Flying the UMC Trapeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clergy as Family Reunion Facilitators

Last week I attended a Dr. Ken Callahan Seminar where he effectively reminded us that churches are active mission outposts, pastors are shepherd leaders, and the community is a family. Three months from today on June 25, 2014 I will be the new pastor of a vibrant and exciting church. How will the transition go? Will I be ready? I have high expectations that everything will be absolutely great, but I am reminded of Loren Mead’s description of pastoral transition as “running through thistles.” Ouch!

I want to avoid as many “ouches” as I can! In preparation I have been rereading some familiar material about starting well in a new parish. One of the best and concise books is The First 100 Days: A Pastor’s Guide by T. Scott Daniels. It is a book that challenges me to pay attention to God, my family, and my next parish.

We have all heard mentors and advisors say, “Just love the people!” But every church is different and so is every pastor. Some congregations are in the throes of separation anxiety because they love their current pastor so much. Every mentor I’ve had has expressed how much better it is to follow someone who is loved than a clergyperson who is disliked. Following a beloved pastor may make things a bit rough at first but early on the family lovingly absorbs you into its fabric. That’s their pattern! To follow someone ineffective or disliked makes you the quick hero, but the angst and anger toward that pastor is just as quickly transferred to you as the love was in the first scenario. The challenge is to do well in either case.

The good news is that whether you follow a beloved longtime pastor, a divisive church splitter, or a middle of the road maintenance minder has little consequence because you control you, not the circumstances. The best approach then is to do a lot of observation at first while repeating the mantra under your breath: “Listen, listen; Love, love!”

I need to get to know the church by becoming a keen sociologist and historian, by working hard to understand the church’s current reality and its processes from vision to finances; and by falling deeply in love with the community. “How do they do things here?” can be answered through bulletins or orders of worship – videos of high Sundays and the ones in between would be extremely helpful. However, from a sociological point of view, how is this church a family? What is its unwritten but very real ethos and set of family rules?

How do they talk and do I have the capacity to speak the same language? Learning what “funeralizing” someone meant became extremely important when I moved from seminary in Boston to a three-point charge in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina! I specifically remember being asked to go visit someone and given a country store and a “colyum” as landmarks. I was supposed to go past the store and take a right at the “colyum.” I found the store but I had no idea what a “colyum” was. When I went back to the store and asked where the person’s house was and they said, “Take a right at the ‘colyum.’” My response was, “Could you spell that for me?” They answered: “C-O-L-U-M-N!” Oh….. I got it and made it to my destination. I had to learn the lingo, the church and community’s history, the expectations of the pastor, the lay leadership, the flow of the worship services, the people who needed immediate pastoral care, the vision and plans of the church, and all the mundane but IMPORTANT idiosyncrasies of that unique family.

The greatest challenge was joining the family! One of the metaphors that The First 100 Days uses is that a new pastor is someone who has been invited to become a “facilitator at someone else’s family reunion.” A new minister isn’t a member of the family automatically any more than a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law is. Newbies have “positional authority” by virtue of their legal or titular standing; i.e., “This is my ____ ___ ______.” However, they don’t have real authority until it’s earned or, I daresay, a grandchild comes along! Some clergy try to get by as long as they can by the “reputational authority” they’re given by their predecessor, the inquisitive detectives in the church who check them out ahead of time, the Bishop, or their bio. I am firmly convinced that pastors don’t really get an invitation to join the family until they acquire “relational authority” through significant interactions with people.

Please note that the word “authority” does NOT carry its usual heavy-handed meaning. Since “authority” comes from the word “author,” it really means doing something creative and productive rather than destructive; as Hebrews 12:2 describes Jesus as “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Authority built through relationships with people and communities isn’t engendered through titles and degrees. It comes through an incarnational presence with people at their most important life events: illnesses, births, deaths, marriages, crises – whenever and wherever the clergyperson is invited to be a part of the new family.

According to author Scott Daniels the notion of “The First 100 Days” was originated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt after his inauguration in 1933. In the midst of the Great Depression he and Congress paved the way for the main components of the New Deal to be enacted in his first 100 days in office. It wouldn’t have happened unless he had the political capital to get it done. FDR had almost two years of campaigning under his belt before the clock started on his presidency. During those two years FDR articulated and garnered support for what was accomplished in his first 100 days! New pastors don’t have that luxury or capital!

In quick-step time we must gain capital through relational leadership with careful attention to avoid rushing. It sounds like an oxymoron to hit the ground running while going slow enough to really get to know the lay of the land. Relational authority has to be earned and that takes time, skill, and observation. It also requires the support of a new church family that is willing to be helpful, supportive, and patient. The most important key for all concerned is to trust in Jesus and follow His example. Then the rest will take care of itself!

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

Itinerancy and Appointment-making Survival!

This is an anxious time for the churches and pastors who expect a move in the United Methodist Church this year. Itineration is at the heart of who we are and what we do in clergy deployment and is a reflection of our outward focus to the world. We are people of community – a community of faith that builds us up and holds us accountable, and a secular community that needs our ministry! In Wesley’s parlance we do “works of piety” to strengthen our personal holiness, and we do “works of mercy” to transform the world for Christ.

Both of these actions are best done in community. Our piety is enhanced and built in discipleship groups and relationships. For clergy those relationships are bound by covenant in the annual conference and expressed in local churches or other extension ministries. Our works of mercy center on our local and global community. Our entire system is one in which we embrace the motto, “Together We Can Do More!”

Therefore, in and for community, through the combined efforts of many, we move clergy around to enhance works of piety and mercy. John Wesley called this active movement of clergy, “the apostolic plan of evangelization.” He sincerely believed that a primary genius of the Methodist Movement was itineration. Clergy were not to become “settled” as they routinely were in the Anglican Church of his day. In his mind, it was better for clergy to be constantly on the go in outreach to the world. The United Methodist Church continues to call clergy and laity alike to have a vibrant responsive ministry to our contextual realities!

Over the years more and more clergy have stayed longer in places. This can be a great thing if clergy and churches are continually creating new ways to minister to people. If churches and clergy are going through the motions, then it’s not. John Wesley said of himself, “If I were to stay in one place for a year, I would preach myself to sleep!” Wow, that’s a tough threshold, but his point, of course, is keeping the Gospel fresh, and the laity and the clergy, too.

But here I am about to move from being a District Superintendent back to the parish (At least that’s my hope), and I’m pondering how well I am handling the anxiety? I just got off the phone with a young clergyperson about to take their first appointment and my repeated advice to him was, “Pray and hang tight” By the way, “Hanging tight” does not mean to tense up. It is a charge to hold onto faith more than ever!

These are words that I need to heed. This is the first time in my ministry that I have known in advance that I’m definitely moving! There’s an eight-year term limit on DS’ so this has been anticipated, but I think that knowing I’m moving has actually exacerbated the uncertainty more than diminishing it. I have 15 more years of service somewhere(s), and am ready to let go of the trapeze bar that I’m on and grab the one that’s flying my way!

I’ve been meeting almost daily and quite a few times on Sundays with the persons anticipating moves in the Columbia District – S/PPRC’s and clergy. Everyone’s a bit nerved out. Sure, I know that this emotion will switch to anticipation and excitement when appointments are announced on March 10, but until then what can I and they do to find a centering place in God? When all of us in pulpit or pew have had what we perceived as less than favorable experiences in the past, what do we do to allay our fears today?

Isaiah 40 is an anchor in this storm of “already and not yet.” It begins in verse one with a message of comfort. Isaiah 40:1-11 is a song about God’s redemptive power. Words and phrases that speak of hard service being completed; that God’s comfort is greater than our fear of calamity or the “System” is balm to our souls. I especially like verse 11: “He (God) tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

For every clergyperson with a family, it’s good to know that God and the Cabinet care for you, your young, and whatever special circumstance is yours! God’s care extends to all involved in the appointment process. Yes, there will be hard decisions made, and there will be disappointments, but by the grace of God there will not be any mis-appointments when it’s all said and done!

Further comfort from Isaiah 40 is lined out in the litany of things, people, and systems that are no match for God. Verses 12-26 dare us to ask, “Who is God’s equal?” Is God greater than the nations? Absolutely! Is God greater than any human idol including a “plum” appointment? You know so! Is Creator God more powerful than creation, and the answer is certainly “Yes!” Is God greater than the princes and rulers of this world who sometimes are called bishops and superintendents? You better believe it! Is God greater than the starry host and the cosmos’ systems? By all means!

If this is all true Isaiah 40:27 confronts my fears with the pertinent question: “Why do you say, O Jacob (Tim), and complain, O Israel (Your name), ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God?’” If God is greater than the litany of powers lined out in the earlier verses, then there is no cause for complaint or fear. There is, on the other hand, cause for great faith!

Therefore, Isaiah 40 concludes with a canticle of praise and comfort:

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young people stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

For all of us in this itinerant ministry called United Methodism, may we hold fast to God and trust!!! In the Olympic spirit give a listen to Eric Liddell’s reading from Isaiah 40 in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Pray and hang tight!

Gratitude for Lay Servants and Lay Speakers

It’s been my pleasure to teach the Advanced Lay Servant course, “From Your Heart to Theirs” for the past 7 years. My last stint starts Sunday week. It’s a course that is subtitled, “Delivering an Effective Sermon.” The gist of the whole course is to encourage Lay Servants to realize that the best message is one that comes from the heart and touches someone else’s.

The official teacher’s guide to the course is good and helpful, but like many curricula it needs tweaking to juice it up and grab the attention of the students. The first week of class is mostly lecture with facts about different kinds of sermons, Bible interpretation aids, pluses and minuses of manuscript versus extemporaneous preaching styles, use of the hymnal, and tips on how to use one’s voice more effectively. The bottom line is that the course is about making it personal. The second week is when we listen to each other to see if that’s what we’ve done.

A “heart-to-heart” message is authentic, genuine, and has immediate “street cred.” It is not about sharing a speaker’s glamorous life events, but sharing how our ordinary lives intersect with and are really a part of God’s bigger narrative. The Scriptures are the text and we are the illustrations. Of course, I know that good sermons depend upon thorough exegesis; an interpretation from or out of the text itself. The biggest temptation in preaching a “heart-to-heart” sermon is a tendency to depend on eisegesis; a reading into the text from our own experiences and perspectives.

I submit that although exegesis is most important, the application of that knowledge into our contemporary existence through eisegesis is vital, too. We are required to superimpose our stories onto Scripture in order to be real and relevant. Therefore, I often find myself preaching in a way that uses my personal narrative in an illustrative manner. The Scripture speaks for itself, but I also need to share how it has applied to my life.

My children would have gladly preferred that I kept much of this to myself through the years, and I agree. Too much of the preacher’s story and not enough of Jesus’ makes for a self-centered, look-at-me-and-say-“wow!” hubris. Sharing too much of my children’s stories, usually without their permission, was downright embarrassing! I exposed their lives to a critical public.

I may have seen the moral of the story, but my kids and parishioners probably thought, “There he goes again, tooting his horn about his family.” Now, granted, most of the time these stories were self-deprecating, but it was still overdone. The sermon should be mostly about God’s salvific work than about me-me-me even if primarily about foibles! On the other hand, an all-exegesis sermon can sound like a commentary read aloud – b-o-r-i-n-g! There needs to be a balance, and sermons need to be as creative as the Creator!

The emphasis of the teacher’s guide for “From Your Heart to Theirs” is to help students realize that they already have a basis for ready-made sermon illustrations. Their personal experiences are the source. The seductive pitfall, however, is to start from experience and then hunt a Bible text to back it up. I encourage using the lectionary as the foundation for any given Sunday’s sermon, praying and studying through the passage and other information, then pondering where a speaker’s life and the text meet. Then tell the story!

This process is where the rubber meets the road for Lay Servants, Lay Speakers, and clergy. All of us can benefit from using a timeline of the key events in our lives. Those events can provide tons of illustrations about God’s providence and our obedience to or thwarting of God’s perfect will.

Baptisms, marriages, deaths, grammar school antics, high school friendships and graduations, college encounters, adult friendships, love and heartbreak, parenting, illnesses and the like can provide living proof of God’s faithfulness. Stories that make these scenes come to life animate the sermon and enliven the speaker who can “see” what’s being shared and say it more easily than rattling off a memorized illustration or someone else’s humorous story. The hearers can easily connect their similar adventures or misadventures, and find themselves drawn into God’s narrative. It makes preaching more than just an “inner dance,” as someone has called it. It becomes a “conga line” that brings everyone along!

I appreciate so much the work of Lay Servants. It is an honor to be asked to teach preaching, and it is a blessing when these students fill our pulpits when clergy are out sick or we’re celebrating Laity Sunday – whenever! Preaching is an art that can be learned if laity and clergy alike are willing to tell God’s story and their story in such a way that’s faithful to Scripture and magnifies Christ. Thank you to every Lay Servant and Lay Speaker for all that you do to bring God’s Word to life! We’re all walking sermons!

When Is The Right Time to Close a Church?

When is the right time to close a church? The technical process of discernment and action is outlined in Paragraph 2549 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, but the emotional process is much more complex. The bigger issue for me is the distinction between abandoning a church or discontinuing it. I haven’t closed a church in my 8 years as a District Superintendent and, as I’m in my last few months in office, I don’t plan on doing it now. It wouldn’t be fair to the next superintendent.

There have been a few Columbia District churches along the way that have been “on the bubble” in this regard, but I strongly believe what the anonymous author said, “Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again.” If there was enough movement of the Holy Spirit to start a church, why not wait and see if the fire can be rekindled? This seems like a plug for revitalization of existing churches over new church starts and maybe it is. I strongly support doing both!

Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 that “Where two or three gather come together in my name, there I am with them.” That can be an awkwardly low number. I heard about some ladies comparing their previous week’s worship attendance numbers. One said that they had 500 in worship. Another said that they were at the 100-person mark. The last person said their crowd was so sparse that when the pastor said, “Dearly Beloved,” she blushed. Is there a church size that is too intimate to be effective, too small to really be church?

A case in point is Cedar Creek UMC in the Columbia District. It was founded in 1742 as a German Reformed congregation then Bishop Francis Asbury and circuit-riding preacher “Thundering Jimmy” Jenkins came through in 1785 and the whole congregation, including the pastor, became Methodists. There’s a wonderful historical marker in front of the church. Unfortunately they’re down to five members now, all in their nineties. I’ve told the pastor of this three-point charge to go to Cedar Creek and wait, work on the sermon, and if nobody shows up in 15 minutes, move on to the next church. The people are faithful more than they are able at this point, but how dare I close a church that predates American Methodism?

None of the Cedar Creek folks want it on their conscience either so we’ve made an agreement. I will not start the process for their discontinuation. When they have all gone on to meet the Lord or the Lord has come back to meet them, then the church will be subject to the abandonment clause. However, this bothers me somewhat, too. Is there any spiritual value in the difference between abandonment and discontinuation? Maybe there is since you must have a death before a resurrection!

Sure, the Annual Conference trustees will do their best to see that Cedar Creek’s property is used in a way that promotes Christ’s ministry and the funds that they are currently using will be redirected to more flourishing ministries, but there’s still a sense of loss, even death. As Cabinet Secretary for these past eight years I have been the one who has stood in front of our annual conference and presented the resolutions for church closures. It has always been solemn, moving, and a funeral of sorts, except it’s hardly ever felt like a “Service of Death and Resurrection.” The resurrection part has been largely absent except when there’s a church whose assets have been designated to start or fuel another ministry. There’s real gratitude for past ministry, but seldom a hope of future fruit.

What is there to do? Oh, there are lots of avenues that have been explored through our excellent Congregational Development Office, great nearby churches and other partnerships, but in an area where the deer vastly outnumber humans there’s a dilemma. This is true across our denomination and others where demographics have changed. I have seen churches in the U.S. repurposed where a former Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh was turned into a brewery and a Baptist one in New York City has become an excellent Italian restaurant.

What happened? Is there any valid excuse for a church to close? I’m really struggling with this. You can visit Wesley’s Chapel on City Road in London and quickly discover that people don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but they still have an active congregation! In Cedar Creek’s case its near-demise seems to be all about location, location, location, but in New York City and London people can catch a subway or ride the tube to get to church. There are plenty of cars and drivers around here to get people to Cedar Creek, too.

So maybe the problem isn’t as much about location as what happened decades ago or sometime in the interim. I don’t think that this is Cedar Creek’s story, but I have certainly seen it in other places: Many if not most of our declining churches either started as or at some point turned into family chapels and the families have died out. For too long we have counted on people having children who stayed put: duty, loyalty, and inward focus; i.e., too much intimacy without welcoming the stranger and the church has shrunk. If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication.

To replicate the New Testament church we have to sometimes shut a church’s doors for a season in order to squash the old DNA and later reopen it as a new ministry. Frankly, the results have been mixed, but we have to do something. Rocking along propping up failing institutions is a horrible drain on our human and financial resources without much fruit to show for it. Our Wesleyan Movement ends up motionless.

The preferable response to this inertia is worth repeating: If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication. For instance, use the official definition of “replication” in computing. It is defined as: “sharing information so as to ensure consistency between redundant resources, such as software or hardware components, to improve reliability, fault-tolerance, or accessibility.”

Now, that will preach when I think about keeping churches alive and well: sharing information (talking about Jesus Christ and his mission), ensuring consistency (discipleship), between redundant resources (connectionalism-“Together We Can Do More!”), such as software or hardware components (people and buildings) to improve reliability (sanctification), fault-tolerance (loving communities), or accessibility (openness to new people and ideas).

My task as a District Superintendent is to be a “chief missional strategist” (Par. 419.1 BOD). That means that I need to help churches effectively share the Good News of Jesus by using all the resources of replication. In Cedar Creek’s case we might build a buzz and momentum for Christ’s witness by turning it into a teaching church. I have 65 churches in the Columbia District and 58 charges. What if I got at least 52 of those churches and charges and/or their Sunday School classes to go out there and hold services once a week for a year? It would be a chance to hold a lab school of sorts about the early history of Methodism for both adults and confirmands, an opportunity for Lay Servants to hone their speaking and teaching skills, a place to talk about ways to retain relevancy when your demographics change and the need for churches to engage new and different people.

The Board of Ordained Ministry could use it as a place for Residency Groups to learn about the Wesleyan Movement and have their very own class meeting. They would have a chance to get ready for the Proclamation Committee, too, by sharing the Word. Gosh, the Cabinet could meet there as a big reminder of two big questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?” Rather than be repurposed into a bar or restaurant, the Lord’s Supper could be served to Emmaus gatherings and others. There are lots of opportunities that need to be explored.

My wheels are turning, but I need to hear your thoughts and dreams. What do you think that we should do with Cedar Creek and others like it? What are your suggestions? I’m all ears,

tim

church bldg

Top 12 Essential Sayings For Ministers

Have you ever wondered how to respond to someone? The holidays often provide more than a few awkward moments that test our wits. I didn’t write this list of “Essential Sayings,” and can’t even remember where I got it, but as a District Superintendent with 7 months to go in an 8-year term, it seems wise to pass these along now. Think of these as gestalt therapy for preachers – helpful self-talk. With Thanksgiving coming up, everybody, clergy and laity alike, might need to put these to good use.  I wonder if there are any that you would add as essential sayings – write them in the comments!

TOP 12 ESSENTIAL SAYINGS FOR MINISTERS

12. That sounds like a great idea! I encourage you to take the ball and run with it.

Empower those with passion. They might look confused or disappointed that you didn’t add their suggestion to the top of your to-do list – that’s ok – or they might have just gotten the permission they needed to be a member in ministry.

11. Thank you for sharing your conflicts with [name] with me. Let’s think together about how you might address them with [name].

Develop an aversion to geometry – particularly getting caught in triangles between adversaries.

10. That is not an appropriate question/comment. My appearance/family/financial situation is off limits.

Ah, Life in the fishbowl. Gently remind (generally) well-intended people that if they wouldn’t say it to other professionals who provide care to them, they shouldn’t say it to you either.

9. [When grabbed on Sunday mornings] I appreciate this information. Could you call or email me this week to remind me? What you have told me is important, and often I don’t retain what I’m told in passing on Sunday mornings because there is so much going on.

Sunday mornings are your best opportunity to interface with the largest number of church members, which means you’re bombarded by information about pastoral care needs and ideas for new ministries. But you’ll also need all the brain cells at your disposal for the five-hour sprint, so put the onus back on others to remind you later about what they want you to recall.

8. I do not give weight to anonymous complaints, but I would be happy to talk face-to-face with anyone who has a concern.

Emphasize this early and often, and get your leadership on board so that they can encourage others to put on their big girl/boy pants and confront issues directly.

7. I could use your experience/expert help with [task].

Even the most broad-based seminary curricula don’t include construction, marketing, or tech support. Give folks a chance to lead by asking them to share their talents in God’s service.

6. I’d love to meet/attend your event on [day], but I take that day for self-care so that I will be fully ready to minister with you and others the rest of the week.

This one is tricky, and there are exceptions. Learn what yours are, and flex the time out elsewhere when you exercise them.

5. Let’s bring [colleagues/trusted lay leaders] in on this situation to help us think it through.

Lone rangers are prone to mistakes and have no one to back them up when the junk hits the fan.

4. Thank you for your email. Since the situation you name is both important and has some nuance and complexity to it, I think it would be most helpful to continue the conversation in person. When can you meet?

There is a time for email conversations, especially when you need documentation of your steps and others’ words. But real quagmires are often exacerbated by the limitations of text, the option to hit “forward,” and the lag time in responses.

3. The [rule/policy in question] is in place to ensure the safety and welcome of everyone in our community. This [rule/policy] applies to everyone equally, and I enforce it because I care about you/your child.

In a world full of excuses, exceptions, and entitlements, showing fairness and putting a person’s well-being over your need to be liked is uncomfortable but prophetic and pastoral.

2. When I am on vacation, my phone will be off and I will not be checking email. You may contact the church if you need immediate help.

Remind your people – and yourself – that you are not indispensable. The church will stand and time will march on if you take a week or two to rest your body and feed your mind. You can always have someone who is qualified on call or let your administrative assistant or Lay Leader discern if the situation is an absolute emergency that demands your response.

1.  Thank you!

Say this sincerely, often, and in a variety of ways.

Keep Calm and Carry On!

I saw a sign in front of a church that looked downright wrong to me. I’m sure they meant something else. It said, “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help.” As a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church I have experienced the unfortunate reality that sometimes the church can exacerbate worries more than help them. Church squabbles and differences of opinion distract too many Christians and turn them into worriers.

This is a season to be thankful, not worry! I am enjoying everyone’s “Thirty Days of Thankfulness” posts on Facebook. Each day’s renditions of gratitude for simple and profound gifts are inspiring. What a great thing to do. It reminds me of the refrain in my Mother’s favorite hymn, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.”

What a great spiritual discipline, especially if you are a worrier. “Turn your worries into prayers!” is an often heard phrase in our house, and I’m the one who needs to hear it.  I come from a long line of worriers. My Dad worried himself and everybody around him so much that I once made him a perpetual calendar that used interchangeable complaints and ailments for daily use. I called it, “Papa Mac’s Ailment Calendar.” At the bottom, I emblazoned the phrase, “For God’s sake and Mother’s, you only get to complain about one thing per day!” After getting upset about it, he actually lightened up and started showing it to his buddies.

Worrying doesn’t help a thing, does it? Someone said it’s like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere. Jesus talked a lot about not worrying. The most familiar verses are Matthew 6:25-34, but I’m especially partial to Luke’s version of the same passage. Luke 12:22-34 is really neat. Verse 32 nails it: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom.” What wonderful words of promise and a cure for worry!

I’ve heard from several well-meaning people that there are exactly 365 “Fear not’s” or “Do not be afraid’s” in the Bible, but what I add up with my concordances is about 70-something, even when trying different translations. Sure, it would have made a great devotional book to have one per day as a reversal of my Dad’s Ailment Calendar, but ONE is all we need anyway. If God says it one time then that pretty much covers it, right? However, there are lots of anti-worry passages, whether they have the exact wording or not. For instance, James 1:17 says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Isn’t it good to know that God is the unchanging source of all that is good! That’s a worry-killer!

What about Psalm 46? The whole psalm is great, but I cling to verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God…” Sometimes I can forget that so quickly, and I end up worrying. I get panicky over little things like where my cars keys are, and big things like Narcie’s health. If only I can wait on God without worrying! Instead I run around and make more trouble for myself and others. Heck, the debit card that I thought was eaten by the ATM machine turned up this morning as I happened to reach behind my car seat. Of course, this was weeks after I had already been to the bank and applied for a new card and put a stop payment order on the old one. I know not freaking out and being still are better choices to make. If I can stop and pray, “Lord, please show me where ________ is, then in that simple little act God usually lets me know which way to turn. It worked last night when searching for my watch!

This reminds me of one of the traditions found in the Navy. You’ve probably seen ship’s officers “piped” on board by a Bosun or Boatswain. These sailors use a high-pitched pipe that is like a bugle on land and can carry a specific tune and message. Each “call” is meant to be heard over the din of sounds found on a typical naval vessel. When a disaster or emergency occurs on a ship the Boatswain uses a specific signal called, “The Still.” The signal basically means, “Stop what you’re doing. Pause. Get your bearings. Prepare to do the right thing.” To some it may seem like a waste of precious time, but it actually saves lives. It clears away the confusion of worry and panic, while helping everyone remember their training. In stillness we find clarity that steers us in the right direction. Wouldn’t this world be a better place if we chilled out more before we react poorly and say or do the wrong things?

This reminds me of those British “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirts with a crown on top? Actually you’ve probably seen variations of them all over the place, especially on social media. In my googling I found out that the phrase was first used on posters and other items in 1939 at the start of WWII. It was a way to bolster the spirits of the British when things looked bleakest and there was the temptation to give up or give in to worry. I’m glad for its resurgence, but God’s been sending this message for a lot longer than 1939! Check out 2 Chronicles 20:1-22 for just a little proof. This passage is a testament to the “Keep Calm and Carry On” theme!

Whatever happens today – Pause and be still before God. Don’t let worry kill you. Keep Calm and Carry On!

keep-calm-carry-on

Getting Personal with Jesus

What’s the difference between being a “professing Christian” and a “professional Christian?” This is a daily struggle for me as my faith is lived in the context of being a professional person working for the church, in the church, and is paid by the church. I’m feeling very uncomfortable as a “church professional” these days. I’m in my last season of charge conferences as a judicatory authority in the role of District Superintendent, and I swing back and forth between the grief of seeing these 8 years of relationships end and relishing the thought of being back as a local church pastor.

I really miss the rhythms of the Christian calendar as a pastor. As a DS, I pretty much have just two seasons: Charge Conference and Appointment-making seasons. Even though I have tried to remain connected to the Christian calendar by spending lots of time in local churches and with pastors, I am still burdened by the “tyranny of the urgent” in my superintending role! Every day, and I mean every day there is junk that I see as a DS that I never saw as a pastor, and everyone thinks that their problem should be at the top of my priority list. DS’ are in the trenches as the first-line of defense against anarchy and church squabbles. I love being a missional strategist as a DS, but many days I am swamped by an endless litany of minor things.

 These days make me think that I would rather be a professing Christian than a professional one! I suspect that every pastor, clergy person, judicatory employee, and maybe local church member has had or is currently experiencing a similar thought. I have met local church members who have gradually morphed from being persons of faith to being tired “church leaders,” and in the process they have become jaded by it all. Their cynicism toward church life and the hypocrisy of fellow members and/or ministers makes them frustrated enough to want to quit the church and run back to Jesus. Well, Hallelujah – that’s the answer isn’t it? Maybe, maybe not – we’re called to be in community with other Christians however hard the prospect might be, but we’d better run back to Jesus, too, as job # 1!

So how in the world can I get ready to be a pastor again?  How can any of us stay connected to Jesus and put up with church life? How can you church leaders out there shy away from the power trip of being “pastor wanna-be’s,” church gatekeepers, power brokers, even “pillars of the church,” and be satisfied with being simply known as a faithful Christian? I am naïve enough to think that if I can nurture being a “professing Christian” once again it might make a difference in my being a “professional Christian.” It’s my hope that the same would be true for all of us.

It’s an obvious answer, and perhaps much too simple in our complex world, but could the difference simply be in professing Jesus more? What if I viewed my personhood and existence as a child of God as more important than my duties as a professional “Church” person? What difference would it make if I professed my faith more than worked for the church? I can hear the familiar refrain from countless funerals of “good” Christians over the years: “She/He loved the church and worked for the church – blah, blah, blah.” What kind of message is that? Yeah, yeah, yeah – it means they found value and strength in the community of other Believers, which is true, but sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, it meant they abandoned their families to open church doors, turn on furnaces, turn off lights, serve on countless committees and they lost not only their first love for Jesus but their love for people, too. They replaced a personal living relationship with Jesus with a non-smiling drudgery-laden burdensome guilt trip of working for Jesus.

The problem is that Jesus prefers to have people connected to him who then are inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear fruit for him. Jesus didn’t have people “working” for him. His wasn’t an employer-employee relationship with the disciples. Sure, Jesus had followers whom he sent out, but their missions were by-products of a direct and personal relationship with Him. If I don’t keep the personal connection with Jesus primary then I’m no better than the people Jesus talked about in Matthew 7:21-23 who said they did all kinds of great things yet the Father said, “I never knew you.” Doing, doing, and doing yet no personal relationship is the damnation of many.

Do I do what I do for Jesus because of closeness to Christ or has it become a rote routine profession? You want to know one of my problems as a “church professional?” Instead of professing Jesus in a fresh intimate way, I’ve found myself some days blatantly distant from Christ. I end up overcompensating by pretending as if Jesus and I were great buddies and it doesn’t matter what I do or the attitude that I have or the actions that I take; i.e., “Jesus and I have THAT kind of relationship.” Too much familiarity with Jesus by clergy and church leaders has led to the looseness of tongue and behavior that sometimes cripples the church. If you don’t know what I mean, go play golf with a bunch of preachers, or stay up all night cooking bar-b-que with a group of church members. You will witness first-hand the fulfillment of Aesop’s saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” New Christians or young clergy don’t need to be exposed to the laxness of “professional” Christians. Professional Christians are one step away from being non-Christian or almost Christian as John Wesley described them.

Like the Pharisees who were the religious professionals of Jesus’ day, the institutional church today is loaded with people in both pulpit and pew who have lost their first love of God with all their hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. The result is a “Church-ianity” of tired half-Christians who in someone’s words, “Have been inoculated with so many small doses of Christianity, they haven’t caught the real thing.” Therefore, if you feel more “professional” than “professing” as a Christian today and the evidence is stacking up against you, my suggestion is to reconnect with Jesus. That’s what I need to do! I need to get more personal than professional with the living Christ. Jesus calls us to a personal relationship, a discipleship that is built on a relationship more than religious professionalism. So whatever my discipleship is today, I want to make sure that it is intensely personal with Jesus. That’s why Jesus said, “Follow me.” That’s getting personal more than professional!

LOL!

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!