Thursday, May 1, 2014

the connection

Not being a life-long Methodist, I often notice words and phrases that must have a special meaning for UMC people. They're words I understand and use, but I can tell from context that there's some distinct meaning that's intended.

I often hear people talk about "the methodist connection." A quick google search provided me with this information from the North Alabama conference website:

To be honest, I clicked on this link, glanced over it, and said to myself, "I'm not going to read all that right now." The reason I thought of "the connection" and titled this post the same, is that we were reminded of our connectivity in the last week when we found out that our musician will be leaving us. She is married to a pastor in our conference, and he received a phone call last week from the bishop (or the cabinet, or somebody official) informing him that he was being moved to a new appointment.  This is a sobering reality for a couple reasons. First, we need to get a new piano player ASAP! But also, it's a reminder that pastors serve where the bishop/cabinet decide they will serve.

I think itinerancy is overall a healthy thing. That doesn't mean it's always comfortable, nor does it mean that every move is the right one at the right time. My own desires to stay put aside, I think it's mostly good for pastors and for churches.

The pastor will be ordained at this summer's annual conference - less than two months away. I'm very proud of her, of course. Her ministry is our main focus as a family - really it's *our* ministry together. Part of being an "elder in full connection" is being accountable to the bishop and serving where you are appointed. This isn't always what we would choose for ourselves, as we know from experience. Our musician's move reminds us of the implications of ordination vows - our lives are not our own, we belong to God. Letting go of control continues to be a lifelong process for us, and it can be scary. But I know God walks with us through it all, and that is comforting. I pray we will continue to strive to be faithful to God's call on our family.

I know this might come across as "the connection = the firm," but I promise that I have a lot of good things to say about the connection - maybe my next post!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Catching up

Well, it's been a while since my last post, and I feel like it's way past time for an update.  Advent has come and gone, with a love feast and Christmas Eve services and all that goes with the busy, exciting, stressful holiday season.  We got through it, and it went very smoothly in my opinion.  The parishioners at these two little churches are sweet people who love each other most of the time, and going through the holidays with them was a warm and cozy experience.

Now we have to face the realities of the rest of the year.  When I last posted, the smaller church had decided to use their savings on risk-taking ministry.  There was some trepidation about change, but it seemed that most folks (out of the handful that participate) were aware that if they didn't change, the church would close in just a couple years.  So they assented to the vision that our leadership team presented.  In fact, the leadership team is basically everyone who comes to church there.  It seemed we were all in agreement.   As far as I know, there's nothing in the plan that anyone would come right out and object to.  But there are signs of fear as they come to terms with the realities of actually making changes.  Change is hard, even when you know it's coming and that it's necessary.  People who have committed to specific tasks are feeling overwhelmed, even though no work has really started yet.  We are still trying to figure out how worship will look, both in terms of style and minor physical changes to the worship space.  The vision for worship is a contemplative service - not contemporary music or a "blended" style, but more of a coffee house feel, if that makes sense.  Our home church does a Saturday night service that we are trying to use as a template, tweaking it to fit our needs.  But the pastor and I are not musicians, so we are trying to communicate the vision to a music leader who can do either traditional or contemporary, but prefers contemporary.  In the meantime, there are folks "upset" about changes to worship, when all that's happened is that we've done some contemporary songs - we still do hymns too.  That really shouldn't surprise me, I know, but I find it a little disappointing.  I am still hopeful about the possibilities here, and we are praying about it daily, but I know the future is not certain for this little church.  However, I am confident that even if the place closes in a couple years, God will reconcile all things and our work on behalf of the Kingdom of God is not in vain.

Our larger church is coming around, I think.  They have had some internal discord left over from a previous pastor, and it's taken some time for things to settle down.  Our wonderful pastor consultant that lead us through visioning with the smaller church has agreed to work with this one too.  It is a great blessing!  This is really a country church, but within a couple years, a huge development is coming - more than 20,000 homes and a business park are planned.  The edge of the land slated for development is less than two miles from the church.  It will transform this rural county into a more suburban environment, and even though the folks know it's coming, there is still some denial about how quickly things will change.  We are hoping that this church family will be able to love the newcomers and grow in healthy ways as folks from all over the world will come to live near them.  It's a tremendous opportunity.

On a more personal note, the pastor has been writing papers and I've been videotaping sermons and Bible studies for ordination.  Most of the work has been done since Christmas, but I videotaped several sermons in the fall with this in mind.  Ordination in the UMC is a long and involved process, especially compared to the much more autonomous Baptist church in which we both grew up.  It is a double-edged sword, though. For many reasons, I am glad there is a high bar for ordination.  But my wife graduated with an MDiv (with honors) from a prestigious seminary in 2009.  She should pass ordination this spring, but of course that's not guaranteed.  It seems to me the process could be streamlined a bit.  I won't bore you with any details, but she has done an awful lot of work to prove herself to several groups of people.  She is gifted for ministry by any measure anyone could come up with, and I pray she will pass this year.  You can pray for that too, if you're so inclined.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Risk taking

This coming weekend will be exciting.  The little church, the one with just a few mostly elderly members, finished the discernment process with our consultant a few weeks ago.  Through that process, they've decided to move forward with a God-sized plan.  We are simultaneously giddy with excitement and slightly nauseated with uncertainty.  But it feels right.

This church, founded in 1824, but recently in decline, has a significant amount of savings.  It's not a huge amount, but it's six figures, which I think is pretty good based on the size of the church and its recent history.  Some of this money is reserved to maintain the cemetery in perpetuity, but they are ready to spend almost all the rest on ministry.  If you're not familiar with the politics of church, that is HUGE.  In my experience, most congregations cling to their savings with clenched fists, letting small bits of it go to replace the roof or pave the parking lot.  Then they have a fundraising drive to replace the spent funds.  It gets called "stewardship," but in reality, it's often "hoarding."  Truthfully, it is often "distrusting God."

So what's about to happen?  Well, I don't know exactly what God's going to do, but I feel like it's going to be amazing.  Here's what God's people are planning to do:

  1. Hire a part time musician.  We have not been able to have consistent music in worship at either church, but the two churches in the charge are willing to spend some money to make that happen.
  2. Put on a festival on Saturday with hot dogs and BBQ chicken and a bounce house.  Money raised will be given to the "fuel up" program for local schools, which provides weekend food for children on reduced/free lunch.  Local neighbors have been invited, with invitations to over 200 hand delivered along with pound cakes.
  3. Host a community Thanksgiving service Sunday evening, inviting other local churches.
  4. Spend over $18k on an awesome playground at the church for the community.
  5. Start a summer literacy program to fill in the gaps for at-risk kids in the community.  
  6. There are dreams to create a day-retreat center at this church in the woods, with a prayer walk and a labyrinth.
  7. At least one adult member is going to be baptized soon, and at least two young families (with ties to present church families) are officially joining.
I'm sure there's more that I've left out.  It's exciting to see the spirit bubbling up - dry bones coming to life.  I am blown away by the attitude of the folks here.  Much has been learned in the discernment process, I think, and it continues to bear fruit.  I feel like we've all taken to heart the idea that to gain life, you must be willing to lose it.  We have to be willing to take risks and trust God.  That doesn't mean being foolish, reckless, or out-of-touch with reality.  It does mean not to let worry about self-preservation choke off our calling to minister to our neighbors.  No matter what happens, these folks want to be faithful to that call, and I think it makes God happy.  I know it makes me happy and hopeful.

So please pray for this little church and its neighbors, if that's the kind of thing you do.  

Monday, October 21, 2013


I really want people to like me.  I really want everyone to get along.  I hate it when there's conflict.

Wouldn't you think we could all get along at church?  I mean, aren't we all nice people?  Don't we all want the same thing, ultimately?

Well, I have found the answer to these questions is, in order, No, No, and No.

Maybe I've started this post off on the wrong foot - I don't want to give the impression that we are engaged in great turmoil and everyone's up in arms about something.  Mostly, things have calmed down since the drama I mentioned in the last post occurred.  Let me back up a little.

One of the nuggets of wisdom I've been exposed to during our weekly discernment meetings is the importance of practicing indifference toward anything except for the will of God.  It's more than just a matter of prioritizing concerns with God's will at the top, though I suppose you could think of it that way.  The problem with prioritizing things when "doing God's will" is one of the items in your list is that it's so much more than just an item in a list.  It goes to the very core of pretty much anything else you could put on the list.  It defies boundaries, overlapping into every aspect of our lives, ideally.

It sounds nice, I suppose, but what does it really look like to put "indifference" into practice?  I'm not entirely sure, since I have such a hard time doing it.  But I think it means that we look to our mission as a church - in the United Methodist Church, it's been spelled out as "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."  Anything that aligns with this purpose should be lifted up as something good.  Anything that undermines it should be purged.  Anything else should not be given too much attention and energy.

The problem I have is that I have other priorities like:

  1. Being liked.  Making decisions that don't make everyone happy puts this priority at risk.  It's far easier to just accept the status quo.
  2. Being "successful."  Success as we define it is not always congruent with what God wants for us.  Sometimes we just want more people in worship or the best facilities or an award-winning choir or more money in the offering plate.  All these are fine in and of themselves, and can be markers of success, but they are not themselves "success."
  3. Being comfortable.  I want to get to a place where I have arrived as a fully mature person who has done all that he's supposed to have done and can now stop.  I don't want to deal with my junk - my sinful nature, my bad habits and my hangups.  Jesus accepts me as I am, so that should be good enough, right?  Churches act this way corporately sometimes too.
  4. Working hard.  Ironically, even though I just want to stop my transformation process and declare myself done, I have a nagging fear that I'm not working hard enough.  For churches - sometimes we believe that all we need to do to turn this place around is to keep doing what we've always done, but everyone needs to work harder at it.  
This is by no means a complete list, but you get the idea.

To get back to my initial questions about getting along - I think they're mostly the wrong questions to ask.  We certainly want to get along and be kind to everyone.  We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings if we can help it.  But we are not together as a body solely to make everyone feel good about themselves. We are together as a body to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  We have to be indifferent to anything else.  Fortunately, we serve a loving, gracious, and merciful God who transforms us into a community who loves one another if we are open to transformation.  That is really good news.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Declaring victory

Obviously, it's early in this appointment for the pastor.  She's been at this two-point charge for less than 3 months, but it's hard to imagine things going much more smoothly.  I say this the morning after a weird day of drama that kept her on the phone with people until past the time we usually like to go to bed.  I am confident that in the long run, this dust-up will be only an afterthought, though the possibility of continued drama always exists.  People are broken, all of us, but some more obviously than others.

So "declaring victory" at this early date may seem premature.  However, these are words that I use in one form or another when discussing the state of things with the pastor.  There's always someone upset or disappointed, no matter what good is happening before everyone's eyes.  We know this on an intellectual level, and it's not a surprise at this point.  So why does one naysayer or one negative offhand comment make us question so much of ourselves?  I think it's what the pastor calls "the big lie."

The "big lie" is the tape we play in our heads over and over again that tells us that we are not enough.  That we do not deserve to be loved, that we are not good enough or smart enough or can achieve enough to be worthy of anything, much less the love, grace, and mercy of God Almighty.  This was a theme of her message on Sunday - God loves us with more grace and mercy than we can imagine.  It's more even than we think we need.  It's overflowing and intense.

Declare victory?  Now?  With so much ahead of us and not much behind us in this place with these people?  With all the drama and garbage that we see in ourselves and those around us?  Yes.  Declare victory for what God has already done and what God is going to do.  I think you have to declare victory as often as possible.  Because the victory is God's and not ours.  And also, because we must cling to the good that we see happening and remember it often.  Remember, remember, remember.  You were slaves in Egypt, and God heard your cry and reached out his mighty arm.  You were a slave to sin and death and God came to be among us - descending from the highest height to the humiliation and suffering of the cross because GOD LOVES YOU.  YOU ARE PRECIOUS TO GOD.

This is not a victory declaration that we are "done" in some way.  It's more of a marker along our path.  We will be declaring victory every time we perceive that God has shown up.  We will hold fast to the moment so we don't forget it.  At least that's what I hope for, and that's what I plan to do with God's help.

Friday, August 23, 2013


One of the pastor's churches in this 2-point charge is very small, as I've mentioned before.  In the weeks leading up to the appointment, we were hearing that they were down to about 10-12 in worship.  This was usually presented as a gloomy reality, or maybe that's just the way I took it.  I must say that I'm not feeling gloomy at all about this place.

This church was founded in the 1820's, with the current building dating to the 1930's.  The oldest parishioner, a local farmer, remembers tagging along with his father and others as they cut down trees, hauled them via mule to the mill, and brought them to the current site to build the church house.  I have no idea what has transpired there, or what attendance/participation numbers have looked like over the years, but there's no way to think of this place other than in decline and struggling to survive.  We take up about $400 a week in offering there.  They have some savings in the bank that's dipped into to pay bills, and they can probably continue at this rate for a few more years if nothing changes.

Since we've been coming, the worship attendance has averaged in the low 20's, I would guess.  Half of the increase of course, is our family of 5.  But I think some folks are showing up out of curiosity about the new pastor.  The regular attendees are mostly related to each other and are mostly elderly, but there's a youngish couple that attends, and we even had another visiting couple with a baby last week.

What to do?  A case could be made for making plans to shut it down.  Many churches do just that, and it doesn't have to mean some kind of failure.  But these folks are not ready to go quietly, and they want the place to go forward making disciples.  Our old farmer, in his 80's, has his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents buried in the cemetery there, and doesn't want to see the place die before he does.  He's not alone in that feeling.

This is a church about 5 minutes from a thriving artsy town and 10 minutes from a large state university.  There are probably a dozen subdivisions close by, with large houses on large lots.  If you drive around the area, it feels like you're in the country, but beyond all the trees and lush vegetation, there are people.  It seems like the ideal spot to plant a church.  So that's what the pastor has in mind - a reboot.

She called a former pastor of ours at our "home church" who has recently retired, but is now consulting.  She wanted to ask him who would be a good resource to help this place "vision" and discern what God wants for it.  He said he'd do it.  For 10% of his usual fee.  Wow, what a blessing.  This is a guy who has started a couple churches from scratch, and everywhere he's gone, ridiculous growth has followed.  He does not take credit for the growth God brought, but he knows something about getting out of God's way and being available for God's use.  We've met 3 times now with a group of 6-10, and will meet a total of about 12 times as we try to discern how to move forward.

It is a great joy already to see hope and excitement on the faces of these dear people who have been sad and struggling.  It is not just a hope in our consultant.  It is not just a hope in the pastor, or a hope in the process of discernment.  It is a hope in the goodness of God, and God's care for God's people.  It is also, I think, a softening of the corporate heart of this place, and a love and concern for those people who live behind the trees and vegetation - people who are hard to see when you are turned in on yourself and your own pain and struggles.  I can't wait to see what's going to happen here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fear and leading in the country

So the pastor had her first administrative council meeting with one of the churches on Sunday.  I was not able to attend due to childcare responsibilities, and frankly, I am just fine with that.  I am not one who enjoys meetings, but having said that, I'm not sure who really does.  I suppose there are some people from different parts of the Myers-Briggs spectrum who really get a charge out of such things, though.  In one of her previous appointments, now that I think about it, there were some people who seemed to get a perverse joy out of conflicts and arguments, and no issue was too insignificant for a battle to be waged.  That's not the case here.

I have written before about the innate dysfunction of churches, much like the dysfunction of most families. We are human, so we do not relate perfectly to one another.  With the folks at this appointment, there is some division at the moment, but it does not seem insurmountable.  It's more related to the change in pastoral leadership, which is understandable.  For many of these people, they've know each other and worshiped with each other for decades - their whole lives spent together.  Often in a rural area, but it can happen in the middle of a big city too, a certain provincialism takes hold and folks can't see past their own little worlds.  In that situation, small disagreements get magnified and stretched out of proportion.

So what do you do when you are trying to lead people through something that seems insignificant to you, but makes the people you're attempting to lead shake with anger and fear?  I am not sure I know, but I do know some things that you shouldn't do.  For one thing, the anger/fear can't be allowed to drive decisions.  If the leader decides to act or not act based solely on wanting to avoid conflict or hurt feelings, she is letting fear do the leading.

Throughout this ministry adventure, we have tried to make pleasing God our number one goal.  Sometimes we fall short, but we've tried to maintain focus on that goal regardless.  I am hopeful that we can make that the goal of the two churches she is serving.  Based on feedback from many parishioners, there is much reason for optimism about that.  I know it's early in our time with them, but I feel quite optimistic about the possibilities here - "Aslan is on the move."