Have you ever had one of those moments when you THINK you are doing the right thing, only to find yourself so deeply in the proverbial brown stuff that you pray for someone to toss you a rope to get out?
Today was one such moment for me at our Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting.
Anyone who is a Local Preacher will know that the Laws and Disciplines of the Methodist Church of southern Africa sets out a number of prescribed orders of business to be conducted at every such meeting, and one of those items is to enquire as to whether there are any Local Preachers on trial to be received onto full plan.
One thing I am fast finding out is that when you are a candidate for the ministry, things tend to work a little differently from the norm, and the requirements to be fulfilled to become a fully-accredited Local Preacher are no exception. For instance, the "normal" period for a Local Preacher to be on trial is two years. However, L & D provides that in the case of candidates for the ministry, they can apply for remission of the second year of probation. The proviso is that such application can only be made once the candidate has been recommended by their District Synod as a probationer minister. In addition, such remission is not automatic, and is granted at the discretion of the Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting.
In my case, I have been on trial for 19 months, which is 5 months short of the required period to be on trial. However, Synod has accepted me as a candidate. Accordingly, I submitted a request to our Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting asking that I be considered for acceptance as a Local Preacher on full plan. Now one might ask why I have bothered to make such a request since, after all, I will be a probationer minister in just over four months time.
The reason why this is important to me is that when I was first called by God to candidate for the ministry, I felt that I needed to be serious about the MCSA's declaration to be a "one and undivided Church" and took the decision (highly unusual for white Local Preachers) to join the uniformed Local Preachers' Association in our Circuit. As far as I have been led to believe, I am the first (and so far, still the only) white preacher in our Circuit to join the Association.
Membership of the Association has opened me up to a richness of other cultures that I would never have encountered had I done the historical "whitey thing" and remained outside the Association. It has opened doors for me to conduct services in black congregations, and - most importantly - being accepted by such congregations. I have even started doing the Sesotho and Xhosa liturgy in such services (despite some horrid pronunciation), and it is one of my aims to be able to speak a black language by the end of Phase One (even if only at a conversational level).
Having been provisionally stationed in an Eastern Cape township for 2009, the need to learn a black language has become even more important, and I will probably never have a better opportunity in my life again to learn to speak Xhosa.
So what does this have to do with being recognised as a Local Preacher on full plan? The issue is that while being a full member of the Local Preachers' Association probably means very little (if anything) to white congregations, it is of considerable importance to black congregations, and given my posting for 2009, I need to build as many bridges as possible in order to be accepted by the congregations there (and so be in a position to minister to them).
Also, it is probably unlikely that I will ever be stationed in my current Circuit as a minister, and therefore, silly as this may sound to some, being "robed" by South Rand Circuit will forever be a link between me and the Circuit from which I candidated. If I were to see out the full 24 months, this would take me into January which means that a Circuit who (initially) won't know me from a bar of soap will be asked to accept me as a member of the Association.
When I made the request to the Circuit Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting, there was no issue about the meeting accepting me onto full plan. However, the fact that I "breached protocol" was a HUGE issue. Firstly, it was not my minister that made the request - it was me personally. However, my minister was not present at the meeting as he is currently on leave, and we had discussed the matter beforehand. When that objection was raised, one of our Society Stewards (who is a Local Preacher on full plan, but not a member of the Association) then stood up and, indicating that she was acting on behalf of the Society and instruction from our minister, moved for my acceptance onto full plan. This elicited further debate.
Recognising that I had breached protocol (despite no objection in this regard from the minister chairing the meeting), I apologised firstly to the meeting for having breached protocol, and secondly to my Society Steward for being unaware that our minister had instructed her to speak at the meeting on his behalf. Having explained that my motivation for making the request was firstly, in recognition that L & D confers a discretion on the meeting as to whether to accept me on full plan or not, and secondly, because the date for the recognition service falls before the next meeting, I assumed that the acceptance of my apology would put matters to rest.
Unfortunately, the debate raged ahead (in Xhosa and Sesotho this time), so I wasn't 100% up to speed with what the new issues were. However, the interpreter then indicated that actually, as an on-trial Local Preacher, I actually had no right even to address meetings at all, let alone make any requests.
I was dumbstruck, not to mention extremely hurt, and in that instant I had even considered leaving a meeting that had embraced me for 19 months yet suddenly left me feeling totally unwelcome. There were also a number of issues. Firstly, the "on-trials should be seen and not heard" position appears nowhere in L & D. Secondly, if on-trials are expected to keep their mouths shut in meetings, then surely they should turn up, answer the prescribed questions, and then leave, since there is surely no point in being part of a meeting to which one is not permitted to contribute. Finally, if such a practice or protocol did exist, surely it is the responsibility of the full members to inform the new on-trials of such protocol?
I understand now what it must have been like for Jesus when He was castigated by the Pharisees for healing on the Sabbath.
If you have stayed with me throughout this post, you are probably thinking that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, and having got this all off my chest now, I'm inclined to agree. At this stage, despite the meeting having accepted that I be received onto full plan, whereas I was looking forward to the robing service in October with eager anticipation, after today's meeting my feelings are somewhat mixed.
Somewhere during the process I undoubtedly screwed up, and I would dearly love to set things right. If there are any "wise heads" out there who understand the dynamics of uniformed organisations within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, I'm all ears for some sound counsel.
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