Jeffrey Gill's United Pentecostal Church Experience

The follow has been taken from "The Journey Out of the United Pentecostal Church" by Daniel J. Lewis, copyright 1994. See below for further details.

JEFFREY H. GILL, Topsfield, Massachusetts

[Jeffrey Gill was a member of the UPC for about six years. However, he was reared in the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ, another Oneness Pentecostal denomination, for most of his life. His grandfather was a minister in the UPC as were many of his relatives. To his knowledge, his extended family still holds the record for the number of family members who attended Apostolic Bible Institute, a UPC Bible school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Indiana, where he served as an assistant pastor in Bloomington, was his home District prior to leaving the denomination, though originally he was granted his ministerial license in the Minnesota District of the UPC.

Jeff holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Indiana University and a Master of Divinity degree from The Divinity School at Harvard University. He is an ordained minister in The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Massachusetts, and serves as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Andover, Massachusetts.]

Why would a fourth generation Oneness Pentecostal--a graduate of the Apostolic Bible Institute, son and grandson of Pentecostal ministers--become an Episcopal priest? How is it that a young couple, only a year out of ABI, recently married, UPC General License in hand, on their way to Japan to be missionary associates, would walk into the chapel of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, California), smell the faint aroma of incense, see the lighted candles, hear the hush of its empty spaces--and suddenly feel that they had found their spiritual home?

That first encounter with the Episcopal Church was in 1977. In 1989 I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church after years of diligent searching and discernment, painful isolation from friends who did not understand, and a reluctant but ultimately successful coming-to-terms with our changes by our families. None of this was simple. There were other stops along the way, too--first in conservative evangelicalism and later in liberal Protestantism, neither of which was spiritually satisfying to us. There were also many more years of formal education, beginning with four years at Indiana University, earning a degree in Religious Studies and East Asian Languages and Cultures, and then three more years at Harvard Divinity School earning a Master of Divinity degree. It involved long periods of spiritual deadness, when I had no idea what I believed or why I should even want to be a Christian. There were times when the only thing I knew for certain was what I didn't believe--and that included much, if not most, of what I had learned at ABI.

But back to the question of why an appropriately pedigreed, young, licensed UPC minister would ultimately find his spiritual home in the Episcopal Church. It seems like (and is in many ways) such an enormous leap. If I had to boil it down to five things (and that's hard to do!), they would be these:

1) The search for roots (and its corresponding rejection of Pentecostal sectarianism);
2) The meaningfulness of the liturgy and sacraments (and their corresponding rejection of Pentecostal subjectivism);
3) An embracing of mystery (and the corresponding rejection of certainty and absolutism);
4) The value of tradition, reason and experience as sources of authority (and the corresponding rejection of biblical rationalism and anti-intellectualism); and
5) The importance of the social dimensions of the gospel (and the corresponding rejection of an otherworldly eschatology).

Each of these deserves an explanation that cannot be given here in this short space. Suffice it to say that every one of the differences in doctrine and practice was a hard fought battle for this heart and mind.

Sometimes I forget how confusing those years were when I was so uncertain about my Christian identity. Having settled into a new church for several years now, I have many, many new friendships (and have recovered a few of my former ones, too!). I have an active life and vital ministry in a church whose worship I love and whose ministry in the world I respect. Life outside the UPC is not the abyss it once seemed. Our marriage did not break up, as many predicted it surely would over such dramatic changes in our lives. Long ago I got beyond the self-doubt that haunts one who first contemplates making the journey out of the UPC.

Has it been worth it? I can only answer for myself. There has been a huge price to pay in some ways, but the rewards far outnumber the disadvantages. I have absolutely no regrets about the journey I have made. The dangers for many, however, are that they will either become cynical and give up on the church altogether, or they will not invest the necessary spiritual and intellectual energy in their quest and end up in an equally tenuous, sectarian situation. Either of these options, I believe, is too big a price to pay for the loss of one's spiritual roots. It takes a lot of work, a lot of prayer, a lot of relearning of things you thought you knew, and the learning of things that you didn't know were there in order to leave the UPC and enter the larger life of the Church universal. I rarely felt any support for what I was doing, except from my wife (Carolyn Shilling Gill) who made this journey with me. I was fortunate, however, while I was still a second-year divinity student at Harvard and still in a great deal of uncertainty about my future, to host a gathering of people who were on similar journeys to mine. It meant a great deal to me to know that I was not alone.

The Episcopal Church is not the perfect expression of Christ's body on earth. I don't know where we are to find that. But what I love so very much is its rich spiritual tradition that binds me to Christians of every time and culture. It is a church that is both catholic and reformed. Its liturgical life keeps it from straying from its apostolic roots, while the value it places on reason and experience keep it open to perpetual reformation through the movement of the Holy Spirit in our own time. And yes, my Pentecostal roots have given me the ability to offer a unique gift where I am. It is just a small example of how God is at work using whatever we offer in the service of the kingdom of God.

"The Journey Out of the United Pentecostal Church" by Daniel J. Lewis may be accessed for free in PDF format here. Much thanks to Dan Lewis for permission to distribute his book.

Posted June 20, 2014


August 23, 1997
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