Learning Together (c)

Recently I found myself participating in a fascinating discussion at the United School of Theology Board meeting in Dayton, Ohio. As we wrestled with the rapidly changing landscape of theological education, strategic issues and questions dominated our discussions. Increasingly it appears that there is an abundance of United Methodist Seminaries (13 are a part of the denomination and a number of others have very close ties). The focus of various seminaries differs widely; for instance one has no Masters of Divinity students (the basic degree for pastors) but focuses extensively on producing Ph. D. level scholars. Most other seminaries are some kind of a mix. (I am told the average is something like 54% of seminary enrollees go into local church pastorates; however, I am not sure how accurate that statistic is.) A few – United Theological Seminary is one – are intensely focused on producing local church pastors. (United’s current enrollment reflects something like 84% reporting an intention to become pastors of local churches.) Virtually every seminary (there are a few notable exceptions) is seeking a growth in enrollment and is under great pressure from the high cost of educating a new generation of clergy. An instructive book written by a noted Professor from Candler School of Theology, Emory University and published by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry entitled Formation for Ministry in American Methodism: Twenty-first Century Challenges and Two Centuries of Problem-Solving presents both the evolving history of theological education & training for ordained ministry and challenges our assumptions for the future.

All in all it is a fascinating subject and reflects the creative chaos currently taking place in the church’s theological training and higher education. Together we are struggling for a new way of thinking and understanding. We are learning together. At the United Board meeting, one of the presenters challenged us with a concise way of thinking. She asked us to reflect on the following:

  1. The What?                Comprised of what the data (information and metrics) tell us along with the antidotal stories (what we call the narrative).
  2. The So What?           Which asks the question “what does this mean?” and requires interpretation.
  3. The Now What?       Which challenges us to engage in strategic thinking, planning and deep level application, and mapping out next steps.

As I reflected on this way of thinking, the obvious parallels for local churches and conferences in strategic planning flooded across my mind. There can be little doubt that we are engaged in a trying and exciting time of learning together. Mike Ford, our Conference Lay Leader, has impressed again upon me an old lesson I need to constantly be relearning. Rarely will a church’s future be fully engaged for the Kingdom of God without both lay leaders and clergy leaders learning together!

Two other divergent pieces of learning have also clamored for my recent attention. I have reported before that the South Central Bishops Conclave has recently re-read The Spider and the Starfish. The book challenges overly hierarchal organizations and especially organizations that our bound up by rules (think the UMC Book of Discipline). I noted for elements for my special attention; four points of application or emphasis:

  • Ideology –>  culture –> theology rules!
  • Decentralizes as much as possible; think Hybrid (both connected and flexible; avoid either or thinking)
  • Network is a new form of the Community
  • The Power of Chaos –> we must risk experimentation in learning together

The other piece of learning that I have recently run through my thinking comes from Chip and Dan Health’s book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. I contend the book is less about being decisive and more about “how to make better choices.” The four key lessons have helped guide me in our recent Cabinet Inventory Retreat:

1. Widen your options
2. Reality test your assumptions
3. Attain distance before deciding
4. Prepare to be wrong.

There is much to learn together, and part of the excitement and great adventure of these challenging times lies in learning together!

Prayers for Cabinet Inventory Retreat ©

This morning I drove down to Stillwater Lodge at Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center.  We begin a three-day Cabinet Inventory Retreat.  Our first activity is worship and prayer.  With our foundation and focus built on God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we together as a Cabinet including the three new incoming district superintendents, will spend some time thoughtfully reviewing the list of retiring clergy and incoming potential new clergy.  Today we have the largest retirement class in recent memory.  We have already received 19 letters of retirement.  Sunday we learned the sad news of the death of a colleague, Pastor Duane Chambers (Lay Supply at Italy-Dresden), and we have a second retirement from 1 pastor (who obviously failed retirement the first time).  This makes something like 21 openings.  (In Cabinet language we call those “clean openings” because there is no one currently down to hold that appointive position come Annual Conference.)  Additionally, if history holds to its regular pattern, we should receive a couple of more retirements before Annual Conference.

Kathy Ezell, Associate Director for the Board of Ordain Ministry, reports seventeen incoming clergy (new seminary graduates, etc.) which includes three deacons who are up for commissioning.  We have not yet received the final list for those who are coming via the Local Pastors’ track.

We will also review the number of fulltime openings for appointment as well as situations where a church/charge will be moving to a less than full time appointment.  We will do so, carefully working through each district and category on the following list (in alphabetical order):

  1. Central District
  2. East District
  3. New Church Starts District
  4. North District
  5. South District
  6. West District
  7. The Center for Evangelism & Church Growth
  8. The Center for Leadership (Campus Ministry)
  9. The Center for Mission Support

In each case we will pause for prayer and a deeper assessment of needs, hopes and dreams.

I write to ask you the reader to be in prayer for the Central Texas Conference Cabinet while we are on our Inventory Retreat.  Recently two beautiful prayers have come to my attention.  My wife Jolynn passed on a prayer from Columba, the great Christian Saint and missionary who brought the Christian faith to Scotland by way of founding Iona Abbey.  It reads as follows:

Be a bright flame before me, O God
a guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight, and for ever.

Alone with none but you, my God
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when you are near,
O Lord of night and day?
More secure am I within your hand
than if a multitude did round me stand.
Amen.  (Saint Columba, Iona Abbey)

The second is a prayer that I ran across in my daily devotional reading.  Dr. Sid Spain, my spiritual director and companion in the faith, and I have been working through A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job, (known by many as simply “The Green Book”).  I have added the plural to the tradition phrasing of the prayer by Norman Shawchurck:

Defend me [us] from all temptation, that I [we] may ever accept the right and refuse the wrong.
Defend me [us] from myself, that in your care my [our] weakness may not bring me [us] to shame.
May my [our] lower nature never seize the upper hand.
Defend me [us] from all that would seduce me [us], that in your power no tempting voice may cause me to listen, no tempting sight fascinate my [our] eyes.
Defend me [us] against the chances and changes of this life, not that I [we] may escape them but that I [we] may meet them with firm resolve;
not that I [we] may be saved from them but that I [we] may come unscathed through them.
Defend me [us] from discouragement in difficulty and from despair in failure, from pride in success, and from forgetting you in the day of prosperity.
Help me [us] to remember that there is no time when you will fail me [us] and no moment when I [we] do not need you.
Grant me [us] this desire:
that guided by your light and defended by your grace,
I [we] may come in safety and bring honor to my [our] journey’s end by the defending work of Jesus Christ my [our] Lord.
May it always be so!
(Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job; pp. 104-105)

May we pray together?

Living the Big Three ©

For last 7 years as bishop of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area, The Central Texas Conference, I have stressed the critical importance and centrality of what I call the “big three” as the focus of our work as a Conference “energizing and equipping local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

1. Christ the Center
2. Focus on the local Church
3. Leadership development for both lay and clergy.

These three key foci dominate my thought and work. They form the core of strategic engagement with congregations and the larger mission field in living our future as a Conference in faithfulness to the Lord God. Various other importance ministries – vital congregations, inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity, missional outreach both locally and globally, Connectional Mission Giving (CMG), the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI), the Small Church Initiative (SCI) small group development for spiritual growth & Bible Study, campus ministry, CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission), etc. – are to be an outgrowth of living the big three in full faithfulness to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As we (The Central Texas Conference Cabinet) prepare for our Inventory Retreat (the beginning of work on clergy and local church appointments for 2017-2018) next week, a number of various pieces of information and insights have risen into my consciousness. I want to share them with you.

First, in vital congregations we always, always, look at a combination of narrative (story) and metrics. The two should never be separated and a positive change in the narrative (the stories being told of congregational/community life) usually precedes a change in the metrics.

Anecdotally we have heard more stories of professions of faith this last year. The year-end “Congregational Vitality” report reflects the change in narrative that was being reported. Our year end data showed:
• A 2% increase in worship attendance
• Professions of faith had big growth this year – up 27%! All districts showed increases in Professions of faith. (a Huge shout of “Hallelujah!” and “well done!” to all!)
• Four of the six districts showed growth in both worship attendance and professions of faith.
• Over all giving is up 5% (but the data is not yet complete).

Secondly, I note from the regular Conference Communications “Quick Notes” that the work of UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief) has received special commendation for its practice of putting every dollar received in offering to work in a specific relief effort. We are blessed to support such a vital ministry both here in the United States and around the world. Furthermore, significantly, the Central Texas Conference has benefitted directly from this offering in response to tornados that have hit our Conference on three separate occasions over the past year and in relief work for people in the area of West, Texas. The “Quick Notes” article is as follows:

UMCOR earns 4 Star Rating from top U.S. charity evaluator. The CTC Disaster Response Team has worked hand-in-hand with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) for 14 years, rebuilding homes and lives all across Texas and the U.S. A vital piece of UMCORs ability to respond is in its business model of putting every cent donated to a particular relief effort directly to that effort. This is made possible by the continued generous donations received during UMCOR Sunday, which pays all of the organizations overhead and administrative costs. UMCOR’s strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency have earned the highest possible ranking from America’s largest independent charity evaluator, Charity Navigator.

I covet your prayers for us as a Cabinet during our Inventory Retreat next week (Tuesday through Thursday). “The goal I [we] pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

Celebrations and a Loss Observed ©

I sit at my keyboard and launch this blog on “Celebrations and a Loss Observed” mindful that today is Valentine’s Day. While flowers, candy and cards abound, I invite us to pause and remember the original Valentine. He was a Christian martyr and bishop of modern day Terni, Italy. In a time when being Christian was illegal, he stood for Christ and so gave up his life reportedly on February 14th in 278 A.D. to Roman persecution. The phrase that sticks in my mind is John 15:13: “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” We have much to celebrate and give thanks for on Valentine’s Day. Such thanksgiving appropriately starts with Christian witness. God’s love has been poured liberally over us all.

Two weeks ago (literally January 29th), Jolynn and I had the great joy to celebrate the launch service for One Fellowship United Methodist Church in Waco. With a packed congregation of well over a hundred, the music sent us soaring; the sermon was a powerful proclamation of the gospel (thanks to Rev. Bryan Dalco); and the blessing of the fellowship of gathered saints, a great joy. A new United Methodist Church is launched in Waco! A new mission post of the advancing kingdom of God rises from remains of older but honored congregations.

A second great celebration involves the missional faithfulness of the people and churches of the Central Texas Conference. Once again we have paid our General Church Connectional Mission Giving (CMG, formerly known as apportionments) 100%. This is a remarkable accomplishment in the chaos of our times.

Consider some of the vital statistics:

  • 285 Apportioned Churches [new churches and missional congregations are not apportioned nor are campus ministries]
    259 Churches 100% paid
    26 Churches did not meet their CMG (Connectional Mission Giving) goal
    6 Churches paid zero

This year’s final figures reported a CMG giving at 95.55%. This is slightly better than our ten year average of 95.13%. Through the wise stewardship CFA (Council on Finance and Administration) we are able to make up the additional 4.45%.

On top of such remarkable faithfulness comes another reason for celebration. Dr. Randy Wild, Executive Director for Mission Support, passed on the following thank you from Rev. Brian Bakeman, Executive Director of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. “Thank you and the Central Texas Conference for being one of two conferences that paid 100% of their South Central Jurisdiction apportionments for 2016.”
In addition to the figures for our Jurisdiction, Dr. Randy Wild reports that we are #1 in the percentage collected for the whole US in our denomination for 2016. The chart speaks volumes.

Central Texas
95.55%
Louisiana
95.54%
North Texas
95.4%
North Georgia
94.65%
Illinois Great Rivers
94.52%
Pacific Northwest
93.08%
Western Pennsylvania
92.4%
Baltimore-Washington
92.06%
Arkansas
90.99%
North Carolina
90.49%
South Georgia
90%

To all of the above I add my heart-felt gratitude and thanksgiving. “Well done! You are good and faithful servants” (Matthew 25:23; with very slight paraphrase).

In the midst of the celebrations we have a distinct loss to observe. Dr. Georgia Adamson’s husband John passed away suddenly Wednesday, February 8th. Georgia has served as District Superintendent, Executive Director for the Roberts Center for Leadership and Assistant to the Bishop during the last seven and a half years. Her husband John is known and loved by many of us. He will be missed! We ask your prayers for Georgia and the whole family in this difficult time of John’s passing. “In life, in death, in life beyond death; we are not alone. Thanks be to God!”

An Open Letter to United Methodists in Texas and All People of Good Will ©

We, the United Methodist Bishops of the State of Texas, greet you in the love of Christ. We call upon those who claim the title “Christian” to remember that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, began his life as a homeless refugee, fleeing with his family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Just as the Holy Family was forced to flee their homeland and seek safety, too many flee for their lives in our violent, terror-plagued world.

In the face of such human tragedy in our world today, we, the bishops of The United Methodist Church in Texas, call upon all United Methodists to see Christ in the refugees of today, regardless of their nationality and/or social, religious, economic, or political background.

We share with others a common sense of frustration, hopelessness, and confusion as we view the unfolding images of today’s refugees in the news. We desire to welcome the sojourner, love our neighbor, and stand with the most vulnerable among us, while also being concerned for the security and well-being of our communities, state, and nation. It is legitimate and proper to be concerned about the safety of our neighborhoods and our country. It is also proper and right that we reflect Christian compassion and values in our response. Jesus was explicit in his teachings when he said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40).

We cannot let fear rule the day; we must let love champion our actions. We are a nation founded on immigration and forged by the courage of shared values to be a “light on the hill” and a beacon of hope in a broken world.

As Christians and as Texans, our values are grounded in respect and hospitality toward strangers. We recognize that these are difficult and complex times that call for the best of America’s values and our highest witness as followers of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we call upon President Trump, Governor Abbott, and the leaders of our nation and state to seek a more compassionate response to immigrants and refugees. Joining with those who desire a safer America, we pray for a just and caring response to those most in need of our help and love.

Yours in Christ,

The United Methodist Bishops of the State of Texas
Bishop Earl Bledsoe, The Northwest Texas Conference (Northwest Texas-New Mexico Area)
Bishop Scott Jones, The Texas Conference (Houston Area)
Bishop Mike Lowry, The Central Texas Conference (Fort Worth Area)
Bishop Mike McKee, The North Texas Conference (Dallas Area)
Bishop Robert Schnase, The Rio Texas Conference (San Antonio Area)

Alternative Facts? (c)

On returning home from Kenya, I read in my local paper the next morning about a dispute between officials in the Trump Administration and those who officially report on the size of the crowd at Presidential inaugurations. Personally, being out of the country when the inauguration took place I really don’t have an opinion as to whether the crowd was bigger or small than that at President Obama’s inauguration. Even more personally, I don’t care.

What caught my attention was a response by officials of the Trump Administration claiming that they had “alternative facts.” It is here that I choke. Furthermore it is here that Christians of all political persuasions ought to pause and offer a coughing gulp. [At this point I ask the reader to stay with me. This is not a blog about the Trump Administration – pro or con. I write instead to raise the larger issue of how we perceive “truth.” Make no mistake, the Christian faith is based on a reveal truth claim that Jesus is Lord. Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6] But then, once again I am ahead of myself.

Two further incidents intersect this fracture point in reality. First, a number of years ago I was visiting with a young woman who was not Christian. I made a basic assertion about the existence of God. She responded that it was okay if I believe God existed but she didn’t. She went on to comment, “That’s you truth but it is not my truth. My truth is that there is no God.”

Hit the brakes here and think for a minute. We (she and I) made mutually exclusive truth claims. If one is right, the other is wrong. It logically can be no other way. And yet, she saw truth (and concomitantly “facts”) as so malleable that they virtually lost any meaning. At that point logic itself breaks down and we are left with mere opinion. The very fabric of speech descends into mumbled incoherent assertions.

The second story deals with a disagreement that took place about a year ago in the Bishop’s Conference room next to my office. I participated in an exchange of views with two other individuals who were disputing the importance of a proposed Conference apportionment. With some heat, one of the individuals retorted to the other, “you’re entitled to your own preference but you’re not entitled to your own facts!” This is the truth! We are not entitled to our own facts, alternative or otherwise. Facts belong to common shared reality and relate to truth claims on a direct basis. (Ironically, later it turned out that the maker of the statement was proven wrong about their assertion as to the facts of the situation.)

Track the truth of this second story/assertion. We may well dispute with each other about precisely what are the relevant facts. We may disagree about how the truth is to be understood or applied. Because of context and culture, we may even have radically different perceptions of the truth mutually before us. There is even such a thing as paradox (thought a paradox is quite different from mutually exclusive truth claims… but again I digress). But, philosophically and biblically the Christian faith has always asserted that Truth (with a capital T) stands independent of our preferences, commitments and ardent convictions. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as two truths that contradict each other or differing facts. (Again, we might argue about precisely what the facts are! But, the facts are the facts for all parties involved whether I like it or not!) A claim of alternate facts is linguistically nonsense. There is no such thing as alternate facts. Someone may claim that the other party has the facts wrong. But the facts are the facts for all involved. Put concretely, gravity holds on planet earth whether I like it or not. Those are the facts.

The reason this matters is far greater than a dispute over who is right about the size of the inauguration crowd. It gets to the heart of the very gospel itself and truth of Christ. As C. S. Lewis famously put it: When Jesus make the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) He (Jesus) is either a liar or a lunatic or speaking the truth.

A variety of theological scholars across the spectrum (including non-Christian scholars) have noted and disputed the current false notion that Truth is “fungible” and related to my personal preferences. Many have noted before me that we live in a “post-truth” world where subjective desire and preferences seem (appear) to trump (pun intended) objective facts and Truth (with a capital T).

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we assert that everything is not subjective. There is a reality that stands over against and above our preferences. In major part this is what is foundationally at stake in our confession of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A recent blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, states this truth exceptionally well. I share his closing for our edification:

“As the western world slips with ever increasing rapidity into a post-Christian cultural milieu, I am afraid that we will need to be ever mindful that, we are in a post-truth cultural context, which stands in stark contrast to a Christian world-view which affirms truth claims rooted in God’s self-disclosure. Because God is the creator of the universe, the whole of creation is founded on the bedrock of truth. Therefore, we must become the new vanguard of cultural truth-tellers who adamantly resist all forms of demagoguery which shroud truth for any desired outcome, even if it is a so-called “Christian end.” It would be easy if our struggle were simply over who sits on the Supreme Court, without a deeper regard for a broader discourse about the nature of truth itself.

Lesslie Newbigin was prophetic when he alerted us to the sign of the post-Christian malaise when “public facts” are trounced by personal preferences. We are then lost in a sea of ever divisive assertions of preferences—or projected fake news—rather than a serious encounter with public facts. In post-modernity, the pluralization of ideologies grows exponentially, creating a society hopelessly divided by seemingly endless personal preferences which are increasingly difficult to accommodate, but coupled by an ever increasing demand that we do so. It is naïve to think that now that the election is over, things will “return to normal.” On the contrary, it appears we are in a new norm—a post-truth generation. It is not merely a new word, it is an emerging cultural reality which cuts across every sector of society and all our institutions.

The church must find our rightful voice which rises above the din of partisan politics, post-truth discourse and fake news. We are those who are rooted and grounded in not only the truth of God’s revelation, but also we are those who still embrace the very notion of truth itself. That, in the end, may be our most valuable contribution to an ever fragmenting culture. This is also why we could very well be entering a very hopeful phase of Christian witness as we proclaim the gospel through word and deed. Post-truth may be the newest hot word in the English language, but truth will never lose its currency. We may be descending into a world of fake news, but there is plenty of cultural space to share the true news of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.”  (Tennent, http://timothytennent.com/2016/12/12/fake-news-in-a-post-truth-world/)

Return and Reflections ©

Someone once said that life is what happens to you on the way to something else.  There is an element of honesty in such a reflection, which I discovered while in Kenya to my regret.

On Wednesday, January 18th, I stepped into a good sized meeting room from the second day of a two-day seminar on preaching and theology.  Rev. Jim Monroe from the Oregon-Idaho Conference was my co-presenter.  We had shared the material the week before at KeMU (Kenya Methodist University) in Meru located in the north central part of Kenya.  Now we were making a similar set of presentations in Nairobi (the capital of Kenya and its major city).  In attendance were clergy from approximately 5 synods (their term for what we would call a District), plus the Synod Bishops (our equivalent to District Superintendents) and the Presiding Bishop (which is the person who has oversight over the whole Church; the equivalent of our bishops).  Meanwhile the rest of the combined Oregon-Idaho/Central Texas Mission Team were at a Methodist elementary school and church in one of the most impoverished areas of Nairobi.

On arrival in the room, I was not feeling well.  Nonetheless, with people having sacrificed to be present for a period of mutual sharing and learning, I was determined to see it through.  At the request of the presiding Bishop, Joseph Ntombura, I offered the morning devotional on Colossians 1:15-20 about Christ being the head of the church.  Afterwards we stood together for a lengthy time of prayer led by one of the Kenyan Synod Bishops.  Partway through the prayer I felt myself losing it. I leaned over and whispered to Jim Monroe, “I’ve got to sit.  I might faint.”  He helped me to my chair and then got some juice for me to drink.  Bishop NTombura called for a “tea” break (which was actually next on the agenda anyhow) and I was led into another room.  The nurse was called and after her examination I was headed for a local clinic.

Diagnosed with a serious infection, I was given the first of three antibiotic infusions. Dr. Randy Wild on the first day and Rev. Dawne Phillips (our CTC team leader) on the days following accompanied me to the clinic for treatment under the watchful tutelage of a marvelous nurse named Ruth, who worked for the MCK (Methodist Church of Kenya).  Loaded with antibiotics and other pills to take, Saturday I was freed to board the plane for the long flights back to the US. (5 ½ hours from Nairobi to Dubai and 16 hours – with a three hour layover – from Dubai to DFW.)  It is wonderful to be home!  To embrace Jolynn after emerging from Customs was both a joy and relief far greater than Christmas morning! On firm instructions from the doctor in Kenya to see my family physician immediately upon return, I spent a good part of Monday at the doctor’s office going through further tests and a checkup.

This unexpected “check” in my activities gave me time and pause for some deeper reflections.  It is both easy and dangerous to exalt in the emergence of African Christianity.  While experiencing exciting growth both missionally (love, justice and mercy) and evangelistically, they have their own set of problems, struggles and challenges.  To some degree, they are in the early front edge of an emerging Sub-Saharan African Christendom. (Phillip Jenkins award winning book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity is now published in a revised and updated version.  It is probably the best way to get and overall read on this worldwide trend.)  An emerging Kenyan Christendom is evident in the common signs plastered around the community praising God and giving thanks to the Lord Jesus!  Here surely is a learning from Kenyan Methodism which we need to incorporate.  They find it incomprehensible that explicit evangelism is separated from explicit missions (deeds of love, justice and mercy).  For them it is obvious that the two go together. They are puzzled by our attempts to separate them.

Even in the context of a Christendom setting, one of our questions in the first set of presentations at KeMU was from a pastor who lives and leads a small emergent church on the northeastern edge of the country where Islam is the major religion.  He sought insight on remaining faithful and evangelistic in a conflicted and even dangerous setting.  I don’t know for sure what he learned from us.  I know we learned from him.  The sense of gracious, firm clarity about the boundaries of what makes up Christianity (Jesus is Lord!) is a lesson we need to learn and relearn.  He was (many we met are) gracious in response to other religions especially competitive non-Christian religions.  But (Hear the shout from them!) they never gave into the temptation to be syncretic.  The Lord Jesus Christ was the leader.  They avoided vague talk about God and embraced a strong understanding and language about God in action through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power.  The full dimensions of the Trinity were readily, even enthusiastically, embraced, proclaimed, and advocated.

Third, we spent a lot of time praying.  The second day of my illness Bishop NThombura came by at 9 pm to check on me.  He apologized for the lateness of the hour but he had been in an important all day meeting.  Later I learned the meeting was a full day of prayer spent together by the “Cabinet.”  They take prayer seriously!  Cautiously here, many of us also take prayer seriously.  Nonetheless, we can learn from their diligence and earnestness.

The fourth lesson for me ties to the third one on the seriousness of prayer.  I have written before about how prayer among most of us moves quickly if not almost immediately to prayers of petition.  We instinctively pray for those who are ill, for people who are suffering, for the end of violence, racism, and hunger, etc.  We spend far less time on prayers of joy and thanksgiving.  I have speculated that the rise of contemporary Christian praise music is an unconscious (sometimes very conscious) sense in the younger generation that something is seriously missing in our prayer life, i.e. praise and thanksgiving!  When the Kenyans pray, they spent the bulk of their time praising God in the fullness of the Trinity (that is, praising each person of the Holy Trinity) and lifting up, exulting God in action through Christ and the active power of the Holy Spirit.  Thus the Psalms entered their corporate prayer life in an explicit way.  For instance, Psalm 46 speaks of the Lord as “our refuge and strength,” “a help always near,” a place of safety.”  Verse 11 is specific and concrete.  “The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!” (Psalm 46:11).  Thus the Kenyans would teach us to engage in believing prayer which stresses praise, thanksgiving, and the active presences of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our/their lives.

I have asked myself why we spend so little time in praise, thanksgiving and calling on God’s active intervention.  Some of the reason resides, I think, in the theological weakness of the current American mainline Protestantism.  But, in a more profound way, I suspect it has to do with our typically American sense of self-reliance.  We have so much in terms of resources (financial, institutional, educationally, etc.) in America that we tend to subconsciously seek to move forward on our own strength.  The Kenyans lack an excess of resources.  They are more readily thrown back on the strength of the Lord.  They instinctively know they can’t make it on their own.  Our (American Methodism’s) instinctive response is more “we’ll call in God if we need extra help from God.”  They (Kenyans) are more inclined to listen for the Lord’s guidance.

A word of caution is in order.  Kenyans and American Methodists alike succumb to the idolatrous temptation to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves.  Alike, we are tempted to challenge the Lordship and leadership of Christ.  Together we are inclined to insist on our own will over the will of the Holy Spirit.  Sin is alive and well in all of us.  Together we recall, “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Conclave and Kenya ©

Like many of you, my year has begun with a full slate of ministry activities.  It began January 3rd with a day and a half in the office to answer emails and plow through paperwork accumulated from the Christmas – New Year break time.  The afternoon of January 4th I drove to Austin, Texas for the twice yearly South Central Bishops Conclave.  The Conclave is a gathering of the active (i.e. residential or non-retired) bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church under the sponsorship of the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF).  It is an invaluable time of learning and sharing.  Using the Harvard Business School case study approach, we wrestle together with leadership challenges facing us and the church as a whole in our work.  Often we have a special presentation on a critical subject or issue facing the church.  We engage in this time of significant learning and sharing under the guidance of Dr. Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant for TMF.  His most recent article on Courage is a seminally insightful document about leadership in the Protestant Church in America during the second decade if the 21st Century. The Conclave is one of the most valuable times of learning that I have.

 I arrived home from the Bishops’ Conclave on Friday evening in time to finish packing for a Saturday morning flight to Kenya (via Dubai).  For the second time it is my great privilege to take part in an ongoing ministry the Central Texas Conference has (along with about 10 other U.S. Conferences and teams from Germany and the British Methodist Church.  Many churches and individuals from across the Central Texas Conference (CTC) have been involved in this God-honoring ministry.  Dr. Ken Diehm, then Senior Pastor of First UMC, Grapevine, Texas helped pioneer this work.  On this trip, under the leadership of Rev. Dawne Phillips, Director of Missions for CTC and Dr. Randy Wild, Executive Director of the Center for Mission Support, we have joined a key group from the Oregon-Idaho Conference led by Rev. Jim Monroe and Rev. Sue Owen.  Jim and Sue have served as pastors and District Superintendents in Oregon and more recently as missionaries at the Maua Methodist Hospital in Maua, Kenya.

 Bishop nThombura asked that we come back to share in teaching clergy along with engaging in other critical mission ministry.  Jim Monroe and I have spent the two previous days teaching a seminar on the Bible and Preaching for pastors in the Methodist Church of Kenya (MCK) at Kenya Methodist University (KeMU).  It was an exciting and challenging time of teaching.  Some of the Pastors have seminary degrees from Schools of Theology in Kenya, England and the United States.  We dealt with a question related to the controversial “Jesus Seminar” and I had a challenging conversation with a graduate from Wesley Theological Seminary in DC.  Other pastors have very little education and almost anything we can share is greeted with appreciation. We will be heading to Nairobi, to repeat our two-day seminar there.  Overall, we will have addressed approximately 350 to 400 pastors.

 Meanwhile the combined team made of folks from both Conferences have been holding a medical clinic out in a remote area of Kenya that does not have regular access to medical treatment.  Sharing with schools (a deworming clinic, supplies, etc.), the ongoing historic work of Methodism in education is bearing rich fruit in Kenya!

 While the outlying clinic work is taking place, half of our combined group has been rotating in and out working on a project high in the hills.  Through the great ministry of Maua Methodist Hospital, a single mother of four (including a three month old infant) with AIDS (from the Father of the infant who has disappeared) was living in a shack (barely standing) made of two wood walls and two plastic sheets.  It is poverty and desperation at its worst and lowest.  Additionally the elderst daughter (11 years old) also has AIDS.  A Christian neighbor brought her tremendous need to the attention of the hospital and working together hospital staff, the local village and our mission team have built a house for the family (two rooms; the kitchen is outside and the “restroom” is about 15 feet behind the house) in one short week!  Frank Briggs, Jim McClurg, Randy Wild, and Tom Larson (from Bend, Oregon) left before dawn over nearly impassible roads to finish the house building before the 11 am community wide celebration and dedication of the house.  It was a Kenyan version of an emergency “Habitat” house build!

 Tomorrow I have been asked to preach and assist Bishop nThombura in the installation of a new Synod Bishop in Thaarka, Kenya.  A Synod Bishop is the equivalent of our District Superintendents.  (Bishop nThombura is called the Presiding Bishop.)  While I am there, the rest of the team will be spread out preaching at other churches in the area.  We are tired but phenomenally blessed by this ongoing shared ministry.  The CTC and its member churches should be deeply gratified to learn that the ministry so many of our congregations have taken part in is continuing to share the Word and Way of Christ.  Together we are sharing with Christians around the world in building a vibrant Christian witness in Kenya! 

 I must give a special shout out to Grapevine UMC in closing.  There is a “Guest House” (the Kenyan version of a Retreat Center) in Meru, Kenya (the center of Methodism in Kenya) named after Dr. Ken Diehm.  I had visited it two years earlier and after our Pastors School presentation I got to stop by for a brief visit again.  The work continues to go forward.  Most of the 2nd floor is now finished and initial construction is taking place on the 3rd floor.  For those who are from the CTC, think of the Diehm Guest House as their Glen Lake.  I learned that follow-up teams from First UMC Grapevine have continued to come and work on the Guest House.  What a tremendous blessing of faithfulness!  This is truly a work of the Lord.

 We will land at DFW the afternoon of January 22nd after a 6 hour flight from Nairobi to Dubai and a 14 hour flight form Dubai to DFW.  After a day of sleeping and recovery, I hope to be back in the office on Tuesday, January 24th.  We have a Cabinet meeting coming up on January 30th.

Pride and Integrity

by Rev. Mike Ramsdell

 Rev. Mike Ramsdell served for 21 years as Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Mansfield, Texas in the Central Texas Conference.  He is currently the North District Superintendent. Mike has a clear grasp on the many appointments which flounder because of relationship confusion.  Increasingly, especially around “hot” political and moral issues, clergy and lay leaders run into conflict.  Listening to Mike argue that clergy are often confused and fail to make a distinction between pride and integrity, I asked him to write a guest blog on the subject.  While I am away on a mission trip in Kenya, I commend his blog to you for its important insights.

I remember some years ago having a conversation over lunch with a pastor who was in trouble.  His church was in conflict and a ministry that had begun well was about to end badly. It did not have to happen.  He was talented, likable, and called.  But he had yet to learn the difference between pride and integrity, and thinking he was about integrity, he had created and exacerbated personal conflict with church members over issues that weren’t really that big of a deal.   Everyone paid the price; he the most.  He was left in a position where he could no longer lead his church.

Integrity is on pretty much every list of characteristics of effective leaders, and it should be.  Integrity is about faith, about the cause, about holiness, humility, right, the truth.  It is one of the cores of following Jesus Christ, an unwillingness to compromise our faith and what is good and right. It’s where we find the rules we will not break, the lines we will not cross, and the life in Christ we choose to live. It is the foundation of long term success in ministry and leadership. Humility is the foundation of integrity – being willing to put the cause of Christ, what is right and good – ahead of ourselves.

  • Integrity: a moral compass that doesn’t waver, a wholeness of character (dictionary definition)
  • The integrity of the upright guides them (Proverbs 11:3)

My guess is that conversations about integrity are not new to Church leaders.  The problem is that often people get integrity and pride mixed up, and thinking they are making decisions and dealing with relationships from a foundation of integrity they sometimes damage themselves, others, and the cause of Christ.  Yet pride just might be the real motivation.  There is a difference!

  • Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)

Integrity is about Christ, about faith, about the truth, about selflessness.
Pride is about us, about me, about my feelings about self-centeredness.

Integrity in a leader will build the Church, strengthen relationships, form and shape the cause that the leader is about, focusing the Church on Christ and His mission, a focus away from the leader. It is the foundation of long-term ministry and success.

Pride destroys relationships, creates division, breaks down the cause of the Church, and focuses people on the leader, his or her personal ambition, the leader’s feelings and self-importance.  Pride limits the long-term life and success of a Church leader and the Church they serve.

For the prideful Christian, everything becomes personal, it’s always seems to be about them.  For the person who is about integrity, everything becomes about Christ and the mission of Christ.  Knowing the difference makes all the difference.

 

Into the New Year of our Lord Two-Thousand and Seventeen ©

As we pause on the edge of a New Year, I hold stubbornly to the conviction that every year is still A. D. regardless of what a politically correct culture asserts.  Please don’t get me wrong.  This is not an excuse to be rude to non-Christians (friend or otherwise).  Our times may be properly labeled C. E. for Common Era; but significantly, in our heart of hearts, Christians need to hold to a theological conviction at every year since the birth of Christ is A. D. –  “In the Year of our Lord.”

Wikipedia says:  “The terms anno Domini (AD or A.D.) and before Christ (BC or B.C.) are used to label or number years in the Julian and Gregorian calendars. The term anno Domini is Medieval Latin, which means in the year of the Lord but is often translated as in the year of our Lord. It is occasionally set out more fully as anno Domini nostri Iesu (or Jesu) Christi. (“in the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What is at stake is no more nor less than the conviction that this year – 2017 – belongs to Christ for those of us who claim to be Christian!  Carefully understand what I am saying.  Be polite and gracious.  It is acceptable to use C.E. or Common Era when dealing with a wider secular audience.  There is nothing wrong with such courtesy.  There must remain however a towering conviction that must hold in our hearts and minds!  For us, this year and every year is the year of our Lord!  Our life, our year, belongs to Jesus as Lord!  It is at His and His name only that our knee bows (Philippians 2:10-11).

This unshakable conviction that 2017 is the “Year of Our Lord” is an anchor in the storms of life that even now crash over us.  I often find myself at the opening of a New Year going back to a famous poem and even more to its reading on the radio.

In1939, King George VI of England broadcast a Christmas Day message to the British Empire heard around the world.  He ended it by quoting an obscure poet named Minnie Louise Haskins.  Twenty-five years earlier, she had privately published a book of verses called The Desert.  Originally entitled “God Knows,” the more popular name is “The Gate of the Year.” The words catch the essence of those wise men who journeyed across the desert following the light to worship the newborn Savior.  They invite and challenge us to start our new year on the same journey.

God Knows [The Gate of the Year]
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,minnie-louise-haskins-150x150
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

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