The Franks are on the Move

The Franks are on the Move

I made the announcement in worship on February 19 that our family’s time in Tremont and Illinois is coming to an end. On July 1, I will become one of the pastors at Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida. Grace Church is a dynamic multisite church with campuses in Cape Coral, Fort Myers, and Fort Myers Shores.

Anyone that knows us, knows how much Brittney and I love the coast. It has always been our plan to retire to the beach one day, so we’re really excited to get this opportunity now instead of later. We’d be lying, though, if we said this hasn’t been a bit of a whirlwind…that a door has opened that we didn’t know would open. Brittney and I are in awe of how God’s hand has been all over this, how He has prepared us for this move in a way that only He could. We wanted to take the time to share the long story here.

For me, it started with a rocking chair. In 2017, I got the chance to join a covenant community called The Order of the Flame through World Methodist Evangelism. I traveled to St. Simon’s Island and spent a week in worship, prayer, and learning with Methodist leaders from around the world and from various Methodist traditions. I felt so at home, and so much like I had found my true tribe, that I returned to Order of the Flame in 2018, 2019, and 2020. It was that last gathering where the rocking chair came into play.

That year, Jorge Acevedo was one of the speakers. I’d known of Jorge for years, and considered him my “mentor from a distance” mostly because we’d never actually had a conversation. Jorge is the lead pastor of Grace Church and for a long time I read everything he wrote and listened to so many of his sermons. After the painful special session of the UMC general conference in 2019, Jorge wrote an article for Missio Alliance that, for once, captured much of what I was feeling about the ongoing struggle in our denomination. I gathered up the courage to approach Jorge. I thanked him for the article, for sounding like an adult in the room, and asked if we could grab a cup of coffee and talk.

About an hour later, I found myself sitting in a cluster of rocking chairs on the front porch of the cafeteria with two of my best friends and one of my ministry heroes. We sat in those chairs for several hours. Jorge poured into us and encouraged us in ministry. It was such an easy conversation, I felt a connection to him as if we had been friends for years. As we exchanged cell numbers before we got back to the schedule of the week, I knew I had found a true mentor and spiritual father.

That was March….the whole world shut down from COVID before we even made it back to Illinois. A couple of months into the pandemic, I learned that Jorge was going to be co-leading a doctor of ministry cohort at United Theological Seminary. I applied pretty quickly and lightly twisted the arm of my best friend, Sarah, to join me. I was so excited to learn more from Jorge during the program. Those 3 years raced by. Jorge and I got closer, he came to Illinois to baptize Evie, and I made several trips to Grace Church as a part of the program. I call him Papi now, and I couldn’t ask for a better friend and mentor.

Let me back up and let you hear some things from Brittney’s perspective……

March 24, 2021

A day I’ll never forget. I was quietly starting my morning. I looked out my kitchen window to watch the sun rise, and suddenly the sun hit the branches on our tree and a big burning, blazing cross appeared! Seriously.

I stared at it for a few seconds in disbelief, and quickly tried to grab my iphone to take a picture but it went just as quickly as it came. I immediately felt God say to me “Something is coming, and I am in it.”

Boy, did it come. Larry and I have experienced so much pain these last couple years that left us broken. And some things are still too painful to share here.

After we lost Larry’s Dad at 58 years young, we both knew we had to start living the life we’ve dreamed of. We can’t wait until retirement. We realized life is short, and retirement is not guaranteed.

If you know us at all, you know we love the beach. We’ve always imagined living on the gulf coast someday.

“Something is coming, and I am in it.”

It’s a long story so I won’t share all of it here.
I recently saw a quote that said
“When things are falling apart, they may actually be falling together.”
That’s exactly what has happened for us. Prevenient Grace.

So when Larry was recently offered a position as one of the pastors at Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida,
we knew we had to go. We will be moving in the next few months.

Everything that has happened over the last couple years was pointing to this. Every detail woven so intricately and all of the grief made good in only a way God can.

We’re grieving leaving family and friends, but we have so much peace. We can’t deny that God has called us here.
So please pray for us as we make this huge life transition. Pray for our girls as they adjust. We can’t wait to see what God has in store for us there!

Brittney captures this so well. “Something is coming, and I am in it.” When she told me this story back in March 2021, we had no idea what it could have meant. But looking back now, we can see prevenient grace at work so clearly. God was using the good experiences (Order of the Flame, the doctoral program, my friendship with Jorge) and the heartbreaking ones (the death of my dad and others we won’t share here) to open the door for this opportunity.

  • Without Order of the Flame, I don’t develop this friendship with Jorge.
  • Without developing a friendship with Jorge, I probably don’t join this particular doctoral cohort.
  • Without joining this cohort, I don’t get repeated exposure to the great things happening at Grace Church.
  • Without the past 5 years as Lead Pastor of Tremont, I don’t grow into the pastor and person I am right now.
  • And painfully, without my dad’s death, we’re not in a position to make the kind of down payment we needed to get our home.

So we said yes, trusting that “He is in it.” We’ve seen so much evidence of that, right down to how effortless it has been for me to feel part of the team at Grace. And God has continued to show off. In the whirlwind of saying yes, God has shown His faithfulness in countless ways:

  • Our families and friends have been so incredibly supportive.
  • My superintendent, while sad to see me go, couldn’t hide his excitement over this new opportunity.
  • We found a wonderful new construction home and are already under contract. For the first time in our lives, we’re going to be homeowners…in a home that no one else has occupied.
  • We have experienced such incredible peace every step of the way.

We’re grieving leaving Tremont, the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, and our proximity to some of our most important relationships…but we continue to trust that “He is in it.”

So, the Franks are on the move….pray for us!

Christmas in the Trenches

Christmas in the Trenches

“This is it. No turning back. Another Christmas in the trenches,” said young Kevin McCallister in Home Alone 2 just before he did battle with the same two thieves from the first movie. In both movies, the story is the same. Kevin has a falling out with his family and is subsequently forgotten or separated during the craziness of the family vacation departure. In the first movie he gets left behind at home while his family boards a flight to Paris. In the second, he gets separated from his father at the airport and ends up on a plane to New York with his family on a flight to Florida. In both movies he does battle against two thieves with an intricate set of booby traps. 

“Another Christmas in the trenches.” I think the line probably has more to do with the whole scenario rather than just the ensuing war with Harry and Marv. Sure Christmas in the trenches was the confrontation with the two most inept robbers ever, but it was also the isolation from his family emotionally and physically, being all alone at Christmas whether at home in Chicago or as a stranger in New York City. Christmas in the trenches was every bit as emotional and mental as it was the physical battle. 

My Christmas 2022 had me feeling a lot like Kevin. No, Harry and Marv didn’t show up. No, I didn’t have to set up traps (though, I have some ideas). My trenches were caused by things beyond my control that waged war against me and caused emotional and mental distress and a feeling of isolation. 

Here’s my tale. ‘Twas the night before Christmas Eve, when our family had to drive south to do our Christmas gatherings with extended family. The real feel temperature was something like -50 but we didn’t see another window to make this happen. So we braved the frozen tundra that was I-55 and made it with only minor emotional damage. We were at my grandparents house when I got a text from a church member who had gone to the building to shoot hoops with some neighborhood kids. As they gave a tour of the building to one of the neighbors, they discovered that our sanctuary was 55 degrees and falling. The choir room behind the sanctuary was heading toward sub 40. The sprinkler room in the basement had no heat running in it at all and was in pipes freezing territory. 

Phone calls were exchanged with the Head Trustee and a repairman was able to come out. The choir room seemed easy enough, the vent just had some ice in it. The temp in that room instantly began to rise. We decided the sanctuary was just struggling to catch up because it’s a large room and was set on a schedule; we’d override the schedule to get through the cold patch. The sprinkler room furnace was completely down and needed a new part that the repairman could get on Christmas Eve and install. WHOOOHOOO! Good news. Let’s move on with life. 

Except nothing happened the way we thought it would. 

On Christmas Eve morning, I went to check the temps. After being on the override schedule for over 12 hours, the sanctuary was still only 58. We needed it above 60 or we’d be looking at cancelling Christmas Eve services (which just seemed inconceivable to me). The choir room was indeed still coming up, so that was good. We got word from the repairman that the part for the basement furnace was not available. Bummer. 

What I thought would be a quiet day at home with my family and maybe a good nap before the marathon that is 3 Christmas Eve services turned into phone call after phone call, several trips back and forth monitoring the temperature. 

Our first service was to be at 4:30. I went up to the church around 2 to check temps again. This time, the sanctuary smelled like someone had ran a race car through. Burnt oil. I went to the choir room and heard the unmistakable sound of water hitting wet carpet. The sprinkler lines had frozen the day before, unbeknownst to us, and as they thawed when the room got back to a normal temperature, two of them popped. Did you know that sprinkler heads had oil in them? I didn’t, but that explained the smell. I called a member who is a firefighter and he said that I needed to shut down the sprinkler system immediately before there was an even bigger problem. I went to the basement sprinkler room and there were just way too many valves and levers and I had an image in my mind of turning one of those valves only to have water come exploding out and slam me against the wall….IT HAD BEEN A LONG DAY, OK?! I’m man enough to admit I didn’t have the guts to shut it down myself so I called another trustee who’s good with that kind of stuff. He came up to the church and was able to shut it down. This immediately set off the alarm in the building. So I had to get on the phone with the security company to place the alarm in test mode while we called the main sprinkler company to see if they could come out on Christmas Eve. 

Somewhere in the middle of all of that I get a text from Brittney that said, “We’re not coming to worship tonight, Evie spiked a fever again.” It seems like we’ve been tossing sicknesses back and forth for several weeks and can’t all seem to be healthy at the same time. Somehow I managed to dodge this round of flu by the sheer grace of God because Pastor’s CANNOT get sick on Christmas week. 

I remember thinking, “I’ve spent all day away from my family, it’s cold in here, the sprinkler heads are leaking and I’ve got to preach 3 times! This is not what I thought today would be!” I even said out loud to one of the trustees, “Christmas in the trenches,” channeling my inner Kevin. I was waging a battle not against flesh and blood, but against powers of nature beyond my control in sickness and bitter cold. And I was fixing to say Bah Humbug to the whole thing. 

Then I got a text from another church member. “I have been praying for you all week. I know today will be exhausting for you and will take you away from family for most of the day. Thank you for all you do to serve others selflessly on this day.”

Remember when the grinches heart grew two sizes? That’s exactly what happened to me. We were going to figure out the heat and get people in the Church to worship and it was going to be awesome!

An emergency crew came from over an hour away to fix the sprinkler system and alarm. They were incredible guys, working around our Christmas services the busyness in the building. The sanctuary temp came up to 67 which is just about where we keep it on a Sunday morning. 

People started flooding into the building. Eager to celebrate Christmas Eve. But I was still exhausted. I missed my family. I wanted to do my preacher thing, but I didn’t know if I had anything left in the tank after a Christmas in the trenches. 

Then the lights went down and the video opener started. It was a video I had made with one of our teens. We took the concept from another church that had done it years ago, but she made it her own!

How can a whole world be waiting and not even know it?

As God’s creating the perfect plan and just waiting to show it. 

A star hung in the sky and just below it the most unlikely gift. 

Given in a most unexpected way. 

The fullness of God laying in hay….a day that changed everything. 

A virgin girl giving birth to a boy, no….a king. 

And they bring him gifts of gold…sing him praise, extolled him because he displays the answers to prophecies foretold before his days….he has come. 

Let it be known, little boy play your drum, pa rum pum pum pum, let it be shown the Son of God is here. 

Draw near to his people so incline your ear to hear the good news.

A baby boy laying in a manger. A mere stranger to this earth would save us from the danger of our sin but it started at his birth, he birthed hope into this world and proved to us our worth. 

This infant…worth more than prizes offered by kings because simply in coming he offered us everything. 

And we don’t just remember what was, but celebrate Him. 

Distinctly one, yet distinctly three, most holy. 

King of glory, lamb of God, Redeemer, friend, first and last, alpha and omega, light of the world, Prince of Peace, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, name above all names. Messiah. Savior. Promise fulfilled. Emmanuel. God with us. Bright and morning star, the great I am…You ARE the Christ. 

The giver of life, He is Jesus. And he has come

That’s when I had a thought. Yes, it had been a Christmas in the trenches. But Emmanuel was with me in the trench. He was right alongside me fighting the battles, there in my feelings of isolation and exhaustion, and He was certainly with my sick baby and family at home. 

As we prepared to light candles, I relayed a bit of this story to the folks that had gathered at each of the three services to demonstrate the coming of our Christ…that light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it!

Christmas has always been in the trenches. It has always been messy. 

Max Lucado captures this perfectly in God Came Near:

“The stable stinks like all stables do. The stench of urine, dung, and sheep reeks pungently in the air. The ground is hard, the hay scarce. Cobwebs cling to the ceiling and a mouse scurries across the dirt floor. A more lowly place of birth could not exist… (This is)… Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter.”

Christmas has always been in the trenches. It has always been messy. But that’s what makes Christmas so great. We’re always in the trenches. We’re pretty messy. And Jesus enters right into that mess and says, “I’m here. Let’s do this together.”

So I know it’s a couple of days after Christmas Day, but as my more liturgically-minded friends would remind us, Christmas isn’t over until the Magi show up on January 6. So no matter what your trench is, no matter how messy it all feels, remember that He is STILL Emmanuel, God-with-us. 

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Merry Christmas, indeed. Especially to those down in the trenches. 

Thanksgiving Laments

Thanksgiving Laments

Why am I lying awake at 4:30 on Thanksgiving morning? 

Well, for one, this hotel room bed is less than ideal. We started our journey down for family Thanksgiving yesterday. The girls were pumped. A swimming pool in November? Score! We walked into the tiny room with all our stuff (it amazes me how much stuff we have to haul even for one overnight) and Marqui exclaimed, “I could call this home…it’s a tiny home, but I could call it home.” Evie is sleeping in her travel crib in between the beds. Selah is in one of the beds with Brittney and I’ve got Marqui with me…this kid is a little furnace! 

But I can’t blame it all on the bed or sleeping arrangements. Truth be told, this Thanksgiving brings a little extra lament with it. Lament is “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow,” and it’s an art that we have largely ignored here in North America. We like to push down our disappointment and grief and “skip to the good part.” That’s just not possible for me this year. 

You see, Thanksgiving 2021 was the last time I spoke to my dad, the last time I saw him not clinging to life on a ventilator. I have so many regrets about that last visit. We stopped by to visit for a few minutes before heading to the big family feast on my mother’s side. I knew he was sick, I knew he desperately wanted us to stay longer…but I rushed things. Even on our best days, my dad and I had a very complex relationship. I suppose we both tried in our own way—keep the focus on baseball or the kids and we’d be fine. Years of relational trauma dating back to my childhood (and likely his) kept us from going much deeper than that. He was a phenomenal grandfather, though. The girls adored him and he them. We had a brief visit and then we had to move on to the next place…too quickly for his liking. And now, nearly a year after his death, looking back…too quickly for my liking,too. I would give a lot to go back to his living room and re-do Thanksgiving 2021. There are so many things I was just gaining the maturity to say to him in the hopes of fixing our relationship, but I didn’t think I was ready. Given the opportunity, I’d say them all. I’d linger there. I’d revel in the small talk about how the Cubs’ ownership was driving the team into the ground, gloat about my kids, spend some time being thankful together. 

But alas, death has robbed me of the opportunity of that conversation this side of eternity. And last night as we drove down and stopped for dinner, it occurred to me that Thanksgiving will never be the same again. Because for Brittney and I, ever since my parents divorced, Thanksgiving began on Wednesday night. Before dad got sick, we would drive down the night before and he’d take us out to dinner somewhere. Those are actually great memories. And as we imbibed on Olive Garden last night, I realized there was at that moment, and always will be, an empty seat at our Thanksgiving table. 

I share all this because I doubt I’m the only one who approaches Thanksgiving day with a very complex blend of gratitude and lament. And since we struggle so much with accepting, acknowledging, and even embracing lament—I wanted to share my story a bit to say that it’s okay to do both. 

As your homes fill with the aroma of fresh baked rolls and turkey, it’s okay to acknowledge your lament and sorrow as well. Gratitude does not mean that we are happy all the time or free of worry. A favorite line of mine in preaching has been, “we’re not grateful because we are happy, we are happy because we are grateful.” 

For some of you, like me, there is an empty seat at your table today. A parent, sibling, a child, the spouse that left. For some, you have no one to gather with today. For others, you’ve already discovered that your pumpkin pie tacos are gross and are nothing like you saw on social media. For some of you there’s the anxiety that your family is terribly broken and there’s a slew of subjects to avoid at the table—anything political, the war in Ukraine, grandma’s new tattoo. 

Listen, any time we gather on this side of heaven, it’s an imperfect celebration. And I think the beauty of lament is that it teaches us to openly acknowledge the empty seat, the broken relationships, and the dry turkey…and give thanks anyway. Give thanks for the fact that you had someone you loved enough to miss them. Give thanks that even though some subjects need to be avoided, for one day those can be put aside and smile. Give thanks that the meal may not look like Gordon Ramsay prepared it, but you had the money to buy the stuff, and the space to gather. 

For me, Thanksgiving will likely always be different now. It will be a reminder of the both/and-ness of this world. We live both in the celebration AND the lament. Accept and embrace the power of sorrow, then run headlong into the celebration!

Lament actually makes me more grateful today. Grateful that although there is an empty seat at our table, I’ve got my worth-beyond-rubies-wife and my 3 beautiful daughters. And although our celebration today will be imperfect, it’s OUR celebration. Our gorge of complex carbs today can be wonderfully perfect even in the context of grief or suffering or disappointment or pain. 

Something like 75% of the Psalms are lament. Sure we usually prefer the “happy ones.” “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” “The Lord is my shepherd.” “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” You get the idea. The psalter fully embraces the both/and. 

The psalms have been giving voice to my own lament, not just over my father’s death, but so many other deep griefs and pains. 

This morning I read Psalm 42. 

Psalm 42

For the choir director: A psalm of the descendants of Korah.

1 As the deer longs for streams of water,

    so I long for you, O God.

2 I thirst for God, the living God.

    When can I go and stand before him?

3 Day and night I have only tears for food,

    while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,

    “Where is this God of yours?”

4 My heart is breaking

    as I remember how it used to be:

I walked among the crowds of worshipers,

    leading a great procession to the house of God,

singing for joy and giving thanks

    amid the sound of a great celebration!

5 Why am I discouraged?

    Why is my heart so sad?

I will put my hope in God!

    I will praise him again—

    my Savior and 6 my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,

    but I will remember you—

even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,

    from the land of Mount Mizar.

7 I hear the tumult of the raging seas

    as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.

8 But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,

    and through each night I sing his songs,

    praying to God who gives me life.

9 “O God my rock,” I cry,

    “Why have you forgotten me?

Why must I wander around in grief,

    oppressed by my enemies?”

10 Their taunts break my bones.

    They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

11 Why am I discouraged?

    Why is my heart so sad?

I will put my hope in God!

    I will praise him again—

    my Savior and my God!

Do you see the both/and? “Now I am deeply discouraged, BUT I will remember you…” Even in the midst of deep distress, “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God!”

So it is for many of us this Thanksgiving, and probably most days and celebrations to come. By coming to terms with and even taking hold of lament, the true celebration of Thanksgiving can be reestablished. 

For as long as I live, or as long as Jesus tarries, there will be an empty seat at my table, and today I’m choosing to lament that loss and allow myself to feel the disappointment of reconciliation denied, to feel the hatred of cancer, and to sing the song of God’s people…”Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God!” That’s not a denial of the pain, it’s a song of broken hallelujahs!

And at the same time, though there be an empty chair, I will do my best to live in the moment of this day. To look at the chairs that are occupied. To see the beauty of my family, to listen for the laughter of my children; to give thanks for how far God has brought me, and for the grace that leads me onward. 

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. 

Holy Monday

Holy Monday

On Holy Monday, we typically remember Jesus entering the Temple complex in Jerusalem and driving out the money changers.

Mark’s Gospel captures it this way:

15 When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16 and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace.17 He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”

18 When the leading priests and teachers of religious law heard what Jesus had done, they began planning how to kill him. But they were afraid of him because the people were so amazed at his teaching.

19 That evening Jesus and the disciples left the city.

Mark 11:15-19, NLT
Fresco from the Vysokie Dechani monastery in Serbia.

We typically read and preach this text in a very familiar way. It goes something like this: “The moneychangers were charging an excessive exchange rate and were swindling people in the name of God.” This is our justification for Jesus’ display of righteous anger. And I believe that is certainly a part of what is at play in the temple incident.

You see, the moneychangers and merchants in the temple performed a necessary function. For people traveling from great distances to offer sacrifice in the temple, it likely would not have been feasible to carry a sacrificial animal during travel. Enter those selling sacrificial animals in the temple. Those from outside of Jerusalem could have the convenience of buying an acceptable temple animal, for a price (some scholars estimate a 300-500% markup over the fair value of the animal). Oh, and one more thing. Those from outside of Jerusalem likely carried the currency of the realm, meaning it bore the image of Caesar. No, this would not be acceptable for payment or offering in the Temple. Enter the moneychangers, they would gladly exchange the pagan-stamped currency for temple shekels…again, for a price. These necessary functions of convenience eventually became grounds for great corruption as the fees increased to levels that smacked of robbery.

So, yes, Jesus is filled with anger over the corruption he sees on display and people being robbed of their money in the name of God. However, on our recently Holy Land pilgrimage, I was reminded of a another level that was likely present for Our Lord.

The Temple Mount Today. To the left is al-Aqsa Mosque and teaching steps, where the main entrance to the Temple would have been. The mosque area is where the moneychangers and merchants would have been set up. To the right is the Dome of the Rock, in the approximate location of the Temple.

As our group passed through the Mughrabi Gate onto the Temple Mount, we were walking near al-Aqsa Mosque, which is just on the other side of the teaching steps and former main entrance to the temple complex. I was explaining to those near me that we were roughly standing where the moneychangers and merchants would have been set up when Jesus cleared the Temple. I motioned up toward the Dome of the Rock and explained that the Temple itself and the Holy of Holies would have been. One of the men in our group said, “I’m not sure I even want to walk up there, knowing that the Temple was there, it feels too holy.”

That’s when I started thinking, we were standing in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place those who were “unclean” or not jewish were allowed to be. In fact, there were signs posted as one would pass from the Court of the Gentiles further into the Temple courts threatening death on anyone who was not properly allowed to pass.

This outer court was not merely to separate those who were not jewish, it was also an invitation. It was an invitation for those outside the faith, those who were unclean or foreigners, to hear the message of God. It was in the Court of the Gentiles that the teachers would roam about and teach, Jesus would have taught here too.


In the place that existed for those who weren’t formally jewish (at least not yet) but wanted to worship God or learn more about Him, in the place that was to be an entrance into the faith, in the place intended for the outsiders to be led toward relationship with God…in that place the moneychangers and merchants set up their den of thieves.

Do you understand Jesus’ anger? Jesus stood in the outer courts with the outsiders: women, the unclean, gentiles, the sick, non-believers. His proximity to those on the margins fueled his passion and the zeal that consumed him. This was the place where they were supposed to get their first exposure to what God and His people were all about…and this…this is what they got instead? Crowded out by swindlers and thieves instead of being led into worship.

And I wonder on this Holy Monday, what do we have cluttering the outer courts of our lives that might be a stumbling block for others to come to know Jesus? Is it our pride, arrogance, anger…some other hangup or addiction? Where have we chosen comfort and position over against standing with those on the margins…standing where Jesus stands?

I wonder on this Holy Monday, what do we have cluttering the outer courts of our churches that might be a barrier, keeping others from coming to follow Jesus, too? Where have we focused on EVERYTHING but discipleship and worship? Where have we failed to see “those people”? Where have we gotten into bed with politics and ideologies that the Church has no business copulating with?

The choice is simple. Where will we stand on this Holy Monday? Will we keep looking out only for our own interests and gain personally and in the Church? Or will we stand with Jesus, consumed with zeal for those on the outside?

As I sit praying late this evening on Holy Monday, I’m asking Jesus to do what may very well be the most uncomfortable thing: Help me to stand with those on the outside. And, painful as it may be, turn over tables in my heart. Turn over tables in your church.

My Lament Moment (Or, a Different Kind of New Room)

My Lament Moment (Or, a Different Kind of New Room)

My first New Room Conference was back in 2016. I went to Tennessee with a small group of friends to attend a conference that I was told was unlike any other. “Unlike any other” turned out to be the grandest understatement of all time. When I thought of conferences, I thought of annual conference—a yearly gathering of our regional denominational body to conduct business. Or I thought of a conference where I would pay to hear experts download knowledge that I could use in my ministry toolbox.

The New Room Conference, very simply, is a conference where the only agenda is to meet with God. And that’s what happened. I met with God in such a powerful way that I knew I couldn’t go back to “normal”….this, whatever this was, was my new normal. These people, they were my tribe. The seeds of longing for the renewal of the whole church that began in my youth, New Room watered them.

So I went back in 2017. And in 2018. 2019 also. 2020 got cancelled, along with the rest of our lives. In comes the opportunity to register for New Room 2021, and I kind of balked at it. A large gathering during the pandemic, a laundry list of reasons I should skip this year: my doctoral work, my family, a new baby on the way, it being wedged between a week of school and another leadership obligation out of state the following week….I thought of a dozen reasons not to go. And I really only had one reason I should go: my soul needed it. Turns out, the need of my soul was enough. (Plus, I got to bring along one of my staff and her husband both of whom I know share with me a longing for Holy Spirit renewal).

So I bought the tickets, secured a killer Airbnb (can anyone say Barndominium????), and made the necessary arrangements for the time away. I was so pumped to go to New Room.

Only it wasn’t the same. Sure, the worship was a picture of heaven. Granted, the teachings were refreshing. I loved hugging people that I’d been physically separated from since the start of the pandemic. All that was fine. Really. But I felt like I was just coasting through the motions. I stayed comfortably in my chair during every altar call (save to go pray with my dear friends for their healing). On Thursday morning, I sat in a room of nearly 2,000 people and felt utterly alone. That’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t New Room, the problem was me. Why did I feel so lonely in a room full of people I love? My mentor/coach/spiritual papa was a few rows behind me. My beloved friends that came from my church were right next to me. My best friend was two rows in front of me. How in the world could I be alone? I couldn’t tell you why, but I was.

I went to the breakout sessions. The first was actually very helpful to my doctoral work, but I wouldn’t say it made my heart sing. I only stayed at the second one for about 10 minutes before I went and sat alone at a table in the courtyard.

Thursday night at New Room has been my favorite since my first trip down. If there was any shot of me “meeting with God” as I had in the past, it was going to be there. After dinner I actually considered dropping my friends off and staying in the car, that’s how much I wasn’t feeling it. But then my better nature prevailed, and I decided that I had to try. As per the usual, the worship was excellent. The whole room was crying out to God singing Graves into Gardens. I sang as loud as I could with as much passion as I could muster:

Oh, there’s nothing better than You
There’s nothing better than You
Lord, there’s nothing
Nothing is better than You

You turn mourning to dancing
You give beauty for ashes
You turn shame into glory
You’re the only one who can
You turn mourning to dancing
You give beauty for ashes
You turn shame into glory
You’re the only one who can

You turn graves into gardens
You turn bones into armies
You turn seas into highways
You’re the only one who can
You’re the only one who can

We got to the end of the song and the worship leader started talking. I know I won’t get it exactly right but it was something like, “there’s a lot of graves in this room. Pastors, leaders, you think you can deal with your graves by helping other people with theirs, by pouring into others over and over again. We need to get passed singing about graves to gardens and actually deal with the graves. So tonight, I want you to look right into your grave and say to the Lord whatever you need to say.”

I closed my eyes as I stood there. I thought, what could possibly be in my grave? I started thinking about everything I’ve experienced (we’ve experienced) over the last 18+ months….okay, I can picture it. Now what would I want to say to the Lord about all that?…I could only come up with one word…


As soon as I fixated on that word the worship leader said, “maybe tonight you need to ask God why.” Okay, that was good enough for me. I fell into my chair and I wept. And not just the misty-eyed sniffles, it was the shoulder shaking ugly cry. I started to list my lament of why straight to the Lord as I crawled into the grave of my life:

Why is COVID even a thing? Why now?

Why are Your people so divided?

Why would we let something as simple as a mask divide us? Like, that’s really going to be it? No arguments over doctrine or salvation or how to reach more lost people….we’re going to spend our time arguing over a piece of cloth? Why, Lord?

Why did our church gather all this momentum for Your kingdom, build a new building addition, and then have to shut it all down over a virus?

Why have so many not come back to Church? And why do I take that so personally?

Why are we so divided over blue or red?

Why do we continue to put our trust in Caesar instead of You, Lord?

Why are we so divided over issues of race when You died for every tribe, nation, and tongue?

Why don’t we value the sanctity of all human life at every stage?

Why don’t we trust each other?

Why have we made it so easy to hate?

Why is everyone so mad all the time?

Why do I care when they’re mad at me?

Why are so many Christian marriages on the brink of collapse?

Why did I have to sit through the funeral of a high school classmate a few rows behind his two young children who probably won’t remember their daddy?

Why do I feel like over the last 18 months it’s become absolutely commonplace for dreams to be ripped from right in front of me?

Why do I feel like I’m not making a difference in the lives of the people you’ve called me to shepherd?

Why did my best friends experience the joy of a miraculous pregnancy only to lose her? Like seriously, don’t You remember us dancing around my dining room table when they told us the news? Don’t you know how we all longed for that little girl. Why?

Why has all this division over politics and pandemics caused so much heartache right in my own home? Why have some of our closest relationships been severed over mistrust and diverging allegiances? WHY?!

Why, why, why, why, why? Why, Lord? Why do I feel so alone? Why do I feel so broken? Why do I feel like I’ve used all my energy fighting never ending battles? Why do I feel like my life is a mad dash from one fire to the next that needs putting out? Why?

I’m sure while I was doing the ugly cry and naming my complaints before the Lord that the worship leader was still talking, heck they may have been singing….but I was still asking why.

Then I felt the Lord say to me, “Okay, we’re down in this grave. Here’s all the stuff. All the brokenness. All the whys. What do you want to do now?”

That’s when I realized….God could handle my lament. God could handle my complaints. We’re so bad at lament. We’re so uncomfortable with sitting in the ashes, lying in the grave of the brokenness around us.

“What do you want to do now?”, I felt the Lord ask.

“Lord, we just sang it. You turn mourning to dancing. Why won’t you do it for me? You give beauty for ashes. I want you to do it for me. You turn shame into glory. Do it for me. You turn GRAVES into GARDENS. Do it for me! You turn bones into armies. Do it for me. You turn seas into highways. Do it for me! God, I’m so tired. I’m tired of feeling alone. You’re the only one who can do this.”

I felt the Lord ask me a final question, “How will you let me put you back together? How will you let me bring dead things back to life in your life?”

All I could think of in that moment was the place where I first died to myself, where I first let Jesus bring me out of my grave. If you know my story, you know that Jesus found me at a week of Church camp. My mind often goes back to that little Christian Service Camp where I first learned to trust in Jesus. I often find myself singing the songs that were so important to my formation there.

As I was having this thought, the worship band began to sing, “I exalt Thee, I exalt Thee, I exalt Thee, O Lord!” How like our God to just show off like that? I can remember singing that song around a roaring campfire, looking up at the stars, hugging my friends who were helping me to learn how to follow Jesus…

I stood and I sang that song like I’ve never sung it before. Tears streaming down my face, totally off key—but it made so much sense. The way out of our graves, the way out of those places that we feel broken and beat down is to lift Him up!

I share this very long and winding story, and quite-frankly a terribly personal and vulnerable story, in the knowledge that someone else needs the word I received.

You feel broken. You feel defeated. You have a list of why’s a mile long. You might feel like you’re lying in a grave full of broken dreams and empty promises, but God is with you in that grave. He’s right there. He sits with you in your lament and grief. He can handle your anger, your shame, your guilt and your confusion. And He’s so good, He’s the only one who can bring all that deadness in you back to life. He’s the only one who turns graves into gardens.

New Room was very different for me this year, but I died in that grave on Thursday night. I still have so many whys. I still feel broken. But I have a renewed sense of hope that not only CAN God bring beauty out of these ashes, He’s ALREADY WORKING ON IT.

I died in that grave on Thursday night, but I heard somewhere that he specializes in bringing dead things back to life.

What grave do you need turned into a garden? He’s the only one who can.

Rebuild the Altar: A Plea

Rebuild the Altar: A Plea

I’ve been asked it many times since the first days of the pandemic in spring of 2020. I’ve probably asked it alot, too. It may get phrased different ways but the basic point of the question is this: “What are you learning about God in this crazy time?” And I think we’ve all been looking for meaning and purpose and knowledge in this year unlike any we’ve ever experienced. In this time of disease (pandemic) and division (political, racial, you-name-it), I think Christians have an innate sense that we should be standing on tip-toe to make sure we’re paying attention to what God might be saying.

I’ve enjoyed hearing what others are hearing, but I’ve been amazed that I’ve basically been living in the same place for a year now. As a pastor, ever sense the onset of the pandemic and everything that followed…I’ve been living in Psalm 137:1-6–

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

I have said many times throughout this passed year that it has indeed felt like living in a foreign land. Between COVID-19 mitigations that have caused my local church to move to online only worship twice, racial unrest, the most contentious election (possibly) ever, and the fact that EVERYTHING in our world has become a political football and everyone picks their corners and wants to fight…it’s been a rough year, a year that’s left us in an almost unrecognizable place.

As a local church pastor, the reality of online only worship and strict mitigations when we are able to gather in-person makes it feel even more foreign. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the necessity of doing some of these things for safety and health, but it still makes me grieve what we’ve lost. I’m grateful for the technology that allows us to worship together from home, but it’s not the same. At some point, I was trying to sing along with the worship service and thought, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

In Psalm 137, we recount the intense grief of the children of Israel as they find themselves in exile in Babylon. They can remember the site of the temple being destroyed, the walls of Jerusalem torn down. Their babylonian captors asked them to sing the songs of their faith and they asked that some question, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” And I totally understood the sentiment. I missed so much about my life and nothing seemed right.

So I started tracing this era of exile to see if I God was trying to teach me something as I asked that question, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Sometime toward the end of summer, as we got closer to the election and the realization that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere, I moved from the grief of Psalm 137 to Jeremiah 29:4-7:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The message I was learning, and the one I was sharing with the people around me was, as long as we’re here we might as well do some good. We might as well take some time to work for a better world, and in my case, a better church. The exiles followed Jeremiah’s words. They sought the good of city where they were exiled, and they worked hard to honor the LORD. Remember, it was their disobedience to God that caused them to be carried into exile in the first place. While captive, seeking the good of the city, I’m sure they remembered their disobedience, they remembered how they had taken the temple for granted and now it was lying in ruin. In short, during their exile they began a renewed devotion to their God. I’ve heard it said that while in exile, they truly became jewish. The plan was that by the time they would return to Jersualem, that they would never take the temple or their God for granted again.

That became my message, too. “As long as we’re in this weird world we might as well do some good. Let’s take time to refocus, recalibrate and shake the dust out of our churches. Let’s never take this whole thing for granted again.”

Yet now, as the vaccine promises to open things back up and we can see “an end in sight” or a “light at the end of the tunnel” and some of us are coming back from our time of “exile” in waves, I’ve moved on to a new thought. Some churches have already reopened and gone back to business as usual, my local church will reopen on February 7 with masks and distancing. And while I’m super excited about that, I’m so excited to move to a hybrid format where those who are comfortable may attend in-person worship and I’m not preaching to an empty room anymore. I’m excited to get to do the Nehemiah work of rebuilding the walls and the work of rebuilding the temple.

But, I fear that the church may get in too big of a hurry to rebuild, rebuild, rebuild and “get back to the way things were.” When you read the history of the return from exile in the Old Testament, rebuilding the temple and the walls were secondary. Remember that it was their disobedience that led to its destruction in the first place as they took their relationship with God for granted. No, the first thing they did was repair, rebuild, and rededicate the altar of God. Nothing else mattered. Before the temple, before the walls…there was worship. In his Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, John Wesley would note that the building of the altar, “was of more present necessity than the temple, both to make atonement to God for all their sins, and to obtain God’s assistance for the building of the temple, and to strengthen their own hearts and hands in that great work.”

I know there is rebuilding to be done, and we’re all anxious to return…but first, let’s rededicate ourselves and our altars to the work and worship of God so that we may never take the Church for granted again. Many of our churches were busy to a frantic degree, engaged in rapid decline, and many churches have been focused on all of the wrong things….I don’t want to go back to that. Let’s use this opportunity to worship and recalibrate. He has brought us this far, and one day the pandemic will be but a memory, but let’s never go back to the way things were. Let’s slow down, humble ourselves before Almighty God and seek His will for His church…Let’s rebuild the altars so that our churches may be better and stronger than ever before.

Dreams for the Future of Methodist–Part 3

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)

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

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

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:


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

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

1-Invert the Pyramid Financially

Infographic of the structure of the current UMC. Credit: ResourceUMC.

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…’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: