Different Context – Common Underlying Issues

The last 10 days have been a whirlwind.  I started by flying first to Seattle and visiting with the Pacific Northwest Conference’s New Church Development Commission.  This was followed by a day long teaching in the Alaskan Missionary Conference and then preaching the opening worship service of the Alaskan Missionary Conference.  (Admittedly I did sneak in one day of hiking in Kenai Fjords National Park, up to the edge of Exit Glacier – absolutely stunning in its beauty and majesty.)  Upon completion of my time in Alaska, I flew back to Central Texas for our Annual Conference (beginning our 101st year!).  Preaching and presiding was stimulating and exhausting.  Following the Central Texas Conference, Jolynn and I drove to Corpus Christi, Texas where I preached in the Friday service to the Southwest Texas Conference.  It was a special delight and joy to be with friends of long standing.

Time spent in four conferences leads to reflections of differences and similarities.  Each Conference has its own unique context.  On an obvious level, the context of living in the Pacific Northwest is very different from living in either Alaska or Texas.  (Alaskans couldn’t help but remind me that if “Alaska were cut in half, Texas could be the 3rd largest state.”)   There are both unique challenges and unique opportunities in each Conference. 

Beyond context, each conference stop deepened my conviction that we face common underlying issues.  For instance, the dramatic change to a post-Christendom culture confronts us all.  Methodism as we have known it in the United States is in a period of great flux.  There is a renewed interest across the map on how we witness and share our faith in an increasingly non-Christian culture.  All conferences are wrestling with the implications of pensions, health insurance and financial viability.  Each conference was moving out in creative missional engagement.  In every case, healthy churches were outwardly focused in evangelism, mission and service under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

There is much to be excited about.  God is at work, and God leading us across the face of the church!  There is much that challenges us to rely even further on the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Back on Tuesday

Bishop Lowry has been at a series of three different Annual Conference gatherings since May 31st. Once he returns to Central Texas, he will post an updated blog. Please look for that posting on Tuesday, June 14.

Off to Seattle and Alaska

Tuesday morning, May 31st, I will be flying to Seattle to meet with the new church development team from the Pacific Northwest Conference and then on to Alaska.  While in Alaska, I will present a day long teaching on how the church confronts our new reality and engages in ministry and mission in the new world we find ourselves in and preach the opening worship service for the Alaskan Missionary Conference on Friday. 

The theme the Alaska Missionary Conference leaders gave me was Come to the Edge.  I think it significant that their conception is that we engage in ministry “on the edge.”  The term can be taken in multiple senses.  We are on the edge of the unknown.  We are on the edge of new and exciting possibilities.  We are on the edge of our best understanding.  The list could continue but I think the reader can get the drift.  I have entitled my 3 presentations: 1) The Storm-tossed Sea, 2) The Ship Made Ready (An ancient image for the Church was the ship.), and 3) Sailing Beyond the Map.

While the context in Alaska is very different from Central Texas, the issues are largely the same.  All of us are moving beyond the edge of our knowledge and trusting ourselves to the unknown by placing ourselves in the hands of a known God.  It is both scary and wonderful!  I am looking forward to learning from them and sharing with them.

Spring Storms

With so many of you I watched with dismay the news from Joplin, Missouri of yet another major storm causing life-taking tragedy. I ask that you pray for the people of Joplin as they begin the hard task of recovery.  The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is responding with its usual speed and aid.  With the host of events however, funds for UMCOR are extremely low.  I encourage our churches to take a special offering for the UMCOR “Spring Storms” appeal. 

Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Area has sent the following report.  “Among those killed were several United Methodists, and every United Methodist Church in the area has members who have lost their homes.  All our pastors and church staff are safe. We lost two church buildings, including St. Paul United Methodist Church (a large, strong, vibrant congregation with an average attendance of close to 1000), and we lost the District Superintendent’s Office.  Several other churches and parsonages received more limited damage.  The hospital and five of the seven schools in Joplin were nearly completely destroyed.

“The Missouri Conference Disaster Response team has been active and effective from the earliest hours, and many of our churches have sent trained First Responder teams. Tom Hazlewood from UMCOR was on the ground in Joplin within 24 hours. Many of you have generously offered funds directly to the Missouri Conference and others have expressed your intention of supporting the UMCOR Spring Storms appeal. All of your gifts are appreciated. In addition many have expressed their active interest in sending VIM teams to the area. Please refrain from doing so during the immediate days ahead since only highly trained and professional teams are on-site at this time. However, we shall covet your help during the weeks and months to come.

“The city of Joplin was named after Rev. Harris Joplin, an early Methodist preacher who settled there in 1839. For years, he hosted people in his home and led them in worship, prayer, and singing. His ministry was one of hospitality in the truest sense, and he used his own humble dwelling as a tool for ministry. As far as I know, the building he used no longer exists, but the church community he founded provided the seeds from which dozens of area congregations have sprouted. All of us who are Missouri United Methodists are to some degree the fruit of his ministry.

“Tornadoes and hurricanes and floods and fires can take away our beloved and sacred places in a moment’s time, but the love of God that binds us to another is not nearly so vulnerable. God’s persistent and persevering love causes us to reach out to help a neighbor and to embrace strangers and to assist one another in the rebuilding of lives. The church is not the pile of lumber and bricks left after the destroying winds and rains; the church is the gathering of people standing above the rubble unified by the spirit of Christ to love and serve others. The church is the people counseling one another through unfathomable grief and loss. The church is people risking lives for their neighbors and opening their homes to strangers. The church is people across the state and nation and world praying and giving and preparing to offer their best and highest in service to help rebuild lives. The church is alive and vigorous and redeeming. It is grace in every gesture and love in every action. The church is the body of Christ doing the things Jesus did in Jesus’ name today.

“Thanks to you, United Methodists will rebuild in Joplin. On behalf of others of our colleagues whose areas have been affected by tornados and floods, I strongly encourage you to lift up the UMCOR Spring Storms appeal. Funds at UMCOR are extraordinarily low right now, and this severely limits our capacity to act quickly and effectively during times of tragedy. Your help is appreciated.

Yours in Christ,

 Robert Schnase,
 Missouri Conference”

The New Pharisees?

 This week I find myself dealing with the Administrative run up to Annual Conference. Tuesday we held a Cabinet meeting to put the semi-final touches on appointments. (It seems they are never final! No matter how nailed down things seem, there are always last minute changes.) Following those activities, I have been signing so many forms and papers that I worry about being a Colonel Blake. (For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember he was the original commanding officer on M.A.S.H. Colonel Blake famously signed a three day pass to Tokyo while believing he was signing off on standard medical supplies.)

 Administrative leadership is important. We need to keep things moving in an orderly fashion. A good friend and colleague, Dr. Steve Wende, says, “Nobody joins a church because it is well run; but people will leave a church if it is not well run.”

And yet, I cannot help but offer a personal observation that we have become stuck in rules and regulations. It almost seems like every time we came to a tough or touchy situation instead of relying on reasoned judgment and prayer, we passed a new piece of church law. For every page in The Book of Discipline, we’ve added numerous additional policies, regulations and processes. After a while I find myself asking, “Is this really helping us make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?”

We are so quagmire in a culture of doing things right that we struggle to remember to do the right things. We have become the new Pharisees. The answer to the Pharisees is not administrative incompetence. It does line in the direction of missional flexibility and trusting leadership. We need to find a reasonable and faithful middle ground. Bum Phillips once reported that we shouldn’t treat everyone the same, but we should treat everyone fairly. It is past time for us to rethink our rule-bound, regulation-strangled, policy-panicked church culture.

Election of Delegates to General & Jurisdictional Conferences

As we approach Annual Conference, I am aware that this is an election year.  We will be voting for lay and clergy delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences.  As the Bishop of the Central Texas Conference, I want to commend to all a prayerful process seeking the will of the Holy Spirit.

With other bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction . . .

  • We hope and pray to maintain unity and missional focus in our conferences during the election process.
  • We believe that
    • the process for elections should be fair, thoughtful, prayerful, civil, and should focus on the mission of the whole church and not a single issue.
    • thinking alike is not mandatory, but living as one in the body of Christ is essential.
    • the process should demonstrate respect for all persons and proceed with dignity. (“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor….If it is possible, so far as it depend on you, live peaceably with all….”  From Romans 12.)

 I will be lifting the entire Central Texas Conference voting process in prayer hoping that the delegation should reflect the gifts of the whole conference.  God has blessed us and I believe we have much (and many people) to offer for leadership in the larger church. 

The role of bishop is not to advance a side, but to take responsibility for the life of the community.  To that end I hope that we celebrate that God has raised up those elected for leadership.  May the election be informed and guided by presence of the Holy Spirit.  As we approach our time of voting for delegates, may we with grace and charity hold our conference leaders in our prayers during this season of discernment, and invite our conference members to pray for one another.

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” (The Message, II Corinthians 5:14-15).

Changing the World

I am finishing reading Mike Slaughter’s Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus.  I confess that it is one of those books I read ½ of and then put down.  Picking it back up again, I am once again engaged in an ongoing theme that is playing itself out across the church.

Outwardly focused churches thrive.  They don’t just believe in Christ; they live Christ.  Inwardly focused churches die.  There are a number of challenging aspects to Slaughter’s book, but perhaps most impressive is how serious Ginghamsburg UMC takes discipleship formation.  They have clear high expectations.  In writing about membership he comments on those who join Ginghamsburg.  “They commit to regular worship attendance, a cell community for accountability and growth, a place of service, and the biblical tithe.  They commit to grow as disciples – not remain attendees” (Mike Slaughter, Change the World, p. 41).

All this looks like concrete living out of the vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  It looks like living out radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity.  It might make for a very fruitful and faithful Administrative Council discussion to examine how your church is doing implementing practical discipleship.  This is, after all, our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Musings on Almost Christian

Since finishing Kenda Creasy Dean’s excellent book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, I find myself repeatedly going back to ponder its insights.  (For those of you who follow my “recommend” books with Cokesbury, I have it as one of the books I recommend.)  Dr. Dean (she teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary) develops deep insights about both youth ministry and the church in general through her work and reflection on National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR).

Dean argues (based on a wealth of supporting data) that
“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in the United States.”  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism holds to an essential set of 5 guiding beliefs.

“1. A god exists who created and orders the world and
watches over life on earth. (Passionate worship and intentional faith development are built on the premise that God is active and with us.)
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each
other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.  (Radical hospitality and extravagant generosity are about a lot mor ethan just being nice.)
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good
about oneself.  (Risk-taking mission and service reflect the teachin of Jesus that those who save their life loose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel save it.)
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to
resolve a problem.  (Christmas presumes an incarnation.  God is more than a butler or therapist.)
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.” (The Christian faith is grace based and not reward given.) (Kenda Dean, Almost Christian, p. 14)

Contrast this vague deism with the Apostle Paul’s words to
the religious anarchy and chaotic pluralism of Corinth (not unlike our
day!).  “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:18, 24b-25).  I wish to be part of a gracious
yet robust Christian faith.  We have compromised too much to the world of our day and sought too little the ways of the Lord.

Dean’s book is a fine piece of theological work that moves far beyond simply youth ministry.  I commend its careful reading.

COB Sends Missionary to Nashville Area

I confess that I could not resist the above headline.  Thursday evening at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting, the Council on a motion from the South East Jurisdiction College of Bishops (SEJC) approved the assignment of Bishop Ben Chamness to the Nashville Episcopal Area (Memphis & Tennessee Conferences) effective September 1, 2011 to August 31, 2012.   Bishop Chamness will be completing the term of Bishop Wills, who needed to take early retirement.  Think of Bishop Chamness’ new assignment in these terms – we are sending a missionary to the Nashville Area!  Bishop Chamness will be presiding at our Annual Conference on Tuesday, June 7th from 8:30 – 10:30 am at my invitation as we begin our second hundred years as a Conference.  I invite us to keep Bishop Chamness and Joye in our prayers.

Amid a great deal of other work, the Council of Bishops continued its work on the Call to Action.  The Four Focus Areas (New Places for New People/New Church Development, Leadership Development, Imagine No Malaria, and Ministry with the Poor) were strongly reaffirmed as a critical part of the work of building vital congregations.  Vital congregations are engaged in the four focus areas as they reach out with God’s love in Christ through the power & presence of the Holy Spirit.

From a Christendom Mentality to a Missional Reality

Monday afternoon (May 2, 2011) at the Council of Bishops (COB), we heard Professor Dana Robert of Boston School of Theology address the historic leadership role of the office of bishop from the 3rd paragraph of the Nicene Creed.  “We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Dr. Robert posed the following questions to the bishops gathered:

1.  “What does it mean for United Methodist bishops to represent the ‘oneness’ of the church?
2.  What does it mean for United Methodist bishops to represent the ‘catholicity’ of the church?
3.  In changing from a Christendom to a missional context, how should the role of the bishop evolve?
4.  What are the most important spiritual qualities necessary to be a bishop today?”

Even more pointedly Dr. Robert framed the questions from a historic perspective with the telling comment, we are “caught in transition from a Christendom mentality to a missional reality.”

This discussion may sound somewhat dry and technical, yet it directs our attention bluntly to the 3rd point of the Call to Action to “reform the Council of Bishops” focusing on the active bishops assuming responsibility and public accountability for a new missional culture with measureable fruitfulness.  I have often said that, in my experience clergy, understand that Christendom is over but haven’t yet really engaged in a new missional reality (i.e. are still operating out of a Christendom modality).

 Like much of the church, the COB is wrestling with the painful change from an old mentality to a new reality.  One thing is clear.  God is calling us to a new world.  Like the Exodus of old the Lord is going before us.

 I ask you to keep in your prayers two special areas of concern that we have lifted up in COB – the victims of the tornados in Alabama and the people of the Ivory Coast recovering from a civil war.  I also ask for continued prayers for those recovering from the Possum Kingdom Fires.

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