thoughts on showing up to all that is

Archive for May, 2012

The Marks of a Movement

A movement is a group of people who intentionally, at their own risk, join together to make a change in the status quo.

That is how Gil Rendle defines a movement in his book Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement.  My deep question as the Director of Ministries is how do we move from a declining denomination…losing members, confidence, influence and impact…to a thriving, missional church that is making a significant difference in all corners of our state.  What Gil Rendle powerfully reminds me in his book that becoming a movement is an intentional choice.  I am not part of a movement because I am ordained into it, baptized into it, make an occasional financial contribution to it or live in the shadow/neighborhood of it.  So if we believe that the status quo needs to be changed, then we need join together to make the change.  And he suggests that it will require risk…putting aside our self interest for the sake of the common purpose.

What was powerful about the early Methodist movement in the United States is that there was clarity about purpose: spread scriptural holiness across the land, reform the nation, beginning with the church.  There was shared risk by those circuit riders who put their lives on the line to travel by horseback to preach the word, to form class meetings, and start churches in order to raise up leaders who were transforming the world.  They believed this mattered so much…people lives and the world would be a better place with the life changing message of Jesus offered through the Methodist movement, that they were willing to sacrifice many things…the comforts of wealth, home and security, and a willingness to go where sent.

So what I am wondering is do we have a clear, shared purpose that matters so much to us that we are willing to band together to do something about it…and what are we willing to risk, let go, sacrifice for the sake of this shared purpose?  From what I observed at General Conference and in my own life, if I am honest with myself, it is easy to talk about movement, but when push comes to shove, I don’t want to have to give up anything to make it happen.  Then I really haven’t chosen to be part of the movement have I?




What Is the Will of God?

So did you hear the news?  The Judicial Council ruled Plan UMC as unconstitutional at 4pm today.  Everything the General Conference spent the last 10 days working on regarding restructuring was sent to the Judicial Council and they came back and said it was in conflict with the constitution of the United Methodist Church, and it was not salvageable in its present form to move forward.  As I write this the General Conference is working late into the night to figure out how to adjust what they did and what they left undone in order to have something for us to live under for the next four years.  What is curious to me is the statement one delegate made.  In debating and deciding whether to refer this PlanUMC to the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table to be fixed and brought back to the General Council 2016, she asked, did the General Conference not notice that the Holy Spirit showed up at 4pm and took our breath away.  God spoke.  We got it wrong.

I have often prayed, God if this decision is of you, let it succeed, and if it is not, let it fail .  There is something more than human hearts and hands at work, and if whatever a church body votes on ultimately has fruit, I believe it is because the Holy Spirit gives it life.  I never presume to fully know the mind of God, and I never presume something getting a majority vote of a body of Christians is the will of God either.  We can get it wrong.  But neither is the judicial council God.  Just because the proposed plan violated some of the principles of our constitution does not mean it was outside the will of God.  Our constitution in the Book of Discipline is also a human document.  God could well be calling us into a new form of church that is radically different from our heritage and therefore would not fit neatly into our constitution.  Is that possible?

Now for the sake of full disclosure, I was not a great fan of PlanUMC.  It did not address adequately the depth of change I believe we need to make as a church.  So I am not advocating for its return.  But neither am I advocating for our current form of church structure.  It too has it challenges and limitations.  General Conference today alone proves that!!

If you ask me what I think is the will of God for the United Methodist Church, I would have to say that I don’t believe God cares much about our structure.  I think what God cares about is are we carrying out the mission: preaching good news, announcing pardon to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, setting the burdened and battered free, and announcing, “This is God’s year to act!” (Luke 4).  And however we organize ourselves to embody that mission and accomplish that mission is up to us.  There are lots of ways to get it done.  Some will be more effective than others.  Some will value certain things over others.  There is more than one right answer to the question of do we have a structure that embodies our Christian values and allows us to focus on and accomplish the mission?

One of the things I have learned about the will of God is I rarely see it or know it before I act.  I try to listen to the nudges of God.  I steep myself in the scriptures to seek to live my life in accordances to those practices and principles.  And then with my best intentions, information and yes, intuition, I act.  Sometimes I act and way opens easily.  Sometimes I act and doors close.  Does that mean one way is of God and another is not?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  Usually, I only discover that in hindsight.  It is in the fruits that I know if God was really in that or not.  Did the love and grace of God grow in me and in the world as I moved in that direction?  If so, no matter how easy or challenging it was, it was most likely of God.

And that is why I found the delegate’s statement so curious.  Yes, the judicial council action, coming as it did, was a red flag to our structure and plans and a sign to pay attention.  But was it God telling us we were wrong?  That is moving us into dangerous ground.  Faithful and committed Christians have been working hard all week to listen to and follow God’s leading.  One vote or action does not trump another as more of God or less of God.  Where God is in all of this remains to be seen.  For it is by our fruits that we shall be known…when the decisions of General Conference are said and done and the Book of Discipline 2012 is published and we begin to live it out, if it increases our love of God and neighbor, and the United Methodist Church is more faithfully and fruitfully engaged in the mission of God, then and only then we will know whether we got it right or not.  And even then, it will not be right for all time, but for now, was it enough to allow us to take the next step?  Because that is how I have learned God works as well.  We don’t get the whole game plan, the entire road map.  God wants us to rely on God, not simply on our own insight and understanding.  So we take a step, and we see.  And we learn from that step, and we recalibrate and take another. Always listening, searching, discerning, but not waiting until we have it all figured out perfectly, all absolutely right  We can never fully know if it is of God or not until we go.  And that is what is most important…that we go.  The mission awaits…and that I do know is what God wants and wills for you and for me and for the world!

A Future with Hope

Her name is Sara.  She is a bright, articulate, passionate and fearless young adult.  She is a lay delegate from Minnesota.  She has spoken several times on the floor of the general conference.  She has argued for love and grace for all, for ethics that match our words and beliefs and a church that is engaged in the issues of our day.  She gives me hope about the future of the church.

His name is Sean.  I sat next to him in a committee meeting.  He is a young person from Massachusetts who has felt the pull and tug of the call of God and even though he has his concerns about the church, he is answering the call to serve.  He recognizes the new realities and says matter of factly that he will most likely be bivocational in his ministry life, and he states it probably is a more effective way to be engaged in the transformation of the world.  He gives me hope for the future of the church.

Today is my last day at General Conference.  By all accounts it is to be a “brutal” day as we engage in conversation about matters of sexuality.  We will talk to each other in ways that are hurtful and derogratory all in the name of upholding biblical principles.  On a day like today, it is easy to despair about the future of the church.  A church that started because God so loved the world, the whole world, the God gave us the fullness of God, Jesus, so that we all my have life…a future with hope.  But then people like Sara stand at the microphone and argue for love and grace.  And people like Sean embody that grace.  That is what gives me hope.

I walked by a group of young adults a couple of days ago who were wearing t-shirts that said something like, I am the future leader of the church…and the word future was croseed out and the word current was inserted.  I commented as I walked by that I liked their shirts.  I know that I am in a position of leadership of the church, and I like being in a role where I can make a difference and shape the future of the church.  There are a lot of people in my age cohort who are “running” things right now.  We are passionate and care about this church.  But we are not the only leaders in this church.  I believe the biggest difference I can make as a leader is to lift up and empower other leaders, particularly younger leaders.     This is not easy because it means making room, stepping aside, listening to other perspectives that might challenge my worldview.  But there is something biblical about all of that too…Philippians 2, in the Message, says: Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.  Don’t be obessed with getting your own advantage.  Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Board Governance and Trust

So how do you build trust?  In the conversation the United Methodist Church is having about structure, there is a proposed movement towards a model of an oversight board utilizing some of the principles of policy governance.  People are suspicious of such a small board, 45 people, with an executive staff person, who would oversee the other agency directors.  In the corporate world, there would be no question about such a structure.  Most large, global corporations have such a structure with one CEO.  The ultimate accountability for the board is of course with the stockholders who are usually pretty clear on the outcome they are seeking:profits.
The United Methodist Church is currently structured for representational decision making.  We have believed that we will have a better quality to our conversation and decision making if we can have representation from the different constituencies.  Therefore we have tried to build our boards with paying attention to age, gender, ethnicity and geographical representation in proportion to the demographics of the church.  So why is that a challenge now?  We need to have large numbers of people to get that diverse representation, and we have paid such attention to representation, we have not always paid as much attention to giftedness.  And when you consider proportionality in the equation of representation, some voices from the edges will always be underrepresented.
But I think what is at the heart of the matter is trust.  We have not developed clear agreement on what we want to be doing together.  We have not been able to say with one voice this is what matters most.  Without clearly articulated and mutually shared outcomes, we try to manage our individual hopes and desires by seeking to have control over the who and the how.  We do not trust whoever we have named as the other to take us where we want to go as a church.   We are concerned they will not uphold our values, make decisions that will be in our best interests, and ultimately this will be a church we will not recognize and we are unsure it will be a church we will want to be a part of.  And therefore we try to get more people at the table who might look and think like us, block others who are trying to do the same with their coalition groups, and we try to build such safe guards into our system in order to keep power in check, that in the end we limit our ability to make significant and substantive changes.  A fast changing world requires quick adaptation or we are going to find ourselves obsolete.  And policy governance only works when you have well articulated ends: what difference are are here to make and for whom, and clear and agreed upon governance policies including executive limitations.
So what would it look like if we spent less time talking about how we organize ourselves and more time talking about what we want to accomplish together and what kinds of values we will hold.  I know this was the attempt in the holy conversations but those seemed to be add ons to the general conference process, not foundational work.  So for example, we keep talking about how we are a global church but we don’t have enough substantive conversation about what shape we would like that take.  We have lots of disagreement about what we mean by full participation, relationship, financial support and responsibility, contextual freedom etc.  Until we have that conversation and work hard to get to clarity about what we mean by being a global church we will continue to have this sense of mistrust, and believe that any group acting that does have not “me or someone like me” at the table, cannot possibly be acting in my best interest.
That kind of work to get clarity about who we are and what we are ca

lled to do and be as a church also takes time.  In team building it is called the principle of going slow in order to go fast.  If you spend the time to build the shared identity and purpose, as well as relationships of trust, then you are able to make huge decisions in a relatively short period of time because we know this team is clear about who they are here to serve: the mission.  But do we even have agreement about what the mission?  We can quote the words: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but do we have a shared understanding of what it means, and how it shapes our life?  Therein lies  the heart of the issue for us a church.

Ironies Abound

I find the General Conference to be full of ironies.  Here is the most recent one.  We are in a plenary session aboout celebrating our ecumenical relationships.  We are lifting up with pride our relationships with other faith traditions and how we want to be at the table with others who are on a common journey with us.  The irony came in that in the minutes before this session a motion was made to include visitors in the holy conferencing that has been taking place at this annual conference.  There have been three scheduled holy conferencing sessions where people can talk with one another about key issues facing our church.  They have been for delegates only.  The person making the motion stated that the conversation has been rich and challenging and should be expanded to include the many other people present at the General Conference who are also passionate about making disciples of Jesus Christ who bring wisdom and experience that could enrich and deepen our conversation.  The motion was defeated without any debate.  And we just moved right on to celebrate our ecumenical relationships like nothing signifcant just happened.

So what is up with that?  What does it cost us to invite everyone who wants to participate in a conversation that does not require a vote?  Is it about preserving privilege and power?  Is it about not wanting to listen to other voices?  And how can we not see the irony of saying we are communion with other faith traditions but we don’t want to be in conversation with our brothers and sisters who are wearing a nametag other than delegate.

All day I have been reflecting on, for a variety of reasons, how we value and include one another.  At one point I was witnessing a silent march of people who have felt excluded by the church.  At another point, it was me feeling discounted as I was in a conversation.  We do it so easliy.  We dismiss one another if we don’t like how they think, if we feel for whatever reason they are not one of us, or we perceive their opinion to be not worth considering.  I am feeling the divides most deeply today: age, gender, race, culture, theological perspectives, geographical location, sexual orientation, and more…on a day when the official proclamation has been about our pan-methodist and ecumenical relationships.  Oh yes, the ironies abound, and we have a long way to go church.