Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

From One Heart to Another

In 2 Corinthians, Paul is put in the position of defending his ministry.  “Are we beginning to commend ourselves?” he asks the Corinthians.  “You are our letters [of commendation],” he reminds them.  Paul’s “defense” of the authenticity of his work is the strong, open, vulnerable witness he has lived amont these people.  “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves…” (4:2)  

The open statement of the truth is delivered by means of a transparent witness, by the work of Christ in the hearts of the ministers.  Paul says that the light of God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” (4:6)  This treasure is carried about in jars of clay, so that the glory may redound to God and not to the vessel (4:7).  

The Gospel goes from one heart to another.  The transparent witness of one Christ-follower lights up the knowledge of God in another person.  Grace “extends to more and more people…” (4:15)  

I’m struck by the lack of standard supports for ministerial authority in Paul’s situation.  I just re-read John Wesley’s sermon entitled, “The Ministerial Office,” which serves as an apologia for Methodism and an exhortation for Methodists to keep to their station.  He upholds lay preaching, for example, but he criticizes Methodist preachers for trying to administer the sacraments.  The purpose of lay preaching was evangelism, which does not need the standard support of ordination.  The purpose of Methodism was spiritual renewal – for the light and love of Jesus Christ to shine in the hearts of Methodists so that others could see the glory of God.  

I find here an irreducible core to Christian ministry.  Ultimately, ministry is not training or skill, though both are crucially important.  Ministry is heart to heart, whether lay or ordained.  In some fundamental sense, ministry is nothing more than witness.  And “witness” means that something is happening to me, to my heart, which becomes visible in my actions.

I don’t know about you, but as United Methodist annual conferences meet and tally the votes on the Constitutional amendments, these thoughts keep me oriented.  I am not pitting “heart” against external, organizational matters, as if the organization does not matter.  It does.  And people in favor of and against the structual changes care deeply about mission.  

But the ground of confidence in Methodism or any other church or movement ultimately is not in the structures.  It is not in the various kinds of standard supports we build to enhance the organization’s effectiveness.  The ground of our confidence lies in the glory of God shining in our faces; the grace of Christ extending to more and more people; the treasure of the Gospel embodied in these earthen vessels.  

I take comfort in these thoughts.  When I had to vote at annual conference last week, I struggled with the pros and cons of opinions about the amendments.  I voted my conscience.  At the end of the day, however, no matter how the structure changes or remains the same,  the Gospel still goes from one heart to another.   I need always to remember this one thing.

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May 28, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mid-Term Evaluation

After fourteen years teaching and campus ministering at Southwestern College, I have accepted an appointment to become the Chaplain at Southern Methodist University.  For anyone who has moved from a place they love to some place new, you know this feeling.  I feel excitement and grief.  Feelings alternate in the space of a millisecond.

My friends and colleagues at the college and in the annual conference are hearing that I’m moving on.  I’m receiving well-wishing and congratulatory expressions, which I deeply appreciate.  People are being so kind and supportive and encouraging.  

At this stage in my life, moving prompts some evaluating.  It makes me think of the mid-term grades that we professors submit.  Some people have said, “Southwestern and our conference are really going to miss you.”  They have have sparked this mid-term evaluation.  

The idea that SC or the conference will feel my absence is, of course, deeply gratifying.  It suggests that people have evaluated my leadership in (mostly) positive ways; that my work here has been significant and made a difference somehow.  For anyone, but especially for people in ministry, the conviction that one has born fruit for God’s Kingdom really, really matters.  

How does one evaluate one’s effectiveness?  There are the obvious empirical measures: numberical growth (members or students or programs or facilities) for example.  On this measure, my grade isn’t bad.  Every congregation I have served has grown numerically, but every one has been small.  It was small when I came.  It was some bigger when I left, but still small.  The chapel service in the school where I teach has grown by a large percentage since I started, but the actual number is not eye-catching.  I’ve raised no money (at least not directly) to build buildings or additions to buildings.    

One of my former students who is now on her way to becoming ordained, told me of the young clergy dinner at our annual conference.  She gave the number of attendees and then the number of my students in that group.  Now here is a number I really start to care about.  It helps me keep clear about my particular calling.    

I’ve told the story so many times.  One day, as we were worshipping in chapel and I was watching our students rapt in praise and prayer, I felt as if God spoke to me: “Your job is to pour your life into these students.”  Students graduate and go into all kinds of places to work and serve and some into full-time ministry.  If I share something of my love for Christ with them and that something remains, then I’ve done my job.  It really is that simple.  

So, for me, the mid-term evaluation is about intangibles, the hard-to-measure things: the quality of relationships, for example.  I think my mid-term grade is pretty good.  But finishing well is what counts.  As a track coach friend, now retired, used to tell his distance runners, “No one counts whether you win the first half of the race.”

May 21, 2009 Posted by | Religion | 8 Comments

The Meaning of an Honorary Degree

So, I just discovered the flap over President Obama’s upcoming honorary degree from Notre Dame University. Evidently, a significant number of bishops find this development objectionable.

What does an honorary degree mean? Does conferring one suggest that the granting institution accepts carte blanche everything the conferee stands for?  I certainly hope not.

Can we recognize significant contributions of people with whom we have ideological differences on other matters?  I certainly hope so. 

I fear that the “either-or” posturing that seems to have overtaken so much of American public life is a very bad omen.  I know, it’s not new, but it’s still worrisome.  I think what is new is that every one of these scrapes winds up on cable news, with reporters fanning the flames of false controversy with internet “tell us your opinion” surveys.

I can almost hear one objection: “What has Barack Obama done that warrants an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame?”  I’ll leave that question to Notre Dame to answer.

May 13, 2009 Posted by | Religion | , , | Leave a comment

Where the Action Is?

Occasionally I hear someone mention what has become a commonplace about ministry: let’s find where the Holy Spirit is at work and work there as well.  It reminds me of a song from the sixties, or perhaps the seventies, a song about going where the action is.  

I enthusiastically agree with this sentiment.  It has affinities with Lesslie Newbigin’s writings on the missio Dei and is a good reminder that we in ministry follow the lead of the Master, rather than a corporate (or other) marketing plan.  I’m not criticizing marketing plans either, just trying to get at what I think is a crucial and quite controversial idea.

For s0me time, I’ve been reading a sermon of John Wesley as part of my morning prayers and reflection.  Today I read “On God’s Vineyard.”  If you want a good summary of what Wesley thinks about Methodist doctrine, read the first section.  As we prepare for our annual conference business, particularly the constitutional amendments, I wish we all would read it.  But annual conference is not my business this morning.

One part of the sermon caught my eye and put me on a certain flight of fancy that I have been having for awhile.  Wesley writes,  “Many sinners were thoroughly convinced of sin, and many truly converted to God.  Their assistants increased [i.e. the assistants to the Wesley brothers], both in number, and in the success of their labours.  Some of them learned: some unlearned.  Many of them were young...” (emphasis added).  Young preachers.  Young leaders of the movement.

Conventional wisdom says that being the senior pastor is where the real action is.  If you’re not the pastor, but a staff member, say a youth director, then you’re a little bit out of the real action.  It is not uncommon that youth directors with strong pastoral gifts are encouraged to “grow out of” youth ministry into something closer to the real action.  It may be changing, but it used to be fairly common that people who are not very good at being pastors were appointed to campus ministries.  

But what if the real, apostolic, missional action is among the young?  What if we flipped conventional wisdom on its head?    

Those of us who work with young people have been watching a trend.  Most young people who feel called to ministry do not want to pastor already-established congregations.  They want to start their own churches or go into some other kind of ministry instead of the local congregation.  

We’re talking in United Methodism all the time about starting new churches.  What if the youth group in one’s own congregation was seen as the new church start?  I’m not playing semantic games.  What if the youth director were part of a new apostolic generation?  

I’m not necessarily saying that people my age and up are not “where the action is.”  But it is a sad truth that many congregations are controlled by people who treat the church as if it were their own religious club.  The label “United Methodist” may be on the sign or above the door, but little of the lifeblood of Methodism flows through its veins.  

A significant factor in the growth of Methodism historically has to do with the calling and nurture of the young.  Young people took ownership and leadership.   John Wesley understood this critical point.   Those of us who are no longer young would do well to pay attention.

May 13, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | 1 Comment

The Double-Edged Nature of Denominational Control

So, here is how things stand in United Methodist world:

1.  People are still weighing in on the video wars between Bishop Scott Jones and Maxie Dunnam, et. al., on the “worldwide nature of the church” amendments.  Good News’ “Perspective” has provided the relevant links, including the Reconciling Ministries Network’s contribution.  Despite Jones’ plain assertion that homosexuality is not an issue that would be left to regional conferences, a significant number of commenters on these various sites are suspicious that it will.  

2.  The United Methodist Judicial Council has ruled recently (UM New Service, April 27) that clergy may not perform same gender marriages even in States where such marriages are now legal.   There was one dissenting voice on the Council.  The decision overturned a ruling from the California-Pacific Conference and Bishop Mary Ann Sweson, who argued that clergy have “pastoral and prophetic authority” in such matters.    

We are fighting for control of an organization, albeit an important and beloved one.  Americans are good at fighting for control.    

At the local level, long-time church members are paradoxically dependent on the pastor for some things and determined to control the pastor and the rest of the church in others.  Worship is still the biggest bone of contention, but there are others.  The people who give the money think they ought to get to call the shots.

At the general church level, well, we know what the control issues are.  

Control per se is not at all a bad thing.  I often tell people in ministry that there is a direct link between responsibility and authority.  If one is responsible for some program or task, then one needs proportional authority to make sure things are done well.  There’s almost nothing worse in ministry than being responsible for something that you don’t (and can’t) control.  

We fight for control because we feel strongly about and seek to uphold certain values.  Control is secondary, perhaps, to those values, but when the future of the organization is involved, people who love the organization will fight for control.  This is what is happening in United Methodism and there’s nothing new here, only the issues are different from earlier times.  

Whereas I understand that people who are invested in and committed to the organization are advocating for legitimate concerns in our control struggles, I’m worried about how often we wind up looking a lot more like the world than the Kingdom of God.  We need some collective self-awareness: while we are fighting about how to organize the UM Church, non-Christians are watching and, I think, surely wondering, “Why in the world would I want to join something like that?” 

Even if we are kind to one another in our denominational arguing, we are still fighting about control.  And people notice.  We are dealing with far more than “upholding biblical values” or “making sure that ‘all’ really means ‘all.'”  The struggle for control tempts us to reduce complex matters to quick, easy summaries (yes, “sound bites”).  Christians should never make decisions this way – about anything.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , | 2 Comments

A Follow-Up to Duct Tape

I’m still trying to untangle my tangled thoughts about United Methodism, denominational controversies, and real Christian witness.  “Real Christian” was a term John Wesley used fairly often, as noted by Ken Collins in his biography of Wesley by that name.  I want to be a real Christian.

As well, I want to be a loyal United Methodist Christian.  I’m a committed Wesleyan.  I think doctrine matters.  I think life flows from shared vision and that vision is shaped by sound doctrine.  There’s a mysterious interchange at work in these ideas, motives and practices.  I don’t want to be a something else other than United Methodist.

I also don’t want to confuse witnessing for Jesus and the Kingdom with getting the right structure in place.  I’m thus torn.  I know Maxie Dunnam’s witness, as well as Eddie Fox’s.  I’ve heard them preach.  I’ve read their books.  They are men of God.  I trust their perspectives.  

What I don’t think I share with them is a commitment to keeping a certain set of structures in place, structures that supposedly act as proper boundaries for the church’s witness.  I think ideological boundaries have been breached already, even though the structural boundaries are in place.  So, how do I witness to Christ in a denomination that is badly divided?    

These thoughts prompt me to ponder how to be a real Christian without any institutional power.  Can I, by my transparent witness, embody and speak the truth as it is in Jesus without recourse to denominational levers?  Can we?  

I know that we need structures.  Every group has to be organized.  I just don’t want to confuse upholding certain structures with faithful witness.  Structures support faithful witness, to be sure, but I’m afraid that too many people will somehow feel as if we’ve been faithful to Jesus by making sure we vote the right way on constutional amendments.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , | Leave a comment

Denominational Duct Tape?

The current debate over United Methodist constitutional amendments reminds me of a standard joke in the rural State where I live.  Farmers quip about holding things together with bailing wire and duct tape.   Throw in a pair of pliers and you’ve got a farmer well-equpped to keep any piece of machinery running awhile longer.  

Our United Methodist structures are starting to look more like bailing wire and duct tape all the time.   They’ll hold the denominational machinery together, and we’ll keep sputtering along for another season.  But the wise old farmer knows that the thing is going to wear out and quit eventually.  

The talk about denominational unity symbolized by the current General Conference structure is unconvincing to me.  Yes, I watched Maxie Dunnam’s YouTube appeal.  I have loads of respect for Maxie.  If my ministry could be half as fruitful as his, I’d feel like I’d done something.  I also admire and respect Eddie Fox and I’ve read his comments about the implications of going to this new structure.  But in the end, I really cannot see how having a global super-structure with regional conferences  is all that bothersome.   

Does the current General Conference demonstrate any sort of denominational unity?  I have witnesssed the appearance of deep suspicions between, say, delegates from New England and delegates from North Georgia, over proportional representation.  I’d be hard-pressed to say with a straight face that, with what I saw, those people actually felt like they’re truly part of the same team working for the same ends.  I heard the tongue-lashing we got for not voting the right way on church membership at the most recent General Conference.  We are not unified and never have been (remember 1844?), since maybe 1784.  Remember, we began arguing over slavery very early on.  

I think I believe that the constitutional amendments, then, are proper and good.  They attempt to reflect the global nature of the UM Church.  To be sure, we Americans at regional conference would lose the voice of the Africans and Latin Americans and Asians and Europeans and that loss would be sad for us.  But their representation at the new General Conference level would be more proportional to the way United Methodism actually is.  And that would be a good thing, no?  

But notice, any position you take on this matter, we’re still talking about structure, not actual mission.  We’re talking about control of an organization.   I don’t mean to trivialize anything, but I have to admit, it sounds like we’re talking about bailing wire and duct tape.

In the end, then, I don’t see how voting for or against the constitutional amendments is going to matter one whit in helping to renew a dying American United Methodism.  (See my post,  “In a Sea of Gray Hair.”)  It just means that the power center will shift at the general level to non-American countries, as it should.  

Please remember: I’m still not suggesting an end to our denomination.  I’m suggesting we quit worrying so much about structure and figure out how to be the Body of Christ on the ground where most people actually live.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 6 Comments