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The Importance of the Both/And

Recent reports on the state of the United Methodist Church in the United States shared data of continued decline.  However, the news wasn’t all bad. There are signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work throughout the church.  Significantly, the work of new church development is a central part of that effort.

An August 17th article in The United Methodist Reporter chronicled the story of two conferences where there is growth and vitality.  “Leaders in both New Jersey and Kentucky have embraced an adage from church-planting circles that it’s easier to make babies than to raise the dead. ‘You don’t grow an annual conference by trying to revitalize existing churches,’ Bishop Davis said. ‘I think some can be revitalized. But I don’t think we’ll ever revitalize enough churches to reverse the attendance and membership trends that we’ve seen over the last several decades.’  In Kentucky, the conference has started 15 new churches over the past four years. Bishop Davis said the conference allocates $1 million of its $9 million annual budget for planting churches.  In New Jersey, where less than 60 percent of the state’s population is white, much of that conference’s growth has come from reaching out to new or recent immigrant communities as well as Anglo communities, said Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar” (The United Methodist Reporter, August 17, 2012).

I am convicted that vital faithfulness/fruitfulness is a both/and proposition.  New church development is critical.  The Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and especially the United Methodist branch of the church universal, will not show a net growth without new church development.  (Furthermore, Kentucky is financially supporting new church development about 3X as much as Central Texas!).  Acts 13 reports on this central initiative of evangelism, witness and faith sharing.

At the same time, what the article calls revitalization is also critical.  I vastly prefer the term transformation to revitalization or renewal.  In faithfulness, we are not trying to “re” anything.  We are not trying to go back to some idealized past.  Rather transformation leads us on the God’s great mission, the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (Matthew 28:16-20), into a new future.  This is why we have such an emphasis on the Healthy Church Initiative and the Small Church Initiative in the Central Texas Conference.  Both/and – new churches and the transformation of existing congregations – is the way into God’s new future!

Schnase’s Jurisdictional Address, Part 1

At the recently concluded South Central Jurisdiction Conference, Bishop Robert Schnase gave the Episcopal Address on behalf of the College of Bishops. At the five Jurisdictional Conferences I have attended (since 1996), I have had the privilege of hearing many outstanding Episcopal addresses.  This address was at the very top of an excellent class!  Parts are reprinted in a series of five blog postings with Bishop Schnase’s permission while I am on vacation. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Episcopal Address

South Central Jurisdictional Conference

July 19, 2012

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Robert Schnase, Bishop ©

Part I – Who Are We?

The people in this room represent 1,725,000 (1,725,081)1 United Methodists and 6,000 United Methodist Congregations (5,937) presently organized into fifteen Annual Conferences serving eight states with an immediate mission field of more than 49 million people.  (49,073,767).    We represent more than 5,200 clergy (5,229), including Elders, Deacons, Licensed Local Pastors, and Associate members, plus nearly 3,000 retired clergy. (2,902).

5 ½% (5.51) of our membership is African American compared to over 12% (12.26) of our neighborhoods that surround us; 2% (2.04) of our membership is Hispanic compared to 24% (24.06) of the areas we serve; and under one percent (.79) of our membership is Native American compared to nearly 1.4% (1.38) of the areas we serve.  More than 90% (90.44) of our membership is White Anglo, while the areas we serve are 58% (57.66) White Anglo.

On any given weekend in our Jurisdiction, more than 620,000 (620,603) people attend worship, and according to the end of the year reports we submit so faithfully, nearly four million people (3,848,325) are served regularly through our ministries in our communities.

Now that I’ve numbed your brain with statistics, let’s look at what some of this means.  The good news is how robust these numbers are, the size and scope and range and reach of the United Methodist Church in our Jurisdiction is amazing, and more than any one of us can comprehend.  There’s something deeply satisfying to think that more than a quarter million children attend Bible School through our churches.   A quarter million children!  Think about it.  That’s enough to fill five huge professional baseball stadiums with children.  That’s a lot of lemonade to mix! How’d you like to be responsible for a Bible School program with 257,000 kids? Well, you are!

And yet, these numbers still reveal troubling trends.  Attendance in the last five years has declined more than 7% (7.28).  However, the decline in the South Central Jurisdiction has been significantly less pronounced than in other US Jurisdictions.  That’s good news I suppose, in some qualified sort of way!  Thirty percent (30.74) of our congregations have actually shown growth over the last five years.  And the annual number of Adult Professions of Faith has increased more than 10% (10.78).  On the other hand, 40% (40.45) of our congregations have reported no Professions of Faith over the most recent year.

We don’t report ages in our annual statistics, but we do have ways of estimating them through sampling and through pensions information related to our pastors.

Missionally, if the only statistic we could fully comprehend about the United Methodist Church in the US is that our median age is approaching 60 while the median age of our culture is 35, we would see with stark clarity the missional challenge we face. There is an age gap of nearly two generations between the average United Methodist in the US and the local mission field God calls us to serve.  And across that gap lie significant differences in perception, spirituality, musical tastes, community, life experiences, use of technology, and cultural value.2

Reaching next generations. And reaching our more diverse neighbors that surround our congregations—these remain our most poignant, critical, and strategic missional challenges.

The full text of Bishop Schnase address may be found at gntv.info/live/scj2.

A Request for Prayers for Jurisdictional Conference

Tomorrow the quadrennial meeting of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference will formally begin.  Today, Tuesday, July 17th, we are meeting as a College of Bishops (that is the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction, both active and retired).  Additionally various other groups are meeting (training for secretarial staff, Committees on Nominations and the Episcopacy).

I ask your prayers for us as we gather and begin our business.  May the kingdom of God be advanced by the work that is holy and spiritually discerning.  May the Lord direct and guide all of our efforts, especially that of the Committee on Episcopacy as it wrestles with the assignment of bishops.  May God hold the bishops and delegates in divine grace.

Thursday morning, July 19th, will begin the balloting for three new bishops.  In the Central Texas Conference the Rev. Dr. Mike McKee is the Conference’s endorsed nominee.  There are many other fine nominees.  I ask that we pray not only for Mike but also for all of the nominees.  I am ever conscious that for every bishop elected another 10 could have been nominated and many would have made wonderful bishops.  Please keep each and all and the entire process in your prayers.

“This is why I kneel before the Father. Every ethnic group in heaven or on earth is recognized by him. I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.

“Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen”  (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Guaranteed Appointment

Among the various actions taken by General Conference was an overwhelming vote (originally on the consent agenda) to end guaranteed appointments for ordained elders in the United Methodist Church.  In brief, “under this new legislation, bishops and cabinets will be allowed to give elders less than full-time appointment. The legislation also would permit bishops and their cabinets, with the approval of their boards of ordained ministry and annual (regional) conference’s executive session, to put elders on unpaid transitional leave for up to 24 months. Clergy on transitional leave would be able to participate in their conference health program through their own contributions.  Each annual conference is asked to name a task force to develop a list of criteria to guide the cabinets and bishops as they make missional appointments.  The cabinets shall report to the executive committees of Board of Ordained Ministry the number of clergy without fulltime appointments and their age, gender and ethnicity. Cabinets also will be asked to report their learnings as appointment-making is conducted in a new way.” (Taken from UMNS, May 1, 2012)

I am always surprised by the amount of anxiety this issue seems to engender.  The involvement of the Board of Ordained Ministry in conjunction with the Cabinet safeguards against misuse based on gender, ethnicity or freedom of the pulpit.  It does assist in proper placement of associate pastors and general effectiveness accountability.  It places Elders in the same accountability relationship as Licensed Local Pastors.  In reality, it will have very little effect on most Central Texas Conference clergy and churches.  Denomination wide, there is an estimated excess of only 784 Elders across the whole connection!  When you couple this with a retirement tsunami that will peak in the CTC in 2018 (we are currently on the beginning edge of that huge wave), we will actually desperately need new clergy in the next 10 to15 years.

As we wrestle with our deep need to make mission field appointments, the challenge will be to make the proper fit between pastor, church and mission field.  Furthermore, the deeper pressure we are experiencing a clergy deployment system is being driven by pensions and health insurance.

So, relax, for almost all this will make little difference.  It will protect churches and clergy from deep ineffectiveness and aid making mission field appointments.

Breathe Deep, Focus!

Looking back at the close of General Conference, a story about a couple of old moose hunters who went on a yearly hunting trip in remote northern Maine comes to mind.  As was their habit, they hired the pilot of a little float plane to fly up to a lake just south of the Canadian border and drop them off.  The pilot crammed everything into his little “puddle jumper” float plane, landed on the lake and unload them and all their gear at the shore.  “Remember,” he said, “I’ll be back in three days to get you.  I’ve got room for the two you, your gear and just one (1!) moose!”  They readily agreed and headed off into the woods.

Three days later the pilot landed on the lake to find the hunters waiting on the shore with all their gear and two (2!) moose. A heated argument ensued about why the plane couldn’t possibly lift off with that much weight and clear the ridgeline at the end of the lake.  It ended when one of the “good ole boys” commented, “Well, the guy who flew last year had the same plane and he was able to take off.”  Pride on the line, the pilot grudgingly consented to take both moose, plus the gear and the two of them.

They crammed everything in, taxied to the end of the lake and revved their engines to the max.  Slowly the little plane gathered speed and finally crept into the air just before it ran out of water.  It cleared the initial stand of trees and struggling to make the ridge line, clipped a tall pine at the end of the lake.  The plane crashed into the pine trees with antlers, moose bit, camping gear and plane parts flying everywhere.

The pilot and hunters came too about the same time perched in the branches of a tall pine.  One of the old hunters spoke first. “Where are we?”  “Well,” said his buddy, “about 50 feet further than last year.

General Conference feels like that.  I’m not sure where we are, but it can’t be very much farther than last year.  We are a deeply fractured church (not splintered, our fracture runs in multiple directions. Think of a windshield that has been smashed, is still held together but has fracture lines running in all directions).

A reasonable, indeed sane, question is “what now are we to do?”  The answer I believe lies at the heart of faithfulness.  We need to breathe deep and focus!

We need to breathe deep.  Wesley is right.  “The best of all is that God is with us!”  As important as structure and ecclesiology are (and make no mistake, they are very! important), it is Jesus Christ who saves.  The great commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is still before us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Amid all the debate swirling around The Call to Action, the first and most critical emphasis is a ten year focus on building vital congregations.  Here in the Central Texas Conference the Conference exists to energize and equip local churches for the great mission of God … “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Whatever the general church structure, this must continue to be our focus!

Breathe deep – God is with us!  Focus!  We are in the business of building vital congregations that make disciples for the transformation of the world.  “Use your ambition to try to work toward being the best at building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12b).  The title of my blog is This Focused Center.  It comes from 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 based on The Message (a paraphrased translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson).  “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.”  In the aftermath of General Conference, breathe deep, focus!

Riding the Rollercoaster

When my son turned 15 we took him and a friend to Six Flags – Fiesta Texas in San Antonio in celebration.  He couldn’t wait to try what was then the world’s largest wooden rollercoaster.  Staring at this monster (called The Rattler), the friend decided he didn’t want to go on it after all.  (His friend is now in the Marine Corps!)  It was just too scary.  Well, trying to be a good Dad, I got in line to ride with Nathan.

My bravery reached its zenith as we slowly rode to the top of the first monster drop.  It was exhilarating!  We towered over the visible world.  Then we dropped!  To paraphrase Bob Weathers, I rededicated my life to Jesus three times in the 30 seconds it took us to hit the bottom and whip around the first of many hairpin turns.  (My son reports that I kept saying, “Jesus save me!”)

With the start of General Conference, I was reminded of riding The Rattler.  We opened with an inspiring, thrilling, God-moving, Spirit-filled worship.  The music was awesome; the preaching great; communion a joy.  It was and is the church at her best, praising God and leaning forward in faithful attentiveness and anticipation.

After worship we broke for lunch and then came back for the first business session, the setting of General Conference rules and procedures.  Two and one half (yes, 2 ½) dis-spiriting hours later, we adjourned without completing our business.  From the mountain peak we had plunged into the messy bogs of legislative wrangling.

We awoke the next morning to receive the Episcopal Address given by Bishop Pete Weaver of the New England Episcopal Area.  We shot back up to the heights!    Entitled The Resurrection Revolution we were brought back to Easter morning. Said Bishop Weaver:  “Before any of us were delegates, we were disciples.  Before any of us were bishops, we were believers.  Before any of us were members in caucuses, we were members in Christ Jesus and therefore, members of one another.  Before any of us had a resolution in our hands to vote on, we had a resolution in our hearts to devote ourselves to the living Christ.”

That afternoon we whipsawed back into debate over the rules.  And so it goes.  General Conference is a rollercoaster ride.  Yet in it all is the presence of God; sometimes encouraging, sometimes brooding, sometimes cheering.  Bishop Weaver recalled the first episcopal address ever given to a Methodist General Conference in America two hundred years ago by Bishop McKendree.  When challenged, Bishop McKendree suggested that we handle the new things brought before us with this seminal piece of advice:  “Do everything as in the immediate presence of God.”

This is great advice for Christians of any place and every time.  We are always in the immediate presence of God!

Today the Council of Bishops held its own worship service passing the gavel as president from Bishop Larry Goodpaster to Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.  As we finished communion we sang “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”  As the words washed over me, I recalled getting off The Rattler.  It was good to stand on solid ground.  As the ride continues, may we as a church cling to rock.

Do everything as in the presence of God

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.

Remember the Future

At recent meetings with other SCJ bishops as we looked forward to General Conference, Bishop Robert Schnase called our attention to agenda for the first (“general”) conference of preachers under John Wesley.  He noted a threefold purpose for such holy conferencing.  “The Methodists conferred on ‘1. What to teach, 2. How to teach, and 3. What to do, that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.’”

It is easy to get lost in the thicket of emotional issues facing the church: war & peace, sexual orientation & practice, restricting & Call to Action, etc.  In an earlier blog I called for an emphasis in prayer-filled and Holy Spirit-oriented preparation.  It is important, vitally important, not to lose sight of what matters most, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ultimately Conference is about mission and ministry; about guiding and equipping the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Amid all the noise, we need to keep the main thing the main thing!

The March 22nd Quick Notes highlights an important resource which I commend to you strongly.  “Bishop Robert Schnase’s “Remember the Future: 30 Days of Preparation,” blog series begins [March 26].  The series of daily reflections in preparation for General Conference 2012 will be a blend of daily topics from leadership and institutional challenges to Wesleyan beliefs and more. About eight of the blogs through the series will have video clips included; all will include scripture and additional reading recommendations for those who want to know more. Go to ministrymatters.com to sign-up, read a description of the series and an introductory blog from Robert Schnase.

The Importance of Narrative

My recent blog entitled “Struggling with Appointments” has sparked an unusually high degree of interest and response.  Overwhelmingly clergy have noted the dilemma of some members wanting no change while at the same time expecting to reach a new generation.  This often puts clergy and proactive lay leadership in a significant dilemma.  Furthermore, a number have lifted up the struggle between raising the metrics of vitality and dealing with congregational resistance to the necessary change needed to engage the mission field (and thus raise the metrics).  Taken together it can feel like a Kobayashi Maru (the Star Trek no win scenario).

Both I and the Cabinet have repeatedly emphasized the importance of sharing the narrative.  Narrative is the story, the background information, which helps understand what is taking place.  Often (usually!) the narrative changes before the metrics.  What does this look like?  A pastor and congregation(s) start discovering and sharing with each other stories of significant mission impact in their life together (i.e. “remember when we were helping that homeless family find a meal” or “it was moving to hear Jimmy talk about the difference that following Christ has made in his life” etc.).  One of the keys to understanding narrative is that it is a specific story.  Narrative is not a vague assertion.  It tells a tale of God in action in the life and ministry of a congregation and individuals.  In our use of the vitality metrics, we (Bishop and Cabinet) have left a large place for the narrative story to be shared.  It is critical piece of learning for us as a Cabinet, for pastors, and for lay members of a congregation!  Narrative begs to be shared!

On the flip side, a small (actually very small but quite strident!) handful of responses came from people (all self-identified as lay) who felt the blog somehow dismissed older adults and endorsed “bands” (meaning contemporary Christian music over against classical hymns).  Such is not the case!  I am an older adult and am married to a recent retiree.

I was very careful in the blog to assert that our ministry needs to be a both/and!  It is worth repeating what I wrote about the need to continue a strong and effective ministry to existing members and older adults while effectively reaching out to a new generation:  An effective pastor must minister sensitively to this loss all the while leading into a new future.  It is not an easy balance.  Congregations that refuse to embrace change are choosing to die.  Simultaneously, pastors that charge ahead without compassionately facing grief are doomed to failure.  It is worth noting that the Vital Congregations research (which I shared in every district in 2010) overwhelmingly notes a connection between church missional health/vitality and having multiple styles of worship.

These are exciting times to be in ministry together.  They challenge us to a deeper faithfulness and a wider outreach with the love of Christ.  Sunday I headed to Nashville for a meeting on the Focus Area “New Places for New People.”  Called Path One, we are working on our national strategy for new church development and especially on reaching “more people, younger people, and more diverse people.”  And yes, this work doesn’t ignore reaching older adults; all are embraced in this great ministry of sharing the gospel.

Preparing for General Conference

General Conference is the quadrennial (every 4 years) meeting the ruling legislative body of the United Methodist Church.  This coming April 24th the General Conference will open in Tampa Bay, Florida.  For two weeks an equal number of lay and clergy delegates will engage in holy conversation and legislative decision making on the ministry and future of the United Methodist Church.  I will be there as the resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference/The Fort Worth Episcopal Area.  (Bishops preside but do not have vote at General Conference.)

As we prepare for General Conference I ask for your prayers for the church and for our faithfulness in ministry and service to Christ and for the world our Lord came to save.  The Upper Room Ministries (a part of the General Board of Discipleship) has prepared a devotional and prayer guide which I commend to you.  “The 50 Days of Prayer Before and During the General Conference is available on the Internet at this site: http://50daysofprayer.upperroom.org.  In addition you will be able to “sign up for a free daily email version and the meditation will be sent to you each day” in a download version.  Print versions are available through the United Methodist Reporter.  (Individual copies are $4.95 postpaid and the cost for bulk mailing to groups and congregations is reduced; they can be secured through http://bit.ly/Print50DaysURM or by calling 1-855-469-3386.)

Another exciting way to prepare in thought and prayer for General Conference is by reading a special blog entitled Remember the Future written by Bishop Robert Schnase (author of The Five Practices for Fruitful Congregations).  The purpose of Remember the Future is to deepen understanding and further conversation about the key issues that shape the mission and future of the Church. Daily meditations will be posted beginning March 26 at www.ministrymatters.com/30Days.

The great time of preparation in prayer begins this Friday.  I will be using the prayer booklet as a part of own devotionals and hope you will join me.  I will be writing more about Remember the Future at a later date.

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