The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. Proverbs 18:17
For 25 years I have turned the other cheek while I’ve been slandered and libeled by the Clown Reformed Church (hereinafter referred to as “CRC”) but in this document, I am telling, in the words of Paul Harvey, the rest of the story.
We showed up in 1995 after United Airlines (UA) decided to close operations in Columbia South Carolina. From 1989-1995 I Pastored the first Church I served while at the same time working part-time for the Airlines. With UA’s decision, there was no way that I could support my family on the small rural Church’s salary alone and so my wife and I decided we would take UA up on its offer to pay for our move to one of six cities of our choosing. Our #1 bid was Grand Rapids Michigan, primarily because my kin lived in and surrounding that area and also because there was a Seminary there where I could do my next level of degree work if we decided that was possible.
In our visits to Grand Rapids to set up shop one of the first things we did was to check out with the local Seminary if there were any area churches that needed pulpit supply. I had been preaching on Sundays for nearly 7 years and it seemed like a good idea to at least investigate the possibility of pulpit supply while living in Michigan. We contacted the appropriate person in the bowels of the bureaucracy of the CRC and he told us that there was indeed a Church that routinely needed pulpit supply and that it would be good for them to have someone who would be a constant for them in this regard. He went on to say, however, that we would have to talk to another person as well about this opportunity and immediately ushered down to another office to talk to yet another bureaucrat but not without first giving us a contact name for the small Church that needed the pulpit supply.
We waited in the waiting room of the office and soon an older rounded man asked us into his office. The first chap we spoke to popped in again and explained what was going on. Having explained the situation the first chap promptly left. The second chap just stared at the door that the first chap departed out of. He then stared at us for a moment and returned again to his staring at the door. This happened for some little while the 2nd chap caught his bearings. Finally, in the first words he spoke to us, he said, “You can’t do this.” I simply responded by saying “OK.” For 5 minutes he kept repeating over and over in different ways, “You can’t do this,” and for 5 minutes I kept saying “OK.” I already had the local contact name and so I knew that once I finally was finished with the 2nd chap saying, “You can’t do this,” I would make a beeline for the phone to call the contact number. I never saw the older rounded man again.
I contacted the number given to me by the first chap and the man on the other end of the line seemed genuinely excited to know that I was interested in not only filling their pulpit but also quite possibly living in their parsonage. They were a small congregation that could not, like the congregation I had been serving in South Carolina, afford a full-time man, though they could afford a “tentmaker.” That is what I was offering them. Long story short here, we met several times with the contact man and within a month I was filling the pulpit and within a month of that, the small Church received approval from the District denominational authorities that I would be allowed to be pulpit supply for this small struggling Church. The district authorities were gleeful for me likewise because I solved a problem that they had in trying to figure out what to do with this congregation For years the District was allotting a small percentage of their budget to keep the Church afloat but with my presence, the District no longer had to cut checks for this Church because the Church could make it by paying me a small salary ($ 300.00 a week) while I continued tent-making working for UA in Grand Rapids. Indeed, there had even been discussion among the District Denomination to close this Church before I arrived. I was a solution for many parties. I was a solution for the congregation itself. I was a solution for the Seminary guy always having to find pulpit supply for this Church every week. I was a solution to the District’s problem of spending money on a mission Church that they were convinced would never be self-supporting.
This worked for three years before my health began to burnout. I was working nearly full-time for UA while working full-time for the Church. At the end of 1998 UA made it nearly impossible, by their purposeful scheduling of me to work on Sundays, (Station Politics) for me to keep tent-making at UA in Grand Rapids while pastoring. At that point, Jane and I made a proposal to the local Church that if they could meet a very modest salary we would step out in faith and quit UA and pastor full time in Charlotte. The Church, to their credit, resolved to meet that modest salary and I quit UA and the tent-making I had done for nearly a decade.
One result was that I got to know my children who I had seen comparatively little of for those ten years. Eventually, another result was that I had to, once again, deal with denominational politics. For the most part, the Denomination left me and the Church alone. However, they had assigned me a “mentor,” by the name of Dr. Dusty Lugnut. Dr. Lugnut was the Pastor of the flagship Church in the District 40 miles up the road and had the endearing virtue of always thinking very well of himself as combined with letting you know that he thought very well of himself. The problem with Dr. Lugnut and me is that Dr. Lugnut was a full-on Barthian (Neo-Orthodox) while I had sworn my life to extinguishing Barthians. Putting the two of us together in a mentor-mentee relationship was like tying two polecats together at the tail and slinging them over a clothesline. I think we met twice before we both realized that we were not going to be best pals.
At that point, the condescending Dr. Lugnut just decided to ignore me and ignore the Church. Now, keep in mind he had been assigned by the District to shepherd me into an official capacity in the Denomination while at the same time working to make sure that the Church I was serving moved from a “mission church” to an “organized” church. However, Dr. Lugnut determined he was going to show me and us that he was in charge and so he just ignored us for nearly 14 years. Just try to imagine how disappointed I was.
Every so often during those 14 years (maybe three times), we would be contacted by either Dr. Lugnut or by some other District chieftain. I remember one time there was a Minister from Toledo who phoned me and told me about his big plans for the District now that he had been elected moderator and that he wanted me to be part of that and so he was going to bring me in. I just grunted agreement suspecting that like so many times before this was just so much talk. I was right. In six months he transferred to another Church and that was the end of his maniacal plan to shape the District in his image.
I would occasionally attend District denominational meetings of the Clown Reformed Church (CRC), and would inevitably return home in a rage with my blood pressure in the stratosphere. These meetings were held twice annually. At one of the meetings, I remember the Anabaptist and so Pacificst John Howard Yoder being invoked as a guru on war theory with the whole floor adding their Amens. I finally couldn’t bear it any longer and stood up and said, “It is amazing to me that a room full of putatively Reformed people are kissing the arse of an Anabaptist and Pacifist. I get not agreeing with this war, but invoking an Anabaptist intellectual? What is wrong with you people. I thought you were Reformed.” A deep and spooky silence blanketed the floor.
Another time at the District Denominational meeting a discussion was had on the floor about the necessity to extend to homosexual ministers insurance benefits. I sat there with my mouth agape because I had been persuaded that there was no such thing as homosexual ministers. I arose to object and that created its own fun firestorm until one of the tenured Ministers realized that this discussion was not going well and was able to table it.
Over the years I witnessed many amazing things at these District meetings and I will return to more of these shocking things in subsequent installments. Most commonly what shell-shocked me was the low snake-shit standard for ordination. I saw a man ordained who couldn’t answer one question put to them. (I kid you not –not one.) I witnessed another chap get ordained who had no answer to the question; “What is Original Sin.” Another chap, when asked “what books he enjoyed reading,” responded with, “I don’t really like reading books.” Another chap I saw ordained explicitly denied “Justification by Faith Alone.” More than one chap could not explain the meaning of infant-Baptism. I saw one woman ordained who told us that as a chaplain she was not allowed to be explicit about the necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation with the dying patients she ministered to in the hospital per hospital policy and that she abided by that rule. I saw another woman ordained whose husband was a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. It was so bad that I finally got to the point where I just checked out of the meetings. If I went I would sit in the back by myself and listen to lectures on my Zune or read a book. I can honestly say these were some of the most enraging, depressing, and discouraging moments in my life. To see the Church of Jesus Christ be staffed with such people and to see the Church of Jesus Christ not care about who they were staffing the Church with just ripped my heart out.
Finally, in 2009, fourteen years after serving as “stated supply” for this mission Church the denomination decided that they better push hard to make me official. After a great deal of wrangling characterized by my previous foot-dragging on these issues, the District finally corralled me into agreeing to take a one-week hermeneutics class at their Grand Rapids Seminary. I had angled for a Church history class dealing with the Continental Dutch Church but they insisted on hermeneutics.
And so I suffered through a week of hermeneutics as taught by someone who embraced higher criticism and subsequently stood for an ordination exam. The only person who gave me a hard time was Dr. Lugnut but it should be known that I gave as good as I got from Dr. Lugnut during his attempt at grilling me. I passed the ordination exam despite Dr. Lugnut’s fury with my position on women in office (I opposed it) without any problems though according to the denominations Book of Church Order it was not a legitimate ordination exam since there were only two representatives from Synod present as opposed to the required three. (The BCO used the language; “There shall be three officers from synod present.”) So, I passed the exam but not by the Denomination’s own standards.
Further, by the denomination’s own standards I was never finally ordained in the Denomination. I really wasn’t conversant with the Book of Church Order and only later had to become conversant with it and so I did not know that the BCO required ordained men in the denomination to be present at Ordination/Installation services in order to ordain and install me. I did not have any denominationally ordained men at my ordination/installation service and so according to the denomination’s own book of church order I was never officially ordained in the denomination. In point of fact, I did not have any ordained men from any denomination present at my ordination/installation service. So, per their own book of Church order, I never sustained a legitimate ordination exam and I was never legitimately ordained in their denomination. I learned this only when I was seeking to leave the denomination – which according to their own BCO I did not have to do since I was never in their denomination per their own standards, to begin with. It was the oddest thing. Here I was resigning from a denomination I was never a part of and requesting a release from a denomination in which I had never been accepted.
Jerry Seinfeld captured this situation perfectly,