Musings & Younger Perspectives:
A Glimpse of the Future
By Colin Cushman

Let me start off saying: I’m not going to try to convince you of anything. If you are among the demographic that will ever read this, you already have your mind made up about what I’ll be discussing – and that’s fine because I’m not trying to sell you on anything.

My second disclaimer is: that the first is obviously a lie. Of course, I can’t present this neutrally. However, I am not going to spend my time arguing

1. for gay marriage;
2. that we are being un-Christian in our actions toward our LGBTQ brothers, sisters, and family; or
3. that Bible-believing Christians can come out on both sides of this issue.

Instead of talking to you about that, I want to tell you about what’s going on at Boston University School of Theology, one of the premier United Methodist seminaries training the church’s next pastors.

As a denomination, we have slowly reached a realization: we have plateaued, we aren’t getting any younger, and nobody is coming in – especially young folks. The UMC in the US has lost a ton of people during the decades of disenchantment following the 60s. Not to mention, we have a mandatory retirement age for our clergy: 72. We are beginning to do the math and see that our clergy population is soon going to be unsustainably thinned.

Our church is getting older and, within the last few years, we have begun to internalize that fact. It has seeped into our discourse as a church. We are beginning—with little success—to target young people because we need to perpetuate the structures that we have built. Floating all around is the rhetoric that we need fresh young people to become clergy. We know that we cannot survive as a church without a new influx of pastors and parishioners.

As a denomination, though, we make it hard for prospective pastors—intentionally. The Book of Discipline really shows its cards in one passage where it is talking about provisional members (who are in the last stages of the ordination process) saying that they are “on trial” and “on probation.” (¶327) You can’t get any more specific than that. The ordination process sucks….period. It is far from the process of mutual discernment that it should be. You have to be insane to want to jump through all of these flaming hoops in the first place.

Here’s the kicker: we have scores of young people lining up Y E A R N I N G to put themselves through this process. And we are actively preventing them from becoming Methodist pastors.

One good friend that I have is in my class in seminary. In her own vocational discernment, she has felt an indisputable call to ministry. Everyone around her recognizes it and affirms her gifts as a pastor. I have worked with her in a ministry setting; I know that she is currently the best pastor that I have ever known (and watch what will happen when she actually learns how to do it!). Through various circumstances, she has found herself without a denomination. When I talked with her about becoming a pastor in The United Methodist Church, she laughed in my face. There was no hesitation when she said that there was no chance that she would be a pastor in a church as discriminatory as that.

If this friend were the only one, it would, perhaps, be an isolated incident. But it’s not. One friend, who has come out as queer, has found that she has to censor which classes she takes so that her annual conference will not reject her. And this is despite her last relationship being a heterosexual one. Another friend is bi. She is not sure that she will ever be married, but is currently searching for a new annual conference, since she can no longer go back to her old one. Several of my friends refuse to go through the process of becoming elders because they know that they will never get through the process without them being outed. They are trying as hard as they can to find a way to still follow their calling. These ministers, individually and collectively, are doing the work of God in the world and would love to be allowed to jump through the hoops of the ordination process. However, we are standing in their way.

Our denomination’s response to our LGBTQ brothers, sisters, and family is directly losing us the best future pastors out there. Some want nothing to do with us. Others will not subjugate themselves to a soul-killing process that would never accept them anyways. Others have resorted to “adjusting” their calling to be something that they can actually achieve.

Certainly, there is some difference among the UMC’s seminaries, as well as the other seminaries from which pastors come. However, we have friends among the best-regarded seminaries, so we know the stories that are arising all across our top institutions. The story is the same: we are driving off our best and brightest potential pastors. These are the very people who can help solve the problems that we are facing as a denomination and as a Church. We are holding the gate open, yelling for them to come in, and slamming it in their faces. No, it’s not unanimous, but the next generation of pastors is securely on the side of ordaining LGBTQ folks. We need to take this into serious consideration when we are thinking about our future. Why?


 

Colin Cushman is a Master’s of Divinity student at Boston University School of Theology and a member of Kent UMC in Washington State. He plans to be ordained as an elder if he can ever get through the process. He currently works as the Minister of Music in Jamaica Plain, Mass., leading diverse music for a multicultural congregation. He is glad that it is finally spring in Boston, since the winter was so bad, and cannot wait to be back in the Seattle weather.

6 COMMENTS

  1. There is no comment, really, to make to truth telling. Clearly, Cushman’s analysis is right-on, and continuing to pretend the situation is something else will not divert the disastrous course the UMC is following. Go ahead, play around with praise bands and jumping for Jesus crazy concerts. Younger generations are more savvy to ridiculous seduction-marketing-schemes than we realize. Not until there is a genuine inclusive spirit among the people called “Methodists” will there be any hope of surviving extinction.

  2. What a stimulating article.

    When I went through the process of getting ordained, I didn’t rock the boat and I got in.

    I have often said that given the current process, I could not get ordained in the United Methodist Church today, either in the Great Rivers Conference (I was ordained in the Central Illinois Conference without a hitch) or in my current PNW Conference. Okay, I got in too easily, for I was one of the “good old boys” that knew those who stood in judgment over me from years of activity in Methodist Youth Fellowship and summer camping. In the last meeting, I was not asked a significant question.

    But now the process is too lengthy and too cumbersome.

    It is hard to imagine myself as a seminarian. There have been too many battles and stands taken that means I am no longer “fresh out of school” and wandering around in the same wilderness of the 1950’s and the 1960’s. I am in a new wilderness, having taken positions of a wide variety of theological and social issues: gambling, the Vietnam War, abortion and human sexuality. Much of these “stands” are a matter of public record, not to mention pulpit record.

    In a national magazine (so-called GOOD NEWS) I was accused of “drifting toward universalism”. I protested strongly (to no avail) that I was not “drifting” but strongly “rowing toward universalism”. And that continues to be the case today. While laity in church after church have affirmed me as a pastor and a teacher, I could not get through the ordination process, given my current theology. Those who think and believe otherwise would stand and turn their thumbs downward, whenever given the opportunity, be it in committee or in the conference session called the “Orders of the Clergy”. Using the language of my fundamentalist friends: “God says that ALL will be redeemed.” and I figure what God wants, God will get. In spite of me and in spite of the work of ALL of my colleagues in ministry.

    Story from the early 1960’s: A colleague of mine was trying to get into one of the Indiana conferences. He refused to sign the document that indicate he “would not drink, smoke or go with girls that do”. Seriously, it was just the smoking thing. He didn’t smoke, but he thought it was wrong to be forced to sign such a document. He was right. The church went his direction in just a few short years. The document disappeared. BUT HE WAS NOT ORDAINED for the crime of being ahead of the general church. Fact: some of the MEN who voted him down and out were smokers. So the Methodist Church lost some one who was morally several inches, if not several feet higher than the committee. I do not know the rest of the story. I don’t even remember his name, but I do remember his act. I signed the paper.

    So the church has been blessed with my presence and it lost the presence of an individual who was miles ahead of me in his understanding of the gospel, not to mention the General Church.

    The issues are different, but just as life determining. Lord, have mercy on us. . Will the last one out please turn out the lights?

  3. Thanks, Colin, for an excellent article. My children refuse to have anything to do with the UMC because of its exclusionary position on LGBTQ people. They consider our church a kind of dinosaur with little heart. So sad. As a Lay Person Assigned I’d rather spend my time and energy pastoring than jumping through hoops.

  4. Another “good old days” comment. Two of my colleagues took a position against the Vietnam War early in the process. One was unable to get an appointment in his conference, so he became the best pig farmer in SW Iowa. Politicians came to his farm to consult with him, but the church refused to give him a significant appointment.

    The other person did not get ordained. He was placed in charge of the Senior Programs in San Francisco (multi-million dollar budget) by Willie Brown, but he couldn’t get ordained in The United Methodist Church.

    Here were two colleagues with great skills who were not supported by the United Methodist Church system. Too radical. Too Christian? And now there is another push to take away guaranteed appointments. The best aren’t protected now. The next levels will have no protection. Good luck with that.

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