Saturday, September 25, 2021

Institutional Ability to Change

Many who've tracked culture & generational change have suggested we'd be in a time of institutional shift. The pandemic accelerated this movement. 

Ryan Burge recently offered a graph on Twitter showing generational institutional confidence from General Social Survey data. 

We already know at the local church level the challenge of reaching younger generations. In North Georgia most of our communities have an average age of 38, yet the average church will look much more like 65+. Being out of step with the different generations or our communities didn't occur overnight. 

The other levels of Church life may be even slower to grasp the new realities. Specifically for the UMC, & likely for other mainline denominations, the challenges of denominational decline, plus the fracturing along social/political issues, on top of the issues of an aging denomination & diminished funding, are all exacerbated by the pandemic. 

A decade ago, Lovett Weems wrote about the impending death tsunami, yet in many ways we did little to prepare adequately. Where some institutions may have taken steps of financial preparation & reset for this reality, I'm not sure that we've made as many organizational changes driven by vision, or even generational realities, as much as by financial need. The pandemic has shown our weakness of imagination & adaptation. 

Many mainline denominations are theologically & historically complex, yet are also super-institutional. We are often heavy in form & function, keeping the older generations satisfied, while continuing processes from 50+ years ago. From congregation, to annual conference or regional organization, on to the national & international levels, this poses a significant challenge. 

I'm reminded of this again as research once more shows that younger generations are spiritual, yet not institutional. I recall Ken Callahan advising our church back in the 90's that the younger crowd are sprinters, & not marathoners like the older gen, when it comes to church involvement, commitment, & institutional loyalty. We were hard pressed back then to develop church programming for sprinters. Today we're still confronted with the need to be a church for sprinters.  

What will church, & Church, look like in the US as we imagine 2025-2050? 

I'm sure the under 50 year old crowd- especially those recently outside church coming into the faith family- are the best ones to define worship, discipleship, & witness that help them to follow Jesus. If the church & Church can prioritize substance, & not get hung up by particular style or process, we'll be able to adapt. Relying on more voices to bring life back to our institutions, & create a vitality that meets the needs of today & tomorrow, will be our great task. I'm excited for the younger crowd to take a lead in these matters. That is, as long as they continue to adapt & flex in response to the times, & don't make the same mistakes we've made of creating institutional processes set in stone for 100 years. 

If the last 2 years are any indication, then these "Roaring 20's" will continue to be volatile. Unless your  prognostications from December 2019 have held up well through pandemic, we do better to reorient church & Church toward essential priorities which excel in engaging the next generation & those outside the church in the whole life of faith. 

Church will probably look more like a hybrid blend of both in person & virtual worship, discipleship, & approaches that build up faith conversation & community. Church will look more like a local & global movement of people following Jesus who are adaptive & relationally organized-- or some more chaotic, creative, transformational descriptor of religion than "organized religion" -- which matches with historic, apostolic faith while also flexing to modern generational life. 

This will be an exciting time for church despite the challenges of this necessary generational shift!

Friday, September 17, 2021

Pandemic Life & Work Catch-Up

 Ha, sweet mercy, I forgot about the old blog!

Anyone else streamline your life since COVID-19 swept across the globe? For most of us it's been enough to stay healthy, navigate the chaos, & take personal & professional care. With a blog that had fallen to neglect due to all my travels & schedule BC (before covid) I was afraid I may be locked out. 

I've got lots of thoughts rumbling & need this outlet again. Perhaps it will be helpful for some others as well. Some of this was stirred up the other day when a former member of the youth group of a church I served 25 years ago was surprised I'd previously served the church she now attends in a distant city. 

A quick recap as a number of things have changed since March 2020. I live on the family farm, as we've moved in with my wife's 92 year old dad some years back when I was a traveling church consultant/ circuit rider.  After many years serving local congregations, I was invited to join North Georgia Conference of the UMC staff in 2014 assisting with mission, disaster response, & community engagement, & with UMC Global Ministries. My primary focus has been with North GA on consulting, training, networking, & leadership assisting 800+ congregations around the Atlanta region including beyond metro into middle Georgia & up into the mountains. My title has changed a few times, & we've been into various reorganization over the years as we adapt to the times & needs. In July 2020 I went half time with North GA Conference & half time pastoring a congregation in Augusta. In July 2021 I added a smaller mission congregation to my work. 

So, I serve at the local church level, and I work at the conference level & in relation to the larger Church. Over the years I've also worked with our UMC Global Ministries. If you know & love denominational acronyms, know that I'm CSGM & C-DRC for North GA conference. That's Conference Secretary of Global Ministries & Conference-Disaster Response Coordinator if you want to know. :) Over the years, in these various roles, I've seen the church movement alive & at work in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Russia, Portugal, Togo, Kenya, India, & the Philippines. Experiencing other cultures in very local ways, with the local church as guide, has been transformational for me in my faith & work. In the US my experiences in a dozen states in varied communities serving in mission & disaster response has added other layers to my faith & practical work. 

I'm a UMC deacon clergy with one foot in the church & one foot in the community. That usually translates as a specialty in mission & discipleship, though at times I've been a utility player, or a pioneer, or a college campus minister, or a big systems helper. I especially enjoy helping church outsiders find their way into faith & the institutional church as that's my story as I didn't grow up a church kid & came to faith while in college. I also survived the 1980's fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, thus my shift from SBC to UMC, and surprised that those lessons from one Holy War are relevant once again as the UMC lurches forward in fracturing. 

Living on a farm, & with long time interest in agriculture, creation, & church, I tend to have a systems approach and way of thinking. If you are into enneagram, know I'm a 5w4, so I like investigating, sleuthing, & figuring out practical, actionable responses. Is actionable really a word? :) I love ideas & action plans, & hope you'll sometimes enjoy the lack of awkward grammer or odd word as we swap thoughts & stories. Oh, and sometimes it may just be a photo or something that catches my fancy. 

Here's a little more on my wild 37+ year vocational journey if you enjoy an exotic resume:

  • grew up on a farm, plus "enjoyed" jobs including bagging mattresses, stocking a Sears warehouse, working sheet metal, & in the old days assisting with ink drafting before CAD. 
  • summer missionary Central Baptist Church, Syracuse NY
  • worked at Claxton Fruitcake Company, Ace Hardware, & FBC
  • pastoral assistant Silver St UMC, New Albany IN
  • supply preaching around KY & IN
  • pastor, Caneyville KY BC
  • family preservation therapist, Lexington County SC
  • director of Christian education, Lyttleton St UMC, Camden SC
  • program director/ church development, Trinity on the Hill, Augusta GA
  • pastor, Macedonia UMC, Thomson GA
  • associate pastor, Greensboro GA FUMC
  • mission pastor, Trinity on the Hill UMC, Augusta GA
  • mission strategist, North GA Conference UMC/ UMC Global Ministries
  • associate director of connectional ministries, North GA Conference
  • mission specialist, North GA Conference UMC, plus pastor of Mann- Mize UMC & St Luke UMC, Augusta GA

That's all for now as I look back in order to look forward. In the days ahead I'll share some ideas from the missional, discipleship movement that might be useful in a pandemic world.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Of Forgotten Things Rediscovered During COVID 19 Pandemic

Anyone else find their long forgotten blog during the pandemic?

Moving ahead in 2020 the key question may be whether to blog or to podcast or something else.

I'll post more in the days ahead as I puzzle through the new reality.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Renewing Congregations: Adaptive Model and Leaders

I'm a field agent serving over 800 churches, and I live at the most eastern edge of the area I cover. So, I get a fair amount of drive time between Augusta and Atlanta. Have you ever driven that stretch of Interstate 20 in Georgia? It's a stereotypical interstate in a rural area without much to see along the way. I've driven it many hundreds of times over the last five years of my current job serving the larger Church.

Car time is my office time, and when I'm not on the phone, or working out a sermon or presentation in my head, I often find myself praying for communities, and churches, and clergy and laity along my path. I do it in that order because as United Methodist who follow the ways of John Wesley we talk about the "world is our parish." Theologically and missionally I know most churches need to break out of their church box and become very incarnationally active among their neighbors. We need to learn how to follow Jesus out in the streets again.

I was in that frame of mind thinking about the beloved communities of middle Georgia around Greene, Putnam, Baldwin, and Morgan Counties when I had an interesting string of thoughts.

A lot of my work these days is about the culture shift, the generational shift, the community shift, and how churches need to adapt our style. How does a congregation adapt itself in style in ways that engage their neighbors? How does a church adjust mission and ministries for today and tomorrow to engage new and different people rather than continuing to replicate past activities for current members? How does the old crowd smoothly and graciously give over the "keys of the car" to the younger generation?

This is a very challenging conversation for many churches as we often change NOTHING intentionally, don't evaluate much formally, and often put a high premium on continuing our congregational traditions which are often deeply rooted in relationships inside the congregation. We haven't changed much in the last 30 years in many places as we've tried to keep all the consumers, the church insiders, happy, present, and giving. So, even if we preach and teach about loving our neighbor, it's another story to put that into practice, and let go of the style church we prefer. We probably love our children and grandchildren, but may not easily give up our preferences much less give the church building, programs, funding, identity over to others. We need to more fully live out more Bible and more theology rather than only talking about the stories. And this calls for a new congregational model and corporate spiritual disciplines that emphasize our neighbors and the church God desires tomorrow.

As the miles were rolling by, and now 90 minutes into the drive with the coffee fueling my brain, I began to think of the hundreds of churches I'd already passed in my urban, suburban, rural trip. Those many churches reflect a variety of locations, different church sizes, sometimes reflecting different eras of life and culture, and certainly some variety of theological traditions that have some roots in their own context and congregational history. Assisting change in one church is a challenge, and across a system of hundreds of churches is demanding and can be daunting.

With this rolling around in my mind, I was most aware of the current culture/ generational shift which also necessitates a church shift. In many churches an outsider might be hard pressed to tell what year it is though the guess may be 1985 or perhaps 1995. I'm 56 years old, and in many congregations I visit I'm one of the younger ones present despite the fact that the median age of the whole population of my north Georgia area is 38. While some churches are content to continue "doing what they do" there are growing numbers of churches who clearly see the problem and are ready for action. Many churches see the disconnect with their community. A key turning point is when the church quits trying to do business like they've always done things and launches into a new spiritual journey in their own community.

I began to wonder about the variety of clergy, and especially laity, that would be most useful for effective churches during the next few years. In Georgia we are seeing many clergy who were educated and became proficient in the day of the Bible belt culture. The church was the center of the community, and church preferences were respected and steered the culture, and laity were very comfortable with this status in their community. The attractional model could work well if folk were looking for a church, so our emphasis was on attractive building, attractive clergy and programming, and having a good show for the consumers. These clergy and laity best know life in one style church that is quickly disappearing. Often the church, and church folk, of the last 40 years were the majority of the community, the power structure, and the cultural guardians and keepers of the status quo. What sorts of clergy and laity leaders are needed if the church is a minority movement, not as institutional, and not in charge in community life?

I found myself thinking about congregations as missional outposts and the pastor as more of a lead missionary, as opposed to CEO, with laity who practice everyday incarnational ministry in the community even more than inside the church building. In many cases clergy are currently more like the chaplain of a family chapel in small and medium membership churches with primary attention inside the church, with laity who run committees and programs inside the church. In a church movement that will likely be smaller, lean in resources, and always eager to engage and involve church outsiders, how does the pastor and church leadership shift in style to become a different type organization? This is where many congregations are currently re-organizing and adapting to the current realities.

These thoughts had me wondering about the best models for church leadership in this next chapter of congregational ministry in the United States. This new model clergy and laity would require different education and experiences than the preferences of the last 50-100 years of the US institutional church. We'll probably return to more the pattern from earlier in history, and around the globe, of a highly missional, discipling, smaller membership church systems. Such lean, highly engaged church systems will be productive in different, deeper ways though we may go through a significant time of adjustment and right sizing. The younger crowd will lead the way in these things, so it will only be the churches who more quickly adapt to reflect their neighborhood and can learn to make adjustments that will still be here in 10-20 years.

Of course, we often put a LOT of emphasis upon clergy, but the laity really determine the trajectory of a church and how much change is acceptable. The laity, and sometimes that may mean a few power brokers in a faith community, are the ones who can become the limiting factor, or the growth factor, of a congregation. If we are so set in our ways, or determined to have our way, that we can't turn over the church to the next generation then we will have already decided our fate as a congregation. If we are content to age or slowly decline and die as a congregation we can easily do that.

So, even if we discuss and can create new clergy models the real challenge will be to create new laity models and renewed church cultures. This shift will be from consumer church to missional, discipling church.

It appears that the next chapter of church must be highly engaging of the next generation. Further, it must be more relational and less institutional than previous generations. It should be highly contextual and adaptive willing to risk and be counter cultural in ways that previous generations would have avoided. This is likely more of a small group movement, of life lived together, with more emphasis on deep relationships, as opposed to the larger group, consumer driven models of attractional church which have predominated for so long.

A missional church, that is more of a minority movement, with emphasis on doing life together and being the church in the community seems to resonate with many people.

For existing churches, and current church leaders- laity and clergy- this will call upon us to embrace new church models & practises rather different, but not totally foreign, to what we've known throughout our experiences. I'm thinking of it visually as the difference between one era of Methodist church that had the circuit rider as the symbol, the last period which had a church building as our compelling image, and the emerging pattern which is likely more relational and everyday looking more like Jesus with the disciples - one named and known and the other mysteriously unnamed- on the road to Emmaus.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What I Love About the UMC

Over the years I’ve served UMC congregations in three states (IN, SC, and GA), plus had the incredible privilege of partnering with UMC conferences and churches in a dozen countries. Due to my work in one of the largest UMC annual conferences in the world, and in connectional partnerships in the larger global Church, I’ve been stretched and grown in ways that are well beyond my early expectations of what I understood it would be to follow Christ. I’ll say more in detail about some of this in another blog on another day. For today, I’m thinking about a few central characteristics I’ve most loved about the UMC..

As I think back to my experiences of UMC people and churches since 1988 I’m reminded of these typical, exceptional features:

Ø  We are contextual faith communities that aren’t closed in on ourselves, but very outwardly oriented toward the community with a lot of freedom to be the church we need to be in our community. Whether urban or rural, in the United States or in any number of countries or contexts, the dynamic faith community is open and engaging of our community. A UMC person and congregation can relate positively to a variety of neighbors in shared lives and witness as a community church. There is a strong flow of the church into the community, and community into the life of the church. At our best we are not controlled by a particular system of power, personality, politics, or race, and instead are more of an outpost of God's peculiar redemptive work which crosses many boundaries and defies easy description. Congregations in the US are particularly encouraged to get after the work and left to our own with appropriate support to be the church for that place, so there is plenty of room for some variety of expression. 

Ø  We are rooted in tradition and dynamic, classical Christianity with strong interest in current, practical expression. We have a history, yet lean into the future, trusting in Holy Spirit. We have a variety of theological and practical threads in our tradition, and in many ways benefit from the strength and tension of those threads. This aids us on a journey to the Promised Land, adaptive, and trusting in God for what is next. My experience has always been that we are a large ship, a big tent, an open table type church. So, we may look more like the variety of disciples Jesus attracted in the Gospels as an unlikely, mixed group. Or perhaps like the church of Acts learning and growing each day. We expect and work for a growing family, involving new and different people of varied backgrounds, with some variety of opinion, yet give room for that variety without getting lost in a dysfunctional family fight. We do not shut the door on people, and are much more likely to swing wide the door to allow more people in. Such churches are also able to reach a more people in the community and are drawn to the edges of community, people crying out for help and for justice, and those who God sees and typically people overlook.

Ø  We allow and encourage deeper levels of thought and questioning in an environment which allows for variety of opinions. We bring our whole life to the Gospel and into the faith community. This also allows a congregation to reach the variety of people in a community, and grow in depth of relationships that fit our context. We focus on the essentials with interest in grace and unity, and recognize opinions and non-essentials of faith as secondary and not worthy of priority. The essentials would be a very short list, and the non-essentials could fill volumes and are often what we focus on when we don't live up to our best. We understand Scripture as God's word, yet focus on God's Word as revealed in Jesus Christ. So, we aren't biblical literalists as we take the Bible seriously enough to appreciate the variety, the complexity, and the abundant life it points to. This engages people in scripture from a standpoint of community and conversation. In this we don't confuse our place with God's in the conversation, i.e. none of us are God with final say and ultimate truth. While theologically motivated, we are not narrowly doctrinally driven. If there were a driving doctrine it would be around God’s grace and our continued response and growth in Christ. In many places the UMC people once had other faith or no faith, and as their old faith or belief system failed they turned to a place of incarnational relationships which allowed for a growing, abundant life. God has often used the UMC people to show another way of life and faith that was healing and redemptive to those who most need us. These approaches stand out favorably in contrast to other religious groups. 

Ø  We have a strong sense of mission and justice. This continues to make us a people with grassroots tendencies with desire to continue growing in expressing love of God and love of neighbor (as we love ourselves, and neighbor as Jesus defined, so that we are always challenged). We have a strong sense of gratitude and giftedness to be a blessing to others with our time, energy, giving, and going in service. We are a church living for others, and get involved from relief to empowerment, with a sense of holistic Christian living that hopes and acts for all to live an abundant life. Our gratitude is shown in our schedules and the ways we use our funding to be God’s blessing to others. We recognize we are stewards of grace, partners with God, and this legacy isn't ours to hoard but to freely share and give away. Such things are both an individual and family lifestyle as well as a congregational culture. 

Ø  At our best we also move beyond only congregational faith life, and experience more and grow more by deepening connections in the larger Church. This might first be at a district or conference level, but then may grow regionally, nationally, and internationally, with focus on healthy mission and ministry (not just meetings). Such a broadening of our life, and knowing and engagement with other Methodist Christians from other places with other experiences, will challenge us theologically and practically. The great good in this is that it can help us get beyond narrow experiences and understandings of God, beyond provincialism or nationalism, and beyond our thinking we have all the answers of life and faith. It helps us experience the ever deeper waters of God’s grace, God’s larger Church, and other Christians who can teach us much about following Jesus. In these redemptive relationships we might also have opportunity to share our lives in a respectful, mutually beneficial, transformational way that helps all of us experience more of God’s Kingdom and offer glimpses of heaven on earth.

These are just a few of the exemplary characteristics I've seen consistently in my years in the UMC. These are not only the property of the UMC, though as I reflect upon the best of our United Methodist churches over the last thirty years, I’ve seen them repeatedly as features of healthy, vibrant Christians and congregations. It's been this way of connectional United Methodist spirituality that has helped me to grow, and continue growing, as a follower of Jesus Christ. The worship, discipleship, praying, serving, and whole of my Christian journey has been framed in this healthy, fruitful context. 

It is this sort of UMC that I love, and that I will continue to support, so that the next generation will have similar opportunities to grow in faith from this sort of transformational theological and practical perspective. As I reflect upon how God has transformed my life through the UMC, a deep gratitude forged of many decades wells up within me. With that I also sense a deep responsibility to both the past and the future, and a greater resolve to help others know and experience such churches and Church as I have known.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Can UMC Learn from SBC?

I first learned of Dr. Nancy Ammerman during the SBC implosion of the late '80's. This was the height of the fundamentalist takeover, and I was a seminary student in Louisville KY, and anyone who was moderate, independent, or not vocally fundamentalist or "drinking that Kool Aid" didn't have a place in the new regime. Eventually, lines were drawn which forced choosing a side. Even if one enjoyed the middle- that's me! as it allows room to go right on some issues and left on others, plus room to follow Jesus and continue to respond to Holy Spirit- soon found there was no more middle ground.

Dr. Ammerman looked at the SBC Holy War from the perspective of sociology of religion and was a helpful voice to assist many of us in understanding what seemed unbelievable and so destabilizing. There were others who would view the large group fighting and fracturing from perspectives of regionalism, hermeneutics, social political culture wars, and one outlier strand within the tradition rising to long term power to name a few other key markers.

Since then it is easy to see that one religious war merely led to others within the group. The SBC has declined similarly to all US religious groups. Despite all the rhetoric of righteousness, holiness, true belief, right interpretation, and drawing a line in the sand, the decline has been steady. And using biblical language and an "either you follow my biblical interpretation or you are an enemy" approach creates an adversarial climate which is challenging to deescalate. A generation of clergy, and diversity of congregations and people, was lost as the SBC moved more in lockstep with each other in a winner take all venture. Once a new normal takes hold it can be almost impossible to return to a previous state of normalcy.

Dr. Ammerman recently posted some tweets that I found helpful in considering the current UMC situation. While there are some differences in time and place there are plenty of comparable issues that are noteworthy. I've mentioned to some that if it took the SBC a decade or more to fracture I'd expect a denominational, connectional body to take even longer if we break up. Being a centrist, I continue to attempt to hold together a middle that may become more and more difficult to keep together. Personally, I find the traditionalist plan unMethodist, draconian, unconscionable as an attack upon the human rights of LGBTQIA, as well as detrimental to the witness of congregations in a great variety of contexts who stand for the vulnerable of society and for those children of God. We'd be much better served to strike the restrictive language from the Book of Discipline rather than continually play out this decades long fight that weakens us rather than strengthen our love of God and neighbor (as we love ourselves). Recalling the wide variety of people Jesus would spend time with in community reinforces a better way for a Christian and congregation interacting with the neighbors. 

Personally, I think the various strands of tradition within the UMC are stronger together as the holiness tradition, peace and justice tradition, mission tradition, revivalists, congregationalists, and others all need each other. We can go our separate ways, fracturing into various Methodist smaller bodies, but even after that it will take a decade or two to find some strength and clarity. If we track like the SBC, the greater likelihood is that we would only know how to fight, would continue to weaken, and after 20 years nothing turns out as expected. The old fight, of one older generation, drags on and on and is of no interest to the next generation, so is only a drain and distraction. God help us if the 60-70 year olds are making the biggest Church decisions that won't be clearly revealed for another 20 years! Better at that point to let folk in their 30's-50's drive these decisions so important to the emerging church.

I'd rather help create a church and Church that is for our neighbors, for the next generation, for people of color, for the indigenous, for LGBTQIA, for people unlike me, rather than known for sounding and acting like an angry religious crowd who are judgmental on some issues and turning a blind eye to weightier issues of vital biblical faith.

Whatever might be new and emerging from current UMC conversations and decisions would do well to learn from the mistakes of other religious groups and not make the same errors. May our prayers, conversations, and votes have the long view in mind for a vital UMC witness that our children and grandchildren will gladly receive and continue to grow.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

I Rediscovered I Have a Blog

How can one forget about their blogging?

Rather easily it seems.

Even easier to forget how to access your blog if you have a new laptop.

My day job is with the conference office of the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church. After 25 years in congregational ministry, in October 2014 I was appointed in a new, different position working 2/3 time for North Georgia with Connectional Ministries with focus on mission, and 1/3 time working with our UMC Global Ministries. Starting July 2018 I became 100% North GA conference employee though I continued to relate to Global Ministries as they are in Atlanta, and so much of my work has connection to mission. For North Georgia, our Connectional Ministries office (relating to the wide variety of congregational ministries) joined with New Church Development to become the Center for Congregational Excellence. Our unit is a stellar crew of program ministry people who serve as true circuit riders serving hundreds of churches as we train, consult, network, and encourage churches in taking next steps in effectiveness. My area relates to mission and disaster response, though much of what I do seems to be community engagement and helping churches become outward focused. In many ways, I continue to be a program director, as I help churches know their context, evaluate what they are doing, and adjust to be more useful to God and neighbor. It's a fun, challenging ride that I love and grow in every day.

I suppose I lost my practice of blogging due to the miles and meetings. If you know Georgia geography, I live near Augusta, and much of my work is around metro Atlanta. Augusta is 2 to 2 1/2 hours away from everything. Add to it that in the last couple of years, we've continued to have major hurricanes in the region, so my disaster response portfolio has grown significantly. I also work with One Board/ Simplified Accountability Structure for congregations, as well as Fresh Expressions. Another fun area is missional discipleship, especially as it relates to being new forms of church, i.e. not cookie cutter institutional congregations but vital, dynamic, contextually adaptive faith movements. So, we add, adapt, and get into more adventures to help churches both in their decision making structures as well as their local outreach and expression.

Don't even get me started on the UMC denominational mess of General Conference, delegates, special conferences, and everyone with opinions. In many ways it seems we opine on the things we can't control, or vote on, and don't attend to what is closest, local, and we can control. It's such a mess, and while I will hesitate to add to the noise, I have some thoughts. Or, more likely, I'll share some of the "best of the best" that I see being shared. My primarily interest will be in the approaches and systems that elevate a United Methodist witness and connectional ministry.

More in the days ahead as I attempt to get back into a routine. The discoveries I share might relate to Church, or farm, or food, or photo, or other things I learn or question along the way. You know, unless I lose my blog again.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Egg Counting

I live on a small farm, so that when I'm not working my day job in the Church, I usually have plenty to get into that works mind and body. For me, in working with animals or garden it's a grounding sort of soul work that connects me with creation, with a place, and with my people (past and present).

January is often a time for dreaming of the spring and active preparation for the next season. While this year has been unusually cold for us it's not too different than normal. I just find I'm spending more time trying to keep fresh, unfrozen water for our livestock and poultry. As is my custom, I'm using January to look over seed catalogs and ordering a few things, and starting some chicken eggs in the incubator.

We've just locked down the incubator with 25 chicken eggs. For me that's always the nervous last few days when you stop rotating the eggs, increase the humidity, and wait to see the results in 3 days. There are all sorts of variables that can hamper a solid percentage of the eggs hatching in this mechanical incubator. Plus, I've got a new incubator with this batch, so there's sometimes a small learning curve about using a particular incubator in terms of how well it holds temperature and humidity.

I'm hopeful, as these eggs were beautiful and represented some of the best from our mixed flock of Welsummer and Easter Egger birds. 

Nervous days.

I guess that timely folk saying is true. "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."

But I am hopeful and working toward the best possibilities!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Mission Year in Review

This is that time of year where, if people have the capacity to get beyond Christmas, so many folk break out their "year in review" story. I can't recall sharing a year in review, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Of course, this is from my perspective, so the focus will be on the 2017 congregational mission year in review! But I'll do this in a way that I hope will help you to think through and write up your own "year in review" or perhaps tackle a "state of the church and community" in the new year.

I suppose the lead story is that too many churches are still doing what we do totally separated from the community and culture. Can you tell if it is 1997 or 2017 in your church? If our church story has no connection or relation to the bigger community and world stories we are probably missing out.  How are you part of the biggest conversations, needs, hopes of your community? Where are you going to listen, learn, and dialogue in such conversations? Often we church folk wonder why folk outside the church say we are irrelevant. 

By this I don't intend that a congregation be absorbed by the culture, but as it stands many congregations are merely absorbed by their closed system congregational culture. 

Further, many churches practice mission totally separated from the other practices of Christian and church. It's like we can choose whether to be in God's mission or not. In many ways the last chapter of church and Church life have been definitions of silos. The healthier practice is an integrated practice of the church which helps mission avoid being a busy bee do-gooderism that only engages the small percentage of people who have the time, funding, and skills to do a project. 

Here are a few questions as you consider what it means for your church to be the Body of Christ and follow the ways of Jesus out among your neighbors:

How has your church been engaged by the current cultural and political turmoil in healthy, productive ways? How are you involved in ministries of reconciliation? How are you helping the community to grow in peace, health, and into maturity?

How does your church break the cycle of fake news and echo chambers? Or do you contribute to the problems of community and country? 

How has your church been attentive and a community and world citizen to the numerous disasters of this year- both natural disasters as well as shootings? What is your short term, and long term, plans as you pray, give, and go to be part of the rebuilding of lives and community? Note that many families and communities are still struggling years after the disaster.  

How is your congregation alive to your community, and responsive to God, in the current mission movement in your context? This is likely not in the news, not old repetition of mission projects, but something that is highly relational and a sign of what the church is becoming. This could be related to some of the big news stories of the year, and the larger mission movement seen across the world, related to people groups on the edge of the community, e.g. the poor, refugees/ migrants, prisoners, orphans, widows, and others who are among the most vulnerable. 

The reality in many congregations is the continued decline of many churches, the loss of the last generation or two, and some denominational struggle and uncertainty on top of the local struggles. Both laity and clergy have proven we aren't very adaptable and prefer what we have known and where are comfortable.

A recurring theme I've seen throughout 2017 include churches redefining local mission and ministry. While we should continue to worship, pray, study, serve, and practice what it means to be a redemptive community, the way this looks must adjust to current and future neighbors in the community. Too many of our churches are trapped in the past by our traditions and preferences. We must define mission and ministry in fresh, vital ways for people today as more than a fad or gimmick. We must escape our church walls, our church traditions, and our church inhibitions to once again become a people or authentic, living giving/ sharing, incarnational ministry.  

A new year brings new opportunities. How will you and your congregation catch the wave of the mission movement in your community in this new year? 

I'm excited about another year:
  •  to have adventures of following Jesus in the community,
  • to know and join alongside people groups on the edge of community who are in the middle of God's movement of grace, 
  • to grow in experience and skill of being a cross-cultural person as I learn from others and God,
  • to help people find their place in participation and leadership in partnering with God and neighbor,
  • to more boldly advance local, regional, national, and international ministries of reconciliation,
  • and to encourage and teach more churches how to break out the walls of their cloister and confinement to be a church in/ of the community. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cultural Lectionary and Advent

In so many ways Advent is totally out of step with current U.S. culture. That's okay, but it does make it a challenge to connect with what people are thinking about, feeling, and needing when the holiday season and cultural machinery is cranking so strongly by mid-November.

Yet, in this Christian season and every other season, there are themes that might work well.

In these tumultuous social and political days, our larger context seems to revolve around a distant, perhaps dangerous ruler, cultural uncertainty and upheaval with strong divisions of opinion, and maybe some hope and expectation despite the craziness of the times. Hear any stirring of Advent or Christmas themes here that works for the proclamation of Good News in your community and church?

I'm especially drawn to ways the Advent story may be a help and a comfort for the larger community a church is in. In particular I wonder about the cultural lectionary, the ideas catching a lot of the current stories, related to power. More specifically, note how often power is a theme in the current stories of political intrigue, ongoing racial tensions and division, and allegations of sexual misconduct. Every day seems to bring another outrageous story! Now, don't let this devolve into another easy political rant. Instead, note that every party is drawn to power, wants to use their power, and does everything they can to retain power. So, this isn't partisan, but a truth for all times, places, and political groupings. Or note the celebrities, in their rise and fall, as they seem to present one persona, and over time seem to use their power and position that often results in a scandalous fall. I hear echoes of the Old Testament definition of idols, and the New Testament story of Jesus in the desert facing those temptations which we all face, including the allure of power and being king or queen of the world.

Recall that emotion is usually strong around these subjects, and our emotion and hectic pace this time of year will only heighten the tension in our personal and community life, so delve into this with your best footwork as you walk that tightrope of engagement, preaching in this moment of opportunity, and pastoral care of a people who are likely wounded and somewhat shaky. This could be a great opportunity to give voice to the community and to help folk tap into their soul as you give words to the challenges of our time.

The first Sunday of Advent this year certainly captures some of the sense of God's power, and God's distance, and the ways we humans are, in Isaiah 64:1-9. Be sure if you define 64:5, and "those who do right," that you don't fall into a trap. It's likely safer to go with the latter part of the verse as the lead for what is right. Verse 7, while rather bleak, captures some of the problem of our day. Be sure to emphasize that it is "our iniquity" and don't go the route of the easy to preach "your iniquity," i.e. it's not my sin problem it's your sin problem. Emphasize the plural in this as you study, pray, prepare, and preach, and see where it leads. If preaching in a contemporary service you might help the worship leader and congregation accept the personal pronoun early in a song, but at some point transition to the plural, i.e. please move from "I" to "we" and from "me" to "us!" If our music only reinforces a solitary Christianity and Christmas then we've lost an opportunity.

Advent 2B offers the beloved text from Isaiah 40:1-11 with a focus on temporary humanity and eternal God. There is strong penalty for human sin, yet the comfort, power, and new beginnings offered by God are also an option. I'm somewhat captivated in this reading with our current cultural context with " not fear" and "Here is your God!" It offers a striking contrast with some of the current mood of "Fear, and more fear" and "where is your God" or perhaps a small, diminished god of our own making that is so much less than the living God.

Isaiah 61:1-11 in Advent 3B is a powerful passage that turns the whole world order upside down! While I believe, and have experienced, that this points to Jesus, I also believe it points to the way a church can be in the community. As individuals, and a congregation, how might we practice these ways every day in our community? Check out how this can be a populist, grassroots movement that better defines power, overcomes some of the biggest issues of our day one person at a time, and makes right so much that is wrong. This is both a God movement, and our response to God's work in our lives so that we practice Sabbath/ Jubilee in transformational community ways. This is personal renewal, church renewal, and community renewal in ways that offer abundant life.

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve the same day I know many clergy friends are making certain adjustments in order to help it all work well for their congregation. Sticking with Advent 4, I like Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1:39-56. Of course, this power theme is a key concept in Luke, so it's easy to continue the exploration of power and community, and Jesus who offers redemption of both individual and "us!" "...He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." Don't soften the "rich" language, and don't lose the way God is working, and which we should join in on.  

Venture beyond the normal, generic, sanitized, sweet Christmas story- if that is possible- and find ways to bring the reality of life to life in the church. You might engage your community in some of the best themes of the season that may meet their fear and angst with a shared hope for a better day.  Welcome the cultural lectionary into your worship and preaching and you'll find stronger ways to connect with the community this Advent.