Unity and Diversity are not mutually exclusive. They are not diametrically opposed to one another. Unity does not mean "same." And Diversity does not mean "divided." I believe Unity and Diversity are core values that Christ instilled in his disciples and handed on to the Church. I also believe we are failing. We are divided, and we tend to group together by our sameness. I can't really blame anyone in particular or point the finger and find fault with some individual, or a movement, or a denomination, etc. It has just kind of happened. And it pervades our culture in the U.S.A. as much as it does The Church.
I worry about our country (U.S.A.) and The Church in the U.S.A. because of the division that seems to be prevalent. It seems like everything is either/or. You're either Pro-Life, or Pro-Choice. You're either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives (Police Officers) Matter. You're either for Same-Sex Marriage or you're a bigot. You're either Republican or Democrat. We have developed this divisive attitude of "you're either with me or against me." And most often, it seems like we find a reason to be against some group group of people.
In the Church in the U.S.A. it seems to be a Evangelical vs. Progressive, Conservative vs. Liberal. And in the United Methodist Church, even those who claim to be "in the middle," who identify with ideologies on both "sides," can't seem to agree. I recently read this post from the "United Methodist Centrist Movement": http://umcm.today/the-true-center-of-the-united-methodist-church/ and it made me sad. It saddened me because it seems like we Christians, in this case specifically United Methodist Christians, have a hard time stating our case and making a positive contribution without tearing down someone else. The UMCM seems to be responding to writings and actions by the Via Media Methodists: www.viamediamethodists.wordpress.com. Both the UMCM and Via Media seem to support Unity and finding a way to work together, but then they tear each other down. What is up with that? I guess this is sibling rivalry among brothers and sisters in Christ, and it's to be expected. But we are playing it out in public for everyone to see. I'm not sure that's what we should be doing.
Like James (you know, that book in the New Testament) says, "This should not be so." People want and need to see Jesus in us. They need to see the power and work of God's Love. Yet, we seem to carry our conversations in such a way that it looks like this:
If you disagree with me, you're not a good Christian.
Or, If you don't interpret the Bible the same way I do, then you're not a Christian. You're a false teacher. You don't take the Bible seriously.
Or, I'm a better Christian than you because I believe X and you don't; therefore, you're not "Orthodox" (or fill-in-the-blank with whatever viewpoint/standard you use).
Or, I'm more Methodist than you because I emphasize this or that Wesleyan idea better.
Can we stop framing things in those ways? This way of doing things divides us instead of bringing us together. I would rather us have an attitude of "sincere love" (Romans 12:9). Like Paul directs in Romans chapter 12 verse 14 "Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them." And then in verse 16, "Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart." Can we have more humility and more building up the body of Christ?
We can get so busy fighting against each other that we neglect the greatest commands Jesus gave us: Love God and Love Others. Those two are so utterly intertwined that it is near impossible to separate them. In fact, scripture in 1 John chapter 4 has a number of verses explaining this connection:
8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.
I'm not perfect at this. But I'm working on it. By God's grace, I'm working on it. One of the things that has always been appealing to me, from a Wesleyan heritage, is the way that we can hold seemingly opposite ideas in tension with one another. Our culture seems to push us into an either-or distinction, but we need to be the people of both-and, Unity and Diversity.
Christ calls us to Unity, and yet the we the Church don't seem to get it. Every Sunday, we silo off into our separate spaces and ideologies, and we suffer for it. Think of all of the resources at our disposal to change and revitalize our communities if we were joined together and cooperate and collaborate. Surely we could make a huge impact. The love of Christ compels us to work together for the good of all humans, all of creation. But even United Methodist congregations in close proximity have a hard time working together (at least in my experience) and catching a vision that brings us together for the good of God's Kingdom in our community.
Ironically, the path to Unity may be through allowing for more diversity (a local option, or a seemingly more congregational polity, or maybe less polity altogether, a thinner Book of Discipline). I know that by now the phrase "Generous Orthodoxy" (credit to author and church leader Brian McLaren) is laden with progressive baggage heaped on it by many, but can we be more generous with our grace? Isn't the very nature of love generosity? "That God did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all..." (Romans 8:32). There is no way we can out give God, but we should try. Our generosity of love should exceed all of our qualities. We give without expecting anything in return because it's our very nature. I've always been intrigued by the sheep in Matthew 25 whom Christ commends as righteous and to whom he gives the inheritance of God's kingdom. They didn't even realize how good or righteous they were. They just did it. Our love needs to be the same way. Then, the goats, they deceived themselves. They thought they were being good and righteous, but really weren't. Things didn't turn out so good for them. It looks like humility goes a long way towards obeying the command to love generously.
Diversity multiplies generous love. It's a multiplication of the varied gifts and affinities we have to share with people. The ways we are different from each other help us reach people who are different. You can reach someone differently than I can because of your unique gifts and characteristics. We each make up a valuable part of the Body of Christ. Unity also multiplies generous love. It strengthens it because of the sheer numbers working together. Like the proverb says, "A cord of three strands is not easily broken" (Ecclesiastes 4:12). When we stand together, we stand up to and overcome the forces working against God's Kingdom.
Honestly, I'm not sure what we are so afraid of. 1 John 4 continues the idea of love saying "perfect love casts out fear." Perhaps we should focus more on perfect love, than perfect polity. God has an amazing way of working things out beyond our abilities, and our ability to understand. I wish I had a definitive answer or plan or polity change that would keep us from damaging our Christian and United Methodist witness in the world. The best I can come up with is the scriptures above.
I want to finish up by connecting this to my personal experience. When I hear about the decisions that lie in front of us as the UMC, I can't help but think about the experience of divorce in my family. If an upcoming decision ends up dividing us, I see a similar set of emotions. I'm going to love dearly and have family on both sides, which means I may not feel completely at home with either. Or to put it another way, if I'm forced to choose, then it's like I have to leave behind ones I love, a "damned if you do; damned if you don't" or "catch 22" type of situation. In the end, much like my parent's divorce, the decision will be made and forced upon me to deal with. Fortunately, the future is not yet written. I hope through our conferencing, our love grows on to perfection.
Note: Scripture quotes are primarily from the Common English Bible (or whatever version was in my memory, typically NRSV or NIV).
What I'm about to say may not surprise anyone, but I'm pretty sure it's true. I feel it to be true, like a gut feeling. Sometimes, it's like a punch in the gut. It has to do with what is the most difficult part of being a leader. The leadership role that I know is Pastor. So that's what I'll talk about, but I think this applies to anyone who is in a leadership position and responsible for an organization or group of people. If you're a follower/worker/member, or second in command (or third or fourth, etc.) then it's not quite the same, but you've probably felt it too. Some of you may not realize how much your leader feels it. What am I talking about? What is the most difficult part of being "the leader"?
First of all, it is NOT failure. As a pastor, I've failed. Some times it's big failures, some times it's small ones. I've read leadership books that say it's good to fail because it means you're trying and taking risks. It would be far worse to not even try. But failure is not the most difficult part of being a leader.
"Everything rises and falls on Leadership." I've heard and read that quite a bit. I'm not sure who coined it first (was it John Maxwell or Mike Slaughter?). Notice it's not "some" things rise and fall on leadership. No, it's "EVERYTHING." You see, that's the hardest part of being "The Leader" or the one in charge; the one who is ultimately responsible. Look at baseball managers. They get criticized when the team is losing, but they're geniuses when the team is winning. Lose enough, and the manager is fired. It doesn't matter if the players are terribly worse talent than every other team in the league, or the ownership isn't willing to spend more money, or any number of other people who could have done their job better. The Manager is ultimately responsible for the baseball team on the field, so if the team is losing, then the manager is out, and a new leader is brought in.
The hardest part of being "the leader" is: The Pressure of Ultimate Responsibility. It nags at me nearly everyday. Sure, I can place blame on other people or things: church members, the District Superintendent, the Bishop, "the community transitioned but the church didn't," "people just don't give like they used to," ... there's tons of reasons we can look at and analyze, but ultimately, I am responsible for the church that I've been sent to. God's given me a responsibility for this time, and this place...these people. Because, "everything rises and falls on leadership," right?
I'm not sure many people in the pews realize this pressure that the pastor faces. I'm not talking about a "woe is me" "everything is my fault" attitude. But it's just the pressure of being a passionate owner of the responsibility for the direction of the organization. Knowing that pretty much every problem, tension, failure or success you face is somehow related to you either directly or indirectly.
So, if you're wondering what stresses out your Pastor, President, CEO, or other leader, now you know. No matter how many times he or she tells oneself or hears "it's not your fault," it doesn't matter, because deep down, the leader knows who is ultimately responsible regardless of fault or blame. The leader will always think, "If I was just a better leader, we could overcome and make it through..."
How do you handle that? I guess you have to realize who it is that is really in charge, and it's not you. AND, you have to realize that Leader is more capable and powerful than anything you ever even imagined, a very trustworthy leader. Who is it? God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He has this way of accomplishing things, directly and indirectly, in spite of the shortcomings of the people He sends. He is The One on Whom everything actually rises and falls. Jesus Christ. (Colossians 1:16-17, Ephesians 1:20-21)
How else do you handle it? Like a 162 game baseball season: you win some, you lose some. You brush it off, forget about it, and "get 'em next time (or next season)."
Here in Missouri, our current bishop, Robert Schnase, has worked to adjust our vision of the Annual Conference. He has put the focus on "Growing, fruitful, vibrant congregations changing lives through Jesus Christ." The idea is that the Annual Conference exists to support and equip local churches, instead of local churches supporting centralized ministries of the AC. This way, the apportionments that we pay end up being poured back into our local congregations and communities. There have been at least three major shifts to align with this vision:
These shifts are made because the thinking is the local church is where disciples are primarily made (as opposed to the AC). There has been a constant refrain of the importance of strengthening local congregations while we seemingly cut back on AC operated properties and ministries. This has caused some of my friends, mostly clergy types, to suggest that we are becoming congregationalist. I strongly disagree. Here's some questions I have:
Historically, where were disciples made/formed in the Methodist Movement?
Often, I hear people say "according to ___________ (typically the Book of Discipline or some other authoritative document), the basic unit of the UMC is the Annual Conference." Does "basic unit" equate to "the primary locale where disciples are made"? Probably not. If we look at the history of the Methodist Movement, I don't even think it was the local church that was the primary place that disciples were made/formed. I would have to say it was an even smaller group of people: the small group, or the class meeting. It's in those smaller groups within a local congregation of 5, or 8 - 12 people where disciples were formed. And I'm not talking about our modern day Sunday School class that is so focused on curriculum or a book that they forget the Bible and Covenant Accountability for Following Jesus. I think if we're really honest, that's where disciples were and continue to be made because that's where the deeper relationships happen. We need our churches to have vital small groups (class meetings).
How much of The Connectional system has been inherited from prior to the Methodist Movement, and how much developed with the Methodist Movement?
Take a look at the beginning of our UM Book of Discipline. There's a historical documents section. I'm pretty sure that even a vote of General Conference cannot change it. We inherited it from the Anglican Tradition, who inherited it from previous Christian Tradition. Point being, there is a connectional system that existed prior to the UM Book of Discipline. In addition, the UM BoD has greatly expanded over the years as we have "fine tuned" our connectional system. We have developed a lot of baggage in addition to the stuff we inherited. We are currently in a time when we find The Connexion, as is, is unsustainable, but we seem unable to change it, as evidenced by the last GC and subsequent Judicial Council decisions. We have created an institution that protects itself to survive to a fault. I say all of this to ask: What is really important that we need to preserve? What are the essentials? What essentials take priority over others for a season? Maybe some of this connectional system needs to be trimmed down and drastically changed so that we can emphasize the original vision of The Methodist Movement. Maybe some of this connectional system needs a season of rest and we can come back to those things at another time if we really need them. If you want to defend The Connection, defend the essential portion of it: local churches. (keep reading)
Does a focus on having healthy local churches make us congregational?
Having healthy local churches is not antithetical to Connectionalism. In fact, it improves The Connection. Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion. Read that sentence again: Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion. There would be no need for an Annual Conference or any of its properties or ministries if there were no local churches. Healthy Vital Local Congregations are what enable us to have a strong AC, and in turn a stronger global church. By putting the focus there (on local churches), we are not weakening the connection, but strengthening it! One more time: Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion.
So What to Do?
To my friends worried about us becoming Congregational, how about you focus more on connecting with other churches. Most of us are so focused inward on our own congregations that we miss opportunities to be truly collaborative and do great things. I hear you worried about us becoming congregational, but that's not a polity concern for me. It's more of a state of mind concern. I think most of us are stuck inward on our own congregations. Many choose to not connect in deep meaningful collaborative impactful ways. I'm in a city with 9 UMCs. If we worked together, I think we could really make a huge impact in our community with our combined resources. But for the most part, we are all too busy, each with our own struggles for increased worship attendance (because that's what really counts, or at least, that's what gets counted). What if we conferenced more? Picked up the phone and checked on each other more? Met regularly for more than sharing stories, but for strategic planning too? Our communities need us to lead as a team and to combine our resources. This is the connection we really need. In my mind, too often we have a Connectional System in name and polity only, but we operate as congregationalist already. If we change our mindset to be truly lived-Connexion, then there's no worry about becoming Congregationalist. Because I guarantee, our polity isn't changing (at least not any time soon). Bottom line: Be Connectional. Healthy Congregations connecting together for the good of God's Kingdom in our communities, that's transformational.
Since last night and in the days leading up to the announcement that the grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson for fatally shooting young Michael Brown, I have seen numerous people encouraging peace in Ferguson. A number of my friends responded to last night with simple calls on social media to "pray for peace." I think we need to be careful about that because it too easily sounds like "get back to normal."
My greatest fear has been that our conference's change to camping ministry has created a lot of distrust of denominational leadership, which has resulted in a "fight." Regardless of whose fault the "fight" is, fighting divides and makes enemies, and pushes both sides to dig in and "finish it." That is scary. Because I love all of you. I think fighting will push people away from our churches, especially younger people. There are too many issues that we can effect together that we need the Next Generation's input on.
And that's the good that can come of this. Young people have found a reason to organize and get excited about effecting change in our denomination. I've been to a few sessions of the Missouri Annual Conference, and there are a lot of people my parents age and older who attend, share their voice, and vote. I don't know the exact number, or percentage, but those of age 13-30 are a very small number in my experience. We need more young people to take an active role at these formal levels of the church governance. The system will change with new people involved, and decisions like this one about MOUM Camps will hopefully happen differently.
Anyone who is confirmed in the United Methodist Church is a voting member of the UMC and can serve on all teams, committees, boards, etc. The only one that has an age requirement is the Trustees, which requires you to be 18 or older to vote. You can even be a delegate to Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and General Conference. If I'm wrong about this, I hope somebody will correct me. Even if you're not an official delegate, you can still come and show support even if you can't have an official voice or vote.
What Will It Take For This To Happen?
1. Election as a Delegate, or to a Team
First, you need to get elected as a delegate to Annual Conference. Your pastor is the chair of the nominations committee, so you need to convince her (or him) to nominate you for leadership in the church. Specifically as a delegate to annual conference. This means, you need to prove that you're qualified and responsible to do the job your church is asking you to do. This is not just about you getting your way, but this is a responsibility for serving the whole body of our church. This will not be easy. It is possible that position is currently held by someone unwilling to let it go, and may feel "replaced" or "unwanted." That's not really your job to worry about because your pastor should take care of that. But, I want you to be aware that it could cause trouble that's not your fault. These nominations are approved at charge conference, which should be happening very soon, and may have already happened. Hopefully, you're not too late. If you can't convince the pastor ahead of charge conference, you could still nominate yourself at the Charge Conference. This will cause trouble too because most of the business has already been decided and just needs a rubber stamp of approval. You can also ask your District Superintendent if you can be a District At-Large Delegate. I also think there are some Youth At-Large delegate positions. Either way, you'll want to get this done in the next few months before the spots are gone.
The conference also has a nominations team. If you're interested in giving your time, energy and money to work on one of the conference teams/boards/committees, then talk to your pastor and figure out how to get your name in the hat. I think this last year, there was an online submission process. I remember getting emails about it. At the very least, you can find a conference journal and see who the nominations chair is, and ask that person.
If you do manage to get elected as a delegate, then you'll need to get prepared and invested in the denomination and the Annual Conference. You will need a working knowledge of parliamentary procedure. You will need to research the budget and the issues. If you have a specific cause you're working for you'll need to make sure your position is intelligently and coherently put together and not just based on dramatic whims and feelings. Be prepared to listen, let go, see things differently, and be changed as much as you are to speak and fight for change.
You need to be prepared to sit through some boring stuff. Also be prepared to try to participate in worship amidst distractions and a business meeting atmosphere. It won't be worship services like what you're used to at church. Be prepared for workshops and chances to learn stuff to take back to your church. Be prepared to get up early during your summer vacation so you can make the morning bible study session. It will be a time to network and make new friends and enjoy spending time together.
3. MOre Preparation: Submitting Proposals and Resolutions
The Missouri Annual Conference has a method for how they place business on the agenda of the Annual Conference Session. You need to figure out that process and follow it perfectly. I think I can summarize this ok, but I'll be honest, I'm lazy and don't know the details. Basically, there's a deadline that things must be submitted to the Mission Council or some other team who will determine whether or not it is worthy for us to take up as business. If you miss the deadline or have a poorly worded or researched idea, then it probably won't make it. I could be wrong. Truth is I don't know really what the standards are for judging whether a proposal or resolution is worth the time of Annual Conference. I've never really worked on one before (shame on me). Anyway, you will need to have some idea of what our procedures are for getting things done. You probably won't be able to get much done this first year because you're not "in" yet (if you know what I mean). Maybe once you've earned your keep, then you can influence things.
You (and if you're under 18, probably your parents) will have to make some sacrifices for you to attend the session of AC, and even more if you serve on a team/board/committee. It will take your time, money, and energy. You will probably rather do something else like play sports or video games, go on the family vacation, not miss that important activity (graduation, prom, state competition, senior trip, Boy/Girl Scout Camp, etc.). By making this a priority, you are forsaking others and it may cost you (grades, scholarships, state championships, etc.). It will be a sacrifice that pastors like me don't make because we're paid to do this stuff. Your parents will have to transport you or arrange for transportation. Also, if you're under 18, there will need to be supervision for safety/liability reasons, fortunately, the conference has a way for you to register as a youth delegate and will help coordinate that...or at least they used to, and I assume they still do and will into the future. The bottom line here is it's going to take some difficult sacrifices, and if you're under 18 or don't have your own transportation, those sacrifices will include your family too.
It's Worth It
I truly hope to see more young people engage at the Annual Conference level and in leadership in their local churches. This camp thing may be a catalyst for that. I hope so. Why? Because: AIDS, Malaria, LGBTQ issues, marriage equality, war, violence, poverty, global health, suicide rates, drugs, human trafficking, global warming, civil rights, declining congregations, a UMC whose average age is 57, etc. These are all things that we can effect in a greater way together than we can separately. We need the voice, vote, influence, and energy of people age 13-30 who are baptized professing members of our churches. These are issues well worth our sacrifices, time and effort to organize ourselves to work together on. This is not just about helping our churches and properties survive, but changing the world and our neighborhoods.
So please, don't get angry and disillusioned and walk away. Work with the system, and through the system, as disheartening as it can be. Don't let your energy die out. Use this as inspiration to really do something great for the world and our Church. Organize, listen, learn, engage. We have a lot of work to do, major work.
The election of Jurisdictional Conference and General Conference delegates will be happening this year. Who knows, maybe Missouri can send the youngest delegation ever. We can only hope.
If your church attendance is increasing, then you must be doing something right. Right? Pastors and church leaders will disagree about this, but it seems like most people in the pews feel that if participation (attendance & offering) is declining, then there's something wrong. Probably so. The reverse seems to happen too. If participation is increasing or holding steady and gradually increasing, then things are good. When things are bad, we will search for "why?" but when things are good, we make the assumption, "we must be doing something right."
When things are good, we assume that our theology and practice of ministry must be good, or at least "good enough." But what if that's a bad assumption. What if increased participation numbers don't tell the whole story. I think things could get great participation, but still be 'off' or 'wrong'. It seems like we value 'more' than 'less'. Here in the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church, many times I've heard people from small congregations (which I think 80% or more of our congregations are 100 people or less) complain about being overlooked or not heard or underrepresented. We lift up larger churches as models of ministry, and we set expectations for churches to be "like that." Small churches often feel devalued even though there are a lot of great things going on in those churches. I think that's a cultural value of "more" over "less".
Sometimes I think that if we were really proclaiming the gospel and asking people to live like Jesus, our churches would be getting smaller. Because it's hard to follow Jesus. Who really wants to die? Or be a "living sacrifice"? The more I reflect on what Jesus is asking of me to do as his follower, the more I realize how counter-cultural it is. He may want me to live in a historically "dangerous" urban area so that I have relationships with the under-priveleged and more diverse people. To do that now, would be a great risk to my family. My mother-in-law would hate it. But I still hear Jesus calling me into relationships with people who need to know God's life-changing love, God's world-order-changing love.
I recently finished reading A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd. In it, he says Jesus proclaims a Gospel of Peace, not violence and war. Jesus was hoping to get people to be a peaceful counter-cultural resistance to the Empire's violent abusive power wielding ways. In particular, Zahnd tells a personal story of his father who was a judge. His dad frequently told him not to trust the majority (or the crowd). Sure there's strength in numbers, but might does not make right. I think Jesus taught something similar which he showed by spending more time with people on the margins of society (sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, poor, sick, lame) than the power brokers. Perhaps, we should question the "majority rules" thinking as well.
Just because participation is up in a church doesn't mean that your theology is right. Just because a church is large, doesn't mean they have it all figured out. Just because a denomination has and is declining doesn't mean their theology is wrong. Just because a denomination isn't declining as fast as others doesn't mean their theology is more right (or less wrong) than others. Just because one church is growing, doesn't mean their interpretation of scripture is better than one who's church is declining. There maybe correlation there, but that doesn't mean causation. Somehow, we need to have the difficult conversations, find agreement where we can on essentials, and show grace and liberty where we disagree, and still work together for the mission of the Church. We can't let The Church be defined by arguing and disagreeing. As the UMC discusses Homosexuality and Gay Marriage and other issues, I hope we keep this in mind. We need to value one another more as God's children instead of saying "God's on my side and not yours."
I also think that local congregations need to keep this in mind when making ministry decisions. Sometimes doing the right thing won't draw a crowd. It might even make the crowd angry (I think Jesus showed us that). And some people will turn away (John 6:66). Ultimately, it's love that covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), not having the largest crowd or majority voice and vote.
Why I really Think This Is Important
This is important because I'm afraid only the loudest and most popular theological voices get publicized and heard. Those are the ones with the radio talk shows, cable TV channels, feature films, etc. I'm afraid we're missing out on how deep the Bible really is if we only hear one interpretation of it. I'm afraid people in the pews of churches get confused when what they see in movies (like the upcoming "Left Behind" movie) and hear on the radio doesn't jibe with what their pastor teaches. I'm afraid that those pastors are called "false teachers" and their churches called "bad churches," when in actuality they are very much within the historical orthodoxy of The Church and grounded in the best exegetical methods. All of this because it's the popular theology of the day that gets the most publicity. Instead of putting other pastors and churches down for different interpretations of scripture, we should be working together to show people Jesus. We can still discuss our disagreements, but let's not forget "the more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31). Instead of being so certain that your interpretation is the right and only one that you become arrogant and prideful, focus on loving one another because "love covers a multitude of sins."
***One quick piece of information before I get started on this, if a child or youth or anybody in your church asks if there will be a camp for them this summer, 2015, please answer "Yes." We don't know exactly where it will be yet, but we will know soon. It will be different, but there will be something, and it will be great because I know the people like me who are committed to making it great.***
I'm not saying that anything has been hidden, or that we've been deceived. I'm saying this change in direction has more to do with combining Camping & Retreat Ministries with Youth Ministries (CCYM) into the new "Next Generation Ministries" than we may realize. So, a lot of the conversations leading up to this change were a part of aligning the conference ministries with the mission statement: "leading congregations to lead people to actively follow Jesus Christ." (side note: I've always thought the word "actively" was unnecessary or redundant because isn't following an action? can you passively or inactively follow? I think those would be "not following".) The impression that people seem to have is that this emphasis is just a Missouri Conference thing. It bothers a lot of us because it appears to make us more congregational in polity rather than connectional. For example, I've seen this post passed around on the interwebs, and it's titled "Disconnecting Missouri Methodism." The fear that we are becoming more congregational may be valid (I don't think so), but it's not a Missouri specific thing.
In addition to our mission statement, the Missouri Conference of the UMC has the following vision: "Growing, fruitful, vibrant congregations changing lives through Jesus Christ." This also puts an emphasis on local congregations, and seemingly away from our connectional nature and more towards congregationalism. However, this is not just a Missouri thing. It's a Council of Bishops and Connectional Table thing. It's a denomination thing.
A while back (2008), the Council of Bishops and The Connectional Table announced the "Four Areas of Focus." You can read an overview of it at the umc.org website. Among those four foci (is that how you pluralize that?) is...drum roll please..."Growing Vital Churches." Specifically, the focus is on planting NEW churches (actual wording is "new faith communities") and creating NEW ways for people to connect with God and The Church. But, they also include renewing existing churches. If you dig deeper and click the link to find out what they mean by "Growing Vital Churches," you will find more details for the vision of what exactly a vital church is. One of the components of a vital congregation is..."strong children's and youth ministries." (Note this as an emphasis on "Next Generation Ministries.")
What prompted this vision for our denomination? Why is there an emphasis on strengthening local congregations? Why emphasize children's and youth ministries? Here's what the website says:
as many of us realize, The United Methodist Church is aging, and our numbers are declining:
The vision of emphasizing these Four Areas of Focus is "not for the next quadrennium, but for as far as the eye can see." We will be living into this vision for many many years to come. I think it's a great vision for us to strive for wholeheartedly. (Personal Confession: In fact, I wish I would have paid more attention to our Bishop announcing this stuff and found all of the material on the website sooner.) In order for us to truly be connectional and accomplish this vision, we need Vital Congregations. Without vital congregations, we won't have a denomination to be connected to. The good news is, someone has done a lot of work to show us how to develop a vital congregation. The website has this PDF document that your church can use as a guide to implement what they call "drivers of vitality," which are things that help the church fulfill the vision of a "vital congregation." The first (of sixteen) drivers of vitality is focused on small groups for all ages. The next two are focused on Children's and Youth Ministries. So again, there is an emphasis on "Next Generation Ministries."
What Does This Have To Do With The Change To MO UM Camps?
I'm pointing all of this out because I want us to see that this is bigger than just the Missouri Conference, Bishop Schnase, Rev. Garrett Drake, and the Camping & Retreat Ministries Board. Sure, maybe the Missouri Conference is somewhat of a pioneer on shifting the focus to local congregations since this began for us prior to 2008, but still, this is not about people leading us away into congregationalism. This is about the future of The Church, our church, the United Methodist Church.
On the one hand, it looks like we've taken support away for Next Generation Ministries because first we closed our campus ministries, now we're closing campsites, and soon CCYM will be different. But in reality, we haven't had this type of concerted focused effort and alignment of resources to reach the next generation and form new communities of faith that reach the next generation. I give kudos to our Bishop for slowly (he's been here 10 years now) and persistently leading and influencing us to re-align our mission and vision and way of doing things (budget and staffing) to actually catalyze next generation ministries in our local churches. Did you see the stat above? The Average United Methodist Is 57 Years Old. Our conference leadership is being intentional about trying to change this. (And I am unique: one of only 850 people in the world who are under age 35 and ordained UMC clergy. Woo Hoo! Go me! Maybe if the process didn't take so long we'd have more, but that's a whole 'nother issue.)
These two emphases, vital congregations and next generation ministries, are critical for our church worldwide, and especially in the US. This vision is an effort to recapture the original Methodist Movement, not an institution. The Movement was always focused on small groups in local congregations who lived out their faith in their local communities. The local congregation (the people, not the building) is the primary locale that people connect with The Church.
To sum it up, I'm trying to say that this change is connected to more than just finances or ambitions. I'm trying to say that this is not us devolving into congregationalism. This is not denominational leadership sticking more to selfish ambition of growing a great organization. No, instead, this focus is deeply rooted in a desire to see us living as followers of Jesus Christ, disciples who care for the poor, lead our communities with integrity, and improve world health (historically Methodist emphases). We do this at the most basic level through our local congregations in communities, cities, towns, neighborhoods across the globe. People connect to people. The Church is people who connect people to the person of Christ. This vision is not necessarily trying to save a denomination, but it's trying to do the important work of continuing the Methodist way of Following Jesus Christ. Even if the denomination ever goes away, I think there will still be people who follow the Jesus Way in a Methodist Style, and I think these Four Areas of Focus capture that and it's well worth giving my life to...even if I won't get to use the same camp facility that I have grown to love.
A few months back, the Pastors Today blog with Thom Rainer had a post about risks pastors can and should take. It encouraged leaders to "play it safe" theologically because that is a risky thing to do these days. You can find the post by Eric McKiddie here. In it, he claims something that I've heard and felt before, that having conservative theology is the key to having a healthy growing church. Here's what Eric says:
We don’t need to guess whether maintaining a conservative theological position is best long term. Church history has played this saga out for us already, and has proven that the riskiest theological path is the one that veers left. One century later, look at the mainline denominations. One decade later, look at the emerging church. They took the risk that budging on the authority of God’s word would keep them relevant in our culture. They lost.
The argument is pretty convincing, and has been around for quite some time. It basically says, God blesses a church with numerical growth when they get their theology right. I'll be honest, I've gone along with that because it makes some sense. However, as I've continued to develop my thinking, I'm not sure it is totally correct. (What seems to be the key to church growth is an outward-focus toward the community, rather than an inward-focus.)
In fact, the way Mr. McKiddie has phrased things here is really offensive. I know of a number of churches that are growing that probably espouse a non-"conservative theological position." Honestly, the "safest" theological position to have is an "historically orthodox" position. It is left of conservative, but still not ultra-progressive. But that's not my point here.
The point is this, where is the ecumenical spirit? Where is the love of Christ? Aren't we one body of believers? Baptized in one spirit? One Lord? To say that some are winners and some are losers because of theological ideas is just ridiculous. What does the Lord require of us? To do justice and love mercy. It will take ALL of us to do and be that for a broken world. We need to quit saying "I'm better than you because my interpretation of the Bible is clearly better than yours." We need to come together working to show God's love in our communities.
Basically Eric, I see two things that you need to work on here. You needn't call out Mainliners and the Emerging Church as losers because of their theological stance. In fact, most of the mainliners and emerging church leaders I know are not trying to be "relevant in our culture," instead they are trying to be authentically faithful to their core convictions and values. Things that they think the Bible clearly teaches, just like you, Mr. McKiddie, stick to what you think the Bible clearly teaches. See, there's something in common with your "loser" brothers and sisters in Christ.
The other thing to work on is how we talk about the Bible, and what it clearly teaches. We all have different interpretations, and in its history, the Church has always had these discussions. That's a big reason why we had the Protestant Reformation. It's not going to be resolved any time soon. A good rule of thumb that was passed on to me from the Wesleyan tradition is: "in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity." Now, we will probably argue over what is essential and what isn't. But in all of that we must have charity--Love. In fact, this is what scripture teaches us in 1 Corinthians. Paul responds to "divisions" in the church, and says "I will show you a more excellent way...LOVE." It's easy to say, harder to do. We need to quit fighting over the Bible and demonstrate the Love that it teaches.
Eric McKiddie, I don't know you, but I love you. Because you're my brother in Christ. And, overall, your article about pastors taking risk is pretty spot on. Risk is an important part of faith. Without risk, there is no faith. We must lead our churches to take risk. And I like to lead by example. I think the greatest risk we can take is to live the radical love of Jesus Christ in real ways in our communities. Fighting over biblical interpretation isn't going to help grow the church. Showing how much we love one another will.
This week's question is "Am I Selling Out?" By that I mean, do I stray slightly from God's call on my life to keep church people happy, or denominational leadership happy, or donors happy...etc.? Do you ever wonder about that? Or feel that tension? Please respond in the comments below. You can expand the question. You can tell of your story of when you've thought about this. It's open to you. I'll give my thoughts at the end of the week. Also, you can submit a question for future weeks here.
(This post is the first "answer" to a series of questions that haunt pastors. You can submit a question here. I have a great one to start next week, so check-in on Monday and discuss with me.)
Am I making a difference? I asked myself that as I drove home after church one Sunday afternoon. The question was still with me the next day when I woke up and went running. Running has always been a good time for me to think. So I started re-phrasing the question and being more specific about it.
Many pastors probably wonder about this, and we attach our value to "how church is going." If it's going up, we feel up. If it's going down, we feel down. That's not a very good recipe for longevity of effective ministry. Let's dive in and explore this a little more. What am I really asking when I ask "Do I make a difference?"
First, I think I mean specifically: "are there any changes in the lives of the people who hear me preach?" That is a question that I cannot answer directly. I can observe how people live and try to connect it to my influence. I can listen to people give compliments after a sermon. I even get compliments from people after months of hearing my preaching. But the cynical side of me has a hard time receiving them because I've always thought "actions speak louder than words." So what actions do I see among the people who hear me preach regularly?
Again, the cynical side of me has an easy time coming up with negative responses to that question. I'll be honest, it's hard for me to find things to celebrate. Maybe I expect too much, or I expect it on a faster time-frame. A friend and mentor responded to my question on Facebook saying, "Look for the small advances." That's great advice. In fact, at our last Church Council meeting I had people share things they thought the church could celebrate, and hearing the responses was very encouraging. I'll be honest though, I'm inpatient, and I want to see big things. So, looking for the small advances helps, but it's not always satisfying.
Another issue is how my denominational system tracks "fruitfulness." The main focus has been worship attendance, which can trend up over time, but has dips in between. So if you measure each week by that, it can be a stressful roller coaster ride. We also track "professions of faith" (a.k.a. conversions/commitments/decisions/confirmations), the number of people in "hands-on" mission & service, and the number of people involved in regular discipleship groups. We are always reminded that every number is a person, and every person matters, but a value ends up getting attached to the number. I just can't attach my value to numbers.
So, what's the answer to this question about making a difference? What am I asking? What do I really want to know? That my life's work is not in vain, but has a value for eternity. I want to know that the preaching, the visits, the evangelism, the youth trips and camps, the VBS, etc. has impacted people's lives in such a way that those who have not had a close relationship with Jesus, will know him for eternity. My experience with Youth Ministry has shown me, that I may not see that until the students have grown into adulthood and choose to live as Christ-followers. And some students I may never see again in this lifetime. I may not know the answer to this question until eternity. So why ask?
I think part of it is doubt, which we all face. It's one of those self-doubt voices that you have to be very careful about listening to. Too often, I forget that God in Jesus Christ has said "You, Ben, are valuable, my son. Your life is important to me. You will be apart of the great things of My Kingdom." In one sense, I already know the answer to my question: Yes, of course I make a difference. I am a beloved child of God. As long as I am faithful to God's call, God uses me to make a difference for the Kingdom of God. (If I am unfaithful, I am choosing to abandon God's call and kingdom even though God still offers it.)
I am also reminded of how much encouragement and appreciation people need. I'm not the only one asking this question. All of us want to know. Have you taken time lately to go out of your way and show appreciation and encouragement for the Christ-followers who have invested in your life? Let them know they make a difference.
Here's the answer:
I do make a difference. I know it not because of a number, and not because people like me, and not because people do what I say. I know it because God proclaims it through Christ's death & resurrection, and God's willingness to adopt me as His own. Through Jesus Christ, I know it more and more each day, and one day...one glorious day, I will know it fully and completely in eternity.
I am a Software Developer, a career shift made in 2018. So far, I have experience with C# .Net and Angular. I continue to let curiosity lead me into learning new technologies. I plan to share what I learn along the way about technology and personal/career life. Previously, my vocation was United Methodist pastor. So in addition to coding, I'll share about theology, the Church and The Bible. I also enjoy running, music, and I'm a deeply committed father and husband. Maybe my experiences will help you. I know it helps me to share.