Thursday, June 27, 2013

Things for United Methodist Laity to Unlearn - From a Layperson's P.O.V.

Sky McCracken wrote a piece on the things the clergy needs to unlearn to help return the church to vitality.  In response it seems appropriate to make the same observations for the laity.

To all of my fellow laity: We have been highly critical of the clergy for a number of years now.  We have been very vocal about issues with those who serve our local congregations, many valid concerns, and some unrealistic demands.  Though the Church has been slow to respond to the frustration, in recent years there has been a move on the part of the leadership to look at education, pastoral care and the lack of vision that has disconnected the local church from the community.  The lack of discipleship in the local church is reaching critical mass, and the lack of leadership from the clergy is being discussed on every level.

That’s all great news, and important for a move to health and vitality.  It is just half of the picture.  It is time we do our own inventory and look at the things we need to unlearn.  This is my short list:
1.  While our church leaders, Pastor, church staff, are responsible to give vision, direction and guidance, they are not charged with keeping us happy.  We are equally called to service in the Body of Christ, not only to be served.  We are partner in ministry, not consumers.  The staff cannot fulfill their responsibilities in outreach to the community if they are forever holding our hands, listening to our laundry lists of complaints about temperature, sermon topic and new hymns we have never sung before.  It’s time we grow up, take responsibility for our own part of the Kingdom and go to work alongside our church leaders, as we are gifted and called to do.  We were ordained in our baptism after all, not to every role, but to a role.  
2.  The church building does not belong to us; it is an asset for ministry.  Our functions are important, and fellowship as believers is essential, but they are not the sole purpose of the building.  Inviting the community to see the building as a great meeting place will connect us with people who would never cross the threshold for a Bible study or a worship service.  Groups who find a home in one of our classrooms may find a home in our church family, particularly if we happen to be in the building when they come and extend hospitality.  We cannot lock the doors during the week in order to keep the building in outstanding condition and the expenses down and think this is a good decision for the life of our church.   It will work for as long as we are here to pay the bills, then one day one of us will be the last one to turn out the light. 
3.  Worship on Sunday is not entertainment, and we are not the audience.   Worship is a time for us to gather, hear God’s word, get filled up, and go in the power of the Spirit to change the world.   If you go home and nothing changes, in you or in your world, it’s time to stop and consider where you are disconnecting.    Where there is life, there is growth.  If all of your God stories are from years ago, it might be time to take your spiritual pulse. 
4.  There are a lot more of us (laity) than there are of them (clergy).  Why did we ever decide sharing the Gospel was only for the ‘professionals’?   Who has the greatest opportunity to share the love of God with the community?  We do!  What is the best way to share your faith with others?  Live it, all the time, in all of the places you go.  Be the love of God the world is hungry for, offer grace and mercy, be the disciple you would like others to become.   In football terminology, most plays work better if the team huddles up, hears the call and plays their position.  We like to huddle up, hear the call and go sit in the stand to see how it goes.  Let’s get on the field, people.
Real change, deep change, begins one person at a time.  We have to do the hard work of moving from consumer to partner, give up rights and pick up our responsibilities, desire that others develop deep relationships with Jesus Christ enough to surrender being the center of the church.  Growing up in grace means we are so secure in our identities as children of God and people of immeasurable worth that we can afford to sacrifice for the sake of others.  What will we get if we choose to be faithful?   I believe we will begin to see the God’s Kingdom come, and God’s will done.  That’s a legacy for our children and grandchildren that will be worth the discomfort change brings.  It’s time brothers and sisters; let’s be the change we are ready to see.

Susan Engle
Paducah District Lay Resource Leader
Memphis Conference

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Things for United Methodist Preachers to Unlearn

Being a creature of habit, both Type "A" and a bit on the OCD side, I like routine, rhythm, and routine better than anyone. If something works, I leave it alone; if it's functional, I don't try to improve it or buy something new. Over the years I have seen pastors work this way, and pastoral work is hard: writing/designing sermons takes time, study, planning, and discernment; pastoral care often interrupts the busiest of schedules. When you find something that works, we tend to run with it. We keep sermon files so that when we move, we don't waste previous work done. We function on local church, district, and conference levels in ways that are comfortable for us. We gravitate toward like-minded colleagues and find comfort in such community. These things "work" for us.

But not really. It's not working.

For us to offer Christ to a hurting world, we have to transcend some of what "worked" for us in the past. It requires a lot of introspection and self-awareness. It requires some confession and repentance. It requires that we "unlearn" some things which have become rote for us as UM pastors. Having recently read John Wesley's "Large Minutes" and being challenged by scholars Andrew Thompson and Doug Meeks, I'm led to share these things:

1. Our seminary professors and continuing ed teachers were wrong about clergy professionalism. If we are to be about discipleship, conversion, and mission, we can't have "professional distance" from those we serve - we have to be intimate with those we engage! If we do not live this and model this, we cannot expect anyone else to do it. Jesus MET the woman at the well; he didn't say to himself, "This is improper," even though most everyone else probably did. Our society has confused intimacy with sexuality; it actually comes from the Latin intimatus/intimare, "to make familiar with." Familiarity doesn't breed contempt - it breeds a relationship!

2. Preaching needs some change. It's a sore spot for most preachers to be told anything critical about their preaching - but my experience is that collectively, we're missing the mark. When I was younger I was asked to preach at a 6-day revival; I had no idea what to do. An older colleague advised me, "Preach your six 'sugar sticks.'" If I had it over to do again, I would have met with the church leadership several weeks beforehand and heard their story, their struggles, and their edges so I would know their context. Preaching has to be (a) hermeneutical, (b) preach Christ, and (c) help us make a connection WITH Jesus. As Wesley was clear to note, preach the Christ whom the scriptures witness, not the scriptures themselves. I have to remind myself often: it's the logos, stupid!

3. UM Pastors - more specifically, elders and deacons - act too much like a union (I've blogged about this before) and not enough like servants and vessels. I'm not the only one that has noticed this; our polity once protected pastors so they could be about Kingdom work (i.e., security of appointment), but it has now turned into (a) a financial benefit/liability that we may one day not be able to honor, and (b) led in some cases to ineffectiveness through malaise. Few of our laity have such a safety net, and indeed in some congregations, the pastor may be among the highest earners in a local church when salary, insurance, pension, housing, and other benefits are considered.

4. The Book of Discipline is too large, connectional and conference structures too wieldy, and theological/missional/discipleship questions as well as policy questions are often decided by popular vote instead of theological/missional focii. What was once a tool for order has become an imitation of US government bureaucratise and an entity unto itself. When we need a judicial council to tell us (or prevent us from) how to do mission and discipleship, we have got serious problems (there hasn't always been a judicial council, by the way). These things can change - even the Book of Discipline. If you don't believe one individual can make change, think again.

5. We don't live the trust - much less model it - that the Kingdom and the denomination demands of us. We often get put on committees or commissions and remain silent, waiting until the parking lot or text messages to our buddies to kibbutz and critique... thus depriving the institution we vowed to uphold and denying the spirit of conferencing that is so at the heart of our Wesleyan DNA... and then turn around and chastise our congregations for doing the same after board and council meetings! Of course it means conflict and difficult conversations. However, Christianity - indeed, Jesus - was no stranger to conflict or hostility. Read the correspondence of John and Charles Wesley, who were even estranged for a period of time over differences of opinion. Or read John Wesley and George Whitfield. St. Nicholas attacked Arius over heresy (though probably didn't slap him at the Council of Nicea as legend says). Without trust and honesty modeled and lived, we cannot embrace the deep change that this season required of us!

6. Like it or not, we have to be generalists. More than once I have heard, "That's just not me" or "I was raised/educated in a different era." To those that we serve, that is a great disservice.

For example: I didn't grow up with nor was educated in the use of multimedia in worship or for preaching. However, I have since learned that only about 9% of the population are auditory learners - and a lecture-style of preaching and witness is thus limited in its effectiveness.

Now, do I personally like using images, movie clips, etc. in my sermon illustrations? Personally, no. But I'm learning how to do it - because it is effective for many and helps address the hermeneutical task of preaching, which today has become a larger and more diverse method of verbal AND non-verbal communication of interpretation of the biblical text... which is NOT to be confused with exegesis, which is the more narrow focus of examination of the text. I wasn't taught this or raised with this, but they are effective methods of preaching that I cannot ignore. God could care less whether or not I "like" something personally.

We also have to be counselors, spiritual guides, able to read/interpret a financial report, teach doctrine, lead catechesis, and develop leadership to aid in all these things. None of us will be experts in any, much less all, of these things. But they are part of the authority of being ordained and licensed for ministry, and in a Wesleyan ethos we have to continually ask ourselves these questions: (1) What shall we teach? (2) How shall we teach? (3) What shall we do?

I used to think we used the model of medicine or law in training our pastors and leaders (lay or clergy) for ministry. But I am now of the opinion that we need to embrace the model of artisan/apprentice. It's relational. It's modeled. We mentor others as we are mentored. It's the education the disciples received - and after 3 years, they were commissioned to "go and teach."

We've got a lot to unlearn, and a lot to learn. But oh my, what a journey and opportunity!