Archive - February, 2017

Conference Core Team Focuses on the WIG ©

Sunday afternoon, February 26th, the Central Texas Conference Core Team gathered to continue our work determining the WIG for the Conference’s future. I have written briefly on the concept of WIG before. The acronym WIG, in this instance, means the Wildly Important Goal. It is based on the seminal work of Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling and published in their book, The Four Disciplines of Execution.

Pause for a moment and think: What is the one wildly important goal for your church (and/or the Central Texas Conference) to accomplish in the next decade What one thing, if you do it well, will make a strategic and major difference for the life of faith and witness for your church (Conference) in continuing pursuit of the overall witness of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?” It seems like an easy exercise, but in fact, it is not. Typically, as soon as we select one item/strategic goal, we are convicted of some critically important objectives that are left out. In most cases, our list of important strategic objectives quickly grow to five or six items – if not more! Each of those items is important. Each is worthy of attention and ministry. Each has a strong biblical foundation. Narrowing the list of WIG(s) to one (ideally) or two strategic objectives is hard!

Counterintuitively, the research is clear. If you have more than one or two goals, the possibility of accomplishing the goal(s) goes down exponentially! Why? Because good ideas and goals get lost in the day to day “whirlwind” of activities and survival. McChesney, Covey and Huling state “the law of diminishing returns is as real as the law of gravity” (The Four Disciplines of Execution, p. 25).  They go on to write, “The greatest challenge you face in narrowing your goals is simply that it requires you to say no to a lot of good ideas. 4DX [i.e. the Four Disciplines of Execution] may even mean saying no to some great ideas, at least for now. Nothing is more counterintuitive for a leader than saying no to a good idea, and nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes” (The Four Disciplines of Execution, p. 28).

As the core team wrestled with this concept, we tended to jump to tactics without really focusing on the precise WIG. This exercise required deep discussion and hard choices. Clarity is king; actually Christ is King and clarity is the handmaid of faithful ministry in his name.

A second piece of focus on the WIG is the ability to know whether or not we have reached the goal. A simple formula is to be able to say “we will move X to Y by When, with X representing the measurable strategic objective; Y being our goal; and When being our target completion date. The level of specificity challenges our focus. It forces us to move beyond the vaguely theoretical.

As the Core Team wrestled with the WIG, we focused on one specific wildly important goal:  To increase the market share by worship attendance plus professions of faith (which includes those who come in a restored relationship). If this takes place, lives are transformed by and for Christ! The X to Y by When = the Worship Attendance market share (which is currently 1% of the population) to 1.25% by 2026 (our ten year target goal).

No matter what we come up with, some will accuse us of trying to save a dying institution. It is a bogus or false argument. Gone is the day that attending worship is simply culturally appropriate. To worship today is a counter cultural activity. Lives will be transformed in Christ-centered discipleship if this WIG is to be reached.

Worship and professions of faith are foundational ways we measure what it means to be a disciple. Are they the only measurements? Absolutely not! Are they cardinal measurements?  Absolutely!! The distinction is crucial. Is worship more than Sunday morning? Quadruple absolutely!!! Thus measuring worship in new faith communities is crucial. In fact, the denominational measurement for worship attendance has included a wider dimension than merely Sunday morning since before 2012.

Professions of faith, which should include those who joined a church on a restored relationship to Christ and his church, is an additional, crucial part of the WIG. Combined with worship attendance, the two make up a critical measurement of discipleship formation. For someone who is coming back to the Christian faith as an adult, becoming a part of the church on a “restored” relationship is a life-transforming event. In a radical way, Christ is confessed anew as Lord and Savior!

But just know that the key is that local churches will decide for themselves how they will reach their goals. The Conference Core Team and the conference staff exist to energize and equip the local churches, not dictate strategy and tactics. We know that you know your congregations and communities best. So, this isn’t about pushing programs or policies. This is about keeping Christ at the center and focusing on the local church and a combination of lay & clergy leadership together. So stay tuned!

Learning Together (c)

Recently I found myself participating in a fascinating discussion at the United School of Theology Board meeting in Dayton, Ohio. As we wrestled with the rapidly changing landscape of theological education, strategic issues and questions dominated our discussions. Increasingly it appears that there is an abundance of United Methodist Seminaries (13 are a part of the denomination and a number of others have very close ties). The focus of various seminaries differs widely; for instance one has no Masters of Divinity students (the basic degree for pastors) but focuses extensively on producing Ph. D. level scholars. Most other seminaries are some kind of a mix. (I am told the average is something like 54% of seminary enrollees go into local church pastorates; however, I am not sure how accurate that statistic is.) A few – United Theological Seminary is one – are intensely focused on producing local church pastors. (United’s current enrollment reflects something like 84% reporting an intention to become pastors of local churches.) Virtually every seminary (there are a few notable exceptions) is seeking a growth in enrollment and is under great pressure from the high cost of educating a new generation of clergy. An instructive book written by a noted Professor from Candler School of Theology, Emory University and published by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry entitled Formation for Ministry in American Methodism: Twenty-first Century Challenges and Two Centuries of Problem-Solving presents both the evolving history of theological education & training for ordained ministry and challenges our assumptions for the future.

All in all it is a fascinating subject and reflects the creative chaos currently taking place in the church’s theological training and higher education. Together we are struggling for a new way of thinking and understanding. We are learning together. At the United Board meeting, one of the presenters challenged us with a concise way of thinking. She asked us to reflect on the following:

  1. The What?                Comprised of what the data (information and metrics) tell us along with the antidotal stories (what we call the narrative).
  2. The So What?           Which asks the question “what does this mean?” and requires interpretation.
  3. The Now What?       Which challenges us to engage in strategic thinking, planning and deep level application, and mapping out next steps.

As I reflected on this way of thinking, the obvious parallels for local churches and conferences in strategic planning flooded across my mind. There can be little doubt that we are engaged in a trying and exciting time of learning together. Mike Ford, our Conference Lay Leader, has impressed again upon me an old lesson I need to constantly be relearning. Rarely will a church’s future be fully engaged for the Kingdom of God without both lay leaders and clergy leaders learning together!

Two other divergent pieces of learning have also clamored for my recent attention. I have reported before that the South Central Bishops Conclave has recently re-read The Spider and the Starfish. The book challenges overly hierarchal organizations and especially organizations that our bound up by rules (think the UMC Book of Discipline). I noted for elements for my special attention; four points of application or emphasis:

  • Ideology –>  culture –> theology rules!
  • Decentralizes as much as possible; think Hybrid (both connected and flexible; avoid either or thinking)
  • Network is a new form of the Community
  • The Power of Chaos –> we must risk experimentation in learning together

The other piece of learning that I have recently run through my thinking comes from Chip and Dan Health’s book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. I contend the book is less about being decisive and more about “how to make better choices.” The four key lessons have helped guide me in our recent Cabinet Inventory Retreat:

1. Widen your options
2. Reality test your assumptions
3. Attain distance before deciding
4. Prepare to be wrong.

There is much to learn together, and part of the excitement and great adventure of these challenging times lies in learning together!

Prayers for Cabinet Inventory Retreat ©

This morning I drove down to Stillwater Lodge at Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center.  We begin a three-day Cabinet Inventory Retreat.  Our first activity is worship and prayer.  With our foundation and focus built on God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we together as a Cabinet including the three new incoming district superintendents, will spend some time thoughtfully reviewing the list of retiring clergy and incoming potential new clergy.  Today we have the largest retirement class in recent memory.  We have already received 19 letters of retirement.  Sunday we learned the sad news of the death of a colleague, Pastor Duane Chambers (Lay Supply at Italy-Dresden), and we have a second retirement from 1 pastor (who obviously failed retirement the first time).  This makes something like 21 openings.  (In Cabinet language we call those “clean openings” because there is no one currently down to hold that appointive position come Annual Conference.)  Additionally, if history holds to its regular pattern, we should receive a couple of more retirements before Annual Conference.

Kathy Ezell, Associate Director for the Board of Ordain Ministry, reports seventeen incoming clergy (new seminary graduates, etc.) which includes three deacons who are up for commissioning.  We have not yet received the final list for those who are coming via the Local Pastors’ track.

We will also review the number of fulltime openings for appointment as well as situations where a church/charge will be moving to a less than full time appointment.  We will do so, carefully working through each district and category on the following list (in alphabetical order):

  1. Central District
  2. East District
  3. New Church Starts District
  4. North District
  5. South District
  6. West District
  7. The Center for Evangelism & Church Growth
  8. The Center for Leadership (Campus Ministry)
  9. The Center for Mission Support

In each case we will pause for prayer and a deeper assessment of needs, hopes and dreams.

I write to ask you the reader to be in prayer for the Central Texas Conference Cabinet while we are on our Inventory Retreat.  Recently two beautiful prayers have come to my attention.  My wife Jolynn passed on a prayer from Columba, the great Christian Saint and missionary who brought the Christian faith to Scotland by way of founding Iona Abbey.  It reads as follows:

Be a bright flame before me, O God
a guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight, and for ever.

Alone with none but you, my God
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when you are near,
O Lord of night and day?
More secure am I within your hand
than if a multitude did round me stand.
Amen.  (Saint Columba, Iona Abbey)

The second is a prayer that I ran across in my daily devotional reading.  Dr. Sid Spain, my spiritual director and companion in the faith, and I have been working through A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job, (known by many as simply “The Green Book”).  I have added the plural to the tradition phrasing of the prayer by Norman Shawchurck:

Defend me [us] from all temptation, that I [we] may ever accept the right and refuse the wrong.
Defend me [us] from myself, that in your care my [our] weakness may not bring me [us] to shame.
May my [our] lower nature never seize the upper hand.
Defend me [us] from all that would seduce me [us], that in your power no tempting voice may cause me to listen, no tempting sight fascinate my [our] eyes.
Defend me [us] against the chances and changes of this life, not that I [we] may escape them but that I [we] may meet them with firm resolve;
not that I [we] may be saved from them but that I [we] may come unscathed through them.
Defend me [us] from discouragement in difficulty and from despair in failure, from pride in success, and from forgetting you in the day of prosperity.
Help me [us] to remember that there is no time when you will fail me [us] and no moment when I [we] do not need you.
Grant me [us] this desire:
that guided by your light and defended by your grace,
I [we] may come in safety and bring honor to my [our] journey’s end by the defending work of Jesus Christ my [our] Lord.
May it always be so!
(Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job; pp. 104-105)

May we pray together?

Living the Big Three ©

For last 7 years as bishop of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area, The Central Texas Conference, I have stressed the critical importance and centrality of what I call the “big three” as the focus of our work as a Conference “energizing and equipping local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

1. Christ the Center
2. Focus on the local Church
3. Leadership development for both lay and clergy.

These three key foci dominate my thought and work. They form the core of strategic engagement with congregations and the larger mission field in living our future as a Conference in faithfulness to the Lord God. Various other importance ministries – vital congregations, inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity, missional outreach both locally and globally, Connectional Mission Giving (CMG), the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI), the Small Church Initiative (SCI) small group development for spiritual growth & Bible Study, campus ministry, CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission), etc. – are to be an outgrowth of living the big three in full faithfulness to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As we (The Central Texas Conference Cabinet) prepare for our Inventory Retreat (the beginning of work on clergy and local church appointments for 2017-2018) next week, a number of various pieces of information and insights have risen into my consciousness. I want to share them with you.

First, in vital congregations we always, always, look at a combination of narrative (story) and metrics. The two should never be separated and a positive change in the narrative (the stories being told of congregational/community life) usually precedes a change in the metrics.

Anecdotally we have heard more stories of professions of faith this last year. The year-end “Congregational Vitality” report reflects the change in narrative that was being reported. Our year end data showed:
• A 2% increase in worship attendance
• Professions of faith had big growth this year – up 27%! All districts showed increases in Professions of faith. (a Huge shout of “Hallelujah!” and “well done!” to all!)
• Four of the six districts showed growth in both worship attendance and professions of faith.
• Over all giving is up 5% (but the data is not yet complete).

Secondly, I note from the regular Conference Communications “Quick Notes” that the work of UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief) has received special commendation for its practice of putting every dollar received in offering to work in a specific relief effort. We are blessed to support such a vital ministry both here in the United States and around the world. Furthermore, significantly, the Central Texas Conference has benefitted directly from this offering in response to tornados that have hit our Conference on three separate occasions over the past year and in relief work for people in the area of West, Texas. The “Quick Notes” article is as follows:

UMCOR earns 4 Star Rating from top U.S. charity evaluator. The CTC Disaster Response Team has worked hand-in-hand with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) for 14 years, rebuilding homes and lives all across Texas and the U.S. A vital piece of UMCORs ability to respond is in its business model of putting every cent donated to a particular relief effort directly to that effort. This is made possible by the continued generous donations received during UMCOR Sunday, which pays all of the organizations overhead and administrative costs. UMCOR’s strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency have earned the highest possible ranking from America’s largest independent charity evaluator, Charity Navigator.

I covet your prayers for us as a Cabinet during our Inventory Retreat next week (Tuesday through Thursday). “The goal I [we] pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

Celebrations and a Loss Observed ©

I sit at my keyboard and launch this blog on “Celebrations and a Loss Observed” mindful that today is Valentine’s Day. While flowers, candy and cards abound, I invite us to pause and remember the original Valentine. He was a Christian martyr and bishop of modern day Terni, Italy. In a time when being Christian was illegal, he stood for Christ and so gave up his life reportedly on February 14th in 278 A.D. to Roman persecution. The phrase that sticks in my mind is John 15:13: “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” We have much to celebrate and give thanks for on Valentine’s Day. Such thanksgiving appropriately starts with Christian witness. God’s love has been poured liberally over us all.

Two weeks ago (literally January 29th), Jolynn and I had the great joy to celebrate the launch service for One Fellowship United Methodist Church in Waco. With a packed congregation of well over a hundred, the music sent us soaring; the sermon was a powerful proclamation of the gospel (thanks to Rev. Bryan Dalco); and the blessing of the fellowship of gathered saints, a great joy. A new United Methodist Church is launched in Waco! A new mission post of the advancing kingdom of God rises from remains of older but honored congregations.

A second great celebration involves the missional faithfulness of the people and churches of the Central Texas Conference. Once again we have paid our General Church Connectional Mission Giving (CMG, formerly known as apportionments) 100%. This is a remarkable accomplishment in the chaos of our times.

Consider some of the vital statistics:

  • 285 Apportioned Churches [new churches and missional congregations are not apportioned nor are campus ministries]
    259 Churches 100% paid
    26 Churches did not meet their CMG (Connectional Mission Giving) goal
    6 Churches paid zero

This year’s final figures reported a CMG giving at 95.55%. This is slightly better than our ten year average of 95.13%. Through the wise stewardship CFA (Council on Finance and Administration) we are able to make up the additional 4.45%.

On top of such remarkable faithfulness comes another reason for celebration. Dr. Randy Wild, Executive Director for Mission Support, passed on the following thank you from Rev. Brian Bakeman, Executive Director of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. “Thank you and the Central Texas Conference for being one of two conferences that paid 100% of their South Central Jurisdiction apportionments for 2016.”
In addition to the figures for our Jurisdiction, Dr. Randy Wild reports that we are #1 in the percentage collected for the whole US in our denomination for 2016. The chart speaks volumes.

Central Texas
North Texas
North Georgia
Illinois Great Rivers
Pacific Northwest
Western Pennsylvania
North Carolina
South Georgia

To all of the above I add my heart-felt gratitude and thanksgiving. “Well done! You are good and faithful servants” (Matthew 25:23; with very slight paraphrase).

In the midst of the celebrations we have a distinct loss to observe. Dr. Georgia Adamson’s husband John passed away suddenly Wednesday, February 8th. Georgia has served as District Superintendent, Executive Director for the Roberts Center for Leadership and Assistant to the Bishop during the last seven and a half years. Her husband John is known and loved by many of us. He will be missed! We ask your prayers for Georgia and the whole family in this difficult time of John’s passing. “In life, in death, in life beyond death; we are not alone. Thanks be to God!”

An Open Letter to United Methodists in Texas and All People of Good Will ©

We, the United Methodist Bishops of the State of Texas, greet you in the love of Christ. We call upon those who claim the title “Christian” to remember that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, began his life as a homeless refugee, fleeing with his family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Just as the Holy Family was forced to flee their homeland and seek safety, too many flee for their lives in our violent, terror-plagued world.

In the face of such human tragedy in our world today, we, the bishops of The United Methodist Church in Texas, call upon all United Methodists to see Christ in the refugees of today, regardless of their nationality and/or social, religious, economic, or political background.

We share with others a common sense of frustration, hopelessness, and confusion as we view the unfolding images of today’s refugees in the news. We desire to welcome the sojourner, love our neighbor, and stand with the most vulnerable among us, while also being concerned for the security and well-being of our communities, state, and nation. It is legitimate and proper to be concerned about the safety of our neighborhoods and our country. It is also proper and right that we reflect Christian compassion and values in our response. Jesus was explicit in his teachings when he said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40).

We cannot let fear rule the day; we must let love champion our actions. We are a nation founded on immigration and forged by the courage of shared values to be a “light on the hill” and a beacon of hope in a broken world.

As Christians and as Texans, our values are grounded in respect and hospitality toward strangers. We recognize that these are difficult and complex times that call for the best of America’s values and our highest witness as followers of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we call upon President Trump, Governor Abbott, and the leaders of our nation and state to seek a more compassionate response to immigrants and refugees. Joining with those who desire a safer America, we pray for a just and caring response to those most in need of our help and love.

Yours in Christ,

The United Methodist Bishops of the State of Texas
Bishop Earl Bledsoe, The Northwest Texas Conference (Northwest Texas-New Mexico Area)
Bishop Scott Jones, The Texas Conference (Houston Area)
Bishop Mike Lowry, The Central Texas Conference (Fort Worth Area)
Bishop Mike McKee, The North Texas Conference (Dallas Area)
Bishop Robert Schnase, The Rio Texas Conference (San Antonio Area)