Saturday, May 18, 2013

Paradigm Shift

I despised this term in college and seminary - it was one of those phrases that people couldn't wait to use, similar to words and phrases used today like "fleshing out," "dichotomy," "postmodern," and "contextual theology." But I can't think of a better term for this season of the Church. A paradigm shift is needed if we are going to be faithful to the mission of the Church. And like most shifts, they are painful and require sacrifice. As Chris Holmes, former DS and now coach-trainer for pastors across several denominations, says in his newsletter: "Shift happens."

I posted the above from Gil Rendle's book Back to Zero a few blogs ago - and I think it still has much to teach us about being the church. It would be very easy to be dismissive of this and say, "Eh, it's the latest fad, I'll wait it out until this wears off and dies down." The problem is that is this is far from a new fad; this is Ecclesiology and Missiology 101. We usurped that and replaced it with our new-and-improved way of doing things which ran tangent to the Great Commission. Membership is important, and I don't think we quit monitoring it. But discipleship is even more important; indeed, the true definition of membership - defined by our baptismal and membership vows - is to not just BE a disciple, but to make/generate/model disciples and discipleship. Any other definition of membership makes it akin to a club that has privileges. Church membership and discipleship has responsibilities.

For United Methodist clergy, the paradigm shift affects how we develop and deploy leadership. Already there is a lot of pushback from changes we are seeing - and pushback is usually a sign that a new reality is present. Changes in clergy deployment are being witnessed for a simple reason: our churches are no longer the churches they once were (economically- or attendance-wise), and the contextual realities where those churches are located are shifting. It's not ageism, sexism, or any other discriminism - it's "shift happening." As a D.S., I realize more than ever how much I have to learn, study, and be present in the district and conference to be in touch with reality. The shift for the superintendency (General and District) is less and less about being a bureaucrat and administrative manager and more and more about coaching, missional strategizing, and relating to people and churches.

I was taught in seminary about having "professional distance" from parishioners; yet intimacy and fostering relationships with people is more critical than ever in a discipleship and mission model of ministry. My style of preaching is having to change. We clergy have got to love people like we've never been hurt and be willing to take the risks for the sake of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom. There is no other way to teach and lead passion for the Gospel to transform a hurting world.

We clergy are going to have to do this knowing that (a) our congregations are shrinking, (b) our denomination is hurting in everyday imaginable (did you know that the United Methodist Reporter is out of business June 1?) and that un-sustainability is a real possibility, and (c) the role of clergy is shifting. Yet, at the same time, (a) our God is an awesome God, (b) there are more opportunities than ever to do ministry and make disciples, and (c) Jesus promises to be with us, to the very end!

There is much to be done - but there is joy in doing it! I remember in the minutes before I was ordained a deacon (back in the "old" days), I was so scared that I wanted to throw up and say, "I can't do it." But I also remember when the hands were laid upon my head that there was nothing else in this world that my heart burned for than to serve the Lord.

My friend Ed Kilbourne sings the most wonderful song, based on some traditional words. I wish I had the musical track to go with it, but here are the lyrics:

You've got to sing when the spirit says sing
And obey the spirit of the Lord
You've got to sing like you don't need the money
Love like you'll never get hurt
You've got to dance, dance, dance, like nobody's watching
It's got to come from the heart if you want it to work
And if you hold back the word that might heal somebody's pain
You're holding back yourself from the light
And if you make your decisions based only upon gain
You will see the world with only partial sight
And if you need some assistance but don't let your buddies know
You're keeping them from being all that they could
And if your heart starts a talkin', better let those feelings show
You don't want to stop the flow of something good
-"When the Spirit Says Sing," Traditional, verses by Missy Stratton Morgan, medely arrangement by Cafe Society,
chorus "Come From The Heart", Susanna Clark/Richard Leigh (©EMI April Music) 

I believe this is the paradigm shift we need to adapt to and adopt. Or, more accurately, re-adapt to and re-adopt.


Friday, May 03, 2013

REPOST: Erosion of Trust, or Erosion of Faith?

Confession: I spent about five years of my ministry angry - namely, the years 2004-2009.

I wasn't angry about being mistreated as a pastor, or upset that my salary wasn't as high as I thought it should be, or that I was "passed over" and someone else got a church that I might have wanted. I was angry that the two generations of church leadership before me allowed United Methodism to get into this shape.

Over the years, I have helped put together conference journals, served the Connection at the General and Jurisdictional level, and represented my religious order at the General Board. What I witnessed, in ways financial and administrative, was that our UMC was hemorrhaging - and had been - for a long time. We have experienced a net loss of millions in membership in my lifetime, and it made me angry that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren might not have a United Methodist Church to attend; not because it was God's will, but because we failed to lead and make disciples. It made me angry that a lot more was going to be required of me than my predecessors if I were going to be faithful to my baptismal and ordination vows. It made me angry that I might not have a pension to live on in my last days. Anger threatened to consume me.

And it was wrong. I was wrong.

It took every prayer discipline I had to regain focus and perspective, and I realized that my anger was my own sin of wanting someone or something to blame rather than to do something about it, and that the reasons for church decline were far more intricate and complicated than could be attributed to any one cause. I allowed my own prejudices and need to blame erode my faith, and that was the true failure - with no one to blame but myself. I had experienced not an erosion of trust, but an erosion of faith.

Getting to the point of admission and doing something about it was freeing, it was empowering - it was literally my salvation. It changed the way I approached and carried out ministry. Instead of a career, ordained ministry became the way I best lived out my baptismal vows instead of a career (hey, clergy and lay alike, we're ALL called first by our baptism, not our ordination). I stopped comparing myself to other pastors and their appointments (a/k/a "Steeple Envy") and the unholy game of competition. It was time to fish or cut bait: either I start trusting God and the UMC (which I said at my ordination was the best way to express Christianity), or I hang up my stole and turn in my credentials. By God's grace, I started trusting God again. But like God's grace, trust in God is something we either accept or don't - that's on us.

In this season of the UMC, our trust in God is called upon more than ever. We are a communion not based on loose association, but by connection and covenant. Yet trust is severely lacking in the UMC; we've showed the world that in many ways, but we did so especially at General Conference 2012. Our trust was so lacking that one delegate wanted members of a committee/commission to stand so she could see if they were "diverse enough." And now that we are living into this difficult season in the UMC, our propensity to avoid the unknown, to shun the different, and to suspect the worse is making us paranoid and ineffectual. Manifestations of this culture of distrust have led us to public displays of distrust:

  • Our bishops meet in a closed meeting to discuss accountability - instead of praying for them, we criticize them and say they are being non-democratic.
  • Bishops and cabinets vow to make pastoral appointment-making missionally-driven instead of entitlement-driven - but critics say that they are being unfair and ageist.
  • Clergy are encouraged to be vulnerable and transparent in their leadership - but are distrustful of laity because of past betrayals and recriminations.
  • Laity are asked to sacrifice their time and money for the Church - but become distrustful of clergy who seem to be more concerned in maintaining their benefits and guaranteed appointments than sacrificial Kingdom work.
The root of all these things is not truth - it is fear. Fear that the bishops might be "scheming." Fear that another pastor might get a better appointment than me that I feel that I deserve. Fear that what we say in truth will be used against us in hate. Fear that someone has it better than I do. 

To embrace Christ fully, however, means to embrace that perfect love casts out fear. It means that our own wants and comforts are outweighed by the needs of the Kingdom and our sacrifices for it. It is not martyrdom - it's a glad and willing obedience. It means that nothing is sacred but the mission. Once I understood that, it became easier to trust. Our brothers and sisters may let us down, but God is always faithful and trustworthy.

Click to enlarge
When I was asked to be a district superintendent on March 1, 2011 (an AWFUL time to start this position!), I said yes. I knew in this season of the Church it would be difficult work. But I also knew that it was my opportunity to turn my former distrust into joyful obedience, and my despair about the Church into an opportunity to make a difference in the life of the conference and community of faith that raised me and nurtured me.

There is a letter that I keep at my desk that reminds me of my task and that there are no earthly "guarantees" ahead of me - indeed, I suspect there are tougher days ahead then there are behind for the United Methodist Church, as well as all Christians. But in casting out fear, the shackles are removed to work for the Gospel hope and future - and I don't think God is done with us yet. I believe that the best is yet to come.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. There is no Christian alternative: we have to love like we've never been hurt, trust like we've never been betrayed. If we don't, we will simply choose to divide ourselves - and thus seal our fate as a denomination. 

I think God expects greater things of us - and I think they're coming. The Lord will take us there, and only by faith can we follow.