Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Pastor By Any Other Name - Revisited

I wrote a blog with the same title a couple of years ago - and after hearing from both the "Excellence in Ministry" event in Colorado and hearing Elaine Heath preach yesterday on the dearth of spirituality in the seminary/academy, I was both encouraged and provoked to reflect more on the subject.

I have often said that the United Methodist Church has no theology of ordination - and I am ready to modify that a little bit to say that the UMC is not PRACTICING a consistent or historical theology of ordination. Methodism no doubt has one of the most interesting histories of ordination, but the one developed versus what it has morphed into are at variance with each other. What we had when Methodism was birthed was an understanding of how the Holy Spirit gifted, enabled, and set apart some servants to preach and provide for the sacraments to be celebrated. What we have now is a tangled mess of clericalism and the antithesis of what Wesley feared (with thanks to Randy Maddox's reminder):
  1. What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends: and if it answers them not, it is nothing worth. - John Wesley, Letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746. 

We currently have over twenty classifications for clergy in the United Methodist Church. What I have found is that such is nearly impossible to explain to most laity (and some clergy), as well as to explain to those of other communions and fellowships. And, when examined, is it unsupportable in a Wesleyan ethos to function so.

To complicate the matter more - and to further be at odds with Wesley's intentions - is how we have handled clergy education. One of Wesley's warnings was that in our quest to educate clergy that we exercise prudence in not "professionalizing" them as was often the case with law and medicine, thus "elevating" them from the class of those whom they would be seek to serve. (So it might behoove us to be a little careful about the doctor/medical school, pastor/divinity school comparisons!) It is also important to note that historically, a Divinity degree was not required of Methodist clergy until 1956 (and then, it was a Bachelor of Divinity, not a Master of Divinity). Before then, a course of study was the usual route Methodist pastors took, and college and seminary were alternatives.

The reason I write of this is because of several cruxes we have reached in the UMC (and, I suspect, we are not the only denomination so affected):

  • Student debt. Student debt is mounting - at steep rates. That, mixed with tuition that has gone up disproportionately with the cost of living, creates a perfect storm for both the UMC and for UM seminaries: ministerial candidates have debt that is nearly impossible to eradicate, seminaries are stuck between deferring admission to a student because of the undergraduate debt and the need to have enough enrollment to make ends meet, and Boards of Ministry have to wrestle with deferring a candidate who has too much student debt, yet accrued it getting the minimum standard of education required. Of course, some debt counseling would go a long way with students. But with scholarships and fellowships declining, students are forced to go to school part-time to stay out of debt - which delays one's entry into ministry. The unintended consequence of requiring the M.Div is the reality that, now and in the near future, only upper-middle class and upper class folks will be able to afford the education necessary to fulfill the standards of the UMC... a denomination founded on ministering to the least, the last, and the lost in society, with practical divinity at the heart of ministry. (A good resource is the Auburn Theological Seminary report on seminary student debt, found here.)
  • Flaws and holes in seminary education. To be honest, our UM seminaries (and many others) are more like schools of theology, not seminaries in the truest definition of the word. While some would argue semantics between academics and praxis, it is fair to say that until recently, our seminaries did very little, if anything, with spirituality and ministerial practice; indeed, spirituality was often a dirty word in the theological academy, not seen as a "credible" discipline worthy of time and study (thankfully, this is changing). When I asked this question once at an alumni advisory committee meeting, I was told by several, "You get that after seminary. There's too much theology, history, and biblical study to cover - you can't expect seminary to do that too. That's not our/their job." My story is not unique.
  • Discontinuity of History, Theology, and Practice of Pastoral Ministry. Contrary to popular belief, we ordained local pastors (referred to as local elders) until very recently (1968), which is at variance with our sister AME, AMEZ, and CME denominations, who still ordain their local (i.e., non-itinerating) pastors. One third of our pastors in the UMC are local pastors, who we used to ordain, but not "license" to celebrate the sacraments - with no theological defense of such a practice. I pray that we soon regain the delineation between ordination and conference membership. Ordination/ordo does not "belong" to the individual - it belongs to the Church to use in the course of mission and ministry. To quote Gordon Lathrop: 

The leadership of the liturgy is part of the liturgy. Ordination is intended to include persons in the schedule and pattern whereby the Christian assembly enacts the meaning of the Christian faith. Indeed, the order to which one is ordained is, finally, simply a list of persons who take their place and turn in the leadership of the structure of the ordo. - Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, Fortress Press, 1993, p. 190. 

While I was not there, I am encouraged to hear the missional concerns that Prof. Randy Maddox and others raised last week at the Mid-Quadrennial training event in Colorado for Boards of Ministry regarding our present state of affairs in the UMC. I hope our own denomination's Study on Ministry takes note and heeds our own history and theology of our founding and genius of Methodism. As a district superintendent, I can attest that at present:

  • a master of divinity degree is no indicator (or insurer) of pastoral effectiveness, nor do I think it should be the "minimum" standard for ordination (and note that I do NOT equate ordination and conference membership/itineration)
  • combining churches/charges together are no longer the solution they once were to creating salary packages large enough to pay a full-time salary
  • clericalism often inhibits shared lay/clergy leadership
  • we need more, not less, flexibility in educational requirements for those seeking ordination that considers situation and context
  • seminaries need (and I believe would be willing) to work with us on these frustrations and help us find solutions for local churches and the denomination without "dumbing down" ministerial education. We must be willing to shift our thinking and be willing to ditch outmoded pedagogy

What gives me hope are things like our own Paducah and Paris District's Generative Leadership Academy, and other leadership and missional initiatives across our Connection. I've been blessed to watch leadership skills and spiritual gifts identified and discerned. I've gotten to see the "aha" moments when someone "gets it" in regarding discipleship and mission. And I believe that Methodism's best days are still before us - we just have to be willing to shift our ways to 
cultivate ordained and lay leadership. 

New wineskins for new wine.


Monday, July 07, 2014

Quiet Patriotism and Incomplete Education

If you haven't seen the Guinness/Fourth of July commercial, be prepared - it's a tear jerker. It, along with the Guinness Basketball commercial last year, are both part of their "Made of More" campaign. A friend of mine sent me the link to the commercial, and I wasn't prepared for the flood of emotions that were going to come over me. It's well done.

I learned a quiet patriotism from my father. My dad didn't set a flag out on the 4th of July, and he didn't make any kind of fanfare about Veteran's Day. Had I not found some of his service medals and insignia when I was young, I might not have even known he even served in the Army, much less a war (Korean War). Two of his older brothers served in World War II, and one died in service. When I fully understood that as an adult, it explained much of my dad's quiet patriotism. He was proud of his country, so proud that amidst his family's fresh pain of losing a son and brother a few short years previous, he didn't fight being drafted - even at his conservative father's urging to find a way to avoid service. His quiet patriotism lapsed a few times. He was very direct with the college students he taught during the Vietnam War - "Go ahead and protest the government if you like, but leave the soldiers alone. Don't ever forget what they're doing on our behalf." And when Team USA beat Russia at the 1980 Olympics, you could have heard my dad whoop and holler a block away. 

My dad was an "old liberal" - he liked H.L. Mencken's definition of believing in liberty, but not so much to force it upon anyone. At the same time, he wasn't a pacifist - he always said you couldn't allow innocent people to get beaten up. That tension not only worked for him, he lived it. Dad always looked after the underdog and the poor. He had been there.

Seeing that commercial yesterday conjured up many memories. I remember going to England with my Dad several years ago and the two of us going to a pub, and he asking me, "What would an Englishman drink? I can't drink that roofing tar you like (Guinness)." So I suggested a Newcastle. He nursed it in his Don McCracken way. And uncommonly, after a few minutes, he said, "You and I should have done this a long time ago." And so we talked about things that mattered. 

Dad's 80th birthday
He said that while he had secretly wished I'd become a major league baseball umpire, that I looked happy in what I do - and I was (am). He said he loved his life and had no regrets. And I realized that while my father was extremely eccentric, had a strange relationship with God, and lived an even stranger (but strong) marriage with my mom - he provided an incomplete yet unique and good education for me. I'm different from my dad - but what he taught me serves me well. I value education and at the same time know I need to be a life-long learner. And while I was never the player, coach, or historian he was, I love baseball. He taught me how to drag a left-handed bunt down the first base line while also learning how to mow, drag, and line a field, how to be a smart fielder always thinking about what to do if the ball is hit to me while also learning to keep a scorebook and proving a box score, how to be an aggressive hitter and how to be a pitcher's umpire (because no one comes to a game to watch a batter get a walk). He taught me enough math to get through high school and college, as I had a mental block for it. I learned from him how to be a gentle evangelist and to tolerate those who approach God with a thinking and doubt-embracing faith that leads to a strong and sure faith. And I learned to have a respect and appreciation for those who serve our country in the military, and while I mourn over an uncle I never met who died in war, I am also thankful for my dad who came back from war safely - and thus, thankful for my life. 

So when I saw the commercial with an empty table, chair, and pint of beer waiting for a soldier to come home, I teared up. I think about my classmates Kathy (Houff) Isaacson (Army, retired), and Col. Jack Usrey (Army, still active), who serve(d) with distinction. I think about the horrible telegram my family got to tell them my uncle was MIA, and later declared dead, in World War II. And I think about how my family waited anxiously until my father returned home from Korea - anxious about their baby brother from the moment he left home until he came back. And I fast-forward and think about seeing my daughter try on her bridal dress yesterday - and while I wish her grandfather could be at her wedding, I am so thankful for my life and legacy, and so very thankful to be American. I take none of these things lightly - because of a quiet patriot. These are things that matter.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Random Suggestions to Pastors and Churches from a District Superintendent

I am often inspired while taking a shower or cleaning the house (read Kathleen Norris' The Quotidian Mysteries for more explanation).  The following is random advice to United Methodist pastors and churches after being a district superintendent for three years (and three months, and thirteen days. And I really DO like my job). These are in no particular order.

  1. Churches: unless you are blessed with a large budget and resources, don't give into the temptation of getting rid of your parsonage in favor of a housing allowance. Contrary to what you were told years ago, it usually causes the average pastor a logistical headache and financial hardship. Fewer and fewer pastors break even financially on such an arrangement, and sometimes get stuck with two house payments when a move occurs and a house doesn't sell quickly. Pastors, don't think that "I really need to live in my house" is a good excuse to tell your DS and bishop when asked to move - no one forced you to buy a house, and in most situations I would advise a pastor moving into a housing allowance situation to rent/lease rather than buy if they truly appreciate the itinerancy. Buying a house is a gamble at best, and a possible financial nightmare at worst. Of course there are exceptions, and consulting a realtor AND a banker in the area is a good idea. Related to that....
  2. Churches: don't even think of buying or building a parsonage next door to the church. Ever. And if your parsonage IS next to the church, consider selling it and buying another one. It is a HUGE stressor for parsonage families, particularly those with young children, to live next to the church. Pastors are bad enough about not taking time off; it's worse when they DO take a day off and people knock on the door wanting a door opened, asking you where everyone is for a meeting, or complaining that you were mowing your yard wearing a swimsuit instead of pants and a shirt. Pastors:  if your church supplies you with a parsonage, take good care of it. Insist on yearly inspections by the Trustees. One of the reasons churches want out of the parsonage business is because some pastors and families have literally trashed them. There's no excuse for that - and these days, expect to get a bill for what it will take to repair the damage you have left. Wear and tear is one thing, but neglect and inattention are another. When you move, leave the parsonage in better shape than when you found it - you're not only making a statement to your church, but to the clergy brother or sister who follows you, and that you are in covenant with.
  3. Pastors: be flexible about your day off. We've gone from the extremes of pastors not taking a day off to pastors being inflexible about time off. While days off should be respected, no one chooses the day or time to have a car accident, family tragedy, or death. Some days, your day off is going to be interrupted by life happenings through no one's fault or choice. Churches:  educate yourselves on what constitutes a pastoral emergency. Your teenager being in a car accident and awaiting surgery is a pastoral emergency; being in a fender-bender and getting a few stitches is not.
  4. Pastors: close your door or leave your office when you need uninterrupted study time for preparing sermons/worship. You'll get more work done, get it done more quickly, and be more present for your church at other times when they need you. I never had much luck working on sermons at the office - too many interruptions and people coming by who want and need your attention (and rightly so). Also, get your sermon work done earlier in the week, or even work a week ahead, for this reason: other worship team members need to know what you're doing so they can plan, too. Churches: know that if your pastor is away working on such, that they are working and not goofing off. If a pastor is doing their job, they are more often than not away from the office doing it rather than inside it.
  5. Pastors and Churches: you will serve your church better if, instead of having pastoral "office hours" you help congregations adapt to making appointment times with your pastor. With cell/smartphones, getting in touch with your pastor  and making an appointment is as easy as an email, text or Facebook message, or phone call (if you can't find someone these days, you aren't trying very hard). Plus, in the more private society we are living in today, many would rather meet the pastor somewhere other than the church office for pastoral counseling and conversations. Given that our missional priorities are becoming focused outwardly rather than inwardly, your pastor and other church staff may need to be out in the community more than in the church building. That doesn't mean they are unavailable - it just means we need to avail ourselves of technology to contact them for a visit. Pastors: this means that you return emails, texts, and phone messages, and as promptly as possible. And if you ARE in the office, and your door IS open, be receptive (and hospitable!) to a drop-in visitor. Make a pot of coffee or keep some drinks/water nearby, or offer to drive to the nearest coffee shop or restaurant. These conversations are great opportunities to foster relationships. 
  6. Pastors: buy a good used car as opposed to a new car, and do your best to pay cash for it - and if you can't, borrow as little as you can and for as short a duration as you can. Resist the urge to say, "get my payment down to _____." Buying a new car is ALWAYS a sucker bet - it loses 15%-25% of its value when you drive it off the lot, and is an ever-depreciating asset.  Drive your car until the wheels are falling off - I have had three cars that I have put over 200k miles on. Constant maintenance is key, and cheap compared to car payments and repairs. When you pay it off, keep banking the money you would have put on payments to save for the next car. And if it's paid for, it's worth the occasional steep repair bill. These days, even dropping a new transmission or engine into a car already paid for may be worth it. And most importantly, get a car that's practical. If you don't have 3 kids, you don't need a minivan or an SUV - get a sedan. They're cheaper, safer, and better for the environment (SUV's and vans give the driver a false sense of security, as insurance and accident rates will show). 
  7. Pastors and Churches: Don't tie your pastoral or church identity with the set pastoral salary. In older days, DS's used to push raises and send letters about the cost of living/CPI increases, try to get their pastors a raise when they moved, etc. We now live in a new reality - and some conferences face church salary/support reductions where pastors either encounter a salary reduction at their present church or face a reduction when they move (see the recent statement from the Kentucky Conference). Fair? No - but it is the current reality. Pastors: don't jump to the conclusion that when someone moves and gets a "cut" that they did something wrong - it's just the reality of this season. Churches: set a salary that is fair and affordable. We all live by faith - but don't put the Lord to a foolish test. Having said that, the attitude of "keeping a pastor humble" is not only a poor reflection of a church's view of their pastor, it's also not in the Bible.
Just a few thoughts. I'm sure there are other pearls of wisdom out there...


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Do You Know Your Family?

I'm a blessed man. I got to host our annual conference (Memphis) last week in Paducah, and this week am attending the Tennessee Annual Conference, since I am a part of an area cabinet. I've been surrounded by UMC brothers and sisters who love Jesus and love their church. And in the past two years I have seen a shift toward more grace, more harmony, and more willingness to work together as an annual conference instead of it being a ground to sew discord and challenges at any suggestion of (needed!) change. Our bishop is a huge part of that. Adopting priorities for mission and discipleship is another part of that. I believe our next challenge will be to deepen existing relationships and to be willing to make new ones - especially with those we would usually find reason not to foster such relationships.

Our recent UMC infightings, statements, and threats can be obstacles to this if we allow it.  It is so easy to dismiss and pigeonhole folks whom we perceive to be different socially and theologically - whether it be by wearing a cross or a rainbow stole around their neck, sporting a tie or a clerical collar, wearing a dress or jeans, shirts tucked in or out, cool glasses or reading glasses, clergy or lay, adult or youth.

In his book Restoring the Bride, Steve Harper reminds us of the Indian cultural tradition of the round table, where faith, hope, and love come together. It is at the heart of where all Christians should be as brothers and sisters - family. Unfortunately, we in the UMC often choose to sit at war tables, where we plan warfare to defeat whatever/whomever we think the "other" is. In other words: planning a civil war. 

We're kidding ourselves if we think the divisions are so neatly defined. And we're practicing avoidance of the worst kind to not engage our other family members whom we have avoided getting to know for so many years - and in the process learning some really bad habits that hurt us in doing the evangelistic work of making disciples of Jesus.

So instead of signing on to the latest statement - what about engaging the "other", who while being different from us, is blood-kin through the blood of Jesus Christ!

You know, we can pick our friends - but we can't pick our family. 


Friday, May 23, 2014

Response to the "Anonymous Eighty"

from Wikipedia
I wrote this response to Maxie Dunnam on his Facebook page in regards to the "Anonymous Eighty" and their insistence that the United Methodist Church "must divide." I have great respect for Maxie, but until the UMC and General Conference starts to make generative discipleship and mission our priorities (as they are in Scripture and in our own denomination's mission statement), a schism is self-indulgent and an act of avoidance of the most sinful kind.


Until we make discipleship and mission our first priorities, the United Methodist Church will continue to lose members, just as denominations such as the Southern Baptists and Episcopalians - who, while having definitive statements on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriages, continue to lose members for the same reason: failure of generative discipleship and missional focus. You would think we would learn from our sister communions - but we seem hell bent to repeat their mistakes.

Generative discipleship and mission SHOULD BE the future for United Methodists - and was at the heart of the BIRTH of Methodism. Schism at this time and over this issue (homosexuality/same-sex marriage) is sinful, self-indulgent, and shows unwillingness to be faithful to our primary task. We are taking away energy, resources, and precious time away from what our Lord commissioned us to do, first and foremost: make disciples of Jesus Christ who go and make disciples of Jesus Christ. 

I'd be more impressed by these 80 leaders if they shared their best practices toward discipleship and growth. Say what you want about Adam Hamilton  - but he's been unselfish about sharing evangelistic tools and missional strategies that WORK. And if you go to his church, you'll hear very little about this issue, and more about THE issue we Christians should be worried about: making disciples, transforming the world.

Our denomination looks like congressional infighting. I suspect we'll end up with the same approval ratings.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Aldersgate Covenant - Wonderful Worship and Prayer Time

I am back from two days at the Aldersgate Covenant Gathering. AWAKE - REPENT - ASK - WATCH. It was a wonderful time to pray, worship, and to be reminded of the core of our being as both Christians and Methodists. The worship, the reminders of our spiritual underpinnings, and the birth of why Methodism began were deep, rich, and filling.

One blessing was to see some old friends, but also meet some folks "real time" that I have known through cyberspace for years, including folks like Juan Huertas, John Lomperis, David F. Watson, and Bishop Gary Mueller. I also got to meet new friends: Bishop Mark Webb, fellow DS Bud Reeves from Arkansas, and many others. To break bread together, to converse, see facial expressions, and embrace with a handshake helped what many of us have lamented and prayed over for sometime - how relationships and intimate settings help diminish misunderstandings and foster trust. Both are things our denomination desperately need.

I was part of a small group discussion entitled, "How Do We Focus on Doctrine and Mission That Unites vs. Not Divide Us." It was a good discussion, but occasionally frustrating. We realize the tension that is frustrating but necessary between doctrine and mission. Too much emphasis on doctrine makes us dogmatic, mission without doctrine renders us social workers without teaching a relationship about the risen Christ. I deeply appreciated how wonderfully we heard each other, even in disagreement. The atmosphere of both the gathering and the wonderful facilities (and hospitality!) of Church of the Resurrection UMC contributed wonderfully.

My frustration was a lack of discussion/time to the reality that our UMC family is hurting. The metaphor that came to mind while praying and worshiping was that we are a family in a hospital waiting room, trying to figure out what course of action to take with a loved one who is dying and needs intervention. Any of us who have been in those situations knows that the family doesn't always agree on a course of treatment, and sometimes those conversations turn passionate and heated. Of course all analogies can fall apart, but it is the image that continues to be in my mind - and of which I have no answer.

I have no doubt that a spiritual revival - in the true sense of the word, not the 3-5 day ritual so many of us grew up with - is a big part of the answer. Bishop Cho said one of the most powerful words of the Gathering: "Is our prayer monologue? Or dialogue?" As a denomination, we really seem to be fighting hard for what WE as individuals demand, and less about what God wants for us. That requires that we start listening to God more and talking less.

And for that, I continue to pray.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Embarrassing Those Who Answer the Call

I've had two discussions in as many months with a surgeon and an ordained minister about student loan debt. Not a few thousand dollars, but tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Enough debt to embarrass them in their work. When I heard these numbers, I cringed - and my heart went to them. And it bothers me now.

In the case of a United Methodist pastor being received into a conference, saddling them with a bunch of debt is a no-no - at least, if we take the Historic Questions (esp. #18) seriously.

What's interesting is that the original question wasn't, "Are you in debt as to embarrass you in your work?" It was, simply, "Are you in debt?" No doubt, the Wesley brothers knew the pain and burden of debt firsthand, since their father (and priest) Samuel had to be bailed out of prison twice for indebtedness - part of which was debt that he inherited from his mother. In addition to serving as a priest, he tried to be a farmer and a writer - and was successful at neither. Thus, the Early Methodists were understandably nervous about any of their ministers having any debt.

We live in a world where debt is increasingly commonplace, but a dangerous trend is coming upon those who seek to get an education: the amount of student debt in the United States recently surpassed $1 trillion, which makes it rank higher than all other kinds of debt except homeowner/mortgage debt. The delinquency rate for student loans has also gone up 40% in the last five years (Forbes, August 2013). While debt levels are coming down in all other areas, they are skyrocketing for student debt.

It's a double whammy for seminary graduates, who may have accrued debt from undergraduate school and have seminary debt on top of that... and then go to their first full-time pastorate making a salary less than what school teachers start out at. The most comprehensive study of this comes from Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, a Presbyterian seminary founded in 1818.

Tuition costs are increasing far faster than inflation costs. When I graduated from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1991, tuition was $6,800 a year; in today's dollars (using consumer price indices from 1991-2013) that would be $11,605. However, Candler's tuition this year is $20,334 - meaning that it costs today's students nearly twice as much to go to seminary than it did my generation. And according to Auburn Theological's research, living expenses and previous undergraduate debt pile up an even more incredible indebtedness. As I look though the various seminary tuitions and cost comparisons to years previous at other schools, the percentages tend to be the same. And since the Auburn study came out nine years ago, Sharon Miller (associate director of The Center for the Study for Theological Education) more recently noted in 2012 that, "It is no longer unusual for seminary student to leave school with $70k-$80k of debt." I am assuming that is undergraduate and seminary education combined.

While some financial planning could certainly save some students some grief, one cannot escape the increasing costs of seminary compared to salaries and an economy which have not risen at the same rate - and that this is the minimum standard required for one who feels called to elders orders in the United Methodist Church. This just isn't a problem for students, but also for conferences and seminaries as well. Conferences are seeing fewer young people pursue their call for many reasons, but finances are surely a part of the decision. Seminaries may find that future students maybe more savvy about finances (i.e., Dave Ramsey graduates) and will shop and find better deals, as the Auburn article states, "some combination of lower tuition price, lower living costs, and higher aid or increased employment possibilities." Some will surely go part-time and delay entering into ministry until later in life.

What this means is uncertain but certainly suggests a crisis that we need to start managing - otherwise, we will make seminary unaffordable for all but the wealthy, and create impoverished situations that go beyond things financial.

Like all things United Methodist, we are going to have to start being creative with seminary education, how we fund it, and how we support students who answer the call without embarrassing them with so much debt that they can't afford to follow their call - especially our young adults. We owe them that!


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Triage and Priority

Triage: 1a: the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients and especially battle and disaster victims according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors

b: the sorting of patients (as in an emergency room) according to the urgency of their need for care

2: the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success 
To this date, the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life was to leave a little boy who was in need of medical treatment. It was January 19, 1999, and I was a firefighter/medical responder who was "first-in" in the Charles Latham subdivision, just down the road from the church I was serving in Jackson, Tennessee. It was flattened by the same weather events that decimated Mother Liberty CME and hosts of other buildings, homes, and lives. The first person I treated was Logan, a young boy just a little younger than my daughter was at the time. A quick examination told me he had a serious head injury. He needed medical attention. I wanted to stay with him, hold his hand for being so brave, and wait for more help to arrive to transport him to a hospital. But I couldn't - he was breathing and alive. There was a whole subdivision of people that we had not seen yet - and who might be in worse medical condition. We had to leave. It was a very long night, and after all of what happened the rest of the night I knew I had made the right decision. It still didn't make it easy. Triage is hard. People matter.

I believe the UMC finds itself in this position in this season: the most divisive issue - at least in the news, Judicial Council docket, Connectional Table (our visioning body and steward of resources to carry out vision, mission, and ministry), and blogosphere - is homosexuality and same-sex weddings. It's about people - and people matter. This is an important matter worthy of thought, prayer, and action.

Unfortunately, this issue seems to be replacing the mission of the UMC: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, which goes on to say "...that local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs." It is something that I hope and pray all UM's agree upon.

If we were fulfilling our primary mission, we could devote significant time, resources, and visioning towards finding a faithful and healing manner to deal with other things that are important and significant, including the matter at hand in GLTBQ matters. However, in this season - we are not fulfilling our primary mission. We are closing churches. We are losing membership. We are losing our influence on the society in which we are to be influencing. In just about every way measurable and immeasurable, we are not fulfilling our UMC's mission, which is the Great Commission - something we are fairly sure that Jesus did say. To be sure, Rome is burning - perhaps slowly - but slow fires unquenched still result in a structure burning down.

Some will say that the structure needs to burn down. Before we are too quick to decide upon such, I think we sometimes forget what the "structure" of the UMC does: serves as a steward to itinerancy to insure the gifts of women and people of color are valued; owns and influences hundred's of hospitals, universities and colleges; and hold title to, and more importantly responsibility to, every local church in their bounds. That's not primarily about buildings - that's about missional outposts and local faith communities doing the primary work of the Gospel: to make disciples of Jesus to transform the world. Everything else is secondary. Important to be sure, but secondary. In this very difficult season, we HAVE to devote our resources, our visioning, our efforts into discipleship and mission. Very little of what we are saying - much less doing - at a General Church level, at national news levels, in the blogosphere, gives the outside world any indication that we are intent about making disciples. What we are saying to the world is that we are ready for schism over an issue that has nothing to do with our mission.

Over the past two years, the district I serve has visioned and birthed something we call, "Generative Leadership Academy." We thought that "Reproductive Leadership Academy" lacked some finesse and delicateness, but the thought was the same: to make disciples and leaders who would then go and replicate such. Over four weekends during a year we take participants through basic Christian and Wesleyan tenets: the role of grace, discipleship, the Three Simple Rules, piety, mission, evangelism. In two years, 280 laity have attended, and I have seen a hunger like never before in folks who are eager to be faithful in their discipleship. Fruit is being born as people are eager to do the hard but rewarding work of discipleship, relationships, and loving people who embrace hopelessness. But it involves our allowing ourselves to be transformed, of choosing who and what we will serve first - for we cannot serve two masters. 

Triage is hard - it involves decisions that involve the lives of people - hurting people. It is to assign resources and efforts that will have the greatest effect on the greatest number of people. There is a hurting world that needs our efforts at proclaiming Christ as Savior of the world more than they need our infighting about issues that no General Conference will ever be able to fix and that the larger world largely observes as a train wreck rather than something substantive. 

The last priority in triage is "morgue." In my opinion this is where the name calling needs to be categorized and sent. Words we use matter. Calling brothers and sisters homophobes, relativists, zealots, and other such terms get us nowhere, are dishonest, and profit us nothing. Inciting words aren't helpful either. Labeling folks as progressive, orthodox, evangelical, and conservative, and making it "us/they" or "not part of our family" is against every intent of spirit of covenant. So any of us "signing on" to anything other than the vows of being United Methodist and living out our Mission and Great Commission probably needs to think twice - especially when it comes to schism. 

We have absolutely no business talking schism when we aren't even trying to make the main thing the main thing, while people outside the UMC are starving from lack of love and hope because we aren't sharing with them God's grace and wonderful news that they are loved. We are squandering what God has gifted us with, from the highest level of the Church to the smallest local church community. 

To find what divides us is easy. To do what God commands us is hard.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Repentance, Pathos, Humility - and the Luxury of Schism

When I was a pastor, Holy Week could be a very exhausting and emotional week. And like many pastors, in my efforts to be sure to plan worship, set atmospherics, and lead a congregation into the Passion and Triduum, I often did more planning and studying than I did actual worship and reflection myself. It is the blessing and liability of pastoral work.

This Holy Week has, literally, rocked my world. A couple of years ago, our episcopal area entered into a covenant with the East Mexico Conference about finding ways to work with each other beyond token measures. Of late, the Paris District of the Memphis Conference and the Manatiales District of the East Mexico Conference have been intentionally working together to find ways to help each other. The Manatiales District Superintendent brought a team up to the Paris District during Holy Week, and they came to the Paducah District Office/Campus on Wednesday. Our present office/campus was formerly a church that had to close due to lack of finances and membership, the result of a "split" within the congregation (more about the facilities can be read here).

When our Mexican friends arrived at our district office, we met to talk about the Hispanic population in our area, which is almost all Mexican. Some work at nearby poultry processing plants, others work on large farms. After some conversation (with a translator), I took them on a tour of our facilities, which includes a church/sanctuary that is currently not being used (picture on left). As we went in, their eyes got wide. They asked if they could pray. One man brought a guitar in and they sang praise songs. And then some went into extemporaneous prayer. One woman, Sandra (in the foreground), was praying and weeping. My Spanish is close to nonexistent, but I was told she was asking God to forgive us for our not being faithful with this building, for whatever disagreement that lead to its closing. She didn't pray "them." Or "others." She prayed, "us." As if they shared in the sin of this particular church of being more driven by disagreement and pride than being driven by the Christ who was God Among Us. Our hope is to have someone from the Manatiales or Fronterizo districts (the sister districts of the Paris and Paducah Districts) come and serve this area's Mexican population.

I have never been more humbled in my life. Or felt more ashamed. We American United Methodists are a spoiled and narcissistic bunch, so busy labeling and calling each other names over the issue of same-gender wedding ceremonies, while our impoverished but faithful and hope-filled Mexican Methodists are weeping and repenting over the conflict of a small rural church that had to close and is now empty. They understand the "we" of Christianity a lot better than we do.

If we were a thriving denomination, amidst a thriving faithful nation, I think we could afford the luxury of debate about things such as same-sex wedding ceremonies, theories of the Atonement, the intricacies of the Incarnation, and the like. And I don't undervalue these things in a Wesleyan Ethos; indeed, I think they are important and defining for us as United Methodists. However, contrary to our present behavior we are not in a position for such luxurious arguments - indeed, we are at the point of unsustainability. If it were just about finances, that would be one thing. But we are looking at generativity - being survived. I have no doubt that God's Kingdom will survive. But I am one who believes that a Wesleyan ethos is one of the best expressions of the Faith, and our decline is happening on our watch. Do we REALLY want to be the people who could have sustained and grown the people called Methodists, but chose to seal the fate of being an impotent and dead sect instead? It is as if we are arguing over whose baby it is, and thinking the solution is to cut the baby in half - thus not only killing the baby but insuring that the baby won't one day have children of its own.

I would argue that until we make discipleship and mission the clear priorities of our denomination, the rest is just noise - a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And even that is just noisy to us United Methodists: we are making a lot of noise in a concrete room, but no one outside of the room hears much and could care less. Few outside hear what wonderful things the UMC is doing - and we are doing such good things! - because of all of the other noise.

We are emulating U.S. politics in our conflicts, name-calling, and demonization of "the other." Caucuses and factions in the UMC are advocating schism, disruption, and divestiture. Faithful folks of conviction that we disagree with are called names other than brother or sister. This is not what we should be proud of - this is what we should be repenting of, with humility and shame.

Personally, I am about as orthodox a United Methodist as you can get - not because of my office, but because of my conviction. I hold a traditional understanding of marriage and human sexuality, while maintaining a generous and gracious ministry to anyone and everyone. But that's the personal side. I'm also a part of the covenant community called United Methodist, and the religious order called Elder - willingly submissive to a body and covenants larger than myself. That means that my personal bent doesn't trump the larger covenant body.

Some say that the UMC is clearly wrong on the issue of same-gender marriage. Some say that we are clearly right. What's clear is that it's far from clear, and neither side is going to be convinced by any argument. We see at best through a glass darkly. We also have to live, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, in the tension of having and not having the truth. Our wisdom and intellect pales compared to the Almighty.

I'm weary of the name calling and more weary of the blood feud among United Methodists. More weary and ashamed that amidst all our efforts in this fight, we are more invested in fighting than discipleship and mission. A world outside of our United Methodist box is hungry for Jesus the Christ.

Because of these and other reasons, I have always embraced the via media above my own convictions because of the extremes in Catholicism and Protestantism and the horrible histories of the Great Schism and Reformation, in which much was lost, and the main losers were the people in the Middle, the sheep we are supposed to tend and feed. If history is any indicator, the middle way isn't the easiest way, fastest way, or the popular way - but it seems to be the most faithful way.

In this season, if we don't favor right practice over right belief - we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and embrace the harsh reality that we are not generative anymore. Continuing to major in the minors will exact a church that is about something other than discipleship and mission. We will always live in a tension if we choose to live where two or more gathered, and indeed, God CALLS us to live in the tension. If we split as a denomination, you can't live in the tension - and, I would argue, are taking the easy way out.

Life is hard. Faith is hard. Discipleship and mission are hard. Getting a divorce as a denomination is just to admit it was too hard and we wanted out. Conservatives and progressives alike will have to decide what is an essential versus what is an idol. Our denomination has made same-gender marriages an idol - for it has become that which we are worshiping and putting all our bets for or against. I'm not saying it isn't an important issue. But it's not as important as making disciples and being in mission for world. To Christians, nothing is more important than that. Nothing. It's our Great Commission.

It's about making disciples. Going out in mission. And we need to repent of not doing that, especially this week of all weeks. My Mexican counterparts reminded me of that forcefully. It may be that in this season, United Methodists need to unite in repentance, humility, discipleship, and mission, rather than emulate politicians and principalities of this world, for we can always find that which divides us. I know I need to do and live these things in my own journey of faith. Can we do the harder work of finding what unites us?

God, forgive us. We don't know what we're doing.


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Covenant, Mutual Care, and Unconditional Love

I wrote this in a couple of circles in response to opinions voiced by both conservative and progressive voices in the United Methodist Church regarding schism. It is heartfelt and from my conviction. I pray it helps unite rather than divide.



On the issue of same-gender marriage... one side is not going to "convince" the other one - and shaming each other by using terms such as "homophobic" and "unscriptural", "discriminatory" and "permissive" is far from covenant behavior. Saying that "The Inquisition Cometh" is not helpful. Conservatives and Progressives alike in the UMC are using all kinds of language that is not acceptable in a covenant community. Both sides are threatening to withhold funds. To some, it seems like we'd rather cut the baby in half.

John Wesley and George Whitefield disagreed. And debated. Vehemently. They argued over grace. Predestination. Universal redemption. Wesley leaned toward the Arminian. Whitefield leaned toward Calvinism. And yet while they argued, and disagreed, and wrote back and forth - there was never a claim of discrimination, or being morally bankrupt, or the taking of cheap shots and denigration. They both labored to teach and preach, to take mission and discipleship to a world that was hungry and desperate for it (and still is). And when Whitefield died, Wesley - of all people - was asked to preach his funeral. And if you read that sermon, it is clear: Wesley loved Whitefield.

It disgusts me that the secular world reads little about the Methodists anymore except for this controversy (and I'm convinced, evil temptation) to schism, divest, disrupt, demonize, divide... instead of going to make disciples of Jesus Christ for a hurting world in need of healing. Not only is it sinful - it is a blood feud, as insular and dysfunctional as most blood feuds. It may be the greatest blow to our pride that if the UMC splits, falls apart, or disintegrates, that it will be with a whimper and not a bang. We won't be news long.

E.H. Sugden wrote this in his introduction about Wesley's funeral sermon for Whitefield and how the two men loved and respected each other: "Two opposing views represent the two sides of one truth, which our finite understanding is not able to synthesize; but which we may nevertheless accept, just as we accept the Unity in Trinity in the Godhead, or the divine-human person of our Lord." Or, to quote the more recent words of Reinhold Niebuhr, Christians must learn to live in the tension of having AND not having the truth.

These would be good things for all of us to remember before we go off thinking "we" are right and "they" are wrong. On this matter, I suspect we all share in ignorance and arrogance.