Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Priorities and a History Lesson

An earlier blog ("Priorities") dealt with some of the issues that most people in United Methodist pews (not to be confused with UM pundits and caucuses and extreme voices) believe to be most important issues facing our church today. Creating disciples of Jesus Christ was at the top: 39% of those polled. Sexual orientation/same-sex marriage was 11%. I'm glad that most people in the pews think that making disciples is our most important issue - it certainly is where the Gospel is concerned.

I wish everyone could be convinced of that. It seems that, based on energy, fervor, Facebook posts, blogs, and the media, that same-sex marriage and plans of separation/reorganization/schism are the most important issues facing the church.

To be sure, these more recent wrestlings (more recent in the history of Christianity, that is) with sexuality are important. They are especially important to those who feel that they are justice issues, and to be sure all of us should be concerned with sexuality and justice. But in the grand scheme of Christianity, these issues do not take precedence over the emphasis of discipleship and mission - of which sexuality and relationships are certainly a part. And in a season when our denomination is in decline, making topics other than discipleship and mission a priority when the Gospel certainly makes them a priority is to doubly neglect our baptismal call as Christians. It is akin to putting lotion on a skin cancer: you might temporarily ease the skin irritation, but you have not gotten to the root cause that needs healing.

At present, the UMC is hemorrhaging. If it were about having a definitive stance on sexuality or same-sex marriage, the Episcopal Church or the Southern Baptists would gaining members. Yet they are in decline, too.

In this season, it seems clear: The most important issue in the UMC should not be same-sex marriage. It should be about making disciples. That's the Great Commission. That's who we are.

Making disciples of Jesus Christ is primarily about hope. It's about grace. It's about truth. It's about love/ἀγάπη. If we were getting these things right, we might have the conversations we need to have about sexuality, marriage, and relationships. When we don't get discipleship and hope right, we will resort to name calling, accusations, legislation, legal gerrymandering, and other actions of distrust.

And when none of these work, then we'll take someone to court. By God. It's the American way. Others say, "It's time for a divorce." (strange language for Christians to use).  In the UMC, both the left and the right have been guilty of such threats. Both sides have been guilty of violating covenant of trust and boundaries. The fact that we even define ourselves, sometimes proudly, by sides makes it difficult to trust, difficult to live together, difficult to talk. We seem to take our cues from our politicians rather than Jesus.

All which dismiss the basics that discipleship instills: hope, grace, truth, unconditional love. It seems to me that if we got discipleship right - that Jesus Christ is the hope of the world - we would get the rest right. That's my hope and dream, and perhaps a hopeful but naive one. But of this I am sure: UNTIL and UNLESS we get discipleship and hope right, we are simply playing Church and not being the Church - the hope of the world.

Some want us to subscribe to plans of separation (more accurately, divorce), schism, or unity (Jeremy Smith has compiled a good list and description of them here). The problem with schism, it seems to me, is that our history of such in Methodism is not just bad, but a recipe for disaster. Southern Methodists drafted a "plan of separation" during the Civil War over slavery (something John Wesley was staunchly opposed to). Partly as a result, despite our church standings on the matter, we are still a very white church in America. Still. Only 6.1% of U.S. United Methodists are African American (compared to 90.1% who are white).

Historically speaking, schism (plan of separation if you prefer) is a very very bad idea. Playing church, and not being the Church, is not something God will bless. The world certainly doesn't need ANOTHER denomination... or two... or three. The fallacy is that people believe if the UMC splits it will be a 50/50 split. Opinions aren't split that evenly and go beyond an either/or stance on "the issue." I share the opinion of others that it will be more like a 30/20/10/20/20 split. Everyone will want to take their piece of the pie. People forget that before the North/South split over slavery, the Methodist Protestants split off in 1830 over the episcopacy.

Politics won't solve what ails the UMC - it will only cause more harm than healing. General Conference won't solve it (which is precisely why some are beginning to give up on General Conference). Our attitudes about discipleship and hope will help solve it. Grace will help solve it.  Love/ἀγάπη will help solve it. Playing church will not. Before anyone can say, "We've tried that," it is obvious that we haven't - because we don't have the fruit as a denomination to prove that we've tried it.

What gives me hope is seeing what some individuals, local churches, conferences, and bishops are doing. Despite what our general church is (and isn't) doing, folks are living by and in hope. Many UM's are living by faith and proclaiming hope, and it seems obvious that the 80% in the pews are hungry for it. There are local churches who are making disciples and being generative in doing so. There are districts and conferences doing the hard work of retasking mission and ministry. There are bishops and superintendents developing strategies and enabling lay and clergy leaders instead of just being personnel managers. These are the things that matter, because it looks toward the THINGS that matter: Faith, hope, love.

With apologies to G.K. Chesterton: Discipleship has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. We get discipleship right, we get everything else right.

My prayer is that we'll get it right.


Saturday, January 03, 2015

More Observations and Random Thoughts from a D.S.

I posted a similarly-titled blog while attending General Conference in 2012, based on feelings and observations in the moment. What follows today are more detailed feelings and observations based on longer experience.

I've been a superintendent since March 2011. In calendar years, I will soon approach four years doing this work in March. In Book of Discipline years, however, I will be begin my sixth time to be appointed to this work in June. I have fewer years ahead than I do behind in this work. That applies to my time on earth, too.

Being appointed as a superintendent has been the hardest work I've ever done, but it's also been the most fun. Ninety percent of what I do is engaging, challenging, and meaningful - and I pray others have received it so. And even the ten percent that is life-sucking, gut-wrenching, and distasteful still has purpose and serves the Kingdom. Being a D.S. is, for me, an opportunity and a blessing. However, if I had been a DS ten-twenty years ago, I might not have said so. Being the chief missional strategist for a district and a shepherd of its laity and clergy? Awesome. Being a bureaucrat and personnel manager? Not so much.

Conversations and relationships from the past and of late, as well as my own experience, lead me to be convicted about these things. They are certainly up for conversation and coffee.. and I realize that some of them may need more than coffee to swallow and digest.

1. In United Methodism - under present polity and practice - the district superintendent is in the greatest vantage point to affect needed change in our denomination. While a bishop makes and fixes appointments, the DS advises, knows (better: should know) the local context of each church/charge, and has the local authority to shepherd clergy and laity as well as to guide both in missional strategy and foster discipleship. A DS can get behind a pastor and a church's visioning team and lend it support - or point out places where such needs shoring up and retooling.

Randy Cooper, who pastors the church of my youth and was my father's pastor when Dad died, reminded me, "You know, you are the bishop of the Paducah District." It scared me. Yet historically, traditionally, and functionally, he's right; there are catholic dioceses the size of districts in United Methodism. Our superintendents essentially function as suffragan bishops, while our bishops are akin to archbishops. For a DS to diminish this is a major opportunity missed. For a DS to allow this to go to her/his head is damning. The responsibility is grave, but the opportunities are incredible and the role is pivotal.

It means being out of your office and being in your car and in churches. A lot. It means delegating responsibilities and less time behind a computer organizing spreadsheets and "plans." Relationships take time and work. with less politicking and more "realness." To paraphrase Dickens' Jacob Marley to Scrooge: "People are our business."

2. We can't assume anything about discipleship anymore. We can't assume it is being taught, and we can't assume people - in the pews or the unchurched - even know what it is. While it is at the basis of the Great Commission, it is not automatically bestowed upon baptism: disciples are made. More accurately: they are apprenticed. We teach disciples. We journey alongside new disciples. And it isn't enough to just make disciples: we have to be able to make disciples who can, in turn, make other disciples. If we are not generative, if we do not think about legacy, in one generation the message of the incarnate God in Christ is lost to being an esoteric faith, full of meaningful ritual and nice people, but devoid of the power of transformation to change lives and affect souls. We become John Wesley's worst fear: becoming a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.

I fear what I'm about to say comes across as bragging, but I pray it's bragging on God and not us: since the district developed a strategy team and enacted the Generative Leadership Academy (more about that here), we've seen transformation come across the district: more local missional involvement, substantial emerging lay leadership, and many coming forward articulating a call to ministry: some to more involved lay ministry, some to discern about pastoral ministry. I don't think it's a coincidence - I think it is fruit borne from awareness, catechesis in a Wesleyan ethos, and intentional discipling.  I couldn't have done this without a team of laity and clergy, who removed titles, status, and academic pedigree, and instead focused on our baptisms as our ordinations to ministry. Laity were so very hungry to hear this, and heard (and responded!) with willing and grateful hearts. More to the point, it is prodding people to personal and corporate action.

3. We have to educate clergy better and differently. I am more than thankful for my undergraduate and seminary education. It was a sacrifice for me and for many who contributed to it, and I firmly believe such sacrifices make us better people and serve the Church well. However, a seminary education is moving from the realm of sacrifice to unrealistic expectation. The financial costs alone, where increases in tuition far surpass yearly inflation rates, are about to make a seminary experience available only to those who (a) are upper-middle class to upper class, or (b) to those who receive scholarships/fellowship to attend. Otherwise, we will require people to assume an amount of debt that is not only crippling to individuals, but downright sinful from a stewardship point of view. This has been studied and is verified, not just idle speculation (see the Auburn Seminary report here). The medical profession is encountering the same problem: the increases of tuition surpassing yearly inflation rates leads to a horrible ratio of amount of debt accrued vs. earning potential, and makes pursuit of an M.D. a challenge that students 20 years ago did not have.

Dr. Randy Maddox of Duke University shared at the recent Mid-Quadrennial training event for Boards of Ordained Ministry (his opening lecture is here) that the default standard for Methodist clergy training/education before 1956 was not seminary, but course of study - similar to what we require of licensed local pastors now. The change to making a seminary degree the minimum standard came about this way: the class status of Methodism was mainly white, professional, middle-to-upper class folks, and a Bachelor of Divinity degree would make their clergy more in-line culturally and educationally with their congregations (in retrospect, the antithesis of the mission field Wesley envisioned!). The B.D. degree was soon after renamed a Master of Divinity degree.

In this season, we need a lot of depth in spiritual formation & guidance and discipleship - and not just exposure to it, but to be able to lead/teach it. Few seminaries to do this to the level it is needed for today's clergy, and many of our laity - through Emmaus walks, the Upper Room's Academy for Spiritual Formation, and individual spiritual formation - far surpass their own pastor's depth in these areas. In defense of seminaries, an M.Div is necessarily heavy on the academic and theological, and it may be too much to ask for the academy to take on spiritual formation, too.

In retrospect, we may have lived out Wesley's fear of "professionalizing" clergy into the social class of professionals. Wesley placed a premium on education and having educated clergy, but many of those early Methodist clergy came from gifted laity who were mentored/apprenticed into pastoral work, and not classically trained in the academy. Early Methodism was flexible with educational expectations and used the itinerancy to deploy clergy who had the gifts to do such ministry in missional contexts. Today's United Methodism finds itself in a similar plight - we are back to more of a missional context instead of being an established church (or we should be!). I am no longer convinced that an M.Div is the best or only way to educate our clergy; to quote Dr. Maddox, we have reached a point in many contexts where it is not economically or culturally prudent to fully rely or require leadership in ministry that carries the expenses involved in a Master's-level education (and it's probably important to note that while most master's programs in other disciplines require 35-50 semester hours, an M.Div requires 80-90 semester hours).

We still need an educated clergy, and should insist upon it. But the seminary model need not be the only model - and I pray our current denominational Study of Ministry thinks about the present AND future of our denomination. What I have learned in doing the Generative Leadership Academy is that there is a lot of giftedness - at the conference and district level - of people who can lead, educate, mentor, and apprentice new leadership at any level, be it for someone leading a Sunday school class or someone leading a congregation. Rather than turn to outsiders, part of our solution may be in our midst.

4. We have to separate conference membership and ordination for clergy. This is nothing new if you know our Methodist history or read my other blogs on this subject, but our poor theology of ordination is catching up with us.  While Wesley certainly had a theology of ordination, it is not clear that present United Methodism does, outside of the Ordinal. As Maddox reminds us, if our mission in United Methodism remains to spread holiness to the world and make disciples for the transformation of the world, we will need to broaden, not narrow, our pastoral pool of leadership for small, medium, large, part-time, full-time, and over-time churches and settings. All of them need ordained folks around for things pastoral and sacramental, from the smallest church to the largest, if we truly believe the word AND the table are of equal importance. Not all of them need master of divinity degrees or full-time salaries, but they will need our wisdom, experience, mentoring and apprenticing, and most of all: our blessing and support.

Before you say, "We've never done it that way before," we ordained local elders (who were analogous to what we now call local pastors) before 1968, and as our sister AME, AME Zion, and CME churches still do. That doesn't mean they itinerate, nor does it mean they are "full connection" or all full-time, and the exercise of their ministry is limited to the charge in which they are appointed as opposed to full connection (i.e., itinerating) elders. But they are ordained to do ordained tasks, not licensed. It is important to note that Wesley viewed ordination as neither functional nor ontological change, but as pneumatological change, which only makes sense given our weird and accidental - yet providential - beginnings as a denomination.

5. Church leadership has to be shared between clergy and laity. We are guilty of clericalism on many fronts; some of it borne from laity having a "paid/hired hand" mentality about clergy, some of it borne from clergy who have an "I'm the professional here" attitude. Neither are conducive to missional ministry or discipleship, particularly in this season. Our baptism is what qualifies us for ministry and gives us our identity as Christians; ordination is a subset of our baptism and giftedness. We need to give careful care and greater attention to identifying the spiritual gifts in all the baptized, not just the few who feel a call to ordained ministry.

We are also guilty of how we think leadership should look and act, where it comes from, etc. As we (hopefully) expand our local church ministries to the least and the lost, we are going to encounter people's lives changed by transformation, and many of them will feel called to lay and clergy ministry. Some of them will come from hard-living contexts, multiple marriages, incarceration, run-ins with the law, etc., will have experienced recovery and transformation, and be ready to be disciple-makers... and will be a challenge to our present local church and Board of Ministry assessments and background checks. Yet we also know from some of our spiritual giants of the faith that woundedness often leads to wholeness, and is an education and experience that few of us United Methodists currently possess or could ever hope to gain. Tattoos, piercings, and bluejeans may be signs of the faith. District and conference boards of ministries need to be prepared for these folks that God sends our way.

6. Replace our fervor and controversy over same-sex marriage and replace it with discipleship. Yes - I am dreaming and hoping. Call me a dreamer and hoper.

If we were growing in faith and in number, we could afford the luxury of the fight and accompanying rhetoric (from both sides). At present it resembles the political rhetoric of the United States and accomplishes the same goal of division. For faithful and lasting change on the issue, the shape and tenor of the conversation has to change. Outside of the extreme voices on this matter, most people in the pews see this as important - because people are important - but they do not see it nearly as important as the matters of discipleship, youth involvement, spiritual growth, and decline in membership (as stated by a poll done by United Methodist Communications). As I shared in a previous blog:
The most effective pastors and churches that I know have made discipleship a priority, and they have done it by making the Great Commission the top priority. Adam Hamilton (at best an acquaintance, certainly not on speed dial) and the church he serves know how to do discipleship. We've shared an email or two between us. Do I agree with every social and theological stance he takes? No. But neither does he make those stances the main thing; discipleship is the main thing. Jorge Acevedo and Shane Bishop (people I know a little better than Adam) and the churches they serve know how to do discipleship. Their social stances are different than Adam's.  Do I agree with every social and theological stance they take? No. But neither of them make those stances the main thing either. It's all about Jesus. ("Priorities," Oct. 14, 2014).

We can't afford to waste another 10 days and $11 million at General Conference doing nothing other than fighting. The Kingdom deserves better. Discipleship, not family feud, has got to be the priority in this season. And I pray it will be. I pray, I pray, I pray.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

D.S. as Chief Missional Strategist - and Breaking the Rules... Revisited

I was going to write something like this today - and realized this old blog from last September still says what I love, believe, and am challenged by the office of district superintendent. Serving a great district certainly helps!

What I would add are these two things:
  1. We need to be continually developing spiritual guidance and direction, both among clergy and laity. It's not enough just to be "faithful" - our failure of not being a spiritually-deep people is not only counter to our Wesleyan roots, it is at the core of our failure to make disciples and be less fruitful in such.
  2. Control the need to control. Invite, develop, delegate, and deploy. It's not enough to be disciples - we have to be able to make disciples, who can then go and make disciples. Evangelism and discipleship cannot be micromanaged.
I firmly believe helping both laity and clergy develop their giftedness and call is the best thing we can do in this season, as well as embracing a life of piety - personal and corporate - in the best sense of being Christian and Wesleyan. Partnering with laity, and leading together as co-equals in developing generative discipleship, is essential if Methodism is going to reclaim its Method. 



Our episcopal area – the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences – has recently embraced a study of Gil Rendle’s Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement, and it has become the main work of our church’s charge conferences this year. As a district superintendent, I have had a love/hate relationship with this book. It states so clearly what we need to do to regain our mission, but challenges so many things we have grown into, become comfortable with, and accustomed to in our lives and churches.

Of all the sentences in Gil’s book, the two most trying and challenging to this me was this one: 
Our denominational life has become more regulatory than missional. We have become a rule-following people. 

And there is no denying this fact. The United Methodist Church mirrors our world governments at their worst. We regulate. We have policies and standard operating guidelines. We create watchdog groups to be sure others are “acting right.” We caucus ourselves to get more people on our “side.” And when we end up at General Conference, each side tries to present their rules to be enacted so that they will be followed. Having presented my own petition to the last General Conference (Petition 20769, and getting it approved and enacted with 889 votes for, 20 votes against), I have been part of the fray. Granted, it was not a controversial measure, but still just a “rule.”

And in the midst of all of this we somehow forgot our primary mission: to make disciples. Not to forward social causes, not to triumph or champion our “side” as the right one – but to make disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Discipleship is what Jesus commissions us to do. Anything else is at best secondary to that, and if we believe we are something else first, then we are no longer a church. 

Unless we want the Book of Discipline to continue to become larger and the UMC to continue to become smaller, we have to break the cycle – not just because we’re dying, not just because pastors won’t have a pension, but because we’re not making disciples for the transformation of the world – our mission! If we rely on the General Conference to make these bold changes, we will fail. We have to become bold ourselves, and transform into individuals who embrace and enable change. 

So this D.S. is willing to break a few rules, not for the sake of going rogue, but for the sake of being faithful to the Kingdom. I don’t want to meet my Maker one day and be asked why I chose to be a Pharisee instead of bold leader and disciple-maker. There has to be a better way.

What are essentials for district superintendents in this season? Permit me to offer these.

1. Hold individual charge conferences. Yes – I used to think CC’s were a waste of time, and the way they were often previously done they usually were. Reports can be filed and read by anyone who’d like to read them. But what if churches were challenged about what programs and ministries they are currently investing in and seeing how effective they are in making disciples? What if conferencing and conversation took place about self-reflection and self-awareness about what needs to change? What if we shared God stories about how lives were being transformed and how we as individuals can change the way we live out our faith so others hear the good news and not only become disciples, but disciple-makers? 

For a D.S. to truly be a chief missional strategist, s/he must be involved at the congregational level. Having cluster or area charge conferences is a poor substitute for making relationships and leading clergy and laity in substantive change. Approve the pastoral and staff salaries, approve the church leadership for the next year, and file the rest.  Spend the bulk of the charge conference in dialogue, assessment, celebration, repentance, and prayer. It might not be 100% kosher with the Discipline, but it gets at the heart of what we should be doing in conferencing as a means of grace. And while D.S.’s certainly can’t and shouldn’t micromanage every church’s mission in context, they can certainly challenge congregations to ask the right questions, challenge themselves, and become less insular and more neighborhood minded.

If someone doesn’t like it, I guess they can file charges on me. I’m willing to break these minor rules for the sake of enabling mission, instead of preventing it.

2. Be Willing to Risk Being a Pastor Instead of a Supervisor. It is a very tough line to walk, to be both a steward of order and church law and to be a shepherd to pastors and congregations under their charge. Unfortunately, we have created a climate where distrust is fostered and pastors are understandably reticent to confide and trust their D.S. It is a messy and uncomfortable place of tension. Having said that, D.S.’s have to know when to be a D.S. and when to be a pastor, and be able to live with and discern when to be which. That’s not quite kosher to the Discipline either. But I remain convinced that our mission far outweighs our need to be just personnel managers. 

Having a sphere of distrust is antithetical to Kingdom work. It’s doesn’t mean we don’t hold accountability for our leaders – we do. But we cannot continue to operate out of fear or distrust in a Kingdom that is build upon agape and grace. Moreover, if we are asking people to make one-on-one relationships with others to foster discipleship and evangelism, we clergy are going to have to model transparency and vulnerability. 

3. Trust Your Bishop (and Bishops, Be Trustworthy)You cannot ask pastors and congregations to trust you as their leader if you don’t trust your leader. Resist the temptation to tell a congregation, “The bishop is saying this – I’m just the messenger,” or “Our bishop believes this is the faithful way to go. He’s my boss so we’re doing it.” Those are dishonest ways of voicing to others that you disagree but are just doing your job. A D.S. is an extension of the bishop’s office – you are his/her voice. If you have disagreements with your bishop, tell him/her yourself. If we disagree, some conversation in is order so we can discern the work of the Spirit correctly. In the cabinet I serve in, we have found that transparency with each other leads us to leave the room with shared vision and focus. 

4. Be Willing to Get in Your Car and Drive. I bought a used ‘03 Toyota Avalon in 2011. It was used but well-maintained, large enough to be comfortable for long drives and driving other passengers but economical enough to be a good steward. It’s also designed for high mileage (I’m currently at 230k miles). There is no substitute for being physically present with congregations and committees to engender trust and sincerity, and no other way to lead clergy and laity into shared mission and ministry. It does wear on the soul… but I take some comfort in reading Bishop Asbury’s journals – it sure beats horseback! When the weather is nice I ride my motorcycle or open the windows. It is a wonderful way to enjoy God’s creation.

5. Know your Strengths and be Self-Aware. Bishop McAlilly had all of us cabinet members take the Gallup/Tom Rath StrengthsFinder assessment. I also had taken the Myers-Briggs personality assessment several years previous when in spiritual direction. While no one is solely “their assessment”, these are good tools to know about one’s self in how you follow, lead, and where your gifts and challenges lie.  My strengths lie in Achieving, Relating, Strategy,  Learning, and Arranging. My Myers-Briggs type is INFJ (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Judging). That means I’m good at being intuitive and have a “feel” for things, and like to work independently and with details. But it also means I have to guard against expecting perfection in others, that I keep in mind the whole picture, and that I seek to be collaborative rather than a lone ranger in my work ethic. If I don’t keep these things in mind, I won’t lead as effectively.

Being a D.S. has never been easy. But in this season, as the UMC lives into a changed reality, it is more crucial than ever that we take thou authority to make sure we are equipping clergy, laity, and local churches to make disciples. That is our mission – and nothing else is sacred but the mission; that is, everything must be on the table for change, revision, renewal, and transformation, so that we might make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Selective Truths, Hard Truths

Wordie by Kathleen Berry of UMNS, based on poll findings
of most important issues facing the United Methodist Church.
While the Methodist Blogosphere continues to crank out new plans to stay united as a United Methodist Church, it occurs to me that we are just finding ways to avoid hard truths and difficult covenantal (i.e., real, substantive) conversations. We certainly shout at each other across walls and in the comfort of tweets and Facebook comments, but rarely at a round table with promises of respect, open ears, and leaving the table with disagreements but love for all.

Regardless of our ideological bent, if we were to come to a round table to discuss these things, we would find that we have our own confessions and inconsistencies to claim. They are inconvenient and they have no easy answers. A "winning the argument" mentality wants to label them as red herrings. Truth telling would have us admitting our inconsistencies and make us vulnerable.

Sexuality and marriage are messy for sure. In what follows, I am going to assume that a prima scriptura view of scripture is something all Methodists would agree upon (yes, probably a broad thing to assume). I will also assume that all UM's know that Albert Outler had great misgivings in coining the term Quadrilateral (in his words to Paul Chilcoate, "There is one phrase I wish I had never used: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It has created the wrong image in the minds of so many people and, I am sure, will lead to all kinds of controversy."). In short, tradition, experience, and reason are the lenses in which we read scripture, with scripture as a primary source.

  • Under such, Traditionalists claim scripture and history/tradition when it comes to marriage and LGBTQ matters, yet would have a difficult time using the same where divorce/remarriage is concerned. Christian heterosexuals' "dirty little truth" is that, where Scripture is concerned, we rationalize and accept divorce and remarriage very flippantly these days as "acceptable and forgiven sins" but homosexuality is the unacceptable and unforgivable sin. Also, church weddings as recently practiced are a rather new invention historically and clergy involvement in such is nowhere to be found in scripture. Traditionally and historically, a couple simply (1) announced that they were married (with little liturgy and no clergy, with the couple and not a priest serving as the celebrants), and (2) there was a huge feast and party. (Note: the latter is still true, and in less than a month I will be financing such for my daughter's wedding feast...). Traditionalists would also have a very difficult time affirming the ordination of women, although I would uplift Romans 16 and Phoebe serving as a deacon - as opposed to a helper or deaconess - who was certainly doing "ordained work" in Paul's ministry.
  • Progressives lean heavily on sexuality and marriage (or as I've read, some against marriage) as a civil rights matter and rarely discuss the wide berth of opinion in the LGBTQ community, particularly among Queer scholars and activists, on marriage as an institution. While there is growing dissatisfaction in the secular world with marriage in general (heterosexual or otherwise), I have yet to see an LGBTQ ethic of Christian commitment posited. Just as in heterosexual marriage, this question has yet to be addressed in the United Methodist LGBTQ realm: what is a Christian ethic of same-sex marriage and commitment? Addressing such matters is helpful when it comes to ordination, since our leaders are held to a higher standard in modeling and living that which we profess about marriage. 
  • We are kidding ourselves if we think there are only two sides to this (and other) issues. These issues are multifaceted with multiple opinions. As I shared in an article that was printed by, "There are theologically and biblically orthodox folks who also embrace a more progressive sexual ethic, as there are more conservative folks who also embrace a more progressive sexual ethic - and permutations all around. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, a United Methodist, is extremely conservative in some things, but he supports people entering "any kind of arrangement they wish" where straight and LGBTQ marriage are concerned." 
  • Our reading and use of scripture with the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience will always create a tension that confounds us all. Steve Harper recently said this on his Facebook page which says it well: "The canon of Scripture is fixed; the interpretation of it is not. It is not an act of disbelief to wrestle with revelation that is always larger than our minds can fully comprehend."
It would be refreshing to come to a round table and discuss these things with these truths claimed, and admit the messiness and frustration rather than sling epithets, accusations, and abusing covenant relationships. God is not smiling on our handling/mishandling of this.

Hard truth. People in the pews are simply not as bent out of shape on this issue as clergy seem to be. The biggest concern to United Methodist laity is (according to a poll done by United Methodist Communications), "creating disciples of Christ." The second biggest concern is "youth involvement." Third is "members' spiritual growth." Fourth is "decline in membership." You have to go to eighth to find "sexual orientation/same-sex marriage" as a concern of those in the pews. A harder truth: 90% of the people in the pews don't think the church should split over issues of human sexuality. Now I certainly don't always put my stock in polls, but our laity aren't asking us to give in to societal pressures or to be popular or even to be less "churchy": they're asking us to make The Great Commission a priority. Quite frankly, we as a UMC suck at discipleship and mission - those things which are supposedly what the people called Methodists claim to champion. I am so thankful for the pockets of hope I am occasionally privileged to see.

It may be that clergy and lay leadership are making human sexuality an idol that its congregants don't want to worship. Practically speaking, people spend very very little time with their sexuality in the course of a day - so why is the Church? Is it to avoid the more difficult work of discipleship and mission? Is it to fight an argument for the sake of fighting? Discipleship and mission are things you can/should do regardless of where you sit in the theological/idelogical spectrum. Neither of these things are being done well. 

What if we spent the majority of our time (at General Conference as well as every day) addressing discipleship, youth involvement, spiritual growth, and membership decline? It seems like the people in the pews are hungry for it. Yet as I am finding, those of us who should be the most passionate about a Christian essential such as discipleship are the ones who have the most trouble defining it, much less teaching and leading it.

We in leadership have a lot to answer for the very apparent disconnect. Perhaps it is time to do something about discipleship and mission and less about "resolving" same-sex marriage and schism, since we are not doing this well, either. Our people in the pews are hungry for the former, and just not as bent out of shape about the latter as we clergy think. 


Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Some days, pray and listen as I might, God seems awfully silent. Other days, I hear Him loud and clear.

A series of events this morning leads me to share what I'm going to share today about our priorities as Christians and as United Methodists. Bear with me as I share a little context regarding spiritual promptings.

This morning. I looked out one of the north office windows waiting for the Keurig to make another cup of coffee, and saw prominent patches of purple amidst the clover in the lawn. I looked it up, and it's polygonum pensylvanicum, of the family polygonaceae - Pennsylvania Smartweed, part of the Buckwheat family (Dr. David Pitts, my botany prof from undergrad days, would be proud). It's a weed - but it's beautiful.
“I think it p*sses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” - Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Go back an hour: I was driving to the office this morning when I received a phone call, and "Blocked" popped up on the phone screen. I never answer such calls and let them go to voicemail. So I pressed "Decline" - or, I should say that I meant to - and all of the sudden I realized that this person was on the air over my car speakerphone (and so was I), so I answered. She begins: "Are you Sky McCracken the D.S.?" I told her I was, and starting bracing for whatever complaint was about to come my way. I proceeded to have the most interesting phone call I've had in a while. In short: she was tired of the United Methodist Church acting like the United States in political division, she was weary of bishops and pastors being partisan instead of prophetic, and wanted to know when we would get serious about making disciples instead of finding every excuse and cause in the world to get into a fight. She went further to say that she thinks clergy fight to avoid being convicted that they've been unfaithful and ineffective to the mission of the Church and in being true to our roots in being Methodists.

I pulled over. 

This woman said she was ashamed to be United Methodist. Through conversation I learned that she had gone to a UM college, was steeped in the writings of Wesley, knew of his fervor for local mission and discipleship and his preference for the poor over the classism of England, knew he believed in the power of lay witness over clericalism. She said she hadn't given up on the Methodist Church yet, but she had quit reading UM News Service, the UMR webpage, most blogs, and all the UM Facebook groups. She said she liked what I said about discipleship but feared I was wasting my time because people would rather fight. She wouldn't tell me her name, but she thanked me for listening.

Go back a day: Bishop McAlilly held a "Covenant Conversation" for the Memphis Conference clergy (and is having one for the Tennessee Conference clergy as I write this). Anne Burkholder from Emory (and a clergy member of the Florida Conference) presented a very good discussion about how we who are elders, deacons, and local pastors live in covenant with each other, holding differing opinions and theological positions, yet vowing to live as brothers and sisters. She reminded us that brothers and sisters cannot get divorced, unlike those who choose to marry. We talked at tables about why and how we should care for others who live together in this covenant, how we should have respectful conversation instead of labeling/pigeonholing others long before we even TRY to have relationships with each other, and reminded us (or, in most cases, informed us) of Wesley's Twelve Rules for Preachers. These got a lot of silence:
5. Believe evil of no one unless fully proved; take heed how you credit it. Put the best construction you can on everything. You know the judge is always supposed to be on the prisoner's side.
6. Speak evil of no one, else your word, especially, would eat doth like a canker; keep your own thoughts within your own breast till you come to the person concerned.
11. You have nothing to do but save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who want you most. 
"Observe, it is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care merely of this or that Society, but to save as many souls as you can, to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power, to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord."
Amidst all the infighting about sexuality, doctrine, political leanings, what "social gospel" means; what kind of worship is most faithful; whether the preacher should tuck their shirt in or wear a clerical collar; or whether God should be called He, She, or whatever gender-neutral pronoun you can find - we are the least passionate about that which we were called to do above all else: make disciples of Jesus Christ. I'm not a Greek scholar, and I've heard some say, "We really can't MAKE disciples," or "That's not really what that passage means," but I've read it in context (in about 14 differing translations) intensively for about five years and they all say, "Go make disciples" or "disciple/teach the nations" in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, either all the Greek and New Testament scholars on every one of these translation committees were whacked in the head, or it might really mean what it says.

2014 poll commissioned by
United Methodist Communcations
The most effective pastors and churches that I know have made discipleship a priority, and they have done it by making the Great Commission the top priority. Adam Hamilton (at best an acquaintance, certainly not on speed dial) and the church he serves know how to do discipleship. We've shared an email or two between us. Do I agree with every social and theological stance he takes? No. But neither does he make those stances the main thing; discipleship is the main thing. Jorge Acevedo and Shane Bishop (people I know a little better than Adam) and the churches they serve know how to do discipleship. Their social stances are different than Adam's.  Do I agree with every social and theological stance they take? No. But neither of them make those stances the main thing either.

It's all about Jesus. Really. And discipleship should be what we are majoring in, because in this season we no longer have the luxury to argue amongst ourselves or to major in the minors. Simplistic? Perhaps I am. But here is what I am sure of: whatever we think might be gained in all these divisive arguments among brothers and sisters, the loss is huge. We are losing the confidence of those who sit in the pews. They aren't seeing this as the most important problem in the UMC. My unofficial poll and observations match a poll taken by UMC Communications a few months ago. Now, I am cautious about polls and "popularity" among people, since we Christians are supposed to be counter-cultural, but I give this poll a little more credence, since it was a poll of United Methodists, not of greater society.

Our leaders seem to think sexuality is the most important thing. And I certainly have my own views on the matter (and have been public and transparent on the matter). Yet our people in the pews place that a lot lower on the list, and see discipleship at the top of the issues we face as a denomination. That seems to match what Jesus said.

It seems to me this present "crisis" in the UMC is not sexuality, or biblical hermeneutic, or any other issues save two: (1) failure of UMC clergy to fully live in covenant with each other as brothers and sisters, and (2) failure of clergy to enable and equip congregations for discipleship/disciple making.

What if we were to take Alice Walker's quote and turn it to the interrogative: "What about the UMC p*sses God off?" I fear I know the answer. I certainly know one laywoman's answer. And what scares me is that some of our best leadership and followership may just go on and continue in faithfulness and fruitfulness, letting the rest of the UMC fade, as Wesley sometimes feared, into "a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power."

If folks wanted a fight - we have it. Is it worth it? So worth it that we'd break covenants with each other regarding how brother and sister clergy vowed to live and work with each other? So worth it that we clergy would disregard the opinions and passions of the laity who are begging to be led in discipleship and have made it clear they care less about the things that seem to give clergy energy enough to fight with each other? So worth it to give up our primary mission as Christians to win it?

I am an orthodox, centrist, United Methodist. But I love Jesus more than my stances, and enough to adapt my priorities to His, which are clear: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."



Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals: Labels and Pigeonholing

Between attending national/international United Methodist events, and reading what goes on in and around United Methodist circles, I see an increasingly disturbing trend amongst the people called United Methodists: we are a people of labels. In fact, I would daresay that we are a people who are desperate to label others. We seem to have to know where someone else stands on an issue so that we can know if they are like us, or they are like... the other. 

We Americans get it honestly. We see it modeled every day with the way our politicians and news media act. While every Christian denomination certainly has its version of church politics and caucusing, we United Methodists seems to do it better (or, more accurately, worse) than the rest. I am more than thankful for the diversity of our denomination, but I lament the horrible blood feuding that takes place among people who call themselves Christian. I have to be honest: I've found that Methodists and Calvinists often get along better than United Methodists and United Methodists.

We seem to be desperate to label each other. Desperate. As if all else depended on it. And when someone uses words that were once definitive for Christians and, more specifically Methodists, they are now "code" for whatever the labeler needs them to say - words that have lost their original meaning, bastardized into dirty words depending on which side of the ideological fence one sees the "other." 

The problem is, the labels we stick on people are rarely fair, much less accurate. I've always thought I tended to be around the middle/via media - which is why I continued along a Wesleyan/Anglican path. Theologians like N.T. Wright and younger UM's like Jason Vickers and Andrew Thompson speak to me. However, I've been told by some that this makes me a conservative... or a progressive (confused yet?). Yet others have told me that my personal stance on capital punishment makes me a progressive. My beliefs on abortion get me labeled a conservative. Still others have told me that my sacramental bent makes me a progressive... or a conservative... or a Catholic (my sacramental beliefs pretty much align with our official UM statements, by the way). And my recent article on sexuality got me labeled a conservative by those who didn't like my use of the words "traditional ethic" and a progressive by those who didn't like my plea for round table discussions on sexuality (which I believe we desperately need on other matters as well). Now, I do find some comfort in knowing that John Wesley endured some labeling as well: bible moth, bible bigot, a "Holy Club" member, sacramentalist, and most scandalous: Methodist. The last one stuck.

Labeling others becomes convenient (and expedient) because it spares us the harder work of initiating and fostering relationships. One fear of making relationships is that we're afraid of how we will be labeled if we are seen, or even perceived, of being with the "other." Guilt by association. Maybe it's because we know what happened to Jesus when he met the woman at the well, or went out to the lepers, or fellowshipped with people. "He is a drunkard and a glutton. I bet he cavorts with tax collectors and is a womanizer, too." More labels. I'm convinced our need to label is based on fear.

If we ever hope to be a truly United Methodist Church - beyond the "united" simply coming from our 1968 EUB/Methodist merger - we are going to have to go beyond labels and ideologies to taking covenant seriously where we intentionally seek out relationships instead of seeking out differences. When we attempt to pigeonhole others, we are practicing our own private bigotry. Will Durant said it best: To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves. 

I posted an article on church bullying yesterday on my Facebook face, and one person commented, "There are no politics dirtier than church politics." I fear she's right. We as the Church ought to do conflict and deal with our differences better than the rest of society. But right now, we are mirroring American politics. In days past, Republican and Democrat lawmakers fought on the congressional floor, then in the evening went to a bar or restaurant together and worked something out. Now, doing such and getting a picture snapped an put on Twitter would mean certain political death of such politicians. It seems we church folks feel the same way: don't get caught dead with "the other."

If we want war, we already have it. But if we want to be people of peace who truly embrace Jesus - we HAVE to sit with each other. Talk. Build relationships. Pray. Desire to have a heart that is at peace rather than at war. Listen. Quit labeling. Quit looking for "code" words. Long before we had any books on conflict resolution, we had Jesus modeling all of these things. 

In my opinion, the future of the United Methodist Church has very little to do with our theology or doctrinal stances, how we feel about sexuality, or our differing hermeneutics on scripture - for these arguments have been present long before any of us were even born and even at the beginning of Methodists (ever read about Wesley and Whitefield?). The future of the UMC will be dependent on our willingness to build relationships and establish trust AMIDST our differences. Until we are willing to get to that root cause, we are spinning our wheels. I suspect far more people are put off by the Church by our infighting instead of any of our beliefs. I mean, let's face it: why would anyone want to join a blood feud?

Do we really want to be noisy gongs and clashing cymbals?