by Bishop Peggy Johnson
In 2008 when I became the bishop of the Philadelphia Area (which has two conferences: the Eastern Pennsylvania and the Peninsula-Delaware conferences), I was made aware of a retired pastor by the name of Rev. David Seymour. I was told that he had gotten a bad deal from the conference because he had cerebral palsy and he was forced to accept a status of “involuntary retirement” in order to be ordained as an elder. People felt genuinely sorry about how it all went down but this had been years ago.
Early on in my tenure as bishop I made it a point to find this Rev. Seymour and hear his story first hand. The Easton District Superintendent at the time helped set up a visit to his wheelchair accessible apartment. I found him to be a highly intelligent, theologically grounded person, who had a quick sense of humor and a contagious smile.
It wasn’t long before we invited Pastor David, as he liked to be called, to attend the annual “Mid-Winter Retreat” as our guest. This was a 3-day event for clergy and their spouses that was mostly social but there was worship and a good keynote speaker. Pastor David was well-received by his colleagues and this became an annual event, with pastors who lived nearby providing transportation and support services. My husband and I always had dinner with him during the retreat and heard about his many ministries. Serving God did not end with United Methodist “retirement.” Far from it.
It seems that the UMC did not know what a gift they had tossed away when they told him he needed to retire in order to be ordained back in 1990. Although he had completed a Master of Divinity degree at Wesley Theological Seminary and engaged in a successful appointment as a transitional deacon for several years it was decided that he was “un-appointable.” If one is ordained as an elder they are promised a full-time position with benefits for life. I suppose that was the concern.
In 2012 the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities published a collection of life stories from their constituents entitled: Speaking Out: Gifts of Ministering Undeterred by Disabilities. Pastor David contributed his story as part of the book. Here is how he described the end of his active ministry in the UMC:
It was in February of 1990 when I presented myself for the oral examination by the conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry for the office of elder that I was given the surprising announcement. There was no prior warning. It came as a shock, a totally unexpected action. At that time, I had thought that my professional career in the ministry was beginning after so many delays. My time of service within the Bayview Cluster had gone reasonably well, so I thought. The status of involuntary retirement has brought my career in ministry to an end, before it had a chance to begin.
Oddly I was nevertheless ordained as an elder, but I have not been allowed to serve as one, nor have I been paid any salary. Since that time no church official has proposed any other pastoral appointment with me, or suggested paid employment of any sort within the church system.
My supposition is that my disability was the chief factor in the Board of Ordained Ministry’s action. At a later date, a church official told me that I would not have been ordained an elder in the first place unless I had retired at the same time, that was a highly unusual procedure. This shows me that the conference officials never intended for me to have a professional career in the ordained ministry. Since the Peninsula Delaware Conference apparently no longer needed my services, no church leader has served as my advocate within the denomination.
For over 20 years, I have endured the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry’s mistreatment of me. I was deeply hurt by the ruling and its aftermath. Today, it still stings (pp. 225-226).
Pastor David told me that on the night of the ordination he fastened a fake ball and chain to his wheelchair and sat outside of the auditorium in protest following the ordination service.
But God’s spirit continued to move in Pastor David’s life. One can never hold down God’s plans with a ball and chain and David knew that better than anyone. He found other fields of service for the remainder of his life at the Talbot Bible Church, the Shore Harvest Church and the Mid-Shore Community Church. He also served on the Talbot County Disability Coalition and as a volunteer at the Sussex County Correctional Institution.
Pastor David told me that his work with inmates was particularly fruitful. He would tell the inmates with life sentences that he understood their journey as he had a “life sentence” using a wheelchair. The inmates would open up to him because he was so approachable and understanding.
The Mid-Winter retreats stopped happening a few years ago. Funding and changes in how clergy families gather themselves had shifted and this kind of thing became obsolete. I lost touch with Pastor David after that. He seemed to not answer his phone or letters any more. I was saddened to hear about his passing.
I also admit to being yet another church official who did not offer him an appointment in retirement. Less appointment options available nowadays and the preponderance of inaccessible church buildings and parsonages could be used as excuses for not trying to do something. But these are a lame excuses. Being on this side of the “desk” as a bishop has given me insights I never had when I served in Deaf Ministry as a local pastor. There are difficult challenges in all areas of appointment making. But we should never seek the easy answers.
Blessedly, we still serve a God who “makes a way out of no way” and who has abundant resources for every need. I applaud conferences who welcome and empower their pastors with disabilities. Bravo to those boards of ordained ministry that strive to promote people with disabilities as a gift to the church and not a liability that needs to be grimly tolerated. We can be doing much better with this. We strive to be accessible to people of color and women in ministry. Why is disability still so far behind when we are a people who seek to do justice?
In memory of Pastor David Seymour, I will strive to keep that challenge before me. Thank you, Rev. David Seymour, elder in the United Methodist Church, for your witness and your heart.