Cindy and I got back from Lake Junaluska late Thursday night and had quite the full day on Friday. She caught up on sorting things around the house as we anticipate moving next year, since her time for doing this is running short because she knows the clock is winding down for school to start back. I spent the day having the car worked on, sitting in one of the dealership’s computer work stations typing up a bunch of Cabinet stuff.

We had been at Junaluska for our Cabinet Retreat. It’s when we do a lot of team building and plan for the rest of the conference year. For United Methodists the new year started with our Annual Conference in June. Now is the bit of respite between set-up meetings for clergy and the start of Charge Conferences. After two wonderfully intense visioning days focusing on teamwork we got down to the nuts and bolts of the 2013-14 new conference year; composing the calendar that represents our life together and our common mission, deciding on this year’s Appointment Process; changes in Charge Conference forms; amendments to Cabinet Policies that cover everything from who pays for what in moving costs for clergy to Records Retention rules, and a whole lot more! As Cabinet Secretary I get to write and edit all this stuff, and for the most part I actually like it!  After all, a part of me is a process kind of guy who likes order.

But I’m also a dreamer who loves art – go figure. I love connecting the dots of our methodical process, and I feel that the covenant that holds us together is more of a creative thing than a rules thing. Being United Methodist is more a faith praxis (practice), or way of being, than a blind adherence to a set of rules in the most current Book of Discipline. You read it as much as I do and you start noticing the typos and mistakes. Try to figure out the official age of a young adult in the 2012 BOD (Paragraph 602.4). In less than five lines a young adult is defined as “between the ages of 18 and 30” and subsequently as “not younger than 18 and not older than 35.” So is it 19 to 30, or 18 to 35, and how much does it matter since we as a worldwide denomination have real different experiences of what that means? I used to care more about this stuff. I still notice and like the conundrums but the patterns and praxis of why we do what we do is much more interesting to me.

Part of our retreat time included taking Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and I came back as an an “ENFP.”  Now, 36+ years ago when I came into UM ministry and had to take the MBTI as a part of my psychological testing, I was declared an “ESTJ” – an extroverted, sensing, thinking, judging person. But in looking at the differences through the guidance of this week’s facilitators, the ENFP label fits who I am better.  I can see that during that time as an ESTJ, I’ve been someone who is outgoing, sensing the truth through empirical evidence, thinking things through, and a pretty critical judge of others and the facts — the kind of person who thinks and acts in a linear/literal sense and who loves rules!  But now that I consider it, that’s the guy I turn(ed) into when I’m stressed, afraid, or insecure – something the expectations of marriage, fatherhood, and the church drew me toward. For a long time I felt like I had to work, work, work to prove my worth.  Looking back, though, that isn’t who I was as a new Christian or where my heart has always been.

The guy Cindy fell in love with and married was/is an ENFP who is just a bit extroverted (a low “4”), is intuitive (N) and discerns and reads people and processes, is more into feeling than thinking (I am a potter after all), and perceives more than judges; i.e., even as a multi-decade parliamentarian it is more important for me to do the right things than to do things right! People rather than rules for rule’s sake come first in the ENFP worldview. Ministry isn’t a quota system of numbers of visits or sermons but is about being relational and thereby relevant. As you’ve heard me say before, one of my favorite life mantras of all time is from martyred missionary Jim Elliott, whose widowed bride, Elisabeth, was one of my most significant seminary professors and said: “Wherever you are, be all there.”

So maybe everything we have been through in the last few years has brought me full circle to where God’s heart and mine have most easily intersected. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore, and can just allow God to bathe me in life, family, faith, throwing clay, camping, and a little more “What-the-hecking-it” with a lot of stuff. Freedom! I can enjoy this wonderful gift of life and love and let go of fear of failure. Cindy and I can have a great time together, and be blessed by Narcie, Josh, and Caleb and their love and loves, and our grandchildren, of course! I would encourage you to retake the Meyers-Briggs or do it for the first time. It helped me get a perspective on things that I was feeling but couldn’t adequately describe.

A half-drunk Congressman once staggered up to the table of the late newspaperman Horace Greely and said in a loud but slurred voice, “I’m a self-made man!” Greeley replied that he was glad to hear it, “for it certainly relieves God of a great responsibility.” Acting like or being something we’re not isn’t worth the trouble and it still exposes what we really are.  All the cover-ups that we pull in overwork, name-dropping, and any other overcompensation are pretty darn obvious anyway. I truly resemble the remarks made about a man who was less than average in height, a little fleshy, and also bald. One day he and his wife were walking down a busy sidewalk when the guy turned to his wife and said, “Did you see that pretty young woman smile at me?” His wife replied, “Oh, that’s nothing. The first time I saw you I laughed out loud!” Thank you, Cindy, for not laughing at me too much, and for putting up with me anytime I tried to be somebody I really wasn’t.  And thank God for God’s grace through Jesus, that gives love to us all!

Armchair Quarterbacking and the Church

Armchair quarterbacking isn’t just a description for sports fanatics who party hard and offer unsolicited advice to coaches and players. The church is full of the same kind of couch potatoes, too. So many people try to enjoy the benefits of Christianity and the church without contributing anything themselves. I’m a bit tired of hearing churches complain about their pastors, when they themselves don’t offer to do anything to help. I also tired of pastors who say that they didn’t do such-and-such because that wasn’t what God called them to do as clergy. Give me a break! Being a follower of Christ pushes us past our comfort zones. If not, then our Christianity and our call are called into question. Jesus said, “If anyone would be my disciple, he or she must take up a cross and follow me.” There is no comfort in cross bearing.

Being Christian certainly places demands upon a person. Church is not a spectator sport. Like fall football games, one has to get into the game and contribute to earn a letter. The church throughout the ages has been called to be active players for Christ. In our United Methodist vows for membership people are supposed to uphold the church by their prayers, presence, gifts, service and, newly added, witness for Christ. Being a witness for Christ should have been assumed all along, especially since, in Acts 1:8, Jesus said that we would be His witnesses from home to everywhere. The scary part is that the Greek word for “witness” is the root of the word, martyr. For centuries, Christians knew that their faith was synonymous with martyrdom, a willingness to die for Jesus.

How unlike today, we might assume. Yet, Christians are still put to death for their faith in places like the Middle East, Sudan and India. Self-sacrifice and cross-bearing are happening in the U.S., too. At charge conferences I hear how individuals and churches have been witnesses. I have seen real discipleship. I have heard reports about mission trips to Colombia and Nicaragua, Salkehatchie Summer Service, support for Killingsworth Home for Women, Epworth Children’s Home, Sistercare, Oliver Gospel Mission, countless food pantries and so many more ministries. The list could go on and on!

However, the 80/20 rule does bother me. A common theme is how so few do so much in our communities and in the life of our churches. The 80/20 rule states the obvious – 80 percent do 20 percent of the work and 20 percent do 80 percent. Authentic Christianity is defined by the 100/100 rule. By virtue of our baptism every Christian is called to ministry. One hundred percent of us are called to do one hundred percent of the work, with one important qualification. We are to give and serve according to our abilities. Not all of us can go overseas or preach a sermon. Not all of us can give thousands of dollars to the work of the church. But, we can all give and do our fair share as God has blessed us. Therefore, we should give and do as God has given and done for us!

I’ve got some churches and pastors freaking out about metrics. I’m not a personal fan of them myself if they are used against a church or pastor. I think that they are great if they help a church gauge how it is doing and then reset their priorities, goals, and strategies. I like what Bonnie Ricks said, “Our actions are a reflection of our faith, not a report card.” Frankly, though, they are a little bit of both. They are a reflection of our faith and faithfulness and should be a report card spurring us on toward love and good deeds. Halfwayness and mediocrity is killing us! We need people to be all-in for Jesus!

Several children were bored until one of them suggested that they play church. They played for a while, but were soon bored again. Then, one of the little boys said, “Hey! I got it! Let’s play Jesus!” The other children asked, “How do you do that?” The boy said, “Well, first you would be mean to me, and tie me up. Then, you would pretend to hit me, and spit on me, and call me names.”

The children decided to try it for a while, but they quickly felt repulsed by their own actions. They stopped, uncomfortable with this game. The boy playing Jesus was especially anxious to quit. He said, “Let’s not play Jesus any more; let’s go back to playing church!”

Do you want to play church or be the church? It ain’t for the faint of heart!

Christmas Is Coming!

I’ve got pottery to make for Christmas and my forearms hurt from 6 hours of doing it yesterday. So far I’ve made my stuff for the Killingsworth Auction to help one of our women’s shelters. One of my ministers is getting married and her vase is made. I’ve done another 51 bowls and vases for the staff in the United Methodist Center. What I have left are 20 pieces for the Cabinet, 20 pieces for the family, and 100 Christmas ornaments for all of the Columbia District clergy, active and retired. Plus everything has to be bisque-fired and then glazed and fired again. It’s a daunting task. I love doing it. I’m just tired.

I never keep anything for myself and relish giving it away. I don’t grow vegetables to offer people, but pottery I can do! My problem is that I’m not finished with Charge Conferences and today is November 2! Christmas parties and the Big Day itself are right around the corner. Can it be done? I’ve got glazes to mix and there’s little fun in putting your hands in wet glaze and sieving it through a mesh on a cold day. That my pottery studio isn’t heated doesn’t help. What will be my motivation to finish the task?

Psychologists, for years, have said that one of the best ways to get out of the doldrums is to make yourself do something for somebody else. They’re right! If we give in to the pits we’re never going to get out. Commitment is the ability to push through the pain, the angst, the pessimistic cynical mindset in which we find ourselves and keep at the projects that we’re supposed to complete. George Miller gave an interesting analogy, “The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.” What he’s saying about Italian food is true for me. It sticks with me for a long time. To paraphrase John Wesley, “Doing all the good we can sticks with us, too!” We have to keep at the things that matter!

So, when we’re a little down, we shouldn’t give in to it. We should stick to the things that we know that we’re supposed to do. Sure, I know very well that sometimes I don’t feel like going out to my pottery studio, but I also know the endorphins that are released when I throw clay will make me feel better. Visiting someone, doing my devotions, or presiding over Charge Conferences isn’t always appealing, but spiritual energy is released every time!  Missionary and martyr Jim Elliott said something that inspires me to be committed no matter the task: “Wherever you are, be all there.” Unfortunately, there are lots of us looking forward to the weekend too much. Many of us easily avoid the things we should be doing right now. Jerome K. Jerome, who lived from 1859-1927, said it for all sad-sacks and procrastinators, “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

So maybe we shouldn’t vegetate and let our burdens build up. Doing something good and worthwhile is a better answer. It’s all about commitment. Lewis Smedes puts the matter quite plainly, “I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God… When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and control at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.” Today I will think of others and let nothing dissuade me from doing everything that I can for somebody else!

Steve Jobs, Daddy, and Abraham Lincoln on Reconcilation

Have you ever felt like telling someone to go to the bad place? My Dad was a master at telling someone to go to you-know-where and they would still walk away smiling. It was amazing to watch. He always said if you were around someone who was having a fit of anger, “give ’em a horse to ride home on.” What I saw him do and what I think he meant is that conflict happens and it can literally blow up in your face. The secret to surviving is being peacemaker enough in what you say so that after you say it, it doesn’t hit them until their on the way home. You want them at a safe enough distance when they figure out what hit them. I’m not trying to say Daddy was sneaky or passive-aggressive in his goat-getting. He wanted to say the right thing so that people’s anger would dissipate. He didn’t compromise but he said things in a way that people could hear it. He was a peacemaker.

Man, have I had some humdinger charge conferences and need to remember Daddy’s advice. Actually it didn’t originate with him. The Proverbs say that “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” Paul told Timothy similar words  in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” Sounds like a New Testament version of Daddy’s method. Use humor, reframe the question, don’t let it get personal, pray and, yet, stand your ground speaking the truth in love. Gosh, we’re terrible at that part, aren’t we. We would rather kiss up or a little lower down than dare to confront the bully who’s been ramming their version of the truth down everybody else’s throats at church.  How can we avoid it?

Steve Jobs’ death reminds me of the uncanny knack he had in making peace with his naysayers. Sure he was exacerbatingly obsessed with details, but he was a survivor of trench warfare in the business world. He knew how to let off steam, keep his integrity, and be a peacemaker. I won’t bore you with details you haven’t already heard on CNN, but, suffice it to say, he had the art of giving people a horse to ride home on down pat. He started Apple with Woz his partner then got ousted by the Board of Directors, started Pixar of “Toy Story” fame then was brought back to Apple on his own terms after making a bundle selling Pixar. Instead of a long list of angry Steve Jobs haters, there’s a long list of people he worked for, was fired by, and with whom he then reconciled. Genius! He turned computerese from lines of unintelligible code to a extension of a person’s hand via the iPhone thereby blurring the lines between phones and computers, but he did so much more. What was one of his best gifts to humanity ? It was both his secret to gadget building and peacemaking: perspective.

Perspective is a key ingredient to any recipe for peacemaking. Why is this person so  miffed in this church meeting? What is the underlying cause? If the response is way over the top for the context then, trust me, the issue isn’t about you. There’s something else going on in this person’s life so grin and bear it, use some humor, clarify the facts and speak the truth but don’t sink to the emotional level of the offensive party. Stay objective and, like Steve Jobs, you can not only go back to work for them but actually enjoy it. Wow! Take a listen to his speech for Stanford’s commencement address 6 years ago, right after he found out he had cancer: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It cleans out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic but it is quite true.” MSNBC said of this quote: “That was typical Jobs: Dramatic and no-nonsense all in the same breath.” Perspective! When you think the junk you’re going through is enough to make you want to fire everybody or lambast the whole church leadership – Whoa, keep the big picture in mind, state your piece, let the chips fall where they may, and give ’em a horse to ride home on. Use some perspective!

And, by the way, Steve Jobs was wrong in his Stanford address, at least sort of wrong. He said “Death is the destination we all share. No one has escaped it.” Well, yeah, except for Jesus. He did die. He couldn’t escape the process on Golgotha, but he did get out of the tomb!!! Now that perspective actually makes the small potatoes of church conflict or any conflict for that matter seem more bearable. Abraham Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War, decided to get rid of one of his prominent Cabinet members. Republican Senators met with him and demanded that if he was going to get rid of one then they should all go. Lincoln said, “Let me tell you a story about a farmer from Illinois. His farm had a family of skunks that bothered everybody. The farmer’s wife told him to do something about it so the farmer went out one moonlit night, shotgun in hand, and the family of seven skunks came around the barn. He blasted away. He went back inside and his wife asked him what happened. He told her this: I saw the seven skunks and shot at ’em and killed one. He raised such a terrible stink I decided to let the other 6 go.” The senators left Abraham Lincoln laughing, rode their horses home and figured it out. Thanks, Daddy and Thanks, Steve Jobs for giving me a little perspective on life and keeping the peace. Give ’em a horse to ride home on.

Zingers and Well/Ill-Intentioned Dragons

I’m a creature of habit although I do like to try new things. Being shocked by the taste of a new dish isn’t something I relish when I already know what I like. As I have been engaged in multiple Charge Conferences at churches, and Consultations with pastors, I have attempted to go beyond my comfort zone and ask questions that I hope exceed the mundane same-old-same-old. I like to have time for a town-hall style meeting where we actually air questions that need asking and answering. One question that I’ve been asking to help prod things along is, “Why do we have Charge Conferences? What is the theological reason to do this?”

Now, to be sure, it’s wrapped up in United Methodism’s methodical DNA to add up the numbers of new members, deaths, transfers, and all the other offical things we vote on and hear about at Charge Conference; but all this belies a deeper purpose. Our emphasis on sanctifying grace is supposed to lead us into a closer walk with God, and we believe that we need to check on our progress. Therefore, District Superintendents come around and ask the questions and look at the reports. We’re answering two basic questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?”
So far Charge Conferences have gone pretty well. There have been a few tense moments and I have received and offered some zingers, but that’s all a part of supervision and the give-and-take of being a part of a connectional system. One of the things that I need to work on is not being reactive and staying calm. There have been well and ill-intentioned dragons in more than a few of the meetings in which I’ve been. What to do or say in such a moment is a perpetual question.
The following is an example of a poor zinger plus poor timing, not the way I want to be, although secretly I may be tempted: There were two evil brothers. They were rich, and used their money to keep their evil ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church, and looked to be perfect Christians. Then their pastor retired, and a new one was appointed. Not only could he see right through the brothers’ deception, but he was also a good preacher so the church started to grow by leaps and bounds. A fund raising campaign was started to build a new sanctuary. All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building. “I have only one condition,” he said. “At my brother’s funeral, you must say that he was a saint.” The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check. The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” the pastor said. “He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on and on in this vein for awhile, he concluded with, “But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

Shared Ministry!?!

I have been conducting Charge Conferences one and two a night except for Friday and Saturday, plus up to four on Sundays. In addition, Consultations with pastors have been every hour on the hour each day through tomorrow. Both Charge Conferences and Consultations have been excellent and informative. There have been some tensions as we finish up the business and I open up a “town-hall” style conversation about ministry. In particular, there has been fruitful seed-planting about a dream that I have to deal with the 16 churches within 5-6 miles of my office.
These 16 churhes have about 3,000 members and around 1,000 in average attendance. They are pastored by mostly elders, 3 retired supply persons, and two Probationers. Each church has its own identity and is doing vital and valid ministry. The situation that presents itself is that these churches are all struggling in a sense. The attendance in the churches starts at 25 with a high of 125. There has been disciple-making, but little numerical growth. The total salary amount for the clergy serving these churches is over $630,000, not counting accountable reimbursement or housing allowances in lieu of parsonages. Only three of the churches have parsonages.
I don’t want to have a cooperative parish system because my experience is that model smacks too much of being one foot already in the grave; i.e., “Let’s continue to do our own thing but get together every now and then until we shrink to the point that we have to be closed.” Another model suggests that larger churches can absorb smaller ones as satellite congregations. This strikes me as a “hostile takeover” no matter how good the intentions are. Another model is where a larger church has an Associate Pastor who serves in that role and as Pastor-in-Charge in a nearby smaller congregation. Then, of course, is the idea of mergers but that creates a mutated DNA mixture that could be deadly.
The model that I’m pondering most has groupings (clusters) of similar churches in close proximity that avoids any sense of takeover and affirms each church’s identity. The 16 churches that I’m specifically thinking about could be grouped into 2 or 3 clusters for a “Shared Ministry.” They would have their own pastor who would be there 75% of the time, but share clergy responsibilities with other clergy from the Shared Ministry Group. For instance, a clergy for a particular church may be that church’s “pastor,” but there would be a degree of rotation in preaching duties to underscore the connectional nature of a Shared Ministry.
I wouldn’t need 16 pastors to handle these 1,000 people. I also wouldn’t need over $630,000 to fund the clergy. But this is much bigger than saving money and stewardship of human resources (After all we do have a clergy shortage in SC). The primary impetus is to help these struggling churches do more and do it together. If I put the slogan that comes to mind for this on a T-shirt it would read, “Together We Can Do More!” Maybe 6 elders would be enough to handle the pastoral needs including several who might be retired Supply. I would want at least 2 Deacons to handle Programming and Christian Education opportunites that can be shared with all the churches in the cluster. Plus, I would want superb persons for Children’s, Youth, Young Adult, and Older Adult Ministries that would be individual and shared. All total There would be 12 clergy and ministry staff persons instead of 16, but MORE IMPORTANTLY there would be so much more opportunity for these particular churches to see growth rather than status quo – “Together We Can Do More!” It is a connectional model that honors who we are.
I’m broaching the subject at Charge Conferences and in Consultations, and the reception is better than expected given the differences between the churches in terms of socio-economics, theology, and race. This would create cross-cultural opportunities that just aren’t happening enough as is. People have responded by saying that this plan reminds them of what we did years ago when we did “Sub-District” events which provided a understanding of our denomination beyond a single church. Maybe they have a point! Please pray that we can make some of this happen, and leave your comments. This is going to take several years to get everyone on board, but the conversation has started. There are big issues to deal with like each church’s autonomy from the Discipline with regard to salary. I would prefer an English model of equalized pay, but that’s not my perogative though I do have the power of consultation for the greater good. I think something like this has to happen not just in Columbia but around the connection. I haven’t see anything written about a Shared Ministry exactly like I’m pondering, but I’m open to new thoughts and the Spirit’s leading. Help!?