“Google, define privilege.”

From comes this response: “A privilege is a special advantage not enjoyed by everyone…. Privilege comes from Latin privilegium, meaning a law for just one person, and means a benefit enjoyed by an individual or group beyond what’s available to others.”

I hear and experience this word over and over in leadership in The United Methodist Church these days. Yesterday, my heart moved into my throat a number of times during a meeting as I sat once again in conversations around lack of diversity in general in the Virginia Conference and the spectrum of theological understandings in our denomination. My own pain – and empathy for others – in these anxious times choked me.

The UMC General Commission on Religion and Race offers a personal and/or group activity where you are asked to list your ideas for “What’s next” in your personal or group journey in addressing racism in particular and privilege in general. For each idea, you’re asked to plan three action steps: (1) what you need to LEARN in order to do faithful and effective work, (2) ways you or your church can SHARE what you’ve learned, and (3) what you are willing to RISK in order to accomplish the learning and sharing.

I haven’t slept well these past two nights. I know the Spirit is stirring but I’m not quite sure yet where that’s headed. Tonight, however, the direction seems to be in reflection of my own story of privilege as a blue-eyed/fair-skinned, CIS gendered, educated, employed, home owning, (too) well fed, middle aged, American, United Methodist female. That list could go on.

I had nothing to do with the blue-eyed, fair-skinned female privilege. This DNA-controlled part of my journey started in Appalachia – certainly not a place of privilege: in the sweat of a sharecropper working a field of tobacco, the farmer’s wife with 9 children born in the early 1900s, the West Virginia coal miners and the factory workers of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. It wasn’t until I was a preteen that I realized my factory working parents went each year to the local loan office to borrow enough money for a one-week trip to the beach. They worked the rest of the year to pay off the loan. Today, we’d be the family at the paycheck lending window. Today, I am the daughter of a woman who worked all her life, saved all she could, did as much for me as she could, and at 93 has to rely on Medicaid for her daily care. Today, I carry the mark of my Irish heritage in the white spot in the middle of my neck under my chin. I can’t get away from my blue-eyed, fair-skinned privilege, but I certainly recognize my family history that comes with it.

The educated part of my privilege could have easily not happened. I still hold anger toward the Reagan Administration for cutting out my Veteran’s Administration survivor benefits during the summer months. When I started college, I was receiving support for my education from my father’s service in World War II. During President Reagan’s tenure, the decision was made to provide those payments for only the nine months of the typical school year. If it wasn’t for the bank loans, work study jobs, and other financial assistance, I wouldn’t be “educated.” And it only took me 10 additional years to pay it all off. My poor mother felt so sorry for me after moving me into college because I didn’t have the same “things” as the other girls that on her first visit to campus that fall, she brought me a gift of a gold add-a-bead necklace and a pink Izod pullover shirt. She wanted me to “fit in” with those of greater privilege.

I could go on with parts of my journey of privilege: living on the white side of street in the little town where I grew up and daily walking past the black community pool and ballfields, giving up the Girl Scout Christmas party gift so that the girl whose family couldn’t afford to bring one went home with one of the best, striving for a church that is the living embodiment of the Kin-dom of God….

I recognize that I am privileged in so many ways. That realization grows stronger with each step in my journey of faith. What am I to do with the learnings? How am I to share what I have experienced? What am I now called to risk when some days, I feel like I’ve risked it all already?

In these early morning hours, I’m reminded of these words from We Make the Road by Walking by Brian D. McLaren :

We have to graduate from thinking in terms of “our kind versus their kind” to think in terms of “humankind”….We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one human community as brothers and sisters in one family of creation. (p. 217)

And so, I keep walking home….

The Challenge is Not a Delegation: The Challenge is Lay Leadership Development

When I was 15 – as I was just getting ready to start my sophomore year in high school, a new clergy appointment was made to my home church in Fieldale. Rev. Robert (“Bob”) James Callis, Jr., came with his spouse be our preacher.

As her memoir from the 2003 Annual Conference Remembrance Service read, Bea Callis was “a woman before her time.” She answered the call in 1954, and joined Rev. Bob in ministry. Mrs. Bea, as she preferred to be called, was never ordained an elder in the Virginia Annual Conference, but was licensed as a local pastor in 1954, ordained a deacon in 1961, and ordained a local elder in 1963. Also noted in her memoir is the fact that she “would always carry a white handkerchief in one hand and a yellow legal pad in the other, writing down new ideas as God spoke to her.”  To this day, I carry one of her handkerchiefs with me whenever I am invited to sing for a funeral.

Maybe Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea carefully observed gifts and graces that I was beginning to display in my teenage years. Maybe they just knew that my mom and I were still in transition from the death of my dad a little more than a year before their arrival in Fieldale and needed some extra nurturing. For whatever reason, Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea took me under wing and offered me every imaginable opportunity to explore my gifts in service to the church.

  • Not long into their ministry in Fieldale, Mrs. Bea asked me if I’d be willing to create weekly bulletin boards outside the church office door to go along with the Sunday message. At one point she even handed me scraps of fabric and lace from her wedding dress to use in designing something for a special service of renewal of wedding vows for any of the couples in the church that wanted to participate.  This was my entry into creating visuals to enhance worship experiences.
  • Rev. Bob soon asked me if I would consider being the youth representative on what was then the Martinsville and Henry County Cluster of churches on the Danville District. I attended those meetings as the only young person and usually the only female in the group.  Being old enough to drive by then, I would go alone to the meetings, sit there and try to share my opinions with the group of older white men. These days I hope First Church in Martinsville and the Danville District have child protection policies in place that would never allow that to happen. This was my entry into leadership beyond the local churh.
  • Mrs. Bea was a tremendous preacher and was often asked to preach for services across the area. One Advent she spoke at Ridgeway UMC and extended an invitation for me to come along to sing a solo. I had never heard the hymn she asked me to sing. I practiced and practiced and practiced until I thought I finally had it down. That night in front of the congregation in Ridgeway I was just like Sarah Grace standing before the Annual Conference on Saturday morning. Whatever I sang was awful; I wouldn’t even say it was a unique version. I was devastated that I had let Mrs. Bea down. I just wanted to run and hide. Yet, Mrs. Bea hugged me, telling me what a wonderful job I had done. I will tell you that to this day I cannot sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” without thinking back to that most embarrassing moment.

With all that they did to encourage me in my call, the greatest gift that Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea gave me was experiencing so closely their passion for making disciples. The services they planned were different, not the same sitting in the pew listening to 3-point preaching that I had grown up experiencing.  The church filled with people.  My little church was making a difference: advocating for change, serving the community, making life long learners.  It wouldn’t be long, however, before the older white men that had control of the church – financially and otherwise – would say that they didn’t want a female offering as much leadership as Mrs. Bea was providing. From my memory, they especially didn’t like her preaching from the pulpit. After only three years, and days after Rev. Bob brought the message for my high school baccalaureate service, they were appointed to a new church.

The gift they left with me was one of forgiveness and reconciliation.  They loved the community and people so much that they declared they would return to the area when they retired. And they did in 1991. Not long before he died in 2011, Rev. Bob gave me Mrs. Bea’s licenses and ordination certificates to take to the Conference Achieves. To their last breaths, they continued to see potential in me that I couldn’t see clearly in myself.  Mrs. Bea was one of the reasons I considered entering ordained ministry, only to be told just a few short years later by the male minister that followed them in Fieldale that he would not support my decision since ministry in The UMC was not a place for young women.

We have a challenge within our Virginia United Methodist churches with helping laity discover and explore their calls to ministry. Actually, the challenge is everywhere in the church.  On Saturday at this year’s Annual Conference, we were urged by representatives from the Commission on Ethnic Minority Concerns and Advocacy (CEMCA) and the Commission on the Role and Status of Women (COSROW) to enter into holy conversation about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity on the newly elected General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations. The challenge is much larger than the makeup of the delegation.  It is an overall lay leadership challenge. On a district and conference level, we’ve never been able to fill all the positions needed to truly represent an inclusive church on levels outside the local church. And our local churches continue to be the most segregated places around.  If we don’t begin to focus a true priority on developing our lay leaders, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.

  • Of the 80+ lay nominations (including those from the floor of Annual Conference), approximately 1% were people of color and diverse ethnic backgrounds.  One percent. At least one of those persons when asked about why they wanted to serve on the delegation had no idea what the major challenges before the denomination even were. Regardless of their cultural and ethnic background, is that the type of person we want to send to General or Jurisdictional Conference?  Unless we educate leaders on the current realities of the denomination, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.
  • There was a lay member of one of our larger churches in the Annual Conference who stood before me at the Laity Meet and Greet for nominees on Thursday that said he did not have specific questions for me, but needed assistance.  The person went on: “This is my first time at Annual Conference, and I have no idea what I am to do. Can you help me understand what I’m supposed do?”  This was a lay member representing one of our larger congregations.  We need to help those we name to any role understand the expectations and responsibilities of the role they are filling.  Unless we better prepare leaders, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.
  • Another person shared that they had been in a training I offered for their district for new local church Lay Leaders.  By the best of my recollection, given the district, that training must have been at least 12 years ago. As we continued to talk, the individual added, “And I’m still the Lay Leader.”  As lay leaders in all roles, our main task is to multiple leaders, share our experience and mentor others.  Unless we are intentional in leadership development, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.

There is a huge leadership problem when individuals who put their names up for nomination to the most important gathering in the life of our church say they have no idea what is going on. There is a huge leadership problem when our Lay Members to Annual Conference look you straight in the eye and say they don’t know what they are supposed to do. Until we make lay leadership development a true priority for the roughly 360,000 of us lay people in the Virginia Conference, things are not going to change.  The issue is not about the makeup the delegation. The question is about how we encourage our laity to use their gifts in leadership positions inside and outside the local church. Only when we do that will our delegations to General and Jurisdictional Conference look different.

However, we do have to recognize that this delegation is very different in other ways from any past Virginia delegations.

  • It’s younger. Take away us oldest folks and my guess is that the average age would be somewhere close to 40.
  • Nine of the 22 General Conference delegates have not served before.  New, passionate voices for a new reality in the life of the denomination!
  • I’ve heard people say the delegation doesn’t represent the small church. It does, just in a very different way. Most of us even from the Richmond, Northern Virginia and Tidewater areas grew up and have our roots in small churches across the  Conference.  A number of folks on the delegation are active in those small churches. A few of the young leaders are in new church plants. They are small churches, yet they are different. They are small churches that are new expressions of what it looks like to be church in their communities.

Even though I tried for so many years to make a difference in lay leadership in the Virginia Conference, my efforts weren’t as fruitful as I had dreamed. We’re still pretty much in the same situation we’ve always been. For that reality, I will always carry a heaviness in my soul. Yet my heart feels so much more joy after gathering with Virginia United Methodist last week.  Between the UMCNext gathering in May and events of Annual Conference, I saw a glimpse of what the Beloved Community looks like: diverse in age, experiences, lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, ability levels and more.

I still don’t know what form the United Methodist Church in the United States might take, but I’m excited by the leadership potential that I see in this new delegation for moving this journey forward. More than likely I won’t be here on this earth to see what fully develops. Yet I know that I have tremendous faith in those younger than I am on this delegation to make sure that our Wesleyan heritage continues in ways that will impact generations to come after me.

I hope Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea are proud of what they started.  May I follow their example in helping raise up the next group of leaders for the Virginia Conference – but I’m not going to ask any of them to sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”

Anticipating the 2019 Annual Conference

Here we are two days before the start of the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference. Each day seems to bring another couple of emails from lay members to this year’s Annual Conference asking basically the same question, using the same language:  “I am my church’s representative to Virginia Annual Conference and will be voting for General Conference representatives.  I realize that the particular options addressed at the 2019 Special General Conference are no longer the specific issues that will be on the agenda for 2020, however, if you were to vote on the 3 options that were presented at 2019 conference, please identify which one you would choose and why:  The One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, or the Traditionalist Plan.”  

I’ve given basically the same response to everyone.  Some have offered kind responses; others have not responded at all.  With each, I have directed them to this blog if they truly want to know more about me.

Over the weekend, I was looking back at some old computer files and came across some of my reflection papers from the courses I took to receive professional certification in the denomination in Older Adult Ministries.  I also stumbled upon the electronic copy of my application statement to the Board of Ordained Ministry for that certification. It’s amazing how the dates could be changed and these writings shared today to reflect where I find myself in this journey with The UMC. 

So, I decided to share that autobiographical statement – without changes from 2007.  If you’re visiting this blog to learn more about me as a potential delegate to the 2020 General Conference, you will see exactly who I am in these words: reflections not coming from the Called General Conference session, but who I have always been and will continue to be. 

July 27, 2007: In the space below, write an autobiographical statement regarding your Christian experience, call to ministry, formative Christian experiences, and plans for service in the Church. Please keep this response to one page.

I have been a lifelong Virginia Methodist, baptized Methodist and confirmed United Methodist.  However, my theology, my understanding of God, has never been stretched and challenged as it has been in the seven years that I have served on the conference staff.  I am blessed to be in ministry with amazing people from all walks of life, ability levels, and backgrounds. In my local church – Shady Grove (Glen Allen) on the Richmond District, I am currently chair of the music and arts committee, chair of the worship task force, worship and song leader, and certified lay speaker. All the situations in which I have found myself and the current realities of The United Methodist Church here and around the world have had a tremendous impact on my understanding of the role of the church in my daily life and of my understanding of God, Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. My theology has become truly dynamic; ever changing and making me reach beyond myself.

When I reflect on my conference work and local church activities, my thinking always returns to the role of lay leadership in the church, no matter what level that is on: conference, jurisdiction, or local church.  Much of that comes from my embedded theology. I have always understood the need for laity to assume leadership and give vision for the church.  My earliest recollections of church are memories of my parents and family members taking an active role in Fieldale UMC (Danville District), from singing in the choir and providing worship leadership to serving as congregational care visitors and church council members.  I became involved in church leadership as a teenager.  I firmly believe that the example Christ modeled and that the early church offered to us is one of the church rising up from the people.  As lay spiritual leaders, each one of us is called to discover our spiritual gifts, the passion that God placed in our hearts, and our personal style which will help us follow through on God’s directions for service. I truly believe that one of my gifts is building relationships in and through the church with persons with special needs due to disability, illness, aging, and other challenges.        

My Christian journey has been one of continuing struggle to identify what God is calling me to do and my role in the church. It is a question I’ve been trying to answer for more than 25 years when I first felt a call to ordained ministry.  I think I have finally realized that there is a unique lay leadership role I am called to fill.  I have found that as I’ve talked about my “call” over the last few years, my tone has changed. I have become more determined to live out this call as a strong lay voice and encourage others to do the same.  Professional certification in Older Adult Ministry will allow me to combine this call to lay ministry with my desire to work toward an inclusive church where all people, no matter what their ages or abilities, are seen as valued members of the Body of Christ.

The Holy Spirit continues to move in my life in new and miraculous ways each and every day.  Whether God’s call is for me to continue my work with older adults and those with unique needs on the Conference level or at some point to serve older adults in the local church, my prayer is that God will bless me with the patience to continue waiting as I’m shaped and as these ministries are formed by the Spirit

If I Click My Heels Three Times…

As the wind whipped around the Fairfield Inn and Suites Monday night in Overland Park, KS, I wished for a pair of red sequined pumps. Tornado warnings across the Midwest, not right where we were, but close enough ran across the weather reports. Torrential rain poured down. I awoke at 2:15 AM to the sound of the wind and checked to see if a watch had been issued. I wished for red shoes and the ability to click my heels three times to get home.

Earlier in the evening I had been part of a gathering discussing the future of The UMC that left me uneasy and restless. I was uncomfortable with the strength of the language being used. The theology was not easy for me to hear. The hurt was palpable, the anger heavy. While I needed to listen and experience it all, I wanted to click my heels together to get out of the space – immediately. Many of those in the room had been feeling that way about The UMC for decades but were continuing to challenge us to see a wider vision for the church. My feet – without red shoes to take me away – needed to be in that sacred place.

Then by the end of the day yesterday, I could see a glimmer of the church I have always dreamed of being part of, a church that could actually reflect what I think the kingdom of God is supposed to be. I began to feel that even without ruby red slippers, I could be at home with God in a place that models the teachings of Jesus as I understand them and the means of grace in our Wesleyan roots that I love so deeply.

That home was a table filled with authentic stories of hurt and harm, surprise and resurrection: his and her pronouns, LGBTQIA+ and cisgendered, urban and rural, clergy and lay, Black and White, resisting, leaving and staying in The UMC.

That home was a place of worship and conversation where everyone was safe to be who God intended us to be, knowing that despite how we look, who we love, what our histories say about us, and how we speak, God loves us all unconditionally.

That home was a place where we felt the weight of the “structure” sitting on our chests, knowing we had to find a way to emerge from underneath but having no idea how. There was a clear recognition that every individual and church may have to find a different way out from under the weathered, battered house. Some may feel compelled to stay and struggle to rebuild. Others will need to step away with what is left of the walls and possessions, landing in a new community of connection. Still others may need to dissolve the connection to the original foundation all together. No one has any idea at this point where the road will lead. There certainly are no yellow bricks guiding us on the path ahead. There is no good witch to lead us to the great of Oz.

There is great wisdom. There is amazing courage. There is more heart, more love, than you can imagine. There are strong winds of change blowing.

But don’t be naive. There are armies of challenges flying all around us. There will be days of unknowing, long periods of wandering in scary dark forests and the disillusionment of finding that Oz may not be all great and powerful.

With or without the ruby slippers and with much harder work ahead than just clicking my heels three times, I can affirm my commitment to the tenets of UMCNext.

  • To be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity.
  • To resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and abilities.
  • To reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and resist its implementation.
  • To work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ individuals.

This is where I was called by my baptism to be. This is where I hear my membership vows directing my steps. Right now, I still don’t know if all that is leading to a particular place of brick and mortar. I do know it’s leading me home.

Just When I Think I’m Doing Better

People continue to ask me if I’ve “recovered” from the Called UMC General Conference.  I know they are asking that question with the best intent.  My response is consistent: just when I think I’m doing better, something happens that puts me right back to February 26th.  I liken it to a post traumatic stress response.  Yet I feel badly using that description because my response is nothing like what those living with true PTSD experience.

Email and Facebook messages are coming once again in anticipation of Annual Conference.  And I am headed right back down the same path that I thought I was stepping off.

Yesterday, one message ended with these words: “I trust you to be a better person than to believe that your way is the way of love and the way of others is not.”

My day started today with these questions about why I was not accepting of “God’s will” as it was prayed for at the Called Session:  “Don’t you believe in prayer?  When did you stop?  When you didn’t get your way?” 

And one last statement: “Furthermore, do you really believe, ‘We should all be able to love and serve Jesus together no matter what our understandings’?”  (My words from a recent Facebook post are the ones in single quotes.)

Since the day in April of 1961 when I was baptized at the font of Fieldale Methodist Church, I’ve experienced my share of unChristian-like behavior in church, when we’ve quarreled over ministries (and ministers); when feelings have been hurt and hearts damaged; when we have forgotten that we – the people – are the church, not a building; and when we have failed to live as the people we claim to be – the people Jesus tried so hard to teach us to be.  Despite all this, one of the main reasons I continue to be United Methodist is our understanding of grace. A loving God cares for me no matter how undeserving I may be.  And that grace has been with me from my first moment.  No person can give it to me or take it away: only God…and God did all that work through Jesus on my behalf well before I came into this world.  My job – that comes with the vow I repeat each time someone is baptized or joins the church — is to live like I believe it.  That’s the true meaning of our baptism: God’s grace is with us throughout our entire journey of faith, through good and bad, and in return, we are to share that same unconditional love with others through our words and actions.

I love the congregational response that is in the Baptismal Covenant II service in our hymnal.

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.  We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others.  We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.

There must have been something strange in that water from the Smith River in Fieldale.  I still believe that the words spoken by the congregation as that water was placed on my head 58 years ago mean something.  I’m still searching for that community of love and forgiveness, but I know there was something in that water that I’m called to live by, to advocate for, to move on toward perfection to reach.  There must have been….

Holy Week Trees, Part 1

It was the spring of 1975. There needed to be new life in the trees. After all, there had to be a new way of life in our house. My Dad had died at the end of February; February 28th to be exact. Life was different. I was mad at him and my Mom before he died because they hadn’t let me get a new outfit that I just had to have from what was then Leggett’s. For those too young to know that name, it’s now Belk. I had wanted that mint green pantsuit so badly to wear on a trip to see Godspell with the school choir. The money was not there. I cried and of course, like any barely 14 year old girl, fumed in anger that they would’t let me have it. Then the trip was cancelled so I wouldn’t have had the special reason to wear it.

A few days later I cried, not another silly teenage outburst but because my Dad suddenly died. The last days of winter that year would be like none before. On that particular February day, all I wanted to do was to do something. My mother’s sisters and our neighbors flooded into our house to prepare it for the arrival of family and friends. I still remember just wanting to be the one to clean my room, to make up my bed, to put my own stuff away. No one would let me. No one would let me do anything around the house. I finally went out on the front porch, leaned up against a post and watched the school buses as they began taking other students home for the afternoon. It seemed too “normal” so I finally went down to the back of the house and just walked. I walked up and down the creek bed behind our house and the four others around us. I walked and walked, back and forth, until I had cried enough.

No one seemed to notice that I came back. In all the busyness, honestly no one probably had noticed I was gone. Then people began to visit, telling stories that I had never heard about my father: stories of his time in World War II, stories of the factory in Ridgeway, stories of the music he sang and the instruments he played. I got that mint green pantsuit: not to wear to a long awaited outing with teenage friends, but to my Dad’s funeral.

Weeks later as Mom and I made numerous trips to the cemetery and tried to start a new “normal,” the flowers began to bloom, the trees began to bud with the new life of spring. There was a good size hardwood tree, I believe a maple, that stood between the two rows of graves where my father and several of our other family members were buried or had plots. Remember, this was 1975 and folks back then bought those cemetery plots often well ahead of any need. My parents had done that; in fact, they originally bought four plots that included one for my brother and one for me. Thank goodness my mother sold those two many years ago.

Like I had begged for that polyester pantsuit, I remember asking Mom over and over if I could hang something in the limbs of that tree as they spread over Daddy’s marker. First it was a hanging basket of flowers, then a birdhouse. The birdhouse remained there for years. I needed to see hope, life, fruitfulness when I visited that sacred space.

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped to put spring flowers on my Dad’s grave. The tree has been gone for many years now, but the stump remains. This spring, as the flowers were beginning to bloom and the trees beginning to bud, the stump brought more tears than ever. On the heels of the Called General Conference session, it reminded me once again of my broken heart and feelings of loss.

I sometimes find myself telling people that my responses to many situations in these day following the February 26th end of the General Conference session feels a little like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I’m coming to believe more and more deeply as I try to deal with this time in my faith journey that there are deep connections between living through my father’s death, walking through Mom’s health experiences and aging during these last four years and losing my church as I want it to be. It’s not exactly the same type of PTSD that so many seriously have to find ways to live with and through, and I often feel badly even attempting to compare it to such deep, deep traumatic experiences. Yet, it is a trauma-related stress reaction that for weeks now has manifested itself as little things like having difficulty speaking the words to describe the experience to more emotional responses of crying and withdrawal.

I made a list earlier this week of all the Maundy Thursday services near us, including our own at Shady Grove UMC. I thought I was ready to enter this Holy Week in the community of faith. I have to confess now that I haven’t gotten myself back to worship yet. For my clergy friends, I know you had to face your congregations immediately after General Conference and I have great admiration for how you were all able to handle that. I could not, and have not been able to do so. But, I thought I was ready this week. After all, what better week could there be to take the next step in mourning to move toward resurrection. I couldn’t, but we sat around the dinner table with Ashley and Lily sharing a meal, looking at the young life in front of me loving the warm, soft bread shared with her. And now, shedding a few tears in the middle of the night.

Wonder if Jesus did the same thing after leaving that last supper? Tonight I have to believe he did, wondering what the tree he was planting would look like in the years to come.

A Good Night to Remember Why This Blog is About Walking Martha Home

When I first started a blog, it was to share my reflections on lay leadership as a member of the Virginia Conference Connectional Ministries staff. The blog was started on Blogger with the email address I had before the VAUMC moved to Google Mail. When the address changed, the original blog was lost. I recreated a few entries, including this one about why I named the blog “Walking Martha Home.” I’m now into the second iteration of “Still Walking Martha Home.” With all that is going on following the 2019 Called General Conference, maybe it’s time to remind myself why I chose that name, and to share the story with those who want to read along. So, from the fall of 2013….

My early morning walk today was filled with reflections on events of the last week.  In the midst of all the thoughts swirling in my head, there was a constant call to write about my experiences.  There was a persistent question of whether my life lessons could impact the direction of lay leadership in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church. There was also a flashback to a quote I retweeted two weeks ago from Todd Adkins (@Todd Adkins):  “Sometimes God puts young leaders around you who need to hear your past so it doesn’t become their future.”  Then there came the realization that in my presentations about developing intentional Older Adult Ministries I emphasize that we all feel the need to leave a legacy – to add dimension to the lives of those we journey with throughout our lives – and since I’m in my midlife season now, I need to spend more time living what I “preach.”  

As my walk ended and I came to the lamppost at my sidewalk, I snapped the picture at the end of this post: the blooming clematis vine wrapped around a garden flag and an old brick. The climbing vine breaking forth with new life and stretching in every direction possible, unconcerned about how I tried to tie it off and make it conform to my expectations.  The garden flag that grabbed my heart immediately when I saw it at a local produce stand because of the goofy blue bird in its center: a bird so wacky looking that I just had to have it in my yard to prompt me daily to enjoy life.  The brick that reminds me of my life story, taken from the pile of rubble after the demolition of a 90-year old building in my hometown which was destroyed by fire last year.

Joyce’s Drug Store filled part of that building for many, many years.  It was across the street from the primary school I attended.  When I was young, that store is where I would meet my mother after school, have a Coke or ice cream and possibly buy a comic book, before we walked home.  Sometimes I’d have to wait a little while in the safety of the drug store before she arrived.  In 1968, the school system was finally integrated, and one day that year when my mom was very late coming to the drug store, a new male friend who was in my second grade class decided to walk me home.  

The house I grew up in was on the edge of the road that divided the black and white sides of our little village.  Ronnie lived on one side; I lived on the other. At age 7, we were too young to know the turmoil we might be creating.  As we rounded the curve toward my house, I remember seeing my mother on the front porch but can’t recall the look on her face.  I do remember Ronnie’s words:  “I’m walking Martha home, Mrs. Ensley.”  

I realize now that my journey of authentic leadership began that day.  What was swirling in my head this morning that brought all this back and led to starting this blog?

We invited a group of friends to our house last Friday night (-now remember I wrote this in the fall of 2013).  As the early arrivals gathered at the kitchen table and began to share a meal, the conversation turned negative when they realized that one of the guests was an immigrant to the United States from the Middle East and of Muslim faith.  I couldn’t tolerate the conversation so I walked into another room. For a week now have tried to deal with my troubled heart for not speaking out and addressing what was being said.  How can I claim to be the advocate for justice that I believe Jesus calls me to be when I didn’t voice my displeasure that this conversation was happening in my own house?

The extreme introvert that I am, I have been in recovery for two days after talking for almost 1 ½ hours straight each way between Virginia Beach and Glen Allen on Wednesday as two of us “old” directors on the Connectional Ministries staff traveled to Licensing School with three of the interns in our office this summer.  These young adults are struggling with questions of faith and church life that it took me into my forties to even think about. How do we live authentic Christian lives? How can we exclude people when Jesus called us to love everyone? How do we move the church forward without fear?  It pains me to my core to see the hurt and questioning in their eyes.  How do I as a lay leader in The United Methodist Church encourage holy conversation and action that will transform the lives of people of all ages and let them see that we truly live what we say we believe? (-Wow, was this really 6 years ago or last week?)

I had to make a very difficult phone call yesterday to share the decision of a board for which I serve as chair.  The call had the potential to change the professional relationship that I have had with the individual for 13 years.  Upon sharing an update of the conversation with the other members of the board, I sensed a new round of great mistrust and anger.   How do I lead in ways that build trust, allowing all the voices to be heard, yet keeps the focus on God’s call for our individual and corporate ministries above our own desires? (- Mistrust of and anger toward leaders, still emotions in the church???)

In “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” a February 2007 article for the Harvard Business Review, authors Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew McLean and Diana Mayer describe a process of research interviews conducted with 125 leaders identified for their success.   The interviews were based upon one question:  “How can people become and remain authentic leaders?”  In analyzing the results, the research team found that the leaders did not identify specific essential leadership characteristics or traits.  It was their life stories that formed the foundation of their success. “Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core. In doing so, they discovered the purpose of their leadership and learned that being authentic made them more effective.”  (On-line article: ) 

Robin Sharma, author of The Saint, The Surfer and The CEO: A Remarkable Story About Living Your Heart’s Desires (2003: Hay House, Inc.; Carlsbad, CA), states that authentic leadership “is all about being the person you know in your heart you have always been destined to be.”  (You can find an on-line summary article of the “Ten Things Authentic Leaders Do” at: ) 

So, my journey of authentic Christian leadership which began the day Ronnie walked me home will now continue with this blog.  By the way, we all knew by the time we became teenagers that Ronnie was gay.  By the early 1980s, he had died from complications of HIV/AIDS.  His life continues to impact my life story. My prayer is that this blog will impact the lives of those who are on this journey with me to be the best United Methodist lay leaders we can be.

The Joyce’s Drug Store brick which now is waiting for a new clematis vine to bloom in Montpelier.

Still Walking…Not Yet Home

Airports on the day I leave a General Conference seem to be the place to process and share reflections. I’m starting this reflection while our plane is deiced in St. Louis. An ice storm came through early this morning. A mix of ice and snow is beginning to fall again (8:50 AM CST). Seems fitting that there is a coating of ice to cover this area.

Division surrounds us. It could not have been more evident than in a gathering of Southeastern Jurisdiction leaders yesterday. A story shared by one of our fellow lay members about trying to talk a young person out of “being gay” was heartbreaking. And that person wouldn’t stop despite the obvious distress the story was causing some in the group. Others commented that if we could “just tread water long enough” to get past this General Conference, the young people will come to revive the church. That sentiment was echoed by others. All I could think was that we’ve been treading water in the U.S. church for 50 years already. Then there was a request for a group to gather to create a plan to present to the 2020 General Conference as a way to work out this division, as if anything had hope of passing after serious attempts for at least the 4 General Conferences I’ve attended. When I added that I thought at least 40% of us were wondering if we could stay in The UMC (to match the voting divisions all session), I was met with questioning responses.

Yet, God made God’s self known in…

  • the evening fellowship around the feast on the table
  • the conversations about how those of us who are feeling lost in the faith tradition we love and have given our lives to can move forward
  • the texts, email messages and calls offering support and prayers
  • the face of the shuttle driver to the airport, with whom I shared the front seat, who had been transporting United Methodists all week and was courageous enough, knowing he had another UM group this morning, to share the experience of going to his goddaughter’s bachelorette party at her favorite gay bar. As he shared his love for her and her now wife and his appreciation for all the people gathered that night, I asked if he was a person of faith. His answer was a resounding “Yes!” My next question to him was “And you realize you have a group of United Methodists you’re taking to the airport this morning?” “Yes, and I know all about what you’ve been doing in St. Louis.”

Just like the cooing pigeon with a rainbow on its neck on my windowsill yesterday morning, God appeared to start this day with another messenger of love.

My heart continues to ache not just for myself, but for all of us who feel that we have lost our home in The UMC. I grieve a little more with every pastoral letter that I read. Knowing so many of those pastors personally, I understand their struggles and have heard their questions of whether they can continue in a church that excludes God’s children. I cry with the laity who share the same questions.

My soul continues to struggle as good people express their reactions to what has taken place in our church in such hurtful ways. Again this morning, a message came in which the person said they were glad I was hurting because I got what I deserved for supporting the One Church Plan. They went on to tell me that I needed to go back and read my Bible some more. Doesn’t the Bible say a few things about treating others as you would treat yourself and being compassionate? Maybe I’ve been reading the wrong version all these years.

My mind continues to be confused by actions and words that say any group is not welcome in the Body of Christ. If it’s right to exclude one group because of particular statements in the Bible, we must be honest and confess that the rest of us really shouldn’t be here either. I’m childless; following arguments people have shared with me much too many times over the past few months, I don’t glorify God. I don’t eat right, exercise enough, or sleep well so my body certainly is not a temple. As a cisgendered woman married to a previously married, divorced man, I’m not worthy. The list could go in. Maybe I’m really not welcome either.

All of us who served as delegates to this Called General Conference – no matter what plan or actions we supported – come back home hurt and in need of healing. Offer us space. Continue your prayers. Help us renew our spirits.

I still firmly believe God’s got this. THIS won’t look the same over the coming months. THIS family will not include the same people – LGBTQ+ or straight. THIS denomination won’t have as many buildings, educational institutions or mission agencies. Yet, THIS hopeful, justice-seeking, grace filled message of a Body of Christ where all are welcome will continue to change lives and transform the world.

Day 4 – …to tears

The dancing did not return today. The tears flowed. They welled up in my eyes and streamed down my face as the harm we have done to one another, the hurt we have caused to one another, settled in. The tears fell hardest because sadly we’ve done it all in the name of Jesus.

I treasure my fellow travelers on my faith journey. I am blessed that those partners, mentors and teachers have been of every background, theological persuasion, educational level, size, shape and ability level. What I have learned from each person has made me who I am; for that I am eternally grateful.

I can’t imagine now being “church” without any one of those people. Yet that is where I find myself tonight. The words are hard to come after this last long, emotional day in St. Louis at the Called UMC General Conference. The actions of the day leave me with more tears than words to express how I’m feeling right now. Other people who were in the same space for the last four days are rejoicing. I weep.

The church that has been a vital part of my father’s side of the family for generations will be different from this point forward.

The church that baptized me and asked not just my parents but the entire congregation to raise me in the faith will forever be different.

The church that taught me what it means to be United Methodist and confirmed me in the faith will never be the same.

The church that held my wedding, buried my family members, and nurtured me through so many challenges, will forever now be known as one that tried to have open hearts, minds, and doors but chose this day to close them.

The church that I love will be different from this point forward because a vote was passed that enforces stricter punishments and offers “gracious exits’ for those who decide the true Gospel message is love: God’s unconditional love for everyone born.

It’s not unusual as it has happened a number of times in our Methodist and Brethren predecessor denominations. From the role of bishops and laity to women in leadership and racial segregation, our history is not pretty. We’ve separated people out, said they were not worthy of God’s love, told them that Jesus loved everybody – just not them. Today we did it again with a decision that causes great harm to people I love.

Tonight, I’ll cry. I’ll cry for the young adult that I have watched grow up in the church who sent me a Facebook Messenger text today that read, “I can trust love. I just can’t trust the people of the church.”

Tonight, I’ll cry for the grandparent who sent a letter weeks ago noting that their daughter and son-in-law would not have their child baptized in the United Methodist church because they didn’t want that child to grow up recognizing they were gay and be unloved by the church.

Tonight, I’ll cry for the young clergy in our denomination who now wonder where they need to live out their calling, for the LGBTQ+ clergy and church members who have been such an important part of my life and now have been even more harmed by The UMC, and for all those who see us as hypocrites who say we believe one thing and show something totally different through our actions.

Tonight, I’ll cry because I could not help the church I love understand that God calls us to love everybody.

Day 3 …Mourning

You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy. Psalm 30:11 (CEB)

The Psalmist tells me my titles from yesterday and today should be reversed. Yesterday, we danced. Today, many of us mourn. There is still a glimmer of hope that the mourning can turn to dancing tomorrow. But tonight, my soul is weary. My mind is tired and my emotions unsettled. I feel like I need to get my funeral clothes ready.

Yesterday morning I was prayed over by a delegate from West Virginia (in the blue jacket in the picture below) and a delegate from Penn-Delaware. We were instructed during a time of prayer that followed the presentation from the Commission on a Way Forward to gather with two folks outside our delegation, share our personal concerns and hopes for the work of the General Conference and pray for one another. One of the others asked us to pray that he could hear God’s voice in how we move forward. The other also asked for greater clarity. My hope: that no matter what happened, love would win.

Tonight, love seems absent.

Tonight, it doesn’t feel like we’re living by either of the first two rules of discipleship given to us by John Wesley: do no harm and do good.

Tonight, I’m not sure I can continue to be United Methodist if the name stays with a church that is more harmful to persons who are LGBTQ+ than we are now.

Tonight, I pray for God to move us in a different direction.

Tonight, I cry for the denomination that has raised me and made me who I am.

Tonight, I mourn.

Tomorrow, I will fight for one more day.