What It Takes to Revitalize the Mainline

by Bishop Bruce Ough and Rev. Susan Nienaber

[While I am out on renewal leave, I will periodically offer “guest blogs.” Bishop Bruce Ough is Resident Bishop of the Dakotas/Minnesota Areas and President-Elect of the Council of Bishops. Rev. Susan Nienaber is District Superintendent of the Big Waters District of the Minnesota Conferenc. Their article appeared in the July 20th edition of the Alban Weekly and is re-posted at this site with their permission.]

It is possible to revitalize our mainline congregations and denominational structures. And it is happening all around us, in spite of the numerous challenges we are still facing. It’s true that we are still challenged by an aging population in our mainline churches, fewer younger clergy, seasoned clergy who are struggling to learn new skills and ways of being because what worked at the beginning of their ministries is not working now and recovering from several decades of despair and exhaustion. Despite these challenges, we are bold to say that we now know what works.

The mechanics of reversing the downward trends in our denominations have been well documented in books such as Bishop Robert Schnase’s Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences. But, the mechanics alone will not create the kind of revitalization that is needed. Just as important as the mechanics is the attitude, mind-set, stance, and practices of leaders leading this revitalization work, whether they are clergy, lay or denominational leaders. In our work together as denominational executives (Bishop Bruce Ough of the Minnesota and Dakotas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and Susan Nienaber, District Superintendent), here’s what we are finding:

  1. Prayer is Absolutely Essential. Every day it is essential to ground yourself in God. There is so much coming at you as a denominational executive (or pastor or lay leader for that matter) that taking time for your spiritual disciplines helps you know how to keep the main thing the main thing. “An active prayer life keeps it from being about you.”(Bishop Ough) We still operate in a culture where prayer is often about getting something rather than an act of letting go. The kind of prayer that is necessary to effectively lead is about opening ourselves up so that we can be available to God’s purposes—essentially, getting out of God’s way. It is acknowledging through prayer the power and presence of God. And, it’s being reminded that we can’t do it ourselves but God can.
  2. The Belief that God is at Work and Will Work to Guide and Direct our Efforts. Closely related to prayer is the firm belief that God is already at work and will work to guide and direct our transformational efforts. While it is possible to have a fundamental belief that God is at work in the world without fully understanding one’s place in God’s work, prayer provides the space to discern how we can cooperate with the Spirit that is already moving. Related to what a leader fundamentally believes, another key to success is the language that we use. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “What we speak becomes the house we live in.” The pall of despair and decline has been too pervasive in the past 30 years. The lamenting must stop and we must focus our whole selves on God’s work – this means being very careful and intentional about the words we choose to use.
  3. Looking for the Miracles that are Happening and Telling the Stories of Transformation. The definition of miracles that we are using here is not just the literal miracle of whether or not the person with cancer is healed. Rather it is the more ordinary moments when God’s love and grace overwhelms our sensibilities; when we see our faith communities become submerged in God’s goodness. Recently, one of our small churches gathered together to do the funeral of a stranger, someone who was destitute and without family. That story went viral in the media. This is a miracle. A miracle may simply be that people believe that God’s grace has been unleashed. When we do something ordinary God takes that ordinary act and creates something incredible. We still have to be honest about the despair, brokenness and decline in our mainline situation but we can’t allow ourselves to believe that despair has the last word. It’s about God transforming us and changing us. The stories that we tell only have power if they are told and heard and believed. The stories have to touch the heartstrings in order to inspire change.
  4. Developing a Clear Sense of One’s Mission as a Leader. A great leader at this time in history has to know how God intends to use them and how God is already using them. “I have a fundamental belief that God wants to work through me to create new life here.” (Bishop Ough) It is important to be bold and have the confidence that God has a clear plan and mission. The other critically important belief is that we cannot control the decline and revitalize simply by being a skillful manager or technician. We will stay stuck in a rut with the only the mechanics. Mechanics and technicians make things efficient but this is not ultimately what will get us to the revitalization of the mainline. It’s about God transforming us and changing us. Again, “we cannot manage our way into revitalization, we can only be led into it.” (Bishop Ough)
  5. Being Willing to Color outside the Lines. Most of us spend the bulk of our lives and energies trying to create boxes of sensibility. We spend time trying to figure out how to manage our lives according to our denominational rules while our churches feel the pressure to put together predicable programs and governing structures. Boxes can be helpful and are a necessary evil in some ways in order to keep large organizations in check but when those boxes begin to keep us from seeing where God is at work they then keep us from being able to live into the miraculous. The task of the leader is to work to break down those boxes in order to get to a different place or to create a different organizational culture. All organizations need to constantly re-create themselves. The whole journey of a leader is orientation to disorientation to orientation. We only grow if we have seasons of disorientation. “We typically cannot be arrested by God’s presence unless we are a little disoriented.” (Bishop Ough) A leader sometimes needs to say outrageous things in order to lift up an idea that is out of the box for it is “only when we are disoriented that God can command our full attention.” (Bishop Ough) We can’t get too comfortable with the way things are because we will then feel trapped or, even worse, come to believe that we don’t need God. A critical piece of advice: you can win many trust points by taking a good, calculating risk but you lose a lot if it doesn’t work.
  6. Being Fearless in Making Extremely Tough Decisions and Choices and Managing the Anxiety that Is Generated. Being fearless is in large part about being consistent. It is one thing to make a tough decision, it is something else to stay with that decision even when the pressure builds. It is important to live with a tough decision long enough to make an impact. But there is a difference between being fearless and being reckless. Being fearless is about courageously living out of one’s values and one’s faith that God is at work. Being reckless sometimes happens when we do or say outrageous things only to get the attention of the organization or to create disorientation instead of making a tough decision because it is the right thing to do.
  7. Humbly Admitting Mistakes and Working to Fix Those. If a risk doesn’t work you can’t ignore it and you can’t blame someone else for the mistake. A courageous and effective leader readily acknowledges mistakes, takes ownership of them, and humbly and sincerely apologies for those mistakes. This is the only way to build and maintain trust. When you take risks, not everything is going to work. One doesn’t always know for sure if it is God’s right time. Sometimes leaders want to be fearless without a willingness to take responsibility for the outcomes. This will be a disaster for the organization if you cannot admit your mistakes.
  8. Always Being Grateful. Every day is a gift and it is a tremendous privilege to be in religious leadership at this time in history. God is doing powerful work in the refining of our mainline traditions and as a people of faith we are breaking free from the structures that held us in bondage. We are confident that we will break free to do God’s will in order to create disciples for the transformation of the world.

Whatever role you play—as pastor, lay leader, or denominational executive—you can help to reverse the steep decline in our traditional systems. We will lose some churches that are too far down the life cycle of decline, while others will turn around in remarkable ways. Choosing life, in whatever form it takes, is key. The spirit, attitude, and tone of our leadership will make all the difference.

Alban Weekly, July 20, 2015; http://www.congregationalconsulting.org/what-it-takes-to-revitalize-the-mainline/

 

Next Steps Workshop on the Exodus Project, Part II

Mike Bonem meets with Cabinet and Core Team ©

Before departing on a vacation to Ireland, Bishop Lowry invited Mike Bonem to be a guest blogger. Mike, the consultant leading the Exodus Project evaluation, met on June 17 with CTC’s Core Team and the Bishop’s Cabinet to discuss next steps.

 In the first of my two blogs, we explored Investing in Leadership Development. Of seven Exodus Evaluation recommendations, it’s the one given top priority by the Core Team and the Cabinet. Today’s topics are the other two recommendations selected for emphasis: focusing disproportionately on “selected churches;” and making programming decisions.

Focus Disproportionately on “Selected” Churches  -The intent of this recommendation is to help a small number of high potential churches take a major step forward. This could mean reversing a period of decline, breaking through a growth barrier, or launching a major missional initiative. Doing this requires CTC to identify a small number of churches and ensure that they have the attention and resources to reach this potential.

A version of this recommendation has already been practiced by the DS’s informally, so a natural starting point is for the ad hoc task group to evaluate what has and hasn’t been effective in the DS’s efforts, and what improvements should be made. From my perspective, this is likely to include:

  • A more formal criteria and process for selecting the churches.
  • The development of specific plans for improvement, with resourcing to support the plans.
  • Increased tracking and accountability.

This recommendation should also be started on a small, pilot basis (perhaps only one or two churches per district) with an emphasis on high quality and learning before expanding to additional churches. Workshop participants discussed if and how this initiative should be communicated to the broader conference. There are pros and cons with publicly identifying the selected churches. The task group should include recommendations on this point.

Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions  -This recommendation had the greatest divergence of opinions during the workshop. While we discussed the possibility of “starting from scratch,” the consensus is that doing this is too radical and that the cost (time and organizational stress) would outweigh the benefits. The preferred course of action is for CTC to do a better job of coordinating and communicating programming decisions. The task group for this recommendation should:

  • Develop a clear definition of “programming” vs. “resourcing.”
  • Propose a process that will lead to better coordination of programs and less duplication. This could be as simple as one or two meetings each year where the Cabinet reviews all planned programs and events (from all three centers and districts) at the same time, and makes adjustments as appropriate.
  • Identify ways that programming plans can be communicated more effectively, especially between centers and between the conference office and districts.
  • Consider whether a formal process for evaluation of programs is needed.
  • Consider whether it is appropriate to set a goal each year for reducing CTC’s existing programming by some percentage. Doing so could create an environment of evaluation and creativity (new programs could replace existing programs that were cancelled) and could also free up time for personnel to focus more on resourcing.

Other Recommendations   -In choosing to focus on three recommendations, CTC’s leadership has determined that the other four recommendations are less important. This is an appropriate way to allocate limited resources and to ensure that progress is made. I would like to offer brief thoughts on two of the other recommendations:

  • Resourcing (Recommendation 2). Several people commented that the conference, especially the Center for Mission Support, is already doing quite a bit of resourcing. A simple but high value step may be for Mission Support to create a more formal database of currently available resources with an emphasis on the expertise that resides in local churches around the conference. This database can be expanded and improved over time. If this is done, it should be publicized to increase awareness.
  • Evaluation processes (Recommendation 5). CTC is currently working to improve its clergy evaluation process. The new process should align with the values (discussed in “leadership development”) and the overall goals of the Exodus Project. As discussed in my report, the process needs to be transparent so that clergy understand how they’re being evaluated and so that they can set appropriate goals for their own development.

Concluding Thoughts   -This workshop was another important step forward for the conference and the Exodus Project. I will conclude with four recommendations to maintain this momentum:

  • Communicate decisions from the workshop to the conference. This was discussed at the end of our meeting, but needs to be re-emphasized in light of some of the awareness concerns raised in my report.
  • Set a date for the next meeting. A general time frame of September or October was mentioned, but it will help the task groups to have a firm date so that they have a deadline to work towards. In addition, the task groups should be asked to submit their draft recommendations in advance so that everyone has a chance to review them before the meeting.
  • Commit to a one-year review. In 12 to 18 months, CTC’s leadership should meet again to review progress in these specific areas. This may also be a good time to decide whether the conference should prioritize any of the other recommendations.
  • Decide whether to do another evaluation. My report recommended a simpler evaluation of Exodus (statistical plus survey) after two more years, but CTC’s leadership should decide if, when, and how this will be done.

Next Steps Workshop on the Exodus Project, Part I

Mike Bonem meets with Cabinet and Core Team ©

Before departing on a vacation to Ireland, Bishop Lowry invited Mike Bonem to be a guest blogger. Mike, the consultant leading the Exodus Project evaluation, met on June 17 with the CTC’s Core Team and the Bishop’s Cabinet to discuss next steps.

Dear Friends in Christ,

My purpose here is to recap key points from the workshop with Central Texas Conference’s Core Team and Cabinet held on June 17, 2015. This blog and the one that follows are not meant to be a comprehensive set of notes, and they represent my perspective, which may at times differ from the group. I am also including some follow-up thoughts and recommendations for next steps that were not discussed in our meeting. Accordingly, this is intended to foster further conversation among CTC’s leaders as we move forward.

The purpose of the workshop was to define the “next steps” to be taken in the implementation of the Exodus Project. My evaluation of the Exodus Project introduced the recommendations with this statement: CTC can accelerate its progress in the Exodus Project and improve its results by narrowing its focus to the highest value activities and collaborating more actively at all levels. The seven recommendations that followed are:

  1. Develop a new process to guide programming decisions.
  2. Formalize resourcing to leverage local expertise.
  3. Focus disproportionately on “selected” churches.
  4. Invest in leadership development.
  5. Create transparent evaluation processes that align with Exodus.
  6. Re-emphasize peer learning.
  7. Clarify the role of the District Superintendent

Recognizing the need to focus on a smaller number of recommendations, the leadership team prioritized three of these as having the greatest potential impact for CTC. Those three are highlighted in bold above. Of the three, leadership development is the highest priority. This is the first of two blog posts in which we will more fully explore the recommendations the group initially has selected to emphasize.

Each of the three prioritized areas has a person who will lead in developing specific recommendations. That person will assemble an ad hoc task group to work with them in that process. The task group should include lay members as well as clergy and is not limited to the Core Team and Cabinet. The teams are to develop preliminary recommendations for discussion at a meeting in the fall. As part of their recommendations, each task group should propose milestones/goals for the first and second years.

Since top priority was given to Investing in Leadership Development, I want to address this recommendation first. The recommendation for leadership development was refined considerably during the workshop. We discussed three key ideas: leadership development for clergy, leadership development for laity, and clergy recruitment – with the majority of the time spent on the former. Leadership development for laity is important, but the current efforts that are already under way are seen as addressing this need.

The overarching concept for clergy leadership development was shaped by the “High Octane Preaching” class that has been offered for several years. The content (preaching) was chosen because of its importance for pastoral leadership, and participants are hand-selected based on their future potential. A weakness of this class is that it is not part of an integrated and intentional process for leadership development and has lacked follow-up accountability.

As envisioned in our workshop, key components of CTC’s future leadership development include:

  • Selectivity. Participants should be screened and should be chosen based on their future potential and the benefit of this development for their careers and churches. An intentional process for this selection will need to be created.
  • Focused content. CTC should not try to teach everything that a pastor might need to know, but instead should choose/design content based on the needs of the target participants and churches.
  • Values-driven. Content selection and design should reflect the conference’s values for effective pastoral leadership.
  • Mentoring and accountability. Because content is only a small portion of an individual’s development, it is important for the design to include mentoring and accountability. Individuals who are not diligent about practicing skills that they have learned in one class should not be allowed to take future classes.

Next installment – due on July 6: Focusing on “Selected Churches” and Programming Decisions.

Episcopal Response to Supreme Court Decision on Same Sex Marriages ©

Dear Friends in Christ,

I write you in response to today’s ruling by the United States Supreme Court that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States.  I offer first spiritual guidance consistent with the best shared understanding of the Christian faith.  Wherever you may be on a spectrum from overjoyed reaction to the ruling to deep despair over the Court’s decision, catch a breath.  God is in charge of the universe, and we are not.   This is a good thing.  Christ still reigns and the Holy Spirit is still active in our lives.  The advice of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4 applies to us all regardless of our convictions on the contentious issue of same-sex marriage.

Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:5-7)

While fully respecting the Supreme Court ruling, the United Methodist Church’s position on same-sex marriages has not changed.  My understanding and that of our Conference Chancellor is that the Supreme Court’s decision is directed at state laws that bar same-gender persons from marriage and not at religious doctrine or church law, therefore the decision does not change section 341.6 of the Discipline or any other church law.”  [“Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (¶ 341.6 The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 270)]

 It is important to note that the decision contains the following statements concerning the rights of religious persons and organizations: “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”

Paragraph 161F of The Book of Discipline, 2012 states: “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (p. 111).

The Discipline goes on to state: We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman” (¶ 161b The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 109).

Nothing about our current doctrine or discipline has been changed. United Methodist clergy are not permitted to perform same-gender marriages and such ceremonies may not be held in our churches. Performance of a same-sex wedding ceremony is a violation of current church law (¶ 2702.1(b) The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 776).  Only General Conference has the right to change church law.

I have been asked by some clergy about the limits regarding what they can and cannot do. I offer the following guidelines in line with other bishops of the United Methodist Church.  Along with many of my colleagues on the Council of Bishops and for the sake of transparency, members of the Central Texas Conference should be aware of what may and may not be done without committing a chargeable offense.

  • Clergy may not allow any United Methodist church building to be used for same-gender marriages.
    • They can help the persons find another venue—another church, home, etc.
    • They can suggest they hold the service outside the church and off church property.
  • Clergy can participate in these ways:
    • Pre-marital counseling
    • Attend the ceremony
    • Read scripture, pray, or give the meditation
    • Lift up a same-gender, newly married couple in worship or by printed announcements. [Please note: If clergy choose to do this, I strongly urge that they be in prior conversation with the lay leadership of their church, especially members of the Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.]
  • Clergy cannot participate in these ways:
    • Preside over the ceremony, specifically the vows, exchange of rings or the declaration and pronouncement of marriage.
    • Sign the certificate of marriage.
    • Clergy should not participate or stand during any ceremony where it might appear to those present or in photographs that you are presiding or conducting the ceremony. Clergy may engage in limited participation in the ways described above.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that we be a people of love and care for all in the name of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit!  All really does mean all – for those who we agree with strongly and for those with whom we disagree passionately!

The United Methodist Church has been debating the practice of homosexuality for well over 40 years. This most recent Supreme Court decision will not end the debate.  Good, godly people hold passionately different convictions on this issue.  Let us first and foremost live as a people of the Savior’s grace and compassion to all involved.  The great hymn of love sung by the earliest Christians needs to be lived out in our lives by each us of.  “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:4-7).

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Mike Lowry
Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference
The Fort Worth Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church

Report on the Core Leadership Team/Cabinet Retreat ©

Last week the Central Texas Conference (CTC) Core Leadership Team and Cabinet met to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report. With the adoption of the Exodus Project Evaluation Report, the CTC Core Team and Cabinet promised to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report.

By way of recall, the seven recommendations that came out of the Exodus Project evaluation were:

  •  Recommendation 1: Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions
  •  Recommendation 2: Formalize Resourcing to Leverage Local Expertise
  •  Recommendation 3: Focus Disproportionately on “Select” Churches
  •  Recommendation 4: Invest in Leadership Development
  •  Recommendation 5: Create Transparent Evaluation Processes that Align with Exodus
  •  Recommendation 6: Re-emphasize Peer Learning
  •  Recommendation 7: Clarify the Role of the DS

Dr. Mike Bonem, our Conference consultant for the Exodus Project evaluation, led us through a process of focusing on the top two or three recommendations.  There was a clear consensus that all of the recommendations are important and need to be addressed; however, our work recognized that we must begin with a focused intent on a smaller list.

There was close to unanimous consent (with some 20 people in the room, both lay and clergy leaders) that the item of first importance was recommendation #4: to invest in leadership development.  Likewise there was close to unanimous agreement that recommendation #3 was second on the list in order of importance.

Much improvement in leadership development was noted.  Last year, the Conference made a heavy investment in lay leadership development with the addition of Dr. Kevin Walters to work with Kim Simpson (Conference Lay Leader) and Georgia Adamson (Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Development).  The HCI Lay Leadership Development groups have proved to be a strong part of lay leadership development. A variety of other leadership development options were noted for clergy – High Octane Preaching, Board of Ordained Ministry Residency, HCI Pastoral Leadership groups, various continuing education events, etc. What the group wrestled with was the need for a more coherent and cohesive process of leadership development (as differentiated from episodic learning opportunities).

The Core Leadership Team and Cabinet noted critical elements of leadership development.

Self-evaluation
Orthodox theology
Emotional intelligence
Constantly develop preaching
Learn to handle stress
Staffing/administrative leadership
Evaluation based on performance

The list is in no way exhaustive but rather suggestive of the lines of development needed for growing clergy leaders.

A group of selection criteria were established for implementation of recommendation #3, “Focus disproportionately on ‘Select’ Churches.”  Some obvious questions that beg answering are:  Who selects the churches?  What is the criteria by which a church is to be considered select?  How will this “focus” be implemented?  The critical answer to who or what is a “selected” church is that our focus will be on “the coalition of the willing.”  Churches will self-select by how they engage in the ministry and mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Some of the self-selection criteria involved will be:

  1. Ability or willingness to grow. (How would we know? – by a churches response) (1) Readiness 360, (2) Capacity; 3) what they do/how they vote, 4) intervention (?)
  2. Evidence of new energy, commitment, etc.
  3. Exercise demons (resolving past disputes and control issues) – willingness to engage in intervention when needed, etc.
  4. Crucial location/situation

The third issue we looked at was Recommendation #1, “Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions.”  We noted some preliminary issues.  The need to develop a clear set of decision-making criteria and communicate better.  We raised the question, is there value to have a budget review committee external to the Conference Center?  We focused on three key convictions/commitments: 1. Clarify decision-making process for programs (& resources), 2. Communicate better; 3. Don’t tolerate silos…. Work on ending silos.  “Is it a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed?” (Andy Stanley).

This begins the process of learning and implementation of the next steps facing the Central Texas Conference.  The Evaluation Report for the Exodus Project is found in the Pre-Conference Journal beginning on page 29.  As we worked together, we could sense the Holy Spirit guiding our efforts.  I invite and urge lay and clergy who are a part of the Central Texas Conference to join in the journey.

A Christian Response to Hate-driven Violence ©

As I sit down to write my Friday (June 19th) blog, my heart is heavy with grief and sadness over the shooting that has taken place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. I had planned on writing about the retreat our CTC Core Leadership Team and Cabinet conducted Wednesday. As had been promised in the Conference Core Leadership Team’s report, we met to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report. With the news of the Charleston tragedy, I choose instead to share a brief word on “A Christian Reponses to Hate-driven Violence.” Next Tuesday’s blog (June 23rd) will share insights and directions from the Core Leadership Team & Cabinet retreat.

My first instinct mirrors that of most people of good will. It is heartfelt anguish and grief. On our Conference Website, I invited the churches and people of the Central Texas Conference to offer up prayers of support and healing for the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, especially those who lost loved ones, and the people of Charleston. First, foremost, and always, let us all be a people who offer our pleas of hope and healing before God in trusting prayer. May each church and each individual Christ follower related to the Central Texas Conference set aside special time for such prayer.

As I meditate in a deeper level spending quiet time with the Lord, I have come to see that our prayers must include prayers of confession. For too long and in too many ways, we have celebrated violence as a solution to our problems. Crime dramas saturate television. We laugh over rewriting the 23rd Psalm. (“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because I’m the biggest meanest *@#! Expletive in the valley.”) We grit our teeth and shake our fists at others, even if only inwardly. We must confess that culturally we have worshipped at the altar of violence.

At “tweet” challenges us to live the better nature of the Christian faith. “As the #Charleston police deem this horrific act a hate crime,” the King Center tweeted, “we pray vigorously that this person’s hate does not cultivate more hate.”  Our Lord calls us instead to be a people of peace. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27).

I believe there is a second element we must add to our prayers of confession.  We must confess our complicity in racially motivated hatred and misunderstanding.  At the recent meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference, we listened to teaching and preaching presented by Rev. Rudy Rasmus (Senior Pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston) and Dr. Erin Hawkins (General Secretary of the Commission on Religion and Race for the United Methodist Church) shared with eloquence and true depth.  In keeping with the best understanding of Methodist theology, they challenged us to live in a greater way the gospel of love and grace.  Both social and personal holiness begin in prayers of petition and confession.  The tragedy of the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina call us back to the center of our faith.  Their teaching can help to guide us into a better, more Christ reflecting way of living.  We are challenged not only to accept Christ but to follow Him in the way we live.  Let the admonishment and advice of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians be received in committed discipleship as well.

“Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near.  Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).

A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit #8:

The Future Before Us

I come now to the close of an eight part series on “A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit.” I opened recalling how books on giving birth to one’s first child describe the emotional changes and feeling of an expectant mother – irritable, emotional, anxious, excited, exuberant, irrational. The list is also a descriptive of what the mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) churches are going though in American society during the second decade of the 21st century. The future is now unfolding before us. “The Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:6).

How now shall we live? The answer which comes ringing back to us through the great tradition of the church in keeping with the witness of Holy Scripture is clear – with Spirit induced hope! These are not the last days of the church. Far from it. These are days of a pulsing new beginning (or if you prefer renewal) under the Spirit’s guidance.

William Butler Yeats marvelous poem The Second Coming needs to be heard again with the ears of expectant faith.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;  the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(By Willian Butler Yeats 1865-1939)

Written in the aftermath of World War I’s devastation, the poet calls us once again to a radical trust in God. We too are called back to Bethlehem. We must kneel before the baby and recall that it is His church, not ours.

Jason Byassee perceptively notes: “Religious communities do have a tendency to look back to a golden era and romanticize a lost time. The church should not. We know greater things are yet to come. God not only grants us knowledge about himself, God progressively comes closer to us, fills us, and our world with more of himself. First Son, then Spirit. With God, the best is always yet to come” (Jason Byassee, Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, pp. 38-39).

I believe God in Christ though the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is speaking to us anew. There are so many passages of Scripture that clamor for our attention in times like these. Among them some of the best advice comes from Hebrews 12. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Paul’s great writing to the church at Philippi guides us as well.  “It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

The discerning reader will add other passages. Taken together they beckon us to a new future. Truly, the church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time. We do not rest on our own promises or even ardent good intent. We live in God’s greater purpose! Over the centuries a host of different voices have given witness to this greater truth. Our various organizational manifestations may stumble and crumble, but God’s great purpose will out! The battle belongs to the Lord! (2 Chronicles 20:15).

We are at the end of a time of cultural privilege and accommodation. Despite the Judicial Council, the guaranteed appointment (in its current form) is a Dodo bird already scheduled for extinction. The dominance of a physical structure (building) is receding. And yet now more than ever our witness is needed in a world beaten down, half-starved, morally bankrupt and spiritually emaciated. (Dr. Timothy Tennent’s writings on a similar theme are well worth exploring; see “I Came, I Saw, I Loved: My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Spring Graduating Class of 2015” http://timothytennent.com/2015/06/03/i-came-i-saw-i-loved-my-charge-to-the-asbury-theological-seminary-spring-graduating-class-of-2015/)

There is a story which Pope Benedict XVI loved to repeat “about Napoleon exclaiming to French bishops that he had to ‘destroy the Catholic Church.’ A particularly courageous bishop responded, ‘But sire, not even we have been able to do that!’” (Taken from Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, by Jason Byassee, p. 48). We Methodists can easily and accurately transpose this tale into our context. Despite our best (or worst) efforts we are unable to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. This is truly good news from the Lord God. The future – the God led, God inspired, God anointed future – lies before us.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #7:

Spirit Led

This blog will be posted as we open the 2015 meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference.  We meet in a time of great opportunity and equally great peril.  Facing forward with a focus on the local church, I invite us to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for the Church of Jesus Christ.  One of the great and godly things going on is the gradual rediscovery among mainline Christians of the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity.  Dr. Jason Byassee’s new book Trinity: The God We Don’t Know is but one example of this very positive trend.  As the post-Christendom Church continues to emerge, the Holy Spirit’s leading is taking center stage.  Insightfully Dr. Byasee comments, “The descent of the Spirit in the birth of the church is almost like a second incarnation. … What God does for us in Christ, God works in us by his Holy Spirit” (Jason Byassee, Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, p. 41).

Spiritual formation and small group ministry must once again take center stage in the life of the United Methodist Church.  Prayer is at the heart of openness to the Spirit’s leading.  Discernment (as a form of prayer) – an often forgotten, misunderstood and/or misused tool for seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance – must once again assume its rightful place at the center of our corporate ministry.  “We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5).

Discernment (along with Holy Conversation – a deeply abused and misunderstood concept in the life of the church today!) involves extensive quiet, intensive biblical study, and a settled openness to guidance that comes from God.  Discernment by nature is complex but at its core involves a quiet attentiveness to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit over, above and beyond our own desires or preferences. Discernment in its fullness takes a practiced heart, fine-tuned to hear the word of God and the single-mindedness to follow that word in love.  It is truly a gift from God, but not one dropped from the skies fully formed.  It is a gift cultivated by a prayerful life and the search for self-knowledge. Typically we apply discernment on an individual level.  We need to also recover the concept of discernment for the church as a body seeking the Lord’s leading.

Ruth Haley Barton carefully instructs both the church and the individual who would seek the Spirit’s leading.  “The capacity to discern and do the will of God arises out of friendship with God, cultivated through prayer, times of quiet listening, and alert awareness” (Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 116).  Perceptively she counsels those seeking discernment that “the practice of discernment begins with a prayer for indifference. … Here [indifference] means ‘I am indifferent to anything but God’s will.’  This is a state of wide-openness to God” (Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 119; Chapter 8 on “Discernment” is particularly helpful.  So too is the work of Monsignor Joesph Tetlow, SJ, Making Choices in Christ — my former spiritual guide – and various writings of  John Ortberg, especially Soul Keeping.)

The leading of the Holy Spirit will always be shaped by the love of God in Christ. “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).  In a variety of ways we must ask as both a church and as individuals, “What does love call for? How are we to best live out of the love of God in Christ?”  Quick superficial answers are not helpful here.  Often what seems loving may in discernment turn out not to be loving at all.

I am currently reading A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir.  It is the autobiography of the eminent patristic theologian and Wesleyan scholar Thomas Oden (long time Professor at The School of Theology at Drew University).  At one point he recounts a sabbatical early in his career as a theologian to Heidelberg University.  While there he had the rare opportunity to visit with perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century (and arguably one of the greatest Christian theologians ever), Karl Barth.  Early in the conversation, Professor Oden shared his enthusiasm for the then voguish combination of therapy and theology centered on self-affirmation.  Professor Barth remarked, “Proceed cautiously.  The only source of love of the neighbor is the Word which God speaks affirming both you and the neighbor, not any self-affirmation one gives to oneself”  (Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, p. 96). Later, as they closed the conversation, Dr. Barth encouraged him and underscored “that the church must ‘live by the Holy Spirit,’ and not the spirit of the times” (Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, p. 96).

We need that same encouragement and caution today.  D.T. Niles words temper our self-serving attempts to insist that the Holy Spirit baptize our preferences.  “He (or she) who marries the present age, will be a widow (or widower) in the next.” The Spirit is not subject to the faddish whims of our times.  It is not governed by temporary enthusiasm, momentary inspirations or even heart-felt aspirations.  The Holy Spirit’s leading of the church is anchored in Scripture and tradition.  It lives within the riches of the grace of God – prevenient, justifying and sanctifying.

The leading of the Spirit is not an embrace of every high emotion that comes along.  The Holy Spirit does not and will not lead us contrary to the witness of Holy Scripture.  Likewise under the Spirit’s guidance and interpretation of the witness of Scripture is guided by the great historical affirmations of the Christian faith as found in the seminal creeds.  There too we see the footprint of the Holy Spirit’s leading.

We are being led into a new future by the Holy Spirit.  This is God’s doing.  May we be among those who are prayerfully discerning.

Flood Waters, Tornados and the Connection ©

Wednesday morning I arrived back in the Central Texas Conference offices from Montgomery, Alabama.  Jolynn and I had been gone for the previous three and a half days while I had the honor and joy of serving as the Conference Preacher for the Alabama- West Florida Annual Conference.

A few years ago, terrible tornados ripped through the Auburn, Alabama area (the northeastern part of Alabama-West Florida).  With other United Methodists all across the nation, Central Texas responded in offerings and prayers for those affected.  While in Montgomery, the prayers and concerns of the good people of the Alabama-West Florida for those affected by the flooding in Texas was a constant blessing.

As I settle back into my office, such a trip into another Conference reminds me again of just how powerful the United Methodist connection is!  We do far more together than we could ever do separately.  Already the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has sent an immediate financial grant for help plus other support.

In coming back to the office, I checked in with the Center for Mission Support.  Rev. Laraine Waughtal, the Central Texas Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, reports that our response to the flooding and tornadoes has been immediate not only across our conference but also assisting the Texas and Rio Texas Conferences.

As the storms began a month ago in Stephenville, Rio Vista, Italy, Morgan Mill and Hillsboro, the Conference Task Force was on the ground working with city and state officials to make assessments in the communities and to see if our help was needed.  Some of ERTs deployed at that time, but most of our communities were fortunate that home flooding and damage was limited.

In the meantime our ERTs (Early Response Teams) traveled to Wimberley and Martindale to help in the tragedies that took place in those communities.  Those communities are in the Conference I served for over 30 years.  The pain of loss is real.  As a family we have “tubed” down the Blanco River.  I thank God for those who have reached out across the connection to help our brothers and sisters in another area!

As the storms progressed through the month our Task Force was continuously on the ground working with communities, local Methodist pastors and others to see what the needs were.  Again we were fortunate until recently.  Now, we are responding to flooding in Eastland, Cisco, Ranger and Grapevine.  We will continue to serve both in the Central Texas Conference and in others areas of Texas which are in need.  As the flood waters progress southward, we will be looking at opportunities to respond in DeLeon, Comanche, and Hutto with our ERTs to begin with in this disaster. Multiple trained teams are responding to these areas to help with the muck-outs.  When we needed flood buckets we asked FUMC Mansfield to supply us with those since they were already working to make some in the near future.  When we asked for 40 they made 110!  Health kits that were made and previously given by area churches were also distributed to the families.

Many of these homes that are flooding are homes which have never flooded before and are not in flood zones.  Therefore, they do not have flood insurance to lean on and especially need our assistance in rebuilding and recovery.  We are asking for a Conference-wide appeal to help raise funds in this recovery effort.  Money can be sent to the Conference office with the designation Disaster Fund.  In time, as the homes dry out, UMVIM teams will be invited to come and help with the rebuild effort.  With that in mind for future planning, be thinking about your mission teams organizing to respond!

You will be hearing and reading more about various disaster relief efforts from the flooding and tornados.  I ask that you follow along using the Central Texas Conference website.

I give thanks to God for your faithfulness as a people and your graciousness in response to these disasters.  The Lord is with us!

A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirt #6:

 

A MISSIONARY CHURCH

Shortly before I was elected as bishop in the United Methodist Church, I stood with others, including two bishops, at a tiny country church in Leesville, Texas.  A plaque was dedicated to Alejo Hernandez who had been ordained at Leesville in 1871 by Bishop Enoch Marvin.  In part the plaque reads simply, “He was a burning bush and the first to preach the gospel among the Mexicans in the manner done by the Methodists.”

In 1873 Bishop Keener charged Hernandez “with the responsibility of opening a Methodist mission. With the result, as described by the secretary of the Board of Missions:  ‘Brother Hernandez has been subjected to the dire necessities of poverty, to the persecutions of superstitious ignorance and bigoted power, and to the no less potent influences of flattery. But out of all the Lord hath brought him by his power.’” (http://www.gcah.org/history/biographies/alejo-hernandez)

Reverend Hernandez was a man on a mission.  He understood himself as driven by the Lord through the Holy Spirit and assigned by the bishop.  Illness caught up with him in Mexico, and he did not live long.  Buried in Corpus Christi, Texas, his tombstone reads:  “He was a burning bush and the first to preach the gospel among the Mexicans in the manner done by the Methodists.”

Methodism began as a missionary movement!  People like Hernandez were the norm not the exception.  The term missionary comes from mission and it details a person sent on a mission in the name of and by the power of the Risen Christ.

For decades the term missionary was dismissed as a form of cultural imperialism.  Yet today the Pentecost movement in China is largely the legacy of North American missionaries prior to World War II.  The phrase missional with all its variations on “mission” and “missionary” calls those who are Christ followers back to the deep sense of being sent by Christ.  It is the awakening of the claim of Matthew 28:16-20 – The Great Commission.  Rightly it has been said that the church doesn’t so much have a mission, the church is a mission – a people sent to share the gospel in word and deed by Christ himself.

Alan Roxburgh, author of The Missional Leader, writes:  “If ever there was a word that has shaped North American Christianity in the opening decades of the 21st century it is the word missional.”  He continues with the following:

In 1998 Eerdmans published a book with the title Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.  It was written in the most unlikely manner by a team of missiologists, theologians and practitioners who met for three years to compose the book.  The book’s genesis lay in the convergence of various people inside a new network called the Gospel and Our Culture Network.  Comprised of people from a variety of church backgrounds (Methodist, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist and Anabaptist) GOCN coalesced around the writings of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary in India for over thirty years.  Newbigin, upon his retirement in the mid 70’s returned to his native England to encounter the fact that the Christian culture he had left some thirty years earlier had all but disappeared.  Having a keen missionary sensibility Newbigin recognized that by the latter part of the 20th century the mission field for the Gospel had shifted dramatically.  The greatest challenge to Christian mission was now those very nations that had once sent missionaries out around the world.  It was the peoples of Europe, shaped by the Western tradition, that were rapidly losing their identity as Christian.  In one memorable epithet Newbigin asked the question: Can the West be converted?  That question captured the imagination of church leaders in the UK and Europe.  It represented one of the fundamental issues that had to be addressed by the church but had not been articulated so clearly until that point.  The challenge facing the Western churches was the re-conversion of its own people.”  (From a paper presented by Alan Roxburgh to United Methodist Church Developers in 2007, “What is Missional Church?”)

What we need today, what God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is calling into being, is a new church – a missionary church in the truest sense of the word!  Properly understood a missionary church is a sent church.  Such a sending comes from the authority of the risen Christ.  By its very nature it encompasses both personal and social holiness, both justice/mercy and evangelism, both justification and sanctification – “make disciples” + “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.”  The focus of attention is not on institutional survival but on serving the Lord through loving others in the fullest understanding & sense of love.

Again Roxburgh is on target.

“The biblical narratives are about God’s mission in, through and for the sake of the world.  The focus of attention is toward God not the other way around.  The missio dei is about a theocentric rather than anthropocentric understanding of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection which itself, as the apocalyptic engagement of God with the world, breaks into creation in order to call forth that which was promised from the beginning – that in this Jesus all things will be brought back together and made new.  But the focus of the missional is doxological.  It is not about, in the modern, Western, expressive individualist sense, meeting my needs.  The perpendicular pronoun is not the subject of the narrative; God is the subject.” (Alan Roxburgh, IBID)

Put bluntly a missional church is a movement for Christ that goes into the world (thus is incarnational at the essence of its methodology).  Worship, spiritual formation, bible study and the like provide a critical shaping that propels us forward.  The ancient theme so well explicated in 1 & 2 Peter of “in the world but not of it” is applicable at the very core of the churches’ being.

What are some of the practical elements of a sent church, a missionary church?  A missionary church will be:

1.  Christ centered at its heart.
2.  Spirit led in its soul.
3.  Sacrificial in nature.
4.  Servant oriented in character.
5.  Incarnational in methodology.
6.  Explicitly evangelistic in witness.
7.  Creatively engaging in its expression.

All this sounds good until we get down to particulars.  Yet if the gospel is anything, it is about the scandal of particularity.  The High God of the universe comes in the baby named Jesus.  This same Lord God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is calling a new church into being.  As the years unfold we can expect and even rejoice in a wondrously different shaping of the “United Methodist” part of the church universal.  We are at the end of a time of cultural privilege and accommodation.  The days of the guaranteed appointment in its current form are numbered.  The dominance of a physical structure (building) is receding.

Who knows what will happen?  Only God.  Methodism started as a missionary movement.  This is where our future lies.  We are in for a wild, exhilarating, terrifying wild ride.  The Holy Spirit is calling a new church into being.

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