Post-SEJ Emotions

Jurisdictional Conference is over and I am so excited to welcome Bishop Jonathan Holston to South Carolina. As a part of the SEJ Committee on Episcopacy that made the assignment I can share with you that he possesses EVERY characteristic that we need in SC: He is a leader that I have personally seen at work; has a proven track record of results with a grace that bridges every constituency; and is so well organized that he will aid us in these transitional times as we have changed our AC structure and much of our AC staff and bid farewell to Bishop Taylor and Rusty. Hear this: South Carolina hit a homerun in his assignment to us! It is his coming here that gives me hope in the midst of my personal pain.

Yes, I will personally replay all of the details of the episcopal election process and ask all the “what-if” questions. I feel gut-punched, but I know that I am blessed to come back to South Carolina. I love Christ and the United Methodist Church. Am I disappointed? Of course. Am I thankful? Oh, yes. I am so grateful for the South Carolina delegation and annual conference. You worked tirelessly. You gave of yourselves in so many ways. Please hear your name said in a prayer of thanks from me! Your names are so many! My family and I are so thankful for your love, prayers, and support. I hope I didn’t let you down – my biggest “what-if.”

There are machinations and maneuvers in any election, even in the church, but this delegation held together and exhibited both the grace and strength of the South Carolina Annual Conference. I know that I shocked you and many others with my concession speech yesterday. I felt that the Holy Spirit clearly wanted me to respond to the growing crescendo of a desire that we have a more diverse College of Bishops. Well, you and I know that I fit this bill, but a lot of others see me and think “white guy.” Some have said “he’s just an ‘Indian wannabe'” or that mixed blood doesn’t count.  Well, S.E.R.N.A.C. (South Eastern Regional Native American Caucus) endorsed me. So those that question are calling both my and their integrity into question.

But, the pain of racism runs rampant among us all, doesn’t it? Church and society. Will the malaise or the revival of the United Methodist Church be hastened by a desire for leaders who fill a certain racial, gender, or theological quota? I don’t think so, and I’m NOT disparaging anyone who was elected. I’m grateful for each person’s gifts to the church. I must, however, speak up for the SC Committee on Native American Ministries. Our slogan and misson is “Making the Invisible, Visible!” Bishop Cho fits this description. He is the first Asian person elected a bishop in the SEJ and is a person of great character and spiritual leadership.  We did not, however, elect our first African-American female bishop. Sharma Lewis, an effective leader, was the target of rumors. We didn’t elect Ivelisse Quinones, a gifted Hispanic person either.

This is the reason I rose to tell everyone to vote for Bishop Cho. He and I could have gotten stalemated for a number of ballots and, who knows, somebody may have been hoping for such a thing. Of course, momentum was his and it may not have even mattered. Nevertheless, I felt the need for a good servant of the Lord like Bishop Cho to be elected.

I still feel called of God, wherever that takes me. That supercedes whatever anyone else thinks. I’m going to head to Mt. Mitchell and be alone with God for a few days. I love what I’m doing as a DS and I want to serve Bishop Holston in every way possible. I love South Carolina United Methodism!

You want to know what this feels like the day after? How would you feel if right after hundreds of people consoled you, a bishop of the church, probably well meaning, said to you something like, “You would have been elected if you had been quiet about the Council of Bishops and the Call to Action.” More was said but you get the drift. Well, my Mama and Daddy raised me to have integrity. Yes, I spoke out against what I thought was a violation of our history, theology, and polity. I knew it would cost me votes, but it was the right thing to do.

Everybody says bishops have a lot of pull in who gets elected, but I’ve taught UM history, polity, and theology. We have never had a consolidated power group or person running the whole church. Even Francis Asbury excused himself and allowed the conference to vote in the James O’Kelly matter of 1792. O’Kelly supported a clergyperson’s right to appeal their proposed appointment. The conference wanted a balance of powers with both a strong episcopacy and a strong conference. Whenever we have erred either way and granted more power to the General Conference over the Council of Bishops or vice versa, we have had a church split.

That’s a fact and I pointed it out pre-General Conference in a number of settings and publications none of which were personally solicited, and I’m ecstatic that the Judicial Council ruled the way they did. I had hoped that Plan UMC was a way to balance things out, but was rightfully worried about its constitutionality. I’m about ready to say that the UMC needs to hold a month-long constitutional convention and redo a lot of things.

But I’ll say two things for sure: You cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution, and the Church is of God and will endure until the end of the age.  In spite of all of my emotions today, from tears and utter sadness to overwhelming peace – the same peace I felt as I spoke to the SEJ yesterday, and as I sat down then, I have hope today. Yes, I know this hope is a bit tenuous right now. I trust the Lord, but am a little gunshy about trusting people at the moment. I am sorry if this seems more like a rant than an observation. I know that I am too close to this and I have very little objectivity right now. Grief is talking. The 12th anniversary of my Daddy’s funeral was Tuesday, and today would have been my Mamma’s 95th birthday. But if I’m anything, I’m real. What you see is what you get. I want to be a faithful servant of the Lord in our beloved church and I’m simply voicing my perspective.

Maybe it would help tone down my comments if you read the words from my  short speech on the first day of the conference. Here it is and I hope you glean more hope from this public personal debriefing than despair.

After General Conference I reread Walter Brueggeman’s book Hopeful Imagination about the Jewish Exile, and just a month ago Gil Rendle spoke at our Annual Conference about the Wilderness.  Their common theme is that these events actually fostered times of great renewal and hope in the midst of lament and crisis for the Israelites.  I think that our tenuous situation today is similar, and much like what Wesley faced in the Church of England. How wonderful it would be if we could recognize the power of God in the midst of all the gloom and doom we’ve heard! Who wants to get on a sinking ship? God’s in the resurrection business!

Remember the scene in Mark 5 when Jesus attends the funeral of a little girl? Jesus dismissed the crowd of professional mourners who thought that He was nuts because He said the child was asleep, not dead. Then Jesus invited only the people who were desperate – her parents – and the people who were faithful – a couple of his disciples – to witness the miracle. Miracles occur in the presence of desperation and faith where God gets center stage.

So we can either wail without hope as United Methodists, or be desperate enough to trust only in God. Wailing doesn’t help. It distracts. It acknowledges neither God’s power nor the possibility of new life. Once the wailers were gone, Jesus did his work and the miracle was astonishing in its simplicity. Like a parent waking a child for breakfast, Jesus gently spoke the Aramaic equivalent of: “Wake up, little one – Talitha Koum.” Where the wailers proclaimed death, Jesus spoke life. Where they grieved loudly, He quietly took the little girl by the hand. Where they laughed with contempt, He celebrated with joy. They were ready for her funeral; Jesus told them to feed her breakfast!

In a sense, John Wesley did the same thing. He spiritually raised the dead when he took 18th century England by the hand.  God produced new life for thousands, and fed both souls and bodies.  The world is still longing to hear a word of hope, and the United Methodist Church can speak it like no other!  The Episcopal leadership we choose will shape that.

Following Christ’s example in Mark 5, I think a bishop must be present and available to others, and then be willing to go even deeper into people’s stories and situations.  Bishops must recognize opportunities for the work of the Holy Spirit even when many only see an occasion for wailing. I want to be a bishop that reaches out to our churches and our world with a word of hope, and echo the words of Christ: “Talitha Koum! It’s time to wake up!”

Don’t Let Worry Kill You, Let The Church Help!

My Daddy was a worrier. He had his reasons thanks to barely being a survivor of the Great Depression. He had a long list of concerns, but in retrospect he was pretty much an optimist. After having to quit school in the 8th grade to help his family earn a living, he ended up in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He learned valuable skills and earned a little bit of money to send home. He took a chance and learned how to auction and scraped together enough money to go to Reppert Auction School in Decatur, Indiana. He did well with his big risk. He took chances all his life when I think about it – too many to chart right here. Having 3 sons was one of his biggest!

But, you know what gave him the most worrying fits – University of South Carolina sports. Gosh, Daddy would get so worked up over a game that sometimes by the time he got to the stadium he would be so nauseous from his nerves that we had to take him home. It’s one of the reasons to this day that we’re early birds to sporting events and most everything else. You’ve got to have enough time for unexpected contingencies so you can go home and make it back to the stadium in time for the game to start!

And here I am just back from Annual Conference and about to head to Omaha for the College World Series. Sure I could sit at home and watch it on TV, but I’ve been every time USC has gone under Coach Ray Tanner – 6 trips. In the last 2 years my youngest son Caleb and I were there for the duration as the Gamecocks brought home back to back National Championships. So here we go again about to get in the car. Our tickets will be at will-call and I have campsite #33 at Lake Manawa State Park reserved. I’m a bit frugal so the $11 a night fee isn’t too much of a stretch.

The side benefits include Father’s Day with Caleb, good baseball, and lots of time to read and reflect before Jurisdictional Conference starts on July 17. Since this isn’t the first time I’ve been the conference’s Episcopal nominee I do know what to expect. I know it will be both stressful and exhilarating. I trust the Lord and the process, but it’s scary. Going to Omaha is just what I need. If I stay at home the fear factor may kick in. I would imagine that some of you can commiserate with me about worries and stress.

They say it’s not paranoia if they’re really after you. Imaginary or not, fears can catch up with us. Fear can be paralyzing. One church sign was frighteningly near the truth: “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help!” It’s almost not funny! For clergy, 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?

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. With fatherhood, sports, and the workings of the church, let’s give God a chance and stop worrying! Look for me in Omaha! I’ll write another blog when I get back. Catch me on Twitter and Facebook and Go Gamecocks!

Setting Sun or Beginning of a New Day

The sun in setting on summer. I rushed off to Mt. Mitchell for one last solo trip Sunday afternoon and got back yesterday around lunch. The photo is a shot from just beyond my campfire looking south toward Old Fort and East Asheville. The temps dropped down to the upper 40’s but were absolutely wonderful during the day.
It was a great time to process the whole episcopal election experience and spiritually prepare for my return as Columbia D.S. The sun is NOT setting on my ministry in Columbia and S.C. I read some helpful books during my time around the fire. Of course they are follow-ups to Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation and Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. This weekend I read Peter Steinke’s Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, and two of Roberta Gilbert’s books on Systems Thinking: Extraordinary Relationships and The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory. Before you begin to think I’m a nerd of sorts, I did read a mystery novel The Woods by Harlan Coben. It was a good read.
Actually, all of the books meshed well. Even The Woods had a lot of systems thinking in it, the interrelatedness of life and how to stay connected and be an individual at the same time. Sounds like our United Methodist system. Our polity gives title to church property to the local church, but it is held in trust for the denomination. Our Connection is a family system!
Here’s the rub, how do we keep from becoming separate silos of ministry doing our own thing without losing our sense of who we are as an integral part of the United Methodist Connection? Paying apportionments certainly isn’t the best way to be connected. Better ways in my mind include fellowship and worship/mission opportunities for laity and clergy to connect and share, in a class meeting-like style, what works and what doesn’t in any given setting. My hope in the Columbia District is to provide lots of these opportunities. We will build a community of faith that proves that the Connection is real. Read Paragraph 701 of the 2004 Book of Discipline for one of the best summations of who we are as a family system. So, the sun isn’t setting on us as a denomination, especially if we will embrace our shared identity and live it!


I’m Diving In

Steven Curtis Chapman’s song, “I’m Diving In” is going round and round in my head. I’m back in the office after two great weeks at Emory. My blog went down due to technical difficulties for a week, and our phone system in the UM Center has been upgraded but not working. Nevertheless, it’s been a joy to be back in SC with my colleagues. Literally dozens of people have expressed their mixed emotions of my not being elected a bishop, but glad I’m back in Columbia as District Superintendent. I have thanked them for their wonderful support. I have also put myself and whomever else on notice that things will not be business as usual. If we believe that sanctification is our most distinctive Wesleyan doctrine: That God doesn’t save us through Jesus to leave us the way God found us but to transform us and the world; then things are going to get better and better around here.

To prove this to myself and the Columbia District Council on Ministries, in our meeting yesterday afternoon I lifted up new ventures that I hoped we would address this coming year. I want us to empower the laity more with an exciting Lay Leadership Workshop in January. I will also spend time with the lay leadership of each church, utilizing our new District Lay Leader in Charge Conferences and in meeting with local church lay leaders like I do with each pastor for consultation. The three questions will be, although put in mercantile terms: “What business are we in?”; “How’s business?”; and “How can we help?” I want to use the wonderful cadre of Columbia District Lay Speakers more effectively. I would like for us to get on board with every church embracing Natural Church Development and especially looking for ways to find out people’s spiritual gifts so they can be better used in the local church and community.
I also lifted up evangelism opportunities. I’m woefully tried of our Igniting Ministries’ ads that don’t even mention Jesus. We can pool our district monies and place ads in all the cinemas in the metro area at Christmas and Easter at least. We have to be relevant! So in addition, we are going to pump up our existing district-wide youth events and add a service component. We did a district project last year between clergy and laity that were primarily adults. We did have one youth. I also asked the DCOM to ponder helping me figure out an effective way for us to set up two large parishes for the churches within 5 miles of the UM Center that could benefit from expanded ministry. These churches would share pastoral and lay leadership across two groupings of 7 churches each so that different portfolios of ministry can be deployed and thriving relevant churches be the result.
We also talked about being the capital city district and that means personal piety and social holiness should be hand-in-hand. What are things that we can do to shape the General Assembly? Of course, about everyone knows my passion to get the Confederate flag off the Statehouse grounds, but we have much more to do with homelessness, the Hispanic needs in our area, school buses, the cigarette tax, etc. I promised that I will continue to spend 3 hours with each clergy, and pop in on church council meetings to build relationships. We will be part of a conflict mediation effort so that we can help people survive their differences. I also told the DCOM that I want some sort of forum to teach “Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit,” one of the courses I teach at Emory and have done in a Sunday School class. We have a lot of people from other faith backgrounds or who present the embedded theology of our Baptist/Calvinistic society and don’t understand who we are and why it’s good!
Anyway, there’s much to be done. I won’t be coasting into the future, whatever it may hold. I’m looking forward to our clergy set-up meeting this Thursday. We have a District Clergy camping trip set up for August 25-27 that will help forge relationships. I pray that God will inspire us to get out of the boats we’re in!