Sunday, August 19, 2012

my transition to the role of bishop

A couple of you have reminded me that I have posted less frequently than in previous seasons, and so I offer here a brief word of explanation, by way of an update.  In July I was elected by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church to serve as a bishop.  During that same conference I was assigned to be the bishop of the Florida Conference, which includes most of the state, including the Keys, but with the exception of the panhandle.  The Florida Conference also has important covenant relationships with Haiti and Cuba, and indeed many members from these nations, and Angola.  I follow a respected and brilliant man, Timothy Whitaker, who retires to his home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia after serving there for eleven years.  My term will be for four years; it is often the custom that eight years is the norm in an area, and sometimes twelve.  A bishop, at present and with some exceptions in some central conferences, is elected for life tenure in the United Methodist Church.

Some have asked how all of this happened.  It is true that my life has been on a trajectory toward this possibility for some time:  serving as pastor of strong congregations, and as chair of oversight boards related to ordained ministers and bishops; being a part of two study commissions related to ordination, and working as a district superintendent these past fourteen months.

All of these experiences certainly have contributed toward a readiness for this role, if this is possible, but the journey is still a complex one, and no outcome is a given.  In our tradition bishops are elected by broad constituencies of laity and clergy in a region.  Many gifted persons have been on a similar journey and have not been called to the office of bishop; at the same time, many of these same persons have strengthened the church immeasurably in other ways.  The process of being nominated for the role of bishop includes an extended and rigorous period of discernment.  This includes interviews, written questions, personal conversations, prayer and developing relationships with other nominees and leaders in other conferences.  In my own experience I sensed that I was placing my life and calling in the hands of other people, specifically men and women called by the church to make this decision.

Because I trusted and respected the process and these people, I determined early on that I would consider the action of the church, whatever than might be, to be God's purpose for my life.  I had been a pastor for twenty-eight years prior to a brief tenure as a superintendent; I certainly enjoyed preaching, teaching, working alongside leaders toward a particular goal, and visiting with friends and listening in times of crisis.  Had the church not called me to this office, I imagine that I would have re-focused my life toward pastoral ministry again.  In time I would have considered that direction to be a blessing.

But the church has asked me to serve in a different way, one that is admittedly exciting and somewhat overwhelming.   I have worked closely with bishops, but I have not served in this role, so I am clearly in a place of "not knowing what I do not know."  At the same time, I have always been conscious that learning about a new place of ministry is an interesting part of the adventure.

In a few days we will be moving to Florida to begin this work.  I will serve alongside a gifted group of leaders there, who know the culture and will help me to begin to grasp it.  I will lead a conference that includes some of the strongest and largest congregations in our denomination and a number of the most gifted and visible leaders in our connection.  I will give oversight to a region that is as diverse (in ethnicity) as any episcopal area in Methodism.  I will assign pastors, ordain clergy and help over seven hundred churches and missions in their fundamental assignment: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In the words of the Service of Consecration, the calling of a bishop is expressed with clarity:

to guard the faith, to seek the unity, 
and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church.;
and to supervise and support the Church's life, work,
and mission throughout the world.

This ministry will call forth all the experiences I have gained over time in reading and interpreting scripture and theology, in mediation and reconciliation, in holding others (and myself) accountable within a tradition of grace, and in leading an institution to align its resources with its mission in the world.  As I recall the Service of Consecration, I remember both my own promises but also the response of all of those gathered to the question:

Will you uphold them in their ministries as bishops of the church?

And I remember hearing a resounding:

With God's help, we will.  

I am grateful for the clear remembrance of the voice of the surrounding community that both calls and encourages in these days of transition.  

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

a summer prayer

O God of every time and season
we give thanks for rhythms of work and rest
for places apart that mark our years
for the eternal return of ocean waves
for the defiant posture of mountains
for the hiddenness of favorite coves
for pilgrimages made and then homecomings.

O God, in this season we are grateful
for sanity regained
for blessings discovered
for those who return to us
and for those who leave.

Teach us, God of wonder and creation
that your presence is woven into
the comings and goings of our lives
and having fled to our own lonely places
let us return, with Jesus
to live and work
to heal and pray
to worship and love.


(I published this prayer in Alive Now, July/August, 2000, and have shared it with congregations and with friends in each successive summer.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

father's day: a personal statement of gratitude

For most of my life I experienced Father's Day through the experience of my family of origin.  My parents divorced when I was in the ninth grade.  I was the oldest child.  It was messy.  In hindsight, I imagine they were doing the best they could, at the time. I am in no position to judge.  I remain close to my mother, more distant from my father. 

More recently I have reflected on this day out of my own experience as a father.  We have been blessed with two remarkable daughters who are now young adults: the older one is more intellectual and political, the younger one more social and athletic.  Both are compassionate, both love music, and both are blessed with a small network of very close and loyal friends.  Both express the faith into which they were baptized in their own ways; as you might imagine, this causes me to rejoice.  At the same time, they are not perfect, and neither am I, and we are all good with that.

This week the older daughter wrote an amazing article about women and human rights in China (see Tea Leaf Nation), and the younger daughter spent the week managing a small team of youth who rehabilitated a house for a poor mountain family (for example, there were no doors to the bedrooms).

Occasionally friends will comment about these two daughters who have become young women, and how struck by their uniqueness they are.  Being a parent is work, and it is a neverending process, to be sure.  But much of the good comes as pure grace, for which I really take very little credit.  So the idea of recognition on this day is somewhat unnecessary. 

The gift has already come my way.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

can we ask new questions? (romans 12. 2)

So my friend Bob Tuttle gave me the insight: the opposite of personal (as in personal holiness) is not social, but impersonal; and the opposite of social (as in social holiness) is not personal,  but anti-social.  This prompted me to reflect on many of the assumptions I often make or encounter in conversation with other people. I shared this one with him:  it is not that the world is inclusive and Jesus is narrow; in the gospels, Jesus is much more inclusive than I am---he eats with all kinds of people, he makes outcasts the heroes of his stories, he forgives those who have harmed or betrayed him. And it is also true that the world can be pretty exclusive; those on the political left or right are generally attuned to those who keep or violate their orthodoxies, and make outcasts of those who stray from the path.

Here is another one: if you are religiously conservative, you will be politically conservative.  Often, but not always true.  If may be that a careful, even literal reading of scripture about, say, the poor, would lead one to insist on a wider safety net for the most vulnerable and a preference for the common good over the free market.  Peace can be understood in this way; as can liberation movements, from slavery to human trafficking.

Thinking through our assumptions, I am convinced, is more than a merely intellectual exercise.  Why does sanctity of life not include both the unborn and the environment?  Both would come within a doctrine of creation.  Why does radical hospitality not include both the unborn, on the one hand, and gays and lesbians, on the other? Both would fall within a posture of inclusion.  And why is it most often the case that a commitment to the sanctity of life or the practice of hospitality is not consistent? And is it any wonder that our theological commitments are often grounded in a particular political terrain, and over time takes on a tone void of humility or grace?

Mike Slaughter helped me to understand that we do often engage the culture, especially the political culture, uncritically, instead of searching for what he calls a "third way".  And Andy Crouch, in a refreshing way, opened my eyes to see that our default perspective on culture is often negative.  The church that is nourished by the grace of God and led into the mission of God will seek a way of life that is not constricted by political or economic reductionism.  Instead, we will recover the ancient wisdom that is always relevant, and found in the words of the Apostle Paul:  "Don't be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you can figure out what God's will is---what is good and pleasing and mature."(CEB)

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

social media + ministry: seven practices

A few thoughts on the use of social media and ministry: 

1.  Rhythm of life.  If you use a smartphone, and spend a great deal of time with a laptop, you soon find yourself being accessible to a much greater extent to people.  I learned over time that I needed to create boundaries for myself, so here they are:  I do not look at my smartphone early in the morning or late at night; in fact, I try to read email or facebook and twitter updates only after I have been awake for about thirty minutes.  This allows me to spend time first in some kind of spiritual practice---this year, I am reading four chapters of the Bible each day and 15 verses of the Koran.  Then I make the coffee.  Then I turn on Morning Joe or Up With Chris.  Then I look at the smartphone.  I have also come to the sense that it is not productive to respond to email later at night; I am not rested, and this is prime time to encounter the frustrations of others.  I would rather read and respond in the morning, when I am mentally fresher (and perhaps they are as well) and when I can follow up with a phone call if needed.

2.  Facebook.  I enjoy Facebook.  For me the positives far outweigh the negatives, and I can discipline myself to spend brief amounts of time there.  FB has allowed me to reconnect with friends from almost every season of my life: high school and college, seminary and graduate school, each congregation along the way.  Along the way I have come to a few boundaries that work for me:  I don't have FB friends who are not adults, I don't ask to be FB friends of persons I am supervising, I hide the posts of people who are blatantly, consistently and harshly political (the culture wars wear very thin after awhile) and I don't play any of the games or join any of the lists that require the sharing of private information.  Given these guidelines, I enjoy connecting with people who have all kinds of interests.  It is a great way to point readers toward blog posts, or books or music or restaurants; it is an easier way to come to know more introverted people; and it is a wonderful way to wish friends a happy birthday. 

3. Twitter.  It is easy to ridicule Twitter, but again the individuals shapes his or her use of this tool.  Here is mine.  I follow people and sources that interest me: my feed is eclectic, from the Atlanta Braves to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times to Partners in Health in Haiti to Chris Thile.  It is a great way to find resources that are helpful, interesting and fun.  If I stay away for awhile, no problem: the feed simply flows along and I catch up to it, and contribute to it, as I am able.  I would also add that Twitter is perfect for an event that is in process, like the United Methodist General Conference or an Atlanta Braves game.  And it is amazing what you can communicate in 140 characters!

4.  Blogging.   I have been blogging for several years.  When I served as a local church pastor I would post my sermons; now I write more generally about the church and culture.  I have learned over time to keep blog posts to a briefer word length, and I use Twitter and Facebook to alert folks to new blog posts.  As an intellectual exercise blogging has helped me to clarify my thoughts on a number of issues and point friends and readers to a variety of resources that are worth knowing about.  I have also blogged intentionally within a few distinct communities:  Christian Century, Day 1, and No Depression (a roots music website).  It is a nice form of self-expression, and I should note here that I enjoy reading the blogs of a few others.

5.  E-Mail.  My general rules:  I don't feel compelled to respond to e-mail to which I am copied; I assume that if I write something by e-mail it may be shared without my permission with a crowd of people; briefer is better; e-mail is not a helpful method for dealing with conflict; and most e-mail is not urgent.  For younger adults text messaging has replaced e-mail.

6.  Generations.  I realize that different generations use social media in diverse ways.  Most people my age (54) who are parents go on Facebook for one primary reason: to see pictures of their children.  At the same time, I know that our children restrict our access to their sites, and that is fine.  It is their world.  I did not ask either of our children to be FB friends; they offered.  FB and Twitter were first inhabited by younger adults, and then over time boomers have entered in (this is not so different from so-called "contemporary worship").  And so younger adults will likely find new spaces to create and inhabit in the world of social media.

7.  Connecting and Disconnecting.  I close with a reference, again, to boundaries.  I find that it helps me to have particular times when I disconnect from social media; for example, when I am driving and when I am sharing a meal with someone.  When I served local churches I disconnected from the smartphone on Sunday afternoons, and I would recommend this (at least for significant stretches of time) on sabbaths and days off from work.  Disconnecting from social media does create time and space for other pursuits: reading scripture or novels, writing in a journal, having a conversation with family or friends.  I know that iPads and Kindles are the media for reading books, and iPhones are tools to have conversations with family and friends in other places.  I am supporting the general principle that disconnecting from technology creates space for our attention to the wider world (creation) and time to pursue hobbies (like gardening or playing music) or simply being still. Connecting is fun, and perhaps even essential if we are going to be a part of the conversation,  but disconnecting, on occasion, is necessary.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

we get more of what we focus on

In the aftermath of the United Methodist General Conference we are both making sense of the implications and beginning to move into the future.  It would be possible to continue the kind of point-counterpoint that is playing itself out, or to lament the particular changes to which we object as individuals.  This is a continuation of the arguments voiced on the floor of the convention center in Tampa, and it serves some purpose, chiefly self-expression. 

There is another way forward and that is to transition into our leadership roles, to refocus on our places of mission and ministry, and to reconnect with the actual human need in the communities where we live.   When we shift our attention, I am convinced, we are actually positioned to make a difference in a world awaiting transformation.  The following seem possible areas of fruitful engagement:

1.  An intervention with young adults.  With a major allocation of resources for lay and clergy young adult leadership development over the next four years, we have the opportunity to create a significant initiative that will bear fruit for decades to come.  I am hopeful that young adults will help to create this, and that the pool of young adults will represent the theological and political diversity of our churches across the U.S.  I am also grateful for pastors like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, who have already done significant work with young clergy,  newer general secretaries like Kim Cape and Thomas Kemper who are ready to move in a fresh direction, college presidents like Cam West, who has turned an institution back toward the church, academics like Jason Vickers and Phil Amerson, who have reflected deeply on the renewal of our tradition, and bishops like Grant Hagiya, who have tremendous gifts in the study and practice of leadership.  Our denomination is blessed with a network of excellent colleges and universities  and we can access resources from them to help us engage an emerging generation.   The focus must not be on intramural fighting about denominational polity or representation; it must be shaped by an external focus that connects the gospel of Jesus Christ with the human hurts and hopes that exist outside our ecclesial structures, and leads to an integrated grasp of vocation or calling to serve wherever we are. 

2.  Mission/Evangelism is local.  The strength of the Call to Action was its core idea:  to redirect resources toward the creation of healthy and vital congregations.  This was not our focus in Tampa but it can be our priority going forward, and annual conferences are actually better positioned to work on this than the general church.  The more local our focus, the more we are in touch with the rich diversity of people who live in our communities.  We are blessed with a number of models, from within United Methodism (here I am thinking of Elaine Heath and Robert Schnase, for example) and beyond (the missional, emergent and new monastic movements), and the basic idea--that we are called to create new places for new people----is simple enough to implement and flexible enough to call forth the gifts of very different leaders.  And so leaders (bishops, activists, structural strategists, lay leaders, young adults, pastors) can return to the places where we really live and begin to do work in our spheres of influence around the matters that are compelling to us.  Actions in Tampa would not have made us more inclusive, at the local level, or more vital, at the congregational level.  If the mission is going to happen, it will take place "on the ground". 

3.  Theology matters.  As I noted in an earlier post, we can and must rediscover a robust theology of grace.  This is much more than an academic exercise.  Prevenient grace grounds our conviction that all people are created in the image of God and matter to God.  Repentance calls us to confession and humility.  Justifying grace calls us again and again to the truth that salvation is a gift, not our work, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Sanctifying grace is a life devoted to the love of God and neighbor, working itself out in personal (and not impersonal) and social (and not anti-social) holiness.  Our gift to the individual seeker and to a jaded and degraded society is the fullness of God's grace and holiness.  Without the fullness of this way of salvation we degenerate into political interest groups obsessed with issues; without a posture of grace we do not have the resources to discuss with civility, to discern our positions with humility, to see our neighbor or our enemy with dignity, or to be patient in the long journey toward the beloved community.   Without the fullness of grace, our actions, no matter how well intentioned, do not glorify God.  Every local church would benefit from a serious engagement with the meaning of grace in our everyday, ordinary lives.

The performances at General Conference revealed that we are a broken church, and that in "plundering the Egyptians" we have mastered the political tactics of a broken world.  But now I am reflecting on an insight from appreciative inquiry:  "we get more of what we focus on" (see Philippians 4. 8-9).   As United Methodists we have gifts that we can offer to the world, gifts embedded in our congregations, in our structures, in our institutions, but mostly in our people.  A revival of mission begins when we focus on the world that is our parish, and share the gift of Jesus Christ.  As we move into the future, this will be the way that leads to life.

Friday, May 11, 2012

general conference, united methodists and the grace we need

A few days ago the General Conference in Tampa concluded.  Like other delegates I made my way home, began to process what had happened, and struggled to articulate to others what the outcomes actually were.  Looking back, there is relatively little to show for our two weeks there.  I have suggested that the conference was no more intense or fractured than the previous two (2004, 2008); this conference was marked by the parallel conversation in social media, especially twitter, and so many saw the church at work in a new way.  The transparency is good, but perhaps the disillusionment that comes upon some is an inevitable result of the wider access.

Many have summarized General Conference, and this is certainly not the last or the ultimate word.   It may be, however, a word that has not been spoken, and therefore it may help.  I hope so.

We are Christians because God's grace, for some mysterious reason, is at work in our lives (Ephesians 2).  And our work as a United Methodist General Conference is shaped by our understanding of the grace of God.  Some in the body expressed a theology that included prevenient grace and social holiness, and little else.  Others grounded their speech in justifying grace and personal holiness, and little else.  We were each convinced that we knew the mind of God, but of course our knowledge was and is incomplete (I Corinthians 13).  And of course we were usually talking past one another.

Some have asked if we did in fact mimic the political divisions of our cultures and the answer must be yes.  Our default way of being together was primarily sociological:  we saw and heard each other first in this way.  This was reinforced by much of the worship, whose dominant theme was ourselves in relation to each other, with relatively little place for the transcendent, the One who stands in judgment upon us and is at the same time the source of abundant grace and blessing.

Our sociological divisions were sometimes cast in theological terms---for a time we struggled with an interpretation of the prodigal son--- but at times they were blatant, as with the request to see the skin color of a petition's author, as if identification as a child of God, or membership in the United Methodist Church, or authorization to serve as a delegate were not sufficient.

Still, the theological inadequacies are of greater concern to me, and they are an obstacle to any movement beyond our present impasse.  The one thing necessary is a full and complete embrace of the grace of God---present in every person, regardless of belief or practice, yes; calling forth our humility, repentance, confession and profession in One Lord, yes; bearing fruit in holy personal lives that do not conform to the world, yes; and breaking down walls of prejudice and bigotry, yes.

Yes to all of God's grace. That we cling to the piece of the whole that satisfies or justifies us displays a lack of faith in the One to whom the church really belongs, and leads to a lack of trust in each other, especially across the red and blue states that compose the cultural map of the U.S., not to mention God's wider world.

Until we begin to reflect on, rejoice in, return to the grace of God and sense that this gift is our only hope, we will continue to do violence---and there really is no other word that fits here----to each other at General Conference. Until then we will choose our issues----structure or sexuality, representation or resources---and see ourselves in the role of victim, and that is a logical outcome in a political process where there are inevitably winners and losers.  At General Conference 2012 there were no winners; only losers.

We believe, God.  Help our unbelief.