Archive - May, 2012

On the Road Again

Saturday Jolynn and I flew out to Philadelphia.  We spent the Memorial holiday time with a cousin and her family in northern New Jersey.  The family R&R was a welcome joy after the hectic schedule of recent weeks and a nice rest before the next round of travels.

On Wednesday we will arrive in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for the meeting of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.  I will be the conference preacher there.  The Greater New Jersey Conference focused on the first three vows of Methodism – prayers, presence, gifts – last year.  They have asked me specifically to address the twin themes of Service and Witness.

Next Saturday we will fly back to Fort Worth, grab a quick change of clothes and then head down to Waco for the Central Texas Conference.  It should be a great time of learning and worship with Dr. Joy Moore and Dr. Gil Rendle leading us.

The following Thursday, June 7th (the day after the CTC Conference closes), I will fly back out to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to speak to the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Their Conference theme is “the river flows through us and beyond us.”  My first address is on the transformation of the local church following the theme “The River Flows Through Us.”  The second address is on the importance of new church development and is entitled “The River Flows Beyond Us.”

All across the country, Conferences of the UMC are spending more time in worship and learning as we lean into a new future.  I look forward to sharing with and learning from our colleagues in Christ serving in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I’ll see you in Waco!

A Great Sunday

My steady deep conviction over my almost 4 years as bishop of the Central Texas Conference has been that the Conference exists to “energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This Sunday I had the great joy of sharing with a church vibrantly alive as it engages in this great mission.

I preached three times at First United Methodist Church in Killeen and shared with pastors Jeff Miller and David McMinn in confirmation.  The 9:30 a.m. service in particular was electric with the Spirit’s presence!  A packed sanctuary rejoiced with inspiring music as 14 youth were confirmed (the total for the day was 20 confirmations).  But perhaps the highlight came after confirmation at the close of the worship service.  Four young adults (mid to late 20s) responded to the call to discipleship and came forward to commit (or recommit) themselves to Christ as Lord and Savior.  Two were on profession of faith and one was baptized.  The Spirit was moving!

In looking over the confirmation class (as well as the congregation), I couldn’t help but notice that it was multi-ethnic.  There were three distinct ethnic groups (possibly a fourth) in the confirmation class and, while predominantly Anglo, the ethnic diversity was not simply a scattered individual or two but a clear and welcomed aspect of that community of faith.

This congregation is not perfect.  None are.  The old RSV translation of II Corinthians 4:7 comes to mind:  “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”  It was great Sunday, and I was blessed to share with the good folks of First UMC, Killeen in watching God in action through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Grounded in Discipline

In the midst of my sojourn in Florida (i.e. General Conference) and my re-immersion in the Central Texas Conference, I have kept up my reading.  One of the recent books I’ve read is Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith.  He is the co-author of the book UnChristian, which many read a few years ago when we had his co-author David Kinnaman in the Central Texas Conference.

While uneven, elements linger in my thoughts, particularly the 8th chapter entitled “Grounded, Not Distracted.” Lyons lays out five key spiritual disciplines for not just our reflection but for committed, habitual practice:

“1. Immersed in Scripture (Instead of Entertained)

2. Observing the Sabbath (Instead of Being Productive)

3. Fasting for Simplicity (Instead of Consuming)

4. Choosing Embodiment (Instead of Being Divided)

5. Postured by Prayer (Instead of Power)”

(The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith, Chapter 8 “Grounded, Not Distracted,” Gabe Lyons, pp. 127-146)

The list echoes the early sentiment, practice, and posture of those people called Methodist.  You remember, the ones who were so “methodical” about pursuing spiritual disciplines.  There was a day the “discipline” didn’t mean a book but a lifestyle that was grounded and not distracted.

I continue to pray regularly the prayer of Aelred of Rievaulx (1147-1167 A.D.), which was paraphrased in Godspell – “To know Him [Christ] more clearly; to love Him [Christ] more dearly; to follow Him [Christ] more nearly” (original language).  I don’t know about you, but for me, I need to be grounded in discipline … not the book, the spiritual disciples of the life of faith.

Guaranteed Appointment

Among the various actions taken by General Conference was an overwhelming vote (originally on the consent agenda) to end guaranteed appointments for ordained elders in the United Methodist Church.  In brief, “under this new legislation, bishops and cabinets will be allowed to give elders less than full-time appointment. The legislation also would permit bishops and their cabinets, with the approval of their boards of ordained ministry and annual (regional) conference’s executive session, to put elders on unpaid transitional leave for up to 24 months. Clergy on transitional leave would be able to participate in their conference health program through their own contributions.  Each annual conference is asked to name a task force to develop a list of criteria to guide the cabinets and bishops as they make missional appointments.  The cabinets shall report to the executive committees of Board of Ordained Ministry the number of clergy without fulltime appointments and their age, gender and ethnicity. Cabinets also will be asked to report their learnings as appointment-making is conducted in a new way.” (Taken from UMNS, May 1, 2012)

I am always surprised by the amount of anxiety this issue seems to engender.  The involvement of the Board of Ordained Ministry in conjunction with the Cabinet safeguards against misuse based on gender, ethnicity or freedom of the pulpit.  It does assist in proper placement of associate pastors and general effectiveness accountability.  It places Elders in the same accountability relationship as Licensed Local Pastors.  In reality, it will have very little effect on most Central Texas Conference clergy and churches.  Denomination wide, there is an estimated excess of only 784 Elders across the whole connection!  When you couple this with a retirement tsunami that will peak in the CTC in 2018 (we are currently on the beginning edge of that huge wave), we will actually desperately need new clergy in the next 10 to15 years.

As we wrestle with our deep need to make mission field appointments, the challenge will be to make the proper fit between pastor, church and mission field.  Furthermore, the deeper pressure we are experiencing a clergy deployment system is being driven by pensions and health insurance.

So, relax, for almost all this will make little difference.  It will protect churches and clergy from deep ineffectiveness and aid making mission field appointments.

Breathe Deep, Focus!

Looking back at the close of General Conference, a story about a couple of old moose hunters who went on a yearly hunting trip in remote northern Maine comes to mind.  As was their habit, they hired the pilot of a little float plane to fly up to a lake just south of the Canadian border and drop them off.  The pilot crammed everything into his little “puddle jumper” float plane, landed on the lake and unload them and all their gear at the shore.  “Remember,” he said, “I’ll be back in three days to get you.  I’ve got room for the two you, your gear and just one (1!) moose!”  They readily agreed and headed off into the woods.

Three days later the pilot landed on the lake to find the hunters waiting on the shore with all their gear and two (2!) moose. A heated argument ensued about why the plane couldn’t possibly lift off with that much weight and clear the ridgeline at the end of the lake.  It ended when one of the “good ole boys” commented, “Well, the guy who flew last year had the same plane and he was able to take off.”  Pride on the line, the pilot grudgingly consented to take both moose, plus the gear and the two of them.

They crammed everything in, taxied to the end of the lake and revved their engines to the max.  Slowly the little plane gathered speed and finally crept into the air just before it ran out of water.  It cleared the initial stand of trees and struggling to make the ridge line, clipped a tall pine at the end of the lake.  The plane crashed into the pine trees with antlers, moose bit, camping gear and plane parts flying everywhere.

The pilot and hunters came too about the same time perched in the branches of a tall pine.  One of the old hunters spoke first. “Where are we?”  “Well,” said his buddy, “about 50 feet further than last year.

General Conference feels like that.  I’m not sure where we are, but it can’t be very much farther than last year.  We are a deeply fractured church (not splintered, our fracture runs in multiple directions. Think of a windshield that has been smashed, is still held together but has fracture lines running in all directions).

A reasonable, indeed sane, question is “what now are we to do?”  The answer I believe lies at the heart of faithfulness.  We need to breathe deep and focus!

We need to breathe deep.  Wesley is right.  “The best of all is that God is with us!”  As important as structure and ecclesiology are (and make no mistake, they are very! important), it is Jesus Christ who saves.  The great commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is still before us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Amid all the debate swirling around The Call to Action, the first and most critical emphasis is a ten year focus on building vital congregations.  Here in the Central Texas Conference the Conference exists to energize and equip local churches for the great mission of God … “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Whatever the general church structure, this must continue to be our focus!

Breathe deep – God is with us!  Focus!  We are in the business of building vital congregations that make disciples for the transformation of the world.  “Use your ambition to try to work toward being the best at building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12b).  The title of my blog is This Focused Center.  It comes from 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 based on The Message (a paraphrased translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson).  “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 that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.”  In the aftermath of General Conference, breathe deep, focus!

General Conference and the NFL Draft

How is the United Methodist Church’s General Conference similar to the National Football League’s annual draft?  The answer is that, like the NFL, we won’t know for sure what we really have for a couple of years.

When NFL teams draft players, it usually takes a number of years before a team knows if a player really pans out.  Similarly, it is often (admittedly not always) difficult to discern the full implications of an action taken.  By way of example, in the 1996 General Conference comprehensive legislation on ordination of Deacons and Elders was adopted.  Sixteen years later we are still adjusting to those changes.  One change in 1996 was to adopt a 3-year probationary period.  By General Conference 2008, we had decided the residency period was too long and reduced it to 2 years.  Despite the best intentions (to raise the level of clergy competence), we made the process too complex and discouraged people from entering the UM process.

This is called the Law of Unintended Consequences. (The building of the interstate highway system and its adverse impact on small towns across America is considered a classic example of the Lw of Unintended Consequences.). Often the full consequences don’t unfold until we live with the new situation for a while.

As I write this, it is Friday morning, May 4th.  Currently we are wrestling with the budget.  We have already taken significant  action — stressed vital congregations, restructured the General Boards & Agencies, rejected a set aside bishop, created a new episcopal area in the Congo, gone through our continuing struggle on human sexuality, given annual conferences more freedom in creating their own  structure, done away with guaranteed appointments, reinforced mission initiatives taking the gospel into communist lands — the list goes on!  As General Conference draws to a close, it is important to catch our breath, pause for prayer, and remember John Wesley’s admonition:  “The best of all is that God is with us.”