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Iona Reflections

I must confess that I came to Iona Abbey with a romantic notion of the Abbey Community.  Somehow in my mind it represented a modern representation of a heroic past involving courageous Christian witness and daring Christian service.  While still impressed and thankful for my time at Iona, I left Iona Abbey searching for something more.  Allow me to briefly (far too briefly to do real justice to something I have given much thought and prayer) explain.

George MacLeod started (or more properly restarted the Iona Abbey community) in 1938 out of a heartfelt concern to reconnect the church of his day with the working class people of the community.  He took young ministers (essentially ministers-in-training) and unemployed stoneworkers together to Iona.  As they worked together in rebuilding the Abbey, they shared together in the Christian faith.  Not all of the stoneworkers were Christian but the intermixing of the clergy with laborers helped the church reconnect with the working class of Scotland.  Following the ministry and model of Columba, MacLeod combined genuine conversion-oriented evangelism (witnessing to Christ as they worked side by side) with justice and mercy (helping fight the crippling unemployment of the depression).

From those early beginnings the Iona Abbey Community has emerged with a deep sense of justice and mercy ministry.  Though the historic island of Iona and the physical Abbey itself are the spiritual home of the Iona Community, the community’s main ministry is all over the world through the reach of its approximately 270 members and a much larger number of Associate Members.

Over the years it has been extremely active in the peace movement, ministry to the marginalized and impoverished, deep commitment to ecological sustainability and the like. Prayer, worship with liturgical and musical renewal has remained a central emphasis as well.  Members (capital M) of the worldwide Iona Abbey Community commit to fivefold rule of prayer and Bible study, economic sharing, planning of time, meeting together for mutual support and accountability, and working for justice and peace.  In many ways, the ministry is impressive and faithful.  And yet, there is  something lacking.  As the justice and mercy ministry has moved more and more to the forefront, a sense of evangelistic witness has faded to mere abstraction. The worship liturgy and prayer alone appear to keep the group from  drifting off into being just another agency of social activism.

In a discussion group, a layman from a church in Leek, England probed the Member of the Iona Community on their current connection to the original vision of MacLeod to reconnect the church to working class people.  The response to his probing was  polite but defensive.  The Member of the Iona Community acknowledged that they were essentially a mid-class (mainline) Christian movement that had lost connection with the working class.  Peace and justice were the predominant focus of their work.

Later, I sought the layman out to follow up on his thinking.  Perceptively he  commented that it was “hard for an institution to recover its original mission.”  As we conversed, it became clear that this layman did not disagree at all with the commitment to justice and mercy.  What he missed (and had come to Iona looking for) was a concomitant commitment to sharing the gospel in the way of St. Columba and Rev. MacLeod.  He spoke of a great commission commitment to share the faith with others in a way that led to committing one’s life to Christ.

The direct application for my ministry and for the Central Texas Conference was not lost on me. However good (and it is truly good, needed and a work of God) social justice ministry is, it alone is not enough.  The second major way the Iona Community is seeking to live out the mission and ministry of Christ is in and through authentic community.  Essentially they represent another attempt (among many) to re-engage the great insights of Christian community tracing a line from the original Christ followers (read the close of Acts 2) and the abbeys of old down to today.  This is a large subject which must wait for another day.  (Watch this fall’s The Wilderness Way.)

Community, Work and Worship

In 563 A.D. St. Columba set sail from his beloved Ireland to convert the wild druidic lands of what is today Scotland and Northern England.  Exiled from Ireland for a
conflict which he  helped start and which led to the death of many, Columba sailed east stopping a number of times until he came to a place where, after climbing the highest hill (and there are some high ones – think a green and wet version of the Texas Hill country), he could no longer see his beloved Ireland.  There on the isle of Iona with 12 companions St. Columba established a monastery with the express purpose of sharing the gospel. This great work of God was a combination of both penance and pilgrimage.  According to legend Columba was charged with converting as many people to Christ as those who had died because of the conflict that caused his exile.  Many of us (especially those with Scottish heritage) know life in Christ as extensions of the spiritual lineage of St. Columba.

We landed on Iona on July 30th to become (temporary) “residents” of the Abbey for their “Gathering Place” retreat.  The day’s rhythm quickly settled into 8:15 a.m. breakfast, 9 a.m. worship.  It is at the close of the morning worship that our common schedule shifts.  To be a part of the Abbey is to take place in its common work.  Rev. George MacLeod (who revived the modern day Iona Abbey in the pre-World War II depression) deeply believed that shared work built community.  So do I.  So do we.

The notion that work and community are welded together is no new insight.  This is a central part of the community framework which Jesus builds with his 12 apostles.  It is a crucial part of the spiritual growth and learning that takes place on our CTCYM trips.  My part of the common work for the community involved being “trash man” for the “east range” (a physical section of the Abbey).  Every morning after worship, I
went the 5 restrooms of the East Range and check to make sure they had toilet
paper, soap, sanitary napkins and emptied all the trash bins/cans and restocked
each restroom (the British would say toilet) as appropriately needed.  This is no new task for me; I’ve been the trash taker-outer for the last 34 years, 11 months and 2 days.  (Jolynn and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary on August 16th.)

What stands as distinctive is not so much that common work building community but the way the work & community are tied to worship.  There is no benediction, closing or sending from our worship service.  The worship service has a liturgical prayer (at what we would normally consider the end) that leads directly to our  common work.  At least symbolically work, worship and community are woven together.

As we moved to our common work, I could not help but recall with fondness and joy the closing CTCYM communion services I have been privileged to take part in.  Community, work, and worship go together.  God blesses the intertwining.

Reflections on Worship at Hexham Abbey Church

Sunday, July 24, 2011 Jolynn and I worshipped at Hexham Abbey Church.  With people of good will around the world, we joined in lifting up the people and nation of Norway in our prayers.  Together we looked to God’s love and grace through our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hexham Abbey was founded by Wilfrid (Bishop of York), one of the great pioneers of Christianity in northern England in 674 A.D.  Among its historic great is included St. Cuthbert.  We soaked in the history and drank from the well of a deep piety on our Friday afternoon visit.  This brought us back for worship on Sunday.

Our Sunday worship encountered a moderately alive congregation with about 125 people present.  We were greeted with a friendly welcome.  The worship service was classic Anglican with modern phrasing.  Most active Methodists from Central Texas would have found the liturgy very familiar.

What was missing was any real attempt to help a non-Christian understand what was taking place in worship.  The service wasn’t visitor friendly or unfriendly.  It was visitor indifferent.  What leaves me intrigued is the contrast between a clergy who obviously understand that the day of Christendom is over and yet demonstrate no engagement with that knowledge.  They were genuinely welcoming and yet appeared to be without insight into the contradiction between the worship they were leading and the assumption that those attending were already committed, practicing Christians.  They may know they live in a modern mission field that is overwhelmingly non-Christian, but this reality has not yet brought about any real change in worship, how the gospel is shared, or their behavior.

What pains is me is how descriptive this is of many churches, including those in the Central Texas Conference!

Focused Priorities for the Immediate Future

I have just returned from 3 days at Duke Divinity School as a part of the Episcopal Leadership Forum.  We are a group of 22 UM bishops who meet twice a year in a continuing education context.

One of the exercises they put us through was to reflect on what our individual priorities will be for the next 18 months.  I found it to be welcome “balcony” time.  For me two priorities leap to the forefront.  Actually these are not new at all but continuations of ongoing work.  (In addition, I want to assert that by their very nature of these priorities are flexible and subject to significant revision and morphing.)

 1)  To grow a learning organization that reaches a new generation for Christ.  At a minimum there are four specific strategies that encompass this priority.

  1. Developing Cluster groups as learning communities
  2. District Superintendents learning a new job focused in coaching
  3. Conference Staff and Centers becoming more tightly focused on energizing and equipping local congregations
  4. Establishing a culture of accountability throughout the Conference system

2)  Designing and implementing a leadership development system for both lay and clergy.

  1. Developing a new generation of leaders for congregations and the conference
  2. Helping train leaders for the new post-Christendom age
  3. Moving continuing education from being a job “perk” for clergy to a focused part of ministry development on a voluntary basis

Extravagant Generosity and New Churches

As of Monday our Conference offering for Glen Lake is $39,379.   This is a remarkable response of extravagant generosity far exceeding our goal of $23,000.  In addition those at Conference also responded with great generosity in lunch giving to spring storms relief through UMCOR across the United States (including our own Conference).  I am proud to be the bishop of such a wonderfully generous Area.

When I came to the Central Texas Conference, we were already known for our extravagant generosity in a number of other ways including (but not limited to) Imagine No More Malaria (through Nothing But Nets), the Central Conference Pension Initiative, Wings of the Morning, Central Texas Conference Youth Mission (CTCYM), and Volunteers in Mission (VIM).  If you haven’t already read the headline article on the CTC website entitled “Your Generosity Recognized by the ‘Advance,’” I urge you to do so!  Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center is a wonderful part of our local outreach both to our own children, youth and adults as well as to others who do not know Christ.

Recently I heard of a way that one of those initiatives – Imagine No Malaria – intersects with evangelistically sharing the gospel. Bishop Tom Bickerton from the Western Pennsylvania Conference passed on the following: The story really relates to our mission work in Sierra Leone.  “After we did our country-wide distribution of insecticide treated bed nets (approx. 4 million), Bishop John Yambasu had a visit from 15 tribal chiefs (basically they are mayors of villages – when they authenticate something it gets top priority and gets done).  Those chiefs, some of whom are Muslim, said to John, ‘We would like for you to start United Methodist Churches in our villages.’  When John inquired about their desire, the response was, ‘You have proven to us that you want to take care of our people’s bodies.  We would like for you to come and take care of their souls.’  What a wonderful intersection for our two areas of focus!!” 

The two areas of focus which Bishop Bickerton references are Stamping Out Killer Diseases (Imagine No Malaria) and New Places for New People (new church development).  Through our extravagant generosity in supporting Imagine No Malaria we are spreading the gospel of Christ as Lord and Savior.  The Central Texas Conference (with the United Methodist Church as a whole) is truly engaged in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Off to Seattle and Alaska

Tuesday morning, May 31st, I will be flying to Seattle to meet with the new church development team from the Pacific Northwest Conference and then on to Alaska.  While in Alaska, I will present a day long teaching on how the church confronts our new reality and engages in ministry and mission in the new world we find ourselves in and preach the opening worship service for the Alaskan Missionary Conference on Friday. 

The theme the Alaska Missionary Conference leaders gave me was Come to the Edge.  I think it significant that their conception is that we engage in ministry “on the edge.”  The term can be taken in multiple senses.  We are on the edge of the unknown.  We are on the edge of new and exciting possibilities.  We are on the edge of our best understanding.  The list could continue but I think the reader can get the drift.  I have entitled my 3 presentations: 1) The Storm-tossed Sea, 2) The Ship Made Ready (An ancient image for the Church was the ship.), and 3) Sailing Beyond the Map.

While the context in Alaska is very different from Central Texas, the issues are largely the same.  All of us are moving beyond the edge of our knowledge and trusting ourselves to the unknown by placing ourselves in the hands of a known God.  It is both scary and wonderful!  I am looking forward to learning from them and sharing with them.

Changing the World

I am finishing reading Mike Slaughter’s Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus.  I confess that it is one of those books I read ½ of and then put down.  Picking it back up again, I am once again engaged in an ongoing theme that is playing itself out across the church.

Outwardly focused churches thrive.  They don’t just believe in Christ; they live Christ.  Inwardly focused churches die.  There are a number of challenging aspects to Slaughter’s book, but perhaps most impressive is how serious Ginghamsburg UMC takes discipleship formation.  They have clear high expectations.  In writing about membership he comments on those who join Ginghamsburg.  “They commit to regular worship attendance, a cell community for accountability and growth, a place of service, and the biblical tithe.  They commit to grow as disciples – not remain attendees” (Mike Slaughter, Change the World, p. 41).

All this looks like concrete living out of the vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  It looks like living out radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity.  It might make for a very fruitful and faithful Administrative Council discussion to examine how your church is doing implementing practical discipleship.  This is, after all, our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

From a Christendom Mentality to a Missional Reality

Monday afternoon (May 2, 2011) at the Council of Bishops (COB), we heard Professor Dana Robert of Boston School of Theology address the historic leadership role of the office of bishop from the 3rd paragraph of the Nicene Creed.  “We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Dr. Robert posed the following questions to the bishops gathered:

1.  “What does it mean for United Methodist bishops to represent the ‘oneness’ of the church?
2.  What does it mean for United Methodist bishops to represent the ‘catholicity’ of the church?
3.  In changing from a Christendom to a missional context, how should the role of the bishop evolve?
4.  What are the most important spiritual qualities necessary to be a bishop today?”

Even more pointedly Dr. Robert framed the questions from a historic perspective with the telling comment, we are “caught in transition from a Christendom mentality to a missional reality.”

This discussion may sound somewhat dry and technical, yet it directs our attention bluntly to the 3rd point of the Call to Action to “reform the Council of Bishops” focusing on the active bishops assuming responsibility and public accountability for a new missional culture with measureable fruitfulness.  I have often said that, in my experience clergy, understand that Christendom is over but haven’t yet really engaged in a new missional reality (i.e. are still operating out of a Christendom modality).

 Like much of the church, the COB is wrestling with the painful change from an old mentality to a new reality.  One thing is clear.  God is calling us to a new world.  Like the Exodus of old the Lord is going before us.

 I ask you to keep in your prayers two special areas of concern that we have lifted up in COB – the victims of the tornados in Alabama and the people of the Ivory Coast recovering from a civil war.  I also ask for continued prayers for those recovering from the Possum Kingdom Fires.

When the Dogs are Barking

A good friend of mine, Bishop Paul Leeland, says, “When the caravan is moving, the dogs are barking.”

As we have wrestled with appointments and are going through transition at the Conference office, I am reminded of Bishop Leeland’s pointed phrase.  It is one thing to know intellectually that Christendom is over, that we live in a post-denominational world.  Of this much we are clear.  Yet the struggle of wanting to operate as if that is not the case is still present.  Pastors walk a delicate balance of guiding and challenging their churches to serve Christ in new ways in a new age and yet still minister to those who signed on in the old order.  It is not easy. 

Recently I visited with a layman who has, by any measurement I know, an excellent pastor and yet wants him/her moved because they have introduced too much change.  I think I can get in touch with the fears this man expresses.  Yet I know, if these changes don’t take place, if the church does not engage in new ministry reaching out to a new generation, it will die.  Jesus has it right.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

The dogs are barking and the caravan is moving.  It is both glorious and tough at the same time.

Route 122 Group

Recently I learned about a group of church developers who are wrestling on a deep level with the issues of congregational transformation.  Interestingly, they named themselves the Route 122 Group.  The group name is a reference to Paragraph 122 in The Book of Discipline of the UMC 2010 (pg. 88).  It reads:

¶ 122. The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission—We make disciples as we:

  • proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ;
  • lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ;
  • nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley’s Christian conferencing;
  • send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and
  • continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ.

The Route 122 Group came up with the following core process for church transformation.

8 ELEMENTS OF THE TRANSFORMATIONAL PROCESS

Provide a Process at the Conference level that engages the following 8 key elements:

  1. Focus on Transforming Grace of Jesus Christ.
  2. Apostolic Leadership
  3. Conference alignment on missional focus
  4. Continuous lay and clergy learning and collaboration
  5. Independent assessment of congregation’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities including relationship with the mission field
  6. Ongoing coaching for missional performance
  7. Accountable action plan
  8. Openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit

(From Route 122 Group, transforming churches meeting Nov 29-30)

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