The Dones and Nones can be Undone

“Baby, It’s cold outside!” is true for the weather, but sometimes it’s an indoor reality, too. There are too many people who are so poor that they cannot heat their homes adequately. I wish that we did as much about that as we worried about the temperature in the sanctuary. Cold churches are worse than a blizzard, and I’m not talking about the thermostat. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the welcoming ministry of the church and its correlation to church growth.

In my mind the number one reason for “Nones,” the people with no religious affiliation who stay away from church, and “Dones,” those who are done with church and don’t plan on coming back, is an unfriendly exclusive church that shortchanges and diminishes JESUS. People are tired of the notion of worship as “plop, pray, and pay” where everything is done “decently and in order.” Methodists used to be known as “Enthusiasts” and “pew-Jumpers” because we got so excited in worship!

Just last night at a marvelous Ash Wednesday service a so-called saint claimed “their” pew and shooed some folks away. This goes against the mantra of the denominational plea of the United Methodist Church that we want to reach, “new people, younger people, and more diverse people.” We are a 92% white denomination that doesn’t demographically reflect our societal milieu. What are we doing to invite people to experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ? I guess we need to let Jesus transform us first!

When I was a District Superintendent I had several churches that probably needed to close. I never closed any, but I not only thought about it, I also suggested to several churches that it might be in their best interest and more so for the community around them if they did. These were churches that had a pathological inbredness about them. I walked the cemetery of one of them and noted that there were four different spellings of the same last name, and they wondered why they weren’t growing. They couldn’t even get along with each other, much less dream God-sized dreams for their community. It crossed my mind that it might have been better for them to post a message on their sign that said, “Closed Until Further Notice – Renovations and Repairs Underway,” so they could get the spiritual malaise of their members corrected. How in the world could you want someone to actually attend an unhealthy church?

Of course, I am reminded that there are no perfect churches, pastors, or people. We wouldn’t need Jesus if that were the case. So we need to make clear to people that if you visit, join, or otherwise associate with our congregation, please don’t expect perfection, inclusion, or genuine love for everybody, because we’re still under construction. We’re not closing our doors, but we do need to promote truth in advertising!

I am pretty sure that the “Nones” and “Dones” have either experienced or heard about that straw-breaking insensitive church member, inadequate preacher, church fight, or whiny plea for money and they either want none of it, or they’re done with it. My sincere hope is that we can still turn the tide before US churches resemble the empty museums they call many “churches” in Europe.

I think the tide will turn if we ratchet up our friendliness factor. We need to be honest, “Yes, we’re human and have problems, but, thanks to Jesus, there’s hope. We may not be perfect, but we’re trying to do better every day, and we need your help. There’s strength in numbers and us plus God can thaw out the coldest deepfreeze.” This sounds fine, but it sounds desperate, doesn’t it, and desperation isn’t attractive either in inviting people to church or to get married.

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the benefits and the advantages of church attendance. After all, doctors say that there is a direct correlation between church attendance and good health. It’s called psycho-immunology, but inviting people to church in such a mercantile fashion strikes me as a little bit overselling and maybe promising more than we can deliver. It sounds like giving away coupon books for discounts at church connected businesses, or, worse, a ticket to heaven when the only heaven we represent is either stale, in turmoil, or dead. If people judged a lot of Christian worship as a foretaste of heaven then I’m afraid that we would be hard-pressed to get any takers.

So, I’m back to the friendliness factor that suggests that how we treat people is key in getting people to darken our doors and come back. The main thing that I would add isn’t a thing as much as it is an experience: the mystery and power of Jesus Christ. Unashamed, let loose, unreserved, genuine, authentic, undeniable, real – that’s the worship that I’m talking about. Our services should be, “Here’s Jesus, the One-and-Only, matchless, loving, forgiving, and empowering God who loves you!” It may be too simple for our sophisticated minds and sense of decorum, but let’s let Jesus be Jesus and watch what happens. It’s like what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said: “I set myself on fire (for God), and people come to watch me burn.”

No self-immolation is intended, but I just think if people saw how great Jesus is to us, then we’ll be people of passion and conviction that exhibit all of Christ’s attributes. Our friendliness factor, therefore, is directly proportional to our faith factor. Who is Jesus to you, to me, to us? If He’s who He says that He is then everything will be as alright in our churches as it can be on this side of eternity.

Listen to Rev. S.M. Lockridge and his description of Jesus. If this doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. If this Jesus is presented to our world in encouraging inviting ways then there won’t be anymore “Nones” and “Dones.” They will be undone by Jesus!

Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice & World Communion

This is that time of year when I ponder what World Communion really means. I can say that I love everybody, but if I harbor ill will when I come to the Table then it doesn’t do much good. If I’ve been a jerk to someone, I have prevented them from knowing grace, too. I very much like what someone said, “The three phrases we most often desire to hear are: “I love you!” “I forgive you!” and “Supper’s ready!” In the sacrament of Holy Communion this is what we hear from Jesus. It’s His Table, and all are invited. It’s up to us to come!

When I was a youngster in my home church we went to Sunday School and afterwards made our way into the sanctuary. The educational building was behind the sanctuary so that if you went from one to the other you usually entered through the back door that opened into the sanctuary right beside the pulpit and altar. If we saw the communion elements and the white cloth spread out we immediately pressed our parents into leaving early.

Communion services were so long and were as somber as a funeral service. We used the old ritual; where what we said focused more on guilt than grace . We used words like, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed in thought, word, and deed…” I felt sinful enough already. Our communion service added to my sense of guilt. The words of pardon were miniscule in comparison to the confession. I usually left feeling worse.

This is one reason that today when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper; we attempt to focus more on Christ’s marvelous work of grace than on our power to reform ourselves. We, more often than not, now refer to Communion as the Eucharist. Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The most important thing that we do when we come to the Communion Table is say, “Thanks!” to Christ for his gift of mercy. Rather than focus overly on our sinfulness, we thank God for God’s graciousness. What a better perspective!

World Communion Sunday is an event that bridges denominations and spotlights our commonality in the Body of Christ. This world would be so much better off if we looked for that which we hold in common rather than our differences. Holy Communion, rightly observed, reunites the Church. This is the pastor’s hope when he or she holds up the loaf of bread and says, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body in Christ.”

Therefore, our focus this week is in how to get over our differences and find common power to live in Christ. The Eucharist is a time of positive celebration, reunion, prayer for healing, and a sacred time to put others before ourselves. Dentist Thomas Welch found himself wanting to make communion accessible to all back in 1869. Communion was problematic for a number of reasons, but the alcoholic content of the wine was primary. Dr. Welch was the Communion Steward for the congregation of First Methodist Church of Vineland, New Jersey. To his dismay, more often than not, communion either set some of the participants off on an alcoholic binge or on a rush to judgment by the abstention crowd. He and his family did experiment after experiment to come up with a solution and they did. He created unfermented grape juice, dubbed it “unfermented wine,” and soon churches all around wanted the product. By 1890 “Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice” had become a staple on communion tables, where it remains so today, all because someone saw communion as a sacrament that brought Christians together, not divided them! Let’s pray that our World Communion 2014 brings the whole Christian family together in grace and thanksgiving.

Communion pic

The UMC and The Ice Cream Maker: Innovation & Excellence

We’re working on a new website at St. John’s UMC, Aiken and getting feedback from a variety of people. What has stirred my thinking this morning is that most of these people are church members. This strikes me as a little odd because it confirms that our target audience is ourselves although we have been trying to ask “What if I were a new person to town…?” But, even the best intentions of trying to innovate our “branding” is a little iffy if we don’t ask the opinions of people without a “brand” – the “nones” who have no religious affiliation, the people who are struggling day-to-day to get by and have no clue that Jesus loves, forgives, heals, and reconciles.

I just finished reading a business genre book titled The Ice Cream Maker by Subir Chowdhury, a famous corporate consultant known for his expertise in helping companies achieve excellence. He suggests in his allegorical story of an ice cream manufacturer that quality is America’s missing ingredient for success.  He has great ideas to help us all reach higher degrees of national, corporate, and personal excellence. Summed up, they are: Listening, Enriching, and Optimizing. The book jacket says, “Chowdhury illustrates what businesses must do to instill quality into our culture and into products and services we design, build, and market.”

So as we design a website, a new ministry building, and sanctuary renovations, too – plus the fall kick-off of small groups, Bible Studies, outreach ministries and the like, we must ask as much or more about QUALITY as we do about INNOVATION. If we’re answering questions that the culture isn’t asking we’re wasting time, effort, and breath. If we believe in the mantra, “If we build it, they will come,” it probably isn’t going to happen! Innovative ministries are a must but we have to be excellent, too!

As United Methodists I have often thought that our most excellent theological hallmark is sanctification: that God doesn’t save us through Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. This doctrine of holiness and excellence has inspired the Methodist Movement to seek changes individually and in society so that everything might reflect the Kingdom of God. Like the author of The Ice Cream Maker, we are a denomination that promotes quality, yet I’m afraid that our primary excellence has diminished into taking care of those who already know Jesus and not the ones who don’t. I probably wouldn’t be a Christian if my parents and home church had not discipled me, but if I hadn’t listened and responded to a Billy Graham Crusade on TV when I was an early teenager I know that I would have have ended up as a casualty of misplaced priorities, a nominal Christian at best or not at all.

What are we going to do to be more excellent? I think we need to start by asking the right questions. Who are the customers we need to listen to? What are our strengths that need enriching? How can we optimize and build on our successes? These are tough questions. Many of our churches act as if their customers are the folks already caught in the fish bowl. As a matter of fact, it’s what I do! I want to spend more time reaching those outside our congregation’s walls, but if I had to put percentages on my ministry I would have to admit that I am about 85% focused on sheep tending and 15% on outreach. I believe John Wesley’s percentages would have been the opposite. Sure, he spent a lot of time building small groups and infrastructure, but those groups were comprised of people new to the faith. You clean fish after they’re caught, not before. Most of our programs are directed at people who have already been caught instead of catching fish!

We’re not alone in this either. Look around at America in general, not just religious institutions. Innovation has been part of our country’s DNA but do we insure the slogan “Made in America” means best quality? Think about GM and all of its recent recalls. As a big fan of the show “Shark Tank,” I enjoy seeing how entrepreneurial the average American is. We think up ideas and create new products left and right, but as quickly as we have a new idea some person or company overseas either pilfers the idea through computer hacking or simply makes a copy and produces a better quality product so that the only way the US can stay ahead is by creating something new and the whole scenario gets repeated. Our only advantage is innovation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we not only were tops in new ideas but also in excellence?

Do you remember when cars made in Korea were almost a joke, and now Hyundai and Kia are both top of the line? Some are old enough to remember that a “Made in Japan” label on something meant it was inferior, yet most of us demand Japanese products today because of their exceptional quality. I wonder which countries that are lagging today will be tomorrow’s premier manufacturers. Doesn’t this sound familiar as we think about the mainline church and the UMC?

Mainline Protestantism cornered the market for 150 years in the US and has been losing “market share” to non-denominational churches and others for quite a while. They have copied Wesley’s small groups and discipling methods (Methodism), and can articulate our theology better than we can ourselves, but they do it all better than we do. They combine innovation and excellence, and I am convicted by it because this was our forte. That is who Methodists are by theology and definition, or at least who we used to be! I personally repent for my lopsided focus, and pledge to start asking and answering questions that are pertinent to everyone. We must offer Christ to the world in the most creative and excellent ways, or die a dead sect.

The Ice Cream Maker

 

New Clergy as Detectives

Well, one to two weeks are under the belts of newbie clergy who just moved to new parishes and, if they are like me, they’re pondering potential changes. Of course, someone wisely suggested to new clergy that, “You shouldn’t change anything for the first six months except your underwear!” Some may be wondering if they can wait that long. You’re probably wondering if you don’t make some strategic changes now, your “Honeymoon Advantage” may run out and be for naught. What are we to do as we make these first critical and highly analyzed/criticized decisions?

For me I have to first remember that every church is its own unique organism, family system, and culture. Therefore, what works in one place may or may not work in another. I also know that I need to find people that I can trust to tell me the unvarnished emotional history of the church. The factual history is easy enough to find in available documents, but find someone who can give you the “skinny” on the emotional processes that have occurred at nodal points in the church’s life.

How does the church handle decision making and crisis? What gets stirred up when there’s tension? Do people fight fair? Is passive-aggressive behavior the norm? Bottom line, become a church psychological detective and connect the dots of the family system.

Family systems theory, as in Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, is fascinating. There’s no way that I can summarize such an important tome, but here’s one quote that is illustrative: “One’s life course is largely determined by the amount of unresolved emotional attachment to family of origin, the amount of anxiety that comes from it, and what to do with it.” The question for newbie clergy is to discover the hidden wounds, the unresolved emotional attachments embedded in the psyche of church members and even their larger community.

You have heard the story of the young bride who marries a guy and cooks her first pot roast. She does everything just right, but her new husband is visibly disappointed. After a heated discussion he admits that his problem is that it’s just not the way his mother made pot roast, so she dares to go talk to his mother. The mother-in-law is clueless and assures her new daughter-in-law that she didn’t do anything special. But she does admit that she learned how to make pot roast from her husband’s mother. So she suggests that she go see her mother-in-law explaining that maybe she would have some insight.

The bride goes to see the grandmother and tells her everything that she did. The grandmother nodded approvingly and with a quizzical smile and asks the bride to step into the kitchen because she had made a pot roast that very day. The bride immediately sees what the difference is. The grandmother’s pot roast is square! When asked why she had a square pot roast the grandmother said that she and her husband were so poor when they got married that the only pot that they had to cook a roast in was square so they cut off the edges of the roast to square it up to fit the pot.

Wow! This was an unresolved emotional attachment that finally made sense when the bride connected the dots and did some research. Upon explaining this to her new husband, he was okay with the change. The discovery is that a family’s, and, I daresay, a church’s emotional processes are much more important than the facts or content of the issue(s), but once the emotional processes are uncovered you can more easily accept the content of the facts or the way things are.

Some new clergy have inherited churches with “square pots” and emotional operational systems that are begging for illumination and exposure. The risk is in when to do it. Two analogies come to mind in this whole endeavor that separates emotional process from content: one about doctors and medicine and one about “river babies.”

The doctor and medicine one is pretty straightforward. Tests and procedures provide facts about a person’s condition, but we don’t rely on facts alone when we are in the throes of illness. Whether or not we trust the doctor is of huge importance. A doctor can have all the facts (content) straight but have the bedside manner of a frog run over in the road (emotional process) and we are not happy, and say that we want a second opinion when what we really want is a second doctor who really cares and takes it personally that we survive!

The story about “river babies” is also helpful to ponder in a who-done-it assessment of our new churches. In this story many of townspeople are down at the nearby river and they notice a toddler floating by about to drown. Many rush in and rescue the child, then another child starts floundering by, and then another, and another and on and on. They call to get more townspeople to come help pull all these babies from the river when two men desert them. As the deserters are heading up the riverbank someone calls out and says, “Why are you leaving us? Where are you going? We need you here to help us save these babies!” The guys reply, “We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

In our decision to let things slide for 6 months or not, do we keep pulling babies out of the water reacting to the tyranny of the urgent, or do we try to figure out what the systemic cause is of our under-functioning? Every situation, family, church, and community can be better. The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. God bless us as we determine whether or not to tread water or go upstream against the flow and do something about the real issues. Happy detective hunting as we separate the facts from the emotional processes at work in our new places of ministry.

images[11]

Stop It If You Can

I have been reflecting this morning on the Epistle text for this coming Sunday. The section is actually I Peter 2:1-10, but verse 1 connects, of course, with verse 2 so that’s my starting place. Verse 2 basically says, “Grow up!” as it literally says “… grow up in your salvation.” The primary method offered for growth comes before rather than after this verse. The first verse of the chapter says, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” If I did get rid of these things I would be a lot farther along in my understating and experience of salvation.

There’s a comedy sketch with Bob Newhart as a psychologist who says basically the same thing as I Peter 2:1. Please understand that I know that a lot of this sketch is insensitive to those who have very real mental health issues that cannot be helped except through the channels of therapists, doctors, and/or meds.

We just had a district clergy meeting about the need for better mental health care for the incarcerated, and, frankly, I think that everyone who suffers in this manner is imprisoned. Our own denomination needs to do a better job addressing this issue. For instance, one of the most disturbing sections in the United Methodist Book of Discipline is paragraph 4 of our Constitution entitled “Inclusiveness of the Church.”

The synopsis of this section of our Constitution gives a lengthy list of those who are eligible to attend our church services. I hope you notice who is left out: “All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status (which by the way is undefined by General Conference and therefore without meaning), or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate…” It appears at first glance that no one is excluded, but did you read anything about “mental condition?” I know personally that the UMC is welcoming to persons who have mental health issues, but I do think that it needs to be spelled out. Perhaps it’s an oversight, one that certainly needs to be rectified.

But back to I Peter 2:1 and how we can grow up. It says that we are to “rid ourselves” of some things. There are some things that we need to stop doing. Titus 2:11-12 says that God’s GRACE enables us to stop doing the things that we can actually stop: “It (grace) teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age…” So, if you’re trying to mature in salvation as I Peter 2 declares then that means that there are some things that you have to stop doing, things to get rid of.

Of course, the Serenity Prayer is for all who cannot stop it because of disability: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.” For those of us who can, by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit, take responsibility for our own actions, give a listen to this Comedy Central sketch featuring Bob Newhart as a counselor.

Out of the Mouths of Barbers

We are grateful that our new church has a housing allowance, but we have never bought a house before and had no clue of the hoops that one has to maneuver to make it to closing. How many more copies of this or that will be needed? I pray that we’re near the finish line, but I imagine there’s more to be done. It would have been helpful to know NOT to buy furniture ahead of the move. It depletes your liquid assets that the mortgage company wants to measure, and that’s not a plus to your credibility as a buyer.

I never knew how much of a blessing parsonages are to our clergy deployment system. You move out and move in, food is waiting, unpacking helpers are on hand, and you’re not distracted by much more than whether or not your bedspreads match the existing window treatments. For the first time in my ministry I’ll be without an S/PPRC or Parsonage Committee person to call when something breaks. I’ll be a committee of one whose handyman skills are usually reserved for mission trips. We are grateful for a chance to buy our own home. My prayer is that Cindy and I won’t be too frazzled before we get there.

Therefore, I’m more than a little stressed right now while I’m waiting for the money that I’m borrowing from my 403B to clear the bank so I can prove to the mortgage company that I’m a  good risk. I’m also weary from finishing up appointment-making as a District Superintendent. On top of all this I’m putting out the usual fires that come from “buyer’s remorse” as churches that didn’t ask for their pastors to move want them to move now and it’s too late!

I need to remember what I told a stressed out pastor last night: “You are not responsible for your people; you are responsible to them.” There’s a huge difference between feeling responsible FOR everyone and everything, and being responsible TO others by doing the best that you can and letting the rest go. I want to be like the non-anxious presence of Jesus when he stood before Pilate, secure in who I am and not caught up in someone else’s hurricane.

I just went to get a haircut and the person tending to my very limited strands asked, “How are you today?” I started on my tale of mortgage banking, a daughter who’s had brain surgery, concern over this detail or that one ad infinitum until she simply asked, “Are you religious?” What a great segue into a spiritual discussion with a stressed out dude. It was the best haircut I ever had, and it wasn’t at all about my hair! I never told her I was a pastor, but I did tell her I believe in Jesus. She wasn’t judgmental in the least about why I didn’t seem to be acting like I actually BELIEVE in Jesus. She just simply said what I’ve heard my dear wife say over and over again, “Turn your worries into prayers.”

Goodness, how much better I felt after that haircut! Everything is going to be alright. Jesus is my Rock and Redeemer. I need to do what I am supposed to do and not freak out if the stuff hitting the fan isn’t evenly distributed. You know how there seem to be some people who have a Teflon coating and trouble never sticks to them. Well, I’m one of those who are like Velcro. Everything sticks! Lately I have looked and felt like that old baking sheet we received when we got married almost 39 years ago – bent, rippled, warped, and multi-colored from stains and grime. It might be time for a new baking sheet!

The barber asking, “Are you religious?” has been my chance at a fresh start today. I am going to redouble, triple, and quadruple spiritual disciplines that have been too quickly evaporated by and overwhelmed by the flood of urgent things. If I do believe in Jesus and life is throwing junk at me then I better spend as much or more time talking to Jesus and yielding moment by moment to God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, here’s to fresh starts with the Lord! Plus my ace in the hole is that tomorrow morning I am “getting out of Dodge” with my Bible, fishing tackle, camping gear, chess set, and a good friend to spend a couple of nights listening to the tranquil sounds of a waterfall on the New River in Western North Carolina. In the midst of night after night of Introductory Visits for new pastors, here’s my first chance in months to get away and let the Lord refresh me and I’m taking it!

I’ll be back in time to thank Cindy for being the best Mom I’ve ever seen, and preach a Mother’s Day sermon for one of my convalescing clergy. Then next Monday I’m going to my new appointment and acclimate to things. I will be there for staff and worship meetings, and spend one-on-one time with each person. I’m going to ask them two questions: “What is ___________UMC known for in the ____________ community?” and “What are you known for in ___________ UMC?” I want to hear about each person’s passions and discern how I can facilitate shared ministry and teamwork. People can do so much more when they’re having fun and doing it together!

I am going to ask how each person finds renewal in Jesus, and here’s a question for all of us: “Who’s winning in your life: your worries or your faith?” If it’s our worries then let’s do something about it. As the old hymn goes, “I’m going to lay down my burdens, down by the riverside…” What about it? Feeling like Velcro collecting stress, a dented old pan whose shiny wore off a long time ago, then let me ask you: “Are you religious?” That barber asked a great question to put me back on track with Jesus. It’s a great question for you, too, and so is “Where is your riverside?” Give a listen to this quartet of barbers and turn your worries into prayers!

My Mother’s Train

I stopped Sunday afternoon at a Hallmark store to purchase a Mother’s Day card for Cindy. There was plenty of time to peruse them because I was between preaching, visiting a clergyperson in the hospital, and the last event of the day which was our District Pre-Annual Conference Orientation. After selecting an appropriate card I found myself looking at other items that might be an appropriate Mother’s Day gift for her.

Before it dawned on me that whatever I bought would just be another thing to pack for our upcoming move I noticed some rather odd items. The most unique and troubling gift was a mug with this phrase emblazoned on it: “If I were a Mormon fundamentalist I would want you as my sister wife.” I know that official Mormons have done away with the practice of having multiple wives, but I’ve seen too many ads for weird television shows about guys and their plural marriages to think that the phenomenon has disappeared.

It’s interesting that none of these shows are about women with multiple husbands, but that’s for sociologists to figure out. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but one thing for sure is that a mug with this “sister wife” stuff on it would NOT be a good idea for a Mother’s Day gift. As the saying goes, “My Mamma didn’t raise no fool!” and Cindy has been doing a pretty good job of shaping me ever since!

My mother was a great person. She taught me right from wrong, how to value every person no matter their faults, how to be accepting, and exhibit unconditional love. She wasn’t perfect. Who is? She came close, though. She was a spit-fire who didn’t mince words. She was fun and had the best laugh. She had wounds that she mostly kept hidden. She loved her family immensely. Her integrity was impeccable. What you saw is what you got and I am grateful for her constant and consistent example of being a Christ-follower.

Integrity is a powerful word and is sorely needed in our mixed up world. “Integrity” comes from French for “in touch,” literally meaning that a person with integrity has a solid core around which their entire lives revolve. They’re not two-faced. You can take what they say to the bank. They may have many spokes on the wheel of their life but there is a hub that is unshakeable.

Wow, am I thankful for a Mother with integrity! In this wishy-washy world of jello-like values, we need more people who know right from wrong and do what’s right. There’s part of the rub and takes me back to the weird mug at Hallmark. It’s hard to figure out what’s right and wrong nowadays. I think I would be better able to fend off the temptation to loosen my values if I asked whether my Mom would approve or not. I’m thinking that “W.W.J.D.?” and “W.W.M.D.?” (Jesus and Mother) are pretty synonymous for me.

I try to use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to help me discern right from wrong as well: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. The Bible is God’s inspired Word and definitely primary. Tradition is what the church has taught over the centuries. Experience is both personal and corporate in nature. Reason is self-explanatory though most of us have seen so-called logic used to prop up the irrational. Frankly, Scripture and Tradition are most reliable for me personally, and if making life choices was analogous to a train then the engine would be the Bible followed by Tradition with Experience and Reason following next. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that Experience ought to be the caboose and come dead last.

Elevating Experience over Scripture is an awful hermeneutic! Our culture puts Experience first. God help us if the Church does the same. When I use Experience as the highest bar of what’s acceptable and right it usually results in self-centered failure. Our culture’s promotion of Experience as the rule of behavior is like the excesses of the Roman Empire, and we know what happened to it. When I promote Experience over the other three of the Quadrilateral I know that I am not doing what my Mother would do.

So, this Mother’s Day I am grateful for a Mother with integrity whose values were on solid footing. Her train had the cars in order. The Bible was first. Christian Tradition was second through a good church and family. Reason was honed in the milieu of a good Methodist school. Experience was put in rightful perspective as the last arbiter of right from wrong. As we anticipate Mother’s Day let’s answer very carefully, “What Would Mother Do?”

Hope Sustains Us!

Last night my new District Superintendent, Cindy, and I went to have our Introductory Visit at my new appointment. The Staff-Parish Relations Committee was great as is the church! It is so wonderful to get to know people and begin conversations about new ministry opportunities. To share in the grief of a beloved pastor’s move and start a new chapter with a new pastor and church is holy ground that is fertile with hope and emotion. I was very impressed with everyone’s thoughts, comments, and expectations. They energized me after a long and draining post-Easter day of Cabinet meeting.

The Cabinet’s work is grueling and impacts so many lives. It carries a holy heft of responsibility. Add that responsibility to the usual after Easter gasp for more air and you get a sense of my plight and that of many clergy and staff, choirs with Easter Cantatas, worship committees and all of Holy Week’s services, parking lot greeters who directed newcomers to sanctuaries, and all the other myriad people who help facilitate worship during the past week and what do you get?

The answer is a collective sigh that is either a sign of church overload or the best kind of tired that there is. It’s a good tired if you knew that you did your best to serve God and others. However, a lot of the folks I know need a vacation from their Easter vacation, and God bless the school districts who wisely gave students the week after off! A lot of us after Holy Week feel kicked to the curb by all of the activities. It’s almost like trying to adjust to daylight savings time or resetting our biological clocks three time zones over.

No wonder the Sunday after Easter is called “Low Sunday” with low attendance, low offering, and low about everything including energy. It’s supposed to be the happiest time of the year. Easter Sunday’s expectations were for a great sermon, great music, great attendance, and a great Easter meal to boot. For most of us all of this came true, but how do we keep Easter’s triumphal pace?

For me it boils down to one word: Hope! In tiredness, illness, or sheer exhaustion the question is, “Do I have hope?” I must let resurrection hope capture my worries. That’s what the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection did, and this is exactly what our world is longing for. Everyone around us is looking for renewed hope. The church is essentially a people and place of hope! The very reason the early disciples switched from Saturday Sabbath worship to Sunday was because Jesus rose on the first day of the week! I want that kind of life altering hope!

When we feel our spirits sagging and our worries mounting we should embrace God-given hope. Listen to Paul’s reminder: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all people (I Corinthians 15:13-19).” Easter hope is now and forever!

Therefore, no matter how drained from a post-Easter let down we might be, this is exactly the time we should cling to hope. Hope for me isn’t an exuberant emotion. It’s a sustained positive outlook in spite of feelings or circumstances. Yes, problems and challenges exist, but Easter reminds us that we can have a hope that is everlasting. Easter candy and chocolate Bunny ears disappear a lot more quickly than the ubiquitous artificial “grass” from depleted baskets, but the hope of Easter, the enduring triumph of Easter is should always remain. So, hang in there! I have hope and am expectant of happiness – got to embrace hope first! Give Pharrell’s “Happy” a listen:

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!

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!