Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On My Mind ...

"Sometimes when an issue is before annual conference, the persons who rush to the microphone are not always the most careful proponents of a point of view. It only takes a few persons to set a tone for a large gathering."

- Hal Knight and Don Saliers, The Conversation Matters, p. 79

Monday, May 28, 2007

Annual Conference Thoughts: The Conversation Matters!

I changed my blog description up there, did you notice? It now says, "I believe that the conversation matters. If in the attempt to realize the reign of God on earth, we cannot engage one another in respectful and grace-filled dialogue, we might as well not even try."

(Yes, I stole the phrase "The Conversation Matters" from the title of the Hal Knight and Don Saliers book, which we read in seminary. Reading this book was the first opportunity I had to think about the idea that it is indeed possible to enter into Christian conversation without needing to agree necessarily with everyone around the table. And you know what? - the sky will not fall.)

I believe that the conversation matters because living a Christlike life is more about the journey than the arrival. A.J. Muste said, "There is no way to peace; peace is the way." Similarly, Jesus called himself "the Way," and early Christians were followers of the way. It's not that we have attained the prize, but we press on to make it our own, as Christ made us his own.

Which brings me to ...

This week is the meeting of Annual Conference here in Missouri, and there are a lot of things going on that I have serious questions about. Here they are, in no particular order:
1) The inordinate power given to an ad hoc task force appointed by the Bishop known as "Pathways" that was supposed to be temporary but shows no signs of stopping soon,
2) the use of numbers alone to define "fruitfulness" in ministry,
3) the elimination of conference support of many community service agencies known as "vital ministries,"
4) the move to close Wesley Foundations on college campuses across the state,
5) the new apportionment formula by which 51% of the congregations in my urban district (including NKC) will see an increase next year whereas in some rural districts that figure is a single digit.

And now...

I wonder how much to push these issues. I wonder how many questions to ask before I get the label of troublemaker. I wonder who the best conversation partners might be. I wonder if every voice on these conversations will be heard. I wonder if I ought to wait until after I am ordained to raise my concerns. I wonder how much good it does to raise the issues on the floor of Conference by which time everything seems pretty much decided already. I wonder if not on the floor of conference, then where and with whom.

I believe the conversation matters. But I've never had so many things I've wanted to talk about at once, so I'm not sure where to start!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Campus Ministry in Missouri: More Thoughts

Recently, the Missouri Annual Conference decided to “shift toward congregationally based ministries with college students,” rather than fund on-campus ministries at colleges and universities across the state. (You can read the resolution here.) My opinion is that this move erodes part of the connection, and moves the conference toward a congregational polity, rather than its distinctive connectional polity. I also believe that it is a move motivated solely by the bottom line – money – and has very little to do with the extravagant, risky, and radical ministry to which Christians are called.

The most common motivation for this move that I have heard is that on-campus ministries cost too much. Wesley Foundations on college campuses are seen by many as wastes of money, or in the gentler language employed these days to smooth over hurt feelings, they are not “bearing good fruit” because the number of students who participate is not commensurate with the resources allocated to them. And to add insult to injury, the Conference is so reluctant to address the issue honestly and openly, the Commission on Higher Education will not even be allowed to make a report at this year’s Annual Conference session, according to a Conference source I spoke with. No chance to grieve, celebrate the many years of good ministry, mourn the loss. In the future, there will be no Commission on Higher Education in the Missouri Annual Conference!

Segue to a story I heard on the NPR program Weekend Edition on Saturday, May 19, 2007. (Listen to it here.) In an interview with retired Marine Lt. Col. Gary Anderson, John Ydstie (say IT-stee) explored the recent kidnapping of three U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Col. Anderson said that every soldier knows that if something happens to him, his buddies are going to come get him or her; no one will be left in the enemy’s control if at all possible. He considers this duty so important he used the word “sacred” to describe it. U.S. soldiers know that they are “not going to be forgotten” and that “[The search] will never be discontinued,” although “…the level of activity may go down” or change focus as circumstances dictate.

Ydstie asked him about the cost, wondering if there ever was a time when the investment of resources in the search would outweigh the dwindling hope of rescuing the prisoners from the enemy. The colonel replied, “It’s not a cost/benefit analysis; it’s, quite as a matter of fact, a moral duty that we feel we have to our troops. Cost at this point and time is I’m sure the farthest thing from the heads of the military commanders that are conducting the operation.”

Of course, sparing no expense to rescue people from the enemy is not only something the military does. Turns out, it is kind of important to Jesus, too. He said, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:4-7)

I hope we have not come to a time when we do a cost/benefit analysis to determine if we ought to go and seek the lost sheep on college campuses in Missouri. Surely there is someone willing still to leave the 99 behind and throw everything into finding the one. U.S. soldiers know that their brothers in arms will not abandon them to the enemy; should not children of God also be able to rest assured that they will be rescued from “the snare of the fowler,” no matter what the cost?

The truth is, I hope that this change in our conference represents a shift in focus rather than just giving up the search. I pray that congregations in college towns will pick up the mission that the conference is dropping. But that’s a hope right now. The reality is a lot of people connected to campus ministries are feeling abandoned by the Missouri Annual Conference. Rather than investing whatever resources it takes to find the one lost sheep, it feels like the Conference is pretty much tending to the ninety-nine.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Proactive Pastoral Care

Back in seminary, Professor Hoeft taught a lesson about proactive pastoral care. Proactive pastoral care is basically approaching a person without invitation, offering care when they have not expressed a desire or need for it themselves. Visiting nursing home bound people falls into this category. So would calling a person whom you had heard through the grapevine was “having a hard time,” maybe a personal struggle or dealing with a family member’s issues. Calling someone “just to check in” or “see how things are going,” for example.

This kind of unsolicited care can be very meaningful and fruitful ministry. I understand that. The pastor who does a lot of proactive pastoral care is probably well-loved and highly thought of by the congregation. It really is a self-sacrificial kind of ministry, and a truly wonderful calling to fulfill. There are boundaries to observe, certainly, but when done with integrity and respect, it’s all good.

But here’s the rub: Having said all that, I cannot be a proactive pastoral care giver, or at least I haven’t been over the past seven years of my ministry. In truth, there is no way I personally can invest any more time and energy into ministry than I am already doing without coming completely unwound. All of the pastoral care I am able to do is responsive, not proactive. My pastoral care is responding to hospitalizations, people who call, write, or come by my study with issues to discuss, premarital counseling, being present with families upon the death of a loved one, and other situations in which I am contacted with a care request.

I truly treasure these care-giving opportunities as sacred moments of trust and Christian conversation, and I feel my calling to ministry fulfilled when I engage them. But when I add to that the time and energy of worship planning, sermon writing, Bible study prep, Sunday School lesson prep, administrative responsibilities, staff and leader training, etc. my work life is filled to the brim. Then I balance personal spiritual growth and family time into all of that mix, too.

Here’s the way we deal with the situation here in Northtown – we have abandoned the myth that the only person who can do proactive pastoral care is the pastor. Oh, there are some who are still caught in the mindset that says “If the pastor hasn’t visited me, I haven’t been visited.” But by and large this remarkable congregation takes care of one another. We have a dedicated group of Stephen Ministers. We have a compassionate Associate Pastor for Visiting Ministries. We have a Director of Lay Ministries who keeps tabs on things with amazing grace and patience. And, most important, we have a bunch of people who really love each other and know how important it is to care for one another in times of need.

So, there is proactive pastoral care happening, it’s just not me doing it! People are visited, cared for, loved. They stay connected to each other. Sometimes someone “falls through the cracks,” so to speak, meaning that occasionally we lose track of a person who hasn’t been around for a while. But that is definitely the exception, rather than the rule. And how lucky am I to serve a congregation who “gets it” with regard to this issue? I am the “responsive” pastoral care giver; the church themselves are the “proactive” care givers.

That seems to be a pretty healthy arrangement. I wonder if any of you readers have thoughts based on your pastoral care experiences in other congregations. Please feel free to share in the comments.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ordination Checklist is Shrinking!

Ordination is less than three weeks away! Next month at this time, I will be an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, a member of the Missouri Annual Conference, and beginning my fourth (how can it be?) year in full-time ministry, my eighth year in pastoral ministry, and my thirteenth year in professional ministry overall, counting my years in music ministry.

The latest step in the process was to choose the two elders to come forward and lay hands on my head as a part of the ordination moment. My bishop and my grandfather (retired bishop) and the ecumenical representative and probably a few others I’m forgetting will all be up there already.

My dad, Rev. Jim Bryan, was choice number one, of course. When Erin and I got married, I did not ask Dad to be in the ceremony, so that he could just be Dad instead of “the pastor.” But this is different. For ordination, he not only comes up as Dad, but also as the pastor who was the first and still the biggest influence on my spiritual life. He was my pastor from age five through eighteen, for goodness sake! And so I invited him, not just as my dad, but as one of my most formative pastoral role models.

With my first choice made, I turned to the decision of whom to invite to be the second elder. (A second elder is not really necessary, but each ordinand is allowed two additional elders to stand with the bishops and other big cheeses up on the dais.) I did what I do every time I have a big decision to make – I made a list. I listed all the pastors I knew growing up, and as a PK, I know plenty! I listed pastors who were helpful in my process of candidacy. I listed pastors I consider mentors. I listed a few pastors I just think are cool!

And then I noticed something about my list – all of the pastors I had written down represent another generation. To be blunt: they were all old. :) I hope no one reading this takes offense, but it is what it is. And so it goes. I value their wisdom and the years of dedicated service they have given God through the church, but what came to mind was that perhaps an elder of my own generation would be appropriate for this role. The more I thought about it, the more that made sense to me – to be ordained by a younger elder, so to speak.

And once I came to that realization, it took me like two seconds to decide whom to invite – my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Sarah Evans. We have worked closely together on Missouri Ministers’ School, and the two of us seem to resonate somehow, thinking alike, communicating easily, working well in harmony with each other. However, there was another little bump in the storyline. When I called to invite her, Sarah said that she was touched and honored, but she also told me that she was not intending to go to conference this year, since she is on maternity leave. She wanted to talk it over with her husband and get back to me.

When she called back, though, they had decided to accept the invitation and be a part of my ordination, and I am so grateful. I am humbled to consider how Sarah and Frank changed their plans so Sarah could make the trek all the way south to Springfield just to put her hands on my head along with a group of other people for a few seconds. Well, she does get to participate in the big Ordination Banquet earlier in the evening, so maybe that’s why she agreed! Whatever the reason, I am truly happy that she is a part of it, not only for what she represents, but also just for who she is.

So, check that off the list. Elders selected – check. Hmm, that list is getting shorter and shorter, isn’t it? Pretty soon my ordination to-do list will be down to: Walk up to the stage. Kneel. Receive.

Wow. I’m going to be ordained … this is really going to happen. I want to be able to express how that makes me feel.

It's just that sometimes words don't quite make it, you know?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bring Them Home

I want to bring a previous comment thread to the forefront here, so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Responding to my remarks about the Iraq War, Larry B. asked, and was seconded by Joseph, “GW may have made a serious mistake entering war, but how moral is it to make two mistakes?” His question echoes the classic parental admonition, “Two wrongs don’t make a right!”

In response, I wrote

Here's an analogy, Larry B and Joseph (read this in a letter to the editor today): I want my friend to stop gambling, because he is losing money. He says, but if I keep playing, I might win. My desire for him to stop gambling is not because I don't want him to perhaps win eventually, but because I want him to stop losing his money right now.

I think this metaphor is very helpful in explaining my position on Iraq. I want this war over, not because it is my desire that the U.S. “lose” and the region fall into chaos, but rather because the war cannot be “won” in any reasonable sense of the word, and the region is in chaos right now, anyway. Using the analogy, gambling will continue after my friend leaves the boat!

My larger point was (and still is) to decry the culture of deception in our government that says it is okay to change the definition of success to match what is happening now, whatever that might be. As if, when I say to my friend, “You are going to go broke if you keep gambling like this,” my friend responds, “But I am losing fewer quarters than ever before, which means things are getting better!” which is true, but the reality is that he is losing more and more dollars all the time.

It’s like Kansas Bob commented, we are “powerless” in Iraq, and it is time to bring them home.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Hate Crimes Bill: LRP!!! (Long, Ranty Post Warning!)

According to the Traditional Values Coalition, H.R. 1592 is a bad, bad thing. That's what they said in their latest email, at least. And if there's one thing I know, it's that you can always trust everything you read in emails ... hm?

HR 1592, the "Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007," (it's so much easier just to type HR 1592, by the way), allows the federal government to assist local and state governments prosecuting hate crimes. In defining a hate crime, the language of the bill says, in part, that "Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, in any circumstance described in subparagraph (B), willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of any person--..."

Of course, for the TVC, it is the inclusion of the terms "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" that makes this legislation so bad. They claim the bill would make it so that a preacher who speaks out against homosexuality, thereby inciting a congregant to commit a hate crime against a homosexual person would be held criminally accountable by this bill. Or, as they put it, the House of Representatives "slapped Christians in the face" by passing this bill.

(Ranting begins here):
Never mind that the bill itself would prohibit the very thing they describe. It says, "Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution." In other words, it is no threat whatsoever to free speech. I wonder how the TVC could have overlooked this?

The answer, of course, is that the TVC and others in their general vicinity on this issue are willfully disregarding facts that do not support their cause. They pretend that this is all about freedom of expression, when in reality it is about the promotion of their own anti-gay agenda, cloaked as it is in the guise of faithful Christianity. Give me a break.

Maybe it's just because I'm in a grumpy mood today (end of a busy, stressful day), but it makes me sick to read about a self-described Christian group whose OFFICIAL POSITION is AGAINST prohibiting "willful bodily injury" to another person, whether they think that person is a sinner or NOT! I mean, shouldn't we Christians kind of be against willful bodily injury to another person, considering all that willful bodily injury inflicted on Jesus for our sakes way back when? Or was that only for straight people? At face value, the position of the TVC seems to be that it is okay to commit willful bodily injury against certain groups of people, or at the very least that it is not an issue they see as problematic. I mean, does someone there actually think through these things? I can't imagine that is really how they want to be perceived.

And with regard to this idea that a preacher's hateful sermon may invoke someone to commit a hate crime and that they would then be held criminally accountable, my first reaction is to try to imagine what kind of sermon it would be that would incite such a response. Heckuva preacher! And then I imagine what might happen if that preacher whose sermons were capable of inciting such action preached a sermon about making disciples of Jesus Christ instead, thereby inciting the congregation to actually spread scriptural holiness throughout the land instead of deciding and naming whom to hate.

I, as a preacher, actually like to think that I may be responsible for some of the things the congregation does upon hearing one of my sermons. "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds" (Hebrews 10:24) seems to be a pretty fitting motivation for a sermon, don't you think? What are preachers doing if not trying to inspire, provoke, motivate, and invite a spirit-filled, Christ-centered response? Seems to me that some accountability in the process may be a good thing. The worst thing I'll ever inspire from my sermons is lethargy, to be sure, not a hurtful criminal action. And yet I ought to held accountable even when my preaching inspires nothing more than lethargy, rather than love.

Some more level-headed opponents leave the whole nutty-Christian-extreme-right-thing aside and argue that the bill is not necessary, on the grounds that hate crimes are already being prosecuted at the local level. This is what the current occupant is citing to support his intention to veto the bill when it arrives on his desk. Okay, that's a different argument. However, reading the entire bill, I don't find it redundant at all. In fact, the bill authorizes federal asssistance for local prosecution of hate crimes only if
"`(A) the State does not have jurisdiction or does not intend to exercise jurisdiction;
`(B) the State has requested that the Federal Government assume jurisdiction;
`(C) the State does not object to the Federal Government assuming jurisdiction; or
`(D) the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence."

But my primary rant tonight (I know it's not as ranty as my brother can get at times, but I'm aspiring) has had to do with how a Christian group can twist the faith enough to find the ethical framework from which to actually argue against passing an anti-hate-crime bill. Christians have not been "slapped in the face" with this bill, but all Christians suffer when one nutty group of us makes a claim like that.

(Ranting complete.)

Seriously though, maybe someone can explain for me why a Christian would be against HR 1592 in a way that I can make some sense of. I would welcome that dialogue.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Kansas City Shooting - A Prayer

Living God,
Another one?

Grant them eternal rest
and let perpetual light shine upon them,


It was close to home this time, Lord.
The guy was twenty minutes from my children.
We don't normally shop at that mall,
but we shop.
Some days I feel like just locking the doors
and sitting in our house together, where it's safe.

But we go to school. We go to work. We live.

God, thank you for the training and skills
of the police officers who risk their lives
every day to keep us safe
in the out an about of our daily lives.

I don't understand things sometimes ... well, most of the time, actually.

It is not so much the understanding, but the peace of mind that I desire.

So, if it might be possible,
is there some way I could
feel that peace of mind,
even if I don't understand?

Forgive us, O Lord, for our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against your divine majesty.
Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful God.

In your holy name, Amen.