Preliminary Report on Listening Posts

Last night I went to my fourth District “listening post.”  (So far I have been to the Temple, Brownwood, Waxahachie, and Mid-Cities.)  My basic schedule is an hour with the clergy, a meeting with the District Superintendency Committee and a little over an hour with the laity.  I find the time extremely helpful in giving me a point of interaction and information.  The exchange of comments and ideas are stimulating.

 A couple of tentative observations are emerging.  The laity in particular are intrigued by my abridged presentation of the Call to Action: Report on Congregational Vitality. (You can access that report by going on line at ).  There is great interest on the part of lay leaders in discussing and learning about what might make their congregations more fruitful and faithful.  I am impressed and very encouraged by the evident faithfulness and commitment.  Significantly, the laity have very few questions (almost none!) about re-alignment.  They are interested in two things.  Are we (the churches) going to get more help in our congregations?  And, will this save money?  (The answer to both is yes.)

The clergy find much of the Call to Action: Report on Congregational Vitality to be an affirmation of what they already know.  They (the clergy) have an anxiousness over re-alignment that is not evidenced by the laity.  Once again, I am deeply impressed by the evident commitment and faithfulness of the clergy.  The questions and comments are thoughtful and probing.  Together we wrestling with the wilderness way.

 I look forward to my time with the other three districts.  In addition, I have scheduled a special time with and for retired clergy (October 21st, 10:00 a.m. at Arlington Heights UMC). (Retired clergy are, of course, invited and encourage to attend any of the listening posts.  I treasure their wisdom and insight.) 

 Jolynn and I are taking some time away for a few days to celebrate her birthday.

Once Again

Today I renewed my acquaintance with an old friend. 

I try to meet regularly with a prayer partner for spiritual accountability.  During the summer both of us were gone, and this practice had fallen by the wayside.  I had on occasions met with the judicatory leader from another Christian faith community (denomination), but that relationship is only in the barest beginning stages.  For my devotional life, I was using a weekly prayer guide (in addition Jolynn and I share the Upper Room readings at night) but the press of time and activities with the coming of fall had been increasingly squeezing out time for prayer, contemplation, and spiritual formation/nurture. In short, I was relying too much on my own power and too little on God’s power.  The great title from one of Bill Hybels’ books came back to me, Too Busy Not to Pray.

Today, I returned to a more steady time of prayer and nurture.  The old friend I picked back up was/is This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer by Lawrence Paul Stookey.  It has been my habit since coming to Fort Worth to stop at Arlington Heights UMC and spend time in the sanctuary in prayer and devotion.  Today with my old friend, This Day, I did so again.  What a blessing!  Once again the Lord spoke to me.  “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”  (I Peter 5:10)

This Focused Center calls me back into relationship with God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Leading Edge III

In the last two weeks I have reported on some of the things that came out in the “Leading Edge” meeting of the Senior Pastors of the 100 largest churches by worship attendance in the UMC in the U.S. with 32 active bishops.  One of the constant questions for both bishops and pastors revolved around how we might help each other in “making disciples for the transformation of the world” and renewing the United Methodist Church.  As a part of that meeting Dr. Adam Hamilton and the others from the organization team of Senior Pastors challenged the pastors as a group.  The pastors were presented “ten ideas each large church pastor was encouraged to consider.”  They were challenged to engage in at least two or three of the ten.  [The Senior Pastors ten ideas are in bold; my comments are in italics.]


(1)   Inviting gifted young people to respond to a call – raise $$$ to send a student to seminary.  Leadership development is not only one of our four critical focus areas; it is vital for the future of both Methodism and the Christian movement in America.

 (2)   Launching new faith communities.  New church development is more than just starting new worship services.  Any denomination or Christian group will not become or recover being a force for Christ and world transformation without great engagement in new church development.  This is not an optional area.  Furthermore, new churches that are parented by strong existing churches have a much, much higher possibility of growing into spiritual health and vitality.

 (3)   Taking on or taking over existing, declining or dying UMC congregations.  This too is a vital way we can extend the DNA of healthy disciple-making churches across the connection.

(4)   Creating networks of churches supporting one another.  Our largest church can offer greatly needed mentoring and support that will point the way to spiritual renewal.

 (5)   Mentoring young clergy – meeting with young clergy on a regular basis – implementing “reverse mentoring.”  Mentoring and coaching especially for and with young clergy is a two way street.  Bishops need young clergy mentors as well!

 (6)   Mentoring large church clergy – what do they need to learn?  Peer learning is critical. 

 (7)   Provide sermon ideas and illustrations free of charge to anyone who wants or needs them.  Many larger churches are already offering material for free or for greatly reduced cost.  Proper credit should be given for the use of such material but it is a mystery to me, with the use of the internet, why more clergy don’t adapt sermon ideas and illustrations.

 (8)   Invite other churches to partner on mission projects.  Amen.  Larger churches have a “mission muscle” which can be of great assistance to smaller congregations mutually benefiting both and those who are served!

 (9)   Give away Christmas Eve offering for missions.  Extravagant Generosity is a core practice of fruitful (and faithful!) living for both churches and individuals.

(10) Become a positive prophetic voice – we need prophets of hope!  Jeremiah 29:11!

Leading Edge II

            Last week I participate in a meeting of the “Leading Edge” group made up of the Senior Pastors of the 100 largest churches by worship attendance in the UMC in the U.S.  I wrote about it in my earlier blog entitled “Leading Edge.”  Out of that meeting came a number of actions worth prayerful consideration.

            When asked what are the top changes needed in the UMC, the Senior Pastors noted the following six (in order). [Senior Pastors ranking is in bold; my comments are in italics.]

 #1. Improve quality of church leadership – inspire passionate and effective leaders.  This is the critical need!  It is one of the four focus areas of the United Methodist Church.  It will necessitate dramatic rethinking of what effective leadership looks like in the 21st century (i.e. a post-Christendom church).

 #2. Simplify administrative structures of General Church – reduce apportionments.  Amen!  This will require both General Conference and Annual Conference action.  It will also face deeply entrenched interests often protected by The Discipline.

 #3. Develop a common message or clear theological message as UMC with a clear process of spiritual formation.  Theological pluralism has led us to lose our Wesleyan roots.  Recovering a vibrant Wesleyan Christian orthodoxy is a necessity.  I see reason for real hope in this area.  The Holy Spirit is blowing a fresh wind through us.

 #4. Strengthen the role, authority, and leadership of the Bishops.  Please note:  This is what the Senior Pastors voted for!  Everyone is in favor of bishops have greater authority and exercising more leadership as long as what we (bishops) do agrees with them.  When our leadership and authority go in a different direction, we are often greeted with cries of “how dare you!”

 #5. Local church pastors be positive, hopeful and encouraging to others in the denomination.  This is a task that must be place squarely on the shoulders of local pastors.  Holy Scripture commends us:  “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (I Peter 3:15-16)

 #6. End guaranteed appointment.  This will take General Conference action.  It must be made with appropriate provisions for safe-guarding ethical imperatives.  Sooner or later we will economically be forced to take this action.

Tenth Street UMC

            Sunday, September 5th, I had the joy and pleasure of sharing with the congregation of Tenth Street UMC in Taylor, Texas.  Our celebration focused on the 110th anniversary of this wonderful Swedish Methodist Church.  Originally the Taylor Swedish Methodist Church, a mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church (North), Tenth Street reached out to a new generation of immigrants as a distinctly ethnic church.  Worship Services were held in Swedish into the 1930s.  As Ed Komandosky and Pastor Travis Summerlin greeted the various returning guests and family members in the service, I caught this rich sense of faithfulness that has been a part of Tenth Street for the past 110 years.  I could feel the essence of Hebrews 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and prefecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2a)

            There are powerful lessons that can inform us from the faithfulness of Tenth Street’s history.  Tenth Street UMC is every bit as much an ethnic church as our predominately ethnic churches of today.  It is an immigrant church, every bit as much as new outreach churches among Hispanics are today.  In the gratefulness handed on from generation to generation the mission remains the same but the context changes.  The mission then and now comes out of Matthew 28:16-20.  We are to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The context has dramatically changed.  The community is not longer a Swedish language enclave.  The challenge of today’s ministry is can they – can we! – reach a new generation for Christ?

            I suspect that a significant part of the answer lies in studying the lessons of the past from the “Tenth Street” UMCs of today and applying them to the new future God has in store for us.  It is an exciting future, a time of great opportunity; it is also a time of letting go.  There is a sense of real loss of the great heritage of Tenth Street.  Clinging to the past will not work.  Celebrating and learning from the past will provide powerful lessons for the new future God is leading us to!  I am thankful for the time shared with Tenth Street! Truly the Holy Spirit is at work and the greatest days of the church lie in the future!

Leading Edge

Continue Reading…

Understanding Orthodoxy

My August 12th Wilderness Way column sparked a number of responses and questions about the meaning of orthodox Christian belief. They raised questions relative to what I meant by theologically orthodox. While that is a long and deep subject, in general, orthodoxy in United Methodism is defined by the Articles of Religion and the Doctrinal Standards, as found in our Book of Discipline. You might wish to look at Paragraphs 1-199 in the 2008 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

In a larger sense, our understanding of orthodoxy comes historically from the Anglican Church in England and reaches back to the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, particularly those of Nicene (325 A. D.) and Chalcedon (451). Dr. Justo Gonzalez in Believers offers a marvelous understanding of orthodoxy.  He uses the image of a baseball diamond and says that the church through its great ecumenical councils has established “foul” lines. There is a great deal of room to roam between left field and right field, but there are clear foul lines.

The doctrine of the Trinity provides a concrete example. However we understand the Holy Trinity, those who hold to Christian orthodoxy are clearly Trinitarian: God as Father, Creator; God as Son, through the person and work of Jesus Christ (“His only Son, our Lord”) and God as Spirit, through the Holy Spirit present with us always to both comfort and challenge. Unitarian beliefs are clearly outside the foul lines. That does not necessarily imply that someone who is theologically unitarian is going to Hell or anything of the like.  It simply indicates that Unitarian belief is not orthodox Christianity. Another concrete example of orthodox theology would be the use of Holy Scripture as both source and norm for the Christian faith.  Holy Scripture is inspired by God (There is great room for debate as to what precisely “inspired by God” means. It does not necessarily imply a rigid fundamentalism.)  The orthodox understanding of scripture is that it is the canon, the rule of faith. Thus, when someone adds a new book to the Bible, or an additional “bible” (such as the Book of Mormon), such an addition is clearly is not orthodox Christianity.

As we wrestle with the concept of what is and is not orthodox as a church, our understanding is dynamic. Our context and culture may cloud our understanding of the truth.  Even more than dynamic, it is led by the Spirit. The ancient hymn catches the essence correctly, “new occasions teach new duties” (Once to Every Man and Nation, vs. 3).  Through all the vicissitudes of time and culture we have a foundation to hold to – the orthodox Christian faith as defined in the great ecumenical councils and promulgated through Holy Scripture.  Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all play a part in informing our best understanding of the Christian faith.

Allow me to recommend a number of books that are worth reading on this subject. Dr. William Abraham’s Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia (an even deeper study is his outstanding Canon and Criteria in Christian Theology), Thomas Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Albert C. Outler’s Theology and the Wesleyan Spirit, and William Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved?. In our church life, an excellent extended study on theology that delves fairly into the whole concept of an orthodoxy that is both open and generous is the study The Christian Believer”(referenced above as simply Believers).  It follows the Disciple Bible Study model of readings and reflections.

God at Work

            Last Saturday I got to see God at work.  Oh don’t get me wrong.  I know that we all see God at work daily in the sunrise, the love of family and friends, the promptings of the Holy Spirit, etc.  But Saturday I got to see God at work in a special way.

            I had the privilege of joining Pastor Frank Briggs and the good folks at Lighthouse Fellowship UMC for their “Great Day of Baptism.”  We gathered at the home of some church members who live on Lake Worth.  Frank and the rest of the pastors and staff at Lighthouse had engaged in teaching on baptism and sharing the sacrament’s meaning and purpose prior to the event.  After singing and prayer, we (four ordained clergy) waded out in to the water; and one by one Rev. Bobby Cullen introduced those who desired to be baptized.  Pastor Briggs asked the questions of faith and then we baptized people.

            It was glorious.  We baptized adults that came out of the water choking back tears.  We baptized babies and children of all ages.  People clapped and cheered on shore.  After we were done with the baptism we invited those who wished to reaffirm their baptismal vows to do so.  (We were careful to faithfully observe the biblical injunction of one baptism –  Ephesians 4:5.  There were no “re-baptisms”!)  I found myself moved by the Lord and by the good people of Lighthouse as the Spirit danced on and in the water! 

            Looking back, I think again to myself that I came into ministry for actions such as this.  Watching God transform a human life with love is an incredibly beautiful thing!  Truly, the dwelling place of God is among us.  (Revelation 21:3)

Insights from Church Unique

            While on vacation I engaged in reading some interesting books.  (Some people are addicted to alcohol and drugs.  I am addicted to books!)  One of them was Will Mancini’s Church Unique.  While written for the large regional church, it has great insights for churches of all sizes, types and strips.  A number of quotes caught my attention and I pass them on for your reflection.

“Make no mistake: our change management problems today are vision problems first and people problems second. Many leaders want their people to run a missional marathon but unknowingly feed them junk food, leaving them malnourished and unprepared for the future.” (From Church Unique by Will Mancini, pg. 47)

In my travels I encounter people hungry for strong biblical teaching.  So many people are thirsting for deeper theological reflection.  I think we have undercut people with our low expectations.  Every pastor ought to be engaged in some deep study of their own.  My hunch is that we would find some wonderful lay people eager to join us.

Or try this one:  “Nestled in the Suburbs of San Jose, California, is an interesting tourist attraction: an estate built by the heir of the Winchester rifle fortune. In 1884, a wealthy widow named Sarah L. Winchester began a thirty-eight-year construction project guided by a superstitious fear. Evidently, Mrs. Winchester was convinced by a medium that continuous building would appease the evil spirits of those killed by the famous ‘gun that won the West’ and help her attain eternal life. So Sarah kept carpenters’ hammers pounding twenty-four hours a day. The Victorian mansion came to be filled with so many unexplained oddities that it is now known as the Winchester Mystery House. Even though it has 160 rooms, three elevators, forty staircases, and forty-seven fireplaces, its size alone does not account for the architectural marvel – what does so is the bizarre purposelessness of the design. Stairs lead into the ceiling; windows decorate the floor, and doors open into blank walls! Random features reflect excessive creativity, energy, and expense, from exquisite hand inlaid parquet floors to Tiffany art glass windows. Busyness, not blueprints, defined success.

The Winchester Mystery House is an accurate picture of what a church looks like in the absence of vision; there is lots of activity with little progress or purpose. Interesting programs and exquisite sermons do not necessarily lead to a meaningful whole. Structure exists for structure itself and not for life.”  (From Church Unique by Will Mancini, pg. 40-41)

Ouch, I think we have structures that exist for structure itself.  It takes 31 pages in our Conference Journal to list all the Conference Committees and their membership.  The intent is good and godly.  In too many places the results are stairs leading into the ceiling and windows decorating the floor.  Our Conference Alignment Task Force is wrestling with mission driven redesign.  The structure was made for the church not the church for the structure!

Visiting Proximity Makes the Difference

            I took Bob Weathers and Frank Leach out for lunch the other day to personally thank them for their interim work at University UMC in Fort Worth.  They did a fantastic job. 

            In the course of the conversation, Bob (who can’t help himself) shared the story of a soldier who was being shipped overseas. It goes something like this:

            A soldier received his orders that he was to serve overseas for a year. In parting, he hugged and kissed his girlfriend – quite a serious relationship – and promised to write every day. Each day while he was overseas, he wrote to her. He didn’t miss a day. This was a committed relationship. Finally the day arrived when he got his orders that he would be going home! He wrote his girlfriend with the good news. Her reply came. The note said that she was glad he was coming home; glad he was safe and would be arriving soon. But their relationship needed to end. She was going to marry the mailman!  It seems visiting proximity made all the difference.

The historic examination for admission into full connection contains the phrase, “Will you visit from house to house?” (¶329, 1.d.17 and ¶336.15)  Frank and Bob emphasized the importance of visiting as a vital part of pastoral ministry.  They commented that they were concerned that too many clergy see themselves as CEOs rather than as pastors. 

While I understand the need to move beyond a stultified Christendom version of the pastor just taking care of the already converted (i.e. we need to visit the non- or nominal Christian, those in prison or hungry or in some other situation of hunger and hurt), visiting the flock to which we are assigned is crucial.  The mailman got the bride!

In many churches, especially those under 500 or so in membership, I cannot understand why a pastor hasn’t visited in every house at least once a year.  If I can do the whole conference (300+ churches plus foundations and other institutions) in eight months, a church membership of 500 (with about 60 members living outside the community – hence really just 440 members) with the average family size being 2 requires about 250 visits a year.  So, let’s be generous.  Take two years (even three if you like) to visit them all.  Use the visit as a time for not only pastoral care but also spiritual growth and development.  (How is it with your soul?)

Add to pastoral visitation, trained lay visitation.  Combine it with a revived small group ministry (every pastor ought to be teaching a Bible study or spiritual formation group or theological development class! Hold to this focused center – Christ!). And low-&-behold!, we are on the road to recovering the class meeting.  The gain for the kingdom of God would be immense! Take it one step further; wed it to extravagant generosity, risk-taking mission & service, passionate worship and radical hospitality and presto-change-o – we might even become a movement for Christ again.

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