Church Renewal

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The Devil Did It! : Thoughts on the UMC and Guaranteed Appointments.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.  -Luke 17:33 (NRSV)

I was raised by a wonderful woman of faith: my mother.  Over the past 24 hours I have been thinking about the UMC and the hot topic of guaranteed appointments after the Judicial Council ruled against their elimination.  I keep thinking about what my mother would say which would be something to this effect:  The devil is great at distracting us from Kingdom work.

Now, mom and I have some differing opinions on the existence of the devil, etc. but man do I wish I could agree with her that this is something the “devil” did.  It would be easier for me to deal with if I could blame it on the devil. Unfortunately, the fact is we have no one to blame but ourselves for this distraction. We are getting pretty good at it might I say.  If it isn’t guaranteed appointments and ineffective clergy then it is something else, right?  We keep bouncing from symptom to symptom to try and figure out what is wrong so we can save the UMC.

Are we so arrogant as to think that God needs us?  Why are we so focused on keeping the life of the UMC going? I mean it seems to me the more that we are focusing on ourselves and our existence as a denomination the more and more we end up being ineffective for the Kingdom of God.

I probably sound pretty negative so far (whoops), but the truth is I love the UMC and it is the place where I found my spiritual home. However, I remember when I became United Methodist and it wasn’t because of an “effective clergy person” and it wasn’t even because of an abundance of “small groups” or “vibrant worship” offered at my local congregation. No the reason I became United Methodist is because my local church pointed beyond itself to God. (at least in my naive 8th grade eyes of experience) My experience was of a church which pointed beyond itself to something bigger. But now I have to wonder, how often are we pointing to something bigger than the UMC (i.e. The Kingdom of God) and how often are pointing at ourselves?

The devil has gone and done it, like a great “shell game” con we have been duped into focusing on the wrong stuff. Well that is if the devil did do it, unfortunately I think the blame lies square on the person looking back at us in the mirror. (yeah even me)

Image taken from:  http://allegriaimagesbylynn.blogspot.com/2011/01/shell-game.html

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#GC2012 & Guaranteed Appointments: Part 2

What an eventful morning at General Conference.  From guaranteed appointments being eliminated via the consent calendar to then being asked to reconsider and that being voted down.  What an up and down morning.  What we do know is this: guaranteed appointments are gone and there are measures in place in an attempt to ensure that abuse does not happen.

Again, I have no problem with eliminating them.  I have had this thought since before I was even ordained.  My call comes from God, that has been affirmed by the UMC but ultimately if at any point in my ministry that affirmation is deemed no longer valid I have trust that God is still with me on the journey.  I will always ask questions and challenge because I care deeply about the UMC and about seeing God’s Kingdom advanced.  Job security doesn’t scare me because I trust God will provide wherever that path may lead.

All that being said, yesterday I wrote a post listing some “unintended consequences” that could come from the elimination of guaranteed appointments in an atmosphere of mistrust and decline.  I wanted to write about another unintended consequence that is not meant to say that the elimination is wrong, but rather to make us all aware as we move forward to help address and hopefully build the trust that is so desperately needed if we are to continue in our faithfulness together.  I believe the measures put in place along with the elimination of guaranteed appointments will help guard against many of these, but the truth is often perceived reality is more powerful than actually reality.  If I perceive a threat (whether it is real or not) I am going to react accordingly.  So here is one of the things I believe we are going to have to monitor and address for the health of the entire denomination.

  • Pastor’s who are struggling will hide those struggles out of fear of its adverse effect on their employment rather than bringing it to the attention of conference leadership so that it can be dealt with in a healthy manner for both the clergy, local church, and conference.

There is already a bunch of mistrust in the system even with the guarantee of appointment.  Often clergy who could use help hide that need out of fear of adverse effects on the type of appointment they may get.  I am afraid that with the added fear (again perceived not necessarily actually real) of employment security, many clergy will hide those things that could easily be addressed and then later it becomes a bigger issue with much more damage to all parties.  It is hard to say we need help even in a system of deep trust, but it is even harder in a system where there is doubt and trust issues.

Ultimately, the issue isn’t really about having guaranteed appointments or not having guaranteed appointments but rather it is about trust.  How can we as churches, laity, clergy, and conferences help to address the mistrust and doubt we have within the system.  How can we encourage one another to continue to speak boldly as God leads and to trust that through it all God is with us?  I think it is going to be especially important for clergy to hold one another accountable by building trust and support even in the midst of mistakes and hurt.  We will all need to monitor one another to make sure abuse isn’t happening at all levels of the church.

But basically the biggest question is this:  Can we trust one another and most importantly can we trust God is with us on the journey no matter what?

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#GC2012 and Guaranteed Appointments

One of the things coming before The United Methodist General Conference is going to be the recommendation to eliminate guaranteed appointments.  Before I get into the crux of this post, I have to be upfront:  I have long supported and don’t have a problem with getting rid of guaranteed appointments.  Understanding how they came about, though helps us understand some of the aversion people have to getting rid of them.  They were created in a culture where it was important to have a “check and balance” as reform (the ordination of women) was being instituted to guarantee there was protection (or at least that is my understanding and take on it). I totally get it and yet I still think it is not something that we as clergy should have as an absolute right because it can be abused.  So yeah, I have no problem with getting rid of them.

However, I think those voting at General Conference should think long and hard and pray about this because of the current context.  First, we are instituting this in a time of decline and anxiety.  There are huge amounts of mistrust (that can be scene by just listening to people in conversation or looking at some of the tweets in the twitter-verse) and instituting something like this in a culture like that can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences.  At its core, the ridding of guaranteed appointments is about giving Annual Conferences the ability to gracefully exit clergy who have “check out” and no longer are living fully into their call to ministry.  I get it, but in this system of mistrust here are some things that I fear will be possible unintended consequences:

  • Reformers that the UMC needs will remain silent out of fear.  As much as we would like to think this won’t happen, I fear it will.  One only needs to look at our current “provisional” period to see this already happening.  So often I hear clergy who are in the provisional period hold back on prophetic speaking because they are afraid of not being ordained, or even sometimes they are told not to rock the boat until they are ordained.  This doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help the system face the change it might face.  Whether the “abuse of power” actually exists or not doesn’t matter, it is the perceived power over.
  • Unpopular clergy will be gracefully asked to leave under the auspices of being ineffective.   Perhaps this is different from conference to conference or even region to region, but we live in a connectional system.  That has many benefits, but it also has drawbacks.  The “reputation” of clergy can quickly spread.  I have heard individuals upset because of the pastor they were getting (based on 2nd hand or even 3rd hand knowledge of the individual), this easily could lead to the pastor being viewed as “ineffective” because churches won’t “buy in” to the pastor because if the weather the storm of making him/her look bad by not engaging for a couple of years the reputation will gain momentum.  I hope this doesn’t happen if this legislation passes, but it could be a potential unintended consequence.
  • Newer clergy will not be given the time needed to mature in ministry.   The fact is many of our new clergy coming into the system are being trained to face the new day and the context we now face.  This doesn’t always match up with the lived out culture of many of our churches because they have hunkered down and are still behind the “times.”  It takes new clergy time to understand the churches and there are bumps and bruises along the way.  My fear is that the “fruits” of ministry that might lead to evaluations of clergy being effective or ineffective could lead to earlier exits for many of the clergy we might need the most because they aren’t given time to mature and learn.  (I trust this won’t happen, but is it that far of a stretch for a system to want to cut its losses sooner rather than later…my fear is at the first sign of “problems” the path to exit may be made)
  • Those that challenge the system will face “abuse” to try and keep them from challenging.   Power is an easy thing to use over someone under that power.  I am afraid that those who might challenge the system could easily see that power used to try and “keep them in line.”  Systems are powerful things.  Power has a way of trying to maintain the order that brought about that power.  Basically, what I said about people remaining silent out of fear is looking that this in the best light, but we have to face the facts that real abuse could still be used and even the “accountability” factor of reporting in the exit can be influenced to achieve the desired outcome.

Ultimately, I trust that God will be with us in all of this, but I do fear that we must be aware of the real mistrust that abounds and how something that would be of great value in a system full of trust could have major unintended negative consequences.  May God be with all those voting and may we see the path God has for The United Methodist Church as we move into the future.

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Criticism: Is it Killing the Church?

If there is one thing that the church (and perhaps all of society) is filled with it is this: criticism. Let’s admit it. We are really good at critique. We critique our experience of worship. We critique our leaders. We critique ourselves. We critique.

There is always something we could have done better. There is always something more we could do. There is always something that wasn’t quite good enough.

Well guess what: criticism is killing the church. Yes, I am going to just come out and say it but criticism is a problem for us. (Yes, I get that in righting this post it is a critique of how we critique) Analysis is an important part of life for individuals and equally for institutions. We only change and get better if we are analyzing how we are doing, but I have noticed a trend that often our “de facto” position is one of negative critique rather than starting with positive analysis.

I understand this first hand because of my experience in my first church. I can admit that much of what I wrote about in the above paragraphs aptly describes my own “de facto” analysis of the world around me, but I have begun to see how life draining this can be both personally and to those around me. I can quickly see the possibilities that exist within the church and it was no different in that first appointment. My mistake was using negative critique rather than starting from positive analysis. Want to guess how my first 1.5 years there went? The church was miserable and I was miserable. We got stuck in a rut together because we were full of attitudes of what was wrong. However, thanks to some guidance from my district superintendent I began to celebrate what we were doing well and the attitude within the church began to change and my attitude began to change.

I see this in my children also. My oldest son struggles with reading. When I work with him on his reading my instant reaction is to point out when he says a word wrong. Want to guess what happens? He gets discouraged and thinks he can’t do it and this in turn frustrates me and the cycle continues. The frustrating part for me is that I know he can do it. However, I am part of the problem because of the way I work with him. (Something I am working on from a parenting perspective) He feels the pressure and it causes him to “not want to fail.” This is different than him “wanting to succeed.” It really is like the “half empty glass” or “half full glass” perspectives. About a month ago when I was walking with Micah to school we played a game.  I would point to something and say what it was and have him try to spell it. It was a playful time and my attitude was much different than when I would work with him on homework. Instead of pointing out how he was wrong, I would celebrate when he spelled it correctly (these were some tough words) and when he got it wrong I told him how close he was and how his thinking was right but this word was tricky and then told him how it was spelled. I noticed something different in his attitude as we did this. Instead of being de-motivated and wanting to just be done with it, Micah was motivated and wanted to continue the game. The only difference was I was using positive analysis rather than negative critique.

I really have begun to look around and have started taking note of the way we say things and the way we write things within the church. I am noticing that a significant majority of our writing comes from a “negative critique” stance and I wonder if it isn’t part of what is killing us as a church (both from an inside and outside perspective). Could it be that something so simple as changing our attitudes and the way we interact with one another and lead within the church could be the key to “renewal?”  I am beginning to think so and I am personally working on this myself as a leader within the church and as an individual. (Something that is very difficult and will take serious reflection and practice) I believe we all want the same thing. We all want to see the church be everything that the church can be. We all want to see the world transformed through the church living into its mission of participating in God’s making of disciples.

Perhaps this is part of the “adaptive challenge” facing the church. Perhaps it isn’t about “technical things” like small groups, contemporary music options, and great leaders but rather about our attitudes in leadership and within the church.  What do you think? As you think about this, I would love for you to take note of the things you read and what you hear from leaders and others. As you take note, try to notice the underlying attitude of the communication: is it “positive analysis” or is it “negative critique.”

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Leadership Summit Reflections

*image via virtualschooling.files.wordpress.com

The United Methodist Church held a webcast yesterday to discuss our latest commissioned study that resulted in the Call To Action Report. I watched the webcast from my office while interacting with others on twitter via the tag #umclead. The reaction to the report/presentation I think is best summed up this way: the twitterverse wasn’t to sure that the “drivers” and statistical accountability is the answer to our problem.

To be honest I understand many of their sentiments. I don’t believe the presentation was meant to be taken this way, but it really did come off as an institutional survival presentation rather than a call to be a movement. (even though this was explicitly stated by Bishop Palmer within the Q & A portion)

Here is what I think most people heard: Dashboards are the key. Now I know that this isn’t want the report or the presenters are really saying, but that is what many people heard. I have to admit it did seem that we were being told the problem is that we haven’t been accountable to the statistics and if we were we could address the problem and that is where I have a slight pause. The problem is still there. The statistics might help us recognize a problem exists and try to address it, but the “Call to Action” then just ends up telling us what we already knew: there is a problem.

The telling moment came when a question from the Congo was shared: “What is God’s vision for the UMC?” That was the heart of the matter that people were looking for and that was still left unanswered. I think Bishop Palmer and the others hinted at an answer with the assertion to return to being a movement, but there was no direction/vision for how to do that. I was left asking this question over and over in my head: “Is the UMC willing to die for the sake of the Gospel? If not we may have a disconnect?”

If our questions continue to center around the UMC and its survival, I feel we will never return to a movement. I don’t believe movements are about creating an establishment/institution and then making sure it survived. A movement, in my estimation, is willing to do anything, even cease to exist, if it can accomplish its goal. Which brings me to my question again: Are we willing to let go of our own survival as an institution and focus on what God has called us to do? What if we trusted that God would provide and looked instead on what we have been given and how we can best be stewards of those gifts?

What if we stopped asking what was wrong or what is missing and instead focused on what is right and what we already have (which is enough in my estimation)?

My parting thought is this: The UMC needs God but God doesn’t necessarily need the UMC and until we recognize that I think we will continue to struggle and fail to be a movement.