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.

I was in Jail

            This past Sunday I was in jail.  It wasn’t a permanent stay.  Rather, I had the joy and privilege of preaching at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) of Fort Worth’s protestant service.  It was a lively and joyous service.  The music was led by a great team (a contemporary group with robes over prison garb) and the singing was robust.  The praying was enthusiastic and heartfelt.  They received me well, and I was in turn truly blessed by sharing with the inmates.

            I ended up at FCI preaching on a Sunday morning out of my own devotional life.  In my devotional life I became convinced that I should be engaged in more volunteer activity for those in need.  My job as a bishop was in danger of consuming me.  I am aware that in some sense as a clergy person all your work is for the Lord.  But, I think I need to be as open to volunteering in service to the hurting, homeless and hungry (whether spiritually or physically or both) every bit as much as lay people do.  I am not persuaded by clergy calling for volunteers who do not themselves volunteer to serve.  How is with you?

            Out of my prayer life, I could not get the phrase, “I was in prison and you visited me” (see Matthew 25:43) out of my mind.  God led me to FCI, and I was privileged to be blessed by the Spirit’s presence.

Spiritual Vitality & Attendance

It has been a busy week getting back into the flow of ministry after time out for vacation and the School for Congregational Development.  While gone I had the opportunity to engage in some stimulating reading:  Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins, Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement by Will Mancini, and The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (audio book) by Dallas Willard.  I will try to share some information on later blogs.

Going through my email I got the chance to catch up on some other writings.  The work that Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr does out of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership is consistently excellent.  Recently he passed on some new findings about American Congregations based on the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership out of the Hartford Seminary foundation.  The report’s author is David Roozen, a noted researcher in the field.  I thought you might like a taste.

Some of the factors associated with growth in spiritual vitality and attendance are: 


  • Changing a congregation’s style of worship or adding a new service tends to improve attendance, and there is a clear affinity found between contemporary worship and higher attendance. However, the quality of the worship appears to be more important than the style.
  • Congregations that have a clear identity and purpose tend to grow in attendance and spiritual vitality. This is true of churches that see themselves as more conservative than other churches and those that see themselves as more liberal than other churches.
  • There is rising interest in youth ministry. While not strongly associated with attendance growth, a strong relationship was found between youth ministry programs and increasing spiritual vitality of the congregation.
  • While no one method of contacting guests seems to work better than others, the number of different methods a congregation uses to connect with newcomers is highly associated with attendance growth.
  • Member involvement in reaching new members is tied strongly to growth in attendance and spiritual vitality. This connection is more important with Oldline Protestant churches than any others.
  • Contacting members who stop attending makes a positive difference in churches that average 300 or more in worship. However, large churches are the least likely to make such contacts.
  • Creating strong interpersonal bonds and purposefulness are two factors that decrease the likelihood of conflict.
  • There is a strong positive correlation between spiritual vitality and financial health. Increasing financial health leads to greater giving to mission.

A free download of the report can be found at http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/research-based-products-congregational-leadership.

Canadian Worship Experience

            We have recently returned from vacation in Shenandoah National Park and the Canadian Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia).  It was a wonderful time with family and just special time away for us as a couple.  Beginning today, I will be picking back up the mantle of writing regular blog entries.

            While traveling we had some interesting worship experiences.  During our two weeks in Canada we planned on attending The United Church of Canada (a Canadian merger of essentially mainline denominations – including Methodists – that took place in the 1925).  The first of those Sundays we participated in a nice service held in a small fishing village adjacent to Fundy National Park.  It was engaging but nothing unusual.  Our second Sunday was a different experience.

            We were staying in a very rural part of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia that is known for summer retreats and seasonal visitors.  We had seen a variety of brightly lettered signs inviting us to the Margaree Valley United Church for 9:30 a.m. worship.  We checked out where the church was located on Saturday evening and drove over Sunday morning.  Another family just in front of us was also coming for a visit.  At the church no one was present.  The door was unlocked but no one was there! 

With some disgust the other tourists left.  Jolynn went inside and rummaged around for a while.  She finally found a bulletin from the previous week announcing that next week’s service (i.e. the Sunday we were there) was cancelled and a combined service was being held at the “Centerville” church (the other church on the circuit).  There were no directions to the other church, no address you could put in your Garmin, nothing was put out to help someone (anyone!) on where to go to worship God on that Sunday.  With disgust, we gave up.

On the way back to our cottage, we came across the Baptist Church.  The service was contemporary with some blending of traditional music; evangelical, engaging (we discussed the message and “winsomeness” of the worship all afternoon).  The Sanctuary was nearly full (mind you this was a mid-July worship in vacation region near Cape Breton National Park)! Jolynn and I thought we’d go back to that church even though we had some sharp disagreements in theology. 

The Margaree United Church knows that the days of Christendom are over but is still acting like they aren’t.  They believe in hospitality but don’t really practice it (at least not with an eye to the stranger.)  In the Baptist Church, Christ was Lord.  The faith mattered in a deep way, and they were sold out committed to reaching others with the news of Jesus.  God had blessed us with a painful and illuminating experience.  Small wonder The United Church of Canada is dying and the Baptist Church is thriving.

Missions = Hospitality

         Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I am at Duke for the Episcopal Leadership Forum.  Yesterday (Monday) we heard from three outstanding presenters – Dr. Dana Robert, Dr. Gil Rendle and Mr. Gary Shorb.  Each was insightful and challenging.

            Dr. Robert is on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology.  She is a leading historian of missions and the author (among many writings) of the current United Methodist Women’s study, Joy to the World: Mission in the Age of Global Christianity.  She presented the concept of the Bishop as chief missionary of the church.  In noting a list of great missionary bishops through the history of Christianity, she included Francis Asbury.  (Others on the list were people like Gregory the Great, Boniface, St. Patrick, St. Francis.)  Each was a “deliberate boundary crosser” taking the gospel to indigenous people. 

            I was especially intrigued by the implications of globalization in today’s missions.  Dr. Robert noted that 1) Every local church can be its own mission agency, 2) we are going through an explosion in short-term missionaries, and 3) Currently 10-12% of people in America (legally) were not born here. People from the U.S. are going out while others are coming in.  Missions are now a networking enterprise and no longer a simple partnership. 

        This revolution in missions has a great upside but it also brings some special problems.  Short term missionaries often come back seeing themselves as experts but don’t speak the language and don’t really have in-depth cross-cultural understanding and relationships.  Deeper training, understanding and reflection are needed.

            An intriguing image of mission work is to use the model of breathing.  Missions begin at home with hospitality and welcome to those coming in (with implications for our reception of immigrants).  It goes out (like our breath) as we go out sharing the gospel by word and deed (Great Commission – Matthew 28:16-20, among many other passages). 

            The connection of the practice of hospitality to missions is dramatic.  Radical hospitality in both segments of the breath metaphor is foundational.  Being in mission is intrinsic to being Christian!

Insights from Bishops’ Week

  • It has been a stimulating time at Bishop’s Week wrestling with both our spiritual journey of faithfulness and the role of the Extended Cabinet (Bishop, Lay Leader, DS, New Church Development, Treasurer and Assistant to the Bishop/Executive Director for Mission Ministry).  Today under Gil Rendle’s leadership we focus on issues involving “centers and edges” in organizational behavior and hybrid organizations.  Some of the pithy insights that have stimulated my thinking:
  • At the moment we are experiencing the downside of being centralized.  There is a good side and we need both!
  • Bishops, District Superintendents, Lay Leaders (among others) are at the center and yet need to encourage creative experiments and insight from the edges (which is a role fraught with contradictions!).
  • “We have inherited a spider [organization] with a central command.  We [at least some of us] desperately want to be a starfish but that is not us.  We are to be a hybrid organization.” 
  • “The Methodist movement was a reaction against the calmness with which English theologians had accepted and suppressed many of the vital elements of the Christian creed.” (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature).
  • “The movement which now bears Wesley’s name was at first distinctly a church movement owing its impetus to long neglected doctrines of the church.”  (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature).

            Leadership needs to focus on storytelling and being champions of the mission and purpose.  We need to be catalysts and open system mangers (all the while we keep things organized! – no easy action).  We need to be grief mangers as an old way of doing and being church passes.

            A last pithy quote from Gil (though I do not think it is original to him):  “Perhaps we are too busy trying to calm waters that God is trying to stir.”

Bishops’ Week Focus

            Currently I am in Arkansas at our Jurisdictional Conference Center, Mt. Sequoyah.  June 23rd is a day for the meeting of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops.  Wednesday, June 24th we begin Bishops’ Week with a decidedly different thrust.

            In past years Bishops’ week had been essentially a continuing education event hooked on to various Jurisdictional gatherings involving Bishops and District Superintendents.  While the presentations were often excellent, attendance has been spotty at best.  This year, in sharp contrast, Bishops’ Week will focus on the work of the Extended Cabinet.  Dr. Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation, will be guiding us on leading the church through the wilderness.  Bishop Sally Dyck, Resident Bishop of the Minnesota Conference, will be leading the group on spiritual formation and deepening our walk of faith.  We have read two books in preparation for the time of learning and spiritual growth – The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom and Finding Our Way Again by Brian McClaren.

            The Starfish and the Spider wrestles with the difference between movements and hierarchical organizations.  Implications for us as a church are obvious.  Once, the United Methodist Church was a movement for Christ.  Today we are best characterized as a hierarchical organization.  Where once we were fluid and nimble, today we are rule-bound and argue about boundaries.  Consider this quote:  “If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; but if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.”

            Finding Our Way Again chronicles the rediscovery of vital spiritual disciplines.  Consider:  “Spiritual practices … are a way of locating ourselves in a present moment no less lighted by the presence of the unseen God from whom we come, to whom we go, and with whom we travel.”  Pilgrimage, fasting, sacred meal, common (disciplined) prayer, giving, Sabbath rest, and liturgical year –  “these ancient practices have formed people of Abraham faith through many centuries.”

            There is much to share, learn and discuss here.  I look forward to this time of learning together.

The Holy Spirit and the Pension Crisis

          Another Annual Conference is behind us and I find myself struggling with the paper work which any Conference generates.  As I wrestle with an overflowing in-box of letters to answer, articles to write, and people to visit, some questions from Conference come back to me.

            In the middle of a serious and good debate about the growing cost of Pensions and Health Insurance (P&HI), someone stood on floor and asked, “If the Bishop has stated that our current Pension and Health Insurance is unsustainable, how does simply direct billing Pensions and Health Insurance solve that problem?”  It is a great question.

          Initially, an honest response is that direct billing does not solve the problem of unsustainable increases in P&HI.  A major part of any solution cannot happen at the Annual Conference level. Pensions is a denominational issue and solutions dealing with underlying issues such as contribution-defined or benefit-defined must be solved on the General Conference level.  At the Annual Conference, direct billing pushes the issue down to a local church level. 

          A deeper and equally honest response is that direct billing does force answers to the sustainability question.  Putting responsibility on a local level does offer an extremely significant partial solution. Local direct billing for P&HI forces a congregation to make priority choices around mission. It means people need to decide is the pastor and the church worth the expense.  Very few American Christians tithe.  Giving 2% of our income is usually seen as significant (verses a biblical tithe of 10%).  Direct billing forces us to confront an issue of faithfulness.  Do we practice extravagant generosity (one of the 5 practices)?

            Secondly, direct billing will have a corollary impact of raising pastoral competencies.  Why?  People won’t pay for poor or mediocre ministry.  It will not appear worth the investment.  Finances will force both pastors and churches to get more adept at reaching out to a new generation.  Churches that turn inward to survive (a huddle and cuddle strategy) will die.  Church that turn outward in mission and ministry will thrive.

           All this gets me to thinking even further out.  Is God using the economic crises to reform our church practices?  I think so.  I think the Holy Spirit is in the P&HI crises – not as cause but as a divine use.  Do you remember Joseph’s response to his brothers? “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”  (Genesis 50:20)  God is at work here. That is really good news!

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