Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to Explain...

A conversation today has left me a bit puzzled. But, it does ask an important question for my life, the question of how one explains my denomination, and my connection to it? What does it mean to call oneself Brethren? (especially when one does not, at least at last bathroom check, have a penis?)

My denomination is officially called the Church of the Brethren. We are not the Brethren Church. We are not the United Brethren. We are not the German Baptist Brethren. We are not the Church of the Brethren and Sistern (as much as some of us may like us to be). Therefore, I am, well, Brethren.

I made the choice to join this church. I am not born and bred Brethren. I don't have the pedigree with the official CoB seal. I don't have genetic ties to Alexander Mack (one of the first CoB folk). I don't even make especially good potluck dishes.

But, I believed in what the church stood for when I joined, or at least what the Manchester Church of the Brethren stood for in my mind--diversity, acceptance, genuine welcome, intelligent thought, questioning minds, open hearts. I believed this. I wanted to cast my lot with theirs. Not because anyone else wanted me to, not because "God told me to," but because it was time and I was ready and perhaps the church was ready for me. Perhaps there was a passionate belief within me that it was time for me to take discipleship seriously, and these were folks who I thought were living it. And so it was that after much soul-searching, I made a telephone call in 1994 to the pastor of that church and said, "Susan, I'm ready." And, thankfully, on behalf of the church she said softly, "Good. So are we."

I went on to pastor that church after graduating from seminary for nearly six years. I lived within this denomination, and asked questions, and married them, and committed myself to them for better or for worse. And then when I felt abandoned by them in some deeply painful ways, I walked away, chose not to fight, opted for the safe passage out of pastoral ministry. And, it was probably the best thing for all of us. Best that I not fight for a job I loved, but needed to leave. Best that I disentangle myself from an active relationship with a denomination which I now believe is deeply unhealthy.

When I stopped pastoring, when I "resigned" from my post, I needed to lick my wounds for awhile, to hide away in a UCC, lamenting over what I thought the church could be, but wasn't. Lamenting over losing my prized place in the bosom of a church. I thought of leaving, even fantasized about what I would tell them in a few angrily penned words, but, I was still too deeply rooted in the CoB, rooted so that there were branches still budding within me, in spite of my ambivalence. And so, I walked back into the denomination. Joined a church in Fort Wayne, offered to preach some, accepted a delightful little interim pastorate, offered myself anew.

Today I tried to explain what the Church of the Brethren was. I fumbled for words as I spoke to our new Hospice marketing guru. He is a kind man, an insightful man and he asked me to explain my denomination. How do I explain it? "Um, well, we're a historic peace church. We're sort of like the Quakers, but sort of Mennonite-ish, but not the guys with the beards Mennonite-ish, and we don't wear plain clothes, and...well, we believe in peace. And Jesus. Definitely Jesus. And what Jesus taught. And, some of us are really into being open and affirming. But, some people aren't. And you don't have to be a man to be Brethren, but it is sort of convenient given the name, and, well, I don't know how long the denomination will stay together, 'cause there really aren't a whole lot of us...and we can't agree on a lot, except, well, sometimes we agree on Jesus, and, well, there's a website you could look at (as if this were the best 'witness 'I could offer)..." And he listened patiently and said, "Okay, if I said 'Presbyterian,' how alike or different are you?" Long pause while I thought..."Well, it depends."
I felt stupid. I can't even articulate my denomination to others. wonder so many of my patients die "unsaved." No wonder my denomination is losing membership. If others are like me, we're not a great evangelistic tool.

And I have no pithy answers to tie this post up. It is what it is. And I'm learning how to be a disciple in the midst of it.


Beth said...

I was unchurched for 35 years, United Methodist for six, unchurched again for two and have been attending Beacon Heights for about a year. I'm in a inquirer's class right now. What I'm finding is that the CoB is like any other organized religion. It found a niche and built an identity based upon that niche. And, like most organized religions, there are things about it I endorse and things I reject. So I choose not to worry too much about denomination. For instance, the UMC has a mission statement, "open minds, open hearts, open doors." I found that to be true sometimes, but not often. I find it to be more true at Beacon Heights. I hear that BH is more liberal than a lot of other CoB churches. That's good, because I'm liberal and I go to BH. I like their stance on social justice and Peace initiatives. I sit on the growth and outreach committee and they want to purposefully reach out to same-sex couples. I would have never seen that in the UMC for a million years -- at least not the ones I attended. They also try to reach out to people who have been burned by organized religion. When I try to explain the CoB to others, I don't worry about the CoB "universal" -- I just offer up examples of BH because that's my experience. If I moved to another city and went to a CoB church and it wasn't that same way, I guess I'd have to go find another place to worship. That's my two cents, Christen.

Contemplative Chaplain said...

Beth, thank you! What a beautiful commentary on my post. Do we know one another?


Beth said...

No, we've not met yet. I'm kind of a hit-or-miss attendee. But, I'm a big fan of your blog!