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On the Road Again

Saturday Jolynn and I flew out to Philadelphia.  We spent the Memorial holiday time with a cousin and her family in northern New Jersey.  The family R&R was a welcome joy after the hectic schedule of recent weeks and a nice rest before the next round of travels.

On Wednesday we will arrive in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for the meeting of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.  I will be the conference preacher there.  The Greater New Jersey Conference focused on the first three vows of Methodism – prayers, presence, gifts – last year.  They have asked me specifically to address the twin themes of Service and Witness.

Next Saturday we will fly back to Fort Worth, grab a quick change of clothes and then head down to Waco for the Central Texas Conference.  It should be a great time of learning and worship with Dr. Joy Moore and Dr. Gil Rendle leading us.

The following Thursday, June 7th (the day after the CTC Conference closes), I will fly back out to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to speak to the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Their Conference theme is “the river flows through us and beyond us.”  My first address is on the transformation of the local church following the theme “The River Flows Through Us.”  The second address is on the importance of new church development and is entitled “The River Flows Beyond Us.”

All across the country, Conferences of the UMC are spending more time in worship and learning as we lean into a new future.  I look forward to sharing with and learning from our colleagues in Christ serving in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I’ll see you in Waco!

A Great Sunday

My steady deep conviction over my almost 4 years as bishop of the Central Texas Conference has been that the Conference exists to “energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This Sunday I had the great joy of sharing with a church vibrantly alive as it engages in this great mission.

I preached three times at First United Methodist Church in Killeen and shared with pastors Jeff Miller and David McMinn in confirmation.  The 9:30 a.m. service in particular was electric with the Spirit’s presence!  A packed sanctuary rejoiced with inspiring music as 14 youth were confirmed (the total for the day was 20 confirmations).  But perhaps the highlight came after confirmation at the close of the worship service.  Four young adults (mid to late 20s) responded to the call to discipleship and came forward to commit (or recommit) themselves to Christ as Lord and Savior.  Two were on profession of faith and one was baptized.  The Spirit was moving!

In looking over the confirmation class (as well as the congregation), I couldn’t help but notice that it was multi-ethnic.  There were three distinct ethnic groups (possibly a fourth) in the confirmation class and, while predominantly Anglo, the ethnic diversity was not simply a scattered individual or two but a clear and welcomed aspect of that community of faith.

This congregation is not perfect.  None are.  The old RSV translation of II Corinthians 4:7 comes to mind:  “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”  It was great Sunday, and I was blessed to share with the good folks of First UMC, Killeen in watching God in action through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Grounded in Discipline

In the midst of my sojourn in Florida (i.e. General Conference) and my re-immersion in the Central Texas Conference, I have kept up my reading.  One of the recent books I’ve read is Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith.  He is the co-author of the book UnChristian, which many read a few years ago when we had his co-author David Kinnaman in the Central Texas Conference.

While uneven, elements linger in my thoughts, particularly the 8th chapter entitled “Grounded, Not Distracted.” Lyons lays out five key spiritual disciplines for not just our reflection but for committed, habitual practice:

“1. Immersed in Scripture (Instead of Entertained)

2. Observing the Sabbath (Instead of Being Productive)

3. Fasting for Simplicity (Instead of Consuming)

4. Choosing Embodiment (Instead of Being Divided)

5. Postured by Prayer (Instead of Power)”

(The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith, Chapter 8 “Grounded, Not Distracted,” Gabe Lyons, pp. 127-146)

The list echoes the early sentiment, practice, and posture of those people called Methodist.  You remember, the ones who were so “methodical” about pursuing spiritual disciplines.  There was a day the “discipline” didn’t mean a book but a lifestyle that was grounded and not distracted.

I continue to pray regularly the prayer of Aelred of Rievaulx (1147-1167 A.D.), which was paraphrased in Godspell – “To know Him [Christ] more clearly; to love Him [Christ] more dearly; to follow Him [Christ] more nearly” (original language).  I don’t know about you, but for me, I need to be grounded in discipline … not the book, the spiritual disciples of the life of faith.

Guaranteed Appointment

Among the various actions taken by General Conference was an overwhelming vote (originally on the consent agenda) to end guaranteed appointments for ordained elders in the United Methodist Church.  In brief, “under this new legislation, bishops and cabinets will be allowed to give elders less than full-time appointment. The legislation also would permit bishops and their cabinets, with the approval of their boards of ordained ministry and annual (regional) conference’s executive session, to put elders on unpaid transitional leave for up to 24 months. Clergy on transitional leave would be able to participate in their conference health program through their own contributions.  Each annual conference is asked to name a task force to develop a list of criteria to guide the cabinets and bishops as they make missional appointments.  The cabinets shall report to the executive committees of Board of Ordained Ministry the number of clergy without fulltime appointments and their age, gender and ethnicity. Cabinets also will be asked to report their learnings as appointment-making is conducted in a new way.” (Taken from UMNS, May 1, 2012)

I am always surprised by the amount of anxiety this issue seems to engender.  The involvement of the Board of Ordained Ministry in conjunction with the Cabinet safeguards against misuse based on gender, ethnicity or freedom of the pulpit.  It does assist in proper placement of associate pastors and general effectiveness accountability.  It places Elders in the same accountability relationship as Licensed Local Pastors.  In reality, it will have very little effect on most Central Texas Conference clergy and churches.  Denomination wide, there is an estimated excess of only 784 Elders across the whole connection!  When you couple this with a retirement tsunami that will peak in the CTC in 2018 (we are currently on the beginning edge of that huge wave), we will actually desperately need new clergy in the next 10 to15 years.

As we wrestle with our deep need to make mission field appointments, the challenge will be to make the proper fit between pastor, church and mission field.  Furthermore, the deeper pressure we are experiencing a clergy deployment system is being driven by pensions and health insurance.

So, relax, for almost all this will make little difference.  It will protect churches and clergy from deep ineffectiveness and aid making mission field appointments.

General Conference and the NFL Draft

How is the United Methodist Church’s General Conference similar to the National Football League’s annual draft?  The answer is that, like the NFL, we won’t know for sure what we really have for a couple of years.

When NFL teams draft players, it usually takes a number of years before a team knows if a player really pans out.  Similarly, it is often (admittedly not always) difficult to discern the full implications of an action taken.  By way of example, in the 1996 General Conference comprehensive legislation on ordination of Deacons and Elders was adopted.  Sixteen years later we are still adjusting to those changes.  One change in 1996 was to adopt a 3-year probationary period.  By General Conference 2008, we had decided the residency period was too long and reduced it to 2 years.  Despite the best intentions (to raise the level of clergy competence), we made the process too complex and discouraged people from entering the UM process.

This is called the Law of Unintended Consequences. (The building of the interstate highway system and its adverse impact on small towns across America is considered a classic example of the Lw of Unintended Consequences.). Often the full consequences don’t unfold until we live with the new situation for a while.

As I write this, it is Friday morning, May 4th.  Currently we are wrestling with the budget.  We have already taken significant  action — stressed vital congregations, restructured the General Boards & Agencies, rejected a set aside bishop, created a new episcopal area in the Congo, gone through our continuing struggle on human sexuality, given annual conferences more freedom in creating their own  structure, done away with guaranteed appointments, reinforced mission initiatives taking the gospel into communist lands — the list goes on!  As General Conference draws to a close, it is important to catch our breath, pause for prayer, and remember John Wesley’s admonition:  “The best of all is that God is with us.”

Riding the Rollercoaster

When my son turned 15 we took him and a friend to Six Flags – Fiesta Texas in San Antonio in celebration.  He couldn’t wait to try what was then the world’s largest wooden rollercoaster.  Staring at this monster (called The Rattler), the friend decided he didn’t want to go on it after all.  (His friend is now in the Marine Corps!)  It was just too scary.  Well, trying to be a good Dad, I got in line to ride with Nathan.

My bravery reached its zenith as we slowly rode to the top of the first monster drop.  It was exhilarating!  We towered over the visible world.  Then we dropped!  To paraphrase Bob Weathers, I rededicated my life to Jesus three times in the 30 seconds it took us to hit the bottom and whip around the first of many hairpin turns.  (My son reports that I kept saying, “Jesus save me!”)

With the start of General Conference, I was reminded of riding The Rattler.  We opened with an inspiring, thrilling, God-moving, Spirit-filled worship.  The music was awesome; the preaching great; communion a joy.  It was and is the church at her best, praising God and leaning forward in faithful attentiveness and anticipation.

After worship we broke for lunch and then came back for the first business session, the setting of General Conference rules and procedures.  Two and one half (yes, 2 ½) dis-spiriting hours later, we adjourned without completing our business.  From the mountain peak we had plunged into the messy bogs of legislative wrangling.

We awoke the next morning to receive the Episcopal Address given by Bishop Pete Weaver of the New England Episcopal Area.  We shot back up to the heights!    Entitled The Resurrection Revolution we were brought back to Easter morning. Said Bishop Weaver:  “Before any of us were delegates, we were disciples.  Before any of us were bishops, we were believers.  Before any of us were members in caucuses, we were members in Christ Jesus and therefore, members of one another.  Before any of us had a resolution in our hands to vote on, we had a resolution in our hearts to devote ourselves to the living Christ.”

That afternoon we whipsawed back into debate over the rules.  And so it goes.  General Conference is a rollercoaster ride.  Yet in it all is the presence of God; sometimes encouraging, sometimes brooding, sometimes cheering.  Bishop Weaver recalled the first episcopal address ever given to a Methodist General Conference in America two hundred years ago by Bishop McKendree.  When challenged, Bishop McKendree suggested that we handle the new things brought before us with this seminal piece of advice:  “Do everything as in the immediate presence of God.”

This is great advice for Christians of any place and every time.  We are always in the immediate presence of God!

Today the Council of Bishops held its own worship service passing the gavel as president from Bishop Larry Goodpaster to Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.  As we finished communion we sang “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”  As the words washed over me, I recalled getting off The Rattler.  It was good to stand on solid ground.  As the ride continues, may we as a church cling to rock.

Do everything as in the presence of God

Opportunities

Last Monday night I had the privilege (along with Dr. Luther Henry & Dr. Bob Holloway from the Cabinet) of meeting with a forward-looking lay leadership group from predominantly African American churches.  In some courageous, faithful, and painful ways they are wrestling with the future of predominantly Africa-American UMCs in the Tarrant County area.  Real opportunity is present but at the price of a different way of being church.  I was invigorated and encouraged by their willingness to engage the opportunities the Lord is placing before us.

Later Dr. Henry sent me an article on evangelism in the African-American UMC context.  Written by F. Douglas Powe, Jr. (Professor of Evangelism & Black Church Studies at St. Paul’s School of Theology), the title tells the tale: Evangelism Today Requires New Wineskins (http://www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas/issues/2012issues/120328.html ).  The spot-on insights from Dr. Powe apply to far more than just predominantly African-American UMCs.  The insights apply across the whole church.

Another opportunity presented itself Thursday at the Southwestern University Board Meeting.  In the United Methodist Committee meeting (where we look at religious life), we heard a statistical report that roughly 48% of the students self-identify as Christian.  About 49% self-identify as “unknown, not reported, none,” etc.!  This is an increase of 67% in the “unknown, not reported, none” in the last five years. The remaining 3% report “other” (Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc.).

At the same time the Chaplain reported a deep spiritual thirsting and hunger among students (which she is starting new ventures to meet.)  Our college youth are open and seeking.  This represents a great evangelist/witness opportunity for us!  As Jesus said, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine!” (Luke 10:2 CEB).

A Coalition of the Willing

The more I live into the office of bishop the more convinced I am of the claim to work with those who are willing.  We are building a coalition (or should I say coalitions) of the willing.  Allow me to explain.

Recently a District Superintendent reported to me a comment from two pastors in a PLD group.  (PLD groups are Pastors Leadership Development groups that are connected to our conference-wide Healthy Church Initiative offered by the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth.)  Complaining, the two pastors individually asked their DS “do I have to participate in the PLD group.”  Loud and clear, the answer is NO!  Pastors (and lay leaders) choose how they will engage in missonal learning and growth.  All of us are ultimately accountable to God and, in the covenant of the United Methodist connection, penultimately accountable for the choices we make to each other.

Our focus as a Conference is to energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Different people and churches will engage (spiritually, missionally & numerically) in different ways.  The Bible’s got it right, “the fields are white unto harvest.”  I want to work with the willing.

On a related subject, an exciting new resource just crossed my desk.  Debi Nixon, Adam Hamilton and the team from Resurrection UMC in Kansas City have introduced a great new resource in witness and evangelism entitled Catch: A Churchwide Program for Invitational Evangelism.  As I have said over and over again, we will not turn this great church around from its decadal decline without embracing again evangelism and witness.  The two (evangelism and witness) must be intimately connected to sacrificial service for the hurting, homeless and hungry (again – spiritually, physically or emotionally … or for that matter, all three!).  “The entire program is built on being outward focused and finding ways to attract visitors, connect them in meaningful ways with your faith community, and help them learn how to know, love and serve God.”

Do you have to use it?  Absolutely NOT!  But … for God’s sake and for the sake of hurting and hungry people do use something that is faithful and fruitful!  Don’t sit on the sidelines; join a coalition of the willing.

The Importance of Narrative

My recent blog entitled “Struggling with Appointments” has sparked an unusually high degree of interest and response.  Overwhelmingly clergy have noted the dilemma of some members wanting no change while at the same time expecting to reach a new generation.  This often puts clergy and proactive lay leadership in a significant dilemma.  Furthermore, a number have lifted up the struggle between raising the metrics of vitality and dealing with congregational resistance to the necessary change needed to engage the mission field (and thus raise the metrics).  Taken together it can feel like a Kobayashi Maru (the Star Trek no win scenario).

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

On the flip side, a small (actually very small but quite strident!) handful of responses came from people (all self-identified as lay) who felt the blog somehow dismissed older adults and endorsed “bands” (meaning contemporary Christian music over against classical hymns).  Such is not the case!  I am an older adult and am married to a recent retiree.

I was very careful in the blog to assert that our ministry needs to be a both/and!  It is worth repeating what I wrote about the need to continue a strong and effective ministry to existing members and older adults while effectively reaching out to a new generation:  An effective pastor must minister sensitively to this loss all the while leading into a new future.  It is not an easy balance.  Congregations that refuse to embrace change are choosing to die.  Simultaneously, pastors that charge ahead without compassionately facing grief are doomed to failure.  It is worth noting that the Vital Congregations research (which I shared in every district in 2010) overwhelmingly notes a connection between church missional health/vitality and having multiple styles of worship.

These are exciting times to be in ministry together.  They challenge us to a deeper faithfulness and a wider outreach with the love of Christ.  Sunday I headed to Nashville for a meeting on the Focus Area “New Places for New People.”  Called Path One, we are working on our national strategy for new church development and especially on reaching “more people, younger people, and more diverse people.”  And yes, this work doesn’t ignore reaching older adults; all are embraced in this great ministry of sharing the gospel.

The Resurrection Legacy

In a recent conversation with Dr. Eric McKinney, consultant in Leadership Ministries with TMF, he shared with me some of things he looks at in church health as a congregation begins to examine its future.  (He uses the learning tool Holy Conversations by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann.)  He asks about their average worship attendance over the last two decades and examines what age quartiles their percentage of giving comes from.  Both are key variables in looking at long-term congregational viability.

Dr. McKinney’s questions coincide with learning I recently gleaned from reading Legacy Churches by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond.  (I was so impressed by this work and the insights offered to us that I bought a copy for each member of the extended Cabinet.) In a forthright, loving, and courageous way, the authors face the reality of church closings.  They detail the natural life cycle of churches.  They note critical signs that indicate a church might need to face closing – history of decline in worship attendance below a critical level needed for support, changing population base, lack of connectedness to the mission field (area around the church), the giving base overwhelmingly from a post-retired generation, over dependence on the same volunteers, few professions of faith, etc.

Rather than simply lament reality, seek blame or grieve, the writers offer a hopeful response.  They call for churches to be legacy congregations.  “To leave a legacy is to pass on to future generations something of great significance. . . .If your church can give birth to a new church, that new church can carry forward your values and believes and continue to fulfill your mission to bring life-change to the community.”

The book is crammed with practical help that can be easily used to guide a congregation in examining its future.  Even better, it is hope-filled and resurrection-based.  It reflects the gospel.  I commend it to you.  Legacy Churches is a quick practical easy read with check lists a congregation can use examine its future in ministry for the advancing kingdom of God.

On another subject, Monday I was in Austin for a meeting of the Texas Methodist Foundation’s Executive Board.  I continue to be deeply impressed with TMF’s foresighted leadership in resourcing United Methodist Churches.  Recent action folding the Central Texas Methodist Foundation into TMF is a welcome step that will aid all involved and continue the strong work previously being done by both TMF and CTMF.

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