When I got married, I had very little anxiety over the idea of commitment. I had met an incredible woman and there was not a doubt that she was supposed to be my wife. We enjoyed one another’s company, we held similar worldviews, we appreciated and loved each other’s family, so it was not an incredibly complicated decision. I was not too concerned about what the commitment meant.
This past Saturday, I was received into ordained ministry by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. As my friend and fellow pastor and I drove to the church, I commented that I felt like I was getting married again. I think there were more jitters this Saturday than there were that Saturday years ago when I really got married. I looked at him and said, “I guess you’re my best man, so are you going to try to convince me of all of the reasons that I should or shouldn’t do this?” He just looked at me and laughed. I was serious though…
I really felt like I was driving to my own wedding, with a fair amount of anxiety that wasn’t there when I first got married. What was I getting into? In some ways, I was marrying a denomination. I was making a lifelong commitment to submit to their authority, to serve God through them and their processes, and to be faithful to those processes.
I grew up in the Baptist tradition and when I first went into full-time vocational ministry, I was ordained in the Baptist tradition. But growing up, my father (who was a Baptist minister) was always willing to push towards unity across denominations with which he could agree on the essentials. He taught me a lot about the importance of working together despite some variances in process and sometimes theology (within reason). As I continued my journey from childhood to adulthood, I attended many churches of many different denominations. I never felt an incredible allegiance towards any one denomination. It just didn’t feel absolutely necessary.
When I went to seminary, there were a few questions that I wanted to answer for myself. I wanted some clarity and I thought that seminary would be a good place for me to find some of that clarity. I was serving in a Presbyterian church and I needed to ask myself whether or not I should make the jump and embrace a tradition different than the one in which I had been raised and ordained. I really wanted to know whether or not denominations were a big deal or not.
I had never really struggled with commitment before, but this commitment seemed different. I’m not quite sure why, but it felt restrictive and, to be honest, I was a little concerned about making the jump. I didn’t know what it would mean, which is why I began asking questions about denominations and their necessity.
The more I studied and observed, the more I kept questioning the idea of a commitment. Denominations have been vilified and criticized for their stances on certain things. They’ve done good in certain humanitarian efforts and they’ve turned blind eyes towards others. They felt similar to many organizations and products that herald their advantages but hide their disadvantages, similar to the way drug commercials tack on their side effects at the end read by a guy who speaks faster than you can hear.
So, I really needed to weigh out the advantages and disadvantages. As I wrestled through it all, I watched my father’s experience with a church that he had served for nearly 40 years. I watched how he was treated and shut out. I watched him enter a state of depression as the processes that were in place were not strong enough to protect him from the hands of people who wanted control. I watched my mom’s anger over how her lifelong husband, friend, and partner was being treated. I knew after seeing that all go down that there had to be a better way.
The structure and processes of Presbyterianism are far from perfect. In fact, I had to come to the conclusion that there are no perfect denominations. There will always be flaws and imperfections, even if in your effort to avoid denominations you align yourself as a non-denominationalist. It had to be a matter of advantages outweighing disadvantages…..and that’s exactly how I felt. There were processes that were put in place for the protection of everyone involved. After seeing what my father had experienced, protection was pretty high on my list.
The other element that finally convinced me that “this is the one,” just like a marriage, was the idea of accountability. It’s not a word that we like in the 21st century, but it’s a word that we need to embrace more often than we would like to admit. To know that you are accountable to someone and something beyond your own little world is important, at least it is to me. I realized that there were some benefits to having structures and processes in place that not only protected me but held me accountable. Despite a culture that endlessly tries to convince me that my decisions only impact me, accountability helps me to realize that I am part of something greater, I am not an island unto myself.
And so, we drove into that church parking lot on Saturday morning, we walked into the church, and I “got married.” I made a commitment and there was a commitment made to me. I know there will be disagreements, I won’t always see eye to eye with the powers that be. I know that there will be difficulties and times when that commitment is called into question. But I also know the benefits that come from this kind of a commitment. It’s exciting, exhilarating, and nerve-wracking all at once, but it’s a journey and an adventure that I choose to be on, and although it might be a bumpy ride at times, I think it’s all gonna turn out great in the end.