On Returning to the Parish

I’m quickly approaching ninety days since returning to ministry which finds me day to day in the local church. And for that all I can say is I’m grateful. I thought I’d would be good for posterity to share some reflections on this return.

I’m Preaching Without Notes

This has been one of the biggest changes since the last time I was preaching to the same people week in and week out. Folk that know me half-decently know that I’m a wordsmith and that I love crafting just the right turn of phrase. There’s nothing wrong with this. It just turned out that in my first 15 years of preaching, I either fretted about that phrase to the point of doing nothing but reading my manuscript or I would work so hard at memorizing my manuscript that the first hiccup would derail to that there was no chance of return. There’s 2 particular Sunday’s I’d prefer to forget and hope, one day I will.

A three different things clicked for me during me three year journey away from the local church:

  1. I had to learn to be an excellent communicator away from the pulpit… or at least at a time that’s not the sermon. I don’t know what the hang up was about sermons but it was there and it was real. To really communicate with folks I needed to learn to look them in the eye, know when I’m connecting and knowing how and when to change–even mid-stride–so that folks could get what I was trying to convey. Simple, right?
  2. When I did preach during my time in extension ministry, I had a particular outcome in mind–I wanted my listeners to engage in ministry with the nonprofit I represented. If we’re not preaching with an end in mind, then we need to reconsider the whole endeavor. As a friend says, it’s nice to be interesting but it’s transformational to be helpful.
  3. Carey Nieuwhof says that we don’t need to memorize our sermon, we need to understand it. For me that means understanding starting and ending points, transitions, and desired outcomes. Now, I’m not wedded to saying the exact same words on the manuscript on my desk at home and I don’t fret if an illustration doesn’t fall into flow of the sermon.

Where to Spend Energy

One of the great lessons I learned from our CEO while at my appointment to a nonprofit was that I could not control when (or whether) folks would trust me. All I could control was whether or not my actions are trustworthy. A large part of this in my first 90 days is how I spend my time and energy. And I have been spending a large part of my time investing in leaders–both those who are on staff and those in elected office. I’m listening to a lot stories, asking lots of questions and telling my own story, as well. I cannot tell you how important this has been.

Confidence in the Midst of Ambiguity

This is the other lesson I’ve learn and I really cannot tell you how important this is. First, let me be clear about what this is not–I’m not talking about arrogance, neither am I talking about deceiving folks. Confidence that has nothing backing it up, nor one that lacks any sense of a kingdom-minded trajectory soon rings hollow. And to “fake it until you make it” when it comes to vision is vulgar and disingenuous.

Confidence comes from a few different places:

  1. Rootedness in the calling upon your life and vocation.
  2. Complete ability to grasp current context without letting it consume or paralyze you.
  3. A holy confidence in a vision of God’s reign and a steadfast commitment to articulating that vision in your current context.
  4. A sense of a trajectory towards that vision with the wisdom and humility to course-correct to keep the vision of God’s reign before the congregation.

I’m sure none of this is new but I’m grateful for the lessons learned in extension ministry and to share those lessons learned.

There’s a whole other blog to share about finally learning good business and administrative practices. That will come later.

St Louis Day 4

I keep saying this… it was another long day.

In what seems like Groundhog Day, everything that was approved and voted upon on Monday also had to be voted upon on Tuesday. The same people voting on the same things… twice.

By now, you probably have read what happened:

  • The petitions related to the pension plans passed.
  • The traditional plan passed (405-395). There were a few amendments made but It still seems problematic.
  • The “Taylor” Disaffiliation Plan passed.

The question for us all, now, is “what does it all mean?

Before we adjourned, the Traditional Plan was referred to Judicial Council. That referral for declaratory decision (is it Constitutional) will happen April 23-25, 2019. The Committee, Chair, and Parliamentarian refused to let the Traditional Plan be divided for approval (divide the question). When it comes time to be reviewed by Judicial Council that becomes a pretty good argument for making the entire Traditional Plan inseverable. If any of it is unconstitutional, all of it is.

I cannot help but imagine that the disaffiliation plan that passed will be brought before Judicial Council, too.

All that means that we’ve probably just spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million to learn a few things:

  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to operate in a global context without every part of our church having the freedom to adapt for context.
  • Our polity was written to keep us together, not break us apart. It was also written in a time that assumed a US-majority church with minor global representation.
  • It also assumes that people would come to the table with good intentions and a desire to move forward, together.
  • The people who have been bringing the major petitions for the past quadrennia–traditional plan, Plan UMC, etc keep having their plans ruled unconstitutional. Maybe it’s time to read our polity, especially our constitution, before submitting major changes to our polity. Also maybe it’s time to pay attention to the names that keep appearing on petitions that wind up unconstitutional.
  • Finally, for the record, we need to own that a flawed, incomplete plan for unity that could not make it through the Commission nor the Council of Bishops on its own merits is what became the petition that passed (and presumably will be declared unconstitutional a 4th time). It’s well-documented elsewhere how this sketch was included as a third proposal from the COWF.

So, what’s next? I think we wait and see, from a denominational perspective. There’s a conservative group that is meeting in a week. They said prior to St. Louis they are exiting unless the traditional passed unamended. It passed but amended and with questionable constitutionality. We’ll see. The Western Jurisdiction read a statement that says a lot without saying anything definitive other than they will continue doing ministry as they have been. Adam Hamilton has also said via Twitter that he is speaking with Bishops and other church leaders about what happens next. He suggested a meeting would happen after Easter.

I also think it is worth watching what the church does with the referral motion regarding alleged unethical activity–vote buying and bribery. I’ve heard rumors of this off and on since I was in seminary. Is there evidence? Can any connections be made? Who knows.

From a local church ministry perspective, all I can say is continue to serve God, see the world as your parish, and care for each other. Love and worship God. Tend to those who are hurting, especially those who sting a little more sharply today. Also, pay attention to help any who feel vindicated by the decision of this week–that we help remind folk of our essential unity in Christ. There were no winners this week.

Our bishop said it better than I: https://vimeo.com/320071023

Also, I witnessed and was moved by this singing last night. Check it out.

Singing post- GC

Finally, watch how you are investing your time. A dear clergy colleague had a birthday yesterday. While I missed that we were having a delegation meal, I went with others and celebrate her life and ministry after we concluded. It was life-giving.

St. Louis, Here We Come Pt. 3

On my third trip to St. Louis, a mission trip, I remember hanging out downtown–where the old train station had become a downtown mall—the 90’s analogue to today’s “food halls”. The only thing that really sticks in my mind is that this was the first place I saw a shop where they “made” the fudge in front of you. A few of things I reflect on:

  1. You’ve got to pour it all out of the bowl before you start.
  2. You’ve also go to work quick before the fudge cools, otherwise it doesn’t fold. It just breaks.
  3. If you do it right, you’ll wind up with something yummy.
  4. The culinary arts are more of an art than a science.

For us in the Church and those at General Conference:

  1. I don’t think the average United Methodist, lay or clergy, realize the amount of politicking that has gone on in the run up to St. Louis and will happen. Informal sidebars, strategy luncheon, and daily briefings. They’ve already started and the conference doesn’t begin until Saturday! Rather than invite only meetings, secret deals, and strategizing why don’t we do all of our conferencing out in public, before the body of General Conference and the world? Get it all out on the table. Sure, go into executive session if you want but “the light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it.”
  2. Four days is not a long time to conference—three when you realize that Saturday is a day of prayer and preparation. Three days to try to get 50% + 1 to agree to a way forward for The United Methodist Church. Just like the fudge will cease being malleable and foldable once it cools. The closer General Conference gets to Tuesday night’s adjournment, the more rigid I think folk will become.
  3. This is a precious opportunity to truly discern how the Holy Spirit is guiding us. I remember reading about the year General Conference voted to ordain women. It came as a surprise to the General Conference and when it came to the floor, no one thought it would pass. It wound up passing overwhelmingly.
  4. There has been a lot of time and energy spent trying to read the tea leaves—straw polls, surveys, and research performed. I’ll let others proclaim the gift of divination but it seems to me that there are ways for the people called Methodist in America (and the world) to stay united and do faithful ministry in their various contexts. We just need to trust God and each other, believe that God is in the midst of all this, and have the courage to lead and let others lead, as well.

Sunshine Covenant

I know I don’t blog much anymore. This is in an intentional choice. Its not that I have nothing to say, its just that one of the benefits gifts of now being (a shade) over that seemingly magical number of 40 is that I’ve finally learned that not every thought I have merits publication. That, plus the number conversations and blog posts that have turned into someone else’s doctoral dissertation or published article, has caused me grow more circumspect. But I digress.

I’m writing today about some thoughts–questions–I’ve had that might actually be beneficial for our larger and beloved church. This came from a Facebook conversation regarding this article from the United Methodist News Service regarding a closed meeting of the major caucus groups whose issues include human sexuality.

The tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) version of that article is this: the major caucus groups met with the General Commission on General Conference (GCGC–sounds like a wanna be club from the East Village, eh? Maybe there’s a skit to be done for YouTube). This meeting was to talk about what would be in bounds and out of bounds for General Conference and how to avoid what happened (or rather how to avoid repeating what didn’t happen) in Tampa at 2012 General Conference.

I like the fact that GCGC met with these groups. That shows forethought.

I like the fact that GCGC met with the caucus groups together–and that the caucus groups agreed to do it. That shows some degree of trust.

What I didn’t like was that the caucus groups and GCGC met in closed session. For many reasons, this is not good. To the point, it violates the spirit of our polity, which encourages open meetings for every meeting except for where closed session is required–legal matters, violation of confidentiality in property matters, deliberations of Judicial Council, and human resources deliberations (SPR, District Committees and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry, Cabinet Meetings, Committee on Investigations, etc) discussions all come to mind. There’s not much else but I imagine there could be more.

The meeting of caucus groups with GCGC is not one of those explicitly allowed closed meeting.

Some context: three years ago, I had the privilege of being a reserve delegate to General Conference from my Annual Conference. Because I was a reserve delegate, I did not have the responsibility of being in on any committee meetings–I got to witness much as I floated between committees, helping where I was needed. During the plenary sessions I spent my time in the stands, available should the head of our delegation need a clergy person to fill an empty seat. This gave me the opportunity to take in a lot, as well. I saw dedicated, faithful people do their best to try to practice the tenants of Christian Conferencing with friends and strangers, sometimes struggling through the slow pace or even lack of translators. I also saw determined lay and clergy present to advocate for various issues.

Note: in the spirit of transparency, yes, I have participated in earlier years in the work of denominational, General Church-level caucuses–several of them and around varied and diverse issues. I don’t do this so much anymore, not because I disagree their work but because I think that someone needs to be able to stand up and speak with clarity, conviction, and credibility for the broad United Methodist Church that I love and in which many people of different views live, move, and have their being.

What my friends and I were chatting about on Facebook this morning could be summed up this way:

Wouldn’t it be wise to have all of our meetings related to General Conference be open meeting?

Here’s some thoughts:

  • What would it be like? To whom would it apply? This precept could include:
    • the General Commission on General Conference?
    • Council of Bishops (as their work relates to General Conference)?
    • Connectional Table (again, work relates to General Conference)?
    • Standing Committees of General Conference?
    • Legislative Committees?
    • Study Commissions?
    • General Agency meetings (that relate to the work of General Conference)?
    • Include the executive committees of above groups?
  • I think I read somewhere that there was going to be some process for seeking feedback on petitions being perfected by a committee. How could the new process be transparent and accessible? Could there be reporting out of that process for everyone to see?
  • Is there any way to curtail informal groups meeting well into the second week, taking on the role of legislative committees after the committees have ceased to exist? This is not to squelch the movement of the Spirit or collaboration; its just to make processes open. The memories of 2012 restructuring proposals that found themselves resurrected after all committee work ended needn’t fade too fast.
  • Is there any way caucus groups could go through some type of declaration process (maybe they already do)?
    • They could formally declare, by some deadline, that they are an official caucus group,
    • They could identify what issues they are addressing,
    • They could share who are their major donors.
    • These declarations could be made public and accessible.
  • Could there be some way to shine light on the work that happens more often than I am comfortable with regarding–let’s be kind and call it hospitality and awareness raising. To a certain degree this is well, good, and even needed. But somewhere, and I’m not all too certain where the line is, this morphs into something heinous that the People of God should not be near. Can we do better?

I’m not naive. I know that sometimes the best ideas happen when folks share a meal and have informal conversation or pray together to discern God’s will. The digital version of this could be comments on Facebook or a hashtag thread on Twitter. I don’t want to discourage this. There’s simply this two-fold sense that we can do better than we did in 2012 and that somewhere in the heat of trying to “win” we lose sight of the collateral damage we do to the Church and how those who are looking on see us. If we can do a better job of watching over one another in love with this matter, it could make all the difference in how we conference and, more importantly, our witness.

I’d love your thoughts and to have a conversation.

update: a few typo corrections (I told you it had been a while since I blogged) and to clarify transparency re: caucusing.

Further Thoughts on “Tweeting Sweet”

How should a pastor (or any representative of the church, for that matter) act online?

A good question. One that should be and is revisited from time to time. The still-relatively-new United Methodist Publishing House venture Ministry Matters hosts a blog article that reminds us we do have a responsibility.
  • Think you have a private or anonymous blog? As Mark Zuckerberg is famous for saying, the age of privacy is over. Even more scary, we have the Snowden story providing new insight, if the stories are to be believed.
  • Believe that you can post anything you want on your personal social media accounts because you keep professional and personal accounts separate? You can’t. Well, you can. But is it wise? I don’t think so. While we might not always be at work (at least I hope that we’re not), we might not always be doing ministry, we are always in the public eye.  What we say does matter. It matters to the people in our congregations. It matters to the people who are not yet part of our congregations. It really matters to people trolling for yet another reason to prove that their negative assumptions about the church are correct.
  • How we say things matters as much as what we say. Context and subtlety are difficult, at best, in written communication. What sounds playful might be read as flippant. Direct, brief wording can come across as dismissive, arrogant, or mean.  If we are to be winsome in our demeanor so as to hope people see the love of Christ in us, that axiom goes for social as well as face-to-face interaction. “I’m just sayin’” might have a place in God’s Kingdom, but its not the lead and definitely not the emphasis or default.
Now there’s some truth-telling we need to share: more winsome, consensus-building blogging, facebooking, tweeting, instagramming, and pinning will more than likely lead to less clicks, follows, friends, likes, pins, and retweets. Defining ourselves over and against another, parsing points, and making pithy comments will earn a name, clicks, ad revenue, and an inflated ego. More times than not, this form of presentation divides people.
I have some dear friends who are quite adept at the tools of social and “new” media. Many use these tools for good, thought-provoking, creativity inspiring conversations. Folk even use these platforms for evangelism (shock!, right?). Regretfully, there are way too many out there who need to grind an axe, advance a personal agenda, or have an insatiable need to be right (as in correct). I believe in the democratization of information and right of all to an opinion. But as my mother-in-law taught her children, “you don’t have to say everything you know.”
Last year at North Georgia’s Annual Conference, our Bishop encouraged those of us who enjoy extending holy conferencing online to “tweet sweet”. It was cornily funny. But he had a point. We can do better. We can be more respectful. We can leave the snark for something besides matters of faith. I’m not suggesting we need to reduce the content of our conversations online to the least common denominator but I believe we do need to craft a more conciliar tone. The thing is, I’m not exactly sure how to do it. I can commit to being more respectful, but are there other guidelines to adopt and follow?
A “first, do no harm” mindset to our online presence might create less buzz, but seeking to find consensus and create deep conversations might be the thing that actually helps the church.
What do you think?

Online Communion, The Body of Christ, and The Anti-Luddite League

I’m about as techie as they come. I really enjoy technology. Not only is it “fun” but I believe that technological advances represent progress. Many problems have been solved and chasms bridged because of some leap in technology. Implementation of technology is as fascinating to me as the pure science itself or even more so. For example, computers are cool. I remember the day I received my first Apple II+.  As enchanting a moment that was, smartphones, social media, and the way movements have been started, altered, or ended by these tools blows my mind. I love leading workshops teaching churches how they can use the free tools provided by social media to share their stories. And I love the way communities form and reform through these tools.

Continue reading “Online Communion, The Body of Christ, and The Anti-Luddite League”

Do Nothing General Conference?

Once the Judicial Council ruling about Plan UMC came down on the last day of General Conference, it began. People were saying that millions of apportionment dollars were spent and nothing got accomplished. And now that Judicial Council has overturned the General Conference’s action on doing away with Security of Appointment (Guaranteed Appointment is a misnomer), the accusation has only amplified.

But it’s simply not true.

While I understand frustration, General Conference ultimately did what it was supposed to. Folk came together to perfect our Book of Discipline. They passed a budget. They listened to our episcopal leaders as they guided and lead. They worshipped. Somewhere in the midst of committee meetings, plenaries, sidebars, caucusing, meals, and cups of coffee God was experienced. Sometimes it was powerful and sometimes the still, small voice.

Just because the ultimate result of all the intense holy conferencing was, ultimately “No”, it does not mean General Conference failed. It does not matter whether the issue at stake was issues of human sexuality, security of appointment, or the structure of our general church the people of the United Methodist Church gathered for Holy Conferencing and came to group of decisions that are now reflected in our polity. Am I happy with all those decisions? No. And I think that anyone who said they were perfectly happy with all that went on in Tampa would not be telling the whole truth, much like those who would claim nothing happened are not being entirely truthful.

The words enshrined in what will be the 2012 Book of Discipline do not represent the final word on who we are, just who we are right now. And it is an imperfect volume–it represents conciliar statements that seem to sometimes contradict each other. But that somewhat misses the point: in our ordination vows we are asked “will we uphold” our polity, not “do we agree with”. A small but important distinction that belies the call to respect collective wisdom over individual wisdom and group process over isolated decision-making.

In that collective wisdom the United Methodist Church did the following in Tampa:

  • Affirmed our ecumenical ties
  • Began the process of healing wounds caused by the United Methodist Church’s involvement in the removal of Native American People from their lands
  • Approved a “leaner, meaner” budget
  • Shrunk the size of many of our boards. Hopefully this move will mean greater oversight–which implies more meetings (not less, and thus not necessarily a money-saving measure).
  • Developed a fund for training of young clergy
  • Made the beginning steps for recognizing that we are a national church structure trying to live into the reality that we are a global church… without trying to duplicate the role of the World Methodist Council
  • and much… much… more…

And that makes sense because the People called United Methodist are a People on a journey. We haven’t arrived at the perfect life of holiness but that doesn’t mean we stop trying, either in our spiritual lives, our communities of faith, or our denomination.

In 3 and 1/2 years, the People of the United Methodist Church will gather in Portland, Oregon for two weeks. There will be powerful worship, many committee meetings, plenaries, sidebars, meals, coffees and even caucuses. Maybe we’ll learn to behave better, listen more, trust more by then. Maybe we’ll even remember that the Book of Discipline allows for the Council of Bishops or the General Conference to ask Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality of proposed legislation. This would save everyone time and anxiety.

I’d be willing to guess right now that we will not all agree with everything that comes out of GC2016. But we’ll uphold it, try our best to perfect it, and all the while loving God and each other in the journey.