I hear the questions every year. I answered them myself many years ago. This time, however, the questions penetrated my heart. Perhaps I heard them in a new light because Gary and I were guests at the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. Since the beginning of the Methodist movement in the 18th century, Methodist preachers about to be ordained have been asked these “historic questions.” The original context of the historic questions is not clear, nor is it certain that all of them were original to John Wesley. We do know that they are found in the 1766 Large Minutes.
When the ordinands line up in front of an annual conference, there is a mixture of amusement and discomfort at the quaintness of the bishop’s questions, which have remained largely unchanged over the years. As they stood before us last week, an amazingly varied group of men and women in what is likely the most diverse conference in our denomination, I imagined how I might answer those questions today, many years after I was admitted into full membership in The United Methodist Church. The enormity of the questions sent shivers up and down my spine.
1. Have you faith in Christ?
Some days I wonder. Thank God for prevenient grace, which always goes before me.
2. Are you going on to perfection?
Depends what day you ask.
3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
Well… I’m moving in that direction, but it may only be on my deathbed that I will completely reflect God’s love.
4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
Oh, yes. It’s the chief desire of my heart.
5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?
This may be a problem. For a work-obsessed pastor like me, it’s simply license to live an unbalanced life. So I am wholly devoted to God’s work as long as taking time to care for myself and family is included as part of that work.
5. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
Thanks to your servant, Bishop Reuben Job, I do know the General Rules as these simple directions: “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Stay in love with God.”
7. Will you keep them?
I will try my best.
8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
Reading, sharing and preaching Wesleyan theology fills my soul.
9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
Yes, I do. However, that doesn’t exclude other denominations or Christian groups from being in harmony with the Holy Scriptures as well.
10. Will you preach and maintain them?
Yes, I will.
11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
I confess that I studied the Book of Discipline a lot more as a district superintendent than I do now. Let’s just say I no longer carry the Discipline in my car or briefcase.
12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?
Sometimes I have a lover’s quarrel with our polity, but the good news is that every four years United Methodists have a chance to tweak our polity by submitting petitions to General Conference. By the way, the deadline for submitting petitions is October 13.
13. Will you support and maintain them?
That is always my intention.
14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?
I loved teaching confirmation, but I haven’t always had lots of direct contact with children. However, I’ve tried to make sure that children’s ministry is always strong and vital in the churches I’ve served. Does that count?
15. Will you visit from house to house?
Home visitation was standard practice when I entered ministry, but our world is very different today and the responsibilities of clergy have increased greatly. Perhaps the question could be re-worded: As chief shepherd, will you develop methods of congregational care and evangelism so that all people receive the church’s ministry?
16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
I am not real good at fasting, which is part of the biblical tradition, but I am committed to abstaining from anything that proves to be a barrier to my relationship with God.
17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
No. There. I said it. I’ve learned the hard way that in order to be a whole person, I have to carve out time for hobbies, family and friends. I suspect God would approve.
18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?
I am fortunate not to be in debt. However I grieve the cost of seminary education and the enormous debt of many of our entering clergy, most of whom have quite low salaries.
19. Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.
John Wesley was a man after my own heart. He knew what it meant to work smart, use time well and be organized. Now, if only I could be as punctual as John.
You know what the historic questions all come down to? As I sat in Baltimore watching these stellar women and men commit themselves to the vocation of ministry through The United Methodist Church, I realized that at the very same time as the ordinands were making their promises, the promises themselves were being realized just a few miles away. It all comes down to how we are going to be God’s people by offering the love and hope of Christ to a broken world.
The eyes and prayers of our country have been on Baltimore since April 12 when Freddie Gray suffered a severe spine injury while in a police van and died a week later. Gray’s death sparked angry riots and protests in Baltimore and outrage around our country. Meanwhile, United Methodists sprang into action. At Ames UMC in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, United Methodists packed hygiene items and food to give to local residents. UMCOR provided more than one thousand health and school kits and hundreds of layette sets. Local clergy engaged gang members and were a calming, prayerful presence.
Last Thursday afternoon, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was raised as a Methodist, thanked the conference for their leadership after the riots. “It is in the tradition of our Methodist social action that I saw so many of you show up for us during the unrest to address the challenges that our residents face. I’m letting you know now that I’ll be calling on you again because there are bridges that need to be built that can’t be done without the faith community.”
That same day a large advertisement/invitation appeared in the Baltimore Sun.
BUILDING STRONGER CHURCHES, STRONGER
RELATIONSHIPS, AND A STRONGER COMMUNITY.
In the wake of violence and community unrest, the people of The United Methodist Church are responding by helping to restore hope in Baltimore. With the help of church and community volunteers, we will be transforming five churches in and around the Sandtown neighborhood into faith-based community centers beginning June 1 through the end of the year. In addition, camp will be held for community children this summer.
Community members are needed to help create systemic changes that deliver justice, dignity and wholeness to all people. Let us know the dates and times when you or your team can come and serve. Together, we will make a difference! (https://events.rethinkchurch.org/stronger-baltimore)
United Methodist ordinands around the world will continue to answer these historic questions. What it all comes down to, however, is how we live the questions today. Church happens when we work together to create a world where every child, youth and adult is valued and empowered to fulfill his or her God-given potential. Thank God for the faith, hope, vision and presence of the clergy and laity of The United Methodist Church.