Heading Towards the Cross: The Seriousness of Our Separation

As we continue heading towards the cross in our Lenten journey, those who claim to be Christ-followers traverse a landscaped called atonement.  We cannot help but do so.  We may argue at length with each other on just how a new relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world has come about. But the unshakable reality is, that in some way, Jesus Christ dying on the cross atoned for our sins.

I like to think of atonement by simply breaking the word apart: at-one-ment.  Through the cross we become at one with God.  In the one person who was both fully human and fully divine we are reconnected with our maker. As John Richard Neuhaus put it, “what was separated is now at one” (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, p. 15).

Today we often stumble in our failure to take seriously our separation; namely sin.  We tend to slide by theories of atonement and settle into a facile understanding of Jesus the great teacher because we are uncomfortable facing the reality of our lives.  We are sinners.  I am a sinner.  I have within me a propensity to place myself ahead of the Lord God. So do we all.

Think of the standard images for atonement.  The term salvation comes from the battlefield.  We are knocked to the ground and about to be run-in by a spear-wielding enemy.  Just then, someone steps into to take the blow and dies to save our life.  We are saved!  Or think of redemption, the image comes from the slave market.  It is an especially powerful image for those caught in the grip of an addiction.  We are being auctioned into slavery for our sins  – our willful separation from God.  Someone, Jesus Christ, steps in and pays the price for our freedom.  Or again, consider the term Paul uses in Romans – Justification.  We are in court and held to account for our failures, our sins.  Any plea that we are mostly a nice person is easily thrust aside.  The evidence is clear.  We are guilty of sin, of separation, from God.  As the gavel is pounded down, Christ steps in and sets the verdict aside declaring us justified, that is made right by his actions.

While hardly a complete list, each image referenced points to the seriousness of our separation from God.  They signal a far different reality than the need for just a little correction.  They give evidence of a radical flaw in our makeup; a flaw so deep that none escape.  This truth was demonstrated recently by Pope Francis when he posed the question about himself.  “‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

It is the cross rising before us in the distance that makes us face fully and truthfully the reality of sin; our propensity to be our own gods.  It is the cross standing before us in the distance that challenges our naïve assumptions of our own essential goodness.  Consider just one list of false gods that clamor to reign over us, over the very best of us!

  • Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
  • Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
  • Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
  • Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
  • Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
  • New Age – the story that we are gods
  • Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
  • Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration (taken from The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight; pg. 157).

The Christian conviction wrapped up in the theological concept called atonement is that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus somehow this sin has met its match.  Sin is still real.  It is still present.  It still needs to be faced, confessed and repented of; but its power is ultimately broken.  Heading towards the cross we are challenged to face the seriousness of our separation.  Only then can the joy of Easter morning be fully embraced.

I will continue on the theme of atonement in my next blog as we together head toward the cross … and beyond!  I close with a pungent quote from Stephen Seamands:  “For at the cross we see Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, being mocked, tortured, and finally murdered by the sons and daughters of men. We see humanity defiantly turned against God, the creature, in all of its prideful arrogance, seeking to annihilate the Creator. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “think of all the hostility he endured form sinful people” (Heb 12:3) as he endured the cross. Here our deep-seated, burning hostility toward God is fully exposed: Our hatred is so intense we would kill God if we could. In our determination to be autonomous and independent, to be our own gods, we would go so far as to get rid of God so we could take his place. Here we see not “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous eighteenth-century sermon, but “God in the hands of angry sinners.” The cross reveals how hell-bent we are and how heinous and horrible sin is” (Stephen Seamands, Give Them Christ, pg. 62).




This blog is a special plea and invitation for young adults ages 18 to 35 to sign up for the Taize “Pilgrimage of Trust” that will be held at Whites Chapel UMC, April 4-6!  You may do so by going to the Central Texas Conference Website www.ctcumc.org.

A truly great blessing in my time as bishop of the Central Texas Conference was a leadership trip that I took with a group of young people from the Conference to Taize, France.  Through the leadership of Rev. Larry Duggins and the Missional Wisdom Foundation, we have developed a relationship with this inspiring ministry.

By way of background: “The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic community located in the small village of Taizé, France. The Brothers are from twenty-five countries and from various Christian denominations. Together they seek to live a parable of community and reconciliation. For more than forty years, Taizé has become a place of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of young adults from all over the world. At Taizé, they take part in weekly meetings that are organized by the community.”

Last June in reflecting on my Taize experience I wrote a series of four blogs (entitled “COME HOLY SPIRIT).  In the first I shared, “As I soaked in the experience of Taize, I discovered myself going through a spiritual detoxification.  The challenges, struggles, and problems of life and of my work as bishop did not disappear.  Rather they are put in perspective as I take time to open myself to the Holy Spirit.  In one sense, this is not new at all.  I hardly needed to travel to France to experience the importance of music, silence, and scripture in my Christian walk.  In another, greater sense, I feel like a desperately thirsty man staggering in from the desert and being offered a cold glass of refreshing water.  Steve Bryant’s (the former editor of the Upper Room) maxim that most of us do not go to the high places enough once again rings true in my life.  I (we!!!!) need time for spiritual detoxification from the world’s constant bombardment.”

Those who attend will bless themselves and others richly in the grace of God and the love of neighbor through this great spiritual happening.  It is not taking place in France but right here in our Conference.  (God bless you Whites Chapel and the Missional Wisdom Foundation for hosting!) It is not just for Methodist but for all young adults (18 to 35) who see a relationship with living Lord.

Next Tuesday I will continue a series of Lenten blogs on the cross.

The Cross Before Us

Last Sunday I preached from the opening chapter of I Corinthians.  In my preparation I could not help but be struck again for the … hum…. maybe 300th time …by Paul’s insistence in pointing us to the crucifixion of Christ.  Insistently he argues for the centrality of Christ. Four times in the first 3 verses, the Apostle Paul mentions Jesus Christ or the Lord Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. “Together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place—he’s their Lord and ours!” (I Corinthians 1:2b)

Just as quickly as this great sainted leader of the early Christian movement lifts up Christ, Paul links the confession of Jesus Christ with the cross of Christ.  He bores right into the heart of what constitutes a faithful church.  “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:23-24) Indeed, John Wesley’s instruction to the first Methodist preachers was a repeat of St. Paul’s plea.  “Preach Christ, and Him crucified.”

It is fashionable in some Christian circles to de-emphasize the cross in favor of the incarnation (God with us in the person of Christ) and the resurrection (God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit conquering death).  Both incarnation and resurrection are vital core Christian doctrines.  Neither can be slighted.  But without the cross they do not hang together.

For the incarnation to be real, a resurrection must take place.  For a resurrection to take place.   The crucifixion must happen.  Far too many try to skip over this uncomfortable truth by seeking to leap from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the joy of Easter morning.  But such a leap does precisely what the Apostle Paul warns against.  It empties the cross and resurrection of their power.

In the first chapter of I Corinthians Paul pauses to be thankful that he has baptized just a few people lest Christians be misled.  I find that truly amazing!  For me, baptism is a high moment and a privilege, a crowning joy.  It is the activity I miss most as a bishop.  For Paul baptism must have likewise held great joy.  To say in verse fourteen, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius” (I Corinthians 1:14) dramatically highlights the importance of the cross before us on our Lenten journey.  Embrace with me again the power of the Apostle’s words:  “Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning.” (I Corinthians 1:17)  Now step forward into the text of I Corinthians.  “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (I Corinthians 1:18)

We tend to be squeamish about the reality of the cross; we fumble, slightly offended by concepts like substitutionary atonement (more on that in a later blog); yet the reality of the cross is ever before us.  I close with a piece of writing from John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus:

“As a simple historical reality, it was sin – human darkness in every other person involved – that put Jesus on the cross. But he believed that through love the cross could somehow become not just a symbol of sin and death but also a symbol of even more powerful redemptive love. And whatever else one believes or does not believe about Jesus, that is exactly what happened.

Out of his remarkable brilliance, breathtaking courage, and inexplicable love, Jesus sized up a situation that defeated every human attempt at correction. He identified exactly what would be needed to bring redemption. It would cost him his life.

Two thousand years later, his death is the most important, most remembered death in the history of the world.

Pilate, who wanted above all to be a friend of Caesar, ended up writing in Hebrew, the language of the people of God; in Greek, the language of the cultured world; and in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, so that the whole world could read:

Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.

Jesus outlasted, outmaneuvered, and out-thought every group, every power. But not just that. Mostly he just out-loved everybody. For Jesus in the garden had one agenda that superseded the agendas of all the others: love.

‘I’ll die on Friday.’”  (John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, p. 172-173)

This Lent preach, teach, and talk about Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  The cross is before us.

Reflections on The Discipline, Worship and Focus

At the Convocation of Cabinets (worldwide) held at Lake Junaluska in November 2007, Bishop Janice Huie gave a memorable address. At one point in her presentation, she lifted in one hand a Discipline from one hundred years ago. It was a small, relatively thin book.

Bishop Huie shared the following (taken from her speech notes): In my lifetime, the Book of Discipline has grown from this (hold up a 1948 BOD) to this (hold up a 2004 BOD) and this (hold up a 2004 BOR) and this (hold up a BOW).  The 1948 BOD had a section on the social principles and worship.  (Hold the three.)  Stability and order is good, but that’s a lot of stability and order. 

Just so the initials are clear.  BOR = Book of Resolutions.  The 2012 version is ¾ of an inch thick.  The 2008 version was 2 inches thick!  BOW = Book of Worship.  The most recent version is 1 ½ inches thick.  The current Hymnal is 1 ½ inches thick.  It is supplemented by a number of other hymnals containing a variety of music styles.  BOD = Book of Discipline.  It was 1 ½ inches thick in 2008.  The 2012 version of the BOD is 1 ¼ inches thick.  (There is actually no appreciable change in size, maybe minutely larger in material, but the print size and margins are smaller and the paper is thinner.)

Now reflect on the 1898 Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church.  In that Discipline were not only the rules of the church but also hymns to be sung and orders of worship. Stack it all up as Bishop Huie did.  She weighed up all of the books which we have now to do the same functions as the 1898 Book of Discipline: The Book of Discipline, The Book of Resolutions, The United Methodist Hymnal, The Book of Worship. The difference between the one stack that is difficult for a person to hold in one hand and the one slim book that would easily fit in a saddle bag is staggering to behold.  If my math is accurate, 1898 = ¾ inches.  2012 = 5 inches; if we use the 2008 totals then the differences is 6.75 vs .6.5 inches.

When the church was at its best, it lives out of a clear set of convictions and a passionate commitment to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world with a minimal set of legal instructions.  Wherever we are going as a denominational faith community, adding more pages  to The Discipline won’t help.  [In Remember the Future, Bishop Robert Schnase has a number of excellent chapters on this subject.  Chapter 4: “Four Thousand Shalls” and Chapter 22: “Logjam” especially catch my attention.]  What will make a difference is focusing on the mission of making disciples – disciplined committed followers of Jesus Christ who (by definition!) are engaged in transforming the world (“on earth as it is in heaven!”).

At our recent Cabinet meeting, Don Scott handed me an old 1898 copy of The Discipline.  It still offers marvelous insight to what we are about. One section caught my eye. It is as follows:

The Means of Grace.
Section I
Of Public Worship.

Question 1. What directions are given for uniformity of public worship?
Par. 216. Ans. 1. The norming service shall be conducted in the following order:
(1) Singing – the congregation standing.
(2) Prayer – the congregation kneeling.
(3) Reading a lesson out of the Old Testament, and another out of the New.
(4) Singing – the congregation sitting.
(5) Preaching.
(6) Singing – the congregation standing.
(7) Prayer – the congregation kneeling.
(8) Benediction.
-Book of Discipline 1898

Hmm, … it sounds like an order of worship for a (so-called) contemporary worship service.  But then I’ve gone from preaching to meddling.

What is clear is the need to focus on the mission.  Passionate worship is Job One.  It must be yoked to the other crucial elements of faithful and fruitful living: radical hospitality (witness/evangelism), intentional faith development (prayer), risk-taking mission and service (service), and extravagant generosity (gifts).


Taking the Podium – Congratulations to Barclay Berdan

In mid-February I wrote a heartfelt blog congratulating Bliss Dodd for receiving the Perkins School of Theology Woodrow B. Seals Laity Award.  In part I commented, “I cannot help but reflect that it was only a couple of weeks ago that I attended the Alumni Award Dinner at Perkins School of Theology to watch our own (Central Texas Conference’s) Rev. Karen Greenwaldt receive the Perkins Alumni Award.  Now our own Bliss Dodd receives the Woodrow B. Seals Laity Award!  Wow!  To shamelessly borrow from the Olympics, this is like winning gold and silver.  (I have no idea who is the gold or who is the silver medalist; more likely Karen and Bliss are double golds!)  I can’t think of what would constitute winning the bronze as well to take the whole podium (ala the American slope-style skiers).”

Now I know what it means for representatives of the Central Texas Conference (CTC) to sweep the podium!  One of our (CTC’s) hallmark relationships is with Texas Health Resources (THR) through the Harris Methodist Hospital system.  A key leader over the years in providing quality faith-based health care in our region has been Barclay Berdan.berdan

Early in the week I received news that Barclay has been honored in an extraordinary way by his peers.  To quote only in part, “Barclay Berdan, FACHE, chief operating officer and senior executive vice president of Texas Health Resources, was recognized by the Texas Hospital Association (THA) as the 2013 recipient of the Earl M. Collier Award for Distinguished Health Care Administration. Established in 1965, the Collier Award is the highest honor bestowed by THA. Recipients of the award are recognized as being outstanding executives who have distinguished themselves through their contributions to the health care industry and their profession, who are leaders in providing quality health care services, and who are active in THA and other industry groups.”

In these times of change and challenge to our health care system, it is blessing to know that we have outstanding leadership in the field of faith-based medical care.  Methodists have long been leaders in providing health care to all people.  Every Conference of the United Methodist Church in Texas at some point or other in its past helped in establishing a major medical system in its area.  The Harris Methodist Hospital system (and now the greater THR system) is an expression of this commitment by the Central Texas Conference.

I don’t know who got the gold, silver or bronze.  To my way of thinking, three gold medals have been awarded to Karen Greenwaldt, Bliss Dodd, and now Barclay Berdan.  I do know that each give evidence of our greater corporate faith commitment to live the prayer our Lord taught us – “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Well done, Barclay, we are proud of you!

Bright Spots and the Mosaic Model

“What are the bright spots in your congregation/Conference?”  The question rings in my mind from our recently concluded Team Vital meeting.  To briefly back up, Team Vital is a pilot project that has come out of the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church and the Council of Bishops.  Eleven different conferences from across the United States gather to share insights, learning, and analysis in increasing the number of vital congregations across the United States.

The “bright spots” question directs our attention not only on what is already working or is fruitful in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but it also points us to a wider solution.  The question directs us to a different way of conceptualizing our strategies for building vital congregations.  An old adage echoed in my mind as we sought to identify and share our bright spots across conference lines.  “Reinforce success.”  Without meaning to, it is easy to focus on the shortcoming.  Faithfulness and fruitfulness comes best when we learn from our “bright spots” and focus on growing ministry that is fruitful and faithful – reinforce success, not failure.

One of the bright spots that fascinated me came from the sharing of people from the Greater New Jersey Conference.  They reported a new ministry called “Mosaic.” Briefly, three small churches within a reasonably short distance from each other all had their church facilities badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy.  All were quite small and on the edge in terms of sustainability as a full-time charge prior to the hurricane.  After Hurricane Sandy, two of them were months from being bankrupt and having to close their doors.  The third was struggling.  Yet all three churches wanted to continue their independent existence.

Using the expertise of Bruce Hartman (former CFO of Foot Locker and Yankee Candle, who is now Director of the Connectional Table for the Greater New Jersey Conference), they worked with younger folks in the area (some seminarians, but not all) to go into these churches which could no longer afford a full-time pastor.  The Greater New Jersey Conference folks call the project “Mosaic” because there is a deliberate intention to engage the neighborhood (mission field) and become a “mosaic” church the reflects the makeup of the local area (or mission field).  The young leadership (mostly volunteer, some on a small stipend) went into the churches with the churches willing ascent (working with a coalition of the willing!) and have become supporting pastors.  They lead worship (but don’t preach!), provide pastoral care and help the congregation engage in outreach ministry to the surrounding neighborhood.

Worship on Sunday morning is different.  The Supporting Pastor with other volunteers share leadership in music, hospitality, prayer, etc.   The sermon comes via technology (download).  Bishop Schol is the regular preacher.  In each of churches they report a much higher excellence in pastoral care, mission outreach, and worship!  All three are now growing!  All three are reporting a membership that is starting to reflect the demographics of the mission field.  It is a bright spot in the Greater New Jersey Conference.

We have experimental bright spots as well.  One is Life Church.  It is a marvelous outreach ministry/new church parented by First UMC in Waco reaching a multi-ethnic but predominately Hispanic group.  Another is the creative work of Thompson Chapel and the experiment of the 7th Street Mission, an off-shoot of First UMC, Fort Worth.  In truth the list is long.  Will they all succeed (be fruitful and faithful)?  Probably not, but the experiences are an exciting and creative way to reach out with the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

For too long, we denominationally have “shot” our entrepreneurs.  For too long, we have squelched creative ministry experiments.  I celebrate the many bright spots around us and long for more creative outreach offering the gospel of Christ to all people.

The Work of Christ and Pursuing a Denominational Strategy

This week finds me engaged with the work of Christ as it relates to our denominational strategy for the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  That is a mouthful, and I’ve played with differing titles for this blog article.  This is about a both/and +.  Let me unpack what I mean.

Monday I flew to Nashville for a meeting with Dr. Timothy Bias, the new General Secretary for the Board of Discipleship, Dr. Karen Greenwaldt, the recently retired General Secretary for the Board of Discipleship, Rev. Candace Lewis, Director of Path 1 (the United Methodist focus on new church development housed at the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD), Bishop Mark Webb (Upper New York Conference) and myself.  New church development in the United States operates under a special ministry area called Path 1.  Housed in GBOD, Path 1 relates to our greater work of helping congregations and conferences make disciples of Christ through new churches (“new places for new people”).  Our bold goal is to return to the day in America where we are starting one new church each day of the week!  (In the 2012-2016 quadrennium our goal is 1,000 new churches.)  Every bit of evidence we have in the Christian movement from the Book of Acts onward buttresses the conviction that starting new churches is a key way to make new disciples for Christ and spread the gospel of His love.

We had a great meeting.  Our new General Secretary (Dr. Bias) is committed to the importance of new church development.  He is eager to partner with the Council of Bishops and the Path 1 initiative in this great work of Christ!  The work that many have “so well begun” will continue with vigor and deep commitment.

Correspondingly so too will the great new initiative of transforming (renewing, revitalizing, engaging and equipping, etc.) existing churches to make disciples of Christ.  Both the Council of Bishops and the GBOD are already deeply engaged in the work of Christ to transform existing congregations through evangelism and church growth.  The GBOD has a great ministry called Route 122 (named for Romans 12:2 – “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”).  A part of this work includes support for the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI), which we are heavily invested in here in the Central Texas Conference.

Another part of this great work of Christ in the transformation of existing congregations is a project call Congregational Vitality, which comes jointly from the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church (the UMC’s top missional coordinating body which works on behalf of the Council of Bishops) and the Council of Bishops.  This week the Central Texas Conference through the hospitality of William C. Martin UMC will be hosting the 3rd meeting of the 11 Conference pilot group working on how Conferences across the nations can help build/transform vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Bishop John Schol of New Jersey heads this effort as a work of Christ.  We (CTC) are pleased to be a part of this pilot project for building vital congregations!

New churches and the transformation of existing congregations into vital congregations makes the both/and of our denominational strategy.  It is never one or the other.  It is always a both/and!

The plus comes for me from this afternoon’s activities.  After I finish writing this blog, I will leave for Glen Lake Camp to meet with those clergy who are in the “residency” program.  This group is made up of clergy who have been commissioned and licensed for ministry but are not yet ordained elder.  Every year I meet with those to be considered for ordination as elders in the United Methodist Church.  It is a blessed time of dialog and learning for me.  It is the crucial plus of leadership development that we must be about if vital congregations are to have pastors for the future.

It is a busy week but a good week for the work of Christ!

Bliss Dodd Recipient of the Woodrow B. Seals Laity Award

Roughly a decade ago, I slipped into a conference in an Austin, Texas hotel to take part in my first meeting as a member of the Grants Committee of the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF).  Chairing the meeting was one of the saints of the Central Texas Conference, Hiriam Smith.  As we worked through the agenda, I gradually got to know better the woman sitting across from me.  My admiration steadily grew as I listened to her great advocacy and deep dedication to helping children in poverty.

In the years that followed, I was further blessed to have her Chair the Episcopacy Committee of the Central Texas Conference (as well as provide leadership for the Conference delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conferences) that year when Jolynn and I moved to Fort Worth to become the bishop of this great episcopal area.  I have steadily discovered that she has a heart for Christ, the Church, the people in the church and especially those beyond the church in the wider world who are hurting.  Her gentleness of spirit masks an iron commitment to serve in love those who are bruised and battered by life, especially the children.

dodd pic Thus it was an immense joy for me to read of the decision by the Perkins School of Theology Lay Advisory Board to select Bliss Dodd as the 2014 Woodrow B. Seals Laity Award recipient.  She is a true disciple of Christ who greatly merits this august award.  The press release notes that the “Seals Award is presented annually to laypersons in the United States who embody the Christian faith and commitment of service to Christ in the church, community, and world as exemplified by Judge Woodrow B. Seals, a distinguished layperson whose interest and energy were instrumental in establishing the Perkins Theological School for the Laity. Selection for the award is made by a committee of the Perkins Lay Advisory Board.”

In one sense that says it all; in another sense it does not say near enough.  The award notification gives further evidence which I quote: “Bliss Dodd has been an active layperson for many years at First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth. In addition to a wide variety of leadership responsibilities in the local church, she has served at the district and conference levels in the Central Texas Annual Conference and as a representative to several South Central Jurisdictional Conferences as well as three successive General Conferences – quadrennial gatherings of representatives elected to the highest legislative body of The United Methodist Church from across the globe.”

“Bliss exemplifies the ministry of the laity at every level in the church,” said Dr. Tim Bruster, senior pastor at First UMC, Fort Worth. “Bliss lives out her commitment to Christ and the church in so many ways: in her worship attendance, her full participation and leadership on boards and committees, her stewardship, her own spiritual disciplines and her excellent teaching. She has held many offices at the local church level and beyond; ways that are too numerous to list.”

As I write these words I cannot help but reflect that it was only a couple of week ago that I attended the Alumni Award Dinner at Perkins School of Theology to watch our own (Central Texas Conference’s) Rev. Karen Greenwaldt receive the Perkins Alumni Award.  Now our own Bliss Dodd receives the Woodrow B. Seals Laity Award!  Wow!  To shamelessly borrow from the Olympics, this is like winning gold and silver.  (I have no idea who is the gold or who is the silver medalist; more likely Karen and Bliss are double golds!)  I can’t think of what would constitute winning the bronze as well to take the whole podium (ala the American slopestyle skiers).  What I can do for myself and on behalf of the Central Texas Conference is express our great gratitude to this true disciple of Christ – Bliss Dodd!  Well done, thou good and faithful servant!


Purpose and Identity

Periodically I am asked to review a book and write an endorsement for Abingdon Press.  I just finished my latest – John Flowers’ and Karen Vannoy’s new book, Adapt to Thrive: How Your Church Must Identify Itself as a Unique Species, Modify Its Dysfunctional Behaviors, and Multiply Its Transformational Influence In Your Community.  (It is due to come out in April and I will be writing a blog on the book in April.)  I was struck by the authors insistence on the importance of purpose and identity.

At one point they quote Dr. Doug Anderson (Executive Director of the Bishop Rueben Job Center for Leadership Development).  “We need to move from a preference-driven church to a purpose-driven church.  We need to move from a church that does what I want to a church that does what God wants.  We need to move from a church that follows my dreams to a church that follows God’s dream.”  Amen!  If that sounds familiar, it is because it is familiar.  We have heard such phrasing again and again from people as different (and alike) as Gil Rendle (Texas Methodist Foundation, Senior Consultant for Church Leadership and author of Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches), Rick Warren (Saddleback Church & author of both The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life), and Rudy Ramus (our Conference teacher in CTC for this year’s Annual Conference and author of Touch: The Power of Touch in Transforming Lives and The Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge)  I could easily add others to the list.

Whoever we are; whatever our denominational affiliation or lack thereof; at the heart of the matter for any local church is the question of whose we are.  Do we belong soul and body to the Lord Jesus Christ?  This is a tough question because it is easy to say yes.  We belong to the Lord Jesus.  Biblically understood, the Church is the “body of Christ.”  The “toughness” lies in the hard reality that it is difficult to live out our yes.  I find it easy to confuse my preferences with God’s desires.  I’d like to believe the two are the same.  So would most churches.  The truth is that our preferences are not always (dare we say, often not) God’s desires.  We live in an age of entitlement.  The church is here to serve me and other longtime members/pastors.  The painful reality is that the church is not here to serve us but rather to be a mission post of the advancing kingdom of God.  It is an old line from a hymn that rings in my mind and heart.  “From ease of plenty save us; from pride of place absolve; purge us from low desire; lift us to high resolve; take us and make us holy; teach us your will and way.  Speak, and behold! We answer; command, and we obey!” (“The Voice of God is Calling,” Hymn No. 436, verse 4, The United Methodist Hymnal).

This issue of purpose perforce delivers us to the question of identity.  In adaptation #7 (“From Marginal Members to Deep Disciples”) Flowers and Vannoy note:  “The movement from marginal membership to deep disciples will be necessary but not necessarily easy.”  This is a polite understatement!  The key I think resides in the identity issue.  They (Flowers and Vannoy) get at identity in adaptation #10 – “From a Generic Culture to a Self-Defined Culture.”  With deep integrity and theological courage they write:  “Many new expressions of community-based churches are in fact trying to appeal to all faiths.  They regard all faith teachings as equally true and do not prioritize one over another.  However, when a Christian church adopts this generic culture, they have lost their own self-definition.”  They go on to add, “The generic church is a slippery slope in another way as well.  Once we buy into the idea that we must welcome and accept all belief systems, then it is a short ride to accepting any and all kinds of behavior as well.”

The original creedal affirmation of faith was amazingly short.  It was not the full blown Apostle’s Creed we have today.  That came later.  The original affirmation was three words.  “Jesus is Lord!”  It rings out over the desolation of modern living.  It is a clarion call to new future in a church that self acknowledges that it belongs to Christ and Christ alone!  It is courageously, daringly counter cultural.  It is our future, if we are to have one.

College and Cabinet

For the past week my time has largely been consumed by two meetings – the South Central Jurisdictional (SCJ) College of Bishops and the annual Inventory Retreat of the Cabinet of the Central Texas Conference.

The South Central Jurisdictional College of Bishops normally meets the first week of February at Perkins School of Theology.  Our agenda is varied but typically receives reports from various Jurisdictional Institutions (i.e. Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso, Mt. Sequoyah, St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, SMU and Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, etc.).  Our role as bishops is one of governance.  Each of the aforementioned institutions has its own governing Board.  Rather we share in dialog and insight, which relates to the episcopal responsibility of shared oversight of the Church as a whole.  We follow up on various legislation that has come from General and Jurisdictional Conferences as well as any appropriate inquiries from the representatives of Annual Conferences.  (For instance there is a Jurisdictional Task Force called Mission 21 with representatives from the 10 episcopal areas of the Jurisdictional working on possible realignment issues in the future.) We engage in looking at missional priorities for the Jurisdiction and relate to the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy.  We participated in a discussion of the roles of “Counsels for the Church” in potential upcoming church trials.  And the list continues.

One of the more interesting reports this year involved leadership development.  A crucial issue I have written on many times involves redeveloping the eco-system for clergy development.  Officials from Perkins shared elements of a Lilly Foundation consultation report done by Barbara Wheeler on pathways into Seminary.  Among many items to consider, one stood out as having critical importance: role models and mentoring by clergy and lay leaders of potential clergy.  Significantly the seed of the Holy Spirit, which leads to a lifetime of service to God and the church through ordination, is usually planted at the middle school level!

The second event was the yearly Inventory Retreat of the Central Texas Cabinet.  In this retreat we gather and examine who is retiring, who is graduating from seminary and looking for an appointment, who is looking to be licensed as a local pastor, etc.  Together we carefully and prayerfully sift through the church and clergy consultation forms which various pastors and Pastor-Parish Relations Committees have presented to their District Superintendents.  Together we wrestle with how we might best deploy ourselves to engage the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  This is an ongoing task that will occupy must of the Cabinet’s time between now and Conference in June.  I ask for your continued prayers for all involved in the process.

It is worth noting that we are continuing to see a rise in retirements.  Alongside the rise in retirements is a rise in churches moving to a part-time clergy relationship.  Slowly the renewed emphasis in campus ministry and development of the next generation of lay and church leadership is making a difference.  Balancing all of the various elements is very difficult.  I thank God for the faithful churches, clergy, and lay leaders involved in this great and godly connection called the United Methodist Church.