Looking back, to move forward…

As I continue to monitor Facebook, Twitter, and other more “official” coverage of our United Methodist General Conference, I’m struck by some comments that talk about “looking back to Egypt,” about wanting to return to the halcyon days of the 1950s of the Church, and otherwise denigrate anyone looking to the past.

Well, I suppose that I should confess: lately I’ve been looking back a lot.

Now, I’ve heard the metaphorical comparisons. I know that in driving this is not always the best idea. And I’ve heard it said that we should be more focused on forward vision than wistful and nostalgic glimpses at our rear-view mirror. But, personally, I find myself looking back in order to more clearly move forward.

To wit, I was recently asked if I would be the new chairperson of our annual conference’s Board of Camping. Before you get the idea that this is an accolade or something I should be excited about, I should share that the camping ministries of the Desert Southwest Conference are struggling. You could describe it as a crisis, even. For over a decade, the ministry has required far greater funding to maintain than it engenders, and in the same period of time the number of children and youth ministered to via this ministry has declined by 50%. So as I take on leadership of a Board ostensibly responsible for the health and vitality of the camping and retreat ministries, I do so with the reservations and obvious recognition that it cannot continue as it has. (And since I’m naturally impatient, I’m not willing to allow change to be slow or gradual. As some of you might have seen on Facebook, I’ve already initiated conversations on how we might re-envision and radically re-develop our camping ministry… or decommission it completely, if necessary.)

One of the steps I have taken of late is to “look back” at the elements of successful camping ministries of the past; to consider some of the aspects that went in to a ministry that actively engaged children and youth in Christian faith and discipleship. Not because we can simply repeat it – I fully recognize that the world is radically different and requires different means of ministry! – but because I do believe that we can learn what was successful in one ministry to meeting humans needs as a way of better identifying what might be successful in a new setting.

In addition, like many clergy in a local congregation, I find that I look back to the wisdom of others’ experience to help guide me in daily ministry. I engage in conversation with others who have “been there, and done that,” to learn from their experiences. Even our Church Council has asked, after some of our own conversation and reflection on making the transition from a pastoral-sized church to a “program sized” one, to invite some leaders who have led through the transition to come and share their thoughts and experiences with us. They, too, articulated it is not to duplicate what they did in a different community, but to process and learn from their past experience.

And I should also confess: in my own personal spiritual journey, I’m looking back. Specifically, I’ve been returning to the sermons, journal, and notes on the New Testament authored by our movement’s founder, John Wesley. Granted, without sufficient context I get lost in John’s Journal – just why did so many people so adamantly and antagonistically oppose him? – but still, here and there are words of wisdom that motivate and inspire me.

I would counter those that suggest that anyone who is “looking back” is simply wishing for days gone by and unwilling to muster the courage and energy to make necessary changes. Looking back does not always equate to Pollyanish nostalgia. I believe that we can experience anew the best inspirational and transformational elements of past events and movements and re-capture them for today.

Delegates from our local churches and annual conferences continue meeting in Tampa, Florida, for our quadrennial General Conference. They are considering some significant and sweeping changes to our organizational structure, the “Call to Action” report that has been commented on by others far wiser (and better informed) than I, as well as at least two organized alternatives to this plan. By the time the gathering ends on May 4, these delegates will have had several uplifting worship experiences and multiple difficult conversations; there are bound to be some hearts uplifted by the conversation and events while other hearts are disillusioned and hurt; our Discipline and Book of Resolutions will be edited and changed to reflect approved changes; new ideas and methods for being the Church will be initiated and experimented with.

And I continue to cling to the hope that in the midst of it all, we will hear the voices encouraging us to worry less about the institution and focus more on growth and service as disciples. I hope that we can move forward with the inspiration of what has happened before; whether we look only as far back as the Wesley brothers and the movement they began – a movement whose founders did not mean to create a new institution, but rather intended to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” while maintaining involvement in the Anglican Church – or as far back as the disciples hiding out in Jerusalem – a motley group who were so open to the movement of God’s Spirit that they were radically empowered on that day of Pentecost to spread the movement far and wide. Or maybe we can draw inspiration by looking further back, drawing new insights for the future from the faithful obedience and leadership Moses provided as God worked through him to lead the Israelites out of their own bondage, through their own trying wilderness, and into the new future promised to them.

As I embark on new methods of ministry and camping, and as our tribe seeks new means of being the Church in the contemporary world, I pray that we may look back for inspiration, wisdom and guidance, and not just momentary jolts of nostalgic “remember whens?” I hope and pray that we’ll hear the rush of a great wind, that we’ll feel our hearts strangely warmed, and that new truths will lead us into new places to help new people develop as followers of Jesus Christ.

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