The Indianapolis Plan :: All Things New…Or Some Things?

Last week, The Indianapolis Plan – Basic Provisions was released to the United Methodist Church.  It was designed by a group of United Methodists  – ‘traditionalist, centrist, and progressive’ (I will use these terms for shared understanding realizing some, including me, think they are easily misused and limited). The facilitators were Kent Millard, Darren Cushman-Wood, and Keith Boyette. I was invited to participate in this group as one of the centrists.  Over the coming days, I will share my thoughts on the Indy Plan, speak to some of the strengths of the plan, and point to some of its weaknesses.  I will also point to what I believe are the biggest obstacles.  I hope the comments you share on social media and on this blog will be helpful in not only refining the Indy Plan as we continue our work but help all of United Methodism find a way forward.  I think it would be helpful for General Conference delegates if you share your thoughts related to what the future needs to look like for Wesleyan Methodism around the world.  I will be faithful to post all comments that are helpful and none that are harmful on this blog.  We welcome feedback.

Basic Provisions – with my reflections following:

  1. The 2020 General Conference of the United Methodist Church would birth a Traditionalist United Methodist Church and a Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church. (Names are placeholders; each new denomination would choose their own name. Both can use “The United Methodist Church” with a modifier to distinguish the two if they so desire)
    1. I am not sure that the General Conference can “birth” a new denomination, but a new denomination can be formed – by the WCA, for example –  and the General Conference can create legislation that allows annual conferences, local churches, jurisdictions, and central conferences a mechanism to join a new expression.  
    2. I prefer the wording, “birth a new Traditional United Methodist Church and reform/renew the UMC into a new Centrist/Progressive expression of the United Methodist Church.  This is more in alignment with number 2 – “the United Methodist Church would not be dissolved but have its legal continuation through the Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church.”
    3. One of the big obstacles we struggled with – and still do today if you keep up with social media and the various plans/ideas – is the way we define what we are doing with our words.  ‘Form follows function’ for each of the plan you will see lifted up.  If a group simply wants one side to leave, the plan will come across as cold and unkind, seeking to put the departing group at a disadvantage.  If the plan creators truly believe we need to birth new expressions, well…the form will reflect that.  It is important to me that we give serious consideration to the many thousands of churches out that are stuck in inertia – they don’t want to deal with this, they don’t want to change, they don’t want to vote (it is easy to dismiss them, but we can’t – many are ‘sheep without a shepherd’ in this).  I often advocate for as little change as possible (I have been called an ‘institutionalist’ in all this, which is really funny to those who know me well).  I’m starting with “what” – the product.  That’s not a bad thing.  It is actually kind and empathetic to the needs of United Methodists all around the world that fear the unknown change.  But in this process, I am also confronted with the vision…the “why”…or better stated, what new thing does God desire in this?  We all have to ask ourselves some deep questions about what we want to see on the other side.  I found that traditionalists and progressives actually share a lot in common in this area.  They align on vision more than they think – they are reformers and not afraid to operate without nets.  Centrists – like me – desire more stability.  We need all of these voices together.  There is value in stability, but we also need resurrection and transformation.  I’m rambling now, so I will move on…
    4. In all the ‘plans’ you will read, ask this: Is one group leaving and everyone else staying?  Is everyone being asked to move into something ‘new’.  In our early conversations as everyone brought ‘their’ plans and advocated for them, it was obvious that the traditionalists wanted a way forward that has everyone entering into something ‘new’.  It is no secret they wanted dissolution (but so did some progressives, to be honest).  The centrists at the table said, “dissolution of the church is a non-starter” (see paragraph above).  It benefits centrists to have the UMC remain intact – inertia, kindness, empathy for so many churches out there.  It benefits traditionalists to have everyone choose something new – more churches would face a binary choice and we all know there are deeper issues to consider – it is not binary. 
    5. The assumption by many centrists and progressives is, “WCA has wanted to leave for 20 years”, so why don’t they just leave.  In my opinion, the United Methodist Church is in a very different place than other mainline churches in the US that have separated over this issue.  Whether we agree with it or not, the United Methodist position on marriage and ordination is still a traditional position.  I know, I know…many in the US do not agree and will live in opposition, but it is still the law of the church.  In other denominations, the position on homosexuality CHANGED and the conservative/traditionalists had to leave on principle…they lost, and they left.  The same thing would have happened in the UMC had the Simple Plan or One Church Plan passed in February 2019.  The WCA would have formed a new denomination and they would have left because they would have lost.  But the Traditional Plan passed.  This puts the UMC and the WCA in a different position than our Presbyterian or Episcopalian friends.  How do you win the vote and then turn around and leave?  No one does that, but we expect WCA and Good News to do that.  The UMC is also a global church.  The voices from around the world matter.  Much of the UM global church doesn’t want a dissolution, they don’t want to leave, but they also want a traditional view of marriage.  How do we simply disregard their voices?  We will have to find ways to compromise where all voices are heard.  One does not have to agree with what I am saying, but we must strive to understand it if we are to find common ground. 
    6. This is why the Indianapolis Group landed on NOT dissolving the United Methodist Church, but did agree that we ALL need to enter into new expressions.  
      1. There are a lot of people saying the Indy Plan is ‘dissolution’.  We obviously define the word differently.  I have always opposed dissolution and still do.  People may not like the plan, but I’m not sure it can be defined as a plan of dissolution.  If the denomination is simply renamed (remove United), if we remove the restrictive language, we keep all boards and agencies intact, we continue to remain connected to Central Conferences (those that don’t choose to leave), the General Conference remains as is, Judicial Council remains, Council of Bishops remain, episcopacy is the same, Jurisdictions, Constitution, all remain as they are right now – the Book of Discipline is exactly the same minus the restrictions against LGBTQ+ folk…I don’t define that as dissolution (the reformation will come after the separation).  The traditionalists really wanted dissolution and when we said no, they moved to half-dissolution.  When we said no, they wanted to dissolve boards and agencies.  We said no.  I will give them credit.  They realized that we were not going to agree to dissolution, that the global church doesn’t have the stomach for it, it would be filled with legal complications, and it would not pass at General Conference.  It would also cause everyone to dismiss the Indy Plan from the beginning.  The traditionalists moved a lot on this point.  The language ‘new expressions’ for everyone was a compromise, but we also felt it represents the vision God has for all of us to enter into something new.
      2. I have already stated in previous post my rationale against dissolution so I won’t repeat it here (although I may repeat it again in the future).
    7. Finally, I am a fan of simply renaming the United Methodist Church, “The Methodist Church” (which I believe we have legal ownership of, but I am not sure.)  Everyone agrees the UMC needs some radical reformation.  The removal of restrictive language in the Discipline on marriage and ordination alone makes us a very different denomination…and we are longer “United”.  I personally don’t have a problem dropping ‘United’.  Any church sign in the US can keep United Methodist if the stay in The Methodist Church.  There won’t be a squad roaming around policing signs.  The new, birthed traditional expression will obviously brand themselves to differentiate.

So I end with provision number 2:  The United Methodist Church would not be dissolved but would have its legal continuation through the Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church.

Next Up :: Two, Three, Four, or More?

The Indianapolis Plan: The Introductory Paragraphs

Last week, The Indianapolis Plan – Basic Provisions was released to the United Methodist Church.  It was designed by a group of United Methodists  – ‘traditionalist, centrist, and progressive’ (I will use these terms for shared understanding realizing some, including me, think they are easily misused and limited). The facilitators were Kent Millard, Darren Cushman-Wood, and Keith Boyette. I was invited to participate in this group as one of the centrists.  Over the coming days, I will share my thoughts on the Indy Plan, speak to some of the strengths of the plan, and point to some of its weaknesses.  I will also point to what I believe are the biggest obstacles.  I hope the comments you share on social media and on this blog will be helpful in not only refining the Indy Plan as we continue our work, but help all of United Methodism find a way forward.  My hope is that we won’t spend time arguing over human sexuality.  I think we all realize we don’t agree which is why we are discussing separation.  I think it would be more helpful for General Conference delegates if you share your thoughts related to what the future needs to look like for Wesleyan Methodism around the world.  I will be faithful to post all comments that are helpful and none that are harmful on this blog.

The two introductory paragraphs were written to frame our work.  Here they are with some reflections added:

“The 2019 special General Conference of The United Methodist Church highlighted the depth of the irreconcilable differences present in the UM Church.”

  • Everyone agrees that February 2019 was painful for everyone.  Once the Traditional Plan passed, the entire auditorium in St. Louis was filled with pain and anger.  GC19 was a battleground with little room for compromise.  In the days and months following, we realized we need to do something different.  Most people I know don’t want a repeat of GC19.  But we must be honest here…there are those on both sides that are more than willing to fight again if they feel they are not being treated fairly.  This is why we are attempting a larger conversation.

“We seek to envision a new future for the people of the UM Church, offer a different narrative, and avoid further harm to one another, to the UM Church and its members, to the church universal, and to those with whom we strive to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We desire to move away from the vitriol and caustic atmosphere that has too often marked conversation in the UM Church and move into a new season where for the sake of Christ we strive to bless one another, even as we send one another into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness to Christ.”

  • Two items here:
  • First, we are all seeking a new future, but we are stuck together as we work it out.  We don’t have a Pope and the only body that can work a solution is General Conference.  We have to get this right.  I believe a simpler solution with fewer petitions has the highest probability of success.  Harm has been done and is being done.  The disagreements are irreconcilable.  We agree we have to find some type of separation – whether they be new expressions, one group leaving, disaffiliations, or dissolution (we discussed all of these).  If we can bless one another in our parting, that would be a wonderful witness to the world…but that can only happen if we find some shared agreement on how to create sufficient separation.  If it becomes a fight with a win/lose mindset, I am concerned about the damage not only in the UMC but the damage of our witness to the world.  
  • Second, ‘respective mission fields’ makes sense if we are talking geography, but it doesn’t make sense theologically…at least not to me.  I would rather say we are sending one another out to be faithful in our witness to Christ and multiply the kingdom of God.  ‘Respective’ is defined as ‘belonging or relating separately to each of two or more things’.  For me, the mission fields we enter into are not separate to the new expressions.  We may reach and teach those we meet differently, but it’s all the same patch of ground.

“We envision the UM Church birthing new expressions that will share a common heritage from the roots of Methodism, unbound from the conflict that has decimated the UM Church.”

  • Decimated is harsh word.  For those of us who have been immersed in the conflict or harmed by one another, this may be accurate.  But there are many churches that are doing good ministry, sharing the Gospel, reaching people, loving people, engaging needs, and embodying grace.  The work of the church has continued and will continue.  There are a lot of churches in the US and around the globe that are vibrant.  There are churches on both sides of this disagreement that are doing well…and there are churches on both sides of this disagreement that are struggling.  
  • We must recognize there are many issues causing United Methodist decline – not just our disagreement on human sexuality.  We need separation but only so we can devote time and energy into the other limiting factors that keep us from reaching people for Christ.

“These new expressions, though separate, will continue the rich heritage of the Methodist movement as currently expressed in the UM Church while being freed to present the best of who they are and their respective witnesses for Christ unhindered by those with whom they have been in conflict. We will send one another to our respectively defined missions and multiply as each expression reaches its mission field. In doing so, we will love one another even in the midst of our sharp disagreements. We will release one another to joyful obedience to Christ’s call on our lives.”

  • I’ve already spoken to “respectively defined missions” and “its mission field”.  See above.  
  • As to new ‘expressions’…
  • In our Indy group, we are of one mind on the need for separation.  We are not of one mind on the best way to separate.  We each have different desires and goals as to what a separation will mean for those we attempt to represent.  
  • We discussed dissolution of the denomination.  I am not in favor of dissolution.  The Indy Plan is not dissolution but we had to work hard to get there.  I commend those who deeply desired dissolution and how they realized it was not a realistic path forward for us.  My concerns with dissolution are rooted in its complexity and unforeseen consequences.  If something doesn’t go right, we can’t come back and fix it.  Our UM polity forces us to make this as simple as we can.  The UMC may dissolve someday, but that needs to be an organic process…not legislated without significant time and study.  
  • Dissolution would be long and messy, fraught with legal battles.  We believe we need a plan that moves forward quickly and can be accomplished at GC2020.  Churches and members on all sides desire relief now.
  • Dissolution could not address the massive inertia in many of our local churches.  Many churches don’t want to vote, don’t want to leave, don’t want to change what they are doing, and don’t want to deal with this issue.  We can judge that however we want, but it is an organizational and cultural axiom that has more power than we realize.  One may call it institutionalism, inertia, fear, apathy, or laziness…but it is real.  Who will bring along the thousands of churches that won’t know how to move forward if the UMC is dissolved?  How would that happen?  Many could default into a camp that is not a good fit…then we have to go through this all again?
  • If the UMC stays intact, the General Conference, GCF&A, and other entities will have the authority to implement each part of separation including any allocation of assets. General Conference cannot begin a new denomination, but it can pass legislation that would allow annual conferences to choose to depart the UMC.  I will discuss more details on all this in upcoming posts since it is included in the provisions without a lot of detail.

Up Next: All Things New…Or Some Things?

I hope this will inspire you to share your thoughts, concerns, and questions not only for our group, but to assist all General Conference delegates as they prepare for their work in 2020.

The Indianapolis Plan – My Experience

This week, The Indianapolis Plan – Basic Provisions was released to the United Methodist Church.  It was designed by a group of UMs  – ‘traditionalist, centrist, and progressive’ (I will use these terms for shared understanding realizing some, including me, think they are easily misused and limited). The facilitators were Kent Millard, Darren Cushman-Wood, and Keith Boyette. I was invited to participate in this group as one of the centrists.    My simple definition of a centrist is a compatibilist – whether center-left or center-right – we had both as our part of the centrists on the Indy team.  I attempted to represent the many centrist pastors and churches I have known and currently know who have differing views on marriage and ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons, but long to remain unified as one church in the midst of our disagreements. My hope has always been that we could remain unified as a church – even in the midst of our differences on many issues.  I realize that is not possible for some in our denomination.  Therefore, I believe some type of separation is needed in order for us to focus on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I have not blogged much the past two years or more because I have focused work in my local congregation.  I wanted to do my best to prepare Chapelwood UMC in Houston, Texas for the many possibilities in our future.  Chapelwood has always been a cutting edge, inclusive church in many ways. Chapelwood is very diverse with differing views on human sexuality, worshiping on multiple campuses, all while reaching multiple contexts and demographics.  Over the past couple of years, we peacefully struggled together regarding our understanding as a church on this issue, as well as other issues.  We do not all agree, but we do agree that we want to be a church where all are welcome and included in life and ministry.

Over the coming days, I will share my thoughts on the Indy Plan, speak to some of the strengths of the plan, and point to some of its weaknesses.  I will also point to what I believe are the biggest obstacles.  I hope the comments you share will be helpful in not only refining the Indy Plan as we continue our work, but help all of United Methodism to find a way forward.  My hope is that we won’t spend time arguing over human sexuality.  I think we all realize we don’t agree which is why we are discussing separation.  I think it would be more helpful for General Conference delegates if you share your thoughts related to what the future needs to look like for Wesleyan Methodism around the world.  I will be faithful to post all comments that are helpful and none that are harmful on this blog.

Before I discuss the actual plan (in the soon to follow posts), let me begin by sharing my experience of those who gathered for this work.

We all came in with our assumptions and positions.  We prayed.  We shared Holy Communion.  We advocated.  We laid down ‘non-negotiables’.  We tried to define our constituencies.  We listened.  We struggled.  We had to take time apart.  We shed some tears at the weight of the whole thing.  Whatever anyone says about someone (caucuses or individuals), you don’t really know their heart until you share a meal and a beer with them – I’m talking about me drinking beer…not anyone else.  I honestly believe that each person was open to the process.  I made friends with those I disagree with on these issues.  I don’t know where it all lands, but we strived to not operate by the toxic political structure of our world.  It is important to me that we embody God’s grace as we receive it to those who need it.  I felt God’s grace extended to me.  I hope I extended it to them.

Simply put, this has not been easy or fun.  But the people who gathered are seeking a way to live into the future that is faithful with their beliefs.  There are more voices needed around the table.  I will tell you there were other voices and other caucuses that spoke into this process.  I won’t share the extent…I will leave that to them.  I want every person in that room to be my brother and sister in the same church, but I realize that won’t happen in the same denomination.  For now, we struggle with a way forward that creates space for people to live faithfully.

Next Up:  The Introductory Paragraphs

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.”

Sabbath and Multitasking

Multitasking is a word that has taken on new life in the last 20 years with the advent of computers and smart phones that run multiple programs at once.  When I first started in ministry in 1993, the church office computer was still running MS-DOS for our word processing with floppy disks (talk about feeling old).  While I would never want to go back to those days, I remember that it took a little while to set my word processing up and get started.  The idea that I would switch to another program before I was finished was crazy.  The only thing that interrupted me was the telephone.

This morning as I write this, I am working on a PC that has 5 open programs running at the same time while my iPhone is on speakerphone attending a Board of Trustees meeting for Magnolia Manor.  My iPhone alert just went off as I write telling me not to forget to call a church member when I finish.  I am literally doing 5 things at the same time.  (Whether I am effective at those things is up for debate).

Recently, I read an article on (here) that discussed the pros and cons of multitasking vs. unitasking.  The truth is we are more focused and productive when we are focused on one thing at a time…but that is not the world we live in.  We all struggle to slow down and focus on the things that matter.

In his book, Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Michael Lerner says that anyone who sets out to engage in a disciplined practice of Sabbath can expect a rough ride for a couple of years at least. This is because Sabbath involves pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness, none of which comes naturally to us with in our culture with our technology.  Most of us are so sold on speed, so invested in productivity, so convinced that multitasking is the way of life that stopping for one whole day can feel at first like a kind of death.

Personally, when I work I am glad to be able to multitask.  The problem is this multitasking mentality is hard to break out of on my days of Sabbath.  I find myself on the golf course or with my family or alone in reflection on my day off replying to text messages and emails.  I convince myself “just one text/email more and I will be finished” or “this one is very important”.

What would my Sabbath look like if I could totally unplug?  What would people think if they couldn’t get in touch with me as fast as they think they should?  What happens if it takes me three hours to return a text message?  All of these worries wage war against the practice of Sabbath.

After reflection, I discovered that what I am doing is multitasking my Sabbath.  I really should be unitasking my Sabbath to experience it as God commands.  How can I really experience God, pleasure, rest, freedom and slowness when I multitask Sabbath?

It may be time for me to die to some of the technological crutches that tie me to my need for productivity.  It may be time to rededicate myself to Sabbath.

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… 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.”


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?

Making Disciples by Keeping Our Heads Down

Wesley before Easter 10:45 worship 2010

That old cartoon image of the ostrich with his/her head in the sand whenever danger is around is always used as an image of someone who just doesn’t get it.  When your head is in the sand, you are unaware of the challenges and dangers around you – you are oblivious as the world passes by.

In a lot of blogs and articles about making disciples, there seems to be a lot of discussion about what disciple making actually is and how disciple making actually occurs and where disciple making takes place and who it is that actually makes good disciples.  Then there are those that don’t like the term “make” disciples.  They want to form them or mold them or spontaneously combust them or magically cultivate them like a ch-ch-ch-chia pet.

There are also a lot of voices out there discussing how older Christians over 50 don’t know what it takes to make young disciples under 40.  There are those who insist “traditional” worship can’t reach new, younger disciples.  There are those who say the church isn’t “missional” enough, or “emergent” enough, or (insert-latest-catch-phrase-word-here) enough.

I read the blogs and the articles and the critiques all over the internet regarding making disciples and the United Methodist Church and Call to Action, and to be honest, most of them actually create in me the desire to stick my head in the sand. When did making disciples become nuclear particle physics??

Author Robin Sharma recently posted,  “The amateur adores complexity, the professional cherishes simplicity.”  So is my head in the sand, or am I keeping my head down?  They mean two completely different things.

Reading blogs and articles online, one would think that only new, emergent, contemporary churches are growing and successful.  I will admit, I am bothered by this assumption many people have in the United Methodist Church.  I don’t have anything against new churches.  Many are growing at amazing rates making many new disciples.  I am concerned about what we are modeling to our clergy and churches.  Are we communicating that we are ‘incapable’ of making disciples unless we throw out tradition?

Many traditional churches are growing and making disciples effectively.  For example, the vast majority of new members joining Wesley United Methodist Church at Frederica on St. Simons Island where I serve (a traditional church) are under 40 years old.  While we are a traditional church, we are not “conventional” to use Thomas Merton’s term.  We strive to be authentic, relevant, creative and relational.  I wish I could tell you we were trying to be “different”, but we’re not.  In essence, we just do what we do.  We are not trying to over think it or over analyze it.  Can we do better?  Sure!  But we learn more through trial and error, which is a more dynamic yet simple way to learn than policy statements, strategic models, and prescriptions.  Statements and prescriptions are merely secondary reinforcing mechanisms.  They merely reinforce culture that already exists.  If a church isn’t making disciples, you can have all the mission statements and strategies you want, they won’t really change anything.  People have to model making disciples – it happens person to person, in real time…in real life.  Sorry, but that’s the only way it works.

What we do at Wesley isn’t flashy, but it’s working.  Of the 70 new members who joined in 2011, almost 60% were under 45, and most were under 40.  We are learning from our mistakes.  We are loving one another.  We are caring for one another.  We are growing in our knowledge of Christ.  We are growing in our service of others.  We are meeting in nurturing groups.  We are inviting others to participate.  That’s it.  That’s the list.

I’m going to keep my head down.  If you want to say its in the sand, that’s okay.  I don’t mind…really.  I just hope we will all keep in mind that if we are truly concerned about the transformation of the world then let us recapture the beauty of simplicity.

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,