Finding a way to live together in the tension

I spent some time on Facebook following the announcement of the Judicial Council decision regarding the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop.  I read articles from UMC news agencies and the pastoral letter of our Bishop David Bard.  I read the letter from the Council of Bishops and a piece from the New York Times.  I especially appreciated the letter of our Bishop and the gracious nature of his words.

In the midst of the Facebook comments about it all there were − of course − a variety of reactions.  For some, there was anger at what was viewed as another legalistic response by the church to an individual gifted and loved by God.  There were in other comments a sense of hopelessness towards the future.  There were others passionately presenting their feelings that the Council had upheld an appropriate standard.  There were lots of comments expressing a variety of opinions on these two basic themes.

One comment though stood out for me.  It was in a long string of reactions representing all that I shared above and it said this, “Wow, I can’t believe that I belong to the same church as some of these people.”

On one level I understood this completely.  When we see people who claim the name we claim and they are acting in ways, holding beliefs that seem to be far from our own, far from our understanding of the “essential” components of our faith, we wonder how we can stay in fellowship and connection with them given their position or perspective.  I understand that completely.  It is exactly what has gotten us to the 28,000 or so different Christian denominations in the world.

But on another level I don’t get it at all. It’s absolutely counter intuitive to what we know about the Church.  There is a reason that Jesus makes such a point of calling us to “love one another.”  There’s a reason why Jesus suggests that we might need to forgive one another from time to time!  Because the Church is not designed to be a homogenized group of folks who all think alike.  In fact the church is full of people who would never get together anywhere else.  So on any number of issues around any number of strongly held perspectives, we will differ.  That is just a reality, a reality that Jesus understood and anticipated.

But for me, this reality provides for us a great opportunity to be a witness to the world around us.  It is an opportunity, especially in these days when our culture is experiencing an incredibly high level of polarization, to provide an example of how we can disagree in very significant ways and still love one another, still focus on the core mission of the Church and find ways to live together in the tension.  The Church is not designed to be a place where it’s easy to be community.  If it were easy for us to love one another Jesus and the Epistle writers wouldn’t have had to mention it so many times!  But since we are called to be that kind of a community, to be that kind of witness, I pray that through “The Commission on a Way Forward,” through conversations and prayer, through the power of God’s Spirit at work in me and you, we will find the grace and power to be the Church − even as we struggle with one another.  I invite you to pray to that end.


It IS possible to stay relevant amid today’s changing culture!

I read this morning that Sears has put out a statement saying that they have “substantial doubt” that its company’s doors will stay open.  Other retail giants that have been main stays all my life, anchor stores in mall across the country, have been closing stores in many locations.  They’re not doing anything like the business they did just a few decades ago.

I wonder what folks would have said fifty years ago, if someone had suggested that these giants would close?  I suspect there would be a chuckle at the idea.  Sears was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1886 for heaven’s sake!  It’s been a retail center in cities and towns across America for 130 years.  It will always be here would have been the natural assumption.

But then came as well as lots of other .coms.  Then came Walmart and Meijer.  I looked at my own Amazon account and realized that I made my first purchase from them in 1999 when they were primarily a book company.  I had three orders that year.  Last year I had 66 orders for everything from Altoids to computer parts, and clothes to vitamins.

There are other factors, I’m sure, that have affected Sears and other companies.  But the fact is the world of buying and selling is changing like so many other things in our culture, and some of those institutions that we once thought would always be there, are simply going by the wayside.

And the analogy to the Church is not a hard one to make, is it?  The world has changed and it is changing for us too.  There are many shifts that we could name.  Worship itself is one of them.  From the day of the week we offer worship opportunities to the location where we offer them, things are by necessity changing.

By the way there is a BIG worship training event on our District this Saturday with Kim Miller in case you hadn’t heard!!

Click → HERE ← for details!

Giving in the church has changed too.  If your congregation doesn’t offer at least automatic withdrawal from a bank account, if not instant giving on a web site; if you are relying only on people writing checks or putting cash in the plate,  then you are missing a significant portion of potential givers.

These are just a couple areas where our world is different than it was in the past, and if we don’t pay attention and move with the shifts we may well find ourselves ─ someday soon ─ putting out our own press release indicating our “substantial doubt” related to our ability to keep the doors open. And more importantly to carry out the mission of sharing Christ’s love in a broken and hurting world.


A Desire to Change

I had the opportunity to attend the Reach Summit last weekend in Troy.  I have appreciated this event since its inception a few years ago, but was unable to attend last year so I was pleased to attend this year.

One of the seminars I went to was a workshop on MissionInsite.  I’ve used this tool in the Local Church and on the District for all the years we have had it available to our Annual Conference.  It is a treasure trove of information.

The seminar addressed the MOSAIC types material MissionInsite provides.  MOSAIC types, in simplest terms, help you identify groups of people by life stage, interests, and several other factors.  It helps understand the folks living in neighborhoods around a given church, and can guide a church as they think about how their programs might resonate with their unique communities’ needs.  It is a very helpful tool.

Of course, for MOSAIC types or any of MissionInsite’s material to be helpful to a church, there needs to be something present.  What needs to be present is a desire within the congregation to grow.  Now that may sound very strange to you, “Doesn’t every church want to grow?” you may ask.  Indeed!  I have not yet met a church that didn’t SAY it wanted to grow.  I have not met with an SPRC team or a Leadership Council that didn’t, in some way, tell me their desire to reach more young people and young families.  And I listen to their desires, and at some level, I believe that it’s genuine.

But then we talk about the kinds of things it will take to grow.  We talk about things like the MOSAIC groups in their area and what could be done to reach out to them.  And hear things like how horrible it was when the outreach team suggested moving the worship time of the Traditional service back a half hour in order to offer a different style that might reach some new people. And in doing so, how that disrupted and upset so many of the long-time members.

You see, the truth is, growth is hard.  It’s harder than it’s ever been.  And it won’t happen if we just wish for it.  It won’t even happen if we just pray for it ─ though I would certainly suggest prayer! God often helps us see a plan, a way to move towards the changes that will ultimately help us to experience growth.  But, growth is hard.  Growth takes a laser focus and it takes a constant willingness to do EVERYTHING we can, trying lots of things ─ things that are not about those who are here now, but about those who aren’t here yet ─ if it is to be accomplished.

And the truth is, the hard truth is, the really, hard truth is that in many of our churches, sadly we just don’t have the desire to work that hard.


Mission Alignment

I have been reminded again this week of the importance of mission alignment.  As I suspect you know already, mission alignment is about understanding your church’s purpose and focusing in on the mission that flows out of that purpose with laser like precision.  Knowing what your mission is and zeroing in on the things necessary for the accomplishment of that mission is critical to successfully carrying out a church’s calling.  Mission alignment answers two vital questions:  One, what should we be doing?  And two: What shouldn’t we be doing?  Every church needs to continually evaluate itself on the basis of how well it is accomplishing its mission and purpose and aligning the mission is vital in that process.

And while I have thought about this in terms of churches, districts, annual conferences, and organizations for some years now, I never really thought about it in terms of the work of individual pastors or my work as a District Superintendent.  I think I have thought intuitively about our work and the questions that arise out of mission alignment.  But I’ve not really put the two together into the same language.  But the fact is, like churches, leaders need mission alignment as well.

An interesting reality I see in the annual church conference joint dialogue forms, that SPRC’s and clergy do together every year (yes, I read them!) is that in the space where it asks, “What should the pastor stop doing in order to accomplish the shared goals?” Rarely is there anything listed!  Apparently we believe that simply adding more and more tasks to the pastor’s plate will create more effective ministry.

Of course like a church without mission alignment, a pastor who does everything usually goes a mile wide and an inch deep.  And while the church culture continues to reward this model of behavior there are congregations and clergy that are doing things differently.  I am aware for example, of churches where much of the hospital visitation is being done by a trained team of compassionate lay people.  This can be done in some very creative ways and can allow the pastoral leader significant time to focus on leading and the particular roles that are uniquely theirs.  When I was serving in the local church, I chose not to attend some of the meetings.  I checked in with the leaders but I didn’t find it necessary to attend the meetings themselves.

Now is the DS suggesting that pastors stop doing pastoral care, or play golf during the Ad-Council meeting?  No.  I am suggesting that there are ways to structure things differently so that the ten things that the pastor is currently doing might be honed and focused around the mission and calling of a pastoral leader.  So that the pastoral leader can become more and more able to concentrate on his/her particular and perhaps unique role in the task of carrying out the mission of the church.

Mission alignment is critical for the church and for the pastoral leader. Without it we try to do everything and often we end up doing nothing really well.