Saturday, January 03, 2015

More Observations and Random Thoughts from a D.S.

I posted a similarly-titled blog while attending General Conference in 2012, based on feelings and observations in the moment. What follows today are more detailed feelings and observations based on longer experience.

I've been a superintendent since March 2011. In calendar years, I will soon approach four years doing this work in March. In Book of Discipline years, however, I will be begin my sixth time to be appointed to this work in June. I have fewer years ahead than I do behind in this work. That applies to my time on earth, too.

Being appointed as a superintendent has been the hardest work I've ever done, but it's also been the most fun. Ninety percent of what I do is engaging, challenging, and meaningful - and I pray others have received it so. And even the ten percent that is life-sucking, gut-wrenching, and distasteful still has purpose and serves the Kingdom. Being a D.S. is, for me, an opportunity and a blessing. However, if I had been a DS ten-twenty years ago, I might not have said so. Being the chief missional strategist for a district and a shepherd of its laity and clergy? Awesome. Being a bureaucrat and personnel manager? Not so much.

Conversations and relationships from the past and of late, as well as my own experience, lead me to be convicted about these things. They are certainly up for conversation and coffee.. and I realize that some of them may need more than coffee to swallow and digest.

1. In United Methodism - under present polity and practice - the district superintendent is in the greatest vantage point to affect needed change in our denomination. While a bishop makes and fixes appointments, the DS advises, knows (better: should know) the local context of each church/charge, and has the local authority to shepherd clergy and laity as well as to guide both in missional strategy and foster discipleship. A DS can get behind a pastor and a church's visioning team and lend it support - or point out places where such needs shoring up and retooling.

Randy Cooper, who pastors the church of my youth and was my father's pastor when Dad died, reminded me, "You know, you are the bishop of the Paducah District." It scared me. Yet historically, traditionally, and functionally, he's right; there are catholic dioceses the size of districts in United Methodism. Our superintendents essentially function as suffragan bishops, while our bishops are akin to archbishops. For a DS to diminish this is a major opportunity missed. For a DS to allow this to go to her/his head is damning. The responsibility is grave, but the opportunities are incredible and the role is pivotal.

It means being out of your office and being in your car and in churches. A lot. It means delegating responsibilities and less time behind a computer organizing spreadsheets and "plans." Relationships take time and work. with less politicking and more "realness." To paraphrase Dickens' Jacob Marley to Scrooge: "People are our business."

2. We can't assume anything about discipleship anymore. We can't assume it is being taught, and we can't assume people - in the pews or the unchurched - even know what it is. While it is at the basis of the Great Commission, it is not automatically bestowed upon baptism: disciples are made. More accurately: they are apprenticed. We teach disciples. We journey alongside new disciples. And it isn't enough to just make disciples: we have to be able to make disciples who can, in turn, make other disciples. If we are not generative, if we do not think about legacy, in one generation the message of the incarnate God in Christ is lost to being an esoteric faith, full of meaningful ritual and nice people, but devoid of the power of transformation to change lives and affect souls. We become John Wesley's worst fear: becoming a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.

I fear what I'm about to say comes across as bragging, but I pray it's bragging on God and not us: since the district developed a strategy team and enacted the Generative Leadership Academy (more about that here), we've seen transformation come across the district: more local missional involvement, substantial emerging lay leadership, and many coming forward articulating a call to ministry: some to more involved lay ministry, some to discern about pastoral ministry. I don't think it's a coincidence - I think it is fruit borne from awareness, catechesis in a Wesleyan ethos, and intentional discipling.  I couldn't have done this without a team of laity and clergy, who removed titles, status, and academic pedigree, and instead focused on our baptisms as our ordinations to ministry. Laity were so very hungry to hear this, and heard (and responded!) with willing and grateful hearts. More to the point, it is prodding people to personal and corporate action.

3. We have to educate clergy better and differently. I am more than thankful for my undergraduate and seminary education. It was a sacrifice for me and for many who contributed to it, and I firmly believe such sacrifices make us better people and serve the Church well. However, a seminary education is moving from the realm of sacrifice to unrealistic expectation. The financial costs alone, where increases in tuition far surpass yearly inflation rates, are about to make a seminary experience available only to those who (a) are upper-middle class to upper class, or (b) to those who receive scholarships/fellowship to attend. Otherwise, we will require people to assume an amount of debt that is not only crippling to individuals, but downright sinful from a stewardship point of view. This has been studied and is verified, not just idle speculation (see the Auburn Seminary report here). The medical profession is encountering the same problem: the increases of tuition surpassing yearly inflation rates leads to a horrible ratio of amount of debt accrued vs. earning potential, and makes pursuit of an M.D. a challenge that students 20 years ago did not have.

Dr. Randy Maddox of Duke University shared at the recent Mid-Quadrennial training event for Boards of Ordained Ministry (his opening lecture is here) that the default standard for Methodist clergy training/education before 1956 was not seminary, but course of study - similar to what we require of licensed local pastors now. The change to making a seminary degree the minimum standard came about this way: the class status of Methodism was mainly white, professional, middle-to-upper class folks, and a Bachelor of Divinity degree would make their clergy more in-line culturally and educationally with their congregations (in retrospect, the antithesis of the mission field Wesley envisioned!). The B.D. degree was soon after renamed a Master of Divinity degree.

In this season, we need a lot of depth in spiritual formation & guidance and discipleship - and not just exposure to it, but to be able to lead/teach it. Few seminaries to do this to the level it is needed for today's clergy, and many of our laity - through Emmaus walks, the Upper Room's Academy for Spiritual Formation, and individual spiritual formation - far surpass their own pastor's depth in these areas. In defense of seminaries, an M.Div is necessarily heavy on the academic and theological, and it may be too much to ask for the academy to take on spiritual formation, too.

In retrospect, we may have lived out Wesley's fear of "professionalizing" clergy into the social class of professionals. Wesley placed a premium on education and having educated clergy, but many of those early Methodist clergy came from gifted laity who were mentored/apprenticed into pastoral work, and not classically trained in the academy. Early Methodism was flexible with educational expectations and used the itinerancy to deploy clergy who had the gifts to do such ministry in missional contexts. Today's United Methodism finds itself in a similar plight - we are back to more of a missional context instead of being an established church (or we should be!). I am no longer convinced that an M.Div is the best or only way to educate our clergy; to quote Dr. Maddox, we have reached a point in many contexts where it is not economically or culturally prudent to fully rely or require leadership in ministry that carries the expenses involved in a Master's-level education (and it's probably important to note that while most master's programs in other disciplines require 35-50 semester hours, an M.Div requires 80-90 semester hours).

We still need an educated clergy, and should insist upon it. But the seminary model need not be the only model - and I pray our current denominational Study of Ministry thinks about the present AND future of our denomination. What I have learned in doing the Generative Leadership Academy is that there is a lot of giftedness - at the conference and district level - of people who can lead, educate, mentor, and apprentice new leadership at any level, be it for someone leading a Sunday school class or someone leading a congregation. Rather than turn to outsiders, part of our solution may be in our midst.

4. We have to separate conference membership and ordination for clergy. This is nothing new if you know our Methodist history or read my other blogs on this subject, but our poor theology of ordination is catching up with us.  While Wesley certainly had a theology of ordination, it is not clear that present United Methodism does, outside of the Ordinal. As Maddox reminds us, if our mission in United Methodism remains to spread holiness to the world and make disciples for the transformation of the world, we will need to broaden, not narrow, our pastoral pool of leadership for small, medium, large, part-time, full-time, and over-time churches and settings. All of them need ordained folks around for things pastoral and sacramental, from the smallest church to the largest, if we truly believe the word AND the table are of equal importance. Not all of them need master of divinity degrees or full-time salaries, but they will need our wisdom, experience, mentoring and apprenticing, and most of all: our blessing and support.

Before you say, "We've never done it that way before," we ordained local elders (who were analogous to what we now call local pastors) before 1968, and as our sister AME, AME Zion, and CME churches still do. That doesn't mean they itinerate, nor does it mean they are "full connection" or all full-time, and the exercise of their ministry is limited to the charge in which they are appointed as opposed to full connection (i.e., itinerating) elders. But they are ordained to do ordained tasks, not licensed. It is important to note that Wesley viewed ordination as neither functional nor ontological change, but as pneumatological change, which only makes sense given our weird and accidental - yet providential - beginnings as a denomination.

5. Church leadership has to be shared between clergy and laity. We are guilty of clericalism on many fronts; some of it borne from laity having a "paid/hired hand" mentality about clergy, some of it borne from clergy who have an "I'm the professional here" attitude. Neither are conducive to missional ministry or discipleship, particularly in this season. Our baptism is what qualifies us for ministry and gives us our identity as Christians; ordination is a subset of our baptism and giftedness. We need to give careful care and greater attention to identifying the spiritual gifts in all the baptized, not just the few who feel a call to ordained ministry.

We are also guilty of how we think leadership should look and act, where it comes from, etc. As we (hopefully) expand our local church ministries to the least and the lost, we are going to encounter people's lives changed by transformation, and many of them will feel called to lay and clergy ministry. Some of them will come from hard-living contexts, multiple marriages, incarceration, run-ins with the law, etc., will have experienced recovery and transformation, and be ready to be disciple-makers... and will be a challenge to our present local church and Board of Ministry assessments and background checks. Yet we also know from some of our spiritual giants of the faith that woundedness often leads to wholeness, and is an education and experience that few of us United Methodists currently possess or could ever hope to gain. Tattoos, piercings, and bluejeans may be signs of the faith. District and conference boards of ministries need to be prepared for these folks that God sends our way.

6. Replace our fervor and controversy over same-sex marriage and replace it with discipleship. Yes - I am dreaming and hoping. Call me a dreamer and hoper.

If we were growing in faith and in number, we could afford the luxury of the fight and accompanying rhetoric (from both sides). At present it resembles the political rhetoric of the United States and accomplishes the same goal of division. For faithful and lasting change on the issue, the shape and tenor of the conversation has to change. Outside of the extreme voices on this matter, most people in the pews see this as important - because people are important - but they do not see it nearly as important as the matters of discipleship, youth involvement, spiritual growth, and decline in membership (as stated by a poll done by United Methodist Communications). As I shared in a previous blog:
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. ("Priorities," Oct. 14, 2014).

We can't afford to waste another 10 days and $11 million at General Conference doing nothing other than fighting. The Kingdom deserves better. Discipleship, not family feud, has got to be the priority in this season. And I pray it will be. I pray, I pray, I pray.