Curing Optic Rectosis

Back in 1996 I was elected to my first of 5 General Conferences of the United Methodist Church. Since then I’ve been on some very effective teams and some that weren’t. I was on the former General Council on Ministries for 4 years, The Connectional Table for 8 years, The Worldwide UMC Study Committee for 4 years, and now on the General Commission on Religion and Race for a four-year term. I’ve been on plenty of other teams in the global UMC including mission teams, pastoral teams, and am now in my eighth year of a Cabinet team. I also like to think of the Columbia District as a team. That’s been our motto: “Together We Can Do More!” and it has happened. I clearly remember the use of “team” back in 1996 as our Episcopal nominee, Ted Walter, gave his speech before the gathered delegates of the Southeastern Jurisdiction as we met in Denver, CO at General Conference.

He used a story to emphasize that he wanted to be a part of an Annual Conference’s team. The story went something like this: “A mule named ‘Jim’ was being driven by his owner. When everyone got on the wagon, the driver yelled ‘Giddyup, Jim. Giddyup, Sue. Giddyup, Sam. Giddyup, John. Giddyup, Joe.’ As the wagon started to move, one of the passengers said: ‘When Jim is the only one there, why did you call all those other names?’ The owner replied: ‘If Jim knew he was the only one pulling this wagon, he’d never budge an inch.’ It takes teamwork.”

Sometimes when I get optic rectosis, which is a nice way of saying I’ve been looking at life from a position a lot lower than a pat on the back, it helps to know the truth of 2 passages of Scripture that have a lot in common: I Corinthians 10:13 and I Peter 5:9-11. They have a lot in common, especially that God delivers and that we’re never alone when we think we’re the only one in the world going through this mess.

Listen to the commonalities between the passages. First, I Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up against it.” I Peter 5:9-11 says, “Resist him (the devil), standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

What I hear is that I’m not the only one who has ever been through this crud. There are plenty of other sojourners who walk a similar path, and in both passages we have a God who is faithful and strong and on our side! Now that’s a team!

“Team” is a simple word to describe the Trinitarian theology that I appreciate so much, although I’m a little taken aback at the words I’ve heard lately at the conclusion of prayers: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Didn’t Jesus say to pray in his name? What’s with this? Maybe I’m late to the game, but it’s no big deal, really. After all when you see one person of the Trinity, you see all three at work in that marvelous dance, distinct but indivisible, when Holy Perichoresis takes place.

“Perichoresis” is a word composed of two roots: peri which means around, and choresis from whence we get our word, to dance. In other words, God is always dancing around as a team, as the Trinity – always on the move, on the go, and at the ready – together! Better news for us is that when we feel alone facing life’s problems we should remember that we bear the Imago dei, the Image of God. Therefore, if God exists and works in the community that we call the Trinity how much more so should we lean upon one another when times are tough? We are vital members of a divine-human team that always wins!

Why do you think that “ER” was so popular on TV from 1994-2009, or “Bones” now? One reason is that emergencies or crisis management, require not solo players but team play, and we are enthralled and galvanized by the way in which a motivated team can take on a challenge. It’s not white knights, lone wolves or highflying eagles that solve crises. It’s team play. Can I dare say it’s the Trinity and the church!

So chunk your optic rectosis and hold your head up! You’ve got a lot of big-time H/help all around you! “Together We Can Do More!”

Election Angst Parallels the UMC

The landscape has already changed in the US and the reason that the Republicans lost is because they did not recognize the changes. This sounds eerily similar to the situation in the United Methodist Church. Our base is shrinking. We are 92% white, getting older, and dying out. If we don’t do something immediately to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people then we can start planning the denomination’s funeral.

The election has convinced the last naive dreamers that this isn’t our parent’s USA. Certainly there are conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans and vice versa, but, for the most part, the two parties are differentiated by ideology and demographics. The results are in and once again we’re a blue state/red state country. Those most upset by the election results are the ones who had hoped that ideological and even theological conservatism had one more shot at relevance. The likes of Billy Graham even disregarded the cultic heresy of Mormonism to endorse Republican Mitt Romney. Mormons are the only so-called Christian group that UM clergy have to rebaptize because their baptism or religion does not represent orthodox Christianity (2008 Book of Resolutions #3149, pp. 306-307).

In last week’s election many people saw something more frightening than the upcoming fiscal cliff. They saw the world as it has been known pass the tipping point between the way things used to be and the ways things are going to be. It’s about time reality set in! Have mercy, as a District Superintendent, I am often reminded of our denomination’s inability to be forward-thinking. Some of our new churches and a few existing ones are multicultural and represent many races, but those are more likely to be adjacent to a nearby military post. The majority of my churches are not diverse. It’s a significant indictment upon our inclusiveness when the US military out gains the church in reflecting the diversity of the Kingdom.

Now, I get our mindset. It’s a natural propensity to hang on to the status quo, and to be homogeneous. Humans have a history of us vs. them that goes all the way back to Cain and Abel. I am not arguing that we need to become flat-world universalists, but that we become whole world evangelists holding fast to salvation through grace, repentance and reconciliation. Orthodox Christianity has an opposite anthropology than Mormonism. Mormonism has a system that exalts humans to gods with their mantra, “As Man is, God once was.” In other words, they actually believe that human beings can attain Godhood through a litany of requirements.

United Methodism and orthodox Christianity says that we are made in God’s image to be sure, but that image has been marred at the very least. We cannot save ourselves.  Grace and a Savior are needed for us to be restored to God’s image, but never so much as to become gods. Our belief is that Jesus offers grace so that we can be made Second Adams and Eves, not planetary rulers coupling and populating our own worlds into eternity. Mormon theology says that every child’s soul is birthed through the result of the continuing procreation of an elevated former man and woman who have become gods of planet earth through their good deeds. Orthodox Christianity believes Jesus is God come to earth to save humans, not that humans save themselves and become gods.

Therefore, we believe everyone stands in the need of grace and salvation. At the foot of the Cross the ground is level. Nobody is bettter than anyone else. All stand in the need of grace. A key problem is that our churches don’t demographically reflect this truth. Our “all” is 92% white. Our churches are mostly homogeneous. We are not reaching more people, younger people, more diverse people. We are hiding in a 1950’s dream that isn’t reality. We need to model John Wesley and reach all people. The hope of humanity is the Gospel that everyone needs without exception. The church as we know it has to die to its provincialism and reach a new world!

Bishop John Hopkins shared the following at a Connectional Table meeting several years ago. It’s worth repeating:

“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest. Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York, is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to this 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 who 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 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, former 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.”

Wow! Three very different people see about the United Methodist Church what we can’t even see about ourselves. It’s time for us to offer the Gospel to everyone and welcome them to the Table! The world needs a new generation of United Methodists to lead the way. Will we?

Lent, Call to Action, and the Truth

I just got back from a Connectional Table meeting and felt like I was subjected to subtle and not-so-subtle encouragement to support the IOT/CT legislation carte blanche. Well I have hardly ever been accused of checking my brain at the door. I did get up and profess that I would rather be a part of the coalition of the willing than a resister but feel the responsibility to ask pertinent questions about the IOT/CT plan that must be answered. I still have those questions about putting so much power and assets in the hands of a 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry and a 45-member group that meets once a year. The questions are huge. I feel compelled to keep asking questions and pray for truth. I know that everybody in this debate has their own perspective, but I hope we will all ponder the common issues of UM indentity, theology, and inclusivity. All of us have to avoid spin which to me is negative and often just half-truths. I read the Wisconsin Annual Conference’s statement on the Call to Action and really resonate with it. Here’s the link to some good truth-telling and questions:

Speaking of truth, the great novelist Flannery O’Connor, known for surprise endings and plot twists that can turn a reader upside down, wrote these matter-of-fact words, “You shall know and do the truth . . . and the truth will make you odd.”  It may cause us to feel odd in today’s world when we live truthfully. I know that I don’t have a corner on the truth market. I also know how odd I can be, but I’m trying to be ethical. Ethics as defined by the dictionary is “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” I’m glad the definition started with the word, “discipline.”  Doing the right thing, believing the truth and living truthfully, takes extraordinary discipline.

For example, 20,000 middle-and high-schoolers were surveyed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics–a non-profit organization in Marina del Rey, California, devoted to character education.  Ninety-two percent of the teenagers admitted having lied to their parents in the previous year, and 73 percent characterized themselves as “serial liars,” meaning they told lies weekly.  Despite these admissions, 91 percent of all respondents said they were “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” That’s a scary thing–when we knowingly misrepresent the truth and we are “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” Living truthfully may make you odd in today’s world.

Lenten season dares us to “fess up” to our shortcomings and that takes truth telling. Most of us would rather talk about what’s wrong with everybody else but ourselves. We have the Cleopatra Syndrome, so called because she was the Queen of DENIAL. Jesus came to expose the denying lies of those who felt smug in their self-righteousness and to bring relief to those who felt imprisoned by their unrighteousness. He told it like it was about both groups. He wanted both groups to come clean, tell the truth and experience the freedom that can only come from having no secrets from God.

With the woman at the well Jesus dodged her non-answers and went straight to the jugular about her many marriages and live-in lover. It was her honesty that finally opened her eyes to both Jesus and her own salvation. But she had to tell the truth to get there! Honesty is the best policy, especially honesty with God! He already knows what we’re thinking anyway, so why don’t we turn those ugly worrisome thoughts into prayers?

Only God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, but out of love God gives us tremendous freedom and latitude. We can choose or not choose to turn to God in repentance and ask for help in our daily predicaments. If we don’t turn to God aren’t we neglecting the best opportunity for real help when the going gets rough? Next time you find yourself in a situation and are already planning your exit strategy with not-so-truthful ease, turn to God instead. Jesus is more than ready and able to help you. All Jesus asks is for us to be honest. Without honesty, we’re stuck in a downward spiral toward disaster. I pray that as we prepare for GC 2012 we will speak the truth in love!

Relative Change or Real Change for the UMC?

In teaching Wesleyan theology I have come to describe justifying grace as the point at which we experience relative change, a straightening out of our relationship to God through Christ. I have described sanctifying grace as real change when we actually become like Christ. Our faith matrix as Wesleyans is best described as a house. Prevenient grace is the steps to the house. Repentance is the porch of the house. The doorway into the house is justifying grace. The whole house is sanctifying grace. We’re not people who want others or ourselves to stay on the steps, the porch, or at the doorway. For Wesley and our denomination we want people to experience the grand house of holiness – personal and social holiness that transforms the world and us.

As we ponder the Call to Action we need to remember our theology no matter if we’re liberal, moderate, or conservative. Pardon the use of labels, but name tags are on my mind as I just got back from the National BMCR meeting and am about to fly out to a Connectional Table meeting. We like to wear name tags at these meetings. Name tags tell other people who we are, and they’re also a reminder to us as to who we are. As hectic as life gets that’s a nice fringe benefit. I usually don’t care for name tags. I like being anonymous. On a trip a few years ago to Christ UMC in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, a group of us large church United Methodist ministers were on hand to survey how that church does its ministry. We went to all four worship services taking in each service’s nuance. They wanted us to sit together down front with name tags. I wanted to sit unobtrusively in the balcony without a name tag. I thought it would better help me accurately gauge the congregation and the services. People treat you differently if they know who you are. Sometimes I would rather get lost in the crowd and observe.

Simon Peter tried that tactic after Jesus was arrested. In the courtyard of the High Priest’s home Peter tried to hide the fact that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. He didn’t want to stand out. Simon Peter didn’t want anyone to associate him with Galilee or anyone from there. He ended up preserving his secret identity by denying Jesus three times. He kept his secret but almost lost his soul. We need to remember who we are and Whose we are however much we like to be secret agents for God. A church member was asked why he didn’t witness for Jesus more. His reply, “I’m in the secret service!” Sure, it is better to do good deeds without fanfare or calling attention to ourselves, but sometimes we let Jesus down by not giving Christ the credit that he’s due for the things that God does through us.

If we want the Call to Action to work we better get/understand who we are and do something with that knowledge. I’m going to dare call it an age-old term that’s loaded with baggage for many – “witnessing.” Craig Bird describes witnessing in his article, “Gearing Up for God.” He writes: “Ancient Rome: Two strangers meet along a dusty road. Miles pass in pleasant conversation. Obscure references to religious ideas slip into the dialogue. The men sense a spiritual kinship but are wary of expressing it. After all, Christianity is a criminal offense punishable by death. They stop to rest. The discussion rambles from the latest war news to the price of bread and the hijinks of the Roman Senate. The younger of the two pushes his walking stick through the dust as he talks, tracing half an oval. The older man glances at the mark, then into the eyes of his new acquaintance, and quickly around to see who else might be paying attention. Then with his own staff, he draws a mirror image, connecting with the first line at one end but intersecting it at the other. “He is risen!” he exclaims. “He is risen indeed!” comes the reply.

Modern Rome: Two American tourists meet while waiting to clear customs. One wears a $50 pullover knit shirt. The logo replicates what the ancient Christians drew in the dirt – an emblem of a fish. The other sports a baseball cap with a four-letter acronym on the crown: WWJD? “Nice shirt,” says one. “Great hat,” says the other. What a difference a few centuries make. The cost attached to that original Christian icon was severe. Display the fish symbol, and the culture could demand you pay with your life. In the 21st century, the cost of Christian symbols is more ambiguous. Christian gear – clothes, jewelry, bumper stickers and related merchandise – generates an estimated $3 billion in annual revenue. But the real value of those purchases is more difficult to peg.

Some evangelicals say “Christian wear” is an effective witnessing tool. Others say it does more harm than good, particularly when the actions of Christians contradict their T-shirts. Some things haven’t changed over the centuries. Now, as then, Christian symbols remain a means of identifying “friendlies.” But what was once a furtive code for a persecuted religious minority is now a spiritual fashion statement. While early Christians contemplated, often in the dank darkness of the underground tombs of Rome, how to live faithfully the example of Jesus, today’s believers, especially evangelicals, are apt to broadcast that intention on brightly colored bracelets and T-shirts asking, “What Would Jesus Do?”’ I think a better idea is putting our money where our mouth is, our faith into action, and our love into good works more than words! But if we don’t tell people the Reason (Jesus) why we do good works then we might as well be Rotarians. I’ve been in Rotary and their “Four-Way Test” is pretty darn good. Jesus is even better.

As I ponder the Call to Action and the proposed restructuring of the United Methodist Church I am more and more fearful that we are rearranging deck chairs and not emphasizing Jesus enough as the why. There’s much good to be sure in the proposals, but a structural solution to a spiritual problem only gets us so far. Repentance and revival are needed to grow our church. We have to call on the Lord! Metrics may help us gauge how well we’re doing. Developing new missions and ministries, small groups, better leaders, and relevancy to younger people are great strategies to be sure, but the word everyone is avoiding is “evangelism.” We have to shed our anonymity and get right with God while we dare to speak to people about God’s marvelous grace in Jesus. That’s a call to action that will do much more good in turning our church around. If we want people to know Christ we have got to invite them from the steps into the house!

The United Methodist Church – God’s Music Box

Epiphany season is the sacred season of miracles, the extension of grace beyond the confines of Judaism, and the celebration of God’s presence among all peoples. When we say that someone has had an epiphany we know that it means that they have had an “Aha!” moment. When was your latest epiphany? For a lot of us epiphanies have been few or non-existent in the year 2011 and we can’t wait to turn the page on a rough year.

Generalized fear and malaise has created what friend Dr. Tom Frank calls a “rhetoric of crisis” in our denomination. Sadly, this kind of panic is crossing all cultures, faiths, and political persuasions. Just this afternoon, no doubt to capitalize on the Mayan 2012 “End-of-the-World” predictions, the movie “Deep Impact” came on TV. At least there was some good theology with a spaceship named “Messiah” and people chosen to stay for 2 years underground in the “Ark.”

Unfortunately, fear mongering and empty promises are daily fare for folks in the church and culture. Just have a listen to political candidates. Who wins in the Iowa Caucus will probably be the one who panics people the most and at the same time offers the best panacea. Cough syrup for someone dying of lung cancer doesn’t get it done. The medicine has to match the malady, and that’s the problem with crying “Wolf!” without credibility and/or a proper solution.

With General Conference looming there are lots of people doing the “Iowa Thing,” as I’ll call it, in the church – bemoaning the future of the United Methodist Church while offering answers we already know are only half-measures. Removing “continued availability of appointment” AKA “Guaranteed Appointment” from the Book of Discipline may seem like an answer for underperforming clergy and the churches that have suffered through them, but what about how that changes our theology of prophetic proclamation. There surely need to be easier and quicker exit strategies for people whose gifts and graces are wanting or waning. However, I’m reminded of Edwin Friedman’s seminal work, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

The title says it all, doesn’t it? Quick fixes demand later fixes to correct unintended consequences.  I am not one to want to do the usual thing and set up another study committee to report to the next General Conference, but can’t we at least put theology before the financial cart concerning some issues? In the IOT/CT restructuring legislation, for instance, the qualifications of the 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry that will control the work of all the agencies of the UMC and nearly $2 Billion in assets says nothing at all about years of service to the church or theological background – only a litany of business skill sets.

Others whom I greatly respect have predicted a “death tsunami” that will exacerbate our rapid decline in church membership. Out of fear and/or faithfulness there are well-meaning people in the UMC who have called for such radical changes in the ways that we do ministry via itinerancy, connectional ministries, and ordination that our theological identity could be  muddied beyond recognition. This might be a good thing though.

We’re used to things being muddy in our Via Media (“Middle Way”) conjunctive faith history a la Dr. James Fowler and his Stages of Faith. So why not put ordination first and full conference membership last as the legislation asks? It will help our relationships with other Christian bodies, so it’s said. Ah! But there’s the rub: We’ve already failed at that since we can’t produce any proof of apostolic succession in UM ordinations anyway!

We were meant to be a movement not a domesticated legitimized institution, but I’ll keep listening, learning, and hoping that I’ll soon have an epiphany at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Tampa. I need more information. My mind isn’t made up on so many things. Do I panic or reach out to new possibilities with hope? I’m being pulled to and fro by the dissonant tunes of those who cannot separate doctrine from theology, the essential from the non-essential.

I can’t help but think of Friedrich Nietzsche, great doubter of the 19th century. He once wrote a letter to a friend disparaging dull and dead Christians: “If these Christians want me to believe in their god, they’ll have to sing better songs, they’ll have to look more like people who have been saved, and they’ll have to wear on their faces the joy of the beatitudes. I could only believe in a god who dances.”

What Nietzsche and maybe even more United Methodists have failed to realize is that God likes to dance. Better than that, Epiphany season is a reminder to those of us who are dull of mind and feet that God wishes to dance with us, especially as the discordant sounds of church squabbles rise! This is mostly metaphorical, to be sure, but the sheer truth is that God wants to dance a jig with us as partners, confused though we are. The key is that God has to lead so the cacophony turns into a symphony!

I sure can’t lead when it comes to music. I’ve never been very talented musically. Music enthralls me. It helps me worship. It inspires adoration. The problem is that I can hardly carry a tune. When I was preaching on TV for the 9 years prior to becoming a District Superintendent the folks in the video booth learned to turn off my microphone if there was any way my singing could be heard. I love to sing, loudly and with feeling, and it sounds fine to me, but others say it’s more like a joyful noise. Maybe more like a joyful train wreck, with wheels screeching.

The closest that I’ve been to good music is listening to good choirs, contemporary Christian musicians and bands, “Celtic Woman” on PBS, and the occasional live concert. As I was growing up we had an old Polyphon, a German music box that played large 19 inch diameter metal discs. You might say that it was the precursor to the record player or the juke box since it had a slot for a large cent on both sides of the wooden case. We would put on our favorite disc (mine was entitled, “The March of the Cameron Men”), and let the big sound of the music box fill the house.  It was marvelous.

As we approach a New Year, Epiphany season, and General Conference, I think God wants us to fill our lives just like the sound of that music box filled our house. God wants each of us to carry the sound of God’s love song to the world. That marvel would surpass any off-beat notes and screeches that you or I can make and whatever comes of what happens at General Conference. That sound will be music to the ears of a world that thinks we’re irrelevant. Don’t we believe that the church is of God and will endure to the end of the age? It might end up with a different name than the one we’re used to or have myriad theologies yet timeless doctrines. No matter what, this Epiphany season I want God’s music to flow from me, into me, and beyond me to the entire world so that “Aha!” moments might abound to the glory of God – dissonance turned to harmony.

I don’t want to let embarrassment or confusion stop me from dancing. I, therefore, need to get over my fearful “rhetoric of crisis” driven music-aversion and timidity, and just let it rip! There’s a heartbreaking scene in the film “Shall We Dance?” where a dance instructor working with a beginning student berates him in front of the class: “Stop. Control yourself. Stop slobbering like that. Your hands are dripping wet. You’re making me sick. There’s no way you’re becoming my partner.” The man is humiliated but courage rises enough so that he looks up to speak: “Do I really make you sick? Am I really that disgusting? Do I really look that bad?”

How would you feel if your dance instructor/partner looked at you with disgust? It might make you want to give it all up, but here’s the good news of Jesus’ Epiphany for us in 2012: God delights in dancing and singing with us, regardless of either our great skills or pronounced inabilities. The joy in the exercise isn’t in the precision of our steps or voices. It’s not in the exhilaration of being swept away by the moves or the music. The joy of the dance is in the delight of our partner’s eyes and our Partner is God. Epiphany season is a chance for you to sense the smiling eyes of God on your life. “Join in the tune. Dance with me,” says our God! Is this a positive way to envision what seems herky-jerky in our attempt to dance with God and each other in “Holy Conferencing” at General Conference? I pray so!

Polyphon Music Box

United Methodist Pope and Problems of Consolidation

There has been much fanfare about the restructuring plan for the UMC that will be presented to the 2012 General Conference. I just had a conversation with someone who recently came back from a meeting with a general agency of the church where the plan was explained. We had a wonderful conversation about the history of the UMC and our polity as it relates to the proposed legislation.

I have to admit that I am personally involved in this process as both a member of the Connectional Table that approved the proposed new structure and as a member of the Legislative Writing Team that has composed it. Although I disagree with key sections I have been faithful in my responsibility to write good legislation with the hope that holy conferencing and the wisdom of General Conference 2012 will correct the troublesome parts.

A primary concern for me is that we are allowing a business model to dictate ecclesiology. I know we’re in terrible economic times but that doesn’t give us license to overturn our polity for the sake of saving money. Actually I think the money-saving is a smoke-screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops. Our polity is based on the separation of powers. Our two constitutional powers in the UMC are episcopacy and conferences. They must be held in perpetual tension and balance. Judicial Decisions as well as the 2008 Book of Discipline are clear in this matter. For instance, Judicial Decisions 689 and 1156 are important citations. There are more!

The Constitution clearly states that “The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church and shall have reserved to it the right to vote… on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members.” (Par. 36) The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. While the boundaries can become hazy in any particular situation, the preservation of the separation of powers must be observed.  (Judicial Decision 689, rendered in 1993)

The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. (Judicial Decision 1156, rendered in 2010)

In addition, Par. 140 of the 2008 Book of Discipline states, “Under the constitution and disciplinary procedures set forth in this Book of Discipline, “The United Methodist Church” as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office or location.” Par. 2509 of the same BOD says that we are a non-jural entity, that we cannot be sued as a denominational whole because we do not exist as a denomination! Rather, our polity has affirmed since our very existence that we are a movement, a group of separately incorporated mission outposts for the Kingdom of God!

Unfortunately, the IOT/CT proposals for restructuring will set up a 15-member CENTER for Connectional Mission and Ministry and have a set-aside Bishop as one of its members and perhaps its chair. This certainly overturns Par. 140 of the BOD by creating both an office/location and an officer! Another frightening thought is that this CENTER’s only oversight will come from a 45-member group (The General Council for Oversight and Strategy) that will meet just once a year. Its chair will be the same set-aside bishop who will either lead or be a member of the CENTER for Connectional Ministry and Mission. For legal and fiduciary protection this is a wrong-headed idea. Legal counsel has already observed that having a denominational CENTER and OFFICER leaves the denomination open for wholesale litigation possibilities. This is a streamlined business model to be sure and saves a ton of money by reducing the costs of separate boards and agencies having to send 565 people to meetings but the cost to our historic polity, balance of powers, and core value of diversity will be greater than any savings.

A 15-member CENTER can hardly be inclusive of all the voices of the UMC. If the purpose of the legislation is to make the denomination more nimble and connect it more closely with annual conferences and local churches then this widens the chasm in my opinion. Voices will not be at the table and will not be heard! Having a quasi-pope from the Council of Bishops may make business sense, but it violates our historic separation of powers. We are a spiritual movement that needs bishops who will be leaders but not with one set-aside bishop. We need ALL the bishops to be set-aside IN THEIR ANNUAL CONFERENCES! We all know how little time bishops actually spend time in their annual conferences. Where are the teaching days? Where is the personal contact and interaction across annual conferences and in local churches? If we want local churches to be mission outposts then bishops must see their primary duty as being in their episcopal areas. How about a promise not to spend more than 21 days outside the annual conference? How about a promise to spend teaching days with laity and clergy in every district at least twice a year? How about a promise to spend time in each district staying in homes getting to know people and scheduling time with every clergyperson in each district over a quadrennium or maybe even twice every four years? How about a promise to be in each charge over a quadrennium? All these things and more come to my mind as a way for United Methodism to regain some of its relevance. It will be possible through personal connections! Personal connections make United Methodist Connectionalism work!

The proposal coming to GC 2012 is out of touch with 21st century flat-world thinking, and bishops and leadership have to be in touch to be relevant! There are cost-savings with the proposal but more centralization into smaller less diverse entities does not offer the hope for change that I’m looking for. It changes us from a spiritual movement into a more bureaucratic quagmire than we already are. I say free  up our bishops to lead on the local level. Don’t vote for a constitutional change that would allow one of them to be set-aside for quasi-pope duty. Don’t vote to abrogate the power of General Conference to set budgets and let the Council of Bishops be able to do it between sessions of the GC. Would you want your pastor to have the authority to change your local church’s budget? Heaven’s “NO!” Our connectionalism works best when the distance between leadership and people is bridged not widened. Connectionalism works best and is more theologically sound when it is horizontal not top down. We have tried top-down and it doesn’t work. I know that I can’t say everything that I need to say in this space, but I wanted to put some food for thought on the table as people are gearing up for next year. May God be with us as we discern together!

General Conference 2012 Rhetoric and Listening

General Conference 2012 has already produced a ton of verbiage. I have already received letters and phone calls eliciting my support for various issues. General Boards and Agencies of the UMC have started sending out their proposed legislation. I have been personally involved in writing legislation for the Connectional Table and the Worldwide UMC Study Committee, not all of which I agree with. However, I would rather listen to the divergent voices and write good legislation and pray that the GC 2012 Legislative Committees and Plenary Sessions can have clear choices rather than hard-to-hug jello with which to grapple. I want radical change in our denomination and especially want our bishops to express leadership in their annual conferences and local churches because that’s where disciple-making truly happens, but there I go in my verbal haranguing.

Words have to be replaced with listening – sooner rather than later in our position jockeying. In the midst of all the helpful and not so helpful propaganda that will be shot across the bows of our desks and computers, we have to listen to each other and lay aside fruitless personal agendas or theological quagmires that are too often unanswerable. Now, to be sure, I believe some issues are not only answerable using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, but the answers are essential. They are doctrine! Doctrine doesn’t change. Theology, on the other hand, should always be changing. Doctrine expresses God’s perspective on a subject. Theology is a never-ending contextualization of doctrine revealing God’s mind to a contemporary world. In the midst of conflicting values between the authority of Scripture and love for all people, I admit I would rather side with God than with human reason or experience, admitting that Scripture is both informed by and informs our use of Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I think God’s preference is clear: Love everybody AND be obedient! That takes keen listening!

Herein lies part of the problem. I’m spouting off from my own perspective, and someone else speaks from their context and so the saga goes on ad infinitum. Polarization occurs when all that is going on is talk, talk, talk and no one is listening either to God or each other. The Lord knows we are a people who talk too much. Cell phones, smartphones, texting, and high speed internet are almost universal. Listening isn’t. On my summer’s mission trip to Nicaragua I saw a huge uptick in the use of cell phones even in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere!

In the face of our changing communications reality, I like what Norman Brown said, “The meaning is not in the words, but between the words, in the silence.” How can we watch what we say and keep it to a minimum? The Proverbs speak of letting God put a guard over our mouths. That would help, but how do we do it? Certainly, we can ask God to help us listen attentively to others and not rush into thinking about our reply. We can become reflective listeners clarifying to people what we think they just said and see if we were correct in our assessment. We can pray before we talk.

Mo Udall had a prayer that he prayed before he spoke, “Lord, grant me the wisdom to utter gracious and generous remarks today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.” Another version that I’ve heard said something to the effect, “Lord, help me keep my words soft and sweet because I never know from day to day which ones I’ll have to eat.” The essence of prayer is to invoke God’s help. We really do need God to help us in our speaking and listening!

In a land where free speech is guarded to the detriment of real communication, I like what Teddy Roosevelt did in 1895 to put a muzzle over an extremist’s words. An anti-Semitic German preacher named Ahlwardt came to New York City to advocate a crusade against Jews. The city’s Jewish leaders went to the police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, and demanded that Ahlwardt not be allowed to speak. Roosevelt insisted correctly that the German was entitled to his freedom of speech regardless of his views and even deserved police protection. So Roosevelt personally appointed the man’s security guards: 40 policemen, all of them Jewish! How about that for helping someone watch what they say?

The best way for me to watch what I say is to attempt to emulate Jesus. Everybody wants to be like Jesus, right? Jesus always had the right words for the right time. A mail carrier was talking to a small boy about his little sister, “Can she talk yet?” “No,” the little boy replied. “She has her teeth, but her words haven’t come in yet.” A lot of us have teeth in our conversation, but are the right words there? Is Jesus in our speech?

If you think your answer is, “Yes!” to that question, here’s a challenge: See if you can go 24 hours without a slam at someone, and monitor your conversation for 2 days. Jot down whenever you say something negative about someone who isn’t present. Also note when others say something negative and what your reactions are. Do you go along with them or stop them? It’s time to revive one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Then we will be on the right track to holy conversation, holy conferencing, and on our way to a civil and productive God-pleasing General Conference 2012.

Starfish & Spiders – The UMC as a Starspider

The past seven days have been a whirlwind! Back from Nashville, Asheville, and about to head to Nicaragua on a mission trip. I was in Nashville for a Connectional Table meeting and then had the pleasure of preaching at Lake Junaluska on Friday night as well as doing a Bible Study on Sunday morning for the South Carolina Laity Convocation. We had fun and great fellowship – in both places.  Well, almost, except that the Connectional Table is at a critical juncture for the denomination.

In the midst of thinking about both the UMC and the South Carolina Annual Conference in particular I am struck by a nagging question: “Where is God leading us next?” In South Carolina we have much to celebrate. We’re the 5th largest annual conference in the US. Professions of faith are on the rise in the Columbia District and we paid out 98.9% on our connectional giving responsibilities. Putting this district’s numbers on a dashboard of vital congregations is exciting. I just got off the phone with one of the clergy in the district who is doing an absolutely phenomenal ministry in partnership with extraordinary laity. The church is booming! That same kind of good news is happening all over the district!

I wish I could say the same about the denomination. Maybe I can? Regretfully, however, I saw the DVD “UMC Realities” with its somber Gothic-sounding music and terrible news that we’re graying out, dying out, less inclusive, and have fewer and fewer young people. That was the message. It may not be the reality that I see in SC and in the Columbia District, but it’s so true in too many places. I have hope, though! Aesop was correct and it wasn’t a fable: “Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again.” The waters of baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit have been the current we’ve ridden on before in the UMC and God float this boat again!

I don’t think changing the UMC’s structure will have as much to do with it as folks at the Connectional Table think. The Interim Operations Team (IOT) has offered its report. We approved it, though we went through multiple iterations to get to a place of semi-consensus. Honestly, do we think that buying into a so-called new business model is going to reshape the church and engender hopeful enthusiastic results? I certainly hope we’re not that tied to 20th century thinking! Aren’t we all tired of hearkening back to the good old days that must not have been that good or we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today? Isn’t Jesus the Lord of Resurrection which means that something has to die for there to be new life, that the New Jerusalem is our goal more than tired thinking that wants to go back to the Garden of Eden? Where we’re headed is better!

Just one example of old thinking that worries me from the Connectional Table’s work last week: a set aside bishop and a central office. Hey, I like bishops. I think they are critical for our denominational renewal, especially if they focus on their annual conferences. However, as the permutations of the IOT’s report dribbled out to the Connectional Table the set-aside Bishop was named at most the “Head of Communion” and at least “President of the Council of Bishops.” Either one is a little much for a denomination that has a historic balance between its two constitutive principles of conferences and bishops. This throws the equation off-balance. Now I can see why having a “United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry” and a quasi-pope are great business ideas to those who like  20th century-like corporate structures and centralization. I’m worried that our going from our current model of 13 siloed boards and agencies with 565 directors to one single center run by a 13 member Board of Directors is more of the same but worse.

I’ve got a book I want you to read. On our Columbia District Clergy Retreat in early September we’re headed to Mt. Mitchell for camping and reflection. We’re discussing the book The Starfish and the Spider with its subtitle “The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” Pretty much it says that 21st century thinking is about organic growth with catalysts who step out of the way and people who are invested as equal partners. My summary with implications for the UMC: Connectionalism works best when its horizontal and/or circular! Starfish that lose a point grow a new one. When they’re cut in two, they don’t die, they multiply! A spider, on the other hand, dies when you smack its head. I tend to smack the whole bug and that’s what has happened to the UMC. We’ve  been smacked. We have lost a lot of our relevance to people because we don’t talk enough about Jesus and we don’t just get out there and be like starfish and multiply!

Central control systems are easily killed, and we’re about to put almost all of our institutional eggs in a couple of baskets – a set-aside bishop, a central office of ministry, and a small board of directors? Give me a break! Now I don’t want to give away the hopeful chapter at the end of the Starfish book but I will say this much: When we are at our best as a denomination we are starspiders, a hybrid of centralization and decentralization. Yes, there’s an important role for the Council of Bishops, General Conference, and the entities whether they’re called Boards and Agencies or some sort of central office. The bottom line is that all of these centralized functions MUST resource the decentralized local churches that live where the tentacles hit the sand! Growth is not top-down and that’s what bugs me about this report. Hey, by the way, just to put a polity/legal bug, pun intended, in your ear: read Pars. 140 & 2509 in the 2008 Book of Discipline and see what hits you. I look forward to your thoughts!

Norwegian Massacre’s Message

I have been shocked as I have caught up with the news after being gone for a week. The massacre in Norway was absolutely awful. I have just emailed my friend and fellow Connectional Table member, Oyvind Hellieson, my condolences.  He’s a District Superintendent in Norway. Now I am pondering the message from all of this especially after hearing that the perpetrator’s motives were founded on his disdain for free-thinking. He has been described as a “Right-wing Christian Fundamentalist.”

Fundamentalists come in all shapes and sizes and represent every persuasion of thinking. I have listened to liberal and literal fundamentalists that assume that they have the only corner on the truth. Some have described fundamentalists as “fun-dam-mentalists” because they damn fun and have very little mentality. So true in many ways. It’s scary when a person or group, whether they be progressives or traditionalists, declare they are the sole arbiters of right and wrong. That’s what puts guns and evil intentions in the hands of cultural vigilantes like this guy in Norway.

Hey, this isn’t too far from the deadlock in Washington over the possible budget default, or the NFL players’ union and the owners’ impasse. Polarizations often occur because people are pigeon-holed into an untenable situation with no room at all for compromise. One of the workshops I led this past week was on peacemaking. Some of you who know me are finding that notion pretty hilarious. Me doing a peacemaking workshop, yep!

I have my convictions, but I also hold onto Wesley’s admonition: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be liberty; in all things, charity.” We need to be very careful when we are deciding what is the truth as you or I know it. Jesus said that He was the truth and I ain’t Jesus and neither are you. We can search the Scriptures and hopefully discern WWJD, and we can pray to have the Mind of Christ; but we need to mostly say “Whoa!” when we’re about to rush to judgment.

Sure, I embrace orthodoxy more easily than I do a lifestyle or mentality that is too loosey-goosey, but I am not going to denigrate, castigate, or subjugate those who differ. I believe in a God whose imago dei we all share and a Jesus who died to redeem more than condemn. I can never assume that it’s my way or the highway though I would sometimes like to do that. Liberal fundamentalism is just as bad as literal fundamentalism. An “Us versus Them” mentality has no high moral high ground, no room for the Holy Spirit to convict because certainties have already been deeply embedded. This reminds me of the story of someone trying to explain the difference between capitalism and communism. Pardon the sexist language. The person doing the explaining said, “In capitalism man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” Same difference, right? Someone is the exploiter and someone is exploited.

So Right-wingers and Left-wingers, NFL owners and NFL players, Democrats and Republicans, theological conservatives and liberals – everyone – beware fundamentalism. We are looking for the “We” more than “Us versus Them.” We seek the truth as we know it through holy conferencing, and finding Jesus in unlikely sources and obvious ones, too. This ain’t easy in a complex world. So let’s be careful not to pre-judge. The Jesus method is to pre-love. Sure, Jesus shines light on what’s wrong but He only does it so the wrong may be turned to right, so that sin can be conquered by redemption.

United Methodism’s Main Thing

What comes to mind when you think of the United Methodist Church? “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ…” comes quickly to mind, but that hasn’t necessarily been our experience in the US, at least in terms of numbers. It is however where our hearts are and where we’re trying to faithfully live out Christ’s call not just in our day to day ministries but also as a general church. I just got back from the joint meeting of the Connectional Table and GCFA (General Council on Finance & Administration) to deal with projected budgets and legislation to reorder the life of the UMC. I am thoroughly excited that the IOT (Interim Operations Team) wants to focus the whole denomination on making vital local churches. I am also glad that we approved a realistic budget that is 6+ percent lower than the previous quadrennium’s budget. This is the first time in our history that we have lowered the budget, which is a really big deal! We also heard and approved in a straw vote of sorts that we would prefer an apportionment system that is based on a flat percentage of local church income, which would be more clear and effective as we seek to fund ministries. These were positive and important steps in our going forward as a denomination.

Connectional Ministries Board

The overall IOT report received mixed reviews. The much talked about move to fewer general church agencies was included in the report, but the solution wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. Basically the proposed solution is to create a 13 member uber-board, right now called a Connectional Ministries Board (CMB), to run the whole church; have authority between General Conferences to reallocate funds and programmatic directions; and have members that represent expertise over constituencies. Wow, that’s a lot of power and responsibility for 13 people (12 member CMB plus set-aside bishop)! I’m not very optimistic that a low-trust environment like GC will trust 13 people to run the church and direct its path financially and programmatically. Replacing the 600+ directors we have now would save millions, but we would lose diversity and proportional representation. It’s hard to imagine 13 people encompassing all the wide spectrum of United Methodism. What do we value: efficiency or inclusivity? It would be great to have it both ways.

Set-Aside Bishop to Lead Connectional Ministries Board

The next potential pitfall is that the Council of Bishops (COB) decided last week to ask for a set-aside bishop to run the CMB. I reiterate that this didn’t come from the IOT, but from the bishops – something that we were told they have wanted for decades. Now, I’m sure that it makes great business sense to have a bishop to be our UMC CEO, but this is fraught with question marks with regard to our polity. Historically, we’ve attempted to balance our two constitutive principles of episcopacy and conference. To have a set-aside bishop takes away the balance. Having a set-aside bishop can appear to empower episcopacy over conference. Sure, a set-aside bishop could hold the COB accountable in terms of outcome-based effective disciple-making in Annual Conferences, but at what cost? As potentially limiting as a 13 person team may be in the great cacophony of voices at our table, having one person directing and running such a team creates a power dynamic that puts an awful lot of authority into the hands of one person.

Let me give you a couple of ways this creates potential problems, problems that we’ve seen before in our history. This over-powering of bishops over conference isn’t new. In 1800 the James O’Kelly schism that formed the Republican Methodist Church was caused by the tension between the power of bishops and conference. O’Kelly had a problem with Asbury’s autocratic leadership, something many take issue with today. O’Kelly wanted clergy to have the right of appeal to the Annual Conference if they didn’t like their appointment. He thought bishops that were too powerful were against the republican ideals of US democracy. The same thing was behind the schism of the Methodist Protestant Church in the 1820’s and later in the 19th century with the Free Methodists. The 1842 GC voted to suspend Bishop James Andrew because he was a slave-holder. Some saw this as the General Conference overstepping its authority and have even argued that the 1844 schism between Methodists in the South and North wasn’t entirely over slavery though that, of course, was the horrible primary issue. Even with all of this history, the primary question we should ask is whether we as a UMC want to go back to the Asburian era of autocratic leadership or an Anglican principle of monarchical (House of Lords) bishops?

Another huge issue caused by having a set-aside bishop is that it strips the UMC of its identity as a nonjural entity, and that only the GC can speak for the church (2008 BOD Pars. 140, 509.1, 2501, 2509). It is critical that GC’s equal balance of laity and clergy, representative of the whole of our denomination, are the voices that make decisions and set the course of our church. Not only is this inclusivity of thought and conferencing important, but in practical terms, presently we cannot be sued as a denomination because we legally do not exist! Our churches, agencies, Annual Conference’s, etc. are separately incorporated entities in numerous places. This switch to a centralized polity with a central office and an executive bishop, though seemingly pragmatic, is potentially dangerous. This is a subtle change that can and will have serious intended or unintended consequences whether in lawsuits or perception. To create some sort of episcopal officer who can put a face on United Methodism needs to be pondered more closely. We – the people of the United Methodist Church are the face of the denomination. Our local churches in ministry around the world are the face of the denomination. We, as clergy and as lay people, seeking to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, are the face of the denomination. I think one of the best ways to foster more vital local churches is to empower the bishops in their residential duties within annual conferences. Connectionalism works best when it is horizontal rather than vertical.

Advisory Councils

There were other interesting aspects to what we heard about the IOT. One is the creation of Advisory Councils in jurisdictions and central conferences to help make the connection between the 13-member CMB and local churches. I hope that this can do what’s expected because right now that’s a key problem in our church. Local churches and annual conferences don’t experience enough connection to what the general church is doing. Advisory Councils representing local churches, annual conferences, and jurisdictions/central conferences are also important because they provide a “feeder system” for church leadership.


Another proposal from the IOT really has me discerning the pros and cons. It proposes to add a “fee-for-service” component to the work of the present general agencies. By the way, the IOT has most general agencies reconfigured into “divisions” of the church. “Fee-for-service” sounds on one hand like a way to make general agencies produce products that local churches actually want to use. This could have potential in terms of practical ministry tools, but it also strikes me as a slam on the churches that can’t afford to pay the fees for the resources. This needs a lot more fleshing out for me to buy into it. I do like the agency-accountability piece of this that makes agencies more responsive to local churches and become self-supporting at the same time, but how it would play out is still a question mark for me.

Read and Pray

There’s more to think about and digest in reading the IOT report, and I encourage you to read all that you can. It’s complex and so important. We CANNOT keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect different results, and we cannot wait until 2016 or later to get it right. The time is now. We need to pray for the IOT as much as we possibly can and trust that God will continue to provide us the grace, clarity and wisdom that we need as we discern and act. The CT and GCFA will meet again in July to hear a final report. I hope that it’s one that will help the UMC truly make disciples for Jesus. That is the main thing and our grace-filled task!