Full Interview with Tim McElwee, candidate for Moderator-elect

Tim shared thoughtfully and extensively with Anna Lisa Gross. Here are most of his words.

Tim McElwee

Candidate for Moderator-elect

Tim McElwee

If we faithfully and courageously apply the directives of the compelling vision, we might very well be labeled troublemakers. We’re charged to live and share the radical transformation of the holistic peace of Jesus Christ.

Anna Lisa Gross: The position of moderator means serious leadership for a year, with three years of influence. What do you believe are the most critical leadership within many nominations for the next three years?

Tim McElwee: These are great questions, and it really helped me center in and try to make sense our of what this would mean if what I don’t expect to happen actually does happen with the vote. My instinct is, my supposition is that if in fact the delegate body affirms a compelling vision statement, as is expected, it’s been a long time coming. So I tried to answer these questions within that context of the compelling vision. As I read it through the first time, second time, third time, one word stuck out to me and that is mutuality. Mutuality is used several times, but the tone doesn’t feel all that mutual. There’s a lot in there that I affirm. My hesitations or concerns are based on my sense that there’s a bit of a top-down tone in some of the strategies as they described.

I think we need to proceed in trying to live out our compelling vision with as much eagerness to learn from others as we have eagerness to share our traditions with others. I was raised Roman Catholic, I joined the Church of the Brethren because of the traditions, the emphases, the values, the interpretation of the gospel that resonates with me all these many years. For me, our traditions of service and history of peace with justice are among the most important that I would love for us to try to share, better and more broadly with the neighborhood or world. We need to be wary of imposing or self assuredly proclaiming our faith tradition among others. We’re called to offer. We have to offer our witness and hope that might be received. As I pondered on that I recall a wonderful sermon that my pastor Kurt preached last summer.

What does it mean to be welcomed as we seek to live out our vision of Jesus in the neighborhood? Kurt focused on a passage from Matthew 10, and the title of the sermon is “May I come in?” Kurt emphasized that this passage of Scripture is not about the disciples welcoming others into their communities, into their churches, but disciples seeking to be welcomed by others while bringing Jesus’ message to the world. So, the difference here is when we welcome others into our world, into our community, we’re the ones in charge. We’re the ones with power. But in this passage the disciples (and us, I think) are called to vulnerably stand at the door and knock. Not knowing what to expect, not knowing if we will be received and if we’re received, not knowing whether or not our desire for mutuality will in fact be granted, not knowing whether the message we bring will be accepted or rejected. That’s why I think we’re called to pursue our vision with an equal and steadfast commitment to mutuality and prophetic witness.

The Compelling Vision statement for example, says that we’re to call and equip fearless disciples. I agree. I think if there is integrity to the message we bring as Kurt mentioned again in this same sermon, we should probably expect some rejection. Because the good news that we’re gonna bring from the Church of the Brethren, in the best of our tradition, is that we aren’t going to be upholding the status quo. We’re going to be advocating for those on the margins of society. For example, if we faithfully and courageously apply the directives of the compelling vision, we might very well be labeled troublemakers. We’re charged to live and share the radical transformation of the holistic peace of Jesus Christ, describing not the absence of conflict, but rather deep shalom of being in right relationship across differences. So I hear that we’re called both the name societal conflicts, and the systemic injustice that lies at the core of so many of those conflicts. Doing so demands courage and conviction, and this practice is in keeping with the very best of our Brethren tradition. And it reminded me of this statement that I got to help work on years ago, the 1996 Annual Conference statement Nonviolence and Humanitarian Intervention, which says passivity in the presence of injury or injustice is not an option for Christians. It’s not an option to put on blinders and pretend that injustice isn’t there. We’re called to boldly confront it. 

The Compelling Vision statement goes on to explain that to grow the body of Christ we must “break down racial barriers and hierarchies that keep us from a body of Beloved Community.” That’s a wonderful statement. I mean, Martin Luther King would stand and applaud that statement. But I think doing so means we will directly confront societal injustices, particularly systemic racism and sexism, wherever we encounter them. This means we’ll pursue our vision by setting aside the protections of power and privilege that we know all too well in the Church of the Brethren. It means we’ll humbly work with and among our sisters and brothers, living lives of uncertainty on the periphery of society. It means relinquishing or pursuing our self sufficiency and vulnerably asking for hospitality, while sharing the good news of this upside-down Kingdom we proclaim. 

Dale Brown used to say, “we Brethren have a strong prejudice against pride.” I think of Philippians 2, which proclaims, in humility, regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others. This is one of the reasons that the footwashing ordinance was such a powerful experience during my first few years in the church and while it’s still so moving. This reminds me of another one of my favorite passages from Psalm 51 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, put a new and right spirit within me.” I think what I’m yearning for is the right spirit to pursue the Compelling Vision. So leadership needs of the church in the next several years? An effort to try to inspire the church to reclaim our tradition of humility, to reassert our prophetic witness, and to rejuvenate our culture of service. 

What’s the role of the moderator’s voice and actions in responding to these needs?

The Church of the Brethren can be described as living out our faith through what we call the communitarian ecclesiology. Community is at the heart of who we are. And that means we’re called to take relationships seriously. The word ecclesia means called out. Wilbur Hoover, in a tract, defined the word church as people grouped together so they can live their faith better than they could alone. I emphasize relationships when trying to answer your question about the voice of the moderator because the approach to moderating matters. What is said, how it’s said, the values that we lift up, for example when we’re engaged in difficult conversations (and we certainly have had plenty of those in the church I expect those to continue on). But when we’re engaged in those difficult conversations I think we serve the church well, and we honor each other more fully, when we strive not to be right, but when we strive to understand or to learn from one another. I don’t remember the author, but there’s a phrase that I love that says there’s something about being heard that enables people to listen. So much more important than the moderator’s voice is her or his commitment to engage in compassionate listening.

What resources will you bring to this work? And what additional leadership resources are needed for the denomination to fulfill its mission?

It’s very clear to me that I don’t bring nearly enough resources to this work. I do bring some experiences from serving within the church for 50 years.

Let me try to answer by thinking back to some of those wonderful mentors who have taught me along the way. My father was a college professor. I remember walking with him on campus one time and a student came up to him and education student, and said “I have to write what they call my philosophy of education paper, and you’ve taught for all these years, what’s your philosophy of education?” My dad said, “Education is nothing more than hanging around the right people long enough for you to catch on.” Now, I probably will never really catch on. But it’s not due to a lack of mentors or teachers that I have had the pleasure of hanging around with.

In 1974, I was blessed to be a part of the 110th BVS unit. Dale Auckerman was the project manager; he was a really important person in my life, but so were the people that Dale brought to that orientation: Anna Mow, Art Gish, M.R. Ziegler, grounded me in what it means to be a member of this church. And then at Manchester and Bethany I had the great opportunity to learn with Bob Johansen, Tim Brown, T Wayne Rieman, Paul Keller. Dale Brown, Don Durnbaugh. Even though I’m not sure what resources I bring I would hope that some of the wisdom from some of these tremendous leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with would be a part of what I was trying to bring to the work.

The work I’ve done may be helpful as well. It’s encouraged me, for example, not to understand conflict as something to be feared, but as an opportunity to transform relationships and structures. 

In terms of additional layers of resource the church needs to fulfill its mission: In the Strategic Plan, strategy number four includes an expansive, and, I think, extremely ambitious call to economic justice, charging the church with transforming our collective culture and giving practices to reflect the just and equitable distribution of God’s resources to eradicate needs as embodied by the early church, as we read in the Book of Acts. It’s a radical, beautiful vision. So I agree that’s at the very heart of our mission, no question. Reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer where he said the church is the church only when it exists for others, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell people in every colony what it means to live for Christ, what it means to exist for others. To achieve the vision we’re going to need more than additional leadership resources, I think we’re going to need more resources of every kind.

Tell us about a time you have lived as a minority, not a week-long workcamp, something more significant than that.

My quick answer is: I have never lived as a minority, which is a confessional statement but it’s also an indictment. We need to take more seriously our charge, our calling, to lift up minority leadership in the church.

When I first read the question my first recollection was my first year in college when I was going to a state university, and I was on the track team and probably 85% of the guys on the track team were African American/Black guys, so all my friends my first year of college were Black guys and some Black women, because that was the community that I knew, and I was so deeply honored that I was actually asked to pledge Omega Psi Phi, a Black fraternity at that university. I don’t mean to say that that’s an example of a time I lived as a minority. But I do cherish that. Those guys were wonderful, beautiful, dear friends of mine.

I have had some short term experiences. One of them was a month-long experience of living in a Colombian family’s home during a January session [in college] for a course with Ken Brown. And the last question about compassionate listening also takes me back to my time in Colombia. And one of the ways that I came back changed was not taking for granted blessings and gifts that have been showered upon me, in so many ways, in my privilege life.

The course was called The Conscientization of North Americans to the reality of South America. Here’s a vignette: One day a Catholic lay worker who had devoted her life to working with the poorest of the poor, met our group on a long hike up in the mountains just outside Bogota. It was a very hot and humid day as we climbed the narrow mountain pathway. Eventually we arrived at a small settlement of 8 to 10 families. They lived in very small shacks built mostly out of cardboard. We gathered in a small clearing, with logs as our chairs. A married couple in the community operated a small general store, really small, with simple basic provisions. They had no electricity, so of course nothing was refrigerated, but they managed to keep some essentials on their shelves, and when the members of their community found a way to earn some money, they bought food from the store. So we’re about to begin to hear their stories. But before the members of the community began to share their stories, the woman who ran the small store gave each of us from the United States a bottle of soda pop. [tears] These sisters and brothers had nothing, but they selflessly gave these amazing gifts. We were hot and thirsty but it was so hard to accept those gifts. I remember the children, for whom a bottle of pop would have been an enormous luxury, watching, and smiling at us, as we drank that warm, sweet, thirst-quenching pop. [tears] That’s why that experience is so transformative.

Sounds like a unique communion, and it also comes back to what you were saying, in the very first response about hosts and guests, and the experience you had is one you could only have had as a guest.

The importance of us wholly and vulnerably asking, “can we come in?” and whether our desire for mutuality will be granted: those are really important questions for us if we’re going to pursue this compelling vision with the right spirit. Thanks.

Read Tim’s profile.