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Monday, August 1, 2011
The past seven days have been a whirlwind! Back from Nashville, Asheville, and about to head to Nicaragua on a mission trip. I was in Nashville for a Connectional Table meeting and then had the pleasure of preaching at Lake Junaluska on Friday night as well as doing a Bible Study on Sunday morning for the South Carolina Laity Convocation. We had fun and great fellowship - in both places. Well, almost, except that the Connectional Table is at a critical juncture for the denomination.
In the midst of thinking about both the UMC and the South Carolina Annual Conference in particular I am struck by a nagging question: "Where is God leading us next?" In South Carolina we have much to celebrate. We're the 5th largest annual conference in the US. Professions of faith are on the rise in the Columbia District and we paid out 98.9% on our connectional giving responsibilities. Putting this district's numbers on a dashboard of vital congregations is exciting. I just got off the phone with one of the clergy in the district who is doing an absolutely phenomenal ministry in partnership with extraordinary laity. The church is booming! That same kind of good news is happening all over the district!
I wish I could say the same about the denomination. Maybe I can? Regretfully, however, I saw the DVD "UMC Realities" with its somber Gothic-sounding music and terrible news that we're graying out, dying out, less inclusive, and have fewer and fewer young people. That was the message. It may not be the reality that I see in SC and in the Columbia District, but it's so true in too many places. I have hope, though! Aesop was correct and it wasn't a fable: "Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again." The waters of baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit have been the current we've ridden on before in the UMC and God float this boat again!
I don't think changing the UMC's structure will have as much to do with it as folks at the Connectional Table think. The Interim Operations Team (IOT) has offered its report. We approved it, though we went through multiple iterations to get to a place of semi-consensus. Honestly, do we think that buying into a so-called new business model is going to reshape the church and engender hopeful enthusiastic results? I certainly hope we're not that tied to 20th century thinking! Aren't we all tired of hearkening back to the good old days that must not have been that good or we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today? Isn't Jesus the Lord of Resurrection which means that something has to die for there to be new life, that the New Jerusalem is our goal more than tired thinking that wants to go back to the Garden of Eden? Where we're headed is better!
Just one example of old thinking that worries me from the Connectional Table's work last week: a set aside bishop and a central office. Hey, I like bishops. I think they are critical for our denominational renewal, especially if they focus on their annual conferences. However, as the permutations of the IOT's report dribbled out to the Connectional Table the set-aside Bishop was named at most the "Head of Communion" and at least "President of the Council of Bishops." Either one is a little much for a denomination that has a historic balance between its two constitutive principles of conferences and bishops. This throws the equation off-balance. Now I can see why having a "United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry" and a quasi-pope are great business ideas to those who like 20th century-like corporate structures and centralization. I'm worried that our going from our current model of 13 siloed boards and agencies with 565 directors to one single center run by a 13 member Board of Directors is more of the same but worse.
I've got a book I want you to read. On our Columbia District Clergy Retreat in early September we're headed to Mt. Mitchell for camping and reflection. We're discussing the book The Starfish and the Spider with its subtitle "The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations." Pretty much it says that 21st century thinking is about organic growth with catalysts who step out of the way and people who are invested as equal partners. My summary with implications for the UMC: Connectionalism works best when its horizontal and/or circular! Starfish that lose a point grow a new one. When they're cut in two, they don't die, they multiply! A spider, on the other hand, dies when you smack its head. I tend to smack the whole bug and that's what has happened to the UMC. We've been smacked. We have lost a lot of our relevance to people because we don't talk enough about Jesus and we don't just get out there and be like starfish and multiply!
Central control systems are easily killed, and we're about to put almost all of our institutional eggs in a couple of baskets - a set-aside bishop, a central office of ministry, and a small board of directors? Give me a break! Now I don't want to give away the hopeful chapter at the end of the Starfish book but I will say this much: When we are at our best as a denomination we are starspiders, a hybrid of centralization and decentralization. Yes, there's an important role for the Council of Bishops, General Conference, and the entities whether they're called Boards and Agencies or some sort of central office. The bottom line is that all of these centralized functions MUST resource the decentralized local churches that live where the tentacles hit the sand! Growth is not top-down and that's what bugs me about this report. Hey, by the way, just to put a polity/legal bug, pun intended, in your ear: read Pars. 140 & 2509 in the 2008 Book of Discipline and see what hits you. I look forward to your thoughts!
Sunday, July 24, 2011
I have been shocked as I have caught up with the news after being gone for a week. The massacre in Norway was absolutely awful. I have just emailed my friend and fellow Connectional Table member, Oyvind Hellieson, my condolences. He's a District Superintendent in Norway. Now I am pondering the message from all of this especially after hearing that the perpetrator's motives were founded on his disdain for free-thinking. He has been described as a "Right-wing Christian Fundamentalist."
Fundamentalists come in all shapes and sizes and represent every persuasion of thinking. I have listened to liberal and literal fundamentalists that assume that they have the only corner on the truth. Some have described fundamentalists as "fun-dam-mentalists" because they damn fun and have very little mentality. So true in many ways. It's scary when a person or group, whether they be progressives or traditionalists, declare they are the sole arbiters of right and wrong. That's what puts guns and evil intentions in the hands of cultural vigilantes like this guy in Norway.
Hey, this isn't too far from the deadlock in Washington over the possible budget default, or the NFL players' union and the owners' impasse. Polarizations often occur because people are pigeon-holed into an untenable situation with no room at all for compromise. One of the workshops I led this past week was on peacemaking. Some of you who know me are finding that notion pretty hilarious. Me doing a peacemaking workshop, yep!
I have my convictions, but I also hold onto Wesley's admonition: "In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be liberty; in all things, charity." We need to be very careful when we are deciding what is the truth as you or I know it. Jesus said that He was the truth and I ain't Jesus and neither are you. We can search the Scriptures and hopefully discern WWJD, and we can pray to have the Mind of Christ; but we need to mostly say "Whoa!" when we're about to rush to judgment.
Sure, I embrace orthodoxy more easily than I do a lifestyle or mentality that is too loosey-goosey, but I am not going to denigrate, castigate, or subjugate those who differ. I believe in a God whose imago dei we all share and a Jesus who died to redeem more than condemn. I can never assume that it's my way or the highway though I would sometimes like to do that. Liberal fundamentalism is just as bad as literal fundamentalism. An "Us versus Them" mentality has no high moral high ground, no room for the Holy Spirit to convict because certainties have already been deeply embedded. This reminds me of the story of someone trying to explain the difference between capitalism and communism. Pardon the sexist language. The person doing the explaining said, "In capitalism man exploits man. In communism, it's the other way around." Same difference, right? Someone is the exploiter and someone is exploited.
So Right-wingers and Left-wingers, NFL owners and NFL players, Democrats and Republicans, theological conservatives and liberals - everyone - beware fundamentalism. We are looking for the "We" more than "Us versus Them." We seek the truth as we know it through holy conferencing, and finding Jesus in unlikely sources and obvious ones, too. This ain't easy in a complex world. So let's be careful not to pre-judge. The Jesus method is to pre-love. Sure, Jesus shines light on what's wrong but He only does it so the wrong may be turned to right, so that sin can be conquered by redemption.
This past week I was in Nashville doing workshops and helping preside at the United Methodist Campus Ministry Association’s biennial meeting. The keynote speaker was Peter Rollins an Irish philosopher and Emergent Church dude that spoke so fast it felt like I was on the receiving end of a fire hydrant. All the way home I called him the Irish Fire Hydrant. He had a lot of interesting things to say. I just didn’t have enough time between sentences to absorb what was being said. It was a stream of consciousness presentation. It was hard to follow.
We all know the feeling. I know a few preachers, and I resemble the remark, that can get so tongue-tied that what’s said is barely intelligible. In the homiletics field a verbal faux-pas is called a “spoonerism.” Examples include: A lack of pies (A pack of lies), It’s roaring with pain (It’s pouring with rain), and Wave the sails (Save the whales). They are named after the Rev. W.A. Spooner who lived from 1844 to 1930. He served as Dean and Warden of New College at
. He was said to unknowingly make verbal slips frequently. His verbal goofs were especially legendary at chapel services. Once when officiating at a wedding it was reported that he gave the following directions to the groom: “Son, it is now kisstomary to cuss the bride.” Not good! Oxford University
Preachers aren’t the only ones who say things that are taken the wrong way. One of my favorite stories of miscommunication is the one about a “snowbird” from the North who wanted a week’s vacation at a
How can we straighten out our communication? Key to both good communication and love is listening, thinking things through before they’re said (or written). Someone said that fifty years after his family had left
, Walter Kissinger was asked why he didn’t share his famous brother Henry’s heavy German accent. “I,” he replied, “am the Kissinger who listens.” Amen! Germany
Saturday, July 16, 2011
We had our annual Cabinet Retreat this past week. One night we watched the movie "Waiting for Superman." It was powerful, sad, riveting, and more. It's about the school systems in the US and how and why they're under performing though we're spending more than ever on public education. As I was watching the movie I couldn't help but see parallels to the United Methodist Church. Everyone should watch this movie because you might see or experience something very different than me. Do it now! The copy we watched was purchased at Target. I bet it's online, too!
The gist is that educator Geoffrey Canada (whose brother Dan is a leader in the Columbia District UMC) is a critic of failing public schools. The litany of reasons is long but he targets flunky teachers who get transferred around to different schools in a "turkey trot," teacher's unions and tenure systems that don't reward results, school districts and education silos with their big buildings that are out of touch with what works with real students and their families and are only out to justify and prop up their own existence. I could go on and on. I know the movie offers a simplistic answer: charter schools with excellent teachers and high motivation by all. The sad part is that the only way to get into the few charter schools that are already pretty much full is by lottery. Leaving our children's future up to chance in a lottery is a shame and disgrace!
There is no way that fixing our schools by charter schools and lottery can be done so easily. In South Carolina education is woefully underfunded and there are no tenured teachers or teacher's union to blame. School facilities vary from county to county because of school district independence and separate coffers, and a major reason for the lack of money isn't the big manufacturing plants who pay taxes but the suburbanites who are old or rich enough to send their kids and grand kids to whatever school they want. Their mantra is that they have already paid taxes long enough and it's time for somebody else to do it. The crime of poorly paid teachers and inadequately taught pupils isn't their problem, but they're living in a dream world that will be shattered when their grandchild ends up marrying someone from a failing school or has to go to such a school themselves, or a teenage truant from a school dubbed a "dropout factory" breaks into their home. Then their eyes will open. Yes, the whole situation is more complex than what I've written, but this is at least part of the truth.
We all know real life examples. We know that there has been a Nobel Prize winner from the Williamsburg County Schools, one of the poorest school systems in SC. We know that there are bright and exceptional kids in every school, and pray for them to be successful. We know that brave leadership from parents, teachers, administrators, and communities is hugely important. Don't forget about churches either. There's a school district in the Columbia District that has been failing. There has been a socioeconomic divide for decades in that town that literally split Main Street into haves and have-nots. The haves built a fine private school. The public school was mostly populated by the have-nots with meager resources. The school district in this poor county was put on probation, lost its accreditation, and was under court-ordered review and investigation. Enter the leadership of key individuals who said, "If I'm going to live here, I want to make a difference;" who said, "If I'm going to live here, everybody will receive a quality education."
When we're faced with the reality that Superman isn't going to come, and that there are no superheroes, then we all become Superwomen or Supermen if we so choose. The newly elected head of the school board in this poor county did his own heroics and inspired everyone else's heroics and now the school system is once again accredited. This guy (who recently graduated from the Columbia District's Lay Empowerment Program called "LeadershipNext") did what came next in his mind as both a Christian and as a civic leader. He is living the UM mission statement that God doesn't save us through Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but transforms us so that we can transform the world. I am so proud of this fine United Methodist layperson!
Now what did the film "Waiting for Superman" make me ponder about the UMC? Well, the similarities abound as I hope you've already digested in this commentary. I know, for instance, that the layperson who has taken leadership and turned around a failing school district is inspired by an effective pastor. There is no substitute for good leadership in the UMC. We can have every fix-it program in the world but nothing will happen unless we have laypersons and clergy who exhibit leadership! I appreciate guaranteed appointments when they allow pastors to be prophetic leaders who can speak freely from their pulpits without worrying that they might get “fired.” Such appointments also offer a safeguard for women and minorities who could otherwise be shortchanged by congregations who only desire white male pastors. Still, this movie has me wonder if guaranteed appointments don’t also turn out to be United Methodism’s version of tenure, teachers’ unions, and the “turkey trot” where under-performing clergy are transferred from one church to another – all of which breeds mediocrity. United Methodist Churches have become dropout factories because lay leadership is uninspired and self-centered and the quality of preaching, pastoring, and leading by preachers is lacking. We have lost our relevancy because we accept the status quo. No more!
Now the UMC has a Call to Action with data that says what we should do, stuff we've known all along but haven't been doing. I admit that I have been critical of the Call to Action report's use of metrics. We all know places where metrics, a fancy word for statistics, is incapable of measuring where the Holy Spirit's wind has been blowing. Nevertheless, I must admit that if you don't have a target there's a 100% chance that you'll miss. Churches and clergy hope that their next pastor or appointment will be their version of hitting the lottery and winding up with a good education, a ticket to a better future. That's too chancy and I can count on half a hand the number of good preachers my home church has had in its entire history!
We have to do something now about our decline. Maybe metrics will help all of our churches become magnet or charter churches where people will find excellence. We don't choose metrics simply because we've bought into some hip business or educational model. Rather, the spiritual underpinning is very Wesleyan: sanctification. The reason we measure everything is that we believe in fruitfulness. We believe that if Jesus is real in some one's life it will produce something, so we measure everything to see if that's the case. The UMC rolled out yesterday, July 15, its www.umcvitalcongregations.org website. Wow! There's a ton of stuff here that can help a local church measure up in vitality. The five areas are average weekly worship attendance, professions of faith, number of small groups, amount of money given to mission, and number of people involved in mission outreach. In SC we're going to introduce this at charge conferences and invite people to come to a District Celebration in March 2012 to announce their results and make their plans for the next four years as a tangible gift to General Conference 2012. In reality it's a gift to the local church and its people!
As a denomination we are not silo congregationalists. We're not private schools. We believe there's no such thing as private religion. We have religion of the heart and life - no holiness that isn't both personal and social. We belong to a Connection that believes, "Together We Can Do More!" We are and want to be a better Charter or Magnet church drawing all people to Christ. We're not waiting for Superman or Superwoman. No need to. We're either the hero or villain in this story. I pray we are the hero.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Robert Allen Zimmerman turned 70 on May 24th! Don't recognize the name? It's Bob Dylan. He is 70! He can't be 70! Are you kidding? His weirdly poetic sound gave voice to my 60's generation, but I still hear him today. I can hear his nasally-induced sound in "Lay, Lady, Lay" or "House of the Risin' Sun," and "Blowin' in the Wind." What this guy did with a not-so-great voice and geeky scrungy looks is hard to fathom. He's been Jewish, Born-Again Christian, and everything in between. His song, "You Gotta Serve Somebody," speaks as clearly today as it did 30 years ago. It calls me to faithful discipleship and makes me ask THE hard question, "Who is Lord of my life?"
On this Saturday morning when I don't want to serve anybody and would just love to catch an old movie, read & reflect in peace - no "do, do, do..." resounding in my psyche - maybe what I need to do is put on what in my playlist is called "Moods" and pop in my earbuds and chill. Or maybe I need to pray and read the Scripture and hear a different tune from The Different Drummer - Jesus and inner-dance to his rhythm. Ah, now that might be most satisfying of all. You gotta serve Somebody, somehow some way, everyday!
Friday, July 8, 2011
We've all seen some storms. We know about the devastation across the south this past spring, and continued natural calamities happening everywhere. What do we think about God when stuff like this happens? You've seen the W.I.G.I.A.T. bumper stickers that ask the question, "Where Is God In All This?" I took this photo when Caleb and I were in Omaha for the College World Series. No rain was falling yet. A trash can lid went by going about 50 mph just before I flipped my IPhone up to take the shot. It was dangerous, scary and awesome, too.
I used to love sitting on the front porch during thunder storms when I was a kid. It was so powerful. I was struck by the majesty of nature's fury. I have felt the same awe when I'm on top of Mt. Mitchell. My dilemma is my tendency to give God the credit for the beautiful things that occur in nature and to blame Nature for the things that are terrible. I get bent out of shape when people say such-and-such was "an act of God," but I have fueled the dichotomy by my own lack of clarity in answering the question, "Where is God in all this?"
With Narcie's tumor I want to blame nature gone wild. That's what tumors and cancer are anyway. When tornadoes strike and people are killed, I want to say Nature did it. Same with hurricanes. Hey, what about the freak accident last night when a firefighter, Shannon Stone, age 39, fell 20 feet reaching for a foul ball in a Texas Rangers-Oakland baseball game. Man, his little boy saw it all. His dad died. Where is God in all this?
Now I know enough about theodicy and am Wesleyan enough to know God doesn't cause junk like this. James 1 says "every good and perfect gift comes from God and that God doesn't test anyone. (my paraphrase). This reminds me of the hymn "Stand By Me" which says to me that God in Christ through the Holy Spirit isn't the source of the bad stuff whatever it may be. God does what the hymn says. He stands by us. That's one of the strongest messages of Jesus' incarnation. God has entered our fallen existence and says, "No matter what happens, I'm with you!"
So if God isn't the cause of junk; i.e., the storms of life - where do they come from? My choices are the first cause. I drove too fast. I chose to disregard my doctor's advice. I, I, I... but sometimes stuff occurs because of somebody else's choice. They chose to travel through a stop sign after they decided to drink and drive. They chose.... but sometimes it's not my choices or those of others that result in mayhem. Sometimes it's the simple fact that life and natural laws reflect a higher law that was broken a long time ago by Adam & Eve in the Garden. The results of the Fall have reverberated across the centuries. Our doctrines of sin and salvation start with the Fall -wouldn't need Jesus if everything was pre-Fall perfect, would we? But that doesn't end the list of why bad things happen to both good and bad people. Lastly, I have to admit in a Scott Peck "People of the Lie" kind of way that there's evil in this world, sometimes big "E" evil.
However, Here's the Gospel for my daughter with her brain tumor, the family of Shannon Stone, flood and tornado victims, and the oppressed victims of institutional evil, etc. - Jesus is stronger than any storm. He is the author of everlasting life even when death breaks down our doors. Anybody who believes in an "It was meant to be" world as in the movie "Adjustment Bureau," better watch out because we believe in a Jesus who doesn't cause our pain, doesn't have a perfect panacea safe ride of a life pre-engineered for you. We believe in a cowboy adventuresome Jesus who loves us and the cosmos enough to let freedom deal its cards for good or ill, BUT will be with us no matter what cards we're dealt.
That's how I can face tomorrow: Because Jesus lives, not because he holds the future in some controlling grasp, but because only he can beat all the sources of bad stuff. I can face tomorrow because I know that when the storms of life are raging, Jesus never fails to stand by me, us, humanity. So I pray for Jesus' power to heal my little girl, to soothe the pain of the Stone family, to give rain to those who need it, and to keep it from those poor people ravaged by floods. Please, O Lord, hear our prayers for your presence and your delivering power; in Jesus' name. Amen.