Perspective and Opportunity in United Methodist Appointment-Making

“Boy, do I have an opportunity for you!” are words that most United Methodist clergy have heard or will hear during their ministry. Within the next 6 weeks this phrase will be used a lot! The difficulty is that one person’s definition of “opportunity” may not match someone else’s. It is a statement usually said by district superintendents who are on the front-line of making appointments. They are at the point of the triangle between churches and clergy, matchmakers who have on-site knowledge of their churches and ministers. This knowledge is shared with the bishop’s whole cabinet, and through shared discernment, matches are made.

In the UMC system defining an “opportunity” is always a matter of perspective. It takes conferencing about the perspective of the local church and its perception of desired leadership needs; the perspective of the clergy and where they are in their ministry or the importance of family considerations; and the perspective of the bishop and cabinet who are scanning the needs of the whole annual conference and doing their very best to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Connectionalism and working together is part and parcel of United Methodism. Therefore, appointments are made by the whole cabinet, though the Bishop alone is given constitutional authority (Par. 54, 2012 Book of Discipline) to do so after “consultation with the district superintendents.” Consultation includes local churches and clergy, too, and that appears in the form of church and clergy profiles. Therefore, everyone takes a hand, not least God, in our system of clergy deployment. Staff-Parish Relations Committees complete Church Profiles that describe the church, and clergy fill out Pastor Profiles that offer insights into their situations. By the way, both need to understand the importance of a well-presented profile. Those profiles will be pored over with microscopic attention when appointments are made. Please at least use spell-check!

A key paragraph from my perspective about appointment-making is found in Par. 428.4 which says, “All appointments shall receive consideration by the bishop, the district superintendent(s), and the cabinet as a whole until a tentative decision is made.” This fleshes out for me that our appointment-making system is a collegial effort, though the final decision indeed belongs to the bishop. As a former district superintendent who maxed out my tenure after 8 years, and one who is absolutely relishing being appointed to a thriving congregation, I think that a key word as we ramp up for the annual anxiety-laden period of possible clergy transitions is “perspective.”

The bishop and cabinet have a perspective about clergy and churches and the needs of the whole conference, and sometimes they have to make decisions about which only they know all the facts. Churches have their own unique perspective and rightly so if they can only count on one hand the number of effective ministers they have had in any given person’s lifetime. Clergy certainly have a unique perspective shaped by their family needs, and their sense of their gifts and graces and how they might be best utilized. So, what we have as we approach “appointment season” in the UMC is an “intriguing dance of perspectives,” a cooperative connectional effort to discern who goes where and who gets whom.

I pray for all those who are feeling the tensions rise in anticipation. Being on a trapeze with one hand letting go of one bar (pastor, church, friend, etc.) and willing to trust God enough to reach out for that the next bar (church, pastor, friend, etc.) is daunting, yet potentially thrilling. Throughout the whole process, as it is bathed in prayer, we absolutely must believe that God is in this enterprise, that Jesus will be glorified, however saddened or distraught we might be. In other words, we need more than a human perspective. We must affirm that a heavenly perspective is of highest importance. In our system we yield ourselves to a scary and vulnerable process not unlike the risk Jesus took in his incarnation.

So the word is “Perspective,” both divine and human. This is the essence of our belief in the system we call “itineracy,” the moving of clergy. John Wesley called itineracy the “apostolic plan of evangelization.” He thought that our “sent,” not “called” system was and is one of God’s best ways of mobilizing and energizing God’s salvific plan for humanity. I agree and have yielded myself to our peculiar process. Trust me, I haven’t always seen the wisdom of the bishop and cabinet, nor have all of my appointments been rosy. I do know this, however, that God has provided for me, my family, the local church, and the community. When we yield to a divine perspective all other perspectives come into focus!

Some people claim that their personal perspective is supreme and that their needs and/or agenda supplants and trumps everyone else’s. That’s not our system. I’ve seen people finagle their way upwards using manipulation and maneuvering, but, sooner or later, their solitary and self-promoting perspective will come to a halting stop. They have elevated what they want over saying “Yes!” and yielding. God help the UMC if that kind of personal aggrandizement ever wins the day.

Let me share a story that illustrates the illusion that getting our way and making what we think are unseen jabs is the way to go in appointment-making, whether by churches, clergy, district superintendents, and even bishops. Good appointment-making values everyone’s perspective, especially God’s. The story goes like this:

“During World War II, a general and his aide, a lieutenant, were traveling from one base to another. They were forced to travel with civilians aboard a passenger train. They found their compartments where two other folks were already seated – an attractive young lady and her grandmother. For most of the trip, they conversed freely. The train entered a long and rather dark tunnel. Once inside the tunnel, the passengers in this particular car heard two distinct sounds – the first was the smack of a kiss; the second was the loud sound of a slap.

Now, although these four people were in the same compartment aboard the passenger train, they came to four differing perspectives. The young lady thought how glad she was that the young lieutenant got up the courage to kiss her, but she was somewhat disappointed at her grandmother for slapping him for doing it; the general thought to himself how proud he was of his young lieutenant for being enterprising enough to find this opportunity to kiss the attractive young lady but was flabbergasted that she slapped him instead of the lieutenant; the grandmother was flabbergasted to think that the young lieutenant would have the gall to kiss her granddaughter, but was proud of her granddaughter for slapping him for doing it; and the young lieutenant was trying to hold back the laughter, for he found the perfect opportunity to kiss an attractive young girl and slap his superior officer all at the same time!”

Perhaps our so-called “opportunities” are not at all what they seem, or they are fleeting chances for us to “work” the system and “slap” the “Man” by bucking authority. We better be careful not to be so creative in our massaging the system that God’s video cam doesn’t catch us and we end up as our own worst enemy. I would rather trust the communal perspective of our appointment-making system than end up getting what I finagled for and be absolutely miserable. So, let’s trust everyone’s perspective, especially God’s! Everyone’s input insures a better opportunity for fruitful ministry.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

Narcie, Josh, and I at Josh’s Ordination

The red Stoles represent the Yoke of Christ saying that We YIELD to where we are SENT!

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Selective Hearing and Appointment Making

Poor listening has been called “selective hearing.” With about a week to go before we make appointments, I have been duly described and resemble the remark! Do I listen selectively to the S/PPRC or to the clergy? Do we as a Cabinet value the input of clergy over churches, churches over clergy, or give a fair hearing to all? These are tough questions, and starting March 3 we will find out the answers.

In my mind, clergy exist for churches, not the other way around. There are, however, special circumstances that may warrant extra consideration in terms of clergy assignments. Children’s education, proximity to doctors, and spousal employment come to mind. All that being said, in the United Methodist Church, clergy gave up their right to preferential treatment when they committed to the itinerancy.

We go where we’re sent and I personally know the ramifications. We found out that we were going to move just before annual conference one year. A clergyperson died suddenly and the Bishop called. The difficulty was that Narcie was going into her high school senior year, Cindy loved her job, and on top of those considerations the raise I was to receive was $300 annualized. Not a lot considering the sacrifice my family was going to make, but everything worked out! We stayed there 9 years and Narcie must not have been too affected by it since she’s a UM clergyperson now. I have taken a big cut since then, too, but fruitful ministry has resulted in spite of my reservations!

I guess the point is that fruitfulness always trumps personal prerogative. The Cabinet will do everything that we can to make churches and clergy happy. I know that this is a tense time for clergy and churches because I have had last ditch efforts thrown my way for several weeks now. There are clergy who a month ago wanted to move that now want to renege. There are churches who would rather keep their known pastor rather than risk receiving the unknown. Why? I think that the answer is quite evident. We have all been burned by bad matches.

I remember several years ago when we had a pastor that was low on about everybody’s list, and a DS took an educated chance. It ended up as a great match! I have seen pastors whose DS oversold them and it hasn’t worked out at all. I had a preacher come in here the other day who blatantly stated that they felt like they deserved a promotion. After a lengthy discussion of this person’s track record, I attempted to speak the truth in love that this person’s fruitfulness had been spotty at best. Of course, as usual, I got plenty of valid and not-so-valid excuses.

We have all heard them, whatever the profession or avocation: “It was my predecessor’s fault; the church didn’t want to grow; the church didn’t serve the community; they were dysfunctional; a family chapel; too liberal, too conservative, too conflicted; they wanted a white male, a female (wish I heard that one more), and on and on.” I have heard churches voice the usual: “We want someone with experience who’s 25.” Good luck with that!

There comes a point in time when the reality adds up to mediocrity and a person’s portfolio of ministry simply falls short of everyone’s expectations. Sure, they did good things, people’s lives were touched, but they either didn’t light up the scoreboard or outkicked their coverage. Maybe they could thrive in a greater work, but the facts seem to dictate that they would be better off serving a lesser one. Since gauging what’s greater and lesser is often theologically and empirically impossible, maybe they need to do something entirely different with their life which gets to a key point for me.

What if a lot of our mediocrity in the pew and the pulpit is due to people’s high expectations and low performance? What if our clergy problem is because people went searching for God by going to seminary and came out with a degree in hand and ended up looking for a career? We must recapture the theology and language of call over career. I honestly think that most clergy feel called, but I am afraid that along the way the call for many has dissipated into a career.

We don’t have time as the church in a hurting world to dither between play acting as either church members or as clergy. It’s time to get real! Church members who don’t take discipleship seriously should NOT serve as church council members. Put those nominal Christians and a pastor who is career minded together and the certain result is a lack of fruitfulness.

One of the biggest myths for United Methodist clergy is that your ministry track will be this long ever-climbing straight line from the bottom at the beginning to the top at the end with an ever increasing salary. The reality is that the ministry track for many persons should look like a bell curve which is low in the beginning, peaks in the middle, then concludes with a tapering and diminishing end.

There are some clergy who do keep rising until they retire but they are few and far between, and they aren’t into comparing themselves with other clergy. They bloom where they’re planted and go where they are sent! Their fruitfulness hasn’t diminished and won’t!

I have seen S/PPRC’s buy into mythology when they think that if they cut the salary they’ll get a young preacher, or if they raise the salary they’ll get a better one. Myths abound for clergy and laity alike! Unfortunately, sometimes myth becomes reality. Regardless, any clergyperson who thinks that their worth is determined by salary is bound to be disappointed. Any church that worships their pastor and/or puts restrictions on their pastor’s preferred gender, race, age, family size, or marital status is limiting what the Holy Spirit can possibly do in their parish.

The truth as I see it is that we go as clergy where we’re sent and churches receive whomever they are sent. Sounds simple, and I thought it was 8 years ago when I came on the Cabinet. I know better now. Matching clergy and churches is unbelievably difficult. Cabinets try to listen carefully to your needs with a primary focus on local church fruitfulness. We try to avoid stereotypes about age, race, gender, location, and where someone went to seminary. I am firmly convinced now that teaching each clergyperson and church how to complete a pastor/church profile would go a long way in helping everyone involved start off on the right foot. That profile is a welcome mat to your soul as a person or as a church. Get it right because selective hearing is hard to correct if what you’re saying is garbled!

Tim at Wedding

Kicked to the Curb by Daylight Savings Time!

Daylight Savings Time has hit me hard this week. It has kicked me to the curb! Maybe it’s because it followed directly on the heels of Appointment-making Week as a DS and I’ve had 22 meetings since Sunday with church leaders and clergy where a pastoral change is anticipated. There have been other meetings, too. When I woke up yesterday morning to the darkness and rain, I did not want to get out of bed, but I made it. This morning I’m in an antihistamine induced fog from the pre-spring pollen brought on by the blooming rain, pun intended. On top of that, there have been more than a couple of those phone calls this morning that every DS, pastor, business person, and whomever gets from someone and you’re left wondering, “What in the world was that about?”

Maybe it’s me. Heck, I’m certain it’s me that’s fuzzy today, but it is really scary when it seems to be contagious. I don’t think there’s a full moon out, but it feels like it. I’ve met or dealt with more than my share of folks who seem to be suffering from what I call “full-moon-itis.” Just as the moon affects the tides, do you ever wonder if it pulls on some people’s brains, stretching them a little farther than necessary from their spinal cords resulting in a peculiar lack of clarity and good sense? It’s even worse when, like today, it’s a mutual lunar pull toward the abyss of nonsense. This just might be one of those days when I just need to go home! We’ll see.

In the meantime, I will do my best to not react but respond. I even have a few standard statements to remind me to chill out. One is “I have no opinion.” Of course, I have one, but I try to stay objective and actively listen. Basically it’s a phrase that allows another person’s ideas to run their course and hope that sanity returns. Another non-anxious response to ponderous situations is, “That’s interesting.” When said I try to make sure I don’t twitch, raise an eyebrow, or move my head in any direction. No exclamation point. If I move anything or even blink, invariably I’ll hear words put in my mouth later, “The DS said….” My last resort retort is “Fascinating…” if what I hear is really a doozy. Again, don’t move anything!

Of course, I just revealed the default language that I often use to keep my wits about me. By the way, what you will never want to hear from me is “How nice!” Some of you probably know the source of this phrase. Please hear me say very carefully that this is not a preachable story, and if anyone is offended, please blame it on my condition.

It comes from a story of two Southern Belles sitting on the veranda of a grand home. Anyway, the two women are sitting there sipping their mint juleps. One woman is named Darlene and the other is Dessie Mae. Darlene proceeds to tell Dessie Mae all the wonderful things that her husband, Billy Bob, has done for her. She exclaims, “Look at the 5 carat diamond Billy Bob gave me. It wasn’t my birthday or anniversary. He just said, ‘Honey, this is for you!’” Dessie Mae responds by saying, “How nice,” which really sounds like, “How nyce,” in her elongated southern-accented lingo. Anyway, Darlene continues with her accolades for Billy Bob by saying, “Dessie Mae, do you see the red corvette convertible under the magnolia tree? Billy Bob just dropped the keys in my hand one day and said, ‘Honey, this is for you. I thought you would look good in red.’ It wasn’t my birthday or anything. Billy Bob is such a dear.” Dessie Mae responded by saying, “How nice.” Then Darlene said, “Dessie Mae, you know what else he did? Last year he sent me on a ten-day cruise, bought me a bunch of gowns, didn’t go with me, and said, ‘Honey, you have fun and dance with whoever you want to. You deserve it!’ It wasn’t my birthday or anything like it.” Dessie Mae responded once again, “How nice.”

Finally Darlene said, “I’m sorry, Dessie Mae, I’ve been going on and on about everything that Billy Bob has done for me. Has your husband ever done anything like this for you?” Dessie Mae replied, “Why, Yes! Last year he sent me off to charm school and now instead of saying ‘Up …..,’ I say, ‘How nice.’”

I don’t know what your day is like today, but please don’t make it worse by saying “How nice.” I pledge, even in my condition, to listen intently, offer appropriate responses, and work my way back into the land of the living. You can only blame so much on the time change, sleep deprivation, and the full moon. I need Jesus and to follow his admonition in Matthew 10:16 to be as “shrewd as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.” I also need to heed Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath…”  It’s fascinating, and I really mean it!

Appointment-making and Itinerancy!

As I write this our appointment-making cabinet is on lunch break, and I thought it might be a good time to write a few reflections. This effort tends to affect your desire to eat anyway. For me, it either makes me want to endlessly get up and graze at our snack table, or makes my appetite utterly disappear. I’m not too hungry today. Those whose lives depend upon what we do here, don’t let my lack of appetite freak you out. Things are going extremely well as we ponder the best match of pastoral gifts and graces and church needs. I appreciate so much Bishop Jonathan Holston, South Carolina’s new bishop. He is a keen observer of people and has already made significant relationships across our annual conference that informs this process. He is transparent, fair, and impresses upon the cabinet that the missional aspect of our appointments should always be foremost in our shared thinking.

We follow Wesley’s rules of “Do no harm. Do Good. Stay in love with God.” We are very careful to avoid harming churches and clergy (including their families). We sincerely want to do good for all involved. We especially want to honor and stay in love with God for whom this kingdom-building enterprise exists. This is hard work, exhausting work. We use every bit of information that we can muster identifying church needs and clergy gifts and family contexts. We pore over statistical data that churches supply along with their self-identified opportunities and points of concern. We try to look for laser-like clarity as we study the consultation information and profiles of clergy. We kill a lot of trees with putting together all this information about churches and pastors, plus we have all sorts of electronic information that we project on the screen in the room. It’s an arduous process and we need your prayers. The clergy and families along with the churches need plenty of prayer, too.

We are a sent-system of clergy deployment. Ministers are called by God when they enter United Methodist ministry and are sent from then on. Churches don’t call pastors, and preachers don’t self-select their places of service. We try to make for good matches so that Jesus is glorified and God’s grace is more effectively shared. I have even pondered if we might spread the Word better if we moved all of our church members and left the clergy where they are. That would be missional!

I can remember the times in my ministry when I have really wondered about the wisdom or apparent lack thereof behind appointment-making. Everyone in United Methodist itinerant ministry and all the churches who have been receiving pastors over the years have been burned more than a few times. We have probably all wondered, “Did the District Superintendent listen to us?” After seven years as a DS I know that the answer is “Yes!” Sometimes that listening doesn’t provide an answer that’s either expected or desired. My experience on the Cabinet is that we try our very best to be faithful to this ministry for the good of all and for the glory of God.

A lot of you, clergy and SPRC Chairs, are going to get expected and unexpected phone calls at the end of the week. Please know that you are appreciated, prayed for, and loved. Let’s all continue to bathe this process in prayer. Every day we have appointments to keep. As United Methodists this takes on special meaning during this time of year. What does God want you to do today? As we make appointments, my prayer is that we all keep our God-appointments today. May our walk with God empower all of lives to be fruitful wherever we’re sent today!

Addendum: I just grazed at the snack table and was sifting through the mini-candy bars and felt something unusual. It was a Baby Ruth all sealed up with nothing but air inside. All kinds of thoughts and sermon uses have popped into my head, plus some thoughts about some of our churches and clergy and appointment-making. Before you take offense, no, of course, I’m not talking about you! Nevertheless, what sermon titles or appointment thoughts pop into your mind? “All Dressed up, but nothing inside,” “Nice Wrapper…,” “All Show and No Dough,” “Looks Good on the outside, Empty on the inside,” …. lots of possibilities come to mind. Tell me your thoughts as it pertains to the church! Congress is off-limits!

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Deadheading the Church!

Yesterday afternoon I noticed that our pansy bed looked pretty bleak. Too many of the blooms had disappeared and stared forming bulging seed pods. My mother taught me years ago that unless you pinched off the dead heads then all the pansy’s efforts and energy would go into self-preservation. Pansies want to make seeds to propagate new pansies, but my mother wanted more blooms, not more pansies! If you let the plants spend all of their nutrients in forming seed pods there would be no new flowers.

This is an interesting analogy for my Monday morning thoughts about the United Methodist Church, Pope Benedict’s upcoming resignation, and the church at large. How much of our energy is spent in preserving the institution or producing blooms? I’m headed tomorrow to the General Commission on Religion Race where I serve as a Director and member of the Executive Committee. We have listened carefully to the findings of the United Methodist Church’s Call to Action: that we need younger people, more diverse people, and more people. To accomplish this do we do what we have been doing and preserve a valued history, or do we reach beyond our legislated responsibilities of monitoring the past? This is the crux: monitor the past or resource the future! Will we proactively focus on assisting annual conferences and local churches so that they produce fruitful diversity?

In my Monday morning devotions I usually try to focus on the next Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the lectionary. This coming Sunday’s text is Luke 13:1-9 about the fig tree in the vineyard that is about to be uprooted for lack of fruit. For three years the landowner has been looking for fruit and it hasn’t produced. It has been using up valuable nutrients for the surrounding grapes, too. However, the vineyard worker’s argument for patience won out over the landowner’s desire for figs. The fig tree was given another year’s extension with the proviso that there would be plenty of digging and fertilization to produce figs, or “Up she goes!”

I know that this is a parable with implied meanings that aren’t even close to being literal. Jesus answered the people’s ponderings of why there were sudden deaths in Luke 13:1-5 with this fig tree/vineyard answer. Jesus uses this parable to say that unless we bear fruit we’ll be uprooted and die, too. In other words, his answer sidestepped questions of why sudden tragedies occur and turned philosophical pondering into action. It was as if he were saying, “Everybody is going to die, but is everybody ready? Time is running out on your usefulness!”

But is this all that there is to the parable? My mind has been whirring like a top this morning! I never noticed before that this is a fig tree in a vineyard full of grapes! The vineyard worker knows grapes, not figs. Fig trees don’t get deadheaded or pruned; grapes do. Why would anyone want a fig tree in a vineyard anyway? Was its purpose to provide snacks for the vineyard workers? Am I thinking too literally? Probably, but I never noticed that this was a parable about cross-cultural appointments!

Ah! We’ll I am a District Superintendent and I know the hard work of cross-cultural/multi-cultural appointment making. One of the best ones in our Annual Conference is occurring because we spent a year preparing everything, and it has taken five years of digging and fertilizing to see a great return on our efforts.

We get the results that we work for. If we want flowers instead of ungerminated pansy seeds, we have to deadhead the vampire pods that are sucking the life out of making blooms. In the church we often avoid the difficult tasks of discipleship assuming with false hope that things will turn out okay if we just passively wait things out. That kind of inertia preserves the institution, but doesn’t bear fruit. Oh, we can make excuses about not being planted where we’re supposed to be; i.e., with other fig trees in an orchard tended by someone who understands in ins and outs of fig trees, or we can bloom where we’re planted, even in a vineyard surrounded by grapes that are raisins in the making!

I often think that we would rather preserve the institution; i.e., the fig tree, the vineyard, the pansies, the papacy, and the church than dig around, add effort for change and upset the status quo! We would rather focus on what we know which are grapes than deal with an opportunity to branch out, pun intended, into fig production. God help us if we are so myopic that we miss the fact that this world has more opportunities than we can imagine if we are willing to diversify and broaden our thinking!

Wouldn’t the Roman Catholic Church do well to address its male-only priesthood? Will the Roman Catholic Church use this critical time as an opportunity for change, or spend its energy preserving the institution? There are huge questions that the United Methodist Church must answer, too. Can we solve spiritual problems with structural solutions? How do we profess to have open hearts, doors, and minds yet find ourselves fractured by both liberal and literal fundamentalism that leaves no room for compromise? Are we arguing among ourselves more than we’re making disciples? Every general church agency, every local church and every Christian has a question to answer: What are we here for – to produce more pansies/new churches, or to produce more new blooms/disciples? What do you think the answer is, deadhead or not?

fig tree

Connected Appointment Making

As a District Superintendent I’m about to head to our Appointment-making Week. I just came back in after spending 3 hours walking with one of the Columbia District clergy. Every Spring and Summer I spend three hours with each clergyperson doing whatever they want to do so we get to know each other at the heart level. Last night I had a long church local conference with a fine church that had some issues that needed to be addressed. Without knowledge of that church the impasse would have remained, but everything worked out well. I know them and they know me and that helped tremendously. I don’t think District Superintendents can adequately represent clergy or churches without personal knowledge. Connectionalism only works if we’re really connected.

This was important in my first parish and every parish. In my first appointment I pastored three churches for five years. I moved from seminary in Boston, Massachusetts to the outskirts of Cheraw, South Carolina. Although I grew up in South Carolina, I had never been in the Pee Dee region. As a matter of fact, I was under the mistaken impression that there were only three regions in our fair state: the Lowcountry, the Midlands, and the Upstate. I learned rather quickly that the Pee Dee is a separate region unto itself, with characteristics of the other three.

I had never heard of “funeralizing” someone. “Chicken Bog” sounded like something you could get stuck in rather than something wonderful to eat. I learned the hard way what a “colyum” was. I asked directions to a church member’s house and was told to turn at the house with “colyums.” Only after stopping at a country store and asking did I discover that a “colyum” was a “column.” Every place has a unique story, even vocabulary.

Each of the three churches was unique, as they should have been. Pleasant Grove was closest to town, situated on a four-lane highway. The folks there pronounced “Cheraw” as “Sha-rah” like “que sera sera.” The people at Mt. Olivet near Teal’s Mill pronounced it as “Chur-rah.” The members of the smallest church, Bethesda, pronounced it as “Chee-raw.” Each church was unique in attitudes, worship styles, and socio-economic preferences.

These differences were especially evident in how each “did” church. Pleasant Grove was closer to town and the music and worship reflected this. Mt. Olivet’s choir was more oriented toward quartets. Bethesda had no choir and the congregation primarily chanted their music except when Cindy played the piano for them.

Bethesda loved revivals and baptisms at the creek. Each Sunday for five years my sermons went through a cultural time-warp as I criss-crossed Thompson’s Creek in my used Plymouth Arrow. I preached every Sunday at 9:45 a.m. at Mt. Olivet, 11:15 a.m. at Pleasant Grove, and at 12:30 p.m. at Bethesda. Bethesda loved what I would call “Hard-Preaching.” They wanted the unadulterated truth straight from the Bible, no humor – all with the bluster of a whirlwind with accompanying fire and brimstone with a dash of thunder and lightning.

They didn’t like the Gospel “sugar-coated,” so to speak. Now, understand, this didn’t mean that they lived up to the Word any more than the other churches. These were hard-living people. They had tough lives and were poverty-stricken, but they also exacerbated their own situations by adding their personal fuel (usually moonshine) to their already tenuous existences. I think they needed Hard-Preaching because they knew themselves. They didn’t hide behind fancy liturgies and worship services. They came to church for medicine, and they expected it to taste like castor oil.

I remember one of my first funerals at Bethesda. I thought that I should comfort the family by bringing out all the good things that I could glean from the deceased’s life. He was a rascal by many people’s estimation. I learned very quickly that I needed to tell the truth at subsequent funerals. It was after this funeral that I first heard the pointed joke about the woman who told her son to go check who was in the casket because the preacher had described a man that was a lot better than the one she was married to. The lesson learned was this: if you don’t own up to sin you can’t appreciate grace.

Lent is our time to lay down pretenses and be honest – no sugar-coating. That’s the lesson from Bethesda: grace excels when you need it most! By the way, each of the three churches was the scene of each of our children’s baptisms. Narcie was baptized at Pleasant Grove, Josh at Mt. Olivet, and Caleb at Bethesda. Each of those churches will remain special in many ways. They trained me as a young pastor and taught me how to live incarnationally with diverse and unique individuals. They especially taught me about grace in the midst of judgment. They were and remain vital to our family.

As we make appointments this week I am profoundly reminded that the Cabinet has to know the churches and clergy whom we will consider. This Annual Conference is our family. The Lenten discipline of speaking the truth in love, helpful insight mixed with bared souls is necessary. If we want to do our part to increase the number of vital congregations we have to express an intimate knowledge of every person and church on the table. Effective and grace-filled appointment-making depends on it!