Electing Bishops: Politics or Discernment

Hey all, I’m still blogging, but I just got back from Drew.  Since then, I’ve been swamped with a number of things that have prevented me from posting much lately.  Once I finish up about 50 pages of D.Min. stuff, I’ll be back to posting more frequently.

Until then, go check out Andrew Conard’s blog and enjoy the conversation on the politics of running for bishop.  I agree that we should aim for a higher level of discourse and discernment when electing bishops, but I also see the purpose of having easy access to the candidates writing, preaching, etc through personal websites.  It would be easy to see these pre-episcopal webpages as “vanity pages,” but I am inclined to think they’re the modern version of a printed handout.

I guess the question that we United Methodists need to wrestle with is whether or not campaigning is acceptable.  I’m gathering from Andrew’s post that he doesn’t think it is.  Amy Forbus weighs in over at the UM Reporter blog, and Jay Vorhees asks more questions at the MethoBlog.

So which is it?  Do we have a episcopacy based on politics or discernment?  I think the real question here is are these two things mutually exclusive?  I’m prone to think they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but I’m willing to hear other arguments.  Any takers?

Many Hands Make an Elder

This morning it hit me. Next Thursday, I’ll wake up as a full Elder in the United Methodist Church. This journey has taken about eight years, and it has defined so much of my life during this time.

Next Wednesday night I’ll walk up the steps to the chancel area of Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Two other elders that I’ve invited will join the Bishop in placing their hands on me, carrying on the tradition that stretches across the centuries. The Revised Ordinal on Services for the Ordering of Ministry reminds us of the ancient connections of this practice with 2 Timothy 2:6, as Paul encourages Timothy to, “…rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”

I always wonder how people make this decision and why each ordinand chooses the people they choose. I’ve asked the pastor who really helped me discern my call to ordained ministry. Dr. Guy Ames was my first pastor in the United Methodist Church at Chapel Hill UMC in Oklahoma City. He helped me see the ministry as something I might actually be called to pursue. I often say that he was the first pastors I met who I saw as a real person. He could have been successful in any number of other fields, but chose to follow God’s call to ordained ministry. Until I met him, I had never even considered those thoughts about being called as anything significant.

The other elder who will stand with me is my District Superintendent, Dr. Sandy Wylie. Sandy has been a friend, mentor, and supporter throughout my first years of ministry. He’s been there for me during a few difficult times in my first years in ministry, and he’s helped affirm my gifts in many different ways.

However, it takes many more hands to make an Elder. In the ordinal I described earlier reminds us,

The rite of ordination is the climax of a process in which the faith community
discerns and validates the call, the gifts, and effectiveness for apostolic ministry
by agency of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday evening will be the climax of a lengthy process that begins and ends with God through the support of community of faith. Because of the community of faith, there will be a thousand hands on my shoulders that evening.

I started to make a list beginning with my wife, describing my mother (who’ll be there that night) and my father (who died the October after I was commissioned), listing the mentors who took me through those early days of exploring the call, the churches I’ve served and attended, inlcuding the thirty-something little kids at VBS last night who signed a card for my ordination, and working through the extended list of colleagues and friends who’ve helped me in so many ways.

But as I was making this list, I realized how those people who accept awards on TV must feel! There’s no way I could mention every name. There’s no way I could count the number of hands that will be on my shoulders that night.

When I stand up after kneeling that night and receive my stole for the first time, I’ll be thinking about that multitude of hands. It takes at least a thousand hands to make an elder, and I thank God for every one.

Local Pastors, Get Out Your Buzzers…Maybe

During GC, I posted about local pastors possibly getting the right to vote for delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference. This wasn’t something that got a lot of attention during GC, and there was a bit of confusion over whether or not this really passed.

This morning I saw this article from UMC.org. Here is an excerpt,

The 2008 United Methodist General Conference approved a constitutional amendment giving local pastors, provisional members and associate members voting rights to elect clergy delegates to General Conference and jurisdictional conferences.

In 2005, nearly 15 percent––or 6,660 of the total clergy membership of annual conferences––were full-time or part-time local pastors. Of these, approximately 4,000 local pastors will be able to vote for delegates to the 2012 legislative meetings, should the amendment be approved during the 2009 annual conference sessions. In 2005, there were 2,492 probationary members, now called provisional members, and 2,065 associate and affiliate members.

To go into effect, the amendment must be approved by two-thirds of the aggregate vote of all clergy and lay delegates voting in the 2009 annual conferences, said the Rev. Robert Kohler, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Some of my faithful readers equate this to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and yes, I understand that 4,000 more people voting for delegates probably isn’t the kind of profound shift that will cause our denomination to be more or less faithful in the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

On the other hand, my Local Pastor friends seem to appreciate the potential opportunity to get some kind of voice in the process of electing delegates. To me, at least at least this would include them in the process. After all, they can’t serve either as lay or clergy delegates!

In any case, I’ll be voting that local pastors will get this opportunity.

If a Tree Falls in the Woods…

Remember that old question? If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to observe it, does it make a sound? Sometimes I feel like this is a metaphor for some of the things that happen at General Conference.

Our Book of Discipline and our Book of Resolutions are constantly expanding. If this keeps happening, we’ll probably have to have multiple volumes of both. We keep passing resolutions, adjusting language, and generally feeling pretty good about both.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it just feels like we still think that we’re living in the United States circa 1950, when Time Magazine published articles on our bishops (see here and here). I consistently hear about living in a post-Christian world until it comes time for General Conference. Then we pass legislation and wheel out petitions, all of which are consistently ignored. If we add an entry to the Book of Resolutions and no one is there to read it, does it matter that we’ve officially decided to increase our tithes on mint by 2%?

Don’t get me wrong. Even though it seems that we have a quadrennial bout with pessimism, I’m less skeptical than some of my friends and colleagues. It’s just that I sincerely believe that we should be trimming the fat, digging through the strata of bureaucracy, and focusing on mission more than ever. Instead, it seems that we spend far too much time churning out statement after statement and developing proposals until they reach the sky.

I suppose that’s one reason I’m encouraged by our focus areas. Making new congregations a priority is far overdue, but it is essential and encouraging. Thanks be to God, it is something tangible. This is something that will make a real difference in the daily lives of women and men wherever these congregations are planted. Our focus on reducing poverty and poverty related diseases in the name of Jesus Christ is also encouraging. These foci are not simply statements or a position. They are actions that will tangibly express the love of Jesus in the world.

We do have a future and a hope, but we have to remind ourselves constantly that this hope is in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It isn’t some vague disembodied hope in the human spirit. It isn’t nostalgia for the good old days when Time had a reporter at General Conference and congress actually cared what the mainline churches were saying. It’s a hope embodied in Christ, enlivened by the Spirit, and lived for the glory of God!

Local Pastors to Vote for Delegates

An interesting constitutional amendment will be sent for approval by annual conferences. You’ll find some of of the details in an article on umc.org.

If annual conferences approve the constitutional amendment, deacons, associate members and provisional members may join ordained ministerial members in full connection in voting for delegates to General and jurisdictional conferences. To be eligible to vote, local pastors must have completed the Course of Study or master of divinity degree and have served under appointment for served two consecutive years immediately preceding an election. Only ordained members in full connection with an annual conference may serve as delegates.

Stephen Taylor, over at NitroRev also has a few thoughts on this since he spent time on the committee that worked on this legislation.

I’m happy to see this pass, even though I’m sure many local pastors would like the opportunity to serve as delegates as well. In any case, I wonder what this means for the more politically minded among us. Will local pastors get more attention in election years than they have in the past? Will this mean we’ll have increased representation from clergy in rural areas? What do you think?

General Conference ’08

I’ve made plans, and I’m going down early Thursday morning to visit General Conference. I’m staying one night and leaving on Friday, so I’m not expecting to get much more than a taste of all that will happen there.

However, once I return, I’m planning to share my thoughts on General Conference, United Methodism, etc. on Sunday morning during my sermon. This isn’t something I do regularly, but I feel like the laity often only hear from the people with enough money to send out brochures and newsletters. So I’d like to examine what a wide range of people are saying and offer my prayerful thoughts on all that is taking place.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading up on some of the important issues facing our denomination. This reading makes me wonder something. If you were asked, “What are the four most important issues facing our denomination,” what would you say?

Control or Commitment in the UMC

In my last post, I reflected on some of Jim Collins’ insights from his chapter in Leading Beyond the Walls: How High Performing Organizations Collaborate for Shared Success. Jim’s chapter is the best in the book, so it merits another post (don’t buy the book on this basis, by the way – just read his chapter in the store).

He begins his second point with these words,

…executives must build mechanisms of connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice, rather than relying on systems of coercion and control.

Think about United Methodism (and most organizations for that matter). Do we rely on connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice or do we rely on systems of coercion and control? From administration to evangelism, I’m afraid that we often rely on the latter. Jim describes his high-powered research team and talks about the way he recruits people for that team,

…as a precursor to all our mechanisms of commitment and connection, each person invited to join the team receives a written and verbal orientation on team values, purpose, and performance standards and is asked to join only if he or she can commit to those principles. Before joining, each person is told, “If you have any doubt about whether this is the right place for you, then it is in our mutual interest that you decline this opportunity.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of rigorous introduction to the values and purpose of the organization reminds me of the old Christian catechism. Is it sad that becoming a member of Jim’s research team is more stringent and commitment laden than becoming a member of some of our churches?

It goes back to the basics here. If you don’t have team values, purpose, and performance standards, you can’t present them to people, and you sure can’t ask for commitment. Can you imagine having a clear, confident, and concise statement like that defining the mission of your local church? You could hand this to new visitors and say, “Here’s what we’re about, and everyone here is committed to it. If you have any doubt, it is in our mutual interest that you decline this opportunity.” Talk about true connectionalism!! This could be the same for clergy. Our connection could be in our adherence and commitment to core principles rather than in bureaucratic structures.

People often ask, “How do we get individuals to share our core values?” The answer is, “You can’t.” You can’t open somebody up and install new core values in his or her belly. The key is to find, attract, and select people who have a predisposition to sharing the core values, and to create an environment that consistently reinforces those core values, buttressing it with mechanisms of connection and commitment.

Interestingly, the predisposition can really be linked to the Christian concept of calling. I don’t twist arms to get people to join our congregation. My thoughts are that if they see what we’re doing and want to be a part of it, then they are welcome to invest their lives in our congregation and live our their faith in our community. If you have to be coerced, you won’t be committed.

Of course, God is the one who does all the calling and attracting. Once we have a little more faith in that, we can define and develop our core values more clearly.  Then we won’t have to rely so much on mechanisms of power and coercion. Only then can we describe and develop mechanisms of true commitment and true connection.

Jim write, “The minute you feel the need to control and mold someone, you’ve made a selection mistake.” We’ve been so vague about what people are committing to that we have to develop more stringent control methods and we end up arguing and spending valuable time working on power structures. On the other hand, a core of people committed to Christ, called by God, and enlivened by the Spirit will be thoroughly committed to the ongoing mission of the Church. Control and manipulation would just stunt the vibrant stuff that would come out of these folks, be they clergy or laity.

There’s a lot more I could say on this, but I don’t want to short-circuit the ideas that you’re coming up with. What are our core values? Once we articulate those, what mechanisms of connection and commitment could we implement to replace our mechanisms of power and control? Can the United Methodist Church survive thrive using a model that went out the window with cassette tapes and VHS? What do you think?

New Monasticism & Real Life

There’s a great story in the LA Times about a group of folks trying the “new monasticism” on for size (h/t TSK). Turns out it’s really hard.

As I was reading this article, I couldn’t help compare my life with these folks who are living in community while yearning to follow Jesus simply and whole-heartedly. Of course, I assumed, we would have nothing in common. After all, my wife, kids, and I live alone in a relatively small parsonage in a very small town in Oklahoma. We aren’t living on the mean streets of Philadelphia like Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way, or even the mean streets of Billings, Montana down from the pawn shop and beet factory. We probably have the same four varieties of salad dressing in our fridge, which is a sure sign, the article suggests, that simplicity has not yet been achieved.

Yet in the middle of these differences, I noticed something. Our small town offers community in a way that the Billings group struggled to achieve. While they were hoping to help their neighbors and wishing for kids to come by and shoot hoops, we have been blessed by a dynamic, interactive, living, breathing community that is drawn to Christ and the Church.

There are days when kids shoot hoops on the basketball goal on our garage. Saturday afternoon, while I was taking my Christmas Lights down (yes, yes), a young boy whose family we helped during Christmas walked by. He looked up at the roof and said, “Hey, Matt.” The next day, a little boy from the other side of the street rode his bicycle in front of the house. His wave was made even more special because his bike was donated at Christmas by a generous and anonymous stranger through the Church. I had the privilege to deliver it so his grandmother could give him a gift. Often, I’m able to stop my truck, roll down the window, and ask kids, “Has your mom found a new job yet? Ya’ll doing alright?” A trip to the post office is never just a trip to the post office. It’s an opportunity to comfort those who’ve recently lost loved ones. It’s an opportunity to ask about Jim, the brother-in-law in the hospital. It’s an experience of true community.

We may not be new monastics, but in the middle of life as a itinerant United Methodist pastoral family, we’ve experienced real community in the middle of real life – inside and outside the walls of the church building. We’ve had to think hard about what it means to live in a particular place at a particular time, while being about a particular mission for a particular God. We’re asking many of the same questions as our new monastic brothers and sisters about what it means to follow Jesus simply and whole-heartedly. Often, like them, we get it all wrong. Yet there are times, like our more monastic-minded friends, that the Kingdom peeks through the clouds of everyday life and illuminates everything around us. In whatever form you experience it, that’s a life worth living.