Church Life

The Congregation

PBS showed a documentary recently about the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and I want to share some reactions to it.

One of the things I liked about the documentary was how slow and winding its pace was, very much like life in most churches! I was not at all surprised that the real issues about Fred’s lack of popularity were never really addressed, despite the process undertaken and the use of consultants. The United Methodists have a very different system of placement than the UCC. If I wanted a new job, I would put together a “profile” and circulate it wherever in the country I felt like doing it. (It is vetted first by an office at the national level charged with being sure we UCC pastors are not criminals…) While Conference Ministers, who are sort of pastors to the pastors, could advise me or the churches to which I sent my profile, they have no literal control over where ministers serve.

In the United Methodist Church it’s completely different. The Bishop and District Superintendents look at who is doing well and who isn’t, and they move ministers around. What Fred in the documentary has done is ask not to be “re-appointed,” which is to say he’s asked to be moved. Other than in a crisis, Methodist ministers who are moving in a given year all move on the 1st of July. Pastor A finishes up on the last Sunday in June; Pastor B arrives in the pulpit one week later. Most of their stays are fairly short. So Ted Loder’s 37 or so years at FUMCOG was highly unusual. (If a Methodist reads this and finds I’m off the mark, please say so.)

In the UCC, after a pastorate of that length in a big church, a professional interim minister would come in for a year or two and help the congregation do some serious work both in grieving the loss of the old minister and preparing to receive a new one. Methodists don’t get that. FUMCOG had a lot of its identity wrapped up in Ted, clearly, and I would guess that pretty much any successor would have been doomed to fail. (In the UCC, if you call a new pastor too soon and he or she leaves quickly, we call it an “unintentonial interim.”)

So Fred basically didn’t stand a chance. Too much of the church’s identity was based on life with Ted. I thought it was very interesting that only one person (aside from the kids who led worship early on in the program) spoke openly on camera about what was missing from his point of view, and that was the African-American guy toward the end. He was talking about objecting to having a lengthy pastoral prayer after the sermon, particularly in a case where the preaching had been done by a guest.

I have to agree with him in general terms, although many of my UCC colleagues preach earlier in the service. But I build up to the sermon all the way through, with the readings and the prayers, and I want to end on that “Amen” and a closing hymn and send people forth thinking about what I said! I’ve done it the other way, with the offering and/or the pastoral prayer after the sermon, and I loathe that. I especially loathe going from sermon to offering to the Communion table; I don’t like having the money right in the middle there. I guess that’s because, theologically, I don’t think the offering ought to be in response to the preaching but in response to God’s grace.

On the subject of praying after the sermon, as a student I preached 4 or 5 times in my home church, and whenever the Senior Minister was there, he made a point of giving the Pastoral Prayer after my sermon and always seemed to re-preach it however he thought I should have said it! Why bother inviting me to be in the pulpit?

FUMCOG’s ties to United Methodism are clearly pretty tenuous in terms of their understanding of liturgical theology. It sounds like Ted Loder was a Social Justice Methodist and Fred Day is more what I would call a liturgical Methodist. I was interested that the film-makers made sure we saw him using inclusive language in a baptism and talking about being in South Africa. We saw him worshipping at National Cathedral and protesting the war in Iraq. It’s not that he’s more conservative politically or theologically than Ted Loder! He is liturgically orthodox, and that feels conservative to some of his congregants.

It also sounds like the church may have been used to a style of preaching with much less emphasis on scripture. My personal feeling is that you can be liberal as all get-out (politically, theologically, liturgically) and still use a lot of scripture. I do. But I’m also not hesitant to use other texts (poems, essays) if they further open the discussion of the scripture.

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