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New Room Report

For the last two and a half days I have been in Franklin, Tennessee attending the New Room Conference. I was warned not to go. I was told that the New Room Conference was a gathering to plan the schism of the United Methodist Church over the issue of LGBT marriage and ordination. I suppose such rumors came about because the New Room talks about building a new network of Wesleyan Christians.

The notion that this is some schismatic Wesleyan-United Methodist group couldn’t be farther from the truth. There has been no talk about leaving the United Methodist Church from any of the Conference speakers. New Room has used explicit language about a new annual conference. But such talk about a conference is not structural.

The New Room Conference is about a global Wesleyan movement. It is an effort about connecting Wesleyan Christians from all over. In their own words, “it’s a decisively, unapologetically, creatively, Wesleyan gathering.” Yesterday I sat next a retired University President who is (as he put it) “a salvationist,” by which he meant a part of the Salvation Army. We heard a lecture from the Presiding Elder (translate Bishop) of the Wesleyan Church (Jo Anne Lyon). Her moving address connected a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with ministry among those who have been maimed and mutilated by extremist in Syrian refugee camps. [The official from the Wesleyan Church who introduced her commented that some people work for the “man” but they work for the woman and are proud of it!]

If there is a theme, it is about the recovery of a full Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with a large (very large) dose of movement (work) of the Holy Spirit. These folks are deeply serious about genuine discipleship and deep allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. The focus is worldwide and not just a North American-centric vision.

Dr. Stanley John gave an impassioned address on the rise of immigrant churches in North America and the changing face of American Christianity. [“Stanley John is a member of the Indian diaspora born and raised in Kuwait. He serves as the director of the Alliance Graduate School of Missions and Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at the Alliance Theological Seminary of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.”] There is a great emphasis on church planting and evangelism that is yoked with sanctification in the best Wesleyan sense. Mike Breen, leader of the 3DM, led a workshop I attended that challenged us to consider how we move beyond mere cultural Christianity. Lisa Yebuah, Pastor of Inviting Ministries at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, NC, and Andrew Forrest, Pastor of Munger Place UMC in Dallas, both gave exciting illuminating talks. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler, gave an excellent address on the role of class and band meeting (similar to an address he gave to the Council of Bishops in Oklahoma last year). I could go on but hopefully you have received a taste of what for me has been a heartwarming and wonderfully encouraging conference.

The original purpose of an annual conference meeting was to investigate what to teach and how to teach and not about running an institution. This conference (spelled with a small “c”) is focused on the original purpose and not a political gathering. I hope to go to next year’s conference, time permitting.

As I closed this blog, I would be remiss if I did not note the recurrence of prayer for and conversation about the persecution of Christians. Persecution is a present reality in a number of places around the world. We tend to think of the Middle East and ISIS but the struggle is far wider. One report from India was particularly chilling. Amid the reality of persecution there is a wonderful converting ministry which is a work – one of the Holy Spirit offering love in the place of hate. I ask you to join with me in prayer for all those suffering for the faith and for those causing the suffering. May Christ be known! May our discipleship grow in both sanctification (personal and social holiness in heart and life) and grace-filled love for all people!

Christ the Refugee ©

The words are so simple and common. They come at the conclusion of Matthew’s great story of the Savior’s birth. We read the story at Christmas but rarely focus on closing verses and still less preach on them. “When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.’  Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt” (Matthew 2:13-14). Jesus was a political refugee fleeing political persecution.

Today we are confronting a similar refugee crisis streaming out Syria. In May, while in Europe for a Council of Bishops meeting, the European refugee crisis dominated the news. Today we are just beginning to confront the breadth of this horrible crisis and the way it is impacting not just Europe but the wider world. The level of human suffering is massive. The numbers are staggering. The need is enormous.

I have read a variety of articles about who is to blame. Clearly the primary guilt resides with the oppression of the Assad regime and the true evil of ISIS. The casual reader can consume articles about the failure of various European countries and the way they are handling the crisis on their door step. Some articles go wider afield and note the failure of wealthy Arab regimes in the area to help. Some point to the actions of U.S. and Coalition governments in pulling forces out of an unstable country in neighboring Iraq (inadvertently and unintentionally aiding the establishment of ISIS). Still others point to the slow response of the U.N. relief agency.

As a Christian, a Christ follower, I challenge us to avoid getting caught in the blame game. Instead focus on a basic biblical truth. Christ was a refugee from the brutal oppression of Herod. Our Lord and Master can be found among the Syrian refugees. As Christ followers we are to reach out with help in compassion and love. It really is that simple.

One of the truly great worldwide ministries of the United Methodist Church is UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief). There is a detailed separate article on the Central Texas Conference website about the refugee crisis and our response. I urge you to read the full article. It notes in part: “For more than a year, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been responding to the conflict in the Middle East by assisting refugees and displaced persons in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Working with local and international partners and via grants totaling nearly $2 million, UMCOR has helped alleviate suffering in the region by providing food, water, clothing, household items and improved places for children to learn and play. UMCOR’s efforts are continuing in this arena, including additional projects expected to be approved during the last quarter of 2015.”

As we reflect on Christ the refugee, I am asking the members and churches of the Central Texas Conference to take two very specific actions. First, please be in committed dedicated prayer for the refugees. Lift them up in worship services at your church. Make prayer for refugees a part of your daily prayer life. Second, I urge you to respond through your local church in tangible financial gifts through the great UMCOR ministry. To support UMCOR’s ongoing efforts in response to this and other disasters as well as its work to reduce disaster risk, I ask that an offering be taken for the International Disaster Response Advance, #982450

Just prior to attending the 2008 Jurisdictional Conference where I was elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church, Jolynn and I went on a spiritual formation retreat through the Pastors Retreat Network. In my directed spiritual reading, I came across a piece of writing by a Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop. My vague memory is that the Metropolitan Bishop was writing in 1880s. I cannot remember his name but the words have stuck with me: “Whenever someone new enters a room, Christ enters the room. And, oh, he [Christ] comes in such disguises.”

Join me in seeing Christ in the refugee. However well disguised, the Lord is present.

 

 

 

Institutional Relationships and Faith Based Health Care

Thursday night (September 10th) I drove home from a very engaging and fruitful Cabinet Retreat. This morning (September 11th) I left early to attend a two day Texas Health Resources (THR) Leadership Conference focusing on the critical theme of “Exploring the Next Frontier in Heath Care Leadership.” For me this is a time of deep learning. It is important to hold together the Church’s historic relationship with healthcare (originally through the Harris Methodist Hospital System and since the merger) through THR. As a part of the recent restructuring, I now serve on the Board of Texas Health Resources by virtue of the office of Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference.

It is significant that THR is very serious about being a “faith based” hospital system. Recently Dr. Eric Smith was promoted from Senior Chaplain to Vice-President of Spirituality and Faith Integration (system wide). The “faith” connection matters greatly to THR. System values reflect the deep Methodist roots (on the Harris Fort Worth side) and the Presbyterian roots (on the Dallas Presbyterian side). Like American society as a whole and the church in particular, THR is feeling its way forward in a post-Christendom environment.

At our June meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference perhaps the biggest debate revolved around health insurance for clergy. As I listen and learn at this THR Leadership Retreat, I cannot help but note the reality we are facing society wide. We are in a period of great change! This mirrors my work on the United Methodist Publishing House Board – the publishing industry is undergoing a revolution (think Amazon and self-publishing). Who would have thought just 10 years ago that a person could receive health care at Wal-Mart and CVS! I cannot help but add the obvious: the church is going through similar great disruptive change in our post-Christendom environment. Like all the rest of my colleague bishops and many lay leaders and senior clergy, we are wrestling with just what institutional relationships look like and what they ought to look like.

In our Annual Conference debate, a hidden sub-text is the move to a consumer driven health care system. A crude illustration will hopefully illuminate. When I was a child, whatever the doctor (or nurse) said was (pardon the pun) gospel. Today, it is both expected and demanded that the intelligent and responsible patient (and/or family caretaker) will both question and engage in meaningful dialogue about their healthcare. In a good way the Conference debate illuminated that both clergy and laity must be individually responsible for healthcare. The days of being “taken care of” are over. We must be participants in the health and healing process.

From our Christian (and faith based) system we seek not only to provide an environment that is safe, healing and kind but one that aligns the wider system to achieve high performance for everyone! By its very nature this is an incredibly complex task. While THR is geographically focused (the north Texas area), the drive to full integration of healthcare services (including insurance) is a part of the future both locally and nationally. Three elements will continue to dominate the faith based discussion – 1) access, 2) care, and 3) cost.

Both as Christians and as a larger society, we need to get beyond venting about what we don’t like to figuring out solutions that benefit all. I am impressed by THR’s dedicated work in this direction. Christ’s teaching from Matthew 25 echoes in the background … “in as much as you did it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

Next Steps Workshop on the Exodus Project, Part II

Mike Bonem meets with Cabinet and Core Team ©

Before departing on a vacation to Ireland, Bishop Lowry invited Mike Bonem to be a guest blogger. Mike, the consultant leading the Exodus Project evaluation, met on June 17 with CTC’s Core Team and the Bishop’s Cabinet to discuss next steps.

 In the first of my two blogs, we explored Investing in Leadership Development. Of seven Exodus Evaluation recommendations, it’s the one given top priority by the Core Team and the Cabinet. Today’s topics are the other two recommendations selected for emphasis: focusing disproportionately on “selected churches;” and making programming decisions.

Focus Disproportionately on “Selected” Churches  -The intent of this recommendation is to help a small number of high potential churches take a major step forward. This could mean reversing a period of decline, breaking through a growth barrier, or launching a major missional initiative. Doing this requires CTC to identify a small number of churches and ensure that they have the attention and resources to reach this potential.

A version of this recommendation has already been practiced by the DS’s informally, so a natural starting point is for the ad hoc task group to evaluate what has and hasn’t been effective in the DS’s efforts, and what improvements should be made. From my perspective, this is likely to include:

  • A more formal criteria and process for selecting the churches.
  • The development of specific plans for improvement, with resourcing to support the plans.
  • Increased tracking and accountability.

This recommendation should also be started on a small, pilot basis (perhaps only one or two churches per district) with an emphasis on high quality and learning before expanding to additional churches. Workshop participants discussed if and how this initiative should be communicated to the broader conference. There are pros and cons with publicly identifying the selected churches. The task group should include recommendations on this point.

Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions  -This recommendation had the greatest divergence of opinions during the workshop. While we discussed the possibility of “starting from scratch,” the consensus is that doing this is too radical and that the cost (time and organizational stress) would outweigh the benefits. The preferred course of action is for CTC to do a better job of coordinating and communicating programming decisions. The task group for this recommendation should:

  • Develop a clear definition of “programming” vs. “resourcing.”
  • Propose a process that will lead to better coordination of programs and less duplication. This could be as simple as one or two meetings each year where the Cabinet reviews all planned programs and events (from all three centers and districts) at the same time, and makes adjustments as appropriate.
  • Identify ways that programming plans can be communicated more effectively, especially between centers and between the conference office and districts.
  • Consider whether a formal process for evaluation of programs is needed.
  • Consider whether it is appropriate to set a goal each year for reducing CTC’s existing programming by some percentage. Doing so could create an environment of evaluation and creativity (new programs could replace existing programs that were cancelled) and could also free up time for personnel to focus more on resourcing.

Other Recommendations   -In choosing to focus on three recommendations, CTC’s leadership has determined that the other four recommendations are less important. This is an appropriate way to allocate limited resources and to ensure that progress is made. I would like to offer brief thoughts on two of the other recommendations:

  • Resourcing (Recommendation 2). Several people commented that the conference, especially the Center for Mission Support, is already doing quite a bit of resourcing. A simple but high value step may be for Mission Support to create a more formal database of currently available resources with an emphasis on the expertise that resides in local churches around the conference. This database can be expanded and improved over time. If this is done, it should be publicized to increase awareness.
  • Evaluation processes (Recommendation 5). CTC is currently working to improve its clergy evaluation process. The new process should align with the values (discussed in “leadership development”) and the overall goals of the Exodus Project. As discussed in my report, the process needs to be transparent so that clergy understand how they’re being evaluated and so that they can set appropriate goals for their own development.

Concluding Thoughts   -This workshop was another important step forward for the conference and the Exodus Project. I will conclude with four recommendations to maintain this momentum:

  • Communicate decisions from the workshop to the conference. This was discussed at the end of our meeting, but needs to be re-emphasized in light of some of the awareness concerns raised in my report.
  • Set a date for the next meeting. A general time frame of September or October was mentioned, but it will help the task groups to have a firm date so that they have a deadline to work towards. In addition, the task groups should be asked to submit their draft recommendations in advance so that everyone has a chance to review them before the meeting.
  • Commit to a one-year review. In 12 to 18 months, CTC’s leadership should meet again to review progress in these specific areas. This may also be a good time to decide whether the conference should prioritize any of the other recommendations.
  • Decide whether to do another evaluation. My report recommended a simpler evaluation of Exodus (statistical plus survey) after two more years, but CTC’s leadership should decide if, when, and how this will be done.

Next Steps Workshop on the Exodus Project, Part I

Mike Bonem meets with Cabinet and Core Team ©

Before departing on a vacation to Ireland, Bishop Lowry invited Mike Bonem to be a guest blogger. Mike, the consultant leading the Exodus Project evaluation, met on June 17 with the CTC’s Core Team and the Bishop’s Cabinet to discuss next steps.

Dear Friends in Christ,

My purpose here is to recap key points from the workshop with Central Texas Conference’s Core Team and Cabinet held on June 17, 2015. This blog and the one that follows are not meant to be a comprehensive set of notes, and they represent my perspective, which may at times differ from the group. I am also including some follow-up thoughts and recommendations for next steps that were not discussed in our meeting. Accordingly, this is intended to foster further conversation among CTC’s leaders as we move forward.

The purpose of the workshop was to define the “next steps” to be taken in the implementation of the Exodus Project. My evaluation of the Exodus Project introduced the recommendations with this statement: CTC can accelerate its progress in the Exodus Project and improve its results by narrowing its focus to the highest value activities and collaborating more actively at all levels. The seven recommendations that followed are:

  1. Develop a new process to guide programming decisions.
  2. Formalize resourcing to leverage local expertise.
  3. Focus disproportionately on “selected” churches.
  4. Invest in leadership development.
  5. Create transparent evaluation processes that align with Exodus.
  6. Re-emphasize peer learning.
  7. Clarify the role of the District Superintendent

Recognizing the need to focus on a smaller number of recommendations, the leadership team prioritized three of these as having the greatest potential impact for CTC. Those three are highlighted in bold above. Of the three, leadership development is the highest priority. This is the first of two blog posts in which we will more fully explore the recommendations the group initially has selected to emphasize.

Each of the three prioritized areas has a person who will lead in developing specific recommendations. That person will assemble an ad hoc task group to work with them in that process. The task group should include lay members as well as clergy and is not limited to the Core Team and Cabinet. The teams are to develop preliminary recommendations for discussion at a meeting in the fall. As part of their recommendations, each task group should propose milestones/goals for the first and second years.

Since top priority was given to Investing in Leadership Development, I want to address this recommendation first. The recommendation for leadership development was refined considerably during the workshop. We discussed three key ideas: leadership development for clergy, leadership development for laity, and clergy recruitment – with the majority of the time spent on the former. Leadership development for laity is important, but the current efforts that are already under way are seen as addressing this need.

The overarching concept for clergy leadership development was shaped by the “High Octane Preaching” class that has been offered for several years. The content (preaching) was chosen because of its importance for pastoral leadership, and participants are hand-selected based on their future potential. A weakness of this class is that it is not part of an integrated and intentional process for leadership development and has lacked follow-up accountability.

As envisioned in our workshop, key components of CTC’s future leadership development include:

  • Selectivity. Participants should be screened and should be chosen based on their future potential and the benefit of this development for their careers and churches. An intentional process for this selection will need to be created.
  • Focused content. CTC should not try to teach everything that a pastor might need to know, but instead should choose/design content based on the needs of the target participants and churches.
  • Values-driven. Content selection and design should reflect the conference’s values for effective pastoral leadership.
  • Mentoring and accountability. Because content is only a small portion of an individual’s development, it is important for the design to include mentoring and accountability. Individuals who are not diligent about practicing skills that they have learned in one class should not be allowed to take future classes.

Next installment – due on July 6: Focusing on “Selected Churches” and Programming Decisions.

Report on the Core Leadership Team/Cabinet Retreat ©

Last week the Central Texas Conference (CTC) Core Leadership Team and Cabinet met to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report. With the adoption of the Exodus Project Evaluation Report, the CTC Core Team and Cabinet promised to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report.

By way of recall, the seven recommendations that came out of the Exodus Project evaluation were:

  •  Recommendation 1: Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions
  •  Recommendation 2: Formalize Resourcing to Leverage Local Expertise
  •  Recommendation 3: Focus Disproportionately on “Select” Churches
  •  Recommendation 4: Invest in Leadership Development
  •  Recommendation 5: Create Transparent Evaluation Processes that Align with Exodus
  •  Recommendation 6: Re-emphasize Peer Learning
  •  Recommendation 7: Clarify the Role of the DS

Dr. Mike Bonem, our Conference consultant for the Exodus Project evaluation, led us through a process of focusing on the top two or three recommendations.  There was a clear consensus that all of the recommendations are important and need to be addressed; however, our work recognized that we must begin with a focused intent on a smaller list.

There was close to unanimous consent (with some 20 people in the room, both lay and clergy leaders) that the item of first importance was recommendation #4: to invest in leadership development.  Likewise there was close to unanimous agreement that recommendation #3 was second on the list in order of importance.

Much improvement in leadership development was noted.  Last year, the Conference made a heavy investment in lay leadership development with the addition of Dr. Kevin Walters to work with Kim Simpson (Conference Lay Leader) and Georgia Adamson (Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Development).  The HCI Lay Leadership Development groups have proved to be a strong part of lay leadership development. A variety of other leadership development options were noted for clergy – High Octane Preaching, Board of Ordained Ministry Residency, HCI Pastoral Leadership groups, various continuing education events, etc. What the group wrestled with was the need for a more coherent and cohesive process of leadership development (as differentiated from episodic learning opportunities).

The Core Leadership Team and Cabinet noted critical elements of leadership development.

Self-evaluation
Orthodox theology
Emotional intelligence
Constantly develop preaching
Learn to handle stress
Staffing/administrative leadership
Evaluation based on performance

The list is in no way exhaustive but rather suggestive of the lines of development needed for growing clergy leaders.

A group of selection criteria were established for implementation of recommendation #3, “Focus disproportionately on ‘Select’ Churches.”  Some obvious questions that beg answering are:  Who selects the churches?  What is the criteria by which a church is to be considered select?  How will this “focus” be implemented?  The critical answer to who or what is a “selected” church is that our focus will be on “the coalition of the willing.”  Churches will self-select by how they engage in the ministry and mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Some of the self-selection criteria involved will be:

  1. Ability or willingness to grow. (How would we know? – by a churches response) (1) Readiness 360, (2) Capacity; 3) what they do/how they vote, 4) intervention (?)
  2. Evidence of new energy, commitment, etc.
  3. Exercise demons (resolving past disputes and control issues) – willingness to engage in intervention when needed, etc.
  4. Crucial location/situation

The third issue we looked at was Recommendation #1, “Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions.”  We noted some preliminary issues.  The need to develop a clear set of decision-making criteria and communicate better.  We raised the question, is there value to have a budget review committee external to the Conference Center?  We focused on three key convictions/commitments: 1. Clarify decision-making process for programs (& resources), 2. Communicate better; 3. Don’t tolerate silos…. Work on ending silos.  “Is it a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed?” (Andy Stanley).

This begins the process of learning and implementation of the next steps facing the Central Texas Conference.  The Evaluation Report for the Exodus Project is found in the Pre-Conference Journal beginning on page 29.  As we worked together, we could sense the Holy Spirit guiding our efforts.  I invite and urge lay and clergy who are a part of the Central Texas Conference to join in the journey.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #3: Smaller. Bigger ©

Texas Wesleyan University has been engaged in an award-winning advertisement campaign for student admissions. The campaign is built around a clever and insightful slogan, “Smaller. Smarter.”

The slogan is clever in that it is easy to remember. It is deeply insightful because it captures an essence of the educational adventure that Texas Wesleyan offers. As a church-related (United Methodist) liberal arts university, Texas Wesleyan University is committed to smaller classes where students receive intimate mentoring and direction from high quality professors and thus emerge smarter. By implication, they emerge with a four-year university degree at a point of insight, intellectual growth and maturity that is more advanced than a large 4-year university.

As we face the church of tomorrow, our slogan might instead be “Smaller. Bigger.” For well over two decades now, we have been watching a national trend in churches that cuts across denominational groupings. The trend is a growing number of very large congregations. Typically worshipping 700 or more on an average Sunday, they might best be labelled regional churches. Somewhere around 1,800 in average worship attendance, churches move into what might well be called the “mega” church category.  Regional and mega churches have been growing all across America, not only in non-denominational varieties but also in mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church. Here in the Central Texas Conference, our rise in worship attendance has largely been driven by our churches with over 500 in average worship attendance.

Simultaneously, there is a national trend in the direction of smaller congregations. More and more congregations are going part-time in their pastoral appointments, with average worship somewhere between 30 and 75 in attendance. (Lovett Weems’ calculations indicate that it takes an average worship attendance of 126 to afford a full-time elder in The United Methodist Church today. Our calculations in Central Texas, while varying from church to church, tend to hover at around 100 in average worship attendance to financially support a full-time elder.) This growth in small churches represents an intimate deepening walk with Christ in settings that are often lay-led and lay-driven. Where the deepening walk with Christ is present, smaller churches have a health and vitality that is uniquely their own. Many such smaller congregations are often much more able to achieve a high level of supportive spiritual accountability.  People aren’t able to simply sit back and “enjoy the show.”

Interestingly, the largest congregations in average worship attendance are actually very fragile.  The pivotal role of senior clergy leadership is crucial. By contrast, churches that have around 50 in average worship attendance tend to be extremely stable. There is a strength and vitality in the small church that is exciting. (This is a part of why we emphasize not only the Healthy Church Initiative, HCI, but also the Small Church Initiative, SCI.)

We face a future in The United Methodist Church that is at once going to be smaller and bigger. It much more difficult to engage in standardization in ministry. Put differently, one size DOES NOT fit all! Both pastors and lay leaders need very different skill sets for these two different mission fields.

Meanwhile, churches that average 150 – 300 in average worship attendance (medium sized) and churches that average 300-700 (large sized) tend to be either climbing or declining but are rarely stable. The shifting landscape on the American scene really is smaller and bigger at the same time.

In urban environments, there are also an increasing number of very large churches that have multiple numbers of small satellites. They are combining smaller and bigger in exciting and creative ways which capture the best of both worlds!

Alan Hirsch in his tremendous book, The Forgotten Ways notes the rising sense of highly committed small groups. (Think of the fellowship of the ring in the Tolkien trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Even more, think of Jesus and the original 12 disciples.  Add in the original Methodist class meeting.) We are going to see a continued growth in house church groups and in the health and strength of small town or rural congregations which offer vibrant spiritual connections to the Lord and each other.  They will be served by less than full time pastors. The very organizational shape of the church is changing in ways that are hard for our current structure to keep up with let alone effectively lead. Hirsch notes that the church will be made up of “the journey of a group of people that find each other only in a common pursuit of a vision and a mission that lies beyond itself. Its energies are primarily directed outward and forward” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, pg. 236).

Jolynn and I experienced a fascinating example of this about a decade ago when our daughter was a student at the University of York in England. As good parents, we saved some vacation time and went over for Thanksgiving to visit her in her semester abroad study. We were there for the first Sunday in Advent that year. Together as a family, we chose to go to the great York Minster Cathedral for Sunday Advent evening worship. As we entered (over an hour early thinking we’d have no trouble finding a seat), we were shocked to discover that the great cathedral, which is typically very sparsely attended during a regular Sunday worship, was packed. There were well over 2,000 people present. We sat in folding chairs on the side aisle.

While waiting for the service to start, we visited with the family behind us. They were in their mid-thirties with two preschool children. They lived in York and were very active practicing Christians in a local Baptist Church. They did not in any way identify with the Church of England. Puzzled, we asked them what brought them to the great Cathedral (the seat of one of three Archbishops in the Anglican Church) this night. They shared that they came to the cathedral, as did many Christians from a variety of churches, for high festival celebrations but spent their regular Sundays and discipleship formation activities in their much smaller church that was served by a part-time pastor holding another job. It is this model that many suggest we will see more and more of; large regional churches that serve as centers for faith and community coupled with small – in essence house churches – churches in a small setting with limited space.

I believe we are witnessing a gradually unfolding work of the Holy Spirit. Historically, if you study the cathedral system that gradually arose in Europe, it was originally this model: small communities encircling larger centers of worship and praise. For United Methodists, this represents a dramatic institutional change that is imperceptibly taking place. It is difficult, given our common ecclesiastical assumptions, to adjust to. “Smaller. Bigger.” evokes a very different set of clergy needs and competencies.  It elicits different patterns of organizational structure and decision making.  I hope to address those issues in a follow up blog.

Peace Be With You ©

A straightforward CNN news story reports the following: “They were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens. They were students and dreamers, pursuing their ambitions for a better life. And on Tuesday night, Kenyans gathered to remember them as innocent victims of a terrorist attack that stunned a nation and left communities heartbroken. The gathering began with quiet chatter among a crowd of hundreds, before mourners went silent and moved toward one end of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Then, 147 crosses were unloaded from a truck and quietly planted in the ground. The names of some of the victims were read aloud and then repeated by the audience in unison. The crowd then sang the national anthem. The attack at a university in Garissa on Thursday killed 147 people, mostly students. The Al-Shabaab militant group claimed responsibility. Kenyans attending the event wrote notes honoring the victims and lit candles.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil )

It continues with the stark reality of religious violence and Christian martyrdom. “In the Garissa attack, the terrorists separated Christians from Muslims, making some recite verses from the Quran. Those who couldn’t quote the holy book tried to flee the gunfire, but whizzing bullets sent them to the ground. Others scampered into closets and stayed there for hours, until after the siege was over. Images from the scene showed heaps of students lying in pools of blood, faces down.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil/)

Many individuals and churches in the Central Texas Conference have personal relationships with Kenya. Having participated in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) mission trip to Kenya a year ago, the terrible news brought the reality of persecution and violence home. I could not help but think immediately of Bishop Joseph Ntombura and his wife Pauline staying in our home in Fort Worth. (We had visited their home in Kenya on our mission trip). The many friends and vital ministry of Maua Methodist Hospital (Maua Methodist Hospital Service Fund #09613A) are lodged in our hearts as a Conference. The martyred faithfulness and senseless tragedy of Garissa touches us personally.

How is a Christian to respond? Our first answer is render whatever practical aid we can. Our truest second instinct is to deep prayer. The reaction we must guard vigilantly against is a reaction of violence against those innocent others who are Muslims.

The reality of the killings should well focus us on another killing. This tragedy took place just before Good Friday and the killing of Christ on a cross. Now, two days post Easter, we know the story did not end at the cross. Neither will it end in the bullet-marked, blood-soaked detritus of Nairobi University at Garissa. The need for a grace-filled, love-soaked, hope-offering witness by Christians is greater now than ever. It is to our time that Jesus speaks.

On Easter, Jolynn and I worshipped with our son and daughter-in-law in Boston. In part the pastor’s hope-filled sermon led us back to Easter evening and the story of disciples huddled behind a locked door including the interchange with “doubting,” or rather “honest,” Thomas. I invite the reader to recall what Jesus said to the fear filled (no doubt in some anger driven – towards the Romans and other Jewish authorities) Christ followers. The twentieth chapter of John’s gospel (good news!) records the Savior’s greeting. “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, ‘Peace be with you’”   (John 20:19).

The great William Temple who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the World War II wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John. He who preached during the Battle of Britain reminds us, “The wounds of Christ are His credentials to the suffering race of [humans]” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple). In writing on Jesus words “peace be with you,” Archbishop Temple then quoted a poem by Edward Shillito published under the title Jesus of the Scars.

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
(Taken from Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 366)

But Archbishop Temple did not stop there in his commentary. He directed attention further to the follow injunction of Jesus our Lord. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21) . The peace of Christ is in very truth and fact with us should we choose to so avail ourselves. Prophetically Archbishop Temple added: “This is the primary purpose for which the Spirit is given: that we may bear witness to Christ. We must not expect the gift while we ignore the purpose. A Church which ceases to be missionary will not be, and cannot rightly expect to be spiritual” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 367).

Jesus now once again says to us and to our Kenyan brothers and sisters, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21).

Progress on Imagining No Malaria, Prayer Missionary & Captives ©

One of the great Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church during the last eight years has been combating killer diseases.  In particular, the United Methodist Church has focused on combating the killer disease of malaria through Nothing But Nets and the larger emphasis called Imagine No Malaria. The Central Texas Conference has been a part of this great mission emphasis contributing $539,458 to date.

It is a joy to share some wonderful good news passed on via Newscope (The United Methodist Publishing House’s weekly newsletter).  The World Health Organization reports that “the number of people dying from malaria has fallen dramatically since 2000 and malaria cases are steadily declining.”   In an article written by Joey Butler of United Methodist Communications, the use of insecticide-treated bed nets is given as one important reason for the drop.  He goes on to note that:

  • “Between 2000 and 2013, the report says, the malaria mortality rate decreased by 47% worldwide. In the WHO African Region-where about 90% of malaria deaths occur-the decrease is 54%. The Dec. 9 report estimates that, globally, 670 million fewer cases and 4.3 million fewer malaria deaths occurred between 2001 and 2013 than would have occurred had incidence and mortality rates remained unchanged since 2000.
  • In 2013, 49% of all people at risk of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa had access to an insecticide-treated net, a marked increase from just 3% in 2004. This trend is set to continue, with a record 214 million bed nets scheduled for delivery to endemic countries in Africa by year-end.
  • Since April 2010, The UMC’s Imagine No Malaria initiative has distributed more than 2.3 million bed nets and is less than $10 million shy of its goal to raise $75 million by 2015 to dramatically reduce deaths and suffering in Africa. Significantly the report closes with a challenge and a holy call to action. “Despite these victories, malaria remains a major threat and greater global commitment is necessary for success. In 2013, one-third of households in areas with malaria transmission in sub-Saharan Africa did not have a single insecticide-treated net, the report noted. Approximately $5.1 billion is needed annually to achieve malaria control and, eventually, elimination; but current annual funds remain around $2.7 billion” (Newscope, Editor Mary Catherine Dean, Vol. 43, Issue 08 / February 25, 2015, “WHO REPORTS ‘DRAMATIC’ DECREASE IN MALARIA DEATHS” by Joey Butler, UMCOM).

In other mission activity, I ask that the congregations of the Central Texas Conference to join in praying for Rev. Phyllis Sortor, a missionary for The Free Methodist Church who has been abducted and held for ransom by terrorists/criminals in Nigeria.  I also ask that we continue to join with Christians around the world in prayer for the Assyrian and Coptic Christians who have been persecuted by ISIS.  News reports indicate that a significant number of Coptic Christians, one of the most ancient branches of the Christian faith, are being executed by ISIS.

It is important that we do not react with hate and especially important that we do not ourselves persecute the many (majority) peaceful Muslims in our midst.  Let goodness be known to all as we keep all those who are persecuted in our prayers.  To this end I request each church in the Central Texas Conference to make a point of lifting up Rev. Sorter and the Assyrian & Coptic Christians in our prayers.

As a Child of the Light

During this Advent time of preparation I find myself drawn again and again back to hymns and music, both ancient and contemporary with everything in between, as a way of expressing my faith.  Dr. Shubert Ogden’s phrase – “we do theology in order that we might do doxology” – sticks in my mind.  Sometimes, often?, I experience it in the reverse.  I do doxology (praise), and it leads me to theology.  Such is this season of the year.

Recently I came back to an Advent hymn that is not sung that often.  It was a favorite at Bethany United Methodist Church in Austin when I served as Senior Pastor there (1997-2001).  “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” is Hymn No. 206 in The United Methodist Hymnal.  The third verse grasps for the essence of Advent.  “I’m looking for the coming of Christ.  I want to be with Jesus.  When we have run with patience the race, we shall know the joy of Jesus.  In Him there is no darkness at all.  The night and the day are both alike.  The Lamb is the light of the city of God.  Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus” (Hymn No. 206, verse 3, The United Methodist Hymnal).

At our best this is our ardent desire.  We want to be like Jesus.  Amid all the talk of the “spirit of Christmas” there lives a nugget of truth.  The true Holy “Spirit” calls us to be like Jesus.  The great biblical teachings rise again to the forefront.  The commandment to love God and neighbor (the Great Commandment); the admonition to feed, clothe, visit and care for “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:31-46); the call to “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).  All this and more shines in the light.

I am always moved by great acts of generosity and service that spring forth in this season of the year.  I even more deeply moved that such actions issue forth year round.  There is something great and godly about seeing a church and a people walk as children of the light.  Allow me to lift up two straightforward, wonderful examples as emblematic of many such great ministries taking place in our churches.

Consider this one from Poolville UMC, a small country church in the North District.  They took the United Methodist Churches Service of Repentance to Native Americans to heart and lifted up the light of Christ in deeds of love:

For 2014 Poolville UMC decided to develop a three-year Covenant relationship with General Board of Global Ministries’ missionary Donna Pewo.  Donna Chaat Pewo serves as a Church and Community Worker at the Clinton and El Reno Church and Community Ministry of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC).  The Clinton/El Reno ministry primarily serves children of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes in a rural area west of Oklahoma City.  

On April 4th and 5th Poolville UMC took about 35 people on a mission trip to the Clinton Oklahoma United Methodist Indian Community Center. Nearly half who went were members of other community churches, and many of those were youth​.  Projects included making repairs on playground equipment, building new benches around the playground, some painting, exterior repairs, plumbing, interior carpentry and purchasing & installing five 8×6 foot metal shelves.​

On September 13th through September 15th, fifteen members of the Poolville United Methodist church ventured out on their second mission trip to Oklahoma this year, this time to the El Reno Indian United Methodist Church. Some of the projects included cutting weeds and mowing the grass, repairing the front porch, new signage, installing three new AC and heating units, repairing the water heater, painting the entire interior of the fellowship hall and installing fourteen 8 foot light fixtures in the fellowship hall and one light fixture in the children’s room.

Child of the light indeed!

Or take this example from Bartlett UMC in the South District, a small town near Temple:

Food for Friends is a ministry begun by Bartlett UMC.  It is one way this congregation seeks to make a difference in its community. Each Friday this ministry feeds 125 homebound and elderly personas a warm, home-cooked meal.  Since 2010, the ministry has served 30,000 meals!

It is so simple, practical and basic.  It is a reflection of the light and way of the Christ-child who started life himself as a homeless refugee.

At our annual Cabinet Christmas Party, the members of the Cabinet (Bishop, Lay Leader, Center Executives, District Superintendents) and spouses traditionally give our “white envelope” gifts.  Instead of gifts for each other, each couple offers a special financial gift in the honor of the rest of the Cabinet to some ministry that reaches out with the love of Christ in word and deed.  The list is impressive and exceptionally varied.  Some gifts are in our towns and communities (Food For Friends was one such gift this year).  Others stretch across the globe (at least two were for Maua Methodist Hospital, an Advance Special of the United Methodist Church and the ministry locus of our Conference Mission Trip to Kenya last September).

This kind of holy activity goes on all over the church in myriad of ways as reflections of the light of Christ.  Together we head eastward to Bethlehem Stable.  We’re looking for the coming of Christ.  We want to be with Jesus.christmas star

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