Breathe Deep, Focus!

Looking back at the close of General Conference, a story about a couple of old moose hunters who went on a yearly hunting trip in remote northern Maine comes to mind.  As was their habit, they hired the pilot of a little float plane to fly up to a lake just south of the Canadian border and drop them off.  The pilot crammed everything into his little “puddle jumper” float plane, landed on the lake and unload them and all their gear at the shore.  “Remember,” he said, “I’ll be back in three days to get you.  I’ve got room for the two you, your gear and just one (1!) moose!”  They readily agreed and headed off into the woods.

Three days later the pilot landed on the lake to find the hunters waiting on the shore with all their gear and two (2!) moose. A heated argument ensued about why the plane couldn’t possibly lift off with that much weight and clear the ridgeline at the end of the lake.  It ended when one of the “good ole boys” commented, “Well, the guy who flew last year had the same plane and he was able to take off.”  Pride on the line, the pilot grudgingly consented to take both moose, plus the gear and the two of them.

They crammed everything in, taxied to the end of the lake and revved their engines to the max.  Slowly the little plane gathered speed and finally crept into the air just before it ran out of water.  It cleared the initial stand of trees and struggling to make the ridge line, clipped a tall pine at the end of the lake.  The plane crashed into the pine trees with antlers, moose bit, camping gear and plane parts flying everywhere.

The pilot and hunters came too about the same time perched in the branches of a tall pine.  One of the old hunters spoke first. “Where are we?”  “Well,” said his buddy, “about 50 feet further than last year.

General Conference feels like that.  I’m not sure where we are, but it can’t be very much farther than last year.  We are a deeply fractured church (not splintered, our fracture runs in multiple directions. Think of a windshield that has been smashed, is still held together but has fracture lines running in all directions).

A reasonable, indeed sane, question is “what now are we to do?”  The answer I believe lies at the heart of faithfulness.  We need to breathe deep and focus!

We need to breathe deep.  Wesley is right.  “The best of all is that God is with us!”  As important as structure and ecclesiology are (and make no mistake, they are very! important), it is Jesus Christ who saves.  The great commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is still before us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Amid all the debate swirling around The Call to Action, the first and most critical emphasis is a ten year focus on building vital congregations.  Here in the Central Texas Conference the Conference exists to energize and equip local churches for the great mission of God … “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Whatever the general church structure, this must continue to be our focus!

Breathe deep – God is with us!  Focus!  We are in the business of building vital congregations that make disciples for the transformation of the world.  “Use your ambition to try to work toward being the best at building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12b).  The title of my blog is This Focused Center.  It comes from 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 based on The Message (a paraphrased translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson).  “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.”  In the aftermath of General Conference, breathe deep, focus!

General Conference and the NFL Draft

How is the United Methodist Church’s General Conference similar to the National Football League’s annual draft?  The answer is that, like the NFL, we won’t know for sure what we really have for a couple of years.

When NFL teams draft players, it usually takes a number of years before a team knows if a player really pans out.  Similarly, it is often (admittedly not always) difficult to discern the full implications of an action taken.  By way of example, in the 1996 General Conference comprehensive legislation on ordination of Deacons and Elders was adopted.  Sixteen years later we are still adjusting to those changes.  One change in 1996 was to adopt a 3-year probationary period.  By General Conference 2008, we had decided the residency period was too long and reduced it to 2 years.  Despite the best intentions (to raise the level of clergy competence), we made the process too complex and discouraged people from entering the UM process.

This is called the Law of Unintended Consequences. (The building of the interstate highway system and its adverse impact on small towns across America is considered a classic example of the Lw of Unintended Consequences.). Often the full consequences don’t unfold until we live with the new situation for a while.

As I write this, it is Friday morning, May 4th.  Currently we are wrestling with the budget.  We have already taken significant  action — stressed vital congregations, restructured the General Boards & Agencies, rejected a set aside bishop, created a new episcopal area in the Congo, gone through our continuing struggle on human sexuality, given annual conferences more freedom in creating their own  structure, done away with guaranteed appointments, reinforced mission initiatives taking the gospel into communist lands — the list goes on!  As General Conference draws to a close, it is important to catch our breath, pause for prayer, and remember John Wesley’s admonition:  “The best of all is that God is with us.”

Broken and Glorious

The governmental structure of the United Methodist Church is broken and yet glorious ministry is still taking place (in spite of or around the broken structure).

Observing the legislative committee process of General Conference one gains a deep sense that the way we are governing ourselves just doesn’t work.  Two illustrations:

1. There is a widespread strong conviction that we need to reform our organizational structure to be more effective (faithful & fruitful).  Yoked with the conviction of need is passionate disagreement as to how.  After confusing and convoluted debate, the Legislative Committee on General Administration brought up and then turned down every proposal for reform.  Come Friday night we were back where we started and left in chaos.

2.  The pension program in the United States needs change to remain fiscally sound.  There is a growing (thanks in part to the wonderful work of my predecessor Bishop Chamness!) pension program for Central Conference clergy (i. e. those outside the U.S.).  While bright able and wonderfully committed, delegates from the Central Conferences (40% of the total) were voting on a program that doesn’t apply to them or their churches and that they instinctively do not understand or follow.  We desperately need to have regional conferences (i. e. US, Africa, Asia , etc.).  The system is broken.

I cannot help but remember the famous biblical scholar Leander Keck lecturing on Paul’s letters to the churches in the New Testament.  Pastors were peppering him on the problems their churches were facing.  Finally the great Dr. Keck replied, “You think your church has troubles.  When is the last time you read the letters to the Corinthians?”

Conversely, Sunday night we held a great plenary session of celebration for our Connectional ministry.  Glorious ministry is taking place!  As a sample, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of women’s ministry leadership; we learned that well over 300,000 lives have been saved through Imagine No Malaria (Nothing But Nets); we rejoiced at new churches all over the globe including 612 new churches in the United States; we lifted up significant leadership development through SBC 21 (Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century); we embraced a new initiative in young persons’ leadership called Spark 12; we highlighted incredible mission work all over the globe & great ministry with the poor.  The list goes on.

The ministry is glorious!  And yet, our structure is hurting not helping our outreach.  Our governmental structure is broken!

The roller-coaster ride continues.

Riding the Rollercoaster

When my son turned 15 we took him and a friend to Six Flags – Fiesta Texas in San Antonio in celebration.  He couldn’t wait to try what was then the world’s largest wooden rollercoaster.  Staring at this monster (called The Rattler), the friend decided he didn’t want to go on it after all.  (His friend is now in the Marine Corps!)  It was just too scary.  Well, trying to be a good Dad, I got in line to ride with Nathan.

My bravery reached its zenith as we slowly rode to the top of the first monster drop.  It was exhilarating!  We towered over the visible world.  Then we dropped!  To paraphrase Bob Weathers, I rededicated my life to Jesus three times in the 30 seconds it took us to hit the bottom and whip around the first of many hairpin turns.  (My son reports that I kept saying, “Jesus save me!”)

With the start of General Conference, I was reminded of riding The Rattler.  We opened with an inspiring, thrilling, God-moving, Spirit-filled worship.  The music was awesome; the preaching great; communion a joy.  It was and is the church at her best, praising God and leaning forward in faithful attentiveness and anticipation.

After worship we broke for lunch and then came back for the first business session, the setting of General Conference rules and procedures.  Two and one half (yes, 2 ½) dis-spiriting hours later, we adjourned without completing our business.  From the mountain peak we had plunged into the messy bogs of legislative wrangling.

We awoke the next morning to receive the Episcopal Address given by Bishop Pete Weaver of the New England Episcopal Area.  We shot back up to the heights!    Entitled The Resurrection Revolution we were brought back to Easter morning. Said Bishop Weaver:  “Before any of us were delegates, we were disciples.  Before any of us were bishops, we were believers.  Before any of us were members in caucuses, we were members in Christ Jesus and therefore, members of one another.  Before any of us had a resolution in our hands to vote on, we had a resolution in our hearts to devote ourselves to the living Christ.”

That afternoon we whipsawed back into debate over the rules.  And so it goes.  General Conference is a rollercoaster ride.  Yet in it all is the presence of God; sometimes encouraging, sometimes brooding, sometimes cheering.  Bishop Weaver recalled the first episcopal address ever given to a Methodist General Conference in America two hundred years ago by Bishop McKendree.  When challenged, Bishop McKendree suggested that we handle the new things brought before us with this seminal piece of advice:  “Do everything as in the immediate presence of God.”

This is great advice for Christians of any place and every time.  We are always in the immediate presence of God!

Today the Council of Bishops held its own worship service passing the gavel as president from Bishop Larry Goodpaster to Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.  As we finished communion we sang “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”  As the words washed over me, I recalled getting off The Rattler.  It was good to stand on solid ground.  As the ride continues, may we as a church cling to rock.

Do everything as in the presence of God

Keeping Focus

As we go through the work of the Council of Bishops, we (the bishops) by necessity operate at a 30,000 foot level (leading a worldwide church).  And yet I find my mind and heart going back to the hands on sharing of the gospel of Christ.  On the ground, through faithful and fruitful local churches, in tangible ways the witness of God’s love is being shared.

Recently through the wonderful ministry of the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF), we received a grant of money to be used at the Bishop’s discretion to outreach ministries focused on providing critical needs, such as food, shelter, emergency assistance, care and support.  I went to our Center for Mission Support staff for recommendations.  Focusing on the Focus Area of Ministry with the Poor, we decided to use a significant portion of the grant in rural/small town ministries of food and emergency aid.  We identified key ministries in rural/small town churches (one in each District) engaged in such work and gave them a $2,000 grant from the larger TMF grant.

The Pastor of a two point charge whose ministry received the grant wrote me the following in response:  “Last night after our Wednesday night service I went into my office to catch up on reading my mail.  I opened the letter from Bishop Lowry first about the $2000 donation for our food pantry.  I bolted out of my office to interrupt and tell the Bible Study group about it.  They all cheered and were excited – we said a prayer of gratitude right then and there. I went back into my office and sat down to go through the rest of the mail, and I found the check. Again, I bolted out of my office and showed everyone.  There were lots of ‘praise God’ and ‘Glory Be’ statements made. This will  make for a great Emmaus Road story for this weeks sermon.   I should have read my mail earlier.   I appreciate the Bishop recognizing the works of our food pantry and recommending us for the grant.   It is truly a tremendous blessing.”

In the larger world wide church – spanning  35,000 + congregations & 11.5 million members – leadership and decision making is important, vitally so!  But, the story of God’s reign is played out in the particulars; on the ground through local congregations.  It is critical not to lose the focus on local churches.  They are mission posts of the advancing Kingdom of God.  Transformation into true disciples of Christ is taking place!  The Lord’s Spirit is moving in our midst!  The Holy Spirit is leading us on a local level from …

Preference to Purpose

Maintenance to Mission

Meetings to Ministry

 

Learning in Austin and Gathering in Tampa

Monday morning I had the privilege of attending a TMF (Texas Methodist Foundation) Board learning session which focused on ministry with “Generation Y” (young adults).  With leadership provided by a young clergy couple from Church of the Resurrection and a follow on panel of four young adults (including Ben Lake, a lay member of 1st Georgetown), we engaged in nonjudgmental cross generational learning.  Among many insights is the repeated importance of going where young people are and engaging them on their turf.  To use the language of my age, this is a far cry from invitational evangelism.  It is an emphatic call to risk-taking evangelism through open engagement.

A repeated insight from Gil Rendle that I continue to “chew” on is that each new generation reacts & responds as a corrective to what it perceives as the problems/excesses/failures of the previous generation.  Thus, all generations struggle to some degree with the generations on either side of them.  There is much for all of us to learn here!

Yesterday Jolynn & I traveled to Tampa for Council of Bishops (COB) and General Conference.  We will be here for almost 3 weeks.  The Council will engage both in preparation for General Conference and in ongoing mission & ministry.  The first item on the agenda is a report from the Unity Task Force (of which I am a part).  In an age and culture known for its divisions, we who claim the title Christian must be known for our grace and good will.  Or, in the old liturgical words, “let us be together what Christ has been for us.”

I covet your prayers for the Church, the bishops and our General Conference.

P.S. I commend to you the reading of Bishop Robert Schnase’s most recent Ministry Matters blog #24 “A Healthy Urgency.” I strongly urge you to read the entire blog (!) – especially the last 4 paragraphs.

A Conversation with Angels

Easter morning I found myself listing to the sermon in our son’s church in Arlington, Massachusetts.  Preaching on the great resurrection text from John 20:11-18, the pastor commented that we are invited to overhear a conversation with angels.  The phrase has stuck with me.

Biblically speaking, angels are messengers from God.  The question to Mary is addressed to us.  “Why are you crying?”  In our confession, ““They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him,” (John 20:13) comes the encounter with the risen Christ.  He meets us by our tombs and in our wanderings.  For me, this is continuing great good news!

The Monday before Easter I spent some of my off time serving at the First Street Mission (First UMC Fort Worth’s mission to the homeless.)  As seemingly is always the case in such events, I was the one blessed by an encounter with the risen Christ (before Easter no less!).  Surrounded by the saints who volunteer regularly, I was taken in and educated.  Christ for me came while pouring coffee and handing out clean underwear.

I’ll call him Jim to protect his identity.  He was homeless, handicapped and hurting yet the smile was genuine and his faith real.  Christ was carried in his person (not his perfection).  Folks like Jim aren’t referred to as the homeless or clients but as friends and such was he for me.

There is wisdom and grace in this ministry.  Disciple Church on Sunday is a banquet for Christ.  Rev. Page Hines tells me that the greatest need is for more volunteers.  If you have the opportunity, try it.  You will be blessed!

Faith conversations and witnessing slip in on a slant angle.  I was the one witnessed to far more than the witnesser.  Christ is present.

My time since then has taken me to the tornado wreckage of St. Barnabas (and its neighborhood), a speech at a Texas Methodist Foundation gathering in Austin, a Healthy Church Initiative PLD group (Pastors Leadership Development group) in Whitney, two Cabinet meetings, a lectio divina spiritual formation, preparation for General Conference, and a Habitat for Humanity build.  Sunday will be a trip to the South District for worship and then back to Austin for another speech at TMF on Monday.  Tuesday Jolynn and I will fly to General Conference in Tampa, Florida.  The conversation with angels lingers because the risen Savior is present. It gives me strength for the journey.

 

Thank God – the Connection at Work

The tree protrudes massively through the wall of the preschool classroom. Just before the tree’s impact in the swirling tornado winds, Pastor Will Cotton (with an outstanding Children’s Ministry and Preschool staff) had led 82 children to safe interior rooms singing Jesus Loves Me.

There is so much to say in thanksgiving even as we surveyed the wreckage of major segments of the church (including parts of the sanctuary) on Wednesday morning.  We thank God that all were spared; we thank God that an outstanding staff placed the welfare of the children above their own; we thank God for the wisdom of a thought through and practiced (!) disaster plan; we thank God for cool heads and calm hearts in the face of a disaster; we thank God for the ongoing faithfulness of the pastors and members of St. Barnabas.

In the face of the storm’s damage, the great United Methodist Connection is at work bringing healing and recovery not only to the church but to the community as well.  Shortly after news was broadcast, we received a call from Rev. Cynthia Harvey, Associate General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries and head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) offering support and help.  Wednesday morning (before heading over to St. Barnabas) under the guidance of our Center for Mission Support (a huge thanks to Dawne Phillips and Randy Wild), I sent off the necessary paperwork for an immediate $10,000 grant from UMCOR for rebuilding the community.  Rev. Laraine Waughtal, pastor of Bluff Dale/Morgan Mill and Disaster Relief Coordinator for the Central Texas Conference, was already on the scene assessing damages and coordinating volunteer efforts.  Our Conference emergency relief has joined with UMCOR to provide another $10,000 for immediate aid and assistance.  Truly, the godly connection of the United Methodist Church is at work.  Apportionment dollars and special relief offerings (both volunteer and financial!) are life-giving offers of divine love and hope!

I offer my thanks to all who have lifted prayers, offered support, or volunteered in disaster relief.  If you feel called to do so, you can make a financial contribution to any upcoming relief effort via your local church. Please reference Fund No.4495 and/or Disaster Relief on your check or donation envelope. Fund No. 4495 of the official conference remittance form is for aid, assistance, relief, rebuilding and ministry within the Central Texas Conference. During this emergency response phase, only trained Emergency Responders are allowed into the areas of damage.  To find information about training to become an ERT or to sign-up to be involved as a volunteer after the emergency stage has passed, please go to the Central Texas Conference web-site.

This may feel like a Good Friday world but Easter is coming!

Opportunities

Last Monday night I had the privilege (along with Dr. Luther Henry & Dr. Bob Holloway from the Cabinet) of meeting with a forward-looking lay leadership group from predominantly African American churches.  In some courageous, faithful, and painful ways they are wrestling with the future of predominantly Africa-American UMCs in the Tarrant County area.  Real opportunity is present but at the price of a different way of being church.  I was invigorated and encouraged by their willingness to engage the opportunities the Lord is placing before us.

Later Dr. Henry sent me an article on evangelism in the African-American UMC context.  Written by F. Douglas Powe, Jr. (Professor of Evangelism & Black Church Studies at St. Paul’s School of Theology), the title tells the tale: Evangelism Today Requires New Wineskins (http://www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas/issues/2012issues/120328.html ).  The spot-on insights from Dr. Powe apply to far more than just predominantly African-American UMCs.  The insights apply across the whole church.

Another opportunity presented itself Thursday at the Southwestern University Board Meeting.  In the United Methodist Committee meeting (where we look at religious life), we heard a statistical report that roughly 48% of the students self-identify as Christian.  About 49% self-identify as “unknown, not reported, none,” etc.!  This is an increase of 67% in the “unknown, not reported, none” in the last five years. The remaining 3% report “other” (Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc.).

At the same time the Chaplain reported a deep spiritual thirsting and hunger among students (which she is starting new ventures to meet.)  Our college youth are open and seeking.  This represents a great evangelist/witness opportunity for us!  As Jesus said, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine!” (Luke 10:2 CEB).

A Coalition of the Willing

The more I live into the office of bishop the more convinced I am of the claim to work with those who are willing.  We are building a coalition (or should I say coalitions) of the willing.  Allow me to explain.

Recently a District Superintendent reported to me a comment from two pastors in a PLD group.  (PLD groups are Pastors Leadership Development groups that are connected to our conference-wide Healthy Church Initiative offered by the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth.)  Complaining, the two pastors individually asked their DS “do I have to participate in the PLD group.”  Loud and clear, the answer is NO!  Pastors (and lay leaders) choose how they will engage in missonal learning and growth.  All of us are ultimately accountable to God and, in the covenant of the United Methodist connection, penultimately accountable for the choices we make to each other.

Our focus as a Conference is to energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Different people and churches will engage (spiritually, missionally & numerically) in different ways.  The Bible’s got it right, “the fields are white unto harvest.”  I want to work with the willing.

On a related subject, an exciting new resource just crossed my desk.  Debi Nixon, Adam Hamilton and the team from Resurrection UMC in Kansas City have introduced a great new resource in witness and evangelism entitled Catch: A Churchwide Program for Invitational Evangelism.  As I have said over and over again, we will not turn this great church around from its decadal decline without embracing again evangelism and witness.  The two (evangelism and witness) must be intimately connected to sacrificial service for the hurting, homeless and hungry (again – spiritually, physically or emotionally … or for that matter, all three!).  “The entire program is built on being outward focused and finding ways to attract visitors, connect them in meaningful ways with your faith community, and help them learn how to know, love and serve God.”

Do you have to use it?  Absolutely NOT!  But … for God’s sake and for the sake of hurting and hungry people do use something that is faithful and fruitful!  Don’t sit on the sidelines; join a coalition of the willing.