I bring it to your attention not to argue for or against Glide or for or against the bishop there who is seeking to make changes at Glide. Rather, I want to make a point about what can happen when something like a cult of personality grows up around a religious leader.
As the San Francisco Chronicle story to which I linked you in the first paragraph reports, "Bishop Minerva Carcaño sent an open letter to pastors and churches of the California-Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church, outlining what she sees as egregious disregard for church rules under the leadership of (the Rev. Cecil Williams, the longtime spiritual leader and minister of liberation at Glide) Williams and Janice Mirikitani, Glide co-founder and his wife."
The bishop, the story reported, "questioned the finances and administration of Glide and why Williams is still acting as senior pastor even though he retired in 2000. She also noted that four pastors have been appointed to head the Tenderloin church since Williams retired, most recently Jay Williams (no relation), who abruptly resigned after serving only a year.
“'No pastor has been allowed to exercise their rightful authority or responsibilities while serving at Glide,' Carcaño wrote. 'To this day, Cecil Williams and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, make all decisions in the background at Glide.'”
Well, as I say, I can't tell you whether there has been financial misconduct or other problems at Glide. What I do know is that Glide has a good reputation for being radically inclusive and a prophetic voice for social justice.
But if Williams really retired 18 years ago and pastors appointed there since then haven't been "allowed to exercise their rightful authority or responsibilities," as the bishop contends, then something clearly has gone wrong.
Bishops in the United Methodist Church have a great deal of power to assign pastors to churches. Generally those bishops are careful not to reassign a highly successful pastor in the midst of that success. So, for instance, the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver, now a member of Congress who represents Kansas City, was never moved from St. James United Methodist Church. And the Rev. Adam Hamilton is unlikely, barring a request he himself would make, ever to be removed from the Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan. -- a church Adam started almost 30 years ago with 10 member and that now has more than 20,000 members.
But in such cases, denominational officials are wise to pay attention to make sure that such leaders don't turn into idols. I know both Cleaver and Hamilton -- good and excellent pastors both -- and am convinced they have known how to avoid that. But given what's happening at Glide, it's not so clear to me that Williams has avoided that.
Good congregational leaders will always help pastors remember that the church is not theirs. In Christian theological terms, the head of the church is always Jesus Christ. And though some pastors may develop messianic complexes, none of them is Christ.
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BROWNBACK OWES US AN EXPLANATION
This report from Reuters indicates that former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, now the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, has been lobbying Britain on behalf of a jailed man who founded a group that has organized violent demonstrations against Islamic immigrants in the United Kingdom. So far the limited explanation from the State Department sheds no light on why Brownback would be standing up for such a person. Tell us what you thought you were doing, Mr. Ambassador. And why.