Jerusalem and Athens

Friday, November 19th, I attended Texas Wesleyan University’s Board of Trustees meeting (one of two universities where I serve as a Trustee).  It was a day of celebration as we elected Frederick G. Slabach the 19th President of the University and cut the ribbon on The Morton Fitness Center, a wonderful new facility.  I am impressed by the mission of TWU and its commitment to reach first generation college students with the opportunity for quality liberal arts education.  The Methodist mission to higher education is long and illustrious.  It is also currently an area of deep concern as we wrestle with the connection between church and higher education in this diverse age.

Tertullian, the great early Christian theologian and apologist, around the turn of the 3nd century famously asked the question, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”  Such a revolutionary new way of living, being and thinking, the Christian faith burst on the scene as a rejection of human intellect and accomplishment.  Indeed, the Christian faith always is to some degree a critique on any culture in which it finds itself.  The claim that Christians are to be in the world but not of it is a staple of the faith.  With eloquence, I Peter 2:9-10 declares:  “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,* in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”[1]

And yet deeply cored to the center of the Christian faith is the great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  Note carefully, worship God with your mind.  Even as the Christian faith stands apart from culture, it is immersed in culture and seeks an understanding not only of God but of the created order itself.  Methodists in particular have lived out this conviction through the establishment of something like 87 universities and four-year colleges.  The mantra of Methodism with regard to higher education best comes from Charles Wesley’s hymn “Come, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” 

United the pair so long disjoin’d
Knowledge and vital piety;
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love let all men see
.[3]

 Even as I celebrate with pride the accomplishments of TWU, the issue of just how Christian our colleges and universities are and how distinctly Christian they should be lingers.  Trite truisms don’t help.  Deep reflection, prayer and conversation is needed.


[1]               I Peter 2:9-10
[2]               Luke 10:26
[3]               Charles Wesley, “Come, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

Gratitude

Often the Apostle Paul opens his letters with a phrase like “I thank my God for you ….”  I think I understand what he was feeling.  I am constantly thanking God for the Central Texas Conference and more personally for the privilege of being bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  As we wrestled with the proposal for realignment of the conference, I found myself being grateful for the faithfulness of our consideration.  Prior to the balloting I was at peace regardless of the outcome.

I was delighted to hear Rev. Bob Holloway, Dean of the Cabinet, report that the Cabinet had lost 123 pounds (the target goal was 120).  I contributed to that weight loss and will not stop.  I intend to lose more.  The Conference is my accountability partner.

With great gratitude I learned this morning that our offering Saturday for NO MORE MALARIA stands at $6,945.46.  Well done thou good and faithful servants!  At our Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Rev. Harvey Ozmer reported that we had previously received $82,239.46 to combat the dreaded killer diseases malaria.  The total today is $89,184.92.

Sunday was for me a joy spent with Pastor Debra Crumpton and the good folks at Wellspring UMC in Temple.  Today is Cabinet meeting time.

CIEMAL

After days of meeting in Panama (first the Council of Bishops – UMC, then the Conference of Methodist Bishops & Presidents – worldwide), today we began our last meeting.  (I can’t help but remember Dr. Albert Outler’s irreverent aside to a class on church polity at Perkins; “Ladies and gentlemen, one requirement of Methodist ministry is a cast-iron bottom.”)  Under the theme of “One Body, Many Gifts, One Mission,” we met as the Consejo de Inglesias Evangelias Metodistas de America y el Caribe (known simply as CIEMAL, consisting of Methodists in 21 countries).  CIEMAL is a long standing (40 years) missional outreach of the United Methodist Church with affiliated and autonomous Methodist churches of Latin America and the Caribbean.  The churches of CIEMAL were birthed out of the missionary movement of both the American and British Methodist churches.

We opened singing and liturgically sharing the words of “Come and Let Us Sweetly Join” by Charles Wesley (32 verses! To the tune of EASTER HYMN) 

(1)Come and let us sweetly join, Alleluia!
Christ to praise in hymns divine, Alleluia!
One in every time and place, Alleluia!
Full for all of truth and grace, Alleluia! …

 (3)We for Christ, our Master, stand,
Lights in a benighted land:
We our dying Lord confess;
We are Jesus’ witnesses. …

 (17)Let us join, (‘tis God commands)
Let us join our hearts and hands
Help to gain our calling’s hope,
Build each other up. …

 (31)Hence may all our actions flow, Alleluia!
Love the proof that Christ we know; Alleluia!
Mutual love the token be, Alleluia!
Lord, that we belong to Thee.  Alleluia!

Bishop Jago Carlos Lopes, President of the Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church of Brazil opened.  “The preservation of unity has a purpose,” Bishop Lopes stated, “so that the world may know that God has sent Jesus. . . and transformation may take place in the world.”

 It is worth noting that the United States has the third largest Latin American population in the world. (This not a comment about undocumented workers, but a statement of affirmation on our documented diversity!)  It is a false myth that resources only flow from the North (USA) to the South (the churches of Latin America and the Caribbean).  There is a flow of missionaries from the South to the North!  The CIEMAL churches have participated sacrificially in significant relief efforts in Haiti and other places.  It has a strong mission emphasis to the most vulnerable – children and women.  One emphasis of the CIEMAL churches involves youth in mission in ways quite similar to the youth of the Central Texas Conference engaged in CTCYM.

 All across the church, both in the Americas and the world, we are struggling with a time of deep change.  I will return home to a called meeting of the Central Texas Conference on the realignment of our resources for mission and ministry in the 21st century.  In a larger sense, this has been (and remains) the consistent theme of all three meetings I have attended here in Panama. 

 The rest of the CIEMAL Conference has yet to unfold.  Press of time and schedule means that I write while the Conference is unfolding.  Readers will receive this blog posting after the CIEMAL Conference has closed.  It is an exciting time to be in ministry!  May the prayer of Jesus be ours, “that they all may be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20)

O For a Thousand Tongues

Last night (Sunday, November 7, 2010) we gathered for the opening worship of the Conference of Methodist Bishops (various titles are used) in Panama City, Panama.  The stated purpose of the Conference (which is authorized by General Conference, paragraph 428 of The Book of Discipline) is: “We hope to set a biblical/theological foundation that sets context, speaks of emergent Christianity, and impacts current reality.  We hope to claim and build upon partnerships.”  The diversity of the church through the various branches of the Methodist family of affiliated and autonomous Methodist churches is staggering.

Last night at dinner, I visited with the lead Superintendent of the Methodist Church in Brazil.  She shared how their church came from two different sets of missionaries – The Methodist Episcopal Church (USA – North) and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South (USA – South).  Because of laws ending slavery earlier than in the United States, the Methodist Church in Brazil was able to unite 10 years earlier than in the U.S.

Next to her was the Methodist bishop of Columbia.  When I asked where he lived, he replied Medellin, Columbia.  What flashed through my mind at the mention of that city was the infamy of the Medellin Drug Cartel.  Here at our table was a courageous Christian proclaiming the gospel and leading churches (some 35 or so) in that dangerous situation.

In our opening worship we expressed the faith in a variety of songs and hymns from different languages and cultures.  In this great diversity was also great commonality.  Charles Wesley’s hymns were known by all.  At one point bishops were invited to sing one verse of O For a Thousand Tongues in their first language.  It was deeply moving!  I found the words washing over me and in their singing caught a glimpse of the glory of God.  “O for a thousand tongues to sing, my great Redeemer’s praise.  The glories of my God and King; the triumph of His grace.”

There is much to learn here.  God is at work in ways I am (we are?) as yet unaware.  At this morning’s break, I visited with President (equivalent of a bishop) Lung-kwong Lo of the Methodist Church in Hong Kong.  He is helping to train clergy for the explosive growth of the Christian movement in China.  In visiting with the General Secretary for Missions of the Korean Methodist Church, I learned that they have more than 3 times the number of missionaries as the General Board of Global Ministries.  He also commented that the rise of secularism in Korea had slowed the dramatic growth of the church.

I gaze in on the movement of the Holy Spirit in our world through the eyes of this gathering.

Our Adaptive Challenge

During the past two days, the Council of Bishops (COB) has worked extensively on the Call to Action Report.  Yesterday we embraced the adaptive challenge as explicated in the Call to Action Report.  (Adaptive challenge/work is change work that engages us in a new way of thinking and being.  By definition it implies that we are moving through a time of investigation, discovery and new learning. It is often contrasted with “technical” work, which is work where we in principle know the skills, abilities and changes we need to bring about.)  We embraced the following;  “The adaptive challenge for the United Methodist Church is: To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  (Call to Action Report, page 8 )

With embrace of the adaptive challenge we also adopted the key recommendations:

  1. “For a minimum of ten years, starting in January 2011, use the drivers of Vital Congregations as initial areas of attention for sustained and intense concentration on building effective practices in local churches.
  2. Dramatically reform the clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.
  3. Collect, report and review, and act on statistical information that measures progress in key performance areas to learn to adjust our approaches to leadership, policies, and the use of human and financial resources.
  4. Reform the Council of Bishops, with active bishops assuming (1) responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, participation in servant/mission ministries, benevolent giving, and lowering the average age of participants in local church life; and (2) establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  5. Consolidate program and administrative agencies, align their work and resources with the priorities of the Church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations, and reconstitute them with much smaller competency-based boards of directors in order to overcome current lack of alignment, diffused and redundant activity, and higher than necessary expense due to independent structures.”  (Call to Action, pp. 8-9)

You can read the full text in the Call to Action report under the section “Steering Team Report.”  (Go to www.umc.org/calltoaction).   In a sense we as a larger church are wrestling with the same alignment issues that the Central Texas Conference is facing at our called session of conference on November 13th

I find all this exciting, deeply challenging, and immensely hopeful.  I believe winds of the Holy Spirit are blowing through the church.  Jeremiah 29:11 comes to mind:  “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future of hope.”

On the Road Again

            Today is a day for finishing up administrative details and preparing to leave.  Sunday Jolynn and I will fly to Panama for the fall meeting of the Council of Bishop followed by two additional meetings (one for Methodist Bishop – UMC with Affiliated and Autonomous Methodist Churches in the Americas; the second a conference of ecumenical leadership in the Americas called CEMIAL).  I ask that you keep both us and the entire Council in your prayers.

            At the COB meeting we will being discussing in depth the Call to Action Report. You can access the report in full at www.umc.org/calltoaction. There is much to consider and pray over.  Clearly the church as a whole is calling the bishops to exercise greater leadership.  Simultaneous with that call to greater leadership is ongoing resistance to the tough change that must take place.  Obviously the two are not compatible.  A wise friend commented to me recently, “The problem for the bishops is not that they need someone else to give them more authority [which I might add they do!];  it is that they [the bishops] need to take more responsibility.”

            In addition to The Call to Action Report, we will receive reports on the Four Focus Areas (Developing Leaders, New Places for New People & Transformation of Existing Congregations, Combating Poverty, and Eradicating Killer Diseases).  Together we hope to learn and strategize on how we as a church might move forward in the both faithfulness and fruitfulness.

            I will try to write blogs during the 11 days that I am gone.

Set Like Flint

I remember when my son took Texas State History in high school. Somewhere in that class he ran into a quote of William Tecumseh Sherman (the Civil War General and later Secretary of War under President Grant).  The irascible Sherman said, “If I owned Texas and hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in hell.”  Well, I couldn’t disagree more.  I love Texas.  However, Sherman’s quote helps me remember how dangerous it was to be a Texas pioneer after the close of the Civil War.  Those who launched the Methodist movement for Christ in Texas lived out of an incredible commitment to our Lord and to his Gospel.            

Last Saturday we had a great Centennial Celebration for the Central Texas Conference.  In my speech at that hallmark event, I shared a story that Dr. Wayne Matthews had given me.  The early Texas Methodist, both lay and clergy, came to offer a courageous witness to Christ and the Kingdom of God.  “James T. Griswold, who arrived in Texas straight from college in Alabama, was never able to adequately explain his attraction to Texas.  He said: ‘A strange thing happened to me not many days after I received my license–an impression came over me to ‘go to Northwest Texas to preach.’  I hesitated not, but promptly said, ‘That I will do.’  My face was set like flint to do that thing.  As I began to talk Northwest Texas among my colleagues at college, they would say, ‘You are crazy, boy!  That is nothing but a desert.  There are no people out there, and why throw away your life?  You will either starve to death or freeze to death.’  All this and more was said to me but to no avail.”[1]

Reflecting on the witness of James Griswold, I was forced to ask myself.  To what am I “set like flint?”  Am I willing to brave the rigors of life (in a very different 21st century way) out of a commitment to Christ in sharing the gospel for others?  It is a challenging question which assaults the life of comfort and ease which I lead.  Romans 12:1-2 reminds me to be transformed by a renewing of the mind to discern the will of God.  In that prayerful discernment, I seek to be “set like flint” to carry out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

 


[1]              R. Wayne Matthews, God’s Plan and Us, October, 2010  The quotes are from The Methodist Excitement in Texas by Walter N. Vernon and others pg. 156.

Surrounded by a Cloud of Witnesses

I am nearing the end of a round of District meetings and other gatherings to both listen and share with laity and clergy alike on the future of the Church and the re-alignment of ministry resources in the Central Texas Conference. 

Earlier today I met with the retired clergy to discuss realignment.  Their perspective was and is invaluable.  As I listened to their questions and comments, what struck me most deeply was their forward thinking.  Many, if not all of them, understand that this is a different day and we desperately need greater flexibility to respond to outreach opportunities.  Imbedded in their comments and questions were passionate convictions about changing a clergy culture.  A number of speakers spoke of the need to engage the non-Christian culture with a stance of open listening and interpersonal involvement.  There were strong comments about recovering a sense of how to share the faith (evangelistic witness) and move beyond the church walls. 

Listening and dialoguing with them, I felt that sense of “being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).  Their openness, their commitment, their engagement was and is impressive.  We as a Conference have been and continue to be blessed by them.

Developing Pastoral Leadership

Today (Thursday, October 14, 2010) I have been visiting St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.  They have been gracious hosts of the SCJ College of Bishops.  (The South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops meets once a quadrennium with Perkins School of Theology, St. Paul’s School of Theology, and Lydia Patterson Institute.)  St. Paul’s commitment to developing clergy leadership for the local church is impressive.  Like virtually all seminaries the economic downturn has negatively impacted finances and challenged the full implementation of ministry.  It is a harsh fact that lower endowment drives the cost of higher education up (less scholarship money!).  In addition, with some exceptions (notably Duke, Candler & Asbury), seminary enrollment is down.  I am impressed with what St. Paul is doing, but issues of seminary education continue to challenge the church as a whole.

In my thinking I overlay the issue of seminary education (in part) with development of a new generation of leaders.  Seminaries are designed to develop pastors.  Church wants leaders.   The expectation of pastoral leadership in the local church has gone up phenomenally.  People don’t just want the Bishop and Cabinet to send them a pastor.  They want the Bishop and Cabinet to send them a leader.  Seminaries, even good seminaries, are rarely well equipped in leadership development.  New experiments and partnerships are coming into being (teaching church working with seminaries, etc.).  The need for lifelong learning among both clergy and lay has never been greater.

It strikes me that we often ask seminaries to deliver what they are not really equipped to deliver.  What do seminaries do best?  Obvious answers begin with biblical and theological education but do not end there.  There is emerging a wider discussion on the issue of leadership development that is encouraging.

Making Room for New Leaders

For the past two days I have been at a retreat sponsored by the Texas Methodist Foundation entitled “Making Room for New Leaders – The Third Path Dilemma.”  With a wide spectrum group of Bishops, Board of Ministry Chairs, and various other leaders, we have wrestled with how to create “third paths” in ministry (ordained?) beyond the conventional routes for Deacons and Elders – new leaders for current congregations, new leaders for special settings, leaders for new forms of congregations that are emerging.

There are many takeaways for what was clearly just a beginning conversation.  How do we make room for creative new experimentation in leadership?  How do Boards of Ordained Ministry, Bishops and other leaders together focus on the purpose of making disciples rather than serving an embedded constituency?  What is clear is that we must redirect the focus to mission and purpose (away from representing/protecting a group).

An interesting book we read in preparation was Church Morph by Eddie Gibbs.  At one point Gibbs writes: “The church urgently needs not just younger leaders, but a different kind of leader.  The church needs visionary, risk-takers who do not look to institutional churches to provide their financial security or career opportunity.  They are prepared to venture into the unknown not as isolated individuals, but as cohorts that belong to a wider dispersed community.  They do not undertake lengthy periods of training for mission, but are trained in mission.  Recognizing that most failure in church leadership occurs through failure of character rather than competence, their training focuses on becoming biblically literate and on internalizing the spiritual disciplines.” (p. 148)

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