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.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Aldersgate Covenant - Wonderful Worship and Prayer Time

I am back from two days at the Aldersgate Covenant Gathering. AWAKE - REPENT - ASK - WATCH. It was a wonderful time to pray, worship, and to be reminded of the core of our being as both Christians and Methodists. The worship, the reminders of our spiritual underpinnings, and the birth of why Methodism began were deep, rich, and filling.

One blessing was to see some old friends, but also meet some folks "real time" that I have known through cyberspace for years, including folks like Juan Huertas, John Lomperis, David F. Watson, and Bishop Gary Mueller. I also got to meet new friends: Bishop Mark Webb, fellow DS Bud Reeves from Arkansas, and many others. To break bread together, to converse, see facial expressions, and embrace with a handshake helped what many of us have lamented and prayed over for sometime - how relationships and intimate settings help diminish misunderstandings and foster trust. Both are things our denomination desperately need.

I was part of a small group discussion entitled, "How Do We Focus on Doctrine and Mission That Unites vs. Not Divide Us." It was a good discussion, but occasionally frustrating. We realize the tension that is frustrating but necessary between doctrine and mission. Too much emphasis on doctrine makes us dogmatic, mission without doctrine renders us social workers without teaching a relationship about the risen Christ. I deeply appreciated how wonderfully we heard each other, even in disagreement. The atmosphere of both the gathering and the wonderful facilities (and hospitality!) of Church of the Resurrection UMC contributed wonderfully.

My frustration was a lack of discussion/time to the reality that our UMC family is hurting. The metaphor that came to mind while praying and worshiping was that we are a family in a hospital waiting room, trying to figure out what course of action to take with a loved one who is dying and needs intervention. Any of us who have been in those situations knows that the family doesn't always agree on a course of treatment, and sometimes those conversations turn passionate and heated. Of course all analogies can fall apart, but it is the image that continues to be in my mind - and of which I have no answer.

I have no doubt that a spiritual revival - in the true sense of the word, not the 3-5 day ritual so many of us grew up with - is a big part of the answer. Bishop Cho said one of the most powerful words of the Gathering: "Is our prayer monologue? Or dialogue?" As a denomination, we really seem to be fighting hard for what WE as individuals demand, and less about what God wants for us. That requires that we start listening to God more and talking less.

And for that, I continue to pray.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Embarrassing Those Who Answer the Call

I've had two discussions in as many months with a surgeon and an ordained minister about student loan debt. Not a few thousand dollars, but tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Enough debt to embarrass them in their work. When I heard these numbers, I cringed - and my heart went to them. And it bothers me now.

In the case of a United Methodist pastor being received into a conference, saddling them with a bunch of debt is a no-no - at least, if we take the Historic Questions (esp. #18) seriously.

What's interesting is that the original question wasn't, "Are you in debt as to embarrass you in your work?" It was, simply, "Are you in debt?" No doubt, the Wesley brothers knew the pain and burden of debt firsthand, since their father (and priest) Samuel had to be bailed out of prison twice for indebtedness - part of which was debt that he inherited from his mother. In addition to serving as a priest, he tried to be a farmer and a writer - and was successful at neither. Thus, the Early Methodists were understandably nervous about any of their ministers having any debt.

We live in a world where debt is increasingly commonplace, but a dangerous trend is coming upon those who seek to get an education: the amount of student debt in the United States recently surpassed $1 trillion, which makes it rank higher than all other kinds of debt except homeowner/mortgage debt. The delinquency rate for student loans has also gone up 40% in the last five years (Forbes, August 2013). While debt levels are coming down in all other areas, they are skyrocketing for student debt.

It's a double whammy for seminary graduates, who may have accrued debt from undergraduate school and have seminary debt on top of that... and then go to their first full-time pastorate making a salary less than what school teachers start out at. The most comprehensive study of this comes from Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, a Presbyterian seminary founded in 1818.

Tuition costs are increasing far faster than inflation costs. When I graduated from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1991, tuition was $6,800 a year; in today's dollars (using consumer price indices from 1991-2013) that would be $11,605. However, Candler's tuition this year is $20,334 - meaning that it costs today's students nearly twice as much to go to seminary than it did my generation. And according to Auburn Theological's research, living expenses and previous undergraduate debt pile up an even more incredible indebtedness. As I look though the various seminary tuitions and cost comparisons to years previous at other schools, the percentages tend to be the same. And since the Auburn study came out nine years ago, Sharon Miller (associate director of The Center for the Study for Theological Education) more recently noted in 2012 that, "It is no longer unusual for seminary student to leave school with $70k-$80k of debt." I am assuming that is undergraduate and seminary education combined.

While some financial planning could certainly save some students some grief, one cannot escape the increasing costs of seminary compared to salaries and an economy which have not risen at the same rate - and that this is the minimum standard required for one who feels called to elders orders in the United Methodist Church. This just isn't a problem for students, but also for conferences and seminaries as well. Conferences are seeing fewer young people pursue their call for many reasons, but finances are surely a part of the decision. Seminaries may find that future students maybe more savvy about finances (i.e., Dave Ramsey graduates) and will shop and find better deals, as the Auburn article states, "some combination of lower tuition price, lower living costs, and higher aid or increased employment possibilities." Some will surely go part-time and delay entering into ministry until later in life.

What this means is uncertain but certainly suggests a crisis that we need to start managing - otherwise, we will make seminary unaffordable for all but the wealthy, and create impoverished situations that go beyond things financial.

Like all things United Methodist, we are going to have to start being creative with seminary education, how we fund it, and how we support students who answer the call without embarrassing them with so much debt that they can't afford to follow their call - especially our young adults. We owe them that!


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Triage and Priority

Triage: 1a: the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients and especially battle and disaster victims according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors

b: the sorting of patients (as in an emergency room) according to the urgency of their need for care

2: the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success 
To this date, the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life was to leave a little boy who was in need of medical treatment. It was January 19, 1999, and I was a firefighter/medical responder who was "first-in" in the Charles Latham subdivision, just down the road from the church I was serving in Jackson, Tennessee. It was flattened by the same weather events that decimated Mother Liberty CME and hosts of other buildings, homes, and lives. The first person I treated was Logan, a young boy just a little younger than my daughter was at the time. A quick examination told me he had a serious head injury. He needed medical attention. I wanted to stay with him, hold his hand for being so brave, and wait for more help to arrive to transport him to a hospital. But I couldn't - he was breathing and alive. There was a whole subdivision of people that we had not seen yet - and who might be in worse medical condition. We had to leave. It was a very long night, and after all of what happened the rest of the night I knew I had made the right decision. It still didn't make it easy. Triage is hard. People matter.

I believe the UMC finds itself in this position in this season: the most divisive issue - at least in the news, Judicial Council docket, Connectional Table (our visioning body and steward of resources to carry out vision, mission, and ministry), and blogosphere - is homosexuality and same-sex weddings. It's about people - and people matter. This is an important matter worthy of thought, prayer, and action.

Unfortunately, this issue seems to be replacing the mission of the UMC: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, which goes on to say "...that local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs." It is something that I hope and pray all UM's agree upon.

If we were fulfilling our primary mission, we could devote significant time, resources, and visioning towards finding a faithful and healing manner to deal with other things that are important and significant, including the matter at hand in GLTBQ matters. However, in this season - we are not fulfilling our primary mission. We are closing churches. We are losing membership. We are losing our influence on the society in which we are to be influencing. In just about every way measurable and immeasurable, we are not fulfilling our UMC's mission, which is the Great Commission - something we are fairly sure that Jesus did say. To be sure, Rome is burning - perhaps slowly - but slow fires unquenched still result in a structure burning down.

Some will say that the structure needs to burn down. Before we are too quick to decide upon such, I think we sometimes forget what the "structure" of the UMC does: serves as a steward to itinerancy to insure the gifts of women and people of color are valued; owns and influences hundred's of hospitals, universities and colleges; and hold title to, and more importantly responsibility to, every local church in their bounds. That's not primarily about buildings - that's about missional outposts and local faith communities doing the primary work of the Gospel: to make disciples of Jesus to transform the world. Everything else is secondary. Important to be sure, but secondary. In this very difficult season, we HAVE to devote our resources, our visioning, our efforts into discipleship and mission. Very little of what we are saying - much less doing - at a General Church level, at national news levels, in the blogosphere, gives the outside world any indication that we are intent about making disciples. What we are saying to the world is that we are ready for schism over an issue that has nothing to do with our mission.

Over the past two years, the district I serve has visioned and birthed something we call, "Generative Leadership Academy." We thought that "Reproductive Leadership Academy" lacked some finesse and delicateness, but the thought was the same: to make disciples and leaders who would then go and replicate such. Over four weekends during a year we take participants through basic Christian and Wesleyan tenets: the role of grace, discipleship, the Three Simple Rules, piety, mission, evangelism. In two years, 280 laity have attended, and I have seen a hunger like never before in folks who are eager to be faithful in their discipleship. Fruit is being born as people are eager to do the hard but rewarding work of discipleship, relationships, and loving people who embrace hopelessness. But it involves our allowing ourselves to be transformed, of choosing who and what we will serve first - for we cannot serve two masters. 

Triage is hard - it involves decisions that involve the lives of people - hurting people. It is to assign resources and efforts that will have the greatest effect on the greatest number of people. There is a hurting world that needs our efforts at proclaiming Christ as Savior of the world more than they need our infighting about issues that no General Conference will ever be able to fix and that the larger world largely observes as a train wreck rather than something substantive. 

The last priority in triage is "morgue." In my opinion this is where the name calling needs to be categorized and sent. Words we use matter. Calling brothers and sisters homophobes, relativists, zealots, and other such terms get us nowhere, are dishonest, and profit us nothing. Inciting words aren't helpful either. Labeling folks as progressive, orthodox, evangelical, and conservative, and making it "us/they" or "not part of our family" is against every intent of spirit of covenant. So any of us "signing on" to anything other than the vows of being United Methodist and living out our Mission and Great Commission probably needs to think twice - especially when it comes to schism. 

We have absolutely no business talking schism when we aren't even trying to make the main thing the main thing, while people outside the UMC are starving from lack of love and hope because we aren't sharing with them God's grace and wonderful news that they are loved. We are squandering what God has gifted us with, from the highest level of the Church to the smallest local church community. 

To find what divides us is easy. To do what God commands us is hard.