The Conditional Covenant: A Reflection in Response to Tom Lambrecht

Today an article from United Methodist Reporter (UMR) circulated amongst my friends. It is a good piece (in my opinion) by Jay Vorhees that asks some good questions of Tom Lambrecht, the Vice President and General Manager of Good News. Within the UMC world there has been large discussion about schism and the breaking of covenant mostly surrounding the issue of homosexuality which is often is narrated as a larger disagreement around the inspiration and authority of scripture. This post isn’t going to get into the larger issue, but rather two quick thoughts that I had in response to some of Mr. Lambrecht’s answers.

First, I was very troubled by the following question and answer:

Isn’t withholding financial support of the denomination also a breaking of the covenant? 

We believe that the actions of dozens of clergy to perform same-sex unions without a corresponding accountability for those actions have already broken the covenant.  Some progressive groups have already pledged to not only withhold financial support but to disrupt church meetings and impose their agenda upon the church.  To the extent that the covenant is already broken from one side, we believe that to that extent those on the other side are not bound by it any longer.

What really got my attention was that last sentence in the answer: “To the extent that the covenant is already broken from one side, we believe that to that extent those on the other side are not bound by it any longer.” If one is attempting to uphold the importance of the covenant that we have promised to maintain isn’t it an issue to also then break that covenant based upon the condition of the other parties upholding it? The Book of Discipline states:

Ordained persons exercise their ministry in covenant with all Christians, especially with those whom they lead and serve in ministry. They also live in covenant of mutual care and accountability with all those who share their ordination, especially The United Methodist Church, with the ordained who are members of the same annual conference and part of the same Order. The covenant of ordained ministry is a lifetime commitment, and those who enter into it dedicate their whole lives to the personal and spiritual disciplines it requires. (Paragraph 303.3)

The way I understand the last sentence of Lambrecht’s answer he is basically saying it isn’t a lifetime commitment but rather a commitment as long and to the same extent that others uphold that commitment. If we are called to maintain the covenant then we are called to be faithful to it no matter what others may do. Based upon Lambrecht’s response it would seem to me that by breaking the covenant also this move then justifies future breaking of the covenant by those on “the other side” (who up until this point have maintained and upheld the covenant) to the extent that “his side” has now broken the covenant. It becomes a tit-for-tat nullification of the covenant all-together.

The power of the baptismal covenant is the fact that despite our unfaithfulness the covenant remains because of God’s faithfulness. If one is to care about the “other side” in a covenantal relationship then one maintains the faithfulness to the covenant in hopes of bringing the other part back into the covenantal relationship. I can only imagine this argument given by a husband or wife in response to an unfaithful spouse: “Well I believe I am now justified to cheat on you because I am no longer bound by the fidelity portion of our covenant.” A spouse who wants to uphold the covenant and remain in relationship is going to remain faithful (in all aspects of the covenant) in hopes of returning that upheld covenantal relationship.

Basically, that response scares me if this is how any of us are going to respond to the actions of “this side” or “that side.”

Second, I was also troubled by this question and following response:

There are some who have said that the phrase “…those of us who are biblical Christians…” was condescending and suggests that you believe that anyone who disagrees with your positions is not biblical nor Christian. Isn’t the central issue that divides us a different way of approaching and interpreting the biblical text? Are you saying that those who disagree with your positions are non-biblical? Where is there room for disagreement on biblical interpretation?

Progressive groups have adopted the mantra “biblical obedience,” implying that those of us who support the church’s teaching are not obeying Scripture.  How is our statement any different?  We recognize that Christians of good will can disagree on matters of biblical interpretation.  However, the real division in our church today is not over issues of sexuality, but over our views on the inspiration and authority of Scripture.  There are many clergy and laity in our church today who reject the deity of Christ, the atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and other cardinal doctrines of the faith based on the same approach to Scripture that leads them to reject the church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage.  Those who adopt such an approach are not operating biblically.  Our statement does not claim that we are the only biblical Christians.  It says that “those of us who are biblical Christians AND who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline” are needing to examine what options are available to us.

I am a bit troubled by the simplicity by which Lambrecht divides the “sides” in this response. There is not really any space for those in the middle (i.e. those who are biblical Christians AND who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline” but still disagree with the church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage). This is where I begin to find it a bit disingenuous when Lambrecht states, “However, the real division in our church today is not over issues of sexuality, but over our views on the inspiration and authority of Scripture.” I know more than one evangelical Christian that maintains a high regard and orthodox position around the inspiration and authority of Scripture but has arrived at a different conclusion around homosexuality that is the crux of this disagreement. The final thing that troubles me is that his earlier response to the first question above seems to me to be contrary to his last statement about “those of us who are biblical Christians AND who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline” since he said neither side was now bound to uphold that covenant to the degree it was violated.

Each and every day that I read more surrounding the divisions in our church I grow more and more thankful for the grace of God and the faithfulness of God in our own unfaithfulness. My hope is that we may be inspired to hold one another accountable but to do it with faithfulness and love towards God and one another.

Image by Flickr user Katie Tegtmeyer. Licensed under Creative Commons. Cropped and Resized from Original.


What’s Next

So this weekend I have been hanging in St. Louis with over 500 students from around the country for the UMSM College Student gathering known as “What’s NEXT.”  So far it has been a really interesting and inspiring weekend.

Why inspiring?  Well when you find yourself surrounded with over 500 college students that are asking themselves what God might have in store for their lives and for the life of God’s church it ends up being a time of energy and passion.

I am here because I was part of a group of 8 speakers selected to share with this group things that we are passionate about or things we hope will inspire another generation of leadership within God’s kingdom.  The speakers have been diverse and their topics were diverse which to me is inspiring in itself because it shows the ways that God has blessed many different people with many different gifts and passions.  It is a true example of how God’s Spirit works to build up the community of Christ.

The question running through my head as the weekend continues is this:  “What actions and changes will the United Methodist Church experience from the inspiration these individuals received?”  What will be the impact for the kingdom as these individuals go forth empowered through God’s Spirit to do great things for Christ?

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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.


Renewal: Final Reflections on Exploration 2011

And so this is still a live promise. It wasn’t canceled at the time of Joshua; otherwise, God wouldn’t keep renewing the appointment for “today.” The promise of “arrival” and “rest” is still there for God’s people. God himself is at rest. And at the end of the journey we’ll surely rest with God. So let’s keep at it and eventually arrive at the place of rest, not drop out through some sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:8-11 The Message)

It is interesting how God moves in unexpected ways.  I went to Exploration to encourage others and to be a part of that discernment process through sharing my experiences and thoughts.  I went expecting to help others (which I hope I did), but in the end I left with a renewed sense of my own call.

Its hard to describe, but I feel like I have been wandering in my own little desert like the Israelites did between Egypt and the promised land.  Like the Israelites longing to go back to Egypt, I have been playing with thoughts of longing to go back to the days of simple labor like I had at BH Electronics as an inventory control clerk.  I have been struggling to see the promised land, to see that God is still on this journey and has given us a “live promise.”  Just like Israel, I couldn’t see the possibilities in the promised land, I was only caught up in the day to day life of ministry and not able to see the future.

It is hard to say this, but I felt like I was going to Exploration following a path like Moses, unable to enter the promised land but able to see it and to pass on the leadership to Joshua.  However, God sometimes has different plans.  I went seeing an end but God meant it for a beginning.  Shalom Agtarap shared an insight that captures it well in her message on Sunday morning when she asked, “Have you ever mistaken the beginning of something with the end?”

Seeing all of these fellow young adults (6-13 years younger than me….man I am getting old) excited about God and wrestling with their call reminded me the future is bright when it is in God’s hands.  God is with us on this journey but so often it is easy to forget that and to only think about and focus on our “misery” from day to day.  The truth is that leading the church in the midst of this paradigm shift (see Bob Farr Renovate or Die) is not going to be easy and many people really cannot see what the “promised land” looks like and so they will long for the way things were back in “Egypt.”  It isn’t going to be easy, but after spending this 48 hours with fellow young clergy, and other young Christians hearing God’s call and responding, I am assured that this is where God has called me.

God has called me to this difficult but amazing work and I am assured that God is with me.  These are my final reflections on Exploration, but I do not think these reflections are just for me.  My hope is that those who read this might see the possibilities of how God can move in unexpected ways if we listen for the “whisper” for as Adam Hamilton shared on Friday night, “God hardly ever shouts…God whispers.”


Losing Your Life to Christ and The Call

What an amazing day at Exploration. I spent most of the day facilitating a workshop entitled: “Living in a Fishbowl: Being a Young Adult in Ministry” which was a panel discussion on any questions the participants might have about ministry. It was a great time and was such a blessing to hear the questions that were asked. The questions revealed that many are really wrestling with a call from God and in what capacity that call may be lived out in their lives.

If I were to give any theme to my day of conversations, questions, and experiences it has been this: “Where is God calling me?”

We started off Exploration by talking about our call to ministry that extends to everyone in their baptism and today was narrowing that down to wrestling with and responding to what specific avenue each individual is called to walk down. From some of the conversations I had there seemed to be a struggle within some individuals around ordained vs. lay ministry. One individual shared with me that from that individual’s perspective it seemed like ordained ministry was being communicated the most important ministry. So I wanted to reflect in this space on that subject.

First, lets name something for what it is. Often when anyone seems to have a serious response to their baptismal call, individuals in the church want to encourage that individual to explore and consider ordained ministry. This can often lead to a sense that “ordained” ministry is the only “real” ministry, but I would argue that those individuals aren’t saying that ordained ministry is superior but rather trying to make sure individuals consider that God may be calling them to ordained ministry.

You see I think this comes from a very real thing: ordained ministry can be scary for many people and often individuals never think they are “gifted enough” or “qualified” for ordained ministry or that ordained ministry is even a possibility for them. Often if it isn’t named or encouraged people will hear that call from God and think it can’t be toward ordained ministry. I think many people feel the call of God upon their life but the natural reaction is to think it is everywhere but ordained ministry.

But you see God does call people to ordained ministry and the church wants to be faithful to that call and help people listen and respond. I am reminded of the call of Samuel. Samuel would not have understood his call in the way he did if he didn’t have Eli helping him and naming for him the call God was putting on his life.

For those of you reading this who are attending Exploration, I want you to hear this: God is calling you. It may be to ordained ministry or it may be to lay ministry, but either way God is calling you. That is the journey of discernment. You have to open your life to the possibilities God may be calling you to and listen. The reason for an event like Exploration is to help everyone understand that they are called but to specifically create space where people can see the possibilities that God is calling them to lead the church in ordained ministry. It is not that it is better but rather that it is a reality for some.

In the end though, the challenge is for the church to really understand its call to celebrate and teach the call upon everyone in their baptism. I was struck during Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr.’s sermon with the way he framed discipleship. I purposefully use discipleship because I believe he pointed to the reality of the “call” upon all of us as Christians who are re-made in Christ. Bishop Hayes talked about losing our life to Christ in order to find it. At that point I was struck with this thought which I tweeted: “Here is what I know: If the 700+ gathered here lose their life to Christ it won’t matter if it is ordained or lay.”

That is the truth. The future of the church depends on those gathered in Christ’s name truly surrendering their lives and losing it to Christ. When that begins to happen en masse we will see the Church live into the great blessing Christ has called it to be.

Will you lose your life to Christ and live out that new life in Christ in whatever capacity God may have gifted and called you to live it out?