Resources from South Central Jurisdictional Clergywomen’s Workshop

Shout out to the wonderful clergywomen who participated in my Discerning and Leading from Congregational Values workshop at SCJ Clergywomen’s conference.

Below are some of the resources we talked about. These will be available until February 1, 2020. Blessings on your discernment.

Praying for Our Church

Friends,

I ask you to be earnestly praying for our church through February; both for our local congregation and the global UMC community.

On February 23 United Methodist delegates from around the world will gather in St. Louis Missouri for a special meeting. The General Conference, our denomination’s top decision-making group, normally meets every four years and the next regular session is scheduled for 2020. This special session has been called solely to discuss the church’s stance and policies related to human sexuality.

Many of you are aware how difficult these conversations can be in a local church where we know and love one another deeply. These delegates are coming together without such bonds of affection. I ask you to pray for each of them that they may have both wisdom for the future and compassion with one another.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about fear in worship. These are fearful and anxious times. Some fear the church they love will change and change always carries risks. Some fear the church they love will reject them and rejection is life-threatening for humans. Many of us fear what the prolonging of this fight will do to our witness and our communities.

In the midst of the uncertainty, these things I know to be true:

  •  The Church is instituted by God. We are meant to live together and support one another; it is an integral part of salvation. The world needs us. The Church has survived many attacks and divisions, and it will endure until Christ returns.
  • The Church is made up of humans. Humans are fallible creatures; we don’t always get things right, and we don’t always agree. Learning to be comfortable with that is hard.
  • We are called to be faithful, not right. If being right all the time was a path to salvation, then the Law would have been sufficient. But none of us is rendered righteous by our deeds or opinions; our salvation lies in Christ. As it was for Abraham—his faith was regarded by God as righteousness—it is for us. We are saved by grace through faith. The moment we focus on proving we’re right, the outcome of an argument no longer matters, because we’ve already lost our souls. In the end, we must each be able to say “I was faithful to the gospel of Christ”.
  • Faith will result in action. Faith is not merely abstract belief. It is the core assumptions that create the way we see the world. What we truly have faith in, will dictate how we respond to one another, to opportunities, and to challenges. Humans are masters of self-deception; if you want to know the shape of someone’s faith, don’t just trust their words, watch how they behave.
  • Faith in Christ cannot contain hate. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. You cannot follow Christ and fail to care for one another.
  • This is not a hypothetical conversation. We need conversations about how we read scripture, who we recognize to lead worship, and what rites can be performed by the church. But if we treat this solely as a conversation about policies and procedures we fall into the trap of the Pharisees. This is a conversation about the souls of real people. For DPUMC it is a conversation about people among us and in our care.

No person knows with absolute certainty what will happen in St. Louis or in the days that follow. Very little is ever gained by focusing on what we cannot know. Instead, I ask you to hold fast to what is sure and as you pray, to ask for wisdom for these questions:

  • Who in Deer Park needs to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and does not have a church right now?
  • Who in our family might experience harm over this season and how can I best care for them?
  • What new hope might God be opening for our work of making disciples for the transformation of the world?

Finally, church, I ask you to engage the coming days as Methodist Christians. We are a people of “Three Simple Rules” (as Rueben Job put it). First, do no harm. Second, do all the good you can. Third, stay in love with God. If you read through the plans proposed, listen to any of the Conference, or have conversations about these issues, do not just ask yourself with who do I agree or who has the most support or who seems most certain. Rather hold these rules firmly in your mind. No path forward that inflicts harm on God’s children can be best. No path that seeks protection at the expense of doing good for our neighbors can be best. No path loves institutions more than God can be best. There may be no perfect options but hold faith that God is capable of guiding us to what is best.

The plans produced by the Commission on the Way Forward are available at umc.org . On February 27, our bishop, Scott Jones, will release a video message responding to the Conference at https://www.txcumc.org/vlog and on March 2 he will have a video Q&A. On March 3 we will have a Q & A in the Sanctuary at the Sunday School hour.

If you have questions, anxieties or would like to discuss the General Conference with me, my door is always open, and I have extra time set aside in the last two weeks of February for these conversations.

A Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

**Update: for ways to assist families affected, see this post.

Dear Mr. Sessions,

You seem to be having a bad press week, sir.  I can imagine that is frustrating.  You are enduring a lot of criticism for what you believe is doing your job.  To make it worse, much of the criticism is coming from the Southern Christians you have counted on as a loyal base for so long.  It has been pointed out, Mr. Sessions, that you are a United Methodist.  I am a United Methodist pastor, so in this time of struggle, I feel it is incumbent on me to offer a couple of pastoral words.

You gave a speech today in Fort Wayne.  The prepared text is posted on the DoJ website. In that speech, you attempt to make a case for recent actions as right enforcement of established law.  I will leave questions about the logic and politics of your argument to those more qualified to assess them.  But, a little more than halfway through, you invoke Romans 13.  To be more specific, you seem to be referencing Romans 13:1-7

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but too bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

I understand the appeal of these verses for your argument, especially when they are taken in isolation.  However, I fear, Mr. Sessions, that you have not done the best exegetical work possible.  Three things are problematic in the way you are using these verses.

Context Matters

First, context matters, and you have not acknowledged the context of Paul’s letter.   You are attempting to justify the policies of one of the largest and arguably most powerful nations the world has ever known.  Paul is writing Romans to a marginalized, sometimes persecuted, minority trying to survive in the very capital of the largest most powerful empire the world had known to that point.  It is important to remember that is the same empire that would eventually behead Paul himself for his faith.

Paul’s comments here stand in line with the prophet Jeremiah’s call to seek the welfare of the city (even if you are an alien) and the words of Jesus.   When those in power are hostile to the people of God, we have to pick our battles.  However you, sir, are speaking for those in power about those who are the definition of powerless.  These might not be your words to borrow.

Romans 12 & 13

Secondly, if you are going to borrow Romans 13:1-7, you need to be reading it as part of the whole letter.  Stepping back just 11 verses or adding the next 3 verses into the conversation colors the meaning of your passage. For the whole of the letter, Paul has been building an argument about the character of a disciple of Christ.  In Romans 12:9-21, we get a climactic list of marks.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Disciples are marked by love.  Love shows itself in affection, zeal, patience, and hospitality.  Love approaches relationships from a stance of humility and peace, and above all, it holds to good and trusts God to overcome evil rather than taking matters into its own hands.  This emphasis on love is echoed in Romans 13: 8-10.

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Taken between these two bookends, I think it is clear that Paul does not intend respect for political authority to overrule love of neighbor.  You do Romans 13:1-7 a disservice if you read it as a justification for rule of law devoid of compassion.  Part of the reason so many Christians are reacting to the treatment of migrant people on our borders is that it feels utterly devoid of compassion.  It is also worth noting that the reason many Christian leaders are reacting badly to your speech is we’ve read  Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The German government of his day used this exact passage to rationalize many of their most heinous policies to the church.  Now, I am not calling you a Nazi, sir; there is far too much of that nowadays.  But you should be aware you are walking a thin thin line.  I would recommend Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as well as Hannah Arendt’s On Totalitarianism.  They both have excellent reflections on the risks of co-opting the church into the work of the State.

The Role of the Church

Which brings me to the last point.  In your speech, it felt like you wanted the Church’s support. I know its hard to be out on a limb alone and harder still to field attacks from a quarter you did not expect.  But here’s the thing: it is not the job of the Church to sanction the policies of rulers. It is our job to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  At times we will do this by supporting legislation or advocating for marginalized people.  We will also do it by criticizing laws and policies that violate our principles.  The Church does not solely align with any political party because our first allegiance is to God; our work and our witness are devoted to God.  If you ask us to twist the words of the Jesus to suit the policies of any administration we are going to balk.  The God we serve ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He welcomed gentiles, and the unclean, and children. He told us we would be judged, not by the prestige of our nation or the security of our borders, but by the way we treated the orphan, the widow, the poor, the alien, and the imprisoned.  It is not our job to concoct justifications for your actions, even if they are lawful.  Law and order, peace and security, those are your job.   It is the Church’s job to proclaim the kingdom of God.  I’m sorry that very little of what you have done lately lines up with that kingdom.

As a fellow United Methodist, I respect that you are trying to ground your moral decisions in Scripture.  I’m told you are a Sunday School teacher, so I suspect at some point you’ve walked through the Wesleyan Quadrilateral with folks.   I see what you’re trying to do here.  Taking a text and reading it with Reason.  But Tradition and Experience are also crucial parts of the process.  I think the pressure you are feeling, is the weight of the Christian traditions of hospitality and grace and brotherhood/sisterhood.  I think the outcry you hear is an echo of the Church’s experience with German concentration camps and Amercian internment camps.  The bishops of our denomination along with other faith leaders are calling to you and our Methodist understanding of community and moral reasoning ought to compel you to listen.

I understand that the policies you are implementing are lawful. (Though that does not make them good)  I understand they are a campaign promise fulfilled.  I understand that you may be acting out of the best of intentions for what you think is right for the country.  So plead your case on law, and politics, and intentions, but I would suggest leaving faith out of it.  Scripture will not support you, sir.  And if you are troubled by the outcry from the Church, then listen, heed our wisdom and relent.

You are in my prayers, Mr. Sessions, along with every family detained and separated at the border and every officer asked to enforce these policies.  I hope that you find both peace and wisdom.

In Christ,

Rev. Walker

 

PS:  Mr. Sessions, you and I both grew up in southern Methodist churches.  So I suspect that you know this truth: you do not cross the UMW.  Even today as a grown pastor I know when the UMW shows up in my office, they will walk away with what they want.  Partly because they are a powerful lobby, but mostly because for generations they have represented our tradition at its best.  They are the beating heart of our mission in the world and have often been the UMC’s voice of conscience.  There are excellent reasons you do not cross the UMW.  So I point you to their words:

We know the harm we are doing to children with this policy, which makes this deliberate separating of children from their parents for the intent of punishing the family particularly vile. This must stop now.

MTD: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (part 1)

I am a youth worker and I have aided the spread of MTD. I have accepted poor excuses absences. I have been complacent about uninvolved parents. I have even settled for activities that were more fun than formation. Sadly, almost no one in my congregation would be shocked.

MTD not the telethon disease du jour, but it can be just as deadly. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a term coined out of the National Study on Youth and Religion(NSYR) to describe the pale imitation of faith prevalent among teens and young adults. This week Kenda Creasy Dean is raising awareness and calling for action at the 2013 Texas Annual Conference.

According to Almost Christian–Dean’s book based on the NYSR– 3 out of 4 teens claim to be Christian. Yet only half of those say that faith is important to how they live their life and even those are “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith. What they profess instead is a feel good/do good malaise neither challenges nor supports them. For example, when asked about the goal of religion 330 young people used language about feeling good or being happy, while only 125 reached for traditional theological categories such as sin, redemption, or discipleship.

At the core of MTD are four assumptions:

  • God exists and created the universe
  • God wants people to be nice
  • The goal of life is to be happy
  • God is necessary only when I need assistance (and isn’t great at that)

Or put another way, it looks like this:

Baptism used to be about dying to self so as to commit to God and a faith community. Now it is about me; a public celebration of me as an individual (complete with gifts and a new wardrobe) that should reflect my personal style. And of course the cake is the center piece.

This may seem an extreme example, I’ve sat through enough painful graduation Sunday sermons and confirmation parties to appreciate how uncomfortably close to normal a “classy baptism” is.

Where did this come from? How did our young people end up this way? It’s easy to say this is just a phase. Perhaps it’s a symptom of adolescent narcissism or part of growing up with access to terabytes of data, but little access to wisdom. However the sad truth is, they learned it from us, from their parents and mentors, from the church.

Dean pointed out “Young people do not practice MTD because they misunderstood, but because we taught it to them. How we taught it to them is worth exploring (see next post) but the more pressing question is, what a we going to do about it now?

In recent years I’ve heard a lot of talk about the gap years. We now think its normal for young people to leave the church and that when they have kids if their own, they’ll float back. That held some truth for baby boomers, but ever indicator says that era is over. Most of the kids who leave the church today, aren’t coming back. Not unless we start offering them something more than MTD, something they can’t find anywhere else. Not unless we start offering Jesus unadulterated.

RE: Over Age 45? Texas UMC doesn’t want you in ordained ministry

An interesting blog post is making the Facebook rounds today.  Rev. Jeremy Smith cites a proposal coming before the Texas Annual Conference (pdf  here).  As a current candidate in the Texas conference, I recognize it is a risk to share it, but it speaks to some questions I’ve wrestled with this since I got my Annual Conference journal.  I think Rev. Smith’s tone is too reactionary, but the charge is worth consideration. Such a clear delineation is a slap to those who’ve spent decades wrestling with a call. Yet we live within the reality declining  UMC numbers nationwide.  In addition, it is my personal observation that, increasingly good and effective ministries is not happening in the middle (250-500 avg worship) of the spectrum, but at its edges–in small and large churches.*

Certainly a flat age line might not be the best statement, but perhaps the bigger problem is that we as a church assume that ministry=ordained leadership.  As Christians, our first calling is that of baptism.  After that callings to leadership are for the benefit of the body and the spread of the Kingdom of God.  Maybe that should come with a salary and a pension, but should it also come with embarrassing levels of debt for both our pastors and our congregations?   There are great benefits to professionalizing ministry, but it is expensive for both the Church and its ministers.

A great part of that expense is financial, but there is also a cost in perceived value.  As the emphasis on clergy (second career or otherwise) has grown, I fear we have elevated their calling over that of lay leaders or more specialized ministers.  By market standards an ordained elder is worth more than a local pastor or a lay minister.  We know this because they get paid more.  But in the hospital room, or the prison, at the baptismal font, or the communion table is the same true?  If a 46 year old candidate is asked to consider licensing; to go to East-Texas-UMC and care for their 30 members, to counsel them, teach them, lead them and deliver them the sacraments is that a lesser calling?  If a 75 year old is asked to spend hours by the beds of the sick and dying is that a smaller work of God?

It is easy to read a pdf and assume the worst intent. And I won’t pretend that no ageism exists anywhere in either the conference or the drafting of this proposal.  But I think the situation is more complicated than malicious.   If we assume that Deacons and Elders hold an prized status, then yes, this is a travesty for a large and valuable group of candidates.  However, if the Church should indeed be  one body; one body of many members and many gifts set aside in different ways,  then perhaps it is an effort to embrace more flexible means of ministry.  The UMC in America needs to be more flexible, it needs to be more adaptive, and it needs to incorporate a wide breath of gifts if it is to continue as a meaningful witness for Christ.

Even setting aside that half of delegates and those serving on boards are laity (or should be), the proposal does not suddenly eliminate the voice of age and experience.     It does possibly shrink the size of the clergy over time,  it does slowly re balance and streamline a teetering system and it increases the pool of licensed pastors and lay ministers.  This may be a challenge to traditional lines of thought, but that doesn’t make it bad.  I have been in ministry as a lay person for 10 years and there have been many places I could speak where clergy could not and things I could say with authority that clergy could not.  Callings to those places, the places clergy have no trust or power, those callings are not only equal, but valuable.

Clergy, licensed and lay, we need trust one another and be one community living, working, aging and growing together.  Church should be a place where a variety of ideas can be proposed, talked about, and considered in grace.  That’s what is happening here, or should be happening.  When assume insult and injustice to quickly, we lose the opportunity to model a better way of life together.   These are initial thoughts, and I may be proven wrong.  What do you think?

*This does not mean good ministry is not happening in mid-sized churches, it is.  But if we continue as we have, mid-sized churches will not be the norm and good things can indeed happen in small churches as well as very large ones.

For my less nerdy (but no less Methodist friends): HEY THIS IS IMPORTANT

Below is the text of an ammendment that passed by consent (wasn’t debated) at General Conference this morning.  Effectively it deeply changes how we treat our ordained clergy (elders).  The argument was, while they had a process for removing ineffective pastors, most conferences were loath to use it or could not use it well.  This (techenically these) ammendments take that process from being a punative, to being standard.

Great efforts have been made across studies, sub-committees, and legislative committees to ensure that removal cannot be arbitrary, that effectiveness is a clearly defined measure, and that clergy who are not appointed have recourse.  There are still many concerns about the impact this will have on women and minorities, as well as on clergy’s ability to speak profetically.  Whether the church will be better or worse for this we may not know for some time, but it will be different.

It will require us to practice the belief we profess, to really and truely hold one another in care, to constantly check that our measures are God’s measures (rather than capitolisms) and to actively and continually discern beyond what we want to where God is leading us and our leaders.  It will mean we as lay people MUST embrace that we are all in ministry, not just our church staff’s.  We can no longer afford to be bystanders in our polity, or to place our own whims above what is best for the church.  We may even be called to defend our clergy brothers and sisters when their righteous callings interfer with someone else’s agenda.

We, along with the bishops, have been given an enormous trust today.  As people of God, we must rise to fulfill it. We must also hold our clergy in care these next few days.  Some of them will celebrate, but some will also grieve this change.  Their world was dramatically altered with little more than a whisper from the General Conference.  Please pray for them.  Please encourage them.  And always remind them of the gifts and graces you see in them.

Our covenant is fundementally differant now. It will require more love, more trust, and more understanding.  But things things have always been required of us.  May this, and everything else General Conference discerns, be to God’s glory.

Addistions to Book of Discipline paragraph 337

337.4a: “Each annual conference shall quadrennially name a task force consisting of: four members named by the Conference Lay Leader; at least two clergy members from the Board of Ordained Ministry nominated by the Chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry and elected by the clergy session; a superintendent named by the Bishop; and the Bishop.  The task force shall meet annually to develop a list of criteria to guide the Cabinet and Bishop as they make missional appointments.

337.4b: “The Cabinet shall report the following information annually to the Board of Ordained Ministry Executive Committee: 1) those elders, provisional elders and associate members who have not received a full-time missional appointment and the rationale; 2) those elders, provisional elders and associate members who have not received an appointment for reasons of ineffectiveness and the steps which have been taken in the complaint process; 3) statistics by age, ethnicity and gender of elders who have not received a full-time missional appointment; and 4) learnings that have been gleaned as appointment-making is carried out in a new way.  This data will also become a part of the agenda of the Committee on the Episcopacy at the conference and jurisdictional levels. This data will also become part of the evaluation of bishops by the Committee on the Episcopacy at the conference and jurisdictional levels.”

Church in the age of facebook (a what do you think)

Facebook recently filed paper work for an IPO and Slate writer Josh Levin found some interesting “Facebookisms” within the forms.  (The five he pulled out are listed below).  Reading over them it occured to me (via Amanda Baker) that we used to say/act like in similar ways in seminary.  However my local congregation (and i would venture many others) operate out of an entirely different mindset.  Is that harming us?

What do you think?  Would it behove the local church to move faster and take more risks with new ideas and ministries?  Or is the culture of Facebook something to be more opposed than embraced? (or is there something inbetween).

Facebookism No. 1: “Done is better than perfect”

Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once. To support this, we have built a testing framework that at any given time can try out thousands of versions of Facebook. We have the words “Done is better than perfect” painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping.

Facebookism No. 2: “Code wins arguments”

Hacking is also an inherently hands-on and active discipline. Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works. There’s a hacker mantra that you’ll hear a lot around Facebook offices: “Code wins arguments.”

Facebookism No. 3: “Move fast and break things”

Moving fast enables us to build more things and learn faster. However, as most companies grow, they slow down too much because they’re more afraid of making mistakes than they are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly. We have a saying: “Move fast and break things.” The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.

Facebookism No. 4: “The riskiest thing is to take no risks.”

Building great things means taking risks. This can be scary and prevents most companies from doing the bold things they should. However, in a world that’s changing so quickly, you’re guaranteed to fail if you don’t take any risks. We have another saying: “The riskiest thing is to take no risks.”

Facebookism No. 5: “This journey is 1 percent finished.”

We encourage our employees to think boldly. We also have posted the phrase “this journey is 1% finished” across many of our office walls, to remind employees that we believe that we have only begun fulfilling our mission to make the world more open and connected.

 

from http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/02/01/facebook_s_ipo_filing_reveals_how_zuckerberg_and_his_employees_talk.html