Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Call to Action: Don't Trash It Yet

Pastors, even bishops, have written against it. Church caucuses are against it. Pushback is present among laity and clergy alike. "It can't work... It won't work... It's marketing/corporate language... The statistics are flawed... The death tsunami is a myth... Clergy and churches shouldn't be judged by numbers; there are better ways to measure churches..." You can probably add a few more. Before we can even implement it, some folks want Call to Action and Vital Congregations rescinded. Some have gone so far to say that it's dead on arrival.

No one can argue that the UMC is hurting in every way measurable and in some ways immeasurable. Our membership continues to fall even though our population continues to rise. Resources are starting to dwindle. Reassessment and realignment of denominational boards and agencies is causing distress and frustration. An upcoming General Conference and proposed legislation and resolutions are causing angst. It is very easy to give in to a climate of fear and go into panic or survival mode.

It may be helpful to be reminded of Wesley's vision for the Methodist movement: to renew the Anglican Church, to bring scriptural holiness to the lands, and to "flee from the wrath to come," (words said first by John the Baptist, not John Wesley). At best, he hoped that we'd do a 180° - but I fear that we have done a 360°... coming full circle back to a church that just about resembled what Wesley was trying to reform. Even Wesley himself caved a little, taking matters in hand and ordaining Francis Coke a superintendent so that America could have some clergymen. Coke ordained Asbury, and before you know it we had bishops AND a church. Many historians and theologians lament over this move, as this fledgling but highly successful missional movement morphed into a Church and churches.

Like many things, what we evolved into could have been avoidable. Many outside of Methodism have told me how wonderful the Method of Methodism is, but how we have given the Method away - and I have to agree. Methodists should be teaching others in Christendom about mission, discipleship, holiness, and piety, for those were the things that we were founded upon and took on as our vision for ministry. And like so many things, success bred comfort. We were, for a while, able to build churches, universities, and mission societies to fulfill our mission to make disciples for Christ. Now, we realize we cannot do as much as we once did; indeed, we are in danger of not being to support what we already have.

It seems that in the conversations I read and am a part of, there is a sense that the church is not built to be successful but to be faithful. In part I agree - faithfulness definitely is our call and priority. But when the very structures we built (physical or otherwise) begin to falter, we are not being the trustees that we vowed to be when these structures were begun. Someone will say "New wineskins for new wine." I would say absolutely! And if the General Conference were to agree next year that we need to not be a denomination/communion of churches and revert to being a missional movement, I will abide. That would mean that we no longer believe that the local church is the best conduit to fulfill the mission of our Church... and I believe THAT is the conversation that we need to have, and quickly. Otherwise, given all appearances, we will continue in slow decline until, by default, we will cease to be by attrition.

Can the local church be the best expression of Jesus Christ, the hope of the world? I think it can, but not in present form. My experience is leading me to believe that many - if not most - clergy and laity are comfortable with (and prefer) a chaplain-approach to ministry. It has worked for a long time. But the law of entropy is kicking in: the ice cube is beginning to melt. I believe our failure to make disciples has caught up with us in every way possible.

It seems to me that the Call to Action and Vital Congregations projects are needed to help us with some baseline indicators and accountability - for pastors AND churches. But we cannot stop there; in tandem, we need to be encouraging and equipping pastors and congregations to enhance their discipleship and mission. Doing a critical analysis of our local churches and pastors may help us realize that the very things we once thought were primarily about making disciples turned out to really be more about paying the bills or ministries that are "just for us church members." How much of our ministry in the local church is geared toward discipleship? Do we vision and set goals with our communities in mind? Do local churches see themselves as parishes? Those are questions we need to be asking ourselves.

This is risky business, I know. But if our growth is going to be mission and discipleship-based, we're going to have to be bold, innovative, and ever-faithful. I think Call to Action and Vital Congregations can help us do that, but not by themselves - otherwise, they'll just be another program. At their best, they can be tools to prop up discipleship and mission for Kingdom work: to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Let us try to use them as such.


Friday, September 16, 2011

"The Remedy" Hasn't Changed

This came across from my desk from Dr. David Fullen, pastor at the Arlington-Bardwell charge. You can click on the image to enlarge it. The text is below.


"The Remedy"

There is, among the Leaders, and others deeply concerned in our Church fellowship today—a growing distress because of the lack of loyalty on the part of many to their Church. The church languishes, financially and spiritually, and whatever is said, by those most deeply concerned and genuinely grieved is to no avail, because people who are thus indifferent to the vows made to God are usually indifferent to whatever may be said to them on the subject. What then, can be done!

Man solutions are offered, and many schemes presented, but in the mind of the writer there is only one remedy, and that is a Holy Ghost Revival. Without a single exception, it will be found that one who is loyal to God is loyal to the Church of which he is a member. Put that down. It will do to count on.

Every Church is made up of Pastor and people—preachers and laity, and first of all the ministers of The Gospel will have to answer to God for a commission to preach with the Holy Ghost sent down from Heaven a full salvation that saves people from worldliness and selfishness, and fires the heart to do the whole will of God. He must instruct, warn and arouse the slumbering as such a message only can. “The Gospel is (still, thank God) the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.”

Then, there rests upon every truly awakened soul a responsibility in the creating of a warm spiritual atmosphere in which the truth will be effective. Such a spirit of prayer and praise should prevail that the message of truth would have easy access to the hearts of all. The minister of the Gospel standing before his people ought to feel the under—girding of prayer, and be stimulated by the responses of praise awakened by the truth in every true child of God. Thus would every message from God’s word become effective and a revival would be imminent.

Christian brother, sister, this is the normal condition of the Church of Christ. In so far as we fall short of this do we fall short of our duty and our responsibility. When this spirit and condition prevails the indifferent and those who forget their vows will see their distance from God, and mighty conviction will fall upon many that are now worthless in the Church.

By Miss Deborah Davis
Appeared in “Methodist Church Bulletin”
Arlington, Kentucky - May, 1923

Monday, July 04, 2011

Methodism 101 Excerpts from 2009

Some excerpts from the Methodism 101 series in the Paducah District back in 2009. Also, lectures from Dr. Eddie Bromley and Dr. Rick Dye regarding the history of early Methodism and John Wesley's vision.

Since then, we've had Methodism 202. Methodism 303 is coming!!


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Learnings of a New District Superintendent

A few months ago I wrote "Confessions of a New Superintendent." Since then, I have been in cabinet meetings to assist in pastoral projections, met with staff-parish committees, met with pastors, taken a lot of phone calls, visited with many people in my office, held a couple of district clergy meetings, and served as host superintendent at our annual conference (and yes, Jorge Acevedo, I wore a suit four days in a row). It has been a baptism by flame thrower.

What I've learned:
  • D.S's drive a lot - my predecessor drove over 200k miles in five years - so I bought a used car built for the high miles and low maintenance.
  • D.S.'s get thrown into the midst of conflict, and my sports officiating experience in dealing with coaches all these years has finally paid off: listen more and speak less, show respect in the midst of conflict and disagreement, and admit your mistakes.
  • Never wait to put something on your calendar later - do it then.
  • Listen to softer music when driving on "D.S. business." Save AC/DC and Rush for fun driving.
  • Even if you're in a hurry, eat smart. The "Freshman Ten" applies to new D.S.'s too!
The most sobering thing I've learned is that there is no correlation between education of clergy and clergy effectiveness. I wrote about this in an earlier blog, but I am beginning to see and hear about it first hand as a D.S. We have pastors who have little or no spiritual depth, yet are appointed to churches to serve as spiritual guides and leaders - and laity are noticing. Emmaus Walks, Academies for Spiritual Formation, SoulFeasts, and other such venues of opportunity for spiritual direction and formation are helping folks grow in their spiritual walk and discipleship. But they are also helping folks realize how much many of their pastors are neglecting to teach these basics of the faith AND, more to the point, have no spiritual depth or discernment of their own. It doesn't help that more and more clergy surveyed (anonymously of course) only read the Bible for sermon fodder, and rarely for devotion. In all of the consultations that I did this year, not one church asked me to send them a good pulpit preacher. But I did hear "Send us a praying pastor" more than once.

I am convinced more than ever that seminaries are failing us. And now, the perception is real among those who help fund them. Two conferences recently dealt with resolutions to sever connections with one United Methodist seminary.

I will readily admit that I know some local (licensed) pastors who are far more spiritually adept and mature than many elders that I know. Many of them are second-career pastors.

I am not trying to be anti-seminary. But it pains me greatly to admit that a seminary education may not be the best preparation for one to do ordained ministry, and I am more inclined to believe that it is not an absolute necessity anymore. I come from a family that greatly values education - indeed, I am the only McCracken in my family without a doctoral degree. But given the high price of money and time involved in a seminary education and the fact that we presently have pastors in a dying denomination who cannot speak, live, or teach a spiritual ethic and discipline to the congregations they serve - are we not guilty of horrible stewardship? Lest you think I am being horribly un-Methodist and anti-intellectual, consider this journal entry of John Wesley:
I had a good deal of conversation with Mr. N-----n. His case is very peculiar. Our Church requires that Clergymen should be men of learning, and, to this end, have an University education. But how many have an University education, and yet no learning at all? Yet these men are ordained! Meantime, one of eminent learning, as well as unblamable behavior, cannot be ordained because he was not at the University! What a mere farce is this! Who would believe that any Christian Bishop would stoop to so poor an evasion? - John Wesley, Journal Entry, March 20, 1760
Of course, John Wesley isn't the final authority on anything - but he saw the mistakes of being a complacent Church that put legalism above faithfulness. That is certainly nothing new to the faith! Practical divinity requires practical education and formation.

Homosexuality and political posturing seem to be at the top of the list of agenda items for the next General Conference. I would suggest instead a focus to the essentials of Christianity and Methodism: To go and make disciples, and to teach and practice the works of piety - in other words, to teach and preach the spiritual disciplines:
The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord's Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men. - John Wesley
Making disciples DOES matter, and while depth of discipleship is important, numbers are important too! Evangelical isn't a dirty word - if we're Methodists, it's OUR word. Teaching and witnessing isn't bad manners; it's the Great Commission. If our clergy can't and won't do these things, how can we expect our laity to do it?


Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Prayer for Your Servant

This song was sung at my installation service on May 1 at Broadway United Methodist Church in Paducah. You have no idea how hard it was to preach after hearing Joe and Liz Hansen sing it.

I am a blessed man.

A Prayer for Your Servant

Lord, we pray for our pastor today
that God, you would use him
Holy Spirit, work through him
Mold him and shape him as clay
Lord, we pray for our pastor today

Lord, we pray for our shepherd today
that God, you would guide him
Holy Spirit, stand by him
Steer him to stay in your way
Lord, we pray for our shepherd today
O Holy God, now we offer to you
One you have chosen and gifted
May his heart be both broken and utterly lifted
Lord, we pray for your servant today
that God, you would bless him
Holy Spirit, possess him
Help him to rest in your grace
Lord, we pray for your servant today

- for the Installation of Sky McCracken as District Superintendent,
Paducah District, May 1, 2011
© 2011, Joe Hansen
Joe and Liz sent me this recording this morning. I hope it blesses you as much as it blessed me.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Laity Are Called Too

I am writing less and reading more these days. But this is an excellent blog to remind us that we are called by God and ordained into ministry by our baptism, and not clergy ordination.

Thanks, John Meunier, for a good post for clergy and layfolks alike to read.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An Even Better Post

I wrote a blog last summer about seminary education and quoted Prof. Frederick Schmidt from Southern Methodist University. He has written an EXCELLENT article about the future of seminary education, "Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education."

It's worth your time - and a great read.


Monday, March 14, 2011

A Good Blog Post

John Meunier posts yet another great blog: "Why so much sex and so little poverty?", which is actually a link to Mike Mather's blog.

Shows where we miss the mark on priorities when it comes to Scripture. You can't be faithful to Scripture without dealing with poverty.


Thursday, February 03, 2011


Idolatrous (adj):
  1. Of or having to do with idolatry.
  2. Given to blind or excessive devotion to something: "The religiosity of the [group] is self-righteous and idolatrous. It perceives no virtue in its opponents and magnifies its own" (Christopher Lasch).
  3. Constituting idolatry.
Thirty-Three retired bishops in the United Methodist Church are urging the denomination to remove its ban on homosexual clergy, just in time for the election of delegates to General Conference 2012. Reconciling Ministries Network has it as their top news story. I haven't gotten Mark Tooley's weekly letter from The Institute of Religion and Democracy yet but I am sure he is licking his chops and typing away.

It is all very sad to watch.

Homosexuality is being lined up - again - to be the most important issue that United Methodists talk about when they gather for their four-year meeting in 2012. What will happen? Probably the same thing that has happened for 30-some years now when United Methodists gather at General Conference and debate homosexuality: nothing.

It is sad to watch because homosexuality has become an idol in United Methodism - to EVERYONE on either side of the ideological and theological fence. As if it is the most important thing in the Kingdom to debate! As if "solving" the problem is the great answer we need in face of a denomination that is hemorrhaging in every way imaginable. If that were the case, the Southern Baptists and the Episcopal Church would be gaining members left and right (no pun intended) with their unequivocal statements on the matter.

Allan Bevere, who is known well in the Methodist Blogosphere, wrote a comment on fellow blogger John Meunier's blog that, to me, puts it all into perspective:
I’ve been listening to this debate for thirty years and no new ground has been broken and we will not reconcile this issue as a church. Either things will continue to stay the same and folks on the other side of the issue will leave, or at some point a change will be made and the other group will leave.

For me what it boils down to is that as a denomination we are obsessed with sex just like the world; and anything that two dogs can do without instructions cannot be all that significant.
I certainly can't add anything new to the argument pro- or anti-homosexuality as a compatible Christian practice. But I do know as a pastor who is about to become a district superintendent, homosexuality is far, far, far down the list of issues that are obstacles or even problems in our local churches. Local churches want to know: how can we equip ourselves better to make disciples? How can we be in mission in our community? What do we need to change in order to be effective at being the Church?

I am not about using the usual metrics to define success in ministry. But the reality is that the UMC is headed towards collapse in just about every way you can imagine; you don't have to be an actuarial expert to see that. It seems to me that addressing an issue that is at best secondary (and is in reality probably tertiary) where our mission as a Church is concerned is a complete waste of time. To debate homosexuality AGAIN - regardless of one's stance - where it will become the MAIN issue in the press and otherwise, while in the midst of being a denomination that is bleeding to death, is akin to getting a face-lift or tummy-tuck when you're in need of life-saving surgery.

I doubt that my chances of becoming a General or Jurisdictional Conference delegate are very good; our conference's size has diminished to the point where we only get the minimum number of delegates as mandated by the Book of Discipline. But if I were a delegate, I would try to get on the floor and ask for a moratorium on the word, and any derivative of the word, homosexual. Why? We simply don't have the luxury to debate it anymore. Not when so much more is at stake and at risk.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Confessions of a New District Superintendent

As I write this, I am at an Emerging Leaders Conference for younger clergy. Before some of you snicker: yes - I am aware that I am not one of the younger clergy anymore. I was invited to attend to get a feel of what younger clergy are experiencing, as I am going to become a district superintendent in March. For those of you who are not United Methodist, a couple of definitions for district superintendent can be found here and here.

Several years ago, a colleague of mine told me, "You better be praying about what you are going to do when the bishop calls you to be a superintendent." I poo-pooed that off and assured him that no bishop in his right mind would ask me to be a superintendent. I am too blunt, too critical of church hierarchy, and don't smile enough. I didn't give it much further thought until that very same thing was said to me more recently: "You better be praying about what you are going to do when the bishop calls you to be a superintendent." This person added, "I bet you are going to be asked."

One part of me thought of my previous response. But the contemplative in me reminded me of a time when I was at church camp in college, working on staff, and three young women on staff told me that they thought I should be a preacher. I laughed. I told them what people from my hometown would say. I told them what I wanted to do in life. They insisted, "We've prayed about this."

In discerning my call to ministry, I realized that it is less about what we WANT to do, and more about what we are CALLED to do. It goes all the way back to our baptism: God ordains us (clergy or lay), equips us, gifts us, and graces us with what we are called to do as disciples. And sometimes that takes us to places we will enjoy and will thrive, and sometimes it will take us to places that are difficult and may even suck the life out of us. So after a lot of prayer, a lot of discernment, and a lot of listening to what God was saying, I realized that if I were asked to be a superintendent, I would say yes. And I did.

Bishop Wills, our resident bishop, preached last night at the conference. He is retiring in September and shared with us that while there are some things about being a bishop that are very blessed, it can also be very difficult work. It was honest, it was heartfelt, and parts of it were hard for me to hear. I know that in Methodism, our bishops are really more like archbishops, and our superintendents are essentially bishops. I know there will be distasteful work ahead. I know I will have to make gut-wrenching decisions. And I am well aware that God is calling United Methodism to go in a different direction, for if we don't, my generation could end up burying the denomination instead of serving it.

I know myself well enough to know that my love and my joy in life comes from being a parish pastor. I also know that sometimes, God doesn't call us to go where we want to go. As Bishop Wills shared, it not about ourselves - it is about being faithful.

If any Methodist preacher is honest if asked which story in the Bible is the one they hate the most, it would be Jonah. God calls Jonah to go to Ninevah; Jonah wants to go to Tarshish. We all know the story. And, if most Methodist preachers are honest, we know the sin of lust - we want to be liked, we want the admiration and respect of our peers, we want that "big" church. The true test of our calling is resisting the temptations of the flesh so that we might be faithful.

Some say becoming a district superintendent is a promotion or elevation; indeed, among many United Methodist circles some would say that you "have arrived" when you have been appointed such. I hardly think I have arrived, and I certainly don't think it's a promotion. A grave responsibility? Yes. Necessary? Yes. I am sure there are some things that I will like about it, and some things that I will detest. I just hope that I can be faithful. I feel a lot like the prophet Jeremiah: a bit reticent and young, with an excuse for everything that God might ask of me, but not rebellious enough to not hear what God is saying: "Get yourself ready." (Jer 1:17).

May we all be faithful to our call: clergy, laity... even D.S.'s and bishops.