Thoughts on General Conference

A lot of ink has been spilled on General Conference, most of it digital. Some of what has been written is accurate, some less that accurate, some good, some bad, some mean spirited, and some hope filled. I hesitated to add to the volumes already written but writing helps me process my own feeling.  I didn’t have to post this, but my hope is it will help someone else process their feelings.

I was in St. Louis for General Conference and it was a painful few days. Regardless of one’s position, the pain of the LBGTQ community was undeniable.  Their pain came from feeling rejected by a denomination they deeply love, most grew up in, and feel a calling to serve.

In addition to all the words written there were a lot of words spoken from the floor and dais of General Conference. Some of the words were authentic expressions of love, support, and hospitality from the traditionalist to the LBGTQ community. However authentic those words may have been they rang hollow when you know there is a “but” either spoken or implied.  “We love you, you are welcome here, we want to be in ministry with you, butwe won’t affirm your call by ordaining you or celebrate your love by officiating at your wedding.

After all the words were spoken at General Conference, the Traditional Plan was passed by just over 50 votes. I deeply appreciate the traditionalist restraint by not clapping or celebrating the vote.  Much of the plan was ruled earlier in the day to be unconstitutional or had legality issues. In reality, nothing much changed.  The original language in the Book of Discipline 2016 remains the same. The issue of human sexuality will surely be revisited at the 2020 General Conference in a short 14 months.

I understand the position of the two basic groups in this conversation.  The LGBTQ community feels they are loved by God as much as anyone else and that love justifies full inclusion into the life of the church.  The Traditionalist feel a call to scriptural holiness and that understand the Traditional Plan uphold scriptural holiness.

I was not raised in The United Methodist Church, I joined as an adult.  I did not join because of the institutional church, I joined because of the love and grace that was shown me by individuals in a local congregation.  We saw the institutional church at its worst in St. Louis. There were moments when people from both sides of human sexuality debate got it wrong and acted less than Christian. The ministry of The United Methodist Church doesn’t happen a few days every few years at General Conference, it happens daily through local congregations.  It happens in large cities, small villages, in the open country.  Ministry happens among the poor and the rich, the young and the old, gays and straight, educated and uneducated.  The congregations I have had the privilege to serve ministered to whomever walked in the door or met on the street.  They never asked questions about the person’s stand on issues, their personal preferences, or their bank account.

I realize that the General Conference does speak for The United Methodist Church and that local congregations are a part of the institutional church. However, it is in the local congregation that incarnational ministry happens.  I also realize the great disappointment and frustration many feel as a result of the actions of General Conference.  I understand the convictions of those who feel they must leave the denomination because of its lack of inclusion.  I ask you to not make those decisions too quickly, but to keep focused on the ministry of the local congregation.  Many of our congregations are doing great ministries, ministries that are truly touching lives and making a difference in their communities and around the world.  These are difficult days for The United Methodist Church, and it isn’t the first time we have seen difficult days.  Our communities are filled with hurting searching people. Let us keep our focus on the local congregations’ ministries and the difference we can make in our communities.

 

Good News for All People!!

Do not be afraid, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…”  Luke 2:10b-11a

This was the angel’s message to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Even though the shepherds provide a much-needed service of caring for the sheep, they were at the bottom of social ladder.  They we dirty and smelly, but yet they were the first to hear about the birth of Jesus.  The angel’s message to the shepherds legitimizes the message of “good news of great joy for all people.

You don’t have to live in a certain zip code, you don’t have to have a particular balance in your bank account, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, or the country of origin, it doesn’t matter your resume, or job title, or even if you’re unemployed, it doesn’t matter if you are struggling in your relationships, or if you’re struggling to get sober or clean, or even if your life is nearly perfect this good news is for you.

The good news the angel was proclaiming was that God has come to be with all people. The day didn’t go as hoped for by Mary and Joseph. They didn’t have the convenience of going on Travelocity and guaranteeing them a room at the Inn. They thought surely when we get to Bethlehem there will be a place to stay, they just weren’t expecting that place to be a stable. We tend not to think about how scary this must have been for Mary. When we think of this event, we see the cute little perfect nativity sets we have set up in our home. Can you imagine how frightened you would be if you were about to give birth and there was nothing available but a cow stable? The good news is that when things don’t go as planned, God shows up. Even though that day didn’t go as planned for Mary and Joseph Jesus still showed up. The good news is that Jesus still shows up. Things may not have gone the way you planned. The marriage didn’t last or never happened, who plans for cancer or a heart attack, your career isn’t where you had hoped it would be, you didn’t plan to make bad decisions. Even in all of life that didn’t go as planned Jesus still shows up in your life which is good news for all people.

However, he doesn’t come as we might expect or hope. Who would have thought that the birth of the Savior would have been announced to lowly outsiders like the shepherds or that he would be born in a stable to peasant parents? If we were the directors of this scene the Savior would have arrived with blasting trumpets, fanfare, announced to the powerful of our world. So, when Jesus shows up in your life it may be in ways youdidn’t expect. Jesus will show up in your life, I hope you have eyes to see him in the expected, but more especially in the unexpected.

I hope you have a very Merry Christmas!!

I Need Some Help!

I need some help from my United Methodist brothers and sisters as we move toward the called General Conference in February 2019.  I am honestly struggling to understand some of the various positions as we move forward. A few months back I was having an email conversation with one of the prominent leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA).  I thought we were having a good conversation until I asked a particular question and the conversation abruptly ended from his side.

I believe I understand that the WCA’s interpretation of scripture regards homosexuality as a sin. If that is true, why do they not oppose other sexual sins mentioned in the New Testament? For example, Matthew 5:31-32, [Jesus said] “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  I may have missed it, but I haven’t heard any conversation against divorce and remarriage from the WCA.

During the conversation I was having with the WCA leader he explained to me that ordaining a homosexual or officiating at a same-sex wedding would mean we were ritualizing and celebrating homosexuality. I asked if by ordaining or officiating a wedding for a divorced person(s) weren’t we be ritualizing and celebrating adultery.  I never received a reply.

What makes homosexuality worse than adultery? If the sin of adultery is allowed for ordination or marriage, what other sins are allowable for ordination and inclusion in the church? Is it okay for an ordained clergy to be egotistical, manipulative, controlling, and greedy?  It seems that homosexuality is not okay even though it only affects the person and their intimate relationships, while a clergy who is egotistical, manipulative, controlling and greedy damages many of the people around him/her.

I understand that for the WCA it isn’t simply an issue with homosexuality, but the authority of scripture is the main issue.  The WCA posted on a recent blog,“Given the current challenges directed to the unique place of the Bible in the church, we affirm that the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture as “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3; NRSV). We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.” – The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s “Statement on Biblical Authority”

If this is their statement, why do they seem to be ignoring Jesus words?  What about the authority of scripture in relation to Matthew 5:31-32. I am really struggling trying to understand the strong stance against one action that is interpreted as sin while completely ignoring other sins.  Help me see what I am missing.  Thanks for helping me understand.

It’s Time to Switch

 

I have been investing time recently reflecting on my faith journey over the decades.  I may be wrong, but I don’t believe the experiences of my faith journey are unique. Based on my experiences, we as church leaders, need to shift our emphasis away from personal salvation.  The shift needs to be toward Kingdom creation.  Let me explain.

Our focus on personal salvation has created selfish and arrogant Christians.   Many Christians’ profession of faith was fear induced.  People were threatened with hell if they didn’t make a profession of faith.  My faith journey began not out of love for God, but out of a sense of self-preservation – avoiding hell. This beginning put me on a trajectory to do what was necessary to make sure I got to heaven when I died.  My focus became following the rules not forming a relationship with God.

My salvation was contingent on me giving accent to certain doctrines and beliefs and following some arbitrary moral standards. Mine was a religion of rules not a faith in a living God. I went to worship because I was supposed to, I read the Bible because I was supposed to, I prayed because I was supposed to, I gave because I was supposed to, I served because I was supposed to, and I tried to not do all the thing I wasn’t supposed to.  I followed the rules so I could avoid hell.  Everything connected to the church was about me and what I needed to do to secure my salvation.  If my journey was all about me, then everything at the church should be about me.  They should sing the songs I like, the preacher should preach the sermons I like, they should teach the classes I like, they should paint the walls the color I like. Also, if I’m faithfully following all the rules, then God should answer my prayers.   The prayers that are often prayed treat God more like Santa Claus, only with a higher expectation of a positive result. My attention was not on the present, but on what would happen when I die.

The emphasis on personal salvation also makes us arrogant.  I’m “saved,” that must mean I’m following all the rules. If you aren’t “saved” that means I’ve got something you don’t have and something you need, which makes me superior. The feelings of superiority applied to non-believers, but it especially applied to people of other faiths.

Our focus should be to join with God to create the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.  We do pray that prayer regularly.  So, what does the Kingdom of God look like?  It is a place of joy, peace, hope, love, freedom, there is no violence, no oppression, no judgement, no discrimination.  If we will engage our communities and join with God in creating the Kingdom of God here on earth, we will have people come to faith in Christ.  They will be coming for the right reasons and not because they are afraid of going to hell.  They will come with an attitude of generosity and service rather than selfishness.  The end result is much the same, people come to faith in Christ, but we will have helped to create the Kingdom of God here on earth.

It is much harder work joining with God to create the Kingdom of God here on earth, then it is to preach a sermon or have a conversation and convince someone they’re going to hell if they don’t follow the rules.  I can follow all the rules and give accent to all the right doctrines and beliefs and still not have a relationship with God.  It time we switched our focus.

What a Crazy World!

“What a crazy world we live in,” is a frequently heard quote or something similar.  There are any number of things that make our world crazy these days: the endless pressure to succeed, demands from every sector of our lives, the inability to have civil conversations about difficult topics, the polarization of our society, and the list goes on.  Clergy are not immune to the craziness of our world.

As leaders we are trying to figure out how to do ministry in this crazy world.  Our world has changed so much, it is nothing like it was just a few short years ago.  Clergy have been trained do ministry in a world that no longer exist. They read books, go to conferences, and attend workshops on leadership as they desperately try to figure out how to lead in this new world.  Most don’t know what to do, so they simply do what they know how to do believing if they just work harder they will be a success.  Clergy are exhausted as they face the adaptive challenges of our day.  They are leaving the ministry at a rapid rate and most of those who aren’t leaving are thinking about leaving or how to retire early.

The crazy world is affecting clergy health. The insurance company tells us the most prescribed medications for clergy are for hyper-tension, anxiety/depression, and gastrointestinal issues.  These health issues are caused by and if not caused by at least intensified by stress.  The Church and the world need healthy clergy.  Most can take a pill and keep their health under control.

My fear is that clergy are neglecting their spiritual health more than their physical health and there is not a pill they can take for their spiritual health.  Even though they are preaching, teaching, and praying their spiritual health is suffering and they are running on empty. The problem for clergy is when they are struggling spiritually they are afraid to admit it.  They are the ones who are to be leading their congregations in spiritual matters.  How do they admit they are struggling?  This scenario adds to the stress they are already experiencing.

Many time clergy feel out of control and this is particularly true this time of year for United Methodist clergy as appointments are being made.  They often feel empty and with nothing else to give as they experience the feeling of always giving and never receiving. They are moving so fast and are so distracted, I’m afraid they frequently do not recognize God’s very presence with them.

Before they can lead effectively they must be spiritually healthy. Let me encourage everyone to create space for God in your life.  I know that sounds ridiculous to say to clergy, but they get so busy they fill their days with everything but God.  Not only do you need to create space, but in that space create environments for experiencing God’s presence.  The potential environments come in many different forms.  Some are in a quiet room in the house, some are on a hiking trail in the woods, anything you can do on a daily basis. You need to pray, but pray with less words and more silence so as to hear God.

 

Pastor or Missionary?

You cannot take the religious practices and customs of one culture and impose them on another culture. Trying to do this is the quickest way to failure.  This is one of the most important lessons early foreign missionaries learned.  Success in the mission field required the missionaries to understand the culture, be able to speak the language, and respect the differences.

Pastors and church leaders need to think like missionaries.  We haven’t moved to a foreign country, but a foreign culture has come to us.  Foreign in the sense that our culture is much different day than just a few years ago.  Most of us pastors even young ones where trained to do ministry in a much different culture than which we live in today.  Therefore, instead of trying to do ministry designed for a culture that no longer exist, we need to understand our current culture, be able to speak the language, and respect the differences.

Christianity in the early years of our country grow and spread through camp meetings and the great orators of the past.  The expansion happened primarily through worship and preaching.  However, that approach will not be why the church grows today and into the future.  Unchurched people aren’t sitting around wondering where they can go to hear a great sermon, rather they are wondering if anyone cares about them and their struggles.

Our communities are full of people struggling; they are angry, afraid, and in despair.  They are struggles in their relationships, struggling with their children, struggling to raise their children while caring for aging parent, struggling to pay their mortgage/rent, wondering if they will have a job today.  They aren’t looking for a theologically sound sermon that is appropriately entertaining and at the same time meaningful.  They are looking for someone to authentically care about them without an agenda.  They are looking for someone who will walking with them and support them through their struggles.

Unchurched people in our communities are skeptical of the church and don’t trust the clergy. No sermon will change that attitude.  It will change through patient authentic caring about people in your community. The world needs more missionaries than pastors today.  Our communities need people both lay and clergy will we try to understand the culture, speak the language, and respect the difference.  I pray God calls you to be a missionary right where you live.

The Excitement of a Liminal Time

We are truly living in a liminal time in the life of the church.  The peculiar period in which we find ourselves probably started in the 1960’s.  The decline in worship attendance that began in the 1970’s caused some hand wringing. However, the emergence of the megachurches in the late 70’s and moving forward gave the illusion that Christianity was thriving.  While the megachurches were flourishing, other churches were closing daily at the rate of 4,000 a year according to US Census Bureau.

Liminal time is about leaving the familiar, the comfortable, the easy and entering the unknown. Any liminal time leaves people grieving, sad, afraid, and maybe even angry.  A glance around the church will reveal all these emotions rising to the surface.  The danger of these emotions is they can easily lead to despair which leads to giving up on the church, hence the increase of the “nones.”   Your local congregation and the congregation’s standing in the community may not be what it once was and like any loss people need to grieve.

Leaving the familiar and the comfortable for the unknown is frightening, but with the right attitude it can be even more exciting.  Over many decades now we haven’t changed how we do church.  We’ve put a fresh coat of paint on some tired programs and events, but there has been little change in how we do church.  The exciting part about liminal time is you have the opportunity to take an adventure filled with risk and danger, but at the same time has the potential for endless possibilities.  Seeing those possibilities become reality is very hard work.

Hard work and exhausting work is not the same.  Clergy and laity have in recent decades been doing exhausting work. They have been busy putting in a lot of hours, but it isn’t hard work.   It isn’t hard work because we know how to write sermons, teach bible studies, visit hospitals, do funerals and weddings, do VBS, have potlucks, do mission projects, etc.; exhausting but not hard.

The hard part is when we are experimenting with new types of ministries that have not been done before. The hard work is attempting something when you don’t know what the outcome will be; the willingness to risk failure.  I’m talking about more than adding drums to the worship service.  Successfully emerging on the other side of this liminal time will require a completely different attitude, a different approach to engaging people, different definition of success, and a different way of doing ministry.

What does all the differences look like, you ask. I don’t know, if I knew we would already be well past the liminal time.  What I do know is we can’t recreate an era gone by.  What I do know is we could be heading into one of the most exciting times in the history of the Church and even in The United Methodist Church.  We have the opportunity to create something new if we have the courage and are willing to work hard.  Liminal time can be EXCITING!!

Getting Started

I’m planning on writing a weekly blog, all the while hoping I can accomplish my plan.  Sometimes my weeks get busy just like yours. However, I always managed to write a sermon every week when I was in the local church, regardless of how busy it got.  The question is, do I have the discipline to write a short blog every week and it will be short, if you are like me you won’t read a long email, article, or blog.  The blog will vary week to week sometimes it will be inspirational, sometime informational, and probably the occasional rant.

I hope this blog will also become a platform for civil dialogue.  We do not always agree and there are often multiple ways of viewing a topic.  I’m always interested in views different than mine and if we listen to one another we might just learn something.  So, please share comments whether you agree or disagree with me.

The format and title of the blog is significant.  The background picture reminds me of my roots.  I grow up on a dairy farm in southcentral Kentucky and that dairy farm is a long way from my life today.  The picture, however, reminds me of the foundation on which my life is built. It is a foundation of hard work, honesty, loyalty, and family. It also reminds me of my spiritual foundation, on the farm there was the constant cycle of birth, life, death, and new life.  The picture helps keep me stay grounded in many ways.

The title of the blog is not very creative, but speaks directly to the content of the blog – thoughts of a United Methodist DS.  However, the subtitle is a little more nuanced.  First, I’m human and I continue to struggle with my faith. The struggle at times includes doubts and questions.  I am skeptical of anyone who says they never have doubt.  The doubts and questions keep me from become complacent.  I also have those moment of being cynical about a lot things in this world.  However, those doubts and moments of cynicism keep me searching for the Holy.