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Report from General Conference ©

The quadrennial gathering of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church began Tuesday afternoon. The opening worship was inspirational.  With over 40% of the delegates coming from outside the United States, the diverse international flavor and multi-lingual character of the greater church is everywhere present.  Gone is the day when we can think of ourselves in purely a North American/US context.  This is a very good thing; a true work of the Lord giving evidence of the Witness to Christ reaching around the world (Acts 1:8)!

The worship services have been spiritually uplifting and soul life-giving. The content of our worship has been strongly Christ-centered — so much so that it has been a noticeable change and has pointed theological focus.  It is here, in effusive worship and praise, that the heart is sent soaring. This morning’s (May 12, 2016) opening worship included a deeply moving contemporary song with the following chorus:

“More like you, Jesus, more like you
Fill my heart with your desire
To be more like you.”

It was followed by the traditional hymn, “Lead Me Lord.” Sharing in the singing I found myself convicted of the need to be open to the Lord’s manner of relating and way of serving.  I do not think I was alone.

Almost as if we are riding a rollercoaster, we have swung from the highs of worship and prayer to the lows of a protracted squabble over the rules of the General Conference. The lack of trust across the spectrum is everywhere evident.  It is difficult to reconcile the wild swings of mood and relationship.

Amidst the deep lack of trust and intense wrangling over rules, Bishop Gregory Palmer’s Episcopal Address (the formal speech by a bishop on behalf of the entire Council of Bishops to the church) stood in a great witness to the church as a whole in all of its wide and wild variety. It was a powerful and holy address.  If you read or listen to one thing over the long length of General Conference, read or listen to Bishop Palmer’s address on behalf of the Council of Bishops.  You will be blessed by doing so.  A link is provided here.

We Are More ©

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

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

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

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

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

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 4

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part IV: Convicted Hope

But, I started the talk the way I did out of deeply held convictions. We are not just an Easter people; we are an Easter church!  There are signs of new life all around.  The Lord God really is doing something new!  McGrath is right: “The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity.”

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of this reality in the following quote.

“In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterston describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith” – the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilizations. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud.

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”

Embracing a full blown, unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us.  The way ahead is difficult.  It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful.  We are duly challenged.  Is Jesus Lord of our lives including our professional work?  Is this His church or a human institution?  Make no mistake: the way is strewn with obstacles, but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.  Do you remember that marvelous interchange which takes place between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Lucy in C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

A Significant Denominational Report on Congregational Vitality

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

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

 2014 Vitality Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep the faith!

John Schol, Bishop
The United Methodist Church
Greater New Jersey

 

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

Highly Vital Congregation Measures

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

Growth

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

Involvement

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

Engaged

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

Giving

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

 Growing Vitality

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

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

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

 

A Time for Prayer ©

This Sunday night, February 28, at 9:45 p.m., I will pause for a special set-aside 15 minutes of prayer for the upcoming General Conference meeting of The United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon in May. I invite others to join with me and with the Central Texas Conference in taking an opportunity to pause and be in special prayer for General Conference. The need is great.

As I prepare for my own time of prayer, I recall that powerful scene in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles which opens with the disciples being instructed by the risen Lord, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Stunned, they watch the ascension of Jesus. “While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven’”(Acts 1:10-11).  What do they do next?  It is amazingly instructive.  They returned to Jerusalem had a prayer meeting!  They didn’t argue about strategy.  They didn’t battle over doctrine.  To be sure those important tasks would come later.  They first prayed!  “All were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

My friend and colleague Bishop William Willimon has written: “The response of the disciples to the instruction, reproof, and the promise is exemplary.  They gathered to pray (Acts 1:12-14).  In an activist age one might expect the disciples to undertake some more ‘useful’ activity.  They are told to be witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’ (1:8) and their first response is prayer.  The action demanded of the church is more than busyness and strenuous human effort.  Disciples have been told that the promised kingdom is a gift to be given in God’s own time and that the promised Spirit is also by God’s grace.  Their mission requires more than even their earnest striving” (Bishop William Willimon, Acts, p. 21).  So too, does ours.  Our mission, to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, requires fervent prayer.  I invite you to join with me in such prayer.

By way of background, the United Methodist Church’s ultimate governing body is the General Conference. It meets every 4 years to establish church direction and polity (which means governance and law). General Conference alone has the ability to speak for world-wide United Methodist Church. The delegates are ½ clergy and ½ laity with representatives elected by their home Conferences on a proportional basis. Appropriately, this year’s General Conference meeting (which opens May 10th) gathers together under the banner of “Therefore Go! Pray.”

It is no secret that The United Methodist Church is wrestling with a deeper division over central issues of faith, doctrine and ministry. The obvious presenting issue swirls around same gender marriage (which the United States Supreme Court has recently ruled a constitutional right) and ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (gay and lesbian). However, it is critically important to understand that far deeper division of faith and doctrine impact our disunity. One of the various renewal groups has gone so far as to assert that the unity of the church is hanging by a thread.

In response to perceived struggles and divisions, the Council of Bishops voted to ask the Residential Bishops (active bishops) to lead their Annual Conference(s) in a 24 hour Prayer Vigil on a designated day between January 1 and the opening of General Conference. I took this specific request to the Conference Core Team and to the Cabinet. We selected February 28th, this coming Sunday, as our day to be in specific prayer. Dr. Bob Holloway, District Superintendent of the East District, agreed to put together a team from Central Texas to guide our response. They have developed a guided Taize-style prayer resource which is posted at www.ctcumc.org/GC16-prayervigil .

Requests have gone out in all districts calling us to pray for General Conference and the unity of the church. You may sign up for a time slot by going to http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c084fa9ad2aa7fd0-therefore. Here at the Conference Service Center, we have teamed up with the South District to cover a portion of the 24-hour period. I signed up for the 9:45 p.m. time slot. Whenever you are led to make time to pray this Sunday, I ask that you join with me in praying for the Central Texas Conference Delegates (listed at the end of this blog) and for the General Conference as a whole. May the Holy Spirit truly guide our deliberations and actions. “Not our will, but thy will O Lord be done!”

The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church Delegates and reserves to General and Jurisdictional Conference:

General – Tim Bruster (clergy) Tom Harkrider (lay), John McKellar (clergy), Kim Simpson (lay), Clifton Howard (clergy), Steve McIver (lay), Brenda Wier (clergy), Darlene Alfred (lay)

Jurisdictional (and General alternates) – Tom Robbins (clergy), Ethan Gregory (lay), Chris Hayes (clergy), Darcy Deupree (lay), Jim Conner (clergy), Kylie Campbell (lay), Debra Crumpton (clergy), Kevin Gregory (lay)

Alternates (to Jurisdictional) – Louis Carr (clergy), Mary Percifield (lay), Mary Spradlin (clergy), Marianne Brown (lay), Jason Valendy (clergy), Kathy Ezell (lay)

 

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

Rio Texas, Central Texas & the Work of a Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ministry and Mission Celebrations ©

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

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

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

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

We celebrate:

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

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

We celebrate:

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Call for Prayer and Healing from the Council of Bishops

council of bishops logo 2014_medOnce a quadrennium, the United Methodist Council of Bishops meets intentionally outside the United States, which reminds us that we are truly a worldwide church. As we gather in Berlin, I ask for your prayers, especially for those Christians undergoing persecution, civil unrest and violence, as well as those dealing with the devastation brought about by natural disasters. I also request prayers for all the bishops as we gather together to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance of this great church.

On the opening day of our meeting, Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, sent an open letter to the people of The United Methodist Church requesting that we all join together in prayer for the church and the world. Bishop Brown, not only remembered those who are suffering around the world, he also commented on the recent eruption of violence in Baltimore and the need to no longer be in denial about the powerful impact of racism in the U.S. Bishop Brown currently serves as bishop for the San Francisco Episcopal Area, but he grew up in the very neighborhood of Baltimore that is ground zero for the rioting and unrest in the area.

I offer up to you his letter as a guest blog post.

“To the people of The United Methodist Church:

Grace and peace to the people called United Methodist and all people of good will. I greet you in the name of Jesus, the Christ who is risen. From May 1-7, the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church will hold its 2015 meeting in Berlin, Germany. During this week, we will be praying for the church and taking actions that we hope will help lead the church in a faithful response to the call of discipleship. Please pray with us, for the church and all those the church seeks to serve.

We are a church that practices ministry to the world in Jesus’ name. While United Methodist churches are primarily in Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States, our ministry partnerships connect us with every continent. So, we grieve when the news of the day reminds us of the many ways the people of our world are hurting and suffering under the weight of tragedy. We seek to respond readily with prayers and aid to the natural disasters such as we have just witnessed in Nepal. And the human inflicted pain also requires a prayerful response that declares that terrorism, human exploitation, bullying and abuses of power will not overcome us.

Please join me and the Council of Bishops in prayer, reflection and action toward overcoming the issues that sometimes divide our societies. Together we can find ways, appropriate to our social context, for healing the brokenness between us.

For those of us in the United States, our attention has been called to the powerful impact of racism on all of us. If we seek healing, we cannot continue to be in denial. Some of us have read the shocking Justice Department report on Ferguson and most have seen the violence that tragically erupted there against police officers. Since then other unarmed Black men have been killed in several cities and now Baltimore has also erupted in violence.

As a Black man who grew up in the very Baltimore neighborhood we have watched explode, this is personal. I grieve over what I see in my old neighborhood. The anger in the community is real because of decades of distrust.

Video documentation has raised expectations that claims of wrongdoing would be seriously considered; so distrust grows because very few police officers have been held accountable.

A just society cannot be built on violence. Violence and misconduct by either a misguided police officer or an angry citizen will not lead us to beloved community. Reconciliation can occur when we tell the truth and take responsibility for our actions.

Rev. Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring United Methodist Church which serves Ferguson, Missouri, said this: “Who is going to become a model for dealing with reconciling and truth? That is the role of the Church!”

In this season of resurrection, the Council of Bishops and I believe that we followers of Jesus are called to lead the way. Let us examine and repent of our own sins of racial bias and abuse of privilege. Let us proclaim and live the Gospel of love and justice for all. Let us become proactive in modeling that gospel in our churches and teaching it to young and old alike. Let us be disciples who are engaged with God in transforming our world, beginning in our own communities, working for justice, judicial reform and good police/community relations. Let us break down the walls that divide us and build relationships that vanquish our fears. When we work together for justice and peace, we will no longer be strangers.

Remember, all who would follow Jesus, he calls us again and again to “love your neighbor as yourself.”(Matt.22:39) Even out of the injustice and violence he experienced, Jesus leads us to hope and resurrection. Let us believe in and practice the power of prayer for our world, our church, our neighbors and our own lives.

And, the risen Christ said to his followers, “remember, I am with you always.”(Matt.28:20)

Your brother in Christ,

Warner H. Brown, Jr.”

Following the  release of the Bishop Brown’s letter, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer of the Ohio West Episcopal Area called for the Council to issue a pastoral letter on racism and asked the president to appoint a task force to work on this effort, to be completed by May 7.

The Most Important Issues facing the United Methodist Church

Fascinating and instructive poll results were published in a recent article written by Heather Hahn of the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) entitled “The most important issues facing The UMC today.” The poll was a survey “by email of 509 U.S. United Methodist lay members by Corporate Research of Greensboro, N.C., and Research Now of Dallas.”

Hahn notes in the article two important qualifiers to the poll.  First, “the poll screened out pastors, retired pastors and paid staff at any level of the denomination to focus on the views of lay members, who sometimes can seem voiceless in churchwide discussions.”  And, second, “The 509 sample size — representing a denomination with about 7.4 million U.S. members — is a typical statistical sample of the kind seen in political and market research.”  She further adds, “This United Methodist survey has a 4.4 percent margin of error.”

Creating disciples of Christ

39%

Youth involvement

27%

Members’ spiritual growth

24%

Decline in membership

19%

Poverty

17%

Children at risk

17%

Social injustice

16%

Sexual orientation/same-sex marriage

11%

Structure of the UMC

8%

Economic inequality

7%

Women and minorities in UMC

5%

Racism

4%

Immigration reform

3%

With the aforementioned background firmly in place, I submit that the poll results are encouraging.  They show a distinct focus by the laity on our official core mission as a church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It also reflects the importance of the local church as the primary place disciples of Jesus Christ are made.  The crucial factors of both social and personal holiness (Wesleyan distinctives) can be clearly discerned in the polling data.

In these turbulent times, perhaps the most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!  We may deeply debate various issues and stances of the church.  This is a good thing.  Great churches debate great issues.  Let us stay united on the central towering mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ!  Disciples of Christ transform the world!

Off to Conference

As I write this blog we are finishing last minute preparations for the 148th meeting (counting all the various predecessors!) of the Central Texas Conference.  Annual Conference is central to the notion of what Methodist’s are about.  John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist (or methodical!) movement for church renewal, wrote of the beginning of his “conference” structure: “In June, 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard of us.”

Bishop Schnase notes:  “The agenda for the first conference 268 (now 270) years ago was three-fold.  Mr. Wesley and the Methodists conferred on: 1. What to teach.  2. How to teach.  3. What to do, that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice” (Robert Schnase, Remember the Future, p. 43).

They didn’t primarily gather to conduct business, though they did engage in business.  They didn’t center their time on budgets.  Voting on delegates did not dominate their attention.  They focused on “how to save souls.”  They centered the extensive conversation on teaching.  It is an echoing of the famous elements of the early church as noted in Acts 2:42.  “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.”  The conference resulted in exemplary evangelism and missions of love, justice and mercy.  (Just as in the Acts 2:42-47.)

This will mark my 6th Annual Conference as the presiding bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  Over those years we have consistently sought to lessen the amount of time spent on “business” and increase the amount of time spent on teaching and learning.  This year we will focus on Intentional Faith Development.  Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Episcopal Area will lead off with a focused teaching on The Wesleyan Way.

Three presenters will share different models with written material for any church (pastor, lay leader, Sunday School teacher, etc.) to pick up and adapt for their own unique setting.  Pastors and lay leaders alike will not want to miss these great learning opportunities!

Presenter: Rev. Candace Lewis          Resource: A Disciple’s Path by James A. Harnish
Presenter: Dr. Phil Maynard              Resource: Shift by Phil Maynard
Presenter: Sue Engle                           Resource: Charting a Course of Discipleship by Teresa Gilbert, Patty Johansen, & Jay Regennitter (revised by Delia Halverson)

Our second great emphasis has been worship.  I wish every Methodist had the high and holy opportunity to attend the ordination service at Conference.  It is a true time of rejoicing.

Bishop Paul Leeland will be our Conference preacher.  I can recall well Bishop Leeland preaching to the Council of Bishops.  Bishop Leeland challenged us to move into the world in faithful witness.  “When the caravan is moving, the dogs are barking!”  He will bless us greatly with his faithful insight and anointed witness.

In advance I wish to convey our great thanks to First United Methodist Church of Mansfield Texas for hosting us and offer a huge “God bless you” to the Conference staff for all their preparatory work.

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