Editor’s Note: I am pleased to introduce a new member of the Methodist Blogosphere. Matt Abel and I happened to sit near one another at the WCA Global Gathering in Tulsa. He is a fan of this site and we ended up having a great talk about life, ministry, and the current state of affairs in the UMC. Matt graciously accepted my invitation to write a guest blog from a young clergy perspective. I encourage you to visit Matt’s brand new site called “4:12 Methodist.” Give him a follow.
by Matt Abel
I’m not exactly what you would call a “cradle Methodist.” I grew up in and out of church and by the time I was preparing to leave home for college I wasn’t sure church was for me. All of that changed at a United Methodist college in south-central Kentucky. Lindsey Wilson College did many things for me. I encountered a group of Christians my own age who were living out their faith authentically and communally in ways I’d never experienced. It was infectious. I wanted in. Before long I was in leadership with the campus ministry program, I changed my major to Christian Ministries and accepted a call to vocational ministry. After much prayer and discernment, I took my first appointment as a Licensed Local Pastor the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college.
I admit, I was reluctant to embrace Methodism at first. I knew next to nothing about the denomination and what they believed. However as I studied our theology, our Wesleyan heritage, even our polity; I fell in love with the Methodist movement. I fell in love with the grace-filled theology that marries head and heart together for mission; with the richness of our sacramental celebrations and liturgical worship; with the history and tradition that are our foundations; with our commitment to accountable discipleship and Christian formation. I could go on! The more I studied the more excited I was to be part of the Methodist/Wesleyan movement of the Church.
It wasn’t until I’d been pastoring for a bit and got more and more involved in the life of the denomination that I learned of the growing problems and divisions within the UMC over issues of theology, biblical authority, missiology, and human sexuality. The largely orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan expression of United Methodism that I’d fallen in love with in my home conference of Kentucky was not as common in other geographical areas.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association came onto my radar through Troy Elmore, Chaplain and professor at LWC, who is a close friend and mentor. I was part of the meeting that formed the Kentucky Regional Chapter where I was elected to our chapter council. In 2019 I served as a delegate to the Global Legislative Assembly. More recently I was appointed to serve on The Wesleyan Covenant Association Council. To the best of my knowledge I am the youngest council member (as a 24 year old rounding off year 5 of pastoral ministry, you get used to being the youngest) and the only member currently serving as a Licensed Local Pastor.
As a young clergyperson a lot of things get assumed about me. You may remember hearing at the special General Conference last February that “8 out of 10 young clergy favor greater inclusion of LGBTQ persons.” I have several issues with that statistic but leaving those for another time, it is generally assumed that if you’re a young clergyperson you are theologically and socially progressive. Most stereotypes have some level of truth and this one is no different because there definitely are a lot of progressive young clergy. Perhaps they even constitute a majority. But I want you to also hear that there are many young Christians, even clergy, who are orthodox traditionalists. Who are passionate about Jesus and the gospel, eager to carry the message of Jesus to the nations and the neighborhoods, and confident in the authority of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that truth is not determined by how many people believe it and we are confident in the truth of the historic scriptural witness that has been foundational to Christ’s holy Church for 2000 years.
Many have weighed in on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation: the latest proposal for ending our decades long conflict. I make no claims to represent young people or young clergy. However, I do recognize that my beliefs have been shaped by my experience, my age, and my generation so I would think my views on the Protocol would encapsulate at least some of what young traditionalists are thinking. The negatives have been picked apart by both sides ad nauseum so I’ll be sticking to some points that I think are some of the serious strengths of the Protocol.
It minimizes harm.
The first of Wesley’s three simple rules is Do no harm and this is a principle that the Protocol attempts to live out. There have certainly been those on either side of the present conflict who have wanted to win at the expense of the other. The Protocol is our best attempt at saying “God bless you. Go in grace. Good luck.” to those with whom we disagree (without trying to snatch their wallet as they turn to walk out). While I am a strong traditionalist I have no desire to harm the other side as we seek to reconcile through separation. Under the protocol neither side completely wins, both make concessions, and harm is minimalized to persons, churches, and ministries on both sides.
It frees us.
This conflict is decades in the making. I’m already tired of fighting so I can’t imagine how those who’ve been dealing with this for far longer feel. For too long this conflict has been a distraction to both sides. It has distracted energy, gifts, funds, and resources from the ministry we are called to. I’m excited to see a potential end in sight to that so that both sides can focus their attention on making disciples as they see fit. On the traditional side, I’m excited to see lives changed, churches planted, disciples made, and revival fires kindled as we return our attention to the mission dei.
It gives me confidence.
In my 5 years of pastoral ministry I’ve had numerous people wonder aloud to me why one earth I would hop on board the sinking ship of the UMC. There have even been times when I’ve wondered this myself. The answer is that I knew this is where God called me. I knew I was passionately Methodist/Wesleyan theologically and I knew that God was going to do something amazing in the wake of this conflict. I have never been more confident in those beliefs than I am now. I truly think we can look with confidence towards the future of the Methodist movement and see that God has a bright future in store for us as we pursue holiness in all spheres of life.
It excites me.
Christianity in America is in decline. This is especially true in areas of the country that tend to be more theologically progressive. Under our current system, no traditional church planter is going to move to California or New York to plant a church knowing they’d be fighting their bishop and superintendent every step of the way. But if the Protocol passes I know many young traditionalists who are ready and willing to be sent into the modern mission fields across our nation. This is just one of many prospects that may be on the horizon that have me excited about the Protocol and the Methodism that follows. I remain utterly convinced that the people called Methodist were made for a day and a culture such as ours and that the fields have never been riper.
There are parts of the Protocol that are certainly in need of discussion and debate, but, overall, I’m excited about what it might mean for us. A final of encouragement to those who’ve been in the game much longer than me: There are young Christians who are passionate about our historic faith and making disciples. Encourage them, equip them, empower them. They are not just your future but your present. They are the church. They’re excited about the future and are eager to serve. Our future looks pretty bright from where I’m sitting.
And to the other young persons and young clergy out there: Hang in there. Pray. Fast. Preach. Serve. Study. Teach. Let no one look down on you because you are young. Hold fast to the one who has saved you and called you to do even greater things than he.
Rev. Matthew Abel has been a Licensed Local Pastor in the Kentucky Annual Conference since 2015. Currently, he serves as the Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at Florence UMC in Florence, KY. He holds an undergraduate degree in Christian Ministries from Lindsey Wilson College and is finishing his third year of MDiv. studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has been a member of the chapter council of the Kentucky WCA since its founding and was recently appointed to the Global Council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Matt is passionate about Methodist renewal, intentional discipleship, serving the broken, and seeing people come to the Lord. Matt lives with his wife and college sweetheart Carolyn who is a licensed counselor with a Christ-centered addition care organization.