Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Clumsiness of Categories

Today, I worry about  sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled.  Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally.  I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger.  Doing so touches a nerve.

Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t.  My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income.  White, male, 50s, middle class.  Privileged.  Too many of my type still holding power.

Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church.  (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church.  But that thought will have to wait for another time.)

I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some.  I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store.  She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy.  African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter.  So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you.    When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.

Likewise with the category of age.  I work with university students.  I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them.  I am an advocate for young people in the church.  But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful.  During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people.  Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.

I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people.  In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church.  The problem lies not with young people or old people.  The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories!  In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”

And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much.  Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.

I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor.  Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor.  We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us.  I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack.  We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale.  No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness.  And of not being able to do what others were doing.  Of being different.  I know how it feels to be different.

After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time.  At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry.  His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700.  For the whole year.  The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much.  Median household income at that time approached $6,000.  According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.

I also grew up a transient.  Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying.  I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment.  We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood.  The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years.  I went to two high schools.  I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out.  And I knew we’d be leaving soon.

Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado?  Of course not.  But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit.  And that’s the problem with categories.  Categories hide people.

I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church.  I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins.  I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition.  But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me.  And I’ve heard a few over the years.  (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.)  They distort and hide as much as they reveal.

Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories.  They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances.  When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.

Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much.  Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.

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June 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Should GC Delegates Have to Demonstrate Theological Qualifications Beforehand?

People who seek to become naturalized citizens of the United States must pass a test to qualify for the privilege of reciting the citizenship oath.  And it’s an oral test (see http://www.uscis.gov).  No guessing on multiple choice questions.

Still worrying about the fallout from the 2012 United Methodist General Conference: what if potential delegates had to pass a test to qualify for election?  Has someone already thought of this?  One answer might be, “Yes, preparation for church membership and/or ordination should qualify a person.”  Oh, would that it were so!

A quick narrative detour: years ago I was invited to collaborate with another pastor on a “What United Methodists Believe” class in our local congregation.  We expected a handful of people and we agreed to go for 4 weeks.  We had more than 50 people (a right good number for our community) and we extended the 4 weeks to 6 in order to accommodate people’s questions and interest.  We had a lively time.

At the end of the study a dear sister in Christ approached me and said (I quote), “I’ve been a Methodist for more than 50 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

She was a member in good standing.  She could have been elected a delegate to GC.  How many delegates go with lots of experience in the UM system but little to no awareness of our theological tradition?  Shouldn’t we be at least  somewhat unsettled by this state of affairs?

I can imagine two questions raised in protest:

1.  Just what is “United Methodist” theology?  Good question.  Could we start with the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and have people study “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task?” (Book of Discipline)?  And could we finally make somebody show us how to use the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral?”

But I digress…

2. Could we not just as well say that there are “United Methodist” theologies?  Of course, but simply asserting the fact does not move us toward resolving any of the issues rending our ecclesial fabric.

If General Conference – as the only body that speaks officially for the entire denomination – is going to function properly, should we not demand that people who serve as delegates be at least minimally theologically qualified to do so?  Notice how the pragmatic (a well-functioning General Conference) is affected by seemingly unrelated academic content.  Notice the link between doing and thinking.  Much thinking goes on before and at General Conference.  But are enough people able to think with the the necessary theological tools in order to fulfill their obligations as delegates?

We don’t have to draw “theology” here too narrowly.  Some people worry that when others – in other words, academics like me – start making references to theology, hair-splitting obfuscations follow that lead to more division rather than less.  But honestly, could we be any more divided than we are short of actually dividing?

Maybe it’s time to try theology!   I have to wonder if we could not avoid some of the problems bedeviling us if delegates had an adequate knowledge of the implications of their decisions relative to basic Christian and United Methodist beliefs.

So I entertain what likely seems to many United Methodists a ridiculous question: Shouldn’t we make our delegates pass a basic theology test in order to qualify?  If you think it preposterous, I refer you back to the narrative detour.

May 16, 2012 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sex Talk at General Conference

This is the week at General Conference when things start to get really hot, as the controversial votes come to the floor of plenary session.  The topic of homosexuality will grab the headlines again and, though I understand why, I wish we were talking about other sexual matters, too.

Anyone working with young adults in the church (and in higher education) should take the time to read Mark Regnerus’ and Jeremy Uecker’s book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying, (Oxford U Press, 2011).  The book focuses virtually entirely on heterosexual activity, offering only one page (in the introductory chapter) of reference to same-sex coupling.  And this is exactly why I think church leaders should read the book.  While same sex activity gets all the attention, really serious problems regarding “straight” sex go virtually unnoticed.  Have we bought into culture’s fatalistic norms about sex?  Yes.

I won’t take the time to do a full review of the book, but let me make a couple of observations.  First, our stereotype of the “hookup culture” needs modification.  Most young people having sex are doing so within exclusive relationships.  Of course, as the authors show, people do hook up and there is plenty of casual sex going on (more among young people not in college than in college – one of the possible surprises that doesn’t fit the stereotype about college).  But, as the book shows, people in romantic relationships have much more sex than people not in a relationship.  

The problem is that the relationships don’t last.  Hence, the phenomenon known as “serial monogamy.”  (Gosh, where did they learn this one?)  Emerging adults are postponing marriage precisely because they value it.  But they don’t connect sex to marriage any more.  So, they get into a romantic relationship and most start having sex early.  (Ironically, sexually active young people find it far more easy to engage in sexual intimacy than to have an intimate, non-sexual conversation.)  Since most of them are not ready to settle down and commit to one another for life, they fatalistically assume that the relationship will end.  There is a psychological, spiritual cost to this practice!  

The most important and sobering generalization of Premarital Sex in America shines light on the moral norming that takes place among emerging adults.  Although the book makes reference to moral norms, it often describes these norms in terms of “scripts” that young people believe and live.  

Precisely here is why the church should start paying more attention.  We use words like “peer pressure” and we don’t notice the moral character of peer pressure.  We simply do not recognize that college students form moral communities.  They learn from each other, often through social networking media, television and the movies.  (When was the last time you saw a TV show or movie involving romance that did not have the main characters having sex practically almost to start the relationship?)   They learn from these sources and not from their church communities what is expected in romantic relationships.  Therefore, their choices are not as free as they think and have been told.  They are being shaped by a moral community.  

The last chapter of the book summarizes 10 myths about sex.  I can’t resist quoting some of them.  The first one is “Long-term exclusivity is a fiction.”  (Really?)  Second, “the introduction of sex is necessary in order to sustain a struggling or fledgling relationship.”  Fifth, “It doesn’t matter what other people do sexually; you make your own choices.”  Eighth, “Sex need not mean anything.”  (Wow, this is a doozy.  The book acknowledges that some people seem able to engage in “free love” without any serious side effects, but most people suffer.  This is one of the dirty little secrets about the myth of no-cost sexual expression in America.)  Finally, “Moving in together is definitely a step toward marriage.”  No, it isn’t.  This is not the authors’ opinion.  It is empirical.  People who move in together before they get married do not usually go ahead and get married.  

There are bright spots in the book.  One of them is that students really value marriage, hold it in high esteem and dream of entering this estate.  Someday.  The problem is, by the time they get there, most of them will have a sexual history that will include significant amounts of pain and regret.  

We’ve been told again and again by a thousand different means that it’s none of our business; that it’s none of the church’s business. How dare we try to impose our Christian morality on the young?  But someone’s morality is being imposed.  And it is not good.  Just open your eyes and look around.    

I know General Conference must address the issues that people present to it.  I know that various questions related to homosexuality will get the lion’s share of attention this week.  I also know that we are entirely failing our young with regard to the kind of sex that most of them are having.  I’m not trying to set up a false dichotomy.  I’m just begging for us to pay more attention.  

 

April 30, 2012 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Perhaps to Clear Some Confusion: Sanctification, Christian Perfection, Legalism and Perfectionism

I am having a blast teaching United Methodist Doctrine to a group of theology school students.  I’ve been out of the classroom for a year, so it feels good to get back in there.

Yesterday, we covered that part of United Methodist doctrine that John Wesley called “‘the grand depositum’ for which Methodists were chiefly raised up.”  He referred to it variously as, Christian perfection (uh oh), being made perfect in love, holiness of heart and life, and sanctification.  Ironically (as I mentioned to the class), this doctrine has almost completely disappeared from common United Methodist discourse.

Why?  Well, several historical reasons which I won’t indulge here, but a couple of contemporary prejudices help to quell much talk about sanctification or holiness.  Those two dread terms, “legalism” and “perfectionism” stand like Scylla and Charybdis, menacing any Christian who might venture too close.

Our conversation yesterday set me to thinking about how talk about and teaching on “legalism” and “perfectionism” thwart our growth in Christ.  I’m trying to write a book on spiritual maturity and I’m re-telling and contemporizing parts of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, believing that he has some deeply important things to say to us in 2010.  The mere vision of spiritual maturity as God’s intended goal for us sets some Christians to trembling and grumbling about the need not to be “legalistic” or become “perfectionists.”  Let me see if I can unpack this box of problems with a couple of observations.

Legalism: the heart of this problem is self-sufficiency, not sincerely trying to follow a rule or pattern.  If we follow Paul’s criticism of legalism (in Galatians, for example), then the basic problem lies in the assumption that we can, of our own native ability and strength, keep the law.  Worse, self-sufficient people of this ilk actually think they are keeping the law while we lesser sorts are not.  Legalism is self-sufficiency, not commitment to a high standard. We cannot use the term “legalism” to trump this aim.  The life of holiness demands accountability.

Perfectionism: at its core, perfectionism exudes the spirit of condemnation.  Contrary to common belief, the worst part about being a perfectionist is not trying and trying and never measuring up.  It is the judgment that one is therefore somehow unacceptable because one tried and failed.  Two problems (at least) arise here.  First, what standard of measure are we using when we conclude that we tried, but failed?  Some vague notion of what?  Flawlessness?  What does it look like, this flawlessness, in actual practice?  Second, we think the cure for “perfectionism” is not to get “too hung up” about trying very hard.  “It’s not about doing,” so the saying goes, but about “being.”  False dichotomy, if there ever was one.

I am certainly not interested in putting people on some sort of grinding spiritual treadmill.  Sanctification (being made holy), like justification, flows from God’s gracious action, so the ability to live a holy life comes from God.  But it does not happen automatically and if we don’t even have holiness as at least part of our vision for living a fully committed Christian life, then how do we know or care to reach for God’s vision of fully Christian discipleship?

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ministry’s Paradox and Risk

It’s appointment season again in the United Methodist Church.  (Cabinet members and bishops likely think that appointment season never ends.)  UM pastors are appointed on a year-by-year basis and, though they can serve long, extended years in one location, they also know that every year a move is at least a theoretical possibility.

I probably should not write about this topic, since, as a university chaplain I’m not nearly as effected by appointment season as pastors of congregations, even though I am under appointment.  But I’m prompted to think about it for three reasons: (1) I requested to move my conference membership, “leaving” longtime relationships and beloved friends and colleagues in Kansas, (2) a friend spoke with me yesterday about the anxiety and powerlessness he feels in the appointment process and (3) reading Luke’s gospel in my morning prayer time.

Luke 9 is packed with significance (what passage isn’t?).  Jesus calls and sends out the Twelve to do the work he has been doing – preaching the good news of the Kingdom, healing the diseased and liberating the demon-possessed.  He feeds the five thousand.  He asks the disciples about how people identify him.  He tells them that he’s going to suffer and die (he tells them twice in the same chapter).  He is transfigured.  He heals a demon-possessed boy whom the disciples could not heal.  He listens to his disciples argue about who is the greatest in the Kingdom (showing decisively that they don’t understand Jesus’ destiny).  And we haven’t even covered the whole chapter.

Paradox: Luke indicates how deeply this sense of destiny, this calling to suffer and die, lies within Jesus.  There’s a Plan.  He’s going to live it.  It is set.  Is it determined?  Yet, the developing situation is filled with contingency.  Jesus is spiritually heading one way while his disciples think he’s heading another (they’re going to Jerusalem, Jesus to die, but the disciples think they’re going to take over and set up the Kingdom).  He warns his disciples, in effect, not to misunderstand his Messiahship, but they seem to do exactly that.  Jesus tries to control the “fame factor” that is working in Galilee all around him.  Lots of unpredictability and human agency.  Not determined?

Risk: It makes me reflect on my experiences “under appointment.”  I’m a preacher’s kid.  I spent my entire childhood waiting to learn if we were moving or staying.  We lived in some of the most remote places one can find in rural heartland America.  I was always “the new kid” in school.

As a UM pastor, I did the same, waiting for the call to come.  There has been, at times, deep confusion, worry and frustration, yes even out and out heartache and anger.  Yet, those experiences are not the ones that stand out.  Even in the most difficult of situations, God made himself (pardon the gender reference) known.  And in every case, God provided growth – in me – growth that I desperately needed.

Only hindsight works here and no other kind.  Every aspect of my life heretofore has prepared me for the ministry in which I am now engaged.  I can’t say in a brief blog entry how, but I’m not kidding, every part, every place, every segment of time…

I am praying for United Methodist pastors waiting by the phone – literally or figuratively – to find out where they will be sent.  May the Triune God who in Christ knows it all, who knows exactly the paradox and the risk of ministry, bless and keep your heart strong.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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

When Structures Strangle Relationships

My post of 3/27 was a tad cryptic and vague, not to mention gloomy. It’s hard to write about matters involving people one counts as friends and colleagues, especially when they are on opposite sides. I don’t want to cast anyone in a bad light. Of course, I still have an opinion.

So, what was on my mind when I wrote about the death of a denomination? For one, I’m still pondering the GracePoint situation. I appreciated reading Shane Raynor’s investigative report. But I’m also thinking about the churches for which I am interim pastor, two small churches suffering from their own kind of split.

The folks at GracePoint left the UMC voluntarily, because of frustration with turf issues and perceived fickleness of annual conference leadership. In the case in which I am now involved, no church withdrew, although a bunch of people did. A popular pastor, seeking to continue as a licensed local pastor, was denied by the Board of Ordained Ministry. As a result, the pastor was removed from the charge, not exactly immediately, but also not at the usual time when UM pastors move. The announcement was made and the pastor had to vacate the charge quickly, without the possibility of any kind of satisfying explanation to the congregations.

Virtually all of one church’s members and about half of the other’s left in anger with the ousted pastor and formed a new congregation, in the same town. In a town of 12,000, where people see each other every day, this division of family and friends is shattering.

Put these two catastrophes together: the GracePoint departure and the Arkansas City tragedy. Toss in a couple of other frustrating conversations with denominational cohorts and I’m feeling something like vertigo, like being in a car wreck that you don’t see coming. One minute you’re cruising down the road and then the next you’re in the ditch with no idea how you got there. I’m looking at United Methodist wreckage and wondering what happened.

We all want to assign blame in these situations. Assigning blame is one way of coming up with at least a partially-satisfying explanation. I can’t assign blame. I know too many of the people involved. I know their love for God and desire to make a positive witness for Christ in the world. And they’re on opposite sides of the conflict.

But as I continue to try to make sense of these messes, I have come to one pretty solid conclusion, I think. Sometimes organizational strictures get in the way of relationships. People with structural responsibilities feel compelled to follow protocol. It’s their job. But protocols don’t take account of relationships very well. Relationships are too demanding, too, well…personal. At the same time, people who feel squelched by the structure forget, perhaps, that they’re actually connected to the people making unpopular decisions. Wisdom says that, in such times, we remember the relationships. We cherish and nurture them.

Sometimes organizational protocols must be honored above relationships. But sometimes…

March 29, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Watching a Denomination Die

While a grand old institution slowly crumbles, the people who have invested their lives in it look for every glimmer of hope, every shred of evidence to sustain the belief that, really, “we’re doing fine.” Even when we acknowledge trouble, we have an odd way of tipping our hats to it while bolstering – in a form of whistling past the graveyard – our shaky feelings with positive-sounding language about hope and change.

I’ve been a United Methodist all my life. Being a preacher’s kid warped me, but not for the usual reasons; you know, the glass house, the resentments about “being watched,” being moved or just being different because of parents’ profession. I love The United Methodist Church. Pardon the gender specific reference: she has been like my mother.

I entered United Methodist ministry in 1984, the same year Bishop Richard Wilke’s book, And Are We Yet Alive? was published. That book was an eye-opener for many, but the press of institutional survival squashed its impact. We have been in critical institutional decline for 25 years! We go through periodic frenzies of corporate self-examination that turn out to be little more than posturing and hand-wringing. The more things change…

The Church needs leaders. We have some. We need more. I am speaking to my ilk: we pastors have to be more than goodhearted people who work hard and love our flocks. We have to lead. We have to teach! It takes transparency of faith and character. It takes courage. It takes perseverance. We had better figure out how to do our jobs – or we had better quit. It is far too holy a calling to occupy the place without doing the work. God is asking us, “Where is the fruit?” (And I don’t mean just numbers although I’m also not trying to avoid them!)

In “The Wisdom of God’s Counsels,” John Wesley’s lament over the decline of the Methodist movement (mainly because of love of wealth) carries on for several pages. After painting so bleak a picture he then asks, “But have all that have sunk under manifold temptations, so fallen that they can rise no more? Hath the Lord cast them all off for ever, and will he be no more entreated? Is his promise come utterly to an end for evermore? God forbid that we should affirm this! Surely He is able to heal all their backslidings: For with God no word is impossible.”

God can create something from nothing and bring the dead to life. This great truth we all know. God isn’t the problem. Our unwillingness to risk real repentance, our unwillingness to take up our cross daily and follow – that’s the problem.

Some reader(s) perhaps will take offense at my words, because she/he/they can think of the exceptions to my “negative” perspective. We have developed quite a perverse penchant for denying a generalization by finding a handful of exceptions. This defense is exactly part of the problem. We gag at a gnat and swallow camel. God is not fooled…or mocked.

March 27, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Another Church Split

I’m having a hard time writing this blog, because I have not yet talked to people involved in what I am about to cover. If you’re familiar with Kansas United Methodism, you’ve probably heard about the pastor, staff and bulk of the membership of a new church – GracePoint – leaving The UMC. The pastor turned in his credentials and took, according to Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, about 3/4 of the congregation to form a new church.

So, now there are two GracePoints: GracePoint Community Church and GracePoint United Methodist Church. There is a lot of hearsay about why the leaders and members did what they did. I have some ideas (that I think are pretty sound), but I’ll forgo that speculation and get to what I think needs attention.

I should also say that I have some extra-strong feelings about this matter because recently I have become interim pastor for two small congregations in Arkansas City, Kansas. Most of one congregation and about half of the other one left their UMC congregations in anger over perceived mistreatment of their pastor (who had been removed by official denominational action) and the annual conference’s lack of concern for these two congregations. I am witness to the fallout from church splits. That said, here are my thoughts:

1. Nobody wins in a church split. Nobody is helped. The Body of Christ is depleted and demoralized, period.

2. The people who leave think they’re leaving problems behind. They aren’t. Inevitably, every congregation has conflict and when that happens, the folks who left won’t be able to blame the United Methodist Church, the annual conference, the bishop, some board, or anybody else. I hope, when that moment comes, that the leavers will be able to look themselves in the eye and consider their ways. It is the only way they’ll grow.

3. When people leave, they leave behind wounded, confused friends. They leave their friends! How people leave makes all the difference in the world. If you’re going to leave, talk to your friends and authority figures before you do. Have some courage. Be honest. Take care for the Body of Christ, even if you think God is calling you to leave and especially if you think the other parties (including the bishop, the annual conference, et. al.) are at fault. Let me repeat: how people leave makes all the difference.

3.a. Years ago, while in graduate school, I was on staff of a UM Church in a Chicago suburb. Some of the younger leaders were having trouble with the senior pastor and one by one, couple by couple, they began leaving. I had poured my heart into some of those people. When one more of them threatened to leave, I shouted (yes, I shouted), “You’re not just leaving ______ (the pastor’s name and the object of their anger). You’re leaving us!” Do relationships matter any more?

3.b. People who think of themselves as biblical Christians better pay attention to the whole Bible when deciding whether or not to leave. Have I said this already? How you leave matters. My biggest concern right now, given the fact that the recent split made the front page of the Sunday Wichita Eagle, is that we Christians are offering a bad witness to the world. Our words about unity and love are hollow, hypocritical. Shame on us.

4. People who leave angry need to check, double-check and check again the status and condition of their hearts. Bitterness is self-destructive and will affect the quality of their spiritual lives, their lives in Christ. If they harbor anger, pride, arrogance or any other unholy affection, they will pay a spiritual price for the way they have handled this matter. God is not mocked.

Oh, Lord, by your mercy, heal the broken hearts.

March 11, 2009 Posted by | The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 3 Comments