A Critical Advent Sharing

One of the newsletters I read regularly is Update from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary.  Dr. Lovett Weems is a very wise and practical writer about the American church scene and especially about the United Methodist Church.  Recently I read the following article by Dr. Weems which I found striking and deeply insightful. Graciously Dr. Weems has given permission to reprint his recent article.  I do so with a strong recommendation to Pastors and Lay Leaders:  Read this article and next week, before Christmas(!), act upon it in some significant way.  This article is reprinted by permission from the free e-newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and available at www.churchleadership.com.

The Emergence of the Dones

A friend alerted me to a blog by Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, on “The Rise of the Dones.” At first I thought there must be a misprint. Surely the title meant to refer to the rise of the “Nones,” the increasingly large number of people, especially among those under 30, who choose as their religious affiliation “None.”

But “Dones” was correct, so I set out to learn more about this new group. Dones are those who typically were at one time the most active and loyal of church members. Now they have left. They did not go to other churches. They stopped going to church completely. Sometimes these persons are referred to as the “dechurched.”

Schultz points out the danger for churches. “The very people on whom a church relies for lay leadership, service and financial support are going away. And the problem is compounded by the fact that younger people in the next generation, the Millennials, are not lining up to refill the emptying pews.”

Drawing on research by sociologist Josh Packard, Schultz points to people fatigued with being talked at through countless sermons and Bible studies when they really want to be more engaged and to participate instead of a Sunday routine of “plop, pray, and pay.”  

Schultz asks if they will return. “Not likely, according to the research. They’re done. Packard says it would be more fruitful if churches would focus on not losing these people in the first place. Preventing an exodus is far easier than attempting to convince refugees to return.”

Often I will ask a pastor to think of a few people in the congregation who, if they left in the next year, would cause the church to be most vulnerable. Once they come up with their list, my follow-up question is, “What personal engagement have you had with them in the last two weeks?” Usually the answer is “none,” precisely because these are the people who are most loyal and dependable. They do not “require” or insist upon attention. But not giving attention to them is dangerous.

Pastors, staff, and congregational leaders need to spend time with the most active people to stay in touch with their thinking and feelings. Such ongoing connection can pick up clues about concerns or opportunities that would be missed otherwise. Decisions to leave are not made suddenly. They have been brewing for some time. Once people leave, often the clues that something was not right become all too obvious in retrospect.

Finding ways to talk with long-time, active members about their spiritual journeys and the connection of those journeys with your congregation can go a long way toward understanding the heart of the congregation and issues that can guide congregational leadership. Schultz suggests these questions.

*  Why are you a part of this church?
* What keeps you here?
*  Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
*  How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
*  How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?
*  What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God?
*  What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others? 

Remember that leaders listen. Leaders usually have to listen to those expressing upset and displeasure. Good leaders make sure they are finding time to listen to the most faithful well before any of them become “Dones.”

Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
December 3, 2014
http://www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas/updates/141203.html

 

 

LIVING ADVENT

Last Sunday the reality of Advent enfolded us with comfort, hope and joy.  I confess that I awoke Sunday morning feeling the worse for wear.  The Amazing Grace (our 20 month old granddaughter) with her parents had visited for a week over Thanksgiving.  We had a wonderful time.  Grace even left me a present as she flew away – a bad head cold.

We almost stayed home.  I had no desire to share this gift with others.  But then I remembered that this was the first Sunday in Advent.  I love Advent!  Last Sunday (the first Sunday in Advent) was effectively New Year’s Sunday for Christians and I needed the comfort, hope and joy such worship brings.  With no assignments pressing on my calendar, I went to worship accompanying my wife at her church (and one of my 320 or so churches; well, let’s get theologically correct, it is Christ’s church and we are privileged to participate in this branch of the larger body of Christ).  We slipped up into the balcony so as not to share my cold with others.  As usual the worship was a true blessing.

I cannot help but think that Advent reaches to the true essence of the human condition and of our need(s).  Consider next Sunday’s Old Testament Lesson in The Revised Common Lectionary – Isaiah 40:1-11.  The passage opens with the famous words “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-3).

It is not a mistake that Handel chose to open his incredible Messiah with this passage from Isaiah.  It is sung in a major key as a triumphant announcement.  “God has done and is doing just that.  What is common with all such passages as this one from the Bible is that God is the one who comforts.  Israel, that’s us, are the ones comforted.  One commentator notes, “Comforting signifies God’s intervention to help and restore. The comforting is in the past tense” (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, p. 34).  God has acted!  Comfort precedes the call to preparation.

Look where the soaring words of the prophet lead us.  “A voice is crying out:

Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it. (Isaiah 40:3-5)

In the chaos of modern living, the prophet Isaiah speaks of today just as much as for Israel of old.  It is hard to breathe when we are knotted up by our sin.  It is difficult to move forward when life is a mess.  This is true individually.  It is true collectively – as a nation and as a world.  Sin makes it difficult to breathe.  And yet, while we breathe there is still hope.  In the labor pains of a new world and new creation and a new church, we need to remember that the glory of the Lord will appear.  In the agonies of our time and age, we need to remember that the Lord God has commanded this.  When we are in exile and feel abandoned, remember the prophet’s words:

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:9-11)

Do you remember what a herald is?  A herald is one who runs ahead with news of how the battle has turned out.  If all is lost than it is time to flee for your life.  If victory, than it is a great time of celebration.  Isaiah calls us to function as heralds.  We are to run ahead and shout for joy.  God has the victory.  In a practical way, don’t settle for happy holidays.  Be a herald of good tidings, live Advent.  The word “Advent” literally means the coming as in the coming of a significant event or person.  The season starts the Christian year challenging us, encouraging us to literally live out verse 3. “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3).  We do so by proclaiming that this is a time to rejoice in the coming of Christ!

There is an unapologetic evangelistic component to our Christmas preparation.  We make ready the highway by getting up the high mount of faith, lifting up our voice with strength, and sharing the news of Emmanuel, God with us and for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The prophet speaks to us again.  This time it is not a message of doom and gloom but of comfort, hope and joy.  Live Advent!

The Content of our Prayers – Some Unscientific Reflections

Thanksgiving always brings us to a time of prayer and reflection.  It is a time of gratitude that gets expressed through our prayers.  This is good and an important activity.

As I engage in reflection, I have noted over the last year a pattern in our life as church that has probably long been present.  I want to lift up the pattern by highlighting our prayers as a Cabinet when we meet.

Together we as a Cabinet spend time in worship and prayer.  Our prayers are not casual and quick but rather deep and careful.  We go through a worship litany in which we are invited to lift up prayers of celebration and thanksgiving and respond with the words, “Loving God, we give you thanks.”  In the litany we are also invited to lift up prayers of concern, petition and supplication before the Lord responding with the words, “Merciful God, hear our prayers.”

What I have noticed in an unscientific way is that our prayers are overwhelmingly prayers of concern, supplication, and petition.  We pray for a veritable army of individuals both in the Conference and beyond by name.  We pray for situations, trials and struggles; for peace on earth, the end of racism, the safety of those serving overseas, etc., etc.  The list goes on and on.  I could add a great deal more, but the reader can follow the drift of this assertion.

All of these prayers are more than just good.  They are godly.  It is right and proper to pray for a friend battling cancer; a loved one out of work; a neighbor experiencing grief.  It is more than needed to pray for soldiers in Afghanistan, the end of racial violence in Ferguson and in Central Texas; feeding the hungry; homeless individuals, etc.  Again these are Christ-honoring, holy prayers.

What is often missing is that we spend little time in prayers of praise and thanksgiving.  This is just not a centerpiece of our prayer life.  To be sure, we do offer some prayers of praise and thanksgiving, but the ratio seems to run something like ten to one.

I’ve noticed that the Cabinet is no different from our churches.  The same kind of praying and the same rationale appears to roughly apply as I visit around the Conference.  Furthermore when I attend functions around the General Church, the same emphasis on concerns & petitions applies.  The same lack of praise and thanksgiving can fairly be noted.

A number of years back I read Augustine’s Confessions (for the third time).  In reading I noticed that he often began his devotions with the phrase – “Great are you O Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  The great saint determinedly opened in praise even when times were bad!  Especially the great saints of the church, praise and thanksgiving were at the core of their prayer life.  Don’t misunderstand me, they didn’t neglect concerns and petitions.  Rather, the balance was much more even and they led with praise!

I am convinced that there is a lesson here which applies to the content of my prayers and my devotional life.  I do not spend enough time in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.  It was the great saint and devotional leader Meister Eckhart who is reported to have said, “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Praise and thanksgiving are a foundational way we place ourselves properly, obediently, faithfully before the Lord God.

The simple acrostic for prayer guidance is helpful.  Pray ACTS.

Adoration (praise)
Confession
Thanksgiving
Supplication (prayers of petition and concern)

Supplication comes last.  Great are you O Lord, and greatly to be praised!  This Thanksgiving I give you thanks, praise, glory and honor.

Racism is Real!

In preparation for Thanksgiving my wife has decorated our house beautifully.  If you step into the living room and look at the mantle over the fireplace, four elegant figurines peer out from the fall foliage.  On the left are the classic looking pilgrim couple.  On the right are an equally idealized Native American (First Nation) couple.  They remind us that the first Thanksgiving was a multi-ethnic event.

Beyond that glowing reality lies a disturbing reality.  Recently at the Council of Bishops meeting we engaged in a continuing act of Repentance for the mistreatment and, at times, slaughter of Native Americans.  (I invite the reader to check out my blog on November 7th entitled “Acts of Repentance Signs of Hope.”)  Racism against Native Americans by an Anglo dominated culture is real.

Today as we awake following the non-indictment of a police officer for the shooting of a young African-American male in Ferguson, Missouri, we are reminded again that racism is real.  Regardless of your perspective on the Grand Jury’s action in Missouri, demonstrations coupled with anger and mistrust point us back to the irrefutable raw wound of racial injustice, profiling and neglect.  At General Conference in 2012, the United Methodist Church passed roughly 14 separate resolutions directly or indirectly about combating racism.  Ferguson, Missouri and its aftermath reminds us that this is an issue none of us can walk away from if we wish to claim an identity as Christ followers.

Galatians 3:28 states the biblical case with unwavering clarity.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The great commission of the risen Savior and Lord Jesus Christ remarkably gives the command:  “Jesus came near and spoke to them, ‘I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).  The word translated “nations” in verse 19 is rendered “ethne” in the Greek.  It does not mean a nation-state as we are apt to assume but rather means a people group.  It is the root of our word “ethnic.”  Jesus is commanding us to reach all ethnic groups, all people groups.

The implication is compelling.  Racism must be confessed, especially the subtle racism of white privilege.  (Resolution 3376 adopted by the 2012 General Conference, p. 455 The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2012 is worth prayerful reflection by all, especially those who like me come from an Anglo-American heritage.)  Confession needs to lead us into action to eradicate this blight on human society.

Dr. Sylvester Key, Pastor of McMillan United Methodist Church in Fort Worth and an African-American as well as a U. S. Army veteran, wrote the following letter, which I in part and with permission quote.

 “When the verdict was read in Ferguson as it relates to the shooting of Michael Brown the first thing I did was send a message to my three sons urging them to comply with law enforcement officers.

 I grew up during the height of racial segregation; that is to say, I was bused to an all-black school, could only go to the stores in our neighborhood because black boys were not allowed in Homestead stores. We were perceived as thieves and always were looking for something to steal.

 I have been stopped, detained, forced to get out of the car and put your head against the rear tire on the vehicle. Handcuffed and had a gun pulled on me a time or two.

 I have been stopped in Texas, Florida, Virginia and New Mexico while driving to my next military assignment. I have been called “Boy”, “Black Animal”, “Coon” and yes the “N” word. Hearing those words angered me but it also gave me the determination to make something out of my life.…

 We must not riot and burn the communities we live in. We must not look at people who are not black as the enemy. What we must do is work harder, vote, demand that our children receive a quality education and get back in the church. The church was the only place we had any authority, where we could speak our mind and the place where we took ownership.

 I fought in a war that was to stop the threat of communism in VietNam but we were losing the war for racial equality in America. …” (Dr. Sylvester Key, Sr.)

Pastor Key’s prophetic words, linked with our best resolutions and highest desires, call us to a higher standard of living, a biblical standard; a standard that reflects Christ’s presence in our midst.  Racism is real.  Let us confess and commit to reach out and build a better world in the name of our Lord.  This is in very truth the mission the Lord has given us – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

When you pause to pray over Thanksgiving dinner, I ask you to pray for those in Ferguson, both the demonstrators and the police, and for all of us as a people that we might yet more deeply walk in the way of Christ.  May we live the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Galatia.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Neural Consequences of Religious Belief on Self-Referential Processing

The title is not a mistake.  Actually it is the title of an article that John Ortberg references in his marvelous book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.  Amazingly enough Ortberg is referencing a study done in China which gives “real neurological evidence for the power of spiritual reflection to make us aware of our sin.”  He continues, “Christians actually use a different part of their brain to self-evaluate than non-Christians” (Taken from Soul Keeping by John Ortberg, p. 72).  He goes on to note that “prayer, meditation, and confession actually have the power to rewire the brain in a way that can make us less self-referential and more aware of how God sees us” (p. 73).

All that is a fancy way of saying that confession is really good for the soul; it is good for us in the fullness of our personhood!  As a leader, one of the refrains I go by is that “the first task of a leader is to define reality and the last task of a leader is to say thank you.”  (I think the quote is original to Peter Drucker but am not sure.  This may be a partially correct paraphrase but it is none-the-less profoundly good advice.)  Confession calls me to face the reality of who and whose I am.  It also lifts me to be a newer, better, holier way of being.  Something like this only more was behind the original Methodist emphasis of moving on to perfection.  Ortberg reminds me of an old prayer that goes:  “God, help me to be the man my dog thinks I am” (p. 78).

In a memorable sermon at the Council of Bishops meeting recently held in Oklahoma City, Bishop Young Jin Cho (Virginia Conference) quoted a Methodist preacher from the Civil War.  In the midst of that great conflagration, E. M. Bounds wrote: “We are continually striving to create new methods, plans, and organizations to advance the church.  We are ever working to provide and stimulate growth and efficiency for the gospel…  The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men and women…  What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more novel methods.  The church needs men and women whom the Holy Spirit can use – persons of prayer, persons mighty in prayer.  The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through persons.  The Spirit does not come on machinery, but on persons.  The Spirit does not anoint plans, but persons – persons of prayer”  (Quotation from E. M. Bounds’ book, The Power through Prayer).

I want to quibble, seriously quibble, with Bounds.  I think the Holy Spirit can and does flow through methods, plans and systems as well as persons.  Nonetheless, the point is well taken.  God is looking for transformed persons.  Holy transformation begins with each of us individually tending to our spiritual health in a way that is biblically faithful and leads us out beyond ourselves into the will and way of God.  (I think it was the great Baptist leader George Truitt who said that “success was knowing the will of God for your life and being at the center of it.”)

The secularist in me goes back again and again to Robert Quinn’s book on business leadership – Deep Change.  Quinn insists that we must begin by changing ourselves.  My Christian twist on Quinn’s writing is that we must begin by opening ourselves to the changing power and presence of the Sovereign Lord who encounters us through the Holy Spirit.  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service.  Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature” (Romans 12:1-2).

This crucial meeting with the Holy Spirit begins in quiet, in praise and confession.  There really are “neural consequences of religious beliefs in self-referential processing!”  This is truly one of the great functions of worship and yet simultaneously is not limited to a church worship service.

Augustine put it well when he said, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find there rest in thee.”

“Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
abide in him always, and feed on his word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
forgetting in nothing his blessing to seek.”

(“Take Time to Be Holy,” Hymn No. 395, verse 1, The United Methodist Hymnal)

Reporting From the Mission Field

There a many great avenues of ministry taking place in the Central Texas Conference and around the larger church. One of them lies in new church development. It is important to remember that every church was at one point in its life a new church.

Recently I met with our New Church Start District. The diversity was astonishing! There were eight developments that are a part of our New Church Start District. One is Korean; another is predominantly African American; and a third is reaching out to a predominantly Hispanic mission field. Two are extensions of parenting church situations. Two others are proposed “mergers” that would result in radically new and different churches.

Taken as a whole, there are a variety of experiments going on that reach deep into unconverted, unchurched and untapped mission fields. The very nature of the work is exploratory. It is also exciting with the connotations of a roller-coaster ride. The Holy Spirit is wildly at work in ways we only dimly understand. It is our call to be open – faithfully and courageously obedient to the Spirit’s claim upon us.

In another setting, I learned of some of the initial fruit of our strong emphasis in upgrading campus ministry and specifically Wesley Foundations. This ministry takes time to develop and mature, but it is making a tangible difference in the life of the Conference. Rev. Joseph Nader, CTC Coordinator of Campus Ministries, reports that we now have:

  • “2 students serving at Arborlawn UMC in the youth group.
  • 4 students serving at FUMC Mansfield in the youth group.
  • 1 student serving at Richland Hills UMC in the children’s ministry.
  • 2 students serving at the UTA Wesley (1 of them a repeat…also serving at Mansfield).”

He concludes, “Really [we have] a total of 8 students serving in a ministry designed to help them discern a call, and then equip them for moving forward in ministry. Additionally it is worth noting that Rev. Megan Davidson who was Director of the Wesley Foundation at TCU is moving on to be Chaplain at Southwestern University. Rev. Melissa Turkett is the new (as of Annual Conference) Wesley Foundation Director at Baylor University. Melissa is a graduate of the Wesley Foundation of UTA. In her last year at Perkins School of Theology, Melissa served her internship at the UTA Wesley Foundation.”

On a very different subject, I had the privilege of attending the Board meeting for Texas Wesleyan University (TWU) last week. TWU is moving forward in a number of impressive ways. We are looking forward to moving the Conference offices to TWU. It was reported at the Board meeting that the new Conference Center building should be completed this coming summer.

As we move towards Thanksgiving, I hope that we all will remember to give thanks by offering out of our bounty to those desperately in need. Here in the Central Texas Conference I especially want to remind us of our traditional “Thanksliving Offering.”

The Conference news notes that: “The 2014 Thanksliving Offering, generally received in the month of November, will go to energize and equip local church ministries with persons experiencing food insecurity in their communities. The Thanksliving Special Day Offering (Remittance Fund #3968) can be sent to the CTC Service Center online or by mailing a check.”

The Holy Spirit is moving in our midst, and we are blessed to be a part of a great work of the Lord. In countless numbers of ways, some large and impressive others small and unnoticed, the Kingdom of God is being constructed through a multitude of risk-taking acts of faithfulness. We truly have reason to rejoice and be thankful!

BEHIND THE SCENES

After the talk of schism and arguments over same gender issues settles, there is an emerging consensus over the importance of building vital congregations.  This great consensus is built on the foundation of commitment to the stated mission of The United Methodist Church — “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  I believe there is a growing recognition that if our threatened unity as a church is to hold, it will do so around this great theme of vital congregations that make disciples of Christ.

Such a great theme blossoms naturally from the fertile soil of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) of the risen Christ to make disciples.  It is nurtured in conversion events like Acts 2 and the Pentecost experience, the road to Damascus of the Apostle Paul, and the dramatic transformation of Rome from a place dedicated to stomping out Christianity to the center of a new emerging Christian faith. The current denominational emphasis on building vital congregations is a faithful attempt to re-appropriate the center of our faith.

Behind the scenes of the vital congregation emphasis lies an only partially recognized need to rediscover evangelism and witnessing.  Missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s famous admonition of witnessing and faith sharing echoes in the background.  “Words without deeds are empty.  And deeds without words are dumb.”

Lost in the noise of the 2012 General Conference was a thin publication by Abingdon Press written by Dr. George Hunrecv contagious meth mvmtter, III.  The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement looks at the capacity of the Call to Action to build vital congregations, to move beyond institutionalism to the recovery of a vital movement of faith consistent with the original Wesleyan vision.  Hunter notes “the contagion of culturally relevant Christianity and emotionally relevant Christianity are experienced fairly directly” (p. 41). This involves a direct connection between conversations that might best be called witnessing.

Recently with Carol Woods (West District Superintendent) we have gathered a small task group together to refocus us as a Conference on what is classically called evangelism.  This great word, “evangelism,” has gone from Jerusalem to Jericho and fallen among thieves.  The word literally means “tactics for sharing the good news.”  Regardless of where one stands on deeply divisive issues like same gender marriage, it is an irrefutable central fact that if we as a church are to survive we must recover an active ministry of evangelism.  This great task lies behind the scenes of much of our modern controversies, but its reality is irrefutable in a post-Christian America.

Behind the scenes of recovering evangelism and witness lies the even deeper theological issues of a robust doctrine of sin and the need for salvation and thus a recovery of a vibrant Christology.  Those are common themes to which I have returned time and time again in my blogging.  It is at our theological heart that the real crisis of Methodism and mainline Christianity lies.  More on this later.  For today, we need to embrace the threatening world of evangelistic witness — not for our sake, not for institutional self-preservation.  Such is a far too petty goal.  We need to recover evangelistic witness for the sake of a bruised and battered world, for the love of those lost in hopelessness, helplessness, and homelessness (both spiritually and physically)!

An Unfolding Work of the Holy Spirit

 

On returning home from the Council of Bishops week-long meeting in Oklahoma City, I find myself slowly getting back into the issues of ministry in our local setting.  Among the disagreements at the Council, the great sign of encouragement was our agreement around the importance of building vital congregations.  Here is a divinely ordered platform on which we can come together.

These musings led me back to an email report I received about a month ago.  I detour to set some context for the report.

Last Conference we made an unusual appointment of Pastor Denise Bell Blakely to Everman UMC as Associate Pastor for Mission, Community Development and Evangelism.  Rev. David Griffin is the senior pastor at Everman.  Everman is a community undergoing change.  Once a predominantly Anglo community, it now has a majority Hispanic population. Collectively both the congregation and the cabinet wondered how we could engage this new environment.  Already, Everman UMC was working on ministry with those attending school right by the church.  They were open to reaching out in a new and creative way.  So too was Pastor Griffin.  Enter Rev. Blakely who lives with a courageous sense of the Holy Spirit calling her.  (It is worth noting that Rev. Griffin is Anglo, Everman UMC is predominately Anglo, and Rev. Blakely is African-American.)  Through the combination of the a grant from the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF), Conference mission support and the local church, together we stepped up to risk-taking mission and service.  Through a supportive church and senior pastor, a new and highly innovative mission work was begun.

After 3 ½ months on the job, Rev. Blakely filed a report which (edited for length) included the following:

  • “Developed English and Spanish Language handouts to the community of Everman and Forest Hill, containing information about Everman UMC, the Lord’s Prayer in English and in Spanish, weekly prayers for children, and the household for Victory in Christ, also in English and in Spanish.
  • Delivered the handouts in door hanger format and in person in the neighborhood surrounding Everman UMC.
  • Visitations at Hugley Senior Center and Communion Service at the Senior Activity Center
  • Home and hospital visitations with the Stephenson family.  Grief counseling for the family.
  • Assisted senior pastor at the Graveside Service for Beverly Stephenson.
  • Attended orientation at the Tarrant County Food Bank.  The orientation is mandatory for access to services at the Food Bank.
  • Developed volunteer handbook for “Hanging Out” that can crossover to all volunteer activities at Everman UMC.
  • Served as primary contact for all walk-in and phone inquiries pertaining to Hanging Out and other mission activities.
  • Attended the Opening Convocation Service for Everman ISD and met with the Superintendent of Everman ISD, the school board members, principals of the schools, Dr. Bean and some of the teachers of the school.  The purpose was to initiate conversation about the expectations and goals of Everman UMC and Everman ISD and how we can help each other achieve these goals.
  • Filled in for the Senior Pastor for three weeks while he was on vacation, carrying out the instructions of the Senior Pastor and mindful of the faithful representation of Jesus, and the United Methodist Church.
  • Began a ministry of grace, handing out bottles of water to those walking in the 100+ heat.  The bottles of water are labeled, “Courtesy of Everman UMC.”
  • Handing out blessing bags consisting of hygiene items and snacks to the homeless in Everman.

Rev. Blakely closed her unusual report with the following: “These are the projects in progress. At I-35 and Everman Parkway, working on developing communication with the prostitutes.  Still discovering Everman. Working with the Senior Pastor in planning a revival.  Working with the volunteers and preparing for Hanging Out 2014-2015.”

She added, “Everman UMC has had eight visitors to the church so far, I believe this is the fruit of prayer in action.  Please pray for the mission and my family, we need all the prayer we can get.”

Wow!  After all the effort and energy at the Council of Bishops, it is this kind ministry that inspires me and fills my soul!  I don’t know many pastors who would set up a dialog with prostitutes, be in conversation with school leaders, establish multi-lingual prayer meetings and plan a revival.  Most of us would get the last three – school, prayer, and revival.  It is the first one I choke on – a ministry with prostitutes.  I confess that I would be afraid to do so.  And yet, the more I think about, I do know someone else who established such a ministry.  His name is Jesus.  I can actually think of a few other pastors who have done so as well.  (Including a Presbyterian minister/missionary and his wife in Hong Kong back in 1968.)

We don’t know how this will come out.  This is work of the Holy Spirit unfolding in ways we do not understand and cannot control.  And yet there is a lesson and witness here for more than just Everman UMC.  The future of the larger United Methodist Church lives on in such Holy Spirit- led ministry.

In my reflection, it is the Lord who is calling us to courageous risk-taking mission and service, willing to evangelistically offer Christ to those most in need.  I want to publically thank the good people of Everman UMC and Pastors Griffin and Blakely.  I also want to be a part of a church that reaches out to those most in need – sharing in both (!!) Word and deed!

Human Sexuality Statement from the Council of Bishops

BishopCrest (4)The following statement was adopted unanimously by the Council of Bishops in the afternoon executive session on November 7, 2014:

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

 

Acts of Repentance, Signs of Hope

Thursday afternoon we gathered to engage in an intensive time of follow up to Acts of Repentance for the Treatment of Indigenous People (which was a commitment out of General Conference 2012). It is a massive understatement to assert that the United States’ history of treatment of Native Americans is rife with injustice. Growing up in Seminole, Oklahoma (which is near the headquarters of the Seminole tribe) my wife has a much deeper grasp of the history than I do. Originating in Florida, a significant number of Seminoles held out in the Everglades during the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and Seminole Wars of 1832; however, the majority marched the deadly trial of tears and settled in the Oklahoma territory. Last year as a part of our participation in the “Acts of Repentance,” CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission) worked in mission with churches of the Oklahoma Indian Mission Conference (OIMC).

In our “Acts of Repentance” we are working towards a new future of healed relationships that constitute honest confession of past moral failures and offer hope for a new future. We are witnesses and even at times participants to the victimized. For example the Sand Creek Massacre was led by a Methodist Minister (an elder in good standing!). It is a blight on our history. Today, issues still remain that cry out for holistic ministry — alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and the like. Together we are called to be a part of a new day. I am grateful for the leadership of representatives of the OIMC for their thoughtful and challenging leadership.

The Council of Bishops’ common time in conjunction with the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church has focused on what unites us. Our overarching engagement is on building vital congregations. A key learning is how the Four Areas of Focus are a reflection of Vital Congregations. Put differently, vital congregations engage in (1) creating new places for new people (through both! the transformation of existing congregations and the creation of new churches and faith communities), (2) leadership development (both lay and clergy), (3) ministry with the poor, and (4) the eradication of killer diseases worldwide (Imagine No Malaria, fighting HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis). These signature goals are the fruit of vital congregations and simultaneously they are formative of vital congregations. Vital congregations not only engage in the focus areas, they come about and grow through engagement of the focus areas. By focusing we more faithfully live our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

When we focus on vital congregations that are in ministry in these focus areas, we are united. A part of this great work of God calls us to come up with signature objectives — that is, defining, challenging, aiming points. A classic example of a signature goal is “Nothing But Nets” or “Imagine No Malaria.” Signature goals have a way of galvanizing the imagination and driving innovative new ministry in the area of the goals. They are not limiting but rather expansive.

Another sign of hope that the COB took part in with the Connectional Table was our vision for our worldwide church. In one sense, it is far easier to just be a national church (as in the Presbyterian or Lutheran Church in America). As a worldwide people of faith, we embody the global call land claim of the gospel of our Lord. Together we are stronger and more faithful. We have the opportunity to learn from each other in grace-filled ministry. As a Council of Bishops we have the responsibility for the initiation of “structures and strategies” for the sake of the worldwide mission of the church.

This, the worldwide nature of the church, is tricky work. Our various contexts differ widely! Imagine being a United Methodist Christian in Russia and the conflict with Ukraine erupts. The same bishop, Bishop Edward Khegay, is responsible for both countries, Russia and the Ukraine! Or reflect on the growing ministry taking place through Global Ministries in Vietnam. In each case the context is dramatically different from Central Texas. The great hope and promise is that together we are “transforming the world for Christ.” On a more practical level, many (most?!) of our congregations in Central Texas wrestle with this wonderful worldwide reality when they take part in a mission trip or support a missionary or pay Connectional Mission Giving (apportionments)!

Taken together we are living the faith in tremendous ways! We are, on a worldwide basis, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”