving God with our whole mind. I am deeply Reformed, down to the bone.

And I am also gay.

In 2010 I had to make a choice between the church I loved and my life. I knew, for my own mental health, that I could no longer be a part of a church that asked me to either abide by an unfair ordination standard applied only to same-sex relationships or to remain silent about it in certain settings if I chose not to abide.

I have been out since I was 18. I never hid that fact. But I lived within the strictures of the PCUSA’s ordination standard. I did this not out of shame, but out of a sense that I could not ask someone to partner with me and live in the shadows. As even my father told me when it became time for me to leave the PCUSA, it wouldn’t be fair to someone I loved.

When it became clear that change was not coming fast enough, I had to ask myself questions about staying. I came to understand that remaining in the PCUSA would be fundamentally damaging to me, and to my sense of integrity. And so, reluctantly, I left.

Within a year of leaving the PCUSA I met my now-wife. We dated openly, celebrated our engagement publicly, and married in a church of my new denomination. When DOMA was overturned, and when the Supreme Court later made equal marriage the law of the land, we rejoiced with the whole-hearted support of our denomination. I have come to understand what it means to be accepted and loved by my church, just as I am.

rainbow-sealYou might think that after all that I am angry at the PCUSA.

For a while I was. I think I had good reason. But then, I wasn’t. As much as my treatment, and the treatment of every other LGBTQ person in the church, was unfair, I still love the Presbyterian Church deeply. I hang my ordination certificate in my office so that every day I will see it and remember the gifts I received from the PCUSA. And I rejoiced when the PCUSA took steps to include LGBTQ people in leadership and marriage.

Over the past few weeks, though, I have felt some of those old feelings of frustration return.

There is an overture being considered in the PCUSA right now which calls on the denomination to apologize for its past treatment of LGBTQ individuals because “there will be no chance for healing and reconciliation until the PCUSA admits its mistakes and makes a statement of apology”.

The Covenant Network, which believes itself to be an ally to LGBTQ people, has come out against the statement. (For historical perspective the Covenant Network also urged past delays on votes which could have included LGBTQ people in the ministry sooner out of concerns for “unity”. As a PCUSA seminarian at the time I had a hard time with that stance as well.) Other PCUSA “allies” have also spoken against the apology saying it does not have consensus or that it will create further division.

Let me say first that division has already been created. The fact many LGBTQ Presbyterians are now exiles in other denominations should tell you that. Those of us who were forced to leave will not have a voice on Presbytery and General Assembly floors, and so I urge you to listen to what we have to say now. We are, literally, not in the room.

Beyond that I hear some say that the apology is “forced”. If a minority of GA made the majority apologize, it would indeed be forced. But this is an overture that will require a majority voice. If a majority of the delegates at GA find this is appropriate, then they will represent the majority will of this connectional church. The same thing happened when LGBTQ people were banned from ministry, and yet this same argument was not made.

I hear others say it won’t matter to LGBTQ people. Curiously, I have not heard this from LGBTQ people. (And particularly not from any of us who lived through the worst of the ’90’s and ’00’s as candidates or clergy.) As an LGBTQ person, I can tell you it would matter to me. I will personally be okay without an apology from the PCUSA. I’ve done my work. But, I would find the apology deeply meaningful and healing. I would also see it as the start to real reconciliation between those of us who have left and our former church, as well as a sign of healing for those who have stayed, and their partners.

I have also heard people ask “have we apologized to other groups” such as women and African-Americans, who also bore grave injustices at the hands of the Presbyterian Church. No. You haven’t. You should do that, by the way.

Mostly, though, I believe in this overture because I believe in the power of making amends. In the recovery community one of the major steps towards healing and wholeness is looking at the people you have hurt and saying “I’m sorry”. Until you do that, you can’t really heal. And I want health and healing for the PCUSA. There is so much good that the PCUSA does in this world, and so much more that it could do. The world needs a healthy Presbyterian Church.

As for me, I have made my peace with the Presbyterian Church. I have looked at my resentments and forgiven the PCUSA for the pain. I have found gratitude for the good gifts I received from the PCUSA; gifts that continue to inform my ministry every day. I have claimed my own “serenity to accept the things I cannot change and courage to change the things I can”.

Perhaps in writing now I am exhibiting that I still don’t have the “wisdom to know the difference”. I don’t know if these words will have any effect on anyone. And yet, as a product of the Presbyterian Church, and as one who still deeply loves the church, I offer them for the consideration of those who still dwell within its walls.

And I also say this, expecting no reciprocity but remaining hopeful that perhaps someday it will come: When I made my ordination vows I fully intended to remain a Presbyterian minister until the day I died. For my part in not remaining faithful, I am sorry. Having had to leave continues to grieve me more than you know.

“Glorify” Update: The Book Launches This Week!

9780829820294I’ve been eagerly anticipating this week ever since I hit “send” on the final manuscript last fall. This week Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity is being released by Pilgrim Press.

Pre-orders have already been great. Thank you to everyone who has already done so. It’s been wonderful to see that this book has already found a broad audience. If you have pre-ordered, your copies should ship within days.

If you would like to order a copy now, there are several purchasing options:

Water Street Bookstore is Exeter, New Hampshire’s hometown bookstore. (It’s conveniently located on the walk between my home and my office, which means I spend a lot of time there.) This is a great independent bookstore, and I’d love to support them as much as possible.

They’ve also been incredibly supportive of me. The book’s official launch is being held waterlogothere this Friday, April 8th at 7pm. (125 Water Street, Exeter, NH) If you can make it in person I’ll be reading excerpts, answering questions, and signing copies. You can find more here: http://www.waterstreetbooks.com/event/rev-emily-c-heath-author-glorify

Even if you can’t be there in person, you can order your copy from Water Street Books.
When you check out online there is an option to add special instructions. Write a note with your name, and I’ll sign your copy before it’s shipped to you.

Amazon-Prime-Streaming-Video-Service-Bundles

Or, if you would prefer to use your Prime account, Glorify is available from Amazon.com. At Amazon you can order either the paperback edition or the Kindle edition:
Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity-ebook/dp/B01CGTANF4/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1

 

Finally, you can buy Glorify directly from Pilgrim Press through UCC Resources:
http://www.uccresources.com/products/glorify-reclaiming-the-heart-of-progressive-christianity-heath

logo

Glorify is also for sale at Barnes and Noble, Cokesbury, and more. Wherever you buy your copy, thank you so much for your support!

The Danger of the Crowd: Trump, Christ, and all of us.

When I was in middle school and high school I wanted to go to one of the service academies. In order to help secure an appointment, I joined a military cadet program in 7th grade. In many ways it was a good experience, and so I am not naming the specific program here, as I believe it does teach many young people about leadership, self-discipline, and teamwork. But it was also through this program that I had an experience that taught me a lesson I have never forgotten.

Each summer we would go to encampments on a military base. It was a little like a short, less-intense version of boot camp. We were up early in the morning for uniform inspections, we marched to training events and meals, and we spent the evening doing PT, or physical training. It was a tough week, but I loved it. And, when the summer before tenth grade, I was offered the chance to command a small unit of more junior cadets through the week, I jumped at the chance.

One summer night we were standing on the hot Florida blacktop at an Air Force base in the Panhandle. We were going through the nightly round of PT: eight count push-ups, sit-ups, and more. But the real challenge was the yelling. We were constantly encouraged to yell cadences and responses louder, and harder, than we thought possible. The higher ranking officers called it being “motivated”.

That night one of the older cadet officers yelled a new chant at us: “Kill, Kill, Hate Hate. Kill, Kill, Hate, Hate.”

And being the well-disciplined, obedient, trained-to-follow commands young people we were, we all yelled back: “Kill, Kill, Hate Hate. Kill, Kill, Hate, Hate.”

I’m not even sure who we were supposed to be killing or hating. It was the last days of the Cold War. Maybe the Soviets? No one ever told us. But it didn’t matter; we cheered back anyway.

Thankfully an adult heard it and put a stop to it. And immediately the question hit me like a ton of bricks: Why in the world did I ever join in that cheer?

Over the past several weeks, as a private citizen, I’ve been growing more and more concerned with the explosive and hateful rhetoric that surrounds Donald Trump’s campaign. I don’t understand how people can participate in the xenophobic, fearful, and sometimes downright violent rallies that Trump holds.

I used to laugh at Donald Trump’s candidacy like it was some sort of sideshow. Then I stopped laughing and started saying “he’s so dangerous”. Now I’m watching TV and thinking to myself that it’s all of us who are dangerous.

We should be able to see through the super-inflated ego of a malignant narcissist and dismiss him outright. We should be making him inconsequential. Somehow that hasn’t happened.

The wave of Trump supporters that is sweeping him to a GOP win will be there, regardless of what happens to Trump in the general election. That should be causing us all to lose sleep at night.

This is about far more than political differences. There are plenty of conservatives who are deeply appalled and disturbed by these developments. And, were this same phenomenon to be happening on any other side of the political arena, my guess is the response would be the same from those quarters.

The problem is also not Donald Trump. His narcissistic, ego-driven personality is troubling, but without his followers these are essentially just the rantings of a disturbed man. Without his wealth and influence, he would just be the guy who sits at the end of your local bar complaining about the government.

The trouble is that Trump does has influence, and ready access to podiums and TV cameras, and so he has found followers. Trump’s candidacy has tapped into the anger, disillusionment, and xenophobia of a crowd that has been losing power for years. He is the best hope for many of them to reclaim (or for the first time claim) any power.

But this isn’t really about hope. Not at its core, anyway. This is about fear. This is about whipping up the fear of others, giving them a community of fellow fearful people, and not-so-subtly approving of whatever happens next. The videos from Trump rallies showing physical violence seem to come at regular intervals now.

Watching them I realize that it’s not Donald Trump I’m scared about. It’s the crowd. It’s people who are angry about their lives and the world around them, and who feel like they have no better recourse than to place their hope in a man with whom they have nothing in common with other than the fact that they both feel entitled to more. Ironically, they believe this while all the while thinking others are entitled to less.

IMG_8185

Signs at the precinct on the morning of the New Hampshire Primary.

I don’t know what will happen in the next few months. I don’t know what will happen in the general election. But I do know that, no matter what happens, the anger and disillusionment will exist long after November. That makes me more scared for this country than perhaps anything else that has happened in my lifetime.

With each day, I start to understand John Calvin’s ideas about “total depravity” just a little more.

When I was 8 or 9 my mother gave me a copy of Anne Frank’s diary. As I learned about the Holocaust, the question I kept coming back to time and again was “How did people let that happen? How did no one step up and stop this from happening?”

That night that I joined in on that hateful cheer, as I stood there on the hot blacktop, I started to understand.

That was the year I quit the cadet program. My problem was not with the program itself, or the military, but with who I had become. I started to rethink everything I knew. I read the Gospels. I decided to be baptized. I headed down a different path.

But I have never forgotten that night when I so clearly forgot who I am.

I know that at least some of those in the crowds at Trump’s events are Christians. I am making no judgement on their claim to that name. But I will say that all of us who are people of Christian faith, myself included, have sinned at times by following the crowd instead of the Gospels.

And so, I am asking all who would cheer on, or even just ignore, the rhetoric and violence that has come to define Trump’s candidacy to consider that if you are letting your allegiance to a politician, any politician, trump your allegiance to the Gospel that proclaims Christ’s love, you may want to examine whether how long you would remain enmeshed in an unjust crowd that proclaims the exact opposite? And even if we are not a part of that crowd, if we are standing by afraid while that same crowd incites discord and violence, what does that mean about our faith?

In the end, not even our greatest fear could destroy God’s love for us. Resurrection happened. But our greatest fear could destroy our very democracy by causing us to choose hatred and violence over understanding. For those of us who would declare “Christ is love”, we can never let that happen to other children of God. Not here in our country, and not anywhere else in God’s good creation.

If we let this happen then, truly, we have forgotten who, and whose, we are.

On Throwing the Baby Jesus Out with the Bath Water

I love the United Church of Christ.

I do. After growing up a “spiritual but not religious” “none” at the tail end of Generation X, I found my way into Christ’s church at the age of 17 and was baptized. Eight years later I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a church I also love deeply. Because I was openly gay, though, in 2010 I felt that I needed to transfer my ordination to a church that could openly affirm all of me.

The United Church of Christ was that place, and for the past six years I have served as a UCC parish pastor, a delegate to General Synod, a member of Association and Conference committees, and as someone actively involved on the national level.

But I’m not writing as any of those things today. Today I’m writing as this: a disciple of Christ who wants to be a part of a church seeking to love God and follow Christ in this world.

The Gospel is radical. It requires us to acknowledge first and foremost not just who we are, but WHOSE. For those who would call themselves Christians, that means acknowledging that we belong to God and that we are claimed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

That’s why we call our denomination the United Church OF CHRIST.

Which is why I’m shaken by a recent piece of marketing (I can’t bring myself to call it evangelism) from my denomination. A new meme circulating on social media proclaims us the “United Church of ‘I’m a Very Spiritual Person.'”

12592230_10153339764751787_1236073688534807391_nSo, first of all, I’m not exactly sure what the message is supposed to be in this ad, which is already troubling from a marketing perspective. But I suspect what we are trying to do is reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” folks, or the religious “nones” out there who are numerous in Generation X and the Millennial crowd.

Like I said, that was exactly what I was growing up. And so I think I’m qualified to say that this ad just doesn’t speak to me. In fact, it turns me off now, and it would have turned me off as a spiritually seeking young adult.

Why? Because it conveys the message that the United Church of Christ is a place where nothing will be required from me. I don’t have to believe in God (or even try). I don’t have to develop a relationship with Jesus. I don’t have to be a disciple in the world. I can just say “I’m really spiritual” and that’s enough.

The only trouble is, there are a million places that exist for those who just want to be “spiritual”. You can engage your spirit in a yoga class, book group, therapist’s office, arts class, and more. Those are all great things, by the way. But they are very different than a Christian church.

Another meme recently put out by the UCC asked, “What do you need most on Sunday mornings?” The possible answers: music, community, love, inspiration, donuts. Again, all great things, but none of them are in any way unique to church. In fact, I’d wager you could find just as good or better examples of most of those things outside of the church doors.

12510473_10153296238666787_7321833935111760409_n
I come to church to worship God. I come to experience the awe that comes in knowing of Christ’s grace. I come to hear the Word and receive the sacraments. I come to be better equipped to serve God’s world.

I don’t come for the donuts.

And neither will other Gen Xers and Millennials.

At this point it might be tempting to say, “Hey, it’s just a meme. Calm down.” But this is more than just a meme. This is a prevailing trend in our denomination, as well as other mainline denominations, that has been going on for years. It’s the slow and steady rejection of theological depth and meaning in favor of what is easy and popular.

My concern is that as we try to market ourselves to a sort of lowest common spiritual denominator, we are forgetting that churches are unique places in a culture where commitment is increasingly devalued. In church we are asked to seek not our own will, but God’s. We are asked to serve not ourselves, but Christ. We are called on to receive from a tradition that is radically transformative, and not watered down.

That is counter-cultural to what my generation has heard for its whole existence. It’s Niebuhr’s classic idea of Christ transforming culture. And, if the church is to be “marketed” to the spiritual seekers under 40, this is our strongest “selling point”. The days of obligatory church attendance are over. If people fill our pews again it won’t be because we are offering something they can get anywhere else. It will be because we are sharing a Gospel that challenges and sustains them.

There is a tradition in recovery communities like Alcoholics Anonymous that the program grows by “attraction not promotion”. There are no ads for AA. Instead, people join because they meet others in recovery, see the good in their lives, and decide they want to be a part of something like that.

I think the church needs to relearn that concept. I’m a big believer in social media, but in the end social media doesn’t hold a candle to the power a disciple of Christ has to live a life that witnesses to God’s love and grace.

And so, I have a radical proposal. What if as a church we invested less in ad campaigns and overhead, and instead created resources that helped to raise up a denomination full of Christ’s disciples? What if we invested in developing Christian growth materials that congregations could use? What if we took the theological seriously, and trained our future pastors to talk about their faith, and explain why it matters? And what if we rooted our outreach not in our own anxiety about the church losing members, but in our joy over what Christ has done in our lives and what Christ calls us to do in the world?

I believe God has great plans for the United Church of Christ. But I also believe we can never hope to claim them if we continuously insist on throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water. Now’s the time to try something new. Now’s the time for us to try something truly radical. And it starts with remembering that we are the United Church OF CHRIST, and that’s an amazing thing.