Willing to Pay the Price?

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.  Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.  So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
– 1 Corinthians 9:24–27

There is an old Hasidic, rabbinical parable about a prince who dreams of his kingdom being a place where people live in perfect community.  He dreams of a place where all the people of the kingdom give, love, serve, and mentor one another.  As he shared the vision with those in the kingdom, they all agreed with great excitement! To seal the covenant of the new community, the prince called for a great ceremonial bowl to be placed in the center of the town and for each person to bring their finest vintage bottle of wine. They would seal their covenant by all pouring their best wine in the ceremonial bowl together, and then they would all drink from the gifts they shared.  One of the elders went home and looked at the vintage wine and decided to empty into a decanter and fill the bottle with water.  As the elder poured the wine into the great ceremonial bowl, he prepared to drink with all of the others.  The cups were handed out, they were all filled from the great bowl and they all drank together…but to their utter surprise it wasn’t wine at all but water. Everyone did the same thing as the elder.  No one was willing to pay the price for true community.

Paul says we are to run the race of faith in such a way as to win it.  Verse 24 holds a lot of irony.  For many of us today, the aim is not victory but simply the way we run the race.  We live in a culture where participation is all that matters.  Paul indicates there must be passionate effort and dedication to achieve victory.  We are to run the race of faith with great self-control and purpose.  We train our bodies and minds.  We never run aimlessly.  Paul continues by saying we should “punish my body and enslave it”.  The earliest Christians spent a lot of time thinking about the passions that had power of all of us.  They believed those passions must be overcome through dedicated lives and regular prayer.  Are Christians today willing to commit the effort it takes to devote everything in life for the sake of the Gospel?  I would have to be the first to admit I’m not always ready to give that much.  I need to commit myself to something more.  I also need help in my training and as I run the race.  If I am going to bring my best wine to the ceremonial bowl, I am going to need some help along the way.

One of the things we have dedicated ourselves to at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas is a renewed commitment to discipleship.  We have done well in our history with clear and appropriate discipleship pathways for children and youth.  We haven’t done so well with adults.  How do we recommit ourselves to our basic call?  How can we help adults grow as followers of Jesus?

Ascending Leaders has helped us frame some priorities in this renewed focus.

Get People Moving – We must have a clear mission and a clear pathway for how we make disciples. Followers of Christ must be in movement (even when we stop to pray and rest, we are active in faith).  The verbs are clear in Paul’s letters.  We are to “press” on.  How we create movement in the life of a disciple is key.

Make Scripture the Heart of Everything – We focus on God’s Word, but do we make engagement with the Bible easy and meaningful?  What about for people at different stages of their faith journey?  How do we take what we preach and teach on Sundays and extend it into the other 6 days of the week?

Everyone Owns the Vision – I love the question Ascending Leaders asks: Do we see ourselves as more than people who GO to church and begin to believe we ARE the church?  How do we build this culture change in the church? Our mission of making followers of Christ is to enable followers to make more followers.

Minister to the Local Community – I truly believe that a local church has to see their community as their mission field.  Our whole world is our mission field, but we must start locally.  If a local church is not working to improve the lives of those we serve by tackling real, local issues and concerns, then it won’t really matter if we go away.  I want the church I serve to make a difference in the neighborhoods we live in.

Christ Centered Leadership – As Evagrius Ponticus said, “Love is the way of the Christian life; humility is the way we achieve it.”  In John 13, Jesus washed his disciples feet and said, “I have set an example for you…love one another as I have loved you.”  Followers of Christ model the same surrender to power Christ did.

We are making a renewed commitment to discipleship at Chapelwood.  I think Christians everywhere should do the same.  If there ever was a time we needed effective followers of Christ influencing the world, it is now!

In a New Church…Now What?

Today (June 12, to be exact), clergy across South Georgia are moving to their new appointments (churches).  I am blessed to be reappointed to Wesley United Methodist Church at Frederica for my fifth year!  I am looking forward to many more years together with the great people in this wonderful church, but alas, the purpose of this post is not to praise Wesley.  This post is to help those who may be moving to a new appointment.  While I haven’t moved as often as others, I have moved to two churches that were in difficult transition periods.  In each of those, we experienced success.  The most important thing I learned is get started well and manage expectations.  Hopefully, these two lessons will be helpful for you.

First, be careful what you change.  I do not subscribe to the school of thought that you don’t change anything the first year.  I do not believe that is a good strategy or shows good leadership.  The better course is to find the things that need to be changed that produce small wins for you and the congregation.  These changes should be needed changes that help you gain support among the stakeholders.  You may see some things YOU want to change, but they may strike at the identity of the congregation (whether healthy or not).  You need time and trust to deal with larger, more complex changes.  How do you know which is which?  Conduct a series of home meetings and invite every member of your church (active and inactive).  Set the groups up by neighborhoods or based on convenient time slots.  Break up the advocacy groups (a Sunday school class, or interest group).  Let them meet with those outside their regular group.  If you serve a small congregation, you can do this one on one.  Ask them the following:  “What are the strengths of this church?”  “What are the areas of growth?” (Notice I didn’t say weakness).  And, “If money were no object and we could not fail, what one thing would you like to see our church do?”  Collect all the answers, pray, listen, discern, read context…only then target areas where change is needed.  The complex stuff can wait until you show you are one of them and not just some outsider or hired hand.  One piece of advice I always heeded…don’t let worship be one of the first things you change.  The worship service is a key formative part of their identity…to change that before you understand the meaning of why they do what they do is…well, not very smart.

Second, let the leadership of the church assist you in determining your priorities as pastor.  News flash…you can’t do everything.  And you certainly can’t do everything well (even though some of us think we can).  You need to determine your priorities each year and you need input from the church leadership as you determine them.  I was given this list by my mentor Dr. Jim Jackson, Senior Minister of Chapelwood UMC in Houston, Texas.  I have used it regularly and found it very helpful.  There are 12 categories.  Produce a sheet with the 12 and hand out to your Staff Parish Committee, or other leadership groups, and ask them to rank them 1 to 12 according to the way they think their pastor should use their time – 1 is most important, 12 least important.  The list is (in no particular order).

  1. Worship Planning and Preaching – planning and leading worship, sermons, etc.
  2. Teaching and Discipling – teaching bible studies, confirmation, new member classes, study courses, Sunday school, etc.
  3. Counseling – provide guidance for individuals, couples, families, be involved in their lives, decisions, and crises
  4. Visiting and Care Giving – visiting from house to house, calling on members, hospital visitation, shut in visitation
  5. Evangelizing/Church Growth – reaching new people in community for Christ, bring them into church, introduce them to discipleship,
  6. Consensus Building/Fundraising – resolve conflict in church, build harmony, focus on stewardship and raising budget, paying off debt
  7. Administration & Communication – working with staff and key laity to develop plans and programs that reach members and the community, programming of church
  8. Staff Supervision & Mentoring – serving as “head of staff”, being point person in developing staff responsibilities, select, supervise, and develop staff
  9. Family Leader – cultivate a model family life, inspire church and community
  10. Personal Spiritual Development – engage in spiritual disciplines, prayer, bible study, spiritual leadership
  11. Community Leader – serve as church’s representative in the community, face of church, civic involvement
  12. Denominational Leader – participate in United Methodism beyond local church, district, conference, jurisdictional and general level

After your leadership ranks the categories, determine the top five.  After a time of prayer and discernment, try your best to make the top five your top priorities for time and energy during the first year.  The others areas should not be neglected, but you need to remember that what you like to do and what the people of the church feel you need to do should be balanced together.  All of these things are worthy and good.  This is all about managing expectations.

Remember, if you want to conduct deeper change in any congregation, you have to earn trust and that takes time…along with making good decisions.  These things simply help you get started well.  My prayer is that all the new pastors will be blessed in their new appointments and that God will work in wonderful ways through you and through the church!

South Georgia Annual Conference Recap

I just returned from the South Georgia Annual Conference in Macon, Georgia.  Each year, almost 1,000 delegates of the United Methodist Churches in South Georgia gather to worship, study, and order the work of the conference.  Conference begins with opening worship on Sunday night and concludes with a time of worship and sending forth on Tuesday afternoon as the Bishop “fixes” the appointments of all clergy.

One of the most sacred times of conference is the service of commissioning and ordination on Monday night.  During this service, the candidates for ordained ministry are commissioned (the first step toward ordination after the completion of seminary) or ordained (the final step, which occurs two years after seminary graduation, completion of probationary time, and passing written/oral exams).  This year was special for Wesley United Methodist Church at Frederica because one of our own, the Rev. Bill Culpepper (you may officially call him Rev.!) was commissioned during the service.  His family was present and many from Wesley watched the live streaming online.

The biggest item of business was the discussion on whether or not to reduce the number of districts in our conference.  We currently have 9 districts with a district superintendent in each district.  A study committee brought information to look at the possibility of 9, 7, or 6 districts in South Georgia.  After debate, the Annual Conference voted to reduce to 6 districts beginning June 2014.  What does this mean?  Why make this decision?  In my opinion, there are two major rationales.

First, the biggest reason most people cited was the cost savings.  By reducing to 6 districts, the grand total of savings in the conference budget will be $550,291 (see page 22 of district study report, corrected from $537,529).  This savings will reduce the conference budget approximately $225,000 in 2014, and the full $550,000 in 2015.  For the local church, this MAY mean less apportionments.  For me, its not so much about the local church’s share of apportionments as it is about the big picture conference budget…which consistently finishes in the red each year, dipping into conference reserves each year.

Second, and the most important reason for me, is that moving to 6 districts will (hopefully!) force us to do things differently.  We’ve had 9 districts since the South Georgia Conference received our own Bishop in 1988.  Bishop King reminds us that since 1988 we have lost membership every year.  Our connectionalism has deteriorated, membership has dropped, and apportionment payment has declined.  The current system of 9 districts do not hurt us, but it is obviously not helping.  By reducing, as many other conferences have done, we are now forced to think more strategically about how to engage in mission at a conference, district and local level.  My hope is to see an effective Conference Core Leadership Team working with a District Leadership Team to assist the local churches in mission and ministry. Our best and brightest clergy and laity need to be a part of this.  Our strongest churches need to step up and participate. Churches, clergy, and laity should take an active leadership role within their districts and the conference.  Unfortunately, we have a very “top-down” structure in South Georgia which disenfranchises the voices and the leadership at the district and local level.  This must change if we are to be successful.

Let’s pray that some innovative steps are taken. I talked with a lot of clergy and laity in Macon who are ready and willing to help in this new direction.  I hope they are called upon.

 

I Believe in the Church

1 Corinthians 12:12-31
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”  Newton actually borrowed that ancient phrase from a saying that dates back centuries – “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Simply put, he is saying I did not get here by myself and that is true for all of us. We are not who we are on our own. We each owe a debt of gratitude to more people than we can name for who we are and for what we have done.  And not just thanks to those we’ve known in our lives. We owe a debt to the generations who have come before us that we don’t know! We have all stood on the shoulder of giants. For those of us who are Christians, we are who we are because of the community of faith that has brought us here. That community of faith is the CHURCH.  (My church members were concerned that somehow this statement was connected to recent presidential political banter “You didn’t build that”.  That is not in my mind at all here, so please don’t place your political fears here!)

In the Apostle’s Creed, each Sunday we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” When we say it, we are declaring the unique role the church, the body of Christ, plays in our lives.

Now let me clear something up at the very beginning, the holy catholic church (with a little c) is not the same as talking about the Roman Catholic Church. The word catholic, if you look it up in the dictionary, means “of broad scope, relating to all humankind, universal”. For the first 1,000 years there was only one Christian Church, the universal church, the catholic church. When we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” we are not aligning with Roman Catholicism. We are saying we believe that the church universal is the body of Christ and no matter what denomination we are we are.  We are a part of the ONE, UNIVERSAL body of Christ.
If you have a “universal remote control” at your house you can help your understanding of small “c” catholic by referring to it at the “catholic remote” from now on.

The church is important. God’s design and will is that the church is Christ’s body on earth. This is important for us to understand as we think about how God works in the world and how we are a part of that.

There are those who say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” And that is true. Just like you can be an American and not vote or participate in making your country a better place to live. It is true one can be a believer in Christ and not go to church, but it is also true that to be fully committed as a Christ follower and disciple, you must be connected to the community of faith. Trust me, I’ve known hunters and golfers and others who tell me they find God in a tree stand or on the fairway on a beautiful morning. And I will say, sure you can see God there! Christian theology for 2,000 years has taught that God is revealed to all through natural revelation – i.e. the birds and the trees.  But it is only through what theologians call “particular revelation” that one can live distinctly as a disciple of Christ.  In our faith, we believe this “particular revelation” comes through the church.

The second type of person I have experienced as a pastor quite a bit is the one who says, “I will go to my Bible study at my friend’s house and that will be my church.” Or, “I will be involved in Walk to Emmaus or Gathering Place or “(insert valid ministry here)” and that will be my church. Just as Paul stated, the ear is not the eye and the foot is not the hand. These parachurch ministries are vital and important and they are extensions of the body of Christ, but they are NOT the church by themselves. Churches are not perfect, I will be the first to admit. And many of these ministries and groups sprout up because the church hasn’t done its job, that is true. But Paul makes clear that the church, the body of Christ, has a distinct personality because it is God’s prescribed way to save the world. Imperfect as it is, it is God’s vehicle that provides the fullness, balance and accountability we need in our lives. It is okay to supplement your church with other studies and groups, but to abandon the church is not healthy. There is no tradition, obedience, submission, or covenant involved beyond the church. When we look for substitutes for church, what we are really looking for is church on my terms. That is selfish and gives us over to the temptation of power in our lives.

The church calls us to submit to Christ.  One thing I know about people, is we don’t change naturally. I don’t become a better person or a better Christian just because I know I should. The way we change is when others come alongside us and encourage us, and yes, sometimes admonish us lovingly.  If left to my own will, I would do only the things I think are good and worthy. The church calls us to more. To not forget about the poor, the marginalized, the needy – in our world and among us.

Leadership Ingredients: Courage

They told this story about Agatho. He and his disciples spent a long time in building his cell. When they had finished it he lived in it, but in the first week he saw a vision which seemed harmful to him. So he said to his disciples what the Lord said to his apostles, ‘Rise, let us go hence’ (John 14:31). But the disciples were exasperated and said, ‘If you meant the whole time to move from here, why did we have to work so hard and spend so long in building you a cell? People will begin to be shocked by us, and say: “Look, they are moving again, they are restless and never settle.” ’ When Agatho saw that they were afraid of what people would say, he said, ‘Although some may be shocked, there are others who will be edified and say, “Blessed are they, for they have moved their abode for God’s sake, and left all their property freely.” Whoever wants to come with me, let him come; I am going anyway.’ They bowed down on the ground before him, and begged to be allowed to go with him.

Courage is required of all leaders. Unfortunately, there is a lack of courage these days, which is one reason the leadership pool is so shallow. Every industry and profession is suffering from a lack of leadership and the United Methodist Church is no different. I was on the phone this morning with a mentor of mine and the topic of courage came up as it related to the United Methodist Church leaders. There are too few courageous leaders – laity, clergy, and bishops. Ironically, when one of our leaders shows courage and stands up for certain issues, they are castigated and called “out of touch”. It’s always easier to alienate those we disagree with rather than engage in an intellectual, reasoned conversation.

Our culture cultivates careful practitioners and while there is nothing wrong with being careful, we have confused care with the inability to lead. A leader cannot make everyone happy and to attempt it is futile and can be destructive to any congregation or organization.

I am not saying courage is bullying. Courage is not demanding your own way. Courage, as Agatho in the parable above shows us, is acting upon the vision God provides no matter what others may think. I love the way Agatho says, “If you want to come with me, come on. I’m going.” That is courageous leadership even when others want to call him crazy. And as the parable above enlightens us, our biggest fear is what others may think of us.

Courage is a key ingredient of leadership. Spend time in prayer discerning God’s vision for your life and for your organization and when God gives you a clear direction – move. I truly believe that Godly leaders of courage will not alienate their followers. After all, you are not really a leader if you take off and no one follows. What Agatho’s followers discovered is that a courageous leader helped them move beyond their fear of what others may think of them. Once they saw that fear clearly, they were ready to follow.

Joshua 1:9, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you may go.”

Reflections on General Conference…from the Porch

“In Scetis a brother was once found guilty. They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Moses telling him to come. But he would not come. Then the presbyter sent again saying, ‘Come, for the gathering of monks is waiting for you.’ Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went to meet him and said, ‘What does this mean, Abba?’ He said, ‘My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.’ They listened to him and said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him.” – Sayings of the Desert Fathers

A brother sinned and the presbyter ordered him to go out of church. But Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, ‘I, too, am a sinner.’” – Sayings of the Desert Fathers

We are more like Nicodemus than we care to admit. We try to interpret Jesus too readily and respond too quickly. We come to the living Jesus and the first words out of our mouths are “we know” (John 3:2). Unfortunately for those of us who love facts and truth and logic and clarity, Jesus is more untamable than we care to admit. Instead of coming to Jesus with “we know”, we should humbly come to Jesus that we might “experience Jesus”. For as Jesus told us, the wind blows where it chooses and we do not know from where it comes or where it is going, so it is with the Spirit (John 3:8). The experience of Jesus is the very essence of discipleship, not knowledge. Disciples are followers not because of what they “know” about Jesus. Disciples are followers because they “imitate” and “experience” Jesus.

John 8:7-11 says, 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”

As I watch and reflect on the United Methodist General Conference, I am struck at how poorly we imitate Jesus in our deliberations. Every side of every disagreement claims “we know”, but I wonder if any side really does? No one is innocent here. Every side is influenced by their own religious zeal as they interpret what they “know” about the “love”, the “truth”, or the “word” of the Lord.

I have to admit; I am left wanting. If we really want to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, we need to begin by modeling discipleship ourselves. General Conference reaffirms for me something I have believed and preached for a long time: “We would rather be right than reconciled.” Winning the day, even if my so-called “position” triumphs, leaves me wanting as I watch General Conference this year. We can change all the structure we like, but until we, as a church, really begin to experience Jesus and begin to imitate Him, we will be nothing more than a clanging cymbal or a noisy gong.

Is it possible that we have it all wrong? In all of our effort this week to save our church, our witness in how we did our work together, many times, did harm. The irony of it all is that we will all agree that harm was indeed done…..by those who disagreed with what “we know”.

Reflections on General Conference. Pt. 1: Are We Who We Think We Are?

In his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge lifts up a timeless evaluative tool for organizations.  This evaluative process helps us to see if we are who we say we are, or if we are something else; something we do not intend to be.

General Conference is going on in Tampa, Florida, as I write this.  This is the chief legislative body of the United Methodist Church and meets every four years to decide matters of polity, theology, and practice.  For many United Methodists, watching General Conference online can be an uplifting and sobering experience.  At moments one can be proud to be United Methodist, and at other times ashamed.

Let’s engage in this little test.  If a group of outsiders watched General Conference online, what kind of church would they say the United Methodist Church is?  I’m not sure our leadership really thinks strategically about how our actions line up with our beliefs, as Peter Senge defines them.

Senge points out that Espoused Theory is what we say we are, what our mission statement says we are, what we profess to be, and what we profess to value.  Theories in Use are what we actually do, how we model ourselves through action,  and is reflected by the actual decisions we make.

My espoused view may be that people are basically trustworthy, but I may never lend friends money and jealously guard all my stuff – obviously my theory in use (my deeper mental model) differs from my espoused theory.  We all have gaps between our espoused theories and our theories in use.  This is a consequence of vision, not hypocrisy.  The problem is not in the gap, but our failure to tell the truth about the gap.  We are not always what we say we are.

As I watch the online business sessions and worship services of General Conference, I am left to wonder if we really value what we say we value.  The talk leading up to General Conference was primarily about our decline and inability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  I wonder whether “what we do” and “what we actually lift up” at General Conference reinforces what we say we value.

While “making disciples for the transformation of the world” may be our espoused theory, is it really our theory in use?  Is it really what we do?  Does the whole denomination embrace it?  Is the vision shared?  Or, are we a collective of differing interests and priorities?

Yesterday, I shared a list of news items from General Conference, both business and worship items, with a friend who does not go to church and who is not a Christian.  I asked him, “based on what they are doing and talking about, what do you think the United Methodist Church is all about?”

He simply said, “Your church reflects what is wrong with America.  I hear what you say the church is supposed to be about – what you call making disciples.  I would never know that based on what is going on down there.  From reading this list of stories and hearing about these worship services, you value a lot of things, but I would never guess it was making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Sobering.

It’s not over yet.  I am hopeful for our church and for General Conference!  I am reminded what John Wesley used to say about conferencing together as the church.  You should leave more passionate about making disciples of Jesus Christ than when you arrived.

Ask a delegate how this conferencing is inspiring them to engage in what we say we value.  Are we who we think we are?