Bishop Michael J. Coyner of the Indiana Area, UMC, addressed the 67 United Theological Seminary graduates on “loving the unlovely” during the Seminary’s Advent Commencement held December 14 at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, OH.
Bishop Coyner was the featured speaker at the seminary’s Advent Commencement ceremony, traveling from Indianapolis, IN, to deliver the address.
During his address, Coyner told the story of a time while he attended Duke Divinity School during his student internship in a church outside Durham, NC, when his faculty adviser came to visit his Sunday School class for younger adults and things didn’t go as planned.
“I told the class all about it, I worked really, really hard on my lesson plan for that day, I warned the class, you know we need to be on good behavior, they even spruced up the room, they brought coffee and refreshments and they were on their best behavior and everything was ready so that I could impress Dr. McMurray Ritchey when he came to see me,” Coyner sai “But I forgot about Barbara. Barbara came to our class because she had nowhere else to go. I don’t know what her diagnosis would be today but we knew that she was mentally challenged.”
That day, Coyner noted the usually unproblematic Barbara was “a mess” and kept interfering with his class, but his students stood by and comforted Barbara.
“Finally, finally the hour of the class was over and I said a closing prayer and the class felt it was a disaster; they all left in a hurry,” Coyner said. “And I sat there across the table from Dr. McMurray Ritchey, my faculty adviser, feeling like an utter failure in ministry.”
That was when Dr. Ritchey gave Coyner one of the most important lessons he learned about ministry.
“He said, ‘Mike, today’s lesson was about Christian community,’” Coyner said. “‘Today’s lesson was about the way your class accepted and loved Barbara who’s a hard person to love. Today’s lesson was all about acceptance and love and grace and community and forgiveness.’ And then he said, ‘And you missed it because you were so busy trying to do your lesson plan today.’ And then he went on to say, ‘Mike, you’re going to find that wherever you go in ministry, there’s going to be Barbaras. Some of them will be really obvious like she is, but others will be all dressed and uptown looking and seem like they’ve got their life together but inside they’ve got their own struggles, and they’re going to be hard to love. And wherever you go in life and in ministry, there’s going to be folks who are unlovely and hard to love and folks who don’t believe they’re lovable. Everywhere you go, you’re going to see Barbaras. And you’d better get used to it.’ ‘Because,’ he said, ‘the church at its best, the church at its best, draws to itself those who are hard to love and who most need the love of God, and you’d better be ready,’ he said, ‘to love the unlovely.’”
Coyner added everywhere he’s gone, there have been Barbaras, whether it’s been during his time as a bishop or as a pastor.
“Sometimes they have been obvious, sometimes they’ve had needs just pouring out all over the place, other times they have looked pretty good on the outside but on the inside they’ve been just as much troubled and difficult to love,” he said. “… Those Barbara-type people keep showing up in my life. The folks that are hard to love, who are unlovely or who believe they’re not lovable and yet who come because they’re drawn somehow wanting to find the love of God and Jesus Christ that we proclaim and want to share.”
Coyner noted the other lesson he learned from that day – sometimes, he is the Barbara.
“Somehow learning to love the unlovely must include us,” Coyner said. “And for ministry to endure and thrive and even I’d use the word succeed and be fruitful, it requires an inner change in ourselves to realize, one, I’m the unlovely sometimes, but two, I am loved … So as you go forth in ministry, continue your ministry, build on your ministry, multiply your ministries and engage your ministries of all sorts, all of you in this room are in ministry. But let me simply remind you of a profound and difficult but wonderful task, we are called not just to love those who love us or those that are easy to love, we’re called to love the unlovely, even when it’s ourselves.”
Bishop Coyner has served numerous churches as Pastor, as District Superintendent and as Executive Assistant to Bishop Woody White for the Indiana Area. He was elected a Bishop in the United Methodist Church in 1996 and was assigned to the Dakotas Area, where he served two terms as Resident Bishop. In 2004, he was assigned to serve the Indiana Area, and in 2012, he was assigned to a third term in the Indiana Conference.