Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Methodists and Their Meetings

Not quite a year ago, columnist David Waters of the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote the following:

It's June, the time each year when Methodists young and old, black and white, liberal and conservative, clergy and lay, get together to form the mother of all church committees: The annual conference.

John Wesley, the first Methodist, saw regular "Christian conferencing" as a means of grace, not quite a sacrament but much more than a reason to pour coffee and practice Robert's Rules of Order. "Wesley considered such conferences as indispensable means of discerning God's will and sharing in God's mission in the world," Bishop Kenneth Carder wrote in "Living Our Beliefs."

Not everyone who attends the annual conference would describe it that way. In fact, some Methodists think the denomination has become way too methodical for its own good. United Methodists spend about 31.3 million hours in committee meetings each year, the Rev. John Robert McFarland wrote in the latest issue of
Zion's Herald.

"What would happen," McFarland asked, "if those 31.3 million hours were invested in personal evangelism? Or as (juvenile court) volunteers? Or at food banks or soup kitchens or homeless shelters? Or in Habitat for Humanity? Or reading the Bible to children?"

McFarland has a point, but Methodists aren't the only church folks who spend too many hours in meetings. Fortunately, Wesley and others had a remedy for meaningless meetings, something that reminds church people what and for whom they are gathering.
- Commercial Appeal, June 15, 2005

The remedy Waters was talking about was Holy Communion, the Eucharist. We Methodists see it as a means of grace. "The sharing and bonding experienced at (Communion) exemplify the nature of the church and model the world as God would have it be," it says in "This Holy Mystery," the United Methodist Church's official statement on Holy Communion, which one of our Sunday School classes is currently studying.

Wesley recommended "constant communion,” and communed four or five times a week. But we’ve gotten lazy. "The grace we receive at the Lord's Table enables us to perform our ministry and mission, to continue his work in the world - the work of redemption, reconciliation, peace and justice," the 2004 statement explains.

That’s a meeting I wouldn’t mind attending. Often.


Friday, May 26, 2006

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC: Is There One?

When I was a reserve delegate to the UMC’s General Conference in 2004, there were two things I remember about Sandra Lackore’s report to the General Conference (she is the treasurer of the General Council of Finance & Administration). The first was that the United Methodist Church has an infrastructure it can no longer afford. The second one was that the Episcopal Fund was drying up, and that each jurisdiction needed to drop one bishop. Well, no jurisdiction did what was suggested. Expenses for bishops far exceeded projections, mainly because of health care benefits. We were warned that NOT reducing the number of bishops would result in a 30% increase in 2008. This is on top of a $15 million unfunded liability. Apportionment income dropped from 94% in 2000 to 90.2% in 2003. This does NOT paint a pretty picture. (source: gcfa.org)

Let me be the first to say that the job of bishops and district superintendents is a thankless and difficult one. Having said that, I was asked by a church member once, “What does a bishop do?” I told them the traditional role of a bishop was to baptize and anoint with oil, and to shepherd the flock. When asked if they do that now, I had to tell them, “Not very often.” Today, bishops function largely in an administrative role. I found this report by Bishop Peter Weaver:
So, what does a Bishop do? My report for 2001 shows the following: 101 churches visited; 56 days spent in cabinet meetings and over 175 changes in appointments made; 40 days in general church meetings; 22 days in college or council of bishops’ meetings; 33 annual conference meetings; 16 days for annual conference sessions; 11 district days; 28 special clergy events; 18 special laity events; 19 meetings with conference-related institutions; 14 ecumenical events; 22 meetings with community leaders; the equivalent of 57 days driving (averaging 50 mph for 8 hours a day) going to churches and gatherings in our Conferences (22,723 miles). Additionally, there have been scores of appointments kept and hundreds of letters sent. - "So What Does a Bishop Do?" by Bishop Peter D. Weaver

Bishops evidently have to "meet" a lot.

Are they leaders? Some have observed, most notably Lyle Schaller, that we’re not really sure if we want our bishops to be leaders. In the case of my conference, we share a bishop with another annual conference – a huge responsibility. Can we honestly ask our bishop to be responsible for everything that does or doesn’t happen, good or bad? Can we honestly hold our bishop responsible for the decline in membership of the annual conference I serve?

What about the UMC bishops in general? Schaller’s rather rude response (his words, not mine) is that if the Roman Catholic Church can’t hold its bishops responsible for cover-ups of sexual abuse amongst their priests, how in the heck can the United Methodist Church hold its bishops responsible for membership loss, the loss of doctrinal integrity, or the loss of denominational identity? It’s a good point. The ongoing skirmish between the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council and the smaller skirmishes in recent years within the Council of Bishops give some cause for concern. Who's watching the store? Is this leadership, or just a power skirmish?

Add to all of this our country’s own individualism and distrust of central authority, and I think the UMC may face a very real crisis (one of many, I suspect). If people

  • are unclear about the role of the episcopacy

  • see no sense of unity in a denomination that is (at least in theory) bound in covenant by a Book of Discipline that the bishops are supposed to observe and use in their oversight over those they shepherd, and

  • realize that we’re running out of money to support the episcopacy,

  • … we may find that we don’t really need bishops.

    Before you accuse me of being a heretic, know that the British Methodists have gotten along without bishops all these years. John Wesley was not at all happy with Francis Asbury calling himself a bishop, and we credit Wesley with birthing Methodism!

    I actually don’t think we need to get rid of bishops. But the present role is far from effective or even traditional. Electing bishops at Jurisdictional Conferences doesn’t really represent the whole Church – and considering that jurisdictions were born of racism is a painful reminder of where we ought not to be in this day and age. I think we should elect them at General Conference.

    The roles of bishop and district superintendent are in desperate need of an overhaul. To be honest, in practice, our bishops are really archbishops, and our D.S.'s are bishops - there's no way that you can really "bish" 100,000+ folks and be effective at it. An excellent book on all of these matters is Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, by Richey and Frank.

    It would make sense to do the overhaul rather quickly, before we find that we simply can’t afford the episcopacy anymore.


    Wednesday, May 17, 2006

    Black & White vs. Messy & Gray

    I’m having lunch today with a hometown acquaintance to talk about the Robert Glen Coe case; he is writing about it. Robert Glen Coe was the first person in Tennessee to be executed in 40-some years back in April of 2000. It was very early in the morning of April 19th, as a matter of fact. I was there.

    The case touched me in many ways. I was a freshman in high school when he kidnapped, raped, and murdered a little girl, Carrie Ann Medlin, who lived in the same county as I did. I heard about it at school, came home mad, and for the first time in my life used profanity in front of my mother: “They ought to find a tree and hang the [S.O.B.]” Instead of scolding me, she simply replied, “Is that the response of a Christian?” Ouch.

    My opportunity for redemption came over 20 years later, when I served as pastor for the family of Robert Glen Coe during his many stays of execution and, finally, on that foggy cool morning when his life was ended. I’ve been with a lot of families when they have lost a loved one… but I’ve never been with a family while they sat and waited for their loved one to be intentionally put to death. It was, in a word, horrific. This wasn’t covered in pastoral care classes in seminary. It was a long ride home back with his two sisters that morning.

    Don’t mishear me – murder is wrong. When I was on the county rescue squad later in life, I saw the murder scene pictures. They were awful. I know of no crime more horrific than what Coe was convicted of. But when asked about the death penalty, Jesus was fairly clear about what he thought about the matter. And God makes it clear that vengeance is His, not ours.

    A lot of Christians are of the opinion that abortion is wrong; it’s a premeditated murder. I find myself agreeing with that. It is interesting to note that on Robert Glen Coe’s death certificate, the cause of death is “Homicide.” In short – capital punishment is a premeditated murder. I’m not sure Christians have any business being in the premeditated murder business.

    There is no doubt that both of these issues are emotionally charged. If it had been my daughter who had been murdered, would I want revenge? Quite possibly. And if my wife’s life were possibly in danger because of the child she was carrying, would I want abortion to be a consideration? I imagine so. It may be that when our faith is thwarted by our passion, that’s when we need God and the Church the most to keep us honest.

    These issues certainly fall into the messy and "gray." However, God can handle the messy and gray. More importantly, Jesus gives us the model to be with those who are in the midst of the messy and gray: that’s when people need us – and Jesus – the most.


    Tuesday, May 16, 2006

    Election Day

    Today is an election day - primaries are held today. Since Kentucky has closed primaries and I am a registered independent, there isn't much for me to do today. Being raised in Tennessee, I've never been able to understand the concept of a "closed" primary, but there you are. When in Rome...

    Actually, it's a bit of a relief. I love my country, but I hate the political process - it puts us at our worst. Days like today force me to be intentional about spiritual disciplines so I don't end up cynical and grumpy.

    Speaking of Rome... perhaps the best advice on handling days like today comes from Jesus: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but render to God the things that are God's." That reminds me that I am a member of the Kingdom first, and an American second.

    God is in control. Thanks be to God.


    Sunday, May 14, 2006

    Bearing Fruit for the Great I AM

    "No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing... You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last." - John 15.4-5, 16

    As I shared in the sermon this morning, an acquaintance of mine used to own a winery. Ever since he gave me that first tour, I've always been intrigued by wineries, breweries, and distilleries – all of the labor, all of the planning, and all of the dependence on God's work in doing what only comes in God's time. You can't rush it, you can’t hurry it along - if you do, you ruin years of work.

    I recently learned that in winemaking and grape growing, a young vine is not permitted to bear fruit for the first three years. At the end of each year, it is pruned back to preserve its strength. If there are branches that don't bear fruit, they are pruned so that the rest of the vine gets more nourishment. I’m told that without such pruning you get fruit that is subpar -– fruit that doesn't last.

    I wonder if this is what is happening in the "church growth” movement. Are we trying to get a lot of numbers in our pews and statistical books, but ending up with subpar fruit? It is interesting to me that in the Early Church, prospective members underwent a 3-year catechism - the same amount of time involved in preparing a young vine for fruit. Hmmm.

    Judean people in biblical times knew that winemaking was their cash crop, and did not take it lightly. Perhaps we need to put a whole lot more into making quality disciples who bear good fruit, instead of doing whatever gimmick is out there to get a bunch of fruit that isn't fit for anything except admiration on the vine.

    It may be that spending time making disciples with fruit that will last will ultimately bear us more in numbers. That sounds that a better plan that using gimmicks to rush the maturation process. Paul Masson sold "no wine before it's time." That might be sound advice for Christians and disciple-making.

    Jesus, the great I AM, is the true vine. Should we not bear fruit that will last for the Kingdom?


    Wednesday, May 10, 2006

    Prayer Disclaimer

    I wrote the blog below ("Honest Prayer") at around 6 this morning. At around 7:30 this morning, one of the church staff turned her ankle leaving her house to come to work.

    I did not pray the Irish Prayer this morning. Honest.

    Our prayers go out for Linda, that her pain might be lessened and her recovery speedy.


    Yes, that's duct tape. Like most insurers these days, benefits are being reduced and duct tape seems to be the answer. HMO on a roll!

    Honest Prayer

    I heard this old Irish prayer many years ago:

    May those who love us, love us;
    and those who don't love us,
    may God turn their hearts;
    and if He doesn't turn their hearts,
    may he turn their ankles
    so we'll know them by their limping.

    Proper? Probably not. Honest? Well… there are days that I’ve prayed this very same prayer (in the spirit of “Know thy enemy”). If our conversations with God are at least as honest as those we have with close friends and family, sooner or later God’s going to see our worst side.

    Prayer needs to be honest. It needs to be an open and candid conversation if we want to grow and mature in faith. Kingdom work and community living in the Body of Christ is dependent on honesty. If we practice being honest with God, community life is fuller, richer, and faithful. Gossip, hearsay, and behind-the-back conversations are replaced with enabling and productive communication and camaraderie.

    Honest conversation can be painful… but it gives way to change, which all of us not only need but are dependent upon. When we begin to practice such, we become not stumbling blocks but blessings to each other. Then we can pray such blessings with sincerity:

    May the road rise up to meet you,
    May the wind be ever at your back
    May the sun shine warm upon your face
    And the rain fall softly on your fields
    And until we meet again, May God hold
    you in the hollow of his hand.


    Tuesday, May 09, 2006

    The New Ty Cobb?

    I posted below that church politics needs a soul. While I'm on the cynical roll, let me say that I think major league baseball needs one, too.

    Watching Imus in the Morning this morning, I learned that when Bonds hit his latest home run he refused to give an autograph to the fan who caught it, who was a serviceman. It was also said that Bonds had the man sign a waiver for use in his future reality show. While I'm sure that the latter part is apocryphal, it all reminds me of a quote from Rogers Hornsby, who said, "Any player who doesn't sign autographs ain't American." In Bonds' defense, the serviceman wasn't in uniform... and that's all the defense I will give Mr. Bonds.

    What follows are going to be harsh words... but since Bonds has publicly declared that he doesn't care what anyone thinks, I think he'll be able to handle it.

    It simply boggles my mind that someone with as much God-given talent as Bonds would be so blamed arrogant. Like it or not, Bonds is in the limelight, and in a tradition like baseball that ought to carry a sense of responsibility. Now I don't expect baseball players to be saints, but do they have to go out of their way to be jerks? It says a lot about Willie Mays that he is standing by Bonds. My advice to Bonds is that he be a little more like his godfather. Mays signed autographs. He loved kids. And people loved to yell "Say Hey!" whenever Mays was around. When Bonds is around, people like to yell... Unfortunately, they usually aren't words of support.

    The jury is out about Bonds and steroids. I'm holding out hope that Bonds is truthful when he says he didn't use steroids... because I fear if we find out that he did, baseball will receive another major blow that it might not recover from.

    If Bonds breaks the Babe's record, I fear he may do so with a proverbial "*" next to his record. Was the Babe to be emulated in all things? Certainly not... I mean, the guy went out and drank and womanized all night, and played ball the next day - and STILL hit home runs. But he endeared people to him, and he endeared people to baseball (even if he DID play for the Yankees). Bonds has turned a lot of folks off. As the kids say: "That's not good."

    A movie was made a few years ago about Ty Cobb, simply named, "Cobb." Without a doubt, Ty Cobb was one of the greatest and shrewdest ballplayers to ever swing a bat. But nobody could stand him; his family, his teammates, fans - he went out of his way to tell folks he didn't care whether people liked him or not. The only thing nice he could say about Babe Ruth was, "He runs well for a fat man." He even sharpened his cleats with a file, and would come sliding in a base with spikes in the air. You may remember in the movie Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe said that Ty Cobb wanted to come play, but that "no one could stand the S.O.B. so we told him to stick it!" He then erupted in infectious laughter.

    I don't think Bonds sharpens his cleats as Cobb did. But he's earned a similar reputation. I would pray that he emulate the attitudes of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron - class acts, lovers of baseball and fans.

    Go out in style, Barry. Get rid of the "*".


    Thursday, May 04, 2006

    Even Church Politics Needs a Soul

    I'm borrowing from a Jim Wallis quote from several years ago; he was referring to American politics, and how Democrats and Republicans alike sold out years ago. He said, "Politics needs a soul." I'm also reminded of a Ronald Reagan quote: "Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first."

    Church politics in the UMC have gotten to this point, I believe. It's become much less about the God and people we serve, and instead is about who has the power. The recent skirmish between the Judicial Council and the Council on Bishops is one of power; in short, the Bishops are upset about their power being co-opted; however, it's quite possible that the Judicial Council might be guilty of judicial activism and thus abusing its power. Two wrongs don't make a might.

    At the crux of this, at least in my opinion, is this: how in the heck could responsible leadership have let the situation that led to Decision 1032 (click here for a synopsis) get there in the first place? To the average observer, at least one of two things is apparent: (1) some pastors, D.S.'s and bishops need to take a course in conflict resolution, or (2) this was a "test the waters" case regarding homosexuality in the Church. In situation (1), at best this is a case of poor pastoral leadership. In (2), it is a very dishonest way of advocating change in an institution such as the Church, and possibly an abuse of power by the episcopal office and the Judicial Council.

    What side am I on? I can't subscribe to the Confessing Movement or Good News... who have been as guilty of political posturing as MFSA or the Reconciling Movement. As far as being Wesleyan, I'd say both sides are at best "selectively Wesleyan." Both sides use the term Wesleyan much like Democrats like the word "progressive" and Republicans like the word "conservative" - it sounds good to their constituents, but it's at best giving lip service to those who want to hear it. So... while I'd like to say I'm on the Lord's side, I realize how many people, caucuses, and factions claim the same thing. So I guess I'd have more luck telling you whose side I'm not on. Maybe I fit in the Messy Methodist Middle (hey, life's messy, isn't it?).

    What is truly disturbing is that the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council - official church entities - have now become polar entities. And even within the Judicial Council there is polarization, as their latest ruling on reconsideration of Decision 1032 was a 5-4 split decision.

    Are we proud that the United Methodist Church is mirroring our U.S. government in ways financial AND political? Does that mean that we have finally "arrived?" I pray not.

    I'm well aware that politics is the art of the possible, even church politics. But a true church politic must model Jesus in our governance and administration. If we model American individualism and consumerism, we've lost our center and soul.

    Church politics needs a soul.

    Kyrie Eleison
    Christe Eleison
    Kyrie Eleison