Monday, October 27, 2014

Hold Dear the Connection

An adaptive change in Methodist ecclesiology has led to three (and sort of four) technical changes in the Missouri Annual Conference.

The adaptive change in question is a shift in philosophy from a connectional attitude toward a congregational attitude. I have a couple of ideas about why this change was implemented, but those motivations are not the subject of this post. The shift itself is happening, as evidenced by the aforementioned technical changes.

The first technical change that was impacted was in our connectional support of community based service agencies. This connectional support (what the UMC calls “apportionments”) was given to a long list of groups working to alleviate injustice, poverty, homelessness, hunger, etc. all around the state. We supported them connectionally because of a philosophy that said, “We can do more together than we can alone.”

When that change happened, we were encouraged to think more congregationally. Now, individual congregations are in relationship with service groups that have particular local meaning: maybe hometown agencies, agencies that dealt with an issue of particular importance to the congregation, or agencies led by people in the congregation.

The second technical change that happened was in our resourcing of campus ministries at colleges and universities. Again, the philosophy behind maintaining on-campus facilities and appointing clergy to serve on campuses was that “we can do more together than we can alone,” in this case with regard to nurturing the Christian discipleship of students in college.

The Annual Conference decided to change the way we do campus ministry by encouraging local congregations to start college-age ministries of their own. And today there are many vibrant and vital college-age ministries based out of congregations all across our state.

The third change is ongoing, and relates to Annual Conference support for church camps and retreats. Rather than pool our resources connectionally to support staff and facilities designated for church camping and retreats, a different vision has been cast.

It is still unclear what this vision is exactly, but seems to revolve around 1) bringing the idea of camping to local congregations and 2) individual directors of camps seeking out their own facilities in which to hold them. In broad terms, a shift from connectional support of camping and retreats to a more local, congregational vision. Because this is an ongoing change, it is unclear what exactly the result will be.

The “sort of” fourth thing I want to mention is a wonderfully connectional idea called “Serve.” The idea of a “Serve Day” grew out of a vision of United Methodists all across the conference serving outside the walls of our church buildings. It was an amazing idea – thousands of people working on the same designated day to truly make a tangible impact for God’s sake in communities all across the state.

It did not take long, however, for this distinctly Methodist, “we can do more together” idea to fade away. Rather than a designated “Serve Day,” congregations are now encouraged to adopt the attitude of Serve throughout our ministries all year long. I can’t help but wonder if the idea of a Serve Day was simply too connectional to withstand the current trend toward congregationalism.

Finally I would like to add that I do not offer this as a negative criticism of the current climate, simply an observation. I am not offering one approach as “better” than another. I’m simply naming something that I’ve observed, a trend that I see taking place in the United Methodist Church.

Personally, I prefer a more connectional model of church over a more congregational one. That’s just my preference, though. I understand that the local church is where disciples are made most effectively, and so I can see the logic to the shift.

And I’m sure the pendulum will swing back the other way at some point, and we’ll reclaim some more of our connectional spirit again. It may look different, which I actually think will be a good thing. Our “connection” hasn’t really been “connected” for some time. We have lived in the illusion of connection for a long time now. I believe that it has become a top-heavy connection, deriving our connectional identity from conferences and agencies that exist on a far different plane from many United Methodists “in the pews.”

Perhaps a new connectionalism will emerge that connects congregations in new and innovative ways, “in the trenches,” so to speak. Maybe Methodists will connect personally with other Methodists in ministry and service in ways that nobody has thought of yet. That’s pretty exciting actually!

Right now, we’re focused pretty intently on “healthy congregations.” I get that. I appreciate that. I just hope that we don’t lose a valuable part of our identity as Methodists in the process. I'm looking forward to new and creative ways to "Hold dear the connection!"

Thursday, October 09, 2014

My One Idea - What's Yours?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … let’s just say for the sake of the story …

There was this technology that, when applied, would remove everything that a person believed, except for one single idea. All the complications and clutter of belief and dogma and doctrine and feelings and thoughts … just *poof* … gone. And only one idea would remain.

That solitary idea would be the center, the core, the pillar on which all the rest were constructed. The remaining idea would be the idea that served as the foundation of the house. It would be the heart of hearts of everything you believe to be true.

Got it? Do you see the concept? (Never mind how would it work, just play the game, okay?)

What would yours be?

What is your core idea? What is your single central belief on which all the rest are built? What’s the one idea that, if everything else were wiped away, you would hold on to with all your strength?

(Yes, just one. Again, just play the game!)

Please post your answer in the comment section, on Facebook, or on Twitter. I’m curious to read the responses.

Mine would be: Everybody matters. That would be My One Idea.

If everything else were taken away, I would cling to the idea that every single person is worth something. Not because of what they do or might do in the future, but simply because they exist. They matter because they are.

No matter your age or gender or wealth or health or race or religion or language or culture or nationality or anything else … YOU ARE IMPORTANT. For me, everything else builds upon that idea.

And that means that whenever that idea is challenged, I rise to defend it. Providing foster care, working for marriage equality, helping someone pay for a motel room, confronting racism, or just being nice to someone – it all comes back to believing that people matter. It shapes what I believe about God, who I believe Jesus is, how I identify the Holy Spirit, how I read scripture, what I think the church is about, and just about everything else.

So, I hope you’ll engage this little thought experiment with me. Here come the aliens with their belief-erasing devices! They have you in their sights! And … ZAP. All but one of your beliefs has just been eradicated.

What’s left?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Kids Are Church, Too

One of the foundational principles by which I live is that each person matters. Every single individual is worth something, just because they are. People are of inherent value, not because of utility or potential or who they might become; but simply because they are somebody - right here and now.

As such I devote much of my energy to counteracting anything that says otherwise, and affirming those who seem to be especially diminished in the eyes of the world.

Children, for example.

Is there any group of human beings more soundly devalued than children? Even when we try to affirm their worth, we usually do so by saying that they are “our future.” That happens in the church all the time. “Those kids are the future of the church,” we say with a condescending smile, usually while also noting how “cute” they are.

Please stop. Children are not objects for you to ogle. Children are not of value only in the future. Children are human beings, with thoughts and feelings and ideas and opinions of their own. They matter right now, because they are here right now, and we need to stop treating them like they WILL matter in a few years, but acknowledge that they are worth something for this present time.

Sunday is “Children’s Sunday” at Campbell, and we will celebrate the children of the church, not as the “future of the church,” but as the vital and vibrant present.

I hope you grown-ups will be there to worship with your youngest sisters and brothers in Christ!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Altar of Struggle

Arguably the most notorious altar Abraham built was the one upon which he nearly sacrificed his son Isaac. To tell you the truth, I’d rather this altar was omitted from Scripture altogether. The story sure would be a lot easier to read.

But it’s in there. And since it’s in there, we’d best give it a go. I mean, it may be a struggle - but just because something involves struggle doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, right? Especially if that “something” is our reading of God’s Holy Word.

In fact, the struggle itself can be an altar. Struggle can be sacred space. Often times our struggles are the moments in which God is most fully present with us, strengthening us, guiding us, helping us get through one moment at a time.

Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Indeed if everything comes easily to us, we tend to become complacent, lethargic, and apathetic. We expect to grow without doing the work that leads to growth.

I’m sure that Abraham struggled as he walked with Isaac to the place that infamous altar would be built; he would not have been human if he had not. And in that struggle, he grew even closer to God.

I’m sure that you have struggled in your walk of faith; I assure you that I have. And in that struggle, we grow closer to God, and closer to becoming the people God wants us to be.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Quantifying Church Camp as Leadership Development

One of the ideas floating around out there about church camps is that a lot of people experience the call to ministry in a camp setting. Not only pastors, but church staff members, team leaders, team members, and other leaders in congregations.

That idea indicates that church camp is a valuable tool for leadership development. However, as far as I know there is no assessment tool in place in the United Methodist Church that quantifies that correlation.

My friend Jason Carle, a Presbyterian pastor in Overland Park, messaged me recently to tell me that his Presbytery tracks camping participation as leadership development. He serves on his Presbytery’s board of directors for their camping ministries, and he says they “have numbers on our former camp counselors and campers who are now ordained as either elders, deacons or pastors in churches.” (The terms “elder” and “deacon” mean different things in the Presbyterian Church than they do in the UMC.)

Using this metric, they have a concrete numerical assessment of the fruitfulness of the camping ministry as it applies to the area of leadership development. Of course, church camp is not ONLY useful for leadership development, but leadership development would be one way to measure the fruitfulness of camping. And that assessment would not be all that difficult to achieve, if there was an intentional effort behind it.

Of course, leadership development is not dependent upon location, and it is quite possible that future incarnations of church camping in Missouri may result in as many (or even more) excellent congregational leaders as the current system has. But the truth is that we will never know for sure, since gathering that specific information was not a priority in the decision-making process of Missouri’s camping board.

I sent an email to the camping board and conference staff asking if any data had been collected correlating church leadership and camp experience. The replies I got indicated that had not happened in the systematic way my friend Jason described, while affirming that many (including some Camping Board members) were called by God into leadership of the church while at church camp. I am hopeful that information would be gathered in the future in a more systematic and (dare I say) “methodical” way.

The future leadership of the church resides in our youth and children, and many of them realize that while they are at church camp. I’d really like to know exactly how many that is.

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's About Congregations: More Thoughts On Missouri UM Camps

I watched part one of a video that was taken of a meeting at Liberty UMC on Wednesday, September 10. The meeting was convened to discuss the recent decision of the Missouri Annual Conference Camping Board to dismiss the camp staff and take church camping in a new direction.

Here's the video - CLICK HERE. (Thank you to colleagues and friends Steve Cox, Jon Spalding, and Garrett Drake for being present, and to Liberty UMC for hosting the forum.)

I invite you to listen to what Garrett Drake has to say at 19:30 and immediately following. I believe this is the number one factor that led to the Camping Board's decision:

"The mission of the conference is different than the mission of the church."

He means, I think, the conference will focus on, fund, and support efforts to strengthen local congregations, not necessarily individuals. This has been the clearly stated mission of the Annual Conference for years.

It was the opinion of the Camping Board that church camping does not strengthen local congregations in a way that is faithful to the resources expended in that effort. (If I have misinterpreted that opinion, I trust I will be graciously corrected.) This does not mean they think church camp is a bad thing.

No one is disputing claims that children, youth, and adults feel God's presence in powerful ways at church camp. No one is disputing that people are called into the ministry at church camp on a regular basis. No one is disputing that it is good for people to be immersed in God's beautiful natural creation. Etc. Etc.

So, if I understand correctly, all that stuff is a red herring to the true point of conversation. What the Camping Board IS disputing is that church camp makes an impact, a positive, meaningful, tangible difference, to the health of local congregations, a difference that is worth the cost expended to achieve it.

I think this is how the conversation should be framed. Here's the order: People are members of congregations; congregations are led by the conference. (A conference, by the way, of which I am a member.)

For the record, I believe with all my heart that church camping DOES, in fact, make for healthier congregations. Those who have participated in church camp are always among the most active, joyful, energized members of the congregations I have served. I could describe so many different situations where church campers are the ones reaching out to invite others, leading small groups, serving on mission and ministry teams, and on and on.

So here's the problem - there is no numerical metric I can show the Conference office that directly demonstrates the impact camping has on the congregation's health. And lacking that, it is really hard to communicate it to anyone. We send reports that measure stuff - worship attendance, small group participants, apportionment dollars, and so forth. There is no "People invited to church by someone who never would have done so had they not attended church camp" report, for example

There are, however, "describables" in the life of a congregation. As Bishop Schnase has written, "There are thousands of ways of impacting lives through the ministry of Christ and a thousand forms of fruitful ministry. Some are measurable, and these we should count and learn how to do better. Where we cannot measure outcomes, we can describe changes and bear witness to the visible signs of the Spirit’s invisible work through us and our churches."

Which points out another problem - had we known about the "new direction" earlier, we would have had more opportunity to describe ways church camp was making our congregations healthier. A simple question on our annual report would have been sufficient: "Describe ways that church camping made your congregation healthier?" or something like that.

My colleague and friend Ann Mowery, a member of the Camping Board, posted on Facebook, "And for congregations that did send campers to our programs, the week’s experience seemed to be completely isolated from their experience in the local church." That statement revealed as much as anything about why this decision was made. Simply put, there is no way I could disagree more with this perspective.

But sadly, I have neither the means nor, it seems, the time to convince the Camping Board otherwise.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Being Mr. Banks

Over these past two months, Mr. George Banks, Esquire has become an important part of my life. I am humbled by the opportunity to portray him on the stage of the Lander’s Theatre as a part of the Springfield Little Theatre production of “Mary Poppins.” I have come to know George Banks quite well. And I must say, I love him dearly.

Mr. Banks’ defining question is - “Is that enough?” Of course, he doesn't realize that is THE question of his life until he says it out loud to a bank customer named Mr. Von Hussler. But once that question has been spoken, everything begins to change for George.

Because, you see … the way he is living - it really isn't “enough.”

It is not enough to sit in your study and never tell your children goodnight. It is not enough to relate to your wife as if all you do in the relationship is “pay for everything.” It is not enough to give up on your dreams because they were beaten out of you as a child.

Precision and order are not enough.

But as a boy growing up, he had been taught that it is. Precision and order, knowing the “right people,” children kept out of their father’s way … these are the values that have shaped George Banks. His parents were absent, and glad to be rid of him. His Nanny was abusive verbally and physically. One gets the idea that he was often alone.

And yet there is a spark in there, deep down. In his heart of hearts there is still the little boy who ran off from his Nanny to collect gingerbread stars from Mrs. Corry and hide them away where no one would find them. It is hard to imagine George Banks spending time in Mrs. Corry’s shop in the park, such a far cry from the buttoned-down world he inhabits. He was obviously drawn to the chaos and color, the “untidiness” so foreign to his experience at home.

Mrs. Banks knows that spark; she has seen it. Winnifred fell in love with THAT Mr. Banks, and he knows it. When he interacts with her, he mimics his father’s treatment of his mother, because he thinks that is “enough.” But he knows better. She is his last, tenuous connection to his true and better self, and when he finally realizes it, his line “How can you ever forgive me?” feels so meager and inadequate. Her response, however, “How can you even ask?” demonstrates the fire of her character even as it melts the last little shard of ice in his heart.

There is a special bond between Mr. Banks and his daughter. George is just as “thoughtless, short-tempered, and untidy” as Jane is. Jane treats the servants precisely the way she has seen her father treat them. It is Jane who notes that “Father would never approve” of their trip to the park with Bert. Jane’s curiosity at the bank elicits pride from her father, and clarifies an important decision he must make. In many ways, Jane is very much George’s daughter and Michael is very much Winnifred’s son (mother and son both tend to the “noisy, mischievous, and troublesome” side of things).

And finally ... Mary Poppins. “It’s that Poppins woman! SHE’S the one responsible.” But you know, Mary Poppins doesn't really “save” George Banks. Mary Poppins creates opportunities for people to save themselves, and to save others they love. Mr. Banks is saved by Winnifred’s devotion, by Jane’s strength, by Michael’s whimsy, by Bert’s wisdom. Mr. Banks is saved by Mrs. Corry’s gingerbread stars. Mary Poppins flies in and cracks everything open, like an old vase falling from a high shelf and out of the heirloom fly shining sparks of light. Mary Poppins will place the broken kite on stage, but she will leave it to him to pick it up and repair it.

I remember seeing David Tomlinson’s portrayal in the movie, but not really “seeing” him. He was tangential, almost. His Mr. Banks was two-dimensional - stuffy and uptight became free and happy. Only after seeing the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” and hearing that one line, “You think she’s come to save the children?” did I realize that there is much more here than just the caricature of a British gentleman banker.

Thankfully, the stage version of Mr. Banks is much more nuanced than the movie. He is multi-dimensional, with layers of back story that add such depth to his identity. He is certainly not a shallow Disney cartoon character on stage. He is real. He is true. He could be me.

I suspect that I love him so dearly because I do see myself in him in some ways. Not in his horrible childhood of course, but certainly in the way his priorities become skewed and his family suffers in consequence. Certainly in the way the pressure of his work clouds every other part of his life. Certainly in the way that his wife and children are the core of his identity and the source of all his life’s meaning, even if he seems to forget that from time to time.

Mr. George Banks, Esquire has become my constant companion of late. I wish you all could know him as well as I do. I’ll do my best to introduce him to you, if you’ll come see the show. Perhaps you’ll fall in love with him, as I have.