Archive - February, 2016

A Time for Prayer ©

This Sunday night, February 28, at 9:45 p.m., I will pause for a special set-aside 15 minutes of prayer for the upcoming General Conference meeting of The United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon in May. I invite others to join with me and with the Central Texas Conference in taking an opportunity to pause and be in special prayer for General Conference. The need is great.

As I prepare for my own time of prayer, I recall that powerful scene in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles which opens with the disciples being instructed by the risen Lord, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Stunned, they watch the ascension of Jesus. “While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven’”(Acts 1:10-11).  What do they do next?  It is amazingly instructive.  They returned to Jerusalem had a prayer meeting!  They didn’t argue about strategy.  They didn’t battle over doctrine.  To be sure those important tasks would come later.  They first prayed!  “All were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

My friend and colleague Bishop William Willimon has written: “The response of the disciples to the instruction, reproof, and the promise is exemplary.  They gathered to pray (Acts 1:12-14).  In an activist age one might expect the disciples to undertake some more ‘useful’ activity.  They are told to be witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’ (1:8) and their first response is prayer.  The action demanded of the church is more than busyness and strenuous human effort.  Disciples have been told that the promised kingdom is a gift to be given in God’s own time and that the promised Spirit is also by God’s grace.  Their mission requires more than even their earnest striving” (Bishop William Willimon, Acts, p. 21).  So too, does ours.  Our mission, to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, requires fervent prayer.  I invite you to join with me in such prayer.

By way of background, the United Methodist Church’s ultimate governing body is the General Conference. It meets every 4 years to establish church direction and polity (which means governance and law). General Conference alone has the ability to speak for world-wide United Methodist Church. The delegates are ½ clergy and ½ laity with representatives elected by their home Conferences on a proportional basis. Appropriately, this year’s General Conference meeting (which opens May 10th) gathers together under the banner of “Therefore Go! Pray.”

It is no secret that The United Methodist Church is wrestling with a deeper division over central issues of faith, doctrine and ministry. The obvious presenting issue swirls around same gender marriage (which the United States Supreme Court has recently ruled a constitutional right) and ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (gay and lesbian). However, it is critically important to understand that far deeper division of faith and doctrine impact our disunity. One of the various renewal groups has gone so far as to assert that the unity of the church is hanging by a thread.

In response to perceived struggles and divisions, the Council of Bishops voted to ask the Residential Bishops (active bishops) to lead their Annual Conference(s) in a 24 hour Prayer Vigil on a designated day between January 1 and the opening of General Conference. I took this specific request to the Conference Core Team and to the Cabinet. We selected February 28th, this coming Sunday, as our day to be in specific prayer. Dr. Bob Holloway, District Superintendent of the East District, agreed to put together a team from Central Texas to guide our response. They have developed a guided Taize-style prayer resource which is posted at www.ctcumc.org/GC16-prayervigil .

Requests have gone out in all districts calling us to pray for General Conference and the unity of the church. You may sign up for a time slot by going to http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c084fa9ad2aa7fd0-therefore. Here at the Conference Service Center, we have teamed up with the South District to cover a portion of the 24-hour period. I signed up for the 9:45 p.m. time slot. Whenever you are led to make time to pray this Sunday, I ask that you join with me in praying for the Central Texas Conference Delegates (listed at the end of this blog) and for the General Conference as a whole. May the Holy Spirit truly guide our deliberations and actions. “Not our will, but thy will O Lord be done!”

The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church Delegates and reserves to General and Jurisdictional Conference:

General – Tim Bruster (clergy) Tom Harkrider (lay), John McKellar (clergy), Kim Simpson (lay), Clifton Howard (clergy), Steve McIver (lay), Brenda Wier (clergy), Darlene Alfred (lay)

Jurisdictional (and General alternates) – Tom Robbins (clergy), Ethan Gregory (lay), Chris Hayes (clergy), Darcy Deupree (lay), Jim Conner (clergy), Kylie Campbell (lay), Debra Crumpton (clergy), Kevin Gregory (lay)

Alternates (to Jurisdictional) – Louis Carr (clergy), Mary Percifield (lay), Mary Spradlin (clergy), Marianne Brown (lay), Jason Valendy (clergy), Kathy Ezell (lay)

 

The Cross Connection ©

Here we are partway through Lent and I find myself coming back time and time again to what I like to call the cross connection – that is the way we are connected to the Lord at the foot of the cross. After all, whatever you think of the cross, it is a strange symbol for a faith that lifts up the triumphant love of God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The cross connection reunites us with the greatness of God. Here, at the foot of the cross, the relationship between Creator and creature is restored.  It is here, at the foot of the cross, that Jesus says “come, come back into a balanced life with me.”  The cross connection works in some basic ways.

First, it secures salvation. A faithful and righteous God cannot and will not glance away from sin and evil in dreamy irresponsible indulgence.  At the cross Christ suffers for our sin.  In classic theology this is called substitutionary atonement.  The word atonement can be understood if you just break it down into its parts – at-one-ment.  It means to be at one, reconnected, with God.  A restoration of the relationship with God through God’s self-sacrificial love.  God’s greater love breaks the great rebellion by stepping forward to pay the price.

Second, it places life back in balance demanding that we radically trust God and rely on the greatness of God. Think of the connection in this way.  It orders our priorities.  Life as it was meant to be moves in a relationship with God and in relation to those we love.  Through the cross connection those are first order things and the rest of the stuff – what we wear and eat and drink and all the paraphernalia of human accomplishment or lack thereof – follows in its proper subservient place.  It works when we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, [when we do so] … all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Third, it invites us to follow this Christ in picking up our cross in love for others. The cross  connection calls us to greater service following Christ.  This is our crowing joy and obedience in living.

Posted on the wall of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing site was the following written by an unknown author:

I said, “God I hurt.”
And God said, “I know.”

I said, “God, I cry a lot.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you tears.”

I said, “God, I am so depressed.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you sunshine.”

I said, “God, life is so hard.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you loved ones.”

I said, “God, my loved one died.”
And God said, “So did mine.”

I said, “God, it is such a loss.”
And God said, “I saw mine nailed to a cross.”

I said, “God, but your loved one lives.”
And God said, “So does yours.”

I said, “God, where are they now?”
And God said, “Mine is on My right and yours is in the Light.”

I said, “God, it hurts.”
And God said, “I know.”

It is at the foot of the cross, through the cross connection, that life comes back into its proper focus. Sheila Walsh, in her marvelous recording Hope, offers us this great truth in her song, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean.”

“On the mount of crucifixion
Fountains opened deep and wide
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide
Grace and love like mighty rivers
Poured incessant from above
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.”
(Sheila Walsh, Hope, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean,” verse 2)
May the cross connection lead us deeper into Lent.

A Message for Lent

Bishop Mike Lowry shares his annual Lenten message of hope and challenges all to pick up their cross and follow the Lord Jesus Christ to Jerusalem and beyond. To view the message via the Central Texas Conference website, go to ctcumc.org/LentMessage2016. You may also view or download the video to show at your church, small group or wherever on the CTCUMC Vimeo Page.

Appointment Making ©

This week we concluded Inventory in the Central Texas Conference. This is a yearly exercise which Bishops and their Cabinets go through.  The Cabinet Inventory Retreat is a time of assessing where the Conference stands on retirements, new people needing an appointment (especially new seminary graduates), and requests from pastor Parish Relations Committees and from pastors.  It is a time of looking at the whole in terms of Conference and church pastoral needs and then beginning to make appointments for the new Conference year.

Looking at requests from Pastor-Parish Relations Committees who are expecting a change in pastors – when they are asked what is most important in terms of ability in a new pastor preaching is listed in first place virtually every time. (In 7/1/2 years as a bishop I can only remember two occasions when preaching was not listed first!  On those occasions it was listed second.)

When I first entered ministry in The United Methodist Church, the conventional wisdom shared with young pastors was: stay close to God and close to your congregation and you will do well.  A high premium (very high!) was paid to happiness, quiet and conflict avoidance.

In truth, staying close to God and each other are very, very good things! We need, all of us, lay and clergy alike!, to stay close to God.  We should stay close in love and care to each other in our congregations.  After all, the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, a very colony of heaven here on earth.  Biblical admonitions abound.  Just reflect for a moment on passages like Philippians 2:1-5 or I Corinthians 12.

But wait! Hit the pause button and ask what is wrong with this picture?  If we stay close to God (a very, very good thing!) and stay close to each other in the congregation (again a very, very good thing!), who is left out?  The hungry, hurting and homeless, whether spiritually or physically or both, are left out.  Those far from God (and from the body of Christ, the church) are left out.  The great spiritual and social issues contained in the Lord’s Prayer – “on earth as it is in heaven” – are left out.  With the best of intentions the gospel and the church were focused inward on the already churched.  An emphasis on the Great Commandment to love God and love the neighbor (every accessible human being we may reach, Luke 10) was unconsciously a lower priority.  And emphasis on the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all peoples” baptizing and teaching obedience to the way of Christ (Matthew 28) was unconsciously given a low priority.  Risk-taking mission and transformation-focused evangelism were often (not always!) neglected.

Unfortunately in the church we tend to binary thinking. We tend to advocate an inward focus or an outward focus.  We tend to be consumed with taking care of each other or with an outward passion for justice and mercy.  With our Lord it is not an either/or.  Jesus consistently rejected simple binary thinking.  He nurtured love and taught the earliest followers at the very same time he commanded them to reach out.  Put John 21:15-19 together with Matthew 28:16-20 and the fullness of the gospel emerges.

By the grace of God and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the last few decades have led to a refocusing on the inclusion of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission in ministry and life of congregations. The rejection of binary thinking and the inclusion of a greater gospel vision has led to increased need (demand?) for pastors who can lead and for lay leaders who will join with them in offering leadership.  This truth shone clear as the Cabinet engaged in our yearly Inventory Retreat and began appointment making.

As I reflected on the conversations and feedback from local churches, pastors and the Cabinet, it occurred to me that the list of qualities we (the Central Texas Cabinet) lifted up in consideration for District Superintendents applied to congregational appointments, which means both (!!!) congregations and clergy as well.

In my blog of November 5, 2015 “Changing Central Texas Conference Leadership” I shared as list of non-negotiables that the Cabinet came up with for consideration. It began with the rhetorical question:  What are the qualities that should be met even to be considered for such a key leadership role?

  1. Deep Spirituality/Walk with Christ
    1. Tell me about your daily devotions/spiritual disciplines
    2. What differences has it made in your relationships?
    3. How do you experience God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in community?
  2. Open to Learning
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Team Player
  5. Integrity
  6. Passion for Disciple making/ministry (Is there evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness?)

These are central core characteristics which provide a foundation for appointment making. I emphasize again – they apply to both congregations and clergy. This core characteristics “fit” with what I like to call the “big 3” which will continue to drive our ministry together as a conference.

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focus on energizing and equipping local churches to be vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ
  3. Developing Lay and Clergy Leadership

Each church, each pastor is unique; a gift from God in and of themselves. Narrative and context differ widely.  One size doesn’t fit all.  The importance of long tenure and a fruit-bearing match of congregation and clergy continues.  Deep prayer and careful discernment ultimately drive appointment making.  God is with us in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Reporting In: Inventory, UMCOR-West and Tornado Relief ©

Sunday afternoon we started our yearly Cabinet Inventory Retreat. Once again we face a rising number of retirements. We are in the beginning states of implementing a new LASP (Learning Agility Sustained Performance) model for assessing clergy gifts and graces as well as a new SP/KP (Sustained Performance/Kingdom Potential) model for assessing the mission and ministry of each local church.  As we consider the next appointive steps to take, we will go through careful and prayerful reflection on each pastor involved and each church considered. I am asking for prayers that our work might be saturated by the Holy Spirit’s guidance and result in still greater faithfulness and fruitfulness.

While we begin making appointments for Annual Conference 2016, the work will not be finished until our June 8th fixing of appointments at the close of Conference.  Even then, the Cabinet’s appointive work is not fully completed.  The complexities of life for both clergy and churches almost inevitably dictate that some appointments will take place during the following year.

As we gather, there are some significant celebrations which I desire to report back on and lift up. As I have repeatedly stated, one of the truly great works of the United Methodist Church is the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).  UMCOR operates not only around the world but also right here in the Central Texas Conference.

To refresh our memory, on April 17, 2013 (almost three years ago!) a fertilizer plant in West, Texas caught fire and exploded. UMCOR, through the Central Texas Disaster Relief time under Rev. Laraine Waughtal’s leadership, immediately moved in to offer relief.  They did not just come for the short term but have stay to help people in the community (not just Methodists or Christians) rebuild and move forward with life.  A “hallmark” of UMCOR’s ministry is that we are there in disaster recovery situations for the long haul and not just the visible short term.

I asked Rev. Waughtal to put together a follow up report I could share. The following are excerpts from her report:

“I am so proud of our conference and our team in West.  They are amazing!  … Our reports are not done and will not be for another couple of months.  We still have about four file drawers that our data person is working on –she is entering data as cases are closed out.  We still have five homes we are working on.  Our goal is to be complete by the April 17th anniversary this year. …  if you add up all the figures to date … handled by UMCOR and the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church [the total] is $5,367,292.77!  We should easily go by the $6 million mark.  Part of the reason cases are not closed yet is we are also surveying all of our clients and we will not close files until the work is complete.

Unfortunately, these numbers do not include other agencies and what they invested into the community like Red Cross, Salvation Army and area churches.  We have no way to capture that.  It also does not include the more than $600,000 we have invested into 8 case managers, a part-time construction manager and data specialist along with all of our administrative work and so many other people who have impacted this event. 

All of this involves touching the lives of 630 cases (individuals and families!), which is the most important part.  Our conference also responded with many Early Response Teams to help people recover their belongings in the first month and to make the few homes that were able to safe and secure.  We also responded with volunteers for rebuilds and repairs.” 

To which I respond – WOW! I give thanks to God for your faithfulness through the United Methodist Church.  Together we are living Matthew 25, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matthew 25:40).

On a related subject, the Central Texas Conference received an emergency $10,000 grant in January to help with relief for victims of tornado damage in the Ellis County/Glenn Heights area (around Ovilla, Texas). A mid-January report notes the following churches involved:

Ovilla UMC
Midlothian UMC
FUMC Mansfield
Morgan Mill UMC
FUMC Hillsboro
Wesley Chapel/Gholson
White’s Chapel
St. John the Apostle
Community of Hope
FUMC Burleson
FUMC Weatherford
FUMC Hurst

I am quite conscious that this list is incomplete. Since then a significant number of other churches have responded.  One of the signs of a healthy disciple-making church is an outward focus serving their community and transforming our world.  We are seeing outwardly focused churches share the love Christ and neighbor in abundance.  I thank God for your life giving ministry!

Class Meetings and Making Disciples ©

In November of 2014 while meeting in Oklahoma City, the Council of Bishops heard an outstanding address from a class meetingyoung Methodist scholar named Kevin Watson. Dr. Watson (who is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology) shared a deep teaching based on his newly published book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.  I’ve had his book on my shelf intending to read it since hearing him in Oklahoma City.

On becoming one of the four supervising bishops for Rio Texas, his book leaped to the top of my long list of books to read. Along with Bishop Joel Martinez, I have picked up the task of representing the bishops at the upcoming Clergy Convocation of the Rio Texas Conference (an event similar to the “Clergy Day Apart” in the Central Texas Conference).  To my delight, I learned that Dr. Watson is one of the featured presenters for the event (along with Dr. Albert Mosley, President at Gammon School of Theology).

It is Dr. Watson’s connection, or more accurately reconnection, of the class meeting with the mission of the church which excites me. We know full well the stated mission of the United Methodist Church – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Clergy tend to get stuck in fruitless debate over precisely what or who a “disciple” is.  The technical navel gazing debate is more often than not a form of work avoidance.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “it may be complex but it is not complicated.”  I’ll stake my own flag in a fairly straightforward shot-hand definition.  A disciple of Christ is a committed disciplined follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If the reader wishes a bit more, I’ll add “who continues in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread while reaching out to share Christ with all others and helping those in need through the deeds of love, justice and mercy”  (See Acts 2:42-47).  Disciples are fully devoted followers of the Lord Jesus Christ living the great commandment (Luke 10:27) and the great commission (Matthew 28:29-20).  As already stated, it is not complicated, but it is complex.

Disciples are made not born.  Wesleyan’s have always understood that people are transformed into disciples primarily through small groups committed to the shaping of the heart.  Indeed, Professor Watson quotes at the opening of the first chapter Methodism’s first two bishops in America, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke:  “We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages.  But the most profitable exercise is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.” (John Ortberg has written an outstanding book, Soul Keeping, which focuses on the “state of the heart.”)

It is the reconnection of the historic class meeting with the primary mission of making disciples that is so exciting in Professor Watson’s work. He notes that we have three primary types of groups. Affinity groups are gathered around common interest.  My wife is in a group that knits stocking hats for infants, especially in situations of poverty, to help protect that most vulnerable among us.  Back in Corpus Christi I was in a small group that cheered on the Chicago Cubs. (It was a religious experience for us but nobody else!)  Affinity groups mostly function around fun and fellowship not making disciples (there are exceptions but as such the spiritual formation engaged in making disciples – attending to the state of one’s soul – is rarely the focal point of an affinity group.

The second major type of groups found in churches are information-driven groups.  Most bible studies fall into this category.  While there is some sharing, the primary purpose is knowledge/curriculum driven.  Such groups are needed and important but rarely reach the level of depth needed for spiritual transformation that leads directly to more mature Christians (i.e. disciples, committed disciplined follows of Jesus Christ as Lord whose live have been transformed by Christ).  Pungently Dr. Watson adds “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven groups and away from the class meeting” (p. 7).

The third and most transformative type of group is the class meeting.  Watson’s basic description is instructive.  “A class meeting is a small group that is primarily focused on transformation and not information, where people learn how to interpret their entire lives through the lens of the gospel, build a vocabulary for giving voice to their experience of God, and grow in faith in Christ”  (p. 6). This is where disciples are formed.  In all our fussing and fighting, a recovery of the class meeting or something closely equivalent is necessary to turn from an institutional church back into a movement for Christ.

True transformational spiritual formation groups create disciples of Christ. Therein lies our best hope for a future that captures the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life, justification and sanctification for a and to a hurting and hungry world.  I pray for such a movement for Christ!