Before I begin, let me just say how much I appreciate you hanging in there with me and letting me process my experience/thoughts/feelings. It’s rare for clergy people to talk with such openness outside of their Staff Parish Relations Groups and/or clergy support groups about the challenges we face. I know it must be uncomfortable to hear some of the things I share. I know that the posts have already stirred up some great conversations via the interactions I’ve had since posting. And that was my primary hope in writing: that conversations would be generated that would help strengthen and improve the lives of our local churches. So with that, let me continue our journey together by sharing Reason #5.
One of the most challenging dimensions of being an ordained pastor in my tradition (The United Church of Christ) is that we are one of the few expressions of non-creedal Christianity in existence. Most Christian churches – be they Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox – are creedal churches.
So what’s the difference between creedal and non-creedal churches?
Let me begin by giving you a ridiculously quick overview for how the notion of “creed” entered Christianity.
From the time of Jesus through the early days of the 4th Century, the Christian movement was made up largely of social outsiders. As a result, not a lot of important people paid much attention to the movement. That allowed a healthy degree of diversity in thought and practice to exist.
In the early days of the 4th Century, however, something happened that changed the nature of the Christian movement forever: the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Suddenly the faith was no longer seen as a movement of outsiders. The faith began to be embraced by those who were considered important.
The important folks – especially the Emperor – were embarrassed by the wide range of thought and practice that existed. If they were going to be associated with this “new” movement, they wanted things cleaned up. So the Emperor called together bishops from throughout the region and asked them to pull together organized statements that defined the movement. Today we know those statements as the creeds.
The creeds did two things. First, they set boundaries around which thoughts were acceptable (and which thoughts were not!). Second, they created a dynamic that defined who “was in” and who “was out”. Those who were in had access to the church. Those who were out were … well, let’s just say it wasn’t a pretty picture.
While nearly 1,600 years have passed since the formation of the first creeds – many of those dynamics remain. Traditions which align with the historic creeds continue to have pretty strict parameters regarding who is in an out. You can see that in the language of their Sunday morning worship materials (i.e. they tend to use Trinitarian language and mostly masculine imagery for God). Those communities use the creeds as theological litmus tests to decide which individuals will be ordained and which won’t.
Non-creedal communities, however, look and feel VERY different than creedal communities. They work hard to maintain room for difference in thought and religious practice. This is NOT accidental. We take pride in the fact that we are living in ways that reflect the earliest ways of being in the Christian movement.
While those of us who lead non-creedal Christian communities love many, many aspects of leading such diverse communities, there is a HUGE challenge we face. Most people who walk through the doors of our churches have lived their lives thinking creedal Christianity is the only way to be a “real Christian”. Because of this, they often judge us by creedal standards. And by those standards, we seem to fall short for many. It’s one reason our churches tend to be much smaller than creedal churches.
Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked over the years about our non-creedal communities.
“Why do you use such a wide variety of music in worship?”
“Why do you use inclusive language in worship?”
“Why isn’t the preaching more directive? More forceful?
“Why doesn’t our Sunday school curriculum put things out there in more black and white terms so our kids can easier understand things?”
“Why don’t you talk about the afterlife in more specific ways in counseling sessions and at funerals?”
Those are just a few of the kind of statements we non-creedal pastors regularly hear. Our radical commitment to inclusivity of though and practice often leads people to make characterizations of us that can range from playful to painful. I have heard our churches described as everything from “hippie-ish” to “non-Christian”: all because we do things that reflect our nearly 2,000-year commitment to protecting and preserving diversity of thought and practice as we follow Jesus.
That constant struggle to get people to not only understand but appreciate our different way of being can get exhausting sometimes. That’s especially true these days when people’s capacity for living with those who think and practice differently is nearly non-existent! Increasing number of people want us to be rigid, take a stand, and expel those who are different than us. We get these expectations as much from those on the Left as we do from those on the Right. In other words, they want us to act like a creedal church. Except that we AREN’T a creedal church … Deep sigh …
This lack of tension is Reason #5 for why this non-creedal pastor was tempted to leave the practice of parish ministry.