The “None-Church Plan” of the UMC

I was invited this past weekend to a meeting that alleged that it was a gathering of theologically diverse opinions on the practice of homosexuality in relation to The United Methodist Church. We made declarations that the press would not be invited and that our discussions would be kept private. I even turned down an interview by the United Methodist News Service though someone had evidently already ratted me out as holding a certain opinion. It should have been little surprise that yesterday I saw a news article that had a multitude of folks from the same meeting sharing their opinions, all of which were different than mine.

I find it very disingenuous when it feels like progressives have invited a few token traditionalists to their meeting. I was not going to fall into the trap of being provoked to speak up in opposition. That would have only led to more demonization of the traditional perspective and victimization of those on the left whom I genuinely count as persons of sacred worth and many as friends. Those who really know me are certain of my integrity and love for the UMC. The final straw came out yesterday evening when I was informed that some people who went from the meeting in Nashville to the Uniting Methodists meeting in Dallas reported that the Nashville meeting was unanimous in its support of the One Church Plan. Since then I have been informed that report was erroneous. Actually it was basically stated that there was consensus of support except for 5 people. I have heard all sorts of reports, either true or apocryphal, of overwhelming support for the One Church Plan, but let me tell you from first-hand experience, it is not the case everywhere, and it was not in Nashville.

Unanimity couldn’t be further from the truth. Bear in mind that the Nashville meeting was decidedly a progressive group. Someone volunteered that the leaders attempted to have more traditional voices present, but they refused to come. I don’t know that for sure, but what I am certain of is that when we as a group were asked to vote by secret ballot only 10 persons said they were 100% all-in for the One Church Plan (OCP); 26 voted that they would support it, “but it’s not perfect;” 15 voted “Yes, with reservations;” 3 said “Yes, only if changes are made;” and 2, including me, voted “I’m not in favor.” A progressive bishop presented his pitch for the OCP and said that there were problems with it, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditionalist Plan, but when pressed by questions about what he liked about each, he could not name anything he liked about any plan except the OCP. He couldn’t name anything wrong with it either.

What does this narrative say about so-called unanimity and the hard-press sell by members of the Council of Bishops? First, there was no unanimity. There were people on the left and the right who oppose the OCP because it is either seen as a further slap in the face to progressives who want more extensive full inclusion of gays and their allies, or it was a slap in traditionalist’s faces because it is ruinous to our ecclesiology and Biblical hermeneutic. Only 10 people out of 55 were “all-in.”

So we have bishops who are disregarding the promises made in the Council to stay out of the fray of support or non-support. It seems that the only bishops holding to their promises are the conservative ones. The bishop who spoke to us also gave some telling numbers of the vote on the plans at the Council of Bishops (COB). He stated that 58% of the COB wanted to support just one plan, not three. When that was decided he said 60% voted for the One Church Plan. I thank God for the 40% especially since I thought via news media or word of mouth that the number of progressives was much higher. Then he reported that after the OCP was made the main plan, 90% of the COB wanted the OCP plus the other two plans presented. The obvious conclusion is that there is not unanimity in the COB.

I do worry, however, whether or not whomever decides the presiding bishops for the Special Session of General Conference can find someone genuinely unbiased enough to adequately preside. I hate to think such a thought, but given the propaganda machine out of the COB for the One Church Plan, it makes me wonder. The bishop that presented to us in Nashville even suggested strategies to get the One Church Plan passed. I am grateful that the Judicial Council basically forced the COB to refer the whole matter back to the Commission on a Way Forward instead of it coming straight from the COB. There is no way, by Judicial Council precedent, that the COB could refer anything straight to the General Conference without violating the “separation of powers” that exists in our ecclesiology.

The subject of ecclesiology and the One Church Plan weigh heavily on my opposition to it. We are a connectional polity. That’s our means of governance. Local churches don’t call their preachers because we are a “sent ministry.” So stay awake when progressives want to say that yielding on the issue of homosexual practice won’t hurt us because it didn’t hurt the Presbyterians, Lutherans, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and Cooperative Baptists, etc. Well, we do things differently than all of those. Every one of them in some fashion or another call their own pastor. That’s not who we are. If the One Church Plan passes then we will run down the road toward congregationalism where every church decides who they want for their clergy. Who will lose? My daughter, who is a UM Elder, for one. Churches that still want the proverbial white male in their 30’s with 3 children with an impossible 30 years of experience are often unwilling to have a female pastor or person of color even if they are much more qualified. Congregationalism will destroy our unique “sent ministry.” By the way, the Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans, PCUSA Presbyterians, and all the rest who have loosened their stance on homosexuality have lost an average 30% of their membership in just a few years. So much for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ. If this issue affects these “call” and “modified call” systems this way, the ramifications for us will be worse. It will be a sea-change for our connectional system.

So the One Church Plan sends us down an awful precipice where everyone decides their own prerogative on same sex behaviors and marriage and would necessitate local church votes, annual conference votes, and individual clergy decisions on whether they can perform same-sex unions, allow their churches to do the same, and if bishops can’t in good conscience ordain, commission, or license someone who is self-avowed and practicing then another bishop who is willing to do it must be brought in. This all smacks of confusion and not connectionalism. For all you Judicial Council readers like me, look at Judicial Decision 544 which says this as it pertains to same sex unions and behaviors in relation to our ecclesiology, clergy standards and appointments:

“Although the paragraph under consideration relates to homosexuality, the question presently before the Judicial Council is not restricted to that particular issue. The matter before this body is one of the connectional system within The United Methodist Church and the relationship of the ministry to both the General and Annual Conferences. The Constitution, Par. 15, gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36, to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement.”

Every African and whomever else has been falsely promised that this One Church Plan won’t affect them needs to know that it does! “Ordination, etc. is worldwide,” and our minimum standards are global. The One Church Plan has a huge constitutional hurdle when it promotes annual conferences as the arbiter of minimum clergy standards. The General Conference cannot delegate its power to a lesser body. We are not a diocesan polity where each area does its own thing. Pargraph 543.7 2016 Book of Discipline says that the BOD can be adapted, but only “as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require, especially concerning the organization and administration…” So, the OCP’s so-called promise of local adaptation simply doesn’t ring true. Do you want to be part of a denomination where Christian faithfulness, money, resources, and reputation are linked to that which God, the overwhelming majority of Christendom and the General Conference have declared incompatible with Christian teaching?

Our connectional polity brands how we’re different from other denominations, and why we need more uniformity in our minimum credentialing standards. How in the world will bishops and cabinets decide which clergy fit with which church if the standards are all over the place? The One Church Plan is the most deceitful title of any plan I know. Instead of unity of the church, it fragments it even more. Rather than promoting unity, it reduces The United Methodist Church to a shell of what we’re meant to be in making disciples as a connectional enterprise.

Certainly, there are many things incompatible with Christian teaching, and I often feel the dishonesty and pain of singling out just one thing. I am sorry for my sisters and brothers who have experienced harm over this issue. However, I have been harmed, too. The whole denomination has been harmed by the religious terrorists that have co-opted sessions of General Conference, the Connectional Table, and lots of other church venues with their protests. We have been sidetracked, distracted, and harmed as a denomination. One leader this past weekend offered a telling statement, “Everyone’s truth is the truth.” No, it isn’t. Jesus said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.” The bishop presenting the OCP this weekend said the Traditional Plan is “un-Biblical” even though it represents orthodox Christian teaching from the church’s inception.

God did have something to say about marriage, as evidenced in the complementarity of Genesis 1 and Romans 1. God wants us male and female in relationship because that partnership best defines the Biblical plan for human interaction. Jesus said in Matthew 19:5-6 and Mark 10:7-9, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The same words are repeated in Genesis 2:24! The issue, therefore, of homosexual practice is a bell-weather issue about the authority of Scripture, the nature of humankind, the doctrine of sin, and much more. If everyone’s truth is the truth then why did Jesus need to die on a cross? On women’s leadership in the church and on questions of race there is clear evidence in Scripture that supports women’s ordination and the fact that God calls people of every nation and race, plus there are passages to the contrary. But, in the case of homosexual practice, the Bible consistently denies its validity in every instance. As Wesleyans we believe in Sanctifying Grace; i.e., that God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

So, I’m not giving up on the UMC, but we need to be ready for 2019’s Special Session of General Conference. Traditional delegates from the US, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines must not compromise and pass the so-called One Church Plan. Enough is enough! The “progressive” tactic isn’t new. This will be my 7th General Conference. I’ve seen this all before. For instance, the 32 constitutional amendments of 2008 were an attempt to separate us into theologically diverse regions and those amendments overwhelmingly failed. The Connectional Table’s Local Option Plan didn’t even make it out of committee in 2016. By a mere 23 vote margin the Commission on a Way Forward was created and it has been dominated by bishops under a cloud of secrecy.

The One Church Plan preferred by progressives and 60% of the COB is not a way forward. It will do more harm than good. With thanks to the faithful members of the Commission and the 40% of the bishops who value our ecclesiology and the Gospel over expediency and yielding to culture, I have to still say without any equivocation: “Vote the One Church Plan down!” It is really the “None Church Plan.”

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Pre-General Conference Hope

John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

For at least the last decade in the UMC, we’ve been beating to death the idea that, according to the numbers, the church in the U.S. is taking a beating and declining toward death. Two of my children who are young United Methodist clergy are quick to point out that this message has dominated their entire ministry, from seminary to the present, and it still swells larger without offering enough fruitful direction or hope. We continue to receive data that confirms the impending “death tsunami.” We also continue to be inundated by articles, workshops and seminars in response, with a repetition of familiar themes: How we got into this mess; How we can still avert catastrophe; How we must change everything (or change nothing); and the ever-popular, How death always precedes resurrection.

Like my children and perhaps so many of you, I am weary of the rhetoric. Not because the trends aren’t real. Not because I haven’t sometimes shared in these anxieties, and responses. Not because we shouldn’t think critically and strategically. Rather, because conversation must ultimately give way to necessary action, and I think now is the time to simply get back to being and doing as Christ calls us.

And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

We have a straightforward call, summed up well by the UMC as: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission is not conditional. We didn’t choose to carry it forward because it carries a wholesale guarantee of success, or an assurance of longevity, or institutional security. At least I hope not. Regardless of the circumstances, and even if the UMC one day ceases to exist, the Lord still calls us today to simply make disciples for him. And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

With this in mind, like the first Christians, the first Methodists, and certainly like those United Methodists at the forefront of missional growth around the world, let’s have both a discerning faithfulness today and also a holy disregard for worry over tomorrow. Let’s refocus on the present task, which is for each of us to continue to be in the making as the Lord’s disciples, and to participate in the making of more, new disciples. It will require a healthy level of humility: to be “in the making” is to admit that we’re unfinished. It also means holding ourselves to an expectation of real-world fruitfulness, since being “in the making” implies that Christ is intentionally forming us into some new future something as a people. It doesn’t sound easy but we can do it. We are uniquely equipped as United Methodists for it because, like John Wesley, we proclaim that any and every person can actually change, in behavior and attitude, heart and action, through God’s prevenient, saving, and sanctifying grace.

In other words, we must not define ourselves as an institution that is “in the declining,” “in the grieving,” or “in the dying.” Instead, we are “in the making,” a people and movement that can be grounded in the ongoing creative action of God. My passion for the church, and my vision for General Conference 2016, is for a return to this kind of disciple-making. Not merely to try to slow the impending death tsunami or to gain back statistical ground. Not merely out of a sense of self-perpetuation. But out of a desire to live the very hope of Christ.

As we hear on the way to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11:25-26 — and as we proclaim in every United Methodist “Service of Death and Resurrection” — the plain truth is that Jesus is the Lord of Life. Even more, he promises to share his Life with his followers, so that a true disciple of Christ never dies. If that’s so, then Jesus goes on to pose the one question that could possibly remain: “Do we believe it?”

I believe it. I think most of us do! I believe this promise should drastically alter everything, especially this upcoming General Conference. It should empower the ministry of our church to shape disciples. And it should invite us, above all, to pursue a life in the making with Christ Jesus and with one another. The theme of GC2016 is “Therefore go” from Matthew 28:19. Will we be in the making, or will we lament our divisions and prepare for schism at this General Conference. It depends on what or Whom you believe!

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Clergy & Church Sneak-Peeks

United Methodist clergy sneak-peeks at their prospective new appointments have been probably been with us since our founding. We’ve just switched from horses and word of mouth, to websites and surreptitious scouting trips. My three children knew the drill. As soon as we heard, we hit the trail. We found the church, checked out the parsonage from a drive-by with everyone semi-ducking their heads. Looked at area schools, even fast-food restaurants and whether the Sonic had a playground. Churches also are tempted to go check out their new pastor ahead of time – a no-no.

As a District Superintendent for 8 years, when I handed out profiles, I told the same thing to SPRC Chairs as I did clergy: “It’s a small state and everybody knows somebody from everywhere. Call those people and find out all you can. Do not go visit their church! We’re not Baptists who judge a preacher on one sermon. Remember no church is as good as you hear it is, and no church is as bad. Start making the transition, and remember you never get a second chance in making a first impression.”

I especially told SPRC Chairs, “If you want to know what your new pastor looks like, just set up a video camera in the church and parsonage’s front yard on the day of and day after appointments are announced. Sometime during that day a car is going to slow down at both locations. Its occupants will be slinked down in the seat peering over the edge of the car window eyeballing everything that they can. Make sure the grass is cut at the church, cemetery, and parsonage and all the trash picked up. Spruce everything up because this is your first-shot at easing the anxiety of a whole family and starting off right.”

Even in this age of internet sleuthing, we still depend upon our own eye-witness judgment. Especially with young children, it is extremely important to give them a peek at their new digs. Waiting to go check things out at an Introductory Visit is too late and formal. So, churches, if you haven’t already, do your own personal drive-by of your facilities. Eye-ball what any passer-by might see. If it isn’t appealing, do something about it. This isn’t just good advice for churches that anticipate a change in clergy. It’s a good idea all the time if you want to be inviting to your neighbors.

I know that when I wanted to avoid rush hour traffic for some charge conferences, I would leave early, get to the church way ahead of time, and do a walk-around. I learned a lot about each church in the district by just looking. How a church took care of its cemetery told me quite a bit how they valued their past, and how they took care of the living.

I remember going to one church whose name and location suggested on paper that it was a peaceful place. In my walk-about around the cemetery I noticed there were multiple spellings of the same last name. That clue explained a lot about the tensions in the subsequent meeting. The bottom line of what I’m trying to get at during this strange season of already and not yet in appointment-making is that we need to clean up our own house first, and get the plank out of our own eye before we start nick-picking the speck in our prospective pastor or church.

Boy, I have seen churches and pastors really get critical over the official profiles. These are handed out to SPRC Chairs and clergy when appointments are released. Those profiles, by the way, are going to be pored over and over and over. Every word will be parsed. Every date will be perused. The length of each appointment will be judged for good or ill. Expectations about ministry will be formed from what’s been written down, so write well! Tell the truth, but don’t throw anyone under the bus. Remember what I said earlier, “No pastor or church is as good as everyone says they are, nor as bad.”

The church that your “friend” had a hard time in may be prime for new leadership, so don’t pre-judge. It might be your best appointment. Churches, please remember that the clergyperson who only stayed two years at their last appointment may be moving for the best possible reasons. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Less than stellar fruitfulness at one place doesn’t mean they won’t be remembered as your most beloved pastor 20 years from now. Timing and chemistry can make a huge difference.

God bless everyone who is taking those sneak-peek rides, and churches that are putting out feelers about their new pastor. All of us, whether we’re expecting a move or not, need to get our act together. We need to clean up our front porch, get rid of dead, faded, or unseasonal flowers in the cemetery, and put our best foot forward on our profiles, and websites. In other words, if we want to make new friends with all the people who are checking us out, we need to look at ourselves through their eyes.

Once again, be gentle with each other, especially children or youth who are being uprooted, plus spouses who will be looking for new work. This whole process is like being on a flying trapeze. You can’t reach out and grab the bar coming at you unless you let go of the one you’re holding. That goes for churches saying “Goodbye” to their current pastor, and clergy saying “So long!” to their current appointment. If you don’t let go of the trapeze bar, you end up stuck hanging in the middle with nowhere to go – a bad place to be. So get ready to let go, and grab hold of that next appointment or pastor. God has great things in store. No doubt, you’ll get what you expect!

Trapeze Pic

 

 

Who Gets Written Off?

I’ve got a different angle on the whole transgendered bathroom discussion. There are schools and institutions that are trying to dictate where people who were born a certain way need to go to a specific bathroom. This flummoxes me. I get it that I would feel awkward if a woman and I were in the same restroom, and I imagine a woman would feel the same way if I went into a women’s restroom.

But, my mind is going in all kinds of directions about civil rights; dads or moms with their opposite gender children needing a unisex option everywhere, including the church; and my European experience of it not mattering. What about campouts, cabins at church camps, single-gender activities, or even single-gender colleges? However, my thoughts today are more practical than thinking about something that I haven’t faced yet as a pastor. My mind is not wondering about being anatomically correct in our protection of people. What do we do with folks who are just odd?

They are a tad beyond socially awkward and cause more people to leave the church than come to it. They’re not just annoying. They are just plain difficult. You want to be Christian and accepting, but you might not want to sit by them. If you give them attention, they want more. Peeling back the onion layers you often find there’s a legitimate source of their personality quirks, but they don’t get help, won’t take advice, and leave you wondering whether or not you need to look out for the majority and send them packing. This is the parable of the ninety-nine and the one in Luke 15:1-7.

Jesus said to go after the one. However, as a District Superintendent, pastor, parent, friend, or whatever, it has been my experience that it is poor stewardship to give too much time and attention to the minority of malcontented well or ill-intentioned dragons that suck the life out of a church. Doesn’t it make better sense to work with the fruitful and prune the wastrels?

It might make better sense, but it seems unloving and discriminatory. I’m conflicted because everybody is both sinner and potential saint. Aren’t we all both sinner and saint at the same time? Romans 7:14-25 certainly makes it clear that the Apostle Paul experienced the tug of an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. I daresay that his spirituality and Christian commitment was far better than mine.

Like the one lost sheep, we have all been the one left out, isolated from the majority, and culled or lost from the flock. If I use the UMC’s Par. 244.3’s Book of Discipline standard for a church leader then a lot of church council seats would be empty. It says that church leaders SHALL be: “persons of genuine Christian character who love the church, are morally disciplined, are committed to the mandate of inclusiveness… are loyal to the ethical standards… set forth in the Social Principles, and are competent to administer its affairs.” This weeds out a lot of people.

This is the perennial church conundrum: how do we get along with people who have a difficult time fitting in with the norm of our context? How do we protect the ninety-nine without making the one feel like they’re unwanted? To take it up a notch, what do we do with the emotionally unstable who thankfully are under the ministry of the church, but make life tough for those who are a smidge less neurotic? Par. 4 of the UMC constitution is helpful to ponder: “… All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its [the UMC’s] worship services…” What’s left out of this list of attendees? Gender is one thing, but the thing that is primarily on my mind is “mental or emotional condition.” Was this intentionally left out of Par. 4 so that we can exclude those who are wild cards in terms of behavior? That just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me, so what do you think?

Perhaps this is unanswerable, but Jesus is daring me to think outside of regular parameters and I’m feeling a little stuck. What do we do? I would love to write-off a few people, but that means I have to write myself off, too. No thanks. Are we willing to leave the ninety-nine and rejoice over the one who was lost and now is found? A good hard question.

Jesus with Sheep

Pray for UMC General Conference

The United Methodist people of South Carolina are asked to pray tomorrow Thursday, February 18, for our 2016 UMC General Conference. General Conference will be held in Portland, Oregon from May 10-20, and decisions will be made about what we hold in common as a connectional people. There’s a word that’s synonymous with “connectional,” and it’s the word “covenantal.” There are many who seem hell-bent, literally, on fracturing our denomination because they want to be connectional without being covenantal. I don’t think you can have one without the other!

We’re not a perfect church, but John Wesley, our founder, said that we should and could go on to perfection in our intentions. God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. We all have a long way to go, and the only way to make progress is through grace, to be sure, but none of our good intentions means a whit if we don’t make some hard choices about our covenant and what unity means.

Making hard choices is the Lenten message of Jesus’ decisions leading up to Holy Week, and it’s our message as we take up our Lenten disciplines. Hard choices are the very essence of General Conference. We first need to make a choice to bathe it in prayer. I am going to commit this Thursday’s prayer time to a focus on our ability in Portland, and, in every local church of every ilk and creed, to do more than get along with each other, to not only have good intentions, but to do the right thing and make peace.

Making peace is the rub, isn’t it? I can smile and glad-hand almost everyone even if I can’t abide what they think, do, or say. But to make peace – that’s hard, beyond hard. It makes me wonder. In making peace do I have to tolerate and accept that they are okay in their position? I don’t think so! Jesus didn’t make peace with the sins he confronted. He did try to make peace with the sinners though. He even said to Judas when he was about plant the kiss of betrayal on Him, “Friend, do what you came for (Matthew 26:50).” Jesus hardly ever used the word “friend,” only twice, as a matter of fact. If Jesus can call his betrayer a friend, can we dare do less?

What I think is right might differ from what you think is right, but that shouldn’t keep us from expressing Christian love and charity toward one another. John Wesley famously said, “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The problem is that most of us have opposing lists of non-negotiable essentials, and charity is routinely trumped by angry vitriol.

Can’t we all agree to pray tomorrow for Jesus and his will to reign as we meet for General Conference, and the same to occur in whatever meeting we’re in, even if it’s one in your family’s den? In our discussions, unanimity is less my goal as is selflessness. You see, my understanding of every church fight, whether on a big stage or in a local church, boils down to selfishness – a power play about pecking order and getting what’s best for me, me, me.

Think Downton Abbey and the battle about the village hospital’s control. Cousins, Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, are on opposite ends of the argument. One might say that their issue is about principle, but there’s a whole lot of “my way or the highway” selfishness at play. In General Church meetings, conference ones, local churches, workplaces, companies, and families, the same story perpetuates itself.

My prayer for General Conference is that we can agree on the primary essential: Jesus Christ. Certainly, every other issue is important and many would say the sexuality debate is essentially about our Christology, but I hope that we can glorify God even in our differences and love each other in such a way that the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23 come true for our denomination: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Wow! If we promote unity then the Scripture says that the world will know Jesus and His mission! Please join me in prayer for General Conference tomorrow and all the days leading up to May 10-20, 2016. Let’s try to remember than unity doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity. There’s room in unity for diversity. Our covenant should not ever be broken, but every covenant has clear stipulations about what the parameters are for disagreement. That will be the hard work of General Conference to decide. Most of us who are married already know about this endeavor. Ask any couple who has been married for more than a couple of hours, “Does unity mean unanimity?” Pray! Pray! Pray!

General Conference 2016 Picture

United Methodists and Missions

What do you want to happen in 2016? Get started now or it will never happen! I would contend that our whole year takes shape by what we do or don’t do in January. We set the stage for the whole rest of the year. If we want better relationships then start now. If we want a better world, start now. If our biggest desire is for a grand remodel on our homes, or the best family vacation ever, start saving now. We turn the calendar to inspire us to have fresh starts. One of the best ways to beat the after Christmas blues, is to start getting ready for the next one.

I have found that one of January’s biggest temptations is to think about our needs before anything or anyone else. The winter months put us into survival mode and it leads to selfishness. For instance, many people just got over the hump of paying last year’s pledge to the church so they’re not that compelled to think about doing it now. The reality is, however, that if we want a great 2016 we have to think about giving our lives and resources away now. Jesus in Luke 9:24 said, “Whoever wants to save his or her life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” So start the year off right by asking how you will give yourself and your resources away for Jesus. Don’t wait until the fourth quarter. Do it now!

Of course, the question arises, “To whom should I give my resources?” A wealthy man asked his pastor what he should do with his intended bequest of $50 million. This faithful church member knew that his pastor would be able to help him decide where to leave the money. The pastor reminded the man that the man had served on the hospital’s board of directors for years so it might be the perfect place to give the money. The man only half-way nodded in agreement, leading the pastor to suggest another place. “What about the local university?” the pastor asked, knowing that this philanthropist dearly loved higher education. The man replied, “No, I don’t think I’ll leave the money to the hospital or the university. They’re great institutions, though. I’m going to leave it all to my church.” The pastor asked incredulously, “Why?” The man’s response was amazing: “If I give all my money to the hospital or the university, they won’t build a church. But if I give it all to the church, they will build a hospital and a university.”

He was exactly right. History proves it! There are over 70 United Methodist hospitals in the United States and hundreds more overseas. There are 102 United Methodist colleges and universities in the U.S. and hundreds more around the globe. Claflin University, Columbia College, Wofford College, and Spartanburg Methodist College were all founded and continue to be supported by United Methodists in South Carolina. Duke and Emory are two other United Methodist institutions that are in nearby states and fit in both categories as hospitals and universities. Give to the church and missions will follow. Over and over again, Christians have given themselves to Christ and to the world. We have been blessed with Jesus’ example and admonition, “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

This coming weekend at St. John’s we will host a “Missions Impact Celebration.” We will hear missionaries from nearby and faraway. They will share compelling stories of what God has been doing, and it will be up to us to be partners with them. Our church gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to missions. We’re doing what Jesus dared in Matthew 28: 19, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What we often leave out in our quoting of this Great Commission is the next verse, Matthew 28:20, “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

In my mind there’s a direct correlation between these two verses: discipling includes obedience. Whoever said that the church is a “voluntary society” missed this correlation. In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he or she must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” In other words, discipleship is a daily matter between you and God. This coming Sunday, you get to prove it as you make your pledge to our above-and-beyond mission partners.

Another passage of Christ’s comes to mind in Luke 6:38, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” A farmer had a cow who gave one pail of milk each day. The man invited guests for a party. In order to save his milk for the special occasion, he refrained from milking the cow for 10 days. He expected that on the last day the cow would give 10 pails of milk. When he went to milk the animal he found that she had dried up and gave less milk than ever before. Simply put, “Hoarding doesn’t help!”

Tim in Nica

 

A Dynamite Church for a Powerless World

As Pentecost approaches on May 24, I am reminded that each Christian is gifted by the Holy Spirit. As much as we like talking about our Trinitarian beliefs, the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift in both theology and practice. It is the Spirit, however, that unites us as a body made of different parts and supernatural abilities (I Corinthians 12). Sometimes our natural abilities and aptitudes are exactly synonymous by the Holy Spirit’s unique gifting of us, but sometimes not. Rather than digressing into the question of how you can tell which, I think that it is better to affirm the Biblical truth that every Christian has unique “gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:4b).” Whether one feels like they have something to offer is irrelevant because we all do!

The Holy Spirit’s presence was let loose by God on an unsuspecting populace in Jerusalem and the world was turned upside down by an explosion of spiritual power. As I read the Pew Research Center’s newest religious poll of America’s faith habits this morning I was dismayed that the “none’s” with no religious affiliation are growing while those professing Christ are declining. I cannot help but wonder if it’s because we resemble the words of 2 Timothy 3:1-5a, “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Sounds quite descriptive of us, doesn’t it? A form of godliness but denying its power.

The power that supplies godliness is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the dunamis, “power” in NT Greek, from whence we get our word “dynamite.” The early church saw miracles and exploded with growth. The Wesleyan Movement saw the same effects and England, America, and most of the rest of the world have witnessed the unleashing of God’s Spirit through our church. Lately, however, we have become too domesticated. Where is the power of the Gospel in our midst? The Holy Spirit is our dynamite!

An interesting article was written several years ago in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.) Starr concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live.

  • It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
  • There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation.

  • And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.
  • “Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t know anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote an editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”
  • Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”
  • Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implications…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

What I meant by saying that we should remember the particulars of the three authors is that other people, from very disparate viewpoints, think there is something that Methodism still has to offer. In reality, the genius of Methodism isn’t a thing, but a Who – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Living Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s great love for all humankind.  The question is whether or not we are full of the Holy Spirit, or full of ourselves? A tree is known by its fruit. Pray for a new Pentecost, and I know it needs to begin in me!

pentecost1

 

Je suis Charlie

Some people are so narrow-minded that they can see through a keyhole with both eyes. As I think about the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the terrorist attacks in France, I wonder how narrow-minded I am. As a planet we seem hell-bent on emphasizing our differences rather than our commonalities. I admit that diversity matters and that there are valid reasons for differences of opinions.

For instance, I’m a Christian and not a Muslim. Therefore, without apology, I am not one who believes that all religions are just different trains going to the same place. I do believe in the unique work of Jesus Christ to save us. I uphold, without reservation, what it says in Acts 4:12 about Jesus, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given by which we must be saved.”

Nevertheless, I do believe in common grace and that all humanity reflects the image of God. I am perfectly fine if the doctor who operates on someone that I love is Hindu or Muslim, just so they’re the best! I will resist the temptation to think that all Jews are money-grubbers, all Muslims are terrorists, all Chinese are math whizzes, and all Christians are hypocrites, although I resemble that last observation! In Biblical parlance (Romans 3:23), “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and at the same time we’re all equally valued and loved by God.

All of this ramped up tension between Islam and Christianity makes me think about how we navigate our differences. I am reminded that this Sunday is Human Relations Day. I wonder how far we have come since Dr. King’s efforts. Paragraph 263.1 in the 2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, describes Human Relations Day: “This Sunday occurs during Epiphany, the season of manifesting God’s light to the world. Human Relations Day calls the Church to recognize the right of relationship with each other. The purpose of the day is to further the development of better human relations.”

How can we promote better human relations? The quick answer is, “Love!” However, love for sheer love’s sake may be misguided, co-dependent, or, worse, do more harm than good. The United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR), of which I’m a member, embraces a three-fold strategy for promoting better relationships that I think is practical and attainable: Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations. It may be helpful to think about what each of these means.

When I think of intercultural competency I think of ways that we can help more people exhibit the innocence of children. People aren’t born racists. Somewhere along the way, it’s learned. We need to unlearn it! That takes understanding another person’s culture, even within races. Church is so socio-economically driven and homogeneous. We belong to different denominations more by net worth than a common baptism and Lord.

I have to ask myself: Whom am I overlooking and thereby judging as having less importance? The only way for me to overcome this tendency is to get to know people that I assume are different from me. I have to ask why I’m the way that I am and why they are their way. Bottom line is that intercultural competency takes effort, vulnerability, and invitation. Who are the strangers in your life that might become friends if you worked at it, opened up, and invited them into the sphere of your daily interactions?

Institutional equity isn’t about monitoring who speaks at a meeting and whether they’re this race or that, and whether or not they represent a particular gender. Institutional equity has at its heart a bigger question of “Who’s not at the table?” which means to me that we need to make all the playing fields in society fair, and not just cater to specific demographics. Jesus came to save the whole world, not just my people or my segment of the culture.

GCORR asks it this way about institutional equity and the church, “How do we transform churchwide structures and practices so that decision-making and priorities reflect the whole people of God, including  younger people, more diverse people and people for whom English is not their first language?” Again, my summary of this asks that whenever a key decision is made that affects more than just me: “Who am I leaving out of the conversation?” It’s another way of asking the question of who’s not at the table, and if you ever had to sit at a child’s table where you went last and had to be quiet, you get what institutional equity is.

Finally, vital conversations are the engine to make this world a better place. I can learn about another culture and never get out of my chair, or so I might think. I can say I treat everyone fairly, but if I don’t have vital conversations and literally put my energy where my mouth is, I’m wasting time. Vital conversations are a must! On too many issues we are either Fox News or CNN and not much in between. Our government is polarized and I’m worried that the events in France will make us more “us and them” rather than “we.” I resonate with those who declare, “Je suis Charlie” because we are all “Charlie.” The US should have been better represented because America can’t fight terrorism alone. It is a human problem and we have to work together. Vital conversations are needed between disparate ideologies and peoples. Maybe when people can put a face on those that are different, then they’re not so different!

I am all for honoring the fine women and men in blue who protect us, but I, like many, have been taken aback by events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, and even the hung-jury in Eutawville, SC where a white police chief shot and killed an unarmed black man. I know there is conflicting evidence and I honestly lean toward believing law enforcement over Citizen Joe no matter what their race or religious persuasion. But I wonder if I have been too trusting of authority and blind to those who are profiled into fear whenever they’re out in public. Such fear has no place in an equitable society where liberty and justice are indeed for all.

But frankly I am a profiler, too. Aren’t we all to an extent? I must get beyond my narrow-mindedness and my prejudices. I don’t want to resemble William James’ remark, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

We live in a difficult time where circumstances and world events make it easy to judge those who are different. We must not, however, allow fascism to re-emerge. Martin Luther King did not die in vain and neither have the citizens of Paris and many other cities and locations. We have to do better and this MLK Day. I am pledging to follow GCORR’s advice by promoting Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations.

MLK

New Clergy as Detectives

Well, one to two weeks are under the belts of newbie clergy who just moved to new parishes and, if they are like me, they’re pondering potential changes. Of course, someone wisely suggested to new clergy that, “You shouldn’t change anything for the first six months except your underwear!” Some may be wondering if they can wait that long. You’re probably wondering if you don’t make some strategic changes now, your “Honeymoon Advantage” may run out and be for naught. What are we to do as we make these first critical and highly analyzed/criticized decisions?

For me I have to first remember that every church is its own unique organism, family system, and culture. Therefore, what works in one place may or may not work in another. I also know that I need to find people that I can trust to tell me the unvarnished emotional history of the church. The factual history is easy enough to find in available documents, but find someone who can give you the “skinny” on the emotional processes that have occurred at nodal points in the church’s life.

How does the church handle decision making and crisis? What gets stirred up when there’s tension? Do people fight fair? Is passive-aggressive behavior the norm? Bottom line, become a church psychological detective and connect the dots of the family system.

Family systems theory, as in Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, is fascinating. There’s no way that I can summarize such an important tome, but here’s one quote that is illustrative: “One’s life course is largely determined by the amount of unresolved emotional attachment to family of origin, the amount of anxiety that comes from it, and what to do with it.” The question for newbie clergy is to discover the hidden wounds, the unresolved emotional attachments embedded in the psyche of church members and even their larger community.

You have heard the story of the young bride who marries a guy and cooks her first pot roast. She does everything just right, but her new husband is visibly disappointed. After a heated discussion he admits that his problem is that it’s just not the way his mother made pot roast, so she dares to go talk to his mother. The mother-in-law is clueless and assures her new daughter-in-law that she didn’t do anything special. But she does admit that she learned how to make pot roast from her husband’s mother. So she suggests that she go see her mother-in-law explaining that maybe she would have some insight.

The bride goes to see the grandmother and tells her everything that she did. The grandmother nodded approvingly and with a quizzical smile and asks the bride to step into the kitchen because she had made a pot roast that very day. The bride immediately sees what the difference is. The grandmother’s pot roast is square! When asked why she had a square pot roast the grandmother said that she and her husband were so poor when they got married that the only pot that they had to cook a roast in was square so they cut off the edges of the roast to square it up to fit the pot.

Wow! This was an unresolved emotional attachment that finally made sense when the bride connected the dots and did some research. Upon explaining this to her new husband, he was okay with the change. The discovery is that a family’s, and, I daresay, a church’s emotional processes are much more important than the facts or content of the issue(s), but once the emotional processes are uncovered you can more easily accept the content of the facts or the way things are.

Some new clergy have inherited churches with “square pots” and emotional operational systems that are begging for illumination and exposure. The risk is in when to do it. Two analogies come to mind in this whole endeavor that separates emotional process from content: one about doctors and medicine and one about “river babies.”

The doctor and medicine one is pretty straightforward. Tests and procedures provide facts about a person’s condition, but we don’t rely on facts alone when we are in the throes of illness. Whether or not we trust the doctor is of huge importance. A doctor can have all the facts (content) straight but have the bedside manner of a frog run over in the road (emotional process) and we are not happy, and say that we want a second opinion when what we really want is a second doctor who really cares and takes it personally that we survive!

The story about “river babies” is also helpful to ponder in a who-done-it assessment of our new churches. In this story many of townspeople are down at the nearby river and they notice a toddler floating by about to drown. Many rush in and rescue the child, then another child starts floundering by, and then another, and another and on and on. They call to get more townspeople to come help pull all these babies from the river when two men desert them. As the deserters are heading up the riverbank someone calls out and says, “Why are you leaving us? Where are you going? We need you here to help us save these babies!” The guys reply, “We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

In our decision to let things slide for 6 months or not, do we keep pulling babies out of the water reacting to the tyranny of the urgent, or do we try to figure out what the systemic cause is of our under-functioning? Every situation, family, church, and community can be better. The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. God bless us as we determine whether or not to tread water or go upstream against the flow and do something about the real issues. Happy detective hunting as we separate the facts from the emotional processes at work in our new places of ministry.

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Flying the UMC Trapeze

I have been thinking about this in-between time of being the Columbia District Superintendent and the new senior pastor of St. John’s UMC, Aiken. At 12:01 on this coming Wednesday it will be official, but I have already been flying the trapeze by attempting to let go of one bar to grab the other one. We have already moved into a house in Aiken. We have eaten in some great local restaurants, walked the streets, and met great new people both in the community and in the church. I have been acclimating myself to new surroundings while driving back to Columbia to fulfill my last days as DS – attempting to live in two worlds.

Jim Elliott, deceased missionary, was absolutely correct when he said, “Wherever you are, be all there!” I can’t reach out and be fully the pastor that St. John’s needs unless I let go of the other trapeze bar, and I surely don’t want to get caught hanging in the middle between the old and new. Flying the trapeze with one hand grasping one bar while the other hand is clenching the other is untenable. How many of us have found ourselves caught in similar circumstances between jobs, relationships, or situations? We catch ourselves wondering if we should risk a new thing or hold onto the familiar. One has to let go and be all there, wherever the “there” is.

As preachers move this next week there is going to be a lot of anxiety. There will be anxiety for churches and for clergy, and fear can be paralyzing. One church sign was frighteningly near the truth in this appointment transition time for churches and clergy: “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help!” It’s almost not funny! For pastors and church members caught in pastoral transition, worry and church can often go hand in hand. What do we do with our worries? Do we bury them, or let them bury us? Do we have enough faith to take risks for God? Are we ready to move into God’s new opportunities for us? Are we ready to let go of the former things and embrace the new?

One day in July, a farmer sat in front of his shack, smoking a corncob pipe. Along came a stranger who asked, “How’s your cotton coming?” “Ain’t got none,” was the answer as he continued, “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid of the boll weevil.” The visitor then asked, “Well, how’s your corn?” The farmer replied, “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid o’ drought.” The visitor continued his line of questioning, “How about potatoes?” The reply was familiar, “Ain’t got none. Scairt o’ tater bugs.” The stranger finally asked, “Well, what did you plant?” “Nothin’,” answered the farmer. “I just played it safe.”

Playing it safe can be downright disastrous. Divine motivation demands our willingness to go out on a limb. Fear has to be defeated. Some of us anticipate the worst and don’t try anything. God wants us to put on our wave-walking shoes and get out of the boat of our comfort zone. I know that we all fear the unknown. I like routine as well as the next person. I’m infamous for ordering the same dish in restaurants. It’s simple really. I don’t want to be disappointed, but if I’m not willing to try something new, think what delights I’ve missed.

When a person fears the worst will happen, their own thoughts may help bring it about. Someone once wrote, “Fear is the wrong use of the imagination. It is anticipating the worst, not the best that can happen.” The story has been told about a salesman who had a flat tire while driving on a lonely country road one dark and rainy night. He opened the trunk and discovered that he didn’t have a lug wrench. He looked around and could barely see a light coming from a farmhouse. With relief in mind, he started walking through the driving rain toward the house.

The salesman began to think all kinds of thoughts. He thought, for instance, that the farmer would surely have a lug wrench that he could borrow. Next he thought about how late at night it was, and, of course, the farmer would be asleep in his warm dry bed. Maybe he wouldn’t answer the door. And even if he did, he’d be angry at being awakened in the middle of the night. And so on and on his thoughts went as he was walking to the farmhouse. Being soaking wet didn’t help his thought process, either.

He pondered that even if the farmer did answer the door, he would probably shout some rude vulgarity at him. This thought made the salesman mad. After all, what right did the farmer have to refuse him the loan of a simple lug wrench? He was stranded in the middle of nowhere soaked to the skin, and the farmer was a selfish clod! Fuming, the salesman finally reached the house and banged hard on the door. A light went on inside, and a window opened above. A voice called out, “Who is it?” His face white with anger, the salesman called out, “You know darn well who it is. It’s me! And you can keep your blasted lug wrench. I wouldn’t borrow it now if you had the last one on earth!” Anticipating the worst can become self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to give God a chance and stop worrying!

I hereby covenant to take a risk by trusting in God’s unfailing providence. Because God always provides, I am going to take flight on the trapeze bar of United Methodist itinerancy. I will not be caught in the middle, but will risk letting go of the past and embrace the glorious future called St. John’s UMC, Aiken! What risks are you willing to take on God’s trapeze?