I've often said that putting a piece of Tupperware into my shirt does not automatically confer the right to respect - such respect has to be earned. These words came home to me rather forcibly today as I attended my first meeting with the Emmanuel branch of the Young Men's Guild (YMG).
For those not familiar with South African Methodist Church structures, the YMG is one of a number of separately-constituted organisations within the MCSA, and its members are characterised by their black jackets and ties, white shirts, grey trousers, and bright red waistcoats.
The "Young" part is however somewhat of a misnomer, since even the most generous among us would not regard some of the members as being "young". Still, with Wesley Guilds struggling to restrict membership to those under 35, I guess that one would have a hard time trying to place an age limit on membership of the YMG.
Sadly, such organisations still remind us of the racially-divisive history of our country, notwithstanding the MCSA's commitment to being a "one and undivided Church", with the uniformed organisations (of which the YMG is one) being seen largely as a "black thing". In fact, as a "whitey" I had no exposure to the culture of being part of such an organisation until I joined the Local Preachers' Association (LPA) at the beginning of 2007. I was the only white member in our Circuit at the time, and although I was warmly welcomed, I was seen very much as a novelty (although the advantage was that I was VERY easy to find at Conventions!). In fact, since I left my previous Circuit, white membership of the Circuit LPA has dropped from one to zero.
Naturally, although I am now a probationer minister, I wanted to retain my ties with the LPA in my new Circuit, and was very encouraged to see that this particular organisation was very active in what is largely a coloured community. Unfortunately white membership in this Circuit is also zero (well, one, now that I have arrived) - it seems that the whole uniform "thing" doesn't appeal to white folks here in Uitenhage either!
However, a source of great concern is the fact that there are two separate LPA conventions in the Grahamstown District - the "coloured" convention, held later this month, and the "black" convention which takes place in May. Of course, they are not officially designated as such, but it seems that this time language has become the divisive factor with Xhosa being a language that a large percentage of the coloured folk do not understand.
The other thing that I am trying to get to grips with is that meetings of certain organisations are closed to non-members - at least, that is the impression that I gained from my time in the LPA as well as at today's YMG meeting. In my old Circuit, the fact that I was a candidate for the ordained ministry meant little - my status in the LPA at the time was that of on-trial Local Preacher, and certain members of the LPA felt that while I was permitted to attend, my on-trial status meant that, strictly speaking, I was not entitled to speak in meetings.
Similarly, at today's meeting I got the distinct impression that if I was not a minister, I would definitely not have been permitted to address the meeting, and may have possibly even been asked to leave. However, towards the end of the meeting attitudes towards me had softened to the point where I was invited to become a YMG member!
Now here's the part that I am struggling with. As a minister for the two Northern Societies (as well as the John Street congregation of the Uitenhage Society), I am already going to be hard-stretched to manage my time between Leaders' Meetings, Circuit Quarterly Meetings, Circuit Local Preachers' Meetings, hospital visits, funerals, counselling, and all the other bits and pieces that form part of a minister's "day job" (and to think that many have the impression that we only work for an hour on Sundays!).\
On top of that, this is a community where all of the MCSA organisations are active - Women's Auxiliary, Women's Association, Women's Manyano, Young Women's Manyano, Young Men's Guild, Men's League, Wesley Guild, and Local Preachers' Association. To fully understand what makes this local church community "tick", I need to get around to as many of those meetings as possible.
Now throw into the mix the fact that as a Phase One probationer, I spend two days a week in Port Elizabeth at College, plus I also need to study, and you'll understand that my time is quite limited. So joining the YMG is a difficult decision, not because I am against organisations per se, but because my time will not permit me to do much more in the organisation than attend the occasional meeting.
They have assured me that this will be okay, but I'd imagine that it would be difficult for the YMG Executive to demand a level of commitment from their members that their only clergy member is unable to comply with.
I want to keep the doors open so that I am able to minister to the YMG, but I know that time will not allow me to exhibit the same sort of commitment expected of the lay members. I know of at least one probationer who has recently been discontinued (MCSA-speak for "being fired") due to unsatisfactory academic progress, caused largely because of his over-involvement with the organisations. On the other hand, I will always be seen as an "outsider" if I do not join, and ministry to YMG members will be somewhat difficult from outside the organisations.
(At this point I thank God for making me male - imagine having to decide which one of the ladies' organisations to join?!)
However, other probationers have joined the YMG during their Phase One - Michael Bishop is one who comes to mind - and have managed to keep a balance. I'd be interested to hear from them to find out just what their level of involvement was, and if fairly low, whether this was acceptable to the other members. Only then will I be in a position to consider whether or not to join.
I really need to seek the Lord on this one.
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