Dreams for the Future of Methodist–Part 3

Someone shared my website in a chat discussion yesterday. That prompted me to look at the last thing I wrote. Whoops. It’s been a minute since I wrote part 2 of this series, my apologies. Since that last post, school started in our house and this series took a backseat. My oldest daughter started Kindergarten and we’re amazed at her love for learning. She gets up around 5:30 every morning, gets dressed and is ready to head to school before I’ve even begun to stretch. I also started back to school. I’m working on a Doctor of Ministry at United Theological Seminary in the Church Renewal cohort. It’s already been such a rewarding process, but busy to say the least. I just submitted for editing a paper that will later become a chapter in my dissertation. That means on a chilly Monday morning and early on election day, I have some time to catch up on this series.

So let me just refresh my thought process here. As we plan for the “next Methodism” (whatever that looks like post-covid, post-general conference, post-you-name-it), I have some general conjectures:

  1. We cannot maintain the current structure of the UMC in whatever comes next.
  2. I appreciate the tireless work by those who have gone before to prepare for a better future, but as a young leader who will inherit the structure I want to add my voice to the conversation.
  3. My thoughts right now are simply about structure and less about theology and doctrine, though our theology and doctrine certainly have a large impact on our structure:
    1. Invert the Pyramid Financially (Part 1)
    2. Invert the Pyramid Structurally and Missionaly (Part 2)
    3. Rethink Clergy Leadership Development (this post)
    4. Reimagine Itineracy and Clergy Deployment.

So here goes. Like I’ve stated in the previous two posts, the UMC is cumbersome. Our leadership development process is no different.

I probably had one of the smoothest paths to ordination of anyone I know, but it was still a unwieldy process. I began the candidacy process as a senior in high school in 2004. I was assigned a mentor to walk me through the initial process. In 2008, I was certified as a candidate for ministry and was allowed to attend licensing school as I received my first appointment. During this time I also received my bachelor’s degree and began seminary. I graduated seminary in 2013 but had to wait until 2014 to interview for provisional membership because of a miscommunication with the district committee on ministry. In 2014, I submitted pages and pages of requirements (doctrinal questions, sermons, a Bible study, biographical information, notarized statements, etc.) and was interviewed by the conference board of ordained ministry. They recommended that I be elected as a provisional member of the conference. The clergy session gave their consent and I was commissioned as a provisional Elder on June 6, 2014.

The next two years were spent serving my local church and participating in the residence in ministry program (RIM). We attended workshops that were largely aimed at preparing us for the next round of interviews for ordination. Yes, I had to interview again. Again, I submitted pages and pages of requirements (doctrinal questions, sermons, a bible study, a fruitfulness project, biographical information, more notarized statements, etc.) and was interviewed again by the conference board of ordained ministry. They recommended that I be elected as a full member of the conference and ordained as an Elder in the church. The clergy session voted in the affirmative and I was ordained as a full member Elder on June 10, 2016.

Moments after my ordination in 2016. I couldn’t believe I pulled it off!

So if you’re doing the math, it took me just over twelve years to move through the ordination process. And as I mentioned above, I had one of the smoothest processes of anyone I know (aside from the miscommunication that pushed my commissioning off by a year). The process could theoretically be done quicker, but my guess is that it takes ten years or more for most.

Now, I’m not knocking higher education. I am so grateful for my seminary experience, and now I’m seeking further education. I also think there should be a rigorous process that gives the church the opportunity to confirm the calling and giftedness of the one seeking ordination. But twelve years seems a bit much.

Especially when so much of the process is spent on being able to answer the questions the right way as opposed to showing evidence of effectiveness in ministry. Jonathan Hanover just dropped a great article for Firebrand Magazine where he addresses this from his perspective on his conference’s board of ordained ministry:

I serve on a credentialing board in my denomination. We found that candidates denied credentialing in the past who return have an overwhelming chance of approval on the second attempt and are almost guaranteed approval on the third attempt. Yet we found the difference was not in the quality of the candidate, but in the candidate’s ability to recite the necessary phrases and present the necessary theological positions for approval. Candidates are not more committed to theology; they learn how to say the necessary words. (emphasis mine)

Jonathan Hanover, Judicial Independence and the Problem of Ordination, Firebrand Magazine, November 2, 2020.

So maybe it’s our approach to leadership development amongst the ordained that is all wrong. We often approach ordination as something to be earned through academia and jumping through hoops. However, ordination is ultimately a gift that the Holy Spirit has given to the church for the empowerment of those set aside for ordained ministry. It is quite possible to EARN ordination and membership without demonstrating EFFECTIVENESS in ministry. And when one is groomed to regurgitate the right answers in the ordination process, it conditions them to be gatekeepers of the institution over against the impulse to follow the wild leading of the Holy Spirit.

The professionalization of clergy has done very little to lead the Church into greater effectiveness, but has rather perpetuated a form of classism. This classism is obvious in the ways that we credential. I write from the perspective of an Elder in full connection, but there are 26 different classifications of clergy in the United Methodist Church. There is no theological or biblical case that can be made for this. It’s indefensible and is terribly difficult to explain to non-United Methodists. Further, it has created a class system where local pastors are looked down upon because they aren’t ordained. I served as a local pastor for 6 years before I was commissioned and routinely felt that my opinion, ministry and effectiveness were called into question because of my status. One elder even told me that as a local pastor I was “almost clergy.” Granted, this is all from the perspective I’ve experienced and says nothing of the experiences of those in other categories such as deacons.

So what do we do about it? In the next Methodism, there are a few things I think we could do to help us out with leadership development.

  1. Adopt an apprenticeship style of learning. I can’t tell you how much I have benefited through the years by wise and effective pastors mentoring me. What if our early emphasis on preparation for ministry was less about academia and checklists and more about preparing for effective ministry? I’ve always loved the model given by the Ferguson brothers in their book Exponential: 1) I do. You watch. We talk. 2) I do. You help. We talk. 3) You do. I help. We talk. 4)You do. I watch. We talk. (64). By apprenticing emerging pastors by matching them up with highly effective leaders, the church will better be able to evaluate their effectiveness and potential in ministry apart from their ability to say the right things. Theological and academic training is a part of this, for sure, but apprenticeship needs to be more of a priority.
  2. Stop the classism. Ordain local pastors who have completed course of study. Then eliminate the category. There are better options like local elder. We can and probably should separate conference membership from ordination.
  3. Become more flexible in educational requirements for ordination. I love my education and think theologically educated clergy are vital, but this should not be the starting line (see apprenticeship above). Mountains of debt and a masters degree do not equal effectiveness in ministry. Again, hear me, I’m all for great theological education, but it is over valued in our current system. There are supply pastors who are every bit as effective, and sometimes moreso, as those with advanced degrees. And, unfortunately, there are some who have earned their ordination and are now guaranteed an appointment who don’t show one bit of effectiveness. We have to do better.
  4. Embrace other models of clergy leadership. Bi-vocational, second career, pioneering, etc.
  5. Stop Domesticating the APEs. This one has been a recent revelation for me in the past few years. In Ephesians 4, Paul writes that Christ has given gifts to the church “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). Those roles are identified as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (APEST). Our current system of leadership development heavily favors those with shepherd/teacher tendencies. APEs (apostles, prophets and evangelists) are often run out of the room or thoroughly domesticated. I’m personally a weird mix of APEST. In order I’m apostle, evangelist, teacher, shepherd, prophet. So I have tendencies both ways, but I totally get how the APE side of me gets pushed down or domesticated in favor of the shepherd/teacher. The body of Christ needs all the gifts. We can’t have all APEs or all STs. Every local church needs the full APEST in order to be healthy and built up. We must stop focusing on if a person will be a good “company” man or woman and instead find ways for them to embrace the giftedness God has given to them.

As in previous posts, I don’t claim to be an expert or even know how to go about proposing these kind of changes. These are just my observations as someone doing ministry in the field. It’s obvious to me that we have standards for clergy that are no longer tenable. I also know that highly gifted, called, high potential leaders are seeking ordination elsewhere because of our current process. It’s passed time to take a long hard look at our theology and practice of ordination and posture ourselves for developing more effective clergy and leaders that build up and strengthen the entire Body of Christ.

Dreams for the Future of Methodism-Part 2

In my last post, I began an unraveling of thoughts and dreams regarding the STRUCTURE of what is to come for Methodism (particularly those of us in the UMC). Without repeating everything, my thought process is pretty simple:

  1. We cannot maintain the current structure of the UMC in whatever comes next.
  2. I appreciate the tireless work by those who have gone before to prepare for a better future, but as a young leader who will inherit the structure I want to add my voice to the conversation.
  3. My thoughts right now are simply about structure and less about theology and doctrine, though our theology and doctrine certainly have a large impact on our structure:
    1. Invert the Pyramid Financially (Part 1)
    2. Invert the Pyramid Structurally and Missionaly (This Post)
    3. Rethink Leadership Development
    4. Reimagine Itineracy and Clergy Deployment.

I haven’t yet received any hate mail for the financial post, as most of us are in favor of reducing apportionments, ha! I imagine that this post may be viewed as a bit more radical.

As I argued in the last post, the current structure of the UMC is top-heavy and expensive. We maintain a structure that costs more and more and produces less and less results. Our unwillingness and/or inability to adapt and bring about a new structure has created a structure that is a bit foolish and has perhaps more than a few sacred cows. Let me explain that. Years ago, I heard Tony Morgan of the Unstuck Group talk about churches evaluating their ministries based on comparing the resources used (financial, time and people) to the potential for life change. He introduced us to “The Sacred Cow Quadrant.” At this moment, I haven’t been able to find this in any of the Unstuck Group materials, but I drew it in my notes and have used it over and over again with local church leadership. Here’s my recollection:

Slide1

The basic idea is this, working from lower right and moving counterclockwise. If something uses little resources but has a high potential for life change (ie making new and better disciples), that’s a gold mine. If something has high potential for life change but requires a lot of financial or staff resources, it’s a bold move. Bold move isn’t a bad thing, it’s just bold. If something takes a ton of resources and has low potential for life change then it’s foolish. If something has low potential for life change and uses little resources, then it only exists as a sacred cow. 

This is not to say that there aren’t lives being changed throughout our connection, but I tend to think that much of that is in spite of our current structure. Our current structure from the general church all the way to the local church is rigid and cumbersome. 

I’m imagining a structure that is much leaner and driven by our shared mission and theology. Here’s a scattering of ideas of how to make this happen at various levels of the Church. And at the outset, I’ll admit that I know that most of these changes would require many constitutional amendments. In this regard, a new denomination would have the advantage in positioning for a renewed, modern structure…but it’s not impossible for an existing denomination to make these future-focused changes.

General Conference Level

At present, General Conference gathers every four years to make legislative changes to the Book of Discipline. General Conference is a costly and time-consuming gathering. Little has been accomplished at streamlining our structure (in 2012 a major restructuring plan was passed only to be ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council and left us with virtually the same structure). As our Methodist/Wesleyan witness has decreased in the United States, the regulations of the Book of Discipline have actually increased. I did a quick, non-scientific search of the Book of Discipline PDF and found 4,869 uses of the world “shall” while only finding 1,453 uses of the word “may.” Not to mention that a large chunk of the management legislation is very U.S.-centric while our numbers decline here and boom in other places. This type of oversight by legislation is happening at a time when the Church should be adapting to a changing culture. 

What if the General Conference left more questions of structure to the annual conferences and even the local church? What if the General Conference was more focused on doctrine and the theology behind our mission? Then, General Conference could be more focused on the overarching mission and celebrating what God is doing in each area of the Church and less on management. This could be a truly global gathering.

I think the oversight of the General Conference could easily be moved to every 5 years instead of 4. If issues of structure were left more to annual conferences and local churches, the length of General Conference could easily be cut in half. Also, if COVID has shown us anything, it’s that we can hold decision making gatherings virtually. Think of the cost savings if virtual options were given. I know there would be hurdles to jump when it comes to internet connection in some areas but I think it’s worth looking at. 

General Agencies

I think many of our general agencies are increasingly out of touch with the local church and, in some cases, the direction set by the General Conference. As I shared in the previous post, there are 13 denominational agencies, councils, boards or commissions for the United Methodist Church supported by the $310 million World Service Fund. 70% of the funds the agencies work with come from apportionments. Financially, we must restructure the agencies. 

Missionally, we must restructure as well. In 2012, the Call to Action Report (which formed the basis for the restructuring plan that was ultimately ruled unconstitutional) reported that a large portion of people surveyed saw a major disconnect between the work of the agencies and the Church’s mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” 

The work of the denominational agencies must be focused on equipping the Church for ministry in step with the General Conference. 

I envision smaller boards and fewer agencies. Here’s a rough stab:

Board of Discipleship: Resourcing missions, local church discipleship, church renewal, fresh expressions and church planting. 

Board of Church and Society: (combining the work of several previous boards (UMM, COSROW, GCORR, GCCUIC, GBCS) to enable individuals and churches to seek justice in accordance with the social principles of the Church. 

Board of Higher Education and Ministry: preparing candidates for ordination and providing oversight of approved seminaries. 

Board of Communications: developing communication strategies (print and digital) to resource ministries that increase the Wesleyan witness in various contexts. 

Board of Finance and Benefits (combining the work of GBPHB and GCFA): resourcing the denomination, annual conferences, and local churches in areas of finance, apportionments, clergy pensions and benefits, etc. Maintaining the statistics of the denomination would fall here too. 

We’ve gone from 13 to 5. It just might work. 

 

Annual Conferences

The UMC constitution names the annual conference as the “basic body in the church.” In these regional conferences, local churches and clergy are bound together in connection. The Discipline further states that “the purpose of the annual conference is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by equipping its local churches for ministry and by providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church; all to the glory of God” (italics mine). Too often, the annual conference is viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a bureaucratic force that micromanages local churches and clergy. If you don’t think this is true, look at the varied responses from local churches regarding COVID-19 guidance given by Bishops and cabinets. Further, how many annual conferences are simply viewed as an employment union for clergy where more time is spent arguing over entitlements than increasing our Wesleyan witness?

I think that the best way to fulfill the stated purpose of equipping local churches for ministry is to streamline and simplify the operations of the conference by focusing on how to increase the spread of Scriptural holiness within the geographic bounds of the conference and celebrate the places where that is happening best. Like the suggestions for the general conference, I envision leaner conferences. Many of the boards and agencies can be merged or eliminated just as at the general church level. 

A focus on asking “what is our mission” and “how are we going to do it”, which by the way is a very Wesleyan way of approaching annual conference sessions, would also free up district superintendents to truly be the “chief missional strategists” that the Discipline calls them to be. I have had several wonderful superintendents since I was first appointed as a pastor, but I promise they all wished they had more time to focus on increasing ministry in their district instead of functioning as managers of congregational conflict and enforcers of conference policy.

Back in 2011, Dr. Lovett Weems wrote that “congregations will need much more leeway in how they develop their ministries, even as they are bound by a common identity” (Lovett Weems, Focus, 59.) Streamlining and narrowing the focus of the annual conference will help accomplish this. I will have much more to say about the role of the annual conference in the forthcoming posts on clergy deployment and leadership development. 

 

Local Church

Though I believe that congregations, while remaining in connection with the denomination, should have far more autonomy in developing their ministries…they are not exempt from the need to restructure. It may be at the local church level that the sacred cow quadrant comes most into play. It’s more important than ever for the local church to examine what things are holding the ministry back from fulfilling its disciple-making mission. If it’s foolish or a sacred cow, it’s time to let it go. How much time is wasted in endless committee meetings that don’t accomplish much in the way of ministry? Many local churches don’t understand their capacity to adapt already given in the Discipline. I think most churches would do well to release people, time and money for ministry by looking to a single-board structure. Bishop Bob Farr from Missouri has a really helpful document to help churches begin this conversation. It can be found here.

Here’s my bottom line lest I begin to go too far down structural rabbit holes. Our very American, very corporate structure served us well for a time. If on New Years Day the calendar happens to roll over to 1968 (denominational merger) instead of 2021, our current structure might be perfectly suited. But in the very likely case that 2021 happens, we need a new mission-shaped structure to meet the new missional frontier. 

The structure needs to be drastically revisited, reimagined and revised. As a matter of fact, I believe the structure of our church at all levels (general, annual, and local) needs to die. In John 12:24 Jesus says “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The current structure of United Methodism needs to die so that God can resurrect our Church to new life. Don’t forget, our God specializes in bringing dead things back to life. Dr. Michael Beck writes:

“When we are willing to go into the ground, die to our current form, and yield to the power of the resurrection, we can emerge fully alive for a new season of harvest…Denominational and local church strategies focused on preserving the institution have it backward. Our way forward is a journey of death and resurrection, not more institutional solutions to institutional problems.” ( Michael Beck, Deep Roots, Wild Branches, 41-42.)

As I said in the previous post, this is the only structure and denomination I have ever known. I’m quite comfortable in the system, but I also know that it’s not about me. I’m prepared to see what our God can do with our renewed focus as we reset and reimagine the structure at every level of the Church. 

 

Dreams for the Future of Methodism-Part 1

Much has been made for the last several years of “The Next Methodism.” This has mostly been in response to the growing theological divide between those who self-describe as traditionalists and progressives. I have intentionally omitted the category of “centrist”, a label I once proudly claimed. As the gap has widened theologically, I believe the middle ground has crumbled to the point that “centrists” are kind of like unicorns…I really want to believe they exist, but all evidence points to the contrary. I tend to think that Methodist doctrine in general is pretty centrist, but everyone has gone to their corners over “the issues” and there is less and less middle ground. At any rate, both sides have talked about the next methodism and their theological hopes for a more evangelical or progressive, orthodox or revisionist, etc. church.

In what is not quite a foregone conclusion, the denomination known as The United Methodist Church is expected to amicably separate at the next General Conference. It’s close to being a foregone conclusion because the protocol for separation was crafted and endorsed by a broad coalition of people representing both sides. General Conference was supposed to meet in May, but was postponed until August of 2021 due to COVID-19. I say that the passage of the protocol is “not quite” a foregone conclusion because I won’t put anything past a global gathering of Methodists. It will be interesting/terrifying/exciting/vomit-inducing to see the only denomination I have ever known split into two or more groups and move forward toward their preferred futures.

My intention in what follows is not to pontificate about the doctrine or theology of the next methodism for either side (there are people way smarter than me planning this). Rather, I’ve been thinking a lot about structure. I’ve had several conversations of late that have reminded me that while many of the voices at the table are seasoned leaders who are….how do I say this nicely….closer to retirement than I am, it is the young leaders who align with either of the two (or more) expressions who will have to live into the system that is now being created. In one conversation a mentor said to me, “We’re midwifing something new. But once the baby is safely delivered, the midwife doesn’t stay in the room. That’s when the parents take over.” So as the proverbial parent (as a leader in the Church), I’ve been asking myself, “What do I dream for the STRUCTURE of the next methodism?” What follows in the next several posts is my offering as a young clergyperson who loves this Church about my longing for a renewed structure.

  1. Invert the Pyramid Financially
  2. Invert the Pyramid Missionally
  3. Leadership Development
  4. Reimagined Itineracy and Clergy Deployment

1-Invert the Pyramid Financially

umc-connectional-structure-infographic
Infographic of the structure of the current UMC. Credit: ResourceUMC. https://www.resourceumc.org

The United Methodist Church as currently structured is very top-heavy. The institutional side of our church really had its birth along with the United States. There is no denomination that is more American in its structure than the UMC. Think of our basic administrative structure at the top. The Council of Bishops functions as the executive branch, the General Conference as the legislative branch, and the Judicial Council as the judicial branch. Add to those entities 13 general boards or agencies each with their own staff and operating budget (supported by the $310 million world service fund). The 4-year total denominational budget for 2016-19 was $604 million. This is funded by the apportionments of local churches paid to their annual conferences, which in turn pay apportionments to the general church.

Now hear me. To be sure, I support an institutional structure of some sort, and the work of general agencies provide resources and allow the average local church to be engaged in mission far beyond their own scope. However, the top-heaviness of the institution hinders ministry. By nature, institutions exist to preserve the institution. And institutional preservation costs a lot of money. The 2016 General Conference was estimated to cost nearly $1,400 per minute, I imagine we can all think of ways that money could have been better allocated.

The local church I currently serve pays almost 10% of our annual operating budget in apportionments to the annual conference. I’ve heard of some churches (in other conferences) that pay closer to 15%. I love that our apportionments go to support missions, theological education, church planting/renewal, disaster recovery, etc. I’ve been on the receiving end of the apportionment system as well. As a former church planter, my salary and initial budget was funded by the apportionments paid from other churches. Likewise, I previously served as the chaplain of one of our UM-related institutions and my salary was subsidized by apportionment giving. As the church I currently serve recently went through a capital campaign for a building project, all of our graphic design and video production was provided by the conference….apportionment dollars at work.

So it still goes without saying that I support the sharing of apportionments to allow our mission net to be cast wider than ourselves, but I imagine a system where that percentage is much lower. If the local church is the primary arena of disciple-making, then let’s invert the structural pyramid to keep more money in local churches.

Let’s invert the pyramid of the institution by creating a nimble and flexible structure. In the next methodism, this will mean facing some hard realities when it comes to organization. But facing those head on will mean freeing ourselves of institutional shackles to be more effective in accomplishing our mission. I imagine this will mean reducing the number and budgets of our agencies, boards, and councils. It may mean that some of those agencies are merged. It may mean that agencies and boards have to come to rely more on other income streams such as direct giving, grants, etc. I imagine it may mean reducing the number of episcopal areas (and this is already happening in some places). 

It will mean living in a system that looks very different from what we’ve been used to, the only system I’ve ever known. But I think the potential for ministry and urgency for renewal dictate that we take this crucial first step. In fact, everything else that follows in subsequent posts assumes that we invert the financial pyramid. Local churches should not by propping up the institution, rather the connectional structure should be equipping, resourcing and supporting local churches. I know this is being done by many great conference and general church groups and individuals, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tighten the belt. 

Imagine what could be done if we reinvest our financial resources more fully in church multiplication, fresh expressions, church renewal. So I’m dreaming of a renewed and realigned structure that does just that.

I am not a delegate to the General Conference, so I don’t have any immediate say over how this pyramid gets inverted, but in my next post I’ll take a stab at what inverting the pyramid looks like structurally and missionally. 

My Calming

I can’t be the only one that feels this way. My mind has been totally overwhelmed lately. I’ve told you in previous posts how tired I am, how worn down I’m feeling in the midst of all that is going on around us. I won’t rehearse all of those reasons, you can go read them. In short, I’m worn down over all the extra steps that have to happen to make worship happen online right now. I mean, it’s been good, like really good. People are staying engaged with their church and going deeper in their faith, but I think we’re all longing for some semblance of “normalcy” to return. And as we’ve continued to receive new guidance from the governor and now a phased reopening plan from our Bishop, it has become obvious to me that “normal” (whatever that was) probably will never be again in the exact same way. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe, as I’ve posited before, the Church desperately needed to be moving to new frontiers of ministry and COVID-19 just happened to be the catalyst. But that doesn’t change that I’m worn down. I’m worn out scrolling my social media and seeing just how political this has all become and how angry and awful people can still be to those who disagree.

Add all of this to the 20,000 other stressors that typically exist in the life of a pastor, parent, spouse…yeah. You get it.

When I’m feeling stressed out, my dreams become really unsettling. My brain never stops processing the stress and emotion. Maybe you’re the same way.

About a week ago I was having a really unsettling dream. I can’t tell you exactly what it was about anymore. It wasn’t a nightmare. Just….unsettling. I was tossing and turning and struggling. Then I shot up in bed….you know that feeling. Usually it’s a daze of confusion and sleepiness as you realize that it was all just a dream. Except, that’s not what happened this time.

As soon as I became aware that I was awake, there was music in my room. Not just in my head, all around me. It was so loud that I thought I must have left my phone on playing music. I reached over to shut it off….but it already was. There was just music, all around me, calming me. Why was it calming? Because this is what I was hearing:

May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
And your family and your children
And their children, and their children.

May His presence go before you
And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you
He is with you, He is with you

In the morning, in the evening
In your coming, and your going
In your weeping, and rejoicing
He is for you, He is for you

This is part of the refrain of a song called “The Blessing”. I was introduced to this song when many churches throughout the UK sang it together to sing a blessing over their nation. God has been doing incredible things with this song. In the United Kingdom, where only 5-7% of the population attend worship even once per month….the video of the UK Blessing was viewed 2.1 million times in one week. That’s 200 new people watching it every single minute of every hour for a week. That’s incredible! And the video has been sweeping the U.S. as well. There have even been other versions, The Pittsburg Blessing, the South African Blessing, etc.
And I’ve been singing this song a lot…..it’s just a beautiful arrangement. It’s based on Scriptural blessings and I read somewhere that it took them less than 30 minutes to write most of it.
But that night, waking up from a stressful dream with a troubled heart…I wasn’t the one singing. It was being sung OVER and AROUND me.
I laid back on my pillow and prayed “Lord, sing over me.” I was thinking of a scripture from the Old Testament.
For the Lord your God is living among you.
   He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
   With his love, he will calm all your fears.
   He will rejoice over you with joyful songs. –Zephaniah 3:17 (NLT)
I don’t share this to sound super spiritual, like God sings song straight to me and I can hear them out loud all the time. It actually sounds kinda weird. But the Holy Spirit is wild and does what He wants.
I share this because I really needed my fears calmed by His love. I really needed the reminder that the Mighty Savior lives AMONG and within me. It was a beautiful experience that I’ve sat on for about a week but I keep feeling the Holy Spirit nudge me to share the blessing with others.
So maybe, you’re full of stress and have a troubled heart. That’s so many of us right now. I want you to know that God is with you! And with His love, He’ll calm all your fears and sing over you!
So no matter what state your mind and heart are in as you read this, I want you take a minute, sit back, open your hands to receive a gift….and receive this blessing straight from the heart of Our Father sung over you, His child:

 

 

Of Joy, Gentleness and Respect

So here we go. I wondered when it was going to come. Others have wondered, too. Some said it would be Easter. One friend said he was willing to put money on it. What am I talking about? We were wondering when Christians were going to start losing their minds over stay at home orders. I’m glad I didn’t take my friend up on his guess of May 1, because I’m pretty sure I’d owe him right now.

Let me say up front that the vast majority of Christians I know have fully complied with the executive orders (I’m in Illinois). We’ve stayed home, worn our masks when at the store, said goodbye to the school year in the strangest way possible, shut down businesses deemed “non-essential” and closed our church buildings down.

Last week, I wrote about some of the good things that have come out of this whole thing and the “vile opportunity” it presents for sharing the Gospel. I got a lot of amens from the virtual balcony for that post. It was read more than anything else I’ve ever written, even being shared in the UK. And it always seems to be the case, that preachers go from getting the amens to being accused of meddling. Fair warning, I’m about to go to meddlin’.

While I still believe that the vast majority of Christians are in compliance with the guidance we’ve been given, there has certainly been an uptick in “angry Christian posts” on social media since the most recent extension. Just a quick scroll of my newsfeed and I found the following descriptions of the Governor of Illinois: “communist” “asshole” “trying to screw us all” “wants to bankrupt us” “hitler” “nazi” “idiot” “fear-monger”. All of these posts were from Christians, and in some cases Christian leaders.

I’ll be completely honest, I’m frustrated with a lot of this too. I think we’ve flattened the curve well south of Chicago and personally feel that a regional reopening while maintaining social distancing is the way to go. I think we need a shift from virus testing to antibody testing so we can track the presence of herd immunity. I worry about the long-term economic impact of this continued shut down. I worry about the emotional toll on children who had their whole lives upending on a dime and are missing their network of friends that exist primarily at church, school and sports. I worry about the financial impact on families…and churches. I worry that continuing this longer will turn us from social distancing to social destruction and a decrease in health….because let’s face it….we’ve all probably added a few inches to our waistlines and in a world where we’re already struggling with isolation and depression, this is not helping. I’m ready to be back in worship, I’ve got about 200 people that need a big ole Pastor Larry bear hug. I’m ready to go plant my butt on a beach very soon! I get that there are political forces at play and we are caught in the middle. I GET IT! I GET THE FRUSTRATION! I, too, have questions about the effectiveness of continuing as we are and maybe even the constitutionality of some of this…

But, I’ll say this….angry posts about our “communist governor” or about any leader trying to destroy our lives are still out of bounds for Christians. We are called to speak prophetically in to the culture, not introduce anarchy.

With that weighing on my mind, let me segue to Scripture. As a virtual connection, I’ve been hosting Evening Prayer each evening at 8pm. It’s been really well attended and it’s something we all look forward to. Last week, I decided to camp out in Philippians for awhile. When I got to Philippians 1:12, I couldn’t help but smile when considering our own circumstances. Remember, Paul is imprisoned under Roman guard as he writes this:

12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.–Philippians 1:12-14 (NRSV)

I camped out on that first verse for awhile. My point was that even though our current circumstance can be really frustrating, it has helped to spread the gospel. And that has been true. There are people engaged with my local church right now who were fringe or not involved at all before the shut down. I keep getting Bible questions from people who are taking deep dives into the Word right now that they felt their schedule wouldn’t allow for before. Pew Research posted a study which showed that about a quarter of American Christians say that their faith has grown stronger during the pandemic. The question I feel left with in light of this passage from Philippians 1 is this…..If our own imprisonment/house arrest/lockdown could be used by God to bring people to know Jesus, wouldn’t that be worth it?

I’ve been reflecting on this passage more since the other night. And it occurs to me that if anyone had a reason to be frustrated at his present circumstances, it was Paul. He was arrested in Jerusalem based on a completely untrue charge. He was held under Roman guard at Caesarea for two years.

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Caesarea By the Sea where Paul was imprisoned for two years.

Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by the emperor in Rome. His request was granted, but the journey to Rome was anything but easy. His ship was wrecked on the island of Malta by terrible storms. When he finally arrived in Rome, he was placed on house arrest.

I think Paul had every right to feel dashed and disappointed. Years of his life have been wasted because of lies, natural disasters and the ineffectiveness of others. He had plans. He had vision. He wanted to take the Gospel to other cultures and countries. But now, that must have seemed like a distant memory and a pipe dream that would never happen. I think if I were in Paul’s sandals, I’d be really ticked. However, here in his letter to the Philippians he seems full of joy. He assures his dear friends that everything that has happened to him has advanced the cause of the Gospel!

How’s this possible? He’s in close contact with some of the best Roman soldiers in the world. He’s got plenty of time on his hands to tell them about Jesus. His example and suffering has emboldened other Christians living in the empire to proclaim their faith more courageously.

And I think that’s something for us to chew on. Perhaps God will use our present circumstances to advance the cause of the Gospel. Those early Christians living in the Roman empire were certainly seen as subversive. Because of their stubborn insistence on monotheism and Jesus as Lord over Caesar, they were accused of “dangerous superstition” and “impiety and promoting sedition.” But then something started to happen. The Gospel was advancing. Some were being attracted to Paul and the Christians because of their gentleness and reverence. The Philosopher Galen, who was not a Christian, would write that he was impressed by the Christians because they behaved as those who were enlightened by philosophy. They had no fear of death, they abstained from strange sexual practices, demonstrated self-control with regard to food and drink and were bent on righteousness and justice.

Paul from a jail cell was bringing people to Jesus. Others gained courage because of him to share the faith. And the Kingdom advanced. Yes, what they were doing was still subversive. To insist that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar was high treason. But here’s the thing, these holy subversives impacted their culture and changed the world for Jesus not with angry social media posts, but by simply demonstrating gentleness and respect.

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way–1 Peter 3:15b-16a (NLT)

There is a place for us to question the legality and effectiveness of these present times. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to long for this to be over. It’s okay to want to be back in physical worship. It’s okay to disagree and have an opinion on either side or somewhere in between. But we also have an opportunity to share the Gospel in these uncertain times, and we must do so with gentleness and respect. Please, for the sake of the Gospel, let’s model Christian maturity, cooperation, and respect as we all navigate these waters together.

 

 

The Vile Opportunity of COVID-19

The Vile Opportunity of COVID-19

I’m the first one to express frustration at all that is going on right now. So, first, let the airing of grievances begin!

  1. I loathe, entirely, having a home office. We have 2 small children (5 & 3) and they provide constant entertainment and distraction. My wife has done an incredible job of trying to keep our family room (where my home office is located) blocked off to the rest of the house when I’m trying to write. But it’s not just the kids that make it hard to work from home. It’s the TV right behind me calling my name. It’s the window beside me that beckons me outside. It’s the pantry and refrigerator full of all sorts of goodies…
  2. Preaching to an empty sanctuary is for the birds. Seriously, it’s awful. It’s weird, it’s awkward, it’s emotionally draining to look at empty pews and think about who should be sitting there.
  3. I miss my people. There have been babies born, surgeries performed, people struggling. And I hate that I can’t be there for them in the same way right now. I miss those moments after worship full of hugs and handshakes and little white lies like “what an interesting sermon.” 🙂
  4. I miss baseball! SERIOUSLY! I’m a baseball addict. I even miss t-ball right now and I never thought that would happen. I love stopping by the school on a sunny afternoon and watching baseball and softball, hanging out at little league games, heading to Dozer Park, sneaking off to Wrigley and watching any game that’s on TV. I told someone the other day that I miss baseball so much that I’d even watch the White Sox, and that’s saying something. ESPN is the most depressing channel to watch right now.
  5. I hate how this has become a total political issue. Conservatives are going to argue with anything that Gov. Pritzker or Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden says. In the same way, those who lean Democrat are going to rip apart anything that President Trump says. I know that they are all posturing as well and waging political battles at the expense of we, the people. I think the common sense truth is somewhere in the middle of all the politics and I’m waiting for us to wake up to that.

I’m sure I could keep going, but I promised myself I’d stop at 5. I’m sure you have yours too.

But, like you, I have a list of good things that have come from this as well.

  1. Families are spending a lot of quality time together. And that’s good, even if parents are craving some alone time and the wine cabinet has run dry.
  2. Communities are coming together in love and kindness. We’ve been walking a lot more, and total strangers are going out of their way to greet us. We realize how much we need that interaction. Folks have also been kind to stop their walks and allow our girls to love on their dogs as they walk passed our house.
  3. I’m getting some neglected home improvement projects done. Lawn, fertilized and reseeded. Cleaned up all the outdoor landscaping. Built a raised garden bed for us to grow fresh veggies. Replaced all the cabinet pulls in our kitchen. Fixed a broken rocking chair. Supervised from an acceptable distance while my buddy did a TON of work on my car.
  4. I had some time to really think about some things I want to accomplish in my life. Yes, I’m crazy. I just applied for a doctoral program at United Seminary.
  5. Churches all over the place are blowing the dust out. Well, actually the Holy Spirit is blowing the dust out. I’m seeing churches that haven’t done anything since Jesus left re-engage their community in incredible ways. I’ve been so proud of my local church. They’ve been meeting tangible needs for our food pantry and weekend snack bags through the school. I can’t tell you how many calls and texts and porch presents I’ve received from church members offering encouragement and love during this time. Living rooms all over our area are becoming sanctuaries. We even had guys at the Peoria Fire Department join us for worship this morning! Life groups are a new emphasis for us, and I’m so proud of the way they’ve continued online. I think we’re seeing what is really important and the Holy Spirit is awakening us to the centrality of Scripture, prayer and evangelism. We’re doing some really cool, innovative things….that we probably should have been doing all along and COVID kicked them into necessary.

And it’s that last point that I think the Holy Spirit might be really trying to show all churches, but most especially those of us in the Methodist/Wesleyan movement. Is it possible that God is trying to reawaken us to who we really are? I’ve been thinking a lot lately that this is a great opportunity for us in that Wesleyan tradition to return to being a bit more vile. Yes, vile.

As the Holy Spirit shows us what is really important, I think maybe we’re being shown that we’ve made an idol out of our church buildings. Before you start throwing stones, I’m not saying we should abandon our buildings! My local church has a brand new family life center that is almost finished–we haven’t even used it yet.

I’m so proud of how it’s come together, it’s absolutely beautiful and it’s going to be an awesome tool in God’s hands. But it’s just that, a tool. Maybe it’s time for us to be a bit more vile.

Papa Wesley struggled with this for a bit, too. George Whitfield was preaching out in the field and the prim and proper Anglican, Mr. Wesley, really hated it. He wrote in his journal:

“What marvel the devil does not love field preaching? Neither do I. I love a commodious room, a soft cushion, a handsome pulpit.”–The Journal of John Wesley, June 23, 1759

I totally identify with that! Have you seen that new addition? Seriously, watch the video I embedded above. I think our church sanctuary is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been in and you have no idea how much I love taking my place behind the sacred desk to preach the word to eager listeners. Well at least most of them are eager….Selah hasn’t been able to hang with us during living room worship.

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Selah passed out during my sermon….”Great Sermon, Dad.”

But, just hear me out.  The church building is just one tool in God’s hands, not the only one. And it’s extremely likely that when the shelter at home orders start to lift (ours in Illinois has been extended through May 30), we won’t be able to go flocking back to the church building right away. There will likely still be restrictions on large group gatherings (10, 50, 100, whatever). Church leaders are already scrambling to make plans for how to address that reality and what other things need to change for awhile about group gatherings (passing the offering plate, shaking hands, how to receive communion….should we be doing group singing since aerosol is the best way to spread the virus, on and on and on). And even when restrictions on group gatherings are totally lifted, there are still going to be a lot of people who are nervous about gathering or their health won’t allow it. A lot of the innovations we’ve created on the fly will need to continue. We’ll need to continue to make online worship available and do it well. Online giving will become more normative (less than half of U.S. churches were set up to receive offerings online prior to the pandemic). Some things will never go back to “normal.” And I’m saying that’s ok. Maybe they shouldn’t. Listen, I want to be back in our buildings too, but we shouldn’t abandon these other means of doing and being church either.

I left a line out of Wesley’s journal earlier. He hated the field preaching and loved the beautiful buildings…..BUT:

“What a marvel the devil does not love field preaching? Neither do I. I love a commodious room, a soft cushion, a handsome pulpit. But where is my zeal if I do not trample all these under foot in order to save one more soul?“–The Journal of John Wesley, June 23, 1759

I want to point out that Wesley never ended up loving field preaching. This journal entry actually comes 20 years AFTER he started field preaching. It took a lot of convincing from George Whitfield and more and more church doors being closed to Papa Wesley, but he finally gave in:

“At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”–The Journal of John Wesley, April 2, 1739

Doors were closed, so he took his message to the people and started preaching in a field. 3,000 people listened. Twenty years later he’s still doing the field preaching thing, and it’s still rubbing against his high church anglicanism but it’s all worth it to see more people come to know Jesus. Field preaching was a huge part of the Wesleyan movement and the evangelical revival in general. The Methodists were known for their innovation. The class & band meetings, those wonderful hymns, lay preachers, women in leadership. John was writing about healthy living before anyone else was even thinking about it.

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John Wesley Preaching from the Steps of a Market Cross. J.W. Hatherell, mid 20th century.

Friends, COVID19 has closed some doors. We’re doing church differently. My suggestion is that we use this opportunity to be more vile and reach more and more people with the message of Jesus Christ, let’s be laser-focused on making new and better disciples….even when our beautiful buildings are back open. By being more vile, I mean let’s open ourselves up a bit and allow ourselves to innovate again. Let’s do all we can to use all the tools God has offered for building His Kingdom….our church buildings, our living rooms, the coffee shop, your workplace, the park, and even the internet.

It may make us uncomfortable, but at least we’re in good company with Papa Wesley. Vile, innovative. It’s who we were. It’s in our DNA. It’s who we can be again.

Practical Energy Guidance for Local Churches

We’ve all been navigating a new ministry reality in the midst of COVID19 precautions. I never thought that I would cancel worship for a non-weather related incident. Yet here we are, no worship this week or next….and likely beyond that. There’s plenty of ministry to be done. My refrain this week has been “we may not be able to meet AT church but there’s plenty of opportunity to BE THE CHURCH.” I’ve read plenty of offerings from others on how to do ministry in this new weirdness we’re experiencing. And we’re all doing our best to do that…50 plates spinning and maybe a couple going well.

Much has been made about the need for continued faithful giving to local churches during a shut down. This is very true. Just because we’re not meeting in the building does not mean that the ministries of the Church aren’t ongoing, in fact, many churches are doing more now than they have in years. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the financial impact this may or may not have on my local church. I’m letting my folks know how important their continued faithfulness is giving is during this time. And it all matters. Keep up your regular giving. If you’re not giving, give something. If you’re getting hit financially, trust God and still give something. Every dollar counts. Especially if you’re blessed enough to be able to give above and beyond your regular tithe, do it!

But I think there will still be an impact and there are practical things that local churches can do to better steward their resources during this time. Cutting unnecessary spending is definitely going to help. I’ve instructed my staff to not make any purchases that can wait for later.

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It occurred to me on Monday, though, that one of the high cost areas for most local churches (without even thinking about it) is energy consumption. And many of us don’t consider the fact that even items that are “off” or “idle” still draw electricity. According to a 2015 study by the National Resources Defense Council, about 25% of residential energy consumption is from devices that are in idle or standby mode. I don’t know about you, but a 25% reduction in my home electric bill is nothing to turn my nose up at. I imagine that the same could be said for local churches.

One of my staff and I walked our entire campus this week. There were a ton of things that we could adjust to save on energy consumption, especially while the building is unoccupied. I was amazed at how many things were on or at least plugged in. So we made some changes in the hopes of being better stewards of our resources (financial and otherwise). I offer some practical tips for other local churches to consider:

  • Many thermostats are scheduled based around the church activity week. If your building is locked down right now, set them all to unoccupied. We’ve set all of the thermostats in our building except for our main office to reflect the emptiness of the building.
  • Essential staff are working, but can you do without overhead lighting in your office? I’ve got a good bank of windows behind my desk, and even though its stormy today, it’s enough light to work by.
  • Unplug EVERYTHING non-essential. This was the biggest one for us. We consolidated mini-fridge items and unplugged the empty ones. We unplugged lamps and stereos and microwaves and coffee makers and televisions. Did you know that if you never even turned on your tv at home, your cable box still consumes more energy in a year than the average person in Kenya or Cambodia does?  Aside from your copy machine and regularly used desktop computers, most office equipment can be unplugged too. The paper folder, shredder, laminator, etc. can be plugged when/if we need them. The number of charging cables plugged in to nothing shocked me, too. Don’t forget to check unused kitchen appliances, as well. Just because it’s not in use doesn’t mean it’s not drawing electricity.
  • Lights on timers for your interior or exterior? Don’t need those right now.
  • Check your water heater. Does it need to be turned up “that high” right now?
  • I’m sure there are more, but these seem to be the most practical at this moment.

These are things that we let slide in regular situations. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should always be this vigilant as we steward our financial and natural resources. But especially right now when many of us are preparing for a pinch, take a few moments and do a walkthrough.

After the Storm

There’s no denying it…there is a colossal storm wrecking havoc in The United Methodist Church right now. Battle lines have been drawn, political maneuvering abounds. Folks on every side feel disenfranchised, tired, and battle-bruised. And that includes me. If you’ve read blog posts I’ve made before, you know that I have been a constant voice of hope for the only denomination I’ve ever known. I have dreamt that there would be a way out of the gridlock we are currently caught up in, but now I’m not nearly as certain or hopeful.

The politics all across the Church have distracted us from our mission of making disciples so much that I am more and more convinced that the only way out of this storm is for a negotiated, amicable separation. And that pains me to say, it really does. I have considered myself a centrist who tends to get along with just about everybody, so the idea of schism hurts to even verbalize. But, I’m tired. This storm has taken a toll all over the denomination and it’s taking a toll on me.

And the idea of something new is exciting but terrifying all at the same time. I’ve asked myself several times, and I’ve heard other colleagues ask the same “What will we do after the storm is over?” Another way of putting it is “Where will we find ourselves after the dust has settled?”

I woke up really early this morning–whether it was a racing brain or a 4 year old knee in my back I can’t be sure–but I started rehearsing these same questions again. As I laid in bed questioning and praying, God reminded me of a storm story from my past.

In 2006, I spent my spring break doing hurricane recovery in New Orleans. I remember that we went in kind of blind, we didn’t know where we would even be sleeping, we just knew we wanted to help. The first night we slept on cots in the abandoned freezer of a meat locker.

The next day, we met Pastor Randy and did he ever have a storm story! His local church had just purchased and remodeled a former grocery store to be their new campus. The church was growing, everyone was excited about the new location, things were on the up and up. Then the storm came. The building was ruined, the congregation dispersed through evacuation and some of them would never return to rebuild their lives in New Orleans. Before the storm, Pastor Randy and his wife had just purchased their dream home. They were told that they did not need flood insurance since they were outside the danger zone. Then the storm came. The levees broke and all of St. Bernard’s Parish (even those outside the “danger zone”) flooded. Their dream home was destroyed.

Pastor Randy’s story was not uncommon as we met people throughout New Orleans. Their stories represented so many broken dreams because of the storm. It seemed like the storm had taken everything from them. brokendreamsAnd, I admit, it was really easy to feel sorry for them, especially our new friend Pastor Randy. I remember sitting on the floor in what was once his dream house, eating pizza, hearing his story. After the storm he found himself living in a van (his family evacuated and he stayed to shepherd his flock….whole different story) in the parking lot of an abandoned Wal-Mart. I remember holding back tears as he told us his story. Then, he told us that he was crying out to God (understandably) “Lord, what am I going to do now? Everything is gone. The storm took everything. What am I going to do?” Then he said what I didn’t expect to hear. He said that he heard the Lord ask him right back, “Son, what were you doing before the storm?” He answered “I was preaching your word, I was building your Kingdom, I was reaching out.” And he heard God’s reply “Why would it be any different after the storm?”

Pastor Randy was quite convicted by his conversation with God, but it motivated him. “Why should I be doing anything differently than I was before the storm?” Somehow he acquired a propane camp stove and started serving soup outside his van right there in the Wal-Mart parking lot. When other organizations began to gain access to the area, they saw what a good little operation Pastor Randy had going and they started setting up camp in the parking lot, too. By the time we arrived, there was a large circus tent supplied by Operation Blessing filled with food and clothing, trailers containing medical clinics, a food line, and a full blown worshipping community. M3361S-3033We had Sunday worship right there in the middle of that parking lot. We filled boxes with food and gave out clothing. We went out from the parking lot and gutted houses, trying to help people rebuild some of the dreams that were broken by the storm. In so many ways, the entire operation happened because Pastor Randy asked “What do I do after the storm?” After his moment of licking his wounds, he got right back to the important work he was doing before the storm: building God’s Kingdom, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, reaching out to those who were lost and hurting and broken.

I had nearly forgotten this story, or at least forgotten its significance. But as I laid in bed this morning I rehearsed all that I had experienced in New Orleans. And then I felt God ask me the same that God had asked Pastor Randy “What were you doing before the storm?” UGH, I hate it when God tries to shake me out of my comfortable whininess.

I don’t know what it will look like for the people called Methodist when the storm passes. I’m confident the landscape is about to permanently change, but I’m not at all sure what it will look like. Here’s what I do know, when the storm is over…I’ll still be preaching the Gospel. I’ll still be joining God in the advancement of His Kingdom. I’ll still be reaching out. I’ll still be on the frontlines somewhere. Because why would it be any different after the storm?

Who’s in?

General Conference Update: Shadows of the Past

General Conference Update: Shadows of the Past

I just arrived in St. Louis for the historic General Conference 2019. I’m not one of the voting delegates, I’m volunteering as a marshal. That’s become quite the joke amongst my church members…they think I’m the General Conference Bouncer.

Anyway, I just got my credentials…an all access badge. I checked out the Marshal room….interestingly enough it’s the locker room that used to belong to the St. Louis Rams, my childhood heroes. I don’t have any responsibilities until 6pm, just to jump in and help where I can until then. It’s pretty quiet right now. So I just took a quick look around the locker room and thought of all those heroes.

I walked through the tunnels that lead to the field (plenary floor for our conference). I had this really eerie feeling walking the floor. The dome looks so familiar to me, yet, at the same time so different. Several years have passed since the Rams left, and they stunk pretty bad those last few years.

lg_bruce_ap_bestgamesBut I remember…I remember the Greatest Show on Turf! I remember sitting in these seats watching my heroes tear up the opposition all the way to the Superbowl! Warner! Faulk! Holt! Pace! BRRRRRUUUUUCCCCCEEEEE! The playoff game against Minnesota en route to the Superbowl was the loudest I’ve ever heard any building. The ground shook as we cheered for our boys. My dad and I couldn’t hear each other speak during the car ride home.

But now, the Dome is quiet. All the excitement is gone. It’s kind of creepy if I’m being honest.52397722_2530218120339738_5060034111108808704_o

Slowly, delegates and volunteers representing United Methodists all around the world are trickling into this shell of a building. We’re gathering because our denomination is at a crossroads moment. We can no longer continue with “business as usual” when it comes to how we are to be in ministry with LGBTQ persons. There’s too much at stake.

We’re gathering, not for a fight, but because we love our Church. We love our Church despite years of institutional gridlock over sexuality. We love our church because we remember! We remember what we were taught about Wesley and Asbury and Coke and Cartwright and their tenacity when it came to sharing the Gospel. We remember the pastor or layperson who first shared with us the grace of our God. We remember the first time the fire of holiness crept into our hearts. We remember all that is good about this Church and can be again!

The world thinks we’re gathering here for a fight…but I’m praying for so much more. Yes there will be vociferous debate. Yes, there will be parliamentary posturing…but I’m praying that as we gather in a building that brought me so much excitement as a child that the Holy Spirit will show up, way more powerfully than the Rams ever did, and that we’ll leave this place not disgruntled and anxious, but excited for the future of the people called Methodist!

The Best is Yet to Come (Or, God’s not Done with Methodism)

Today has been a day of beautiful clarities. I’ve written in my last couple of posts (over a year ago at this point…whoops) about the special session of the General Conference that is coming at the end of February. I won’t rehash all of that here, because you likely know everything that is coming before the General Conference as we determine how best to be in ministry with the LGBTQ community. If you don’t, take a look at my linked post above. Also, my colleague Chris Ritter has likely written more about this than anyone else, pop on over and check out his page. If you’re a member of my local church, remember that I’m hosting a chat about all of this on February 10.

So rehashing all the General Conference chatter aside, I admit that I’ve been worrying quite a bit about what will happen next month. No matter which plan is passed (if anything at all) there will be large ripples throughout the entire United Methodist Church. Sure, I have my own preference as to what should happen (though that preference doesn’t count at all since I am not one of the delegates to the General Conference), but my heart hurts to think of any fallout.

I’ve made no effort to hide my love for the United Methodist Church. I’ve had church members tell me with a grin on their face, “Pastor, you’ve never seen a cross without a flame on it.” They’re not wrong. The UMC is the only church family I’ve ever known, I’ve been going to annual conference since I was 14 and I’m a total Methonerd. I worry that the Church I love is about to be ripped apart at the seams.

I have friends and colleagues who view human sexuality very differently than I do, but that does not change the love that I have for them. The idea that we may find ourselves in different denominations is a thought that I struggle with.

I worry about our church’s continued witness to the world. I believe that the world needs the Church, and I’m likely biased, but I think the UMC has something important to speak to that need.

Then there are the practical worries like, “If the United Methodist Church splits, where would I go? I don’t have the skills to do anything else.” Or “What about my pension?”

I’m embarrassed to admit how much I’ve been worrying about all these scenarios and more.

Then the clarities started to come.

I was wrapping up a vision sermon series this morning and preached from John 2, the miracle of water to wine. My title was “The Best is Yet to Come.” Here’s the basic idea: the miracle of water to wine points us to the reality that with Jesus, the best is always yet to come. Whether that be tomorrow or eternity, the best is yet to come. Jesus can and will turn any situation around if we 1) Invite him to be involved, 2) Do what he says and 3) Have Faith that He’ll see it through. Check out the story on John 2, and you’ll catch my flow. In the middle of the sermon I said something that caught me off guard:

“The best days for this Church are not behind us, and we’ve got some really good days back there that we shouldn’t forget and we should continue to celebrate…but with Jesus there is always more. More love, more power, more joy…the best is yet to come.”

I hadn’t written this exactly the way it came out, but I meant it. I serve an incredible local church with a proud history. I believe we are in for a breakout year in the midst of a turnaround. Attendance is up, we’re seeing new people every Sunday and it seems that weekly I’m having conversations with people about what it means to follow Jesus. Things are going great, but the best is yet to come!

As I sat in my office between services, gathering my thoughts, I felt the Spirit ask me “what if the best days are yet to come, not just for your local church, but for The Church?” I thought, “Ok, file that away for later.”

After worship, I attended a district event in Washington. Bishop Beard was teaching on prayer. In between his sessions, the Heritage Ensemble Choir performed. They ended their time by asking us to stand and sing together “We Shall Overcome”. As we sang, I was overcome with emotion. I thought of the deep history of the song and again heard the Spirit speaking to me “this is still true today, even for the Church.”

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday! Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday!

We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are not afraid today! Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday!

“Okay, Lord, you have my attention.”

Our District Superintendent went to reintroduce the Bishop and said, “I know this man, and I know that the best is yet to come.” I chuckled. A couple of church members sitting next to me chuckled, too. That was our refrain all morning.

Then the Bishop said it, “I truly believe that the best days for the Methodist Church are not in the rearview mirror, they’re ahead of us.” So close to what I had uttered this morning.

I thought about all of this the entire ride home and I’ve come to a new clarity. I choose not to be worried about what will happen at General Conference. I will not be afraid. I choose to believe that the best is yet to come for the people called Methodist.

I’m taking my own advice from my sermon. I’m inviting Jesus to move at the General Conference, I want the Holy Spirit to fall so powerfully that they don’t know which way is up. And I have faith that Jesus loves the Church enough, that He’ll see us through.

I don’t know what everything will look like when the dust settles, but I do know that on February 27, Jesus Christ will still be Lord. On February 27, He will still be building his Church and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.

I don’t know what it will look like, but I believe the best is yet to come for us. It may be rebirth out of failure. It may be pockets of new life in the midst of an expiring institution, but I know that with Jesus it’s going to be good….he saves the best for last, and it’s not over yet…not by a long shot. The best is yet to come.