Saturday, December 13, 2014

D.S. as Chief Missional Strategist - and Breaking the Rules... Revisited

I was going to write something like this today - and realized this old blog from last September still says what I love, believe, and am challenged by the office of district superintendent. Serving a great district certainly helps!

What I would add are these two things:
  1. We need to be continually developing spiritual guidance and direction, both among clergy and laity. It's not enough just to be "faithful" - our failure of not being a spiritually-deep people is not only counter to our Wesleyan roots, it is at the core of our failure to make disciples and be less fruitful in such.
  2. Control the need to control. Invite, develop, delegate, and deploy. It's not enough to be disciples - we have to be able to make disciples, who can then go and make disciples. Evangelism and discipleship cannot be micromanaged.
I firmly believe helping both laity and clergy develop their giftedness and call is the best thing we can do in this season, as well as embracing a life of piety - personal and corporate - in the best sense of being Christian and Wesleyan. Partnering with laity, and leading together as co-equals in developing generative discipleship, is essential if Methodism is going to reclaim its Method. 



Our episcopal area – the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences – has recently embraced a study of Gil Rendle’s Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement, and it has become the main work of our church’s charge conferences this year. As a district superintendent, I have had a love/hate relationship with this book. It states so clearly what we need to do to regain our mission, but challenges so many things we have grown into, become comfortable with, and accustomed to in our lives and churches.

Of all the sentences in Gil’s book, the two most trying and challenging to this me was this one: 
Our denominational life has become more regulatory than missional. We have become a rule-following people. 

And there is no denying this fact. The United Methodist Church mirrors our world governments at their worst. We regulate. We have policies and standard operating guidelines. We create watchdog groups to be sure others are “acting right.” We caucus ourselves to get more people on our “side.” And when we end up at General Conference, each side tries to present their rules to be enacted so that they will be followed. Having presented my own petition to the last General Conference (Petition 20769, and getting it approved and enacted with 889 votes for, 20 votes against), I have been part of the fray. Granted, it was not a controversial measure, but still just a “rule.”

And in the midst of all of this we somehow forgot our primary mission: to make disciples. Not to forward social causes, not to triumph or champion our “side” as the right one – but to make disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Discipleship is what Jesus commissions us to do. Anything else is at best secondary to that, and if we believe we are something else first, then we are no longer a church. 

Unless we want the Book of Discipline to continue to become larger and the UMC to continue to become smaller, we have to break the cycle – not just because we’re dying, not just because pastors won’t have a pension, but because we’re not making disciples for the transformation of the world – our mission! If we rely on the General Conference to make these bold changes, we will fail. We have to become bold ourselves, and transform into individuals who embrace and enable change. 

So this D.S. is willing to break a few rules, not for the sake of going rogue, but for the sake of being faithful to the Kingdom. I don’t want to meet my Maker one day and be asked why I chose to be a Pharisee instead of bold leader and disciple-maker. There has to be a better way.

What are essentials for district superintendents in this season? Permit me to offer these.

1. Hold individual charge conferences. Yes – I used to think CC’s were a waste of time, and the way they were often previously done they usually were. Reports can be filed and read by anyone who’d like to read them. But what if churches were challenged about what programs and ministries they are currently investing in and seeing how effective they are in making disciples? What if conferencing and conversation took place about self-reflection and self-awareness about what needs to change? What if we shared God stories about how lives were being transformed and how we as individuals can change the way we live out our faith so others hear the good news and not only become disciples, but disciple-makers? 

For a D.S. to truly be a chief missional strategist, s/he must be involved at the congregational level. Having cluster or area charge conferences is a poor substitute for making relationships and leading clergy and laity in substantive change. Approve the pastoral and staff salaries, approve the church leadership for the next year, and file the rest.  Spend the bulk of the charge conference in dialogue, assessment, celebration, repentance, and prayer. It might not be 100% kosher with the Discipline, but it gets at the heart of what we should be doing in conferencing as a means of grace. And while D.S.’s certainly can’t and shouldn’t micromanage every church’s mission in context, they can certainly challenge congregations to ask the right questions, challenge themselves, and become less insular and more neighborhood minded.

If someone doesn’t like it, I guess they can file charges on me. I’m willing to break these minor rules for the sake of enabling mission, instead of preventing it.

2. Be Willing to Risk Being a Pastor Instead of a Supervisor. It is a very tough line to walk, to be both a steward of order and church law and to be a shepherd to pastors and congregations under their charge. Unfortunately, we have created a climate where distrust is fostered and pastors are understandably reticent to confide and trust their D.S. It is a messy and uncomfortable place of tension. Having said that, D.S.’s have to know when to be a D.S. and when to be a pastor, and be able to live with and discern when to be which. That’s not quite kosher to the Discipline either. But I remain convinced that our mission far outweighs our need to be just personnel managers. 

Having a sphere of distrust is antithetical to Kingdom work. It’s doesn’t mean we don’t hold accountability for our leaders – we do. But we cannot continue to operate out of fear or distrust in a Kingdom that is build upon agape and grace. Moreover, if we are asking people to make one-on-one relationships with others to foster discipleship and evangelism, we clergy are going to have to model transparency and vulnerability. 

3. Trust Your Bishop (and Bishops, Be Trustworthy)You cannot ask pastors and congregations to trust you as their leader if you don’t trust your leader. Resist the temptation to tell a congregation, “The bishop is saying this – I’m just the messenger,” or “Our bishop believes this is the faithful way to go. He’s my boss so we’re doing it.” Those are dishonest ways of voicing to others that you disagree but are just doing your job. A D.S. is an extension of the bishop’s office – you are his/her voice. If you have disagreements with your bishop, tell him/her yourself. If we disagree, some conversation in is order so we can discern the work of the Spirit correctly. In the cabinet I serve in, we have found that transparency with each other leads us to leave the room with shared vision and focus. 

4. Be Willing to Get in Your Car and Drive. I bought a used ‘03 Toyota Avalon in 2011. It was used but well-maintained, large enough to be comfortable for long drives and driving other passengers but economical enough to be a good steward. It’s also designed for high mileage (I’m currently at 230k miles). There is no substitute for being physically present with congregations and committees to engender trust and sincerity, and no other way to lead clergy and laity into shared mission and ministry. It does wear on the soul… but I take some comfort in reading Bishop Asbury’s journals – it sure beats horseback! When the weather is nice I ride my motorcycle or open the windows. It is a wonderful way to enjoy God’s creation.

5. Know your Strengths and be Self-Aware. Bishop McAlilly had all of us cabinet members take the Gallup/Tom Rath StrengthsFinder assessment. I also had taken the Myers-Briggs personality assessment several years previous when in spiritual direction. While no one is solely “their assessment”, these are good tools to know about one’s self in how you follow, lead, and where your gifts and challenges lie.  My strengths lie in Achieving, Relating, Strategy,  Learning, and Arranging. My Myers-Briggs type is INFJ (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Judging). That means I’m good at being intuitive and have a “feel” for things, and like to work independently and with details. But it also means I have to guard against expecting perfection in others, that I keep in mind the whole picture, and that I seek to be collaborative rather than a lone ranger in my work ethic. If I don’t keep these things in mind, I won’t lead as effectively.

Being a D.S. has never been easy. But in this season, as the UMC lives into a changed reality, it is more crucial than ever that we take thou authority to make sure we are equipping clergy, laity, and local churches to make disciples. That is our mission – and nothing else is sacred but the mission; that is, everything must be on the table for change, revision, renewal, and transformation, so that we might make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Selective Truths, Hard Truths

Wordie by Kathleen Berry of UMNS, based on poll findings
of most important issues facing the United Methodist Church.
While the Methodist Blogosphere continues to crank out new plans to stay united as a United Methodist Church, it occurs to me that we are just finding ways to avoid hard truths and difficult covenantal (i.e., real, substantive) conversations. We certainly shout at each other across walls and in the comfort of tweets and Facebook comments, but rarely at a round table with promises of respect, open ears, and leaving the table with disagreements but love for all.

Regardless of our ideological bent, if we were to come to a round table to discuss these things, we would find that we have our own confessions and inconsistencies to claim. They are inconvenient and they have no easy answers. A "winning the argument" mentality wants to label them as red herrings. Truth telling would have us admitting our inconsistencies and make us vulnerable.

Sexuality and marriage are messy for sure. In what follows, I am going to assume that a prima scriptura view of scripture is something all Methodists would agree upon (yes, probably a broad thing to assume). I will also assume that all UM's know that Albert Outler had great misgivings in coining the term Quadrilateral (in his words to Paul Chilcoate, "There is one phrase I wish I had never used: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It has created the wrong image in the minds of so many people and, I am sure, will lead to all kinds of controversy."). In short, tradition, experience, and reason are the lenses in which we read scripture, with scripture as a primary source.

  • Under such, Traditionalists claim scripture and history/tradition when it comes to marriage and LGBTQ matters, yet would have a difficult time using the same where divorce/remarriage is concerned. Christian heterosexuals' "dirty little truth" is that, where Scripture is concerned, we rationalize and accept divorce and remarriage very flippantly these days as "acceptable and forgiven sins" but homosexuality is the unacceptable and unforgivable sin. Also, church weddings as recently practiced are a rather new invention historically and clergy involvement in such is nowhere to be found in scripture. Traditionally and historically, a couple simply (1) announced that they were married (with little liturgy and no clergy, with the couple and not a priest serving as the celebrants), and (2) there was a huge feast and party. (Note: the latter is still true, and in less than a month I will be financing such for my daughter's wedding feast...). Traditionalists would also have a very difficult time affirming the ordination of women, although I would uplift Romans 16 and Phoebe serving as a deacon - as opposed to a helper or deaconess - who was certainly doing "ordained work" in Paul's ministry.
  • Progressives lean heavily on sexuality and marriage (or as I've read, some against marriage) as a civil rights matter and rarely discuss the wide berth of opinion in the LGBTQ community, particularly among Queer scholars and activists, on marriage as an institution. While there is growing dissatisfaction in the secular world with marriage in general (heterosexual or otherwise), I have yet to see an LGBTQ ethic of Christian commitment posited. Just as in heterosexual marriage, this question has yet to be addressed in the United Methodist LGBTQ realm: what is a Christian ethic of same-sex marriage and commitment? Addressing such matters is helpful when it comes to ordination, since our leaders are held to a higher standard in modeling and living that which we profess about marriage. 
  • We are kidding ourselves if we think there are only two sides to this (and other) issues. These issues are multifaceted with multiple opinions. As I shared in an article that was printed by, "There are theologically and biblically orthodox folks who also embrace a more progressive sexual ethic, as there are more conservative folks who also embrace a more progressive sexual ethic - and permutations all around. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, a United Methodist, is extremely conservative in some things, but he supports people entering "any kind of arrangement they wish" where straight and LGBTQ marriage are concerned." 
  • Our reading and use of scripture with the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience will always create a tension that confounds us all. Steve Harper recently said this on his Facebook page which says it well: "The canon of Scripture is fixed; the interpretation of it is not. It is not an act of disbelief to wrestle with revelation that is always larger than our minds can fully comprehend."
It would be refreshing to come to a round table and discuss these things with these truths claimed, and admit the messiness and frustration rather than sling epithets, accusations, and abusing covenant relationships. God is not smiling on our handling/mishandling of this.

Hard truth. People in the pews are simply not as bent out of shape on this issue as clergy seem to be. The biggest concern to United Methodist laity is (according to a poll done by United Methodist Communications), "creating disciples of Christ." The second biggest concern is "youth involvement." Third is "members' spiritual growth." Fourth is "decline in membership." You have to go to eighth to find "sexual orientation/same-sex marriage" as a concern of those in the pews. A harder truth: 90% of the people in the pews don't think the church should split over issues of human sexuality. Now I certainly don't always put my stock in polls, but our laity aren't asking us to give in to societal pressures or to be popular or even to be less "churchy": they're asking us to make The Great Commission a priority. Quite frankly, we as a UMC suck at discipleship and mission - those things which are supposedly what the people called Methodists claim to champion. I am so thankful for the pockets of hope I am occasionally privileged to see.

It may be that clergy and lay leadership are making human sexuality an idol that its congregants don't want to worship. Practically speaking, people spend very very little time with their sexuality in the course of a day - so why is the Church? Is it to avoid the more difficult work of discipleship and mission? Is it to fight an argument for the sake of fighting? Discipleship and mission are things you can/should do regardless of where you sit in the theological/idelogical spectrum. Neither of these things are being done well. 

What if we spent the majority of our time (at General Conference as well as every day) addressing discipleship, youth involvement, spiritual growth, and membership decline? It seems like the people in the pews are hungry for it. Yet as I am finding, those of us who should be the most passionate about a Christian essential such as discipleship are the ones who have the most trouble defining it, much less teaching and leading it.

We in leadership have a lot to answer for the very apparent disconnect. Perhaps it is time to do something about discipleship and mission and less about "resolving" same-sex marriage and schism, since we are not doing this well, either. Our people in the pews are hungry for the former, and just not as bent out of shape about the latter as we clergy think. 


Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Some days, pray and listen as I might, God seems awfully silent. Other days, I hear Him loud and clear.

A series of events this morning leads me to share what I'm going to share today about our priorities as Christians and as United Methodists. Bear with me as I share a little context regarding spiritual promptings.

This morning. I looked out one of the north office windows waiting for the Keurig to make another cup of coffee, and saw prominent patches of purple amidst the clover in the lawn. I looked it up, and it's polygonum pensylvanicum, of the family polygonaceae - Pennsylvania Smartweed, part of the Buckwheat family (Dr. David Pitts, my botany prof from undergrad days, would be proud). It's a weed - but it's beautiful.
“I think it p*sses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” - Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Go back an hour: I was driving to the office this morning when I received a phone call, and "Blocked" popped up on the phone screen. I never answer such calls and let them go to voicemail. So I pressed "Decline" - or, I should say that I meant to - and all of the sudden I realized that this person was on the air over my car speakerphone (and so was I), so I answered. She begins: "Are you Sky McCracken the D.S.?" I told her I was, and starting bracing for whatever complaint was about to come my way. I proceeded to have the most interesting phone call I've had in a while. In short: she was tired of the United Methodist Church acting like the United States in political division, she was weary of bishops and pastors being partisan instead of prophetic, and wanted to know when we would get serious about making disciples instead of finding every excuse and cause in the world to get into a fight. She went further to say that she thinks clergy fight to avoid being convicted that they've been unfaithful and ineffective to the mission of the Church and in being true to our roots in being Methodists.

I pulled over. 

This woman said she was ashamed to be United Methodist. Through conversation I learned that she had gone to a UM college, was steeped in the writings of Wesley, knew of his fervor for local mission and discipleship and his preference for the poor over the classism of England, knew he believed in the power of lay witness over clericalism. She said she hadn't given up on the Methodist Church yet, but she had quit reading UM News Service, the UMR webpage, most blogs, and all the UM Facebook groups. She said she liked what I said about discipleship but feared I was wasting my time because people would rather fight. She wouldn't tell me her name, but she thanked me for listening.

Go back a day: Bishop McAlilly held a "Covenant Conversation" for the Memphis Conference clergy (and is having one for the Tennessee Conference clergy as I write this). Anne Burkholder from Emory (and a clergy member of the Florida Conference) presented a very good discussion about how we who are elders, deacons, and local pastors live in covenant with each other, holding differing opinions and theological positions, yet vowing to live as brothers and sisters. She reminded us that brothers and sisters cannot get divorced, unlike those who choose to marry. We talked at tables about why and how we should care for others who live together in this covenant, how we should have respectful conversation instead of labeling/pigeonholing others long before we even TRY to have relationships with each other, and reminded us (or, in most cases, informed us) of Wesley's Twelve Rules for Preachers. These got a lot of silence:
5. Believe evil of no one unless fully proved; take heed how you credit it. Put the best construction you can on everything. You know the judge is always supposed to be on the prisoner's side.
6. Speak evil of no one, else your word, especially, would eat doth like a canker; keep your own thoughts within your own breast till you come to the person concerned.
11. You have nothing to do but save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who want you most. 
"Observe, it is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care merely of this or that Society, but to save as many souls as you can, to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power, to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord."
Amidst all the infighting about sexuality, doctrine, political leanings, what "social gospel" means; what kind of worship is most faithful; whether the preacher should tuck their shirt in or wear a clerical collar; or whether God should be called He, She, or whatever gender-neutral pronoun you can find - we are the least passionate about that which we were called to do above all else: make disciples of Jesus Christ. I'm not a Greek scholar, and I've heard some say, "We really can't MAKE disciples," or "That's not really what that passage means," but I've read it in context (in about 14 differing translations) intensively for about five years and they all say, "Go make disciples" or "disciple/teach the nations" in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, either all the Greek and New Testament scholars on every one of these translation committees were whacked in the head, or it might really mean what it says.

2014 poll commissioned by
United Methodist Communcations
The most effective pastors and churches that I know have made discipleship a priority, and they have done it by making the Great Commission the top priority. Adam Hamilton (at best an acquaintance, certainly not on speed dial) and the church he serves know how to do discipleship. We've shared an email or two between us. Do I agree with every social and theological stance he takes? No. But neither does he make those stances the main thing; discipleship is the main thing. Jorge Acevedo and Shane Bishop (people I know a little better than Adam) and the churches they serve know how to do discipleship. Their social stances are different than Adam's.  Do I agree with every social and theological stance they take? No. But neither of them make those stances the main thing either.

It's all about Jesus. Really. And discipleship should be what we are majoring in, because in this season we no longer have the luxury to argue amongst ourselves or to major in the minors. Simplistic? Perhaps I am. But here is what I am sure of: whatever we think might be gained in all these divisive arguments among brothers and sisters, the loss is huge. We are losing the confidence of those who sit in the pews. They aren't seeing this as the most important problem in the UMC. My unofficial poll and observations match a poll taken by UMC Communications a few months ago. Now, I am cautious about polls and "popularity" among people, since we Christians are supposed to be counter-cultural, but I give this poll a little more credence, since it was a poll of United Methodists, not of greater society.

Our leaders seem to think sexuality is the most important thing. And I certainly have my own views on the matter (and have been public and transparent on the matter). Yet our people in the pews place that a lot lower on the list, and see discipleship at the top of the issues we face as a denomination. That seems to match what Jesus said.

It seems to me this present "crisis" in the UMC is not sexuality, or biblical hermeneutic, or any other issues save two: (1) failure of UMC clergy to fully live in covenant with each other as brothers and sisters, and (2) failure of clergy to enable and equip congregations for discipleship/disciple making.

What if we were to take Alice Walker's quote and turn it to the interrogative: "What about the UMC p*sses God off?" I fear I know the answer. I certainly know one laywoman's answer. And what scares me is that some of our best leadership and followership may just go on and continue in faithfulness and fruitfulness, letting the rest of the UMC fade, as Wesley sometimes feared, into "a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power."

If folks wanted a fight - we have it. Is it worth it? So worth it that we'd break covenants with each other regarding how brother and sister clergy vowed to live and work with each other? So worth it that we clergy would disregard the opinions and passions of the laity who are begging to be led in discipleship and have made it clear they care less about the things that seem to give clergy energy enough to fight with each other? So worth it to give up our primary mission as Christians to win it?

I am an orthodox, centrist, United Methodist. But I love Jesus more than my stances, and enough to adapt my priorities to His, which are clear: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."



Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals: Labels and Pigeonholing

Between attending national/international United Methodist events, and reading what goes on in and around United Methodist circles, I see an increasingly disturbing trend amongst the people called United Methodists: we are a people of labels. In fact, I would daresay that we are a people who are desperate to label others. We seem to have to know where someone else stands on an issue so that we can know if they are like us, or they are like... the other. 

We Americans get it honestly. We see it modeled every day with the way our politicians and news media act. While every Christian denomination certainly has its version of church politics and caucusing, we United Methodists seems to do it better (or, more accurately, worse) than the rest. I am more than thankful for the diversity of our denomination, but I lament the horrible blood feuding that takes place among people who call themselves Christian. I have to be honest: I've found that Methodists and Calvinists often get along better than United Methodists and United Methodists.

We seem to be desperate to label each other. Desperate. As if all else depended on it. And when someone uses words that were once definitive for Christians and, more specifically Methodists, they are now "code" for whatever the labeler needs them to say - words that have lost their original meaning, bastardized into dirty words depending on which side of the ideological fence one sees the "other." 

The problem is, the labels we stick on people are rarely fair, much less accurate. I've always thought I tended to be around the middle/via media - which is why I continued along a Wesleyan/Anglican path. Theologians like N.T. Wright and younger UM's like Jason Vickers and Andrew Thompson speak to me. However, I've been told by some that this makes me a conservative... or a progressive (confused yet?). Yet others have told me that my personal stance on capital punishment makes me a progressive. My beliefs on abortion get me labeled a conservative. Still others have told me that my sacramental bent makes me a progressive... or a conservative... or a Catholic (my sacramental beliefs pretty much align with our official UM statements, by the way). And my recent article on sexuality got me labeled a conservative by those who didn't like my use of the words "traditional ethic" and a progressive by those who didn't like my plea for round table discussions on sexuality (which I believe we desperately need on other matters as well). Now, I do find some comfort in knowing that John Wesley endured some labeling as well: bible moth, bible bigot, a "Holy Club" member, sacramentalist, and most scandalous: Methodist. The last one stuck.

Labeling others becomes convenient (and expedient) because it spares us the harder work of initiating and fostering relationships. One fear of making relationships is that we're afraid of how we will be labeled if we are seen, or even perceived, of being with the "other." Guilt by association. Maybe it's because we know what happened to Jesus when he met the woman at the well, or went out to the lepers, or fellowshipped with people. "He is a drunkard and a glutton. I bet he cavorts with tax collectors and is a womanizer, too." More labels. I'm convinced our need to label is based on fear.

If we ever hope to be a truly United Methodist Church - beyond the "united" simply coming from our 1968 EUB/Methodist merger - we are going to have to go beyond labels and ideologies to taking covenant seriously where we intentionally seek out relationships instead of seeking out differences. When we attempt to pigeonhole others, we are practicing our own private bigotry. Will Durant said it best: To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves. 

I posted an article on church bullying yesterday on my Facebook face, and one person commented, "There are no politics dirtier than church politics." I fear she's right. We as the Church ought to do conflict and deal with our differences better than the rest of society. But right now, we are mirroring American politics. In days past, Republican and Democrat lawmakers fought on the congressional floor, then in the evening went to a bar or restaurant together and worked something out. Now, doing such and getting a picture snapped an put on Twitter would mean certain political death of such politicians. It seems we church folks feel the same way: don't get caught dead with "the other."

If we want war, we already have it. But if we want to be people of peace who truly embrace Jesus - we HAVE to sit with each other. Talk. Build relationships. Pray. Desire to have a heart that is at peace rather than at war. Listen. Quit labeling. Quit looking for "code" words. Long before we had any books on conflict resolution, we had Jesus modeling all of these things. 

In my opinion, the future of the United Methodist Church has very little to do with our theology or doctrinal stances, how we feel about sexuality, or our differing hermeneutics on scripture - for these arguments have been present long before any of us were even born and even at the beginning of Methodists (ever read about Wesley and Whitefield?). The future of the UMC will be dependent on our willingness to build relationships and establish trust AMIDST our differences. Until we are willing to get to that root cause, we are spinning our wheels. I suspect far more people are put off by the Church by our infighting instead of any of our beliefs. I mean, let's face it: why would anyone want to join a blood feud?

Do we really want to be noisy gongs and clashing cymbals?


Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Pastor By Any Other Name - Revisited

I wrote a blog with the same title a couple of years ago - and after hearing from both the "Excellence in Ministry" event in Colorado and hearing Elaine Heath preach yesterday on the dearth of spirituality in the seminary/academy, I was both encouraged and provoked to reflect more on the subject.

I have often said that the United Methodist Church has no theology of ordination - and I am ready to modify that a little bit to say that the UMC is not PRACTICING a consistent or historical theology of ordination. Methodism no doubt has one of the most interesting histories of ordination, but the one developed versus what it has morphed into are at variance with each other. What we had when Methodism was birthed was an understanding of how the Holy Spirit gifted, enabled, and set apart some servants to preach and provide for the sacraments to be celebrated. What we have now is a tangled mess of clericalism and the antithesis of what Wesley feared (with thanks to Randy Maddox's reminder):
  1. What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends: and if it answers them not, it is nothing worth. - John Wesley, Letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746. 

We currently have over twenty classifications for clergy in the United Methodist Church. What I have found is that such is nearly impossible to explain to most laity (and some clergy), as well as to explain to those of other communions and fellowships. And, when examined, is it unsupportable in a Wesleyan ethos to function so.

To complicate the matter more - and to further be at odds with Wesley's intentions - is how we have handled clergy education. One of Wesley's warnings was that in our quest to educate clergy that we exercise prudence in not "professionalizing" them as was often the case with law and medicine, thus "elevating" them from the class of those whom they would be seek to serve. (So it might behoove us to be a little careful about the doctor/medical school, pastor/divinity school comparisons!) It is also important to note that historically, a Divinity degree was not required of Methodist clergy until 1956 (and then, it was a Bachelor of Divinity, not a Master of Divinity). Before then, a course of study was the usual route Methodist pastors took, and college and seminary were alternatives.

The reason I write of this is because of several cruxes we have reached in the UMC (and, I suspect, we are not the only denomination so affected):

  • Student debt. Student debt is mounting - at steep rates. That, mixed with tuition that has gone up disproportionately with the cost of living, creates a perfect storm for both the UMC and for UM seminaries: ministerial candidates have debt that is nearly impossible to eradicate, seminaries are stuck between deferring admission to a student because of the undergraduate debt and the need to have enough enrollment to make ends meet, and Boards of Ministry have to wrestle with deferring a candidate who has too much student debt, yet accrued it getting the minimum standard of education required. Of course, some debt counseling would go a long way with students. But with scholarships and fellowships declining, students are forced to go to school part-time to stay out of debt - which delays one's entry into ministry. The unintended consequence of requiring the M.Div is the reality that, now and in the near future, only upper-middle class and upper class folks will be able to afford the education necessary to fulfill the standards of the UMC... a denomination founded on ministering to the least, the last, and the lost in society, with practical divinity at the heart of ministry. (A good resource is the Auburn Theological Seminary report on seminary student debt, found here.)
  • Flaws and holes in seminary education. To be honest, our UM seminaries (and many others) are more like schools of theology, not seminaries in the truest definition of the word. While some would argue semantics between academics and praxis, it is fair to say that until recently, our seminaries did very little, if anything, with spirituality and ministerial practice; indeed, spirituality was often a dirty word in the theological academy, not seen as a "credible" discipline worthy of time and study (thankfully, this is changing). When I asked this question once at an alumni advisory committee meeting, I was told by several, "You get that after seminary. There's too much theology, history, and biblical study to cover - you can't expect seminary to do that too. That's not our/their job." My story is not unique.
  • Discontinuity of History, Theology, and Practice of Pastoral Ministry. Contrary to popular belief, we ordained local pastors (referred to as local elders) until very recently (1968), which is at variance with our sister AME, AMEZ, and CME denominations, who still ordain their local (i.e., non-itinerating) pastors. One third of our pastors in the UMC are local pastors, who we used to ordain, but not "license" to celebrate the sacraments - with no theological defense of such a practice. I pray that we soon regain the delineation between ordination and conference membership. Ordination/ordo does not "belong" to the individual - it belongs to the Church to use in the course of mission and ministry. To quote Gordon Lathrop: 

The leadership of the liturgy is part of the liturgy. Ordination is intended to include persons in the schedule and pattern whereby the Christian assembly enacts the meaning of the Christian faith. Indeed, the order to which one is ordained is, finally, simply a list of persons who take their place and turn in the leadership of the structure of the ordo. - Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, Fortress Press, 1993, p. 190. 

While I was not there, I am encouraged to hear the missional concerns that Prof. Randy Maddox and others raised last week at the Mid-Quadrennial training event in Colorado for Boards of Ministry regarding our present state of affairs in the UMC. I hope our own denomination's Study on Ministry takes note and heeds our own history and theology of our founding and genius of Methodism. As a district superintendent, I can attest that at present:

  • a master of divinity degree is no indicator (or insurer) of pastoral effectiveness, nor do I think it should be the "minimum" standard for ordination (and note that I do NOT equate ordination and conference membership/itineration)
  • combining churches/charges together are no longer the solution they once were to creating salary packages large enough to pay a full-time salary
  • clericalism often inhibits shared lay/clergy leadership
  • we need more, not less, flexibility in educational requirements for those seeking ordination that considers situation and context
  • seminaries need (and I believe would be willing) to work with us on these frustrations and help us find solutions for local churches and the denomination without "dumbing down" ministerial education. We must be willing to shift our thinking and be willing to ditch outmoded pedagogy

What gives me hope are things like our own Paducah and Paris District's Generative Leadership Academy, and other leadership and missional initiatives across our Connection. I've been blessed to watch leadership skills and spiritual gifts identified and discerned. I've gotten to see the "aha" moments when someone "gets it" in regarding discipleship and mission. And I believe that Methodism's best days are still before us - we just have to be willing to shift our ways to 
cultivate ordained and lay leadership. 

New wineskins for new wine.


Monday, July 07, 2014

Quiet Patriotism and Incomplete Education

If you haven't seen the Guinness/Fourth of July commercial, be prepared - it's a tear jerker. It, along with the Guinness Basketball commercial last year, are both part of their "Made of More" campaign. A friend of mine sent me the link to the commercial, and I wasn't prepared for the flood of emotions that were going to come over me. It's well done.

I learned a quiet patriotism from my father. My dad didn't set a flag out on the 4th of July, and he didn't make any kind of fanfare about Veteran's Day. Had I not found some of his service medals and insignia when I was young, I might not have even known he even served in the Army, much less a war (Korean War). Two of his older brothers served in World War II, and one died in service. When I fully understood that as an adult, it explained much of my dad's quiet patriotism. He was proud of his country, so proud that amidst his family's fresh pain of losing a son and brother a few short years previous, he didn't fight being drafted - even at his conservative father's urging to find a way to avoid service. His quiet patriotism lapsed a few times. He was very direct with the college students he taught during the Vietnam War - "Go ahead and protest the government if you like, but leave the soldiers alone. Don't ever forget what they're doing on our behalf." And when Team USA beat Russia at the 1980 Olympics, you could have heard my dad whoop and holler a block away. 

My dad was an "old liberal" - he liked H.L. Mencken's definition of believing in liberty, but not so much to force it upon anyone. At the same time, he wasn't a pacifist - he always said you couldn't allow innocent people to get beaten up. That tension not only worked for him, he lived it. Dad always looked after the underdog and the poor. He had been there.

Seeing that commercial yesterday conjured up many memories. I remember going to England with my Dad several years ago and the two of us going to a pub, and he asking me, "What would an Englishman drink? I can't drink that roofing tar you like (Guinness)." So I suggested a Newcastle. He nursed it in his Don McCracken way. And uncommonly, after a few minutes, he said, "You and I should have done this a long time ago." And so we talked about things that mattered. 

Dad's 80th birthday
He said that while he had secretly wished I'd become a major league baseball umpire, that I looked happy in what I do - and I was (am). He said he loved his life and had no regrets. And I realized that while my father was extremely eccentric, had a strange relationship with God, and lived an even stranger (but strong) marriage with my mom - he provided an incomplete yet unique and good education for me. I'm different from my dad - but what he taught me serves me well. I value education and at the same time know I need to be a life-long learner. And while I was never the player, coach, or historian he was, I love baseball. He taught me how to drag a left-handed bunt down the first base line while also learning how to mow, drag, and line a field, how to be a smart fielder always thinking about what to do if the ball is hit to me while also learning to keep a scorebook and proving a box score, how to be an aggressive hitter and how to be a pitcher's umpire (because no one comes to a game to watch a batter get a walk). He taught me enough math to get through high school and college, as I had a mental block for it. I learned from him how to be a gentle evangelist and to tolerate those who approach God with a thinking and doubt-embracing faith that leads to a strong and sure faith. And I learned to have a respect and appreciation for those who serve our country in the military, and while I mourn over an uncle I never met who died in war, I am also thankful for my dad who came back from war safely - and thus, thankful for my life. 

So when I saw the commercial with an empty table, chair, and pint of beer waiting for a soldier to come home, I teared up. I think about my classmates Kathy (Houff) Isaacson (Army, retired), and Col. Jack Usrey (Army, still active), who serve(d) with distinction. I think about the horrible telegram my family got to tell them my uncle was MIA, and later declared dead, in World War II. And I think about how my family waited anxiously until my father returned home from Korea - anxious about their baby brother from the moment he left home until he came back. And I fast-forward and think about seeing my daughter try on her bridal dress yesterday - and while I wish her grandfather could be at her wedding, I am so thankful for my life and legacy, and so very thankful to be American. I take none of these things lightly - because of a quiet patriot. These are things that matter.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Random Suggestions to Pastors and Churches from a District Superintendent

I am often inspired while taking a shower or cleaning the house (read Kathleen Norris' The Quotidian Mysteries for more explanation).  The following is random advice to United Methodist pastors and churches after being a district superintendent for three years (and three months, and thirteen days. And I really DO like my job). These are in no particular order.

  1. Churches: unless you are blessed with a large budget and resources, don't give into the temptation of getting rid of your parsonage in favor of a housing allowance. Contrary to what you were told years ago, it usually causes the average pastor a logistical headache and financial hardship. Fewer and fewer pastors break even financially on such an arrangement, and sometimes get stuck with two house payments when a move occurs and a house doesn't sell quickly. Pastors, don't think that "I really need to live in my house" is a good excuse to tell your DS and bishop when asked to move - no one forced you to buy a house, and in most situations I would advise a pastor moving into a housing allowance situation to rent/lease rather than buy if they truly appreciate the itinerancy. Buying a house is a gamble at best, and a possible financial nightmare at worst. Of course there are exceptions, and consulting a realtor AND a banker in the area is a good idea. Related to that....
  2. Churches: don't even think of buying or building a parsonage next door to the church. Ever. And if your parsonage IS next to the church, consider selling it and buying another one. It is a HUGE stressor for parsonage families, particularly those with young children, to live next to the church. Pastors are bad enough about not taking time off; it's worse when they DO take a day off and people knock on the door wanting a door opened, asking you where everyone is for a meeting, or complaining that you were mowing your yard wearing a swimsuit instead of pants and a shirt. Pastors:  if your church supplies you with a parsonage, take good care of it. Insist on yearly inspections by the Trustees. One of the reasons churches want out of the parsonage business is because some pastors and families have literally trashed them. There's no excuse for that - and these days, expect to get a bill for what it will take to repair the damage you have left. Wear and tear is one thing, but neglect and inattention are another. When you move, leave the parsonage in better shape than when you found it - you're not only making a statement to your church, but to the clergy brother or sister who follows you, and that you are in covenant with.
  3. Pastors: be flexible about your day off. We've gone from the extremes of pastors not taking a day off to pastors being inflexible about time off. While days off should be respected, no one chooses the day or time to have a car accident, family tragedy, or death. Some days, your day off is going to be interrupted by life happenings through no one's fault or choice. Churches:  educate yourselves on what constitutes a pastoral emergency. Your teenager being in a car accident and awaiting surgery is a pastoral emergency; being in a fender-bender and getting a few stitches is not.
  4. Pastors: close your door or leave your office when you need uninterrupted study time for preparing sermons/worship. You'll get more work done, get it done more quickly, and be more present for your church at other times when they need you. I never had much luck working on sermons at the office - too many interruptions and people coming by who want and need your attention (and rightly so). Also, get your sermon work done earlier in the week, or even work a week ahead, for this reason: other worship team members need to know what you're doing so they can plan, too. Churches: know that if your pastor is away working on such, that they are working and not goofing off. If a pastor is doing their job, they are more often than not away from the office doing it rather than inside it.
  5. Pastors and Churches: you will serve your church better if, instead of having pastoral "office hours" you help congregations adapt to making appointment times with your pastor. With cell/smartphones, getting in touch with your pastor  and making an appointment is as easy as an email, text or Facebook message, or phone call (if you can't find someone these days, you aren't trying very hard). Plus, in the more private society we are living in today, many would rather meet the pastor somewhere other than the church office for pastoral counseling and conversations. Given that our missional priorities are becoming focused outwardly rather than inwardly, your pastor and other church staff may need to be out in the community more than in the church building. That doesn't mean they are unavailable - it just means we need to avail ourselves of technology to contact them for a visit. Pastors: this means that you return emails, texts, and phone messages, and as promptly as possible. And if you ARE in the office, and your door IS open, be receptive (and hospitable!) to a drop-in visitor. Make a pot of coffee or keep some drinks/water nearby, or offer to drive to the nearest coffee shop or restaurant. These conversations are great opportunities to foster relationships. 
  6. Pastors: buy a good used car as opposed to a new car, and do your best to pay cash for it - and if you can't, borrow as little as you can and for as short a duration as you can. Resist the urge to say, "get my payment down to _____." Buying a new car is ALWAYS a sucker bet - it loses 15%-25% of its value when you drive it off the lot, and is an ever-depreciating asset.  Drive your car until the wheels are falling off - I have had three cars that I have put over 200k miles on. Constant maintenance is key, and cheap compared to car payments and repairs. When you pay it off, keep banking the money you would have put on payments to save for the next car. And if it's paid for, it's worth the occasional steep repair bill. These days, even dropping a new transmission or engine into a car already paid for may be worth it. And most importantly, get a car that's practical. If you don't have 3 kids, you don't need a minivan or an SUV - get a sedan. They're cheaper, safer, and better for the environment (SUV's and vans give the driver a false sense of security, as insurance and accident rates will show). 
  7. Pastors and Churches: Don't tie your pastoral or church identity with the set pastoral salary. In older days, DS's used to push raises and send letters about the cost of living/CPI increases, try to get their pastors a raise when they moved, etc. We now live in a new reality - and some conferences face church salary/support reductions where pastors either encounter a salary reduction at their present church or face a reduction when they move (see the recent statement from the Kentucky Conference). Fair? No - but it is the current reality. Pastors: don't jump to the conclusion that when someone moves and gets a "cut" that they did something wrong - it's just the reality of this season. Churches: set a salary that is fair and affordable. We all live by faith - but don't put the Lord to a foolish test. Having said that, the attitude of "keeping a pastor humble" is not only a poor reflection of a church's view of their pastor, it's also not in the Bible.
Just a few thoughts. I'm sure there are other pearls of wisdom out there...


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Do You Know Your Family?

I'm a blessed man. I got to host our annual conference (Memphis) last week in Paducah, and this week am attending the Tennessee Annual Conference, since I am a part of an area cabinet. I've been surrounded by UMC brothers and sisters who love Jesus and love their church. And in the past two years I have seen a shift toward more grace, more harmony, and more willingness to work together as an annual conference instead of it being a ground to sew discord and challenges at any suggestion of (needed!) change. Our bishop is a huge part of that. Adopting priorities for mission and discipleship is another part of that. I believe our next challenge will be to deepen existing relationships and to be willing to make new ones - especially with those we would usually find reason not to foster such relationships.

Our recent UMC infightings, statements, and threats can be obstacles to this if we allow it.  It is so easy to dismiss and pigeonhole folks whom we perceive to be different socially and theologically - whether it be by wearing a cross or a rainbow stole around their neck, sporting a tie or a clerical collar, wearing a dress or jeans, shirts tucked in or out, cool glasses or reading glasses, clergy or lay, adult or youth.

In his book Restoring the Bride, Steve Harper reminds us of the Indian cultural tradition of the round table, where faith, hope, and love come together. It is at the heart of where all Christians should be as brothers and sisters - family. Unfortunately, we in the UMC often choose to sit at war tables, where we plan warfare to defeat whatever/whomever we think the "other" is. In other words: planning a civil war. 

We're kidding ourselves if we think the divisions are so neatly defined. And we're practicing avoidance of the worst kind to not engage our other family members whom we have avoided getting to know for so many years - and in the process learning some really bad habits that hurt us in doing the evangelistic work of making disciples of Jesus.

So instead of signing on to the latest statement - what about engaging the "other", who while being different from us, is blood-kin through the blood of Jesus Christ!

You know, we can pick our friends - but we can't pick our family. 


Friday, May 23, 2014

Response to the "Anonymous Eighty"

from Wikipedia
I wrote this response to Maxie Dunnam on his Facebook page in regards to the "Anonymous Eighty" and their insistence that the United Methodist Church "must divide." I have great respect for Maxie, but until the UMC and General Conference starts to make generative discipleship and mission our priorities (as they are in Scripture and in our own denomination's mission statement), a schism is self-indulgent and an act of avoidance of the most sinful kind.


Until we make discipleship and mission our first priorities, the United Methodist Church will continue to lose members, just as denominations such as the Southern Baptists and Episcopalians - who, while having definitive statements on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriages, continue to lose members for the same reason: failure of generative discipleship and missional focus. You would think we would learn from our sister communions - but we seem hell bent to repeat their mistakes.

Generative discipleship and mission SHOULD BE the future for United Methodists - and was at the heart of the BIRTH of Methodism. Schism at this time and over this issue (homosexuality/same-sex marriage) is sinful, self-indulgent, and shows unwillingness to be faithful to our primary task. We are taking away energy, resources, and precious time away from what our Lord commissioned us to do, first and foremost: make disciples of Jesus Christ who go and make disciples of Jesus Christ. 

I'd be more impressed by these 80 leaders if they shared their best practices toward discipleship and growth. Say what you want about Adam Hamilton  - but he's been unselfish about sharing evangelistic tools and missional strategies that WORK. And if you go to his church, you'll hear very little about this issue, and more about THE issue we Christians should be worried about: making disciples, transforming the world.

Our denomination looks like congressional infighting. I suspect we'll end up with the same approval ratings.