Why to Be a Methodist

My Master of Divinity, the advanced degree most often required for clergy these days, is from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. Since I graduated, the seminary has experienced several changes including hiring a new President, Dr. Timothy C. Tennent. I have been very impressed with Dr. Tennent’s tenure so far and have been following his blog closely.

His latest series of posts have helped explain why he is both a Methodist and an evagelical. This is such a good series of posts I wanted to compile them here on my blog for everyone who may wonder what makes us distinctly Methodist in the mix of denominations in the world.



Mainline or Methodist (Part 6)

Today we reach the final chapter in Dr. Scott Kisker’s book, Mainline or Methodist.  Thank you to everyone who has been reading along with this series.  In the final chapter, Kisker admits that he is a historian and not someone who easily makes suggestions about directions to take in the future.  However, as a committed United Methodist, he uses this chapter to propose several ways forward.

More than anything, he hopes to recover Methodism within United Methodism.  While this may seem like a strange comment to people outside of the UMC, Kisker reminds us of something very important.

Methodism was always most church (defined, as Wesley did, as “a company of faithful” people) when it was a movement…Methodists became more “churchy,” and we gradually ceased to be “one” through schisms, we ceased to be “holy” through lax discipline and compromise, we ceased to be “catholic” through denominational prejudice, and we ceased to be “apostolic” (that is, a “sent people”) through sloth.

Kisker imagines that Methodism might be recovered by once again becoming a movement rather than a church, and could mean that someone could be Methodist (in discipline and practice) as part of any denomination whatsoever.  More than that, this suggests being United Methodist doesn’t necessarily make you a Methodist!  He goes on to say that this movement toward recovering Methodism could begin with groups of individuals starting class meetings on their own, or even having Sunday school classes reframe their purpose in ways that modeled the class meeting.  This kind of small group life would involve asking seriously, “How does your soul prosper,” or in today’s language, “How are you doing spiritually?”  No vague comment about spirituality will suffice to grow as disciples.  We need to regain the practice of reporting to fellow Christians how we are doing in the traditional means of grace: prayer, scripture reading, study, etc.

This means that we would have to take the character of our tradition seriously.  Kisker even suggests that our official vision statement, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” is too vague.  Although it is certainly Christian, it doesn’t really suggest who we are.  He proposes returning to Wesley’s call, “to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.”  Imagine that!

We United Methodists have been playing church for a long time without being a Christian society.  We have [as Wesley feared] been “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” (1 Timothy 3:5, KJV)

To quit playing church and begin being the church, we need a renewed commitment to salvation,

A renewed commitment to holiness necessitates a renewed commitment to salvation, since holiness is the purpose of salvation.

After many other helpful suggestions and dreams, Kisker closes with helpful words,

Methodism began as a means of grace and a system of accountability.  It was an order within the larger church for the renewal of the Church.  If we are to recover that usefulness to the kingdom of God in the world, we need what we once had: a missional focus, clear simple rules, and a clear simple and flexible structure.

Can this be done within the United Methodist Church?  I personally think it can.  However, we will need strength and resolve to continue spreading scriptural holiness over the land, because this vision isn’t shared by everyone.  And like other phrases, “scriptural holiness” can be shaped and defined by whoever is using it.  My prayer is that we will continue to move closer in line with the work of God’s Holy Spirit and capture the passionate desire for salvation that the early Methodists had.  Then, we will see true renewal and revitalization.

Mainline or Methodist (Part 4)

In Chapter 4 of Dr. Scott Kisker’s work, Mainline or Methodist? Recovering our Evangelistic Mission, Kisker begins to discuss the “method” behind Methodism.  This chapter opens with a critique of what passes for evangelism and discipleship within the UMC today.  Kisker doesn’t hold back when he says most of what passes for evangelism in our denomination today,

[is] at best, a bankrupt vision of God’s purposes for creation and a truncated understanding of salvation.  At worst, we find practices that are little more than thinly veiled attempts to manipulate others through politics or marketing techniques.

Our challenge is to reclaim the strong theological grounding of the early practices of the Methodist movement.  Rather than trying anything to see if it works, or allowing our theology and practice to be grounded only in our personal preference or politics, we should follow Wesley’s practice of grounding our understanding of both evangelism and discipleship in the way, “God’s grace is active, working to save God’s beloved creatures.”

Kisker’s read of these practices follow Wesley’s admonition to preach Christ in all of his offices: prophet, priest, and king.   The corresponding practices, are field preaching, class membership, and band membership.  These also correspond to convincing (what we often call prevenient), justifying, and sanctifying grace.  His summary at the end of the chapter is helpful,

With those asleep in sin, Methodism’s missional task is to minister in Christ’s prophetic office – publicly, in the open air, at the market cross – to convince people of their need for God.  With those already convinced of their need for God, Methodism’s missional task is to introduce them to the one who can meet that need – to their great high priest.  With those who know God’s forgiving love, Methodism’s missional task is to work to save them from the power of sin – bring every part of their lives into the love of Christ the king.

These theological and missional tasks were expressed in practices that many United Methodist congregations (and affiliated organizations) have given up: open air preaching, class meetings, and band meetings.  Here is a basic description of those practices.

Open-air preaching: Wesley found places where real people gathered as part of their daily lives and introduced them to the message of God’s salvation.  He preached outside the walls of the Church, many times as often as twice a day.  He hoped to see people awakened to the, “hollowness of their search for happiness” in anything outside of God.  Kisker challenges us to find the modern-day equivalent of the market square.  In my D.Min. paper, I explore whether or not this is the virtual world of social media (Facebook, twitter, etc.), but we’ll leave that for another day.  After being awakened by God’s grace through open-air preaching, people were gathered in the class meeting.

Class meeting:  here, people were given opportunities for further response.  People were invited to talk in smaller groups about their spiritual state and were expected to live as followers of Jesus. These groups were limited to twelve members where people experienced authentic Christian fellowship, often for the first time.  Kisker cites Tom Albin’s research which showed, “the majority of experiences of the new birth happened after membership in the class meeting, at times in the meeting.”  In a sense, people most often belonged before they believed.  Kisker writes,

Perhaps it is not possible to recover the class meeting as it was for our present day.  But if our ministry is to be effective in the present age, we must recover what they provided: small, disciplined, hospitable, caring fellowships for non-Christians and Christians alike.

In our day, I wonder if traditional Sunday school groups can fulfill this role.  Kisker doesn’t seem to think so, but I think it’s possible.

Band meetings: finally, after being awakened by field preaching, incorporated into caring groups of discipline and community, early Methodists were joined in the band meeting.  Band meetings were sepearted by gender and were more confessional in nature.

To be a part of a band meant being willing to shuck pretense, to be humble before a brother or sister in Christ.  It meant acting as a priest one to another, acting in love toward another whose sin you know.  It meant allowing someone, who knows your sin, to act in love toward you.  It meant humility.  It meant Christlikeness.  It meant holiness.

People who participated in this methodical process often experienced “full salvation,” as they were empowered to experience healing, forgiveness, and participation in the work and ministry of Christ.  At the church I serve, this can best happen through our COS group ministry.  In fact, I’ve experienced this very thing with a small group of three other men that I meet with weekly.  Through their encouragement, support, and accountability, I see how I’m growing in grace and loving God and neighbor more than I have in a very long time.

Together these practices, rooted in a strong Wesleyan theology, prevent us from being just a charity organization or a political rally that uses the Church and scripture to validate our own biases and preferences.  They are a means God will use to form us as more passionate and dedicated followers of Jesus.  In part 5, I’ll look at Kisker’s thoughts on where this conversation might lead in the United Methodist Church today.

Making Disciples: Assembly Line or Environmentalist

As United Methodists we’re given the task of Making Disciples of Jesus Christ.  Much has been said about this statement, but in my reading I haven’t seen much made of the word “making.”

Today, I was part of a terrific conversation regarding discipleship within our local congregation, and I realized something.  The word “making” assumes more of an assembly line mentality than the way I think disciples actually develop.  Much has been made of the REVEAL survey at Willow Creek and the findings that participation in a series of programs often fails to bring profound Christian transformation in people’s lives.  In my mind, this is clear evidence against the assembly line model.  And yet, it seems that even congregations who are influenced by the REVEAL survey refuse to move away from programattic approaches and simply switch to different or better programs.

And yet disciples develop in Churches around the world.  As we spoke today, I remembered some of the deepest times of growth as a disciple in my own life.  Although I did participate in programs (Walk to Emmaus, Disciple Bible Study, Mission Trips), there was never a sense of working through an assembly line process.  It was much more organic. This led me to suggest that our role as pastors is more like that of an environmentalist or a landscape artist.  We are responsible for making sure there is an environment (or landscape) within our congregations in which disciples can develop organically.  Notice, I didn’t say “naturally.”  I think discipleship requires a lot of input and effort.  It doesn’t happen accidentally.

Like most of my blog posts, I’m still wrestling with an idea.  Is organic discipleship  is an adequate model?  One can definitely argue that “making” disciples is adequate.  A person could easily say that Jesus himself uses this language in Matthew 28:19, however in the original Greek we could just as easily translate matheteuo as follows, “As you are going, ‘disciple the nations,'”  The process-oriented word “make” really isn’t there.  On the other hand, this is a two-fold activity for Jesus: baptizing and teaching.  However, this is overseen and empowered by Jesus himself who says, “I am with you always…” This makes me think more of apprenticeships within a community – again a more organic model.

So, what is our role in helping people experience transformation as Jesus’ apprentices?  How do we aid people in development as disciples?  Are we charged to “make” disciples, or is our task one of creating an environment in which discipleship can flourish?  What does that look like?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Blueprint for Discipleship

If you are interested in the unique gifts Methodism and the Wesleyan tradition has to offer the world, then you’ll definitely want to pick up Kevin Watson’s A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living.  He does a great job of offering a simple yet challenging description of Wesley’s General Rules and the Methodist “method” for discipleship in a way that can help Methodists understand the beauty of intentional growth in grace.  

The book is well-written, easy to read, and includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter.  This makes it perfect for leading a group of laypeople through a class to help them understand the rich discipleship tools we carry in our “Methodist tool-belt.”

I Had a Good Experience with the Board of Ministry

Lately, there have been several posts on the Methoblogosphere about horrible experiences with the Board of Ministry.  Here is the most recent one I’ve read.  Even though I don’t know Will personally, the post seems pretty level headed and a genuine mistake on part of that board.  It seems that many folks have chimed in with horror stories about the Board of Ministry.

In fact, I have been hesitant to post my experience becuase for the most part it was positive.   The PPRC of my local Church asked all the right questions about my call, and would have been willing to share the hard truth if they believed I didn’t have a call to ministry.  My District Committee was encouraging and asked appropriately probing questions.  The BOM was rigorous and thorough, but I never got the sense that they were out to get me.

I’m not without complaints.  Yes, the process was really, really long.  Yes, I did have to know the process better than anyone else (including the board) and work hard to stay in contact with my conference while I was in seminary.  It wasn’t an accidental process by any means.

Our BOM retreats provided opportunities for me not only to get to know my fellow commissioned elders, they gave me time to get to know my interview team – several of whom I now consider to be friends.  My interview process allowed me to tell my story enough times that I am very comfortable talking about my call to ministry at the drop of a hat.  In fact, it’s my opening story as I teach in various Sunday School classes now.  The process allowed me to see how ministry shaped my theology following seminary, and I believe I was challenged in some places where I needed challenging and affirmed in some places where I needed affirmation.  In fact, I believe an authentic call to ministry is essential in sustaining a ministry during difficult times, and I thank the board for helping me discern God’s call in my life.

This isn’t a commentary on those who have had horrible experiences.  I don’t doubt their disappointment or experience.  I just want to lift up the fact that this experience isn’t ubiquitous.  No one lost any of my information, no one questioned my sincerity, and no one treated me as though I was anything less than a future colleague in ministry.

I want the BOM to continue to ask tough questions.  If I’m ever on the board one of the very subjective questions I’ll ask myself is this, “Would I want my son or daughter attending a congregation where this person is an Elder?”  If I can’t say yes, then I’ll think long and hard about whether or not to support them.  Granted, this should take place at the local church, and early on in consultation with their pastor.  But if that step is left out, I won’t be afraid to step in and ask it.

I would start to wonder if my experience might be the exception if I didn’t know that several of my friends (friends with a variety of experiences in early ministry, good and bad) have had similar experiences.  Hopefully this gives at least one positive experience to read among all the others.

All’s Well that Ends Well

I don’t know much about Shakespeare, but I do know he once wrote a play with this as the title.  Further, I’m really not sure what the play was about, but it popped in my mind as I was thinking about the next month and a half of my life as I prepare to change appointments.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to “leave well.”  As an itinerant pastor, I have a great responsibility to do my best to finish in such a way that it sets the congregation and the next pastor up for success.  I haven’t been through this process before, and it has been a real challenge to discern what steps to take along the way.

Several good friends have shared advice with me, and I appreciate their counsel.  This morning, I did some searching for resources online and came across a blog post from the Greater Richmond Area Christian Educators.  The post is called, “Leaving Well (If you’re going to go, go!)”  The formatting at their blog is a little wonky, so I’ll repost the major portion of it as I go.

Don’t plan for the congregation’s future. When it’s time for you to leave a congregation shorten your vision. Concentrate on leaving well and give the congregation’s future to the congregation—it’s no longer your responsibility. To be blunt, once you decide to leave your congregation’s future is none of your business.

To be honest, this one is a little bit hard since we are required to be working on the strategic plan for our conference.  I’ve struggled to find a balance of promoting the strategic plan with the realization that I’m leaving.

If you’re going to go, go. You don’t need to burn your bridges, but you need to get clear about what leaving means. Most clergy seem to do well once they get clear. For example, they will communicate with their congregation that when they leave they are no longer the pastor. So they’ll not make pastoral calls, conduct weddings and funerals, or get involved in church business. Clergy who are not able to go tend to become the bane of the new pastor and often do a great disservice to the congregation. It’s amazing how many clergy have trouble leaving their congregations. Sometimes they try to come back as members. But I’ve yet to see a former pastor of a congregation able to successfully return to their former congregation as just a member. It seems hard for them to appreciate that they weren’t just a member before, and never will be.

This one is the most common piece of advice I receive from my friends and colleagues.  Several have mentioned the shift from pastor to friend, and the need for a period of disconnect to allow the new pastor to join the new system.  I won’t comment on the few examples I’ve seen of people who simply don’t get this, because I can see how this is a difficult process.  However, because of those examples I think I’ll be more mindful of how I handle myself in this regard.

As you are leaving the function of your preaching needs to change. That change in function is primarily one of prophetic theological hope. This isn’t the time to try to plant insight into your congregation—if they didn’t get what you’ve been trying to say all those years they’re certainly not going to get it now. They’re listening to you differently. What they want to hear, and need to hear, is the affirmation of hope that they’ll be just fine without you! The second function of preaching at this time is to remind them of their story. Clergy often are the resident storytellers of the narrative history of the congregation. Too often a congregation experiences an episode of corporate amnesia when a pastor leaves. Now is the time to tell, and retell, the story of the congregation as a local people of God. Remind them of how they came to be, who they were, and who they are.

It has been more difficult than normal to preach the past few weeks, and I think this is helpful advice.  The lectionary has been helpful in keeping me from the temptation toward “last-chance indoctrination!”

Stay connected. One common emotional response of clergy who are leaving is to emotionally defect in place and begin to disconnect from their congregation. That’s understandable and may be a function of anticipatory grieving. But clergy need to work at staying emotionally connected to significant persons in the congregation—its leaders as well as others worth investing time with. Work on your grieving. Leaving a congregation, under whatever circumstance, involves loss, and loss requires grieving. Own it. Find ways to mourn appropriately (mourning is the outward expression of grieving), but don’t confuse your grieving with that of the congregation.

These have been unanticipated challenges.  As I said earlier, this is my first time to go through the leaving process.  I grew up in a denomination that would often have months in between pastors, and the first pastor would often leave fairly abruptly.  So, I’m experiencing a whole new system and process in that regard.  I’m working on this one!

Focus on your own vision and work on your own self. I’ve mentioned that in the early stages of discernment it is difficult to sift the important from the insignificant. In the midst of the fog of discernment I’ve seen clergy get stuck by weighing in, with equal weight, issues like, the children (even when they are grown!), the house, their age, the spouse (his or her job, friends, hobbies, etc.), giving up a short commute, the club, the salary, a perk, their nice office, the computer the church provided, etc. To be sure these are all important—but they are not as important as pursuing your own vision, calling, and goals. Change involves risk and it involves loss. As someone said, you can have anything you want, but you cannot have everything you want. The question becomes, What are you willing to give up in order to pursue your calling, vision, dreams, or desires?

This final aspect may seem to have more to do with people who are discerning whether or not to leave in a more congregationalist setting, but I think it applies to United Methodists too.  This paragraph helped me see that this next step in my journey is indeed something of a risk, but it’s also an important part of my attempt to pursue my calling and vision.  Change is hard, but it’s worth it to follow God’s call.

Altogether, I have a lot more work to do.  However, one of my most important tasks will be leaving well.  I think this list has been fairly helpful in thinking about some of the issues.  Any other advice or commentary on “leaving well” out there??

Smaller Committees and Life-Changing Discipleship

For some strange reason, I have been paying closer attention to some of the United Methodist megachurches. I just ran across this article on Emergent Village by Michael Slaughter. It’s an excerpt from the new edition of his book UnLearning Church.

Two things in this article stood out in my mind. First, some folks might assume big church = many meetings. Apparently this isn’t true at Ginghamsburg,

Older-mindset churches usually require a lot of committees and meetings. Ginghamsburg finds that its people have neither the time nor the patience for multiple committee activities, so we are down to one committee of nine people called the Leadership Board. No more staff-parish, missions, or finance committees. Major businesses operate with one board, but too often tiny churches become immobilized by layers of committees. They spend hours debating about what color carpeting to put in the church narthex, or about the precise wording of the congregation’s statement of beliefs.

Imagine a leadership board of nine people. There are congregations in United Methodism who average fifty people in worship and have 25 people serving on boards and committees. Imagine Ginghamsburg, who averages 4,000 in weekly attendance, with a Leadership Board of nine people. Interesting.

Another thing that stood out is his comment about “listen and learn” meetings,

Fifteen years ago, we would have emphasized getting people to show up for church programs and listen-and-learn meetings. We would have sponsored a seminar and gauged its success by how many attended. Now we measure success by asking “How are people finding life change and purpose through the experience?” People are not looking for church meetings so much as for life meaning.

This is something that really interests me, and it may be something I try to explore more in my D.Min. project and dissertation. Are there alternative ways for people to find life meaning through the local church that we aren’t taking advantage of? I think Web 2.0 and its emphasis on participation, rather than simply receiving information, might be one of those ways. Have any of your churches developed participatory Advent or Lenten studies using some of the newer technology (Twitter, Blogging, etc.)?

I know some of my purist friends will think I’ve lost my mind, and they’re probably right. I simply think we’re going to have to get more creative in our approach to making disciples. It’s too important to ignore. As United Methodists, I believe we have a tradition and commitment to offering in-depth discipleship. I’m not saying we need to “jazz things up” to get people interested. I’m just saying we need to work our tails off to think of creative ways to encourage discipleship via the means people are comfortable with and excited about using.

As always, there will be the argument that this will leave a certain segment of our people behind. That’s the great thing about a world where we can embrace “both/and” thinking. We don’t have to quit doing traditional bible studies, devotionals, and the like. There will be a segment of people who will continue to be powerfully transformed in those environments. We simply need to be mindful of the people that those setups won’t reach or transform. It’s not choosing one or the other. It’s about doing both with excellence.

New Appointment

United Methodist elders are itinerant. Even though wikipedia lists itinerant alongside words such as vagabond, hobo, and vagrant, we United Methodist elders generally use it to describe the way we are called upon from time to time to move within the denomination from one place of service to another. This generally happens at Annual Conference, but this isn’t always the case.

Over the last few weeks, my life has been a whirlwind after learning that I am receiving a new pastoral assignment. In mid-October, I will become the Minister of Discipleship at Church of the Servant United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. This is our first pastoral move as a family, so in a way we’re new to the actual experience of itinerancy. Even though we’ve always known that United Methodist elders eventually move, it’s still strange to feel the excitement of new opportunities for service, ministry and relationships while at the same time feeling sadness over leaving wonderful relationships, ministries, and places of service. All in all, I am just happy that we are now able to talk openly about this big change in our lives.

This shift, and the question of what awaits ahead, reminds me of a story I heard many times growing up. A long time ago, a man rode into a small town on horseback. He came up to the first person he saw, an old man sitting on his porch, and asked, “What are the people like here in this town?” The old man leaned back on his chair, looked off into the distance, and said, “Well stranger, what were they like where you lived before?” The traveler said, “Those folks were the meanest, angriest, lying, cheating folks you’d ever want to meet. Why do you think I packed up and left?” “That’s pretty much what you’ll find here too,” said the old man, “ya’ might want to keep ridin’.”

The first rider left, and not ten minutes later another man rode up and asked the same question, “What are the people like here in this town?” Again, the man leaned back in his chair, looked out from under his hat, and said, “Well stranger, what were they like where you lived before?” The traveler said, “Well, they were about as good as you’d ever expect to find anywhere, kind-hearted, good-natured, friendly, and generous. To tell you the truth, I hated to leave.” The old man smiled and said, “You’ll love it here! The people are just the same as where you lived before.”

I really believe there’s a lot of truth to that story. So even though I’ll miss the wonderful, incredibly talented, generous, and grace-filled people I currently serve, I look forward to meeting another group of wonderful incredibly talented, generous, and grace-filled folks in my new place of service.