Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thunder Fever and the Need to Contribute

Piedmont is experiencing Thunder Fever just like most of the metro area (and the rest of the state for that matter).  My kids got me a blue Thunder Finals shirt for Father's Day and I put it on for game three of the finals series that night.

Unfortunately, we lost the game.  I hesitated wearing it for game four; wanting to change up my habits in case it had become unlucky.  I mean we shot 62% from the free throw line that night when the season average was 82%.  Twenty percent is a major dip that cost us the game!

Okay, I realize that my new shirt didn't lose us the game.

And since I wanted to show my appreciation to my kids, I wore it again last night.

James Harden, NBA's Sixth Man
of the Year by Keith Allison, wikicommons
But then James Harden shot only 20% in that game after shooting 49% for the season.  Now we are facing elimination on Thursday night.

I along with many other folks around Oklahoma are a little bummed.

So the question is: do I wash the Thunder shirt and wear it again tomorrow or do I leave it in the laundry pile?

Human beings feel the need to contribute to the outcomes that affect their lives.  We don't like feeling helpless.  We don't like simply watching the world go by.

But unless we fly to Miami, buy a ticket and cheer wildly for the Thunder, we are likely not effecting the game play much of our favorite team.  Oh sure, you can talk overall morale of the team being infected by the enthusiasm of the environment they live in but in the big picture, we are not taking those shots.

As a pastor, I see the similarities with God's grace.  We want so much to earn our grace. We want to be worthy recipients.  We want to tip God's hand into acting on our behalf. But in the end, grace is God's to dispense.

In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus suggests that we are not to determine who is worthy but that we should leave this job up to God.

I've had people ask me "why" in regards to illness or loss in their lives.  Some feel guilty over some sin they had committed and wonder if the two things are connected.

Jesus seemed to answer this as well by talking about the people who died when a tower fell on them.  He said they weren't being punished for their sins.  It just happened.

That's our trouble.  We don't like it when things just happen.  We like to pretend we are in control.

But sometimes superstars miss free throws.

Sometimes referees miss calls.

And for good or bad, I'm along for the ride in spite of the fact that I won't have an effect on the outcome of the next game.

But I may not have time to do laundry before it gets here...

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Holy Spirit at Work

Ever felt like you couldn't catch a break?

Sometimes I resonate with the old Hee Haw song, "Gloom, despair and agony on me!"

But more often, I live with a quiet confidence that God is working through me and in spite of me and all around me.  This Saturday, I officiated at the wedding of Alex Howell and Curtis Getz.  Alex has been in the church since I confirmed her as a sixth grader so it was a special joy for me to share with them.

At the rehearsal, we had some electrical problems - there was a storm the night before and not all of the power was working - you didn't want air conditioning at the church on a Saturday afternoon in June, did you?  Is it okay if the florescent lights flicker on and off? Just pretend they are Christmas lights!

Our Trustees Chairperson, Dan Rempe, came out and got to work.

In the meantime, we had the rehearsal and everything went well.  After we finished, feeling good about the ceremony which is now only hours away, I casually reminded the bride and groom to bring their marriage license to the church the next day so that I could fill it out.

Instead of "Of course, Sam," I received some blank stares.

"You did stop by the courthouse this week to pick it up didn't you?"

"Umm... Curtis just flew in this afternoon."

Curtis serves in the Air Force and they hadn't had time to pick it up.

At this point, it was after 5 pm and I knew the courthouse would be closed.  It wouldn't reopen until Monday.

"We can still have the ceremony and we'll have to pick up the license on Monday.  You'll both have to be there because you'll both need to sign it."

But this didn't work either because he was flying back for duty - leaving on Sunday morning.

Imagine being a young couple just trying to get married on a tight schedule, knowing that relatives were already here from out of town.  What do you do?

It is at this point that we see how connections can work for good.  I believe that God works through our connections - our relationships with one another.  God is working for good in our lives.

Lois Dickerson was there helping out.  She was there because she served the church as a greeter.  She happened to see Alex at church the week before (Alex teaches one of our children's Sunday school classes) and Alex invited her to the wedding.  So Lois came to help out where needed that evening.

Lois's brother-in-law is Judge Ken Dickerson of Piedmont and so I asked for the number and I called him for advice.

After explaining the situation, he said that he knew the Canadian County Clerk, Marie Ramsey.  He would contact her and call me back.

Judge Dickerson called back and reported that she was waiting in El Reno for the couple if they would leave now.  I relayed this information to them and they hit the road (obeying all traffic laws I'm sure).

Amazingly, they managed to get their license.  The electricity was also fixed and in working order for the wedding (yeah for air condition!).  The ceremony was beautiful and everyone was happy.

At the reception, the DJ was a no-show.  But the guests pooled their Ipods and got the music going on their own.  "DJ?  We don't need no stinkin' DJ!"

Curtis and Alex Getz signing their marriage license.
All of this goes to show how things can work out for the good when we work through our relationships.  Some say that this is just humanity at work and I agree but the mystic in me adds that it is also more.  The Holy Spirit works in our lives through the Body of Christ.

It would have worked even if they didn't get the license.  They would have had the ceremony and Alex would have had to fly to South Carolina where they would have had a justice of the peace sign their license.  Messier and not ideal at all but do-able.  But it did work out.  The cool thing is now they have a great story to share with future generations.

This reminds me to remember how God is at work in our lives.  For my good as well as yours.  It also reminds me that connections are important and helpful.

How is your activity within the Body of Christ?

We are stronger with you than without you!

And I believe you are stronger with us than without us.

But that is just my faith talking...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I Spoke Too Soon

I really felt like my previous blog post, "No Guarantees" was late in arrival because General Conference is getting farther and farther in our rear view mirrors.  It had been written but commitments to the church, the annual conference and our United Methodist camps kept me from refining it for publication.  

Now, I wish I had procrastinated in releasing it for another twenty-four hours.  I would have seen the announcement by General Conference Secretary Reist stating:

The Book of Discipline 2012 does not eliminate security of appointment for elders.           The amendments to paragraph 334 that would have mirrored the changes in 337 were not supported by the committee.  They were not voted on in the plenary.  The language of 334.1, “Every effective elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued under appointment by the bishop provided that if the elder is appointed to serve in an affiliated relationship in a missionary conference (¶ 586) and that appointment is terminated by the bishop who presides in the missionary conference, then the responsibility for meeting this obligation rests with the bishop of the conference of which the elder is a member.” remains in effect.   
There's already been some hand-wringing by the Ministry and Higher Education committee members since the intent was to eliminate "guaranteed appointments" from the Discipline.  However, we don't operate by intent, we operate by church law.  The bishops interpret the church law for each conference.  The Judicial Council decides if the bishops have done so correctly.
The new language states that the bishops may recommend an elder to transitional leave which is a newly expanded clergy status that was recommended by the Ministry and Higher Education committee and adopted on the consent calendar (Item 358).  
My guess is that the Council of Bishops will rule that an elder put on transitional leave under its (now) expanded role is their appointment.  They are "appointed" to transitional leave.  
So the Judicial Council will be forced to decide if paragraph 334.1 continues security of appointment or not.   
Whether this stands or not, the General Conference did eliminate the security of appointment for Associate Members (Item 352 of the Consent Calendar).
What will tomorrow bring?

Monday, June 11, 2012

No Guarantees

Guaranteed Appointments in the United Methodist Church have gone by the wayside as of this January.  The General Conference did this in response to the shrinking of the denomination in the United States.  A way to trim the fat so to speak.

As we see resources diminishing, we have this hypothesized number of clergy who are deemed ineffective.  Until the end of the year, clergy are guaranteed to be appointed full-time as long as they don't do anything considered drastic.  There are some who seem to shrink their churches at a much faster rate than the majority of the clergy experiencing the same thing (around 2/3 of the Oklahoma churches have declined over the past five years). But unless they actually do something chargeable, the annual conference where their membership is located must continue to appoint them.

Now all this has changed.  A bishop can appoint to less than full time status or not at all.

For years, our anxiety around the shrinking numbers across the United States has been targeted at the clergy.  We've shifted the sieve further and further up the process of becoming clergy.

It used to be the fault of the Board of Ordained Ministry for letting in all these lazy malcontents.

Then it was the District Committee on Ministry's fault: "They never should have been sent to the Board of Ministry in the first place!"

Then it was the Local Church: "Don't recommend anyone for ministry that you wouldn't want coming back to serve your church!"

And so we've made the process more and more labyrinthine due to the fact that once they were in, we couldn't really get rid of them.

Now that the guarantee is gone, it seems that we should begin to look to ease up on our requirements.  I still believe that an educated clergy group is the best pool from which we can pick to serve our churches.  But I also know that there is a lot (and I mean a lot) of paperwork our candidates are required to do on the front end.  My cred: I've served as the Vice-Chairperson for the Board of Ordained Ministry and I currently chair our District Committee on Ministry.

I think about how much I learned in my first year of appointment.  It seems that we might begin to shape the process to allow people to try out the ministry at a quicker pace.  As we see the fruits of their labor, we can move them along through the process toward ordination.  If we discern that this may not be the way God is calling them to serve the church, we can gently move them into a different direction.

All of this could be done at the candidacy end.  People could become certified as candidates for ordained ministry much quicker than they are now.  This would allow them to attend Local Pastor's Licensing School and serve as either full time or part-time local pastors before going on to ordination.

Interestingly enough, local pastors were never guaranteed an appointment in the first place.

What can we do to attract young people to a position that is being asked to grow a church in a system that is shrinking overall?  We've taken away their guarantee to an appointment.  We've cut pension benefits in order to be more fiscally responsible.  Our health benefits seem to be less benefit for more cost each year.  The best answer may be letting them try it out to see if this really is their call.

I actually believe that this would be beneficial because of the God factor.  I am called to be a pastor by God.  I am called to do so regardless of the benefits or even the guarantee.  In this vocation, I have found not only joy and peace but my very identity.  An ordained Elder is who I am.  My hunch is that there are plenty of others who feel the same way.

Allow people to experience the ministry and if they are called to do it, they may also discover that this is fundamental to their being.  Regardless of the guarantee.

Here I am posing with Bryan and Angela Tener at Bryan's ordination this year.
They are obviously impressed with getting to take a picture with me.  I first met Bryan when
he was starting the process - about the same time that Q was being written down.  I guarantee that
Bryan is a minister with a bright future in the Oklahoma Conference!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Anxiety and the General Conference

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."

                 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

This could describe the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.  There's been a lot of anxiety over what we accomplished but maybe more anxiety over what we didn't.

The Call to Action received some major support by some heavy hitters in United Methodism.  A lot of bishops put their stamp of approval on it.  Rev. Adam Hamilton spoke out for it before and during General Conference.  He even showed a video interviewing a woman who was closing her church.  The implication was that this is where all our churches are heading if we don't get it together.

I saw and probably did a lot of this while in Tampa.
Picture by Julia Freeman-Woolpert, Concord, New Hampshire
It was stated by Rev. Hamilton as well as many others that what we do with the structure of the General Agencies really won't make or break the denomination.  The future lies at the local church level.  These moments of clarity didn't subdue our anxiety though.

I'm wondering if the fact that the majority of our leadership is coming from the Baby Boomer generation makes a difference in the level of anxiety.  They've always had the biggest numbers and they may be concerned about their legacy.  But schools have closed due to changing population dynamics and churches are now experiencing some of the same.

The Call to Action failed to secure enough ground support to pass.  And yet there was a great pressure to change due to the impending population shift within our denomination.  Basically, we have aged as a people.  The majority of our churches are old.  Everyone's looking ahead ten or twenty years and all we can see is tumbleweeds blowing around our sanctuaries.

Plans to change our structure abounded.  The Methodist Federation for Social Action was the first group to fire a shot across the bow with their own plan.  Then a collection of lay and clergy largely from the Southeastern Jurisdiction put forward Plan B.

None of these passed through the General Administration committee.  Those serving on other committees seemed to be shocked that no new plan passed and would be presented with majority support.  Derogatory comments were made about the committee members as if they were less holy or intelligent than the rest of us for not being able to get something - anything - passed.

The Set aside Bishop did not pass (more distrust of our bishops) but guaranteed appointments were done away with (distrust of the competency of our clergy as well as our laity - where do we think clergy come from in the first place?).  

A hybrid Plan UMC was thrown together and brought to the floor of General Conference (we suspended the rules to do so).  It passed with a strange feeling among the delegation.  No one was really happy with the plan and yet the anxiety generated leading up to the General Conference left many feeling that we needed to do something (even if we weren't really sure what we were passing).

Then the Judicial Council ruled Plan UMC unconstitutional and we had to scramble.  We passed the original General Agency proposals to restructure their own bodies.  Not as sweeping but it did cut the budget to what our projected income would bear over the next four years.

The feeling leaving General Conference was unusual.  For the first time, legislation was left on the table without seeing debate on the floor.  The current structure stayed basically intact.  We didn't add any over-site to the General Agencies which didn't help the mistrust of them (which may be a carry-over of the distrust of big government by the US delegates). 

There's been a lot of blog posts lamenting our lack of movement.  There's been a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I'm not sure why anyone who's studied systems theory was surprised.  This was a demonstration of the main tenet:

      Systems resist change.

We saw the same thing in 2008 when the Worldwide Nature of the Church proposals passed General Conference (barely) and then failed to secure the two-thirds support needed by the annual conferences.  

We see that change is needed by the population dynamics but we are unable to agree on what that change should look like.  And yet change will come.  

It will likely come at the ground level.  Churches will learn to successfully share the gospel with a changing society and they will grow or they won't and they will close.  Unfortunately, there will be more closings than growth.  But we will survive.

And this will facilitate change.  

We may have forgotten that God is a part of this process.  We believe that God precedes us wherever we go.  That includes what we do as a denomination.

I shared a devotion with our Annual Conference Council leading up to General Conference.  It was about when Elijah thought he was the only faithful one.  Then God informed him that there were 7000 faithful subjects left (which indicates the perfect number left to accomplish God's designs).  Elijah remembered that something larger than himself was a part of the change.

He learned to trust in God and not worry.

A Tale of Two Cities ends with revolution but it also ends with sacrifice for the greater good.  If we can learn to trust in what Christ has taught us about this, we will be fine.

The church will look different but that is to be expected.  

We're better off leading out of confidence rather than anxiety.

It is a confidence that God is out in front which really is the best of times.