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.

Preparing for Lent

In the late 1970s I read a story that came from Punch (a magazine dedicated to humor and satire).  As the story went, a woman went into a jewelry story in Sydney, Australia and asked to look at cross necklaces.  The clerk dutifully brought a number of them out and laid them on a black velvet tray.  He looked up and asked her, “Are you interested in one that is plain or one with a little man on it?”

I remember gasping that anyone could be that oblivious of the central symbol of the Christian faith.  Time wise this incident took place at the beginning of the so-called post-Christian era (or post-Christendom).  At the time (i.e. the end of Christendom) a person could reasonably assume knowledge of Christian symbols and their meaning.  Almost forty years later, such an assumption is dangerous if not foolish.  At our recent “Clergy Day Apart” we heard a series of marvelous presentations by Dr. Stephen Seamands on his book Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return.  Overheard in the conversations during a break after Seamands had presented a lecture on preaching the cross and crucifixion was a comment by a pastor that went something like this:  “I’ve always thought we were a church of the incarnation and resurrection.  Why can’t we just skip over that stuff about the cross?”  (I promise you I am not making this up.  I am also hopeful that there is far more to the conversation that I missed!)

Here is a clue.  We have crosses on our altars for a reason!  The Apostle Paul put it bluntly.  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified” (I Corinthians 2:1-2).

Central to the Christian faith is a conviction that we cannot get to Easter except through the cross!  Last week I taught a class on preaching for the West District clergy.  As a part of that class I shared a model set of sermon outlines presenting a series on the meaning and importance of the cross for the Christian faith.  I entitled it “Give Them Christ: Preaching Lent Through Easter” and based it on a rough outline of one chapter of Stephen Seamands book and the Revised Common Lectionary (for Holy Week).  I offer the outline for reflection and use for those so inclined.

Give Them Christ:   Preaching Lent Through Easter

Ash Wed                      The Reality of Sin                                  Psalm 51:1-17
1st Sunday                   The Bizarre Symbol of Our Faith        I Corinthians 2:1-5
2nd Sunday                  The Scandal of the Cross                     I Corinthians 1:18-25
3rd Sunday                   The At-One-Ment of the Cross          Matthew 16:13-23
4th Sunday                   The Suffering of the Cross                  Matthew 27:33-54
5th Sunday                   The Love of the Cross                          John 19:16-30
Palm Sunday               The March of the Cross                      Matthew 21:1-11
Maundy Thursday      The Shadow of the Cross                   John 13:1-17
Good Friday                 At the Cross                                         John 18:1-19:42
Easter                            The Triumphant Sign                        Matthew 28:1-10

I find myself coming back time and time again to a famous quote by George Macleod (a great Scottish preacher & theologian of the mid-twentieth century and founder of the Iona Community):

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died.  And that is what he died about.  And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.”

Likewise the great old hymn “Lift High the Cross” rings in my ears offering us advice.  “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all adore His sacred name.” The opening verse both invites and challenges us to enter fully into a theology of the cross suitable for Lent.  “Come, Christians, follow this triumphant sign”  (“Lift High the Cross,” The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 159, chorus and verse 1).

The Importance of Reading

John Wesley required the early Circuit Riders (preachers) to read regularly.  One of the preachers complained that he did not have the habit of reading.  Wesley had little patience with a lack of inquisitiveness and laggardly learning habits.  He is reported to have replied, “The good brother will either develop the habit of reading or leave the ministry.”

Those who know me well know that I am a self-confessed book-a-holic.  Science Fiction is my mind candy.  Deeper theological work is my study.  In recent years I have made a point to read books on leadership.  (I highly recommend Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage.  We are working through implications and insights gained from this book in both the Cabinet and the Bishops’ TMF Conclave.)

Early in my ministry I received some wise advice from a number of older (and very much wiser!) colleagues.  They include but are not limited to: a) read at least one biography a year (don’t always read on religious figures); 2) read one book on preaching a year; 3) occasionally challenge yourself with writers and theologians you know you don’t necessarily agree with; 4) the reading or lack of it will show up in your preaching 6 or 7 months later.

On my blog site I regularly update it with those books that I am reading (usually about 6 times a year or every other month).  Currently I am slowly reading my way through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.  It was the winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize.  It is a very deep read, some 800+ pages, and expensive. (Check it out of the library and see if you really want to work through it before purchasing!)  Over Christmas break I listened to Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.  (It was fascinating and a lot of fun.  And by the way, yes, listening to an Audio Book counts!)Books-and-iPad_sm

The third book on my current list is written by one of our own, David Alexander, who currently serves as Directing Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Mansfield.  It is an excellent book for those searching for a faith and questioning faith perspective.  I heartily recommend it to pastors and lay leaders as a book they might want to give to seekers.

I asked David to give me a couple of brief paragraphs on the book and where you could get it.  He writes: “The Deep End is organized around some of the most difficult questions that I believe every person of faith must wrestle with at some point in their journey. They are questions I have grappled with in my own journey. In my work as a pastor, these are questions that people ask me all the time. And while the whole notion of pursuing these questions can be a bit unsettling, I’m convinced that this pursuit is precisely what propels us further on our journey.

You can find The Deep End on Amazon at this link []. Quantity discounts for churches interested in using the book for classes and small groups are also available by emailing me directly. [].”

I’ve got some new books I’m starting on (a part of my disease is that I am always reading more than one book).  I am 62 pages into Alister McGrath’s (former Oxford scholar now at the University of London) Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith.  So far it is a superb reworking of the differences between apologetics and evangelism.  He lays out how they relate and yet are distinctly separate.  Even more importantly, McGrath offers concrete help in understanding how to engage in apologetics in a post-modern age.  I commend it to you!

The Prisoner’s Prayer

In May of 2008 Jolynn took a trip to Ethiopia with the group from the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio (where she was serving as a faculty member).  The trip was led by a retired Lutheran Missionary whose place on the UIW faculty she had taken.  This missionary (Jim Sorensen) had served in hospital work in Ethiopia prior to the Marxist revolution in 1974.  The Marxist regimen known as the Derg (a short name of the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987) literally wrecked this great historic nation.  Hundreds of thousands of political enemies of the regime were kill or tortured in a period known as the “red terror.”  Later in 1984, over 1 million died in a serve famine.  Finally that evil regime was booted out and the country has engaged in a long slow climb back to economic and political health.  As the UIW group toured the country, they encountered a great Christian history and witness that reached back to story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.  The rock churches of Lalibela (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are witness of great faith.  But this small band of pilgrims from San Antonio encountered an even greater witness of faithfulness.  They discovered an Ethiopian Orthodox Church that is alive and well despite “toils and tribulations.”

The above long paragraph serves as backdrop for the following story which I recently read in John Ortberg’s marvelous book Who is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus.  Pastor Ortberg writes:

“Years ago I was in Ethiopia when it was under a Marxist regime and the church was mostly underground. One or another of the leaders of the Christian group would frequently be arrested and put into prison, which was horribly over-crowded and unspeakably foul. Other prisoners used to long for a Christian to get put in prison, because if a Christian was jailed, his Christian friends would bring him food – actually, far more food than that one person could eat, and there would be leftovers for everybody. It became the ‘prisoner’s prayer’: ‘God, send a Christian to prison.’”  (From Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus by John Ortberg, p. 43)

I find myself inspired in reading this story.  We speak of radical hospitality, as well we should.  Here radical hospitality was lived at a level I find almost unimaginable.  It is tempting in the blessed security of a North America to view ourselves as the center of the Christian universe.  This is not so.  There is a line from the great hymn “The Voice of God is Calling” (No. 436, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse 4) which reads:

“From ease and plenty save us; from pride of place absolve;
Purge us of 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!”

I am struck by the connections of courage and faith, hospitality and witness, conviction and obedience.  I cannot help but wonder.  I need to be saved from ease and plenty and lifted to high resolve.  I must ask myself, am I the kind of Christian who is an answer to such a prayer?  Am I the kind of Christian who visit those in jail with such bounty?

Joyful & Triumphant – Really?

I realize full well that it is January 17th but I am still stuck on Advent and Christmastide and their resulting connection to Epiphany Season. The word “epiphany” means a manifestation, a making known, an appearing. For Christians in particular the season of Epiphany connects the birth of the Savior with the arrival of the Magi (or wise men) on January 6th. It is the celebration of the light of Christ coming to the gentiles (those who are non-believers).

With that reminder as a backdrop, I invite the reader to step with me back into Advent and Christmas. The great hymns of the season float through heart and mind. In the days immediately after Christmas and leading up to Epiphany, I found myself stuck on a familiar refrain. Do you remember the great hymn “O Come, All Ye Faithful”? It is opens with the line: “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem” (Hymn No. 234, The United Methodist Hymnal). It sounds so full and wonderful! But wait a minute, “joyful and triumphant?” Really?

I get the joyful part. Who doesn’t? We are joyful because of God in Christ being born in a manager for us and for all. But triumphant? Really? It is here that the Christian claim takes a giant step into the bizarre.

In the so-called “West” (America and Europe), the steady decline of Christianity hardly makes this feel like a triumphant rendering of good news. The move from Christendom to a post-Christendom age feels threatening and confusing not triumphant. Read the paper or watch the evening news, there is still a brutal civil war in Syria. Afghanistan is still a bloody morass. We are still deeply divided as a nation on a host of social issues. Families up and down the spectrum of economics, ethnicity, marital status, and region still struggle mightily. Spiritually we are still a culture adrift from moral roots and saturated by the idols of personal preference and pleasure. The list could go on and on. Despair can seem like a reasonable response to the trials of modern living.

Joyful and triumphant? Really? Yes, amazingly enough, really. Our joy is not just for December 25th. It is for January 17th and all the other days of the year. Why do Christians dare sing about being triumphant? They (WE!) brazenly proclaim the transformation of human life and society in the name of the God with us. Christ’s appearing, epiphany, demonstrates God’s love and affirmation. Charles Wesley wrote of this in a little-sung Christmas hymn.

“He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine,
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.” (Charles Wesley, “Let Earth and Heaven Combine”)

Far from a time to be lost in the doldrums, this is a season to be joyful and triumphant! What a wonderful January! What a great time to be in ministry together! Human heartache and divine love are welded together in the Son. The strife of ours or any time has met its match in the very present love of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joyful and triumphant? Absolutely! We need to “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!”


Numbers never tell the whole story.  At the same time, numbers (or metrics) do offer critical insight that must not be ignored.  One yearly numbers (or metrics) ritual in the United Methodist Church is a year-end close out of Connectional Mission Giving.  It is an important mile-post in our collective understanding of covenant with one another and our missional responsibility with the larger church. I vastly prefer the language of Connection Mission Giving or CMG to the old tired label of apportionments.  Apportionments sound like taxes; and who likes taxes?!  In reality, the year-end payout is a witness to our missional generosity, our wider connection in serving the Lord Jesus Christ and the “least of this my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:40).  These financial resources are used both locally and globally.  Places like West, Cleburne and Granbury benefited directly in tornado relief because of our great missional generosity.  Future pastors were educated in seminaries and children live today in America and Africa because of CMG.  (As a rough formula approximately 60% of a local church’s CMG goes to missional outreach through the church both locally and globally.  The remaining 40% goes to pay for what a business person would call “overhead.”  It is worth noting that the so called non-denominational churches spend a similar amount in overhead though in a different way.)

Link the above brief explanation of CMG with one of the basic elements of Christian discipleship – extravagant generosity.  In our vows as Methodist Christians, we commit to serve the Lord and His church through our gifts, our stewardship of our resources.  In numerous ways Jesus himself stresses the importance of such faithfulness with our gifts. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

So how did we, The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, do in 2013 in missional generosity?  At this point the report is only preliminary but the metrics tell a story of outstanding missional generosity!

Overall “payout to CMG” went up 4.08%.  This represents an increase of $188,712.  Outstanding!  Well done thou good and faithful servants!

According to David Stinson, Comptroller/Treasurer of the Central Texas Conference, pay out by the numbers consists of the following data for CMG:

97.23% Paid in CMG in 2013
93.15% Paid in CMG in 2012

269 Churches Paid 100% in 2013
257 Churches Paid 100% in 2012

30 Churches Paid Less than 100% in 2013
40 Churches Paid Less than 100% in 2012

20 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 but not in 2012
10 Churches Paid 100% in 2012 but not in 2013

247 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in 2012
209 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in each of the previous 5 years
185 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in each of the previous 10 years
(Those who are into careful counting and analysis will discover that the number of churches reported does not match the number of churches in the Conference.  This is because a few churches have not yet filed a report; additionally, this report is preliminary and needs refinement.  Still it is essentially accurate and represents a great increase!  We hope to reach 100% to the General Church when all the work is completed.)

I am proud to be the Bishop of The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Great is our faithfulness in Connectional Mission Giving!  Again I stress, well done thou good and faithful servants of the Lord!