Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What About Joy?

Over on UM Insight, my most recent blog elicited this comment from a reader:

agree that something has to be done about the way that the UMC is heading. I don't think that this is the way to do it. What if what a local church wants is to not pay apportionments and be free to discriminate? (Perhaps that is what some want now.) The question is how do we retain the ability to act and speak as a denomination and yet have a lot less "top down" governance. How do we give more authority to the local church without becoming the "rope of sand" bemoned (sic) by Whitfield? And if the real thrust of what we are doing is to give more power to the local church what does that say about the episcopacy and the superintendency? What did the study commissioned by the Council of Bishops say about the effect of apportionments on the local church? Is the general church here to serve the local church or is it the other way round? Not having been at GC I can only ask questions as someone outside looking in. All I can say is, we are better than this. Rather than scapegoating some while holding others sacred we need to continue to do the work of the Great Commission while working together on solutions.

This comment was posted by “John Wesley.” I was flattered.

I commented back to Mr. Wesley:

Mr. Wesley, While I am indeed honored that you have commented on my humble blog, allow me to ask you to go ahead and answer your own question. What if a congregation doesn't pay apportionments? What if a congregation or a pastor discriminates? (My answer - the GC responds to a congregation acting thusly in the same manner a congregation responds to a church member who is.)
But then answer mine - What if they don't? What if UM congregations are so excited by what is happening in the denomination they simply can't wait to pay 110% of their apportionment? What if UM congregations are so fired up by the ethos of grace that they begin to truly welcome all people fully?
If you'll forgive me, since I know you only by reading your sermons and a few of your journal entries, Mr. Wesley, thinking "What if something goes wrong?" is exactly the kind of thinking that is stifling our denomination.
We need to start asking, "What if everything exceeds our wildest imagination?"

Then I read an article today about withholding apportionments as a way to affect change in the denomination. The article is a litany of negativism and hopelessness that really harshes my buzz, man. And it is only one in a long list of laments written in response to the 2012 meeting of the General Conference.

The majority of responses that I have read have been either pity parties or gripe sessions or angry diatribes. We are angry, we are upset, we are afraid. And those of us who aren’t are taking an attitude that says the 2012 General Conference was a harbinger of rebirth and radical transformation; in other words, it was awful - but better things are surely coming.

Why do we United Methodists seem to be unable to ask any question other than, “What if something goes wrong?" or "What if we die?" We use terms that are designed to elicit fear and despair, and then we wonder why everybody is so afraid and gloomy. Um … duh.

We are asking, “What if something goes wrong,” and “What if our denomination splits,” and “What if we run out of money,” and “What if our structure collapses,” as if these questions have anything whatsoever to do with the way the world is being transformed in spite of us.

Yes, the world is changing, has changed, is forever different than it was a generation ago. And we’re missing it as we engage in denominational hand-wringing.

Okay, look - our General Boards are going to restructure, but now it will be because they are forced to rather than because the General Conference did so proactively. They are just going to run out of money and not be able to function as they currently do. I wish we would have been able to anticipate and preempt this, but we didn’t. Now it will happen reactively instead.

But even that’s not the point.

All of this negativity around this year’s General Conference is misplaced and not the least bit helpful. We expend so much organizational energy being anxious about the “What ifs” that our fear not only paralyzes us, it also distracts us from all of the wonderful stuff, changing stuff, transformational stuff, stuff that we can celebrate.

What we miss is the joy. What about joy? There is so much to rejoice over, and we can’t even see it because we’re so afraid.

Do we remember? We follow a Teacher who told a story once about leaving behind 99 perfectly flocked sheep in order to find one that was lost, and then rejoiced when it was found. One sheep. Call the neighbors, throw a party - Rejoice!

Have we forgotten how to rejoice?

Personally, in small groups, in congregations, and percolating upward from there, we need to remember how to rejoice. We need to stop asking, What if we die?

What we need to be asking is - What if we live?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

General Conference Could be Our "Facebook"

I feel like I used to when Mom would tell me to clean my room. I knew it had to be done but I really didn’t want to.

Okay, I’ll do a wrap-up blog on General Conference 2012, geez. (*Picture rolling eyes and stomping off to my computer with an exasperated sigh*)

See, I thought all the General Conference stuff was going to be … just fine. I didn’t think anything amazing was going to happen and nothing amazing did. It wasn’t awful; it wasn’t great. It did exactly what it is designed to do, and now it’s over. It was just fine.

I really feel bad for all of the wonderful people who worked so hard for such a long time only to have all their hard work rejected by the committee or tabled by the conference or just ignored altogether. I respect them for their work, their dedication, and faithfulness. Thank you!

Specifically …
- I think the restructure would have been a good thing, and it will be when it eventually happens, either because we choose it or we’re forced to do it because we literally can’t afford not to.

- I think the Hamilton/Slaughter amendment was brilliant, and I hope Annual Conferences will consider endorsing it this year as a way to encourage local congregations to meaningful, grace-filled, and respectful dialogue about homosexuality.

- I hope the end of the guaranteed appointment doesn’t regress us back to a day when prejudice was common enough to really need it, and I really don’t think it will with all the accountability built into the system.

- I love being in full communion across the spectrum of our Methodist cousin denominations!

- I wish we had divested from the companies that profit from Israel’s military; I understand the argument of those who want to influence things by staying invested, although I am skeptical that we actually will do so.

But really, I am more than ever before convinced that the change necessary for the United Methodist Church cannot be legislated in the current General Conference structure. We are fooling ourselves if we think it can. And GC 2012 did a lot to reinforce this idea.

AsI’ve written before, my ideal model for an Annual Conference would be as a kind of “Google” for local congregations. Well, what if the General Conference could be “Facebook” for the denomination as a whole?

Facebook is a social network that connects people, coordinates groups, promotes ideas, and pools resources. Isn’t that what General Conference at its best ought to do?

We are a global connection whose coordinated focus is to promote the mission of God in communities all around the world. Couldn’t General Conference be our Facebook? We wouldn’t have General Boards and Agencies, we would have groups and pages! We could send “friend requests” to churches all around the world through the General Conference. We could create events like Imagine No Malaria and Nothing But Nets, and contribute via our denominational PayPal accounts to make them happen.

The fundamental shift that needs to happen at the General level is from old-school, hierarchical authority to postmodern, flattened-out collaboration. If we actually believe that the most impact happens at the local congregation level, then everything we did as a broader connection would have to be geared toward equipping and empowering the church in local communities around the world.

The General Conference would stop telling local churches what they can and cannot do, and start asking local churches what they actually want to do - how they feel God is uniquely calling them to fulfill the mission – and then the Conference would work to make it happen.

I know, I know – dream on. Come to think of it, I used to daydream a lot when Mom sent me to clean my room, too!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Confirmation Sensation

A year ago at this time, right after the Confirmation Worship Service of 2011, a dad came up to our Youth Director to ask a question. He wanted to know when the Confirmation Service was going to be set for 2012.

His son was going to be confirmed, and he wanted to make sure they kept the weekend clear.

A year ahead.

And yesterday, his son was among the twenty-one young people who were confirmed in an amazing worship celebration at Campbell United Methodist Church. Ten of those young people were baptized, and six family members joined the church along with their confirmand.

Nobody has to become a member of a church. It is not required for salvation. Neither pastors nor parents can force anyone to join a church. It is a choice, freely made by the individual. It is a public declaration of faithfulness and discipleship. It is a declaration that you are going to Live, Grow, and Share as an active part of the church.

Joining a church is saying out loud, “YES! I am a follower of Jesus and I am going to live my pattern of discipleship as a part of this congregation.” It is something that you say to God, witnessed by the congregation, and fulfilled in your own life.

At the “Talking Box” on Sunday, the kids were given party favors and made a joyful noise in celebration of this year’s confirmation class. After the confirmation liturgy, members of the class served the congregation the sacrament of Holy Communion. The service ended with “Praise ye the Lord, Alleluia! Everybody praise the Lord!” accompanied by organ and praise band together, and the rafters practically shook with the singing of the people!

It was an amazing worship service, and a fitting celebration for the congregation’s confirmation service. And so this year’s fifth graders might want to start making plans now for your Sunday next year, because you know it’s going to be quite a party!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Flipside of Accountability: The End of the “Guaranteed Appointment”

            The General Conference has decided to end what is commonly called the “guaranteed appointment” for ordained elders in our denomination. The over-simplified nutshell explanation is that clergy who are judged to be ineffective no longer must be given an appointment. The first waves of reaction are coming from a kind of suspicion of authority common to so many these days. And I find it ironic.

            Irony is rife in this decision, and in the reaction. One of the emphases of the UMC is attracting more young people, and the best way that happens is through vital and vibrant congregations. Young people are in general rather postmodern in their thinking. Postmodern people are (stereo)typically wary of big, institutional authority. So, some of the postmoderns who are already in the church, who are similarly prone to suspicion of authority, are reacting to the effort to bring new young people into the church by voicing their suspicion of authority, authority that is being wielded by the institution in an effort to bring more suspicious young people into the church by creating vital local congregations! Ha! I love it!

             More seriously, though, the question that many clergy are asking is, “What definition of ‘effectiveness’ will be applied to me?” There is a fear that, even though I may believe that I am working faithfully, proclaiming the gospel, and bearing fruit for the kingdom, my DS or Bishop might not see it that way. And now that I am not guaranteed an appointment they may apply their different definition of effectiveness to my ministry and ask that I consider another vocation.

            Another perspective might call this “accountability,” in that pastors are being held accountable with more purpose than before. There was a process by which ordained elders could be removed from service before this decision was made. Now however, the accountability piece is closer to the surface.

            Look, it’s all going to be fine. It will require pastors to effectively describe the fruitfulness within their particular context, and continue to maintain a healthy relationship with their DS. That’s all. No need to panic, everybody. It’s all good. Just be ready at a moment’s notice to lay down the dozen or more most fruitful moments that have happened in the last month, and share them with as many people as you possibly can.

            No, the conference isn’t going to guarantee your appointment anymore - you are going to have to guarantee your own.

            What I haven’t heard so much about is the flipside of accountability. I have heard an awful lot about how conferences will deal with ineffective pastors; I haven’t heard a bunch about how conferences are going to be supporting the effective ones. What new things will the conferences be doing now to support, encourage, inspire, refresh, renew, and affirm pastors who ARE effective?

            Accountability has a flipside, and that’s where I’d like us to focus.
+If an ineffective pastor is going to be encouraged to another vocation, how is an effective pastor going to be encouraged?
+Should our Annual Conferences expend all their time and energy concentrating on what isn’t working well and just leave “well enough” alone?
+Should the primary task of Conference staff be to guide ineffective pastors out of ministry and just assume that the effective pastors are doing fine?

            I don’t fear the end of the guaranteed appointment. I’m going to preach the gospel, serve God faithfully, and work to change the world for God’s sake. I will have eyes that are open to notice fruitfulness in all of its diverse varieties. And I’ll be able to describe them to anyone who asks. I’m just wondering now, what will accountability look like from the flipside?

            Not that I need an “Effective Pastor” plaque to hang on my wall or anything. I am an itinerant preacher in the United Methodist Church because I believe that’s what God wants me to be, not so that someone will pat me on the back and say “Good job, dude.” That’s not my point.

            My point is simply that accountability is more than just addressing what isn’t working well. Accountability also means supporting what is.  

UPDATE: Cross-posted at Ministry Matters - Click this.