Saturday, July 23, 2016

What's In a Name?

Within the United Methodist Church exist several unofficial groups, organized for various reasons. Two of these groups are named the “Good News Movement” and the “Reconciling Ministries Network.”

The Good News Movement exists to ensure that people who are gay are not permitted to be ordained or married. The Reconciling Ministries Network exists for exactly the opposite reason, to ensure that people who are gay are permitted to be ordained and married.

So, in our big tent of a denomination, it has become customary to identify people who belong to one or the other of these groups by using the name of the group. And so: “She is a Good News person” and/or “He is a Reconciling person.” Just hearing those words associated in any way with an individual in our denomination seems to immediately color one’s opinion of the person in question, often without even actually knowing them. Which is sad, but so it goes.

I want to talk about those names, strategically chosen to identify these two polar opposite ends of our United Methodist spectrum. “Good news.” “Reconciling.” Have these terms become nothing more to United Methodists than political identifiers?

Truthfully, I am a “Good News” person. And truthfully, I am a “Reconciling” person. And I want to be both of those things without having to explain that I don’t want to carry the bitterly divisive baggage associated with each.

I am a Good News person because I believe the Gospel. I believe God loves the world so much that Christ Jesus laid down his own life so that the world might live an abundant, everlasting life. I believe that the teaching of Jesus, the promise of God, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit are all inherently good news for all people, as well as for each person uniquely.

I am a Reconciling person because I take very seriously the idea that God has entrusted the church with the ministry of reconciliation. I believe that God’s desire is for unity, for people to be one community, to encourage one another and lift one another up. And I believe that God has called the church to make connections, build bridges, and heal broken relationships.

And I’d like to ask very kindly … can we have our words back, please?

No offense or anything, but I’d like to be able to use the terms without having to explain that I don’t mean either of those groups. (I feel the same way about the world “evangelical,” by the way.) I’d like to claim to be a person of the Good News without people wondering if that means I don’t want gay people to get married. I’d like to claim to be a minister of reconciliation without people wondering if that means I was protesting at General Conference.

And while I’m at it, let me share a couple other things that I’d like to be able to do.

I’d like to be able to claim that one’s sexual orientation should not be a barrier to ordination or marriage, without having my faith questioned, without someone accusing me of disobedience to God, without someone callously observing that I don’t take the Bible seriously, without someone assuming I am breaking covenant with my denomination.

And on the flipside, I’d like to be able to say out loud that change is happening in our church from the bottom up via a movement of the Holy Spirit; and I’d like to be able to affirm that the official legislation is going to catch up to that movement of the Spirit eventually rather than lead it, as it should be. And I’d like to be able to do that without being accused of not wanting justice now, without being compared to a “white moderate” of Dr. King’s day, without someone telling me I have somehow “sold out” and become a part of the system.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m a good news person. I’m a reconciling person. I’m an evangelical person. I’m a progressive person. I’m an orthodox person. I’m a social justice person. I’m a conservative person. I’m a peacemaking person. I’m a Bible-believing person. I’m a truth-seeking person. I’m a Wesleyan person. I’m …

I’m a Jesus person. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and I try with everything I am to follow him as closely as I possibly can. And I get it wrong as often as I get it right, and I thank God for grace every single day.

I still believe, despite the anxiety in the system, that we can figure out a way to stay together as a denomination. I still believe that some on the edges will end up leaving as a result of the Bishop’s commission’s plan. And I know that some already have, pushed to do so by Bishop Oliveto’selection. Part of me grieves this; and another part of me is resigned to it. So it goes.

Some will say that our unity arises from our doctrine; if we do not ascribe to the same set of teachings, we should not be a united body. Others will say that our unity arises from the Holy Spirit; that we are mysteriously joined together with sacred bonds that transcend doctrine.

I find myself believing the latter; our unity is deeper than our doctrine. I’m a Jesus person, with all that comes along with that. And I trust, hope, and pray that the Jesus people who call ourselves Methodist will figure out a way to become the church that God is calling us to be.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Thoughts on Jurisdictional Conference 2016 - "Terrifying and Wonderful" - #scj16

My goal was to be coming home from Jurisdictional Conference excited about the future of the church.

I don’t know if “excited” is the word that best fits. I am excited / scared / embarrassed / happy / proud / angry / inspired / hopeful. What’s the word for that emotion? It may be "terrifyingly wonderful," but could also be "wonderfully terrifying." You pick.

So this will be kind of rambly, almost stream of consciousness. But somewhere in what follows will be the beginnings of my thoughts about what happened at the 2016 meeting of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. Here goes...

I’ll start with the Missouri Annual Conference’s new bishop, Bishop Bob Farr. Who, at this time last week, was Missouri’s Director of Congregational Excellence. He is a colleague and a friend to many in Missouri, and now he is our bishop. That dynamic is … unusual.

It is extremely rare for a bishop to be elected and immediately assigned to her or his home conference. It is not forbidden in our rule book, but it is hardly ever done. No one on the Missouri delegation could remember it happening before in our Jurisdiction.

I’m excited about Bishop Farr’s election and assignment for two reasons. First of all, it is an unusual situation, a new and different way to organize, and that’s what Missouri is all about! We are not now, nor we ever have been known for doing the same ol’ same ol’. Bishop Farr’s leadership will be innovative, just by its very nature. And secondly, I am excited that the South Central Jurisdiction has finally managed to elect a bishop who is not from the state of Texas. Not that that’s a huge deal, but it was starting to get kind of monotonous.

Bishop Farr is going to continue to focus on local congregations, and equip, encourage, and allow churches to organize for and engage in ministry that makes sense and bears fruit in the wide variety of diverse contexts around our state. He loves the church with all his heart, and loves Jesus just as much. I am happy and proud to call him my bishop.

With that said, I am embarrassed by the lack of diversity among the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction. There is only one active bishop who is a woman, for example. Rev. Lynn Dyke would be a phenomenal bishop, and I was working to help her election happen until the moment she removed herself from consideration. Furthermore, Rev. David Wilson is a gifted leader, and would have brought a new perspective to the council of bishops, that of a Native American. Neither was elected.

There are ten bishops in the SCJ, and NINE of them are men, and SEVEN of them are white men. This is embarrassing to me, and not at all reflective of who we are as United Methodists. But it should be noted that across our denomination the other Jurisdictions have done a better job of electing bishops who reflect our diversity, including four African-American women.

With THAT said, the voting in the South Central Jurisdiction was neither sexist nor racist. Those making such claims are making some huge assumptions, often without actually being present during the conference. Both Lynn and David were in the thick of it on many ballots; David received over a hundred votes on one (ballot 24).

I am not naive, so I know that there were some individuals likely voting based on gender and/or race. But anyone who claims the final outcome was blatantly sexist or obviously racist would have a lot of explaining to do to back that assumption up. And based on my experience there, there were a myriad of other factors involved with the decisions the delegates made in selecting bishops.

(Um, isn’t that point a contradiction to the previous one?
Yes. Sure seems like it. Are you still wondering why my reaction is so mixed up?)

Next thing: The politicking made me angry. There’s no other way to say it. It makes me angry when a delegation huddles up, then the next ballot has a large number of votes for a random person who had zero on the previous ballot. Or two delegations get together and then on the next ballot one candidate who was running well has dropped while another one has bumped up. Deals are offered, bargains are struck, delegations “fish” for attractive candidates, heels are dug in. People campaign. And it’s politics. And I did it too. I was a part of it, in the mix. It is what it is, and that doesn’t mean I have to like it. If there’s a better way to do it, I’m all for giving it a try.

Then there was this: A surreal moment happened on Friday night. Simultaneously to the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, we in the South Central Jurisdiction were debating whether or not to send a request to the Judicial Council of the UMC for a ruling on the election and consecration of people who are gay to be bishops in the United Methodist Church. (FYI, Bishop Oliveto is gay).

It was well rehearsed, planned out in advance, and timed exquisitely. As the petition was read from the floor, slides on screen displayed the text. It was pretty obvious that it had been in the works for a while, to be initiated if it looked like a gay bishop was close to election.

The vote was close, but we voted to go ahead and submit the request. People who believe that sexual orientation is not a hinderance to ordination think that this move is an attack on inclusiveness. People who think being gay disqualifies someone from ordination think this move is simply trying to be obedient to the Book of Discipline. So it goes.

And then, immediately after the vote, my friend and fellow Missouri delegate Andrew Ponder Williams went to the microphone and asked that we stand and pray, specifically for all who had been “hurt by what just happened.” I know exactly what he meant, but the way he worded it, he may have meant hurt by Bishop Oliveto’s election OR hurt by the South Central Jurisdiction’s request. After some urging by Justin Coleman, essentially the entire room came and gathered around Andrew, who was by the way standing two feet in front of me. We connected hands on shoulders, hand in hand, reaching for whoever was closest.

And then Andrew prayed. And it was a remarkable prayer. Sensitive, passionate, grace-filled, loving. The Holy Spirit fell upon Andrew in that moment, and he prayed for us. It was amazing, and I will never forget it.

Rob Renfroe has said that the election of Bishop Oliveto has put us on “the brink of schism.” He was sitting just a few feet on the other side of the microphone from which Andrew was speaking. I am sad to say that I did not notice if he stood up to pray with the rest of the group, but I am assuming that he did. If he did, he was literally three or four people away from Andrew.

Several people have asked me what I think about Bishop Oliveto’s election and assignment to the Mountain Sky Area. I don’t know; I’ve never even met her, much less have any thoughts about her potential effectiveness as a bishop. What I do know is that she is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, a member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, she was nominated for bishop by her Annual Conference, and duly elected bishop by the Western Jurisdiction. I trust that process, and the people involved in it, in their discernment of Bishop Oliveto’s call to be a bishop.

And here is another thing of which I am certain. The gender of the person that Bishop Oliveto happens to love has no impact on the gifts and graces that God has given her to serve in ministry. Nor, by the by, does it have an impact on how we are going to do ministry at Campbell UMC in Springfield. I’m not going to obsess over that aspect of her identity, and I hope you won’t either.

One of the inspiring and hopeful parts of Jurisdictional Conference was meeting and getting to know some really cool people from around the South-Central Jurisdiction. It’s all about relationships, making connections with one another, and I had a lot of opportunities to do just that in Wichita. And by the wonder that is social media, it will be so much easier to remain connected.

I love being a part of a connectional church. I love the frustrating, beautiful, messy diversity that comprises our “big tent” denomination. I still don’t know what’s going to happen. People may leave now that we have a gay bishop. Other people may leave if the Judicial Council comes back and rules her election invalid.

I’m not leaving. I am Methodist, through and through. God has called me to serve in the United Methodist Church in this unsettled, uncertain season. The open table, the way of salvation, knowledge joined with piety, personal and social holiness together, grace upon grace upon grace - Methodism has something beautiful to offer people, and I’m all about offering it.

The Holy Spirit is so obviously at work in the church, in the nation, in the world, creating new expressions of church, deconstructing outdated ways of organizing, reviving old forms and practices in new and creative ways, tossing away old wineskins and providing brand new ones. What a truly terrifying and coincidentally wonderful time to be a part of the United Methodist Church!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Electing Bishops

To the best of my knowledge, here’s how the election and assignment of bishops is going to happen in the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ)of the United Methodist Church this week. I’ll try to be as clear as I can for those interested. Be warned – this post has a WHOLE BUNCH of very nerdy numbers and abbreviations. (If I get any of this wrong, please someone graciously correct me.)

There are 12 Annual Conferences (ACs) in our Jurisdiction, and every AC has delegates at the SCJ meeting. Not all of the ACs have the same number of delegates; that number is based on the size of the AC. The Texas conference has the most (36). The New Mexico conference and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary conference have the fewest (each have 4). Missouri has 24, the third largest delegation there.

There are 10 Episcopal Areas in the SCJ, because in a couple of places, two ACs are served by one bishop. (Not coincidentally, the ACs that have the fewest delegates are involved in those arrangements.) So we need to have 10 bishops. 3 bishops are retiring or resigning this year, so the SCJ will be electing 3 people to be bishop.

The total number of SCJ delegates is 216. In order for a person to be elected bishop, they must receive the votes of 60% of the voting delegates. 60% of 216 is 129.6, so they’ll need 130 votes.

There are 9 people who have made it known that they would like to be considered in the SCJ. To be clear, every ordained elder in the UMC is eligible for election; there are 9 people who have said publicly, “I would like to be considered.”

And so we will vote using multiple ballots, until one person gets 60% of the vote cast. That person will then be a bishop, and we will vote again and again, until a second person gets 60%. And then repeat that process until a third and final person gets the required 60%. The official agenda lists opportunities for 23 ballots, but there may be more or less, depending on how things go.

In between each ballot, there is prayer and conversation. People visit with one another and discuss candidates, advocate for one or another, pray together, count AC delegation votes, outline voting strategies, and do an awful lot of what can only be called “politics.” Yes, it’s kind of a mess, but with that said, it is a holy mess. And it is our holy mess.

- 3 = Bishops to elect
- 9 = People to choose from
- 216 = Total SCJ delegates
- 130 = Votes needed to be elected

At this point, we know who the bishops are, but we still don’t know where they will serve. Once three people are elected, the SCJ Episcopacy Committee meets to assign them to the Episcopal Area they will serve. And here there is another layer of complexity in 2016.

- Bishop Huie is retiring from the Texas AC.
- Bishop Hayes is retiring from Oklahoma / Oklahoma Indian Missionary.
- Bishop Dorff has resigned from Rio Texas.

These three represent the 3 bishops that are to be elected.

HOWEVER, a bishop is only allowed to stay in the same AC for 12 years, and there are 2 bishops in the SCJ who have reached that limit.

- Bishop Schnase will be leaving the Missouri AC.
- Bishop Jones will be leaving Great Plains.

And so that means the Texas, Oklahoma, Rio Texas, Missouri, and Great Plains ACs will be anticipating a new bishop this year.

It is the task of the SCJ Episcopacy Committee to make these assignments.

Every AC delegation has 2 people on the Episcopacy Committee. This year, the Great Plains AC actually as 6 people on the committee, since that one AC was 3 ACs four years ago. Also, I think Rio Texas may have 4 people, since they were 2 ACs four years ago. It is also noteworthy that some members of the Episcopacy Committee are not actually delegates to the SCJ meeting.

For Missouri, our two are Rev. Cody Collier and Brian Hammons, the first clergy elected and the first layperson elected to our delegation, respectively.

Once the committee makes the assignments, they gather the bishops together with their families, and let them know. They then come into the conference hall, literally minutes later, and announce to the delegates where each of the bishops have been assigned.

And then … that’s it. It’s over and we in Missouri begin a new chapter with a new bishop, as well as four other ACs in our SCJ.

But … there’s another wrinkle for Missouri this year. We have 2 people on that list of those who have said officially that they would like to be considered for bishop. Bob Farr and Lynn Dyke may very well be elected bishop, and then the question is where would they be assigned. Consider, it is not forbidden for bishops to be assigned to serve the AC from which they came, but it is very rare.

And then, if either or both were elected bishop, of course their current appointments would need to be filled, which would create more shifts in pastoral leadership in Missouri this fall. Lynn is the Ozarks District Superintendent and Bob is on conference staff as the Director of Congregational Excellence.

And then remember, this is how it shakes out in just ONE of the FIVE jurisdictions of the UMC in the U.S. Similar processes are happening this same week in four other places around the country.

As I go back and reread this post at this point, it is even more complicated than I realized it was! Wow! And if you are one who actually read the whole thing, then God bless you.

But if you skimmed it and just made your way to here … let me make sure to say this:

I think the election of bishops is one of the most important things we do for the sake of the future of the church. I am honored and humbled to be asked by the Missouri Conference to serve in this capacity; thank you for your trust. I promise I will do all I can to help elect bishops who will serve the church with hopefulness, faithfulness, and love.

My goal is to be driving home from Wichita on Saturday excited about the future of the church. Will you please pray this week for me, for the Missouri delegation, for the bishop candidates and their families, for the South Central Jurisdiction, for the United Methodist Church, and for the Church of Jesus Christ around the world?

God, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Can We Just Be Real? - Thoughts on the "Evangelical-African Coalition" #UMCGC

I read the “Good News” magazine regularly, because I see things very differently than is usually presented in that publication, and I think it is important to truly understand points of view that are different from my own. And so I picked up the May/June edition to read it this morning, and I only made it three paragraphs into Rob Renfroe’s column before I had to put down the magazine and ponder. It was one sentence, actually, that caught my attention...

“The big story is this: The evangelical-African coalition now clearly forms the majority viewpoint within the UM Church.” - Rob Renfroe

There is so much wrapped up in this one sentence, it is hard to know where to begin. I’m honestly trying to understand, and if what I write here is not accurate, I hope someone will correct me.

Let me think about the idea of an “evangelical-African coalition.” Really. Lots to think about there.

So, first - no Africans are evangelical? There are “evangelicals” and there are “Africans” and they are two different groups who made a coalition? And furthermore, are we talking about ALL evangelicals and ALL Africans? Because that’s a lot of people. I, for example, am evangelical. And I was never invited to a single coalition meeting. (FYI, that’s probably because I happen to be an evangelical who doesn’t think being gay should disqualify a person from being ordained or married, but more on that later.)

And second, “African.” There are United Methodists in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Sudan,Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Angola, Namibia,Zimbabwe, South Africa. And yet somehow, we are still stuck in the colonial language of a previous century, calling all of “them” “African.”

And a third thought. Apparently the goal of the Good News organization is to form a “coalition” that “clearly forms the majority viewpoint within the UM Church.” After all, that is “the big story” from General Conference this year. Which is weird, because I thought the big story was to make disciples of Jesus Christ who are changing the world, for God’s sake. Apparently, the goal is rather to make sure enough people are voting on the legislation that you like so that your side will “win” and the other side will “lose.”

I’m all for vigorous discussion of differing ideas, but there is no give and take here. Mr. Renfroe’s column is liberally scattered with words like “win” and “victory” and “get everything we wanted.” He trumpets defeat of compromise as if the very idea is abhorrent to him. He seems to view the General Conference meeting as a denominational “Red Rover” game, with each side shouting at the other across a field of play, a zero-sum game.

And so I’m thinking, processing, wondering, and I decided to write about it. Because to be honest with you I just really don’t want people to think that the Good News magazine represents the United Methodist Church. As far as I can tell, it is simply a political group whose sole purpose is to organize around same-sex marriage and ordination of people who are gay, to make sure that neither of these things happen. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s basically all they do, all day long, every day of the year, isn’t it?

Some may reply, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you organize a political group to oppose them?” It’s a fair question, actually. Why don’t more progressive minded people organize in the same way that more conservative minded people do?

I don’t know for sure. In recent history, it seems to me “progressive” people have been pretty lousy at political organizing in general. But I can answer for myself: I think progressive Christians are too busy being progressive (doing ministry, helping people in need, writing music, making disciples, trying to end homelessness, sharing love with those on the margins, caring for at-risk kids, working for economic justice, and so on) to devote resources and time to political organizing within the church itself.

So I’m probably not going to devote a lot of my energy toward political organizing in the church. I mean, I could if I had to, but I’d really really rather not. But I will say this: reading this issue of “Good News” did lead me to one change that I am going to make…

I’m not going to say things like “We are deeply divided on issues of human sexuality” any more. That’s sound and fury, signifying nothing. While I'm at it, I’d also like people to stop saying that this is just about enforcing the Book of Discipline, or affirming a tradition, or simply being orthodox. Nonsense.

Rather, I hope we can figure out how to say exactly what’s what. If you don’t want gay people to get married, just say that. If you don’t want gay people to get ordained, just say that. Let’s just be honest with each other for a change. Claim it. Say it out loud, and then defend it. Why do people seem to be so apprehensive about simply saying what they believe?

Instead of fluffy, I’d prefer real. We are not “deeply divided on issue of human sexuality.” NO - the more honest statement is: some of us think being gay disqualifies a person from getting married and some of us don’t; and similarly some of us think being gay disqualifies someone from being ordained and some of us don’t.

And the second, just as important part: among all those people mentioned above, there are some who want their entire denomination to think just like they do, and some who are comfortable being in a denomination in which some pastors will marry gay people and some won’t, and some conferences will ordain gay people and others won’t.

Here’s what I suspect is going to happen in the UMC:

- There’s a low percentage of United Methodists who think being gay disqualifies a person from marriage and ordination and also cannot abide a denomination that practices otherwise.

- There’s a low percentage of United Methodists who think being gay does not disqualify a person from marriage and ordination and likewise cannot abide a denomination that practices otherwise.

- Then there’s the huge percentage of United Methodists who hold a wide variety of opinions on whether or not gay people can get married and/or ordained, and yet would be okay being a part of a denomination that did not limit marriage and ordination to only straight people, especially considering the wide variety of social contexts in which United Methodist ministry takes place.

And I kind of think that the people on the ends are going to leave, and the big percentage of us in the middle are going to take the restrictive language out of the Book of Discipline, and nobody is going to be forced to marry gay couples or ordain gay pastors, but nobody is going to be forbidden from doing so, either.

And I think that, once that finally happens, the United Methodists who are left will have a pretty awesome church that does some pretty awesome things. I think a whole lot of people will think that the UMC is a pretty groovy denomination and will want to be a part of it. And best of all, I think the grace of God in Jesus Christ will still be there, available for all, inviting us in closer and closer, renewing, reshaping, reforming … dare I say perfecting us in love.