Archive - June, 2014

Blown Away

John Wesley famously wrote of his heart warming experience, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.”  I currently serve on 14 agency boards and/or Council of Bishops committees/task groups.  This does not include various committees, task groups and leadership teams within the Central Texas Conference.  Most of these entities are about good and even godly work.  Some (7) relate to Council of Bishops assignments.  (The Council of Bishops has responsibility for worldwide oversight of the church.)  Taken together, I could have a full-time job on these assignments alone without ever entering a local church.  I think I am about average in assignments for bishops in the United Methodist Church.  Thus it is that I often go “reluctantly” to a board meeting, even when the ministry is exciting and worthy of my time.

Last week I went reluctantly to a Board meeting for the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco.  I am on this Board as the representative bishop of the five bishops in the state of Texas (Bishops Bledsoe, Dorff, Huie, McKee, and myself).  The Methodist Children’s Home (MCH) is a stellar (!) outreach ministry of the United Methodist Church in Texas and New Mexico for children, youth and their families.  MCH provides services to more than 1,400 children and youth daily through residential care, foster care and other services. There are 12 Family Outreach Services offices located across Texas and New Mexico.  MCH is both a leader and a pioneer in the field of care for children and youth. I enthusiastically commend it to all people of good will and especially to Methodists across the region.  It is worthy of our enthusiastic committed support.

All that being said, I still went reluctantly.  One more board meeting is one more board meeting in my life.  I wanted/needed (still need) time in the office to catch up on the myriad of items that come across the desk of the bishop.  Nonetheless, the passionate love and high commitment to and for children and youth overflows (even in a normal board meeting dealing with budgets, employee policy, and program decisions).  It is incredibly refreshing to go to a board meeting that is passionate about its ministry, explicitly Christian and unapologetically United Methodist!

After conducting our regular business, we heard an address from Dr. Karyn Purvis (Professor of Child Development at TCU and Director of the TCU Institute of Child Development) who works in conjunction with MCH on trauma informed care.  Trauma informed care looks at the well-being of the whole child: neurological, behavioral, and spiritual. This is cutting edge research that is a marriage of science and theology.  She spoke about functioning in the way that a “sovereign God intended” us to; about being whole and especially working with the kids from “the hard places in life,” as Dr. Purvis refers to them.  I was blown away by the intermixing of the best of scientific research with a clear faith witness.  Phrases like “the intent of a sovereign God” and “touching the heart of grace” filled the conversation.  Biblical stories and references were sprinkled throughout the presentation.  It was not pushy nor was it exclusive of other faiths; rather, it was a grace-filled clear witness to faith in Christ reaching out for children and youth from the “hard places.”

I went into the meeting tired and wishing for a day off; I went reluctantly and was blown away.  At the end of the her address, I leaned over to Rev. Steve Ramsdell (Sr. Pastor at First UMC, Waco and a fellow Methodist Children’s Home board member) and commented, “her talk was worth the trip by itself!”  Repeatedly Dr. Purvis spoke glowingly of the Methodist Children’s Home as one of the pioneer institutions in this vital ministry of trauma informed care.  One of our major mission emphases as a larger United Methodist Church in recent years has been children and poverty.  Methodist Children’s Home is reaching out in a focused ministry that shares with the last, least and lost in a Christ-serving, God-honoring way.  I was humbled to be in the MCH Board meeting that day.

Predictions for the Future

About a month ago,  I ran across an article written by Jim Denison (www.denisonforum.org) on Thom Rainer’s “Fourteen predictions for American Churches for 2014.” Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and known to many in the Central Texas Conference as the co-author of Simple Church.  Here’s the list:
1. Larger churches will acquire smaller churches in increasing numbers.
2. Denominational structures will become smaller as their churches decline.
3. Many of our new members will come from other churches.
4. We will see more megachurches.
5. Worship styles will become more unified.
6. High-expectation churches, where members are asked to make significant contributions to the work of the congregation, will become more numerous.
7. It will become more difficult for churches to build and acquire land.
8. More large churches will function as mini-denominations, with multiple locations and their own missions programs and literature.
9. Worship centers will be smaller, as people seek greater intimacy in church life.
10. Small groups will become more significant.
11. Pastors will stay at their churches longer.
12. Local churches will increase their role in training ministers.
13. Church members will find new ways to take their faith to their community.
14. Churches will have more communicators on their staffs.

It makes for fascinating reading and interesting speculation.  Much of the list (but not all) is on target from my point of view (whether or not I/we/you like it).  We are getting both bigger and smaller.  There is an increase in part-time appointments filled by Lay Supply.  (Currently we have two open!)  Larger churches are engaging with smaller churches in creative new forms of ministry (which I believe to be a work of the Holy Spirit).

The trend to high-expectation churches has been going on since before I went to seminary (well over ½ century!).  (And no, I didn’t graduate from seminary 50 plus years ago.  I got my degree from Perkins in 1976, 38 years ago.)  Lyle Schaller noted over 30 years ago the characteristic for larger churches to become like mini-denominations.  The United Methodist Church is built as a predominantly small church denomination yet the economic engine of the UMC is indisputably the larger (1000+ in worship) churches.

One of the myths about large churches is that they have lower expectations and commitment levels than small churches.  Usually it is just the opposite!  The evidence I have seen strongly suggests that Rainer is on target with point number 6.  This clashes with a Methodist tendency to be a low commitment church.  It worth noting that we were originally a high commitment movement for Christ!

I disagree with Rainer’s point number 5 – “Worship styles will become more unified.”  I think just the opposite is happening.  Point number 10 ought to thrill Methodists.  We will built on the foundation of small groups – the class meeting.

Increasingly we are seeing clergy training move from the seminary to the mega church and para-church organizations.  (#12)  This will increase for a host of reasons not the least of which is because seminaries (across denominational lines) are typically late adaptors.  There will be exceptions (United Theological and Asbury Theological come to mind) but this move to church based ministerial training is a good move; a move of the Holy Spirit in my opinion.  It is trend away from professionalism & career advancement towards passion driven Christ-centred ministry committed to transformational impact in communities. (See #13)  In fairness most seminaries support such a move.  Yet despite their best intentions they are often captive to the professional academic academy.

One of the most exciting and encouraging of the predictions is already coming true.  We are seeing an increasing number of churches finding new ways to take their faith to their community.  This is a current reality I am constantly encountering as I travel across the Central Texas Conference and the wider UMC.  Experimentation is the order of the day.  While it is risky, it is also a sign of the winds of the Holy Spirit blowing in our midst!

What about you?  Where (and more importantly why) do you agree or disagree with Rainer’s list?

 

 

The Most Important Issues facing the United Methodist Church

Fascinating and instructive poll results were published in a recent article written by Heather Hahn of the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) entitled “The most important issues facing The UMC today.” The poll was a survey “by email of 509 U.S. United Methodist lay members by Corporate Research of Greensboro, N.C., and Research Now of Dallas.”

Hahn notes in the article two important qualifiers to the poll.  First, “the poll screened out pastors, retired pastors and paid staff at any level of the denomination to focus on the views of lay members, who sometimes can seem voiceless in churchwide discussions.”  And, second, “The 509 sample size — representing a denomination with about 7.4 million U.S. members — is a typical statistical sample of the kind seen in political and market research.”  She further adds, “This United Methodist survey has a 4.4 percent margin of error.”

Creating disciples of Christ

39%

Youth involvement

27%

Members’ spiritual growth

24%

Decline in membership

19%

Poverty

17%

Children at risk

17%

Social injustice

16%

Sexual orientation/same-sex marriage

11%

Structure of the UMC

8%

Economic inequality

7%

Women and minorities in UMC

5%

Racism

4%

Immigration reform

3%

With the aforementioned background firmly in place, I submit that the poll results are encouraging.  They show a distinct focus by the laity on our official core mission as a church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It also reflects the importance of the local church as the primary place disciples of Jesus Christ are made.  The crucial factors of both social and personal holiness (Wesleyan distinctives) can be clearly discerned in the polling data.

In these turbulent times, perhaps the most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!  We may deeply debate various issues and stances of the church.  This is a good thing.  Great churches debate great issues.  Let us stay united on the central towering mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ!  Disciples of Christ transform the world!

Episcopal Address to the Central Texas Conference

EPISCOPAL ADDRESS TO THE CENTRAL TEXAS CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

June 9, 2014

By Bishop Mike Lowry ©

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:4-8)

This passage from Philippians 4:4-8 has been a committed part of my devotional life over the past few months.  In a world awash in bad news, we need to be a people of the good news, the gospel news.  The peace of Christ really will keep us safe in these perilous times.

I rise for my 6th meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference with joy in my heart and song on lips.  I think God is doing a good and wonderful thing among us.  For the last five years we have focused on the cardinal mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Indeed, we have consciously rejected slogans and fads for the towering vision of Churches alive in Jesus Christ all across the conference.  The Conference Center has one clarion goal – “to energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The news is good.

During the past two years the Central Texas Conference has participated in a pilot project with eleven conferences from across the nation working to build vital congregations.  In the Vital Congregations project of the UMC there are five vital signs we track.  These signs are similar to a physician tracking our blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, etc.  They are:

  1. Worship attendance (the spiritual vibrancy of the congregation to attract and engage disciples to praise God) New Disciples (the congregation’s ability to reproduce)
  2. Disciples engaged in small groups (the congregation’s ability to engage disciples in faith formation)
  3. Disciples engaged in mission (the congregation’s ability to inspire disciples to engage in the purposes of God and effect transformation)
  4. Generous giving, particularly to mission (the congregation’s ability to fund ministry and mission)

[As I have said over and over again, by themselves vital signs never tell the whole story.  They are imperfect metric measurements designed to help us look deeper and more coherently at the fruitfulness and faithfulness of a congregations life.  At the same time, just as I learned from the pain in my knee (which led to arthroscopic surgery 2 months ago), vital signs can’t be ignored!

By themselves vital signs are always incomplete.  They must be linked with the narrative or story of what is going on in the life and outreach ministry of a congregation.  Often the narrative changes before the metrics.  We begin to hear stories of life transformation through commitment to Christ as Lord and great service through risk-taking missional outreach in love, justice and mercy.  But I digress.  The news is very good.]

In every single category we are up as a Conference.  The number of vital congregations has increased to 31%.  Professions of faith (that is new converts and confirmation classes) have risen.  The number of people engaged in missional outreach to the hurting, hungry and homeless went up.  Worship and Giving showed a rise!  Furthermore it is not just the numbers or metrics.  We are increasingly hearing stories like this one.

Tom Beaty moved from full time pastoral leadership a few years ago to serving as a part-time pastor in Palo Pinto UMC and Cedar Springs UMC.  He has engaged in his own evangelistic outreach through a part time job at Stewart Tank out in Palo Pinto County. Tom just retired from Stewart Tank Company (largely due to health issues) but he reported. “The fruit of the ministry included four professions of faith followed by baptism and one reaffirmation of faith.  I conducted one funeral service for the father of an employee and made several hospital visits to visit employee family members.  Additionally, I helped Mexican employees with legal paperwork and sent a letter to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico trying to help an employee unite with his son here in the U.S.”[1]  Tremendous!

Look at this: http://vimeo.com/97584491

True life transformation through allegiance to Christ as Lord and Savior is taking place!  Disciples are being made through the ministry of faithful and fruitful local congregations.

Behind the good news of wonderful ministry taking place in Central Texas, there lives the reality of engulfing waves of deep cultural change crashing over us.  Today it is common for many to see the church as irrelevant and Christianity as quaint.  Intellectually Christianity and the Christian church are often dismissed by high culture.  Amid signs of spiritual starvation, we in the church are wrestling with deep institutional change and embattled in a crisis of relevancy.  Toss into this mix a growing fiscal crisis as a giving generation that is only partially being replaced by a generation that does not give regularly but episodically and related to a cause and not to an institution.  Stir in huge portions of aging and the concomitant leadership crisis that comes with it.  Season with deep theological divisions.  And then frost this concoction with a heartfelt soul deep argument over same gender issues, inclusion and the role of biblical authority.  Small wonder the church is sagging to the point of splitting.

Nicky Gumbel tells the story of “a [who] young police officer was taking his final exam at a police training college in north London.  Here is one of the questions:  ‘You are on patrol in outer London when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street.  On investigation you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van lying nearby.  Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol.  Both occupants are injured.  You recognize the woman as the wife of your Divisional Inspector, who is at present away in the USA.  A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realize that he is a man who is wanted for armed robbery.  Suddenly a man runs out of a nearby house, shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and the shock of explosion has made the birth imminent.  Another man is crying for help, having been blown into an adjacent canal by the explosion and he cannot swim.  Bearing in mind the provisions of the Mental Health Act, describe in a few words what actions you would take.’

The officer thought for a moment, picked up his pen and wrote:  ‘I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.’”[2]

Aren’t’ you glad you’re here!  The United Methodist Church has been struggling to engage this new cultural reality during most of my 40 years of ministry.  Amazingly, it is when we are at the end of our machinations that God is most active!  It is an exciting time with wonderful new ministries emerging.  It is trying time with vast change sweeping like tsunami waters over existing congregation.  To paraphrase Dickens’ marvelous quote; “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.”  I really mean it.  I am glad I’m here. It is good to be a part of the Central Texas Conference!  I believe we were called for “such a time as this.”[3]  These are “the best of times, the worst of times.”  The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad!

So what do we do with news that is very good and very bad; what do we do in the best of times and the worst of times.  Today I want to not only report but lift up two crucial acts of faithfulness that we individually and collectively as churches and as a conference must live out in faithfulness to Christ as Lord and Savior.  For such a time as this, we need to live in perseverance and hope!

The Healthy Church Initiative and its partner The Small Church Initiative are making a difference.  There are things we need to improve – shorter waiting time for the consultation and ramping up our coaching – but the difference of HCI & SCI is demonstrable.

There are other outstanding options.  The Holy Conversations initiative from the Texas Methodist Foundation is tremendous.  Some churches and pastors have worked with individual coaches and organizations to great effect.  There are still others.  We are open to various possibilities.

I firmly believe that we must work with the coalition of the willing.  No one is forced into an option.  However, doing nothing is not an option!  Let me be unmistakably blunt.  Pastors, if you reject all the offered options, refuse to come up with your own, do nothing and expect to move to a new church with a higher salary.  It is not going to happen!  Lay Leaders, if you church rejects every opportunity to move into a new future and yet requests a wonderful new pastor.  You will not get first pick in the draft!  Pastors and congregations that show a demonstrable willingness to move forward in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world will be strengthened and encourage (“energized and equipped”) to the best we are able.  Don’t get squirrelly on me here.  We – the Cabinet – understand context and we understand narrative.  Judgments will be made on more than just metrics (though the metrics will be carefully looked at and are a part of the assessment).

This is a time for faithful perseverance.  I call on us to live Philippians 4:4-8; remember especially verses 6 & 7.  “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”[4]

It is also a time for hope.  Hope not in ourselves but the leadership of the Holy Spirit who is calling us into a new church for a new age.  We have to live the promise of Jeremiah 29:11.  “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.”[5]

In a memorable speech given to the graduating class of The University of Texas this spring, Admiral William H. McRaven, the ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, shared 10 critical life lessons he learned in SEAL Training.  The ninth of those lessons is as follows:   “9. The ninth week of SEAL training is referred to as Hell Week. It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment and one special day at the Mud Flats. The Mud Flats are an area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slues—a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.

It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing-cold mud, the howling wind and the incessant pressure from the instructors to quit.

As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some “egregious infraction of the rules” was ordered into the mud. The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit—just five men and we could get out of the oppressive cold.

Looking around the mud flat, it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up—eight more hours of bone-chilling cold. The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night—one voice raised in song.

The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two, and two became three, and before long everyone in the class was singing.

We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well. The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing—but the singing persisted. And somehow, the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.

If I have anything learned [said Admiral McRaven] in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan named Malala—can change the world by giving people hope.”[6]

This is a time for hope.  Ezra, of Old Testament fame, once wrote in the 3rd chapter, the 13th verse of his book:  “No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, because the people rejoiced very loudly. The sound was heard at a great distance.”[7]

Sing with me, and in the singing not only remember but lean forward into the great future the Holy Spirit is leading us to.

“For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might;
Thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia![8]

It is my joy and high honor to serve the Lord together with you.  Let’s keep singing!


[1]               Tom Beaty, personal email, June 6, 2014
[2]               Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life, pp. 234-235
[3]               Esther 4:14
[4]               Philippians 4:6-7
[5]               Jeremiah 29:11
[6]               Admiral William McRaven, May 17, 2014, The University of Texas
[7]               Ezra 13:3
[8]               “For All the Saints,” No. 711, The United Methodist Hymnal

Off to Conference

As I write this blog we are finishing last minute preparations for the 148th meeting (counting all the various predecessors!) of the Central Texas Conference.  Annual Conference is central to the notion of what Methodist’s are about.  John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist (or methodical!) movement for church renewal, wrote of the beginning of his “conference” structure: “In June, 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard of us.”

Bishop Schnase notes:  “The agenda for the first conference 268 (now 270) years ago was three-fold.  Mr. Wesley and the Methodists conferred on: 1. What to teach.  2. How to teach.  3. What to do, that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice” (Robert Schnase, Remember the Future, p. 43).

They didn’t primarily gather to conduct business, though they did engage in business.  They didn’t center their time on budgets.  Voting on delegates did not dominate their attention.  They focused on “how to save souls.”  They centered the extensive conversation on teaching.  It is an echoing of the famous elements of the early church as noted in Acts 2:42.  “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.”  The conference resulted in exemplary evangelism and missions of love, justice and mercy.  (Just as in the Acts 2:42-47.)

This will mark my 6th Annual Conference as the presiding bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  Over those years we have consistently sought to lessen the amount of time spent on “business” and increase the amount of time spent on teaching and learning.  This year we will focus on Intentional Faith Development.  Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Episcopal Area will lead off with a focused teaching on The Wesleyan Way.

Three presenters will share different models with written material for any church (pastor, lay leader, Sunday School teacher, etc.) to pick up and adapt for their own unique setting.  Pastors and lay leaders alike will not want to miss these great learning opportunities!

Presenter: Rev. Candace Lewis          Resource: A Disciple’s Path by James A. Harnish
Presenter: Dr. Phil Maynard              Resource: Shift by Phil Maynard
Presenter: Sue Engle                           Resource: Charting a Course of Discipleship by Teresa Gilbert, Patty Johansen, & Jay Regennitter (revised by Delia Halverson)

Our second great emphasis has been worship.  I wish every Methodist had the high and holy opportunity to attend the ordination service at Conference.  It is a true time of rejoicing.

Bishop Paul Leeland will be our Conference preacher.  I can recall well Bishop Leeland preaching to the Council of Bishops.  Bishop Leeland challenged us to move into the world in faithful witness.  “When the caravan is moving, the dogs are barking!”  He will bless us greatly with his faithful insight and anointed witness.

In advance I wish to convey our great thanks to First United Methodist Church of Mansfield Texas for hosting us and offer a huge “God bless you” to the Conference staff for all their preparatory work.

Insights from Upper New York

Last Thursday I flew to Syracuse, New York.  Friday and Saturday mornings I made two separate presentations/bible studies to the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church.  It was a great time of making new friends, sharing and learning for me.

Bishop Mark Webb and the good folks of Upper New York exercised radical hospitality towards me!  I was tremendously blessed by the warmth of their welcome and the graciousness of their hosting me.  (I even got time for an afternoon side trip to The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York on Friday afternoon.  A member of the staff at the Hall of Fame is also a member at the Cooperstown UMC.  They were able to arrange some special time down in the archives where I got to hold the hat Greg Maddux wore when he pitched against Roger Clements.  It is the only occasion where two pitchers who have won three hundred games each have pitched against each other!)

The Upper New York Conference was alive and vibrant.  I gained a sense of the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.  In a tough challenging cultural situation, they are wrestling with how to reach out in the name Christ with the gospel.  Upper New York has been one of the eleven conferences in the U.S. (along with Central Texas) who were involved in a growing Vital Congregation’s pilot learning project.

As commentators have well noted, the tsunami of secularity (which I wrote about in my May 2nd blog Leadership and Hope as the Tsunami Engulfs Us) has hit the northeast harder and earlier than the southwest.  Put differently, Upper New York is dealing with a tougher version of the tsunami than Central Texas is.  (There is no reason to either worry or brag in Central Texas.  Our time will come!)  There are lessons we can learn from Upper New York.  Perhaps the first and most important is to keep a good spirit as we are led by the Holy Spirit.  Discouragement will hammer us all, but this is still the Lord’s world.

The second strong impression I left Upper New York with lies in the close similarity of issues both conferences are facing.  I have written before about how I get up in the morning as a bishop and wrestle with three clear areas of focus: 1) Deep theological & cultural change within the Church focused on recovery of a Christ-centered theology; 2) The building of vital congregations including both the transformation of existing congregations and the development of new congregations; and 3) Developing a new generation of both lay and clergy leaders.  My perception is that Upper New York was deeply engaged in those same issues as well.

By way of example, I participated in a service honoring retirees and recognizing those to be ordained Deacons and Elders.  They (Upper New York) are already being hit by the retirement tsunami.  (Our peak in Central Texas should hit no later than 2018 but probably earlier.)  By my rough count, 38 deacons and elders retired and 12 new deacons and elders were voted on (to be ordained the next day).  The math is fairly plain.  Upper New York replaced about 1/3 of their retirees.  The impact is offset somewhat by the number of churches being closed.  The same is true for Central Texas.  Both conferences are facing serious leadership shortages.  (This is meant in no way to subtract from some outstanding new clergy being ordained in both conferences!)

I closed my Friday morning address with a reference to the British missionary C. T. Studd who left a fortune behind and abandoned a star cricket career (think all-star major league baseball player) to share the gospel in places like China and India.  He said, “Some wish to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a Rescue Shop within a yard of hell.”

In my better moments, so do I.  In our better moments as a church, as local congregations, this is actually what we do.  We run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.  It is to this high and truly holy purpose that we gather and offer our witness.  This great truth towers before both the conferences.

Our son, now 35 and recently married, was born six weeks premature.  Jolynn and I were scheduled to start Lamaze class the day after Nathan was born.  I had the Lamaze instruction book in my pocket as I held my wife’s hand in the delivery room.  (Have you ever had one of those really bright ideas that wasn’t real bright?)  I pulled it out of my pocket and started reading it to Jolynn.  “It says here, honey, you need to breathe deep and focus.”  It is a blessed act of her forbearance and divine mercy that I am still alive today.  It also helped that she couldn’t get off the table.

Yet, as strange as it may sound, this is exactly the kind of advice we need today.  We need to breathe deep and focus.  Those of us from both the Upper New York Conference and the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church know that the Christendom world where America went to church every Sunday has died.  A new world is aborning and, as strange as it may seem, we need to remember that this is God’s world.  The Great Commission of Christ to His disciples is as applicable today as it has ever been.  Our mission, should we accept it, is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Amidst the chaos of our times and the controversies that are wracking the United Methodist Church, a new church is being born.  This is scary, but it is also a good and godly thing.  “The Church [truly] is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.”