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


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.”


Remember Your Baptism….

How many of you remember your baptism? Many of us as United Methodist might not be able to “remember” our baptism in the form of “recollection” because many of us were baptized as infants.  However, I am not one of those United Methodists who were baptized as infants because I didn’t become United Methodist until I was a teenager and the faith tradition my family came from “dedicated” infants.  So when we are told to remember our baptism, I can remember it clearly because I was in 7th grade.  I can remember Rev. Donald Baker pouring the water over my head at Faith Community Reformed Church and I can remember the feeling of overwhelming awe.

There was a great video to begin worship here at Exploration where a woman shared coming to terms with “remembering” her baptism after being told in school to “Remember the Alamo” and struggling with how to remember something she didn’t witness.  Her teach said something to the effect that she is to remember as to remind herself of the experience.  It is different than recollection of some stored memory but rather the practice of remember the reality that did happen.

In baptism God acts upon us and makes us a new creation, but with that act of creation God also calls us into ministry.  Everyone gathered here this weekend was called into ministry through their baptism.  That means that no matter how that call takes shape (ordained ministry or lay ministry) we are all called as followers of Christ.  I was struck by the way that Rev. Adam Hamilton framed our call as Christians:  “As Christians we are called to be the light of the world….so go punch holes of light in the darkness.”  That brings our call down into something manageable.  In all our walks of life we are called to bear light to the world around is.  Can you imagine what the world would be like if every Christian approached every interaction by asking, “How can I punch a hole of light into the darkness that may be present in this situation?”

My hope is that everyone who reads this recognizes that the call has already been placed upon you.  It is not something in the future, but something that happened in the past with ramifications in the present and future.  You were called in your baptism.  You already are in ministry and here this weekend the exploration for everyone is really this: to which context of life are you called to live out that calling.

My God’s whisper tickle your ear and soften your heart to gain clarity for the amazing things God can do through you.  In the words of Adam Hamilton, “Dream God Sized Dreams!”


Trusting in God

So an interesting thing happened to our family and our church this past weekend. Here is the story:

I helped with a funeral on Saturday at our church and I was waiting for someone to drop off a prop for the narthex to help with our theme for Sunday. As I sat in my office waiting, my phone rang and it was one of the students who goes to our church. He was working at a hotel and some college aged individuals carrying a cross had come through and he found out they were traveling from Pickwick to Bloomington. Knowing that Stacy and I try to practice hospitality whenever we can he called me figuring I could figure out how to connect with them since he was working and unable to help.

Well after the canoe got dropped off and placed in the narthex of the church, I headed down to Target to see if these individuals were still there. As I approached Target I kept looking around just in case they had started moving. I kept seeing groups of college aged individuals everywhere (no surprise in a college town) but no group carrying a cross. Finally, I spotted them in a field between a bank and Walgreens and so I drove around and parked in the Walgreens’ parking lot just in time to catch them. I told them I had heard they were traveling to Bloomington and asked them to tell me their story.

They were four students from Bethany School of Mission who had been blindfolded at 4:45 a.m. and driven from Bloomington and dropped off at Pickwick. This was an exercise in trusting God and so: (1) they had no money (2) they could not openly ask for help but only could received what was offered (3) if they were offered a ride they could only go 20 miles with that individual.

How many of you would have done this? They didn’t know where they were getting dropped off or how in the world they were going to get home?

I told them that our family would like to help them since it was supposed to storm that evening by providing them a meal and a place to stay and see what happens from there. They gladly accepted after having walked 20 miles that day. When we got to our house I learned a bit more about each one of them: Samantha from Texas, Angela was from St. Paul (actually Woodbury but she said nobody knew where Woodbury was so she says St. Paul…I knew where it was), Taylor was from Tennessee, and Nathanael was from Pennsylvania. We got to hear each of their stories and how thy ended up at Bethany and discovered that they all were training to be missionaries. We also discovered that there were ten groups of 4 individuals that were sent out to various parts of Minnesota to find their way back to Bloomington.

I also discovered that each group had an emergency cell phone that they could use if they had not been offered shelter by 8:00 in the evening and someone would come and get them and take them back to Bloomington (which was good to know that they wouldn’t have been stuck in the downpour had it come to that for them).

Well we ate a meal and visited and I told them that I was hoping to put together a caravan of vehicles to get them back to Bloomington the next day and wondered if they wanted to go to church with us and share their story with my senior high youth sunday school class and then head out after lunch to get back to Bloomington. They agreed and so the adventure began. I was planning on just posting a message on Facebook to see if my friends closer to the Twin Cities would respond but then as I thought more I thought this would be a great opportunity for our church to live into abundant giving. I posted a message on Facebook that evening and set out to tell these student’s story in the morning along with checking if anyone responded to the Facebook post (which was cryptic because of me posting it on Twitter in 140 characters or less…note to self that Twitter isn’t the best vehicle for describing a need like this).

I woke up in the morning and had no responses to Facebook and so I went and announced their story at the 8 a.m. service then ran home to pick them up to get back in time for sunday school. When I got back I was already halfway complete with the caravan (we needed 6 drivers to give them a ride for 20 miles each…myself and another member had already agreed to do it the night before) and so I share again at the 10 a.m. service and we completed the number needed for the caravan (plus I had a few extra that had agreed to help but weren’t needed). God provided abundantly for this group in need.

We took off at 1 p.m. as a caravan of 6 vehicles stopping every 20 miles to switch vehicles and then the vehicle that had completed that leg of the journey would head back to Winona. I had the last leg because I wanted to see their school and I wanted to hear some of the other teams stories. We made it back to Bethany (well not fully, I got them to .5 miles from the school but then they got picked up by another caravan that had another group with them for the last .5 miles) and I got to see their school. I heard that five of the groups had to call the night before and only one group was still out.

Overall, it was a great experience to hear the wonderful stories of these four individuals and how they came to trust in Christ with their life. I truly believe that God worked through the situation not only to bless them in their travels but to bless our church with their presence and their story of trust.

That gets me to my last reflection on this event. This past week our denomination (The United Methodist Church) had the Leadership Summit where they talked about “drivers” of vibrant and healthy churches, etc. As I have reflected on this story I can’t help but believe that one of the “qualities” of a vibrant and healthy church is this: “trusting in God.” Do our churches and do our denomination deeply trust that God will provide? Is this “trust” central to our “dna?” Metrics can’t capture this but I believe this is one of the true “fruits” of a vibrant and healthy church….

Here are some pictures from the caravan back to Bethany:


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.