Jeff did not make the cut. 2 years ago I wrote a letter of congratulations and encouragement to my nephew, Matt, on the occasion of his confirmation in a United Methodist Church in another state. Yesterday Matt’s younger brother, Jeff, was to be confirmed in the same church after attending a year long class. However, the pastors determined that Jeff was not ready to be confirmed, even though he desired to be confirmed. He was also not permitted to be baptized.
I confess that I was stunned. Having taught numerous confirmation classes over the years, I understand that 13 years olds are at very different stages of spiritual development. Ideally, our youth would go through confirmation when they are ready, rather than when the church is ready to teach them. However, most United Methodist churches structure confirmation classes for certain ages, which necessitates adapting our teaching methods to reach students with varying levels of maturity and special needs.
At the end of each year long class, I would meet with the youth individually to pray with them and ensure that it was their decision to be confirmed. Even though the youth may have been sullen or disruptive, believed differently from me or had parents who didn’t always get them to class, it never crossed my mind that I would deny confirmation to any youth who conscientiously fulfilled the requirements of the class and affirmed the membership vows. After all, in our Wesleyan heritage, baptism, confirmation and church membership are not earned but are gifts of God’s prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace to all who will accept it.
Last week I felt God leading me to call the pastor of Jeff’s church, and we had a good conversation, even if we did not agree. I raised several questions.
- First, if baptism is a means of God’s grace, and if our Constitution (Division One ¶4, Article IV, The Book of Discipline 2008) currently says that “all persons … shall be eligible … to receive the sacraments,” can a pastor deny baptism to anyone who believes in Jesus and wants to publicly declare his/her faith?
Our denomination has been wrestling with these questions for several years, after Judicial Council Decision 1032 supported the decision of a Virginia pastor who refused membership to a man who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. The rationale of the Judicial Council included, “The appointed pastor in charge has the duty and responsibility to exercise responsible pastoral judgment in determining who may be received into the membership of a local church.”
Admittedly, how we exercise pastoral judgment at the same time as we welcome all persons into the life of the church is not always clear. I made a conscious decision at the beginning of my ministry that when I err, I would rather err on the side of grace than judgment because “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16b) I have no doubt that the grace of God is at work in Jeff and that baptism (which he desired) would have moved him much further along his spiritual journey.
In the last few months, United Methodist delegates to annual conferences all over the world have been voting on amendments to our Constitution, one of which would revise language in Division One ¶4, Article IV. In the proposed amendment, more detailed language about “race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition” is replaced by “all.” The article would thus read, “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth and that we are in ministry to all. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, and upon baptism be admitted as baptized members.”
The West Michigan Conference passed this amendment ten days ago by a 70.3% yes and 29.7% no vote. If ratified by an aggregate 2/3 vote of all annual conferences, this amendment may cause the Judicial Council to reinterpret Decision 1032.
- My second question for the pastor was, “How do you define ‘readiness’? Are ‘standards’ and ‘spiritual readiness’ more important than people?” If so, perhaps we need to rethink church.
I was glad to hear the pastor say that the church is developing a post-confirmation program for those who need further instruction. That’s encouraging. I also understand the need for membership standards. Dan Dick emphasizes that in healthy, vital churches membership means something. In every local church I have served, membership classes were comprehensive and mandatory. However, I never felt that it was my right to decide for prospective members whether they were ready take the vows of membership and join the church. The decision was between them and God.
If baptism, confirmation and membership depend ultimately on a pastor’s definition of readiness, I fear that we are on shaky theological ground. There will always be youth who are not deemed “ready” by others. I’ve taught confirmation youth who were mentally and physically impaired, autistic, had ADHD, were diagnosed with depression, tried to commit suicide, had parents who never came to church, or spent every other weekend with a divorced parent in another city.
Should we deny the means of grace to youth because they are not like everyone else? In fact, Jeff has been diagnosed with ADHD, is painfully shy and is not as articulate as the other youth, which means that he may never be “spiritually ready.” If Jeff is not eligible for baptism and confirmation because of how God created him, then perhaps we need to rethink grace as well as church. No one has to prove him/herself worthy of baptism or confirmation, at least not in theUnitedMethodistChurch I know and love.
- My last question for the pastor was, “What effect do you think this rejection will have on Jeff?”
My heart literally ached for Jeff yesterday as I imagined him standing up with the other confirmation youth, only to receive a certificate of completion of the class and then watch everyone else be confirmed but him. How is he to understand this as anything other than rejection? Will this scar Jeff and turn him away from the church for the rest of his life? And how about Jeff’s parents?
Here is the letter I wrote for Jeff last week, a beautiful 13 year old boy, God’s beloved, claimed by Jesus for him.
I want you to know how proud I am of you for completing the confirmation class at your church. I know it took a lot of commitment to make it to all the meetings during the year. Even though you will not be baptized and confirmed at this time, do not forget that God loves you and has great plans for your life, just like all the other kids in your class.
It would be a great privilege if someday I could be the one to baptize you. In the meantime, I hope you will continue to grow and learn, not only in school but in church as well. Being a Christian is a life-long journey, with all of us at different stages. You, Matt, your Mom and Dad, Grammy and Grandpop and I are all on the journey together, trying to live out our faith every day. Thank you for teaching me what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I love you, Jeff. I don’t get to see you often, but I pray for you and am grateful for the unique child of God that you are. Let’s follow Jesus together.
Love, Aunt Laurie