Later today (April 28, 2017) I will drive to Dallas for the beginning of a week on Council of Bishops business. Saturday we have a joint meeting of Bishops and Conference Chancellors. (Ken Adair is CTC Chancellor and Wilson Woods is CTC Associate Chancellor.) There are a variety of legal issues that the church is constantly facing (issues revolving around the Trust Clause and property, legal issues dealing with various complaints, etc.). This is a regular gathering which I find both interesting and at times quite challenging.
On Sunday afternoon the Council of Bishops will begin its regular spring meeting with a memorial worship service remembering both bishops and spouses of bishops who have joined the Church Triumphant since our last gathering. Somewhere early in our gathering (possibly Monday, May 1st) we should receive news of the Judicial Council’s ruling on the validity of Bishop Oliveto’s election. As I have written about in recent blogs, the issue of human sexuality will dominate our discussion and reflections. Anticipation/concern/hope for next year’s report from the Commission on the Way Forward and the looming specter of possible schism hang over our gathering like the Sword of Damocles.
And yet . . . in the midst of our conflict, the central issue of building vital congregations remains squarely in front of us regardless of any individual bishop’s stance on the controversial issues surrounding human sexuality. The opportunity and challenge of learning together spreads out before us and the whole church. Herein is reason for hope. “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). The hope offered by the Lord God calls us to a time of prayer, reflection and learning together. It elicits courage from us regardless of our individual positions.
The 2016 General Conference called for extensive church-wide reflection on The United Methodist Church’s system of church government (ecclesiology). A document entitled “Wonder, Love and Praise” has been written by the Committee on Faith and Order. Here in Central Texas we already have a task group working on how to lead a Conference-wide study (i.e. studies in every congregation) offering feedback with prayerful and thoughtful reflection. Together the bishops will begin the wider conversation on church ecclesiology this coming week. It sounds dry but in reality has the potential to critically impact every local church.
In executive session the Council will receive reports on the progress of the Commission on the Way Forward and spend serious time together seeking to discern the will of the God for the larger denomination. During our gathering we will meet regularly in Covenant Prayer Groups, which will include all bishops (both active and retired). It is our hope to model Christian grace and appropriate behavior for the whole church on how to handle disagreements.
As I have been preparing myself, I have been in prayer for the church and the Commission. I’ve spent careful time reading the report mentioned above (i.e. “Wonder, Love and Praise”). In my reflection, prayer and reading, I have heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me, and I think to the whole church. Reading Bishop Rueben Job’s devotional one morning, I was struck by his call to honor the “sovereignty” of God. In part he writes: “We become prisoners to our own weaknesses and the evil of the world when we forget that God is sovereign and God is able. … Prayers that are completely dependent upon a sovereign God will touch the most troubling parts of our lives and society as a whole” (Rueben Job, 40 Days with Wesley, p. 11). A few days later my morning scripture reading included a passage from Matthew 10:26-31. It opens with the words, “Therefore, don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open. What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops” (Matthew 10:26-27).
I am reminded in my reading and prayer time of that constant theme which comes from the Lord is the angelic admonition to “fear not” (Luke 2:10). Bishop Job has written: “Ever since Jesus has appeared to the disciples, Christians have discovered that there is no need to fear when one is in the presence of God. To walk with God not only rebukes our fears and sends them away but also increases our courage. … From fear to courage is the natural journey of all that walk with God” (Norman Shawchuck and Rueben Job, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p. 185).
Out of those and other readings in my devotional time, the Holy Spirit prompted me to pick back up a significant monograph written by Dr. Gil Rendle. It is important to note that the Committee on Faith and Order commended that Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time” should also be read alongside “Wonder, Love, and Praise.” I commend both to you strongly! You may find them following the above links.
I close with a tiny sampling of the profound insights found in Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time”:
“Courage requires the hard work of thoughtfulness and resolve. . . . In the writing of philosopher John Silber, ‘Courage is often misunderstood as a capacity to suppress emotions of fear.’ … Courage is less the response of the stirred heart than of the discerning mind. Courage is knowing what to be afraid of. This knowing takes a considerable amount of work.” (p. 3)
“Projections of survivability of our small congregations indicate that over a period of a few decades our United Methodist denomination should expect to close about a third – over 10,000. The bottom line of our current situation is that, denominationally, we cannot avoid internal pain and suffering.” (p. 11)
“Courage, in the face of empathy, is the act of leadership keeping attention and resources on those people, and that part of the system, with the most potential to align with purpose and move toward identified outcomes. Courage is to choose missional strategy over relational comfort – and to resource the strategy as needed. Courage is to choose not to be redirected by empathy when pain cannot missionally be avoided.” (p. 14)