Archive - June, 2013

Taking Two Paths Simultaneously

Robert Frost famously wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by.”  The second of the two speeches I presented at Bishops’ Week (see the Blog entitled Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy) on the topic of leadership development was entitled “Following Two Paths: The One We Know and the One We Need”.  The following is an excerpt from that speech.

What I invite us to consider is a change of perspective that will guide our building the plane while we fly it.  We must simultaneously engage in two tasks.  We have to fly the plane and we have to build a new one – at the same time!  The path we know and the need to fly the plane of clergy and lay leadership development is the path or route we are flying and have been flying for at least the 39 years since my ordination as a Deacon.  Simultaneously, we have to chart a different course in leadership development.  If you wish to stay with the image, we must build a different plane while we continue flying.  We need a jet not a propeller driven bi-plane.  A change of perspective is desperately needed.

What is called for is the embracing of a both-and not an either-or.  Let’s unpack this concept for a few minutes.  It appears obvious but the truth is that it is not.  Most of us are schooled in binary thinking.  The language of theology built as it is on platonic philosophy lends itself to either-or thinking.  Similarly the binary language of computer science evokes unconscious either-or path lines.  Further, our own need for structure and order amid a complex world raging out of control likewise bids to draw lines and even build walls (just think about the political process going on in the United States today).

Carefully, these by themselves are not bad influences.  We need to be engaged in rigorous critical analysis.  That is a skill every leader, and especially every preacher, needs.  Understanding the binary language of computer science is foundational to modern society.  The need for structure and order is endemic (in a good way) to what it means to be human.  Just read Genesis 1.  God created order out of chaos.

Both-and thinking resists the temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water.  I remember my son trying to explain some of his work to me.  I really didn’t get it.  Finally in frustration he threw up his hands and said, “Come on Dad, this isn’t rocket science!”  Then he paused, thought for a moment and commented, “Well, actually it is.”   Both-and thinking does have a level of complexity that is distinctively different.  It requires the ability to hold two concepts in your head at the same time.  It necessitates the ability to live with ambiguity and make hard discerning judgment.  It is a form of rocket science and artistic creation held together.  (As an aside, chaos theory has much to teach us here.)  We must embrace Complexity and Ambiguity without marrying their impoverished cousin Stupidity.

To follow the path we know while building the one we need requires a careful rethinking of the difference between being fair and treating everyone the same.  Much of our current practices are built on the notion that to be fair everyone must be treated the same.  The same set of disciplinary rules must apply to all.  The Discipline does require a fair process but it does not require the same process for everyone.  (Someone can come into ministry through college and seminary, another through lay speaking, a third through work on a church staff that leads to ordination, etc.)  This is truth that second career clergy (thank God for them!) have taught us.  This is a reality that a younger generation is insisting we apply to our leadership development systems.

By way of illustration I remember a radio interview with the great football coach Bum Phillips, recorded after the death of the even greater football coach Bear Bryant.  Bum was one of the many, many Bear Bryant assistant coaches who went on to remarkable success in their own right.  Reminiscing about Bear Bryant the interviewer commented to Bum, “One of the great things about Bear was that he treated everyone the same.”  “No,” Bum quickly interrupted, “he didn’t treat everyone the same.  He treated everyone fairly.”

The path we need requires almost artistic creativity which understands and even embraces the distinctiveness of those who are in leadership development.  At the same time, it requires an order that is not a straightjacket but sets proper boundaries.

It’s Both-And thinking and acting that we desperately need.  If we must embrace both paths simultaneously, as I believe we must, then how are we to do so?

In a sense that is what this Bishops Week is about.  By design our focus has been on constructing the plane we need.   You’ve already seen the critical outline:  move from pipeline to ecosystem conceptions; map the current system for learning that can be applied in building a new one; be steady in purpose and flexible in strategy; follow two paths; invent can openers, protect experiments, lead with courage.   Embedded within this structure are reflections and insights on how we can follow the path we are on with our current system, not just ideas on building a new plane or constructing a new path.  We have become familiar with the language of adaptive versus technical change.  Let’s take a practical look at how the two paths fit together.

I have some modest (probably obvious) suggestions.
1)  Employ some of the technical changes we have looked at in our time together.  The Community of Practice Papers [short papers written by each Conference in the SCJ participating in Bishops Week] are a good place to start.  Ideas like improved mentoring via selection, training and deployment of those who model ministry at its best are obvious for both lay and clergy.  As I indicated earlier, I think assigning coaches for candidates early, way early in the process, can be incredibly helpful.  There are many other insights for technical improvement; things like youth academies, envisioning Wesley Foundations as places of critical appointment (rather than a dumping ground), and the importance of sharing call stories, etc.   We know the phrase that quantity has a quality all its own.  So too, enough high quality technical changes linked together become or lead to adaptive change.
2)  Track those who are considering a call to some form of full time ministry.  Begin young.  Not all will stay in the process through ordination but by tracking and active engagement we will retain far more than we currently are.  Further, those who may choose another career path often will end up the lay leaders of tomorrow (if not today).
3)  Resource leadership development.  It is past time to see this as an area worthy of our financial and time resources.  The literature of system leadership is replete with stories about the crucial component of not skimping on resourcing this critical area.
4)  Be active and not passive as a conference system in leadership development.  As obvious as this may be, I cannot stress it enough!  The day of being able to passively rely on the system to produce the next generation of lay leaders and pastors is over! Period!  Passivity in leadership development is the path of certain death.

Allow me to switch to the other path, but before I do so, please note and note carefully, we can do everything on the path we know while we are building the new path.  We really can fly the plane while we build a new one.  In one sense, we have to.  We don’t have a choice.  But, what I think is exciting is that if we avoid either-or thinking we can really do both!  And hey!  It is fun!  So let’s look at building the new plane or path or whatever image you like.

First, embed in your being the major tenant of this Bishops’ Week.  We need to change the default setting from being ordained (and/or selected for crucial lay leadership) from you are acceptable for ordination if you’ve meet the minimum standards.  In other words we have to have a really good reason to keep you out to those ordained full deacon or elder are of high promise.

The implication of a commitment to high promise and excellence in ministry leads directly to the second major tenet of this Bishops Week.  We need to cultivate an ecosystem not build a pipeline.  The pipeline days are over.  Active cultivation is both exciting and necessary!

Third, all four books were carefully chosen for your reading.  As we build the plane we are flying, we especially need to increase the number of rare finds.  It is actually possible and in particular this impacts both Cabinets and Boards of Ordained Ministry.  Consider learning to carefully decode the “jagged resume.”  In an informal way we have been using auditions for conference membership and lay leadership through the local church via staff positions and lay leadership at a lower level.  Let me challenge us on becoming more intentional on incorporating those insights in our work.  Or take chapters 6 and 8 of The Rare Find:  “Talent That Whispers” and “Lottery Tickets.”  How about conscious discussion and reflection in the system on those two concepts?  What does it mean to “buy a lottery ticket in the appointive process?”  How do we “buy a lottery ticket” on the path to ordination without actually granting tenure (ordination) before we know if the ticket has come up a winner?  How do we take “a lot of small risks?”[1]

One example of this that I have run into recently comes from Bishop Pete Weaver.  He tells the story of a guy named Jesse Lee.  Jesse was a lay member of the Methodist movement in 1795 who showed up at a gathering where Francis Asbury was. He had only been a Christian and a Methodist for two years, but at the conference gathering, Asbury got to visit with him and decided God was calling Jesse to preach. …

What did Asbury see in him so quickly?  Why was Asbury will to take the risk?  This “rare find” stuff is worth some deep conversations with each other.  Historically it was a part of the original Methodist movement.  It needs to be again.

(As a side bar, I think one of the reasons it isn’t lies in the fact that our mistakes in ordination tend to be financially compounded through the guaranteed appointment.  This, among a number of things, has made us risk averse.  It’s time to rediscover risk and courage without rashness or ruin.  Such is not an easy task but rather an adaptive challenge.)

Fourth and finally, I challenge you as Conference systems to follow two paths at once.  With a Both-And mentality, commit to doing two things new things when you leave here.  Here is the cool deal when you do so, God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit will actually be with you!



[1]               George Anders, The Rare Find, p. 160

Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy

June 20-21 the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) held a traditional event in a nontraditional location and manner.  For decades (with only occasional lapses) the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction have sponsored a learning retreat at the Mt. Sequoyah in Fayetteville, Arkansas.   This year we focus the learning on leadership development. Participants included all members of the various extended cabinets and up to 10 other leaders selected by the bishop of the area with deliberate participants from Boards of Ordained Ministry, young leaders (lay and clergy) etc.  The bishops provided the leadership with process guidance from Dr. Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant in Church Leadership from the Texas Methodist Foundation.  We deliberately sought additional guidance from two bishops outside of the SCJ – Bishop Greg Palmer, a past President of the Council of Bishops and member of the Call to Action team, and Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, a newly elected bishop serving the North Alabama Episcopal Area.

The nontraditional location was White’s Chapel UMC.  Drs. John McKellar & Todd Renner and their staff with a wonderful crew of volunteers were an incredible blessing to the over 300+ church leaders involved.  They not only modeled radical hospitality; they gave the concept new definition!

As a part of this event, I presented two speeches on leadership development in the new ecosystem of the 21st century church:  “Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy” and “Following Two Paths – The One We Know and the One We Need.”  The following is an excerpt from the first of those speeches.

Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy:  Our mission is clear and unchanged.  ‘We are to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.’

Our purpose [in leadership development] comes straight out of the focus area formula endorsed by the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth.  We have to develop principled Christian leaders both for the church and for the world.  This necessitates deep, focused attention on the second point of the Call to Action.  “Dramatically reform the clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.”[1]  Reforming the clergy development system will dominate our thinking here but should never be divorced from the critical application of a new generation of lay leadership.  Without the two together, our efforts will be for naught.

To all of this we will need to balance the closing of churches and the movement of full time charges to part time places.  In the Central Conferences last year alone we lost $801,660 dollars in clergy remuneration.   Holding retirements in one hand and church closings in another is going to be really, really, tough.  General Eric Shinseki’s comment sticks to us like super glue Velcro. “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”[2]  Those who want a preset rule book or cookbook to follow need not to be on either the Cabinet or the Board of Ordained Ministry.

Take a look again at the North Star of purpose.  We have to steer to this location – developing principled Christian leaders both for the church and the world!  That purpose is our North Star.  By way of example, our purpose is not upholding the institutional structures of a clergy system of entitlement.  Our purpose is not bolstering the importance of seminaries.  Both institutional structures and seminaries may well further this purpose but they are not the purpose.

I think we are beginning, just beginning, to put together some pieces on how we must be flexible in strategy.  I offer a handful for our reflection and tentative embrace.

  • Forget the career ladder and think mentoring.  By mentoring I mean something more than merely assigning the person who has taken the approved training of GBHEM or the Board of Ministry.  I am thinking of the ongoing coaching, encouraging and guidance (including advocacy) of lay and clergy leaders with a track record of fruitfulness beyond institutional maintenance.
  • Explore alternative education that moves beyond the seminary requirement to a real embodiment of Wesleyan theology, leadership ability, and spiritual formation (Christian character).  This may well be some combination of post seminary training, the inculcation of a genuine system of continuing education (which is far beyond continuing education as a perk of pastoral position), and spiritual formation. . . .
  • Figure out how to embrace the spiritual entrepreneurs in our system.  We (the United Methodist system of clergy (& lay!) deployment have by-in-large adopted a position of shooting our entrepreneurs.  To our embarrassment there are highly fruitful and faithful pastors who left our system not because they disagreed with our theology or even our governance but because the rigidity of our system of credentialing and appointment made life untenable for them.  Well over a decade ago, Roy Oswald and Claire Burkat noted in Transformational Regional Bodies (an Alban Institute publication) that in the “screening process for denominations . . . these overly stringent requirements at the front end of the ordination track did screen out the worst candidates, but it also screened out the best.”  They continued, “The more requirements you lay on people before they can even begin to consider a vocation in the ordained ministry, the more you will have passive, dependent types who will endure any requirement you put before them.”[3]
  • We need to bolster the edges of our leadership development system.  We have been risk averse and it shows.  If you step back and look at what we are doing with this Bishops’ Week, the common theme is one of experimentation and development.  We face a bigger danger in being too timid than we do in being too flexible.  Go back and read Wigger’s American Saint on the life of Francis Asbury.  He was forever sending people out into the mission field with incomplete training and inadequate support.  Or, to deliberately change the image to one I have heard Gil Rendle use:  people in the wilderness (that’s us!) are not following a map.  We are making a map.
  • We must continue to develop trust and mutual accountability between bishops & cabinets and their respective Boards of Ordained Ministry.  For those of us on the Cabinet this will require a transparence which we are uncomfortable with.  For those on the Board of Ordained Ministry, it will require a partnership that is far greater than gatekeeping or serving as union shop stewards.  For both groups; we will all be stressed by appropriate issues of confidentiality and differing judgment.
  • I suggest that we need to be open to people coming from other denominations.  This is hard in our tradition.  In theory our committed ecumenical stance should make us open to such options.  In practice our guaranteed appointment, distinctive style of appointment and itinerancy, and inward bent United Methodist ethos makes it difficult despite our best intentions.  Oswald and Burkat’s book Transformational Regional Bodies has an intriguing chapter on such recruitment.
  • Experiment!

[1]           A CALL TO ACTION for The United Methodist Church, Final Report of the Interim Operations Team, September 2012

[2]               General Eric Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army

[3]               Roy M. Oswald and Claire S. Burkat, Transformational Regional Bodies, p. 113

Podcast with Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean

This month’s edition of the Focused Center podcast features an interview with Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, faculty member at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Dr Dean, author of numerous books including Almost Christian, served as the Conference Teacher at the most recent gathering of the Central Texas Annual Conference held at Arborlawn United Methodist Church.

To listen to this latest episode, click the play button below.


COME HOLY SPIRIT — Report from Taize 4

Today [May 25] we left for Cluny right after worship. The great Cluny Abbey fills me with awe. It once was the “major ecclesia” – the largest church in Christendom. Cluny Abbey started over 1,000 satellite abbeys. Its influence spread far and wide. In the French Revolution, it was dismantled stone by stone down to the very foundation in most places by an angry mob. A beacon of care and compassion, faith and hope, had become a citadel of despotism and greed.

And yet, it is only a short distance from Taize, a new beacon of hope and faith, reconciliation and love. This is not a mere accident of history and happenstance of geography. I believe God through the Holy Spirit is speaking to me (and to us) in the resurrection life of Christ. Rising north of the ruins of the great Cluny Abbey is the light of Christ in the simplicity of Taize.

I came to Taize in some angst, if not despair, over the state of the United Methodist Church. Eight days before leaving, I had participated in a meeting of officers of the Council of Bishops, General Secretaries, Board and Agency Presidents, and leadership from the Connectional Table. It was a gathering highlighted by a false politeness and sabotaged by wanton political maneuvering – the church at its worst. The week that followed was filled with a funeral, two days of hard work in making appointments (appointments made without good options and in facing of difficult choices), then three more days of hard digging through administrative work. I commented to a fellow bishop that the UM church was going down (meaning the image of a boxer being knocked to the ground).

Here at Taize for the second time, the Spirit clearly spoke to me. The shadow of Cluny is being erased by the light of Taize. “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Even as vast segments of the UMC and the larger Christian witness in America dissolve in a voracious black hole of enlightenment’s legacy, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is making something new. The soaring songs in candlelight service of resurrection called me forward in commitment to Christ.

As if compelled, for I believe I was, I found myself standing and walking forward to kneel with others before the icon of Jesus at the Table with His followers. In the time of renewal, prayer, and commitment, the words of the songs washed over me as some 2,000+ faithful (mostly young people) sing our faith.

Afterward, a surprise meeting with Christoph Benn, a doctor with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He drove up from Geneva because the brothers of Taize told him there was a UM bishop up here and he wanted to share appreciation and offer encouragement for the Imagine No Malaria campaign. Amazing how the Spirit intervenes …. God is at work.

COME HOLY SPIRIT – Report from Taize Part 3

I find myself fascinated by the way the Taize Community claims and proclaims a richly, powerfully, dynamic, active embrace of the Holy Spirit.  In many of our churches the Holy Spirit is the last element of the Holy Trinity,  tossed in as almost an afterthought.  We have neglected the Spirit at our peril and impoverishment.  There  is little stress here on the first person of the Trinity as a vague philosophical thought.  God is present through Christ in the Spirit dynamically!

It is fascinating to behold how high the Christology is at Taize and how deeply wrapped in the pneumatology (the Holy Spirit).  The two (Christ and the Holy Spirit) are distinct and yet seemingly inseparable.  One day Rev. Larry Duggins and I had the privilege of eating lunch with the Brothers as the guest of the leader of the Taize Community, Brother Alyoius.  I asked him, “What is the one message you would like to say to any bishop in the church regardless of nationality or denomination?”  He answered quickly without pause, “Stay close to Christ.”

Vague deism is absent in the Taize Community.  The vibrant personality of the Trinitarian God speaks forth.  The songs, prayer, communion (every morning) — all serve as elements of opening the worshipper to the personal agency of God active in our lives.  The Bible stresses the Lordship of Christ.  The songs are drenched in the intimate language of the Holy Spirit.

Marvelously open to others of a differing faith conviction, the Taize Community is nonetheless anchored in its Christology and pneumatology.  Sloppy pluralism doesn’t raise its head.  The embrace of the full personalism of the Holy Trinity (3 persons in 1 essence) is paramount.  The songs in particular are both prayer and theology; teaching (doctrine) and witness.

The Taize Community has much to teach the United Methodist Church at this juncture.  Wesley spoke strongly against a vague deism in his day.  The robust theology of the Trinity in action at Taize is echoed in the songs of Charles Wesley.  We need to reclaim our deeply Trinitarian core.  Once again Christology and pneumatology need to take center place in the life of the church as a believing and acting community of faith.

Lessons from the Dean

Beginning Monday, June 10th we will have the joy and privilege of having Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean as our Conference Teacher.  She is renowned for her insight in ministry to youth and young adults.  Significantly those insights translate beyond ministry to young persons.  They are profound in their implications for what it means to be a Christian and to recovering the essence of the Wesleyan movement of faithful discipleship to the Lord.  Her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, is exceptional.

Dr. Dean will be speaking to the Conference on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.  These addresses are open to all.  Visitors to Conference are asked to sit in the balcony.  If you are not a delegate to the Central Texas Conference, please receive this blog as an invitation to come and hear Dr. Dean offer us lessons for discipleship.

In March of 2012 Dr. Dean wrote an article for Leading Ideas (The Lewis Center for Church Leadership’s online magazine) entitled “Characteristics for a Healthy Youth Ministry.”  She shared (in part) the following:

“Congregations that succeed in nurturing the faith of young people tend to demonstrate certain key characteristics. What are the top characteristics of a healthy youth ministry?

11. Safe space.

10. A culture of creativity. Young people need practice in multiple “faith languages” — words and actions, art and prayer.

9. A culture of theological awareness.

8. Integration into a congregation’s worship, mission, and discipleship formation at every level.  Teenagers need people to reflect back to them who they are. This “mirroring” is basic to the process of identity formation. Only in the church do young people begin to see themselves through the eyes of people who try to see them as God sees them: beloved, blessed, called.

7. An authentic, fun, and passionate community of belonging.

6. A team of adult youth leaders actively growing in faith. You can’t lead where you don’t go. Adult youth leaders need to model spiritual investment in themselves, in one another, and in the world because youth need examples of faithful, supportive, Christian community.

5. A congregation where people actively seek and talk about God. The 2003 Exemplary Youth Ministry Study convinced me that congregations where young people reliably develop mature faith “talk about God as the subject of sentences.” Talking about God indicates that people in a church are actively seeking God and believe God makes a difference. And, they talk to God as well as about God. God is alive and present and in their midst. God is doing things through them.

4. A congregation where people are visibly invested in youth.

3. A senior pastor who is crazy about young peopleIf a congregation supports youth ministry,  it will be clear because the senior pastor or head of staff talks about young people (positively) in public, includes them in leadership, embraces the faith development of parents, knows youth and their leaders by name, and makes himself or herself available to young people for spiritual conversations. The senior pastor is youth ministry’s head cheerleader.

2. Parents who model faith and know that this matters to their kids. Parents are the most important youth ministers. The National Study of Youth and Religion found that having parents who are religiously active is the most important variable contributing to a teenager’s faith identity and his or her ability to sustain that faith identity between high school and emerging adulthood. And if young people don’t have religiously active parents, then churches need to be places where kids can find adults who will “adopt” them spiritually.

1.      A commitment to Jesus Christ. Since Christians understand God as Triune through Jesus — whose life, death, and resurrection reveals not only who God is and who we are in relationship to God, but that God continues to act in our lives and in the world around us — doing youth ministry without Jesus is like doing dinner without food: you can come to the table, but there’s nothing to eat. So why bother?”


There is more and, as I indicated above, I have edited the article quoted.  Hopefully this whets your appetite.  We have a rare opportunity to have a world class scholar and deeply faithful Christian leader teach us.  I hope to see you at Arborlawn UMC on June 10th and 11th!

COME HOLY SPIRIT — Report from Taize 2

I came to Taize immersed in appointment making, preparations for Annual Conference, and the numbing administrative burdens of the office of bishop.  Mind you, I love what I do and I firmly believe God has called me to this place.  I am further convinced that no matter what someone’s job is (paid or unpaid), life can wear a person down.  For me a part of the wearing down lies in the struggle to build up the church even as the tsunami of secularism sweeps over the western world.  Kermit the Frog would say “it’s not easy being green!”  I’ll say, it’s not easy being Christian and especially being a Christian pastor in this day and time!

It took me a couple of days of being at Taize to detox enough so that I could attune myself to the Spirit’s speaking.  Wednesday evening as we sang, the Holy Spirit spoke to me.  In German we sang, “With you there is help and patience.”  In Latin, “it is good to hope and trust in The Lord.”   The music wound itself softly through languages I couldn’t even identify yet became strangely clear.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit was calling me back to faithfulness as attentive trust in The Lord.  Amazingly (providentially!), the only song we sang in English held the verse, “See I am near. … See, I make all things new.”

The Spirit conveyed to me that God in this time of radical change is making all things new in and through the Church.  These are not our last days.  Nor is this a time of despair.  Through the Holy Spirit, The Lord is shaping the church in a new way.  It is scary, at times even terrifying.  The way is often unclear and the Back to Egypt Committee has strong institutional standing.  Yet in it all the Holy Spirit is at work.  Bonum est condidere.  “It is good to hope and trust in The Lord.”