Over the past couple weeks or so, my Facebook news feed has been buzzing with articles, objections, and reflections on a proposal brought forward by a few denominational leaders in my Adventist tribe. The following are many strands of thought, some of which are no doubt incoherent, on the present situation.
A chop-shop summary of the proposal voted at Annual Council this week is as follows: the general conference of the Seventh-day Adventist church (which is essentially the top of our hierarchical structure) wants to consider taking over operations of certain unions (these are regional bodies, roughly 3 levels down from the top) because of their varying degrees of non-conformity with and interpretation of the general conference's policy on ordaining women as pastors. In general, the ordination of pastors into ministry is handled on a local conference level (essentially state-level organizational bodies) and its decisions are ratified or confirmed by the applicable union leadership. In the case of, for instance, the Pacific Union, which oversees California, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Arizona, has chosen to confirm and ordain women as pastors, against the wishes of the General Conference and ostensibly a majority percentage of the world Adventist church (as evidenced by a world wide vote on the matter during the summer of 2015). Other unions in Europe have followed suit on various grounds. Still other conferences within other unions have taken less definitive but still activistic actions defying the wishes of leadership in Washington D.C. by eliminating any distinction between ordination credentials (only available to males) and commissioned credentials (available to female pastors, chaplains, and other administrative roles).
From my vantage point - as a pastor in WA state - I can't help but wonder about some of the dynamics whirling around beneath the issue of ordaining women as pastors, and perhaps fueling the so-called debate. It seems as though we in the Adventist tribe are stuck in cycles of progressive one-upmanship -- where each "side" is responding with a hair-trigger to the other with increasing starkness. In my mind, it takes on the feel of a playground fight where two over-confident children are trading jokes, then barbed jabs, then insults, punches, and finally a year's-worth of couched suspicion, distrust, and veiled attack. In such archetypical school-yard scuffles, the original cause for confrontation is quickly lost and fight-or-flight energy takes over for all involved. The throng of classmates as blind fans, shout out their jeers and cheers according to allegiances they hardly understand or even recognize. The opposite 'team' in the joust becomes the enemy and is wrong no matter what they say or do. My side is always right and defensible just the same - regardless of objective observations otherwise. Any and all behavior is whitewashed as good and pure, as long as the underlying allegiance is in line.
There is no honor in these (perhaps mythical) playground brawls. Only ego, stripped bare.
Today on a walk, I reflected on the behavior of some of my leaders over the past couple years. Ted Wilson, the president of the world church, has clearly upped the ante in this most recent "proposal" (although his name does not appear on the document, one must be naive to not believe that he is behind it, among many other moves). It insists in spirit, you will abide by the determinations of the general conference and especially the world church duly gathered - even if brute force is needed to make it so. I am right and you are wrong. I am more powerful than you; I can make you do what I want. I will beat you at this game. Even if I have to "take over" the entire institution, I will have my way. My cause is so correct, than any degree of forced uniformity is worth the price. As I reflected, I wondered to what degree this reactionary behavior might really be more about muscle-flexing and ego-stroking than about women as pastors? Could it be that we are at a point in this debate that unconscious ego has now been stripped bare? Are we fighting simply to win, at any and all costs?
What does it do for Mr. Wilson, personally, to unabashedly propose his takeover of large swaths of the Adventist church? What does it do for him as a man to suggest that fatwahs he's decreed in executive councils must be followed to the "T" or else he will "get involved" and force compliance? Does it make him feel more powerful? Has the protest, creativity, and even defiance expressed by certain unions pricked his sense of autonomy and authority?
Similar questions can be asked of those leaders who object morally (or on other grounds) to policy. Of course I believe that peaceful protest can be Holy Spirit led (just as organizational leadership exercising the protection of certain boundaries can). And certainly liberty of conscious ought to be guarded for all of us.
But the line between escalating protest and ego-stroking is a mighty thin one.
Even if I believe deeply that it is unjust that women are not allowed to be ordained in the Adventist church, and even if I believe the Holy spirit is leading me to play the activist for this cause, it never the less feels good to defy the policy, to poke old Teddy in the eye, to thumb my nose at "the man". There is something gratifying about standing up to the school-yard bully and smacking him in the nose - watching his skin turn red in anger - driving him mad because of his felt powerlessness to change my behavior. As right and holy as they might be, my protests against church policy can also stroke my ego just as much as playing gatekeeper. The same goes for those on the other side of this particular issue... It no doubt feels mighty powerful to assert that the leadership body you oversee is "God's highest authority on earth".
So here's what I'm driving at: it's incredibly tempting for us to escalate political fights (of whatever stripe - church or otherwise) under the guise of principal when really, emotionally, we're just having a school-yard romp. It will be easy for both "sides" to dismiss me on this suggestion. But it would be to their, our, detriment. Courageous leadership sometimes invites us to be spat upon, to be abused, to be ignored, to have one's policies mocked or stepped around, to submit to policy that is egregiously unjust, to be whipped, to not mock back, to carry a cross, to suffer, to die. Courageous leadership sometimes means checking one's ego - which in itself is an act required by ego, a different sort of ego, a mature ego. I want to be the calm, careful, wise, leader we need in challenging times like this - not the brash and attention seeking one I'd prefer to be in our collective playground fight.
As much as I disagree with some of the leadership decisions Ted Wilson has made, as much as I disagree with the direction he'd like to take the church, as much as I disagree with his stance on women serving as pastors, as much as I think he's acted in ways are abusive and bullying, I do not believe he is evil. And as much as he (and pastors or members across the way/ocean) might feel similarly about my leadership, philosophy, and dedication to radical inclusion, I am not evil. Those leaders who follow their consciences in peacefully protesting what they consider to be injustice within the church are not evil (I've seen the couched term for this, ringing of great controversy language, thrown around, 'rebellion').
It's crazy that some of our conversations has risen (fallen?) to such shrillness that I feel affirmations like this are even necessary to make!
What if the polarization, the playground fighting, the demonizing and politicking we see now in our tribe are more about pricked and fragile notions of grandeur rather than the grave principles we ascribe to them? What if our collective inner-children are running the ship? What if we are mindlessly reacting to a threatened sense of self-worth when we throw around condemnation and threats, write exclusionary policy, or manipulate the process with endless escalation? What if this debate has become more about insecurity than about substance?
Certainly it isn't all smoke. And I absolutely have a point of view I think is correct. But I'm not so naive to imagine that I'm free of human nature. You neither. And certainly not Ted.
In all of this, I must say that as an Adventist pastor, I am profoundly grateful to work with a local Adventist church that openly celebrates and consciously advocates for equality of the sexes in leadership. I'm incredibly humbled to be a part of pastoral team that is equal parts men and women. I am proud to be under the leadership of a local conference and union that are actively hiring women to serve as pastors. I am proud to be a part of denomination that in many ways came into existence because of the faithful and trusting work of both men and women. I am proud of the many beautiful principles and teachings of this tribe. Despite the arm-flexing, haranguing, and posturing we witnessed (or embodied) this week, I am proud of the Adventist tribe.
And as for me, I'm going to resist being swept away by the frantic urgency expressed on internet message boards. I'm going to pray - to meditate - to ground myself in the One who is the Desire of Ages. And I still have a bit of ego-strength in reserve. I do not plan to roll over and give away the beauty of this tradition to agendas driven unconsciously by out-of-control egos. I will continue to lead, I pray with humility and integrity, seeking to recognize and honor the truth in all settings, regardless of the messenger or outcome. I will pull close to those with whom I disagree. I will dialogue in good faith. I will give the benefit of the doubt. I will practice grace. And in the end, I will suffer if need be.
God is on his throne, he doesn't need any of us to fight dirty to ensure his plan will succeed.