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.



Samantha Hall said...

Thank you for your hard work and your candid comments. I'm praying for you as you begin this new endeavor. You will be missed.

linda marie said...

Your comments seem to be so very transparent. I wish there were more of us who could talk about things that have occurred in our life with the openness you show -- and without judgment. I think having people who support you makes all the difference in the world. Rodger and I have been teaching about Jonah in a short term class we're leading. One of the things I've noticed that I've never seen before is that Jonah was "alone" and had no one to encourage him when God told him what needed to be done... As a DS, you've been an encourager. When you were an episcopal candidate, I'm glad you received back from people what you've planted.

Please stay close to those of us who have depended on you in the past. It will be a different relationship, but hopefully not something that must be buried...

Bill Lawson said...

Thank you for sharing this, Sky. Thank you for your friendship, leadership, and shepherd-vising over the last six years!

don woolley said...

I was hoping you would get elected. Love your candid sharing. Thanks for your honesty and faithfulness.

Cynthia Astle said...

Br. Sky, your blog posts have been recommended by several people. With your permission, I'm picking up all three to republish on United Methodist Insight. Let me know if you have any problems with my proposal.

Sky McCracken said...

Most certainly, Sr. Cynthia. Thanks for asking.