by Clay Allard
Parish ministry is a daunting calling, not necessarily in the short run (though the first five years of Saturday nights were tough!); it is the long obedience in one direction that is the Mount Everest of this calling. One of the most dispiriting things about this season in the history of Christ’s body in our culture is that so few seem to make it to the finish line still running.
I was a part of a class of over 100 people who “mastered Divinity” together graduating in 1989; very few of us are still running that race set before us in a parish setting. I don’t know why or how I made it this far—but I have watched so many faint and grow weary. With every stumble, every catastrophic fall I have endured, I have learned to let go of my pride, and in humble obedience to die to self, so that rising with Christ I can serve him better.
But in our common life together, pride has destroyed us. It has led us into a zero-sum game with our disagreements, leaving us with no perceived alternative but to win or leave. We have spent 40 years fighting that proud war, rather than proclaiming the saving love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ our Lord, even while the words of love have been constantly on our lips.
Now, 25 years into the race, most of my friends are quitting the race in the PC(USA). While we all endured the hazing that the institution inflicted on us from the beginning (I do not know an evangelical in the PC(USA) who hasn’t been told that he or she “will lead a church out of the denomination”), it seems that many of us have finally given in to the pressure, and conformed to what progressive folks have always believed about us. The final fruit of proud despair is yet another divorce.
So what happens now? How do we run the race that is set before us?
Let me be clear: Jesus Christ came into my life in a PC(USA) congregation; he called me into parish ministry in another PC(USA) congregation. This is where my Lord put me. I will not leave. I will not give in to “protestantitis,” the incessant splitting and dividing that has trivialized the legacy of Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli and Knox. But what happens now to those evangelicals who stay in the PC(USA)? We will not conform to the mindset of the progressive majority—we cannot, any more than that progressive majority could when it was a minority.
Most of those who are leaving are afraid of being a minority inside the PC(USA), precisely because conservative/evangelical minorities have historically not been quite as equal as progressive minorities in the life of our denomination.
If there is to be peace, this must change. We must commit to real tolerance—not tolerance of people who speak what we believe more loudly, but of people who speak what we do not wish
to hear. We must commit to protecting the conscience of people whose faith commitment may make us uncomfortable. We must make these commitments in our governing documents in a way that clearly protects the rights of the minority to disagree with the majority and to allow that minority to train and call its teaching elders and ruling elders according to its conscience.
A sister in the Lord used to always come up to me, whether we were on good speaking terms that day or not, and say, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.” The Christ in me is not under my control—I am under his control. I do not choose where I will lead Christ—Christ chooses where he will lead me. The Christ in each of us forces us to confront the truth of who we are, who the other person is and who Christ is.
What would happen if our presbytery meetings were organized around our passionate commitment to Jesus Christ rather than parliamentary procedure? What would happen if we could see the Christ in one another, even while we disagree fundamentally with the way each of us interprets Scripture? What if our congregations were challenged to bring Good News, to be Good News to each other in our different contexts, and we held each other lovingly accountable to make sure that there are not those around us who have not seen/ heard/experienced the gospel love of Christ?
The way we live together must change or we will continue to die. This work cannot wait. We must act now.
Let us take this “divorcing time” to recommit ourselves to our first love—to Christ who called us each together to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That love is powerful enough to not only hold us together, but to raise us from the dead.
CLAY ALLARD is pastor of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church in Dallas and will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his ordination in the PC(USA) in June.