Archive - September, 2012

Gathering of Cabinets

This week found me on the road but in the Conference. Monday through Wednesday noon, I participated in a gathering of the Cabinets (Bishops, DSs, extended Cabinet) of the Texas and New Mexico Conferences (Central Texas, North Texas, Southwest Texas, Rio Grande, Northwest Texas, Texas, and New Mexico) at Southwestern University in Georgetown. There was a vibrant and informative exchange of ideas and “best practices.” Additionally Dr. Lovett Weems, Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership located at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D. C. presented a fascinating discourse on trends for Churches, Clergy, and Context (i.e. the mission field – demographic trends in our state and conference).

Some reflections and insights worth passing along are:
 The Mission of the Conference is to “enhance and extend the witness of the United Methodist Church within their geographical boundary.”
 The District Superintendent is to “be a steward of the United Methodist Church witness in their District.”
 We’ve been experiencing a worship recession (in attendance) since 2002 that is worse than the economic recession.
 The higher the minimum salary goes the fewer the number of churches are served by an elder (and there is suggestive information that the higher it goes the weaker a Conference is in fruitfulness and witness).
 Preliminary data suggest that we will have a surplus of elders up to 2016 and growing shortage after 2016 (we hope to get more exact data for Central Texas).
 The growth and health of churches averaging 126 or more in worship attendance is critical to health of smaller churches and the greater witness as a whole.
 Given the demographics of our mission field new Hispanic leadership is critical.
 Given the demographics of our mission field at least 3 groups are central to our reaching out – 1) children, 2) Hispanics, and 3) internal immigrants – that is, people moving to Texas from other states.
 Money is a lagging indicator of health and vitality. The economic model of the UMC since 1968 has been that fewer people will give more money and that cannot continue forever!
 Younger clergy leadership offers exciting possibilities.
 New Church development is essential.
 Practice innovation and experiment!

It was an exciting gathering. Special thanks go to the various Assistants to the Bishop and Connectional Table leaders from Conferences involved (including CTC’s Dr. Georgia Adamson)!

Wednesday night, Thursday and Friday were spent at the Bishops’ Conclave (essentially a Texas Methodist Foundation clergy group for the active bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction). We welcomed three new bishops to our gathering Cynthia Harvey, Gary Mueller, and Mike McKee. As always the learnings in leadership (we are led by Dr. Gil Rendle) are deeply challenging and helpful.

Wrestling with Vitality and the Necessity of Narrative

I keep remembering the old story of a guy who went fishing.  That night he came home with no fish to show for his efforts.  His friends questioned him about his efforts.  He replied, “I didn’t catch any fish but I did influence quite a few!”

People aren’t fish and yet Jesus did say, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).  We need to accomplish more than a vague immeasurable “influence.”

I raise all this up because we continue to wrestle with how we measure congregational vitality.  We know, we surely all know, that things like worship attendance, missional activity/engagement with the poor, professions of faith and baptisms, spiritual formation and small group accountability, financial generosity (and this is only a partial list) are all crucial to building healthy vital congregations.  Gil Rendle comments that “one sure key for changing a system to get different results depends upon clarity of intended outcomes.” (His emphasis)

The basic elements of congregational vitality correspond to vows of Methodism and the five Fruitful Practices of vital congregations.

The Five Practices

Vital Sign

Membership Vows

Passionate Worship

Average Weekly Worship   Attendance


Radical Hospitality

Professions of Faith/
  Reaffirmations of Faith


Intentional Faith Development

Involvement in Small Discipling Groups


Risk-Taking Mission & Service

Involvement in Service beyond the Congregation


Extravagant Generosity

Total Giving



Our wrestling with vitality comes at the focal point of trying to measure discipleship.  The numbers (metrics) never quite match up.  They are imperfect proximate measurements of far more subtle concepts.  By way of example, ask a question of true discipleship.  Just how do we measure a transformed life?

A partial answer to this dilemma is the inclusion of the category of narrative.  Narrative invites us beyond simple, incomplete metrics while at the same time taking seriously the need for metrics as something that points us in the right direction.  On March 19, 2012 I posted a blog entitled The Importance of Narrative.  It is worth emphasis that vitality and narrative go together.  Allow me to quote by way of emphasis.

Both I and the Cabinet have repeatedly emphasized the importance of sharing the narrative.  Narrative is the story, the background information, which helps understand what is taking place.  Often (usually!) the narrative changes before the metrics.  What does this look like?  A pastor and congregation(s) start discovering and sharing with each other stories of significant mission impact in their life together (i.e. “remember when we were helping that homeless family find a meal” or “it was moving to hear Jimmy talk about the difference that following Christ has made in his life” etc.).  One of the keys to understanding narrative is that it is a specific story.  Narrative is not a vague assertion.  It tells a tale of God in action in the life and ministry of a congregation and individuals.  In our use of the vitality metrics, we (Bishop and Cabinet) have left a large place for the narrative story to be shared.  It is critical piece of learning for us as a Cabinet, for pastors, and for lay members of a congregation!  Narrative begs to be shared!

Wrestling with vitality is tough vital work and narrative tells a critical part of the story.  Together we are advancing the Kingdom of God!

Champion Sam-I-Am

How did you spend your summer vacation? It is a question asked thousands of school children every September. It is question adults also ask each other. In Rev. Carol Woods’ (West District Superintendent) case I heard one of the best answers I’ve ever heard!

Carol and Clint went back East to family in the Kentucky region. They have a horse there named Sam-I-Am. (Dr. Seuss fans will get the reference.) Sam-I-Am was one of those forgotten pasture horses until they picked him out for love and attention and training. They entered Sam-I-Am in a national riding horse competition. Sam-I-Am not only won his class. He won best in show! Sam-I-Am is national champion!

Wow! I love that story. I think it can serve as an analogy for many churches. With love, attention and training, they can be champions for the cause of Christ. It takes clergy and laity working together in partnership. It requires deep faithfulness to the Lord. It necessitates great fruitfulness for the Lord. It emerges from purposeful commitment to the Lord.

Last year we pioneered The Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) and the Small Church Initiative (SCI) in the Central and West Districts. The initial results have been of championship quality.
Pastor Bruce Carpenter of Chatfield comments about SCI: The laity from several churches (Chatfield, Kerens, Dawson, Frost) have been challenged to pair specific needs of their respective communities with specific and realistic abilities of their churches. In the case of Chatfield UMC, at least three things have surfaced that are important outreaches to the surrounding community.
Pastor Leah Hidde-Gregory from Frost-Italy (SCI) writes: Our laity are excited to go and be with other local church leaders, to learn and to swap ideas. For us the new information is very important, but so is the fellowship and the synergy of being with others trying to accomplish the same things we are for the kingdom.
Pastor David Medley of Lake Shore UMC (SCI) remarks: It focuses on principles that are applied to one’s unique context. It requires effort to think and apply but it fits one’s setting. It is not a cookie cutter, one size fits all approach. It focuses on transforming congregational leaders who in turn promote congregational transformation through their participation in leadership.
Pastor Rebecca Hull from Crawford (SCI) offers: In every discussion that we have had, we can identify our church somewhere in the discussion, so it is relevant to us. We see how the other churches are struggling with various issues like we are and are learning healthier ways to deal with problems, mission and ministry of the church. This gives us hope in the struggle.

Jeff Jones, Director of Center Operations for the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth reports:
•Currently we have 17 small churches in four SCI Workshops with approximately 90 people participating.
•Applications for the next SCI Workshops are now available on the CTC website. These applications will be accepted through October 26.
•The next SCI Workshops will begin in January and run for six months through June.

HCI is for larger Churches and reports similar results. In my reading I ran across the following blog comment from Paul Nixon, a nationally recognized expert in building faithful and fruitful congregations. “We need major intervention. I love the work that Bob Farr and friends have done with the Healthy Church Initiative. The HCI process goes beyond tweaking. It is a full-blown systems intervention – with a philosophy and approach similar to what I follow in my own local church consulting and coaching. Churches that intend to stay in the game in the next quarter century will have to re-think everything they do – everything! They can tweak some things, but the churches that live to the year 2030 will start over again in many respects- they will plant new ministries and new faith communities within themselves and beyond – and with a revolutionary spirit.” (Paul Nixon, “Too Late for Tweaking.” The Epicenter Conversation, September 2012)

I commend HCI and SCI to you. Those who are a part of the Central Texas Conference can find more information (including sign up) at the Conference web site In Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit we can all be champion Sam-I-Ams.

Mission Strategists

Recently I met with the District Superintendents (Don Scott – Central, Bob Holloway – East, Ginger Bassford – North, Carol Woods – West, and Rankin Koch – South) to review the pioneering work we did on realigning the work of District Superintendents around the mission field.  To refresh memories: for the last four years the Exodus Project has reshaped the work of the conference to center around our mission of “…making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world…” In this reshaping, the job description of the district superintendent has also been redefined.  One of the key ways a DS carries out our mission is by being the “Chief Mission Strategist of the district.”

The intent is to move District Superintendents away from administrative maintenance and on to mission.  This is no easy task because the Disciplinary mandates still have to be met (many, most, of them involving administrative maintenance) even while we seek to engage DSs as Mission Field Strategists.  (We really are building the bridge while we walk on it!)

We have identified and been working on a number of elements that shift the focus of a DS’s job to being a mission strategist.  1)  Lifting up mission field questions/issues with local churches; 2) identifying and engaging missional outreach needs for the District as a whole; 3) guiding congregations to examine their future – i.e. legacy, critical mission, regional, etc. – and assisting them to strategically engage that future; 4) collaborative learning both within the District (lay and clergy) as well as with the various Ministry Centers (Evangelism & Church Growth, Leadership, and Mission Support); 5) recruitment of potential new clergy and lay leaders; and 6) the development and deployment of resources (personnel, financial, energy, time, etc.).

A District Superintendent as chief mission strategist for a district works with each church to repeatedly ask the question:  “How are you engaging the mission field?”  All this is done with the intention to engage and energize local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Mission, Movement, and Church

At our Cabinet retreat Professor Ted Campbell offered some fascinating insight on the relationship between being a religious movement and an established church.  Dr. Campbell reminded us that the original mission of the Methodist movement from the General Minutes was (is?): “Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nations, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”  At the 1784 Christmas Conference establishing the Methodist Episcopal Church in America the phrase was changed slightly.  “To reform the Continent, and to spread scripture Holiness over these Lands.”

He (Professor Campbell) shared that religious movements typically 1) have a strong, cohesive sense of distinctive vocation or mission typically enunciated by charismatic leaders, often oriented around reform of existing religious institutions; 2) have separate structures from those existing religious institutions (not necessarily opposed to them, but at least in addition to them) designed to fulfill the group’s calling or mission; 3) exhibit fluidity, mobility, “liability” (by
liability he wasn’t referring to the laity  but the ability to be molded to fit situations); and 4) they are not tied to existing, static structures (a typically “outward and visible” sign” of a religious movement according to Dr. Campbell was  “their lack of significant [valuable] property.)”

There is more, much more to his fascinating contrast of movements and the established church, but I found myself stuck on the concept of having a strong and distinctive sense of their mission.  I heard echoes of Tom Locke’s (President of the Texas Methodist Foundation) phrase that he was “sold out on the concept of purpose” or mission.  I’m sold out on mission or purpose.  The Conference is to “energize and equip churches.”  Churches are to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

To movement and mission add the concept of established church as a positive (not a negative!).  Campbell pointed out how quickly an established ecclesiastical structure was added to the missional movement of early Methodism in America.  The established structure involved (involves) ordained ministers, the Superintendency (bishops and presiding elders/DS), and the Sunday Service (a regular style of worship – added as early as 1792).  The constitution with restrictive rules and a delegated general conference was added in 1808.

We (the United Methodist Church) are a mixed culture of movement and church.  The crucial issue is to keep the mission (in Locke’s term “purpose”) at the forefront.  So convicted of this truth were the early Methodists that the early Discipline ruled out “fine structures.” Francis Asbury was against having steeples.  The mission took precedent over property!

One of our core strategies is to engage and develop Wesleyan spirituality and theology.  We need to go back to the future.  We are (and should be!) a mix of movement and church focused on mission.

Prayer, Justice, Teaching and Evangelism

The last part of this week has been fascinating.  It is include much of the key elements of the Wesleyan way of being Christian in my life.

Thursday morning opened with a breakfast with my prayer and accountability partner.  It is a way I stay grounded personally and spiritually.  I have to tell 1 person how I’ve done that week.  There’s no coercion for either of us; just honest sharing.  I have also added a new spiritual director for my life.  Walking with Christ is a not a sidelight to the Christian life but it is the Way. When I get distracted and miss the time of prayer and spiritual formation, I mess up.

I left my prayer time to go over 1st UMC Grapevine and spend time working as a volunteer at JFON (Justice For Our Neighbors).  JFON is a joint ministry of the North and Central Texas Conferences of the United Methodist Church working on immigration issues.  A great team of volunteers under the leadership of a wonderful director (Mary Beth Garcia) coached me through an intake interview.  Working through immigration in a manner that is living with our neighbors/immigrants, respectful of the legal system, and Christ honoring is really complex! (In my intake situation part of the family are US citizens and part are not.  They want to be together in a way that is legal.)  This is a living of our focus area “Ministry with the Poor” in a concrete way that exemplifies Matthew 25:40 – “in as much as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters you did it to me.”

Thursday night I shared in the Mission Academy jointly sponsored by the UT Arlington and TCU Wesley Foundations.  We are studying Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  I love learning from the insightful dialog the college students offer.

Friday noon will find me meeting with some workers at the “Stewart Tank” (oil storage tanks) in Strawn.  Rev. Tom Beaty (with West DS Rev. Carol Woods’ support) is engaged in a great evangelistic outreach ministry to some seekers in the community who might never darken the door of a church.  The dialog reminds me of the original Wesleyan movement going to the mines.  I am looking forward to breaking bread with them (lunch) and sharing in our mutual learning as we try to faithfully and respectfully offer Christ.

Next Monday we begin our Fall Cabinet Retreat.  Dr. Ted Campbell from Perkins School of Theology will lead us in an exploration of the Wesleyan movement for today.


You are invited!  Monday morning September 17th I will be leading a breakfast discussion group Ross Douthat’s provocative new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

The Fort Worth Cokesbury Store is having a Grand Reopening Celebration. They have just finished remodeling the store (located at 6333 Camp Bowie, Ste 207).  As a part of this larger celebration, I would love to join with you in a conversation/dialog/mutual learning about a crucial component of our larger mission field.  Again, you are invited – 9:00 a.m. (coffee and pastry) as a part of the grand reopening celebration of the Fort Worth Cokesbury.

Allow me to wet your appetite by sharing some quotes from Bad Religion:

  • “We’ve been making idols of our country, our pocketbooks, and our sacred selves for hundreds of years. What’s changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response.” (p.8)
  • “The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy. Is the kingdom he preached something to be lived out in this world or something to be expected in the next? Both. Did he offer a blueprint for moral conduct or a call to spiritual enlightenment? Both. Did he mean to fulfill Judaism among the Jews, or to convert the Gentile world? Both. Was he the bloodied Man of Sorrows of Mel Gibson; the hippie, lilies-of-the-field Jesus of Godspell; or the wise moralist beloved by Victorian liberals? All of them and more…. The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.” (p. 153)
  • “The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man a God unto himself – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilizations as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age.” (pp. 278-279

For the last eight years it has been a great pleasure to serve on the Board of Directors for the United Methodist Publishing House (along with Dr. Eric McKinney from the Central Texas Conference).  Cokesbury is not just a bookstore; it is a crucial extension of our larger ministry!