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.

Remember the Future

At recent meetings with other SCJ bishops as we looked forward to General Conference, Bishop Robert Schnase called our attention to agenda for the first (“general”) conference of preachers under John Wesley.  He noted a threefold purpose for such holy conferencing.  “The Methodists conferred on ‘1. What to teach, 2. How to teach, and 3. What to do, that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.’”

It is easy to get lost in the thicket of emotional issues facing the church: war & peace, sexual orientation & practice, restricting & Call to Action, etc.  In an earlier blog I called for an emphasis in prayer-filled and Holy Spirit-oriented preparation.  It is important, vitally important, not to lose sight of what matters most, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ultimately Conference is about mission and ministry; about guiding and equipping the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Amid all the noise, we need to keep the main thing the main thing!

The March 22nd Quick Notes highlights an important resource which I commend to you strongly.  “Bishop Robert Schnase’s “Remember the Future: 30 Days of Preparation,” blog series begins [March 26].  The series of daily reflections in preparation for General Conference 2012 will be a blend of daily topics from leadership and institutional challenges to Wesleyan beliefs and more. About eight of the blogs through the series will have video clips included; all will include scripture and additional reading recommendations for those who want to know more. Go to ministrymatters.com to sign-up, read a description of the series and an introductory blog from Robert Schnase.

The Importance of Narrative

My recent blog entitled “Struggling with Appointments” has sparked an unusually high degree of interest and response.  Overwhelmingly clergy have noted the dilemma of some members wanting no change while at the same time expecting to reach a new generation.  This often puts clergy and proactive lay leadership in a significant dilemma.  Furthermore, a number have lifted up the struggle between raising the metrics of vitality and dealing with congregational resistance to the necessary change needed to engage the mission field (and thus raise the metrics).  Taken together it can feel like a Kobayashi Maru (the Star Trek no win scenario).

Both I and the Cabinet have repeatedly emphasized the importance of sharing the narrative.  Narrative is the story, the background information, which helps understand what is taking place.  Often (usually!) the narrative changes before the metrics.  What does this look like?  A pastor and congregation(s) start discovering and sharing with each other stories of significant mission impact in their life together (i.e. “remember when we were helping that homeless family find a meal” or “it was moving to hear Jimmy talk about the difference that following Christ has made in his life” etc.).  One of the keys to understanding narrative is that it is a specific story.  Narrative is not a vague assertion.  It tells a tale of God in action in the life and ministry of a congregation and individuals.  In our use of the vitality metrics, we (Bishop and Cabinet) have left a large place for the narrative story to be shared.  It is critical piece of learning for us as a Cabinet, for pastors, and for lay members of a congregation!  Narrative begs to be shared!

On the flip side, a small (actually very small but quite strident!) handful of responses came from people (all self-identified as lay) who felt the blog somehow dismissed older adults and endorsed “bands” (meaning contemporary Christian music over against classical hymns).  Such is not the case!  I am an older adult and am married to a recent retiree.

I was very careful in the blog to assert that our ministry needs to be a both/and!  It is worth repeating what I wrote about the need to continue a strong and effective ministry to existing members and older adults while effectively reaching out to a new generation:  An effective pastor must minister sensitively to this loss all the while leading into a new future.  It is not an easy balance.  Congregations that refuse to embrace change are choosing to die.  Simultaneously, pastors that charge ahead without compassionately facing grief are doomed to failure.  It is worth noting that the Vital Congregations research (which I shared in every district in 2010) overwhelmingly notes a connection between church missional health/vitality and having multiple styles of worship.

These are exciting times to be in ministry together.  They challenge us to a deeper faithfulness and a wider outreach with the love of Christ.  Sunday I headed to Nashville for a meeting on the Focus Area “New Places for New People.”  Called Path One, we are working on our national strategy for new church development and especially on reaching “more people, younger people, and more diverse people.”  And yes, this work doesn’t ignore reaching older adults; all are embraced in this great ministry of sharing the gospel.

Preparing for General Conference

General Conference is the quadrennial (every 4 years) meeting the ruling legislative body of the United Methodist Church.  This coming April 24th the General Conference will open in Tampa Bay, Florida.  For two weeks an equal number of lay and clergy delegates will engage in holy conversation and legislative decision making on the ministry and future of the United Methodist Church.  I will be there as the resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference/The Fort Worth Episcopal Area.  (Bishops preside but do not have vote at General Conference.)

As we prepare for General Conference I ask for your prayers for the church and for our faithfulness in ministry and service to Christ and for the world our Lord came to save.  The Upper Room Ministries (a part of the General Board of Discipleship) has prepared a devotional and prayer guide which I commend to you.  “The 50 Days of Prayer Before and During the General Conference is available on the Internet at this site: http://50daysofprayer.upperroom.org.  In addition you will be able to “sign up for a free daily email version and the meditation will be sent to you each day” in a download version.  Print versions are available through the United Methodist Reporter.  (Individual copies are $4.95 postpaid and the cost for bulk mailing to groups and congregations is reduced; they can be secured through http://bit.ly/Print50DaysURM or by calling 1-855-469-3386.)

Another exciting way to prepare in thought and prayer for General Conference is by reading a special blog entitled Remember the Future written by Bishop Robert Schnase (author of The Five Practices for Fruitful Congregations).  The purpose of Remember the Future is to deepen understanding and further conversation about the key issues that shape the mission and future of the Church. Daily meditations will be posted beginning March 26 at www.ministrymatters.com/30Days.

The great time of preparation in prayer begins this Friday.  I will be using the prayer booklet as a part of own devotionals and hope you will join me.  I will be writing more about Remember the Future at a later date.

The Resurrection Legacy

In a recent conversation with Dr. Eric McKinney, consultant in Leadership Ministries with TMF, he shared with me some of things he looks at in church health as a congregation begins to examine its future.  (He uses the learning tool Holy Conversations by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann.)  He asks about their average worship attendance over the last two decades and examines what age quartiles their percentage of giving comes from.  Both are key variables in looking at long-term congregational viability.

Dr. McKinney’s questions coincide with learning I recently gleaned from reading Legacy Churches by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond.  (I was so impressed by this work and the insights offered to us that I bought a copy for each member of the extended Cabinet.) In a forthright, loving, and courageous way, the authors face the reality of church closings.  They detail the natural life cycle of churches.  They note critical signs that indicate a church might need to face closing – history of decline in worship attendance below a critical level needed for support, changing population base, lack of connectedness to the mission field (area around the church), the giving base overwhelmingly from a post-retired generation, over dependence on the same volunteers, few professions of faith, etc.

Rather than simply lament reality, seek blame or grieve, the writers offer a hopeful response.  They call for churches to be legacy congregations.  “To leave a legacy is to pass on to future generations something of great significance. . . .If your church can give birth to a new church, that new church can carry forward your values and believes and continue to fulfill your mission to bring life-change to the community.”

The book is crammed with practical help that can be easily used to guide a congregation in examining its future.  Even better, it is hope-filled and resurrection-based.  It reflects the gospel.  I commend it to you.  Legacy Churches is a quick practical easy read with check lists a congregation can use examine its future in ministry for the advancing kingdom of God.

On another subject, Monday I was in Austin for a meeting of the Texas Methodist Foundation’s Executive Board.  I continue to be deeply impressed with TMF’s foresighted leadership in resourcing United Methodist Churches.  Recent action folding the Central Texas Methodist Foundation into TMF is a welcome step that will aid all involved and continue the strong work previously being done by both TMF and CTMF.

Struggling with Appointments

Art only wishes it could imitate life.  You cannot make up some of the things said to District Superintendents while consulting on appointments.

At a recent Cabinet meeting, a District Superintendent reported on a consultation with a church whose pastor was moving.  The Pastor-Parish Relations Committee was asked what they would like in a new pastor.  The response was: “Someone who can bridge the gap between the elderly congregation and the younger people that they want to have come in … while helping them not change.”  I kid you not.

News flash!  The goals of no change and bringing in younger people are incompatible.  The great old hymn has it right – “to serve the present age our calling to fulfill.”  Lessons abound in this brief (and to me both sad and humorous) quote from a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.

Change is loss.  The end of Christendom and the rise of the post-Christian & post- denominational age encompass many of us with deep loss.  An effective pastor must minister sensitively to this loss all the while leading into a new future.  It is not an easy balance.  Congregations that refuse to embrace change are choosing to die.  Simultaneously, pastors that charge ahead without compassionately facing grief are doomed to failure.

Our greatest need is spiritual.  We need an infusion of Psalm 23.  Many of us remember the phrase well from the old King James translation.  “Ye though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4).  What is often missed is the second half of verse 4 – “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”  That is interesting! A rod to prod and a staff to protect.

Today the word “comfort” connotes a sense of physical or psychological ease, a lack of hardship.  But if I remember correctly the word originally meant to encourage, to inculcate bravery. “Comfort is linked with ‘fortress’ and ‘fortify’. The Bayeaux Tapestry portrays a scene where ‘William comforts his troops’ at the Battle of Hastings. He is not handing out tea and biscuits to his wounded troops. He is poking them in the back with his sword, strengthening and fortifying them for the continuing battle”  (www.ivoroakley.com/2%20Corinthians/2_corinthians_11-11.htm).

We need to comfort in the best sense from the front, helping both grief and change to be sensitively enfolded in the advancing kingdom of God.  Maybe the new Common English Bible (CEB) translation says it better.  “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.  Your rod and your staff—they protect me.”

Energizing and Equipping

The stated mission of the Central Texas Conference is to energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Local churches make disciples who engage (both individually and collectively) in world transforming ministry. The Conference energizes and equips.

There is good news, really good news on how we are doing.  Randy Wild, Executive Director for Mission Support, developed the following report:

CATEGORY

2010

2011

DIFFERENCE

%     Change

# of churches with
at least 1 Profession of Faith

152

195

43

28%

# of churches with
at least 1 Baptism

151

189

38

25%

# of churches that
held a Confirmation Class

50

101

51

102%

# of churches that
showed a gain in Worship attendance

53

121

71

133%

# of churches with
at least 1 Mission team sent into the world

74

124

50

68%

# of churches with
at least 1 community ministry
in Outreach, Justice and Mercy

146

206

60

41%

# of churches that
paid at least 100% of their
Connectional Mission Giving (CMG)

268

262

-6

-2%

 

Every category save one is up!  They are not only up but up substantially.  Well done thou good and faithful servants!  The member churches, both lay and clergy leadership, are to be congratulated.  Represented within this report are the five practices: radical hospitality (profession of faith, baptism), passionate worship (worship attendance), risk-taking mission (mission team & community ministry in Outreach, Justice and Mercy), intentional faith development (baptism, confirmation class), and extravagant generosity (Connectional Mission Giving).  It is worth noting that 285 of our 305 chartered churches have completed their Vital Congregations sign up.  Narrative is crucial and must be yoked with metrics.  The two go together like salt and pepper.  I am proud and blessed to be the bishop of the Central Texas Conference!

Ministry With the Poor

Yesterday I was in Nashville preparing the presentation on the Four Focus Areas (New Places for New People, Leadership Development, Ministry with the Poor, and Combating Killer Diseases – Imagine No Malaria) for General Conference. As we worked, all of us were powerfully impressed with the notion that the Four Focus Areas are interlocking. They reinforce each other and offer primary evidence of a healthy church. Vibrant and vital congregations start new places for new people, develop leadership, engage in risk-taking ministry with the poor and reach out around the world to combat evils like killer disease.

Here in the Central Texas Conference I remain deeply impressed with how engaged our churches are in ministry with the poor. Great examples are everywhere from the 1st Street Mission to Laura Edwards to concrete hands-on help in small communities across rural Texas.

Today (Friday, March 2nd), I am at work in San Antonio as a part of one of these great ministries with those who are poor or otherwise in crisis. I have the privilege of representing the five Texas bishops on Methodist Children’s Home Board. MCH is a wonderful godly ministry that reaches out to those in need and/or crisis in deep and lasting ways. It is worthy of our support and fully reflects our best intent in sharing the gospel by deeds as well as words.