Archive - United Methodist RSS Feed

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 3

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 III: Deeper Reflections & Observations in a Fog

Allow me for a moment to hit the pause button here to make a couple of strong assertions. First, whatever your position on same gender marriage & ordination, a decision should not be made on the grounds of losing or gaining members! I cannot say this strongly enough.  We should do what we best understand to be biblically and theologically faithful.  The advice to Timothy is well embraced.  “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Secondly, you know better than I that our current warfare over gender ordination and marriage is the presenting issue where the far deeper issues of theology and practice meet. What is really at stake is what it means to be a biblically faithful church and individual disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Pointedly we are wrestling with deeper issues of authority; how do Christians relate most faithfully to the culture and the future of the Wesleyan orthodoxy in America.  I find myself constantly reminded of the phrase “he (or she) who marries the present age will be a widow in the next.”

Third, we must cherish unity and simultaneously NOT make unity a cardinal cause or our highest value. I do not understand how a church which began by breaking away from the Church of England can claim unity as our highest institutional value. Please hear me carefully.  We must cherish, work towards and pray for unity but unity is not (and cannot be) our highest value.  Please allow me to stress this last.  We should pray for and work towards unity.  Even with deep differences unity is to be treasured, but it cannot be our highest value!  No one should be deluded into think that any kind of splintering will be easy or painless.  It will not.  It will be wrenching and painful for all concerned but faithfulness is the higher biblical virtue!

Peering through the murk and fog, allow me to hit the play button again and make some observations.

  1. We have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church.
  2. The anti-intuitionalism combined with a culture embracing a “free church” model makes church discipline and leadership increasingly problematic. Take the cultural mix of churches insisting on the right to choose their own pastor (I’m talking United Methodist now!), pick & choose apportionments, and decide for themselves what part of The Discipline they will abide by. Now mix in the growing number of acts of disobedience to church law (which is much greater than simple disputes over same gender marriage), many of which are endorsed by episcopal leadership. Stir this concoction, seasoning with a clergy culture that resists any form of accountability and a Council of Bishops that is absolutely unable to really lead. It takes no genius to assert that “the center will not hold.”
  3. We are in more financial trouble than we realize. As Lovett Weems has amply demonstrated, finances are a trailing indicator. In 2012 for the first time there was a reduction in General Church appointments (which we prefer in the Central Texas Conference to call “Connectional Mission Giving”). The General Secretaries Table has already suggested a modest ($12 million) reduction in apportionments for the next quadrennium. Now salt and pepper this with two things: a) there is significant discussion about the need for a much greater reduction, possibly as high as a $100 million reduction freeing resources for impactful local missions and ministry; and b) Some of our better financial leadership as a denomination have already held a national conference on right sizing the United Methodist Churches financial structure.
  4. As we are currently constituted, we don’t really need all the seminaries we have. Furthermore, MEF (Methodist Education Funds) which go to both official UMC seminaries and Conference Boards of Ministry will come under increasing scrutiny. Connect this with the anti-institutional spirit of the age, and the pressure to return all the money to Conferences for their own scholarship use will grow. It almost goes without saying that a splintering church will find it even more difficult to fund seminaries. With regard to the growing issue of orthodoxy, the question is being asked seminaries, do your preach Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)? Are you preparing students to pastor United Methodist Congregations with faithfulness and fruitfulness? Which leads naturally to the next point…
  5. We are in a local church leadership crisis of immense proportion. Bishops and Cabinets simply do not have enough competent clergy to appoint. This is intensified by the wave of baby-boomers retiring and conversely mitigated somewhat by the number of fulltime appointments being lost every year due to a declining church.
  6. The guaranteed appointment in its current form is a dodo bird. Regardless of Judicial Council rulings, the guaranteed appointment in its current form (again, a huge and careful qualifier) cannot be financially sustained. Boards of Ministries are struggling with a radically different way to understand the ordination process, the role of higher education, the importance of mentoring and need for jobs.
  7. We have to relearn how to engage in evangelism. This is not option. It is biblical and practical. We won’t be here if don’t! Obviously, I think the issue is tied to the reassertion of an orthodox theology. Lovett Weems’ “more people, younger people, and more diverse people” is prophetically accurate. If we evangelize more people they will by definition be younger and more diverse.
  8. The deeper theological crisis which has been the backdrop of this whole talk of this gathering itself, continually asks us to consider the “big tent” conception of the church as over against the disciplined, truly disciplined (and discipling) movement for God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I realize that this recitation can feel unmitigatingly depressing. I actually stand before you excited and hopeful.  I can be hopeful not in a winsome denial of reality (which is everywhere present in the United Methodist Church) but because of the gospel itself.  We do see in a mirror dimly. We must begin to face the future unflinchingly.  The United Methodist Church as currently constituted will not survive regardless of decisions at this General Conference over same gender issues.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 2

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 II: In a Mirror Dimly

I entitled this paper “In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church” for a reason.  A few years ago I decided to move out of the predictive business with regards to the United Methodist Church.  We see in a mirror dimly and must come to this whole subject of the future with vast humility and on bended knee.  The fact that I am (we are) so often wrong in our predictions about the future ought to humble us, shame us, and even leave us laughing.  I say this as an ardent Chicago Cubs fan earnestly believing in the memory of our patron saint (and my childhood hero) Ernie Banks that “this year will be the year the Cubs win it all.”  Nonetheless I have been asked to address the subject of the future of the United Methodist Church and so seeking an umbrella of mercy, I will go where angels fear to tread.

What will happen at General Conference just a few weeks away? Will the delegates vote to eliminate the “incompatibility” clause with regards to homosexuality and embrace marriage and ordination of those who self-identify as LGBTQ?  I don’t know.  Will current language about ordination and the prohibition of performing same gender marriages be retained as a chargeable offense?  I don’t know.

Conventional wisdom has it that while the Jurisdictional Methodism (i.e. the United States) has swung even more in favor of allowing same gender preferences for marriage and ordination, the Central Conferences (most notably in Africa) who remain steadfast in support of the current language on same gender marriage and ordination have gained votes. The prediction is that the two will cancel each other out leaving us a church with a narrow margin steadfastly defending current disciplinary standards.

What I think I do know is that the current deep United States divisions and growing refusal to abide by church law in any meaningful sense is inherently unstable. One of Lincoln’s quotes echoes in the recesses of my mind.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Secondly, should the Discipline significantly change on these presenting issues, those of us who live in the United States should expect some form of denomination- splintering rebellion in the worldwide (and in parts of the U.S. as well) church.  Just as the best predictor for how a high school student will do in college is how they did academically in high school, so the best predictors we have for the future of the United Methodist Church are to look at other denominations that have gone through such a change.  The chaos in the worldwide Anglican Communion continues.  Nationally, we have examples from the Lutherans and Presbyterians that are probably predictively accurate for United Methodism in America.

Consider the options should the General Conference vote in favor of a change through removing the “incompatibility” clause and allowing ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who do not concur face a limited series of choices:

  1. Embrace the change despite any misgivings and be hopeful that proponents are correct (despite all evidence to the contrary) that such actions garner an influx of new young disciples.
  2. Stay in the church as a loyal minority (especially in the United States).
  3. Leave the United Methodist Church to form a new branch of the Wesleyan movement as a part of the universal church. In doing so, make a corollary set of decisions around whether or not to pursue legal action over property, endowments and the like.
  4. Simply leave (presumably to take up membership in another Christian tribe).

It seems important to me to carefully consider these options (as well as other variations on them which I have not named) prior to the heat of General Conference. We all, both those in favor and those opposed to a change, have much to fear from hasty decisions made in the passions of the moment.  Discernment and prayer are first order activities here.  Furthermore, if such a change comes about, it will be important for those who are not sure they can remain in the United Methodist Church to create time and space for prayer, discernment, consultation, and consideration.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

“In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 1

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 I: “I am Doing a New Thing!”

It is indeed a high honor to stand before you this day and address some of the issues that confront us as a larger church. As I do so, I am reminded of a story that one of our truly outstanding preachers, Dr. Zan Holmes, shared on one occasion.

He told of a man who survived the Great Johnstown Flood. Historians in our group may recall well that this great flood took place on Friday, May 1, 1889, unleashing something like 20 million tons of water that devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is well documented that the flood killed 2,209 people. In the midst of the tragedy, not only our nation but the world was brought together to aid the “Johnstown sufferers.” The site is now actually a part of the National Park Service.

At any rate, a survivor of the Great Flood finally died of old age and went to heaven. There he was greeted by St. Peter and ushered through the Pearly Gates. As he looked around, he said, “You know I am one of the few survivors of the Great Johnstown Flood. People need to hear my story.” And Peter answered, “Well that’s very nice, thank you, but I don’t think so. Everyone has a story.”

However, the guy wouldn’t let it go. He bugged St. Peter. He talked to Jesus about it. He constantly shared his unshakable conviction that he had to tell people in heaven about his miraculous survival of the Great Johnstown Flood. Finally, with the Lord’s permission, Peter gathered together a huge crowd in heaven to hear the man address them on surviving the Johnstown flood. As the guy got ready to step on stage before the packed heavenly auditorium of millions, Peter turned to him and said, “By the way, remember that Noah is in the audience.”

“I am doing a new thing!”

 I feel somewhat like that man in addressing this distinguished gathering. Noah is in the audience. I’ve had the privilege of studying and being mentored by so many of you in your teachings and writings that it is difficult to adequately express my gratitude and debt. Even more, as we seek to address the topic of “The Future of The United Methodist Church,” I am made doubly mindful of the great cry that rose around Johnstown as the water went up behind the Southfork Dam – “The Dam is becoming dangerous and may possibly go!” We gather with that same cry ringing around us. So it is that “now we see in a mirror dimly” both the future of The United Methodist Church and the re-emergence of a vibrant orthodoxy in the North American mission field.

Counterintuitively, while the dam is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism simultaneously something remarkable, and remarkably good, is taking place.  God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 spring to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of orthodoxy budding around us, of which this gathering is evidence.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, causing heartache and much anxiety but this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy.

Consider some of the antidotal evidence:

  • Seminaries which focus on orthodoxy are showing growth, especially in young people.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes.
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the work of Dallas Willard among many others offers a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically-centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidenced by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and many of you is another sign of the reemergence of interest in theological orthodoxy. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity. It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • The search and experimentation for “something more” being conducted on the edge of Methodism offers a further hint both at the hunger for substance and the slowly awakening conviction that the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and an uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism (to use the term popularized by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary). We are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is inherently emaciated and entering a death spiral.
  • The growing sense among some bishops that we work side by side with two kinds of churches offers evidence of new day dawning. One kind of church is the fading, declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) and the other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. By very nature such a church, grounded in the gospel, instinctively understands that doctrine and practice cannot be separated. Furthermore the emerging church is passionately, outwardly focused in way that is evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.
  • The rise in a new generation of young scholars committed to an orthodox witness of the Christian faith speaks to the awakening orthodoxy which this group (United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy) represents. But then I am back where I started.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.

Rather than an excessive focus on gender preferences, I want to argue that we have been engaged as a denomination in extended affairs with various new versions of heresy. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Missional plagiarism, political infatuations of both the right and the left iced over with a prosperity gospel which surreptitiously tugs at the heart of the crumbling mainline edifice.  (With regard to the prosperity gospel, consider the casual embrace of financial resources and upper middle class status that accompany the hidden assumptions of virtually all United Methodists including myself.)

Alister McGrath rightly notes: “Heresy was a flawed, deficient, anemic, and inauthentic form of Christian faith that was inevitably doomed to extinction in the pluralist and intensely competitive world of late classical antiquity.” And we should carefully add, in the pluralistic and intensely competitive world of the early 21st century.  He continues, “Orthodoxy had greater survival potential, prompting a ‘search for authenticity’ as a means of safeguarding its future.”

The new or more accurately renewed Church which the Lord is calling into being out of the old “mainline” will be smaller, learner and more doctrinally coherent. We will recover, we are recovering, some sense of what it means to say Jesus is Lord and to assert core doctrines of incarnation, sin, justification and sanctification (to mention a few).  I have come slowly, painfully to believe that the Holy Spirit is moving us away from a “Big Tent” Methodism (and “big tent” Christianity) which enjoys periodic affairs with heretical suitors into a new movement of faithfulness and fruitfulness in the name of our Lord.  But then, I am ahead myself.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

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.

Training for a Job that No Longer Exists ©

I was ordained Deacon in 1974, graduated from seminary in 1976, and ordained elder in 1977. The church I entered was basking in the setting sun of cultural Christendom. As a newly minted pastor one of the primary points of my reference was my District Superintendent (DS). In ecclesiological terms a pastor under appointment to a local church reports to the congregation’s Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and to the District Superintendent. DSes were to serve as the pastor’s guide and mentor, supervisor and evaluator. The DS represented the Pastor in Cabinet meetings where appointments were made under the authority of the bishop. In short, the position of DS was designed to carry both pastoral and managerial functions. Evolving from the frontier days of missional outreach and connection, it was the natural outgrowth of a management culture. That job no longer exists. A DS who operates out of the 1960s management culture is a failure- and even worse a problem for both churches and clergy.

Unfortunately this job, which no longer exists, is one which I was mentored to do. For many the height of their ministry was not pastoring a local church but serving on Bishop’s Cabinet as a DS with supervisory responsibility for somewhere between 30 and 45 churches. Good DSes kept the system running. They settled conflict. They negotiated dilemmas. They coached younger clergy helping them to assimilate into a bureaucratic church culture. One of my mentors, Rev. Bob Grimes, who was himself both a very effective pastor of large regional churches worshipping over 1,000 in average attendance and a District Superintendent, used to comment: “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].”

Yet today the job of DS is so different that it effectively no longer exists as originally designed in a pastoral/bureaucratic structure. Our culture has changed dramatically. Typically pastors do not move as often. The tenure of a pastor changes the relationship with both the church and the denomination. Furthermore, we have slowly and painfully learned that someone can be either a pastor or supervisor but not effectively serve as both. Additionally, there is a skill set need for a DS that relates to church transformation/renewal/revival which involves a highly flexible collaborative and adaptive learning. It used to be that a DS ran her or his own district and conference staff did not interfere with his/her area of supervision. Now a DS that cannot work effectively with conference staff (and vice versa) needs to be replaced. The day of territorialism is dead and gone.

My list could go on but the reader gets the drift. I learned how to parent from watching my parents. Those who have served as DSes have learned to be a DS by watching those who went before. Today, however, the job is so in flux and change; the needs are so different and compel collaboration, adaptively and experimentation that length of tenure is no longer a critical criteria.

Over the years, various General Conferences have added responsibilities to the position of DS. They have done so with the best of intentions. Unfortunately now there are so many different disciplinary requirements for the job that no one can effectively meet all the requirements. As it is written in The Book of Discipline, the job is designed for failure. Which brings me to today.

Over the last 3 quadrennium (12 years), all across the United Methodist Church in America, experiments have been going on over the deployment of DSes for the stated mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There is widespread agreement that a District Superintendent is to be the “chief mission strategist” for their district. What is far from clear however is just what is meant by the phrase “chief mission strategist.”

Those who carefully understand the full implication of the Exodus Project for the Central Texas Conference will realize that over the past 6 or 7 years there have been a great deal of changes in how our Cabinet operates. Appointments are made based on mission-field effectiveness and not tenure. There is a high level of collaborative interaction between the conference staff and the districts (both HCI and our various Mission initiatives are examples of this morphing change). The role of the DS is far closer to that of a teacher and coach than as a pastor/supervisor.

In truth we don’t yet fully understand the role of the District Superintendent in this new post-Christendom world we seek to minister to. We are learning and experimenting. This is a good, godly thing. The Holy Spirit is leading us. My old friend and mentor Bob Grimes, gone now over 10 years, was and is right. “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].”

In a period of great adaptive change, we need good effective courageous DSes who “get it” now more than ever. We need the kind of people leading Districts who have themselves been faithful and fruitful building vital congregations. We need leaders who love the local church and are willing to go the extra mile to help in the development of a new generation of clergy and lay leaders. We need people who can put aside ego and territoriality to work joyfully with others. And most of all, we need people who are sold out on Christ – his ministry, mission and salvation.

Changing Central Texas Conference Leadership ©

I find myself slowly and impatiently (see my previous blog!) recovering from knee replacement surgery. I have just begun my second week at home dominated by physical therapy and much needed rest.  As I do so, I hope to take some time to write a couple (or more) blogs that look ahead at leadership and life together in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) of the United Methodist Church.  While the blogs will be directed explicitly at my episcopal area (The Fort Worth Episcopal Area), I hope that readers from other Conferences and Christian denominations might find their thinking stimulated in ways that are applicable to their specific context for ministry.

In early September the CTC met again with David Simpson from the Table Group. (The Table Group is an organization set up by Patrick Lencioni which helps organizations – both profit and non-profit – develop leadership health in order to carry out their stated mission.)  This time our focus was on succession planning.

Let me explain. In the United Methodist Church (UMC), District Superintendents may serve a maximum of 8 years on the Cabinet.  Likewise, Executive Center Directors may serve a maximum of 8 years in one rotation.  A person can move from being a DS to being a Executive Center Director (or vice versa) but cannot serve more than a total of 14 years combined.  While church law does not bind us, Conference Lay Leaders are elected for a 4 year (one quadrennium) term.  By way of translation, this means that over the next 2 years, 7 out of 10 Cabinet positions will have a new person serving in leadership.  Among current District Superintendents the Central, East, North and West District Superintendents will each be facing a change sometime in the next 2 years.  Two of the three Executive Center Director positions face a possible change.  And, if we continue with our tradition in Conference Lay Leadership assignment, we will have a new Conference Lay Leader in the Fall of 2016.

I invite the attentive reader to take the issue of succession planning one step further. We are in the midst of a massive shift in clergy retirements with the slow rolling wave of “baby boomer” retirements peaking somewhere around 2018.  Peering closer, a disproportionate number of those retirements will take place among clergy providing senior pastor leadership for the largest 1/3 of our churches.

With worship, prayer and careful spiritual discernment, we wrestled in retreat over the key factors we must have in a new generation of leadership, especially clergy leadership on the Cabinet and in some of our strategic churches and lay leadership positions. Put differently, what are the qualities that should be met even to be considered for such a key leadership role?

Non-Negotiables

  1. Deep Spirituality/Walk with Christ
    1. Tell me about your daily devotions/spiritual disciplines
    2. What differences has it made in your relationships?
    3. How do you experience God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in community?
  2. Open to Learning
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Team Player
  5. Integrity
  6. Passion for Disciple making/ministry (Is there evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness?)

What I like to call the “big 3” will drive the train in selection making.

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focused on energizing and equipping local churches to be vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ
  3. Developing Lay and Clergy Leadership

These big 3 core commitments are not up for debate. Together as a Conference we have, in deep faith and prayer, wrestled long and hard to arrive at a strong consensus around this core.  We are not going to engage in wasted time and effort to reinvent the wheel.  If someone is not committed to them, they don’t need to be on the Cabinet in either a lay or clergy leadership position.

While only one position faces a Disciplinary mandated change at Conference 2016 (The Central District Superintendent), these key appointments plus other significant lay leadership selections and the filling of positions vacated by the retirement of senior pastors are linked to each other.  Thus, over the next 5 or 6 months, I will be intentionally instigating a series of conversations about the impact of succession planning on the faithfulness and fruitfulness of mission and ministry in the Central Texas Conference.  I’ll be engaged in the standard conversations – with District Superintendency Committees, Leadership Centers’ Core Teams, and through the Cabinet with various Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committees.  But I also hope to stir up a large variety of other avenues for seeking advice and input.  This is not a casting call for nominations!  It is an invitation to be a part of a floating conversation and prayer filled discernment.

We are not seeking the perfect DS, Lay Leader, or Executive Center Director. No one is perfect.  Christ alone is the sovereign Lord of the church.  We will not be taking “votes” on who should be selected in clergy appointments.  Rather, I call us to engage in transparent holy conversations.  Evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness based on the core non-negotiables is essential.  Through it all, together, I invite us to be in submitted prayer and open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Christ the Refugee ©

The words are so simple and common. They come at the conclusion of Matthew’s great story of the Savior’s birth. We read the story at Christmas but rarely focus on closing verses and still less preach on them. “When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.’  Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt” (Matthew 2:13-14). Jesus was a political refugee fleeing political persecution.

Today we are confronting a similar refugee crisis streaming out Syria. In May, while in Europe for a Council of Bishops meeting, the European refugee crisis dominated the news. Today we are just beginning to confront the breadth of this horrible crisis and the way it is impacting not just Europe but the wider world. The level of human suffering is massive. The numbers are staggering. The need is enormous.

I have read a variety of articles about who is to blame. Clearly the primary guilt resides with the oppression of the Assad regime and the true evil of ISIS. The casual reader can consume articles about the failure of various European countries and the way they are handling the crisis on their door step. Some articles go wider afield and note the failure of wealthy Arab regimes in the area to help. Some point to the actions of U.S. and Coalition governments in pulling forces out of an unstable country in neighboring Iraq (inadvertently and unintentionally aiding the establishment of ISIS). Still others point to the slow response of the U.N. relief agency.

As a Christian, a Christ follower, I challenge us to avoid getting caught in the blame game. Instead focus on a basic biblical truth. Christ was a refugee from the brutal oppression of Herod. Our Lord and Master can be found among the Syrian refugees. As Christ followers we are to reach out with help in compassion and love. It really is that simple.

One of the truly great worldwide ministries of the United Methodist Church is UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief). There is a detailed separate article on the Central Texas Conference website about the refugee crisis and our response. I urge you to read the full article. It notes in part: “For more than a year, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been responding to the conflict in the Middle East by assisting refugees and displaced persons in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Working with local and international partners and via grants totaling nearly $2 million, UMCOR has helped alleviate suffering in the region by providing food, water, clothing, household items and improved places for children to learn and play. UMCOR’s efforts are continuing in this arena, including additional projects expected to be approved during the last quarter of 2015.”

As we reflect on Christ the refugee, I am asking the members and churches of the Central Texas Conference to take two very specific actions. First, please be in committed dedicated prayer for the refugees. Lift them up in worship services at your church. Make prayer for refugees a part of your daily prayer life. Second, I urge you to respond through your local church in tangible financial gifts through the great UMCOR ministry. To support UMCOR’s ongoing efforts in response to this and other disasters as well as its work to reduce disaster risk, I ask that an offering be taken for the International Disaster Response Advance, #982450

Just prior to attending the 2008 Jurisdictional Conference where I was elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church, Jolynn and I went on a spiritual formation retreat through the Pastors Retreat Network. In my directed spiritual reading, I came across a piece of writing by a Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop. My vague memory is that the Metropolitan Bishop was writing in 1880s. I cannot remember his name but the words have stuck with me: “Whenever someone new enters a room, Christ enters the room. And, oh, he [Christ] comes in such disguises.”

Join me in seeing Christ in the refugee. However well disguised, the Lord is present.

 

 

 

The Crucial Role of Music in Faith Development

I have just returned from a month off for Renewal Leave. During that time period, I have been working on a possible book focusing on the need of the United Methodist Church to reintegrate the core essence of orthodoxy theology. I also spent some time being Grandpa! Simon Michael Gabrielse-Lowry was born to our son and daughter-in-law on July 16th. The highlight of my summer was holding Simon (love that middle name – Michael!).

During my Renewal Leave and the three weeks preceding it (2 weeks of vacation and about a week in separate chunks for the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops and the meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board), I have not be writing my regular blog – The Focused Center. I have from time to time posted a guest blog. With this writing I am picking back up the joy and challenge of writing my regular blog. I try to publish a blog on Tuesdays and Fridays.

While on leave, Jolynn and I have worshipped in a variety of places and settings. We’ve worshipped at United Methodist Churches and churches of other denominations. We’ve shared in praise and prayer at churches large and small, rural, urban, and suburban. We heard some excellent preaching, and we’ve experienced some preaching that left much to be desired.

In our worship adventures I have been repeatedly impressed by the way much of our theology comes from the music. (Unfortunately, almost tragically, the theology of at least 1/2 the sermons we heard were mush.) Often it was the music that spiritually fed us the most. I was most impressed by how much of what we heard and sang was a mixture of old and new. Many are familiar with “Amazing Grace (My Chains Fell Off).” How many of you have heard a mixture of “I Need Thee Every Hour” with a contemporary praise theme? Check out Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You.

The list could go on but my point is made.

There is something happening in healthier, robust, faithful and fruitful churches about the way they are recovering and reclaiming deep faithfulness through a mixture of old and new music. We know the phrase, “music soothes the savage beast.” This much is true. But music does much more. It is a crucial vehicle of witness and praise. Our music is often our theological anchor.

Recently in our weekly time together my spiritual guide reminded me of how important our music is. He related visiting with an old friend who lives in another state. His friend was returning to the faith and the church after a long sojourn. His friend asked for advice on finding a church. My guide advised his friend to look first and foremost for a place with great music that was anchored in the Trinitarian faith.

Shortly before that conversation, I had been reading a biography of the great Church of India bishop Lesslie Newbigin, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life by Geoffrey Wainwright. This saint of the 20th century and theological titan often sang a hymn as a part of his devotions.

The hat trick took place for me reading a blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary. Dr. Tennent wrote: “Those of us in the Wesleyan stream … have been nurtured and nourished for centuries on theologically rich hymnody. The reason is because when the “chips were down” it has been our hymns which have saved us. Even when the church became lured into exchanging the gospel for the latest cultural mess of pottage, our hymns managed to keep us on track. The rich theological depth of our hymns helped us to re-remember the gospel and become better hearers of the Scriptures (Timothy Tennent, “ A Word to Worship Song Writers: Take Up Thy Pen and Write,” March 8, 2015.

This summer I encountered once again the great truth that music plays a crucial role in faith development. I have more favorite hymns and treasured contemporary music than I can fairly report on. I carry in my pocket words from a chorus I learned at Taize.

“In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”

The words of “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” – whether sung in the original 1757 version or presented by Chris Rice in a 2007 version (“Peace Like a River: The Hymns Project”) – never fail to move me. As they impact on the soul of my being, I am learning again about great theological doctrines of sin, salvation, and sanctification. I am embraced by a high Christology and blessed by a love that will not let me go and demands an active repentance.

“3. Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood; How His kindness yet pursues me Mortal tongue can never tell, Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me I cannot proclaim it well.

4. O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”
-Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Richard Robinson, 1757

Music plays a crucial role in faith development. Theology unfolds in the embrace of great music both contemporary and traditional.   It is good to be back.

Report on the Core Leadership Team/Cabinet Retreat ©

Last week the Central Texas Conference (CTC) Core Leadership Team and Cabinet met to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report. With the adoption of the Exodus Project Evaluation Report, the CTC Core Team and Cabinet promised to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report.

By way of recall, the seven recommendations that came out of the Exodus Project evaluation were:

  •  Recommendation 1: Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions
  •  Recommendation 2: Formalize Resourcing to Leverage Local Expertise
  •  Recommendation 3: Focus Disproportionately on “Select” Churches
  •  Recommendation 4: Invest in Leadership Development
  •  Recommendation 5: Create Transparent Evaluation Processes that Align with Exodus
  •  Recommendation 6: Re-emphasize Peer Learning
  •  Recommendation 7: Clarify the Role of the DS

Dr. Mike Bonem, our Conference consultant for the Exodus Project evaluation, led us through a process of focusing on the top two or three recommendations.  There was a clear consensus that all of the recommendations are important and need to be addressed; however, our work recognized that we must begin with a focused intent on a smaller list.

There was close to unanimous consent (with some 20 people in the room, both lay and clergy leaders) that the item of first importance was recommendation #4: to invest in leadership development.  Likewise there was close to unanimous agreement that recommendation #3 was second on the list in order of importance.

Much improvement in leadership development was noted.  Last year, the Conference made a heavy investment in lay leadership development with the addition of Dr. Kevin Walters to work with Kim Simpson (Conference Lay Leader) and Georgia Adamson (Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Development).  The HCI Lay Leadership Development groups have proved to be a strong part of lay leadership development. A variety of other leadership development options were noted for clergy – High Octane Preaching, Board of Ordained Ministry Residency, HCI Pastoral Leadership groups, various continuing education events, etc. What the group wrestled with was the need for a more coherent and cohesive process of leadership development (as differentiated from episodic learning opportunities).

The Core Leadership Team and Cabinet noted critical elements of leadership development.

Self-evaluation
Orthodox theology
Emotional intelligence
Constantly develop preaching
Learn to handle stress
Staffing/administrative leadership
Evaluation based on performance

The list is in no way exhaustive but rather suggestive of the lines of development needed for growing clergy leaders.

A group of selection criteria were established for implementation of recommendation #3, “Focus disproportionately on ‘Select’ Churches.”  Some obvious questions that beg answering are:  Who selects the churches?  What is the criteria by which a church is to be considered select?  How will this “focus” be implemented?  The critical answer to who or what is a “selected” church is that our focus will be on “the coalition of the willing.”  Churches will self-select by how they engage in the ministry and mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Some of the self-selection criteria involved will be:

  1. Ability or willingness to grow. (How would we know? – by a churches response) (1) Readiness 360, (2) Capacity; 3) what they do/how they vote, 4) intervention (?)
  2. Evidence of new energy, commitment, etc.
  3. Exercise demons (resolving past disputes and control issues) – willingness to engage in intervention when needed, etc.
  4. Crucial location/situation

The third issue we looked at was Recommendation #1, “Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions.”  We noted some preliminary issues.  The need to develop a clear set of decision-making criteria and communicate better.  We raised the question, is there value to have a budget review committee external to the Conference Center?  We focused on three key convictions/commitments: 1. Clarify decision-making process for programs (& resources), 2. Communicate better; 3. Don’t tolerate silos…. Work on ending silos.  “Is it a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed?” (Andy Stanley).

This begins the process of learning and implementation of the next steps facing the Central Texas Conference.  The Evaluation Report for the Exodus Project is found in the Pre-Conference Journal beginning on page 29.  As we worked together, we could sense the Holy Spirit guiding our efforts.  I invite and urge lay and clergy who are a part of the Central Texas Conference to join in the journey.

Flood Waters, Tornados and the Connection ©

Wednesday morning I arrived back in the Central Texas Conference offices from Montgomery, Alabama.  Jolynn and I had been gone for the previous three and a half days while I had the honor and joy of serving as the Conference Preacher for the Alabama- West Florida Annual Conference.

A few years ago, terrible tornados ripped through the Auburn, Alabama area (the northeastern part of Alabama-West Florida).  With other United Methodists all across the nation, Central Texas responded in offerings and prayers for those affected.  While in Montgomery, the prayers and concerns of the good people of the Alabama-West Florida for those affected by the flooding in Texas was a constant blessing.

As I settle back into my office, such a trip into another Conference reminds me again of just how powerful the United Methodist connection is!  We do far more together than we could ever do separately.  Already the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has sent an immediate financial grant for help plus other support.

In coming back to the office, I checked in with the Center for Mission Support.  Rev. Laraine Waughtal, the Central Texas Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, reports that our response to the flooding and tornadoes has been immediate not only across our conference but also assisting the Texas and Rio Texas Conferences.

As the storms began a month ago in Stephenville, Rio Vista, Italy, Morgan Mill and Hillsboro, the Conference Task Force was on the ground working with city and state officials to make assessments in the communities and to see if our help was needed.  Some of ERTs deployed at that time, but most of our communities were fortunate that home flooding and damage was limited.

In the meantime our ERTs (Early Response Teams) traveled to Wimberley and Martindale to help in the tragedies that took place in those communities.  Those communities are in the Conference I served for over 30 years.  The pain of loss is real.  As a family we have “tubed” down the Blanco River.  I thank God for those who have reached out across the connection to help our brothers and sisters in another area!

As the storms progressed through the month our Task Force was continuously on the ground working with communities, local Methodist pastors and others to see what the needs were.  Again we were fortunate until recently.  Now, we are responding to flooding in Eastland, Cisco, Ranger and Grapevine.  We will continue to serve both in the Central Texas Conference and in others areas of Texas which are in need.  As the flood waters progress southward, we will be looking at opportunities to respond in DeLeon, Comanche, and Hutto with our ERTs to begin with in this disaster. Multiple trained teams are responding to these areas to help with the muck-outs.  When we needed flood buckets we asked FUMC Mansfield to supply us with those since they were already working to make some in the near future.  When we asked for 40 they made 110!  Health kits that were made and previously given by area churches were also distributed to the families.

Many of these homes that are flooding are homes which have never flooded before and are not in flood zones.  Therefore, they do not have flood insurance to lean on and especially need our assistance in rebuilding and recovery.  We are asking for a Conference-wide appeal to help raise funds in this recovery effort.  Money can be sent to the Conference office with the designation Disaster Fund.  In time, as the homes dry out, UMVIM teams will be invited to come and help with the rebuild effort.  With that in mind for future planning, be thinking about your mission teams organizing to respond!

You will be hearing and reading more about various disaster relief efforts from the flooding and tornados.  I ask that you follow along using the Central Texas Conference website.

I give thanks to God for your faithfulness as a people and your graciousness in response to these disasters.  The Lord is with us!

Page 4 of 11« First...«23456»10...Last »