aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Take thou authority

I am an elder in The United Methodist Church. That means I have permanent, world-wide authority to preach, baptize, confirm, celebrate the eucharist, officiate at weddings, preside at Charge Conferences, etc. Even though I am retired, I keep my authority, and my Conference membership, for life.


There are requirements placed on me. My authority can be taken away from me if I misbehave. My Conference membership also requires that I file reports from time to time. But more than that, I am bound to the other clergy. What do I mean?

As a retiree (same as if I were in active service but serving in an appointment beyond the local church), I had to designate a local church where I would hold my Charge Conference membership. This is where I am primarily accountable for whatever I do. I am NOT the pastor; I have a pastor over me. I do not ask to preach in our church, nor do I ever preach in any church unless the pastor invites me to.

I could baptize whoever asked, but without occupying that relationship in the local church that a pastor occupies, I couldn’t connect the baptizand to a congregation. And I certainly wouldn’t baptize anybody in the church I attend without the pastor asking me to. Same with confirmation. My authority is limited by my relationship to my pastor and the church.

Likewise, I could celebrate communion for whoever might ask, but I don’t celebrate communion in my local church without my pastor asking me. In my personal leadership capacity, I can offer communion, say, at retreats or conferences. But generally, the privilege of presiding at the community’s table is given to the person appointed to the pastoral charge; since I don’t have that appointment, I school myself to receive rather than offer, which is good for my soul.

I could do weddings right and left, but even when I was in active service, I always felt that the optimum ministry at the time of marriage involved the couple being married in their home church (or one of them’s home church). If they had no church relationship, then I told couples I would assume the role of pastor for the duration of our working together. The main focus of the pastor doing a wedding is in the counseling, not the ceremony (though many of us are quite zippy at doing ceremonies). I want to talk with them about themselves, about God, about church, about life. Ideally, they would then go on to root themselves in a church (perhaps my church) to live out their vows together. That may not happen, but it's what a good minister wants to happen. Even when I was serving as a pastor, I was always wary of being “acquired” like another accessory for Bridezilla’s Big Day; now that I have no congregation to invite them to participate in, I feel even less like being acquired to adorn the festivities. This doesn’t mean I’m a grump – hey, I like weddings! – but I’m not anybody’s pastor. There would have to be a really good reason for me to want to do somebody’s wedding.

And in all these cases, I have to be very careful about imposing on my pastor (or any other pastor). We have a chargeable offense in The UMC called “interfering in the ministry of another pastor.” That means, I need to support other pastors, and not horn in on their pastoral activity. This goes beyond not usurping the pastoral role. This affects all other aspects of our relationship. I never discuss my pastor’s goals and efforts with other parishioners (well, except my wife, occasionally). Now, parishioners discuss what the pastor’s up to, and whether he or she did a good job at it, all the time. But I have no place in that conversation. Everything I might say would be magnified and distorted by MY saying it. I owe my pastor my support – and if she asks for it, my advice (but only in private).

As for presiding at Charge Conferences, I have done so at the request of my Superintendent occasionally, but the job is basically his. I’m only a substitute, and can only preside by his appointment.

My point is, all those people who resent the clergy – and the elders particularly – or who want to say that “anybody” can do what the clergy claim to be able to do -- are missing the point. Yes, we have a lot of authority and a very privileged place in the church. But our ministry is governed by a complex code of relationships that calls for us to restrain ourselves in many ways. We are accountable to many others for what we do.

How about you? You, the person who wants to say that anybody can do X, or Y? To whom are you accountable? “To God,” I imagine you saying. But God works through human relationships and human institutions. If we are to be a community, bound together in love, accountable to each other, then we must also be willing to consider others before ourselves and to calculate the probable results of our actions. If eating certain meats offends others, said Paul, then he would eat no meat at all. We clergy have to constantly think about how our liberty impacts the others in our world. Do you consider those things, or are you just in love with your supposed freedom of action? Everything we do either helps the community function or disrupts it.

Me, I want to help things go better, so I work closely with others and don’t flex my credentials at people. It’s not about Me, but about Him, and always was.

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