Tuesday, June 4, 2013

because bigger is not always better

I come from a long line of early adopters.  My grandpa brought home a television set before the tower was even up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  WGAL went on the air in 1949, the fourth tv station in Pennsylvania and the first outside of Philadelphia.  What's even more interesting is that my grandfather was the 6th generation to live on the family farm just down the road from Lancaster.  A farmstead that has now been in the family for over 250 years.

My dad was into livestock genetics before it was cool.  Back in the 70's he switched from raising purebred Angus cows to swine because it was faster to see results from selective breeding.  Now my dad has a small herd of Angus cattle and he does DNA testing on every calf soon after birth! Here's a segment from I Am Angus on RFD TV about my dad and step-moms farm and their livestock breeding program.  Can you tell how proud I am of them?

When I think about my family with their long standing history (250 years of working the same 160 acres of clay bottom land in Pennsylvania) and yet at the same time their drive to be early adopters I can't help but think about how this relates to what the institutional Church, and the United Methodist denomination in particular, is facing today.

There are some of us who are eager to set out in new directions, but at the same time we desire to be part of a mainline denomination.  The United Methodist Church is unique in its ethos.  We are the church of the early adopters, there were circuit riders out criss crossing the homesteads of rural America well in advance of the train lines and before cities could organize Methodist societies sprouted up in cabins and under shade trees from coast to coast.

But then, as my United Methodist history prof reminded us in seminary, the circuit riders got domesticated.  These cabin based communities of faith wanted to build churches like the other guys and focus went from conversion to building projects.  Still, there was a Methodist (or Evangelical or United Brethren) church in every village.

What is uniquely Methodist isn't our buildings, our choirs (although we do love to sing), or the vast number of outposts (churches), what is uniquely United Methodist is our focus on piety (loving God through study, prayer and worship) and action (loving God through our engagement in and with the world).  Oh, and another thing - we like grace - a lot.  God's grace poured out, overflowing and abundant...oh, and assurance...the ability to know that God's love is for me, even me and for you too!  This is good stuff.  This is stuff that needs to be told and heard by people all people...but some times, we may not be able to use words...given the new realities of the world in which we live, our actions do speak louder than words that to many ears sounds like clanging cymbals.

The sad reality is that we are bogged down by buildings and institutional structures that often keep us from engaging with our broken and hurting world.  We have professionalized ministry to such a degree that we have a very well educated clergy, but a un-formed laity...our best resource (the people called United Methodist) is under utilized and so we are floundering, just a bit.

If you have any doubts, take a look at this video made by the General Board of Finance and Administration: (click here)  It's titled United Methodist realities.

I am not a prognosticator, there are some who say that time is running out.  I am not so sure about the timing of any of this, but I do believe that we need to have these types of conversations beyond denominational meetings.  We can talk a good game - but are we actually willing to DO something new/different/with courage?!

We need to confess to our congregations that things are not going to return to the way things were and the future is uncertain for some of our sacred spaces.  We need to own the ambiguity and lean into change.  We need to stop messing with numbers and really be about radical hospitality, building relationships beyond our walls and transformed lives.

Change is hard.

Some things are going to have to be approached in new ways, some things may need to be let go.

Not everything that will go away is bad.

We just can't do it all.

While the statistics are sobering, there are also some exciting realities.  This is OUR time.  We DO have everything that we need to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to a broken and hurting world.  We just may have to work a little harder, pray a bit more and actually step outside of our positions of comfort and taste and see these times of change as times of great possibility.

It's time to own this and turn folks loose for ministry empowered by the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ!
John Ira Coble family (1976) at Coble family homestead

in Christ, together,

Saturday, June 1, 2013

because Katie Z asked...

I love serving the church, I can usually find something interesting in committee meetings, I like funerals and believe church ladies are the best cooks.  I wake up extra early Sunday mornings because I am so excited to get to church for worship.  Even though I am '49 and holding' I'm still relatively new to this whole full-time ordained clergy thing.  I am a 2nd career pastor.

In my 'past life' I worked over 20 years as a marketing type for radio and television stations.  I'm the one who tried to convince you to stay at home and watch a tv show/movie/news broadcast.  I fear I may just be a part of the whole culture that so many Christians are fighting against.  My kids were in day care, as recently as two years ago my son played midget football on Sunday afternoons, we spend more time on-line and on our electronic devices than around the dinner table and 2 1/2 years ago I went through a divorce.  I am a single mom with 2 of my 4 children still at home and sometimes I lose my temper and a bad word or two may slip out.  But, I love Jesus and I love the Church and I think God has a great sense of humor to use someone like me to serve in His name.

I believe it's time for the church to be more of the culture than fight this silly war against it - we are doing grave injury to our very souls.  The only way I think the Church will be able to wrap its mind around the realities of this brave new world we are now a part of is to revisit the doctrine of Incarnation.  A doctrine that is both mysterious and prone to messiness.

Richard Rohr writes in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality; (p. 121)
"The mystery of the Incarnation is precisely the repositioning of God in the human and material world and not just part of that world. Common variety top-down religion often creates very passive, and even passive-dependent and passive-aggressive Christians...Bottom-up, or incarnational, religion offers a God we can experience for ourselves and a God we can see—and must see—in everyone else." 

As we gather as an Annual Conference to consider our Strategic Priorities I believe it is essential that we set aside ourselves and consider the every day realities of the people we are called to walk alongside.  Jesus was known to prefer meals with ordinary folk over fancy dinner parties, the folks he chose to hang out with even got him into trouble!  We need to pause and be quiet and seek to be more fully present with "The Word [who] became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood."  (John 1:14a The Message)

Or, as Paul explained so eloquently in Acts Chapter 17; 
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.  
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’
(Acts 17:22-25)

While I agree with the overarching goals of the Iowa Annual Conference Strategic Plan, I think we have to be careful about appearing to impose expectations on congregations from the top down.  It will be important for me as a leader in the church to spend more time listening, engaging the community and even setting aside some of the 'priestly' tasks, those things that have become part of my daily or even weekly routine, in favor of things that may seem like trifling away time - like hanging out at the pool with the young families or at the coffee shop with students at our local college or at the city council meetings even.   

I am all about change, don't get me wrong.  At the same time, I want to ask the Iowa Annual Conference to take time to listen deeply to their lay and clergy folk.  I fear that we are attempting a quick fix on something that has been building (or falling apart - depending on your point of view) for a generation or more.  Bottom line, I want us to be faithful to how God reveals God's self to the world.

what do you see in the phrase above? 
We have to be intentional about taking time to look at where God is already at work, and who God is gifting to engage in ministries and new faith community starts and we need to be ok with the idea that these new places for new people may not look like what we are accustomed to.  They will certainly take a great deal of energy and in fact, many of these new faith communities may not be able to pay apportionments - ever.  Are we going to be ok with this IF it means that the Good News of Jesus Christ is shared with those on the margins?  (cause isn't this what its all about?)

We find ourselves in an interesting season and I look forward to the discussion at Annual Conference.  I pray that we are able to take the time to really think deeply and pray together and discern where God is calling us in our unique, beautiful and often messy contexts.  I also pray that we are willing to engage this discussion boldly and with courage!  The world is hurting and in need of redemption, reconciliation and resurrection and the Good News is that this is available to us anew each and every day.

To God be the glory for the great things He has done, is doing and will do through each of us!

in Christ, together,