Monday, June 30, 2008

Good Stuff

What a day! Yesterday, the first Sunday at my new appointment, was phenomenal. Campbell UMC really went all out to welcome us and put on a pretty fabulous party to celebrate. In fact, this whole week has been pretty wonderful. Even in the stress of moving, meeting 400 new friends, getting into a new groove, fitting stuff into new spaces both at home and in my study, and all that jazz – we are really feeling pretty good about life.

We miss our friends in Kansas City, and that reminds us of how grateful we are that they are our friends.

We think a lot about First UMC, Northtown, and that assures us that their new pastor, Kate, is going to find a loving, healthy congregation in which to serve.

We haven’t unpacked all of our boxes yet, and that convicts us of how little stuff we actually need, and how much junk we have just for the sake of having it.

We have only just started learning people’s names, not to mention truly getting to know them and becoming friends, and that feels a little bit … nebulous.

But you know what? I’m an itinerant preacher. That’s what God has called me to be and to do, and that’s a good thing. And you know what else? My family loves me and I love them and we are together. That’s a good thing.

And you know what else, else? I’m starting to learn that churches have a lot more in common than I thought before. That’s probably because of what Horton taught us when he heard a Who – “People are people, no matter how small.” Well – paraphrasing that it might be said that people are people, wherever you go. And people are all kind of woven with the same kinds of thread, you know? We all laugh and cry. We all sleep and eat. We all try to do the right thing and we all make mistakes sometimes.

And in some mysterious and wonderful way, we all long for a relationship with that which transcends us – we all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. And a lot of us try to fulfill that longing by hanging out together in these groups we call “churches.” That’s a good thing, too.

I don’t expect every Sunday here at Campbell UMC to be like last Sunday, at least not in terms of the complex logistics involved. But there’s nothing to say that the energy level, the hopefulness, the joy, and all that good stuff to happen every single week. We’re just trying to be church, as best as we know how to do.

And that’s a very good thing.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Life Moves, Baby


To say that the last two weeks have been busy would not even begin to convey the level of activity, the amount of stress, the roller coaster of emotion, and the sheer physical / spiritual / mental / emotional exertion we have experienced.

Here's a little synopsis:
- Our foster daughter transitioned back to her mother's house.
- Erin and I helped lead, and Cori and Wes participated in Vacation Bible School in North Kansas City.
- Erin filled in at the Day Care at First UMC, North KC for two weeks.
- Cori and Wes were in summer school every day.- I had an all day meeting of the Board of Managers' of Missouri Ministers' School in Columbia Tuesday before last.
- We packed.
- We had our last weekend at the church in Northtown, with all of the love and "good-byes" that entailed.
- We watched three guys load all our stuff onto a big orange truck.
- We drove to Springfield, Missouri.
- We spent the night with some great friends.
- Two of the three guys met us at our new house and proceeded to unload all the stuff they had previously loaded.
- We began opening boxes, unpacking stuff, arranging furniture, opening more boxes, looking for the pots and pans, and so forth.
- Cori articulated our feeling that "Stuff is evil."
- A wonderful woman, a member of Campbell, died on Tuesday and I'll have the privilege of leading her memorial service along with the Visitation Pastor, Rev. Joe Lightner this Saturday.
- I started getting my church office all set up and the first thing I did was steal the office furniture of the Associate Pastor, Rev. Melissa Dodd. (Not really, she actually very graciously offered it to me!)
- We began meeting some wonderful, friendly, warm and welcoming people who go to Campbell UMC, where I start as the pastor this coming Sunday morning.

Whew - I'm tired just writing about it! Although there's more that has been happening, that pretty much hits the highlights. We've managed to have some fun, too. We went to the neighborhood swimming pool; we chased fireflies; Dad came down to help and we had a good visit. And the staff here at Campbell is so wonderful and helpful and just generally cool people to be around.

So, when I "officially" begin here as the pastor next week, and things begin to get into a groove again, I'll be back blogging with more regularity. I've got a lot on my mind, building up over this little "moving" hiatus. Who knows what may come spewing forth when I finally sit down next week to do a real post?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Annual Conference 2008 Wrap-Up

I posted once during annual conference with intentions to post frequently. That did not happen, obviously, mainly “just because.” So here’s my summary post, for what it’s worth.

To say this first: I appreciate the enormity of the task of putting together a session of annual conference, and I am now on the sessions committee who will plan and organize the 2009 session. As hard as one works, one will never be able to please everyone every time. And it is very likely that there were many people who thought this year’s session was good, maybe even one of the best ever.

But I have to confess that I’m not among them. I apologize in advance for this, but here’s what I thought of conference this year. It is all, of course, "imho":

Tongue in cheek, I wonder if the theme of the conference was “You People Suck At Doing Really, Really Easy Things.” Once again, the decline in membership and attendance was a central focus. And once again, a litany of simple ideas you, too can implement in your local congregation in order to get more butts in the pews was presented. Once again, pastors who happen to have very attractive personalities and coincidentally serve in growing churches stood before the conference and talked about their own experiences as if they could be universalized into every context with equivalent results.

That last sentence is not really fair, to tell the truth. There were a couple of people who very humbly said this is what worked for us but you have to do what will work in your own setting. There was one who actually said don’t do anything by the “felt need” of the community or for the sake of being “relevant,” but rather just be the church in all it’s beauty and complexity and ambiguity. Be faithful and don’t worry so much about the numbers. This was my favorite moment of the whole weekend. But he was very obviously the exception.

At a recent event (not annual conference), a conference staffer in Missouri said that your theology doesn’t matter, just the packaging. And that theme definitely carried through into this year’s session. My eyes were glazed over by the shallow, vapid content of the conference. We were presented the idea of putting a church info label on a bottle of water and handing it out as if we were exploring the depths of the trinity. We allowed the health insurance industry to trump the covenant relationship of the clergy in conference as we discussed changing health insurance plans for our retirees – not in the result, but in the way we talked about it. Judging by our conference, you’d think putting up signs and some neat paint around your church building was equivalent to the via salutis.

We did not mention the war in Iraq one single time. Not even in passing.

We did not say anything about earthquakes in China or cyclones in Myanmar.

The emergent church movement was not even a glimmer in anybody’s eye.

One of the most powerful moments of the conference was when Carol Kreamer presented on the conference’s ministry in Mozambique. She told us stories about malaria. She broke down in tears as she related the death of a beautiful young woman to a disease that is running rampant in many, many communities. And yet she spoke of hope as we all wrote letters to senators urging the sponsorship and passage of Senate Bill S2433 – the Global Poverty Act. That was one of the only moments, outside of worship, that really felt like church to me.

There was some other good stuff: We raised enough money to buy a whole heck of a lot of P.E.T.S., which is wonderful. And we raised enough money to buy another whole heck of a lot of mosquito nets, which is also wonderful. And Bishop Robert Schnase threw out the first pitch at a Springfield Cardinals baseball game, and he did not bounce it, which was very not embarrassing in the least. And a few others …

So I guess that one of my things I’ll advocate on the sessions committee is to make the Annual Conference session NOT a collection of workshops. I think the conference should do those throughout the year, with specific foci at various times and places. Annual Conference should be a time to re-connect with the connection, worship together, and do business that absolutely must be done. And further, the re-connection must be comprised of loosely structured time, not just “free time” with nothing in place. And the worship must have some depth, not just more “butts in the pews” stuff. And a lot the business could very well be almost done by the time we get there, if the information we need would be made available online in advance of the actual meeting, and even if some of the rubber stamping … oh, I mean the votes … could be tallied ahead of time electronically.

48 hours is all we would need. 60 maybe. 10 a.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday. Get in, hug everybody, worship, commission some people, ordain some people, have a few votes, have communion, fix the appointments, get out.

But the format doesn’t matter, the length doesn’t matter, the location doesn’t matter – none of the packaging matters, no matter what we are being encouraged to think. What matters most is the content. Churches grow because of the content, not the packaging. Lives are transformed because of the content, not the packaging. Conferences are meaningful because of the content, not the packaging. Packaging impacts content, but we must consider content first.

Fastest growing churches? In Africa, Central America – what’s their packaging like? Cinder block building? Benches under a tree? It’s all about the content!

When we are told over and over again that it’s all about counting heads, and that the numbers of those counts are in decline, and the ways to reverse that decline relate to packaging and are very easy to do (“not rocket surgery” was the direct quote, I believe), and that we are really, really bad at it even though it is apparently really, really easy to do, suffice it to say that one does not leave the event with a sense of “a future with hope.” It all serves to just make us more anxious, more frazzled, and to feel as if all of our hard work is not being valued.

If you’ve read the above and have actually made it to this concluding paragraph, thanks. And you all should know that I know the people who planned and most who led this year’s session, and I love them dearly. My responses are not intended to be personal by any means. However, it is the case that I left the session deflated this year, and very disappointed by the overall experience.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Annual Conference 2008 - We're Here!

I've noticed a dichotomy at Annual Conference. On the one hand, in the sermon today and the Bishop's talk among others, there is a great energy and hope and Christ-centered, mission focused stuff. It's great and renewing and really cool and fun and powerful stuff.

Then we do the business. And the business stuff is a perfect example of an organization meeting together for the sake of itself, and one of the most frustrating aspects of mainline Christianity in general. It feels so rote, so bare minimum, so shallow.

Isn't there a different way to do this? Why do we have to gather together to be handed a printed list of names of people that are then read out loud to us and a perfunctory, half-hearted raising of the hands rubber stamps it? There has got to be another way to do this, better than this organizational meeting for the sake of the organization.

Hmm ... let's work on it!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Verbal Assault After Worship

I was verbally assaulted yesterday after worship. That sounds so dramatic, but I don’t know any other words that better describe it. I was the target of fifteen minutes of verbal abuse, and what made it even worse is that it came in the guise of a theological critique of my sermon, the worship service, and the congregation in general.

Here’s what happened. We had a family of first-time guests yesterday, a mom (Martina) and her six kids, aged in their teens and twenties. At least I’m assuming they were a family, we never really got that far. They came up to me in the line after the service, near the back. There were a dozen or fifteen people left in the line after them. We shook hands and they told me their names, and I introduced myself and told them how good it was to have them here in worship.

It kind of went downhill from there.

“Is this a Bible believing church?” Martina asked next.

Maybe I should interject here that my sermon, from Romans 3 and 2nd Corinthians 5, had centered on the theme that Christ died for all not just some, that there is no distinction between people in God’s eyes, that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, and that God loves all of us rather than only a particular group. The children’s sermon featured a craft made by some of the kids of the church, made out of posterboard, felt, markers, and yarn, that depicted a beautifully diverse circle of people all holding hands with the phrase “God loves us” in the middle of the circle.

The overall theme of worship was, “No matter our differences, God loves us all.”

Martina and her family proceeded to subject me to fifteen minutes of tag-team haranguing that was comprised of a litany of ultra-right wing Christian language and a succession of what sounded like rehearsed buzz words and phrases. They were very sad for the children, who had not heard the call to repentance this morning. They were angry about how I had presented that which what makes us all the same: I emphasized that God loves us all and they wanted me to emphasize that we all sin. They were worried for the soul of one parishioner with whom they had spoken, who dared to say that he hoped everyone would get to heaven. They questioned my own faith, and my role as a pastor who would only preach a part of the Gospel. They lamented the spiritual condition of this congregation who is clearly suffering under my leadership.

And on and on…

It is kind of hard to describe, but their tone was bitter and angry, accusatory and malicious. It made my stomach hurt.

I realized after a minute that they really didn’t want to have a conversation. From what I can remember, my own responses to them included:
- I would love to have this conversation with you, but not right now. Please call me at the church first thing in the morning.
- It isn’t reasonable to include every aspect of the Gospel message in every sermon, and your observations are based on hearing only one sermon. Growing in faith means being a part of a community over time, which gives you a chance to hear different points of emphasis at different weeks.
- If you would like to wait for me, I’ll continue this conversation in a few moments. Right now we are being disrespectful to the others waiting in line behind you. (This was after 5 – 6 minutes.)
- It’s not really up to me whether everybody goes to heaven, is it? I think God makes that decision, and that God really, really wants everybody to get to heaven. Today’s sermon was more concerned with living a Christ-centered life right now, as I mentioned from 2 Corinthians this morning.
- Salvation is a journey, and as John Wesley pointed out, people find themselves at many different places on that journey from the very beginnings of a relationship all the way through being perfected in love. You can’t speak to everyone every time.

And so forth …

I think that, halfway through it, I understood that nothing I said was going to make a difference on Martina or the older ones, so I started meeting the eyes of the teenagers. They were standing in a semi-circle around me, each within two to three feet of me, so it was easy for me to see them all! I noticed that sometimes the teens would kind of “shush” one another at times to allow me a word in edgewise. I noticed that the youngest ones didn’t say anything. I also noticed that they would glance quickly over at Martina when I was looking at them – looking for …help? …affirmation? …what? But they mostly met my gaze steadily, even when I invited one teenage boy to turn around to the people behind them in line and explain to them the reasons for the hold-up or that, if they were concerned for particular people, they might want to go to those people and have this conversation with them rather than me.

I have to confess that I took a kind of guilty pleasure in the final moments of our … ahem … “conversation.” In an attempt to make her final emphatic point, Martina observed that I was nothing like John Wesley, and began quoting the hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” at me. I’m sorry to say that I was amused by the look of surprise in her eyes when I began matching her word for word, and even finished the verse for her when she stopped.

Now, this has been my perspective on what happened. I’m sure that Martina and her family have a different take on it. I honestly would love to hear it and understand it, but I don’t think I ever will. But I wonder, what was their motivation? What was at stake for them? Even bracketing out the content, what possessed them to have this conversation at this time in this place? Why would they have possibly felt that was appropriate?

I’m not going to obsess over / dwell on this event. Writing this article has been a very helpful part of shaking the dust off my feet and moving on (thank you, MS). But I also don’t want to just ignore it altogether, because who knows who the next target will be? I had heard of stuff like this happening, but this was really one of the very first times it happened to me with such violence. If my writing about it helps another victim of such verbal abuse, then I’ll write about it a million times.

When my son Wes asked me about it later (yes, he saw it happening, as did my daughter Cori and a bunch of other people), I kind of explained how that when I said “God loves everybody” it made those people angry.

Wes said, “That’s sad.” That’s about right. Thanks for the perspective, Wes.

Update: Also posted here.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Writing Articles

Moving sure is busy! I haven't written a blog post in a while, so I decided to put up my last newsletter article, the final one I'll write for North KC UMC:

I have started writing this article a half a dozen times so far. It will be the last newsletter article I write as the pastor of First UMC, Northtown, and so it’s a bit … tricky. I’m not sure what direction to go with it, you know?

I could do the whole “weepy goodbye” thing. I could go with the “close a door/open a window” metaphor. I could write an encouraging word about the future of the congregation. I could reminisce about the growth the congregation has experienced over the last four years. I could talk about Christian mission and keeping the congregational focus where it needs to be. I could describe my vocation as an itinerant preacher in the United Methodist Church. I could extol the unlimited potential of this congregation in it’s ministries of Hospitality, Worship, Faith Development, Mission and Service, and Generosity. I could share my belief that God has called me through the appointment process to serve at Campbell UMC in Springfield. I could mention the constancy of change in the world. I could thank you on behalf of my family for the love you have shown us over the last four years.

Truth is, I’m kind of at a loss for words. Hmm …

So I think I’ll write about writing articles. This will not be the last article I ever write, of course. I write a couple of articles per week, actually, only I call them “posts” and put them up on my blog. I’m going to keep doing that. I’ll write articles for other congregations’ newsletters, both papery and paperless. Wherever I go, I’ll write articles. I may even write articles that show up published in magazines or journals. I have a couple of those already, and I hope there will be more.

And Kate will probably write some articles while she is serving here. Truth is, whoever the pastor of this congregation is will write articles, whenever that pastor may be here and in whatever form those articles might appear. There will continue to be things written and distributed, messages of love and grace, expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, articulations of the congregation’s vision and how it fits into the mission of God in this world. For the people of this congregation who want it, the opportunity of reading articles will still be available.

So why is this article so tricky? How is this article any different than any of those? Isn’t it really just one among many? Isn’t it really just an article, after all?

I mean, as long as we continue to offer people a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the midst of a spirit-filled congregation, a relationship that transforms our lives and makes us better people than we really are, a relationship that we dare to call salvation, what difference will one little article make, anyway?

Grace and Peace,
Andy B.