Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reflections of a (Soon to Be Former) DS, Acting DCM, and Former Episcopal Candidate, Part III

As I shared Part I of this blog, these past six-plus years as a district superintendent have gone by quickly, and I've had unique opportunities and experiences to see the United Methodist Church in many different lights. I shared earlier about the local church, being a superintendent, and being a former episcopal candidate. In Part II, I shared observations about General Conference. In this blog, I'll share my observations about our denominational struggles.

Sexuality, Schism... Or Is It All About Power?

I lament over the fractioning that occurs over issues of sexuality. To be sure: Sexuality is important. People are important. Standards of leadership are important. But on the list of biblical priorities, sexuality seems to be fairly low. Taking the scriptures literally, money is mentioned more than any other topic - by leaps and bounds. It's amazing to me how some will cheer you on when you're preaching, writing, and taking action about matters sexual, being conservative or progressive, but will castigate and call you meddling and manipulative if you dare to talk to people about money and their use/misuse of it. We are - at best - guilty of inconsistency in our interpretation of scripture.

Where sexuality in the UMC is concerned, more specifically in the United States, the bottom line is this: we are in an intradenominational squabble that most folks outside of the denomination (1) don't know about, and more to the point, (2) don't care about. Even more damning, this is an issue that is, at least publicly, dominated by clergy. Our stance and our current conflict on sexuality - in general - isn't bringing people in or driving people away; if a stance mattered, the Episcopal Church and the Southern Baptist Church would be growing in the U.S. But neither are. Again, people do matter, and we are not reaching people - regardless of how they feel about sexuality. That's a failure to make disciples. That's a ROOT cause of denominational decline. Should we be concerned solely about numbers? Well, I'd say principles will get you only so far - anyone know how many Shakers are left?

Failure to make disciples, more than anything else, has us in the state we presently find ourselves, and until we take that seriously, we are going to be in trouble - and more importantly, we are going to fail at our stated mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We can't transform the world if we aren't generative enough to carry on the mission.

So forgive my pragmatism, but to let this bring us down as a denomination means that we really suck, and are just plain self-centered and individualistic... the original American sin. Is it about interpretation or biblical hermeneutic? I am dubious: we Americans and American churches are as selective about our biblical interpretation as we are about where we shop. While many will bark about lust (one of the "seven deadly sins,"), few bark about gluttony (another one of the Deadly Seven). When is the last time someone wanted to file a complaint on all the pot-luck dinner participants for eating too much, or being obese? We seem to be selective about what sins we want prosecuted and which other sins are "acceptable." There's also that little incident about Jesus turning the water into wine, AFTER the party had been well underway. What was Jesus thinking?

Progressive-minded churches can and should minister to and make progressive-minded disciples. Conservative-minded churches can and should minister to and make conservative-minded disciples. As well as everyone in between. Such has been the case throughout Christian history, and no one communion or denomination has always found unity in attitude and belief. The point is, we should be making disciples, not intradenominational war. The Reformation is turning out to be an experiment that continues to fail. Rarely will a community of faith agree on EVERYTHING.

Catholics and Southern Baptists have among them those who think women should be ordained - but they remain Catholic or Southern Baptist. United Methodists have those among them who think rebaptism is okay or infant baptism shouldn't be practiced - but they remain United Methodist. John Wesley ("The Arminian") and George Whitefield ("The Calvinist") fought like a cat and a dog: "The great day will discover why the Lord permits dear Mr. Wesley and me to be of a different way of thinking," Whitefield once said.

On the other hand, Luther wanted to ditch indulgences but keep confession, yet Lutherans ditched both. Wesley didn't intend to start a denomination, but here we are... even though we are (in my opinion) back to what Wesley tried to reform. We Christians can be a fickle and argumentative bunch.

Yet Wesley and Whitefield still managed to be rebel Anglicans together. Isn't that what we Methodists really are? Rebels? Rebels can still keep the faith and stay in love with each other - IF that outweighs the need to live in a binary existence where "we" are right and "they" are wrong. Progressives and conservatives have some atoning to do in our denomination for their behaviors. So do folks in the middle.

Unfortunately, what we DO seem to be able to do well is: schism, split, or have a Reformation... or two or three (hence Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and -gasp- even Wesley). From Wesley's sermon, On Schism:
That there might be no schism in the body. - 1 Corinthians 12:25 
1. If there be any word in the English tongue as ambiguous and indeterminate in its meaning as the word Church, it is one that is nearly allied to it, -- the word Schism. it has been the subject of innumerable disputes for several hundred years; and almost innumerable books have been written concerning it in every part of the Christian world. A very large share of these have been published in our country; particularly during the last century, and the beginning of the present: And persons of the strongest understanding, and the most consummate learning, have exhausted all their strength upon the question, both in conversation and writing. This has appeared to be more necessary than ever, since the grand separation of the Reformed from the Romish Church. This is a charge which the members of that Church never fail to bring against all that separate from her; and which, consequently, has employed the thought and pens of the most able disputants on both sides. And Those of each side have generally, when they entered into the field, been secured of victory; supposing the strength of their arguments was so great, that it was impossible for reasonable men to resist them. 
2. But it is observable, that exceeding little good has been done by all these controversies. Very few of the warmest and ablest disputants have been able to convince their opponents. After all that could be said, the Papists are Papists, and the Protestants are Protestants still. And the same success has attended those who have so vehemently disputed about separation from the Church of England. Those who separated from her were eagerly charged with schism; they as eagerly denied the charge; and scarce any were able to convince their opponents either on one side or the other. 
3. One great reason why this controversy has been so unprofitable, why so few of either side have been convinced, is this: They seldom agreed as to the meaning of the word concerning which they disputed: and if they did not fix the meaning of this, if they did not define the term before they began disputing about it, they might continue the dispute to their lives' end, without getting one step forward; without coming a jot nearer to each other than when they first set out. 
4. Yet it must be a point of considerable importance, or St. Paul would not have spoken so seriously of it. It is, therefore, highly needful that we should consider, 
I. The nature, and , 
II. The evil of it.
The wrap-up of his sermon is the most inspiring:
11. Happy is he that attains the character of a peace-maker in the Church of God. Why should not you labor after this? Be not content, not to stir up strife; but do all that in you lies, to prevent or quench the very first spark of it. Indeed it is far easier to prevent the flame from breaking out, than to quench it afterwards. However, be not afraid to attempt even this: The God of peace is on your side. He will give you acceptable words, and will send them to the heart of the hearers. Noli diffidere: Noli discedere, says a pious man: Fac quod in te est; et Deus aderit bonce tuce voluntuti: "Do not distrust Him that has all power, that has the hearts of all men in his hand. Do what in thee lies, and Good will be present, and bring thy good desires to good effect." Never be weary of well-doing. In due time thou shalt reap if thou faint not.
It may be that power in the Kingdom of God isn't being on the "correct" side, but in being a peace-maker that serves under the King who has all power. I will gladly place myself in the middle of the fray, and the Kingdom, to serve the King. To be sure: there's nothing easy about the middle.

(And no, that doesn't mean you have to go join an association, movement, or caucus).


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Reflections of a (Soon to Be Former) DS, Acting DCM, and Former Episcopal Candidate, Part II

As I shared Part I of this blog, these past six-plus years as a district superintendent have gone by quickly, and I've had unique opportunities and experiences to see the United Methodist Church in many different lights. I shared earlier about the local church, being a superintendent, and being a former episcopal candidate.

I'll offer an observation about General Conference:

General Conference

I've attended every General Conference since 1988 as an observer, a reserve delegate, and a delegate. At first I was inspired by the worship and the incredible people I met. Later I was moved from a spectator toward prayer and participation in things I was passionate about (particularly, worship/liturgy, ordination, and discipleship), and as a delegate became focused upon evangelism and discipleship and how our denomination is/is not facilitating such as a Connection. The last two General Conferences I was frustrated, exhausted, and at times prayed that no one from the outside world was watching. This last General Conference (2016) I'm sure it was worse than C-SPAN, in both production quality and content.

To those on the outside watching, we were petition numbers, "point of orders," people appealing for bishops to be unseated as chairpersons, and caucuses vying for power. I don't think anyone watching would have thought we United Methodists were living up to a people who used to be known for their embrace of God's grace; we looked like Congress. I fear our approval ratings are similar.

This is what we've evolved into:
¶ 501. Definition of Powers— The General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (see ¶ 16, Division Two, Section II, Article IV, The Constitution). It has no executive or administrative power.
And if you read the rest of the ¶500's of the Book of Discipline, it reads like most other statutes of state law that we find in the United States...
  • even though we are a denomination that goes beyond the United States...
  • even though we are supposed to know the difference between rendering to Caesar and rendering to God... 
  • even though that we know that the Kingdom of God should be about more than winners and losers, seeing each other less as lawbreakers and more as grace givers...
  • even though we should be treating each other like family in covenant, loving each other despite our dysfunction and disagreements...
  • even though Wesley's understanding of conferencing, and what we've allowed General Conference to become, are two completely different things.
When I think of General Conference, here is the best word I can think of to describe it: intractable.
in·trac·ta·ble [ˌin ˈtrak təb (ə)l] adjective 
1. hard to control or deal with, such as "intractable economic problems" 
synonyms: unmanageable, uncontrollable, difficult, awkward, troublesome, demanding, burdensome, such as "intractable problems" 
antonyms: manageable 
2. (of a person) difficult; stubborn. 
synonyms: stubborn, obstinate, obdurate, inflexible, headstrong, willful, unbending, unyielding, uncompromising, unaccommodating, uncooperative, difficult, awkward, perverse, contrary, pigheaded, stiff-necked, such as "an intractable man"
Should things be done decently and in order? Yes.

Is covenant important? Yes.

Should we continue to make the Book of Discipline larger and larger? Please God, No. (And UM Publishing House folks: no one was fooled when the 2016 BOD "looked" smaller than its predecessor).

All of this shows our distrust of God and of each other. We are becoming the Pharisees all over again - keepers of the law without the intent of the law in mind. Covenant is larger - and a lot more enduring - than canon law. We Americans love to argue, democratize, legislate, and codify things. Living in the Realm of God means all those things go by the wayside. Sanctification demands it. Until we live and do things differently, we will continue to see through a dark glass.

I'll continue the thoughts...


Monday, May 22, 2017

Reflections of a (Soon to Be Former) DS, Acting DCM, and Former Episcopal Candidate, Part I

Six-plus years as a district superintendent went by quickly. In that time, I worked under three bishops, attended two General Conferences and several other UM Connectional meetings across the U.S., and many conference, district, and local church gatherings. I honestly liked 90% of what I did as a district superintendent, and I think I was fairly good at it. I was one of the first DS's to work under the mandate of being a "chief missional strategist." I was also given the permission to give that work priority as opposed to being a pastoral personnel manager and bureaucrat.

But that season has ended and I am now looking forward to being back in a local church as a pastor. Being an elder in the United Methodist Church is a great way to fulfill my calling, and a challenging way to live out my baptismal vows. These last several years will serve me well in the years ahead.

I've used the Daily Office to pray for many years, and part of that discipline has been to be intentionally silent at various times during the day to try to hear God and reflect. Sometimes I hear a divine word, sometimes it's just a needed silence from a noisy world, and sometimes I (unfortunately) allow it to become an opportunity to bitch and gripe lament instead of listen.

I think these experiences give me a good view of the current struggles the UMC has, and also allow me a unique opportunity to share with candor some reflections and observations about a few things.

The Local Church

This is where it's at. Disciples are made in local churches, in their outreach, in their small groups. Districts don't make disciples. Conferences doesn't make disciples. General agencies don't make disciples. Even the General Conference doesn't make disciples. All of these things are, at best, tools to support the local church so that they might be BETTER at making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Local churches are resilient. They are faithful. And the larger Church has let them down. After six-plus years as a superintendent, I can say that I find it a miracle that some local churches function as well as they do. They are desperately looking to be led. They are desperately looking to be "shepherd-vised" (as opposed to being "supervised"). And they want to be faithful. We clergy and the General Church have let them down. We can do better. Faithful folk gather week in and week out to worship and serve, break bread and drink wine, celebrate baptisms, marriages, and funerals. They live into the baptismal vows at church, at work, and at play. Some of them even call themselves United Methodists.

Superintendency (General and District)

The reason I was a fairly good DS is only because I recruited and helped form a good district operational team, made up of clergy AND laity. We looked at our denominational and conference mission, our values and foci, and built a ministry plan that was both actionable and malleable/adaptable. I listened and adapted as the team looked critically at churches, pastors, me, and our gifts. We developed a Generative Leadership Academy whose primary focus was to help identify the spiritual gifts of the baptized around the district churches. We built our work around covenant: covenant with God, covenant with each other, and covenant to the mission of the UMC: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It was very hard work. There were painful conversations. Yet we came away stronger, forged bonds as strong as family, and realized it was all about the mission, not ourselves. Sometimes, I lead. Sometimes, I followed their lead. We always left knowing what we had done was OUR work, not mine or anyone else's. I think that serves, and continues to serve, the district well.

I was also part of a covenant team with my area brother and sister superintendents. Bishop McAlilly operated under the same principle: all of us are stronger than one of us. I will deeply miss the depth of covenant, transparency, and unconditional love of these wonderful people.

What would I share with you as a DS? Maybe I could clear up some misconceptions:
  • The infamous "salary sheet" is really not much help in making pastoral appointments in this day and age. The best way to approach this work is thus: (1) the local church is always the priority, (2) what are the gifts that are needed at a church for a pastor to serve it well, and (3) what pastors do we have that have those gifts. After that, it's a puzzle to put together. Just as a local church sometimes wrestles with who to put in what offices and positions, so goes the work of a bishop and cabinet where churches and pastors are concerned. One thing is clear: we have to be continually supporting and developing a culture of call - for both laity and (potential) clergy.
  • Being a bishop or DS doesn't mean you've "arrived." As I've always told folks, ordination and consecration are subsets of one's baptism, and they do not subordinate your baptism. Being a bishop or D.S. is different work, but not necessarily higher or more important work. In this season, strategists are needed more than ever - and before you think such mentality stifles the Holy Spirit, consider that Jesus probably had a plan before he went to Jerusalem, and working with the disciples for three years was not just killing time. In my opinion, the district superintendent is in a unique place to affect change in our denomination... if we adhere to more of a "shepherd-vising" model rather than an imperial/managerial model. Using a salary sheet or the "paying one's dues" method of selecting superintendents hasn't served us well. Finding people who have the gifts of shepherding, teaching, gift identification, and adeptness in conflict management are crucial, and not limited to any demographic we could list.
  • SMU's Maria Dixon Hall: "Our district superintendents and our bishops are so overtaxed they don’t get a chance to know the people they’re serving with. There are not mechanisms to get to know folks. It is difficult to go into war with someone that you don’t really trust, and you don’t trust them because you don’t know them." Yes. Become a listening DS. Go to churches not just for worship and charge conferences; go to board meetings, fish fries, and homecomings. Know your people.
  • Clergy status/pedigree is largely irrelevant. There are licensed local pastors who are a lot more effective in pastoral ministry than their elder counterparts. While I value my theological education, it lacked heavily in (1) praxis, (2) spiritual formation and maturity, and (3) cultivation in leadership skills. On point three, I'll paraphrase Maria Dixon Hall when she said that while some seminary grads were theologically adept, many couldn't lead an ant to a picnic. We have to equip church leaders, lay and clergy, to be more effective leaders and disciplers.

Offering Yourself for the Episcopacy

At the encouragement of others, and after a lot of prayer, I decided to offer myself for this office in 2016. I had a lot of support. I had a lot of folks praying for me. Many sacrificed monetary gifts and gifts of their time and presence. I have no regrets. Here's what I learned:
  • Do it only if you hear God calling you to offer yourself. I've become acquaintances with enough bishops to know that it takes a toll on you, and takes a few years off your life. It's also an awesome opportunity to make a difference in the Kingdom.
  • Be aware of how your birthday falls. One criticism I heard, despite my assurances to people I would serve no more than 16 years, was my age. Because of how my birthday falls, I could have been a bishop until I was 71 1/2 years old. Seeing first-hand what the office of bishop does to people, there's no way in hell I would have served as a bishop that long; 16 years would have been plenty long for me, and I would retire and be a full-time grandfather, occasional motorcycle rider, and catch up on movies, baseball, and be a pastor of visitation for a church that needed the help. Such is very difficult to assure delegates of, however. 
  • Offering yourself for the episcopacy is all about timing; three years from now (the next episcopal election), I won't be a DS and dean of the cabinet, I won't be serving a large membership church (our conference doesn't have many of them), and I'd be kidding myself and everyone else if I tried to run again. You need to be old enough, but not too old. The window is tight. The timing is crucial.
  • It ain't cheap. Producing a video, website design, and mailings just don't happen. I went cheap on mailings (like the above post card) and had a lot of free help, and put more into video, website, and online media. You're still talking about thousands of dollars - a lot to ask people to give and sacrifice. I was humbled and blessed by those who gave so much.
  • Be aware of the math. It takes 60% of the vote to get elected, which in the SEJ means around 220 votes to get elected. I knew that my chances were, at the very best, 50/50 to get elected. I told myself if I got as many as 130 votes, I would pray about offering myself again in 4 years. The highest vote I received on a ballot was 106. I was very blessed to be endorsed by two conferences. However, both of our conferences (Memphis and Tennessee) have a small number of votes (24 to be exact) when compared to other conferences across the Southeast. Add that to the fact that the Memphis Conference has never been successful at electing a candidate, and you realize that the math is just not there. There are good things that can come out of the Memphis Conference - those who have offered themselves from our conference previously are among the greatest servants of God I know. It's not an indictment of anything or anybody; it's just simple math: other conferences want their candidates elected too, and they have more of a base vote of support. All things considered, I consider myself very fortunate to have received the support that I did, especially from the Tennessee Conference folks, who also endorsed me and could have chosen otherwise. 
  • Be aware of the emotional and spiritual toll. No one could have prepared me for the dark nights of the soul that I would endure upon being nominated and endorsed. I will admit to being nervous when my own conference endorsed me. I will admit to becoming an anxiety-ridden wreck when the Tennessee Conference endorsed me. What a responsibility if elected! What an enormous challenge! And what a burden awaiting me if elected, being a bishop in a church so strife-ridden and in conflict. It was almost to the hour a 40-day trial in the wilderness. What I learned was this: God will fill a lot of voids, and can run interference to a lot of adversity... if you will allow it. Also - be prepared not to be elected, and trust me, it hurts. If you can't handle the possibility of not being elected, don't offer yourself for election.
  • Without a doubt, the SEJ elected some awesome folks as bishops in 2016. I pray for them by name every day. Unless you've offered yourself to such an office, or worked closely with a bishop, you have no idea what they go through every day, and every night. If I ever have a problem with one of them, I'll let them know in person. You won't hear me bad mouthing any of them.
In another blog, I'll talk about General Conference, our denomination's struggles with contemporary issues, and discipleship.