Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I'm Going to Chicago. It's Okay if You're Not.

I read an intriguing commentary by David Brooks this morning, talking about the social divide in the United States and how it is affecting politics. I think Brooks is spot-on, and I would argue that such could apply to the United Methodist Church as well. Issues comes to the forefront that divide the Church; old coalitions fall apart and new ones emerge. It's been happening in the Christian Church since (at least) 1054. When we can't handle "the way things are," we split. A liberal estimate is that there are over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world (source: World Christian Encyclopedia). A conservative estimate is that there are 217 (Hartford Institute for Religion Research).

We Christians are clearly not of one mind. Evidently, on many things.

So much is presently being made of the Wesleyan Covenant Association - from the hashtag "#seeyouinChicago" to "stay away - they're conservatives/homophobes/bigots starting a new denomination." The UMC has had affinity groups, caucuses, and the like for a long time. People of like mind and labor need a place to be nurtured and to share burdens in a safe place. There's nothing wrong with that. I pray the WCA stays true to its stated purpose

I fear that our fear of the unknown is causing us to demonize "the other." And, unfortunately, the years of our General Conference meetings coincide with presidential election cycles in the U.S. My hunch is that the rhetoric from each feeds our fervor to act out of our fears instead of our faith. If we do have a called General Conference in a couple of years, I may lobby to change our quadrennial meetings to get off the same cycle as U.S. presidential elections.

Today, in both the media and the blogosphere, the United Methodist Church is mainly known more for its extremes rather than its reality - just like U.S. politics. Extremes make the most noise, a few key names are the best known, and our machinery works much like U.S. politics: "insiders" and lobbyists make a lot of the key decisions, dictate a lot of our direction, decides what legislation will see the light of day, and who will preside over what. The political side of the Church can be just as distasteful as American politics and can be made up of elites who use and abuse power as well as any political lobbyist or power broker. I openly confess that sin, since I'm a part of it.

I can attest first-hand about church politics - I've been there and "are" there. Between being a district superintendent and being a former episcopal candidate (who wasn't elected), I can tell you that both are humbling and enlightening. Imagine reading this about yourself from one of the "bishop voter guides" that was circulated (which, in theory, don't exist per Southeastern Jurisdiction covenant):
7. Sky McCracken (Memphis) (Discipleship #4) An Institutionalist. Orthodox. He will seek to negate controversy, quieten situations rather than resolving disobedience. Good leader as a DS, leading various discipleship training sessions himself and demonstrating a passion for his district and his work. He is participant in SLI (Spiritual Leadership Institute) a group favored by Jorge Acevedo. Very likeable personally, not a charismatic speaker. Was endorsed by TN conference also in 2012. A nice guy, but seems to lack boldness or strength in today’s context.
I ranked 7th in this particular guide. I may or may not be some or all of those things (I can be as non self-aware as the next person). There is one factual mistake: I wasn't endorsed by the TN Conference - or any other conference - four years ago. But when (a) something hits print, (b) "people are saying," and (c) so forth and so on... it becomes the Gospel to some. We so easily pigeonhole folks and make folks in the image we want and need them to be. We desperately need there to be an either/or, us/they, or good/bad. U.S. politics works like this, and, unfortunately, church politics works like this, and at times much worse. In fact, I had one gentleman, a leader in his church who is also an elected official in state government, tell me, "There's no politics like church politics." It wasn't a compliment.

The beauty of being a former episcopal candidate is that you can speak with a little more freedom afterwards. So, after a few months of thought, here goes:

Just like most of America and Congress, most United Methodists aren't really represented at the table. There is a vast middle who isn't represented. Before he was a bishop, Bill McAlilly spoke to this at General Conference 2004:
There’s another group in our denomination, some of whom are delegates here; others who are faithful United Methodists who are not represented nor identified with any coalition. We are, as Bishop Coyner wrote a few years ago, “the Methodist middle.” We are not organized and have no other agenda, save offering Christ to a hurting world. This group includes women, men, children, youth, lay, and clergy, maybe even a couple of bishops. 
 Together with those of differing viewpoints, faithfully serving United Methodist churches, we serve small, medium, large churches. We serve in agencies. We serve throughout the church. We teach Sunday school. We serve in food pantries, clothes closets. We build Habitat houses and serve worldwide through United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. We have a passion for evangelism, and we seek to lift up Christ to persons who are hurting and who are lost and who need the grace of Jesus Christ. 
 However, more often than not we are silent; and perhaps that is our sin. Silent as other voices speak. Perhaps we’re gripped by fear, fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as the opposition. Fear that we are incapable of preventing our church from being pulled apart at the seams... I pray that we can find a way to hold the tension of the opposites; and I would submit to this body that if those of us in the middle can contain those on both sides of the equation, we might be able to find the unity for which we seek. Thank you. - Daily Christian Advocate, Friday, May 7, 2004.
These are the folks who aren't present when Good News, the Confessing Movement, Love Prevails, Reconciling Ministries Network, or the Wesleyan Covenant Association meets. They're often not elected to General Conference. These are the vast majority of the people called United Methodists. Most are laity. They may not be in large churches, they may not have a big name pastor, and they may not be the largest monetary contributors in the denomination, but they are the servants and disciples in and out of most of the pews in America. And they, just like the extremes, are shrinking in number because of one common denominator in our denomination: a failure to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Not members. But disciples. And, I hate to break this to the extremists out there, but if the UMC does split into two or more parts, these churches will still open their doors and have Sunday School and worship on the following Sunday.  

If the ultimate fix was to decide once and for all about same-sex marriage, and who can/can't be ordained, logic says that either the Southern Baptists or the Episcopalians should be growing like gangbusters, since both have definitively answered that question. And yet - both are still in decline.

We're not making disciples. Period. And it STILL isn't a priority to our General Conferences. The most passion I've seen at a General Conference was in May when my own bishop was accused of telegraphing how to vote on issues by one delegate and publicly shamed and asked to be removed as presider by another. In short: the most passion generated was by distrust and violence, not a shared concern that we're not making disciples or reaching the neighborhoods where our churches are located.

What do people in the middle do? Contrary to popular belief, being in the middle doesn't mean "lukewarm." Quite frankly, it takes a lot more nerve and guts to place yourself in the middle than to "pick a side," (see an older blog for an expansion on this thought). Our frantic need to pick a side in United Methodism is at best insular, and at worst idolatry. Our frantic need SHOULD be, at least in this season of our church's life: How can we make disciples? Who are we not meeting in society who desperately needs Jesus? How did we lose our Wesleyan way of being evangelical AND sacramental, and instead turn them into labels and dirty words? And how in the hell did we allow General Conference to become like a political caucus event instead of a gathering of Christians worshiping together and trying to figure out how to best proclaim the mission (and Great Commission) of the Kingdom and the UMC?

The middle is where Jesus was. Often. And ultimately, between two others on a cross. 

Do I have strong beliefs? I sure do. In full transparency, here they are:
  • Rebaptism. Don't do it. Ever. We stray, but God stays.
  • Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. It happened. People in the 1st century knew enough science to know the difference between dead and alive, and such survived through great scrutiny. Believing otherwise is like believing we really didn't land on the moon. Conspiracy theories just don't carry much weight or stand the test of time.
  • Abortion. We were knit together in our mother's womb and are fearfully and wonderfully made. There are a few medical exceptions for sure, but as birth control and a premeditated act to end life? No.
  • Capital punishment. Can't subscribe to it. It's a premeditated action to end a life. Jesus made his feelings on it fairly clear. Life without parole? I can support that.
  • Holy Communion. We should do it every Sunday. It was standard church practice for 1600 years. Wesley said do it often. It's the sustaining sacrament of grace. Would you tell your child that you're only going to hug them once a month so it will be more special when it happens?
  • A lot more of the sin of gluttony happens at pot luck dinners and Emmaus Walks under the guise of "hospitality" then does when a few folks have a beer or two at a local pub or restaurant.
  • As a denomination, we have been inconsistent on biblical hermeneutics where marriage, divorce, and our views of sexuality are concerned. Of this I am sure: we baptize, ordain, and license sinners every year.
  • It shouldn't be so damned hard to become a United Methodist pastor. And local/non-itinerating pastors should be ORDAINED, not LICENSED. You license someone to fish and hunt. The Church ordains the baptized to specific tasks in the Church. Plus, ordination is a gift from and tool of the church, not a right conferred upon one's merit and education. 
  • I fully support the ordination of women. When I became a DS, we had one retired female pastor serving as an associate in the district. We have a dozen female pastors now. I can back such up with scripture (Romans 16). Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and some United Methodists obviously disagree with me, but it's clear (to me) that Phoebe was a deacon, not a deaconess. According to another letter Paul wrote, the women at one particular church had no business teaching or preaching. According to another letter, Paul didn't think ANYBODY at Galatia had any business teaching and preaching until they learned that they starting living the true Gospel, where we are one in Christ Jesus (male and female included).
  • I could go on...

I've yet to serve a church where everyone was with me 100% on the above. The district I presently serve isn't 100% on board with me on these things. The important thing is this: they don't HAVE to be with me. And, I'm fairly certain, they don't necessarily feel LED to be. I could argue every one of these things from a cogent biblical and theological rationale. But the REAL point should be: I don't create the church I pastor; I am to pastor the church AND THE COMMUNITY where I'm sent. So I listen to people who want to be rebaptized (it doesn't mean I will do it). I engage in conversation with people who don't believe in a literal resurrection. I counsel women who have been through abortions to find healing and peace. I listen to and respect people who feel differently about capital punishment. I don't act unilaterally and tell churches, "I don't care what you think, we're going to have communion every Sunday." And I know some folks show their best love thru food and hospitality. The point is: it's not about me. It's about Jesus and the Body of Christ. The churches who do some of the best work in discipleship, mission, addiction recovery, and hands-on work with the poor are all over the board when it comes to political and social beliefs and embraces. A homogenous church we are not. Nor are we called to be. Nor will we ever be.

So, at General Conferences since 1992, I've gone to MFSA luncheons. I've shared meals with RMN supporters, Good News board members, and Confessing Movement supporters. I'm going to Chicago in October to hear what happens at the Wesleyan Covenant Association meeting, and I will fellowship, worship, and pray with folks I know and don't know.

That same weekend, I'm also planning to go to Chicago Temple UMC to worship on Sunday as my brother (not by blood, but in every other sense of the word) Johnny Jeffords and Myron McCoy do a pulpit swap. My brother Johnny who serves a church that advocates for GLBTQ folks, yet observes and struggles with the current covenant of being United Methodist. My brother who helped organize my running for bishop because he believed in me instead of my preferences and stances, and pushed me on days I didn't feel like doing what needed to be done. My brother that, despite our differences - or because of our differences - I choose to share mutual struggles with as we try to lead people to Christ in a church and society that often seems against us.

All of this doesn't mean we don't need doctrinal standards, shouldn't expect higher standards for our leadership, or that we don't need denominational distinctiveness. But it also doesn't mean we don't try to seek a common sense of unity and covenant - because we should. But we Methodists have been divided for a long time. John and Charles Wesley often disagreed. So did Wesley and George Whitfield. So did Wesley and Francis Asbury. And we split into thirds during the Civil War and didn't come back together until 1939 (how'd that work for us, by the way?). And we may end up splitting again, though this time it could potentially be into thirds, fourths, or even fifths. I pray everyday that we don't.

I am about as orthodox of a Methodist as you can get, on just about all matters. And I don't mind addressing conflict and leading churches and people toward being faithful and fruitful as disciples. But if sticking a label on myself becomes a moniker that prevents me from engaging the least, the last, and the lost - I don't want it anymore than I want a millstone around my neck. I've spent enough time around the Nones and Dones to know that they don't care about the things that the UMC seems to prioritize right now. They want to know if I love them. And they're waiting to see if I'm really a follower of Jesus or a 21st century version of a Pharisee. 

If making disciples of Jesus Christ isn't our #1 concern, then we have indeed become the dead, lifeless, esoteric sect Wesley feared we could become. And, since I believe that there is a Judgment - I will one day have to answer for that. I doubt that picking a side will be enough.

I don't know the answer to our conflicts and woes, but I pray for a miracle through the Holy Spirit. I still believe in them.

Pax,
Sky+



Thursday, August 25, 2016

Being Orthodox in a Rogue Church

Rogue /rōg/ - to act on one's own, usually against expectation or instruction. 
I posted an old article a few days ago on my Facebook page. I started out by daring someone else to do it, and then realized, "McCracken, you aren't running for bishop anymore. You post it." And I did. And I watched the reactions. Mercy, the people called Methodists are a divided bunch.

The beginnings of Methodism could be described as rogue: An Anglican priest holding clandestine "Holy Club" meetings, preaching out in the open fields, banned from Anglican pulpits, and ordaining preachers when no bishop would do it... with no authority other than his belief that elders/presbyters and bishops were of the same order. And while we quote Wesley ad nauseam, the fact remains that John Wesley died an Anglican priest. He never intended to start a new denomination.

So when we talk about orthodoxy and orthopraxy, we Methodists have to be careful. It doesn't mean that these words don't have meaning for today's Methodists, and indeed Wesley was so very clear in the first part of the quote (which we often omit) from The Heart of a Methodist: "But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, [Methodists] think and let think."

And therein lies the root of the problem. Which root?



As some Anglicans tried to take the best from many traditions by taking the via media - which, contrary to popular belief, isn't sitting on the fence but intentionally placing one in the middle of the Catholicism and the Reformed church - Early Methodists tried to take the best of Anglicanism, balancing the sacramental and the evangelical, the Word and deed, and taking them to the least and the lost. Today's United Methodism - and more accurately, United Methodism in the United States - has created a chasm of ideology that has little to do with any of the things that Methodism was birthed from (or, for that matter, any other faith tradition in the above diagram). Worse, we have lost our innovative edge as Anglican evangelists and become once again that which Wesley tried to renew. "Making disciples for the transformation of the world" is our Great Commission and our mission as a denomination, yet such received little - if any - debate or consideration, much less passion or fervor, at General Conference. We more resembled American politics and an FFA (Future Farmers of America) mock meeting where we tried to trip up the presider with parliamentary procedure than a denomination that has as its main mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

As I have written before (here, here, here, and here) Wesley tried to do an 180° to reform Anglicanism, but what we have ended up doing is a 360° - and are right back where we started. A rogue denomination has become status quo. General Conference with its consent calendars, committee filibustering, and parliamentary bullying and maneuvering is not the place to make substantive change that a hurting world needs. That change will have to start from the ground up - loving people up, witnessing to the prevenient grace of God, discipling people in Jesus' name, raising leaders (lay and clergy) for the Church and the Kingdom, and doing so in local churches AND missional communities (which may not look like traditional churches). It is clear that we are being led away (indeed, have led ourselves away) from our missional mandate towards majoring in the minors.

We do not like to talk WITH people; we want to talk AT people. We seem to want NOT to foster relationships, but instead pigeonhole people by what group they align with, where they are from, and how they feel about "the issue." If General Conference was indicative of the Church, an outsider would rightly label us as Idol Worshipers. Thankfully, most of the UMC (I dare say 85%) does not consider General Conference and its issues as much of an indicator of the Church and reality. And - thankfully! - most of the major media outlets didn't give us much press. Unfortunately, that also proves how uninteresting and, more damning, inconsequential we are becoming as an agent of transformation for God's world.

Stephen Long wrote an excellent essay, "The Grace of Doing Nothing - Again: A Defense of the UM Bishops' Call for Silence." He says so well what I have believed in our denomination's struggles with sexuality: we have not had the candid critical and theological conversations we need to have on the subject, and we have lacked a consistent ethic. We have talked past these issues, and past other people, but not with them. As Long says, "Our deliberations lack theological direction." To handle these things faithfully, we will have to do these things.

In the meantime, we lose ground with those who are hungry for a Church that DOES something. A Church that MEANS something. A Church that embodies CHRIST. A Church that majors in the majors instead of the minors.  The Great Commandment and Great Commission are plain and are our priorities. Is there evidence we are living such?

Yes - there is. I could list hundreds of awesome things that local churches do every day. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. Making relationships and ministering to the least, the last, and the lost. Making disciples and leaders.

But in UM circles, it all gets buried beneath that which has become idolatrous - namely, "the issue." And, after spending a year among the unchurched in a Third Place/Fresh Expressions-like community, I can say that those outside of the Church are as divided as those inside the Church on "the issue." But for them, it's a minor. And they see the Church as just another political body that either counts you "in" or "out."

I hate pigeonholing people. I even hate being pigeonholed even more. But that's the moniker we're starting to be given - we're just another "interest group." And as many can testify, once you get a nickname, it's hard to be rid of it.

I'm still hopeful. I think the people called Methodists have a theology and practice that is best suited to change the world, one person, one neighborhood at a time.  To do so we'll have to let go of minors and embrace majors. And I'm bound and determined to do it. I want to fulfill the mission in the district, churches, and neighborhoods around me.

We can change the world - in Jesus' name.

Pax,
Sky+




Friday, July 29, 2016

Purchase District - Five Year Check-Up

I was appointed the district superintendent of the Purchase (formerly Paducah) District on March 1, 2011. It was a weird time to start such work; my father had just died, I was already visiting SPRC committees anticipating moves, my first official act as a DS was to attend a cabinet meeting, and our district was hosting Annual Conference in three months. There was no "honeymoon." But there was a huge blessing. Bishop Dick Wills gave me this permission: "Don't be a personnel manager. Be a spiritual leader for your district." Bishops Chamness and McAlilly continued to support that mindset. Because of that, I can honestly say that I love my work.

Things to Celebrate

This district has a unique connectional nature to it that has allowed some things to be birthed much easier than if it had been otherwise. Paul Douglass, who had been the DS here from 1989-95, left copious notes in files and archives that lead me to believe he was a pivotal leader in this district being "connected." Vestiges of his legacy were still present when I became superintendent, which made my job much easier. Some things that have been birthed in the last five years:

1. Spiritual Leadership, Inc. It began as a book-reading group who wanted to go deeper. At the advice of friends from across the Southeast, we invited Craig Robertson of SLI (Spiritual Leadership, Inc.) to come meet with us for a day. What he said excited and intrigued us. A few months later, with the blessing of Bishop Chamness, a dozen lay and clergy folks from our district sacrificed time and money and began an incubator project. That blossomed into a district operations team. When our Area (Memphis and Tennessee Conferences) adopted an Area Mission Statement, we aligned our district work with it: to help resource and provide lay and clergy leadership for local churches so that we can make disciples of Jesus Christ in our neighborhoods. This has helped us bear fruit!

2. Generative Leadership Academy (GLA)This was one of our first dreams and envisionings that came out of the SLI process. We realized that if we as a district were going to grow our churches in ways measurable and immeasurable, we needed something simple, foundational, formative, from a Wesleyan perspective, that could help make disciples and leaders - as well as could identify spiritual giftedness from within the laity and clergy of our district  We also knew that our clergy desperately needed formed and transformed partners in ministry. The fruits born from this include: 
  • Slowed decline of overall church membership and attendance across the district. In an area declining in both population and economy, we considered this a win!
  • Increased numbers of people interested and trained as Certified Lay Ministers and Lay Servants
  • A culture of call emerging, resulting in several laity answering a vocational call to ministry in both lay and clergy capacities. One such person served as a lay pastor for a year at a church typically served by an elder, had the most professions of faith after a year of any church in the district, and their lay pastor was awarded the Denman Award for her work. She is now a full-time licensed local pastor that continues to serve that church.
  • Several churches, because of the witness of GLA clergy and lay graduates, are now contracting incubator projects with SLI with the purpose of growing their churches and diving deeper into mission and discipleship. One church is contracting with Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) to confront their stagnation and reassessing their call and witness to their community. 
  • A District Laity team was formed, based on spiritual giftedness identified at GLA. They recently completed a year-long SLI incubator project and now meet regularly with intention and a ministry action plan.
  • The district was broken down into geographic clusters with lay and clergy leadership to replicate the work done by SLI and the District Operations team.
These are in no way laurels to rest upon, but beginnings that continue to need nurture and innovation. Deep change is difficult and slow!

3. Mission Blitz. This also birthed from SLI and the District Operational Team. One year we asked churches at their charge conference: "If your church closed tomorrow, would anyone from the local community notice?" That was a hard question for some churches to answer. So we set apart a day in the fall each year for churches/clusters to pick a local need/mission and spend a day out in their neighborhoods doing it. It ranged from barn raisings to jail visitation. The fruit: some local churches began to see needs in their own neighborhoods and starting making adjustments to their mission, operations, and budgets to reflect their neighborhood needs. 

4. What We Can Do Better. Are we done? No - and this is just a beginning. Making disciples is our Great Commission, but it is also hard work after generations of not doing it well. There are also things that our district needs to do better: 
  • The Purchase District doesn't have one ethnic local church. Not one. We have ethnic persons present in our local churches, but we are missing a huge group of people that not only need the Church, but we need them. The good news is that I don't know anyone who would be opposed to such. The challenge is to resource doing it.
  • We need to develop continued strategy that (a) helps declining churches objectively assess themselves and then become proactive about their next steps, (b) identify locations where a new church start could take place, and (c) continue to imagine what some missional communities could look like, being the church but not having/needing a church building.
  • Increase our partnership with Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly with Dayshore Camp. There were three locations in the Purchase District where Dayshore took place this summer - and all of them were a huge success. Young lives were changed - and we need to partner and help resource that the best that we can. While this was a new concept for some, it falls within the innovation we need to embrace; new wineskins for new wine.
  • We can't settle for just slowing the decline - we have to continue and try to reverse the decline. We've made great first steps, but we have to continue. There is no shortage of unchurched folks in the Purchase Area - we have to continue to challenge our present mindsets and practices and embrace the opportunities and needed change.
A final thought: a lot of energy and fear is being directed toward our denominational struggles and disagreements. The real truth is that - important as it certainly is - finalizing a stance on matters of sexuality is not going to gain us one disciple; if that were the case, either the Episcopal Church or the Southern Baptist Church would be growing... and both are losing members just like the UMC. If we're going to grow - conservative, progressive, orthodox, and any other adjective you want to label a local church - we have to get discipleship right. If we get discipleship right - we get everything else right. If we don't, our doctrine and discipline won't mean a thing.

The Great Commandment is to love. The Great Commission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. They both should get top priority - and that's where our passion needs to be.

Pax,
Sky+

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

REPOST: Erosion of Trust, or Erosion of Faith?


Confession: I spent about five years of my ministry angry - namely, the years 2004-2009.

I wasn't angry about being mistreated as a pastor, or upset that my salary wasn't as high as I thought it should be, or that I was "passed over" and someone else got a church that I might have wanted. I was angry that the two generations of church leadership before me allowed United Methodism to get into this shape.

Over the years, I have helped put together conference journals, served the Connection at the General and Jurisdictional level, and represented my religious order at the General Board. What I witnessed, in ways financial and administrative, was that our UMC was hemorrhaging - and had been - for a long time. We have experienced a net loss of millions in membership in my lifetime, and it made me angry that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren might not have a United Methodist Church to attend; not because it was God's will, but because we failed to lead and make disciples. It made me angry that a lot more was going to be required of me than my predecessors if I were going to be faithful to my baptismal and ordination vows. It made me angry that I might not have a pension to live on in my last days. Anger threatened to consume me.

And it was wrong. I was wrong.

It took every prayer discipline I had to regain focus and perspective, and I realized that my anger was my own sin of wanting someone or something to blame rather than to do something about it, and that the reasons for church decline were far more intricate and complicated than could be attributed to any one cause. I allowed my own prejudices and need to blame erode my faith, and that was the true failure - with no one to blame but myself. I had experienced not an erosion of trust, but an erosion of faith.

Getting to the point of admission and doing something about it was freeing, it was empowering - it was literally my salvation. It changed the way I approached and carried out ministry. Instead of a career, ordained ministry became the way I best lived out my baptismal vows instead of a career (hey, clergy and lay alike, we're ALL called first by our baptism, not our ordination). I stopped comparing myself to other pastors and their appointments (a/k/a "Steeple Envy") and the unholy game of competition. It was time to fish or cut bait: either I start trusting God and the UMC (which I said at my ordination was the best way to express Christianity), or I hang up my stole and turn in my credentials. By God's grace, I started trusting God again. But like God's grace, trust in God is something we either accept or don't - that's on us.

In this season of the UMC, our trust in God is called upon more than ever. We are a communion not based on loose association, but by connection and covenant. Yet trust is severely lacking in the UMC; we've showed the world that in many ways, but we did so especially at General Conference 2012. Our trust was so lacking that one delegate wanted members of a committee/commission to stand so she could see if they were "diverse enough." And now that we are living into this difficult season in the UMC, our propensity to avoid the unknown, to shun the different, and to suspect the worse is making us paranoid and ineffectual. Manifestations of this culture of distrust have led us to public displays of distrust:

  • Our bishops meet in a closed meeting to discuss accountability - instead of praying for them, we criticize them and say they are being non-democratic.
  • Bishops and cabinets vow to make pastoral appointment-making missionally-driven instead of entitlement-driven - but critics say that they are being unfair and ageist.
  • Clergy are encouraged to be vulnerable and transparent in their leadership - but are distrustful of laity because of past betrayals and recriminations.
  • Laity are asked to sacrifice their time and money for the Church - but become distrustful of clergy who seem to be more concerned in maintaining their benefits and guaranteed appointments than sacrificial Kingdom work.
The root of all these things is not truth - it is fear. Fear that the bishops might be "scheming." Fear that another pastor might get a better appointment than me that I feel that I deserve. Fear that what we say in truth will be used against us in hate. Fear that someone has it better than I do. 

To embrace Christ fully, however, means to embrace that perfect love casts out fear. It means that our own wants and comforts are outweighed by the needs of the Kingdom and our sacrifices for it. It is not martyrdom - it's a glad and willing obedience. It means that nothing is sacred but the mission. Once I understood that, it became easier to trust. Our brothers and sisters may let us down, but God is always faithful and trustworthy.

Click to enlarge
When I was asked to be a district superintendent on March 1, 2011 (an AWFUL time to start this position!), I said yes. I knew in this season of the Church it would be difficult work. But I also knew that it was my opportunity to turn my former distrust into joyful obedience, and my despair about the Church into an opportunity to make a difference in the life of the conference and community of faith that raised me and nurtured me.

There is a letter that I keep at my desk that reminds me of my task and that there are no earthly "guarantees" ahead of me - indeed, I suspect there are tougher days ahead then there are behind for the United Methodist Church, as well as all Christians. But in casting out fear, the shackles are removed to work for the Gospel hope and future - and I don't think God is done with us yet. I believe that the best is yet to come.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. There is no Christian alternative: we have to love like we've never been hurt, trust like we've never been betrayed. If we don't, we will simply choose to divide ourselves - and thus seal our fate as a denomination. 

I think God expects greater things of us - and I think they're coming. The Lord will take us there, and only by faith can we follow. 

Pax,
Sky+




Thursday, September 03, 2015

Pride - One of the Seven Deadlies


"It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes [us] as angels." - Augustine.

To be sure, there are things that I don't mind saying I am proud of: I am proud of my daughter, I am proud of the pastors and churches in the district I serve, I am proud of the way my wife is trying to handle a parent in a nursing home along with an older brother who needs family help, I am proud of the staff that I work with every day. In that sense, "being proud" means being pleased for and about the actions and achievements of others.

When it comes to pride equating to vanity or excessive assurance in one's own gifts or abilities, then we have a problem, because pride inherently discounts God's grace. One could say that all of our sins arise from pride, one of the "seven deadly" sins. I am entering a season of my life where I will place myself in front of, and at the will of, the Church in a way I never have before. I know that the temptations of pride and arrogance will rear their heads to sway me to their bidding, and I pray that my arms might remain open to grace.

I received a life lesson the other day. It was a bit painful to the body, but much more painful to my pride: I had a motorcycle spill (to call it a wreck would be hyperbole). After a 20+ mile ride from work, about 500 feet from my house I had a spill. A squirrel was in the street and I slowed down, almost to a stop. The squirrel couldn't make his/her mind up which way to go. My head didn't overrule my heart and I swerved to miss it, lacking enough speed to maintain the bike upright. So the bike and I went down, both sliding on the pavement.

Crash bar and resulting road rash.
I was mad. Mad at myself for the mental error. Mad at the squirrel. Mad about the few hundred dollars of damage to the bike. Mad about the skin missing from my elbow. A guy behind me witnessed the whole thing (was a motorcycle rider himself), stopped, helped me and the bike up, and helped me bend the crash bar back so I could ride it home.

This guy was a little earthy looking, said a few choice words about the people who drove by and didn't help, but he put it all into perspective: "I saw the whole thing. I'm glad you're walking away from it." Then he looked at my bike, saying, "Those crash bars worked like they're supposed to. You know, any of us who ride are gonna do this before it's over with. Looks like you're good to go, brother." Then he slapped my shoulder and winked: "Next time, run over the damned squirrel."

He was right: I walked away with minimal damage to me or my motorcycle. A stranger reminded me of the grace that I should have felt instead of the pride that I thought had taken a beating. The bottom line was I was more worried about what people would think instead of being thankful I was okay.

Grace is a gift that we often aren't willing to receive, mainly because pride gets in the way. This quote brings it home to me: "Life makes fools of us sooner or later. But keep your sense of humor and you'll at least be able to take your humiliations with some measure of grace. In the end, you know, its our own expectations that crush us." (from Skippy Dies, by Irish author Paul Murray).

Grace, grace, God's grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within...

Pax,
Sky+


Thursday, August 06, 2015

Fond Memories, Not So Fond Memories, and Faith

My brother Johnny Jeffords' recent blog reminds me not just of the ties that bind, but the memories of that which have formed my faith. It's no mistake that music provokes the most of those memories.

I don't go to many concerts these days - the folks I'd want to see are expensive tickets to score and usually a long drive away. But last weekend my wife and I, along with her sister and brother-in-law, went to see Deep Purple at the Ryman Auditorium. It was a GREAT concert. Ian Gillan's voice is still awesome, Ian Paice hasn't lost a beat as drummer, and while I mourn over Ritchie Blackmore's leaving, Steve Morse is certainly no slouch of a guitarist. Don Airey took over keyboards when Jon Lord retired and I love that old Hammond-organ-with-a-Leslie-speaker sound. These guys are in their 60's, and still getting it done. I got my money's worth. Moreover, I got to hear Jesus sing.


No, I'm not equating Ian Gillan to Jesus in a rock star sort of way; Ian Gillan sang the part of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. NOT the movie, but the original recording with some of the best musicians in the world playing rock instruments as well as classical symphonic instruments, with Andrew Lloyd Webber (21 years old) and Tim Rice (25 years old) writing the music and lyrics. It was truly a rock opera, and I probably learned as much about the Gospel playing those albums over, and over, and over as I did reading the bible. My dad had bought the two-album set amidst Southern boycotting of it (in fact, probably bought it BECAUSE of that), and told me not to play them when I had friends over: "We wouldn't want to get them into trouble." While I could probably sing the whole album without any lyrics in front of me, the songs I remember most are "Judas' Death" and "Trial Before Pilate." Judas' frustration, Pilate's words to Jesus, hearing the crowd yell "Crucify him!," hearing the thirty-nine lashes; it certainly wasn't described - much less sung & played - the way I heard it in Sunday school. The music made it real. I can still hear those lashes (you can hear these two songs clicking here).

Johnny Jeffords, Ed Kilbourne
So while watching Deep Purple last Sunday night certainly brought back great memories of growing up, it also reminded me of my wearing out those two albums listening to Jesus Christ Superstar. While the memories are sharp, some things have changed: Jesus - that is, Ian Gillan - has his hair cut as short as mine now. And I think about other music that has shaped me: classical music from Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, to the classic rock of Beatles, Boston, and Bachman Turner Overdrive. Choral works by Morten Lauridsen. Music from people I've been blessed to become colleagues with, like John Kilzer. Music from my brothers Johnny Jeffords and Ed Kilbourne (who will be in worship and in concert at St. John's UMC in Memphis this Sunday). Ed can sing "Common Bread" and you'll think you're having Holy Communion... because you are. As Augustine said: when we sing, we pray twice. When I am feeling low, music helps pick me back up so I can communicate with God - in which I mainly need to listen.

We, and our faith, are the products of our past and the memories of our past: good, bad, ugly, times when we've been 100% assured, and even times when we 100% doubted. Mysteriously and wonderfully, God uses the good and redeems the other. And doubt? Frederick Buechner once said that "doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving."

Yep.

Sky+


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Our Future Might Be Unforgetting the Past.

I know "unforgetting" is an awkward word. I borrow it from sacramental theology: when we try to define ἀνάμνησις/anamnesis in the communion liturgy - "do this in remembrance of me," it's probably better to place the emphasis on "unforgetting" rather than simply "remembrance." We who are Christians know what Christ did for us... but sometimes, we take it for granted and forget. So, we occasionally need to UNforget.

I occasionally get asked as a district superintendent and someone who is involved in the larger Connection of United Methodism, "What do you think will happen in the next 10-20 years with the Church." I am cautious to be a predictor of the future, because a lot of people who have done so have missed, and missed badly. One prediction I remember well: "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share." (Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, in the 4/30/07 edition of USA Today). I bet he'd like to have THAT one back. However, I'll chance having egg on my face - it will wash off if I'm wrong.

1. Pastors and churches are going to have be converted to be more than just flexible - we're going to have to be adaptable. It is obvious that collectively, the UMC is failing to make disciples in the U.S., and we have been failing for a very long time. The urgency is quickly coming before us as we will see churches close, resources dwindle, and our ability to do ministry on a global or even national level is going to force us to be a lot more creative. We'll have to make some very difficult decisions about what we can sustain versus what we will have to let go. My fear is that sexuality is going to continue to take up precious time and energy at General and Annual Conferences, and very little will be devoted to mission, discipleship, and clergy and lay leadership. Sexuality is important, but regardless of whether we change our stance or keep the stance we have, it will make little difference to the Kingdom of God if we fall apart as a denomination. The outside world could care less about our internal squabbling, but it does take note of our absence in making a difference in the world. Any outsider who might have watched the last General Conference online probably didn't watch for long; if they wanted to watch a good fuss they'd tune to CSPAN instead: their audio is better, the video resolution much tighter, and the connection more reliable. We are not making a good impression on the world when they watch us fight amongst ourselves - why would anyone want to join us?

2. Leaders are going to have to lead. To quote Bob Farr: "The church isn't going anywhere if the pastor is not willing to lead... You were not ordained and sent so that you can follow that congregation wherever it wants to go." (from Renovate or Die, p. 17). The other thing is that clergy and laity have to see themselves as co-leaders. Methodism started as a largely lay-lead movement. Circuit riders made their rounds, but it was lay leadership that directed each small community/church/society to grow in faith, discipleship, and number. Farr reminds us of the basics: (1) Radical hospitality, (2) Passionate Worship, (3) Intentional Faith Development, (4) Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and (5) Extravagant Generosity. Lay and clergy have to do those things together and practice them well. Being pastor-led and lay-led doesn't mean we need to pastor-centered or lay-centered; we need to be Christ-centered. It ain't about us. Jesus spent three years teaching the disciples just that. Wesley made that clear to the first Methodists that we are to serve instead of being served.

3. We need to "unforget" our past. Methodism began as a movement within an already-organized church, based on the basics: holiness, piety, grace, discipleship, mission, relationships, spiritual direction, covenant, and accountability. They relied on these more and relied less on buildings, business meetings, and trying to be all things to all people. They developed leadership. They embraced discipleship because they knew that disciples are made through being formed, not just by showing up. That's how we began as a movement. As I've shared before, John Wesley envisioned this movement doing a 180º from the way the Anglican Church was doing (or more accurately, NOT doing) church and discipleship. Unfortunately, I think we've done a 360º - and we're right back where we started.

The work that Elaine Heath and Bishop Ken Carter have done for us to think out of the box in planting new faith communities that might not have buildings, but nonetheless take the timeless message and mission out into the world into new places with new people "on the ground" in ways that defy traditional ways of doing church, bear looking at and thinking about. Several from the Florida conference were in England last week observing the work of "Fresh Expressions," a process that helps transform communities and individuals through resourcing and multiplying new ways of being church. We United Methodists have the structure and connections to do this better than anyone! Are we willing to do it, and make the needed shifts, for the sake of making more disciples? It reminds me of another Bob Farr quote: "Successful churches do what unsuccessful churches refuse to do." Ouch.

The early church was extremely counter-cultural. So were the early Methodists. We might consider being crazy-weird for Christ instead of being lockstep with society.

4. At the same time we need not trash everything we're presently doing, because some leaders and churches ARE thriving and growing. Instead of scoffing and being critical, we ought to be sharing our best practices with each other. This is when we United Methodists are our own worst enemies - we ought to have a franchise mentality instead of a rugged individualism mentally; if someone at another church is doing something better than we are, maybe we ought to embrace it! And if we're doing something well, we need to be willing to share it with others. Some in-depth prayer as a local church might help us understand what God wants us to do in this place, at this time, for this neighborhood... even if that means ditching what we might love so much but doesn't really do anyone else any good. Jesus warned us about being salt with no flavor. Wesley feared us becoming a dead, lifeless sect.

5. Ordained Clergy are going to have to set clericalism and educational bigotry aside, both in how we view lay leadership as well as view our colleague pastors who are licensed local pastors. Our "experiment" with requiring a master of divinity degree to become an elder (only in place since the late 1950's) may be an experiment that has not yielded the results we hoped. While the analogy was once made that "we want our doctors to have a medical degree, why wouldn't we want our pastors to have a divinity degree?", that analogy has of late fallen apart, as the medical community has shifted primary care to nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, who can diagnose, treat, prescribe medicine, etc. It's not about dumbing down, but realizing that requiring an M.D. may be overkill for much of what most of us expect and need when we're sick. We are in desperate need of "primary care" pastors, who can lead congregations to be formed and transformed.

Complicating this for ministry is the fact that the costs of a seminary education are getting to the point where only the upper-middle class to upper class will be able to afford it, while those of lesser means will have to carry an indebtedness that is irresponsible stewardship. And as we've also come to realize, there is no correlation between a master of divinity degree and pastoral effectiveness or a work ethic that is required in this season. Some licensed local pastors have proven just as capable of growing dying churches into medium and large membership churches, who are vital and effective in making disciples. We may need to revisit clergy education in this new season - and may find that the old model of mentor/apprentice may be more appropriate than the present pedagogy of an academic environment. This is NOT to be construed as anti-intellectual, but rather calling for a shift in HOW we educate our clergy in this season. At the present rate of tuition inflation, fewer will be able to afford to go, and a dwindling student enrollment will cause seminaries to shut down if they are not adequately endowed; it simply cannot be sustained. We are going to have more and more pastors, first- or second-career, who answer the call but go the local pastor route. Jesus asked simple fishermen to drop their nets and follow him. Wesley said, "Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergy or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon the earth." (That goes for clergywomen and laywomen too).

Amidst these foretellings, I am more hopeful than ever about the future of the Church because I believe we are going to be forced to focus on the majors and essentials of the faith - rather than the minors - and to unforget our past. Experience tells me that there are many, many people who are hurting and NEED what we have as Christians that we take for granted: assurance, hope, love, peace, and healing. While I've seen churches close in the district I serve, I've also seen transformation happen in people and in churches, who are embracing (1) what they were made to be, and (2) why they are located in the places they are located.

God is not done with us - we just have to be willing to accept and engage the present reality toward the future: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.

Pax,
Sky+


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Illusion and Denial

I am a shade-tree mechanic, and occasionally wrench a little on my motorcycle and old BMW convertible. My first car was a 1967 VW Beetle, and it was easy to work on: a flat-blade screwdriver and an adjustable crescent wrench would take care of 85% of the repairs needed. One day I was driving it and the accelerator cable snapped near the pedal. I didn't have what I needed to repair it, so I looked and found an old flashlight on the shoulder of the road. I took a battery out of it and propped the throttle open with it in the engine. While I burned some of the clutch out of the car, I managed to get home, where I fixed it easily.

Today, there's no such thing as an accelerator cable. It's been replaced with electronic throttle control (ETC). There's no mechanical connection between your accelerator pedal and the throttle in the engine. Even my motorcycle has ETC. Your pedal (or on a motorcycle, the throttle handle) has a sensor module, which sends a signal to an electronic control module (ECM) that has a computer chip in it, which then, after going thru several algorithms taking in consideration temperature, altitude/barometric pressure, oxygen, and how much load is being pulled, finally sends a signal to the throttle valve to open and close.

The illusion is that when you press down on the gas pedal, it pulls some cable that goes straight to the engine and speeds the car up. But in actuality, a control module does all that. We are not as in control as we think we are.

I recently watched one of the most interesting movies: "Pieces of April." A wayward daughter (Katie Holmes) invites her dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) and estranged, dysfunctional family to her Lower East Side of Manhattan apartment. It's a short movie, premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2003, and filmed on a budget of $300k... with an all-star cast. It's earthy and not for the faint-of-heart, but it does not disappoint. I won't ruin the movie for you, but in short: it's about a dysfunctional family and estranged daughter who's trying to redeem her life and relationships amidst long memories and short tempers. It was a strong reminder to me that all families and relationships have elements of dysfunction and scarring. Perfect families, perfect churches, perfect denominations, perfect governments - all an illusion. To think otherwise is denial.

It might be a good idea for all of us to be reminded of this from time. We're all dysfunctional. Our
families, our churches, our relationships - none immune from dysfunction. And to compensate, we tend to live in various states of illusion and denial. The cure for a hurting world isn't critique and bashing - it's the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ. It may not always be returned, but it must always be given. You don't have to compromise your beliefs to live charitably and lovingly.

One of the things I've learned through spiritual direction and counsel is this: you've finally grown up when you can love - and forgive - your parents and family. God knows we probably need their love and forgiveness for stuff we did and do. What would it hurt to extend such to the family of God?
I mean, Lastly, love me not in word only, but in deed and in truth. So far as in conscience you can (retaining still your own opinions, and your own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God, and let us go on hand in hand. And you may certainly go at least this far, that you speak honorably wherever you are of the work of God by whomever he works, and kindly of his messengers. And, if it be in your power, not only sympathize with them when they are in any difficulty or distress, but give them a cheerful and effectual assistance, that they may glorify God on your behalf. - John Wesley, Sermon, "On a Catholic Spirit," 1771.
Pax,
Sky+


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Priorities and a History Lesson - Repost

Just seemed timely to repost this, given discussions on the blogosphere.

Be blessed,

Sky+

--

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.

Pax,
Sky+


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.

Pax,
Sky+