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Wrong and Right

Kurtley Knight, Ryan Bell, Alicia Johnston. All young pastors who have publicly left the ministry—each for different reasons. There is plenty of attrition in the pastoral ranks, to be sure. But I mention these three as particular examples because many other pastors leave in a far less publicized way. However, for their exits, each of these former pastors felt compelled to make a declaration about their rationale for leaving. Pastor Knight left for doctrinal disagreements. Pastor Bell left due to a shift toward atheism. Pastor Johnston left because of an impasse over Adventism’s stance about same sex relationships coupled with her acknowledgment of her own sexual orientation. This article is not another think-piece on their individual beliefs. But I do want to highlight one thing their departures all had in common. Each made a public statement outlining their reasons for resigning. And each statement included some form of the following comment: “My decision will be unpopular, and I know it will adversely affect my relationships in the Church. The Church will ostracize/shun me for my convictions.”  It saddens me that they each came to that conclusion. It saddens me because they are wrong; it saddens me because they are right.

They're Wrong

Folks might disapprove if I suggested that these pastors should have given the Church a chance before making such a blanket statement. After all, these pastors don't “owe” anyone the opportunity to hurt them. This is true. No one owes anyone anything. In fact, they owed no one an explanation for leaving at all. But if a statement is made, it should be accurate. And, quite frankly, it's not entirely accurate to say that the Church will automatically push them away.

The instinct to preemptively steel oneself against the seemingly inevitable onslaught is understandable. And many people in situations of revelation—whether it is coming out about sexuality, rejecting familial expectations, or some other significant life change—will often make their pronouncement at the door with their bags packed or perhaps even send a postcard long after they have already arrived at their undisclosed location. This is not hyperbole; this is literal. The idea is this: “I know I'll be rejected, so let me save you the trouble and save myself the heartache; I’ll distance myself from you before you push me away.”  The protective factor makes sense. At the same time, it robs those who really do love and care about these individuals from the opportunity to show their love.

I had a good friend who moved away and, for years, didn't keep in touch with family or friends. This individual later came out as gay. And, while I can't say 100% of his inner circle embraced him, he was pleasantly surprised at how many were either enthusiastically supportive or simply didn't care one way or the other about his sexual orientation. He admitted that he regretted those wasted years away from his loved ones. But he also, quite reasonably, had been afraid of their reactions. Likewise, when each of these ministers made their announcements, there were conversations among their pastoral colleagues wondering why they had not shared. Many wished they could have had conversations of support. They would have walked alongside their fellow pastors as they wrestled with their decisions. But they heard through the same social media posts everyone else did—long after the offices were emptied and the change of address forms were submitted.

There were many, among members, who wished they had been given the chance to pray for or with their pastor. Sure the administration may have had a desire to usher out “problem pastors” as soon as possible, but administration does not define the church. This is not a #NotAllAdventists apology. Instead, this is recentering our understanding of who is the Church. The Office of the GC President is not “the Church.” Annual Council is not “the Church.”  The Executive Committees are not “the Church.”  They are part of the political machinery of the organization, but the people are the Church. And by Pastor Johnston’s own testimony, people from her local congregation met her announcement with care and compassion. I am not privy to all the correspondence she hss received, but from what is visible on social media, it appears overwhelmingly supportive. Certainly, there are disparagers. Yet there are far more folks who are sending warmth and prayers. Even among those who may not agree with the decisions that were made, there is still genuine care for the individuals in question. The “official statements” from administration notwithstanding, by and large, the living breathing people who are the Church are not interested in shunning anyone. It is disheartening that this is the continual narrative. We love you. Give us a chance to show it!

They're Right

Of course, their reluctance to be vulnerable is not unfounded. Historically, we have corporately pushed away people for far lesser “offenses” than rejecting Church teachings. The denomination has a well-deserved reputation for public shaming. Des Ford comes to minid as does Merikay Silver. I was in Seminary when we were all warned to avoid the heretical influences of Ron Gladden. Our Church history is riddled with examples of blackballing anyone with divergent thoughts. Obviously, there are times when perspectives become so divergent that a split is unavoidable. But there is no excuse for not being amicable.

Romans 14 is clear that each needs to be fully convinced in his/her own mind. If someone has genuinely come to another view on Scripture that is so incompatible with Adventist beliefs that he can no longer in good conscience remain in ministry, then that is a conviction he has the right to follow. No one should instigate antagonism toward him. Yet, the person is often branded an “enemy” of the faith. We condemn him as being of “Babylon”. We say he is an example of the last day “shaking.”  This reaction is not of God. And it is a blight on our Church that the people of God act this way. Often, people justify this behavior by quoting Matthew 18:17, saying “if the follower refuses to listen to them, report the matter to the church. Anyone who refuses to listen to the church must be treated like an unbeliever or a tax collector.”  (CEV) Is this how we treat unbelievers?! If so, it is a wonder that anyone ever joins the Church!

Not only that, but our treatment produces a chilling effect on anyone who thinks differently. Sometimes, we would do well to encourage open dialogue. Our denomination would have benefited from having constructive conversations with Ford, Silver, and Gladden about the heart of their legitimate concerns before the public splashes. Sometimes, we do need to re-evaluate and revamp. Does this mean that every situation will result in the Church changing its stances? Not all the time. But instead of branding people as pariahs, we can still leave the door open for various considerations. There still may be disagreements, but it does not have to result in a rift of relationships. We become so caught up in the idea of preserving our institutional stands that we are willing to destroy people in order to preserve our sacred cows (or meat analogs).

Pastor Johnston will not be the last pastor to leave Adventist ministry. But I hope that, should there be another public exit, the accompanying statement will be able to include some version of the following: “Although I’m leaving, I know the bonds of love of my church will still remain strong. I am confident in the relationships I've built and know they will withstand this change. We are still family.”

 

Courtney Ray is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Image Credit: FreeImages.com / Carien van Hest

 

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