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)

Clergy Age Trends

Recently a colleague passed on to me a summary of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership report on Clergy Age Trends.  You can get the report at http://www.churchleadership.com/.

 Among other highlights the report noted that ….

  • For the first time ever, just over half of active elders are between age 55 and 72.
  • The median age of elders is 55, the highest in history, up from 50 in 2000 and 45 in 1973.
  • The percentage of elders aged 35 to 54 continues to shrink, from 65 percent of all active elders in 2000 to 45 percent in 2010.
  • The number of young United Methodist clergy grew in the past decade
  • There are more young elders, deacons, and local pastors than ten years ago.
  • While fewer in number than young elders, young deacons and local pastors are growing in number faster than young elders.

The Central Texas Conference had the third highest number of young elders (under 35 in age) in the United States!  10% of our elders are under 35.  Forty percent are in the 35-54 age range and 50% are 55 and above.  The breakdowns for Deacons and Local Pastors are similar.  (Deacons = 12%, 38%, 50%; Local Pastors = 3%, 49%, 49%.  Don’t ask me how the additional 1% snuck into the Local Pastor numbers.  I don’t know.)

This is genuinely good news.  Thank God for the growth in younger clergy and in local pastors.  Those groups have and are blessing us and the church as a whole.  It also notes the challenge of the next few years as one generation retires and the age cohort of those currently 35-54 struggles to fill the gap.  There is much to think and pray about here.

The Spirit and SBC 21

I see the Spirit of the Lord moving among us as we struggle to engage the church we love in transformation.  Over and over again, the call of a new day in the Lord beckons us into the future.  Recently this conviction has come to me through a variety of events.  Allow me to explain.

 One of the Four Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church is the development of new places for new people (new church development) and the transformation of existing congregations.  (An important aside:  I vastly prefer the term transformation over revitalization or renewal.  We don’t need to, and in fact can’t, go back to the past – which the “re” language suggests.  We need to be transformed under the Lordship of Christ as the church of the 21st century.)  Thursday, September 30th, our area (and I personally) was blessed by Dr. Fred Allen, Executive Director of SBC 21, guidance and leadership in transformation.  SBC-21 is Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.  It is one of a crucial transformational partners as we move through this wilderness way.

 The Core of the SBC 21 plan of action is: 

1)      Selection of 25 vital congregations to serve as Congregation Resource Centers (CRCs).
2)      Teams of lay and clergy from CRCs to serve as a resource with partner congregations (PCs).
3)      Utilize geographic and needs-specific models to meet rural, urban and suburban church needs.
4)      A strong intentional focus on the laity.

We have a long way to go, but the Spirit is blowing among us with fresh ways of thinking and acting.

Who Teaches You?

I saved a few vacation days and with my wife got away to the mountains of New Mexico.  It was beautiful with the leaves turning gold on the aspen trees.  The time to think and read was precious.

As a part of my reading (and in preparation for an upcoming series of Wilderness Way articles), I delved back into Dallas Willard’s great classic The Divine Conspiracy.  The subtitle of the book speaks volumes – Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God.  The opening of chapter 8 struck me forcibly.  Willard writes:  “Who teaches you?  Whose disciple are you?  Honestly.  One thing is sure: You are somebody’s disciple.” (p. 271) 

I paused to do some personal inventory.  The name that of course leaps immediately to my mind is that I want and intend to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Indeed the foundational affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” is declaration of both intend and purpose.  Yet, as Willard later points out, virtually all of us are disciples of multiple significant teachers in our life.  He comments:  “IT is one of the major transitions of life to recognize who has taught us, mastered us, and then to evaluate the results in us of their teaching.” (p. 272) 

I found myself with much to reflect, meditate and pray about.  I know how blessed I have been by a variety of excellent mentors (both current and in the past).  I also know how continually challenged I am to keep the Lord as my primary, first and foremost, mentor.  With the Apostle Paul, my firm decision is to work from this focused center. (II Corinthians 5:15, Mg)

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 http://www.umc.org/atf/cf/%7Bdb6a45e4-c446-4248-82c8-e131b6424741%7D/CV_PRESENTATION.PDF ).  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.]

 TEN IDEAS EACH LARGE CHURCH PASTOR ENCOURAGED TO CONSIDER:

(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.

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