By Nate Berneking
If you weren’t aware, Christians don’t always agree. Sometimes, it seems like we never do. Sometimes, it seems like we look for any means possible to divide ourselves. We even take labels to highlight our differences: conservative, liberal, contemporary, and traditional. I suppose we highlight our differences to stay comfortable. After all, we’re more comfortable with people like ourselves; with people who agree with us; with people who take on the same labels.
It’s always been that way. In the early Church, Christians gathered themselves around their own divisive labels. Some wanted to remain Jewish in identity. Others wanted a more Gentile expression of the faith. You don’t have to read much of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles to realize just how much internal divisions shaped Christian life. In Ephesians, you get the sense that leaders, like Paul, were desperately trying to create unity in the face of constant division. “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).
We know this: Christians are supposed to be unified rather than divided. What we sometimes miss, however, is that unity doesn’t mean “same.” In Ephesians, Paul is clear that variants are critically important. God created different kinds of people for different kinds of tasks (Eph. 4:7-13). We see this at work in our local churches. When a church is able to identify the variation of gifts, yet unify towards a common purpose, miracles begin. Everyone wants to be part of it.
The same thing also works at other levels. Since joining Conference staff, it’s become obvious just how important the variation and unity of local churches are. We are always stronger when all the various expressions of local churches align themselves for the same mission, moving towards the same vision. This is one of the strengths of the United Methodist Church. Within the Missouri Conference, there isn’t just room for different kinds of churches. As long as we maintain our unity, we need variations to be effective. This is why we exist in conference: different kinds of Christians, working together to make disciples. This is why we work in “connection.” It’s also why we pay our apportionments.
I’m well aware that “apportionments” can be a dirty word. I’m also aware that local church leaders begin to get desperate this time of year. Paying 100% of a church’s apportionments can be a challenge. When I was serving a local church, I always watched our monthly payment with a slight skepticism. It wasn’t that I didn’t support the Conference. It wasn’t even that I didn’t want to pay. Yet, I knew that the total apportionment cost as much as two full-time staff members or many new programs. So why pay apportionments?
I suppose it’s an expression of unity that makes us stronger. Apportionments link every congregation in the Conference. Each church has a share of the total cost of existing in Conference. More importantly, the vast majority of those costs are really resources that are spread out to every church in the Conference. Nearly one million dollars are distributed in Congregational Excellence grants. Several hundred thousand are poured into programs designed to strengthen our clergy. We also use our apportionments for NextGeneration ministries, grants given by the Clergy Support Team, high capacity speakers at Annual Conference Sessions and operations of the Office of Mission, Service & Justice. Despite all our differences, we all share the cost of making each other stronger. Through the ministries and resources made possible with apportionments, we actually strengthen our shared ministry. We put ourselves on the same mission working towards the same vision.
As we approach the end of the year, I offer thanks for those churches that have already paid 100% of their apportionments. We are better because of you. I want to also thank in advance those who will pay 100% as well as the churches that grew towards 100% this year. Despite our differences, our unity only makes us stronger.