Monday, April 28, 2008

Friday, April 18, 2008

UMC Divisiveness: An Annoying Buzz

Did anyone else notice how Andrew Thompson characterizes the "great divide" of the UMC in his most recent Reporter column?

He writes that there are "two parties" consisting of "those who want to keep the church's doctrine in conformity to Scripture and the broad catholic tradition, and those who insist the church should better reflect the pluralistic, individualistic culture of the wider American society." Now, he doesn't get specific about which "hot-button issues" he is thinking of, but I've got to ask about a few of his word choices.

First: Andrew sees only two "parties" in the UMC. However, in my experience, there are WAY more that two perspectives on every issue, and assuming an either/or outlook just contributes to the myth of divisiveness that so many people are working to overcome. As much as we might want the world to be neatly divided into conservative/liberal, red/blue, or whatever/whichever, in reality life is much more complex, and most of us are okay with that.

Second: Andrew assumes that it is impossible to come up with multiple interpretations of Scripture and tradition. He seems to believe that, if there is disagreement, it must mean that one perspective seeks "conformity" to Scripture/tradition and one does not. However, I have found that it is quite common for equally faithful Christians to study scripture, pray, think, and discuss; and nonetheless end up with different beliefs. Furthermore, it is possible to believe in a way that is grounded in Scripture and tradition, and also the real life experience of living in a diverse, complex, global society.

The column really isn't about divisiveness. His main idea is that we can't let the impending divisiveness of General Conference distract us from other, very important issues. I agree (though I do not agree with his take on those issues per se). But it strikes me that in his act of naming the divisiveness, he does the very thing he is cautioning us against. It's like walking into a room and somebody says, "Hey, do you hear that annoying buzzing noise?" And you say, "Well, not until you mentioned it - and now I can't not hear it."

What if we approached General Conference anticipating honest disagreements expressed graciously, with respect and love? What if we approached General Conference knowing that there would be a wide array of beliefs and ideas being expressed, and we could be okay with that? I read last week (don't remember where) that there is room in the church for disagreement, but not division. I think that is an important distinction to make.

General Conference doesn't have to be divisive, and the decision to make it not be so starts now as the UMC prepares. It starts with one person deciding not to buy into the divisiveness myth, and grows outward from there. It starts with one delegation saying, "Not this year," and setting a hopeful tone that will trickle over into the delegations sitting around them. It starts with one delegate relinquishing their fear and asking another delegate with whom they know they disagree about something to have a cup of coffee and talk about their favorite hobbies or sports or something.

We are not united by our beliefs - we are united by the grace of God. And that's where we will find a future with hope.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are Worship Leaders Performers?

I asked my PLUM group Monday afternoon if worship leaders were performers. (btw - "PLUM" is the first year contextual ed class at Saint Paul School of Theology.) We were discussing a case study that involved a new worship leader, and the issue of worship / performance was a central theme. So I just wanted to take a little poll around the table to see what people were thinking.

I asked, "Are worship leaders performers, and why or why not?"

One of the responses really got me thinking. Someone said that worship leaders should try to draw the congregation into the worship service. That's a pretty good description of a worship leader's role, I think. Worship leaders facilitate the experience, creating the time and space in which the people who have gathered are able to encounter the presence of God.

Okay, I thought, how is that different from performing a play? (Go with me for a little while, here.) When I perform in a play, I try to draw the audience into the narrative. Actors try to facilitate the experience, creating the time and space in which the people who have gathered are able to encouter the story being presented.

Likewise, musicians perform in order to draw the audience into the piece of music being presented. Dancers dance to facilitate the audience's encouter with the art, and so forth. It seems to me that in any art form, especially performance arts, the artists' goal is to draw the audience into the experience in a meaningful way.

To be sure, some performers have less noble intentions. There are those whose only desire is egotistical self-aggrandizement, who want only to receive accolades and be applauded. And to be honest, it feels pretty good to get a standing ovation! Clearly a worship leader should not be motivated by such selfish incentives; a worship leader should point to God, not to self.

But leaving that idea aside, I think that the parallels between performing a play (for example) and leading a worship service are very obvious. Leading worship is very much a performance, and the goal is to draw the congregation into the experience toward the end of facilitating that divine/human encounter. And as performance, leading worship is a skill that can be honed with training and practice. That doesn't diminish or minimize worship; that doesn't make leading worship "fake" or anything. Far from it - it is a sacred activity and a vital part of healthy, vibrant congregations.

I have changed my mind on this issue a bunch, and probably will again. I have used the metaphor of God as audience and congregation as actors and worship leaders as prompters for the performance before. But that leaves God as a passive observer, and I really think God is very active in a worship service. Because worship planning and worship leadership are spiritual gifts of mine, I'm sure I'll be thinking about this idea for a long time.

What do you think? Are worship leaders "performers"?

Update: Also posted here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Thirty Seven

Today I turned thirty-seven.
I have been married for almost fifteen years.
My daughter is ten.
My son is seven.

I have been in ministry for fifteen years.
Pastoral ministry for eight years.
Ordained for almost one.

I have one Bachelor's
and two Master's

I have conducted a performance of
Mozart's Requiem.

I have been in 18 countries
and 43 states.

I have played Harold Hill.

I have had singing.

The thirty-six to thirty-seven birthday
is not a "biggie."
I don't qualify for anything new.
I don't gain a privilege.
It doesn't end in zero.

But it is nonetheless a good day.

Today I ate breakfast with my son at church.
I helped my daughter set up her new soccer goal.
Then it started snowing and so she went inside.
So I helped some friends haul brush.
(Yep, it was still snowing.)

Then my family took me out to lunch
at Lulu's Noodles downtown.

There were presents and cards
and phone calls.

I played
Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars Edition
with my son.
He let me go first, since it was my birthday.

There was Saturday night worship
with cake.

When you are a thirty-seven year old
people in the congregation think
one of two things:
You are young.
You are old.

When I ask,
How old do you think I am?
older people guess too young
and younger people guess too old.

I can still run up stairs
two at a time.

And I enjoy an occasional
afternoon nap.

I am thirty-seven years old.
And it's all good.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Appointments, Itineracy, and Young Adults: I Disagree!

I promise I didn't write my previous post just to set the stage for this one, but nonetheless, the timing seems a bit fortuitous. The latest edition (April 4, 2008) of the United Methodist Reporter discusses three pretty big issues, and I have points of disagreement with all three.

And so, fellow United Methodists, I love you, and I disagree with you, too.

(Numbers in parentheses are paragraph numbers in the 2004 United Methodist Book of Discipline.)

First issue = The guaranteed appointment.
Firstly, way to go Dennis Harper for making the front page picture! (And that's the top of my grandfather's head in the middle there, too.) Kudos to Missouri AC for the front page publicity!

Secondly, I disagree with the initial premise: that clergy are guaranteed appointments. We are in covenant with each other, and "every effective elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued under appointment by the bishop" (334.1) because we have promised to "offer [ourself] without reserve to be appointed and to serve as the appointive authority may determine" (335). This is a relationship centered on trust and covenantal love, and as such all of those invovled offer something - clergy will go where we are sent, the conference will send us somewhere.

Thirdly, there is already language in place that addresses the concerns that some have expressed. Clergy are to be appointed unless, among other things, we "have failed to meet the requirements for continued eligibility" (337.1). And those requirements include "growth in vocational competence and effectiveness through continuing formation" (334.2.b). Seems to me that addresses the major concern, namely that incompetent and ineffective pastors continue to be appointed, with no check or accountability from teh conference. Continued growth vocationally is already a part of the covenant relationship of the clergy, and if that part of the covenant is not being met, the language is in place already for addressing that. Dare I say: Bishops, take thou authority! Claim that language and act on it before more Disciplinary tinkering.

There is no need to add more bureaucracy to an already top-heavy system.

Second issue = The future of the itineracy
The itineracy is an imperfect structure, created by imperfect people, and it definitely doesn't work for everybody.

With that said, my disagreement with those who call for a drastic change in the itineracy is that their points of conflict with the current system are mostly mythical. My position is that the itineracy HAS changed, and is always changing, and will change organically and naturally, without any need to foist upon it yet another decree from "up top."

Myth 1, the big secret:
My great-grandfather used to pack up his belongings in order to travel to Annual Conference, not knowing if he would be returning to the same charge or moving on. Today, my name has been posted on the Missouri Conference website since March 24th, announcing my upcoming move to my new appointment. One of the biggest changes is the openness of the process.

Myth 2, a rigid hierarchy:
Here in Kansas City, we are celebrating a ministry that has lasted for decades as Emmanuel Cleaver III is transitioning out of the lead pastor role at St. James UMC. (Did I mention it lasted for decades?) Nearby, pastors at UM churches such as Woods Chapel and Church of the Resurrection have been appointed for extraordarily long periods of time. My point being, the itineracy is already fluid and flexible, and there are exceptions to how it happens everywhere you look.

Myth 3, no choice:
This very year, one of my colleagues and friends was offered an appointment, visited the place, and then politely and firmly said "No thank you." And that request was honored. When I was first discussing my new appointment, I was given time to pray, discern, and talk with my wife about the move, having recieved permission to say no if I felt like it. While I was in seminary, a fellow student met with a Staff/Parish Committee about a possible appointment, and the SPRC told the Superintendent that it wasn't going to work out, and the person was appointed somewhere else.

The itineracy is changing, and that change is emerging from the real lives of the people invovled in the covenant relationship among clergy, conference, and congregations. There is no need to enact denominational legislation from above when it is already happening from below. There are horror stories, I know - but those stories are mostly about people in power who are abusing that power, not about the system iteself.

Third issue = Young Adult Clergy
AGAIN with the young clergy issue! "Come and save us, under 35 year olds!"
"Look, up in the sky - it's a bird, it's a plane! NO! It is a young clergy person! Hooray, the day is saved!"

OK, out of my system.

I love and respect Lovett Weems, and I disagree with his premise that age is an automatic qualifier for being "adept at reaching emerging generations." I flat out disagree that an arbitrarily chosen age, in this case 35, makes somebody "closer to culture, to the life experience of young persons." One problem with that assumption is that people get older. I'm turning 37 on Saturday, and so I'm out of the category - automatically less adept at reaching young people, automatically more distant from culture (whose culture, by the way?), automatically unable to appreciate the life experience of someone in their 20s.

And the flipside of that: when I was in my 20s, I was as out of touch with the "Pop Culture" scene as it was possible for someone to be. I was a choir director, for goodness's sake, directing a traditional church choir, putting together orchestras and choruses to perform masterworks of classical music, singing with a professional chamber choir, performing in community theaters ... listing to NPR!

Dr. Weems (whom I love and respect, as previously mentioned) said that young clergy bring "energy, vision, vitality that's always needed from young leadership in any organization." Why is the word "young" in that sentence? Is that not what is needed from ALL leadership, no matter how old they might be?


If you have read this post and made it to this point, congratulations! I know this post has been kind of long and wordy, but I read my Reporter yesterday and got all worked up, so I needed this outlet. Others have, too - my brother Brad and my friend Erika have posted on these issues.

I hope that you will comment if you want to, and please feel free to disagree - I know I have!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Disagreeable Congregations?

One of the things I love about this remarkable congregation is the way we disagree with each other.

Now, that sentence is not as weird as it might look initially. Because to "disagree with each other" assumes the "with each other" part; in order to disagree with someone, a relationship with them is implied. And the relationship is really what it's all about, anyway - not the agreeing or the disagreeing.

Let me sort of flesh that out a bit. Obviously, I can disagree with an idea stated by a person whom I've never met. In other words, I can disagree in the absence of relationship. But then I'm not really disagreeing with the person, I'm disagreeing with the idea that they have articulated. That may seem like splitting hairs, but I think there is an important difference.

For example, I read Jonah Golberg's column every time it is published, and I disagree with the ideas he presents almost every time. (btw, why does it shock me to learn that he is just two years older than me?) But I have never met Jonah Goldberg, so the only relationship there is between his ideas as expressed in a short column and my reaction to them. Contrast that to a conversation our Staff/Parish Relations Committee is having about our Youth Ministry. I disagreed with something somebody said should be a goal of the congregation's ministry, and I said so. But because I know and love the person who was saying the thing I was disagreeing with, it was a different situation altogether.

The congregation I serve really knows how to disagree well. You know what I mean? There is respect and grace, even among sometimes diametrically opposed perspectives. After the meeting where we disagreed about the youth ministry, we prayed together, then the people I was disagreeing with and I had a great conversation about the NCAA tournament, shared a few laughs, said good night and went on our way.

And for the most part, there's no bitterness, no lingering animosity, nobody takes personal offense at the disagreement, and everybody pretty much loves each other anyway. Not to imply that the situation is perfect, of course. I know that there is some gossipy crap that goes on with a few people, speaking negatively of others behind their backs and such. But generally we can disagree together, mull it over for a while, have some more conversation, weigh some pros and cons, and then reach a pretty good consensus decision.

(Consensus, by the way, does not mean everyone agrees. Consensus means that even if everyone doesn't agree, everyone will go along with the decision for the good of the whole.)

Having experienced this atmosphere at North KC UMC, I'm wondering: Can we move this model of life together beyond the walls of a local congregation? Can we take this to Annual Conference? How about General Conference? How about ecumenically as the Church universal? How about at a global, inter-faith level even? Whoa - think of the possibilities!

Why is is sometimes so hard to say both "I love you" and "I disagree with you" in the same breath, and be genuinely sincere about both statements?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Does God forget stuff?

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

Here's a serious Biblical question and I am very interested in any and all responses you might have. When it comes to sin, does God "forgive and forget"? When we are forgiven, does God actually "forget" that we sinned?

Thanks for your help, I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Also posted here.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

That's Two!

Two and OH MY! Royals beat Tigers - AGAIN!
No doubt about this one - Shutout! 4-0

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

What a Day To Be A Royals Fan!

This is the day. This one day. This day after opening day, when we as Kansas City Royals fans can celebrate. A day when Royals fans can say, “We are in first place in the division.” A day when we can say, “We are undefeated.” A day to savor for all that it is worth.

Today we can say, we have beaten the Tigers – the Detroit Tigers, considered by many to be one of the very best teams in all of baseball this year. We beat the Tigers, on the road, on opening day, in extra innings! It really doesn’t get much better than that – especially for Royals fans.

The winning pitcher was Leo Nunez, of all people! (My wife calls him “Little Leo.”) Alex Gordon has one of the sweetest swings – ever. And he absolutely CRUSHED that home run ball; it probably hasn’t come down yet. And Tony Pena Jr., if you can believe it, drove in the winning run in the eleventh inning. Tony freakin’ Pena!

Tomorrow – who knows? I don’t want to think about it. But today, my friends, it is time to celebrate. It is time to party. It is time to feel good in Kansas City! Royals win!