3/12/17 by Cathy Byrd
Some know that I received a second letter of discontinuation in as many years by the Board of Ministry of the Alabama West Florida on 3/8/17 after having gone once again before them to request ordination as a deacon. A number of people have sought to know “where I am” in my heart with all of this. I recognized in February 2014 in my first interview for ordination that chances were slim to none of me ever being approved. After last year’s discontinuation I did the hard work of grieving the reality that it was not likely to happen. I have sought to work faithfully through the process to the natural and logical end and persevered through the process, even when I found it quite impossible to navigate through the gauntlet of the political, theological, social, and other preferences of a few with influence. This year I will not appeal again, but will accept the recommendation of the interview committee and the Board’s confirming vote to discontinue me from pursuit of ordained ministry. Not because I don’t believe God called me to it or even that God was not willing to have me function in ordained ministry, but because I know that there are times when what has been God’s will is not consented to by people who have other desires of their own and that God will grant for the time being their desires because it is not, in the long run, a violation of his ultimate will. The Board’s thwarting of my pursuit of ordination as a deacon is, I believe such a case. If some people will not consent to my having authority for ordained ministry because they do not like or trust who I am or what I do, God and I both know that the opinion of a few nor the laying on of hands by one or two, will not change the reality of the ministry to which God has called me and his favor on it. To confirm this, I believe God sent someone into my life who promptly spoke these words to me with almost no knowledge of me or my ministry. Here is what I have written about that prophetic utterance provided in that moment and how it speaks to me now.
The following is a prophetic word spoken over my life two months ago at a friend’s home by someone I’d just met….
there is always more and better that God has prepared for those who love the Lord! There are always reasons to look to the future with joy….
“Your business and your comings and goings and your ministry: He says that he sees every idle thing that has been done that you wanted to achieve. But He says that it is well done, it has been well done my good and faithful servant. That He wants you to know how much that he appreciates your fervor, your strength, your intelligence, your knowledge of God. He wants you to know that He has set you aside for such a time as this. But He also wants to tell you that there are things ahead of you, that you have no idea of the preparation that has been made for you.
The things that you’re doing now are very important; but, He says, it’s just been a preparation for the things that are ahead. And the Lord says not to be concerned, just one day at a time, one step at a time. And that as the door is opened that you will walk through it and it will be a surprise and it will be pleasant, and you will say, ‘Oh, my goodness, just look at what the Lord has done!’ And He said, I will sit up there and rejoice because I know that you, too, will do what I tell you to do. And, He says, just keep that steadfastness in your heart. And God says He will walk every step with you, says the Lord.”
Almost sounds like I’ll get to go to heaven soon, doesn’t it???
As I have reflected on this prophetic word, I have sought understanding from God on the phrase “he sees every idle thing that has been done.” I have never been called idle so it piqued my interest. I went to Webster’s and found this: “Unprofitable; not tending to edification….Idle differs from lazy; the latter implying constitutional or habitual aversion or indisposition to labor or action, sluggishness; whereas idle in its proper sense, denotes merely unemployed. An industrious man may be idle but he cannot be lazy.”
The Lord has given me understanding this morning in my prayer time. Much of what I have done the last few years has been unpaid work….in this sense, “idle”…..unemployed, at least by the world’s way of thinking about employment. But since our very first jobs, Bill and I have saved and invested. The Lord has blessed our efforts and, while we have not been wealthy by the culture’s standards, we have been adequately provided-for financially and God has given us the joy of generosity to be able to allow God to use the resources provided to us for his work in the world. In that sense, these last three years of being unemployed, for the most part, I have actually been employed by, for, and on behalf of God even when others did not understand or value my call to ministry sufficiently to grant me the authority and tools to do it or allow me to benefit by eligibility for wages within the religious system.
My feminist indoctrination in coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s would have suggested that I should be offended by the way my vocational desires have been thwarted. And, in fact, some females in ministry grieve and rale against what they perceive as the thwarting of their career ambitions and their “right” to have their worth validated in ministry as measured by wages. They point to a largely male-dominated economic system in the industry of religion, as in many other industries in America and elsewhere, as the cause for them feeling discriminated against as “less than” or as demeaned as trivially pursuing ministry. I have heard a lot of such complaints lately, spoken in terms of this being a justice issue……”equal pay for equal work”. And from the standpoint of the world’s economy, perhaps it is. But ironically, it has not been a male-dominated religious vocational system by which I have felt thwarted or “idled”, but rather it has primarily been theological, social, and personal differences with some feminists who complain about the social and economic injustices to them who appear to have been most vocally resistant to my work in ministry and who have exercised their influence to deny me continued pursuit of ordination. Could it be that the very fact that Bill and I both have the privilege and resources to do God’s work in an “unemployed” status that offends some people the most? Perhaps it is that my working for “free” in ministry seems to lower the value of their paid employment? Such “free” service to God and God’s people is the work of laity, not clergy, it seems. Ahhhhhh, I understand now! It’s okay for me to work for God according to God’s will and provision as a lay person, with no wages….but to do so as clergy could potentially diminish the value of professional clergy careers?
Now, for the third time God has explicitly asked me in no uncertain terms, “Do you feel abused?” The first time was about fifteen plus years ago at a prayerful moment when I was serving God in an anonymous role with no recognition or appreciation from others. I assured God then that I was his to use however he chose……abased or honored……for his glory alone, not mine. Then a few years ago, as things got very difficult for me in my pursuit of ordained ministry and someone with authority over my ministry out and out told me I was being abused by the church, I squirmed uncomfortably and went again to the Lord in prayer and said I didn’t feel abused, simply misunderstood. In the last year God himself spoke to my heart in an early morning revelation and told me I was being used in a difficult task and asked me point blank once again, “Do you feel abused?” I was gripped in my heart at the thought of being used by God in a very difficult task for which I felt very unworthy, but as for God asking me if I felt “abused”, my immediate reply was “never abused by you, God!” Misunderstood by people…..yes. My motives and the integrity of my personhood subjected to unfair suspicion and disregard by people who know little of who I really am, yes. But I am God’s vessel to be used as he desires, for honor or dishonor, for inclusion or rejection. And though many will view my having been discontinued from the last nine years’ pursuit of ordination as a deacon by the Alabama West Florida Board of Ministry for the second year in a row as a failure and humiliation to me, as getting my “come-uppance” for haughtiness before the high and holy ordained of God, I know that God is pleased with what I have done, even when it was hard and seemed to put me in the worst light of judgment by others.
God has been testing and pruning some “dead wood”. He gave me multiple reassurances that the pruning was not only for me, a necessary part of my training in ministry and discipleship, but for other individuals and for a system that is, at times, questionable in its effectiveness in his work. Even in the clergy session last June at Annual Conference where my continuation in vocational ministry within the UMC was about to be voted upon, God spoke to me and assured me that I was not the one being tested or judged in that moment. There were tense, pleading, and introspective times in prayer as I sought to examine the log in my own eye before pointing out the speck in that of some others. God gave me some of the most intimate and personal reassurances in those moments that this was not entirely, and not even mostly, about me, my call to ministry, or even my pursuit of ordination. He showed me the way in which God himself tests all of those whom he calls to serve in vocational ministry. Some pass the test. Others don’t. But, as is often true in the ways of the world…..people make decisions that God has not ordained, like Saul becoming king over Israel. And God allows them to do so. And while God’s test of individuals’ hearts is quite accurate, as in the case of God’s chosen king, David, the systems of man in testing others’ hearts is not. God told Samuel not to judge on appearances or the favor of men, as the people had done in choosing Saul, but to wait for the one whom God would choose based on the heart, King David.
The unsolicited and unexpected prophetic word spoken over me two months ago was just another sweet assurance from God that he sees, he knows, and he understands, even when other people don’t. Discontinuation from the pursuit of ordination by the Alabama West Florida Conference Board of Ministry will not affect what I do for God and God’s people. It will not affect my confidence in the call God has on my life. It may well cause me to be gloated over, laughed at, scorned, avoided, gossiped about, pitied, and further misunderstood, at least for a while by some for whom keeping me out of ordained ministry was more important than welcoming me officially into the ministry of the UMC by acknowledging and affirming the ministry to which God had already called me. But, once again, God has reminded me that it’s not all about me and such conduct that I have already experienced is more of a further judgment against them and not against me or my worthiness for ordained vocational ministry.
As John Wesley prayed:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
It was laughable to me last year when I was accused by members of the Board of Ministry of lacking commitment to covenant…..I am a covenantal person, first and foremost to God, then to the church universal, Christ’s bride, then to my family and those whom I serve. It had never occurred to me until then that I was expected to kiss the ring, so to speak, of any person or group of people within the UMC. I trusted them and went in blind and innocent as a lamb to the slaughter in my first contact with them in pursuing ordination and trusting also in the reassuring platitudes of many who had been charged with helping equip me in the process. Some of them were as surprised by what I encountered as I was. And many of those who have affirmed my ministry over the last decade or more have told me that they personally keep a long distance from the Board of Ministry and have shied away from serving on it, disassociating themselves from the Board, choosing not to serve because of their own awareness of its political nature, the appearance by some on the Board of their own self-importance, its multitude of meetings and endless gossip sessions couched as “discussion” about individuals who come presenting themselves for ministry. The Board’s reputation has not been very good, it seems, among some of the best clergy I have known. At least in some of its more recent membership incarnations over the last decade. Perhaps my pointing out the inhospitable conduct of some on the Board will have had the effect of causing some of the better- motivated and prayerfully-guided clergy within our conference to sacrifice their own time and abilities to improve the function and reputation of the Board. In fact, I do think that may have already begun to be the case, as this last interview season did at least appear to be more civil and humane and less designed to intimidate and weed people out of the process, except in my case, of course. It is true that the squeaky wheel does not get the grease. It gets removed. It’s too bad that I was not warned in ministry residency from 2012-2014 that the Board interview process was intentionally designed, or at least used by some who exercise their perceived right to veto God’s call, to intimidate, to challenge to the edge, and to prosecute a case against candidates for ministry instead of to affirm, encourage, and continue their training and preparation for ministry. Loving, fearing, and trusting God more than an institution of people was my first mistake with the Board, it seems, some of whom desire that those coming for ordination should defer and kowtow to them individually or to their Order. Some of them I respect greatly, but there are a few there who appear to be there only for their own ambition- enhancing motives. God saw fit to put me in such hands for examination. God will deal with them according to their conduct, not my opinion. So my opinion expressed here should not matter to anyone. Our Bishop himself said that our self-identity must be predicated on our relationship to Christ and not the opinions of others. But that is a very dangerous posture for someone coming before the Board of Ministry for examination for ordination. It’s fine once you’re in the club. But it certainly won’t get you in the club! I have encouraged many people toward pursuit of God’s call on their lives in lay and ordained ministry. In the future I will be much more careful and discerning in recommending that others pursue ordained vocational ministry. And maybe that’s what God needed….a watchman who could see the process as it works in our conference and denomination and give caution to others, not to stop them, but to make them at least better prepared than I was by the candidacy and provisional process.
It is clear from God having allowed this decision to stand that I am not to covenant with people whose covenant appears to be to protecting one another in practices that are designed to elevate the status of their Orders’ members above welcoming others into ministry who are called to serve God, to reserve for itself the right to veto others’ ministry over the affirmation of individuals and congregations who have long witnessed and supported one’s ministry in a local area, who covenant to enrich the pocketbook of some and deny others the opportunity to pursue employment or promotion within the religious industry’s system, who covenant for protection of one another’s personal ego, pride and pocketbooks over doing what is right or exercising appropriate discipline, and who covenant to silence to avoid having to confront criticism or deal honestly in communication with individuals. It has all made the trend and success of non-denominational and independent churches and home-churches much more understandable for me. I’m not sure global denominationalism, as the UMC has sought to practice it, is God’s intention at all. But I do know that God is sovereign and whatever Christ’s church is supposed to look like, God will bring it to be, correcting it in our current days as he has through the history of the church for 2000 years and as Christ himself did in the seven letters to the seven churches of Revelation.
Some religious “haves” have been shown to be hypocrits and gossips. Others have been exposed as religious careerists. Others have been exposed as jealous for their own territories, not God’s kingdom. Some will simply not look at themselves and their systems but will view anyone who does as a menace and interloper. Their exposure will not be seen by most people nor will it have a direct observable effect on most of their ministries. It is only seen by the ones to whom God has shown it. I see. I know. I have been protected by God from throwing my lot in among some religious wolves in shepherds’ clothing. God help the United Methodist Church. We need his protection from some of those who have chosen for themselves the Sauls of this time to rule over that part of Christ’s church in our care.
I will continue as a lay person in ministry. I will continue in the UMC. I will continue on staff at Lynn Haven UMC if I am allowed to do so and still be who I am and what I am called by God to do. My quibble is not with United Methodism, and certainly not with my local congregation and leadership who operate according to the highest and best of Christian and Wesleyan practice as I have been taught it. My quibble is with the careerists, the elitists in ordained vocational ministry who gain tenure or promotion to positions of influence and turn it into personal privilege. And, as we have seen at the national and jurisdictional levels, that has become the “right” to violate the Discipline by invoking “justice” and “tolerance” and “reconciliation”, to contort God’s (and Wesley’s) clear instruction to God’s people so that they might obtain their own desires, and curse and accuse anyone who dares to believe differently or seeks to have the will of God expressed through his people by honest and democratic processes overturned through deceitful and disgraceful leverage of power, through judicial processes, or in secret behind closed doors that manipulate the laws of man to deny the moral authority of God……..in the same way that the Jews used the judicial process of the Romans to manipulate the laws of man to deny the moral authority of Christ.
No one cares what I think and that does not constrain me from saying it. If I am wrong God will chasten me, prove me wrong, and correct my understanding in his time and according to his plan for my life. Time will also show that God’s hand is in all of this and he is reaching out to us even now to return to our devotion to our first love, Christ. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that God is chastening the church and, at this time in history, the UMC, in particular. He is refining those who love him and are called for his purpose. We are to set aside the things that have captured our hearts- power, economic gain, financial security, status, arrogance, and all the other things that pervert the hearts of people.
There is a dangerous potential for rebellion, even anarchy, within a hierarchical structure like the UMC (and all such institutions governed by people) when people in leadership at various levels fail to live up to their responsibility and the appropriate checks and balances and discipline toward reconciliation and restoration are not in place or, if in place, are not followed, as has been the case in the UMC. I have always been told that from a liability standpoint, it is worse to have those things in place and not follow them than it is to never have had them in place to start with.
Jethro came to Moses in the wilderness, observed his long days on the seat of power, his exhaustion, his inability to care for himself and his own wife and children because of the way all responsibility was on him. Jethro proposed that Moses delegate responsibility and authority to a hierarchy which seemed good and reasonable and could give Moses rest from so much responsibility. But just a few chapters later, when Moses goes to Mount Sinai at the Lord’s command and stays a little longer than their patience could endure, some of the people disregarded the authority of those to whom authority was delegated and they appear to have forgotten that authority did not ultimately rest in Moses or even to those in delegated authority but in God WHO WAS STILL VERY PRESENT WITH THEM. And perhaps it was even among some of those new to this process of nation-building that God was implementing to whom responsibility was delegated that the grumbling began and they set out to exercise their new found power to seek their own will in keeping with their own understanding instead of being obedient to the structure above them, namely God. When the structure of people’s making is weak and folds and pursues self-preservation, the way Aaron did, and fails to remind people of their need to obedience to God first and foremost, and not just to the institutions and authority of people to whom authority is delegated, it all comes crashing down. We in the UMC find ourselves with the potential for it all to come crashing down. Maybe we will be reminded that this is Christ’s church, not Wesley’s or United Methodists’ or the Bishops’, or the Commission’s, or the AWFUMC Board’s, or even the peoples’. If we do not honor Christ and his Word, his Truth, we will not continue to enjoy God’s protection, provision, and favor. In fact, we may not even continue at all.