Whose Side Are You On?

The daily news of divisions assault us. I have been watching with many of you the nightly news of debate amongst the contenders for the Republican Party’s nomination for president. Are you for Trump or Cruz, Perry or Fiorina, Rubio or Kasich, Carson or Bush, or any of the other (what is it now –17?) candidates. Maybe instead your preference leans into the Democratic Party’s race for the nomination. Do you support Clinton or Sanders, Webb or Chafee? The rhetoric of division and demonization has already scaled the foothills of the absurd.   I cannot help but think of Donald Trump’s trip to Laredo and his claim that he had put his life in danger by going there. (The last time I went there I helped open a new United Methodist Church!)

Before we settle into the holy arrogance of the elite, we must pause and confess the divisions among us. For starters there is the obvious denominational division which is a scandal on the body of Christ. But the issue of whose side are you on strikes closer to home. Nowadays almost everywhere I go in the United Methodist Church there are debates and divisions about whether United Methodist pastors should be able to perform same gender marriages and about ordination of those who are a part of a same gender married couple. Whose side are you on?

Recently as a part of my daily devotional life, I perceived the Lord directing me to read the book of Joshua. I confess that I am more a New Testament guy (through I do regularly read and study both). Trying to be faithful, I have slowly been reading through Joshua and contemplating its lessons.

One day, I went through a series of experiences where the divisions impacted me directly. I watched (but did not take part in) a debate around various Republican candidates. People kept pushing each other to declare whose side they were on. The argument quickly became strident. Later in the day I was directly involved in a painful strife-laced tense argument about how the United Methodist Church should respond to the recent Supreme Court decision declaring marriage a constitutional right. I went to bed that night more than just a little disturbed by the divisions tearing at both our society and church.

The next morning as I went through my devotional time the fifth chapter of Joshua came up for reading in the regular rhythm of my devotions. Joshua 5:13-15 reads:

13 When Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up. He caught sight of a man standing in front of him with his sword drawn. Joshua went up and said to him, “Are you on our side or that of our enemies?”
14 He said, “Neither! I’m the commander of the Lord’s heavenly force. Now I have arrived!” Then Joshua fell flat on his face and worshipped. Joshua said to him, “What is my master saying to his servant?”
15 The commander of the Lord’s heavenly force said to Joshua, “Take your sandals off your feet because the place where you are standing is holy.” So Joshua did this.

I heard the Lord speaking to me and us as a people of faith. It is well past time in our debates and divisions that we embrace a godly humility. We do not have God on our side. Humbly we pray that we might faithfully align ourselves with the only one who can rightly be called Lord and Master.

This does not mean we should not have opinions, preferences and convictions. We can and should. It does not mean we should not debate issues, even passionately stating the case as best we understand it. Again, we can and should.

It does mean that we should sit lightly. However sure we are that we are right, the last word belongs to Lord God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However convinced we are that our “side” is the Lord’s side, only the Lord Jesus Christ alone can truly make such a claim.

The Lord stands in our midst and speaks again to our challenge of whose side you are on. The answer is once again clear. “Neither! I’m the commander of the Lord’s heavenly force. Now I have arrived!” (Joshua 5:14a). We too, like Joshua, need to fall on our faces in worship asking only, “What is my master saying to his servant?” (Joshua 5:14b).

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.

Excerpts from Remarks Made by President and Publisher Neil M. Alexander

of the United Methodist Publishing House at the New House Commons/John Dickins House Dedication; July 28, 2015

 While I have been away on Renewal Leave, I have shared a variety of material from various parts of the United Methodist Church. For the past 11 years it has been my joy and honor to serve on the Board of the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH). The UMPH does not receive any apportionment money (put differently it must be physically self-supporting). Few industries are under as deep a threat and wrestling with as great a change as the publishing industry during the opening decades of the 21st Century. The UMPH has been incredibly well led by President and Publisher Neil Alexander. Recently the old downtown facility was sold, and this July the UMPH relocated to a new site in Nashville (at a great financial benefit and cost savings). With permission I share excerpts of remarks made by President and Publisher Neil Alexander.

“Perhaps it all started to gel when Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, first showed his deep conviction about the importance of learning, thoughtful discourse, and a disciplined life of devotional reading and prayer.

It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading,” he said.

And he added, “A reading people will always be a knowing people.”

Perhaps things started to mesh in 1789 when John Dickins was named the first steward, or when three branches of the Methodist family decided in 1939 to join forces and establish a publishing house in Nashville.

Or maybe things came together in October 1954 when the board authorized erection of the new five-story Nashville office building at Demonbreun and Eighth Avenue, South, with a budget of nearly two and a half million dollars. The 350 employees moved in over a period of three weeks, starting on July 12, 1957.

That move set us in place to reap the benefits when several years ago our real estate advisor explained that with the new Music City Center being built across the street, there was a possibility that developers would be interested in our property.

… And step-by-step (and after maddening delays), our new place for our new work took on form—turning what was an elusive dream into a reality. And this result simply could not have come about without the many, many staff who have taken on special assignments and helped in obvious and often unseen but important ways at every turn.

… All around us is evidence that the outcomes have been delightful and encouraging. There are clear signs that our new house is a place people want to be; a place to invest their minds, hearts, and labor; and a setting from which we will reach out to serve more people in more places.

The enthusiasm about the new space has been palpable. We’ve seen staff in every department show great patience, flexibility, and appreciation for the new offices.

The notice went out to all staff and read in part:

Yes, this is it! The long awaited, the much talked of—the seriously doubted—is HERE! On Friday afternoon . . . the exodus begins. It took us 53 years to get to this point, and the move itself won’t be accomplished overnight. . . . You may need something right away that is packed in a box that somehow got put somewhere else. . . . Above all, keep your sense of humor.

The funny thing is this: That notice was sent in 1957 when the house moved to the Eighth Avenue, South location.

It might have just as easily been written 58 years later when we began moving staff in stages from the old house to the New House Commons! We are indebted to all of the folks listed on the acknowledgments page in your program …

So the evidence is mounting. This is not only a New House Commons and a new work space; it is a new day with great possibilities and prospects.

  • A place where people feel connected to each other, to creation, to God, and to all those across the world whom we might yet serve
  • A new house that our colleagues experience as a place for fresh start, a state-of-the-art facility, full of possibilities
  • A place for creativity and faithful service
  • A place to imagine new ways to reach more people in more places

A lot of elements and events gave us signs that things were starting to gel; that 225 years of history and God’s providence had brought us to this place, and that by God’s grace we are about to use our life at this new house to do a new thing.

It seems we are poised, ready to join forces and serve with excitement and ingenuity, empathy and insight; ready to reach more people in more places with quality services and resources that help them come to know and deepen their knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, learn to love God, and choose to serve God and neighbor. …”

I close these excerpts of President Alexander’s moving address with my own addition. It is tempting to bemoan the fate of 21st Century Christianity (postmodern, post-Christian, etc.). It is tempting (indeed easy!) to be capture by the distress the United Methodist Church is currently facing over controversial issues which threaten to splinter us. However, admit all the chaos of our times. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is truly doing a new thing! – JML

“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” (Isaiah 443:19).

 

Let Your Light Shine! Event

A member of the Evangelism Task Force passed on the following invitation to a special event in evangelistic training.  I offer it as a guest blog while I am on renewal leave with a strong recommendation that readers consider attending.  Dr. Tommy Brumett has an outstanding ministry and more importantly a passion for sharing Christ.  Lay and clergy alike would greatly benefit!

Bishop Mike Lowry

lIGHT sHINE

Time is running out to register for the Let Your Light Shine seminar.  Speakers are in place and we are just waiting for you to sign up.  Please click the link below so we can reserve you a seat.

The importance of evangelism has been diminished in our faith communities. There is a great deal of confusion about the role of evangelism in our churches. We are uncertain about the relationship between evangelism and church growth and many well-intentioned followers of Jesus Christ simply struggle to share their faith story.

Last fall 60 pastors and church leaders gathered at Grace Avenue. We asked the question, “What would be most helpful in growing your evangelism ministry?” 90% of the respondents answered: “Better training opportunities for lay members.”

This is just such an opportunity. Spend the day learning creative, tested, and practical methods for doing evangelism in your mission field.

When:
Saturday, August 29, 2015
10:00am-3:30pm

Where:
 Grace Avenue United Methodist Church
3521 Main Street Frisco, TX 75034 (Map)

Cost:
$30 per attendee / $25 per attendee for groups of 4 or more

Keynote Speaker, Tommy Brummett
brumettDr. Tommy Brumett will be the keynote speaker. Tommy has served a variety of appointments of all shapes and sizes across the North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Every church he has served has excelled in evangelism. He is currently pastor of FUMC McKinney; a church that has grown its attendance over 70% in the last seven years making it one of the top 25 fastest growing United Methodist Churches in the United States.

Breakout Sessions
Following the keynote address there will be breakout sessions covering a wide range of topics related to evangelism in the 21st century. Bring yourself or your entire team to this exciting one day event hosted by Grace Avenue United Methodist Church.

    • Evangelism Tool Kit
      • Best Practices related to evangelism in your church
      • This will be led by Billy Echols-Richter (Billy is the Pastor of Grace Avenue UMC and has been with the church since the beginning.)
    • Telling My Story
      • How to share your faith story with others
      • This will be led by laity members from Grace Avenue.  It will be a facilitated Q&A session to help people get comfortable with telling their story.
    • Guest Cultivation
      • Learn successful systems, processes and procedures for reaching out to and tracking guests throughout the year
      • This will be led by Patty Froehlich (Patty is the Associate Pastor of Connections at First UMC McKinney.)
    • Developing Your Church’s Community Influence
      • How to develop and leverage activities that will make an impact on your community
      • This will be led by Laura Echols-Richter (Laura is the Executive Minister at Grace Avenue responsible for Program Ministries.)
    • Marketing for Today’s Church
      • What works and what doesn’t when advertising your local church
      • This will be led by Leslie Duncan (Leslie is the Partner and COO of the Duncan/Day Advertising Company in Plano TX.)
    • Getting past the Scary
      • Concepts of Evangelism; definition, theories, and models
      • This will be led by Dr. Tommy Brumett (Dr. Brumett will also be our keynote speaker.  He is the pastor at First UMC, McKinney.)
    • Evangelism in Social Media
      • Using the power of social media to share your faith and church
      • This will be led by Kim Eiffert (Kim is the Director of Communications at Grace Avenue UMC.)
    • Evangetality
      • The importance of hospitality as a part of evangelism ministry
      • This will be led by Dr. Jim Ozier (Dr. Ozier is the Director of New Church Development and Congregational Transformation for the North Texas Conference.)

Want More Information?            Questions?            Register!

What It Takes to Revitalize the Mainline

by Bishop Bruce Ough and Rev. Susan Nienaber

[While I am out on renewal leave, I will periodically offer “guest blogs.” Bishop Bruce Ough is Resident Bishop of the Dakotas/Minnesota Areas and President-Elect of the Council of Bishops. Rev. Susan Nienaber is District Superintendent of the Big Waters District of the Minnesota Conferenc. Their article appeared in the July 20th edition of the Alban Weekly and is re-posted at this site with their permission.]

It is possible to revitalize our mainline congregations and denominational structures. And it is happening all around us, in spite of the numerous challenges we are still facing. It’s true that we are still challenged by an aging population in our mainline churches, fewer younger clergy, seasoned clergy who are struggling to learn new skills and ways of being because what worked at the beginning of their ministries is not working now and recovering from several decades of despair and exhaustion. Despite these challenges, we are bold to say that we now know what works.

The mechanics of reversing the downward trends in our denominations have been well documented in books such as Bishop Robert Schnase’s Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences. But, the mechanics alone will not create the kind of revitalization that is needed. Just as important as the mechanics is the attitude, mind-set, stance, and practices of leaders leading this revitalization work, whether they are clergy, lay or denominational leaders. In our work together as denominational executives (Bishop Bruce Ough of the Minnesota and Dakotas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and Susan Nienaber, District Superintendent), here’s what we are finding:

  1. Prayer is Absolutely Essential. Every day it is essential to ground yourself in God. There is so much coming at you as a denominational executive (or pastor or lay leader for that matter) that taking time for your spiritual disciplines helps you know how to keep the main thing the main thing. “An active prayer life keeps it from being about you.”(Bishop Ough) We still operate in a culture where prayer is often about getting something rather than an act of letting go. The kind of prayer that is necessary to effectively lead is about opening ourselves up so that we can be available to God’s purposes—essentially, getting out of God’s way. It is acknowledging through prayer the power and presence of God. And, it’s being reminded that we can’t do it ourselves but God can.
  2. The Belief that God is at Work and Will Work to Guide and Direct our Efforts. Closely related to prayer is the firm belief that God is already at work and will work to guide and direct our transformational efforts. While it is possible to have a fundamental belief that God is at work in the world without fully understanding one’s place in God’s work, prayer provides the space to discern how we can cooperate with the Spirit that is already moving. Related to what a leader fundamentally believes, another key to success is the language that we use. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “What we speak becomes the house we live in.” The pall of despair and decline has been too pervasive in the past 30 years. The lamenting must stop and we must focus our whole selves on God’s work – this means being very careful and intentional about the words we choose to use.
  3. Looking for the Miracles that are Happening and Telling the Stories of Transformation. The definition of miracles that we are using here is not just the literal miracle of whether or not the person with cancer is healed. Rather it is the more ordinary moments when God’s love and grace overwhelms our sensibilities; when we see our faith communities become submerged in God’s goodness. Recently, one of our small churches gathered together to do the funeral of a stranger, someone who was destitute and without family. That story went viral in the media. This is a miracle. A miracle may simply be that people believe that God’s grace has been unleashed. When we do something ordinary God takes that ordinary act and creates something incredible. We still have to be honest about the despair, brokenness and decline in our mainline situation but we can’t allow ourselves to believe that despair has the last word. It’s about God transforming us and changing us. The stories that we tell only have power if they are told and heard and believed. The stories have to touch the heartstrings in order to inspire change.
  4. Developing a Clear Sense of One’s Mission as a Leader. A great leader at this time in history has to know how God intends to use them and how God is already using them. “I have a fundamental belief that God wants to work through me to create new life here.” (Bishop Ough) It is important to be bold and have the confidence that God has a clear plan and mission. The other critically important belief is that we cannot control the decline and revitalize simply by being a skillful manager or technician. We will stay stuck in a rut with the only the mechanics. Mechanics and technicians make things efficient but this is not ultimately what will get us to the revitalization of the mainline. It’s about God transforming us and changing us. Again, “we cannot manage our way into revitalization, we can only be led into it.” (Bishop Ough)
  5. Being Willing to Color outside the Lines. Most of us spend the bulk of our lives and energies trying to create boxes of sensibility. We spend time trying to figure out how to manage our lives according to our denominational rules while our churches feel the pressure to put together predicable programs and governing structures. Boxes can be helpful and are a necessary evil in some ways in order to keep large organizations in check but when those boxes begin to keep us from seeing where God is at work they then keep us from being able to live into the miraculous. The task of the leader is to work to break down those boxes in order to get to a different place or to create a different organizational culture. All organizations need to constantly re-create themselves. The whole journey of a leader is orientation to disorientation to orientation. We only grow if we have seasons of disorientation. “We typically cannot be arrested by God’s presence unless we are a little disoriented.” (Bishop Ough) A leader sometimes needs to say outrageous things in order to lift up an idea that is out of the box for it is “only when we are disoriented that God can command our full attention.” (Bishop Ough) We can’t get too comfortable with the way things are because we will then feel trapped or, even worse, come to believe that we don’t need God. A critical piece of advice: you can win many trust points by taking a good, calculating risk but you lose a lot if it doesn’t work.
  6. Being Fearless in Making Extremely Tough Decisions and Choices and Managing the Anxiety that Is Generated. Being fearless is in large part about being consistent. It is one thing to make a tough decision, it is something else to stay with that decision even when the pressure builds. It is important to live with a tough decision long enough to make an impact. But there is a difference between being fearless and being reckless. Being fearless is about courageously living out of one’s values and one’s faith that God is at work. Being reckless sometimes happens when we do or say outrageous things only to get the attention of the organization or to create disorientation instead of making a tough decision because it is the right thing to do.
  7. Humbly Admitting Mistakes and Working to Fix Those. If a risk doesn’t work you can’t ignore it and you can’t blame someone else for the mistake. A courageous and effective leader readily acknowledges mistakes, takes ownership of them, and humbly and sincerely apologies for those mistakes. This is the only way to build and maintain trust. When you take risks, not everything is going to work. One doesn’t always know for sure if it is God’s right time. Sometimes leaders want to be fearless without a willingness to take responsibility for the outcomes. This will be a disaster for the organization if you cannot admit your mistakes.
  8. Always Being Grateful. Every day is a gift and it is a tremendous privilege to be in religious leadership at this time in history. God is doing powerful work in the refining of our mainline traditions and as a people of faith we are breaking free from the structures that held us in bondage. We are confident that we will break free to do God’s will in order to create disciples for the transformation of the world.

Whatever role you play—as pastor, lay leader, or denominational executive—you can help to reverse the steep decline in our traditional systems. We will lose some churches that are too far down the life cycle of decline, while others will turn around in remarkable ways. Choosing life, in whatever form it takes, is key. The spirit, attitude, and tone of our leadership will make all the difference.

Alban Weekly, July 20, 2015; http://www.congregationalconsulting.org/what-it-takes-to-revitalize-the-mainline/

 

Next Steps Workshop on the Exodus Project, Part II

Mike Bonem meets with Cabinet and Core Team ©

Before departing on a vacation to Ireland, Bishop Lowry invited Mike Bonem to be a guest blogger. Mike, the consultant leading the Exodus Project evaluation, met on June 17 with CTC’s Core Team and the Bishop’s Cabinet to discuss next steps.

 In the first of my two blogs, we explored Investing in Leadership Development. Of seven Exodus Evaluation recommendations, it’s the one given top priority by the Core Team and the Cabinet. Today’s topics are the other two recommendations selected for emphasis: focusing disproportionately on “selected churches;” and making programming decisions.

Focus Disproportionately on “Selected” Churches  -The intent of this recommendation is to help a small number of high potential churches take a major step forward. This could mean reversing a period of decline, breaking through a growth barrier, or launching a major missional initiative. Doing this requires CTC to identify a small number of churches and ensure that they have the attention and resources to reach this potential.

A version of this recommendation has already been practiced by the DS’s informally, so a natural starting point is for the ad hoc task group to evaluate what has and hasn’t been effective in the DS’s efforts, and what improvements should be made. From my perspective, this is likely to include:

  • A more formal criteria and process for selecting the churches.
  • The development of specific plans for improvement, with resourcing to support the plans.
  • Increased tracking and accountability.

This recommendation should also be started on a small, pilot basis (perhaps only one or two churches per district) with an emphasis on high quality and learning before expanding to additional churches. Workshop participants discussed if and how this initiative should be communicated to the broader conference. There are pros and cons with publicly identifying the selected churches. The task group should include recommendations on this point.

Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions  -This recommendation had the greatest divergence of opinions during the workshop. While we discussed the possibility of “starting from scratch,” the consensus is that doing this is too radical and that the cost (time and organizational stress) would outweigh the benefits. The preferred course of action is for CTC to do a better job of coordinating and communicating programming decisions. The task group for this recommendation should:

  • Develop a clear definition of “programming” vs. “resourcing.”
  • Propose a process that will lead to better coordination of programs and less duplication. This could be as simple as one or two meetings each year where the Cabinet reviews all planned programs and events (from all three centers and districts) at the same time, and makes adjustments as appropriate.
  • Identify ways that programming plans can be communicated more effectively, especially between centers and between the conference office and districts.
  • Consider whether a formal process for evaluation of programs is needed.
  • Consider whether it is appropriate to set a goal each year for reducing CTC’s existing programming by some percentage. Doing so could create an environment of evaluation and creativity (new programs could replace existing programs that were cancelled) and could also free up time for personnel to focus more on resourcing.

Other Recommendations   -In choosing to focus on three recommendations, CTC’s leadership has determined that the other four recommendations are less important. This is an appropriate way to allocate limited resources and to ensure that progress is made. I would like to offer brief thoughts on two of the other recommendations:

  • Resourcing (Recommendation 2). Several people commented that the conference, especially the Center for Mission Support, is already doing quite a bit of resourcing. A simple but high value step may be for Mission Support to create a more formal database of currently available resources with an emphasis on the expertise that resides in local churches around the conference. This database can be expanded and improved over time. If this is done, it should be publicized to increase awareness.
  • Evaluation processes (Recommendation 5). CTC is currently working to improve its clergy evaluation process. The new process should align with the values (discussed in “leadership development”) and the overall goals of the Exodus Project. As discussed in my report, the process needs to be transparent so that clergy understand how they’re being evaluated and so that they can set appropriate goals for their own development.

Concluding Thoughts   -This workshop was another important step forward for the conference and the Exodus Project. I will conclude with four recommendations to maintain this momentum:

  • Communicate decisions from the workshop to the conference. This was discussed at the end of our meeting, but needs to be re-emphasized in light of some of the awareness concerns raised in my report.
  • Set a date for the next meeting. A general time frame of September or October was mentioned, but it will help the task groups to have a firm date so that they have a deadline to work towards. In addition, the task groups should be asked to submit their draft recommendations in advance so that everyone has a chance to review them before the meeting.
  • Commit to a one-year review. In 12 to 18 months, CTC’s leadership should meet again to review progress in these specific areas. This may also be a good time to decide whether the conference should prioritize any of the other recommendations.
  • Decide whether to do another evaluation. My report recommended a simpler evaluation of Exodus (statistical plus survey) after two more years, but CTC’s leadership should decide if, when, and how this will be done.

Next Steps Workshop on the Exodus Project, Part I

Mike Bonem meets with Cabinet and Core Team ©

Before departing on a vacation to Ireland, Bishop Lowry invited Mike Bonem to be a guest blogger. Mike, the consultant leading the Exodus Project evaluation, met on June 17 with the CTC’s Core Team and the Bishop’s Cabinet to discuss next steps.

Dear Friends in Christ,

My purpose here is to recap key points from the workshop with Central Texas Conference’s Core Team and Cabinet held on June 17, 2015. This blog and the one that follows are not meant to be a comprehensive set of notes, and they represent my perspective, which may at times differ from the group. I am also including some follow-up thoughts and recommendations for next steps that were not discussed in our meeting. Accordingly, this is intended to foster further conversation among CTC’s leaders as we move forward.

The purpose of the workshop was to define the “next steps” to be taken in the implementation of the Exodus Project. My evaluation of the Exodus Project introduced the recommendations with this statement: CTC can accelerate its progress in the Exodus Project and improve its results by narrowing its focus to the highest value activities and collaborating more actively at all levels. The seven recommendations that followed are:

  1. Develop a new process to guide programming decisions.
  2. Formalize resourcing to leverage local expertise.
  3. Focus disproportionately on “selected” churches.
  4. Invest in leadership development.
  5. Create transparent evaluation processes that align with Exodus.
  6. Re-emphasize peer learning.
  7. Clarify the role of the District Superintendent

Recognizing the need to focus on a smaller number of recommendations, the leadership team prioritized three of these as having the greatest potential impact for CTC. Those three are highlighted in bold above. Of the three, leadership development is the highest priority. This is the first of two blog posts in which we will more fully explore the recommendations the group initially has selected to emphasize.

Each of the three prioritized areas has a person who will lead in developing specific recommendations. That person will assemble an ad hoc task group to work with them in that process. The task group should include lay members as well as clergy and is not limited to the Core Team and Cabinet. The teams are to develop preliminary recommendations for discussion at a meeting in the fall. As part of their recommendations, each task group should propose milestones/goals for the first and second years.

Since top priority was given to Investing in Leadership Development, I want to address this recommendation first. The recommendation for leadership development was refined considerably during the workshop. We discussed three key ideas: leadership development for clergy, leadership development for laity, and clergy recruitment – with the majority of the time spent on the former. Leadership development for laity is important, but the current efforts that are already under way are seen as addressing this need.

The overarching concept for clergy leadership development was shaped by the “High Octane Preaching” class that has been offered for several years. The content (preaching) was chosen because of its importance for pastoral leadership, and participants are hand-selected based on their future potential. A weakness of this class is that it is not part of an integrated and intentional process for leadership development and has lacked follow-up accountability.

As envisioned in our workshop, key components of CTC’s future leadership development include:

  • Selectivity. Participants should be screened and should be chosen based on their future potential and the benefit of this development for their careers and churches. An intentional process for this selection will need to be created.
  • Focused content. CTC should not try to teach everything that a pastor might need to know, but instead should choose/design content based on the needs of the target participants and churches.
  • Values-driven. Content selection and design should reflect the conference’s values for effective pastoral leadership.
  • Mentoring and accountability. Because content is only a small portion of an individual’s development, it is important for the design to include mentoring and accountability. Individuals who are not diligent about practicing skills that they have learned in one class should not be allowed to take future classes.

Next installment – due on July 6: Focusing on “Selected Churches” and Programming Decisions.

Episcopal Response to Supreme Court Decision on Same Sex Marriages ©

Dear Friends in Christ,

I write you in response to today’s ruling by the United States Supreme Court that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States.  I offer first spiritual guidance consistent with the best shared understanding of the Christian faith.  Wherever you may be on a spectrum from overjoyed reaction to the ruling to deep despair over the Court’s decision, catch a breath.  God is in charge of the universe, and we are not.   This is a good thing.  Christ still reigns and the Holy Spirit is still active in our lives.  The advice of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4 applies to us all regardless of our convictions on the contentious issue of same-sex marriage.

Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:5-7)

While fully respecting the Supreme Court ruling, the United Methodist Church’s position on same-sex marriages has not changed.  My understanding and that of our Conference Chancellor is that the Supreme Court’s decision is directed at state laws that bar same-gender persons from marriage and not at religious doctrine or church law, therefore the decision does not change section 341.6 of the Discipline or any other church law.”  [“Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (¶ 341.6 The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 270)]

 It is important to note that the decision contains the following statements concerning the rights of religious persons and organizations: “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”

Paragraph 161F of The Book of Discipline, 2012 states: “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (p. 111).

The Discipline goes on to state: We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman” (¶ 161b The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 109).

Nothing about our current doctrine or discipline has been changed. United Methodist clergy are not permitted to perform same-gender marriages and such ceremonies may not be held in our churches. Performance of a same-sex wedding ceremony is a violation of current church law (¶ 2702.1(b) The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 776).  Only General Conference has the right to change church law.

I have been asked by some clergy about the limits regarding what they can and cannot do. I offer the following guidelines in line with other bishops of the United Methodist Church.  Along with many of my colleagues on the Council of Bishops and for the sake of transparency, members of the Central Texas Conference should be aware of what may and may not be done without committing a chargeable offense.

  • Clergy may not allow any United Methodist church building to be used for same-gender marriages.
    • They can help the persons find another venue—another church, home, etc.
    • They can suggest they hold the service outside the church and off church property.
  • Clergy can participate in these ways:
    • Pre-marital counseling
    • Attend the ceremony
    • Read scripture, pray, or give the meditation
    • Lift up a same-gender, newly married couple in worship or by printed announcements. [Please note: If clergy choose to do this, I strongly urge that they be in prior conversation with the lay leadership of their church, especially members of the Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.]
  • Clergy cannot participate in these ways:
    • Preside over the ceremony, specifically the vows, exchange of rings or the declaration and pronouncement of marriage.
    • Sign the certificate of marriage.
    • Clergy should not participate or stand during any ceremony where it might appear to those present or in photographs that you are presiding or conducting the ceremony. Clergy may engage in limited participation in the ways described above.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that we be a people of love and care for all in the name of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit!  All really does mean all – for those who we agree with strongly and for those with whom we disagree passionately!

The United Methodist Church has been debating the practice of homosexuality for well over 40 years. This most recent Supreme Court decision will not end the debate.  Good, godly people hold passionately different convictions on this issue.  Let us first and foremost live as a people of the Savior’s grace and compassion to all involved.  The great hymn of love sung by the earliest Christians needs to be lived out in our lives by each us of.  “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:4-7).

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Mike Lowry
Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference
The Fort Worth Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church

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.

A Christian Response to Hate-driven Violence ©

As I sit down to write my Friday (June 19th) blog, my heart is heavy with grief and sadness over the shooting that has taken place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. I had planned on writing about the retreat our CTC Core Leadership Team and Cabinet conducted Wednesday. As had been promised in the Conference Core Leadership Team’s report, we met to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report. With the news of the Charleston tragedy, I choose instead to share a brief word on “A Christian Reponses to Hate-driven Violence.” Next Tuesday’s blog (June 23rd) will share insights and directions from the Core Leadership Team & Cabinet retreat.

My first instinct mirrors that of most people of good will. It is heartfelt anguish and grief. On our Conference Website, I invited the churches and people of the Central Texas Conference to offer up prayers of support and healing for the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, especially those who lost loved ones, and the people of Charleston. First, foremost, and always, let us all be a people who offer our pleas of hope and healing before God in trusting prayer. May each church and each individual Christ follower related to the Central Texas Conference set aside special time for such prayer.

As I meditate in a deeper level spending quiet time with the Lord, I have come to see that our prayers must include prayers of confession. For too long and in too many ways, we have celebrated violence as a solution to our problems. Crime dramas saturate television. We laugh over rewriting the 23rd Psalm. (“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because I’m the biggest meanest *@#! Expletive in the valley.”) We grit our teeth and shake our fists at others, even if only inwardly. We must confess that culturally we have worshipped at the altar of violence.

At “tweet” challenges us to live the better nature of the Christian faith. “As the #Charleston police deem this horrific act a hate crime,” the King Center tweeted, “we pray vigorously that this person’s hate does not cultivate more hate.”  Our Lord calls us instead to be a people of peace. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27).

I believe there is a second element we must add to our prayers of confession.  We must confess our complicity in racially motivated hatred and misunderstanding.  At the recent meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference, we listened to teaching and preaching presented by Rev. Rudy Rasmus (Senior Pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston) and Dr. Erin Hawkins (General Secretary of the Commission on Religion and Race for the United Methodist Church) shared with eloquence and true depth.  In keeping with the best understanding of Methodist theology, they challenged us to live in a greater way the gospel of love and grace.  Both social and personal holiness begin in prayers of petition and confession.  The tragedy of the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina call us back to the center of our faith.  Their teaching can help to guide us into a better, more Christ reflecting way of living.  We are challenged not only to accept Christ but to follow Him in the way we live.  Let the admonishment and advice of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians be received in committed discipleship as well.

“Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near.  Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).

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