Archive - June, 2011

Extravagant Generosity and New Churches

As of Monday our Conference offering for Glen Lake is $39,379.   This is a remarkable response of extravagant generosity far exceeding our goal of $23,000.  In addition those at Conference also responded with great generosity in lunch giving to spring storms relief through UMCOR across the United States (including our own Conference).  I am proud to be the bishop of such a wonderfully generous Area.

When I came to the Central Texas Conference, we were already known for our extravagant generosity in a number of other ways including (but not limited to) Imagine No More Malaria (through Nothing But Nets), the Central Conference Pension Initiative, Wings of the Morning, Central Texas Conference Youth Mission (CTCYM), and Volunteers in Mission (VIM).  If you haven’t already read the headline article on the CTC website entitled “Your Generosity Recognized by the ‘Advance,’” I urge you to do so!  Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center is a wonderful part of our local outreach both to our own children, youth and adults as well as to others who do not know Christ.

Recently I heard of a way that one of those initiatives – Imagine No Malaria – intersects with evangelistically sharing the gospel. Bishop Tom Bickerton from the Western Pennsylvania Conference passed on the following: The story really relates to our mission work in Sierra Leone.  “After we did our country-wide distribution of insecticide treated bed nets (approx. 4 million), Bishop John Yambasu had a visit from 15 tribal chiefs (basically they are mayors of villages – when they authenticate something it gets top priority and gets done).  Those chiefs, some of whom are Muslim, said to John, ‘We would like for you to start United Methodist Churches in our villages.’  When John inquired about their desire, the response was, ‘You have proven to us that you want to take care of our people’s bodies.  We would like for you to come and take care of their souls.’  What a wonderful intersection for our two areas of focus!!” 

The two areas of focus which Bishop Bickerton references are Stamping Out Killer Diseases (Imagine No Malaria) and New Places for New People (new church development).  Through our extravagant generosity in supporting Imagine No Malaria we are spreading the gospel of Christ as Lord and Savior.  The Central Texas Conference (with the United Methodist Church as a whole) is truly engaged in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Attempting to Untie the Gordian Knot of Metrics

This week I have been at Bishops’ Conference (formerly Bishops’ Week) on Mt. Sequoyah in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  With Gil Rendle’s leadership, we have continued Extended Cabinet work on the theme “Leading in a Radically Changing Church.” Among many items, we are wrestling with the role of metrics in helping both congregations and pastors in faithfulness and fruitfulness.

Some clear learnings about the role of metrics (measurements) are emerging:

  • A system gets what it measures!
  • If we don’t know what we produce (outcomes), we don’t know how to measure it.
  • If we don’t know what we want, we measure the wrong things.
  • Non-profits (including churches!!) often don’t know what they produce (outcomes); therefore, they measure resources (inputs) and activities (throughputs). (Deming, Collins, et. al.).
  • Outcome = what will be different (changed) in 3 to 5 years if we are fruitful.
  • Systems are built backwards; without an outcome you can’t build the system.                                               

The huge change we (both in the Central Texas Conference and in the UMC at large) are going through is a change from membership to discipleship!  We are working at reclaiming our core purpose handed on from the Wesleys’ and the original Methodist movement.  We have been clear for a number of years that our mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  We are making the tough transition to recover the original Wesleyan church culture.  (Put crudely, instead of focusing on taking care of congregations and clergy, we are trying to recover a culture of discipleship.)  This is a natural outgrowth of the church responding to a culture that has changed from a Christendom focus to a post-Christendom mentality.  (Therefore, no one is to blame!  This change is an outgrowth of living in the American culture and mission field.)

 Metrics don’t tell the whole story.  But, they do tell an important story and must be used!  We will engage in using the 5 basic metrics I’ve lifted up in previous blogs and Wilderness Way articles – worship attendance, professions of faith, number of people engaged in hands on mission work, number of people involved in spiritual formation through prayer and study, missional giving.  These parallel the 5 practices of fruitful congregations.  This is basic crucial data that must be known and shared.

 Yet, metrics really don’t tell the whole story!  Therefore, sharing a narrative is vital!  We need to share the story of the mission.  Attention must be paid to how God is at work in the particular mission field of a congregation. What is unique in your particular context?  Where and how is the Holy Spirit leading you? 

 Gil Rendle has taught us to cut the knot by adding a reference point to the narrative.  If you can’t measure it, at least you must describe it!  A way of getting at this is to ask and answer three questions.

  • What have we done?
  • What are we working on?
  • What do we still have to do?

As we move forward we will engage in both metrics and narrative as ways of inviting Spirit-led reflection and ministry engagement for both congregations and clergy.

Life on the Mountain

I am leaving Monday evening for Mt. Sequoyah, Arkansas.  Traditionally the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) of the United Methodist Church holds an event entitled “Bishops Week” every June at Mt. Sequoyah.  Rather than spending time on a broad-spectrum continuing education event, we are spending focused time with the Bishops and extended Cabinets of the Jurisdiction examining leadership issues. Prior to Bishops Week we will be having a two-day meeting of the SCJ College of Bishops.  This meeting will mark the conclusion of my term as President of the College.  (Bishop Jim Dorff, Resident Bishop of the San Antonio area, will be the new SCJ College of Bishops President effective at the close of our week.)

One again we are being led by Dr. Gil Rendle, senior consultant with the Texas Methodist Foundation and author of Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches.  We will reflect together on the change we are all engulfed in.  Of particular interest will be a session entitled “The Gordian Knot of Metrics.”  We know that we must move from measuring “inputs” to ministry to the metrics of measuring ministry “output.”   Put differently, just how do we measure what makes for a faithful and fruitful congregation that accomplishes the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  Hard numbers (i.e. professions of faith, people engaged in hands on ministry with the poor, worship attendance, etc.) are a part of the answer but only a part.  There must be a narrative component that takes seriously the varied contexts for ministry while at the same time engaging in genuine Wesleyan accountability.

I’ll try to offer a follow up blog at the end of the week.

Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone.That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so thateveryone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far betterlife than people ever lived on their own” (The Message, II Corinthians 5:14-15).

Battling Negativity

As a Cabinet we are reading The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwartz.  It is a follow up to the book The Power of Full Engagement, which I have commented about in earlier blogs.  Among the many insightful and stimulating observations, Schwartz chronicles what is called the “negativity bias.”  He comments: “We’re biologically wired to sense danger.  The result is that we notice what is wrong with our lives far more readily than we do what’s right.” (Schwartz, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, p.133).  This phenomenon is a part of our hard wired fight or flight response.  In Stone Age days, if you weren’t attuned to what was wrong, you often died (the saber-tooth tiger or its equivalent ate you!). 

Today, such a response is often counterproductive.  It leads us away from properly understanding the situation we might find ourselves in.  It gives critics far more power, leverage and strength than they need and (often) deserve.  The “negativity bias” leads to reactive behavior.  (Think about the time you impulsively sent an email and then wished you hadn’t.)

The response is not a shallow positive thinking but a deeper ability to reflect on life.  Recently my spiritual advisor invited me to connect such reading with the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.  Pointing out that the commandment of Sabbath rest has not been revoked, he gracefully challenged me on the importance of weekly rest as a way to walk with the Lord.  It gets us out of a negativity bias and helps us live in God’s grace.

Different Context – Common Underlying Issues

The last 10 days have been a whirlwind.  I started by flying first to Seattle and visiting with the Pacific Northwest Conference’s New Church Development Commission.  This was followed by a day long teaching in the Alaskan Missionary Conference and then preaching the opening worship service of the Alaskan Missionary Conference.  (Admittedly I did sneak in one day of hiking in Kenai Fjords National Park, up to the edge of Exit Glacier – absolutely stunning in its beauty and majesty.)  Upon completion of my time in Alaska, I flew back to Central Texas for our Annual Conference (beginning our 101st year!).  Preaching and presiding was stimulating and exhausting.  Following the Central Texas Conference, Jolynn and I drove to Corpus Christi, Texas where I preached in the Friday service to the Southwest Texas Conference.  It was a special delight and joy to be with friends of long standing.

Time spent in four conferences leads to reflections of differences and similarities.  Each Conference has its own unique context.  On an obvious level, the context of living in the Pacific Northwest is very different from living in either Alaska or Texas.  (Alaskans couldn’t help but remind me that if “Alaska were cut in half, Texas could be the 3rd largest state.”)   There are both unique challenges and unique opportunities in each Conference. 

Beyond context, each conference stop deepened my conviction that we face common underlying issues.  For instance, the dramatic change to a post-Christendom culture confronts us all.  Methodism as we have known it in the United States is in a period of great flux.  There is a renewed interest across the map on how we witness and share our faith in an increasingly non-Christian culture.  All conferences are wrestling with the implications of pensions, health insurance and financial viability.  Each conference was moving out in creative missional engagement.  In every case, healthy churches were outwardly focused in evangelism, mission and service under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

There is much to be excited about.  God is at work, and God leading us across the face of the church!  There is much that challenges us to rely even further on the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Back on Tuesday

Bishop Lowry has been at a series of three different Annual Conference gatherings since May 31st. Once he returns to Central Texas, he will post an updated blog. Please look for that posting on Tuesday, June 14.