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.”

The Plus and Minus of Commitment

II Chronicles 34:29-33
Then the king sent word and gathered together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. The king went up to the house of the LORD, with all the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the Levites, all the people both great and small; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD. The king stood in his place and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book. Then he made all who were present in Jerusalem and in Benjamin pledge themselves to it. And the inhabitants of Jerusalem acted according to the covenant of God, the God of their ancestors. Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel, and made all who were in Israel worship the LORD their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the LORD the God of their ancestors.

In this passage of 2 Chronicles, King Josiah reads the found book of the covenant to all the people gathered.  The people of Judah were unfaithful and Josiah desired they turn back to God.  Josiah, who became king at 8 years old, was 26 now and after he ordered the Temple cleaned out they found this lost book of the covenant.  When Hilkiah the priest read it to Josiah, he wept and tore his clothing.  He had found the direction from God he needed…he now had the words to give direction to his people.

He wasted no time calling everyone together.  He read the book of the covenant in front of all of them.  Beginning with himself (as it should be!), he recommitted himself to living for and following the Lord.  He called all the people to respond in kind, and they did.

But what he did next, while overlooked by many of us, made all the difference in keeping the people faithful all the days Josiah reigned.  Josiah knew something in the 7th century BC about psychology and success in faith that many of us never master: recommitment requires action if it is to be lived successfully.

First, after the recommitment of the people, Josiah REMOVED all the abominations in the land.  Anything that would come in between the people’s commitment was taken away.  The law of subtraction was at work.  I see the value of this discipline everyday, especially in my own life.  While it may seem trite, the simplest example that quickly comes to mind is my New Year’s diet.  There is no way I can follow through on it if I stock my house with things that are not on my healthy menu.  If I fill the house with junk…I will eat junk.  The same is true in our spiritual lives, there are things we need to remove to grow closer to God and live faithfully.  For some of us, we have to remove certain relationships (maybe friendships or dating relationships).  For others of us, we have to remove practices or addictions.  The bottom line is this: we can’t follow through on our commitments if we don’t take time to examine what obstacles need to be removed from our lives.

Second, Josiah made all who were in Israel worship the Lord.  At first glance, we can take this at literal value.  I like that.  But I also like the idea that Josiah knew that just “removing” things would not be enough.  Some THING also had to be ADDED TO our lives of faith.  The practice of worship, journaling, daily prayer, Bible reading, small discipleship groups, etc. are all examples of things that can be added to our lives of faith.  What do you need to ADD to your life that will better enable you to live into your commitments to God and others?

The next time you think about the commitments you struggle to follow through with, examine your life to see if you have removed the things that limit you.  Then, take it a step further and see what you need to add to your practice of faith to live fully into your new commitment of life and faith.

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 Forbes.com (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.

Sabbath and Billable Hours

Many people who move to settle on St. Simons Island from the North are drawn by more than the beauty of this place.  They continually refer to the style and quality of life…the way we relate to one another…how we spend time getting to know one another and how we are willing to “move a little slower” in all things.  I don’t know if there is any science behind it, but I’m just anecdotally sharing what I hear on a regular basis.

But even in the good ‘ole South, I am continually struck by how many people are struggling in life with stress, relationships, time, and spirituality and how few people associate their ordeals with the lack of understanding and keeping Sabbath.  The church doesn’t do a good job teaching or modeling about Sabbath.  I just thought I’d share a few reflections from an article I read this morning.

Dorothy Bass, in her article Christian Formation In and For Sabbath Rest, writes, “most contemporary Americans are caught in an alternative set of practices for living in time that affects many dimensions of their lives…although we have been taught we should use time well, it now feels to many people like time is using them…”  She continues quoting from The Overworked American by Juliet Schor, “recent research has confirmed that on average Americans work more hours than those in any other developed country, in spite of large increases in productivity during recent decades…Americans have chosen to take the economic surplus that immense productivity provides not in time but in more and more consumer goods.”  Simply put, we could have more time if we chose to cash in our productivity towards it.  Instead, we cash it in for money and more stuff.

Bass also references the poet Noelle Oxenhandler in a stimulating image that should call us all to reflect on our need for Sabbath rest.  Our 24/7/365 way of life can be seen most clearly in two institutions that exist in every town, lit by the same “shrill, twenty-four hour light, the doors that never shut, the windowless air, and a counter or front desl manned by the same rotation of pale clerks with their free-floating body clocks.”  The two are the 7-Eleven and the emergency room.  Oxenhandler continues, “What does it mean that the 7-Eleven and the emergency room are atmospherically similar?  The emergency room is a necessity…but a Pop-Tart and a six pack of Coke in the middle of the night?  We have come to believe that convenience is a necessity…our own definition of a world in order is one in which all goods and services are always immediately available.”

Finally, another resource Bass calls upon is Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and humanities at Notre Dame.  Kaveny explores the logic of a system that shapes both work life and the self-understanding of lawyers: billable hours.  The world-view of billable hours teaches five lessons: “(1) human time is not intrinsically valuable but rather a worth only so far as it is productive; (2) human time is first and foremost a commodity with an identifiable monetary value; (3) every hour is financially equivalent and thus worth the same amount as every other hour, regardless of claims from family or tradition that mark some hours as especially precious ones; (4) lawyers live in an endless, colorless present; and (5) they are therefore unable to participate fully with loved ones who live by other patterns, and so become increasingly isolated from community.”  I would argue that this self-understanding is also true for all of us who evaluate work and productivity in “man or woman hours”…equating a monetary value for our time.

For all of us, how we organize and understand time creates for us a framework for our entire lives and all our relationships…including our relationship with God.

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.