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?

Reflections from the National Gathering of the Orders of Elders

On February 1-3, 2011, the Rev. Karen Kilhefner (South Georgia’s Chair of Deacons) and I journeyed to Orlando, Florida for the National Gathering of the Orders of Elders, Deacons, and Local Pastors. Approximately 80 gathered to discuss three major study reports from General Conference and engage in a time of visioning. There is agreement at every level that the United Methodist Church must recapture its core mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. On the first night, we discussed three current major General Conference reports.

The Call to Action Report (www.umc.org/calltoaction) – This ambitious report calls for challenge and change at every level of the church. It includes a radical confession: we have not taken upon ourselves the yoke of obedience and we have not done all we can to make disciples. We have pursued self-interest. We allow institutional inertia to bind us. A few key recommendations of the Call to Action report are: 1) We need to focus on lay and clergy leadership development to train strong, courageous, and collaborative leaders. If the church is to be transformed, it starts with each one of us – making a difference where we are every day. 2) We must have vital congregations. What are vital congregations? The Towers Watson Report, sponsored by the commission, detailed characteristics that vital congregations all share; effective pastoral leadership, multiple small groups for all ages, mix of traditional and contemporary worship styles, a high percentage of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership in the local church and beyond, topical preaching, and longer pastoral appointments. 3) We must have measurable goals and meet them. What should we measure? The top measurables are; growth in worship attendance and small groups (including children and youth), cultivating increases in stewardship, growing spirituality and leadership of laity, longer tenure for pastors, and more dedication to missional tasks.

The Ministry Study Commission Report (www.gbhem.org/ministrystudy) While this study looks at many aspects of ministry, the two issues that led to the most discussion at our gathering were in the areas of ordination and guaranteed appointments. 1) Ordination – The Study calls for the church to once again change our ordination process. They recommend doing away with ‘commissioning’. They want ordination as ‘elder’ to occur earlier, taking the place of what we now call ‘commissioning’. Once ordained an elder, there are still two years of evaluation. After two years, there is an interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry. If approved, the already ordained elder would then become a ‘full member’ of the conference. There were many questions and concerns about this at the national gathering. Is membership in an annual conference of greater importance than ordination? A large reason for our concern and confusion was the commission’s rationale for making the change. The commission believes our current system of ‘commissioning’ is confusing to our members and to other denominations. Many of us felt this was not a well grounded rationale to make this change; especially since their theological statement for the report is extremely sparse and gives no understanding of our Methodist understanding of ordination. We wanted to see more work on the theology of ordination, or else another group may come and recommend change again in four years! 2) Guaranteed Appointments – The Ministry Study Commission is calling for the General Church and conferences to define effectiveness and use measurable outcomes to determine if clergy should be transitioned out – basically, the church will do away with guaranteed appointments. In our discussions, we raised the issue that the Discipline currently has a process for exiting ineffective clergy – we just never use it. The commission calls it cumbersome and long. But, instead of refining the current process and keeping guaranteed appointments, the report recommendation is to create and craft a new exiting program and remove the guarantee of appointment altogether.

The Church Systems Task Force (found at www.gbophb.org)is primarily focused on how church systems affect clergy health and well-being. It lists many negative health factors in our church such as; stress of the appointive process, job satisfaction, personal finances, lack of friends, and (my favorite) poor eating habits due to work in churches. I can assure that I did not vote against pot-luck dinners or fried chicken!

Idea sharing and visioning were also a large part of our gathering. Some conferences are attempting to push for ‘renewal leaves’ in their conferences – mandated leaves in the year that a pastor moves to a new church or every six years if they are not moving. Another idea some conferences are pursuing is a 360 degree review process for ordained elders. This evaluation process would take place every five years and include: church feedback, peer feedback, supervisory feedback, psychological feedback and even a credit check (financial feedback). As conferences work to set standards for effectiveness, these types of reviews may be more common.

The South Georgia Order of Elders – I am proud to tell you that South Georgia is one of the leaders along with several other conferences in establishing new, supportive connections for elders. During the clergy session of the 2011 Annual Conference, I will update you on our S3 program and discuss several new South Georgia initiatives for clergy. Here’s a peek:

S3 – The S3 program started last year by the Order of Elders is building new groups for deep, authentic connection rooted in accountability and support. Two new groups were formed in 2010 and two more groups will be selected to begin in the summer of 2011. South Georgia currently has six S3 groups totaling 40 elders and deacons – that is about 18% of our actively serving ordained clergy!

Covenant Care for Clergy – A Covenant Care Team is being formed as I write this article. This team will be fellow clergy who give leadership and intentionality as Care Guides. They will connect and create small groups for clergy. We will also utilize retired elders as spiritual mentors/guides to support active clergy through encouragement and prayer. All this will be directed by our Covenant Care Team, a part of the Order of Elders.

Leadership Cultivation Project– We are working on a new project for elders in South Georgia that will help cultivate leadership skills for effectiveness in the local church – particularly as it relates to revitalizing mid-life, mature, and declining congregations. The focus will be on two categories of leaders – new elders (1-5 years) and elders in mid-ministry (approximately 15-20 years). This year-long group will include teaching, mentoring, and engagement in an actual learning project in their local church that the participant designs. Effective leadership can be learned!

Annual Gathering of the Order of Elders– I am also working to make the dream of an annual elders gathering a reality. In addition to special speakers, there will be time for idea-sharing, community building and Sabbath together. You will hear more about this soon.

I believe strongly that if our denomination is to become all God wants us to be, we must act. We cannot wait on General Boards, Bishops, or Superintendents to do this work for us. It is time for the clergy to lead in South Georgia and beyond. Lord, enable us to start a movement and change the world!

S3 for South Georgia – A Sanctuary in Time

“S3 has helped me develop the discipline and self-awareness to have an eye on my reserves. I believe that this is an important guard against burnout.”

– Rev. Dr. Jimmy Asbell


“. . .the difference between wandering through a barren land all alone or travelling with deeply loyal friends…”

– Rev. Creede Hinshaw


“What I did not know when we first began was that the time we would spend together investing in building relationship with God and each other would spill over into ministry and life.”

– Rev. Teresa Edwards


“The luxury of spending two or three days with people you respect, trust, and love has been a real gift. It has given us a safe place to fall and a nurturing place to grow.”

– Rev. Karen Kilhefner

I continue to grow in my understanding of Sabbath. As an ordained United Methodist elder, I continually experience the deep need for margin and reserves in my life. I don’t control when the crises will inundate me. As I pastor, I try to focus on the urgent needs of the week. Unfortunately, the reality of ministry tends to be extremely chaotic. Just two weeks ago, three tragedies struck in one day. But I was not overwhelmed. I was ready to minister. How? I am learning to remember and observe Sabbath practice.

I wish I could tell you that came naturally. It does not. My cultivation of Sabbath came through a unique blessing called S3. The S3 learning experience offered me and seven other elders from South Georgia the opportunity to create a sanctuary in time – providing a Sabbath environment for us. Through the S3 program, we were afforded a significant amount of time together over a two year period. Through Sabbath, study, and service (S3), the experience created deep relationships with God and one another.

We studied Centering Prayer. While other members of my group thought I didn’t get that much out of the prayer videos, the experience has broadened my spiritual practice. I am a better and deeper preacher. It encouraged me to develop contemplative practices in the local church. It transformed my ministry.

We gathered for Sabbath experience five times per year for two years. We played golf. We ceased labor. We experienced the gift of life and friendship. We laughed, ate, drank, and shared our lives with each other. Even though we no longer receive funding, we still meet three times per year. The same is true for every other S3 group!

We committed to service by mentoring new S3 groups. Our group started new groups in South Georgia and we are now laying the groundwork for birthing the S3 program in South Georgia.

S3 speaks for itself. Take time to call up and ask a S3 participant (South Georgia has 20 graduates), “What difference has this made in your life and in your church?” Every single one will tell you it has been effective and powerful.

If you are a lay person, encourage your ordained elder to participate. Give them the time and support to engage fully in S3. It will make all the difference in their life and it will make a difference in your church.

Very soon, we will have detailed information, a helpful video for churches and clergy, and an application on the conference website, http://www.sgaumc.org