Stay or Go? How clergy decide

April 16th, 2019

This is part 4 of a 6-part Stay or Go series focused on the future of The United Methodist Church. Download the entire series as a PDF booklet at the bottom of this article.

One of the common patterns in a denominational split is that it eventually gets personal, and that this almost always takes clergy by surprise. Initially the debate over “the issue” (whatever that theological, ethical, or liturgical issue happens to be) is heated and abstract. It is “out there,” about “those people,” and “their ideas.” Churches do workshops on “the issue,” members are opinionated over “the issue,” boards debate it, and church councils vote on it. However, one day clergy awaken to the “cold facts” about implications for their calling, careers, family, and friendships.

This awakening is often accompanied by feelings of increasing powerlessness. Decisions are being made in back rooms where you have little influence, by in-groups who are part of exclusive networks involving people you don’t know and may not respect. What they decide may well change your life. Meanwhile arguments and estrangements are erupting in your marriage, family, friendships, networks, and pastoral relationships. “The issue” is no longer about what will happen to the denomination, but what will happen to you. No wonder clergy retirements have accelerated exponentially this year!

I have suggested in previous articles that churches, church members, and visitors and adherents will all make their decisions to stay or go based on networks of relationships, compatible lifestyle behaviors, and their quests for balance, authenticity, and hope. In the heat of the moment it may seem that there is a simple solution for wholeness, a litmus test for righteousness, or a prescription for optimism… but in the course of daily living most spiritual people realize that no single theological, ethical, or liturgical principle is the ultimate key to the mystery faith or God’s purpose in life.

Clergy can learn from the visitors, adherents, seekers, and other ordinary people yearning for God. They have the good sense to know what they need and move on if they don’t find it. Clergy, however, are apt to fixate on a single idea as a test of their integrity. Too often clergy cling to what they think is certain and linger too long trying to prove it to themselves or others. Clergy are like the proverbial frog in a kettle that is gradually getting hotter and hotter, only now there are two kettles… both simmering. They either stay in the kettle of their comfort zones or leap into another kettle that is equally hot, imagining that it will get cooler.

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In a sense, this is what separates Christendom clergy and post-Christendom spiritual leaders. Christendom clergy tend to assume that what their denomination decides really matters for the future of the Realm of God. Post-Christendom spiritual leaders recognize that the Realm of God and denominations are often slow to catch up with Christ. I find that many clergy feel ambivalent about a denominational split but don’t really know why. And they fear that, should their ambivalence be revealed, they would be ostracized.

In a crisis (genuine or fabricated), Christendom clergy almost always end up absolutists (which is sometimes called “righteous”), authoritarian (which is sometimes called “prophetic”), and obedient (which is sometimes called “faithful”). Today, however, many clergy intuit that there is something wrong about that. They see, behind the rhetoric and self-justifications, a trend that is at odds with their original calling.

Post-Christendom spiritual leaders, on the other hand, always end up relativists, pragmatists, and iconoclasts. They are relativists, because they know that God’s wisdom makes foolish the wisdom of this world. They are pragmatists, because relationships are complicated and what is best for me may not be best for everyone. They are iconoclasts because no authority, faction, or institution can usurp the place of God.

The last thing a spiritual leader should do is base their decision to stay or go on whether they agree with a particular denominational policy or dogma. That will neither ease their conscience nor enhance their credibility. Instead, spiritual leaders (at least in the Methodist tradition) will base their decision to stay or go on three things:

  • Choose whichever path most fully embraces the Wesleyan method for discerning truth. This method is the mutual critique of scripture, reason, history, and the contemporary movement of the Holy Spirit. No single part of this method is superior to the others, just as no single part can ignore the others. Yes, there is anxiety because this method allows for considerable ambiguity about truth; but this is as it should be because God’s wisdom is bigger and broader than human knowledge.
  • Choose whichever path most intentionally supports the spiritual life. Spiritual life is a flow of experience that starts with radical humility, continues through conversations with God and community, and results in compassion for creation and all the people in it. Genuine love leads you back to radical humility and you start over again the next day. If the path you choose encourages arrogance, confrontation, and judgment, then it's not a spiritual life but a highway to hell.
  • Choose whichever path most directly places you among the peculiar public among whom God wants you to be. God’s call is never a call to do something; it is always a call to be with somebody. That “somebody” is the lifestyle segment or segments for which God gives you a heartburst, an urgent, passionate desire to love them. A true calling is as much about eros as it is about agape. If your will is in accord with God’s purpose, then God’s calling is experienced as your heart’s desire.

For many clergy, therefore, the decision over denominational allegiance (stay or go) reveals far deeper questions. Who are your real pilgrim companions? How can you best walk daily with Christ? And with which lifestyle segments do you experience the most empathy?

Post-Christendom spiritual leaders are clergy who are becoming human again. In my book Spiritual Leadership, I described eight distinct kinds of spiritual leader in America today. Different lifestyle segments gravitate toward distinct kinds of spiritual leadership because that leader a) models the kind of courage they need to face the unique challenges they endure and b) helps them become who God created them to be.

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Just as lifestyle segments are drawn to certain kinds of leaders, so also leaders are drawn to certain kinds of lifestyle segments. Following the dictates of a denomination or pursuing the requirements of a career ladder no longer satisfy. Their decisions are not only based on the “gravitational pull” to live and lead among a particular public, but also in the need to be nurtured by a public that values the kind of courage he or she requires to be faithful to God. 

Christendom clergy served congregations that were more “workplace” than “community.” Postmodern spiritual leaders yearn for a meaningful experience of belonging and not an artificial or institutional one. They participate in community by “fit” rather than “function.” Do not confuse “lifestyle compatibility” with “personal comfort.” This is not a choice to be where life is easy, but to be where life is fulfilling. They make decisions based on a desire to be among the people for whom they feel their hearts bursting with affection.

It is not surprising, then, that clergy feel increasing urgency to know the lifestyle segment(s) to which they belong. They are like exiles trying to get home. This question is more urgent than wondering what your DISC profile or personality type might be or clarifying your degree of agreement with institutional agendas. And it is certainly more urgent than clarifying your position on dogmatic or ideological principles.

One way is to remember the place where you lived in which you experienced the greatest personal joy and social relevance. (Do not include residence in university or seminary). Once you remember that geographical location, look it up on MissionInsite and see what lifestyle segments live around that spot, and now you have clues about the lifestyle segment(s) in which you belong. A cultural context akin to that is where you probably ought to be, not just for personal joy but also for ministry relevance.

Just as the words of Scripture become the living Word of God, so also the behaviors of lifestyle segments become a living tableau of God’s grace. You find yourself no longer “in ministry” but rather “in love.” All the ideological policies and dogmatic pronouncements of church institutions are small and insignificant compared to the real presence of Christ that binds the lover and the beloved. And the glory of this moment of revelation is that you and the lifestyle segment you contemplate trade places. Your decision to stay or go is not just sharing ministry, but also receiving ministry.

I can already hear both conservative and liberal voices demanding that a decision about “the issue” is a moral imperative, and that the decision of clergy to stay or go must be made as a matter of principle rather than relationships. You must decide who will be excluded from the church: liberals or conservatives. Which side are you on?

The moral imperative, however, is not that you must decide who is right, but that you must treat people as human beings rather than as objects or things. You do not have to decide anything. A spiritual leader can be — and I would argue should be — relativistic, pragmatic, and iconoclastic. The flip side of the moral imperative is the divine one. You are not required to be certain about principles. You are only required to surrender to God’s purposes and be humble, respectful, and compassionate. Spiritual leadership is not about telling people what to think, but about modeling for persons the courage to be.

For some, the decision to stay or go becomes more pragmatic than apocalyptic. Which choice will help you help you discern truth, live a spiritual life, and bless the people for whom your heart bursts? Many clergy discover what visitors and adherents have known all along: that an institutional “position” on homosexuality matters far less than the ideologues think. People will always disagree about something. Ambiguity will never go away this side of heaven.

For some, this is the real moment of truth — a great awakening or a nervous breakdown all in one. There is a third option beyond “stay” or “go,” and that is the discovery that you are already “gone.” Some clergy realize that theologically, intellectually, emotionally, and relationally they have already left the denomination. The may still be physically in the church in either conservative or liberal forms, but their heart just isn’t in it anymore. They are called out of the box, so to speak, into a Realm of God that is bigger than even Wesley imagined.

This moment of truth is often experienced by caregivers, enablers, and CEO’s when they realize that God does not actually call them to visit anyone, facilitate groups, or build anything. It starts with a shift from church growth toward spiritual growth, and it soon takes you beyond making disciples to mentoring pilgrims, beyond church buildings to public spaces, and even beyond ordination to pilgrim journeys.

Heart to Heart

Normal human beings make decisions in conversation with their loved ones, seek the companionship of people who genuinely share bonds of love and accountability, and live among people with whom they feel most compatible. But clergy are routinely asked (and feel personally obligated) to make decisions on their own that are best for the institution they serve, and live among people with whom they are not particularly compatible. Ministry for many clergy is a kind of medieval “hairshirt” designed to keep you permanently uncomfortable, based on the principle that if you don’t feel lonely you can’t be very holy.

Many clergy wrestling with the decision to stay or go feel guilty that they worry too much about the implications of their personal decisions for marriage, family, networks, and friendships. Christendom has persuaded them that such personal considerations are “sidetracks” from their true vocation, as if God is in the habit of testing the faithfulness of clergy by their readiness to ignore or abandon their families. Clergy are apt to make decision to stay or go by isolating themselves in the closet or retreating to the woods where they can agonize about martyrdom.

There may be times when a Garden of Gethsemane is required to make a bold decision, but this is not one of them. Instead, clergy should make the decision to stay or go at the dining room table in honest and equal conversation with spouse, children or close friends. They are primary. They are the relational center around which all other relationships circle. Choosing to stay or go in order to be among the peculiar people for whom your heart bursts is a joint decision made with the people you love most.

Most clergy don’t question their calling, but they do question their careers. Now is the time to return to that original moment when the finger of God pointed at you, recapture the feeling of reckless joy and perfect trust, and reassess the tactics you have been using to follow Christ.


Stay or Go?
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