Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Growing Pains

Most of the time we hear about the decline of United Methodism. General Conference is struggling mightily with how to deal with the growth, even if not in the United States: hence the problem.

There are nearly 4 million United Methodist Christians on the African continent. There is exactly one accredited United Methodist university with a graduate-level theological school, Africa University. There was a good deal of talk today (because today is the last day to deal with legislative items that have implications for the church’s budget) about how to help support the church’s growth in those areas. Imagine an annual conference in one of the African countries growing like crazy. They have new congregations, but the pool of even minimally-trained pastors is very tiny. If they could start some sort of theological school in their area to train their pastors, it would be a great help.

But who will pay for these schools? Who will train the professors? Who will pay their salaries? How will they purchase even the barest minimum of property and buildings in order to establish a visible presence? The money – most of it – has to come from the United States. Will we change our way of operating to make it possible? Will we give sacrificially? It’s testing our mettle.

It also takes an action of General Conference to increase the number of bishops in these areas. One of the really interesting decisions today was a vote to decrease the number of bishops in the United States in order to free up more money for adding bishops in places where the church is growing.

The United Methodist Church is having growing pains!

Another special happening today was the speech by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia. She went to a United Methodist High School and is an active member of the United Methodist Church in Liberia. Bishop John Innis (a seminary classmate of mine) is her bishop. She spoke of the historic struggles of a country that, in the early 1980s, was a failed state, and has made tremendous progress since then. The Christian presence of The United Methodist Church has been a necessary and important help in the rebuilding of that country. Her speech was a stirring call to sustain the mission.

Can we do it? Of course. Will we?

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April 30, 2008 Posted by | Religion, United Methodism | 2 Comments

Still Going

Well, I’ve wimped out and gone to my hotel room, but the General Conference is still meeting in plenary session. (You can watch the proceedings video stream at umc.org.) It’s nearly 11:00 pm central time as I write this blog.

I subbed again today for someone else, so I was in the session all day until dinner time. Since the General Conference time frame has been shortened by 2 days this time, some legislative committees have had to work overtime, during lunch time, any time they could find time to meet in order to finish their work. They must finish it in order to present it to the General Conference plenary session.

I think we saw/see today the nervousness created by the sub-conscious sense that we don’t have as much time as usual, yet there are some big changes coming. Today’s highlights, in my mind, are two.

First, the Judicial Council elections suggest an assertion of episcopal power. Two people, one lay and one clergy, were “voted off the island” of Judicial Council and I suspect that, in part, they were because of the controversy over Judicial Council ruling #1032. That decision supported the authority of a pastor to refuse a person admittance into membership of a local church, if that person does not seem to the pastor to be ready to say yes to all the vows. The case that got this controversy going was that of an openly sexually active gay man who was refused membership by the pastor because he would not agree to the church’s stance on homosexual practice, although he was very active in the church. This decision prompted the bishop of that area to remove the pastor from the pulpit. The case went to Judicial Council, who determined – with a good deal of disagreement on the Council reminiscent of split votes on the Supreme Court – that the pastor in fact did have the right to refuse membership. This meant that the bishop had to reinstate the pastor to his charge. I’m thinking of an old TV ad about fooling with Mother Nature. It’s not nice to fool with episcopal authority.

The people elected today replaced the Council members who had taken the leada on Decision #32, which, to be blunt, upset the bishops (they clearly felt they had the authority to do what that bishop had done). The new people elected were all Council of Bishops nominees. It would be easy to interpret this change as the church’s lurching toward a reversal of its stance toward homosexual practice. I think the change has to do more with episcopal authority.

The other noticeable event of the day is related to potential structural changes in order to help the church more adequately reflect its global nature. The UM Church is growing dramatically in Africa, with now nearly 4 million United Methodists on that continent. A petition to appoint a commission to develop and propose a new structure, thus changing the United States to a regional conference, one of a number of regional conferences around the world, suffered all afternoon under the close scrutiny of people making amendments. I didn’t count, but I think maybe close to ten amendments were moved on this one piece of legislation. There was also a “majority report” and a “minority report” (a minority report is done when a sufficient number of people on a legislative committee don’t agree with the committee’s decision and go through a process of writing a minority report, which then is read before the plenary session and has the chance of replacing the majority report). Needless to say, it was a complicated afternoon.

The majority report finally passed this evening, which means that a commission will be formed to prepare (for the 2012 General Conference) a proposed structure that more faithfully reflects the worldwide nature of the church. It seems like a simple deal, right, so why all the fuss? For one reason, the American church still foots a huge share of the bill for the church around the world. (The four-year budget, if everything passes that everyone is asking for, would be over $500 million.) It’s hard to give up control, when you’re paying the freight. It’s the old adage, “The one who pays the piper gets to call the tune.” But of course, we’re a portion of the Body of Christ, so we don’t use the values of the world. Or do we?

One last thing: it has been so interesting to watch delegates from Central Conferences (outside the United States) exercise their influence in the conference. They are speaking freely at the microphone (we’re listening to French, Portugese, other languages); they are advocating and voting. Move over Americans!

I’m watching streaming video. The folk are tired. They just stopped for the night. It’s 11:20 pm.

April 29, 2008 Posted by | Religion, United Methodism | Leave a comment

Big News, Maybe

There’s so much to talk about today that I just can’t do it all in one blog. A couple of bullet points will give you a hint:

1. Although today is the Lord’s Day, we didn’t break for the day. We had worship in the morning and then carried on with business.
2. Saw a video of the 40 year anniversary of the ending of the Central Jurisdiction (African-American) with the creation of the UM Church in 1968.
3. Growing Central Conferences (outside the USA) are really putting the pressure on US United Methodists to share the power.

As a reserve delegate, I got to spend the whole day subbing for somebody, first in the plenary session, then in a legislative committee. It happens to be the one I’m most interested in: higher education and ministry. One of the pieces of legislation we approved, which is very exciting is the formation of a new mission conference in Malawi. The church is growing!

The big news out of this committee today was something that might not seem so big, but it is…and it’s never a done deal until the whole General Conference (plenary session) votes, later in the week. The committee voted to approve a constitutional amendment that would give licensed local pastors the right to vote in the election of General and Jurisdictional Conference delegates. This is a big deal and it provides me the chance to give you a little window into United Methodist clergy that is something like a dirty little secret.

In our church, there are basically two tracks for meeting educational requirements: (1) Course of Study and (2) seminary. People who go to seminary are on the track to become elders and full members of annual conference. ‘Scuse the church jargon. The point is that there is a decided political advantage to being an elder/full member. If you’re a licensed local pastor (Course of Study, not seminary), one of the most potentially frustrating meetings of the year is our annual conference. There’s quite a bit of stuff local pastors can’t vote on; only elders/full members get to vote – like who can be ordained, which clergy represent the annual conference at General Conference and constitutional amdendments. If you’re a licensed local pastor, you can do everything an elder does in your local church, BUT at annual conference, you cannot vote on those issues I just mentioned.

I’ve long been sensitive to this two-tier system. My Dad was an Associate Member of annual conference. Today, he’d be called a licensed local pastor, full-time. If he were alive and active in the annual conference now, he would not have been able to vote for his son (and elder and full member) or anyone else as a delegate for General Conference. Lay people vote on lay people. Elders vote on clergy. Licensed local pastors don’t vote on anybody.

If the constitutional amendment gets approved, this picture will change. Politically and practically, it will spread the power more evenly. But it raises some interesting questions (I guess I’m in a numbering mood):

1. What does this move do to orders? What does it mean to be “ordained” to the order of elder? What is implied in this order beyond just practical matters about conference membership and voting?
2. What does ordination actually means? Am I holier, more mature as a Christian, more skilled, more anything, than a licensed local pastor? I say “no” without hesitation. There’s nothing that automatically sets me apart just because of my academic credentials. So, the only difference between me – an elder – and a licensed local pastor (I’m leaving out some important qualifications, but I don’t want to get too technical) is education. I have more formal education that my friends who are licensed local pastor.
3. So, does ordination have to do, at the end of the day, merely with educational level? Of course not. Well, what?

I don’t know yet. Stay tuned.

April 28, 2008 Posted by | Religion, United Methodism | 4 Comments

Watching a Church Work

Imagine a large convention center with a huge main room and a slew of smaller rooms (they’re still big, but they can be divided with those big, moveable wall partitions). Imagine seventy or eighty people sitting in one of those rooms, with a few people at a head table and the rest of the people sitting in rows, with microphone stands strategically placed around the room. At the back are booths in which are seated translators for the delegates who do not speak English. If you could walk by those booths you would hear Spanish, French, Portugese, and other languages. Each translator is speaking into a microphone attached by cable to a headset worn by a delegate who is getting an almost simultaneous translation.

Now, imagine this legislative group doing its work according to Roberts Rules of Order: motions, amendments, points of order, speeches for and against, and votes. Everything has to be done in a way that ascertains as best as we can that everyone participates fully in the process. If you can imagine these things, you can get a sense of a General Conference legislative committee at work.

I sat in on the Higher Education and Ministry legislative committee for awhile, watching the proceedings. (In each of the committee rooms, there is a place separated from the main part of the room, for visitors and observers.) The committee was going through a proposed change to the Book of Discipline relative to leaves of absence for various categories of ministers (e.g. licensed local pastor, probationary member, other categories). Each of these pieces of legislation has a number – “Petition #80412” (I made up this number). One petition can be several pages long. The committee (or a sub-committee) has to go through it and decide whether to recommend approval, non-approval or amendment. The work is slow, detailed and extremely tedious. And remember, everything has to be translated, with adequate time for people to ask questions, make amendments, or do something else, in whatever language is theirs.

I confess, this sort of business does not stir my soul, but I deeply appreciate the people who are willing to take the responsibility. Never doubt that they are engaging in a labor of love.

The pressure is starting to mount. The committees have a lot of work to do and tomorrow (Sunday) is the deadline for getting everything ready for the plenary session. Even more, petitions approved by committees that had budget implications (i.e. were they going to cost money to implement), had to be finished and submitted by 5:00 pm today (Saturday). Talk about pressure.

Highlights for today? Our Kansas Area delegations went out to eat together this evening. It’s always a joy to sit down with friends. We had our Bishop Jones and Mary Lou with us as well. And Bishop Hutchinson of Louisiana preached at this morning’s worship and it was outstanding! He preached on the John 3 text, about Nicodemus and being born of the Spirit, born from above. It was really a call to remember the source of our life, individuall and ecclesially – to be filled with the Spirit once again.

So, how does all that legislative minutiae relate to life in the Spirit? I admit, I’m sometimes doubtful. It’s easy to blow off the business side of church life as unspiritual, therefore unimportant. But then I remember other meetings, not at General Conference, like the Board of Ordained Ministry, when one of our struggling colleagues needs some time off and they take “voluntary leave of absence.” And we’re checking the Book of Discipline to make sure we follow procedures. But of course, now it’s not just about meaningless legislation. It’s about someone’s life. And I’m thankful for the people who were paying attention in the legislative committee.

I still wonder how much of what we’re doing truly embodies the life of the Spirit. There is surely more to Christ’s Kingdom…

April 27, 2008 Posted by | Religion, United Methodism | Leave a comment

The Daily Grind

Now this is what General Conference is all about: legislation! Today the work of legislative committees began in earnest. Since I’m a reserve delegate, I’m not assigned a committee. I can observe, float around, watch.

I can also visit with people. Bishop Machado from Mozambique preached in the opening worship. A few of you may remember Thyrza Mucambe. Bishop Machado is her Dad. He can preach, let me tell you. He preached in Portugese and it was translated in English. Portugese and Italian are enough alike that I could pick up some of what he was saying before the translator put it in English. I saw Bishop Machado later and it was good to talk with him, if only very briefly.

I also saw Hilary Mawia’s dad, Bishop Mawia from Myanmar. We had a nice little visit. He’ll be in Winfield at the end of next week for Hilary’s graduation. It’s kind of weird being in Ft. Worth, talking to a guy from Myanmar about being in Winfield next week. Ah, The United Methodist Church.

The bishop candidates from the South Central Jurisdiction met for lunch today. I really like these people. There were lots of stories told around the table. Since most (maybe all) are or have been district superintendents, they swapped stories peculiar to being a DS. It was really interesting to listen in: very pragmatic, very administrative, problem-solving-type challenges. Very enlightening.

I had a couple of other really interesting conversations. Stay tuned for more on them, probably after General Conference. But now I should turn to the nuts and bolts of today – the legislative committees. It is a grind. Each committee breaks into sub-committees in order to get the work done. Petitions from all across the connection have come to a central office where they are assigned a particular committee (I won’t give you the list, but there are 13 legislative committees). There are thousands of petitions that are bundled and assigned and then the committees have to get through them all. Hence sub-committees. Their work is daunting.

What I’ve heard (but don’t know for sure, yet): the committee on the superintendency will recommend to the plenary session that the mandatory retirement age for bishops rise from 66 to 72 (70 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 30, you know). I also heard that they considered term limits for bishops. I think this one comes up about every 4 years.

The legistlative committees on church and society and faith and order (two different committees) really have their work cut out for them. These are the committees which get flooded with petitions about homosexual practice. Fun. Please pray for them. These matters are controversial and the folks in these committees will have some gut-wrenching moments.

Day three in the books.

April 26, 2008 Posted by | Religion, United Methodism | 1 Comment

State of the Church

General Conference always includes – at the beginning – speeches by a bishop (the Episcopal Address) and by a chosen lay leader (Laity Address). For the first time in the history of United Methodism, a Young People’s Address was added. So, until mid-afternoon today, we listened to representatives of the church share their assessment of United Methodism and their vision of the future.

For starters – the tone and style of these addresses. Denominational leaders tend to be understated most of the time in their formal addresses. Some pointed comments were made, but always in that…what tone is it? Guarded. Careful. Even when we’re making some sort of prophetic statement, we have to watch how we say it. Even when we “get spontaneous,” we do it in a planned, controlled way. It leaves one dissatisfied, maybe even a little cranky, like going to the soft drink machine and getting a class full of very flat root beer; no bubbles; no fizz.

The young people, on the other hand, were quite fizzy. They were, as one might imagine, much more forthright and strong in their assessments of our condition and bolder in their vision for the future. You know how young people are – all idealistic and such. They were well-organized and what they said had punch. They clearly called a denomination to set aside the old, tired, faultlines of Left and Right. We all cheered, of course, but do we really get what they are saying to us?

In some ways I was quite impressed with what our denominational leaders said today. We really do want to do things differently. We are all sick of business as usual. There was a powerful call to realize the abundant life we already have, rather than believing the myth of scarcity, thus being afraid to dream too big. At other moments during the day, my eyes welled with the tears of yearning. We use the term “United Methodist Church” far too often. It’s still about “Methodism” much too much; still too many assumptions about our denomination’s prominence.

One little rant: it bugs me the way we change hymn lyrics to reflect our concerns about “justice.” You know the old hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing?” One stanza says, “My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim…” It was changed to “My gracious Savior…” “Master,” of course, is rendered unuseable because of its racist or imperialist connotation. Ugh. Sometimes we just do silly, even absurd, things, offending one value (the historical integrity of a hymn) for the sake of another (avoidance of sounding oppressive). There’s a hermeneutical issue here: the particular connotation that I choose to give a word means that you will be limited in what you can say. Changing words like this is an act of power that strikes me as, in a way, an abuse of power. It is maddeningly self-righteous. I really, really, really wish we wouldn’t do that.

April 25, 2008 Posted by | Religion, United Methodism | 3 Comments

Opening Worship

Forty years ago (1968), on this very date (April 23), The United Methodist Church was born in Dallas, Texas. Today, we’re in next-door Ft. Worth, at the 10th General Conference since the merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church back in ’68. This moment in our history stood as a counter-balance to the theme of opening worship for General Conference, ’08. Taking that oft-used quote from Jeremiah 29:11, we are looking for “a future and a hope,” (or “a future with hope”).

As usual, we are off and crawling. Worship at 6:00 pm. I found myself thinking about watching Pope Benedict’s mass in Yankee Stadium last Sunday and comparing it with what I was witnessing tonight. Protestants easily stereotype Catholic worship as a combination of rote and pageantry. Although the dais on which the Pope sat and where the altar for the mass stood was huge, the service itself was, as liturgical services go, quite simple.

By comparison ours was oddly flashy: lots of “extras.” We always try in worship to demonstrate not only the make-up of our church, but also our intent to be inclusive. Like the Catholics last Sunday with the Pope in Yankee Stadium, we, too, celebrated Holy Communion in the Ft. Worth Convention Center. As usual, there was great music, with lots of visual (though not overstated) stimuli. The sermon by Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Annual Conference was solid. We are resurrection people. Our hope is not the vague, vain hope of “I hope so,” but the vibrant hope of people who know the resurrected Christ.”

A man announced that roughly 6,500 people had participated in worship. The convention center looked 80% full up in seating area. All the delegates sat/sit on the floor of the center, so the place was really full.

Worship behind us, we move to the opening exercise of the business side of Conference – enabling motions to set the bar, practice using the wireless voting pads, a check of security and then approving the various procedural rules so that the Conference can function. I said to one of the other reserve delegates next to me, “I really appreciate the people who have an eye for this sort of detail. I don’t.”

It’s midnight. Day 1 in the books. Our delegation meets at 6:15 tomorrow.

April 24, 2008 Posted by | Religion, United Methodism | Leave a comment

General Conference Ennui

I told my friends and students (who, of course, are also my friends) that I would blog about the United Methodist General Conference, so let me try a warm-up. Yesterday, during my morning devotion time, I settled on 1 Peter 1:8, “…and even though you do not see him, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”

For some reason, at that very moment the word “ennui” popped into my mind. Dictionary.com defines “ennui” as “a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom.” Quite unfelicitously, it gave the following example: “The endless lecture produced an unbearable ennui.” Ouch! Boring lectures? Impossible! I’ve never done such a thing.

Next thought (still yesterday morning during prayer): “I’m not even at General Conference yet and I’m already suffering ennui.” Now, some 28 hours later, I’m thinking that maybe “ennui” is not quite the right word. Yes, there will be boring moments as conference committees slog through petitionary tedium. But that just goes with the territory. My particular brand of ennui is not so much weariness from boredom.

Sadness. That’s it. It’s weariness from sadness.

For at least 2 months I’ve been receiving items in the mail: letters, a video or two, various other publications. They all plead with me to vote for (or against) something: for this person for Judicial Council; for this or that legislation; watch out for the cruel conservatives (IRD) who are taking over our beloved UM Church. This is the stuff I’ve been getting in the mail. Certainly I appreciate and can sympathize with the zeal of the advocates. I don’t want my “ennui” to trivialize their concerns, but, surely, we care about more in the church than structures and boundaries and who gets to share the ecclesiastical goodies. I understand that General Conference is a legislative body, but something still is out of focus.

Maybe my reading I Peter is just bad timing. It’s the opposite of United Methdoism in the United States at least. Here’s a suffering church. Here’s a church with no power (there are parts of United Methodism in the world in which the biblical stories are existentially real to them. They are living I Peter right now. But not us in the USA). Here’s a church filled with joy, even though they don’t have any of what we usually associate with a prominent church.

There’s also a picture in I Peter of history (read the whole book; it’s short and you’ll see what I mean). These are the last days. We’re at the end of the age. In spite of trials, we have joy unspeakable; it’s full of glory. Be ready to suffer and in so doing, you’ll be like Jesus. Don’t give up. The suffering is not forever. Judgment begins with the household of God. Don’t worry about the “fiery ordeal” among us, but gird your minds for action. Be disciplined. Be holy.

I do not like this juxtaposition: a wealthy, aging, declining bureaucracy scrambling for status, going through its four-year ritual, assuming that we’re really doing something that counts (after all, CNN will come and video us!); a poor, suffering, powerless, hilariously, absurdly, joyful, hopeful fellowship preparing to die but full of life.

I’m sure my mood will brigthen once I get to General Conference. I’ll be watching honest, sincere Christians working hard to make faithful decisions. I’ll participate in interesting, well-done worship. I’ll see people from around the connection that I know and love.

But when we leave on May 2, will we have done anything that even remotely links us with the I Peter church? That truly looks like Jesus’ kingdom? Please God, by your mercy…

April 22, 2008 Posted by | Religion, United Methodism | 1 Comment