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Preparing for Christmas Eve

The lead article on the Central Texas Conference website is entitled “What are Your Plans for Christmas Sunday Services.”  I want to strongly encourage pastors, directors of music, and other local church leaders to carefully read the article.  Hopefully it will spark thinking for advanced planning for Advent, Christmas and especially Christmas Eve services.

Prominent on every local church website (and yes, I will check about 20 to 30 websites) should be information and an invitation to Christmas Eve services.  Christmas Eve is the number 1 attended service by non- or nominal Christians.  The service should be planned in the light of radical hospitality to those who do not know Christ in any vibrant way.

In other news, currently I am attending the Council of Bishops meeting Lake Junaluska.
Yesterday we strongly affirmed the Call to Action report along with the Vital Congregations emphasis.  Much has already been written on this subject and much more will be shared as we move forward.  Potentially, we are on the cusp of a turning point in the life of the United Methodist Church.  I am enthusiastically supportive of the proposals.  With courage, now is the time for far reaching change as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Learning from Cluster Groups

As we live into the Exodus Project, I remain deeply committed to the Cluster Group concept as a central tool for learning together and moving forward into the new future the Lord is calling us to.  One of the initial learnings has come from Cluster Group #28, the large worship churches.  Using the kind of initiative and insight we want to encourage, they decided on the need for a convener/facilitator/coach.  Independent from their insight, we received similar advice from the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI).

The Cabinet is working on how we move forward and apply this learning to cluster groups.  We are currently drafting plans to run some pilot cluster groups that  incorporate facilitation/coaching.  We will be using the HCI model of Pastoral Leadership Development groups, Lay Leadership Developments groups, and Small Church Initiative workshops.

Things are in the development stage right now, but we are listening and we are learning – together!

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.

Informative Events

In the run up to the Thanksgiving holiday, I attended two informative events.  While distinctly different from each other, each is evidence of the creative reflection taking place across the United Methodist Church.

Saturday, November 20th I attended “Can We Talk?” and took part in a Bishops’ Panel during a Q& A time.  “Can We Talk?” focused on “Effective Leadership … Changing Our Reality” in the African American church.  (An annual event, this is my 3rd year in attendance.)  Rev. Ronnie Miller Yow, pastor of Wesley UMC, Little Rock, Arkansas, gave a powerful address on new ministry in new ways.  Some nuggets of his address:

  • Dead worship will not bring anybody to Christ.
  • No pay, no say – if you are not tithing you should not have a say in the direction the church is taking.
  • The reason this church is dying is that pastors don’t know how to pray.

There was more but the listener (and hopefully reader) can grasp the cutting edge of Rev. Yow’s connection between spiritual formation and congregational fruitfulness.

 The second event took place on Sunday evening, November 22nd.  I attended The Texas Methodist Foundation’s dinner recognizing special medallion honorees, Rev. Leighton Ferrell and Tom Graves.  Dr. Bill Enright a Presbyterian clergy and President of the Lake Institute for Faith & Giving, spoke on trends in stewardship.  Giving is down (as the economy would suggest).  Significantly though, major giving is much more focused than it used to be.  Instead of giving to (say) 7 or 8 causes, those sharing larger gifts are choosing to focus on a few causes (say 2 or 3).  The driving question is: How can I make a gift of significance?  Put differently, what difference (play on words intended) will my gift make.  Meaning, purpose and engagement are driving giving as never before.  Churches cannot simply assume economic loyalty.  Are we places of significance in the kingdom building work of Christ?

 Both groups are leaning into a new future.  These are exciting times to be in ministry for the Lord.

Gratitude

Often the Apostle Paul opens his letters with a phrase like “I thank my God for you ….”  I think I understand what he was feeling.  I am constantly thanking God for the Central Texas Conference and more personally for the privilege of being bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  As we wrestled with the proposal for realignment of the conference, I found myself being grateful for the faithfulness of our consideration.  Prior to the balloting I was at peace regardless of the outcome.

I was delighted to hear Rev. Bob Holloway, Dean of the Cabinet, report that the Cabinet had lost 123 pounds (the target goal was 120).  I contributed to that weight loss and will not stop.  I intend to lose more.  The Conference is my accountability partner.

With great gratitude I learned this morning that our offering Saturday for NO MORE MALARIA stands at $6,945.46.  Well done thou good and faithful servants!  At our Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Rev. Harvey Ozmer reported that we had previously received $82,239.46 to combat the dreaded killer diseases malaria.  The total today is $89,184.92.

Sunday was for me a joy spent with Pastor Debra Crumpton and the good folks at Wellspring UMC in Temple.  Today is Cabinet meeting time.

The Holy Spirit and the Pension Crisis

          Another Annual Conference is behind us and I find myself struggling with the paper work which any Conference generates.  As I wrestle with an overflowing in-box of letters to answer, articles to write, and people to visit, some questions from Conference come back to me.

            In the middle of a serious and good debate about the growing cost of Pensions and Health Insurance (P&HI), someone stood on floor and asked, “If the Bishop has stated that our current Pension and Health Insurance is unsustainable, how does simply direct billing Pensions and Health Insurance solve that problem?”  It is a great question.

          Initially, an honest response is that direct billing does not solve the problem of unsustainable increases in P&HI.  A major part of any solution cannot happen at the Annual Conference level. Pensions is a denominational issue and solutions dealing with underlying issues such as contribution-defined or benefit-defined must be solved on the General Conference level.  At the Annual Conference, direct billing pushes the issue down to a local church level. 

          A deeper and equally honest response is that direct billing does force answers to the sustainability question.  Putting responsibility on a local level does offer an extremely significant partial solution. Local direct billing for P&HI forces a congregation to make priority choices around mission. It means people need to decide is the pastor and the church worth the expense.  Very few American Christians tithe.  Giving 2% of our income is usually seen as significant (verses a biblical tithe of 10%).  Direct billing forces us to confront an issue of faithfulness.  Do we practice extravagant generosity (one of the 5 practices)?

            Secondly, direct billing will have a corollary impact of raising pastoral competencies.  Why?  People won’t pay for poor or mediocre ministry.  It will not appear worth the investment.  Finances will force both pastors and churches to get more adept at reaching out to a new generation.  Churches that turn inward to survive (a huddle and cuddle strategy) will die.  Church that turn outward in mission and ministry will thrive.

           All this gets me to thinking even further out.  Is God using the economic crises to reform our church practices?  I think so.  I think the Holy Spirit is in the P&HI crises – not as cause but as a divine use.  Do you remember Joseph’s response to his brothers? “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”  (Genesis 50:20)  God is at work here. That is really good news!

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