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Our guest writer today is my friend and colleague Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York. Daniel’s Old First blog can be found here. Thanks Daniel, and happy birthday.
My best friend Orville is a pastor too, in the United Church of Canada. That denomination has weak theology but a great pension plan. He’ll be able to retire at 62 and make good money. I serve in the RCA so I’m going to have to work till I’m 70 just to pay off my apartment.
My 59th birthday is this week, so I have ten more years. (Let’s not count the eleventh year—it will be so unproductive.) How do you imagine the last ten years of your working life? Should I have a “vision” for this last decade? What should my goals be? How can I keep fresh?
I love my work. I love my congregation. They tell me they love me too, and they give me good performance reviews. But how long can I keep this up? How long will it be fair for me to impose myself on them? Till I reach the age when I have to go? Right now I can think of two young RCA pastors serving in New York City who could do a better job than me in many ways. How long, by preserving my place, shall I keep my congregation from the opportunities they offer?
I’m not sure why, but I seem to be incapable of leading my congregation to a larger size. When I came here ten years ago, the expectation was that I would “double the congregation’s membership.” Orville, who was presiding over great growth in his own church, visited me here, and looked the place over, met the people, and heard me preach, and he said, “Danny, in a couple years you’ll be at 200.” Nope. In ten years our average attendance has grown from like 65 to 75. Maybe we’ll hit 85 by the time I retire.
Maybe it’s because of my peculiar personality—alternatively attractive and off-putting. Maybe it’s the high intensity of our congregation, which is not everybody’s cup of tea. I’m proud of how productive and creative this congregation is, how lavishly faithful and generous in its stewardship, what ministries and programs and services they do, how active they are in worship leadership and community building, how theologically acute they are, and how strong their personalities. Maybe the stakes are too high for most people.
Or maybe it’s our strange combination of orthodoxy and openness: the Apostles Creed weekly (the Nicene in certain seasons) and full inclusion on sexuality. Do the majority of seekers find this uncomfortable? But this kind of church you can serve as a pastor with very great pleasure. The support is great, both personal and financial, and you have great freedom to explore the Christian faith and keep the confidence of the leadership. So why should I retire?
But I might not have that chance. I could be defrocked. I could be accused of a pastoral act which the General Synod of the RCA has just called “disciplinable”. Uh oh. And this General Synod also declared that “homosexuality is a sin.” I confess I need some help with this. I could not find that statement anywhere in the Bible. I even looked up “homosexuality” in my Eerdmans Analytical Concordance, and the word never appears in either Hebrew or Greek. Maybe it’s in the Apocrypha.
To be defrocked would be a great disappointment, seeing as how I subscribe not only to Double Predestination but even to Limited Atonement. (The words “double, predestined, limited, and atonement” all do appear in the Bible, but not in those combinations.) Although I may not be a Supralapsarian, (like Karl Barth), neither is the Belgic, and I do hold to the extra-Calvinisticum. Yet now I, even I, have to worry about being “disciplinable”. Geez.
I suppose I should welcome any opportunity to be tried for my practice and belief. It would be an honor and a privilege, really. Should this be my vision for my last ten years? But sexuality has never been “my issue”. My issue has been the conventional doctrines of heaven and hell. I would rather be tried for denying eternal punishment (No, I’m not a universalist!) and the immortality of the soul. But we don’t get to pick our issues, our issues pick us. Okay, I’ll take the heat, but if I’m defrocked, could I still please get my pension?
I like the thought of serving here another ten years, because this is a great congregation. One of the great things about it is that you have enough vision for the future just by staying with its two poles of orthodoxy and openness. The openness keeps you fresh, because the world keeps coming at you with its surprises and demands. People keep showing up, all of them with their new needs and their new gifts. It’s always wonderfully renewing. And then orthodoxy gives you the overflowing fountain to address these things. If you just keep preaching the text to people’s lived experience, the Bible never fails to feed you in your ministry.
And if your congregation is in its 358th year, it’s almost silly to think you need a vision for its future. Such visions almost killed it once before, 120 years ago, but it was rooted too deeply to not survive. Of course I’ve had visions for this church: how we worship, how our consistory behaves, how we nurture seminarians, how we teach our children, how we serve the poor, etc. These were not grand visions; they were just seeing how to get from one spot to the next by putting into practice what I saw others do.
I would hate for this congregation to suffer the pain of my being disciplined. I don’t want to have to go to some other denomination. I was beginning really to like the RCA again. Drat! Well, whatever happens, I want to end up in the same denomination that Jessica Bratt is in.
Image: Domenico Ghirlandaio, “An Old Man and his Grandson” (1490), from http://www.wga.hu/art/g/ghirland/domenico/7panel/08oldman.jpg