Little cabin in the woods
We built our cabin in 2004. Up until last year, it had no electricity in it. It still has no running water. Heat is by wood stove and propane space heater. But it's fairly snug. We've used it as recreational property. Nowadays, it also acts as a tool locker for building the new house. But that little cabin has played a special role in our lives that most people don't understand. When we built it, we immediately labeled it "bishop insurance."
Now, to understand that phrase I have to explain to you what life is like for United Methodist clergy. We do not arrange our own employment; we go where we are sent. And there are untrustworthy bosses out there (bishops and superintendents) -- and foolish ones. There are also clergy-killer churches and various individual buttheads to butt heads with. There's a lot of stress in the ministry, and when you get beaten down enough, you begin to doubt your own worth. You begin to feel that you could never make it without this job, so you put up with stuff no one should ever have to put up with. You become motivated by fear. And your life gets distorted in all kinds of ways.
I was lucky to know a wise man who used to say to me, "If you want to be happy in the United Methodist ministry, you have to be able to leave it." Not that one wants to leave it, you understand. But if push comes to shove, you have to be ready -- and emotionally healthy enough -- to tell various people to go to hell and shake the dust off your feet. That way, every year you stay in the professional clergy is another year you have chosen to bear the burdens of it. No one is holding you down; no one is forcing you to do anything. For Jesus' sake, I will do what I must do. For conscience' sake, I will keep the faith -- and keep the rules. But. I know where the Erschleudersitz* release is.
After serving our second clergy-killer church under yet another incompetent DS, I decided I was through putting up with stuff. I told people, "Henceforth let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." (Those marks were sciatica in my case, but you get the point.) Once our little cabin was built, we knew we would never feel trapped again. I could always take a leave of absence -- in a few years, I could retire -- and in a pinch (though it would have been like cutting off my right hand) I could simply hand in my orders. For we had a place to go. We talked it over. If I ever had to tell a bishop to go jump, we would put all our stuff in storage and live in our little cabin -- with no running water, no electricity -- for as many months as it took to get our lives re-oriented and find a more permanent situation. Not many people -- particularly at our age then -- could have lived that way. But we knew we had the skills to do so. It was not an idle fantasy for us.
It is wonderfully freeing to know you can make it, to know your own value in what you are doing. Luckily, I never had to take that step, but I walked lighter and with more joy because I knew I could take it.
All this is to say, by way of prelude, that I understand what Mt. Bethel UMC and Dr. Jody Ray down in Georgia have done, and what it has cost them, to tell their rotten bishop to go jump and strike off on their own. I understand that they never wanted to do that. But I'm proud of them for being ready to face what has to be faced, for the sake of the gospel in their circumstances. It's not about ego, it's not about getting your own way, it's not about power. For both clergy and laity, if you want to be happy -- and effective -- in ministry, you have to be able to leave it. God bless those who haven't had to, and continue to stay where they are, even in unpromising circumstances -- joyfully, freely. Their obedience makes a bright contrast to the dingy disobedience of so many. But I will not judge those who have had enough, who have been backed into a corner, who have decided, however reluctantly, that it's time to hit the silk.
*German for "ejection seat"