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Reflections on the Council of Bishops and the Way Forward ©

As I write, I am finishing a week of work at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The COB (all United Methodist Bishops around the world, both active and retired) met Sunday night through Wednesday noon. The Active Bishops Learning Retreat lasted from Wednesday afternoon through Friday noon. We have worshipped and prayed together greatly! The experience has been exhausting (emotionally, spiritually, and physically).

In the midst of this, the activities of the world continue. As a person who was elected out of (what is now) the Rio Texas Conference and was a pastor in San Antonio not far from Sutherland Springs, the tragedy of the church shootings has settled deeply in my heart. Across both the U.S. and the world, violence is never far from us. I find myself praying for a spirit of peace (the Holy Spirit!) in both my heart and our larger world. I commend to myself and all who read this blog the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace….”

While our Council work dealt with a variety of subjects including building vital congregations and ecumenical relations, the main focus of our time together was on the interim report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CoWF). The CoWF was established at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon to help the Church discern a way forward around the issues of allowing Methodist clergy to perform same-gender weddings and the ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals.” At our just concluded COB meeting, representatives from the CoWF presented some very preliminary ideas (or sketches) on possible ways to move beyond the impasse which threatens The United Methodist Church with schism.

The report from the CoWF presented three rough sketches or preliminary models for consideration and feedback from the COB:

  • One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline (BOD) language and places a high value on accountability.
  • Another model sketch removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  • A third model sketch is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services, and one COB while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.
  • Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church.
  • Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

I want to stress that what the Commission presented to the bishops was nowhere near their final product. These are sketches, or outlines, or very rough models that might well shape more detailed pictures. Furthermore, we (both the Bishops and the Church as a whole through its General Conference delegates) are not limited to these three sketches or models. That’s why I feel the term “sketches” is so apropos. The Commission still has a long way to go before they will be ready to present their final models. I invite thoughtful reflection and offer – along with my colleague bishops – a couple of questions for reflection, dialogue and spiritual discernment.

  1. Based on the description, how would you build a church from one or more of these sketches?
  2. How does that sketch multiply our Wesleyan witness and expand our mission in the world?

I would like to underscore that there was common agreement that the mission of the church is paramount!  “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Matthew 28:16-20). Intensive and intense dialogue is being held about underlying theology. It is important to note that the CoWF itself dealt with the issue of foundational theology and doctrine in its recent progress report. Click here or the image above to see the full report.  I also want to reiterate and highlight the last two points from the COB about the various models or sketches. Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church. Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

Here are some “talking points” the bishops of the church have agreed to commonly share with the leaders and local churches. Please feel free to use them whenever you are asked about how the church is progressing through this issue.

  • The Mission of God through the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit trumps and guides everything.
  • The values of unity and contextualization for the sake of the mission undergird the work we are sharing and leading.
  • The Commission serves the Council, preparing the COB to fulfill its service to the General Conference in making a recommendation for a way forward.
  • To best serve the Council, the Commission did not express a preference of a model.
  • In the same way, the Council withholds a preference in order to allow the bishops to engage their conferences in teaching and dialogue.
  • The values highlighted in any one model also live within the fabric of the other models.
  • The Commission shared three sketches of models with the Council. The CoWF is aware that we are not restricted to these models and are open to learning, listening and improvement.
  • It is likely that additional models or sketches may emerge as the process continues.

We are in a season of prayer, dialogue and spiritual discernment. It is important that we resist the temptation to rush to judgment or seek premature closure. The COB will be meeting in late February to review some follow up work from the CoWF based on our preliminary feedback as a Council of Bishops. In the meantime, I join my fellow bishops in calling on all United Methodists to engage in honest, meaningful and respectful conversations regarding this issue and/or any of the political, religious and justice issues of our day.

Bishop Ough, in a pastoral letter to the UMC released at the conclusion of our meeting, reminded all that the United Methodist Church is diverse in its theological understanding of Scripture as well as Christ’s call on our lives. In the letter – which I recommend to you (click here to access) – we are prompted to recall Paul’s admonishment to the church at Ephesus to …”to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together.” (Ephesians 4:1-3 CEB)

To read the official release from the COB on our work with the Commission on a Way Forward, go to ctcumc.org/episcopalannouncements. In all things I urge us together to embrace the advice of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-5, NRSV).

The Challenge of a Global Church ©

Thursday morning, May 4th, the Council of Bishops held its usual opening worship service.  Often during our worship we are led by newly elected bishops.  This is one way of getting to know them.  Thursday morning five newly elected bishops (four from Africa and one from Europe) led us in worship.  It was a wonderful, truly holy experience.

As they shared their personal witnesses, I heard God speaking to us.  Many of the theological assumptions and personal experiences of the Holy Spirt differ remarkably from the common fare in the United States.  One bishop shared a near death healing experience and his genuine fear of hell.  We North Americans laugh politely but he wasn’t being polite.  He was sharing what for him was a true story of being rescued from the jaws of hell and death.  Another bishop spoke of the church bells in his village ringing when he was born.  He and his family heard a call and claim from the Lord in the peel of the bells.  Americans saw a mere coincidence.  Still yet a third told of God speaking to him while he was playing in a rock band.  We laughed.  (In our defense it was humorously told.)  He gently chided us.  The hand of the Lord was on him in a tangible way according to his witness.

Where we tended to see coincidence, they saw the Lord God powerfully in action.  More than one spoke of being led by God to their spouse.  Some shared tales of visions of Christ.  Collectively they offered narratives of God powerfully in action through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Their profound, even thrilling, witnesses were consistently stories of a powerfully active God were flung in the face of a polite semi-Unitarianism that haunts the hallways of some American churches I visit. We need their witness.  They have much to offer us.

There are a number of other places of crucial differences.  In the current struggle involving human sexuality including same-gender marriage and ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals,” members of the global church differ among themselves.  Different parts of Europe are on different sides of the divide.  Most of Africa is overwhelmingly in favor of retaining current language with regard to issues of human sexuality. The contextual cultural settings differs not only from the United States but from other places in the world as well.

As a part of the challenge of a Global Church, we have been wrestling over support for theological education.  I have the privilege of serving on the United Theological Seminary board (and have previously served on the Executive Board of Perkins School of Theology).  In the U.S. a critical issue is the large amount of debt new pastors have upon graduation from seminary and moving into their first full-time appointment.  The financial crises in some parts of the world is dramatically different.  There, the challenge is around providing theological education at all.  It engages issues of governance, finances, faculty, etc.

I could continue with other examples but these three issues (theology, human sexuality, and ministerial education & training) highlight the challenge of being a global church.  With the best of intentions, it is easy when living in North America and Northern Europe to make assumptions about the nature of the church that are foreign and even strange to our fellow United Methodists around the world.  Even more, the center of Christianity is in the southern hemisphere.  Africa is the strongest growing region of The United Methodist Church.

We really don’t know how to be a global church.  Good people, committed Christian lay and clergy alike, are struggling to learn.  In the delightful language of systems theory, “we are building the bridge while we walk on it.”  The challenge of a global church is a wonderful gift from the Lord God!

Council of Bishops Meeting and Courage ©

Later today (April 28, 2017) I will drive to Dallas for the beginning of a week on Council of Bishops business.  Saturday we have a joint meeting of Bishops and Conference Chancellors.  (Ken Adair is CTC Chancellor and Wilson Woods is CTC Associate Chancellor.)  There are a variety of legal issues that the church is constantly facing (issues revolving around the Trust Clause and property, legal issues dealing with various complaints, etc.).  This is a regular gathering which I find both interesting and at times quite challenging.

On Sunday afternoon the Council of Bishops will begin its regular spring meeting with a memorial worship service remembering both bishops and spouses of bishops who have joined the Church Triumphant since our last gathering.  Somewhere early in our gathering (possibly Monday, May 1st) we should receive news of the Judicial Council’s ruling on the validity of Bishop Oliveto’s election.  As I have written about in recent blogs, the issue of human sexuality will dominate our discussion and reflections.  Anticipation/concern/hope for next year’s report from the Commission on the Way Forward and the looming specter of possible schism hang over our gathering like the Sword of Damocles.

And yet . . .  in the midst of our conflict, the central issue of building vital congregations remains squarely in front of us regardless of any individual bishop’s stance on the controversial issues surrounding human sexuality.  The opportunity and challenge of learning together spreads out before us and the whole church.  Herein is reason for hope. “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).  The hope offered by the Lord God calls us to a time of prayer, reflection and learning together.  It elicits courage from us regardless of our individual positions.

The 2016 General Conference called for extensive church-wide reflection on The United Methodist Church’s system of church government (ecclesiology).  A document entitled “Wonder, Love and Praise” has been written by the Committee on Faith and Order.  Here in Central Texas we already have a task group working on how to lead a Conference-wide study (i.e. studies in every congregation) offering feedback with prayerful and thoughtful reflection.  Together the bishops will begin the wider conversation on church ecclesiology this coming week.  It sounds dry but in reality has the potential to critically impact every local church.

In executive session the Council will receive reports on the progress of the Commission on the Way Forward and spend serious time together seeking to discern the will of the God for the larger denomination.  During our gathering we will meet regularly in Covenant Prayer Groups, which will include all bishops (both active and retired).  It is our hope to model Christian grace and appropriate behavior for the whole church on how to handle disagreements.

As I have been preparing myself, I have been in prayer for the church and the Commission.  I’ve spent careful time reading the report mentioned above (i.e. “Wonder, Love and Praise”).  In my reflection, prayer and reading, I have heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me, and I think to the whole church.  Reading Bishop Rueben Job’s devotional one morning, I was struck by his call to honor the “sovereignty” of God.  In part he writes: “We become prisoners to our own weaknesses and the evil of the world when we forget that God is sovereign and God is able. … Prayers that are completely dependent upon a sovereign God will touch the most troubling parts of our lives and society as a whole” (Rueben Job, 40 Days with Wesley, p. 11).  A few days later my morning scripture reading included a passage from Matthew 10:26-31.  It opens with the words, “Therefore, don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open. What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops” (Matthew 10:26-27).

I am reminded in my reading and prayer time of that constant theme which comes from the Lord is the angelic admonition to “fear not” (Luke 2:10).  Bishop Job has written: “Ever since Jesus has appeared to the disciples, Christians have discovered that there is no need to fear when one is in the presence of God.  To walk with God not only rebukes our fears and sends them away but also increases our courage. … From fear to courage is the natural journey of all that walk with God”  (Norman Shawchuck and Rueben Job, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p. 185).

Out of those and other readings in my devotional time, the Holy Spirit prompted me to pick back up a significant monograph written by Dr. Gil Rendle.  It is important to note that the Committee on Faith and Order commended that Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time” should also be read alongside “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”  I commend both to you strongly!  You may find them following the above links.

I close with a tiny sampling of the profound insights found in Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time”:

“Courage requires the hard work of thoughtfulness and resolve. . . . In the writing of philosopher John Silber, ‘Courage is often misunderstood as a capacity to suppress emotions of fear.’ … Courage is less the response of the stirred heart than of the discerning mind.  Courage is knowing what to be afraid of.  This knowing takes a considerable amount of work.” (p. 3)

“Projections of survivability of our small congregations indicate that over a period of a few decades our United Methodist denomination should expect to close about a third – over 10,000.  The bottom line of our current situation is that, denominationally, we cannot avoid internal pain and suffering.” (p. 11)

“Courage, in the face of empathy, is the act of leadership keeping attention and resources on those people, and that part of the system, with the most potential to align with purpose and move toward identified outcomes.  Courage is to choose missional strategy over relational comfort – and to resource the strategy as needed.  Courage is to choose not to be redirected by empathy when pain cannot missionally be avoided.”  (p. 14)

Reflections on the Upcoming Judicial Council Decision ©

On Tuesday, April 25, Mike Ford, Central Texas Conference Lay Leader, and I sent the following letter (via email) to all the clergy in the Central Texas Conference currently under appointment as well as the Lay Leaders of our local churches. We’d like to thank Vance Morton, director of Communications & IT for the CTC, for his valuable assistance. – JML

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus””   Philippians 2: 1-5 (CEB)

Dear Friends,

Greetings in the name of Christ! We are writing to all Central Texas Conference clergy currently under appointment as well as those serving as Lay Leader for our local churches, in hopes of providing you the necessary information and context regarding the pending Judicial Council ruling on the validity of the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto.

As you may recall, Bishop Karen Oliveto was elected and consecrated a United Methodist bishop in July by delegates of the Western Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Oliveto, an elder in good standing at the time of her election, is a partner in a same-sex marriage. At the time of the election, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference petitioned the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision about the validity of her election. The petition asks the Judicial Council whether “the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as a bishop of The United Methodist Church of a person who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage” is lawful under The Book of Discipline [Paragraphs 304.3, 310.2d, 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)].

The Judicial Council is meeting today through Friday (April 25 – 28) in Newark, New Jersey. During this meeting, the Council will act on the request for a declaratory decision on Bishop Oliveto’s election. At this time, we have no indication as to when the ruling will be announced.

The entire Cabinet is quite conscious that there are deep and varied convictions about this issue across the conference and connection. We are also aware that there is great interest, discourse and anxiety about this decision. As such, we are in daily prayer for all United Methodists, but especially the lay and clergy leadership of our conference as they are being called upon to lead their congregations through this critical moment and keep their church’s focus squarely on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We ask you to join us in these prayers.

We offer the following for your careful consideration, believing that it will help prepare you for the announcement of that ruling and assist in any questions or comments you might receive.

  • First and foremost, be a people of prayer. Pray for the Judicial Council, the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Oliveto and all the bishops of the church, all local churches, clergy and laity and The United Methodist Church at large.
  • Slow down, relax, don’t over respond. Please remind all to breathe deep and recall that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is at work here. Regardless of the ruling, the churches of the Central Texas Conference will continue in their worship and ministries.
  • No matter how the Judicial Council decides, the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ stays the same. We will stay focused on 1) Keeping Christ at the center of everything we do; 2) Developing strong and effective clergy and lay leadership; 3) Growing vital congregations throughout the Central Texas Conference.
  • We are going to continue to uphold church law. Please do not make premature decisions based on this ruling. The Judicial Council determines the constitutionality and legality of actions taken by individuals or constituted entities of the church and will express its own perspective and give its own rationale for its decision. The Judicial Council’s actions are always specific to particular circumstances. Because their decision will be about a specific request from one jurisdiction regarding the action of another jurisdiction, their decision will not change The Book of Discipline.
  • We ask you to wait for the full report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF), which is expected to be released in about a year, and the actions that come out of the called General Conference, scheduled for Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, before deciding on where you stand on this issue. Remember, this week’s ruling DOES NOT change church law, nor does it suggest how the CWF or the called General Conference might decide.
  • Please be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. While Facebook, Twitter, etc. are important and vital tools of communication, posts and tweets can easily be taken out of context, especially when shared or retweeted. While you and the members of your church are certainly entitled to and encouraged to have your own opinions, we do want to remind you that there is a greater constituency beyond your personal social media network to which you are responsible. No matter how the Judicial Council rules, there will be some in your congregation/community/peer groups who are celebrating the ruling and others who will mourn the decision. As you engage via social media, please do so in a positive, uplifting manner and help redirect the conversation back to the mission of the church. We encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Remember, as a pastor or lay leader, to some degree, you no longer only represent yourself, you represent your church, and the larger shared ministry of The UMC.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns following the decision, we urge you to visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including either one of us. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to the conference lay leader. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • At the request of the Council of Bishops, we will form a task force to help us design processes for working with and through the recommendations put forth by the Commission on a Way Forward. Dr. Bob Holloway, dean of the CTC Cabinet; Rev. Leah Hidde-Gregory, Central District Superintendent; Rev. Travis Franklin, North District Superintendent (effective July 1) and Rev. Casey Orr, member of the Commission on a Way Forward, have been named to this task force. They will be joined by four members of the 2016 CTC General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations. The delegation reps will be named by the delegation in the coming months.

Once again, we ask you to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord, keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the process – the Judicial Council, the CWF, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue. We also urge you to live in the second chapter of Philippians – particularly verses 4-5. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.“(CEB)

The Lord is at work here – whether we are aware, the Lord is at work here.

May the grace of the Lord guide your hearts and minds, today and forever.

Membership on “The Commission on a Way Forward” ©

Bishop Bruce Ough, President for the Council of Bishops has announced the selection of membership on the “The Commission on a Way Forward.”  He has noted in his press release that the Commission is made up of 8 bishops, 11 laity, 11 elders, and 2 deacons.  Furthermore Bishop Ough has noted “the makeup of the 32-member commission is roughly comparable to U.S. and Central Conference membership.”

Of special interest to members of the Central Texas Conference is the inclusion of Casey Langley Orr who is serving as a Deacon and appointed to First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, Texas.  I ask us all to keep the entire Commission, and indeed the United Methodist Church as a whole, in our prayers.  Those who share the privilege of being related to the Central Texas Conference, I especially ask that you be in prayer for Casey.  I believe Casey to be an outstanding choice who will prayerfully see a way forward in these tumultuous times.

In the words of Martin Luther: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.  Dost ask who that may be?  Christ Jesus, it is he.” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Number 110, verse 2, The United Methodist Hymnal.)

MEMBERSHIP IS ANNOUNCED AS FOLLOWS:
Jorge Acevedo – USA, Florida, elder, male

Brian Adkins – USA, California, elder, male

Jacques Umembudi Akasa- Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, laity, male

Tom Berlin – USA, Virginia, elder, male

Matt Berryman – USA, Illinois, laity, male

Helen Cunanan – Philippines, elder, female

David Field – Europe, Switzerland, laity, male

Ciriaco Francisco – Philippines, bishop, male

Grant Hagiya – USA, California, bishop, male

Aka Dago-Akribi Hortense – Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, laity, female

Scott Johnson – USA, New York, laity, male

Jessica Lagrone – USA, Kentucky, elder, female

Thomas Lambrecht – USA, Texas, elder, male

Myungae Kim Lee – USA, New York, laity, female

Julie Hager Love – USA, Kentucky, deacon, female

Mazvita Machinga – Africa, Zimbabwe, laity, female

Patricia Miller – USA, Indiana, laity, female

Mande Guy Muyombo – Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, elder, male

Eben Nhiwatiwa – Africa, Zimbabwe, bishop, male

Dave Nuckols – USA, Minnesota, laity, male

Casey Langley Orr – USA, Texas, deacon, female

Gregory Palmer – USA, Ohio, bishop, male

Donna Pritchard – USA, Oregon, elder, female

Tom Salsgiver – USA, Pennsylvania, elder, male

Robert Schnase – USA, Texas, bishop, male

Jasmine Rose Smothers – USA, Georgia, elder, female

Leah Taylor – USA, Texas, laity, female

Deborah Wallace-Padgett – USA, Alabama, bishop, female

Rosemarie Wenner – Europe, Germany, bishop, female

Alice Williams – USA, Florida, laity, female

John Wesley Yohanna – Africa, Nigeria, bishop, male

Alfiado S. Zunguza – Africa, Mozambique, elder, male

MODERATORS
Sandra Steiner Ball – USA, West Virginia, bishop, female

Kenneth Carter – USA, Florida, bishop, male

David Yemba – Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, bishop, male

Statement to the Clergy Executive Session

of the Central Texas Conference Of the United Methodist Church
Shared with Opening Plenary Session of the 2016 Central Texas Conference, June 6, 2016

As most, if not all of you are aware, the recently concluded General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon adopted a statement of action put forth by the Council of Bishops entitled “An Offering of a Way Forward.”  Among other things, it establishes a Commission to seek a way forward for the United Methodist Church which upholds the unity of the church amid our deep diversity and disagreement over issues of human sexuality.  Furthermore the statement calls for a Called General Conference sometime in the next quadrennium to receive the Commission’s report and act on possible recommendations.

Near the end of the adopted report is the following statement by the Council of Bishops: “We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”

It has been erroneously reported that this involves a moratorium on complaints and charges related to the presiding over same gender wedding. This is not so.  Please carefully understand the operative sentence.  “WE [the Bishops of the United Methodist Church] will uphold the Discipline.”  Should you choose to violate the Disciplinary provisions on same gender weddings, a complaint will be brought against you and if necessary charges will be filed.  Church law in The Discipline of the United Methodist Church has not been suspended. I will seek to live in grace pursuing meaningful just resolutions, but such just resolutions will be significant and have consequences.  I will up hold The Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

I ask all of us, lay and clergy alike, to pray for the church as a whole and all individuals affected (both those in favor of a change and those opposed). Together may we explore ways to “live in grace with one another.”

I commend to you strongly the We Are More campaign initiated by the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction (including myself) and the Communication Directors of the member Conferences (including our own Vance Morton).  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 website and social media properties and the outstanding, life changing work of Jesus Christ in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

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!

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!

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.

Musing on Run ©

I returned a week ago from a tremendous learning and sharing ministry in the Philippines. Together with Bishops John Schol, Rudy Juan, Ciriaco Franscisco, and Peter Torio, I was privileged to share in the COB Bright Spots Project on building vital congregations. Such travels remind me of how tempting it is to view our ministry in parochial terms. It is easy to boil the Christian faith and its witness down to our particular church, city, state, or nation. When we pause to think and pray, we are all reminded that the opposite is true. Mr. Wesley had it exactly right when he said, “the world is my parish!”

By way of example, a recent story crossed my desk about the tremendous ministry we participate in through Africa University. Bishop Marcus Matthews (Resident Bishop of the Baltimore Washington Episcopal Area and Vice-Chair of the African University Board of Directors) writes:

“United Methodist-related Africa University plays a critical role in the lives of people like Claudine Migisha Muhoza of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When rebel armies violently tore through her village, killing her parents and leaving her and her five siblings to fend for themselves, she was six-years-old. She suddenly found herself forced into the role of caregiver to her younger brothers and sisters.

Congolese by nationality, 22-year-old Muhoza was born in Goma, DRC. Despite her horrendous ordeal of losing her parents, she and her siblings rallied. She continued with her schooling, which ultimately led her to Africa University where she is currently studying psychology. 

With more than 6,200 graduates and offering degrees in six faculties of learning, plus programs in peace, leadership and governance, Africa University is making – and will continue to make – a difference through committed, conscientious and caring students.

In 2014, your support of the Africa University Fund (AUF) helped increased giving by more than two percent! That is something to celebrate! Your annual conference played an important role in this accomplishment because it invested 100 percent in its Africa University apportionment in 2014. We continue to celebrate your hard work to accomplish this!

Your annual conference’s ongoing support is essential to future leaders across the continent of Africa. Thank you! I encourage you to keep up the excellent work.

Please share Muhoza’s story, along with the Africa University Fund video, when you invite congregations to give their Africa University Fund apportionment in full. If you need additional resources and information, please encourage them to download resources from the AUF pastor and leader kit or visit Africa University Development website. We want to help YOU help our African sisters and brothers. Thank you!”

Tomorrow I leave for the second part of my renewal leave on a two week trip through Educational Opportunities following parts of the Apostle Paul’s 3 and 4th missionary journeys. Our first stop will be in Istanbul (the ancient city of Constantinople). The Nicene Creed, which we routinely (and rightly!) recite in our worship services, was written in what was essentially a suburb of Constantinople. Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom,” in honor of the second person of the holy trinity, the word made flesh, the wisdom from God – Jesus Christ) was once, for almost 1,000 years, the greatest church of Christianity. For her pulpit some to the great early leaders of the Christian faith preached the gospel (notably St. John Chrysostom). Today after a time used as a Mosque, it is now a museum.

It is a lifelong dream of mine to see this sacred site. As I prepare to leave, I am reminded of a different quote from a different person and time period. “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ [Ephesians 4:14], seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.

“We however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature, adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI)

As we set sail on the “Adventures of Paul” I hope to report and being reminded again of how wide – literally world-spanning – the Christian faith is. I pray that once again, each and every day, I/we might be yoked with Christ, rooted in a deep friendship with our Lord.

COUNCIL OF BISHOPS PASTORAL LETTER ON RACISM

While I have been in Europe attending the Council of Bishops meeting in Berlin, we as the world-wide Council have lived with the ongoing news of racial strife across the globe.  One regular aspect of the nightly news here in Europe has been the struggle of European countries to respond in humanitarian ways to the refugees from North Africa.  (For those unaware, there is a veritable tide of refugees crossing the narrow parts of the Mediterranean seeking the safety and financial opportunities that Europe offers.  Typically, they land in Italy.  By analogy for Americans, this is very similar to the Cuban and Vietnamese boat refugees that the United States has experienced in the past.)  We have also been following the news of continuing clashes over police action in places like Baltimore.  We are constantly aware of racial and tribal conflict in the Middle East.

However someone understands any given situation (whether in Italy, the United States, the Middle East or somewhere else in the world), it is clear that racism is a world-wide issue.  We who follow a Lord and Master who reached out in love to all people are committed to love, justice and mercy for all people.  All really means all!  Thus as a Council we believe we are to offer pastoral leadership on this critical issue for the whole church.  As such, our episcopal pastoral letter is also shared as a witness to the wider world.  I am convicted by the love of Christ to vote for this pastoral letter to the church and the world.  I am honored to join my sister and brother bishops in sharing it with the church and the world.

BishopCrest (4)“Grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ!

We, the bishops of The United Methodist Church, are meeting in Berlin, Germany, 70 years after the end of World War II.  As we gather, we renew our commitment to lead, as together we seek to become the beloved community of Christ.

We are a church that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.  On every continent, people called United Methodist are boldly living the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Yet, the people of our world are hurting, as injustice, violence and racism abound.  Our witness to the dignity of all human life and the reign of God is needed now more than ever.

Our hearts break and our spirits cry out, as we see reports of migrant people being attacked and burned in the streets of South Africa, note the flight of Jews from Europe, watch the plight of Mediterranean refugees and see racially charged protests and riots in cities across the United States that remind us that systems are broken and racism continues.  The evidence is overwhelming that race still matters, that racism is woven into institutional life and is problematic to communal health.  This reality impacts every area of life – in the church and in the world.

Racism is prejudice plus intent to do harm or discriminate based on a belief that one is superior or has freedom to use power over another based on race. Xenophobia is an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.  Racism and xenophobia, like other sins, keep us from being whole persons capable of living up to our full potential. They deny the profound theological truth that we are made in the image of God with the handprint of love and equality divinely implanted in every soul.

As bishops of the Church, we cast a vision for a world community where human worth and dignity defeat acts of xenophobia and racism. We acknowledge that silence in the face of systemic racism and community fears serves only to make matters worse.

We commit to lead, model and engage in honest dialogue and respectful conversation and invite people of faith everywhere to join us.  Let us repent of our own racial bias and abuse of privilege.  May we love God more deeply and, through that love, build relationships that honor the desire of people everywhere to be seen, valued, heard and safe. As we proclaim and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, may we lead the way in seeking justice for all, investing in and trusting God’s transforming power to create a world without hatred and racism.

As United Methodists, we affirm that all lives are sacred and that a world free of racism and xenophobia is not only conceivable, but worthy of our pursuit.  We renew our commitment to work for a Church that is anti-racist and pro-humanity, believing that beloved community cannot be achieved by ignoring cultural, racial and ethnic differences, but by celebrating diversity and valuing all people.

“This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” 1 John 4:21 (CEB)

RESOURCES

A New Dawn in Beloved Community:  Stories with the Power to Transform Us, Linda Lee, ed., Abingdon Press, 2012

Pan-Methodist Statement on Racism
from the 72nd Consultation of Methodist Bishops

Understanding and Dismantling Racism: the Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America,
Joseph Barndt,  Fortress Press, 2007″

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