Archives For Mainline Decline

10152516_10203475660394402_4518280596461113629_nThis is from my friend Teer Hardy. You’d be a fool not to check out his blog here

May 6, 2014

To Whom it May Concern:

 

I am formally withdrawing from the ordination candidacy process of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Although I feel called to ordained ministry, at this point in my life I am unable to enter into an itinerant system.  My wife is a college professor and her work requires her to be in a specific geographical area.  In addition, with the addition of a child to our family and the desire to adopt a child, the reduction in salary would place additional financial hardships on my family.

 

I do not take my call to ministry lightly, nor was this decision made overnight.  This is something that I have been discerning over the past nine months, and I pray that God will honor this decision.

 

I want to thank the committee, district, and conference for the support given to me over the past three years.  I will continue my studies at Wesley Theological Seminary and eagerly await the next opportunity for ministry.

 

Peace and Blessings,

 

Teer Hardy

 

From high school through today I have felt a call to ministry.  Although I ignored the call for quite some time, it is a call that I take seriously.  When I finally acknowledged and responded to my calling I enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary and eventually began working fulltime in a local church.  This all began three years ago as I sat at my pastor’s kitchen table and talked about callings and ministry over longneck PBR’s.

 

Three years ago I entered into the United Methodist ordination process and three months ago I withdrew myself from the process.   Three years ago I had ambitions to become an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, and while I still want to be ordained, it will not happen within the UMC.  I had serious questions about whether or not I wanted to jump on this crazy train after General Conference 2012, and those questions began to grow into larger more complex questions as I learned more about the Christian experience within my own denomination as well as learned what was outside the friendly confines of the UMC.  But I still continued onward, thinking that I could change the system from within and be the change I wanted to see in the world.

 

My time at seminary showed me that the system I was pledging being vetted to join was larger than any government bureaucracy I had experienced.   From a governing body that only meets every four years to an ordination process that would possibly have me ordained after the next presidential administration, I began to realize that this was a far cry from the ministry I wanted to be engaged in.  When I am meeting with someone over coffee or on a bike ride they don’t care that I have a piece of paper saying that I am certified by the UMC to be a pastor. When I am serving the poor in DC or leading a youth retreat they do not care that I took exactly 9 hours of UMC history, polity, and doctrine in seminary.  What they do care about is that I love them just and Christ loves me.  What they do care about is that I listen to them, and help them come to know the God who has loved me and continues to be a source of strength for me.  What the do care about is that I all of this authentically because I love them and not because it’s my “job”.

 

The letter above is what I sent to the local committee on ordination.  I am not happy with with what I sent them because it wasn’t the whole truth.  Yes, at this time my family is not in a position for me to take another pay cut while paying back loans for a Masters Degree required for ordination.  But even if that were not the case, I don’t think I would have continued with the process because of the fact that I had to write that letter.  At no point throughout this process did anyone take the time or give a damn about really wanting to know how I was equipped for ministry.  My appointed clergy mentor taught me that once you’re in the system you’re in, and the most important thing once you are in is to not be late for meetings.  WOW, I thought ministry was suppose to be sharing in the work of Christ, boy was I wrong!

 

Instead of wanting to talk about my concerns or connecting me with a clergy member who might have had the same concerns the response I received from the committee was a request for a letter.  A letter that “would go into my file”.  The letter that was requested of me is ultimately the reason I decided to leave the ordination process.

 

Ordination and our Christian vocation is not something that can be boiled down to a checklist, 4 hour psychological exam, or open-ended questions with only 1 acceptable response. Our Christian vocation is one that enables us to serve others in the name of Christ regardless of titles we give ourselves or the office in which we hold.  It took me 3 years to figure this out.

rainbow-cross_aprilMy modest cranny of Methodism recently tabled a motion to ameliorate the denomination’s official language on homosexuality.

Rather than call what surely would have been a divisive and possibly rancorous vote, a counter-motion proposed that Methodist churches in Virginia instead spend the next year engaged in ‘conversation’ over the issue.

I’ve taken initial stabs at the conversation here and here in case you’re late to the party.

Probably not unlike working at Pontiac or Radio Shack, it’s discomfiting to be part of an organization where a bleak and battered future is both a live possibility and largely out of your hands.

A discombobulating experience, yes.

But an unbiblical experience? No.

Those who wring their hands with fright that the Church must face thorny, divisive questions of faith and experience forget that the New Testament itself was written in such a climate.

What we unthinkingly call ‘scripture’ was formed-largely- in the midst of churches arguing over how to read their scriptures (Old Testament) in the presence of the Spirit (potentially doing a new thing in the inclusion of Gentiles in to the People of God).

In arguing over how we should read our scriptures, Old and New, in the presence of the Spirit possibly doing an extraordinary thing in the inclusion of gay Christians, the Church merely mimics an ancient acesis.

So we shouldn’t shy away from the conversation debate.

One of the most prominent parts of this debate has nothing to do with those icky stone folks for who-lies-with-who passages in Leviticus.

No, the grown-up part of this debate has to do with scripture’s positing the male-female complement as the created norm.

What do gay Christians do with that?

The creation story wherein Adam and Eve are made for each other has been understood in the Christian tradition as the foundational text for the normativity of the male-female union.

RogersDr. Eugene Rogers, the teacher with whom I cut my theological teeth, observes how neither Jesus nor Paul ever quote the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ of the creation story when they quote Genesis. Children, then, are not requisite or constitutive of any understanding of marriage for Paul or Jesus.

Not only is a ‘natural’ law understanding of marriage not primary for Jesus or Paul, Rogers notes, how when Paul does quote the creation story (in Galatians 3) he maintains its precise wording in telling fashion:

“…Paul preserves it just when parallelism might prompt him to change Genesis’ wording. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no ‘male and female:’ for you are all one in Christ Jesus (v. 28).’ 

The first two pairs have ‘neither…nor’ (ouk…oude); the last pair correctly quotes the Septuagint to read ‘no male and female’ (ouk…kai).

Paul denies that the gender of the believer can hinder Christ. Male and female, Christ can draw them: Christ can be all to all.

Christ is bridegroom for women and men; the Church is Christ’s bride regardless of gender. Precisely because Christ is all -the omega- there can also be ‘no male and female.’ 

Christ attracts or orients all desire to God.

‘No male and female’ denies, therefore, strong forms of the complementarity theory (where the male-female relationship is inherent to God’s creative design).

Such a theory of complementarity effectively denies the Christ in whom all things are summed up. 

Thus Paul, when he does quote Genesis 1 at Galatians 3.28 subordinates it to Christ and blocks the implication that complementarity of ‘male and female’ is exclusive.”

Those who oppose the inclusion of gays into the Church and into the covenant of marriage are quick to cite St. Paul and Genesis 1 respectively. Not only does Paul list homosexuality as a vice worthy of God’s wrath (it’s supposed), same-sex unions violate the clear (it’s supposed) creative intent of God (it’s supposed).

As much as Paul becomes the rallying point for the traditionalist perspective, it’s odd- or revealing- that it’s seldom pointed out how Paul minimizes the very categories so crucial to the conservative argument.

If the Jew-Gentile distinction has been obliterated by Christ much more surely has a lesser distinction like gender or sexuality been  transcended.

The normatively of the male-female union may have been biblical in Genesis 1 and onward, but because of Christ it is no longer.

So to speak.

Of course, that Paul makes such a rhetorical move shouldn’t surprise us.

If the male-female union, if being fruitful and multiplying is God’s ironclad intent for human creatures both he and Jesus were in clear violation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

rp_rainbow-cross_april2.jpgEarlier this week I posted a reflection regarding my frustration that my denomination, the United Methodist Church, is so reticent to ameliorate its stated position on homosexuality.

Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.

Namely, ordination.

Ministry.

Our baptismal summons.

Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.

rp_images1.jpegIn the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

rp_barth-224x300.jpgAs my sympathies with Barth’s criticisms suggest, I would caution that too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build a new polis, a new society in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.

I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.

Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.

rp_barth_1_3-300x250.jpegOnce we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’

For, as James KA Smith says,

‘baptism smashes open our families of birth and ‘opens us up to the disruptive friendships that are the mark of the Kingdom of God.’

Perhaps this sounds sweet to you, but the early Church took it quite literally, raising children in their parents’ stead if those birth parents failed to live a faithful Christian life. Even today, if taken seriously by Christians it would bear difficult ethical implications. I’ve written elsewhere how baptism, not questions of individual rights and choices, is the proper lens through which Christians should confront an issue like abortion as Christians. If more Christians took seriously the baptismal stipulation that we are now members of one another, then there might be fewer women left vulnerable and alone in a situation where abortion seemed a necessary choice.

I remember when Ali, my wife, and I began the adoption process for the first time. In an initial interview, the social worker asked us why, when we had no known biological need to do so, we were choosing to adopt.

Our answer was quite sincere and it’s one I recall every time I preside at the font: that, as Christians, we believe in baptism and baptism suggests that adoption is just as ‘normal’ a way as biology to constitute a family.

Because of baptism, so to speak, water is thicker than blood.

Church-RainbowA few days ago a friend in my congregation emailed me, responding to a series of posts I’d written about the ‘Way Forward’ proposal in the United Methodist Church. The Way Forward is an attempt for a third way through the impasse over homosexuality which presently besets the church.

He writes- and, trust me, he’s not whatever comes to your mind when you think ‘liberal:’

In 1990 golfer Tom Watson, one of the best players on the PGA Tour and winner of 8 majors, abruptly resigned from the exclusive Kansas City country club where he had grown up and learned to play golf. He said that as a matter of personal integrity, despite great memories and a long association, he could no longer belong to an institution that discriminated aganst and blackballed Jewish, black, Hispanic and Asian prospective members.
I can belong to a church where members disagree about whether the Primeval History in Genesis is literally word-for-word true. That difference does not affect our ability to live, love and serve together in Christian community.
The homosexuality issue is different.
As part of a Christian community, we are charged to make disciples; to invite friends and acquaintances to join us in that community. How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil, cannot hold positions of leadership and may not enjoy the blessing of holy matrimony?
I question more and more whether as a matter of personal integrity I can continue to be a member of such a group. How can I acknowledge (witness) on a Facebook post that I am a member of a Methodist church and then look my gay and lesbian friends in the face the next day? Make no mistake, about 50 of my Facebook friends are gay or lesbian.
“A Way Forward” is something I can live with. I’m not sure that the status quo is. If I were not positive that you do not hold the hard-line position on his issue I would already be gone.
In case you skipped ahead, my friend’s point boils down to this:

Methodism’s posture towards gays makes for increasingly bad advertising.

Or as we like to call it in the Church: evangelism.

My own cul de sac of the United Methodist Church begins its annual 3 day conference today, and the first resolution on the docket is a motion to amend our denomination’s official language that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching*.’

If the resolution passes, not at all a certainty, the motion simply moves on to (possibly, maybe) be debated at the global meeting of the United Methodist Church in 2016.

 

Two full years from now.

 

Where most of the delegates will be from the most conservative parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination which educated me, just this week voted to allow gay marriages.
By the healthy margin of 429 to 175. You can read about it here.
Where Methodists are still stuck in the love the sinner/hate the sin time warp, debating whether we can officially regard homosexuals as fully human or not, Presbyterians have moved ahead to grant homosexuals access to the sanctifying grace Christians call ‘marriage.’
The Presbyterians, as this article rattles off, join the ranks of other mainline denominations which have ameliorated their previous positions on sexuality, such as the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Church of Christ. Not to mention 2 out of 3 of America’s Jewish denominations.
Which leaves who exactly other than the United Methodist Church as the remaining ‘mainline’ Protestant traditions that still take a hard line against gay Christians?
Can Methodists really consider ourselves mainline anymore when we now have more in common with Southern Baptists than we do Presbyterians or the Episcopal tradition whence we came?
Do we really want to be the last ones to this party?
What will be the demographic cost of lingering prejudice associated with our particular brand of Christianity?
And I know this is the place where some will want to interject and point out how the above mentioned denominations are all smaller than they were mid-century before they purportedly went liberal. Therefore, the argument always goes, United Methodists cannot change their position without losing members and their money.
Two quick responses:
If people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should change its stance towards homosexuality then the moral imperative of that belief- our compassion for people- should outweigh our ‘compassion’ for an institution.
Likewise, if people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should keep its stance towards homosexuality then that’s fine too so long as institutional maintenance is not the mission.
Two:

There’s a pernicious fallacy in linking the gradual decline of mainline Protestantism with its supposedly liberal policy positions.

We’re not the only ones in the decline as the Pew Survey on Religion has helpfully revealed. Southern Baptists and Evangelical Churches, no liberals and no friends of gay Christians, are in their own moment of decline and, were it not for immigration, ditto the Catholic Church in America.
The ecclesial decline to which we so often turn to homosexual-support for a scapegoat actually suggests a more general cultural shift towards secularism, a shift that shows no partiality to liberal and conservative alike.
And if what churches are really experiencing is a seismic shift away from religion in general, then the stakes of the current debate over homosexuality suddenly seem a lot smaller and more urgent.

How we vote on sexuality will not determine the demise or the future of the Church; how we tackle secularism will.

 

And if secularism is the true threat to the institutional faith then, to my mind, it’s all the more imperative that we do right by what the Spirit is showing us about gay Christians.
*Of course, our denomination’s official language also marks out war, unfettered capitalism, alcohol and tobacco, and disregard for the creation as contradictory with our Christian faith so let’s keep things in perspective and not suppose sexuality is the lynchpin of the moral universe.

Church-RainbowAs I mentioned in previous posts, Last week I received a book in the mail, gratis: Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray. In both its title and cover design, it’s meant to be the rejoinder to Adam Hamilton’s ‘Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.’

arnoldbook‘Seeing Black and White’ purports to be the orthodox correction to Hamilton’s insufficiently biblical, conservative, traditional, historic, theological, _____________ book; that is, Hamilton’s book doesn’t take a sufficiently strong stand ‘for the bible’ and against ‘the gay agenda.’

The freebie book arrived at a time when some, like Adam Hamilton, in my United Methodist tradition are proposing a third ‘way forward’ through the stalemate over homosexuality and others are openly advocating for a conservative schism from the United Methodist 843504001902Church.

‘Strategic disunity’ is the euphemism I’ve seen used by those who don’t want to see the Church’s strength frittered away in lawsuits.

I suspect those advocating for an amicable schism now have read the tea leaves and realize that, demographically speaking, they’ve already lost the debate on homosexuality. For people my age and younger, even amongst the most conservative evangelical tribes, homosexuality is a non-issue.

Conservatives will never be stronger on this issue than they are at the present, or perhaps better put, the conservative argument is only going to find a rapidly shrinking audience on this issue as public opinion continues to shift.

So better now than later for conservatives to take their assets and run.

The issue of sexuality aside, I find it ironic- and indicative of a deeper problem- that conservatives, those who by definition seek to ‘conserve’ historic institutions and whose frank assessment of human sinfulness leads them to take a dim view towards utopian-minded movements (like creating a ‘purer’ church), are the ones agitating for a schism from the larger UMC.

No matter how we might disagree over sexuality, conservatives should at least agree that an even graver sin we Protestant Christians continue to commit is Protestantism itself, our continued, unreflective disunity from the Church Catholic.

Conservatives routinely pray for revival in the Church but seldom, if ever, do they pray that the Spirit will so manifest itself by repairing what was torn asunder in the Reformation.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

The very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully worship.

Unfortunately, the Catholics are right. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of — or perhaps better, because of — the world’s fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection. Catholics can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

The Church’s unity is a present reality won by Christ on the Cross; it is not a goal we can attempt to achieve through politicking or persuasion.

All we can ‘achieve’ is harm to the unity already established through Cross and Resurrection.

There are myriad groups in the United Methodist Church advocating various causes in and around sexuality. There are those who want strategic disunity, those who want to maintain the status quo by asserting their demographic strength, those who want to find a third way and those who want to make the denomination more welcoming and inclusive.

Thus far, I’ve not seen any groups on Facebook or Twitter advocating for the reunification of Methodists with the Church Catholic even though the reason for the original ‘protest,’ justification by grace through faith, has been settled since the 16th century.

So rather than advocating for ‘strategic disunity’ through yet another schism in the One Body of Christ, rather than making another ‘protest’ an end in itself in the face of the unity won by Christ, I think conservatives should instead begin advocating for a Methodist reunification with the Catholic Church.

After all, at least there they’ll find brothers and sisters who already share their views on sexuality. Why wound Christ with another division to his Body when what conservative Methodists seek is already found?

Rather than spend their time and energy bringing yet another wound to Christ’s divided body, conservatives could expend those same resources attempting to persuade our Catholic friends to ameliorate their positions on celibacy, female ordination and the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

Moves that would give the rest of us fewer and fewer reasons, save our outright nationalism or prejudice, not to (re)become Catholic.

Not to mention, there’s the whole question of whether in a post-Christian culture the religious marketplace can afford to have so many competing, niche products.

Already ours is a culture that asks ‘What’s a Methodist? Presbyterian?’

The first resolution proposed for next week’s annual conference in my corner of United Methodism proposes that we make our official language more progressive towards homosexuality.

I expect that resolution will meet with its predictable counter argument.

Perhaps as the denominations that once fractured the Church Catholic 4 centuries ago fracture themselves it’s time for a different sort of resolution altogether.

I doubt the schismatic conservatives would claim me, but on their behalf: I move that we United Methodists seeking to heal the wounds long ago done to Christ’s Body take measures to reunify with the Catholic Church whence we came.

Only such a motion, I think, is true re-form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church-RainbowLast week I received a book in the mail, gratis: Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray. In both its title and cover design, the book presents itself as the doppleganger to Adam Hamilton’s ‘Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.’

843504001902‘Seeing Black and White’ purports to be the orthodox correction to Hamilton’s insufficiently biblical, conservative, traditional, historic, theological, _____________ book.

My church folks will be the first to tell you that I’m neither a Hamilton aficionado nor apologist. His books and sermons have always struck me as so intentionally unoffensive as to be uninteresting. I’ve always thought him too vanilla, serving up barely spoonful of medicine with all the helpings of safe, saccharine piety.

This is a confession that will probably prevent my ascension to bishop but I’ve even (and often) joked that Adam Hamilton would be the perfect pastor for the First Church of Pleasantville- before the residents of the cinematic town discovered color.

But apparently my estimations of Hamilton as milk-toast, whitebread, and benign to the point of narcolepsy were wrong because somehow he’s managed to offend the black-and-white residents of the United Methodist Church.

Let me pause there and just reiterate the point:

The fact Adam Hamilton has managed to offend an entire segment of the UMC- offend to the point of provoking a rival book- says much more about the self-righteous, persecuted self-image of the offended backers of Seeing Black and White than it does Adam Hamilton.

You can judge a lot by a book’s cover. That ‘Seeing Black and White’ mimics (mocks?) Hamilton’s book and is not published by the official publishing house of the United Methodist reveals much about the state of the denomination.

The introduction alone to the book damns Hamilton with faint ‘bless his heart’ praise for his leadership and pastoral wisdom while accusing him of elementary missteps of logic and contradictions against the plain reading of scripture.

The rest of the book goes on to deconstruct Hamilton’s work and to argue the traditional perspective on marriage and sexuality. There’s nothing surprising or new in the book save the posturing of its title, it’s self-professed brave stand against the ‘gray’ of our postmodern, permissive relativistic society.

Indeed the only real surprise in Seeing Black and White is the delusion that what this stymied debate needs is but another impassioned exegesis of the conservative (or the liberal) position.

You’d think if it’s one thing conservatives and liberals could agree upon it’s that both sides are well aware of the other’s facts, texts and arguments.

Seeing Black and White is a clever title given its a rejoinder to Seeing Gray.

Still, while I’m neither liberal nor conservative, I have to admit I’m at a loss how anyone could seriously survey our culture, which is hyper-partisan to the point of dysfunction, and come away with the conclusion that what our world or Church needs MORE of is black-and-white thinking.

Black and white is exactly what ails my (increasingly) little corner of the Christian world.

Case in point, last night I viewed a live chat on Twitter hosted by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, two of the primary sponsors of A Way Forward, a proposed third way through the Church’s impasse on sexuality.

In a nutshell the third way boils down to this statement:

We propose that the United Methodist Church entrust to each local church the authority to determine how they will be in ministry with gay and lesbian people   including whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.

The live chat I viewed involved Methodists, mostly pastors, from all over the country discussing the (de)merits of A Way Forward.

I sat transfixed the way one is when there’s pileup of cars and limbs strewn across the highway.

Karl Barth once quipped derisively that it’s a miracle any one comes to Church expecting to hear a word from the Lord. Watching the ticker-tape of mean-spirited condescension and self-righteous finger-wagging from my duly ordained colleagues, Barth’s words hit home last night, revealing the true sinfulness of this debate.

It’s not simply that one side has equated their view with ‘biblical authority’ and the other with ‘the Gospel of inclusion and love’ such that to compromise isn’t just impossible but immoral, for it would be to compromise either the scriptural word or the Word Made Flesh.

It’s not simply that the heels-dug-in nature of both the liberal and conservative views prevents the Church from addressing more urgent concerns like poverty in the developing world and discipleship in the post-Christian one. arnoldbook

No, the true sin is that the assumed righteousness of the conservatives’ and liberals’ respective causes is so BLACK AND WHITE that it leads to- and even justifies- self-righteousness.

There’s something wrong with a position when pastor upon pastor on Twitter don’t even pretend to be practicing what they preach.

I don’t give a damn about what Romans 1 says or what part of Leviticus Jesus never contradicted or who is the 21st century equivalent of the eunuch Phillip came across in the Book of Acts. None of that matters.

Because  there’s something very wrong about the ‘rightness’ of a cause that permits ministers to be mean and blithely so.

As in most things, I think Barth was right.

It’s a miracle people even go to Church given what I see from her leaders on Facebook and Twitter and Tumbler.

And maybe Adam Hamilton is wrong.

Maybe the best way forward for the UMC is for its members to get rid of its pastors. Maybe then they could find the path to comprise.

UnknownWe’ve come out of the gate with gusto at the Tamed Cynic Podcast, being privileged to have conversations with some of the best voices and minds in the Church.

Will Willimon was our first guest on the Podcast and now he’s here for redux…

There’s a question 2/3 in about #’s that points out the curriculum I developed for 4th and 5th graders, Tribe Time, a virtue-based program that spends 2 years on the Book of Leviticus. You can find out more about it here

For those of you who don’t know Will Willimon, he was recognized by Baylor as one of America’s 12 Best Preachers. The Pew Foundation lists him as the 2nd most read author among Protestant clergy, selling over a million copies. Take that Beth Moore.

The former dean of Duke Chapel and former Bishop of North Alabama he currently teaches at Duke and pastors Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.

The very best of my preaching is just a shallow imitation of this master artist.

As a young seminary student, Willimon’s sarcastic, caustic demeanor freed me to be me in the pulpit.

You can find his blog and links to his books here.

Bishop Willimon was our guest preacher this past weekend and afterwards agreed to do a Q/A forum on Church Leadership.

0To listen to my previous interview with Bishop Willimon click here.

Be on the lookout for the next installments. We’ve got Brian Blount, Brian Zahnd, and Robert Two Bulls in the queue.

You can listen to this Willimon interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

UnknownIf you’re in the DC area, stop by Aldersgate (Collingwood) this Sunday to hear Bishop Will Willimon preach.

Actually, stop by Aldersgate Kingstowne at 10:00 to hear me preach.

THEN go over to our Collingwood location for a lunchtime forum with Bishop Willimon at 12:30.

You can get more details here.

I will be convening the forum, and I’d love to be able to pose your questions to Bishop Willimon.

 

You can email me at jamicheli@mac.com.

You can leave it in the comment section below.

Or-better yet- click on the ‘Speakpipe’ to the right of the screen and leave me an audio question.

 

Untitled3To prime the question pump, you can listen to the Tamed Cynic Podcast with Bishop Willimon here.

 

I thought I’d give you these gem quotes from Willimon’s book, Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question.

Bishop Willimon gets away with saying things that would get me in trouble with my own bishop:

 “A Living God gives churches two choices: grow (that is, change) or die (dead doesn’t change.’

 

‘Being surrounded by biblical literalists, neo-Calvinist fundamentalists, and Baptist bigots is a golden opportunity to rediscover the vitality and intellectual superiority of Wesleyan Christianity.’

 

“The baptized have been all too willing to transfer their baptismal responsibilities on to the backs of clergy.”

 

‘What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, past-perpetuating institution (the UMC) the ‘Body of Christ.’

All the Gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless, peripatetic.

Never once did Jesus say, ‘Come, settle down with me.’

 

“The test of my ministry is how well God uses me to challenge and to equip every church to make more disciples for Jesus Christ by taking more risks and changing more lives.”

 

“Change, especially when we don’t know where it is headed, opens space for the Holy Spirit to intrude and show us what God can do.”

 

“Whenever Jesus is busy, his work brings enemies out of the woodwork, some of whom are more adept practitioners of the gospel than I.”

 

“Methodism is church in motion. The Body of Christ atrophies when it is preoccupied with self-care…laity are called not to maintain the church, but to be part of the mission of  Jesus Christ in the world. Our great task is not to stabilize or harmonize the People of God but to put the church in motion.”

“Boredom is killing the church.”

 

 

 

chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLT-300x142In case you don’t already know, Chuck Knows Church is a PR campaign produced by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. It’s a series of online, informational videos ‘about stuff in the church.’

The ‘stuff in the church’ is explained to us by ‘Chuck,’ the host with a floppy head of hair and the harmless, vacant expression of Huey Lewis.

Last year I wrote this and more about the video series:

Chuck Knows Church majors in the minors precisely at a time in the life of the Universal Church when millions are choosing other majors.

Chuck Knows Church works to explain why people should be interested in our institution and its habits rather than exhibiting any evidence of having reflected on what we can do (different) to interest people in Jesus.

As scores of business experts have written, once an institution needs to explain and justify its practices (rather than offer the product) to customers, the institution is already in the throes of irreversible decline.

Though I stand by what I said in reference to that particular video (Church Knows Stoles) and have done my best to resist commenting on even more inane, insider topics (Apportionments, District Superintendents…District Superintendents? WTF?), I took a lot of crap for my critique. I don’t like to be a bully but with a target as easy as Chuck it’s difficult not come across as such.

One response, however, made me feel especially douchey (even if my name isn’t Jeremy):

Hello Jeremy,

I am the creator and senior producer of Chuck Knows Church (one of about 20 staff and volunteers). I just wanted to post here to say that there are real people that work hard each week to bring these short messages. I can assure you we are all very devout Christians who love Jesus and certainly have God at the center of every one of our conversations as we produce the series.

The series, like any on 250 cable networks and more than a million YouTube channels, is not for everyone. I get that. We are trying to reach an audience not normally captured with traditional methodologies. In that regard, it’s rather unique I guess.

And I also get that the success of any series or effort often has backlash. It’s to be expected. I’ve produced videos and films for the denomination and secular studios for more than 20 years, and that’s always the case.

As far as “where is Jesus” and “where is God”, I suggest watching this week’s episode on Transfiguration Sunday. You will find God and Jesus at the center.

I’ll stop there, but thanks for letting me post a comment.

I thought your comments were clever! I wish you the very best in your ministry.

Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston

Egg, meet Face.

If I call them like I see them I figure, in a bit irony, I should be gracious enough to throw a bone at the exceptions. So here’s a Chuckie video more along the lines of actual Christianity I said I wanted:

Pastorial_2425_Waselchuk1384735747Since so many of my peers, readers and FB friends occupy that rapidly evaporating niche of American culture that is United Methodism, I’ve got no firm grip on whether the rest of you have heard about the trial of Rev. Frank Shaefer in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Church trial, that is.

Aside: That the United Methodist Church has a judicial system that virtually mirrors, in every jot and tittle, not the Gospel of Matthew but the American system of justice should give you pause and is itself a good indicator of the problems besetting our particular brand of Jesus-following.

Rev Frank’s offense (sedition is a more apt term)?

Officiating the wedding ceremony of two gay men.

Oh- it might seem relevant to the empathetic among you- one of the two grooms is Frank’s son, Tim.

Whereas the Catholic Church makes news when Pope Francis kisses the cheeks of a modern day leper or some other Jesusy act, the UMC makes news when it asserts for the umpteenth time how much we don’t like gay people.

Just last year, for example, at our international gathering called ‘General Conference,’ we made news for being incapable of acknowledging publicly what everyone knows to be true: that Christians of good heart and faith disagree on the issue of homosexuality.

Now, I’m no liberal.

Typically, I have little patience for pastors with an ego-driven need to be ‘prophetic,’ derailing the Great Commission in their local congregation for their own activist mission.

What’s frustrating is that Rev. Frank appears to be an exception.

He didn’t marry his son to make a stand. He married his son because he loves his son.

What instead instigated the ecclesial trial is as depressing as it is cliche:

disputes between older, lifelong members of his church vs newer, younger members

traditional worship devotees vs contemporary worship aficionados

and- to the surprise of 0 pastors out there- the dismissal of a choir director

with more tenure and fans than the pastor

Rev. Frank didn’t make a stand by officiating a gay wedding. Months and months went by without any one in his church knowing he had done so.

Instead church people looking to undermine him, for reasons having more to do with liturgy than lifestyle, went digging for dirt.

The painting-into-a-corner result?

They’ve made Rev. Frank exactly what he was not the day he said ‘dearly beloved’ to his son and his son’s beloved:

an activist.

Issues of theology, biblical interpretation and sexuality aside….this is what I can say without equivocation:

News stories like this one piss me off.

Why?

My usual snark and cynicism aside, I actually believe the United Methodist Church- strike that, the Wesleyan tradition- is uniquely positioned to offer the 21st century a compelling vision of Christianity.

I actually believe we have a fruit-bearing future if only the Pharisees hell bent on safeguarding the UMC would stop and desist.

Unlike many other flavors of Mainline Christianity, Methodists believe in the Bible.

Nay, we believe in God, a living God.

We believe God speaks as much today as God ever did in bearded, bible times. And we believe the Bible is the reliable mode of God’s communication to us. Wherever else God may speak or appear or tease, we believe scripture is as regular and reliable as a bus stop.

But unlike so many brands of Christianity, Methodists don’t believe the Bible has to be interpreted woodenly.

It’s not a dead text; it’s a living text because we believe Holy Spirit is but another name for God. We Methodists, on our best days, are neither literalists nor cretins. We worship Father, Son and Spirit not page 3, 46 or verse 9.

Likewise, Methodists don’t believe God lies to us.

We believe all truth is God’s truth. If our intellect, if science, if reason, if our human experience, if the experience of other believers or non-believers tells us something about God’s world we don’t have to dismiss it as wrong, demonic, false or unbiblical. If it’s true, it’s true.

In a culture that increasingly sees Christianity as anti-intellectual, Methodism is a made to order alternative.

Contrary to many shy, mainline Christian traditions, we Methodists are a repentance-preaching, conversion-measuring sect. We expect that turning towards Jesus means you turn away from other things.

In an American culture captive to greed and individualism, Methodism could be a made to order alternative.

Distinct from our evangelical friends, Methodism is sacramental and liturgical (at least on paper).

We believe the prayers of the saints are probably better than a ‘Fatherweejust..’ prayer. We believe bread and wine are the best conveyors of God’s grace and should be taken as much as freaking possible. We believe in them Jesus makes good on his word and is really present to us in the Eucharist and unlike our Catholic friends we don’t bother trying to figure out how that’s possible. With God, after all, all things are possible and this, as luck would have it, makes Methodism the perfect tradition for a postmodern culture yearning for the mysterious and transcendent.

Like many of other Jesus brands, we believe we’re saved by grace through faith. Unlike many of those brands, we believe the proof is in the pudding. That you very likely do not have faith in God’s grace if you’re not practicing, embodying, doing God’s grace for others. For the poor.

In a culture that hungers to make a difference by serving others, by serving the poor, the followers of John Wesley are obvious candidates to take the Jesus torch into the next century.

The UMC is perfectly positioned for the century unfolding before us.

Except…

A simple Google search of ‘United Methodism’ earlier today resulted in a full 3 pages devoted to how we believe “homosexuals are persons of sacred worth” just as long as they don’t desire to express their humanity in any of the ways normal humans do.

Again, I’m no liberal.

Aside: when the US Military is more liberal than the UMC…

that’s saying something.

I believe in scripture.

I get the need for Church order. I get the need for ecclesial discipline.

But I also believe in a Savior who routinely violated his own church discipline (See: Mark, Gospel of)

And I get that this is a losing demographic issue for the UMC and, however you feel about homosexuality, being ‘right’ on this issue is not worth the cost of whole generations not hearing the Gospel because Google et all only communicate what/who we’re against.

Not what/who we’re for.

Rev Frank is only now being tried for a wedding that took place years ago.

My oldest son is a year or so away from puberty so let the UMC be warned…

Should it happen that he discovers he’s gay in the same unintended way I realized I wasn’t…and should it happen he finds love worth a lifetime…and should he ask me to…

There’s no way I’d say no.

And dammit, I don’t care what (you think) Paul said: I’m betting the house Jesus would understand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLT-300x142Below is what I posted about Church Knows Church earlier this year.

 

Apparently, the powers that be in the UMC don’t read my blog because they’ve struck once again, serving up another quick “teaching” video.

What’s more important for people to hear and learn than the message of sin and grace, atonement, resurrection, hope or new creation?

That’s right, District Superintendents.

That’s like Five Guys doing a promo video that makes no mention of juicy burgers and fries but instead informs you that such-and-such a person works in a regional Five Guys office to make it all happen.

I’m sure such a person exists and is essential to Five Guys success, but my enjoyment of a Five Guys burger in no way depends on my knowledge of such a position.

Why would Chuck bother to teach people about their own particular vocation as given to them in baptism when Chuck could instead tell us about an incredibly specific vocation in the gears of the church?

‘District what?’ you will probably ask.

They’re administrative leaders in my particular denomination. God loves them and I love every one  with whom I’ve served, but why they rate as essential Christian (or even UMC) knowledge escapes me.

That the vast majority of folks in Methodist pews have no idea such a thing as a DS exists is probably what motivates this Church Knows Church episode.

That the bureaucracy of the Church thinks this lack of knowledge is bad- or even tragic-thing but explains why the Church, confusing evangelism for institutional preservation, is in decline.

 

I realize Chuck is intended to educate Methodists about our particular brand of Protestant Christianity in the hopes that they may then become more enthusiastic about the message and mission of the Church, but that’s to get the order of excitement exactly backwards.

If United Methodists were more (unabashedly) passionate about Christ we wouldn’t need videos meant to pep us up about the nuts and bolts of our denomination.

To paraphrase Paul: no Jesus, no Church.

Here’s the original post and here’s the latest video:

 

small-town-churchI took All Saints weekend off this year and, rather than worship at another church somewhere, I spent the Sabbath doing what 70% of Americans do every Sabbath.

Something else.

To some of you, I realize, the idea of a pastor- a professional Christian- skipping Sunday service sounds scandalous. To the pastors out there, I bet, it will sound…grounding. A cold, sobering dose of reality.

I went running instead of worshipping, which my congregation will point out requires minimal wardrobe change from my typical Sunday morning attire.

Over the course of a moderately long run, I must’ve jogged past 2 dozen churches.

None of them had more than 3 dozen cars in their parking lots.

All of them had messages on their signs out front that said ‘All Welcome.’

Many of them also had some insiderish-churchy quip on their signs that effectively added: ‘But not you.’

The statistic will be familiar to those in my denomination: Most United Methodist churches worship less than 100 on a Sunday morning, a number that increasingly is too small to sustain a full-time pastorate.

Of course some will argue that relationships or ‘faithfulness’ matter not numbers.

I’ve always found that to be a curiously unWesleyan perspective; John Wesley, OCD as he was, measured everything.

Numbers matter to God, I believe, because people matter to God.

As we work towards launching a new church in my own setting, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what strategies and practices make a church nimble about growth.

Carey Nieuwhof shares this reflection on why most churches never break the 200 mark:

Please understand, there’s nothing wrong with being a small church. I just know that almost every small church leader I speak to wants his or her church to  grow.

I get that. That’s the mission of the church. Every single day, I want our church to become more effective in reaching one more person with the hope that’s in Christ.

So why is it that most churches never break the 200 attendance mark?

It’s not:

DesireMost leaders I know want their church to reach more people.

A lack of prayerMany small church leaders are incredibly faithful in prayer.

LoveSome of the people in smaller churches love people as authentically as anyone I know.

Facility. Growth can start in the most unlikely places.

Let’s just assume you have a solid mission, theology and heart to reach people.

You know why most churches still don’t push past the 200 mark in attendance?

You ready?

 


They organize, behave, lead and manage like a small organization.

Think about it.

There’s a world of difference between how you organize a corner store and how you organize a larger supermarket.

In a corner store, Mom and Pop run everything, Want to talk to the CEO? She’s stocking shelves. Want to see the Director of Marketing? He’s at the cash register.

Mom and Pop do everything, and they organize their business to stay small. Which is fine if you’re Mom and Pop and don’t want to grow.

But you can’t run a supermarket that way. You organize differently. You govern differently. There’s a produce manager, and people who only stock shelves. There’s a floor manager, shift manager, general manager and so much more.

So what’s the translation to church world?

Here are 8 reasons churches who want to grow end up staying small:

1. The pastor is the primary caregiver. Honestly, if you just push past this one issue, you will have made a ton of progress. When the pastor has to visit every sick person, do every wedding, funeral and make regular house calls, he or she becomes incapable of doing other things. That model just doesn’t scale. If you’re good at it, you’ll grow the church to 200 people and then disappoint people when you can’t get to every event any more. Or you’ll just burn out. It creates false expectations and so many people get hurt in the process. Although it’s 20 years old, this is still the best book I know on the subject. The answer, by the way, is to teach people to care for each other in groups.

2. The leaders lacks a strategy. Many churches today are clear on mission and vision. What most lack is a widely shared and agreed-upon strategy. You vision and mission answers the why and what of your organization. Your strategy answers how. And how is critical. Spend time working through you strategy. Be clear on how you will accomplish your mission and don’t rest until the mission, vision and strategy reside in every single volunteer and leader.

3. True leaders aren’t leading. In every church, there are people who hold the position of leadership and then there are people who are truly leaders (who may not hold any position in your church). Release people who hold titles but aren’t advancing the mission and hand the job over to real leaders. Look for people who have a track record of handling responsibility in other areas of life and give them the job of leading the church into the future with you. If you actually have leaders leading, it will make a huge difference.

4. Volunteers are unempowered. Sure, small churches may not have the budget to hire other staff, but you have people. Once you have identified true leaders, and once you’re clear on your mission vision and strategy, you need to release people to accomplish it. Try to do it all yourself and you will burn out, leave or simply be ineffective.  Empower volunteers around an aligned strategy and you will likely begin to see progress.

5. The governance team micromanages. If you need permission every time you need to buy paper towels or repaint an office, you have a governance issue. Most boards who micromanage do so because that’s where most people simply default. You need a board who guards the mission and vision and empowers the team to accomplish it and then gets out of the way. This post on governance from Jeff Brodie is gold.

6. Too many meetings. I led a church with a grand total of 50 people in attendance. We had 16 elders. Overall, the church was in evening meetings 2-3 times a week. Why on earth would a church that small need to meet that often? I eventually repurposed most of those meetings to become meetings about vision and reorganization. We also cut the number of elders down. Now, although we have a much bigger church, I’m only out one or two nights a week (and then mostly for small group). If you’re going to meet, meet on purpose for the future.  Free up your time so you and your team can accomplish something significant.

7. Too many events and programs that lead nowhere. Activity does not equal accomplishment. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re being effective. If you check into most small churches (remember, I was there…I’m not judging, just being honest), there are a lot of programs that accomplish little and lead nowhere. Stop them. Yes people will be mad. Even have the courage to cut some good programs. Good is the enemy of great. Then go out and do a few great things.

8. The pastor suffers from a desire to please everybody. Many pastors I know are people-pleasers by nature. Go see a counselor. Get on your knees. Do whatever you need to do to get over the fear of disappointing people. Courageous leadership is like courageous parenting. Don’t do what your kids want you to do; do what you believe is best for them in the end. Eventually, many of them will thank you. And the rest? Honestly, they’ll probably go to another church that isn’t reaching many people either.

I realize the diagnosis can sound a little harsh, but we have a pretty deep problem on our hands. And radical problems demand radical solutions.

 

Unknown

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #7: Antinomianism

What Is It?

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul famously asks his interlocutor, ‘if we’re saved by God’s grace and not by our deeds then should we keep on sinning so that God’s grace may abound even more?’

Antinomians are those who, not realizing Paul’s question is a rhetorical one and not bothering to read Paul further, answer: ‘Sure, why not?’

Displaying that logic does not always steer you true, antinomians hold that since the advent of Christ and the Gospel of grace, the Law, that is the moral conduct prescribed by God to his People in the Old Testament, is neither of use for Christians nor an obligation.

In other words:

If faith alone is necessary for salvation then the Law is unnecessary. 

Who Screwed Up First

While its roots go back to the ancient Church and its regrettable attitude towards Jews and their scripture, antinomianism is the crappy, white-elephant gift Protestantism has given the larger Church.

Antinomianism was the Jacob to the Protestant Reformation’s Esau, the inevitable and subsequent counter-charge to the Reformation’s critique of the Catholic Church’s ‘legalism’ and ‘works righteousness.’

You could blame Martin Luther who first projected onto the New Testament Pharisees, including Paul, the abuses of Luther’s own Medieval Catholicism. You could blame Martin Luther, for antinomianism is the predictable outcome to redefining the Gospel primarily in terms of justification by faith alone.

But the antinomianism reached its high point in the 17th century Puritan Colony of Massachusetts when Anne Hutchison, daughter of an Anglican priest, subscribed to the ‘free grace’ theology of John Cotton, a renegade Puritan preacher.

Hutchison found Cotton’s critique of Puritanism’s works righteousness persuading.

Hutchison then proved persuasive herself, recruiting others to the free grace movement.

Soon the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts (ie, Men) were persuaded to excommunicate and dispatch Hutchison. The regrettable theology of Hutchison was matched by the regrettable gender politics of the Church.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you divide- and thereby render schizophrenic- God’s revelation of himself in the Old and New Testaments by saying that ‘Jews try to earn salvation by doing the works of the Law while Christians receive salvation by grace through faith,’ then you might be an antinomian.

You might be antisemitic too.

So was Luther.

But at least Luther, on paper, understood that desiring to live out the ethic of the Law was the fruit of any true encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

If you think Jesus does away the obligations of the Law rather than A) amping up the expectations of the Law and B) revealing in himself the Law’s all-along-aim then your ancestors might’ve hailed from the Bay State.

If you think you got right with God because you once came down during the altar call, invited Jesus into your heart and got born again during a moment of orchestrated, liturgized peer pressure and now it doesn’t matter if you cheat on your wife, give the poor only pennies and don’t bat an eye at the injustices of the world then you, my friend, are exactly why the Catholic Church got so bent out of shape about Luther nailing his Theses into the church door.

If you imagine that Christianity is really about love and that we should love others without the expectation or invitation for them to conform their lives to the Cross, then you’re an antinomian.

If you believe the Church should welcome everyone as they are and never critique their character or habits (thus leaving them as they are) then you’re a free grace- Bonhoeffer would say, cheap grace- heretic.

If inclusivity is a more urgent exhortation for you than calling others to conversion, repentance and a cross-bearing life then the one thing you’re NOT inclusive of is orthodoxy.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

The Nones

Americans

United Methodists

United Methodist Pastors

All other Mainline Protestants

Evangelicals

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

The Religious Right

Progressive Christians

Baby Boomers

Celebrities who opine about religion and ethics

Remedies

Read Paul’s Letter to the Romans, all of it- especially those chapters at the end no one ever quotes.

Read the Gospels and ask: Where does Jesus imply we just have to have faith?

Look at yourself in the mirror and consider: Do I want grace to be so amazing because the content of my character isn’t?

Become Mennonite.

Or get to know Jew.

Start with Jesus if you haven’t met him yet.

catacomb art - 1Today it’s customary, even cliche, to observe how the cultural situation of Christians in the 21st century most resembles Christians in the early centuries under the Roman Empire. What’s meant by this is that the Church exists after Christendom in a post- Christian culture where the faith is suspect by many in society and certainly not shared by many more.

Few would deny that today there exists a strong sentiment of our losing our ‘traditional’ culture. It’s not always clear that what’s being lost is Christian culture so much as a particular form of Christianized national culture; nonetheless, it’s true that for Christianity not only to survive but to thrive in the next century it must discern how to impact the culture in ways different from the past.

I believe the early church provides us lessons in this regard. Today most U.S. Christians (especially Protestants and especially United Methodists) exist in rural and suburban areas. Christianity as an urban social presence is almost unheard of. And while Christians have done an extensive job at building parallel institutions in media and education (Christian music etc) they no longer exercise a strong influence in the institutions that drive, determine and change our culture.

What the early church teaches us, I believe, is that if the Church is to impact and change our culture and the world in the 21st century it must do the same things the Church did in the first century.

That is, it should continue to offer a lived alternative to the values of the wider world.

In large part, we’re already doing this.

What the early church also did, however, was engage the long-term process of nurturing disciples who could engage the culture and become leaders of it- a 21st century version of paideia.

In a time of declining church membership and loss of visible stature, it’s common to hear church leaders bemoan how we don’t know what it means to be faithful in this changing context. Ironically, what it means today is what it meant then.

Check out this description of Christians from a letter written before much of your New Testament.

“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle….

While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.”

“They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign.

They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are `in the flesh,’ but do not live `according to the flesh.’ They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.”

“They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect.

When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life….Those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.”

“In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world.”

- Letter to Diognetus (2nd c)

closed-churchThis is from Thom Rainer.

I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the rela- tively small crowd on Sunday morning.

The reality was that most of the members did
not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudg- ingly agree to retain me.

I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were diffi- cult.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expres- sion, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.

My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy.

Here are eleven things I learned.

  1. The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transi- tion toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower- class residents.

  2. The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I want- ed to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.

  3. Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other plac- es where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.

  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.

  5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.

  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meet- ings became more acrimo- nious.

  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi- vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.

  8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship ser- vice. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.

  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.

  10. The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.

  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.

 

 

 

chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLTI’ve tamed my tongue. I’ve holstered my rhetorical fire and ire. I’ve kept my thoughts to myself. But I can’t see another ‘Chuck Knows Church’ video ‘liked’ on Facebook without venting my own deep-in-the-bowels dislike of Chuck and the things he likes about the Church.

Up until now, Church Knows Church has been akin to Farmville or people’s personal Spotify playlists: something slightly annoying for which you could care less but your social media peers persist in posting with evangelistic fervor.

But like Farmville, if not Spotify, Chuck Knows Church is a cloying annoyance that ultimately warrants a smackdown.

In case you don’t already know, Chuck Knows Church is a PR campaign produced by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. It’s a series of online, informational videos ‘about stuff in the church.’

The ‘stuff in the church’ is explained to us by ‘Chuck,’ the host with a floppy head of hair and the harmless, vacant expression of Huey Lewis.

Some of the urgent ‘stuff’ in the church Chuck feels the need to explain includes: the symbols on paraments, candles, collects, stoles, robes, doxologies and (prepare for to vomit in your mouth) ushers.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of things Chuck knows about the Church, it is representative. So my question is a fair one:

Notice anything missing in that list above?

Like….Jesus.

Or maybe…God.

In this respect, Chuck Knows Church is similar to the multimillion dollar ad campaign the United Methodist Church pushed a few years ago: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.’ In addition to being a campaign that verged on false advertising (I can think of plenty of friends who don’t think we’re that open-minded and my church has all but door #3 locked), it spent millions pushing the institution of the church without ever making mention of Jesus and his movement.

Providing further evidence that mainline Christians never met a cultural trend they weren’t safely and inoffensively behind, Chuck Knows Church begins with an opening montage that hearkens back to the lead credits and theme song of Friends (albeit with hints of Chopped).

The viewer is then greeted by Chuck, who, despite looking like a naif, appears to know quite a lot about things in Church that don’t matter.

In truth, it’s not Chuck’s fault.

He’s assigned his topics and fed his lines by the people behind the camera.

This Charles isn’t really in charge; he’s just a professional actor.

You read that right.

More false advertising.

Though we’re led to believe Chuck is real life preacher man, he’s really a (apparently down on his luck) thespian. So the stuff Chuck knows about Church that doesn’t matter is chosen by other real life pastors and church professionals who don’t know what matters about Church: Jesus.

I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. That United Methodist pastors are collectively such poor communicators a professional actor is required for 3 minute online films is all the indictment the Church needs.

I mean…a video explaining everything we need to know about stoles? This when 2/3 of the nation know not Jesus?

A video about ushers?

Usher isn’t even a religious category. The Kennedy Center and Nationals Park have ushers.

It’s a matter of function not faith.

And maybe that’s the most revealing thing about Chuck Knows Church and what irritates me so. It’s concerned with the function of church but not its faith.

Chuck Knows Church majors in the minors precisely at a time in the life of the Universal Church when millions are choosing other majors.

Chuck Knows Church works to explain why people should be interested in our institution and its habits rather than exhibiting any evidence of having reflected on what we can do (different) to interest people in Jesus.

As scores of business experts have written, once an institution needs to explain and justify its practices (rather than offer the product) to customers, the institution is already in the throes of irreversible decline.

And as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, once you need to translate a language into modern terms (doxology, collect) its a sure sign the language you’re speaking is a dead one.

Chuck may know Church but, so far at least, not many people seem to know Chuck. The only people I see ‘liking’ him are pastors and church nerds. People who already know everything Chuck knows and most likely are excited by the unchurched getting to know Chuck.

But I don’t think that’s happening.

And I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

country-ham-sl-258077-lAt my first church I was introduced for the first time to Virginia Country Ham where it was both ubiquitous as a main course and utilitarian as an ingredient in other courses.

Not having had country ham before, the Italian in me located it somewhere near proscuitto, pancetta and guanciale only not as good.

Crackling, to which I was also introduced at this church, is another delicious story.

I left that church with nothing but love in my heart for the people there. Well, actually I left that church with a good bit of cholesterol in my heart too. And sodium in my veins.

My congregants’ words testified to their love for me; their culinary actions however betrayed nothing short of murderous intent. Like a porcine adaptation of Kathy Bates from MiseryMisery05

My country ham experience may be but one instance of a larger, pastorcidal trend, for, according to a new study of United Methodist Clergy Health, pastors are significantly less healthy than the general population.

This isn’t really a surprise. At Annual Conference, my denomination’s yearly gathering of clergy, one instantly notices not just the sea of white hair but the girth of God’s apostles.

According to the same study of Clergy Health, over 1/4 of Methodist pastors exhibit depressive-like tendencies.

john-wesley-1 Again, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to any one who knows Christian history.

John Wesley was OCD anal to put it lightly.

Martin Luther was plagued by a guilty conscience heavier than his substantial punching weight.

Jean Calvin was haunted by the death of his mother and his wife.

St Augustine had mommy issues that would make Freud blush.

Here’s a sampling of some of the stats:

2013 Key Findings:

  • 40% of respondents are obese and 39% are overweight—much higher percentages than a demographically-matched sample of U.S. adults
  • Nearly 51% have high cholesterol, also much higher than comparable benchmarks
  • 5% suffer from depression
  • 26% of all clergy have at least some functional difficulty from depressive symptoms
  • UMC clergy have high rates of borderline hypertension, borderline diabetes and asthma
  • Hostility of the church environment was cited by 47% who experienced at least one intrusive demand(not consulted about ministry decision; devotion to ministry questioned; doubts about pastor’s faith).

*It gets even worse-

I remember from a counseling class at Princeton that male mainline pastors tend to have significantly low (like barely not women) levels of testosterone.

As in all things, I am an exception.

I wonder if something more nefarious lurks behind the stats than country ham and covered dish congregations. I wonder if there’s something more depressing behind the mental health stats than the personalities church work has historically attracted.

I wonder if the main culprit- or an accessory to the crime- is the completely ridiculous and unfocused job description the United Methodist Church hands down to pastors. I wonder if obscuring the Reformation mandate for the priesthood of all believers leads to priestly obesity?

Take a look at this job description from the Book of Discipline and then tell me if you’re not tempted to scratch your head and reach for the Cheetos. But before you do…snark aside, this is a serious issue for pastors and churches. Obesity and the entire processed food industry threaten this country in real ways and we’re called, as Christians, to live as an alternative. A critique.

¶ 340. The responsibilities of elders and licensed pastors are derived from the authority given in ordination. Elders have a four-fold ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order and Service within the connection and thus serve in the church and the world. Local pastors share with the elders the responsibilities and duties of a pastor for this four-fold ministry.

1. Word and ecclesial acts:

a) To preach the Word of God, lead in worship, read and teach the Scriptures, and engage the people in study and witness.24

(1) To ensure faithful transmission of the Christian faith.
(2) To lead people in discipleship and evangelistic outreach that others might come to know Christ and to follow him.

b) To counsel persons with personal, ethical, or spiritual struggles.

c) To perform the ecclesial acts of marriage and burial.

(1) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of The United Methodist Church. The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.
(2) To conduct funeral and memorial services and provide care and grief counseling.

d) To visit in the homes of the church and the community, especially among the sick, aged, imprisoned, and others in need.

e) To maintain all confidences inviolate, including confessional confidences except in the cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, or in cases where mandatory reporting is required by civil law.

2. Sacrament:
a) To administer the sacraments of baptism and the Supper of the Lord according to Christ’s ordinance.

(1) To prepare the parents and sponsors before baptizing infants or children, and instruct them concerning the significance of baptism and their responsibilities for the Christian training of the baptized child.
(2) To encourage reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant and renewal of baptismal vows at different stages of life.
(3) To encourage people baptized in infancy or early childhood to make their profession of faith, after instruction, so that they might become professing members of the church.
(4) To explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and to encourage regular participation as a means of grace to grow in faith and holiness.
(5) To select and train deacons and lay members to serve the consecrated communion elements.
b) To encourage the private and congregational use of the other means of grace.

3. Order:
a) To be the administrative officer of the local church and to assure that the organizational concerns of the congregation are adequately provided for.

(1) To give pastoral support, guidance, and training to the lay leadership, equipping them to fulfill the ministry to which they are called.
(2) To give oversight to the educational program of the church and encourage the use of United Methodist literature and media.
(3) To be responsible for organizational faithfulness, goal setting, planning and evaluation.
(4) To search out and counsel men and women for the ministry of deacons, elders, local pastors and other church related ministries.

b) To administer the temporal affairs of the church in their appointment, the annual conference, and the general church.

(1) To administer the provisions of the Discipline.
(2) To give an account of their pastoral ministries to the charge and annual conference according to the prescribed forms.
(3) To provide leadership for the funding ministry of the congregation.
(4) To promote faithful, financial stewardship and to encourage giving as a spiritual discipline.
(5) To lead the congregation in the fulfillment of its mission through full and faithful payment of all apportioned ministerial support, administrative, and benevolent funds.
(6) To care for all church records and local church financial obligations, and certify the accuracy of all financial, membership, and any other reports submitted by the local church to the annual conference for use in apportioning costs back to the church.

c) To participate in denominational and conference programs and training opportunities.

(1) To seek out opportunities for cooperative ministries with other United Methodist pastors and churches.
(2) To be willing to assume supervisory responsibilities within the connection.

d) To lead the congregation in racial and ethnic inclusiveness.

4. Service:

a) To embody the teachings of Jesus in servant ministries and servant leadership.
b) To give diligent pastoral leadership in ordering the life of the congregation for discipleship in the world.
c) To build the body of Christ as a caring and giving community, extending the ministry of Christ to the world.
d) To participate in community, ecumenical and inter-religious concerns and to encourage the people to become so involved and to pray and labor for the unity of the Christian community.

 

choir_taize_crossI’m closing in on my 8th year of serving this particular congregation and more so every day I’m convinced there is fruit in ministry that only becomes possible with a longer measure of time.

For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 40 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 8 years ago are now in the midst of choosing their careers and have since blossomed into adults. One of those first confirmands is joining me this weekend for the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

These are all blessings only made possible by the patience and passage of time, blessings our Methodist system of itinerancy rarely affords pastors.

Yet of all those, one such example is at the fore of my thoughts this week.

On Sunday I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a man whom just a few years ago I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless his heart.’

I can be honest about the rough edges of our relationship because to pretend otherwise would be to dishonor the grace-filled trajectory of our relationship ultimately took.

He was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in his. He was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ He was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of his church…”bless his heart.”

My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.

He has the distinction of being the only parishioner ever to challenge me to a fist fight.

And an arm-wrestling contest.

And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from him. 

Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something in the past couple of years changed between us. He first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.

He then started earnestly to listen and read my sermons, stealing them from the pulpit lectern (sometimes before I’d preached…teaching me to have a spare copy handy) and concluded that even I’m not Billy Graham I’m not without some gospel IQ.

Later, he one day filled up my voicemail box not with complaints but with a thoughtful history of his faith walk.

The barbs I’d once received in the receiving line after worship became playful ‘young fella’ banter and I’d chide him that ‘if I had my own 12 disciples then he’d be….the guy who replaced Judas.’

Last spring he sincerely thanked me for being involved with his granddaughters’ experience at church and this winter he made a substantial gift to our mission work in Guatemala; however, he requested that I carry said gift down to Guatemala myself in cash.

When I asked if this was to insure 100% of his gift went where it was needed or if he was merely trying to get me cavity-searched at the airport, he responded with a cryptic chuckle and a ‘we’ll just see.’

Thus was the down then up path of our relationship that found me visiting him in the hospital this week last. Weak, emaciated and slightly disoriented, he smiled when he saw me. He grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

Pulling me close, with dehydrated lips he asked me ‘to forgive him for any ugliness he showed in the past- I reckon I was in the wrong…’

I smiled and said: ‘Ditto.’

‘I still could’ve taken you in a fight,’ he said mouthed hoarsely.

‘Try it old man’ I replied loudly into his ear. His smile quickly became another cough.

And then I prayed for/with him.

(* If I was in a different temper I’d insert a diatribe here about how our United Methodist system of itinerancy actively prevents moments like this, moving pastors before relationships can come full circle, but that’s a grouse for another day.)

On Sunday I spent several hours at his bedside, holding his hand while his son rubbed his head and shoulders and reassured him of both our and God’s love.

I sat there quietly amazed that 5 years ago I was about the last person he would’ve wanted next to him in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been on Sunday.

I left him Sunday afternoon not realizing he had only a few hours left.

I got in the elevator of the assisted living facility behind an elderly lady toting a walker. She acted as though she knew me.

I pushed ‘1’ for her and then, to my surprise, I started crying.

‘It’s all right John’ she said.

I’ve no idea who she thought I was but I appreciated the solace nonetheless.

It would take me a while to track back through all the deaths and burials I’ve been a part of since I started out in my little parish back in Princeton. Whatever the number, it’s a lot. Children, parents, men no older than me. They cover the gamut from tragic to the welcome blessed rest, with some well-loved congregants sprinkled in along the way.

Seldom, if ever, has a death hit me the way as has this one.

I’m not quite sure what’s behind this effect.

Is it that I saw in him someone much like myself, someone who as Martin Luther described was ‘at once sinner and justified?’

Is it that, in both the good and the bad, there was absolutely no pretense about our relationship- something that can be rare in congregations?

Is it that he (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?

Is it that with him I’d experienced both how petty church politics can be but also how easily such pettiness pass into irrelevance if we let it?

Probably, I suspect, it’s a little of all the above which is but another way of saying:

 ‘_____  was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.

And though the me from 5 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss him like family.

 

Bishop-Will-WillimonSome one, bless his/her heart, grumbled to me Sunday whilst leaving worship that if I were a part of the older generation I’d change my tune about what is broken and what needs to change in the church.

You only think things should change because you’re young.

Young people always want to change things.

He/she said.

Cue wag of the finger: But if you were older…

I honestly considered the possibility. Really, I did. Sans snark.

And then decided, no, I’d still be pushing the same view. Because it’s not a ‘young person’s view.’ It’s naming reality. Reality with a ticking expiration date on it.

And to prove this, I offer this snippet from Bishop Will Willimon, who will be preaching and lecturing at Aldersgate next Lent.

Willimon, as you can see by his pic, is old, put out to pasture by the mandatory retirement age. His membership in the AARP, however, does not determine what he says about his membership in the Body of Christ.

He also says exactly the same things I say:

Being bishop gave me a front row seat to observe ministry in the Protestant mainline that is being rapidly sidelined.

Pastoral leadership of a mainline congregation is no picnic.  My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them.  Now, as a seminary professor, I’m eager to do my bit in the classroom to prepare new clergy for the most demanding of vocations.

From what I saw, too many contemporary clergy limit themselves to ministries of congregational care-giving – soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent.

One of my pastors led a self-study of her congregation.  Eighty percent responded that their chief expectation of their pastor was, “Care for me and my family.”

I left seminary in the heady Sixties, eager to be on the front line in the struggle for a renaissance of the church as countercultural work of God.  By a happy confluence of events, the church was again being given the opportunity to be salt and light to the world rather than sweet syrup to enable the world’s solutions to go down easier.

Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership.  Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.

North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving.  Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books.

Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus.  In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

A consumptive society perverts the church’s ministry into another commodity which the clergy dole out to self-centered consumers who enlist us in their attempt to cure their emptiness.

Exclusively therapeutic ministry is the result.

I saw fatigue and depression among many clergy whom I served as bishop.

Debilitation is predictable for a cleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos. 

The 12 million dollar Duke Clergy Health study implies that our biggest challenge is to drop a few pounds and take a day off.  If you can’t be faithful, be healthy and happy.

I believe that our toughest task is to love the Truth who is Jesus Christ more than we love our people who are so skillful in conning us into their idolatries.

Yet I must say that by comparison, the poor old demoralized mainline church, for all its faults, is a good deal more self-critical and boldly innovative than the seminary.  Our most effective clergy are finding creative ways to critique the practice of ministry, to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and unwelcomed constituencies, and to engage the laity in something more important than themselves.  Alas, seminaries have changed less in the past one hundred years than the worship, preaching, and life of vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.

As bishop I served as chair of our denomination’s Theological Schools Commission. Most of our seminaries are clueless, or at least unresponsive, to the huge transformation that is sweeping through mainline Protestantism.  We have so many seminaries for one reason: the church has given seminaries a monopoly on training our clergy with no accountability for the clergy they produce.  Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say that seminary fails to give them the leadership they now require.  Oblivious to our current crisis, seminaries continue to produce pastors for congregational care-giving and institutional preservation.

The result is another generation of pastors who know only how to be chaplains for the status quo and managers of decline rather than leaders of a movement in transformational faith.

As a fellow bishop said, “Seminaries are still cranking out pastors to serve healthy congregations, giving us new pastors who are ill equipped to serve two-thirds of my churches.”

In just a decade, United Methodists, various Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will have half of our strength and resources – judgment upon our unfaithful limitation of ministry to a demographic (mine) that is rapidly exiting.

After decades of study, finger-pointing and blaming, we now know that a major factor in our rapid decline is our unwillingness to go where the people are and to plant new churches.  Yet few traditionalist mainline seminaries teach future pastors how to start new communities of faith.

My new pastors repeatedly told me: “We got out of seminary with lots of good ideas but without the ability to lead people from here to there.”  “I’ve learned enough to know that something is bad wrong with the current church but I don’t know where to begin to fix it.”

You can read the full article here.

3.19.PastorsDoAnonymousLetters_855603649When I was a student at Princeton, I got the chance to hear a lecture delivered by Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian whose work I knew only from the snarky comments I heard whispered by certain professors as I waited on their tables during faculty lunches.

Hauerwas was a like a breath of fresh air: robustly Barthian, absolutely not a Calvinist, and he had a mouth dirtier than my own.faith4

During the lecture, which was on discipleship, Hauerwas shot from the hip and offered what has continued to be a guiding maxim of the pastorate for me:

“Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.

It’s just a nibble here and a nibble there but before you know it you’re missing a leg.”

I’m grateful for those auspicious words and have never forgotten them.

I once again recalled them when this morning this little gem found its way to my desk:

photo

Context:

In December I preached a sermon in which I used folding chairs to illustrate my point. In the first service, the cincture of my robe kept getting caught in the chairs so I took it off for the following services.

I wasn’t making a statement.

I wasn’t trying to ‘go contemporary.’

I wasn’t trying offend traditional sensibilities.

I wasn’t trying to do anything but avoid breaking my leg on the altar steps.

Not wearing my robe that Sunday elicited such bad behavior, in the form of anonymous notes left in my box, under my door, in the pew pads, and on the pulpit, as well as gossip being brought to me fourth-hand (‘so and so is concerned..’), that I decided not to encourage such behavior by putting it back on.

To date, in over four months, only 1 actual living, breathing human has approached me face-to-face to tell me how they feel about the robe. The ratio of anonymous complaint to face-to-face encounter is about 1/300.

Before proceeding, I probably don’t need to, but I will do so anyway and point out that 98% of my congregation are wonderfully sincere Christians who are supportive, encouraging and want nothing but to partner in furthering God’s mission in the world. I love working with those 98% and I think (fingers crossed) they appreciate me, warts and all.
Back to this week’s latest note.

I could point out that leaving an anonymous complaint in the offering plate- the plate that gets prayed over and dedicated to the Lord’s reconciling work in the world- suggests something far more disturbing than my lack of vestments.

I mean- would you ever stick a cranky post-it note on the communion bread?

That’s bible bad.

I could point out how anonymous notes by their very nature are antithetical to Christian practice for they represent a refusal to be in relationship with another. They make the other an object and thus deny our mutual in-Christ-ness. This is exactly what Jesus was commanding us away from in Matthew 18 when he insists we confront those we’re upset with face-to-face.

And yet time and again we blithely dismiss congregants’ disrespect and gossip as ‘that’s how churches are.’

Meanwhile, most people my age want nothing to do with church exactly because ‘that’s how churches are.’

I could point to what’s missing in this note. Like appreciation. For example, I spent roughly 20 hours- outside the normal work day- writing the sermon I then had to deliver 4 times after also writing a funeral sermon for a tragic death. It wasn’t the best sermon in the world but it was faithfully prepared and preached. And that was just my contribution to the service. This doesn’t even include the hours the other music staff and volunteers put in to making it a meaningful service. To notice only clothing is trivial to the extreme.

I could point out that Methodists only started wearing robes in the 1940’s and 50’s when we ceased being a frontier church and aspired to be a downtown church like the Episcopalians and Presbyterians. *Interestingly, the advent of the robe in Methodist worship coincides with our inability to make new Christians.

And don’t even get me started about tattling to get the other pastor to make me do something that anonymous complaints have heretofore not solved.

The observation I do want to make, however, is about the irony within this note, suggesting that a clerical robe is a sign of my respect for said anonymous complainer rather than the robe being a sign of the respect due me by virtue of my ordination.

The note is correct. It is about respect. Towards me. My office.

And on this point I lay blame not on the anonymous individual but on the United Methodist Church. 

I spent countless summers working as a lifeguard at a country club. I know what it feels like to work at a country club, sporting the emblazoned, obligatory uniform. Sure, the uniform served a helpful function. I was the guy who could help save people.

The uniform did something else too.

It identified me as ‘labor’ and everyone else as ‘ownership.’

I would argue that same dynamic, dichotomy, marks many a Methodist church.

The downside of the United Methodist Church having never fully claimed the Reformation mandate of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ is that in most congregations the ministry is owned by the pastors and staff.

We do ministry for the members not with them; consequently, the constituency becomes the congregation rather than the community.

A delineation between clergy and laity grows until it becomes ingrained.

What was once anathema to the early church becomes ‘how we do church.’

The clergy robe marks us in many minds not as a vicar of Christ, not as someone who might help people get saved, but as ‘labor.’

And as I know from working at a country club, owners can treat labor however they please.

The difference between a church and a country club is that I don’t care who pays the bills (though I’m grateful they do) it doesn’t change the fact that the church belongs to Jesus Christ. And I report to him not the authors of anonymous notes.

When it comes to churches, unlike country clubs, membership has no benefits.

Other than taking up a cross.

 But as I said I blame this on the UMC not on the individual. 

The United Methodist Church gives a lot of lip service to laity sharing in the ministry of Christ but the denomination places such requirements upon the local church (mandatory committees and admin positions) that ‘sharing in the ministry of Christ’ most often gets realized in the form of serving on committees.

Having raised their hand to vote, most lay people don’t have the time to do anything else in their church.

And then we wonder why lay people can’t even pray out loud without blushing and deferring to the pastor.

It gets worse on the flip- side.

The polity of the UMC tacitly encourages this division of ‘labor’ and ‘owners.’

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church lays all the responsibility of the local church upon the pastor- you should Google the Discipline’s summary of the expectations of a pastor, it’s endless.

At the same time, the Book of Discipline gives those same held-responsible-pastors virtually no official leadership authority. As a pastor, I’ve no real role (nor do any staff) at a church council meeting, for example.

To make us even more impotent, itinerancy moves preachers at such a frequency that most pastors are kept from serving in one place long enough to ever cultivate organic leadership authority.

The only solace I derive from this is that our bishops are similarly neutered into irrelevance at General Conference.

Since this note was anonymous I can’t (in biblically mandated Jesus fashion) confront the person face-to-face. Instead I I thought I could pass the note on to my true source of frustration, the denomination. I could forward the note to my bishop with my thoughts on the real problem behind it all:

‘the priesthood of pastors and the ownership of members.’

But then, that would be a waste of time.

The bishop too is powerless to do anything about it.