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Preparing for Conference ©

Today (Tuesday, May 31, 2016) as a spent time in my morning devotionals, one of the assigned texts for my reading was Matthew 7:15-20.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.

I confess that this is not a passage I have spent a lot of time with. Yet I have, with many, engaged over the last 10 years or so in a deeper discussion about the implications of this and other passages like it (John 15 and Mark 4 as examples).  As we seek to be accountable to the Lord and to the Lord’s church for our ministry (both lay and clergy!), we spend much time wrestling with the twined concepts of faithfulness and fruitfulness.  The popularity of Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and its companion work The Five Practices of Fruitful People, demonstrates our hunger to be fruitful people in the service of the Lord Christ.

Where we have struggled as a church is in understanding what good fruit is. In one sense, we can readily agree on a common biblical matrix which is easily represented by simply reading the closing paragraphs of Pentecost Sunday and the birth of the Church in Acts 2. The five vows of membership in a United Methodist Church are a good theological reflection of this biblical foundation. So too, are the five practices which Bishop Schnase wrote about.

Acts 2:42-47 The Five Vows The Five Practices
Prayers & Teaching Prayers & Praise Intentional Faith Development
Shared Meals (Communion) Presence (Worship) Passionate Worship
Community (Fellowship) Gifts (building up the church) Extravagant Generosity
Share with those in need Service Risk-taking Mission
Added to the community those being saved Witness (Evangelism) Radical Hospitality

 

Where our real struggle comes lies in accountability and metrics. The United Methodist Church of today tends to weigh heavily gifts & service and struggles with notions of faithfulness to the Apostles’ Teaching.  We get witness in deeds of love and mercy yet shy away from personal faith sharing.  Having just returned from General Conference I am struck by how the Africans are clear about accountability for numerical growth of the church while North American pastors verge of being phobic about any kind of metric accountability.

What is clear in the teaching from Jesus found in Matthew 7 is that doctrine (right teaching) and fruitfulness go together. At General Conference the emphasis on building vital congregations was a reflection of this union.  There is a lesson here for us in the early 21st century. Right faith (doctrine) goes with right worship goes with right practice.  Any separation is fundamentally false and leads inevitability to a lack of fruitfulness.  An ancient proverb from the time of the birth of Christianity according to William Barclay was simply, “Like root, like fruit.”

All of this ties into preparation for Annual Conference when we reflect on John Wesley’s original intention for Annual Conference. The Annual Conference meeting was to focus on a) what is taught… that is what do we as Methodists- teach about the Christian faith and doctrine; and b) how is it taught … that is how is the teaching connected to our practice of ministry.

This coming meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference will feature Alan Hirsch as our Conference teacher. His book The Forgotten Ways is one of those rare books which I turn back to time and time again.  This snippet found in the Introduction of The Forgotten Ways will whet your appetite for what should be a great time of learning.

“The conditions facing us in the twenty-first century not only pose a threat to our existence but also present us with an extraordinary opportunity to discover ourselves in a way that orients us to this complex challenge in ways that are resonant with an ancient energy. This energy not only links us with the powerful impulses of the original church, but also gives us wings with which to fly. … The church (the ecclesia), when true to its real calling, when it is on about what God is on about, is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen. It has been that before, is that now, and will be that again”  (The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch pg. 17).

Council of Bishops Letter to the Church ©

Bishop Lowry presiding over a plenary session at General Conference 2016

Bishop Lowry presiding over a plenary session at General Conference 2016

Members of the Council of Bishops delayed their leaving Portland, Ore. following the end General Conference 2016 by a day and came together to work on issues referred to us by the General Conference. In major part, we worked to share a common understanding with regard to the adoption of “An Offering for a Way Forward” – a statement from the Council of Bishops on Human Sexuality, which establishes a Commission on Human Sexuality based on action by the 2016 General Conference. You can read this statement at ctcumc.org/COB-awayforward.

It is important to faithfully consider the contents of the statement from the Council of Bishops, which was adopted by General Conference. My colleague, Bishop Scott Jones, resident bishop of the Great Plains Conference UMC, has written a useful summary, which I share with his permission below.

“Please read the statement carefully, and study it closely. It has many important sections about prayer, continuing conversation, and the unity we have in Christ. At the same time, there have been social media statements, which are based on misunderstandings of the document. The following key points will help you understand what it does and does not say:

  • We [The United Methodist Council of Bishops] are committed to the unity of The United Methodist Church and will seek to strengthen it.
  • We will lead the church in every part of the world in times of worship, study, discernment, confession and prayer for God’s guidance.
  • We are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other, rather than separation from one another.
  • We have heard that some believe there is “contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate language concerning human sexuality in the Book of Discipline.” However, no agreement about the truth or falsity of this claim has been reached, either by the Council of Bishops or by the General Conference.
  • The Council of Bishops will form a commission to study all of the paragraphs in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. The subject has been referred to this commission, which will be named sometime between now and Nov. 2, 2016.
  • The Council of Bishops may choose to call a special session of the General Conference before 2020 to deal with recommendations of the commission. No decision has been made about whether this is a wise use of the church’s money and time.
  • The Council of Bishops will have conversations about how the church can best live in grace with one another, including discussion about ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm.
  • The bishops will uphold the discipline of the Church while these conversations continue.
  • All provisions of the 2012 Book of Discipline on matters of human sexuality will remain in force until a General Conference changes them.”

We are more, far more as a church than simply wrangling about how we understand controversial social issues that confront us and society in general. I urge your careful attention to our #WeAreMore web site and social media properties and the outstanding, life-changing work of Jesus Christ in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Additionally the Bishops have shared an open letter to the church which can be found at ctcumc.org/COBGC16letter.

My friends, God is at work in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Lives are being transformed, disciples are being made and people are loved. Amid the clashing confusion of our time the Kingdom of God is moving forward!

We Are More ©

On May 10th the United Methodist General Conference will convene in Portland, Oregon. Quadrennially (every four years) General Conference meets as the highest ruling body of The United Methodist Church. General Conference alone can speak for the whole church. At General Conference the Discipline (book of church law) is adopted for the next quadrenniam. The worship is inspiring. The speakers are challenging. The debates are invigorating.

All too often debate over a controversial issue drowns out much of the meaningful substance of the greater ministry taking place in and through the United Methodist Church worldwide. It is no secret that once again much of the debate and argument will be focused on issues regarding ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (currently not allowed in United Methodist Church law) and performance of same gender weddings by United Methodist Church clergy (also currently prohibited by church law). Other controversial issues regarding resolutions addressing a vast array of issues clamor for attention.

As I attend General Conference (bishops preside but do not vote, much like at Annual Conference), I am reminded of Bishop J. Chess Lovern’s marvelous statement. “Great churches wrestle with great issues.” [A personal aside: Bishop Lovern ordained me an elder in the United Methodist Church May 31, 1978.] In the midst of our public debates it is easy to forget that the foundation of ministry is faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord and the making of disciples for the transformation of the world.

The bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church (Central Texas is a part of the South Central Jurisdiction and I am one of the afore mentioned bishops) along with their Conference Communication Directors (Vance Morton for Central Texas) have gotten together to share the incredible good news and faithfulness of the church and Conferences of the South Central Jurisdiction. We’ve entitled the campaign We Are More in order to remind one and all that we are more than an attention grabbing headline and heated debate. In faithfulness to Christ we are about life transformation and the transformation of society.

I strongly urge readers of my blog to follow the #WeAreMore campaign launched by SCJ Bishops. Together we have produced a series of compelling faith-based stories from around the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). The campaign is designed to connect people and proclaim that #WeAreMore when united through Jesus Christ. Click the logo to the right to read more about the campaign or visit ctcumc.org/WeAreMore to check out the faith stories already posted and/or to submit one of your own.

A Significant Denominational Report on Congregational Vitality

The United Methodist Church has been engaged in a committed emphasis on building vital congregations who “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Bishop John Schol from the Greater New Jersey Conference has been the lead bishop in this crucial venture along with the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church and the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team.  With Bishop Schol’s permission, I am sharing his 2014 Vitality Report as a “guest blog.”  In the next blog, I will write more specifically about the Central Texas Conference vitality measures and how they help us shape the narrative of ministry and mission in the name of the risen Christ.   Bishop Mike Lowry

[Note: Due to reporting procedures by various congregations and Annual Conferences, the statistical data for 2015 is not yet available.  As always, it is important to understand that “metrics” only tell half the story.  The crucial addition piece of information consists of the narrative of contextual ministry taking place in the name of Jesus Christ.]

 2014 Vitality Report

Highly vital congregations are focused on growing their vitality by making and maturing disciples, not achieving numbers. Highly vital congregations grow and support disciples and leaders through worship, small groups, lay and clergy leadership development and ministry and mission engagement. Highly vital congregations are in every geographic region of the U.S. and are of all sizes and ethnicity. Vital Congregations is a broad based movement within the church that is making disciples and transforming the world.

The UMC began to measure vitality in the U.S. in 2010 and the latest 2014 vitality indicators show we are ahead of 2010 by 8 percentage points. We have made important progress in growing congregational vitality. Ultimately Vital Congregations is about changed lives and transformed communities.

There are hopeful signs and we still have challenges maintaining congregational vitality. Between 2013 and 2014, the latest vitality indicators show a 5 percentage point decrease in the percentage of highly Vital Congregations. But in 2014, three of the five markers of vitality increased.

Increased the percentage of worshipers in small groups from 59% to 61%

  1. Increased the percentage of worshipers engaged in hands on mission from 38% to 48%
  2. Increased the average percentage of a congregation’s giving to mission from 15% to 18%
  3. Number of worshipers to make one profession of faith went from 22 to 23 (this is actually a decline because a lower number is preferable in this measure)
  4. Percentage of congregations growing in worship attendance decreased from 31% to 30%

While we can celebrate that we have made important progress between 2010 and 2014 in the percentage of Highly Vital Congregations and that three of the five markers of vitality increased during 2014, we also need to face into the challenge of the decrease in vitality between 2013 and 2014 largely driven by decreases in professions of faith and worship attendance.

Our largest gain in U.S. vitality was in 2012, the year every conference and most congregations set goals for the five markers of vitality – new disciples, worship attendance, mission giving, mission engagement and small groups.

We can also celebrate the progress we made in 2014 in three of the markers of vitality – small groups, mission engagement and mission giving. I believe that as we continue to grow in these areas, we will begin to experience healthier increases by more congregations in worship attendance and professions of faith.

Below is a conference by conference look at vitality and also how vitality is measured.

Thank you for all you are doing to lead congregations toward health and vitality. God is doing life changing ministry through The United Methodist Church and your leadership is making a difference.

Keep the faith!

John Schol, Bishop
The United Methodist Church
Greater New Jersey

 

US Conference Vital Signs 2010 Highly Vital Congregations 2014 Highly Vital Congregations Vitality increase/ decrease between 2010 and 2014 Vitality increase/decrease between 2013 and 2014 Number of worshipers to make 1 profession of faith or restored % of  worshippers who are in adult Christian formation groups % of worshipers involved in a mission experience % of local church spending going to mission % of congregations growing
US TOTAL 15% 23% 8 -5 23 61% 48% 18% 30%
                   
NORTH CENTRAL TOTAL 12% 20% 8 -5 26 54% 44% 18% 27%
DAKOTAS 9% 15% 6 -4 27 37% 20% 19% 42%
DETROIT 9% 22% 13 -9 21 48% 43% 16% 25%
EAST OHIO 10% 21% 11 -1 26 55% 32% 18% 25%
ILLINOIS GRT RIVERS 11% 17% 6 -5 29 46% 27% 19% 25%
INDIANA 15% 21% 6 -13 30 60% 37% 16% 23%
IOWA 13% 15% 2 -4 23 46% 42% 19% 30%
MINNESOTA 12% 15% 3 -7 22 48% 40% 18% 25%
NORTHERN ILLINOIS 15% 21% 6 -9 20 49% 50% 16% 25%
WEST MICHIGAN 12% 21% 9 -6 30 55% 33% 18% 25%
WEST OHIO 14% 28% 14 -2 26 57% 67% 20% 32%
WISCONSIN 8% 21% 13 -3 18 49% 33% 16% 23%
                 
NORTHEASTERN TOTAL 11% 21% 10 -5 23 49% 37% 17% 31%
BALTIMORE-WASH 22% 35% 13 -4 17 56% 96% 19% 33%
EASTERN PENN 7% 17% 10 -9 21 56% 34% 12% 30%
GREATER NEW JERSY 16% 32% 16 -3 18 61% 42% 18% 33%
NEW ENGLAND 9% 19% 10 -6 21 46% 32% 14% 26%
NEW YORK 7% 20% 13 -5 13 48% 24% 15% 27%
PENINSULA-DELAWARE 16% 23% 7 -3 23 46% 32% 17% 33%
SUSQUEHANNA 8% 21% 13 -7 27 49% 32% 17% 30%
UPPER NEW YORK 7% 17% 10 -3 24 40% 28% 14% 32%
WEST VIRGINIA 10% 16% 6 -6 37 48% 24% 26% 33%
WESTERN PENN 8% 16% 8 -8 26 47% 21% 16% 29%
                   
SOUTH CENTRAL TOTAL 17% 26% 9 -6 21 69% 60% 19% 32%
ARKANSAS 12% 24% 12 -4 24 61% 56% 19% 29%
CENTRAL TEXAS 22% 29% 7 -2 21 91% 63% 18% 34%
GREAT PLAINS 15% 21% 7 -7 20 59% 64% 14% 31%
LOUISIANA 24% 24% 10 -7 24 64% 67% 30% 37%
MISSOURI 16% 28% 12 -5 23 58% 68% 18% 33%
NEW MEXICO 15% 26% 11 -6 28 58% 45% 14% 24%
NORTH TEXAS 32% 35% 3 1 16 83% 88% 21% 30%
NORTHWEST TEXAS 10% 27% 17 -6 19 90% 55% 16% 30%
OKLAHOMA 24% 26% 2 -1 23 75% 50% 23% 28%
OKLAHOMA INDIAN MIS 27% 37% 10 -4 12 46% 12% 18% 45%
RIO GRANDE 10% 13% 3 -12 25 36% 4% 16% 32%
SOUTHWEST TEXAS 33% 26% -7 -14 19 71% 51% 20% 34%
TEXAS 27% 25% -2 -10 20 89% 49% 20% 34%
                   
SOUTHEASTERN TOTAL 15% 23% 8 -4 25 64% 50% 19% 31%
ALABAMA-W. FLORIDA 15% 19% 4 -1 24 73% 41% 17% 36%
FLORIDA 13% 27% 14 -5 20 56% 36% 17% 30%
HOLSTON 22% 23% 1 -2 32 64% 59% 19% 31%
KENTUCKY 16% 18% 2 -10 28 57% 26% 18% 32%
MEMPHIS 9% 25% 16 -5 29 64% 54% 19% 34%
MISSISSIPPI 9% 22% 13 -5 34 62% 24% 20% 32%
NORTH ALABAMA 22% 17% -5 -7 25 68% 48% 17% 30%
NORTH CAROLINA 16% 26% 10 7 25 63% 50% 24% 33%
NORTH GEORGIA 14% 29% 15 -4 20 69% 76% 18% 32%
RED BIRD MISSIONARY 19% 27% 8 -10 23 51% 37% 11% 27%
SOUTH CAROLINA 15% 23% 8 -8 29 67% 36% 18% 30%
SOUTH GEORGIA 14% 18% 4 -7 28 69% 22% 18% 32%
TENNESSEE 16% 24% 8 -5 25 67% 41% 22% 38%
VIRGINIA 16% 25% 9 1 24 58% 66% 25% 29%
WESTERN N CAROLINA 22% 24% 2 -1 26 67% 63% 14% 28%
                   
WESTERN TOTAL 20% 26% 6 -5 22 61% 45% 15% 30%
ALASKA 18% 30% 12 -3 20 48% 65% 19% 43%
CALIFORNIA-NEVADA 21% 25% 4 3 22 62% 51% 12% 24%
CALIFORNIA-PACIF 24% 28% 4 -9 21 55% 30% 15% 37%
DESERT SOUTHWEST 23% 36% 13 -1 19 52% 48% 20% 33%
OREGON-IDAHO 11% 18% 7 -4 31 57% 41% 17% 26%
PACIFIC NORTHWEST 20% 26% 6 -10 25 56% 41% 20% 27%
ROCKY MOUNTAIN 23% 32% 9 -7 19 84% 71% 14% 37%
YELLOWSTONE 21% 14% -7 -7 26 59% 47% 15% 26%

Highly Vital Congregation Measures

Below are the specific measures used to identify highly vital congregations. To be considered as a highly vital congregation, a church must be in the top 25% of all congregations in two of the four major areas and cannot be in the bottom 25% in any one of the areas. Each specific measure is important as a highly vital congregation may not be as fruitful in every area but is fruitful in most of the areas.

Growth

  • On average, US highly vital congregations increase worship attendance by 4% over five years. The average worship attendance change for all US churches is -7%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations increase the number of professions of faith by 82% over five years. The average change in the number of professions of faith for all US churches is    -11%.

Involvement

  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 106% of their worship attendance involved in a small group or some ongoing study opportunity. This number may seem inaccurate but it is this high because the average worship attendance does not include some people who go to small groups like children in Sunday school or youth in youth group.  The average for all US churches in 71% of the worship attendance in small groups.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 9% of their worship attendance who are young adults involved in study groups that include Bible study, Sunday school and other groups for learning. The average for all US churches is 5%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 56% of their total professing members in average worship attendance. The average for all US churches is 51%.

Engaged

  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 20% of their worship attendance engaged in a volunteer in mission ministry. The average for the US is 8%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 6% of their worship attendance that join by profession of faith or are restored in a given year. This does not include confirmands. The average for US churches is 2%.

Giving

  • US highly vital congregations give 100% of their apportionments for the most current year.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations grow mission giving by 12% over five years. The average for all US churches is -15%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations grow non capital spending by 22% over five years. The average for all US churches is 2% over five years.

 Growing Vitality

Congregations fruitful in these areas have transformational stories and are engaging in four key areas of ministry.

  1. Ministry – vital congregations offer effective and abundant opportunities for children and youth ministry, small groups, and missional outreach in the community and the world.
  2. Pastoral Leadership – Pastors who use their influence to help congregations set and achieve significant goals, inspire the congregation through preaching, serve in an appointment effectively and for a longer period of time, and coach and mentor laity to lead effectively.
  3. Lay Leadership – Laity who demonstrate a vital and active personal faith, develop and grow in their leadership effectiveness, and rotate out of leadership positions so that more people have the opportunity to serve.
  4. Worship – Vital churches offer a mix of worship services appropriate to their context, tend to use topical sermon series, for mid-large size congregations they use contemporary music in contemporary worship and use multimedia in contemporary worship.

Highly vital congregations are focused on growing their vitality by making and maturing disciples, not achieving numbers. Highly vital congregations grow and support disciples and leaders through worship, small groups, lay and clergy leadership development and ministry and mission engagement.

 

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)

 

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!

The Sons and Daughter of the San Antonio Episcopal Area are Going Home ©

Rio Texas, Central Texas & the Work of a Bishop

By now many regular readers of this blog are aware that I will be serving as one of four bishops providing episcopal supervision to the Rio Texas Conference until Sept. 1. Bishop Janice Huie (Texas Conference) will serve as the bishop of record. Bishops Joel Martinez (retired), Robert Schnase (Missouri Conference) and I will each provide specific areas of leadership for the Rio Texas Conference. The vacancy in the Rio Texas Conference (San Antonio Episcopal Area) was created when then Bishop Jim Dorff resigned from the episcopal office and surrendered his credentials as an elder in the United Methodist Church for misconduct.

four interim bishops for Rio Texas-HuieThe team approach for covering an episcopal area is unprecedented. Each of the four bishops selected to server Rio Texas was elected to the episcopacy out of one of the predecessor conferences that united to form the new Rio Texas Conference. (Bishop Martinez was elected out of the Rio Grande Conference. Bishops Huie, Schnase and I were elected out of the Southwest Texas Conference.) For all of us, there is deep sense of wanting to help with a conference we love. As one of my colleagues put it, “the sons and daughter of the San Antonio Episcopal Area are going home.”

Wfour interim bishops for Rio Texas-Martinezhere all of this gets very difficult is balancing the work of our assigned conferences – to which we are all deeply committed – with the need to engage in compassionate leadership for the Rio Texas Conference.

In my case, next week will combine attempts to meet with both the Central Texas Conference Cabinet and the Rio Texas Conference Leadership Team & Cabinet (two meetings). It means driving to Oklahoma City on Monday for a meeting and then driving back in time to catch a flight to San Antonio Monday night. Tuesday morning will involve a planning meeting with the four interim bishops for Rio Texas-Schnasefour bishops in the morning and a meeting of what we are calling the Rio Texas Leadership Team in the afternoon. We will then meet with the Rio Texas Cabinet Wednesday morning. I will fly home that afternoon and hope to make it in time to join the Central Texas Cabinet in session. Then there’s the Texas Wesleyan Board meeting on Friday, and Saturday finds me at First Round Rock for a Leadership gathering in the morning and in Glen Lake that afternoon to meet with the Vital Leadership Academy.

I hope to spend the whole final week of January in Central Texas. The heart of the week will be sharing with Dr. John McKellar in teaching the High Octane Preaching class. The first week in February involves the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) College of Bishops meeting at Perkins School of Theology. Followed by our Central Texas Conference Cabinet Inventory Retreat the next week and the launch of the 2016 Bishop Brown Bag Book Study the following week. And so it goes.

People ask me all the time what a bishop does. My short answer is “lead.” My slightly longer answer goes back to the historic understanding of the office as it developed both in the biblical church (see I & II Timothy) and the early Christian church. The word bishop means overseer. The bishop has oversight (guardian) authority for both the spiritual and temporal affairs of the Church of Jesus Christ. Spiritual authority involves the great teaching office of the episcopacy. A bishop guides the church to continue in the Apostles doctrine and prayers (see Acts 2:42). The “temporal” part of being a bishop involves earthly leadership of the church in very practical ways – assigning clergy, providing oversight of fiscal accountability, helping establish systems of education and learning, dealing with legal concerns and property issues and most of all, guiding missional strategies that “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That is the short answer.

Being a bishop is awesome and incredibly humbling. Most days I love the ministry. Some days it is very, very hard. I am honored to be going home to help Rio Texas. I love being the bishop of the Central Texas Conference. I ask for your prayers and support in the difficult eight-month period of joint oversight.

Ministry and Mission Celebrations ©

Amid all of the bad news we hear, often the good news gets lost. Many of us have experienced the reality of two manifestations of the church existing side by side within the same Conference.  On the one hand there are those places of shrinkage, decline and lament.  On the other hand, there are those mission stations of the advancing Kingdom of God (i.e. churches) that are reaching out in new and vital ways to offer Christ by word and deed to our fear soaked world.

In this season of Advent the great hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” becomes our prayer. Consider verse 7:

O Come, Desire of nations bind
all peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
deliver us from earthly strife.”
(Hymn No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” The United Methodist Hymnal)

Advent reminds us not only of the Lord’s coming birth but also to look for signs of God’s presence today! Last week I attended a meeting of the Conference Council of Finance and Administration.  The news was good.  Really good.  Churches are reaching out in all sorts of ways with enhanced ministry and mission to share the love of Christ with others.  We have a great deal of ministry and mission to celebrate.

We celebrate:

  • Two awards from the General Board of Global Ministry (GBGM) and the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA).
  • The highest Conference giving to Latvia through the Mission Initiative
  • The highest increase in missionary support in the United Methodist Church in 2014 (of 54 US Conferences) through The Advance as a part of General Board of Global Ministry missional outreach. This includes missional effort in a host of different countries (including but not limited to)
    • Kenya
    • Latvia
    • Honduras
    • Panama
    • Mexico
    • Tanzania
    • Congo
    • Macedonia (the Balkans) to name a few
  • The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) recognition for giving 100% of a Connectional Mission Giving as a part of the worldwide UMC
  • The highest percentage payout through November for Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) since 2008.

This great work of sharing in the name of Christ is not limited to overseas but is taking place in our very midst!

We celebrate:

  • Recognition for CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission) work with recovery in Louisiana
  • Navarro, Williamson, Ellis, Erath Counties flood relief work through the Conference and significant financial support from UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the great disaster relief work of the United Methodist Church globally)
  • Tremendous ongoing ministry through our office of Disaster Response and Volunteers in Mission which includes long-term involvement with places that have suffered from natural disasters (relief and help that stays after others have left!)
  • Partnership with the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference

On top of this great mission and ministry effort I also want to celebrate and gives thanks for the larger connection to the church we call the United Methodist Church. Churches and groups of the Central Texas Conference has engaged in many (!) mission trips at Sager Brown and aid to Louisiana in recovering from floods.  With the news of serious flooding in part of our own Conference here in Texas, I received a check for $7,000 from the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Dr. Don Cottrill, Provost of the Louisiana Conference, wrote:

Enclosed with this letter is a check in the amount of $7,000 made to the Central Texas Conference. This is a donation from the Louisiana Conference to your Conference to assist with the recovery efforts from the recent disasters that have impacted your area and your congregations. Along with this check come our prayers for you, those in leadership of the response efforts, and those personally involved in these disasters.
“The Louisiana Conference remembers with gratitude the response from your Conference Cabinet and membership to our own natural disasters. We know the difference you and many others made to us through prayers, volunteers, and monetary contributions to aid in the long process toward recovery. This is a small way to say ‘thank you’ and to support you in whatever ways are most appropriate.”

In this time of Advent we have much to give thanks for and celebrate! Truly the Lord is leading us!  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – God with us!

 

Changing Central Texas Conference Leadership ©

I find myself slowly and impatiently (see my previous blog!) recovering from knee replacement surgery. I have just begun my second week at home dominated by physical therapy and much needed rest.  As I do so, I hope to take some time to write a couple (or more) blogs that look ahead at leadership and life together in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) of the United Methodist Church.  While the blogs will be directed explicitly at my episcopal area (The Fort Worth Episcopal Area), I hope that readers from other Conferences and Christian denominations might find their thinking stimulated in ways that are applicable to their specific context for ministry.

In early September the CTC met again with David Simpson from the Table Group. (The Table Group is an organization set up by Patrick Lencioni which helps organizations – both profit and non-profit – develop leadership health in order to carry out their stated mission.)  This time our focus was on succession planning.

Let me explain. In the United Methodist Church (UMC), District Superintendents may serve a maximum of 8 years on the Cabinet.  Likewise, Executive Center Directors may serve a maximum of 8 years in one rotation.  A person can move from being a DS to being a Executive Center Director (or vice versa) but cannot serve more than a total of 14 years combined.  While church law does not bind us, Conference Lay Leaders are elected for a 4 year (one quadrennium) term.  By way of translation, this means that over the next 2 years, 7 out of 10 Cabinet positions will have a new person serving in leadership.  Among current District Superintendents the Central, East, North and West District Superintendents will each be facing a change sometime in the next 2 years.  Two of the three Executive Center Director positions face a possible change.  And, if we continue with our tradition in Conference Lay Leadership assignment, we will have a new Conference Lay Leader in the Fall of 2016.

I invite the attentive reader to take the issue of succession planning one step further. We are in the midst of a massive shift in clergy retirements with the slow rolling wave of “baby boomer” retirements peaking somewhere around 2018.  Peering closer, a disproportionate number of those retirements will take place among clergy providing senior pastor leadership for the largest 1/3 of our churches.

With worship, prayer and careful spiritual discernment, we wrestled in retreat over the key factors we must have in a new generation of leadership, especially clergy leadership on the Cabinet and in some of our strategic churches and lay leadership positions. Put differently, what are the qualities that should be met even to be considered for such a key leadership role?

Non-Negotiables

  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?)

What I like to call the “big 3” will drive the train in selection making.

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

These big 3 core commitments are not up for debate. Together as a Conference we have, in deep faith and prayer, wrestled long and hard to arrive at a strong consensus around this core.  We are not going to engage in wasted time and effort to reinvent the wheel.  If someone is not committed to them, they don’t need to be on the Cabinet in either a lay or clergy leadership position.

While only one position faces a Disciplinary mandated change at Conference 2016 (The Central District Superintendent), these key appointments plus other significant lay leadership selections and the filling of positions vacated by the retirement of senior pastors are linked to each other.  Thus, over the next 5 or 6 months, I will be intentionally instigating a series of conversations about the impact of succession planning on the faithfulness and fruitfulness of mission and ministry in the Central Texas Conference.  I’ll be engaged in the standard conversations – with District Superintendency Committees, Leadership Centers’ Core Teams, and through the Cabinet with various Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committees.  But I also hope to stir up a large variety of other avenues for seeking advice and input.  This is not a casting call for nominations!  It is an invitation to be a part of a floating conversation and prayer filled discernment.

We are not seeking the perfect DS, Lay Leader, or Executive Center Director. No one is perfect.  Christ alone is the sovereign Lord of the church.  We will not be taking “votes” on who should be selected in clergy appointments.  Rather, I call us to engage in transparent holy conversations.  Evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness based on the core non-negotiables is essential.  Through it all, together, I invite us to be in submitted prayer and open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

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