Episode 46: Pastor Andy Stoker Part 2

The United Methodists made a historic decision last week about LGBTQ people. This episode of Good God was recorded late spring of 2018. George talks with pastor of First United Methodist Church of Dallas Andy Stoker about the expected events in the upcoming year and how he hoped it would go:

"My hope and prayer for Methodism is that we don't have to vote congregationally. My hope and prayer for Methodism is that it becomes a denominational decision where we together are deciding what an open table really means."

Listen to their conversation and hear more about what Andy means by the church being an open table, as well as the church's role in the City of Dallas.

Listen to the podcast, read through the transcript below, or click here to view the video.

George Mason: Hello. I'm George Mason, host of Good God, conversations that matter about faith in public life. How does the church welcome LGBTQ persons in the life of the church? And also keep the church together with those who have a more traditional understanding of human sexuality. We'll be talking with Andy Stoker, senior minister at First United Methodist Church of Dallas about just that.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith in public life. I'm joined by Andy Stoker, the reverend doctor Andy Stoker, who is the senior minister of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas, a wonderful colleague and friend and Andy we share a lot of work together in the community, which is a delight to be able to do, although the challenges are often daunting. But we are both part of traditions in methodism and in Baptist life that see the role of the church in the community and in a public life as being really important. Actually part of this whole enterprise, this conversation that we're doing, Good God, is an effort to gain more and more understanding about that kind of work. But talk a little bit about the social tradition of the Methodist Church and Wesleyanism and how you have a sense of calling to be not only the senior minister of your local congregation, but to engage the world in this work.

Andy Stoker: Yeah. Well this work would be awfully lonely if we didn't have each other.

George Mason: Yes.

Andy Stoker: And part of my call to ministry is really about finding partners to walk this life with. John Wesley believed that vital piety and social holiness where the two things needed for great civic engagement and a country well-run.

George Mason: Interesting phrase.

Andy Stoker: Vital piety and social holiness. Vital piety is that connection with God. John Wesley trusted his brother a whole lot Charles to write a whole bunch of hymns that indicate that vital piety. John Wesley put his mind to the social holiness work. Social holiness work in the Methodist tradition is something that is a balanced approach. Our understanding is when one has a conversion experience or understands themselves, aligned with Jesus Christ, they see themselves yes, as saved. And we also ask ourselves in the Methodist tradition now what?

George Mason: Now what? Lovely.

Andy Stoker: I'm saved now what? Well, for John Wesley, it was always about connecting with neighbors who are at the margins. Always. There's not a time in John Wesley's life where you could say you know what, he took a break and he was focused on something else. He was always focused on his neighbors, especially neighbors at the margins. In the Methodist faith for the last almost 300 years Methodists have found themselves on the front lines of making an impact in the economic community, nurturing community, social communities, political communities. And it all starts from the local church. So as a Methodist minister, sure, I'm assigned to First United Methodist Church of Dallas. My job is certainly to know and love that congregation because a church with just a single personality can only go so far. A church that has membership and a radical transformed membership, always looking for vital piety and social holiness. Now we've replicated ourself and I've worked myself out of a job.

George Mason: Which is more theoretical than practical of course. Yes, I think we're always going to need-

Andy Stoker: Please tell my family that too. Right.

George Mason: Well, the other thing about your tradition, and we've talked about the different ways that pastors are either appointed or called to churches, but the itinerate ministry that a Methodist minister has that is a moving about in a way where the bishop appoints you to a church. The protection that represents is also important, right? Because in a sense the free church tradition, my tradition if our church decided that it had had enough of our relationship, I would be unemployed. But there is a fallback in that you serve the larger Methodist church. So in a sense, you can challenge the congregation. You can speak truth, you can call people to action, but you know that you're still part of the church even if that local congregation becomes too challenging. So it gives you a sense, I think in Methodism that there's a protection for the sake of your voice and for your action. Right?

Andy Stoker: Absolutely. And part of it George too is Methodism is moving away from those one year, two year appointments as at other churches and finding longer pastorates are a little more effective than the frequent itinerant nature of having a new minister in every one or two years. So the challenge in Methodism now is really connecting with our congregation in a way where they have so many ways of connecting with other churches and faith traditions. The Internet-

George Mason: Beautiful.

Andy Stoker: ... For example, has provided my congregation with a 15 minute sermon here, a 20 minute sermon there, new ways of interacting with whole communities or pastors themselves. And so what is it that I'm called to? I'm wondering if the idea of protectionism is fallen away now because of competition.

George Mason: Yes.

Andy Stoker: And what competition has done in Methodism is it's called those pastors who are really into comparing themselves to other pastors or comparing themselves to other ministries. It has created some isolation. And in my understanding of serving the likes of a First United Methodist Church of Dallas is my call, my role at First United Methodist church is not so much competition. I don't want to be the best Methodist church in the area. My call, my role is to have cooperation that is to find partners along the way.

George Mason: Wonderful.

Andy Stoker: So that our partnership might enliven and inspire the social ills that we are trying to-

George Mason: Address together.

Andy Stoker: ... Address together. Yeah. Thank you.

George Mason: And let's be specific about some of those things. We have been involved somewhat in both ecumenical Christian work and also in multi-faith and interfaith work through Faith Forward Dallas and Thanksgiving Square and other projects. But one common project we have is through the work in public education and advocacy for public education. You have at First Church this program that you sort of are housing. You might say it's called One Plus One and it is part of a larger effort pastors for Texas children that we work with, Fellowship Southwest. We can talk about another time. But this One Plus One is one congregation and one public school together working side by side in hand in hand. So where did that come from Andy and what promise do you see for public education and the church because of it?

Andy Stoker: Five years ago at First United Methodist Church of Dallas we determined that we needed to discern how we were going to connect with our community. And one of really the opportunities we have at First United Methodist Church is we've got a very active congregation, many of whom are retired teachers or active teachers who are always reminding the pastoral staff that there's work to do in public education. So five years ago we formed a partnership with JJ Rhoads Learning Center. JJ Rhoads Learning Center is about a mile and a half from our congregation in South Dallas Fair Park. And first year we had 30 volunteers that connected with JJ Rhoads. After four full school years, we now have just about 150 volunteers doing a variety of things-

George Mason: My goodness.

Andy Stoker: ... In the school. Well, in my reading of Methodism and in my connection with the work of the church, capital C church oftentimes churches find their best connection in neighborhood schools.

Andy Stoker: Methodism was the same. There weren't neighborhood schools in London. And so John Wesley said, let's start to educate the children wherever we are. So the development of Sunday school happened reading, writing and arithmetic. This is in our DNA, is connecting with public schools, taking the energy of my congregation around one school and seeing how that one school affected such significant change in our church life together, our hospitality has changed George. The way we see children has changed. We developed an urban camp program. This summer, we're going to see about 200 unique families coming through our walls for the second summer in a row. This is what a church school partnership can do in the life of the church. It invigorates and raises our awareness not just to the need, but to the opportunity that is a connection with a neighborhood school.

George Mason: And this is really good news. This is the Gospel which although most of the time inside the Church, we think the gospel means only that Jesus died for your sins and you accept Jesus as your savior and Lord, all of which is true and good. And we preach and we teach. But then there's that Methodist question about what now?

Andy Stoker: Yeah.

George Mason: Right. Right. And how do we proclaim, as Jesus said, good news to the poor to announce that good news and going to JJ Rhoads is a connection between a relatively affluent church that's generally Anglo and privileged and actually realizing that this is not just a charity thing, but we all have a stake in this together. Right? So I think one of the things that our churches don't realize is that when we are doing this work, we are as changed by this as anybody we go to help. It's sort of like the experience of going on a mission trip. Right? You think you're going to this poor group and we're going to help them and we're going to bring them the staples of life and offer something of the wisdom of our prosperity. And we come back thinking how poor in spirit are we that we need to realize the strength that they have. And how can we get some more of that for ourselves too, right?

Andy Stoker: Absolutely. Absolutely. The power of connecting to our community as a church reminds us that there is no they.

George Mason: That's right.

Andy Stoker: There is only we.

George Mason: Nice.

Andy Stoker: And when we are in ministry, we discover for ourselves that God is already there. And God is already affecting change in who we are and how we are raising our awareness as community together.

George Mason: Nice. Nice. I think it was one of your Methodists Kennon Callahan who once said the spirit of God is in the world. When the church is in the world, the spirit of God is in the world. When the church is not in the world, the spirit of God is in the world. So the church needs to get into the world in order to really experience what the spirit is up to in the world. Right.

Andy Stoker: I love that.

George Mason: Yeah. I think it's a pretty good line. Well, so you have an ambition to not just do this with First Church, but to invite all of our churches here in Dallas to get involved in a one plus one relationship with the school.

Andy Stoker: Yes. And not only that, but a little more progressive as well. That is certainly we want churches to connect with neighborhood schools, but we also want to have Jewish communities.

George Mason: Yes.

Andy Stoker: Muslim communities, Bahá'í communities, Hindu communities, Buddhist communities connecting with our neighborhood schools. DISD we have a beautifully diverse at school system. There are 167,000 children. No every one of those children are Christian. Might they find a mentor who is Muslim? Might that find a reading partner who is Jewish? Might they find someone who is not of a faith tradition to connect with them in a profound way?

George Mason: Yes.

Andy Stoker: Once again, it's no longer those kids or these churches, but we find ourselves lifting up the we of our community system.

George Mason: And this becomes another way to teach our own congregations and each of our religious traditions that there's also no they, that we are in this together and that God is at work in all of our faiths. Well, let's pick it up at that point and talk about what else is going on in the Methodist church right now after this break.

Andy Stoker: Thank you George.

George Mason: Okay.

Jim White: Faith Forward Dallas at Thanksgiving Square is a broad and diverse coalition of Dallas's faith leaders dedicated to service hope and a shared vision for North Texas. Faith Forward Dallas creates and supports a community of respect and compassion for all sharing in the mission of the Thanksgiving Foundation to heal divisions and enhance mutual understanding.

George Mason: Andy, the Methodist church is engaged in a large process of decision making now that's been called officially the way forward, the proposal of a selected group of bishops of a how to think about the place of and role of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians in the church. This is of course something that has been challenging to every denomination in America today. Many of the denominations you could say have fallen on the fault line of this question of where they come at this matter and I hate to call it a matter or an issue. We're talking about human lives here.

Andy Stoker: Absolutely.

George Mason: We're talking about our sisters and brothers in Christ. This is as you said earlier, this is not about they, this is about we but you have a big decision the churches is coming up on. What is the presentation that's being made to the church and your vote I guess in February of 2019. How have they structured this? What have they said is the way forward for the Methodist Church?

Andy Stoker: Yeah. So the last two and a half years, George, the United Methodist Church has been in a place of discernment officially. But really in the United Methodist Church, we've been discerning issues of human sexuality for the last 40 years. And so this selection of 40 persons--clergy, lay and a few bishops--had been studying together for the last 18 months or so. They'll have a report that's given to us July of 2018. That report will be disseminated through the global church and then we will have seven months to read and discern for ourselves what the report says and what implications it has our regions or annual conferences and for our local churches. Then in February of 2019 we'll gather together in St Louis and we're only talking about human sexuality. Certainly our brothers, sisters and siblings together are waiting on the edge of their seat to hear what's going to happen next February.

Andy Stoker: But from a really depressing state of affairs, I believe that our brothers, sisters and siblings who have seen the reluctance of the church to step out and take a stand, that those persons are no longer in their seat. They've gone elsewhere.

George Mason: Yes.

Andy Stoker: And as a pastor George, this is a pastoral concern for me. I was called to ministry to be in people's lives where they were experiencing the highest of heights and the lowest of lows. Celebrating weddings and baptisms and birthdays and anniversaries around baptisms and holy communion at the high points of life. I was also called to walk with people who are experiencing death who are experiencing the low points of their life, fractured relationships and fractured families, divided families. That's where I'm called to. Currently the United Methodist Church says to a pastor, you cannot participate in the people's life where they are celebrating a marriage where they're celebrating love.

George Mason: Same gender marriage.

Andy Stoker: Same gender marriage, certainly.

George Mason: Right, right.

Andy Stoker: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So-

George Mason: And part of that is because your official book of discipline has language that it has inherited from the tradition. And in fairness, we've had 2000 years of language of marriages between a man and a woman. But that is the proposal is for that language to be changed so that it could apply equally to same gender relationships as well. And so there will be an option for congregations as I understand it, to perhaps be able to decide for themselves whether they're going to choose to continue the more traditional approach or to be more in the inclusive matter of have same gender relationships.

Andy Stoker: Yes and no.

George Mason: Okay.

Andy Stoker: That's one of the proposals. so the worst case scenario for me is for the church to vote on anything.

George Mason: Yes.

Andy Stoker: It becomes positional. I celebrate an open table where all are welcome. So on any given Sunday morning at First United Methodist Church, especially when we're celebrating holy communion, I will have someone who is affiliated with the tea party and someone who's affiliated with the green party right before me kneeling. And I'm able to press bred into their hands and remind them that this is the bread of life. And there is no distinction between them. They are both children of God. Those who are kneeling are heterosexual or homosexual or transgender or bisexual. They reach out their hands and expect the bread of life. From my vantage point of vote in any congregation is a vote on separation.

George Mason: So let me validate what you're saying because I come from a voting tradition and as baptists, we vote congregationally on major changes like this. It's curious that we tried to figure out how not to vote about this matter because in the end we did vote in November of 2016. We voted to affirm our existing by-laws, which did not have restrictive language in them. But we had to be clear that what they now meant it was a little bit like the declaration of independence. What does all mean? All men are created equal, Well, does that mean all men and women? Does it mean slave as well as free? Does it mean black as well as white? And we had to keep adjudicating that. Similarly we had to finally say, this really is what we're voting on.

George Mason: And it was disruptive. It was painful, it was difficult. And it did create the feeling of winners and losers among people who loved each other and care deeply for each other. It felt like there was no alternative than to be able to do that. I wish we could have found a way to do otherwise. But I will say that by experience the fact is that the gay and lesbian Christians, transgender Christians, they they have heard a silence for so long and it is spoken so loudly and it is really been a no that to hear a yes and to know that it's clear was a great gift to them. To not have to look over their shoulder or to look down the pew and to wonder if they were really welcomed.

George Mason: And the joy of being able to see them renew their faith in God and to find their place in the church today is more than I can possibly tell you. I know you know this, but what I want to encourage the Methodist church about is that that is true. At the same time, I will tell you that there is a lingering sadness and pain that I have and I think many in our church have over the loss of friends who felt that they could not be at the table together if that meant that the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons did not have the limitations that they felt were traditional, biblical, spiritual, theological and that they had heartfelt reason to hold those views. Somehow or other, they felt that they were now part of the group that had lost and that that couldn't find their life fully among us. And so it was a very difficult sifting that took place, a feeling of grief and loss. I will tell you that it's beginning to be a time of healing and joy and I hope that this is something that the spirit is at work in all of our churches about. I think we'll have to let God sort that out ultimately who's right and who's wrong. But these are different views of how we pastor, aren't they?

Andy Stoker: Absolutely. And I have watched closely how you've carried yourself in profound ways, George, you have risen to the occasion and wept and embraced those who found themselves outside of the community now. And I am so appreciative of how you've carried yourself because certainly as United Methodists I'm watching your ministry closely.

George Mason: Thank you.

Andy Stoker: And finding ways of staying courageous and also compassionate and all that you do.

George Mason: I think that one of the hard things to come to is to realize that this is for people like me, an act of repentance and for the sake of the church because it could be otherwise simply a statement of we have control and power and we're going to allow you to be part of this. No, actually we've had control and power in a way that was presumptuous. And that was holding back the people of God. Now this is my vision of this. And again, I'm not making a judgment about people who differ from me. I'm only confessionally saying to me, it felt increasingly felt like I had failed to recognize the real presence of Christ in my sisters and brothers who were LGBTQ persons. And that that required my change of heart and mind, my contrition and my advocacy on their behalf. And I regret not coming to that conclusion earlier for their sake.

George Mason: And there's so much life that is yet to be learned and to be lived together. I pray for that for the Methodist Church as you come through this time together and I hope that there'll be a joyful future that you'll experience when and if that kind of inclusion takes place.

Andy Stoker: Absolutely. And part of the Methodist movement is it began as a reform movement. It began as a reformation on privilege. On power.

George Mason: Yes.

Andy Stoker: And finding methodism awakened to our history, our heritage in that sense gives me great hope. And finding a colleague in ministry that encourages my voice in that and encourages my standing in that, George, has been a significant gift. My hope and prayer for Methodism is that we don't have to vote congregationally. My hope and prayer for Methodism is that it becomes a denominational decision where we together are deciding what an open table really means.

George Mason: Okay. There it is. Yeah, that's true. And that's more your tradition than the congregational decision making that could be a direction that you take. Well, I will say Andy that one of the things that happened to me that I think I had to give up in this process is the feeling that I had to be certain. I had to be sure. I had to have all the answers and that was a change for me where I realized I had to put my trust in Jesus about this.

Andy Stoker: Absolutely.

George Mason: I had to give God the credit of knowing that if my heart was in the right place, if I were seeking to live by the spirit that God would sort that out. And I pray that to be true for Methodism as well. There's a lot coming up for you guys in the next year and you have our prayers and our love and our brotherhood and sisterhood in this process. God bless you.

Andy Stoker: Thank you George.

George Mason: In all this work.

Andy Stoker: Thank you.

George Mason: Thank you, Andy.

Andy Stoker: Yeah, absolutely.

George Mason: Good. All right.

Andy Stoker: Thanks.

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Jim White: Faith Forward Dallas at Thanksgiving Square is a broad and diverse coalition of Dallas's faith leaders dedicated to service hope and a shared vision for North Texas. Faith Forward Dallas Create and supports a community of respect and compassion for all sharing in the mission of the Thanksgiving Foundation to heal divisions and enhance mutual understanding.

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