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Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy

June 20-21 the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) held a traditional event in a nontraditional location and manner.  For decades (with only occasional lapses) the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction have sponsored a learning retreat at the Mt. Sequoyah in Fayetteville, Arkansas.   This year we focus the learning on leadership development. Participants included all members of the various extended cabinets and up to 10 other leaders selected by the bishop of the area with deliberate participants from Boards of Ordained Ministry, young leaders (lay and clergy) etc.  The bishops provided the leadership with process guidance from Dr. Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant in Church Leadership from the Texas Methodist Foundation.  We deliberately sought additional guidance from two bishops outside of the SCJ – Bishop Greg Palmer, a past President of the Council of Bishops and member of the Call to Action team, and Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, a newly elected bishop serving the North Alabama Episcopal Area.

The nontraditional location was White’s Chapel UMC.  Drs. John McKellar & Todd Renner and their staff with a wonderful crew of volunteers were an incredible blessing to the over 300+ church leaders involved.  They not only modeled radical hospitality; they gave the concept new definition!

As a part of this event, I presented two speeches on leadership development in the new ecosystem of the 21st century church:  “Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy” and “Following Two Paths – The One We Know and the One We Need.”  The following is an excerpt from the first of those speeches.

Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy:  Our mission is clear and unchanged.  ‘We are to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.’

Our purpose [in leadership development] comes straight out of the focus area formula endorsed by the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth.  We have to develop principled Christian leaders both for the church and for the world.  This necessitates deep, focused attention on the second point of the Call to Action.  “Dramatically reform the clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.”[1]  Reforming the clergy development system will dominate our thinking here but should never be divorced from the critical application of a new generation of lay leadership.  Without the two together, our efforts will be for naught.

To all of this we will need to balance the closing of churches and the movement of full time charges to part time places.  In the Central Conferences last year alone we lost $801,660 dollars in clergy remuneration.   Holding retirements in one hand and church closings in another is going to be really, really, tough.  General Eric Shinseki’s comment sticks to us like super glue Velcro. “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”[2]  Those who want a preset rule book or cookbook to follow need not to be on either the Cabinet or the Board of Ordained Ministry.

Take a look again at the North Star of purpose.  We have to steer to this location – developing principled Christian leaders both for the church and the world!  That purpose is our North Star.  By way of example, our purpose is not upholding the institutional structures of a clergy system of entitlement.  Our purpose is not bolstering the importance of seminaries.  Both institutional structures and seminaries may well further this purpose but they are not the purpose.

I think we are beginning, just beginning, to put together some pieces on how we must be flexible in strategy.  I offer a handful for our reflection and tentative embrace.

  • Forget the career ladder and think mentoring.  By mentoring I mean something more than merely assigning the person who has taken the approved training of GBHEM or the Board of Ministry.  I am thinking of the ongoing coaching, encouraging and guidance (including advocacy) of lay and clergy leaders with a track record of fruitfulness beyond institutional maintenance.
  • Explore alternative education that moves beyond the seminary requirement to a real embodiment of Wesleyan theology, leadership ability, and spiritual formation (Christian character).  This may well be some combination of post seminary training, the inculcation of a genuine system of continuing education (which is far beyond continuing education as a perk of pastoral position), and spiritual formation. . . .
  • Figure out how to embrace the spiritual entrepreneurs in our system.  We (the United Methodist system of clergy (& lay!) deployment have by-in-large adopted a position of shooting our entrepreneurs.  To our embarrassment there are highly fruitful and faithful pastors who left our system not because they disagreed with our theology or even our governance but because the rigidity of our system of credentialing and appointment made life untenable for them.  Well over a decade ago, Roy Oswald and Claire Burkat noted in Transformational Regional Bodies (an Alban Institute publication) that in the “screening process for denominations . . . these overly stringent requirements at the front end of the ordination track did screen out the worst candidates, but it also screened out the best.”  They continued, “The more requirements you lay on people before they can even begin to consider a vocation in the ordained ministry, the more you will have passive, dependent types who will endure any requirement you put before them.”[3]
  • We need to bolster the edges of our leadership development system.  We have been risk averse and it shows.  If you step back and look at what we are doing with this Bishops’ Week, the common theme is one of experimentation and development.  We face a bigger danger in being too timid than we do in being too flexible.  Go back and read Wigger’s American Saint on the life of Francis Asbury.  He was forever sending people out into the mission field with incomplete training and inadequate support.  Or, to deliberately change the image to one I have heard Gil Rendle use:  people in the wilderness (that’s us!) are not following a map.  We are making a map.
  • We must continue to develop trust and mutual accountability between bishops & cabinets and their respective Boards of Ordained Ministry.  For those of us on the Cabinet this will require a transparence which we are uncomfortable with.  For those on the Board of Ordained Ministry, it will require a partnership that is far greater than gatekeeping or serving as union shop stewards.  For both groups; we will all be stressed by appropriate issues of confidentiality and differing judgment.
  • I suggest that we need to be open to people coming from other denominations.  This is hard in our tradition.  In theory our committed ecumenical stance should make us open to such options.  In practice our guaranteed appointment, distinctive style of appointment and itinerancy, and inward bent United Methodist ethos makes it difficult despite our best intentions.  Oswald and Burkat’s book Transformational Regional Bodies has an intriguing chapter on such recruitment.
  • Experiment!

[1]           A CALL TO ACTION for The United Methodist Church, Final Report of the Interim Operations Team, September 2012

[2]               General Eric Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army

[3]               Roy M. Oswald and Claire S. Burkat, Transformational Regional Bodies, p. 113

Faith, Hope and Clarity

Most of us know the great closing of I Corinthians 13, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13).  What many of us are unaware of is the old King James Version translation of love was charity.  Thus the phrasing of I Corinthians 13:13 in the KJV is: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the great of these is charity.”

During my work on my D. Min. I took a preaching course in which the preaching professor would deliberately misquote the closing of I Corinthians 13:13.  His version as advice for preachers was the statement, “so faith, hope and clarity abide, and the greatest of these is clarity!”

If you step back and think about, this is great advice for preaching.  Clarity is crucial in presentation of the preached word.  Even more, it is critically important in communication in general.  During our recent Forum for Active/Residential Bishops, Professor Maria Dixon Hall noted that most people don’t know what the United Methodist Church stands for and what our mission is.  (Our mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ and for the transformation of the world.”)  Despite our best attempts, clarity of communication is still lacking.

This Friday I was participating in a meeting of leaders of the Council of Bishops, General Secretaries (leaders of the UMC’s Boards and Agencies), Presidents of the Agencies (elected heads of their governing boards) and representatives from the Connectional Table of the UMC.  It was an impressive group.  These people hold a deep common conviction in Christ and a great love for the church (especially the UMC).  Good intention and honorable convictions were the order of the day.

And yet, the very complexity of our struggle kept tripping us up.  Listening, I was reminded of a recent comment from Bishop Robert Schnase.  “Complexity is the killer of organizations.”  He referred us back to the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball (which is a mini-classic in business management about the complexity of Corporations).  (Note:  I may have paraphrased his quote from mistaken memory.  The quote may not be original to Bishop Schnase.)

It is easy to blame the general church or individuals involved or various groups.  But, as I reflected on what I was participating in, it reminded me of so many local churches, including some that I served!  This is not an issue for the larger system alone but for every local congregation!  We can get so complex and rule bound that the mission disappears into the back ground.  Blaming is not only not helpful; it is counterproductive.  The question for each of us individually and as members of groups (agencies, churches, etc.) is to wrestle with governance structures that enhance decision making, reduce the veto power of a few, and open us up to the mission we all believe in – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Now may faith, hope and clarity abide!  And the greatest of these is really love!  (But clarity is needed!)


Is That All There is to It?

The night before the recent CTC Conference on Stewardship, the Cabinet met with Clif Christopher and Joe Park (the Conference teachers).  Those of you who know stewardship and know Clif are aware that the subject is really spiritual formation, mission and vision for Christ. Near the end of the evening he shared the following story which I paraphrase from memory.

Clif was sitting in a church on Sunday morning as they waited for the service to start.  As they passed the registration pad on, he noticed that the woman next to him checked the box “wish to join the church.”  When they came to the greeting time, he greeted her by name and commented about her desire to join the church.  “Yes,” she said.  “I’ve checked that box for three weeks in a row.  How do you join this church?”

Just about then the pastor came up the aisle greeting people.  Clif stepped out of his pew and guided the pastor to the woman and said, “Mary wants to join the church.”

The pastor warmly greeted her.  She asked again, “How do I go about joining this church?”  With a big smile the Pastor replied, “You just did!”

As the Pastor returned to the front to continue the service, she leaned over to Clif and whispered, “Is that all there is to it?”

Membership used to mean discipleship.  It still should. Disciples are disciplined, committed followers of Jesus Christ.  Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The mission is not for the casual; it is for the committed.  Clif spoke a great deal about the need to raise expectations.  There is a deep theology of commitment and faith under the leadership of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The early Methodist movement was built on high commitment.  You had to be a member of a class meeting for spiritual growth, nurture and maturation.  It was expected that members were engaged in hands-on ministry with the poor.  Giving, yes tithing! — 10%, was an expectation.  Witnessing and faith sharing (evangelism) was common.  Membership in a Methodist Church was far from casual!

The reader can trace this out.  In the early Christian movement and the early Methodist movement, the five practices of fruitful congregations and fruitful living (or some biblical version thereof) were expectations.  Here is fodder for a serious theological and spiritual conversation in an Administrative Board or Council meeting.  How do we raise the conversation about expectations under The Lordship of Jesus Christ?  How do we move from membership back to discipleship?

We have to begin with a conversation between lay and clergy leadership.  This cannot be accomplished by “fiat.”  But, the lingering question of the woman in the pew hangs in the air.  “Is that all there is to it?”  Surely there is more to joining the church than a casual relationship.  May the conversation take place.


Outwardly Focused & Upwardly Witnessing

Allow me to begin with a story that comes from Pastor Steve Nance at Groesbeck First UMC.

 “The lady that runs our local housing authority office called the church some time back asking for clothing for one of her clients.  She called nine local churches in the Groesbeck area and FUMC was the only one that responded.  We placed a call out to the church and in a very short time supplied her with everything she needed and included food items as well.  The lady from the housing authority was so overwhelmed with the church’s willingness to get involved that she visited the church a few Sundays ago.  Last Wednesday night she attended the first session of a new Bible study based on the TV show, Mayberry.  Today she came in and asked if she and her husband could join the church.  She wants to be a part of a church that ‘gets out of the walls of the building’ (our [First UMC Groesbeck’s] tag-line).

 “Pastor Nance adds,  ‘Funny story:  we recently changed insurance companies.  Underwriting for the new company saw on our website that we engage in risk taking missions.  He needed a written explanation as to what this was before we could be insured!!’”

 Wow!  I find such a narrative to be exciting.  It is at the heart of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  In PLD Group (Pastors Leadership Development Group – a part of the Healthy Church Initiative ministry) we are reading The Outwardly Focused Church by Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson.  Their insights go hand in hand with the experience of First UMC Groesbeck.  They comment, “Service is, and should be, the identifying mark of Christians and the church. … One of the most effective ways to reach people with the message of Jesus Christ today is through real and relevant acts of service. … To tell the truth, we must show the truth. … Externally focused churches are convinced that good deeds and good news can’t and shouldn’t be separated” (Emphasis in the original; The Outwardly Focused Church by Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson, pp. 11 & 24).

The combination of radical hospitality (evangelism) and risk-taking mission and service is at the very heart of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission (Luke 10:27 & Matthew 28:18-20).  It is at this crossroads (pun intended as we move through Lent to the cross and beyond) that gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, intersects our hurting and hungry world.  Think of the cross.  The arms extended horizontally represent risk-taking mission and service.  The upward reaching center beam stands for the good news of salvation in and through Christ our Lord shared in the radical hospitality of evangelistic witness.  Outwardly focused and upwardly witnessing.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, the body of Christ, at its best!

Lifting Up Diversity as a Core Value

While on our recent pilgrimage of the Holy Land, we encountered impressive religious and ethnic diversity.  I can recall a wonderful discussion with one of the guides who is a conservative Jew and another guide who is a practicing Syrian Orthodox Christian.  They were able to articulate both their own positions and give respect to those who shared other perspectives (including Muslim).  The diversity enriched and enhanced our experience of the land called Holy by three major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  All this must be noted in the context of the ongoing conflict with and over diversity in that land!  Being diverse and honoring diversity as a core value is not easy!

In same time period, back in America we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The still powerful echoes of his “I Have a Dream” speech linger in our consciousness and guide our higher aspirations. (If you haven’t read it already, I invite you to go to the Central Texas Conference Website and read the feature article “50 Years Later – Is the Dream Closer to Reality” which contains a thoughtful letter from retired Bishop Woody White, the first chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.)

It all leaves me asking the question, how are we doing?  Is the dream closer to reality for us and for our churches?  Do we reflect the diversity God so loves and that we incorporate in our core values?  John 3:16 challenges our actions – “for God so loved the world!”

The quick answer is we have a long way to go!  We are not where we desire to be nor aspire to be.  The follow up answer is that we do show evidence of moving in the right direction.  By way of responding, I asked the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth to come up with some data for me.  They engaged in a brief “Diversity Research Project report” at my request.  They used the measurements endorsed and employed by the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

UMCORR (United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race) defines “approaching diverse” as a church having “between 81% and 90% of one ethnic group as predominate.”  They define “diverse” as a church having “between 70% and 80% of one ethnic group as predominate.”  The results are as follows:

  2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Approaching   Diverse 6 5 8 6 6 6 10 13 15 18
Diverse 3 3 2 4 4 3 3 2 4 6

We have long way to go!  We are not where we desire or aspire to be.  We are not yet where God wants us.  If we follow a God who loves the “world” (John 3:16) we need to reflect the diversity God so loves!

At the same time, we have made genuine progress.  Well done, thou good and faithful servants.  They are accomplishments to celebrate in, through, and by the grace of our Lord.  May the divine dream continue to call us forward together!

The United Methodist Witness and the Christmas Imperative

One of the more perceptive thinkers on the United Methodist Church in our time is Dr. Lovett Weems.  He is a former President of St. Paul’s School of Theology and currently serves as Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. In September Dr. Weems was the featured presenter of a leadership retreat for the Cabinets of the Texas Conferences (Central Texas, North Texas, Northwest Texas/New Mexico, Rio Grande, Southwest Texas, and Texas).

By now most of us know and have bought into the core mission statement of the United Methodist Church (and the Central Texas Conference):  “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  We have taken this mission statement a step further in regards to the Central Texas Conference.  Our emphasis is on local churches as the place where disciples are made.  Properly understood, the Conference exists to “energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Dr. Weems posited a slightly different and intriguing mission for any given annual conference:  “To enhance and extend the witness of the United Methodist Church within their geographical boundary.”  His vision was not an enhancement of the institutional vitality but rather built on a deep conviction that God in Christ through Holy Spirit has called into mission a people called Methodist to witness to our broken world the grace of Jesus Christ.  Put in my language, there are people who will be reached for Christ and His gospel by us or not at all.  Furthermore, the great Wesleyan union of personal and social holiness as a part of the larger Christian witness is needed now more than ever.

The concern about local churches being the conference’s focus lies in the danger of thinking that conferences exist as mere service providers for local congregations. Providing services is a needed first step but not complete.  Left out of the equation are often the hungry, homeless and hopeless (physically and spiritually speaking)!  Our mission must be larger.  We must extend the witness of Christ and in so doing share the Methodist union of knowledge and vital piety, social and personal holiness.

All of which brings me back again to the Christmas imperative.  Christmas Eve is a time, literally a God-given time, to extend the saving witness of life in Christ!  Do whatever you can to get the word out and invite people in to share in the singing, praise and offering of adoration to the newborn king!  “O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!”  — enhance and extend the witness!

The Strangest Thing

For years I have enjoyed reading Circuit Rider magazine.  The most recent addition focuses on mission and evangelism.  It is worth perusing.  I did so and ran into the following story from an article entitled “Evangelism with the Never-Churched” by Dr. Jack Jackson.

Dr. Jackson writes: “Last Christmas season, my family walked through the downtown community where we live. In one of the store windows we passed were a small set of woodcarvings that included a baby, two adults right next to the baby, three kingly-looking persons nearby, and a scattering of cows, donkeys, and ducks. I still am not sure of the significance of the ducks, but we were looking at a crèche.
One of my children’s friends pointed out the Nativity scene. He said it was the strangest thing he had ever seen. Cows never hang out with ducks, much less people, he said.
‘What is this?’ he asked.
My wife responded by saying it was the Nativity scene.
‘What is that?’ came the response.
‘It is the story of Jesus’ birth in the stable.’
To which our friend said, ‘Never heard of it.’”

Think about it.  The Christmas story is the strangest thing.  Faith in Christ as Lord and Savior hinges on the outrageous conviction that God has visited and taken up residence on planet Earth in the person and work of Jesus the Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is mind-blowing!

Double think about it.  We often assume that people know the story.  Today, for many, this is not so.  Dr. Jackson continues: “It is not necessary to recap the growth trends of people leaving Christian places of worship. Recent polls suggesting that 20 percent of U.S. citizens have no connection to any religious tradition surprise few. Most of us also know that there are people in our communities, like my child’s friend, with virtually no awareness of the basics of the Christian gospel. And yet evangelistic and missional practices in many churches seem to assume an awareness of the Christian story that clouds effective evangelism” (“Evangelism with the Never-Churched” by Jack Jackson, published in the Circuit Rider November/December/January 2012-2013).

As I have said before, Advent and Christmas is prime-time evangelism.  This is an opportunity to sing and pray, teach and preach about the greatest story ever told.  This is a chance to invite non- or nominal Christian friends and family members to worship with you.  Now is the ideal time to introduce someone to the Lord of the universe who comes in the form of a baby named Jesus.

Whatever you do this advent, reach out and invite.  Feature prominently on your website worship times, especially Christmas Eve services (the highest attended worship for non-Christians!).  With love and care, offer the Lord to the whole community through your witness and worship.  It is the strangest thing.  This birth we prepare for and celebrate is also the most wonderful thing!

Prayer, Justice, Teaching and Evangelism

The last part of this week has been fascinating.  It is include much of the key elements of the Wesleyan way of being Christian in my life.

Thursday morning opened with a breakfast with my prayer and accountability partner.  It is a way I stay grounded personally and spiritually.  I have to tell 1 person how I’ve done that week.  There’s no coercion for either of us; just honest sharing.  I have also added a new spiritual director for my life.  Walking with Christ is a not a sidelight to the Christian life but it is the Way. When I get distracted and miss the time of prayer and spiritual formation, I mess up.

I left my prayer time to go over 1st UMC Grapevine and spend time working as a volunteer at JFON (Justice For Our Neighbors).  JFON is a joint ministry of the North and Central Texas Conferences of the United Methodist Church working on immigration issues.  A great team of volunteers under the leadership of a wonderful director (Mary Beth Garcia) coached me through an intake interview.  Working through immigration in a manner that is living with our neighbors/immigrants, respectful of the legal system, and Christ honoring is really complex! (In my intake situation part of the family are US citizens and part are not.  They want to be together in a way that is legal.)  This is a living of our focus area “Ministry with the Poor” in a concrete way that exemplifies Matthew 25:40 – “in as much as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters you did it to me.”

Thursday night I shared in the Mission Academy jointly sponsored by the UT Arlington and TCU Wesley Foundations.  We are studying Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  I love learning from the insightful dialog the college students offer.

Friday noon will find me meeting with some workers at the “Stewart Tank” (oil storage tanks) in Strawn.  Rev. Tom Beaty (with West DS Rev. Carol Woods’ support) is engaged in a great evangelistic outreach ministry to some seekers in the community who might never darken the door of a church.  The dialog reminds me of the original Wesleyan movement going to the mines.  I am looking forward to breaking bread with them (lunch) and sharing in our mutual learning as we try to faithfully and respectfully offer Christ.

Next Monday we begin our Fall Cabinet Retreat.  Dr. Ted Campbell from Perkins School of Theology will lead us in an exploration of the Wesleyan movement for today.

Evangelism and Social Holiness

In my travels and reading I constantly come across the deep Methodist Conviction that Social and Personal Holiness go together.  In fact, Professor Ted Campbell (Perkins School of Theology) notes in his excellent summary Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials this conviction with the comment that the “Methodist ethos” combined “strict personal morality and progressive social morality” (see p. 96). Doctrinally this was and is(!) held together by yoking “justification” with “sanctification.”  While distinct tasks, evangelism (sharing the good news of Christ — witness, calling for conversion and repentance) and social holiness cannot be separated.  This much most modern United Methodist can heartily agree upon.

The struggle as I see it comes in the application.  We still tend to think of an either/or rather than a both/and.  Dr. Reggie McNeal (Missional Renaissance) spoke to us on how we yoke the two in our learning Summit a couple of years ago.  Recently, I received a letter from one of our pastors that spoke of how they are attempting to do so.  It’s worth sharing and commending.  I do so with Pastor Leah Hidde-Gregory’s permission.

I wanted to add that the outreach of our church is done out of social holiness.  Very few people come into our food pantry without being offered a time of prayer.  We have Bibles available to give away in both English and Spanish.   Several people have come to our church after having developed relationships with our members who volunteer at the community center.  If we are going to be in ministry out of a love for Jesus Christ, then we need to tell others about our motivation.   If I were to eat at a great new restaurant, I would tell my friends.   If I watched a great new television show, I would tell someone.   It only stands to reason, that when we encounter the Risen Christ and experience transformational events on our faith journey, we cannot help but sing God’s glory   (Rev. Leah Hidde-Gregory, Pastor Frost-Italy Charge, email 02-23-12).

Last Sunday worshipping at Genesis, Rev. Ginger Watson shared a similar story of how neighbors invited people to an open house and graciously shared a witness about their church and ministry (which is not United Methodist).  Both remind me of the critical need to explicitly connect (or should I say reconnect evangelism and social holiness).

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