Category Archives: “Call To Action”

Some Wesleyan Advice for When We Disagree

During the last two weeks the sound and fury that was General Conference 2012 stormed and echoed around our United Methodist connexion. As bishops presided over parliamentary procedure, and delegates rose to speak at microphone regarding the many political or theological issues being addressed, I was struck by how counter to the words of John Wesley our witness seemed.

Over and over, whether it be through discussion in committee or by putting items up for a vote on the floor, various delegates and leaders of our Church put forth theological assertions for all to assent. And, of course, never did all agree on anything (10% even voted not to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. among the list of “modern martyrs”). In so many words, leaders declared to one another that they were mistaken. And in the midst of our disagreements we shifted into what some referred to as “unholy conversation” rather than the true act of communicating and communing with one another in love. We broke our first rule, “do no harm,” and we did it amongst ourselves!

Which brings me back to Wesley. In his preface to his first collected series of sermons his own request for when someone felt he was mistaken:

“some may say, I have mistaken the way myself, although I take upon me to teach it to others. It is probable many will think this, and it is very possible that I have. But I trust, whereinsoever I have mistaken, my mind is open to conviction. I sincerely desire to be better informed. I say to God and man, “What I know not, teach thou me!”

“Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and so get more and more out of the way.

“Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth. If once anger arise, Eute kapnos, (as Homer somewhere expresses it,) this smoke will so dim the eyes of my soul, that I shall be able to see nothing clearly. For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss, rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love!”

How far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love!

I pray that in the future we may find ways to better live out the humble example of Mr. Wesley.

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.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations (an unfinished entry from 9/21/2011)

Q: What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design, in raising up the preachers called Methodists?
A: To reform the Continent, and spread scripture holiness through these lands.
(1784 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church)

The above Q & A is taken directly from the first edition of our Discipline, the 1784 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church created with the founding of our denomination at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore. Recent events have led me to reflect on a similar question, and the radically different answer I perceive being exerted upon me and my fellow clergy colleagues:

Q: What do you think we might reasonably believe is God’s intent and desire for our Methodist leaders?
A: To save the United Methodist institution.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve been snarky and skeptical (and even, to my shame, cynical) plenty before, but I have always loved our Church and our heritage. Even as a seminarian championing “we need to change!” in order to reach GenX and Millennials, I was formed in and through our Church. I was influenced by Christians of deep passion and serious thought, and continue to grow in my admiration for John and Charles Wesley and the earliest Methodist movement.

But lately – as our Church and leaders continue to require new ministries and “practices of fruitful churches” and “Calls to Action” and tools for “vital congregations” and surveys about “church vitality,” etc. – I’ve begun to feel further out of place than I did as a young(er) clergy person championing for change. Suddenly everyone is encouraging change – but (it seems to me) there is an aimlessness to it. We have gravitated to a number of programs or gurus or dashboards or other indicators and methods for change, sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting. And if our leadership is questioned about it, we’re simply told “it’s all important.”

I love our history and our Wesleyan roots, but frankly I am increasingly discouraged that the unwritten expectation for our clergy at large – and younger clergy specifically! – is that we will make the changes (and, often, sacrifices) to save the ship. Mission statements or challenges from our denominational leaders increasingly sound and feel like they are coming from a survivor mentality rather than a true passion for Jesus Christ. Our desire for change seems motivated more by a desire to save ourselves, rather than a true desire to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission. Indeed, I have heard our leaders tell us that we need to start new churches not to save new people, but to increase the number of Methodists to sustain our Church!

At the same time, we young clergy can expect to lose what has been the equivalent of “tenure” for decades – e.g. guaranteed appointments for ordained elders – while also being held accountable for greater growth and health than the church has known since 1965! We will continue to be expected to itinerate – going where we are told to go – and then evaluated as to whether we effectively “fit” the community we serve. Even as our conference structures are loathe to change insurance or pension plans for our current retirees, it is no far stretch to recognize that retirement for currently active clergy will be diminished and more challenging. In short, the current path of leaders focused on our struggling institution will continue to negatively impact our clergy, leading to increasing feelings of alienation and isolation.

As clergy respond to a difficult but often irresistible calling from God to lead others in making “disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we feel pulled in multiple directions to support, sustain, or outright save the denomination. Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I hear this struggle from too many of my colleagues to ignore it, and it deeply concerns me.

So what do we do?

I believe that our hope, and the foundation for any substantive or positive change in our situation, lies in the (re)discovery that as pastoral leaders, our primary calling is doing our best to follow Jesus and bring others to follow Jesus. As Methodists, we do so – we live, serve, and journey as servant leaders of Jesus Christ – in the company and guidance of the Wesleys and other Methodists. Our heritage (and denomination) is a resource to aid our mission, not a sacred cow to drive numeric goal-setting.

Our focus needs to be not on the institution, but on the people around us and the unique means our Wesleyan heritage has of sharing the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Which naturally leads to the all important questions: why do we, and our neighbors, need Jesus Christ? This question, taught for decades by Bill Easum and others who would coach churches, remains the ultimate question we are called to ask of ourselves and our churches.

Perhaps instead of worrying about how we will grow the church, we need to spend more time focusing on questions related to why we need Jesus today. I can’t even say I know the right questions, but I think I might start with some like…

What are the real – and felt – needs of the communities we serve in that Jesus would address if he were here?
What issues facing our neighbors might faith in Jesus Christ positively impact?
How can re respond to our neighbors’ needs in such a way as to fulfill our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”?
How can Jesus help with the disintegrating sense of family and community felt by so many?
How can Jesus and Christian faith help overcome social additions to hurry and material possessiveness?
How can our daily choices and teachings encourage people toward the life of holy happiness God calls us to (eg. “spread Scriptural holiness”)?
How can the witness of our faith, the ministries of our churches, and the very vocations of our lives (whether we be clergy or laity) positively impact our communities (e.g. “reform the Continent” or “transform the world”)?

When the Church gets it right…

Our denomination is working on a “call to action” – ideally a call for the revitalization of the church in the world – in response to its ongoing work of discernment and improvement. I’ll be sharing thoughts on this direction of the Church at large, but before I start wanted to share a related reflection about when the church gets it right…

My family and I just returned from a two week vacation, most of which was spent with members of Lynn’s family in Florida. We did what she calls the “whirlwind tour” of the state, spending time with her parents, one of her sisters, and her grandparents. She and I also spent three nights just to ourselves – something we have not had since Will was born 4 1/2 years ago.

I share that just to give some context, because I actually want to write a bit about when the local church gets things right. Both examples come during the time of this vacation.

The night before our last full day in Florida, a major storm moved through the area. High winds, thunder, and some rain came through late night / early morning (it woke us up around 3am). When we got up in the morning, damage around Lynn’s parents’ place was not bad… but then we heard that one of her mother’s (Joyce) colleagues at school had major damage around her house, was “blocked in,” and without power.

So as the ladies loaded up materials for sandwiches, Will and Kate made their usual messes in the living room, and Lynn’s dad (Bill) and I loaded a generator onto the trailer. When everything was found and ready, we rode out to the home and spent a couple hours there helping.

I fired up Bill’s chainsaw and did a bit of cutting (not very well – I had to use a chisel to free the blade at one point!), and did a bit more of moving logs out of the way away from the house and fence. Bill attached the right plug onto an extension cable and managed to get power to the home (the trees that had fallen around the house knocked down power lines in at least two places). Lynn and Joyce made lunches while Will and Kate ran around with the kids getting in everyone’s way.

I had various thoughts about the morning during and after, and much of them came back to the way of life in rural and small towns around the nation. My experiences in Woodland and Marshall, Illinois, as well as that morning’s experience of going out to help a neighbor – and Bill was out most of the rest of the day, helping another neighbor fix a broken water line (granted, he had stepped on it, but still!) – are very often the norm, not the exception.

Recalling my suburban life with my parents, I mentioned to Lynn at one point that this was something that appealed to me about rural life. Back home, people might very well have to wait for state employees or some business to come and help. In small towns, people still seem to take the initiative to reach out to their neighbor. (Indeed, just that morning Joyce was making a dish to take to a family that had suffered a sudden death the day before.)

A very similar thing occurred in our local church just as Lynn and I were leaving for our vacation. The husband of one of our church’s members was very ill in Alaska at the time, and members of the church rallied around her to support her, even managing to get her tickets to fly to Alaska. We connected her with a pastor in Alaska who was a God-send, offering her a place to stay, transportation, and some needed pastoral care. She went, and was with her husband when he passed away.

This whole experience was sudden and unexpected, and all the more difficult because of the distance that initially separated the couple. Her flight out was the day after ours, and I was in touch with members back home (in AZ) as well as the pastor in Alaska during the time.

The members of our church – as well as others in the community who have been connected with us at one time or another – rallied around this woman to support her through a trying, traumatic experience. I just sat with her and her daughters today, and they expressed just how thankful they were for the love and care the church members extended to their mother.

And here is the thing: in this instance, our church’s members were the church for this woman, in all the right ways, in all the ways that mattered. They’ve prayed with her, shared their airline miles to get her to Alaska, helped her connect with others there, and supported her with visits and food and in other ways since she returned. In some cases, our church’s members have given up their own resources – even, perhaps, their own dreams of how to use them – to support another member of the community.

This is when I am the most hopeful to be a part of a local congregation or community – when people can give of themselves, not expecting anything in return, to help out others. Jesus demonstrated the nature of love, taught us to love God and neighbor, and called us to be His followers. Paul teaches that this means we are to be His Body in the world, to literally be Christ for others. One way we do this is when we go beyond ourselves to care for others – whether its for a colleague who attends another church, or for a member of our local congregation going trough tragedy.

This is when we get it (church) right.