Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Role Reversal

As a very young minister, I remember making one of my first nursing home visits. It was to the mother of a church member suffering from advanced dementia. The family asked me to bring communion one Sunday afternoon to the nursing home and that they would gather the whole extended family there. The woman didn't know anyone: me, the staff, or any of her family. She responded very little to anything anyone said. But as I gave her communion, she spoke very clearly, "You forgot the other part." I asked her which part. "You know. 'We do not presume to come to this thy table...'" Well, I did know... barely. And while I struggled to remember that prayer from my childhood memories of Holy Communion, she helped me get through it. Never missed a word. But right after that, her daughter helped her get back into her bed. She cussed us all a blue streak of words that would have made a sailor blush. Yet her daughter calmly and lovingly laid her down and said, "I love you, Mom." As we left the room, she told me, "Once an adult, but twice a child."

I am finally getting that. Taking care of your children can certainly be trying. But taking care of an aging parent is more than trying - it can be gut wrenching. It is very hard to "honor" mother and father when you have to treat them like one of your children: with respect, but with authority.

As I write this, my father lies in an ICU bed, victim of an intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH) more than likely caused by his high blood pressure. It has robbed him of his memories. He doesn't know me or my brother and struggles to make sentences that make sense. My brother says, "His hard drive is fragmented." Yet like the woman I mentioned above, Dad and I sang "Blessed Assurance" and "Church in the Wildwood" (he sang the bass part in the chorus) and he didn't miss a verse. I had to read some of the verses off of my iPhone - but he needed no such help. Such are the mysteries of brain dysfunction and dementia.

My once gentle, somewhat eccentric but kind-hearted father is currently in restraints, and was earlier cussing and yelling at me for torturing him, telling me that I should be ashamed of myself for allowing this to happen. The more he yelled, the more his heart rate increased until it became dangerously high, as did his blood pressure. The pastor in me trained in pastoral care tells me that this is not my father talking, but the disease. The son in me, however, is having a hard time witnessing it, though. Finally, a stronger sedative has allowed him to rest peacefully.

I have no idea what the future holds for my father. How much damage did the IVH cause? Does he heal and get his memories back? Does his dementia get worse? Does that mean living in an assisted living facility or a nursing home? Of course, no one can answer these questions.

Jesus told Peter, "When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you'll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don't want to go." I think of what is going on with my brother and me regarding Dad's welfare and care as "role reversal." But the truth may be that it is simply the circle of life, and just an extension of my call as a disciple: to feed and tend the sheep.

Even if it's one of your own parents.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Restoring, Renewing, and Trying Something New - II

Four years ago, I wrote a similar post to this one. It is a reminder to me how we are all on a journey and pilgrimage where our salvation, sanctification, and witness are concerned.

Restoring. About four years ago, I bought a 1991 BMW 325i. It needed a lot of TLC and love, and it was an opportunity to hone my mechanical (and patience) skills. I had a lot of fun getting it restored and drivable, and for the last several years it has served me well as a very reliable (as well as fun-to-drive) automobile.

Two weeks ago, I acquired a 1994 BMW 325i convertible. I've been driving it for about a week. So far, I've done a brake job, replaced a left rear spindle, put new tires on it, and traced down some wiring/computer glitches. There is a long laundry list of things that still need to happen to get it restored that won't happen overnight, but it's a solid car with a good engine and body. I've never had a convertible, and after the next couple of months I will find out if I really want to keep a convertible as a daily driver, but so far I've had a few sunny days to drive with the top down. Like all BMW's, they are truly "The Ultimate Driving Experience" (BMW's motto). Of course, the only way I could ever drive and maintain a BMW is restoring and maintaining one (and that being an older model!) on my own. New Bimmer's aren't cheap. Thankfully, I am still debt-free where cars are concerned.

Both cars have taught me a lot about renewal, restoration, and resurrection. Those aren't just helpful in working on old cars... they are essential in the life of faith!

Renewing. Last week I attended a Five-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation, sponsored by the Upper Room. Loosely based on a monastic model, each day's rhythm embodies the balance of silence, worship, community, and individual guides. The lectures were incredible, the silence just as incredible, and the worship inspiring and uplifting. I have forgotten how much I love to worship (as opposed to leading worship)! The week also reminded me of the very wise words of my Order of St. Luke mentor Hoyt Hickman, when he sojourned with me as I contemplated life vows in the Order: "Sky, long before you were ordained, you were baptized. THAT is your identity. Any calling you have ultimately comes from that." Last week, the distinctions of ordained and lay were removed (just as in any intentional religious community) - we were all pilgrims on a pathway to more spiritual enlightenment. So refreshing and so renewing!!

Again, as I wrote four years ago, I am also reminded of the need for balance where renewal is concerned. Balance between work and sabbath. Balance between study and doing. Balance between being in the world and being silent and away from the world. To remember to walk and not run on our pilgrimage of faith. To be open to all of wonderful opportunities God presents us yet to be sure we model setting boundaries as well. To be reminded that while cattle are driven, sheep are led. To know that God is not pleased with my exhaustion. To be reminded that sabbath is a command, not a suggestion.

Trying Something New. I have always been a contemplative at heart, but I am beginning to realize that my preferences in life are merely that: preferences. They are not how I am ruled nor indicative of how I should act. And while I might have an introverted nature, it does not remove me from my mission as a disciple of Jesus Christ. As a type "A" person, I don't deal well with interruptions; however, I am also reminded of the words of Henri Nouwen: "Interruptions are my ministry." If I can draw people into the community of faith with my love, grace, and hospitality, I am one step close in fulfilling the mission of discipleship. With the balance of "getting away" and "being in the world but not of the world," perhaps I can be more like Jesus.

So I am going to start praying/communicating with God differently. I am going to be even more silent in our conversations to consider the day's events and what God is trying to say to me. Hopefully this will help me to bridge heaven and earth so I might better understand the prayer of "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven."


Thursday, October 07, 2010

What It's All About

I've been involved in athletics all of my life in some capacity: player, trainer, groundskeeper, coach, official. There are certainly things about athletics that are less than wonderful. However, there are sometimes moments that bless us beyond measure. I wrote about one such moment a few years ago. And I want to share another one with you, with permission from Janice Grimes (one of my church members, and the proud Graves County football mom of Ragan & Reed).

Some context: Graves County and Marshall County high schools are very large high schools that neighbor each other, and are intense rivals in all sports, being District One Class 6A rivals in football.
As you may know, Graves County High School lost one of its students last Thursday after a long battle with cancer. Tori Beth Waggoner was just 17 years old, looking forward to her senior prom, graduation and life, in general.

The football team dedicated their Friday night game against archrival Marshall County to Tori and her family. The team members wore black socks and asked their fans to wear black, symbolizing the designated color of Tori's type of cancer. They also had a moment of silence for her before the standard prayer and National Anthem.

After a hard-fought victory against Marshall County, our players sang their victory song to the crowd, as they always do after a win. Then they all went to center field to hold yet another prayer vigil for Tori.

The announcer invited anyone who wanted to, to come down and join the team and members of the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) as they "took a knee" to pray. As the fans flocked the field, I turned to see the entire Marshall County football team running to center field to join in with our team and players to pray!

I was absolutely speechless at what I was witnessing! The rivalry between these two teams is extremely intense, but in times of sorrow, they forgot about it and came together as one to PRAY!

It was a very moving experience for all of us that stood in silence and watched what was unfolding on our football field.

Thanks for allowing me to share this with you. Have a wonderful week!

Janice Grimes

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Testimony and Faith

Everyone on the news has made a fuss of Stephen Colbert testifying in front on congress regarding immigration reform. Some pundits loved it, some could only complain about the tax dollars spent. Two congressmen from both sides of the aisle were, in my opinion, fairly rude to him and invited him to leave.

It seems that most of the press left out this part of his testimony, when he left character and testified from the heart:

I like talking about people who don't have any power, and this seemed like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. That's an interesting contradiction to me. And, you know, "whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers" - and these seem like the least of our brothers right now. A lot of people are least brothers right now because the economy is so hard. And I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish anything like that, but migrant workers suffer and have no rights.
- Stephen Colbert, Congressional Testimony, Sept 24, 2010
Colbert is a practicing Roman Catholic, and teaches catechism/Sunday School classes to young children preparing for First Communion. He quoted from Matthew 25. Of course, none of the pundits would want to talk about what Jesus said. That's not good enough for politics or the media. It probably galled liberals that Colbert would quote scripture. And it probably galled conservatives that the guy they've labeled a "left-wing comedian" quoted scripture, too.

I personally think Colbert was sharp enough to know that he wasn't being asked to testify from his heart, but to testify in character. But I also think he was sharp enough to work in what he REALLY thought - in the manner that Jesus was alluding to in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, where Jesus hopes his disciples will be shrewd disciples - at LEAST as shrewd as the rest of the world - in being faithful. Colbert's closing remarks were not in character or part of his schtick, but rather, his faithful testimony as a Christian and citizen.

And for that I say: spot on, Mr. Colbert. You can claim to be an entertainer and satirist. But some of us see your faith, too.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Only God Can Fix It

Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . .
- Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, 1991
I got a call from an acquaintance the other day, and he was complaining about one of our fellow acquaintances that we knew. “I can’t understand how he can afford to buy a new car every three years, and how he has a house on the lake and takes his family to Europe every other year.” It was a rather odd question that I didn’t know the answer to, so I simply said, “Heck, I don’t know.” And, I added, “Why would you care?” His response was classic, if not disappointing: “Because I want to know!!” So I simply suggested that he call him to find out. “I knew you would be no help! I’m gonna find out what’s up with this!” And that was the end of that phone call.

Now I don’t know if he proceeded to call others to ask the same question, or if he was going to hire a private detective. But what I do know is that he was consumed with knowing someone else’s business. I’m fairly sure it also falls under the headings of envy and covet, and perhaps gossip. I am sure I can be equally guilty of any of those things as well.

The book I quoted from is from a series of books Buechner wrote that were autobiographical. Buechner’s father committed suicide when he was young, and he later struggled in helping a daughter who had anorexia. He found that he had his own demons to confront without worrying about others around him. God would have us be concerned about our own business, rather than the business of others. It doesn’t mean we isolate ourselves from the world, but it does mean that any “fixing” that happens is because God fixes, heals, and metes out justice.

Instead of talking and pointing the finger, let us simply listen and receive the grace of Jesus. It is sufficient!


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Doing Your BEST for the Church

I have had many mentors in my ministry; some of them were unaware that they were mentors to me. One of them is Belton Joyner. While I am sure he doesn’t remember it, we were on the same legislative committee at General Conference 2004. I always found his voice to be one of reason and calm.

He wrote several years ago about how you empower your church staff to do good work. I think this extends not just to staff, but to volunteer church positions as well. Micromanaging ANYTHING is always a mistake, and to do so in the church stifles leadership, discipleship, and the Spirit. Permit me to share the acronym B E S T as the Rev. Joyner explains it:
Believe in the staff. This motivates staff members and releases their potential. By believing in them you engage, equip, and empower staff members to succeed at what they do, and, in turn, your own success increases.

Encourage the staff. Let them know their work is important and personally appreciated by you. Publicly compliment them. Empower staff members by delegating responsibility to them whenever possible.

Share with the staff. Create an environment where communication, creativity, and specific expectations are a clear part of the culture.

Trust the staff. Trust is the glue that holds the staff together. Increase staff members’ freedom and responsibility as trust develops. Don’t get involved in every detail of their work. Trust them to try out new ideas and encourage them if they fail.
You have to give credit where credit is due. We choose people to do a job and then we should allow them to do it! I do my best to “butt out” of stuff unless I’m asked for help, because I know I can’t build leadership if I don’t allow it to develop.

I don’t think any of these things apply just to staff – I think they apply to all church leadership. I hope you will think about all of these things in the days to come. If you are asked to serve on a board or committee, I hope you will prayerfully consider it – and know how I feel about volunteer church positions. I certainly want to help and support all of our church staff and officers – but God gave you gifts that are unique to you! We need them, and I don’t want to stifle them!!!


Saturday, September 04, 2010

Clergy Salaries - Taboo Subject?

It is one of those things that no one likes to talk about - (a) how much does the preacher make? (b) Should the preacher get a raise? (c) Do we ask the preacher to leave the room when we talk about his/her salary?

The answer to the above questions are fairly simple:
a. That figure should be common knowledge and part of the budget (which anyone should be able to look at upon request)
b. If the preacher is doing a good job AND the congregation can afford it, of course
c. No. Not only should the preacher NOT leave the room, he or she should take leadership in not only the discussion of his/her salary, but in the salaries of the paid staff at the church.

However, (b) is not always handled well.

Getting a raise. The scriptures are clear on at least one thing: "The laborer is worthy of his hire," which is mentioned in the New Testament at least a couple of times where the matter is concerned. How much that amount should be is a matter of debate. Where UM clergy are concerned, some pastors feel that because of their education they should be paid at least enough to pay off student loans and debt (which is certainly understandable). At the same time, one does not enter the ordained ministry with salary in mind. Does an ordained minister graduate with the comparable credentials as a physician or lawyer? Yes. But is ministry as lucrative as those other two professions? Of course not. So the comparison holds some water, but not a lot.

Where clergy and raises are concerned, opinions range from clergy who don't ask for a raise (or turn one down)and feel like they are already blessed enough, to those who automatically feel entitled to a raise and take it personally when they don't get it. I am sure some clergy come off as greedy to their congregations, and there is some truth to that. When you take salary, pension contributions, and (in some cases) insurance, housing allowances, utility allowances, and professional expenses... ordained clergy may not be rolling in dough, but they don't always fare so badly either. In some cases, we clergy may make more money than many in our congregations.

In today's economic climate, I think we clergy need to be a bit more sensitive to our congregations' ability to pay and give raises. Granted, every church can be challenged where its stewardship is concerned. But some study about economic realities is in order too. One of the Methobloggers (Rev J) wrote a very enlightening blog regarding his congregation and indebtedness, citing a Dave Ramsey quote about American people and their indebtedness: "It isn't that people don't want to give to church, they can't." Rev J goes on to note that when a monthly payment to non-mortgaged debt takes half to two-thirds of a family's income, there isn't much left to give to God and the Church. So while a biblical tithe might be 10%, some families would be quite faithful and sacrificial if they only gave 1%.

Our Staff-Parish Committee looked at the CPI (consumer price index) for the past two years for our area. From July 2008 to July 2009, the CPI actually DECREASED 2.1%. From July 2009-July 2010, it increased 1.2%. Last year, as a staff we agreed to no raises even before staff-parish met; we knew it was a lean year overall and that our senior congregants did not get cost-of-living raises to their social security benefits; in good conscience we could not ask or accept raises. This year we talked about it as a staff-parish committee at length. I was clear that I didn't want or need a raise, but I hoped we could give the staff at least a cost of living increase. After a lot of discussion, we are recommending a 1.4% increase. Now that has yet to be approved by the church as a whole, but this represents a gracious and compassionate response from our church's personnel committee.

The church I serve is a very blessed one. While we are not rolling in dough, neither are we poor. God has blessed us richly: we have bought and paid off a parsonage in five years, we expanded our parking and playground facilities, and our indebtedness for a church our size is manageable and shows good stewardship. We certainly have our challenges: for one, we need to update our sound and video capabilities in our sanctuary. But I think our congregation approaches budgets and money in general in the way we should approach all things: with grace, with good stewardship, and with God as our priority.

My church is not the norm in United Methodism.

More and more churches cannot pay their apportionments, the pastoral remuneration for many churches is the largest expense on the budget, and yet some clergy DEMAND a raise - at the expense of other ministries in the church. We hear a lot of discussion from the clergy side of things - but I wonder how laity feel about this issue? Do we clergy seem greedy? Do we have our priorities misplaced? Are we paid too much?

At a time when our denomination is shrinking, our budgets are growing, and the sustainability of both is in question, I think these are good questions to ponder over. Any opinions?


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 6

Bishops in the UMC have a thankless, lonely, and impossible job. Anyone who disagrees with that doesn't know much about the episcopacy in United Methodism. My own bishop is currently facing the task of appointing pastors to the three largest churches in our conference. That, along with the task of "servant leadership, general oversight and supervision," and "guarding the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church" for 203,961 members (2009 figures) of two annual conferences, is not just a daunting task - it is an impossible task.

I am with Russ Richey and Tom Frank, when they suggested in their book Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition that in the UMC, our bishops are really archbishops, and our district superintendents are bishops in the truest and most practical sense of the word. I wish we would just go ahead and make that name change now. John Wesley's own bias about bishops was everpresent in his writings and actions - using the word "superintendent" instead of "bishop/overseer" (a more biblical word). In a recent column by Donald Haynes, we are reminded that the layout of our church structure was influenced more by Francis Asbury than John Wesley. Even so, bishops slowly lost their power over the years - and while the power to make pastoral appointments is no small thing, the ever-changing reality of a broken itinerancy waters down that power. The Methodist itinerancy was designed for single young men on horseback in a rural/agrarian society. It was not designed for pastors with families, who possibly have spouses who are professionals, and who instead of living in a parsonage own a house. How itinerant can we really be? And how much "power" do bishops have to lead effectively?

Haynes suggested some new paradigms. I find myself in agreement with some and at variance with others:
• More bishops so they can be less bureaucratic, more pastoral and have more ongoing dialogue with their parish lay leadership and their clergy.
We already have this with what we now call superintendents. Let's call them bishops and allow them to function as such. In every sense of the word, superintendents fill that role in the traditional history and intent of the biblical word episkopé.
• Appointments follow a negotiated, consultative process in which local church laity have a voice in selection with the bishop making recommendations and having the right of "veto."
I don't think this is a bad idea either. Who else knows a congregation better than the leadership of its congregation? Forcing congregations to take a pastor because the cabinet/bishop "needs their church" is not servant leadership - it's serving clergy. The intent is wrong and the math is bad - the needs of the many are at stake in servanthood, not the needs of the servant.
• A cabinet of selected clergy and laity whom the bishop uses for advice in appointment-making (eliminating the expensive position of District Superintendent
Just call the superintendents "bishops." As far as what to do with archbishops? We need to elect our best and brightest mind and spiritual souls to this office - regardless of jurisdiction. Who do we trust to discern the Spirit and the will of God? Who can best select our leadership for our churches and areas? Those are the people whom we should elect. I mean, that's what we say the job is in the Book of Discipline. The main thing we have to ask ourselves is this: do we trust God and the Spirit enough to elect a man or woman to that task? If we really don't, let's quit playing games, get rid of the office, and go to a call system.
• Appointments made at any time during the calendar year, and made for four years, not one.
Amen. Longer tenures make for longer pastorates. I had the privilege of studying under Bishop Joel McDavid in seminary (he had retired and was the churchman-in-residence), and at lunch one day I remembering him saying that if you told a church and a pastor they had to make an appointment work for 3-4 years, it might work well beyond that - and the church might even grow. Of course, folks would counter that by saying that long tenures are bad for the appointive system. That begs the question: is the appointive system serving churches, or pastors?
• Use of more local pastors, part-time and full-time.
Amen again. I'm less convinced then ever that seminary-trained clergy are worth the costs of time and money. I might think differently if the Church was growing. More and more disciplines are getting away from the traditional educational model and moving toward a practical approach of training and educating. Why should ministry be any different?
• The tearful, economically driven demise of the Equitable Salary Fund and guaranteed appointment.
Absolutely. While the intent of both of these things was noble, I think the "experiment" has not yielded the results intended - akin to Prohibition in the 1920's and 30's: a great idea but it had unintended and disastrous consequences! The guaranteed appointment should have released pastors to be bold, creative, and prophetic. Instead, it has (for the most part) created complacency and ineffectiveness - at a horrible cost with loss of membership and economic hardship as the results. The Equitable Salary Fund and setting of minimum salaries was intended for missional purposes, but instead has given way to a welfare mentality and impediment to itinerancy. All elders in good standing MUST be appointed, and MUST be guaranteed a minimum compensation. What happens when an annual conference has more elders than they can appoint? And what happens when more money is needed to supplement minimum salaries than a conference can afford?
We could make the job of bishops a lot easier if we had reasonable expectations of them and trusted them. We instead ask them to do the impossible and when they don't deliver, then distrust and disdain set in. After a period of years, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating. Why don't things get any better? I suspect we have ourselves to blame: expecting growth and radical improvement when nothing has changed is unrealistic - and perhaps a little insane!

Dr. Haynes ended his article by reminding us of the seven last words of the church: "We've never done it that way before." I pray we not give in to temptation by repeating them. To quote the Good Book: "New wineskins for new wine."


Monday, July 26, 2010

Nurturing Community, Encouraging Family

As I've shared in previous blogs, I retired from the fire service in June of 2001 after serving for several years in paid, paid-on-call, and volunteer capacities. It gave me the opportunity to meet many wonderful and devoted folks, and yesterday I attended the funeral of one of these folks, a man named Joe Drewry. Joe lost his life after a brief struggle with cancer. He was 72.

His son Tony asked me if I could participate in the funeral by presiding over the Last Alarm-Bell Ceremony - a part of the liturgy of a firefighter funeral in which we honor the life of the deceased and honor his last call to Eternal Life. I couldn't say no. The good news was that my Class A uniform that I retired in still fit. The bad news was the occasion in which to wear it.

I knew Joe by reputation before I ever met him personally. He was the father of a college classmate, and I was not disappointed when I met him in person. He lived up to what I had heard about him, and more. I've seen men who loved their community, but never one quite like Joe.

Joe was a twin, and he and his brother Jerry began their lives with a rough start; their mother died a day after giving them birth from delivery complications. Their father raised them on his own. More tragedy in his life: he buried his wife 24 years ago, and buried his older son Burt last year. All of those things could have created a very angry and bitter man.

That wasn't Joe. He was one of the most affable men I ever knew.

Joe was a Boy Scout leader. He taught hunter safety classes to children and youth. And he served the Greenfield Fire Department for 52 years, in capacities ranging from firefighter to training officer to deputy chief. He went on a fire call as late as 2009. He also wrote several grants for their fire department, one of them allowing their town to achieve a Class Four insurance rating. That is quite a feat for most municipalities, but an incredible feat for an all-volunteer department in a town of 2000 folks.

At graveside, when he was paged over the department radio and we heard the silence of him not responding, I began to weep. Not just because he wasn't answering, but because I know fewer and fewer people answer such a call to service anymore. Not just to volunteer firefighting, but to service to their communities. After the radio dispatcher gave a period of silence after calling his unit number, she responded that Deputy Chief Joe Lane Drewry was released from answering any more alarms. Her last words were overcome with emotion. It seemed to me not just the end of Joe's life and service, but a death knell to all the Joe Drewrys in the world: those who love their community and give back more than they were given. Those who loved children besides their own to pass on legacy and experience and love. Those who believe it takes sacrifice and investment for their communities to thrive and grow.

The body of Christ, the Church, is far from just an institution - it is a family. The Greek word is oikos, which means household, but even that definition doesn't do the word justice. "Family-like community" might be more accurate. It describes what the family of God should be like. It is part of God's design. It allows us to be disciples and to make disciples. We practice being the Kingdom of God so we can proclaim the Kingdom to all.

Communities are living entities, and like living entities they require nurture and care. Joe, and people like him, are the lifeblood of communities. It is so very similar to the way Christ modeled community life and sacrifice to us. It doesn't have to be drudgery - I cannot recall Joe doing much in his life that he hated. It was certainly hard work, but Joe was in the middle doing it.

I am reminded of a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Life Together:
The...service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness... Nobody is too good for the meanest (i.e., most menial) service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God... [I]t is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. - from Life Together, reprinted 1954, p. 99
An investment in our community is an investment in the family of God. It is an extension of our discipleship. And it is a practice of our love for brother and sister. I hope folks like Joe aren't the exception, and that they become the rule. We are created to live in community, and not as individuals.

Such is the family of God. So give. Nurture. Encourage.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Nurture and Cultivate Spiritual Disciplines and Patterns of Holiness"

"Nurture and cultivate spiritual disciplines and patterns of holiness..." That's not from The Rule of St. Benedict. Nor is it from an objective of a spiritual growth retreat. It is ¶304.1 (b) of the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist's canon law, under the heading "Qualifications for Ordination."

In midst of the numerical decline of much of Protestantism, it seems that we are putting a great deal of emphasis on hospitality, worship, church programming, and communications - and we should be, because those are certainly areas that need shoring up. But when you talk to pastors about spirituality, spiritual direction, spiritual disciplines, etc., you often get a stare in return. I've even heard some say, "That's just too personal." I even heard this one once: "It's all about Jesus, preaching the Word, and getting into the Bible. That spirituality stuff is too Catholic." The smart ass in me considered quoting Scripture to this learned colleague about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but I resisted. So I simply asked him, "If it's all about Jesus (and it is!), but we can't teach people to pray and be Christologically grouded and formed, who will?" His response was classic: "Well, people should get that at home."

The problem is, I heard that EXACT same thing said when I served on an advisory committee at the seminary I graduated from - by a colleague who should have known better. I had voiced my concern that while we were giving a good theological and historical education, we were doing very little, if any, spiritual formation. To which I was told, "That's not the job of the seminary. Pastors get that on their own." I was much younger at the time and so I kept my young mouth shut. Now I wish I had opened it a little.
But do seminaries engage their students in a conversation about the gravity of choices that they will face or prepare them to make those choices? Does the larger shape of theological education draw their attention to the formative character of the questions asked and answered by its professors? Does the shape of their preparation help them to grasp the difference between a vocation that demands a certain kind of performance from them and the vocation into which they have been called, which requires them to be the kind of people who are possessed by that "basic sense" of what is being asked of them? Are their professors prepared to shape souls as well as intellects? When they graduate, do students have the sense that they have already embarked on that vocation?

As a product of, and participant in, theological education for over three decades, I am inclined to think that the answer to these and other questions is, more often than not, "no."
- Frederick W. Schmidt, "What Is Being Asked of You? Canonical Theism and Theological Education", from Canonical Theism, 2008, pp. 273-4.
Schmidt goes on to say that the blame can be place into three areas:
  • The quest for credibility from the larger academic community - which preferred historical discussions over faith and spiritual experience.
  • The adoption of the university model for graduate education - which drove professors to be more specialized in a few disciplines and led to religious vocational amnesia
  • The issues of praxis which diverted the theological task away from spiritual formation towards the importance of leadership, administrative prowness, psychological therapist, and social prophecy
In short, we're teaching pastors a lot about church administration, biblical form criticism, systematic theology (the Barth & Tillich show), social psychology (the Freud and Jung show), and philosophy of religion (the Schleiermacher and Schopenhauer show). I learned these things - and they are certainly important things.

But what about lectio divina? Patristics (the Early Church Fathers)? Prayer offices? Spiritual disciplines? Spiritual discernment? Incarnational theology? Pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit)? Sacramental theology? Discipleship and disciple-ing? Sanctification? I was very blessed by Don Saliers and Ted Hackett, mentors of mine, to develop an interest and passion for these things. But it was self-directed - it was not a mandatory part of the seminary curriculum for United Methodists (or any other Protestants), and to my knowledge it still is not. That leads me to believe we need to quit calling them "seminaries" and start calling them "schools of theology." Good information, but no anchor or undergirding of where these things fit in a life lived with Christ.

If we clergy cannot locate ourselves in our Christian quest and pilgrimage, we certainly cannot lead our churches to see where they are located in the Kingdom of God. We cannot lead with any sense of spiritual or theological authority (only that which is granted by the Book of Discipline!). We cannot tell the Christian story from a standpoint of faith - just from the standpoint as recorded by history.

Schmidt says, most importantly, those who teach present and future clergy must "remember that it is not enough to learn what it is that clergy do. They need to be in touch with what it is that clergy are meant to become. Their own relationship with God, their growth in faith, and the practice of spiritual disciplines are keys to that becoming and to the knowing that accompanies it. In turn, those same experiences are indispensable to the seminarians' own ability to make disciples of others." (p. 285)

If we pastors are mandated to "nurture and cultivate spiritual disciplines and patters of holiness" for our congregations (and we are), then we had better learn them ourselves. According to the Book of Discipline, it's not just "Catholic" - it's Methodist, too. I'm convinced it's Christian to the core.

Sounds like we better get on this. Soon.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Standard: Does It Make Disciples?

I recently read an operational assessment of the United Methodist Church - a very critical look at our denomination and its effectiveness. In reviewing some of my former blogs, a lot of what I was perceiving (and fearing) was confirmed by the assessment. Rather that gloat, I would hope we would prayerfully consider the changes we need to make to be faithful to God and His Kingdom as United Methodists.

One main observation is that there is too much "distance" between the local church, the Annual Conference, and the General Church. That is probably not a real shocker to most folks in the local church, but I suspect annual conferences and the General Church find this at best hard to believe and at worst are in denial that this is the perception. However, General Agencies and Annual Conference agencies often find themselves competing against each other (ever listen to or read Annual Conference reports?). Plus, some General Church work often alienates or sends mixed signals to local and even Annual Conference work (remember the infamous UMW study on Israel and Palestine?). This serves to confuse folks, and sometimes leaving the person in the pew to wonder, "Is anyone leading us? Is there any rhyme and reason to our denomination?" One particularly negative impression from some interviewed for the assessment even remarked, "[The agencies] 'dictate rather than serve.'" That's not good.

Another observation was one I made a few years ago, that jurisdictions are a "middle entity" that need to be discontinued. This was also mentioned in the assessment: "Our finding is that the costs (in distance and in dollars) may not be justified by the 'benefit' that is delivered by the Jurisdictional Conference structures." Basically, jurisdictions elect bishops; other than that, anything else is redundant to what General Church and Annual Conference structures do. Why not elect them at General Conference, as was the case for many years? Added to the fact that the costs are not worth the benefit, Jurisdictional conferences were birthed mainly from racism. Why keep that vestige around? I don't buy the argument that it's a matter of tradition or heritage: that seems akin to the "Heritage not Hate" stickers I occasionally see on bumpers with the Rebel Flag.

As far as effective leadership, the assessment gives the UMC a bleak future: we have no clarity of mission or responsibility (who does what?), we have lots of distrust of both the leaders and institutional church, and we cannot define competency. One interviewee was quoted to say that the Church "has a systemic allergy to authority." We probably got that honestly, starting with the earliest Methodist preachers who sometimes referred to John Wesley as "Pope John."

I think the obvious question is, "Do we want to make disciples?" And if we do, we have to throw out some of the old standby arguments we used to hold dear and challenge them, like, "Numbers don't have anything to do with ministry." As a friend of mine said, if I have three children and take them to the park, and only come back with two, my wife probably won't settle for me saying, "But honey, just think how much better we can raise these two children as opposed to three!!" And, as Jason Byassee reminds us, numbers aren't bean-counting; numbers DO matter and their upward trend is a sign of church health.

John Wesley certainly wasn't a perfect human being; his marriage was a tragedy and he could be downright boorish at times. But the Method of Methodism was genius, and proven. It involves trust in Christ, vulnerability in spirit, and willingness to be obedient and faithful.

We will have to own up to our mistakes (and I use the collective "our" because we CLAIM to be one in Christ and to be in a Connection). We will have to realize that our pensions might run out. We will have to realize that guaranteed pastoral appointments and salaries, General Church Agencies, and other entities are not realistically sustainable with current membership decline and rising costs. We will have to objectively diagnose ourselves and embrace the reality that we are dying - and do something about it rather than give into the insanity of continuing to do the same thing and expecting things to change.

Don't get me wrong - there ARE good things happening. There ARE faithful folks making disciples. And there are churches in the UMC who are growing. But they seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and we often intellectually dismiss them! "Well, that's not Methodist what they're doing!" Unfortunately, some of these same objections could have been lodged at Wesley himself. What we call "Methodist" is often more about our likes and dislikes, rather than the Method of making disciples.

For clergy, the temptation is to coast and retire. For laity, the temptation is to go through the motions and emulate (but not build upon) what our parents and grandparents did.

Lead us not into temptation, O Lord...


Friday, July 02, 2010

Chasing Sunsets

Yesterday, I met a fellow biker for supper, and we went on a short ride. It was towards the end of the evening, and we were heading west. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen, and it reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago for a Lenten devotional booklet.

Don't forget to smell the flowers, and watch the sunsets.


Time for What Is Important
It was God who made the great lights, whose love endures forever;
the sun to rule in the day, whose love endures forever;
the moon and stars in the night, whose love endures forever. – Ps. 136:7-9
Perhaps you’ve heard someone complain, “I have so little time.” Such a complaint is self-incriminating: we all have the same twenty-four hours a day. Our days are as long (or short) as our neighbors’ days. They are as long as the days Jesus experienced.

I’ve discovered the allure of riding a motorcycle; I don’t think it’s a rebellious spirit or flirting with danger – to be safe, you have to constantly scan the road ahead and ride on constant guard, thus leaving your mind little time to dwell in worries, minutia, or self-absorption. It’s an opportunity to slow down and clear my mind of “clutteredness.”

I chase sunsets (at legal speeds). The north star that is constant and sure leads me home at night. Within my quieted mind, I find myself being reminded to thank God for daily blessings that I usually overlook because “I don’t have time to notice.”

What I have been taught is that if I am disciplined enough to observe it, I can find daily blessings in anything I do. Driving down the road, watching the crops grow and mature. Singing silly but joyful songs with our children or grandchildren. Washing clothes and realizing the cleansing and life-giving gift of water. Changing the oil on a vehicle and marveling at God’s gift of intellect that created the engine. Stopping to look at the people around us at work and realizing that they’re fellow brothers/sisters in Christ.

Our busy schedules can allow us to forget the blessings around us. But allowing ourselves to be transformed by God can strengthen us to defeat the enemy of time, and find it instead to be our ally. And perhaps, on occasion, we can take time out to marvel at a sunrise, chase a sunset, and smile back at the moon. All gifts from God.

Sky McCracken
Lent, 2005

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Guaranteed Pastoral Appointments - A Luxury We Can Afford Anymore? Revisited.

The Commission to Study Ministry will be recommending to the General Conference in 2012 to do away with guaranteed pastoral appointments. I wrote about this last year in this blog.

One statement confirms what I always thought - the clergy shortage was a myth. Yes, a lot of clergy are retiring, but the general membership of the church is declining as well. We desperately need leadership borne out of passion, not entitlement.

My only caution is that we not see this as a "fix all." One commission member noted: "Guaranteeing clergy jobs produces 'a culture of mediocrity. It allows people to coast rather than to continue to strive and to grow,' said Seattle Area Bishop Grant Hagiya, a commission member. 'What we need is the flexibility to maximize our leadership to those who are going to make a difference.'"

Maybe. But Southern Baptists are losing members too, and they certainly can't blame guaranteed appointments for their demise. Leadership, an understanding of discipleship, and a willingness to be spiritual guides and models seem to be needed now more than ever.

John Meunier, a fellow blogger and bi-vocational local pastor, writes a very good blog about this and what doing away with guaranteed jobs in the UMC might mean. An exerpt:
I think radical changes in the rules for ministry must go hand-in-hand with a renewal of a shared sense of our Wesleyan roots. It is from our shared identity as a people called Methodist that we need to define what we mean by effective ministry and the nature of the mission of the church.

Such a move also places much more importance on the role and quality of conference leadership. Do we select bishops and district superintendents to be the leaders with an clear eye for ministerial effectiveness and the skills and gifts to nurture and support mission-oriented churches and clergy?

Will our church structure and rules need significant rewriting to free clergy to do what they would be expected to do?

Does the denomination need to take on itself more of the expense of the educating of new pastors?

I look forward to the conversation.
So do I. Of course... does it have a chance of passing?


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Being Authentic II - Time Well Spent

Given my last blog, it was with a strange twist of Providence that my brother called last week and said he was coming in on Sunday, that he wanted us to get together with my father on Monday and play a round of golf. I almost said no... and then realized that my father is 80 years old and that opportunities for us to get together for golf are probably numbered. So I told my brother, "Great idea."

The world knows the three of us as a retired college professor (Dad), an active college professor and researcher (my brother), and a minister (me). Two Dr's and a Rev. (I am the dummy of the family with only a masters degree). But to us, it was a father and his two boys playing golf. (The pic is one I snapped of Dad on an approach to a hole on Monday)

We decided playing nine holes was safest. All of us hit safely on the opening drive. No birdies for any of us, but there were some respectable pars. I ended up being 7 over - better than bogey golf (an 8 on the last hole didn't help my score, and McCrackens count all strokes). I was happy enough with my play given how long it had been since I swung a club that I should probably retire. I was also so doggone sore that it took me 15 minutes of slow-exercising arthritic joints in bed before I could get out of it the next morning.

It was well worth it.

We had a wonderful time with Dad. Good-natured ribbing and teasing. A few great shots by all of us. My brother and I noticed that Dad's swing is different. He certainly doesn't hit the ball very far. However - all his balls stayed in the fairway. Most of them were on line. I think the beauty of playing golf as long as he has is to know what your authentic swing is. It doesn't matter how impressive it looks; what matters is, it works. And it does.

Again, authenticity requires that we practice it. I think it probably requires some maturity as well. I don't think we have to be 80 years old to attain either - but it's nice to have some living models around nonetheless who have been doing it a while.

The late Bobby Jones once said this about "Old man par.":
"No man will ever have golf under his thumb. No round will ever be so good it could not have been better. Perhaps that is why golf is the greatest of games. You are not playing a human adversary; you are playing a game. You are playing Old Man Par.

"Old Man Par is a patient soul, who never shoots a birdie and never incurs a buzzard. And if you travel the long route with him, you must be patient, too."
That's probably a good approach to authentic self, too. As I said in the last blog, I'll say again: Doctors practice medicine, lawyers practice law. Christians should certainly practice Christianity.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Being Authentic

It's one of my favorite scenes from any movie. In "The Legend of Bagger Vance," Rannulph Junuh's caddy, Bagger, talks about the "Authentic Swing" - meaning golf swing:
Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing... Somethin' we was born with... Somethin' that's ours and ours alone... Somethin' that can't be taught to ya or learned... Somethin' that got to be remembered... Over time the world can, rob us of that swing... It get buried inside us under all our wouldas and couldas and shouldas... Some folk even forget what their swing was like... 
Junuh came back from the war with a Medal of Honor - and a broken man. Bagger wasn't just trying to help Rannulph's golf game, he was trying to get him to see how he was still useful. The preacher in me would say that God wasn't finished with him yet, he just had to grasp his unrealized potential.

I used to play golf. It didn't come naturally to me, and I realized one day if I wanted to be decent at it, I needed to intentionally practice it. So I did - I had a pro watch my swing, and he gave me very simple practice exercises to do everyday. I quit playing golf with friends for a while and just practiced: practiced irons, practiced driving, practiced pitching. Repetition. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it gets us one step closer to perfection.

I once got my handicap down to 11. To do that, I had to practice at least every other day. I would get up very early in the morning, go to the golf course, and play 9 holes (no one ever beat me to the course). Sometimes, I would drop 3-4 balls and hit from the same spot to hone my consistency. I sought to find a rhythm and discipline before I addressed the ball, and to duplicate it each time I played a shot. And it worked. It certainly wasn't perfect, and I wasn't going to turn in my ordination credentials to get my tour card, but I could play a round of golf with fairly good golfers and not embarrass myself too much.

It lasted about 3 years.

I moved and began going to the golf course more to be with church members than to play golf. It became a social time. And it certainly wasn't bad for ministry - had a lot of contact time with folks, invited a few folks to church (or back to church), and was able to talk with a few folks about tough struggles in their life. I wouldn't take anything for those times - they were rich and they were blessings to me. The only liability was to my golf game. I lost my "authentic swing." No sense of timing or rhythm. And as my arthritis got worse, I realized that my grip, my swing, and my whole approach to the game would have to be totally redefined. So I quit playing. The last time I played was at my 25th high school class reunion, and I barely finished the round.

Contrary to what some might believe, golf isn't life - but it can teach us a lot. For Christians to be authentic, to obtain or recover that "perfect swing," we have to know what fits FOR US. I certainly don't want to go down the road of individualism, because the American church already has too much "me and Jesus" in it and not near enough "us and Jesus." To be authentic means to be bathed in prayer and the Spirit. And to be bathed in prayer and the Spirit means, quite frankly, to shut up all of our requests and wants and to listen to God.

There is certainly a lot of brokenness in our lives: dreams unrealized. Riches lost. Poor choices. Accidents. Failures of health. It is easy to blame God, it is easy to blame the Devil. There is also a lot of healing in our lives: dreams answered. Being blessed with home and food. Being spared from physical harm. Walking away from a CCU or car accident. At those times, it is easy to thank God and say we beat the Devil.

An authentic life has us encountering both. Moses parted the sea but died on the mountain - in view of the Promised Land yet never setting foot on it. Elijah is brought into heaven, but not before God challenged him for retreating instead of fighting. Peter finally gets it right, but ends up dying (either crucified upside down or beheaded - both sound bad to me).

My hunch is that for these men, their authenticity depended on them being able to overcome their desires or their worries. To know God's voice and to realize our gifts and our limitations takes prayer - a conversation with God that is ongoing and constant. It swaps arrogance for humility. It exchanges wants for servanthood. It replaces our desire with God's passion. And all of these things take practice. Repetitious exercise. Practice leads us towards perfection.

The monastics have taught us how to do this through lectio divina. They suggest not just reading scripture - but PRAYING scripture. Daily. To ruminate on it. To ask God to change us through it. To focus on His presence and His voice. By such practices as this we learn what our true gifts are and what our place is as a disciple. We quit playing the games of who others want us to be and who we want to be, and instead find out who and what God created us to be. We find our authentic swing.

I don't think any of us are "naturals" when it comes to being authentic Christians. It takes work. It takes honesty. It takes courage. And it takes prayer - conversation with God - to find out what God truly created us to be. It's not that we don't have gifts or purpose - God created us with that already in us. We just have to discover what they are.

Let's find our one, true, authentic self. The only way to find it is to practice. Doctors practice medicine, lawyers practice law. Christians should certainly practice Christianity.


Saturday, May 01, 2010

A Bad Law in the Midst of Absent Leadership - Is the Church Far Behind?

Fellow blogger Allen Bevere in a recent blog wrote about a Peggy Noonan Wall Street Journal editorial regarding Arizona's recent legislation on immigration (May 1st edition, "Opinions - The Big Alienation: Uncontrolled borders and Washington's lack of self-control", WSJ). The whole editorial is worth reading - it is very good. I don't agree with all of it, but it is well-written and engaging.

Peggy Noonan is a refreshing voice. She was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder, but very critical of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. She is Catholic in faith, and I have always found her writing to be both objective and thought-provoking.

I agree with Allen in his words and comments about the new Arizona law regarding immigration; it is a bad law. As a high school sports official, I know that the best way to get rid of a bad rule is to enforce it, and I suspect if the Arizona law is enforced it will be out the door fairly quickly. It's already being amended for some obvious flaws.

But the point Allen makes in his blog is a good one: because of a lack of leadership (gumption?) among our Congress in Washington for over two administrations, immigration has become more problematic for border states. Neither party wants to touch the issue because it will mean losing votes. As in most things, when there is abdication in leadership and/or responsibility, someone or something will usually take charge. In the case of immigration, Arizona is taking charge. Nature abhors a vacuum.

I will reproduce the same quote Allen gave in his blog from Peggy Noonan's editorial:
None of this happened overnight. It is, most recently, the result of two wars that were supposed to be cakewalks, Katrina, the crash, and the phenomenon of a federal government that seemed less and less competent attempting to do more and more by passing bigger and bigger laws.

Add to this states on the verge of bankruptcy, the looming debt crisis of the federal government, and the likelihood of ever-rising taxes. Shake it all together, and you have the makings of the big alienation. Alienation is often followed by full-blown antagonism, and antagonism by breakage.

...Arizona is moving forward because the government in Washington has completely abdicated its responsibility. For 10 years—at least—through two administrations, Washington deliberately did nothing to ease the crisis on the borders because politicians calculated that an air of mounting crisis would spur mounting support for what Washington thought was appropriate reform—i.e., reform that would help the Democratic and Republican parties.

But while the Democrats worry about the prospects of the Democrats and the Republicans about the well-being of the Republicans, who worries about America?

Now, fellow United Methodists, imagine if the words are changed a little bit.
None of this happened overnight. It is, most recently, the result of two or more factions that are supposedly all United Methodist and Christian, fights over homosexuality, the economy, and the phenomenon of a church beaureacracy that seemed less and less competent attempting to do more and more by passing bigger budgets, a bigger Book of Discipline, and a larger Book of Resolutions.

Add to this churches on the verge of closing, the looming bankruptcies of annual conferences, and the likelihood of ever-rising apportionments. Shake it all together, and you have the makings of the big alienation. Alienation is often followed by full-blown antagonism, and antagonism by breakage.

...some United Methodist Churches are moving forward because the church leadership has completely abdicated its responsibility. For nearly 50 years—at least—through several Council of Bishops and General Conferences, we deliberately did nothing to address the crisis in the Church because church politicians calculated that an air of mounting crisis would spur mounting support for what they thought was appropriate reform—i.e., reform that would help the liberal or conservative factions.

But while MFSA and General Boards worry about the prospects of the MFSA and General Boards, and the Confessing Movement and IRD worry about the well-being of the Confessing Movement and IRD, who worries about the United Methodist Church?

Farfetched? Or are we just mirroring our government? Isn't it a bit unsettling that the UMC is set up just like our government? We have an executive branch (Council of Bishops), a judicial branch (Judicial Council), and a legislative branch (General Conference). And, if we were honest, we have lobbyists too [insert church faction/group here]. Did this happen by accident?

There might be a good reason to separate church and state. Why would we want to be like the state?

Our prayer should be that leadership arise to the occasion - and if it's from the grassroots up instead of the top down, so be it. Jesus started the Church with 12. He fed a mountainside of people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. There are still 8 million United Methodists hanging around - I wonder what God can do with us?

You don't have to be a bishop - or even ordained - to lead. We were all ordained at our baptism to make disciples - and we can change the world.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is It About the Kingdom, or the Institution?

Bishop Will Willimon posted Ten Theses About The Future of Ministry on his blogsite this morning. They are a gutsy and rare prophetic voice from one of our bishops (Bishop Tim Whitaker also comes to mind as one of those voices). I'll comment on a few of these as a 45 year old pastor in between the generations that the Bishop speaks about.
  • The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will continue to experience numerical decline as well as be pushed to the margins of this culture. The mainline is old-line that is becoming sidelined.
Hard to argue with. The numbers and diminishing resources back this up.
  • The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to lead the church in redefining itself in the light of the spiritual needs and aspirations of people under 35 or else will continue to decline because it has limited itself to the spiritual affairs of one generation.
Yes again. We pastors have failed to culture leadership and legacy among the "one generation" to leave the church better than they found it. We haven't passed the mantle - it's been held on to for far too long.
  • The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right).
The gutsiest statement yet. Theological liberalism was a theology found wanting - and sometimes, seemed to delight in the shock value of turning Christian doctrines at the heart of Christianity into a cafeteria Christianity. The IRD and ilk like them would have us be in bed with the correct politics... which resembles spiritual prostitution in being "of" the world rather than "in" the world. I would say that progressive Christianity has done the same thing where American politics are concerned.
  • The pastoral ministry must be supple, adaptable, and willing to experiment on the basis of biblically supported leadership styles.
Another true and hard statement. Cut-and-paste ministry doesn't work. Leadership is blessed but hard work. It isn't all about preaching good sermons anymore (although it's not a bad start). How are we making disciples? What is our plan to do so? How do we BOTH (1) grow disciples in maturity, and (2) increase the flock?
  • The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.
The Great Commission was this: "Go, make disciples, baptizing and teaching them in my name." The Book of Discipline gets bigger and bigger (and more largely ignored and irrelevent), the number of Judicial Council decisions increases as does the docket, and yet the church membership continues to decline. As much of a baseball fan that I am, it simply isn't true that "if you build it, they will come." We must be willing to make disciples, and to do that, we must be willing to build relationships. We have done what the medical community has done - become specialists while forgetting our general health and wholeness.
  • Methodists will either become engaged in the mysterious, relentless growth of the Kingdom of God or they will continue to decline. Growth is our most needed focus.
One does not have to be an actuarial expert to know that the denomination will financially and administratively collapse within 12 years. God isn't dead, but it is possible that we are realizing Wesley's worst fear (and I know, we all know the quote... but are we listening?):
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. - J. Wesley
As a Lutheran friend once told me, "Methodists have lost their method."
  • The pastoral ministry will recover the oddness and the excitement of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Seems like I remember being taught that Christians are to be counter-cultural. "Oddness" is probably a good word. Why would anyone in society who is cynical and distrustful of secular institutions want to be part of a Church that simply resembles another institution with a cross slapped up on the side of the building?
  • The pastoral ministry will either find a way to attract and empower a new generation of pastor’s critique and reconstruct pastoral ministry or we will pass away with this generation.
Again, numbers don't lie.

This OUGHT to be a ripe opportunity for the UMC: We are connected. We have a framework for the deployment of ministry and a catechetical process for making Christians and disciples. In theory, we have a framework and discipline to deploy pastors and match gifts to churches. But in practice, we are failing. Miserably. Our connection is serving little purpose and laity have finally woken up and asked, "Is our apportionment money being used to increase the Kingdom or support a dying structure? Are we getting our money's worth?"

The itinerancy and appointment process has become a pastoral tenure system that is self-serving to clergy but not really helping the Church much. As far as catechesis... a lot of folks don't even know what that word means. Or words like catechism. Discipleship. Or disciple. I mean, have you asked anyone lately to define what a disciple is? It took a group in my church several weeks to arrive at a definition - not because they aren't good or faithful people, but they simply inherited a faith tradition that didn't hand that understanding down to them! We failed to teach and equip - hence, the present problem.

Nothing is beyond redemption, and if we are indeed a faithful people, then we are a hope-filled people. I am one with such hope. After a lot of prayer (more listening, less talking), I am convinced that some very faithful, hopeful, and risk-taking folks are going to have to rise to the challenge and call to extreme leadership. We need bishops not elected out of entitlement or pedigree, but out of spiritual and prophetic depth. We need risk takers. We need superintendents who lead pastors spiritually and boldly, not folks who got there because of a salary sheet or gender, or because it was "their turn." We need folks who can with muster and gumption do some hard work: some churches need to close. Some pastors need to be encouraged to leave pastoral ministry because they are ineffective at it. We need folks to take thou authority. We have to quit playing slot machine with pastoral appointments. And in the case of bishops and superintendents, we need some folks who are willing to do these things with the knowledge they might not get a guaranteed paycheck... since our system is presently collapsing to the point where conferences and episcopal funds won't be financed in a few years. That will call for creativeness and a willingness to think beyond present institutional practices.

I know I paint a bleak scene - but it is hard not to be concerned given the present realities. Lyle Schaller wrote a few years ago that to avoid financial and institutional collapse, we should have taken action at the 2008 General Conference on many of these things. Perhaps he is right.

God can redeem anything - but just like grace, we must be willing to receive it instead of push it away. Is God giving us the signs that we need to change? I don't see how we could interpret them any other way.

Instead of a dead sect, I sure would like the UMC to take the lead. We certainly have all the ingredients.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

Putting On Christ - And Wearing Him Always

As Christians, we are always to wear the face of Christ wherever we go. It sounds good on Sunday mornings and whenever we gather as the Church. I know myself that it is very easy to be the example of Christ when I am wearing a clerical collar and suit.

But from Sunday at noon until the following Sunday at 8 AM - are we still wearing Christ? In this day and age, we are more and more transparent than ever. Our political stances and our Facebook comments are certainly public for all to see. While everyone is entitled to a political opinion and opinions in general, we have to very careful that our political stances and opinions don’t turn others off from the Gospel or our church.

When it comes to politics, I am at best a cynic. That doesn’t mean I can’t tolerate the opinions of others, though. At the end of the day, or at the end of any conversation, I think when there are disagreements among Christians, they have to end it with the words, “We will agree to disagree.” No moral judgments, no denigration. Just a difference of opinion.

Ronald Reagan once said, “Politics is the second oldest profession, but I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.” It is a humorous quote, but with an element of truth. If we sell out ourselves to political opinions first and the Gospel second, we have told the world where our treasure lies. And the world, especially those who are nominally Christian or new to the faith, is watching us like a child. Do we really want them to think we are a Republican or Democrat first, and a Christian second? That Kentucky basketball is more important than living the Christian faith? That we spend more time playing Farmville or Mafia Wars than we do reading scripture or articles about theology, discipleship, or mission (the Web is full of these things, by the way)? Or that we place more stock in Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann than we do Jesus Christ?

Don’t get me wrong: politics are important. And no one loves basketball more than I do. I have a Facebook page too. But none of those things are ever important enough to take the place of who Christ is… or to turn others away from Him.

Let’s be careful.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Hac Lacrimarum Valle

It is a very sad day. With Kentucky and Tennessee's losses this weekend, there is no SEC team in the Final Four. Worse, a Big East team and an ACC team are in it. It is almost more than I can bear.

So I will do something that I have never done, (or, for that matter, something that no one else has ever done, either), and root for a Horizon League team to win it all.

Go Butler.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why Have the Church? Just Be a Democrat. Or a Republican.

Brothers and Sisters:

The Lord be with you.

One of the liabilities of being so involved in government, as one of our General Boards so often is, is that we actually get “credit” for what we do (in this case, a resolution made at an earlier General Conference). I speak as a political cynic, having found both of our American political parties wanting.

I want to draw attention to a quote Stan Hauerwas gave several years ago:
"...[A] theological politics understands the church as an alternative polis or civitas, which is constituted by the new reality of the kingdom of God as seen in the life and destiny of Jesus. In contrast to political theology, which makes the political struggle for emancipation the horizon in which the church's theology and practice is interpreted, a theological politics makes the church's story the 'counter story' that interprets the world's politics.... [m]aking the church the primary locus of politics [which] not only changes the political horizon, but also requires a different understanding of the nature of politics."-- Stanley Hauerwas
In my opinion, anyone who thinks Democrats are the only ones who are interested in big government doesn’t read very much – Republicans are just as interested in gaining/regaining power and running things. Today’s politics are reduced to issues, and using power and coercion to enforce the convictions of the Left or the Right. And while I am certainly cynical about politics, I am not advocating we withdraw from the world – indeed, we Christians are supposed to be IN the world, just not OF it. The politics we advocate are the politics of Christ, which will set us apart from the world.

We have only ourselves to blame for the press attention we have gotten from Speaker Pelosi. At least for this week, the United Methodist Church is not known as a Church that makes disciples, but rather known for helping pass a Health Reform Care bill through the House that is split down party lines. I’d say the same thing about abortion: I would like to see abortion become a thing of the past – not because Republicans passed a bill to make abortion illegal, but because the Church influenced society so much that (a) no one would feel so shamed by an out-of-wedlock pregnancy to have an abortion, and (b) no mother would feel alone since the church would step up and minister to her and her child’s needs.

A friend of mine reminded me that during the Bush Administration, Left wing critics made the following observation of Republican Christians: "If the Republican plank has become your Gospel, why do you still need the church?" He noted that this observation fits just as well with this possible observation given this week's happenings: "If the Democratic plank has become your Gospel, why do you still need the church?"

We have been used as a denomination this week by politicians, and it has given in to more of the American preoccupation of being on the correct side instead of being on the Lord’s side. As one of my blogging buddies Allen Bevere said today, to embrace the status quo politics of either party is to become ecclesial sectarians.

I think neither Jesus nor John Wesley would approve. Regardless of what the Book of Resolutions or the Council of Bishops tells us.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Are We Thinking Ahead? Who's Job Is It?

In the past few weeks, our bishop and cabinet sent out a letter: "Making the System Work." You can find a copy of the letter here.

The letter has rubbed some clergy the wrong way. Some see it as a threat. Others see it as void of anything pastoral. I see it as a retelling of what is already in the Book of Discipline. The problem is, we really haven't followed the spirit or the letter of the Discipline when it comes to the itinerancy. We are "selectively itinerant" these days, in my opinion, because we have been allowed to be. From the letter:
  1. The mission of the local church comes first. As ministers, we are called to serve, not to be served. Our primary effort will be to place the best qualified minister, according to the needs of the church. Churches involved in mission and ministry for Jesus Christ and supportive of the connection will be given first consideration.
  2. The appointment process deserves our honesty, a view for the good of the whole connection. Ministers are members of the Annual Conference and open to appointment in any part of the Conference.

We all know that while this is the theory, it has not been the practice. Some clergy have been truly itinerant, serving in varying appointments (and often across state lines, as our conference includes Western Tennessee and the Purchase Area of Kentucky). Some have requested that they not be appointed outside of a metropolitan area or across a state line. Some have citied educational needs for children, vocational needs for spouses, and consideration for those with aging parents - the list of variables is long and convoluted, and not without merit or concern.

But to complicate matters, we started selling off parsonages a few years ago. When this issue was raised a few years ago, someone found a realtor who spoke on the floor of the annual conference and said that one could "break even" on buying a house and selling it within 6 years (the length of a district superintendent tenure). I suppose that would be possible in a FEW places in the U.S... but nowhere close to where I live! As a result, we have added another variable to the itinerancy: the buying and selling of a house. Of course this is not a new phenomenon to most professions, but in our annual conference, clergy often move at the drop of a hat, and even in a "good" conference year pastoral appointments are rarely close to "done" until a month before a move happens. Four weeks is a very short window to (1) list a house for sale, (2) pack to move, (3) say farewell to a congregation, (4) move into a house that (5) hopefully you've bought (and been able to sell the other one), and (6) begin work at your new church/parish.

I think all of these more recent "convolutions" for the itinerancy makes it very difficult for our bishop and cabinet to try and "Make the System Work," because our ideas and practices about the itinerancy have strayed so far away from the ideal. When bishops and cabinets send us such statements, they sound harsh because we've been casual about being truly itinerant. But all of us who were ordained elders agreed to be appointed "without reservation." If we weren't comfortable with that, we had the option of being a local pastor, appointed year to year, but without a guaranteed appointment.

If we look at all of this from the standpoint of our laity, however, we begin to see another side. They can very easily and accurately say, "We have been faithful to what we've been asked to do." They have provided parsonages (or housing allowances), paid salaries, pensions, and insurance. They want the best pastor for their church, because that is what the church promises to provide for them. It is very hard to defend against the claim of some of our laity that our leadership has failed them. We have. And that's a corporate "we" - that's the nature of the covenant and the Connection.

Problem? The same institution that says: "The mission of the local church comes first. As ministers, we are called to serve, not to be served," also allowed parsonages to be sold off and allowed clergy to be selectively itinerant. Can we blame this bishop and cabinet? Not fully. But we clergy ultimately do have to take responsibility for our failure of leadership. That's the nature of the Order of Elder - we are in COVENANT with each other to serve the church.

Are we thinking ahead? One thing I learned from my mentor Don Saliers many years ago was this: The Holy Spirit rarely rejects good planning. In these difficult times, I think the Spirit demands it. It's our job to lead our congregations - and to serve, not to be served. That requires a lot of prayer, planning, and sacrifice, all with a Gospel bent.