Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars 7 - My Theory (SPOILERS)

I have to write this out of my head. Don’t read on if you do not want to read “Star Wars 7, The Force Awakens” spoilers.  

Also, don’t read on if you really don’t care all that much. Like I said, I’m writing to get this out of my brain and onto a page somewhere. I’ve been theorizing with my brother Brad and my son Wesley, and I now just have to write it down, for no other reason than I’m a nerd.

Read it, or don’t. There is no try.

So … (last chance to stop, definite spoilers ahead) …

Luke was calling Rey. This is the core of my theory. And Luke’s call awakened the force within Rey, and ultimately brought them together. This is what the movie is about, as the first line of the crawl indicates: "Luke Skywalker has vanished." (Almost as good an opening line as "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed." Almost.)

Luke disappeared when Ben Solo turned to the dark side, right? I think, before he disappeared, Luke actually programmed R2-D2 to go into “sleep mode” until a certain time, the time at which Luke was ready to be found. That time was the arrival of Rey, whose presence was sensed by R2, who subsequently woke up and shared the rest of the map.

In my theory, Rey is most likely Han and Leia’s daughter, or maybe Obi-Wan’s. I haven’t 100% decided yet. But there is definitely a connection. The larger point is - Luke knows her, and has for her whole life. Luke is to Rey as Obi-Wan was to Luke, watching over her on Jakku.

And so when he is ready, he calls for her, and that call is “overheard” by Kylo Ren, who has seen Luke’s island also, as he says in the interrogation scene. Kylo Ren misunderstands this call, though, and thinks that killing Han will quiet it.

Rey hears the call and it allows her to access the force with unprecedented ease. She is closely bonded with Luke’s lightsaber (which she pulls out of the snow just like Luke did in Empire Strikes Back), and through that connection experiences her vision. I think this vision reveals a lot to Rey, even more than it does to the audience.

In fact it is Obi-Wan’s voice in that vision that gives evidence that he might be her father. I have to confess that I did not notice his voice until after watching the movie and reading an article that said he was in there. But that really isn’t a strong enough tie, I don’t think. That’s why I lean toward Han and Leia as Rey’s parents.

To that point, I noticed that when Rey arrives at the resistance base after Han’s death, she is embraced by Leia. Leia passes right by Chewbacca, with whom she has obviously shared a lot and has a strong emotional tie, and goes directly to Rey to embrace her. This makes me think that Rey is Han and Leia’s kid. Maybe even a twin sister to Ben.

In addition, there is a real connection between Han and Rey. They have great chemistry flying the Falcon, and Han Solo offers her a job. Is there anyone else he would trust enough to work with? What if the Millennium Falcon wasn’t actually stolen, but rather placed on Jakku with a purpose?

So if Rey is Han and Leia’s kid, that would make Luke her uncle, and a pretty strong connection. And I would love for Rey and Kylo Ren to be sister and brother – paralleling the father and son relationship of the first trilogy – and for the plot of the final movie to turn around Rey’s attempt to redeem Kylo Ren.

That’s my theory for today, anyway. Like I said I’m mainly writing this just as a way to think about it, see the words on a page. Star Wars people who have read this far – what do you think?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sing in the Face of Fear - Advent 3

This is what I wrote for the lighting of the Advent candles yesterday morning. I wrote it weeks ago, so I had kind of forgotten it. When I heard it read aloud at the first service, I thought, "Hey that's pretty good" before remembering that I had, in fact, written it. Awkward.

So anyway, I'd like to share it with you, because I love the idea of singing aloud as a way to overcome fear. I hope you like it.


Lighting of the Advent Candles - Campbell UMC, 2015

WEEK 3 - December 13

READER 1: Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst.

Zephaniah 1, 14 through 16.


READER 2: We are one week nearer to the arrival of Jesus! This week, Zephaniah encourages us to look fear in the face … and sing!

It is a liberating idea, isn’t it, to overcome fear with singing? So often we are told to be afraid, to be cautious, to withdraw and hide from the dangers of the world. In stark contrast, Zephaniah tells us to sing for joy!

Joy does not come from wealth or an abundance of possessions. Our neighbors in the La Laguna community in rural Nicaragua have next to nothing in terms of material possessions, and yet there is great joy among them. No, the source of true joy is not of this world; the source of true joy is God.

Today we light a candle called “Joy,” a song sung in defiance of fear, God’s strong presence in our midst.

(READER 1 lights “Hope,” “Peace,” and “Joy” candles.)

READER 1 (or 3): Joy’s light is added to “hope” and “peace,” illuminating the darkness of fear, and injustice, and poverty, and war. And no darkness will ever overcome it.

Let us pray. (Reprise intro begins)
O come, o come, Emmanuel. You open heaven wide, you liberate the captives, you conquer death itself. You scatter the gloomy clouds of night with the light of your justice.
O God, bind all people together in the gentle cords of grace. May we sing songs of joy in the face of all that we are told to fear.
Show us how to be your gift during this holy season. In the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


My prayer for you is that you have the confidence to sing in defiance of fear. Joy is the assurance of God's strong presence, equipping, energizing, and empowering us to overcome whatever struggles life throws our way.

"I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free!"

Christ the Lord is coming, that the world might joyful be.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Thoughts and Prayers

My thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by the San Bernardino shooting.

They truly are, even though I have no earthly idea what that even means. How can my prayers be “with” a group of people?

A prayer goes from me to God, and from God to me. What? Does it kind of make a detour over to California and hang out for a minute before drifting off to its intended target?

And what exactly am I praying? What possible prayer could I offer that would make any kind of difference in the life of a person whose sister or brother or mom or dad or son or daughter was just randomly shot and killed while attending a party with their coworkers? What?

My thoughts and prayers are feeling less and less thoughtful and prayerful these days.

“Pray that they will be comforted.”

But no, I do not want to pray for comfort; in fact I actually want to pray that we be deeply uncomfortable, shaken to our core at the callous violence that defines our nation. I do not want anyone to be “comfortable” with this.

“Pray that there will be peace.”

But no, I do not want to pray for peace; I want to pray for a level of righteous indignation to energize a movement of grace and love that sweeps across the world. I want our anger to empower a radical, revolutionary, incarnate love that stands up and shouts out, “NO!” to every evil in the world.

“Pray for an end to violence.”

But no, I have done that far too many times, and it really isn’t working. It pulls me toward theodicy when I start down that road. And I’m sometimes scared about how easy it would be for me to embrace a full on theodicy at any given moment. Like, really comfortably easy.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by the San Bernardino shooting.

And I really do mean that. Sincerely. But my thoughts and prayers have been with so many different communities from so many different places around the world so many times, it has become rote. Meaning has begun to atrophy.

All the world’s a stage. Signifying nothing. And so it goes.

I hope you’re not mad at me for being so honest. I’m a preacher, after all. I’m supposed to be a source of answers, not more questions. But I just can’t. I’m being truthful, authentic, and hoping for grace. So please don’t be mad.

A politician tweets out “thoughts and prayers” and then gets cruelly attacked for it. This is what we’re upset about these days. Tweets. We live in a nation that literally made it illegal to research gun violence, let alone do anything about it. And we are mad about politician’s tweets.

It happened so slowly, that’s the thing. It happened so slowly that most of us didn’t even notice it. In the last 100 years our society has become gradually less and less appalled by violence. Every war moved us further away, and made the next one a little bit easier. Now we just don’t care at all. Sandy Hook Elementary proved that once and for all.

Oh, there were a few who noticed it was happening. They tried to tell us. They were duly labelled and ostracized. Some were even killed for noticing. The prophets of the 20th century it seems had no more luck than the ones in the Bible.

Some say that things are no more violent today than ever, it’s just that we know about it today. Communication technology, they say, has spread knowledge into everyone’s smartphone, so we instantly hear about things that 20 years ago we wouldn’t have necessarily known.

I do not agree. I understand the premise of this reasoning, but I do not agree. We are fundamentally different today than we were 100 years ago. We’ve developed societal callouses and now we are simply numb. And you do not develop callouses suddenly, it happens over time.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by the shooting in San Bernardino. Colorado Springs. Roseburg. Charleston. Fort Hood. Newtown. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Columbine.

Do you even remember Columbine?

The BBC now reports on mass shootings in the United States like CNN reports on car bombings in Iraq.

My thoughts and prayers …

No actually I do have a prayer for today. We sang it at church this past week. It’s a verse of a hymn.

“O come, Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.”

Do you recognize the words? It’s a verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

There’s a refrain to that song, a call to “rejoice.” Significantly it is the only time the song is in a major key. The verses are all minor, gloomy, sad, dark. And after that one major key “rejoice,” the song quickly returns to the minor, with a somber thought that Emmanuel isn’t here yet, but “shall come to thee, O Israel.”

Emmanuel isn’t here yet. No kidding. Because I’d really like for someone to “deliver us from earthly strife” right about now.

And as jumbled and rambling as they are, bordering on heresy and a product of great spiritual struggle, those are my thoughts and prayers.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Inklings

I just got done reading “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Not really noteworthy, except for the way in which I read it. Instead of reading on my own, I read with a small group of people.

Every week since early September, on Sunday evenings at 5:30, seven or eight of us gathered in a room here at the church and read aloud, stopping every page or so to ask questions, offer insights, and process what we were reading. We had a wonderful experience; we called ourselves “The Inklings” in honor of the discussion group Lewis was a part of at Oxford in the 1930s and 40s.

I would definitely recommend this process to anyone who has ever wanted to read a weighty theological book, but couldn’t find the motivation, or was a bit intimidated, or just didn’t know exactly where to begin.

Here are a few of the things I learned in the process:

- There was no curriculum other than what came out of our own minds in the moment. That made for some fantastic conversation and some energetic back-and-forth of ideas. It also led to some very interesting, albeit tangential, conversations about all kinds of things from cabbage to terrorism to amusing English idioms. Since we were not restricted by a curriculum, we were free to take the conversation where it wanted to go naturally, although always returning to the book itself to move things along.

- We took turns reading aloud, which gave us the opportunity to hear several different voices. It is fascinating to learn about who somebody is by listening to them read aloud. Tone of voice, inflection, syllabic emphasis choices – each reader brings their own personality to the task of reading, and in so doing offers a bit of themselves to the group. And to hear words read aloud as you are reading them yourself deepens the impact of their meaning.

- It is so fun to hear how others react when an idea strikes their fancy. There were many times that another person’s reaction to a particular thought was more significant than my own, which always made me pause to ask them what had been so meaningful to them. Comments were made as the reader went along – “Oh I like that!” “That’s a good one!” or even just “Wow!” And there were definitely moments when the entire group all reacted at the same time, and it was really exciting to be a part of the synergy of thought.

- One of the most interesting parts of the process was the way in which members of the group made connections to “real life” experiences. The Syrian refugee crisis was an ongoing story this fall, and often came up in our conversations. We talked about Pope Francis, presidential candidates, racial issues on campus, war in the middle east, and gun violence, among other things. Often the connections that others made were not necessarily ones I would have made myself, which was sometimes puzzling but always illuminating.

So now we are going to take a break, but decided last night to pick up another book in the new year. We chose “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yep. We’re going for it! As one said last night, “I’ve always wanted to read it, but never would have on my own. The only way I would read it is with a group, so I’m in!

I truly think that people long to “go deep” spiritually, to spend time wrestling with heavy thoughts, thoughts that are worth thinking, and we’re much more likely to do that together than alone. So pick a book, get some people together, and start reading. It’s easy. You can start your own “Inklings” right where you are!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Refugees Among Us

Okay, let’s talk about refugees.

A refugee is one who is seeking refuge. Their home is not safe anymore, and in desperation, they are running for their lives. Most have been forced out, they are powerless, all control over their lives resides in the hands of others.

There are literally millions of them around the world.

From a security perspective, there is an ongoing public debate about whether or not to accept them into any given country. It is a question of resources, of public safety, of basic sanitation. These are legitimate questions.

From a Christian perspective, there is really no debate. There ought to be no question. Followers of Jesus will say “Yes” to every refugee, everywhere, at any time. The only questions would be the logistical ones pertaining to how, not the philosophical ones pertaining to if.

But with that said, how might an individual follower of Jesus say “Yes” to a refugee in the world? Tweet about it? Share a pithy meme on the Facebook? Write a nice articulate “statement” and put it on a website somewhere?

I’ll tell you how. I guarantee you there are dozens of refugees in YOUR town right now. If not hundreds. People who are seeking refuge. Forced out of a home that is no longer safe, if it ever was. All control over their lives taken violently away. They are desperate, powerless, scared.

They are children in the foster care system, and they need you. No, their pictures are not spread all over your newsfeed. They do not make headlines. But are they not refugees, as much as the ones fleeing the violence in Syria?

Foster kids only become foster kids if they’ve been hurt - abused or neglected. The home that they know and love is not safe for them. They are removed by strangers, taken to a place they’ve never seen before, every decision made by people they don’t know, people that they do not trust. They have no home, no foundation, all is chaos.

Do you really want to help a refugee? Do you actually want to do something that will make a real and noticeable dent in the world’s suffering? Do you really? In “Fiddler on the Roof,” a revolutionary young man named Perchik asks, “Why do you curse them? What good will your cursing do? You curse and chatter but you do nothing. You’ll all chatter your way into the grave.”

The point is - DO something. Enough chatter. There is no try. Do.

Now I confess, honestly and openly, that foster care is our particular calling. My family has opened our home to sixteen refugees over the years, and we’ve given one of those sixteen a forever home. I’m passionate about foster care, and very, very biased on this issue. I’ll own that.

And furthermore, of course the refugees from the middle east should be welcomed, sheltered, fed, given refuge. The same goes for any refugee anywhere in the world. It clearly is not an either / or proposition. I have very little patience for the “no refugees until all American homeless people are cared for” position. That’s a false dichotomy, hardly worth refuting.

My point is just this. If you actually want to help a refugee, you can. Become a licensed foster parent. Open up your home to a child who needs refuge. Do it now. Use the anger you feel about “this refugee situation” as motivation to do something courageous and noble and (dare I say it) … Christlike.

Do you want to talk about refugees? Do you really? Do you want to help one? Do you want to meet one? Because there’s a list. In every town in every county in every state in this great nation - hundreds of kids. They are no less refugees than the thousands of people whose images are currently scrolling on the news. 

And they're not going anywhere.


(Foster families, thank you for everything you do. Respite providers, thank you. Case workers, therapists, lawyers, judges, and all the rest who devote your lives to foster kids, thank you. Agencies whose mission is helping foster kids, people who give support to those agencies, thank you. It doesn’t take a village; it takes a world. You are the world for some of the most vulnerable refugees among us. God bless you all.)

"Be the Gift"

This Advent season, our congregational theme is “Be the Gift.” We’ll be thinking about how can we “be the gift” that God is giving to the world.

(I realize of course the possible negative connotations here. It is often said of someone, “Well he thinks is just God’s gift to humanity!” And when that is said, it is NOT meant as a compliment! But that’s not how we are using the idea; there is another way to think of it.)

I saw a TV commercial last week that featured a guy shopping for Christmas gifts. He bought a bunch of electronic gadgets and walked out of the advertised store full of confidence. The tagline of the commercial was, “They’ll not only love it - they’ll love you.”

My jaw dropped. My stomach rolled. I may even have uttered an incoherent grunt of disgust.

The implication is not even subtle. “You have to buy love.” No! No! No! A million times NO! Christmas gifts are not given in order to earn someone’s love. Christmas gifts are given to honor the greatest gift ever in the history of gifts - the gift of Jesus himself.

Jesus embodied God’s love; that’s what the incarnation was all about. He was and is the gift that God was giving to the world. The church is the body of Christ in the world today; the church ought to be a continual embodiment of God’s love, the ongoing incarnation of God’s gift.

Simply put, we should be the gift. You - me - us together. What if we thought less about buying someone a gift and more about being a gift in their life? Be a gift of presence, a gift of hope, a gift of joy, a gift of love. Be a gift of encouragement, a gift of friendship. Be a gift of grace to someone.

That’s what we’re about this Advent season, being gifts for one another and for the world. May God bless our holy season, a season not of greed but of giving, a season not of presents but of presence, a season not of crass consumerism but of sacred celebration.

Happy Advent, everyone!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thessalonian Top Ten - Are you in?

The apostle Paul is really good at lists. His first written list was likely the one that ends his first letter to the Thessalonian church (5:12-22).

But since Paul is sometimes kind of "Bibley" in his writing style, I have re-written this list, to make it a bit easier to read. Here it is:

1) Respect people.
2) Try to get along with each other.
3) Help people who need help, in they way they need it.
4) Always try to do good to all people, even the jerks.
5) Find the joy in every situation.
6) Consider every moment to be a prayer.
7) Say “thank you” a lot.
8) Let God's light shine through you.
9) Listen closely and don’t take anything for granted.
10) Do good stuff.

Not bad advice, huh? Imagine what it would be like if every follower of Jesus actually did all these things.

Well, how about it? It has to start somewhere, right? I'll give it my best shot - how about you?

Are you in?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"To Resist Evil, Injustice, and Oppression"

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 34)

I asked a young couple this question among others as they brought their infant forward for baptism last Sunday. As I asked it, images of “evil, injustice, and oppression” flashed across my mind: images of death and destruction in the streets of Paris, a lifeless toddler lying on a beach in Turkey, infants held by exhausted and desperate mothers in refugee camps, grimy children walking the demolished streets of Damascus, and on and on and on.

Do you accept … no, do I accept the freedom and power God gives … to resist evil … in whatever forms … ?

To resist evil. What does that even mean? And how is it a “freedom” exactly?

Every member of every United Methodist Church has answered that question in the affirmative. We had to, in order to become members. And having answered thusly, now what?

In the simple questions of our church membership, people who are United Methodist have made a solemn vow, witnessed by God and spoken in the midst of the people, to resist evil, however it appears in the world.

If the agenda and actions of the Daesh group are not evil, then I do not know what is. So in the face of such atrocious acts, what does it mean to “resist” evil?

The word “resist” is from the Latin word resistere, which meant “to remain standing.” It means to withstand or strive against or oppose. It means to take a stand against something, to make an effort in opposition.

We use the word frivolously, as in “I just couldn’t resist eating that delicious cupcake.” But I’m pretty sure the baptismal vows do not mean it in such a shallow way. The word is also used to described armed opposition to an occupying force, as in the French resistance to Nazi forces during the 1930s and 40s. Is that more aligned with what is meant in our United Methodist question?

The scripture I’m preaching on this week includes the following advice: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). So whatever “resist” means, it seems it cannot mean “repay,” and certainly our response to evil should not involve even more evil. That will get us nowhere fast.

Sometimes, to be honest, I really wish Jesus had included a few escape clauses in the Gospel. Don’t you? Like wouldn’t it have been great if he had said, “Hey guys you should welcome strangers and eat with them, unless of course you think there’s a chance they may hurt you, then you’re totally fine to just keep them as far away from you as possible.” But he didn’t say that. And you know why? Because that’s not just. That’s oppressive. That’s actually kind of evil, in my honest opinion.

We are “to remain standing” in the face of evil, injustice, and oppression. We are to remain standing in the values of the Gospel, the doctrines of love and peace and justice and grace and incarnation and resurrection and everything else that the church is supposed to be about.

Only by “standing” in these places will our response to Daesh and Boko Haram and al-Qaeda and Al Shabaab be grounded in a faithful Christian response. But true resistance must be more than metaphor. To truly resist, we must act.

Only a very few of us who live in the United States can actually go to the places most impacted by the current violence. But by the virtue of our amazing democratic system, we have access to the people who can. We can contact our political leaders and encourage them to stand against evil, to act for justice, to speak with love and compassion for others.

And by the virtue of our amazing connectional church, we are a part of an incarnate Christian presence that is already at work all around the world. We can contribute the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which has a fund designated specifically for refugee response. The full list of projects UMCOR does is impressive.

Resisting evil is global, and also very local. We resist evil every time we take in a foster kid. We resist evil every time we back a food box for a hungry family. We resist evil every time we confront discrimination in our community. We resist evil every time we challenge homophobia and racism and sexism in any of the mealy, insidious forms they show up around us.

And here’s the thing - this resistance is liberating! God has offered us both freedom and power to resist. That means, quite counter-intuitively, that not resisting is actually captivity. Going along to get along is a prison. Allowing evil to continue is a chain, a burden, a weight on our lives that prevents us from becoming who God wants us to be.

In the act of resistance, we are set free.

And so I return to the question. “Do you accept the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” If so, please respond, “I do.”

And if you do, then for God’s sake … do.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Why Do We Do What We Do?

What matters more - what you do or why you do it?

C.S. Lewis writes about this question in his book “Mere Christianity.” He thinks that motivation matters. For example, if a person takes your seat on the train to be rude, that’s different than if a person takes your seat on the train because they didn’t know it was your seat. We would be inclined to be angry at person number one, and more understanding of person number two, even though they did exactly the same thing. Why would respond differently? Because of the difference in their motivations.

And if we expand that idea to apply to congregations, we might ask a similar question. Congregations do things; we do ministry - hospitality, worship, service, generosity, faith formation - and if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes the things we do become more important than the reasons to do them.

When we forget our reasons for doing what we do, our actions become empty and shallow. The things we do may have the very same result, but purpose begins to deteriorate. And when we do increasingly meaningless things, even if the results are very similar, our energy level decreases and we begin to burn out. Ultimately, we either stop doing them altogether, or do them begrudgingly and with a chip on our shoulder.

But it is possible to renew purpose, to reclaim the meaning behind our actions. We need to remember the “why” of our Christian discipleship. And having remembered and reaffirmed this “why,” suddenly we find our actions infused with meaning, purpose, and energy again. We may even be doing the very same things we’ve always done, but now they are a joy.

And so yes, what we do matters. But I think knowing why we do it may matter even more.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Jurisdictional Delegate Meeting Wrap-Up

The South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church met this week in Oklahoma City for what we called a “Delegate Meeting.” It wasn’t the actual conference, but rather a training event designed to get us prepared for the work ahead. Here is my reflection on the event, for any who may be interested.


We had a chance to meet the candidates for bishop. Alphabetically, with their Annual Conference:
- Bob Farr, from Missouri
- Janice Gilbert, from Texas
- Ron Henderson, from North Texas
- Morris Mathis, from Texas
- Jimmy Nunn, from Northwest Texas
- Ruben Saenz, from Rio Texas
- Erradio Valverde, from Rio Texas
- David Wilson, from Oklahoma Indian Missionary

These are the people who are currently in the mix for election, though there may be more who emerge. I am not 100% certain how many we are electing, but the number I have heard floating around is three.

It was good to see them, to have a face to go with a name (except for Jimmy Nunn who was not present), but we didn’t have much chance to speak with them at this meeting. That will come next Spring when each delegation has a chance to interview each candidate one on one.


A couple of topics of discussion were centered on the global nature of the United Methodist Church:

Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Conference presented some work being done to create a “Global Book of Discipline” that would identify parts of our polity that are universal across the denomination, and parts that could be adapted for particular contexts. They will bring no specific proposals to General Conference, but ask the Conference to affirm the direction their work has taken and continue it for the next four years.

We received information about a related proposal coming to General Conference. This idea would create a “Central Conference” for the United States which would be the equivalent of the seven other Central Conferences around the world. The rationale for this proposal is to create a forum for discussing those issues that are unique to the North American context, in the same way that the other Central Conferences can in their own locales.

I am in favor of both of these ideas, which are aimed at keeping the global identity of United Methodism while at the same time trying to find ways to be more flexible in our mission in various contexts around the world.


A significant rule change is being proposed that would change the way the General Conference talks about all of the petitions that pertain to human sexuality.

The basic idea is to break the entire Conference into small groups of 15 people to discuss the petitions. The small group leaders would then report to a Facilitation Group. The Facilitation Group would then create the petition or petitions that the entire plenary would discuss and vote on.

This would replace the way it is done now, which is to discuss sexuality petitions in a legislative committee (Church and Society 2), who go through the regular committee process and then make their recommendations to the entire body. The thought is that the new idea would allow for every single participant in the Conference to have input into the decisions made on this one issue. It would also be a model for handling any contentious issues that may arise in the future.

Here are some process points: Small group leaders would be nominated from each delegation and selected by the Executive Committee of the Commission on General Conference. The Facilitation Group members are nominated from each Central Conference and US Jurisdiction by the Leadership Discernment Committee of the Council of Bishops. These 24 are then given to the Executive Committee on the Commission on General Conference who propose a slate of six for the entire General Conference to vote on. Conference members may also nominate others from the pool of 24 when the slate is presented.

I applaud the attempt to do something differently around the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination of people regardless of sexual orientation. Clearly the status quo processes are not working. However, it seems to me that there is an awful lot of power in that group of six called the “Facilitation Group.”

While the conflict and controversy may shift away from the legislative committee process, it will not go away altogether. There will be a great deal of scrutiny on the people serving as small group leaders and in the Facilitation Group. That’s where the controversy will reside, if this rule change is approved.


Speaking of homosexuality, there were a couple of specific proposals discussed. Adam Hamilton talked about the Connectional Table proposal, and Chappell Temple talked about a resolution coming from the Texas Conference (I could not find it online).

The Connectional Table proposal lets pastors decide if they will marry couples, and lets Annual Conferences decide what people will be ordained. Adam strongly implied that he would propose an amendment that would let congregations decide what weddings can happen in their buildings.

The Texas proposal completely rewrites paragraph 161f of the Book of Discipline. In their own words they want to do something that “maintains our position but is more gracious in tone.” No longer is the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” used to describe homosexuality. In fact, it doesn’t use the word “homosexual” at all. The phrase they use is, “In our historic understanding of the scriptures, sexual relations are to be affirmed only when practiced within the legal and spiritual covenant of a loving and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.”

It is notable that the petition also calls destructive a list of activities, including “promiscuity, infidelity, bigamy, multiple or serial marriages, pornography, human trafficking, and all attempts to commercialize the gift of human sexuality within our societies.” I do not know if it is intentional or not, but to me it seems to imply that they think same-sex marriage ought to be on this list, even though it is not explicitly stated. (It also seems to strongly condemn divorce, for what that is worth.)

For the record, I am a strong advocate for the amended version of the Connectional Table proposal for local autonomy in these decisions. It seems to be a “no brainer,” in fact. Of course local churches should be able to set their own wedding policies. Of course pastors should have the authority to decide whom they will marry. Of course Annual Conferences should determine which candidates they will ordain. The United Methodist Church’s officially sanctioned obsession with gay people is embarrassing, hateful, and counterproductive to our mission.


We also talked about divestment proposals that are coming to General Conference. Dave Zellner from the General Board on Pension and Health Benefits did a wonderful job of explaining the situation. The essence is social justice; there are many who want the United Methodist Church to pull our investments out (divest) of companies that profit from injustice and from destruction of the environment.

Essentially, he told us that the General Board is deeply committed to social justice and sustainable business practices. They are active in the companies in which we invest, raising awareness and encouraging changes as needed. They invest in community development projects and projects that help those in poverty, making positive social impact.

I’m not really an expert in financial matters, but I trust our General Board here. They are guided by some pretty clear principles and policies, and I’m convinced that telling them specific companies they cannot invest in would not be helpful. They are as transparent as they can be with their investments, and if anyone ever has any concerns, they do indeed listen. But elevating our particular divestment ideas to the level of general church policy is not a good idea.


One of the most astonishing things I learned was the process by which we elect people to serve on the Judicial Council. It is not a good process, to say the least.

The Council of Bishops chooses a slate of candidates that is three times larger than the open positions. The slate is presented to the General Conference one day before the vote, and then we vote on them. That’s it! No time to get to know the people or hear what their ideas are or try to understand if they have the mission of the church as their highest priority or anything like that. It’s just – here they are, pick some.

We have five positions to choose this year, three laity and two clergy. So, we will see the names of nine lay people and six clergy, literally from all over the world, and then in 24 hours we will vote on them. And these are people who will have enormous power in our denomination. They are the “Supreme Court” of Methodism, and their decisions are not reversible without action from the General Conference, which as you know meets only ever four years.

Again this isn’t really my area of expertise, but it seems like a pretty strange way to elect some pretty powerful people.


There was some more stuff, but I think I’ll stop there. If you actually read through all of that, congratulations! You are a Metho-Nerd for sure.

I am honored to serve as a delegate for at Jurisdictional Conference and as first alternate to General Conference. I want to be available to anyone who has questions or concerns or insights, and so I covenant with you to be as transparent as I can.

Please contact me if I can be helpful to you in any way.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

New Vision November - Turning the World Upside Down

How do you respond to the thought of “turning the world upside down?”

Like if somebody said to you, “Those people are turning the world upside down,” would you think it was good thing or a bad thing?

Well, that’s what some Thessalonians said about the followers of Jesus that Paul was leading. And when they said it, it definitely wasn’t a compliment! See, the Christians in Thessalonica were upsetting the status quo; specifically they were “saying that there is another King named Jesus” (Acts 17:7). And that ruffled more than a few feathers.

Now, I don’t think their goal was feather ruffling. I think their only goal was to follow Jesus. It’s just that the act of following him faithfully was so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive that it was jarring for the city leaders. Following Jesus challenged their base assumptions and called their priorities into question.

Reading the story of Paul and the Thessalonians got me to thinking … is the church today still “turning the world upside down?” Are we still upsetting the status quo and ruffling feathers by proclaiming allegiance to a King named Jesus?

Over the next month, Campbell United Methodist Church is going to reflect on who we are, what we do, and why we do what we do. It is going to be called “New Vision November,” and by the end of the month I hope we have a renewed sense of our identity, an exciting vision for the future, and a deepening commitment to our patterns of discipleship.

Our entry point into “New Vision November” is going to be the church Paul started at Thessalonica. What can we reclaim from the early church? How can we draw upon the energy they felt? How might we translate the simple gospel message into language that makes sense for Springfield, Missouri in the year 2016 and beyond?

There is more information in this newsletter about the upcoming month so be sure to check that out. It all starts in worship Sunday morning, so I’ll see you then!

Let’s turn the world UPSIDE DOWN!!!

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Ecclesial Ethics of Google Ads

Technology advances faster than ethics. We are often confronted with the reality of being able to do something thanks to a technological achievement without being given sufficient time to consider whether or not we should. And though there are examples with significant social impact, there are smaller instances that are worth considering.

For example: Should a congregation purchase a Google ad? We are able to, but should we?

A congregation can pay Google to bump their website to the top of the list when someone searches for a church in a particular area. And since Google is the place almost everyone goes to find stuff in general, it is going to be the place we go to find a church, also. So I move into town, I’m looking for a church, I just google “churches in such-and-such” and take a look at the list. Top of the list hits tend to get more attention, so a congregation can pay Google to get that extra attention.


- Is it good evangelism, a wise use of congregational resources?

- Is it bad ecclesiology, infusing an attitude of competition into the church’s mission in the world?

- Is it actually bad practice, since there are many who intentionally skip the “paid for” hits in a Google search?

- Is it an act of hospitality in that it makes it that much easier for a newcomer to find the “front door” of the congregation?

- Is it an unjust practice that favors large, wealthy congregations over small, struggling ones?

I’d love to read your thoughts. It may not even be that big of a deal, but it’s something I’m thinking about this morning, so I thought I’d put it out there.

What do you think about a congregation purchasing Google ads?

Monday, October 19, 2015

"Lacking in Nothing"

“Mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” - This is how the book of James describes a person who has endured life’s trials, and with faith come through them with a new understanding and perspective.

I love that phrase as a definition of a “mature” person: “lacking in nothing.” Maturity has very little to do with how old you are. And “spiritual” maturity has very little to do with how long you may have been a Christian.

Spiritual maturity has everything to do with realizing that in God you have what you need, that you are indeed lacking in nothing. It may require us to adjust our definitions of “need” and “want,” however. And perhaps this is where our youngest sisters and brothers can teach us.

One rainy night years ago, driving home in the dark, in the rain, with the family in the mini-van with me, I realized that every kid was sound asleep. They were not in the least bit anxious about slick roads or poor visibility or the possibility of an accident. I felt the burden of their trust heavily upon my shoulders, and I got them home safely.

And that moment taught me a little bit about what I need versus what I want. That my kids could sleep meant that they had what they needed in that moment, regardless of anything else. And significantly, it wasn’t a sparkly toy or flashy gadget that allowed them that rest, it was their trust. In that moment, they lacked in nothing.

Sometimes it feels like life is just an endless campaign. We are always seeking the next thing, the newer thing, the nicer thing, the more expensive thing. It seems we are rarely content with what we have, and always pushing for more. I believe this to be a profoundly immature worldview.

Rather, “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” and understand that in Christ we have enough. Spiritual maturity is the assurance of wholeness, security in the promises of God that we know in Jesus and are illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Unity and the Sin of Babel

“To be one, to be united is a great thing. But to respect the right to be different may be even greater.”

One of my favorite rock bands is U2, and their lead singer, Bono, is credited with the quote above. We talk about unity all the time, especially in the church. It is certainly a core value of our faith. To be “one in Christ Jesus,” whether we are male or female, slave or free, Jew or gentile - this is clearly a scriptural priority.

But this quote helps me think about the distinction between “unity” and “uniformity.” And sometimes I fear we consider the terms synonymous. They are not synonyms.

“Uniformity” is a state of being identical within a group, and it implies a kind of isolation from the world by some characteristic that each group member holds in common. “Unity” is when parts are combined to form a whole, and does not presume that any individual part needs to give up what makes it unique in that process. As such, unity remains connected to the larger world.

The sin of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) may not have been building a tower to heaven in order to take God’s place, per the popular interpretation. The sin of Babel may very well have been the people trying to “make a name for ourselves.” In other words, they feared for their future as a uniform and isolated community, as they said themselves, “Otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

In response, God diversified and scattered them - exactly the thing they feared happening. In so doing, God restated the creation commandment, to bear fruit, fill the earth, and care for it (Genesis 1:28). And in so doing, God anticipated the commission of Christ, to go into all the world to share the Good News (Mark 16:15).

My prayer is that the church be united in this mission, without insisting upon uniformity to accomplish it. May we be one, and at the same time may we “respect the right to be different” for each one of God’s children.

As such, the church must reflect on our own inclination toward the sin of Babel. Not a tower to God, but a hunger for uniformity. Uniformity is a source of comfort. Uniformity meets expectations. Uniformity swims with the current. Uniformity is easy.

Unity, on the other hand, can get messy. Unity does not require you to check your baggage at the door, it embraces you right along with all the baggage you drag along. Unity does not pander to silly ideas like "agree to disagree." Unity absorbs disagreement and converts it into energy that drives the relationship.

More and more churches are dividing from one another, or maybe leaving one denominational home for another. These divisions, schisms, separations - whatever we call them - always do harm. Pain is inevitable, and it always gets personal. Because it is.

Love does not insist on its own way. And unity is love.

If the United Methodist denomination is going to talk about dividing, or creating parallel jurisdictions, or any of the handful of other ideas floating around the interwebs, we have to first admit to an abject failure. We have failed to be an obedient church. God desires unity; toward uniformity God is ambivalent at best.

In creation, God diversifies and scatters us around the world. At Babel, God reinforces the scattering movement. Through Jesus, God again sends messengers out and into and among. And at Pentecost, the scattering is made even more apparent, as the Holy Spirit empowers diversity among the followers of Jesus.

All that scattering is for the sake of the Mission of God, a mission that has nothing to do with uniformity, but rather asks for unity among those who would undertake it. It may not be comfortable or neat or easy, but as the church it is our mission. We exist to be scattered, for God's sake.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Successful UMC Interviews, Part 2

As I see it, there are two possibilities for truly reforming our United Methodist candidacy process.

Option A - Make sure that every single person involved is completely clear as to what the expectations are - candidates, mentors, interviewers, team members, team leaders, superintendents, bishops - everybody.


Option B - Allow for a variety of personalities, gifts, skill sets, etc. in our candidates, knowing that some do not interview well, some do not write well, some come across as aloof when they’re really just shy, some express ideas with creative words, some think too deeply to be able to process complicated theological questions in a 30 minute interview session, and some are just simply outside of the box.

In my experience and my opinion, “Option B” is never going to happen. And thus I wrote my previous post, with the thought of communicating clearly what is expected of candidates for ministry. In other words, advocating for “Option A” above.

I am grateful to those who responded to my previous post by affirming that each candidate should know themselves and their calling, and be authentic to who they are. That is exactly what I would hope would happen in this process. My point is, stated rather crassly: authenticity will not ensure one’s approval by the interview team.

There is a vast disparity among conferences, among districts within a conference, among different interview teams within one district, and even among the individual interviewers on one interview team when it comes to this process. Simply put, not everyone is clear as to what the expectations are. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing - I am just naming it.

But good, bad, or indifferent, whether someone is approved for certification or commissioning or ordination should not be determined by which interview team they happen to draw.

I am grateful to hear from a couple of friends that changes to our credentialing process in Missouri are in the works. That’s fantastic, and I am hopeful for really good things to happen.

Creating and implementing a new system is half the work. We then still have to do “Option A.” Everyone has to know exactly what is expected at every level. The best system in the world is only worth as much as how many people know about it. (Does that sentence even make sense?)

And so to clarify, I do not advocate that a candidate for ministry be disingenuous or pretend to be something they are not. I was not trying to coach people into bearing false witness against thy neighbors.

I am an advocate for the candidate first, and then for the denomination. I want all of us to know exactly what is expected in these interviews, and to say that out loud with utter transparency. The attitude in which the interviewer is “in the know” and the candidate has to guess as to what they are looking for needs to go away. Far, far away, and never return.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

My GC Petition - "Let's Not Be Jerks"

DISCIPLINE PARAGRAPH:  Discipline ¶341.6


Delete ¶341.6

Rationale: It's just mean.

Anyone want to sign off on this with me?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Successful UMC Interviews

Here is Andy Bryan’s guide to a successful interview in the United Methodist Church. 

It’s just three steps:
1) Be relentlessly positive about your current ministry,
2) Use copious amounts of orthodox Wesleyan terminology,
3) Restate everything you say with “relevant” and “accessible” illustrations.

In the UMC, to get from “not-a-pastor” to “pastor,” there is a series of interviews or conversations we have. First, with our pastor. Second, with our Pastor/Parish Relations Committee. Third, with our District Committee on Ministry (dcom). Some pastors stay there, and return annually for a continuation interview. Others go on to the next interview, with the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry (bom). Of course there is more to it than that, but that’s the rough outline.

The interviews with the dcom and the bom are often very stressful, tense, and create anxiety and tears, which people always say they want to change, but no one ever really does. So I’ll try.

If a candidate for ministry, a licensed local pastor, a candidate for ordination, or any other of our variety of categories of pastor will just follow these three simple steps, I promise you the interview should be a success.

1) Be relentlessly positive about your current ministry. There is a time and a place to express uncertainty, doubt, and frustration about ministry. Every one of us needs to find that time and place and share those things with trusted friends. The dcom and the bom are not those people.

You must speak about fruit, and outward focus, and specific projects you are doing in your community, and “new people” in the church. If possible, tell a story about one particular person whose life was impacted through the ministry of your congregation. Subtlety and nuance are not valued here; be clear and be bold and be precise.

And if there are none of these things in your current setting, you must talk about the potential you see for these things in the future. You must say that your are “planting seeds” or “trying to turn the ship around” or another metaphor that implies a long process that is making incremental progress. And by the way, be relentlessly positive about the potential that you see in this process, too.

2) Use copious amounts of orthodox Wesleyan terminology. There is pretty much a list of terms that the people on these committees are looking for. Things like “means of grace” and “prevenient, justifying, sanctifying” and “open communion table” and “way of salvation” and like that. Know and understand what these terms mean, and use them often.

Some individuals on these interview teams see themselves as guardians of Methodist orthodoxy, so this is no place to be creative or philosophical or try to say things in a new and fresh way. Stick to the script. If you can work it in, quote from one of John Wesley’s sermons or recite a verse of“And Can It Be That I Should Gain.”

If you want to do a more creative, poetic, or edgy theology, do it at another time and place. Do not try to impress the dcom or the bom with new words and phrases. You will not get extra credit for being pithy. Speak Wesleyese. (Weslese?)

3) Restate everything you say with “relevant” and “accessible” illustrations. This is a crucial step. You cannot just leave your ideas in the realm of “by the book.” You cannot just give an academic response and say no more. You MUST then follow it up with “in other words,” and proceed to illustrate the point with language that you would use in a confirmation class, or with people who are brand new to church.

Yes, your interview audience is a group of educated church leaders who are in the loop. But they want to hear that you are able to relate to people who are not. Talk about the way of salvation, then say, “Because life is a journey, right? You go from beginning to end not in a smooth straight line, but in a series of hills and valleys, and the grace of God is with you in every step.” Or some such thing.

Remember that these are church leaders who are panicking about the future of their denomination, and desperate for “new people” in the church. Fair or not, they are looking directly at you to be the one to “save the church,” and to do that you need to be both perfectly orthodox and refreshingly relevant.

And so that’s it. If every UMC interviewee will just do these three things, I promise you your interview will be successful. And if it isn’t, if you get a call that says the committee has not approved you for certification or continuation or commissioning or ordination, you have every right to ask for clear, concise, specific reasons why not. Do not settle for nebulous and confusing answers. If you need to, call the chair of the committee and ask to see in writing the exact reasons you have been denied. Also ask them specifically what the next step is, how would they suggest to go about it, and what the timeline is for completion. Ask for specifics, and do not settle for anything less that utter transparency.

UMC candidates for ministry, this is your life; this is your calling; this is your identity. No, it is not fair for so much to be decided about such significant matters in a mere hour-long interview with a handful of people. But listen, the system isn’t going to be changing any time soon, which means candidates are going to have to be the ones to do so.

Be relentlessly positive.  Be unflinchingly Wesleyan. Restate everything with simple, relevant illustrations. And if you need any help, give me a call and we’ll see what we can do.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Church is a Theological Body

A quick social media question yielded the following responses. I asked people simply “What is ‘church’ to you?” And people said:

The theatre..
Love in action.
The mystical body of Christ.
Extended family.
Christ alive and at work in the world.
God’s strength and love in human form.
Home. Or the closest I can get to it on earth, anyway.
Sharing in This Holy Mystery.
Guardians of...
A movement. A verb.
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one, true church...."
People in relationship and community supporting each other and serving the overall community together!
Whenever and where two or more are gathered in His name.
Church is everything. I've never limited church to a building or a single congregation. It's every part of speech, everyone, everywhere, always.
Way of life.
The bride of Christ which consists of the entire body of people who abide in him and he in them.

Amen! And Wowza! What a list!

By the way, not on the list: An institution. A hierarchy. An exclusive club. A non-profit organization. A political action committee. A self-help group. A business. A Branson show. A disciple-making factory.

And so now I’m looking at this amazing list and thinking, every single decision made at every single level of the church ought to be based on the principles that are articulated here. This list is some good theology! And at our core, the church is, always has been, and forever ought to be a theological body.

Making decisions based on any principles other than theological ones is weak ecclesiology, and almost always a cop out, by which mean the easier or less complicated way. Decisions made based on expedience or logistics rather than sound missional theology may very well make sense on the surface, but the ecclesial ripple effects can be harmful. First rule: do no harm.

If a decision is made that is simply the will of one powerful person or a relatively small power group, it ignores the mystical connection of members of the body, which builds resentment and distrust.

If a decision is made based on the bottom line of dollars and cents, it ignores the abject poverty of the cross of Jesus Christ and the promised resurrection of the body, and redefines the church’s success in earthly rather than heavenly terms.

If a decision is made by simple majority rule, it ignores the clear scriptural call to pay special attention to the least and the lost, the powerless, the marginalized, the ones without a voice, and as such the first remain first and the last remain last.

So how, pray tell, will the church ever decide anything, Rev. Smarty Pants?

It’s very simple. Prayer, discernment, and consensus. Those three things, and in that order. And yes I said “simple,” but note that I did not say “easy.”

Now, let me insert here that this does not mean that every decision should be made by the entire body (whether that be a class, a ministry team, a congregation, a conference, or a denomination). A part of the prayer, discernment, and consensus needs to initially determine what decision-making authority resides with what people. And most often, the closer a person is to the impact of the decision, the more equipped to make the decision they are. (A children’s ministry leader is better equipped to choose curriculum than the Church Council, for example.)

And the second point to make here is that once decided, “who makes which decision” need not be set in stone from now unto eternity. At different times in the life of the congregation/conference/denomination, decision making policies may be adjusted to reflect current circumstances. (When giving is down and cash flow is tight, some decisions that may have been easy to make might need prior approval, for example.)

But, regardless of who is making the decision, when the decision is made, and how many people are impacted, the decision must be made theologically. Prayer, discernment, and consensus.

As the lead pastor of a large congregation, I have been entrusted with decision-making authority by our Church Council. I am guided by a set of policies that define our ends and limit my actions. Within those limits, I can make just about any decision as long as it moves the congregation toward the stated ends. I, in turn, have entrusted some of those decisions to the core staff. The core staff has entrusted more decisions to the extended staff and other congregational leaders, and so on.

All up and down that line, decisions are made with prayer - we offer gratitude for God’s gracious presence with us in all things, and ask for God’s guidance and direction as we act. And each of us does all we can to discern the best choice - collaborating and consulting with others, collecting information and data, reading articles and books, and so forth. And then we work to attain consensus - talking with others involved, ensuring the decision makes sense, and doing all we can to reach a decision that as many as possible can live with, if not support fully.

I am not naive. I understand that there are business-like components to church life. I understand that sometimes you just have to take a vote and go with the majority’s decision. And even in these moments, grace and love can and ought to be shown throughout the entire process.

But I contend that first and foremost, the church should operate like a church - love in action, Christ alive in the world, a movement of the Spirit, people sharing life together, a way of living in the world. And always and everywhere, a theological body.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Just Say Yes - Guest Post by Bishop Robert Schnase

Back when "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations" was published, we coined a new verb: "to Schnase." To "Schnase" someone was to quote his book to them, so you could say, "Of course, for our hospitality to be truly radical it would have to carry us outside of our comfort zones ... and now you have just been 'Schnasied.'"

So imagine my delight when I was invited to host "Bish Schnay-Z" on my blog to talk about his newest book "Just Say Yes!" I mean, it would be an ENTIRE BLOG POST that was just ONE GIANT "SCHNASE!" Amazing! 

He is doing a "blog tour" of sorts, talking about his book - he was on Hacking Christianity a couple weeks ago. And I truly think it is a wonderful book, with lots of helpful thoughts about ministry and I commend it to you all. And so now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls - the one and only, Bishop Robert Schnase...

          Thank you, Andy, for inviting me to post a guest blog as part of a Blog Tour to introduce my newest book, Just Say Yes!  Unleashing People for Ministry.   Here’s the question you sent me:
            “Sometimes there is so much happening in the congregation I serve that I’m informed of an ongoing ministry that I knew almost nothing of. I really don’t think there is anybody in leadership who knows everything that’s going on. At the same time, I want the activity of the congregation to align with the mission and vision. Each ministry must be held accountable to the mission, which implies that someone has to know what’s going on in that ministry in order to hold it to account.
            - If a system that says “yes” really does “cease being a reporting organization,” then how does it achieve the “high accountability” that is expected?
            - Would you say a little bit more about what it looks like to not be a “reporting organization?” Isn’t that really just “communicating?”
            - How will the ones keeping our ministries accountable to the mission know enough about the ministries in question unless there is a fair amount of reporting going on?”
            Some years ago, a natural disaster drew the attention of the nation and the church.  The United Methodist Church’s response was immediate and generous, but it was not without problems.  General agencies duplicated the work of sister boards, some offices tried to restrain the work of others, conflicting messages were sent out about what was needed most, leaders disagreed about who could authorize special offerings, and appeals for help went public using inconsistent nomenclature.  United Methodists were tripping over one another in their eagerness to help.  Government agencies and other non-profits suffered similar confusions in the face of overwhelming human need.  A level of chaos is the very nature of crises.
            A few months later, the Council of Bishops received reports on United Methodist work related to the natural disaster.  Leaders from various levels of the church talked about the volunteer teams that responded, the amount of money raised, the number of blankets and flood buckets and health kits distributed, and the long-term plans for follow through.   United Methodists did immeasurable good.  At one point, I raised my hand, stepped to the microphone, and offered what I thought was a common sense suggestion.  I wondered if it might be wise to gather the conference leaders and bishops most affected, along with the agency staff and response teams that were involved, in order to process together how the UMC responded:  what worked, what didn’t, what was helpful, how we might avoid miscommunication and duplication in future disasters.   
            The president of the council said, “Thank you, Bishop Schnase.”  Then he looked around the room and said, “Is there any other business before we adjourn?”
            I returned to my seat feeling embarrassed and chastised.  As a newbie bishop, I didn’t understand the reason for the not-so-subtle dismissal I received.  A retired bishop leaned my way as I sat down, and said with a wink and a smile, “Young man, you just learned the difference between a reporting organization and a learning organization!”
            Andy, I value sharing information, excellence in communications, and transparency of operations.  These provide the oil that keeps the machinery of an organization running smoothly.  They contribute to trust and accountability.  But when an organization does nothing but reporting, as in the example I gave above from the Council of Bishops, it avoids the most important tasks of leadership.   In the time we spend merely reporting what happened in the past and what’s coming up next, we could be participating in significant decisions, learning about challenges that limit our mission, processing together how to approach difficult issues, and generating fresh ideas. 
            I’m writing this blog the day after presiding at a meeting of our conference Mission Council.  Fifteen elected people, most of them laity, join with me and the five conference directors for four hours.  We do this six times a year.   After a devotional, each director presents what they are working on, as does the lay leader and the dean of the cabinet.  By following this agenda, we cover all major areas of ministry of the conference. 
            A folder of material is sent to members ahead of the meeting which includes written reports from all the directors.  The reports include the numbers, dates, happenings, graphs, and stories that I would call reporting.  For instance, the director of finance sends a budget summary, an outline of changes to health insurance, and upcoming dates for training sessions.  The director of connectional ministries distributes revised sexual misconduct policies, mock ups of new communications materials, and a summary of evaluations from the annual conference sessions.  Much communication between directors and the mission council is done before the meeting even begins.
            As we move through the agenda, each director talks about what they are working on, and also presents challenges or questions that they are wrestling with.  They invite feedback and conversation from the Mission Council and from the other directors.  For instance, following the summer’s mobile camping success, one of the challenges is how to scale up this ministry at a responsible rate while dealing with the disappointment that churches will feel who request a mobile camp but don’t receive one next summer.  Nearly all of the 10 churches that participated this year want to repeat the experience, and another 29 churches have already expressed interest.  The Mission Council processes the issue, discusses alternatives, and makes suggestions for how we might learn from other conferences who have done this.  Another director highlights the complexity of the next annual conference and the challenge of identifying an appropriate theme, given that this is the bishop’s last annual conference, that General Conference will be on peoples’ minds, and that we’ll celebrate the 200th anniversary of Methodist conferences in Missouri.  Another director processes the opportunities and challenges of starting congregations that rely on languages other than English, including our new Congolese and Vietnamese congregations.  The Mission Council had a lengthy conversation about strategies for my last year as bishop. How should I best use my time?  What loose ends need to be tied up?  How best can I prepare the conference for new leadership?   Questions were asked, insights were offered, priorities were clarified, and the group generated various scenarios and next steps. 
            The Mission Council only takes one or two votes a year, other than approving minutes and other perfunctory actions.   How would you describe what goes on in the Council?  It’s not merely reporting, because most of the statistical and factual communication takes place before we arrive and less than 40% of our meeting involves presenting information.  It’s not legislative, because votes are seldom taken.  Our meetings are generative conversation, creative engagement, problem solving, and learning.  They are interactive and participatory, and they provide guidance and support to the people who lead the ministries of the conference. 
            Accountability relies on more than what happens in administrative meetings.  It begins with clarity of mission and well-defined expectations, involves careful recruitment of staff and volunteers, includes regular evaluation of programs and staff, and on-going learning, mentoring, and improvement.  When complemented with these other elements, the Mission Council contributes to a culture with high expectations and great accountability, more so than if we were merely a reporting organization. On behalf of the conference that elects them, the members of the Mission Council gain ownership in our ministries and make contributions that shape the conference. These benefits would be lost if we merely went around the table telling what happened and what comes next. 
            The last hour of most Mission Council meetings usually involves an explicit learning component related to big picture challenges that affect our mission.  We use a book or an article that we’ve agreed to read prior to the meeting.  These conversations challenge assumptions, cause us to shift perspectives, and make us continually reevaluate what we do as a conference.   For instance, our next Mission Council will discuss Gil Rendle’s essay entitled, “Waiting for God’s New Thing,” (downloadable from the Texas Methodist Foundation website).  Rendle challenges the fundamental notion of congregations as the principle way of fostering faith for people who mistrust institutional religion.   Conference leaders need to be familiar with such issues, even though they challenge our basic operations.  
            I want members of the Mission Council to drive home after a meeting mulling over ideas, pondering new insights, searching for better approaches, and feeling that they’ve contributed to next steps and new directions.  These outcomes can’t be achieved with an agenda of sequenced reporting to passive people.   The congregational leadership teams we formed when I pastored a local congregation followed a similar model—less reporting, more learning, greater problem-solving, more mutual support.
            You asked how church leaders can know enough about all the various ministries to keep them accountable to the vision, values, and practices of the congregation.   Some congregations hold semi-annual gatherings with the leaders of all their ministries—the chairpersons of committees, the leaders of mission teams, the teachers of bible classes, the sponsors of children’s ministries, etc.  They fill the fellowship hall on a Saturday with all the leaders and leaders-to-be to worship together and to express appreciation for the effort leaders pour into ministry. Then they repeat the vision of the congregation and rehearse the values that every leader and teacher exhibits.  They teach leadership and answer questions and offer suggestions to help team leaders with common small group issues.  By re-enforcing a common vision and common language (excellence, fruitfulness, radical hospitality, etc), accountability is pushed deeper into the consciousness and practice of the whole organization.    One person, operating from a vertical top down manner, doesn’t have to know everything that is going on to hold the system accountable.  Rather, accountability is maintained by dozens of people, horizontally, who hold one another accountable.          
            Just Say Yes!  Unleashing People from Ministry reminds us how churches say No in thousand ways to new ideas, ministry initiatives, and creative people.  Creative ideas face systemic resistance because of the labyrinth of committees, steps, and policies.  Congregations don’t realize that they have created a default of No, which leaves them simply repeating ministries the way they’ve always been done before.   Our countless meetings to report and review and rehash has a dampening effect on creativity and causes us to avoid the generative and missional conversations that leadership requires.   We can do better.
            Thank you, Andy, for the conversation.  And thank you for your support of Just Say Yes!  Unleashing People for Ministry.   Later this month, additional downloadable resources will be available to help local congregations unleash people for ministry, including supplemental videos, invitational postcards, a leader retreat guide and a 7-session devotional guide.
Thanks for your good work, and for your thoughtful questions.
            Yours in Christ,

            Robert Schnase