Sunday, November 17, 2013

How Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett could help

First some context, then a personal story, and finally a suggestion about how I think Bishop Wallace-Padgett could help.

The Context

Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw
Photo by Kevin Higgs
When Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince asked Bishop Melvin Talbert to do a religious ceremony in Center Point, AL, celebrating their marriage (legally done earlier in Washington, DC), Bishop Talbert contacted the resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett.

Bishop Wallace-Padgett asked him not to do the wedding and issued a press release objecting. In her press release she said:
I urged the retired bishop to reconsider as his officiating at this ceremony would be in violation of United Methodist Church law.
.She also expressed concern that such a ceremony would attract public attention and draw it away from the ministries of the North Alabama Conference:
I am also concerned that it would encourage the public to only define The United Methodist Church in North Alabama by one matter and not by the rich range of ministries of North Alabama local churches such as feeding the hungry, ministry with the poor, offering hope for those in addiction, sharing the gospel with our neighbors and welcoming all people to worship together and celebrate the sacrament of holy communion.
Despite her protestations and a similar appeal from the executive committee of the Council of bishops, Bishop Talbot conducted the service on Oct. 26.  

When a majority of the Council of Bishops voted Nov. 15 to request that Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the council, and Bishop Wallace-Padgett file a complaint against Bishop Talbot, they actually asked that two charges be made against him.

One charge is "conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (Paragraph 2702.1b)." This is the same charge being made against Frank SchaeferStephen Heiss and Thomas Ogletree.

The second charge is "undermining the ministry of a colleague (Paragraph 2702.1f)." I would assume this charge is based on Bishop Talbert going ahead with the ceremony despite Bishop Wallace-Padgett's urging him not to. Bishop Talbert is being charged with undermining Bishop Wallace-Padgett's ministry. 

It is this second charge I'd like to discuss.

A Personal Story

When I was appointed to serve my first church after seminary, I got the sense that my appointment was a disappointment to some of the members. My immediate predecessor had retired at the end of his tenure as the church's pastor. All their pastors before that had been experienced and highly respect clergy in the conference. The congregation had been aging and experiencing some numerical decline. They thought the appointment of someone just graduating from seminary was a sign that the appointment cabinet did not consider them as important a congregation as they had once been. They felt slighted. They worried that I didn't know what I was doing.

In fact, they were not wrong to feel they deserved a more experienced pastor than I was. The appointment was made by a superintendent who was a friend of my family and it probably was made as much to accommodate my personal needs at the time as it was to meet their needs.

One day a couple of months after my appointment I was doing my pastoral calls. In those days we did not make advance appointments. We just showed up. I ran the bell of the home of a woman in the congregation named Marie who had cancer and could no longer attend church. I'd come to bring her communion. Her husband George opened the door, stared at me for a moment, and then invited me in.    

Sitting next to Marie's bed was my predecessor.

I conducted myself politely. I chatted. I served communion. I asked my predecessor to say a prayer.

But I was mad.

The rules were very, very clear that former pastors were not to return to provide pastoral care except at my explicit invitation.When I got home I immediately phoned my district superintendent. Fortunately, he was not there.This gave me some time to do some thinking.

I started thinking about Marie. She was dying. I was a novice. Maybe she had reached out to my predecessor because she had needs for support she felt I could not meet. Maybe she was right. Maybe she reached out because she had needs for support that in fact I was too inexperienced and immature to meet.

By the time my district superintendent called me back the next day, I told him to never mind. I told him I had over reacted about something but that it was okay and that I was sorry I bothered him about nothing.

I continued to visit Marie and George. I listened to them, prayed with them, even tried to get a message from them to Oral Roberts when he was speaking in town at a United Methodist Congress on Evangelism.

When Marie went into the hospital for what we knew would be the last time, I was the pastor she wanted at her bedside. I was the one who held her and George's hands as she breathed her last breath.

It took me many years to realize that, as the pastor, I am the most powerful person in the congregation I serve. It often doesn't feel that way, but objectively and practically it is true. In the congregational system that I am part of I have the most power.

As the most powerful person in the system, it does not serve me well to be jealous of my power. It does not serve me well to be defensive about perceived challenges to my power and authority. If I just stay focused on my ministry, listen without becoming reactive, keep a sense of humor, the power automatically drifts back to me. The worst thing I can do is to make my authority the issue.

A Suggestion

My suggestion is that Bishop Wallace-Padgett withdraw the "undermining the ministry of a colleague" charge from the complaint against Bishop Talbert.

Of course, I'd prefer that Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett make no complaint against Bishop Talbert and that the Council of Bishops lead in finding ways other than litigation to work out our differences, as Professor Thomas Frank has suggested.

But, if some bishops are going to file a complaint against Bishop Talbert, I believe it would be better and cleaner to keep the focus on celebrating same-sex marriages rather than to muddy the waters with the "undermining" charge.

A bishop is the most powerful person in his or her area of the United Methodist Church. The 66 active bishops in the United Methodist Church are the 66 most powerful individuals in the United Methodist denominational system. The 46 bishops in the United States are especially powerful.  Active bishops are much more powerful than retired bishops, not to mention Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince.

Good News magazine is already trying to turn Bishop Wallace-Padgett into a victim and Bishop Talbert into an ogre. In an editorial Rob Renfroe writes:

Bishop Talbert’s lack of respect for his colleague’s ministry is unparalleled and his willingness to harm the ministries of many faithful pastors and congregations is disgraceful.

Bishop Talbert’s lack of respect for his colleague’s ministry is unparalleled and his willingness to harm the ministries of many faithful pastors and congregations is disgraceful. - See more at:
Bishop Talbert’s lack of respect for his colleague’s ministry is unparalleled and his willingness to harm the ministries of many faithful pastors and congregations is disgraceful. - See more at:
Anyone who knows the way the church really works knows this is hysterical exaggeration. There is another agenda here other than protecting the authority and power of a bishop over her area.

I assume, but do not know for sure, that Bishop Wallace-Padgett has reached out in a caring way to Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. I hope she has offered to meet with them to listen to them and to pray with them. I hope that she has offered to meet with those angry about a celebration of a same sex marriage having happened in their conference to listen to them and pray with them.

Listening, caring, thinking clearly, and leading in a non-defensive way seems to me to be the key here. A focus on protecting one's power does not move things forward.

If we are going to litigate against pastors who celebrate same-sex marriages, let's keep to that question. It will be hard enough to deal with this without piling on.
Bishop Talbert’s lack of respect for his colleague’s ministry is unparalleled and his willingness to harm the ministries of many faithful pastors and congregations is disgraceful. - See more at:

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