Reading Paul Again…For the First Time

This will be a odd blog post.  It’s just passages of scripture.

I recently returned from Greece and Turkey with a group of 50 of my new closest friends from Chapelwood.  We followed in the footsteps of Paul and I wanted to read all of Paul’s letters again several times – to see if I noticed anything new in light of the trip.

I have to admit the divisions of the world (and the church) do color my readings.  What I discovered reading Paul again was a friend and co-laborer.  Paul is a mentor.   He is doing exactly what I am doing…fighting every day to share the Gospel and keep the followers of Jesus together so they can effectively change the world.  In every letter, Paul is trying to manage the divisions in his churches.  Paul is strict with those who are dividing the church.  But if you read all of them together, you see the larger themes: he encourages them to love, be kind, forgive, bear with weaker members.  Paul is trying to keep the church together so they can be a visible testimony to the power of Christ in the world.

I found it transforming.  I hope you will as well.  And if you feel going to Greece will help you in your readings, let me know! 😉

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.  For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites…

– Romans 16:17-18

Now, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose…Has Christ been divided?

– 1 Corinthians 1:10, 13a

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So, we are ambassadors for Christ…

– 2 Corinthians 5:17-20a

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

– Galatians 5;13-15

I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

– Ephesians 4:1-6

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

– Philippians 2:1-5

Put to death, therefore, whatever in your is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  These are the ways you once followed when you were living that life.  But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge according to the image of its creator.  In that renewal there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

– Colossians 3:5-11

Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.  But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.

– 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so they they may be ashamed.  Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

– 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

– 1 Timothy 4:12

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.  Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene…have nothing to to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, and apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness,  God may perhaps grant that they will depend and come to know the truth…

– 2 Timothy 2:14-17a, 23-25

Remind them to be subject to the rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.  For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, desipicable, hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit…I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.  But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.  After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.

– Titus 3:1-11

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.

– Philemon 17-19

Good News to Bad Christians

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

 –1 Corinthians 1:10-17

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

 –1 Corinthians 1:1-5

It seems that our country is divided over everything.  I mean, we can’t even have a little fun when IHOP changes its name to IHOb just to draw attention to itself.  We all want to claim the moral high ground based on the values that are important to us.  For some, obeying law and respecting authority is the highest value.  For others, justice and mercy are the highest values.  And then there are many others who find themselves on a spectrum between multiple other values that include the two I listed already.  We don’t think the same way.  But we must acknowledge that we are influenced by powerful values and the leaders who embody those values.

I find it fascinating how the Apostle Paul dealt with a church that struggled with many divisions.  The church in Corinth was his most diverse community and most divided church.  There were many social, political, and economic divisions within the church alone (Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell points to 15 divisions Paul addresses in his letters).  How did the people of Corinth deal with their problems?  They separated into “factions” based on partisan issues (partisan means strong supporter of a party, cause, or person).  Each of these factions claimed their own ‘leaders’ – they co-opted Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and even Jesus!  Christians were slandering and quarrelling.  Paul addressed this by sending good news to bad Christians in 1 Corinthians.  Paul starts his letter by writing, “let there be no divisions among you, but be united in the same mind and the same purpose…it has been reported there are quarrels among you…some say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ””.

I love how Paul does this.  He starts with himself as the lowest “claimed faction” leader and moves up to Christ.  After all, if your are in a faction that claims Cephas (Peter) or Christ you have way more authority than Paul or Apollos!  But Paul calls this for what it is: if you think you have the moral high ground just because you claim Christ and turn him into a leader of your faction, you are sadly mistaken.  You think that makes you right?  Christ can not be divided.  Christ is “faction-less”.

If we want to follow Christ, we must follow Christ.  You can’t follow another faction leader or even their ideals.  You can’t divide Christ and claim him for your faction.  You can’t slander the leaders of other factions.  You can’t slander or quarrel with members of a different faction.  If you are followers of Christ, you must love one another in the midst of your differences and you must stop tearing each other down.  This is Paul’s central lesson in 1 Corinthians.  “You have divisions…okay; but what are those divisions rooted in?  Your faction’s belief system?  That is not what I taught you.”  Christ is not a faction and he is our primary leader.  Christ gets the highest allegiance over every other leader.  No one gets more loyalty than Christ…not Paul, not Apollos, not Cephas, and not any other earthly leader.  Only Christ…and we don’t get to divide Christ’s teachings into what we like and the what we don’t like.  We must follow his teachings and embody his actions.  We must remind ourselves of the greatest commandment he gave us and lay the rest down at his feet.

  • First reflection: How much of our quarrel, slander, emotional frustration, division, etc. is rooted in one of our factions?  Can we acknowledge that we are part of a faction that influences us more than Jesus’ teachings? (nationalism, political party, ideology, denominational, etc.). These are questions we can only answer for ourselves if we hope to be transformed by Christ.  It starts with me.

The second thought has to do with HOW we deal with our divisions.  Have you noticed how frustrating it becomes engaging in discussions trying to outdo one another with facts, resources, words, definitions, history, and laws?  You say something, I counter with another fact, you counter back, I counter back…it escalates and escalates and all we are left with is bitterness and frustration.  We try to out enlighten one another…as if some report or study or quote will convert the person we disagree with.  We post a new article from our favorite faction-news-outlet and…BOOM!  (Mic drop…walk off stage).  It doesn’t work that way.  Why?  Because as long as we have loyalty to a faction, whatever that faction is, we will remain loyal.  Our worldview will not be changed by any human argument against it as long as our allegiance is locked in.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  His quote evolved into, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  Use all the articles and news reports you want from your faction outlets.  Those who disagree with you will discount them before they even read them.  There will be no boom.  There will be no mic drop.  Just more frustration and anger.

This is what Paul addresses to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use “words” to argue divisions or try to solve the problem.  Words won’t work.  Paul knows the same words that created the problems can’t solve the problems.  Paul wrote, “when I came to you, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…I decided to know nothing but Christ and him crucified…my speech and proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.”  Paul realized he had to shine a light on the demonstration of the Spirit, not words.  He reminds them that he didn’t proclaim Christ with words but with the power of God.  Corinthians were brilliant, cosmopolitan people…words alone would not convert them.  Paul did not depend upon the wisdom of the “rulers of the age” (whether philosophical or political), instead he pointed to the things taught to by the Spirit…spiritual things modeled in loving action…things embodied by the life and teachings of Christ, revealed by the power of God.

  • Second reflection:  In what ways do we depend on words, teachings, eloquent rebuttals, news stories, research data, etc. to try to convince other factions they are wrong?  Are we willing to admit that we look for information and listen to the voices of our own “factions”?  Can we see the fallacy of depending on the wisdom of the rulers of the world to try to change other peoples views?  How do Paul’s words challenge those of us struggling with divisions in our own country and our churches?  What would it look like to discuss our differences in a new ways that could reveal the power of God and build unity?

Let me close with some honest admission paraphrasing Paul.  Here is a trustworthy saying: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  When I am a bad Christian, my struggle is being a part of the Christ faction.  I have to constantly test my loyalties to make sure I haven’t made Christ the co-opted, claimed leader of my own faction.  All Christians, good and bad, should wrestle with this.  Paul wrote these words to me…but I thought I’d share them with you:

“Do not deceive yourselves.  If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God…so let no one boast of human leaders…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  

— 1 Corinthians 3:18-23

Unity

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.  I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  – Messiah Jesus, John 17:17-23

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My daughter Maddie’s picture under The Cloud Gate Sculpture in Chicago – surrounded by people from across the globe.

Unity.  What does it even mean? The dictionary says, “the quality or state of not being multiple; a condition of harmony; the quality or state of being made one.” But for United Methodist Christians the word is laden with different meanings.  As the United Methodist Church struggles with actual unity, the word ‘unity’ has been co-opted.  Some refer to it as a ‘totem’, a ‘code word for mushy moderates’, ‘an idol’, ‘selling out full justice’, and ‘a holy-sounding argument for those who want to avoid the issue altogether’.

I have a different perspective on unity.  It is rooted in my understanding of scripture and the experience in the context I serve.  Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas is unique.  It is actually a collection of diverse worship communities (churches) who live out their faith as ONE church.  The Sanctuary, Mercy Street, Contemplative, Upper Room, The Branch, Fair Haven, and Holy Family are each very different.  Most people who spend a weekend with us and visit our differing services realize this is not their parent’s church.  Different lead pastors, different contexts, and really diverse people.

Our worship community pastors, the lead pastors of each community, are a tight-knit group.  We really love each other, we spend a lot of time together, and we are very different:  Male, female, white, black, hispanic, asian, young, old, married, and single.  We come from different parts of the country and we’ve been educated in different schools.  We have all been formed by different experiences.  There is very little ‘uniformity’.  But there is a deep unity.

Last week, we met to discuss how we want the Holy Spirit to help us lead Chapelwood through the next few years as the UMC struggles with the issues before us.  We started with our own stories.  We shared our personal beliefs on the issues surrounding scripture, the life of Christ, marriage, sexuality, gender, and many other issues.  We’ve had these conversations before, but we were very intentional this time to press each other to go as deep as possible with our struggles, beliefs, and dreams for our church.  When we finished, a few things were clear to me:

  • We do not all see the issues the same way and we do not all long for the same outcomes…
  • We are currently wrestling with many of the issues…
  • We love the people we serve and we grieve knowing there are people on all sides of these issues in our communities – some who may find staying in the UMC difficult…

And, with all the differences we shared, we left our time together with more commitment and love toward each other than when we started.  The power of the Holy Spirit actually pulled us together – not apart – as we shared our different stories and our different dreams for the church.  I left more focused on Christ.  Jesus was glorified in our sharing.

And this is just one reason why I wholeheartedly disagree with people who say unity is some type of totem, excuse to avoid conflict, or excuse to exclude others.  Unity is not the end…the glory of Christ is the end…unity is the means by which we get there.  Unity is very challenging.  People who claim unity is an excuse to avoid conflict have never actually contended for honest unity in a diverse community.  It is far easier to draw bold lines in the sand, state what you believe, and then stand far removed on one side of the issue.

I do not fear schism and separation in our denomination.  Why?  Because it’s easy.  It is intellectually and spiritually lazy.  And it relieves the tension of the day (until the next issue arises).  Schism is definitely messy, but it’s not horrifying.

You want to know what I fear?  Unity.  I fear, revere, dread, cherish, dismay, exalt, and esteem unity.  Why?  Because unity means I have to give and take, live and die, learn and be taught.  It requires deep humility, love, and grace – things I don’t always do well with.  I am blessed to live in a community that seeks to live into the prayer Jesus prayed.  And my prayer is that ‘we also may be sanctified in truth…that we may all be one…so that the world may believe that God sent Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.’

God’s Will and Messy Faith

Colossians 1:9-10
9For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

This past Sunday, I announced that our family will be moving this summer to serve as the next Senior Pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.  It was an emotionally difficult day announcing we are leaving Wesley at Frederica.  We love Wesley.  We love the people of the church.  We love the community.  Ministry together over the past five years has been deeply rewarding, encouraging, and powerful.  As I shared with the congregation, I am better because I have served Wesley.  Wesley made me better than I ever thought I could be.

I shared Sunday the difficulty of the decision.  How do we discern God’s Will when confronted with two wonderful opportunities?  Deciding between the clearly right and the wrong things should be easy (although, I recognize sometimes it can be a hard decision as well), but how do you go through the process of discerning between two great choices?  Is there only one right path?  Will God only bless the one and not the other?  I didn’t do as good a job explaining Sunday as I hoped to due to the nature of the day.  But let me explain a little more how I believe discernment between two good choices works.

As Wesleyan Methodists, we don’t believe in “determinism” – that God scripts every action, every step, and every move of our lives.  Determinism says we don’t really have choice, we just have the perception that we choose, but God scripts everything.  We see this in language when we say, “It’s all God’s Will,” or “God knows what He’s doing,” or “it’s all in God’s plan.”  This understanding is rooted in a different strand of theological thought than Wesley’s theology.

Others believe God creates the world, sets it in motion and stands back never involved in the creation.  It just operates like a clock that has been wound up and let loose.  Called deists by some, they understand God to be the great Clock Maker.  God is not involved in our lives.  We have total freedom and we can choose any path we want.

A more balanced approach is rooted in our Wesleyan theology.  We believe God is actively involved in our lives.  But we also believe give gives us the freedom to choose.  Freedom of choice can sometimes disrupt God’s purposes for us, but choice also allows us to love God more perfectly.  After all, how can it really be love if have no choice?

Thomas Merton wrote, “A [person] who is afraid to settle their future by a good act of their own free choice does not understand the love of God.  For our freedom is a gift of God given us in order that He may be able to love us more perfectly, and be loved by us more perfectly in return….He Who loves us means to leave us room for our own freedom so that we may dare to choose for ourselves, with no other certainty than that His love will be pleased by our intention to please Him.”

And that is the key…when confronted by two great choices; we are given the freedom to choose.  I truly believe God is involved and can work with us in either choice.  I believe God is pleased by either choice as long as it is our desire to please God.  We use a lot of factors to make our decisions…meditating on scripture, prayer, contemplative listening, listening to wise counsel, watching for opportunities, and sometimes miraculous signs!

The hard part in my decision to leave Wesley and serve Chapelwood is that I had to choose.  That can cause anger and hurt.  This is why in the Methodist Church we Methodist preachers like to have the Bishop simply appoint us.  That way we don’t have to accept any responsibility for moving.  We can let all the anger project on the Bishop and Cabinet.  It is also easier to talk with “deterministic” language about this decision.  God desires this and God led me and it is God’s will.  After all, you can’t be mad at me if God is the one pulling all the strings!

The complexity of discerning God’s will when we face good choices is evident.  My counsel to you is to spend time in prayer, spend time in God’s scriptures, talk to those you look up to and admire spiritually (seek those who are on both sides of the choice), spend time listening to God, and listen to your family.  Then, when time comes…make a decision, know God can work in and bless either choice.

This has been a difficult decision, but I truly see God in it.  I am excited about going to Texas to serve with the wonderful people of Chapelwood, but I am also grieving at the thought of leaving behind the wonderful people of Wesley.

This is a part of the journey, my friends.  As my friend Samuel Ghartey used to say, “I am struggling peacefully, my friend.  I am struggling peacefully.”

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.

 

Here for a Reason…

Read Acts 16:9-15

As Luke tells the story of the birth of the Christian church, he wants to make two things clear. The sharing of the Gospel to the Gentiles is something approved by the Spirit and by the Jerusalem Church. The vision we read about today is God’s approval for mission to Macedonia.

There are two great lessons here:

First, God Calls Us to Listen to the Spirit……
What do you do when you are stymied in life? When things just seem shut to you? How you answer this question tells us a lot about you. I think the general advice we receive from the culture is to press forward with determination and break through on our own. After all, we can’t let little obstacles get in our path, can we? We know that those who achieve most are often the most determined and focused, and so the “lesson” seems to be that when obstacles arise, keep going. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard TV preachers say, “You’ve got to turn those stumbling blocks into stepping stones!!”

But that’s not the message God gives Paul. When Paul was blocked, he stopped and listened. When you get blocked or stymied, you might try one more time to see what’s what, but if blocked again, then it’s time to listen. We are so busy trying to overcome everything that we never stop, pray and listen.  A lot of the time we don’t listen because we are afraid. We think, ‘if I really took some time to listen to where God is leading me, what kind of life would I be led to?’ Take Paul here as a guide and spend more time listening than proclaiming; more time in developing ears that hear.

Second, God Calls Us to Look for Opportunities….
Paul went into Macedonia and sought out the people who would be receptive. Paul’s experience in mission illustrates for us how useful it is not only to be spiritually attuned to the world around us but also to be practically-minded.  In the passage, Paul goes to where the seekers gather.  He was strategic.  And we find, as in this case, that God opens a way where we only thought there may have been opposition.

I will tell you that since I arrived at Wesley United Methodist Church at Frederica in 2009, we’ve accomplished a lot.  But all along the way I have to tell you that I have  done a lot of prayerful listening. I have been listening to the Spirit and waiting for the clear, unifying vision God has for us. What I have found as I talk to so many of you is this:  Some of us have a clear vision for God’s work in the world around you and you have been at work. Others of us know Wesley should be engaged in mission, but it hasn’t always been clear enough to motivate at an organizational level. Others of you, as you have shared with me honestly, are having a hard time listening to the Spirit and seeing the opportunities because of the debt of the church. I can understand all three of these responses.

Retiring the debt has been a top priority for us since 2009, which is why we have made such wonderful progress. What gives me great hope and excitement is this: If we can rally to pay down our debt by $3.3 million in 4 years, just image what this church can do out of debt with a clear and compelling vision from God for this community and world?

I am excited for our future. I hope you can see that God is working among us. When this debt is no longer a limitation, I truly believe God will open the floodgates toward transforming our community.