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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.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #7:

Spirit Led

This blog will be posted as we open the 2015 meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference.  We meet in a time of great opportunity and equally great peril.  Facing forward with a focus on the local church, I invite us to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for the Church of Jesus Christ.  One of the great and godly things going on is the gradual rediscovery among mainline Christians of the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity.  Dr. Jason Byassee’s new book Trinity: The God We Don’t Know is but one example of this very positive trend.  As the post-Christendom Church continues to emerge, the Holy Spirit’s leading is taking center stage.  Insightfully Dr. Byasee comments, “The descent of the Spirit in the birth of the church is almost like a second incarnation. … What God does for us in Christ, God works in us by his Holy Spirit” (Jason Byassee, Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, p. 41).

Spiritual formation and small group ministry must once again take center stage in the life of the United Methodist Church.  Prayer is at the heart of openness to the Spirit’s leading.  Discernment (as a form of prayer) – an often forgotten, misunderstood and/or misused tool for seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance – must once again assume its rightful place at the center of our corporate ministry.  “We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5).

Discernment (along with Holy Conversation – a deeply abused and misunderstood concept in the life of the church today!) involves extensive quiet, intensive biblical study, and a settled openness to guidance that comes from God.  Discernment by nature is complex but at its core involves a quiet attentiveness to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit over, above and beyond our own desires or preferences. Discernment in its fullness takes a practiced heart, fine-tuned to hear the word of God and the single-mindedness to follow that word in love.  It is truly a gift from God, but not one dropped from the skies fully formed.  It is a gift cultivated by a prayerful life and the search for self-knowledge. Typically we apply discernment on an individual level.  We need to also recover the concept of discernment for the church as a body seeking the Lord’s leading.

Ruth Haley Barton carefully instructs both the church and the individual who would seek the Spirit’s leading.  “The capacity to discern and do the will of God arises out of friendship with God, cultivated through prayer, times of quiet listening, and alert awareness” (Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 116).  Perceptively she counsels those seeking discernment that “the practice of discernment begins with a prayer for indifference. … Here [indifference] means ‘I am indifferent to anything but God’s will.’  This is a state of wide-openness to God” (Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 119; Chapter 8 on “Discernment” is particularly helpful.  So too is the work of Monsignor Joesph Tetlow, SJ, Making Choices in Christ — my former spiritual guide – and various writings of  John Ortberg, especially Soul Keeping.)

The leading of the Holy Spirit will always be shaped by the love of God in Christ. “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).  In a variety of ways we must ask as both a church and as individuals, “What does love call for? How are we to best live out of the love of God in Christ?”  Quick superficial answers are not helpful here.  Often what seems loving may in discernment turn out not to be loving at all.

I am currently reading A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir.  It is the autobiography of the eminent patristic theologian and Wesleyan scholar Thomas Oden (long time Professor at The School of Theology at Drew University).  At one point he recounts a sabbatical early in his career as a theologian to Heidelberg University.  While there he had the rare opportunity to visit with perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century (and arguably one of the greatest Christian theologians ever), Karl Barth.  Early in the conversation, Professor Oden shared his enthusiasm for the then voguish combination of therapy and theology centered on self-affirmation.  Professor Barth remarked, “Proceed cautiously.  The only source of love of the neighbor is the Word which God speaks affirming both you and the neighbor, not any self-affirmation one gives to oneself”  (Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, p. 96). Later, as they closed the conversation, Dr. Barth encouraged him and underscored “that the church must ‘live by the Holy Spirit,’ and not the spirit of the times” (Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, p. 96).

We need that same encouragement and caution today.  D.T. Niles words temper our self-serving attempts to insist that the Holy Spirit baptize our preferences.  “He (or she) who marries the present age, will be a widow (or widower) in the next.” The Spirit is not subject to the faddish whims of our times.  It is not governed by temporary enthusiasm, momentary inspirations or even heart-felt aspirations.  The Holy Spirit’s leading of the church is anchored in Scripture and tradition.  It lives within the riches of the grace of God – prevenient, justifying and sanctifying.

The leading of the Spirit is not an embrace of every high emotion that comes along.  The Holy Spirit does not and will not lead us contrary to the witness of Holy Scripture.  Likewise under the Spirit’s guidance and interpretation of the witness of Scripture is guided by the great historical affirmations of the Christian faith as found in the seminal creeds.  There too we see the footprint of the Holy Spirit’s leading.

We are being led into a new future by the Holy Spirit.  This is God’s doing.  May we be among those who are prayerfully discerning.

A Great Bible for Children

As I travel about the Central Texas Conference (St. Philips, Frost/Italy this past month, Chatfield last Sunday and St. Andrews, Arlington coming up in October – I’ll be visiting seminaries next week), I have the joy of coming into contact with young children and some exciting Sunday classes.  A common experience is the presentation of a Bible by a church to its third grade children.  I made such presentations every year as a pastor and still have the one I was given as a third grader.

Recently I got a copy of a new children’s Bible using the CEB (Common English Bible) translation.  It is called Deep Blue Kids Bible.   I recommend it highly!  It is an exciting way to help grade-school aged kids (targeted for ages 8 to 12) engage in learning the Holy Scriptures.  Not only is it a superb and superbly readable translation, it is designed in an interactive way for kids.  There are notes, trivia, and devotionals.  The readers (young and/or old) join with three “life-like” kids in investigating the Scriptures and discovering what biblical application can mean in their lives.

Currently Cokesbury has Deep Blue Kids Bible on sale.  I enthusiastically recommend it for our children and grandchildren!

Mission Strategists

Recently I met with the District Superintendents (Don Scott – Central, Bob Holloway – East, Ginger Bassford – North, Carol Woods – West, and Rankin Koch – South) to review the pioneering work we did on realigning the work of District Superintendents around the mission field.  To refresh memories: for the last four years the Exodus Project has reshaped the work of the conference to center around our mission of “…making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world…” In this reshaping, the job description of the district superintendent has also been redefined.  One of the key ways a DS carries out our mission is by being the “Chief Mission Strategist of the district.”

The intent is to move District Superintendents away from administrative maintenance and on to mission.  This is no easy task because the Disciplinary mandates still have to be met (many, most, of them involving administrative maintenance) even while we seek to engage DSs as Mission Field Strategists.  (We really are building the bridge while we walk on it!)

We have identified and been working on a number of elements that shift the focus of a DS’s job to being a mission strategist.  1)  Lifting up mission field questions/issues with local churches; 2) identifying and engaging missional outreach needs for the District as a whole; 3) guiding congregations to examine their future – i.e. legacy, critical mission, regional, etc. – and assisting them to strategically engage that future; 4) collaborative learning both within the District (lay and clergy) as well as with the various Ministry Centers (Evangelism & Church Growth, Leadership, and Mission Support); 5) recruitment of potential new clergy and lay leaders; and 6) the development and deployment of resources (personnel, financial, energy, time, etc.).

A District Superintendent as chief mission strategist for a district works with each church to repeatedly ask the question:  “How are you engaging the mission field?”  All this is done with the intention to engage and energize local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

TAIZE: DEVELOPING A NEW GENERATION OF LEADERSHIP

One of our vital strategic objectives is to develop a new generation of leadership.  As the “baby boomer” pastors & lay leadership retire this becomes increasingly critical.  We must be focused on forming and developing a generation of young disciples and leaders for the 21st century.  As an integral part of that process, I will be a part of leadership team leading a pilgrimage of young adults to Taizé, France, in May 2013, to expose them to the deep spirituality and justice orientation of the Taizé community.  The intent of the pilgrimage will be to develop the personal spirituality and the leadership capabilities of the young adults through prayer, reflection, community, and instruction.

Our partner in this venture is the Missional Wisdom Foundation.  The Missional Wisdom Foundation is a private non-profit corporation that supports the education and Christian development of adults through service and new monasticism. The Foundation makes it possible for students and others engaged in ministry to live in community and to explore Christian service by providing financial, asset management and administrative services. The Missional Wisdom Foundation is a private corporation and is an approved extension ministry of the United Methodist Church.

The pilgrimage will be open to young adults from the Central Texas Conference between the ages of 17 and 30.  They will be selected through an application process that will be administered by the Conference Pilgrimage Leadership Team.

The application is on-line at www.missionalwisdom.com.  Approximately 20 participants will be selected.  The Selection Committee will endeavor to choose a diverse group of participants, considering geographic location, gender, and ethnicity in the selection of qualified candidates.

Each participant will be responsible for contributing $500 toward the cost of the trip, either individually or through the local church.  The remainder of the trip cost will be underwritten by the Missional Wisdom Foundation.  No conference funds will be used for this trip.

The Conference Pilgrimage Leadership Team includes myself, Rev. Larry Duggins  (Director, Missional Wisdom Foundation; Associate Pastor, White’s Chapel UMC; Trip Leader), Rev. Kyland Dobbins (Center for Mission Support), and Leanne Johnston (Center for Evangelism and Church Growth).

I am excited about this incredible opportunity for learning and spiritual formation.  While space is limited, I invite those who are eligible to prayerful consider applying by following the link to the Missional Wisdom Foundation and the pilgrimage tab on their page.

Learning in Austin and Gathering in Tampa

Monday morning I had the privilege of attending a TMF (Texas Methodist Foundation) Board learning session which focused on ministry with “Generation Y” (young adults).  With leadership provided by a young clergy couple from Church of the Resurrection and a follow on panel of four young adults (including Ben Lake, a lay member of 1st Georgetown), we engaged in nonjudgmental cross generational learning.  Among many insights is the repeated importance of going where young people are and engaging them on their turf.  To use the language of my age, this is a far cry from invitational evangelism.  It is an emphatic call to risk-taking evangelism through open engagement.

A repeated insight from Gil Rendle that I continue to “chew” on is that each new generation reacts & responds as a corrective to what it perceives as the problems/excesses/failures of the previous generation.  Thus, all generations struggle to some degree with the generations on either side of them.  There is much for all of us to learn here!

Yesterday Jolynn & I traveled to Tampa for Council of Bishops (COB) and General Conference.  We will be here for almost 3 weeks.  The Council will engage both in preparation for General Conference and in ongoing mission & ministry.  The first item on the agenda is a report from the Unity Task Force (of which I am a part).  In an age and culture known for its divisions, we who claim the title Christian must be known for our grace and good will.  Or, in the old liturgical words, “let us be together what Christ has been for us.”

I covet your prayers for the Church, the bishops and our General Conference.

P.S. I commend to you the reading of Bishop Robert Schnase’s most recent Ministry Matters blog #24 “A Healthy Urgency.” I strongly urge you to read the entire blog (!) – especially the last 4 paragraphs.

Apportionment Payout as a Missional Priority

In a recent Cabinet meeting we looked at extensive data on our apportionment payout over the last two years.  Apportionment Payout is a vital way we live out our collective, connectional, missional priority.   Here is some of the data:

“In the past 2 years the Central Texas Conference has had 46 churches that have not paid 100% of apportionments either one of those years or both those years.
            21 churches did not pay out either year
            11 churches paid out in 2010 but not in 2009
            14 churches paid out in 2009 but not in 2010

In performing an in depth statistical study of these 46 churches, several interesting trends/facts were revealed.  A few are obvious while others are a bit more revealing.

Membership gain is a meaningless indicator when considered by itself.  Yet when it is placed alongside average worship attendance and grand total paid, we see the story.
            19 churches had a membership gain but only 5 gained in worship attendance
            27 churches lost membership – all lost in worship attendance
            1 remained neutral in membership and lost in worship attendance
            Of these 46 churches, 29 had a decline in giving from 2005 through 2010.

The obvious fact is that Average Worship Attendance greatly impacts total giving.  (Emphasis added)  When we relate this to apportionments we learned that taken as a whole the apportioned amounts for these 46 churches generally ranged from 10%-12% of their grand total paid.  The conclusion then is that the apportionments themselves are not what is hindering these congregations.

We then looked at the total staff salaries of these churches.  The findings revealed that total staff salaries in 24 of the churches have declined while they increased in 21.  Of the 21 churches with increased total staff salaries only 4 paid out in 2010.  It is worth noting that because of their member/customer service nature, churches, non-profits, and service organizations can have personnel costs of up to 50% or more.  Almost all these 46 churches show reasonable personnel cost percentages less than 50%.

A third area considered in the study focused on the ratio of Principle and Interest Paid to the grand total paid.  We found that the majority of these churches have no debt service while many larger churches on the list do.  There were only a few of these churches that had what might be considered “a crippling” debt service of 30%-35%.

We expected to see an increase in the category of Other Benevolences Paid since there was a lack of apportionment giving paid.  That correlation did not occur.  Only 5 churches showed decreased apportionment payments with increased benevolence giving.

The conclusion is that with the exception of only a handful of churches on this list, these churches are on the downward cycle of church life.  (Through the transforming power and presence of the Holy Spirit this can be changed!)  It appears that up to 15 of these churches are in or near the final stage.

Although salaries, principle and interest and benevolent giving as a percent of GTP can be important factors in preventing a church from paying 100% of apportionments, the most important indicator is attendance.  The factors that are causing this downward trend have to be addressed and could be different for each church.”

My special thanks to Rev. Harvey Ozmer and his team for conducting this insightful research.

Tuesday I will be attending the Financial Leadership Forum sponsored by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and the General Council on Finance and Administration along with a delegation from the Central Texas Conference.  Churches are tied to the economy and like many other elements of our economy (including both federal and state governments) we are experiencing a fiscal crisis.  I’ll try to share some insights gained in Friday’s blog.