My mother expressed more than once her great surprise at having given birth to a pastor. (Her exact words, which would always amuse and horrify me in equal measures, were “I can’t believe a preacher sprang forth from my loins.”) Her incredulity mirrored my own quite often. As the 13th woman ordained in my Annual Conference, and as the first woman in every pastoral role in which I’ve served, I’ve wondered more than once how I got there.
Last night, my perspective changed entirely. I was at a family reunion dinner in New Orleans, celebrating the 80th birthdays of my mother’s twin siblings. (Thanks to the miracle of modern air travel, I was able to be at dinner in NOLA Friday night and have lunch back home the next day.) I had received an email from my uncle earlier in the week, asking me to offer a blessing for the meal. And, he continued, “Methodist ministers have had a big role in the Radford family! I would like for you to make a few remarks about Methodist ministers in our life.”
I started thinking about a couple of Methodist ministers that were a part of our family. Dr. Bill was a bachelor all of his life. During his tenure as Dean of Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, he lived with my great-grandparents. He performed the weddings of my parents and my aunt and uncle, before going on to become consecrated as Bishop Cannon. There was also a great uncle somewhere along the line that baptized a couple of my grandparents’ children.
My favorite family preacher though, is Rev. Robert A. Prior (1811-1861). He is my a-whole-bunch-of-multiples great-grandfather and served as a Methodist circuit rider in Georgia. I don’t know if he lived to be only 50 due to the Civil War or to the demands of the life as an itinerant preacher. I’ve enjoyed reading his Discipline, which is full of nuggets such as the dictum that, while a traveling preacher is preaching, the church is responsible for feeding and watering his horse.
Thinking about my forebears in ministry last night led me to my first thought, which was, “Who am I to be surprised that I am a Methodist pastor?” What a great affirmation it is to know that I’m simply living into my family heritage. (Although I do hope I've got better hair than he does.)
But I realized something even more important. When we were growing up, we were not raised to be close to our extended family. It has only been as we’ve gotten older that we’ve sought each other out, primarily through Facebook and a wonderfully fun family football challenge orchestrated by my marvelous sister. We live across the country, from North Carolina to Florida to Mississippi to Missouri to Colorado to California. When 24 of us gathered for the birthday dinner last night, some of us had never met, and few of us had spent much time with anyone outside our own immediate family. However, I felt bonded with the people in that room in ways that surprised me. I could see the similarities of our grandparents in most of us. We have some common speech patterns, albeit different accents. We tend to laugh in similar ways, I think. There was a common bond among us that may have not been visible to anyone outside the room, but we felt it.
The Radford clan is far from uniform. Although we didn’t talk about politics (we were way too busy getting caught up on each other’s lives to go there), I’m fairly certain that a wide range of political opinions existed in that room. None of that mattered in the laughter, tears, and memories of last night.
Which made me think about Rev. Prior. He served a Methodist church that was divided over slavery. He lived through that vote for schism, and he served in the post-division church. It is very possible that I will soon follow in his footsteps by serving a church chooses to divide, although our issue is sexual orientation rather than slavery. This question will be before our denomination later this month at a Called General Conference in St. Louis.
I think again about my family last night, gathered together to celebrate. The most important thing was our common bond that we share, people that either were born into the Radford clan or chose to marry into it. Family goes far beyond politics. Can the same be true for our denomination? Can we find a way to live our common life as family, and not split over something that, years down the road, will seem tragic and useless?
My best vision for our unity is reflected in the One Church Plan, which I support. There are other plans out there, and the political wrangling over our future may lead us to another place. My hope is that the Spirit will lead us to a place of unity.
As much as I love and admire my family, the second thing I realized last night is that I truly don’t want to be exactly like my multiple-great grandfather, Rev. Prior. I don’t want to serve a church that splits, as he did. My hope is to serve a church that manages, in spite of distance and differences, to stay together, just like the very best families do.