The Church of the Nazarene holds a General Assembly every four years to celebrate the work of God in our mission of “Making Disciples of All Nations” and to make decisions about how to lead the Church of the Nazarene for the future. Delegates are voting members of the Assembly and come from all over the world to Indianapolis for this event. This open letter is my heartfelt plea as I pray for our tribe and how we will move forward in the coming generation.
Many of you are traveling today, making your way from all over the world to Indianapolis for our quadrennial family reunion. It’s taken a lot to get here. You’ve been leaders in your respective districts and were elected to represent them as we make important decisions together. Some of you are traveling thousands and thousands of miles. Some of you are paying your own expenses. You’ve (hopefully) been studying the various resolutions and their implications as well as looking seriously at who might be nominated to lead as General Superintendent. I commend you. Being a delegate to #GA2017 is no simple task. You hold the weight of a worldwide denomination of people, and you are responsible for how you vote.
There are others who have suggested they have studied the resolutions for you and can tell you how to vote on each one. Much like our national elections in the US in 2016, lots of people think they have a corner on the market of wisdom and can speak for God in how our tribe should be led. The principles I’ll suggest for your time in Indiana should not be taken as such. At the same time, I hope you will listen to the limited wisdom of a young woman in ministry as I watch with great interest this process of decisions being made in my tribe.
Love above all else
There’s an old adage that is often quoted in our tradition. “In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity. Throughout the history of the Wesleyan movement at large and the Church of the Nazarene in particular, we have enjoyed a wide-ranging variety of opinions and beliefs on what Wesley would have called the “Non-essentials.” Nazarenes over the years have had different practices of modesty, beliefs about eschatology, choices in entertainment, styles of worship, political ideologies, etc. What we find unity in is the Essentials. These are the things that make us distinctively Nazarene. One of the things we have always wrestled with and will likely continue to wrestle with is what we deem “necessary to our salvation,” to borrow a phrase from our article on Scripture.
Sadly, as we wrestle with and sometimes disagree on what is an essential and what is not, we forget that the overarching commandment of Jesus is that we love one another as God has loved us. Even in our recent history, we have seen people condemn and exclude those who disagree with their doctrinal positions. Please hear me as I say this; it is holy to disagree in love. We do not have to agree on everything to live in the unity that God has called us to as a body of believers. But we do have to converse in love, with compassion and empathy, and with the goal of understanding and respect. Dan Boone might call that a Charitable Discourse.
The decisions made at General Assembly will be difficult ones at times. There is a lot of nuance in some of those resolutions, and they should be read carefully and all the implications considered. But before you cast your ballots, please ask yourself if the decision you made was a loving one. Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples by how we love.
E Pluribus Unum
The national motto of the United States is loosely translated, “Out of Many, One.” We are a global denomination, with churches in 162 world areas. When I was in college, I remember the milestone we talked about was that there were now more Nazarenes outside of the United States than in. It’s exciting to know that the tribe we are a part of is so far reaching! That being said, the decisions made for our denomination have traditionally been largely defined by practice in the United Staes. The central hub of activity has always been in the United States. Most of our theologians have come from the United States, with American sensibilities and biases and all that goes with that.
I would never ask that delegates deny their geographical identity while at General Assembly in order to promote a more global mindset in any political way. What I will ask is that together we consider that we are citizens of the Kingdom before we are citizens of any nation or country. In the instances where a resolution may have negative geopolitical implications, remember that your world area is not the only one you should be considering. If the United States continues to control doctrine and policy, we cease to be a global denomination and become a confederation instead. Vote with our international church family in mind.
One of the most important decisions we can make as a church is the decision as to who will lead us. This year, we have two General Superintendents retiring that will be replaced by the candidates elected by the General Assembly. Because of the way we elect, those ballots could contain lots and lots of names. Unlike the national elections in the US in 2016, many of those people are extremely well qualified and would be excellent leaders. We are blessed to have a deep pool of talent in the Church of the Nazarene.
The unfortunate thing about the way we elect our leaders is that oftentimes a person must have a well-recognized name in order to be elected. And often, those with well-recognized names happen to be white men from the US. Of course there have been exceptions, but diversity has not been the rule as far as our leaders are concerned.
And hey, I know this is a sticky subject. Diversity for diversity’s sake is dangerous. We should never pass up the most qualified leaders simply to elevate the minorities. But in the case we have here, there are a lot of not white, not male, not American leaders who are extremely well qualified and have been leading well in their sectors. I think the way forward is to consider a leadership team that spans generations, geographical areas, and genders. I believe we can do that without sacrificing anything in the way of highly qualified leaders.
We have some hot topics on the docket for General Assembly. I don’t have to tell you. You know what they are. Uncomfortable things that we don’t want to talk about. Or maybe we want to talk about it a little too much. Maybe we believe it’s become the defining issue of our time.
We are facing a decision in how we deal with homosexuality as a denomination. Most agree that our current statement lacks some nuance and is somewhat self-contradictory when coupled with the Pastoral Perspectives document issued by the Board of General Superintendents. There is a contingent that would have us become a fully affirming denomination in the next two weeks, turning completely away from everything we’ve ever said on the topic. There is also a contingent that would have us eliminate all love and compassion for the LGBT community and “strengthen our stance.” The talk over the past few years has been about how we could be in danger of going the way of the Methodists, who are dividing over this issue in many painful ways. I’m not entirely sure those sentiments are wrong, especially if either of the “sides” of this conversation has their way.
I won’t presume to have the knowledge and depth of insight to enter into this debate. Much ink has been spilled by people much smarter than me over homosexuality in the Church and what the Bible does and does not say about it. My own beliefs and opinions don’t matter here. What matters is that there are very real people involved in this debate that have been reduced to theoretical conversations and tweetable quotes. The fact is that we have folks in the Church of the Nazarene who are also part of the LGBT community. Some are celibate and chaste, committed to singleness because they believe sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. Some are actually coming into the church as married couples with families, seeking the message of Christ that we preach. I’m not sure exactly how our approach should change in this area, but I know that our current statements and much of our practices do not meet the needs of these people. People who have spent a lot of time and effort researching this topic have come up with some resolutions, and I think they are helpful but probably don’t completely answer the questions that need to be answered here. Pastors need to have the freedom within our polity to counsel with grace and compassion while being faithful to the God that calls us to holiness.
When you talk about human sexuality and the implications within the Church in general and the Nazarene Church in particular, please keep at the forefront of your conversation that you are not just talking about doctrine. You are talking about people who are loved and valued children of God. You are talking about believers who are seeking to honor God in their lives. You are talking about ministers who are doing the very best they can to be faithful in messy situations. My hope and my prayer is that we are not going “the way of the Methodists” or any other denomination or group. My prayer is that the Holy presence of God will fall on us as a tribe and that divine wisdom will bring us to a third way that allows us to lead the Church into the next generation.
There is no place I’d rather be than that great family reunion in Indy right now, but I’m holding down fort here in Louisiana instead. I and so many others will be watching with great interest the proceedings and worship services as you gather. I join with my brothers and sisters around the world who are praying for your wisdom, for your safety, and for the renewal and revival of the Church of the Nazarene.
May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you as you lead,