Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Leadership That “Gets” It

Four years ago, when I was a reserve delegate for General Conference, I got this book in the mail, United Methodist @ Risk – A Wake Up Call, written by Leon Howell and sent from the “left” leaning folks of the UMC. A couple of days ago, I got this book in the mail: Taking Back the United Methodist Church, written by Mark Tooley of the Institute of Religion and Democracy – the “right.” Both are small books, and after having read both of them again, I am placing them on my shelf next to Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor and Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. They all belong together, really. Entertaining rhetoric, but not really too helpful at solving the woes of the United States or the United Methodist Church.

As I said in an earlier blog, both “sides” of the UMC would tell you that homosexuality is the reason we are losing members; “If we were more progressive... If we were more conservative...” Given the Southern Baptist’s recent announcement that they are in decline for the 3rd straight year, I’m not sure the argument can be made that the UMC becoming more conservative will gain us more members. And given the Episcopalian’s decline in membership since 1965, I don’t think we could make the argument that becoming more progressive will gain us more members, either. In fact, I don't think ideology has anything to do with it at all.

The recent news from the General Conference is that we’re going to commission another hymnal and that a new Judical Council has been elected. Lots of news about the goings on of denominational bureaucracy, the ethics of giving out cell phones, and the polarizing views of the special interest groups. Not much news on how we’re going to make more disciples and enable more effective leadership.

Instead of looking to Mark Tooley, Jim Winkler, Riley Case, Kathryn Johnson, James Heidinger, or Troy Plummer for leadership, let me suggest two other folks – two folks that I think "get" it: The Rev’s Adam Hamilton and Jorge Acevedo.

Adam Hamilton. I only know Adam by attending some seminars. But he is a proven leader – taking a church from a beginning of 4 people to over 14,000. He approached ministry in Kansas City this way: what needs does this community have, and how can we address them? No lofty goals or unattainable mission statements. Church of the Resurrection picked just a few aspects of ministry and decided that they would excel in just those few things.

I worshiped there once on a Sunday morning a few years ago. It is a fairly traditional service from a United Methodist point of view, yet utilizing state of the art media aids. Adam’s preaching is solid, biblical, and prophetic. Nothing flashy, nothing gimmicky – faithful, orthodox, and prophetic. COR also offers contemporary worship, but I would place it more in the “traditional” realm aimed at younger adults.

The results are known well to anyone who is United Methodist. And Adam’s philosophy about what his church has done brings out the teacher and leader in him: “Anything we have done you are welcome to have.” Church of the Resurrection majors in Christian hospitality. Their mission statement/purpose? To build a Christian community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians. This is what the UMC desperately needs to do.

Adam strikes me to be fairly orthodox in his theology and practice of ministry. Yet he is prophetic enough to realize that sometimes, there are shades of gray in the world, as well as our faith. Some things are simply not black and white, and the “line” sometimes moves. While God’s truth is sure, our discernment of it is not always so sure. Adam’s not afraid to go out there, name the issues, and struggle with them. He gives us a good model to do so.

Jorge Acevedo. I met Jorge (pronounced just like “George”) at General Conference 2004. Our delegation ate supper one night with some of the Florida delegation, and Jorge and I sat next to each other. I had no idea who he was. Once I did (later), I was floored. When he spoke at our Annual Conference a few years later, I walked right past him and he grabbed my arm, called me by name, and we had a nice conversation (he’s better with names than I am, obviously).

As I’ve learned more about his work in ministry, I am floored. The church he pastors, Grace Church in Coral Beach, FL, has expanded (as has Church of the Resurrection) into another campus, with a third campus expansion in the works. They offer both traditional and contemporary services, and a unique opportunity on Saturday evenings: “Celebrate Recovery,” an opportunity for “anybody with a hurt, a habit or a hang-up.” Including a meal, worship service, small groups, and café time.

Why do I think Jorge “gets it?” Read what he said in a Q&A with the Florida Conf. Communication folks:
People want that deep, authentic, Christ-centered spirituality. They want that connection that comes with Christ. They want to develop their Christian spirituality in all of its rich diverse ways in which people connect to Christ. But they want that expressed in tangible, hands-on, experiential, life-changing mission, where they see that they’re making a difference in the world. It’s not simply sending money up stream to some denominational entity that somehow takes care of “those people” over there, whoever those people are. Those kinds of loyalties died off in the 60s, in terms of denominationalism. People want to know that their life, their giving, their prayers are making a difference in their community and around the world. And if the stated mission and these initiatives around that stated mission can be lived out by the people called United Methodist, our best days could be in front of us. If not, it could be a sad day for our denomination.
It’s interesting that the growing North American churches and movements — the Saddlebacks, the Willow Creek-type churches — have really hijacked our theology and our practices. Here are these folks who are typically out of the reformed tradition — we’re on the same team, just different sides of the bench — but they’ve stolen our message. So you have Rick Warren with his peace plan talking about attacking the big giant issues of the world: disease, illiteracy, hunger, poverty, AIDS. And I’m thinking, “That’s our job!” That’s who we are as Wesleyans. That’s what John Wesley lived for.
Jorge nails it: other churches have become effective because they ripped us off and filled the void that Methodists were birthed to fill! Jorge and the folks at Grace Church aren’t doing something new-fangled – they’re doing something very old and time-honored in the best of Methodist tradition; it just has a 21st century bent to it. I don’t think Wesley intended us to be anachronistic in our mission; indeed, Wesley was quite the innovator himself in his day.

I certainly am not trying to elevate either of these guys to sainthood, nor am I trying to run their campaigns for the episcopacy (please guys... don’t do it); I am sure that they have their faults. However, they are growing churches and membership in a time when denominations are losing ground, and they are doing it in the framework of a Wesleyan ethos.

It seems to me that every special interest group in the UMC, regardless of stripe or leaning, just wants to enter into lament and accusation. No one there seems to want to lead; they just want to gripe and moan and tell us how to vote. These guys refuse to enter into the bitchfest – instead, they see the glass half-full and want it to overflow. They just do it - and they do it well.

That’s effective leadership. I hope we can emulate it as a church, instead of being political wannabes who are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.


Being Brothers and Sisters – But Not Being a Gossip

At a church I once served, it amazed me how much energy one person could put into knowing the whereabouts and happenings of just about everyone around him, and yet be so oblivious on how he was perceived by others: nosy bordering on rude, a gossip, and a man that people soon learned not to say anything of import in his presence.

When we talk about Christian accountability and Christian community, there is a fine line between prayers of concern and gossip. I have heard many times in my ministry, “Let us pray for John Doe... he needs it, you know.” That’s not concern – that’s gossip. And sometimes, we just like to give too much information.

Sometimes, “Let’s pray for Jane Doe; she has surgery tomorrow” is sufficient. It is not necessary for us to say, “Let’s pray for Jane Doe; she is having a hysterectomy tomorrow.” God knows the specific need or needs – why do we have to tell everyone the details?

"A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends." - Proverbs 16:28

"A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much." - Proverbs 20:19

"Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down." - Proverbs 26:20

"In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers 
but temperate and trustworthy in everything." - 1 Timothy 3:11

And what does this mean? Gossip’s main purpose is to spread misery. A sister denomination says it this way: "Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty ... of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them.”

How about us? Are we modeling God's standard of truthfulness and honesty? Are we known as someone who confronts gossip? Or do we pass it on with a few added details of our own?

Just as we are to hold others accountable, we are to be held accountable to others. Do no harm. Let us be quick to love, and let us make haste to be kind.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Train Up a Child In the Way He Should Go...

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.- Prov. 22:6

As I went to prepare for mid-morning prayer, I walked past the sanctuary and saw it is set up for preschool pictures. I took this picture from the vantage point of where the camera was set up (and no, I am not a professional photographer, nor do I portray one on television. I didn't even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night).

I am proud that our church sponsors a preschool. The local elementary school says our kids are ahead of other children when they get to kindergarten. We already have a waiting list for next fall.

I take both of these affirmations as high praise... and am even gladder that we can do so in the name of Jesus Christ.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Worth the Drive... Even Damage to Your Bimmer

You may remember that I trekked to Kansas a few weeks ago to bury a great aunt, and that my just-restored classic car was accidentally backed into by a cousin (click here to read post). Well, since then I've made two more trips to Kansas to see and bury an aunt - and making another tomorrow to pick up my father who has been visiting with family. I've been to Kansas more in the past three weeks than I have in the past three years. And I'm not necessarily proud of that. I should have been making that 450 mile trip more often to see family.

Well... the BMW is fixed. Runs and looks great. And while I'm not the best on enduring long trips in the car, I have found these trips worth the drive. I have remade a connection with my family. And though my mother has been dead for over seven years, I have begun to find peace in a troubled relationship that reminds me that without her, I would have no life and would have been deprived of the gifts of wonderful aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I know that I haven't been the only one burying loved ones. Members of our church had to bury their mother/mother-in-law/grandmother this past weekend as well. And they made quite a drive to do it. What makes my heart leap is that many of our church members also made that long drive so that a family wouldn't be burying a loved one by themselves.

In a world where self-centeredness seems to be the norm, it is wonderful to know that the Church doesn't mind being counter-cultural and willing to make sacrifices for our loved ones, in the example of Christ.

Some things are worth the drive.


Monday, April 21, 2008

General Conference 2008 Rant - I Think I'm Glad I'm Not There

I haven't missed attending a General Conference since 1992. In 2004, I went as a reserve delegate, and spoke on the floor of the General Conference to support the adoption of This Holy Mystery, the UMC's official document regarding Holy Communion. I guess folks didn't like what I had to say, because I was only elected as a reserve Jurisdictional Conference delegate this quadrennium. Maybe I should have shaken more hands, ditched the clerical collar and ties (are blue ties the new red now?), or changed to another deodorant. Who knows what it takes to get elected.

It is perhaps a means of God's grace that I'm not going. When I read over the legislation and get all the mail from all of the church caucuses and special interest groups (hey guys, I'm not a delegate anymore - you can take me off the mailing lists now), I am close to being ashamed to be United Methodist.
  • Of the over 1500 petitions of legislation, nearly 950 of them are in regards to homosexuality (for it, against it, and every permutation in between). We have been debating homosexuality as a denomination for over 30 years. I am not saying that this issue isn't important. But while we have debated so much over this issue and spent so much time and effort in it... we have lost 3 million in membership and finding it increasingly harder to maintain our denominational structure, not to mention support our missional efforts. We are making less of an impact in a world that got larger while we got smaller. To blame the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality on these issues is the biggest smokescreen ever blown. Our church extremists want power and to be in charge. Our loss of membership might be God telling us, "Neither of you groups are getting it." 
It begs the question: Have we become a mirror image of American politics? Is Mark Tooley the UMC's version of Bill O'Reilly? And is Jim Winkler our Al Franken? Isn't this sad? Jesus just might come back and turn over the caucus tables in the lobby of General Conference. "Stop making my Father's house about politics!"
  • Much of the conversation will involve whether or not the U.S. is to become a central conference. To do so would mean, in short, to shut out African and European United Methodists from voting at General Conference. It is at best rude to shut out those we went to evangelize and convert. And while we American United Methodists are losing membership, the African UM's are growing. 
Does this make any evangelical, theological, or ecclesiological sense? No... but it gives all of the appearances of making political sense. The world certainly doesn't look like our parish.

Am I trying to oversimplify complex issues? Possibly. I also know that perceptions count for a lot. And the perception is that the United Methodist Church is majoring in the minors. We have forgotten our first love.

We are desperately in need of redemption. And we desperately need to learn once again to love one another, and remember that we are here for Christ and to make disciples for Him.

What can we do? Pray. Pray that God will not allow things that would divide us and cause unnecessary conflict in the body to stand.  Pray that the Holy Spirit would indeed be present in every meeting, every vote, in every piece of legislation. Pray that this would be the General Conference where we might all raise our heads with great thanksgiving and say, they will truly know we are Christians by our love.

The best words I've seen about GC2008 are the words of fellow blogger Ken Carter, in an open letter to the General Conference. I pray that you might take the time to read what Ken has to say and pray it speaks to the GC delegates hearts.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What Do We Do Well – and What Are We Poised to Do?

I mentioned in last year’s yearbook that there are two things that Reidland UMC has been known for: (1) our preschool, and (2) our wheelchair ramp ministry. We still have an incredible reputation for our preschool, and the waiting list for next fall is proof positive that we are making a difference in our community.

And if my stats are correct, our United Methodist Men paid more on projects than any single church in our conference ($12,000), where either United Methodist Men or United Methodist Women were concerned. The church and group that came closest to us were the Methodist Men of my home church, Martin FUMC. The other two churches were large churches in Memphis.

Of late, our older adult ministry program is another ministry our church is known for; so much, in fact, that other area churches are copying what we’re doing. I can see us one day in the near future having a paid staff person who coordinates older adult ministries.

So, what we do well includes:
  1. Preschool Ministry
  2. Wheelchair Ramp Ministry/Mission
  3. Older Adult Ministry
What are we poised to do? Consider this: our church is located at the main intersection of Reidland. We are within walking distance of our schools. When the middle and high schools dismiss, there are a lot of kids who walk past our school. Nearly all of them drive past it. Our location is prime.

What if we had an after school program for youth? A place for kids to hang out, perhaps get tutoring? We certainly have the location. Perhaps we could ask other church youth groups to go in with us. We would certainly need adult help for supervision and assistance. We would have to coordinate our efforts so as not to interfere with preschool. We would have to be prepared for a little more wear and tear on our facilities. But we are quickly becoming a church that needs to be able to schedule more than one thing at a time (in reality, we already are). And, if we are to be a light for the world, shouldn’t we be doing this for God?

What do you think? Like I said in last week’s newsletter, as your pastor, I’d like to know what you think. Come by, and the coffee’s on me.

Even if you want to go to Starbucks.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Being Disciples – Being Flexible

As I write this, I am in the midst of ministerial candidate interviews at Lakeshore. It is intensive work, and important work. I don’t think anyone would deny that such work is important to the life of the Church and the Kingdom of God. So important and draining it is, that I think it’s worth taking a week off from work. I know that even God took a day off and called it holy.

I also know that “life happens.” This morning, I received the word that George Thompson died. My first response was to pray for Mildred and her family. My second thought was that my plans for this week were about to change.

If you are like me, you are a planner. I think about what needs to be done each day, I think about preparations for future events. I have a routine during the week that includes household chores. As a rule, I take Thursdays off. If I worked 12-14 hours on one day, I will be certain to take some extra time off the next day. The Holy Spirit never outright rejects good planning.

However… just because you make plans doesn’t mean they are not subject to change, or that they are in concert with God’s Will! Just like our time doesn’t always run with God’s time, our plans do not always mesh with God’s plans. When that happens, we need to be flexible. Not just pastors… all of us.

People who lose loved ones usually don’t plan on the day and date of that happening. Most people don’t plan the day when they are laid off or lose their jobs. And no one checks their calendar to see when it will be convenient for their children to be involved in a car accident.

When these things happen, instead of being irritated and frustrated, let us ask God to help us to be flexible. Those who are hurting don’t need our frustration – they need our love and care. In addition to asking God to help us be compassionate and aware of the needs of those around us, let us also dare to pray that we might be flexible to His will.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Who Says Christians Don’t – Or Shouldn’t – Party?

On Easter Sunday, one family in our church greets others with the Greek words “Christos aneste!” that is, “Christ is risen!” The response is, “Alethos aneste!” which means “The Lord is risen indeed!”

The more I read about the Eastern Church, the more I realize how much we deprive ourselves of in Western culture. Such mystery, such awe! Such excitement!

Last Sunday we sang, “The Day of Resurrection,” which was written by John of Demascus (675-749). It was translated by Anglican priest John Neale. Neale also was fascinated by the Eastern ways of Christians, and described how early Greek Christians sang this hymn:

As midnight approached, the archbishop, with his priests, accompanied by the king and queen, left the church and stationed themselves on the platform, which was raised considerably from the ground, so that they were distinctly seen by the people. Every one now remained in breathless expectation, holding an unlighted taper in readiness when the glad moment should arrive, while the priests still continued murmuring their melancholy chant in a low half whisper. Suddenly a single report of a cannon announced that twelve o’clock had struck and that Easter Day had begun; then the old archbishop, elevating the cross, exclaimed in a loud, exulting tone, “Christos aneste!” “Christ is risen!” and instantly every single individual of all that host took up the cry…At that same moment the oppressive darkness was succeeded by a blaze of light from thousands of tapers which…seemed to send streams of fire in all directions.

Sounds like a party to me. A pep rally. A Fourth of July celebration. And why not? Christ is risen! Why don’t WE have a party? A feast! The tomb is empty!!

Neale was not appreciated by his own Church, and admittedly such an event as described above would have probably offended British sensibilities in that day. However, when Neale died, his funeral was attended by high ranking Orthodox clergyman – very high praise and nearly unheard of in those days, or for that matter even today. He probably had no idea how his work was appreciated. Because of him and his legacy, we have this and so many other hymns.

Some say that a party has gotten out of hand when people start singing. Could it be that it means the party may just be getting started? Christos aneste!!