Easter Every Day

In 1976, my dad authored a book entitled Every Day is Easter in Alabama about the history of the Alabama Easter Seals Society. Easter Seals is a national organization dedicated to helping those with disabilities live full and productive lives. The organization first sold envelope “seals” to raise money for the early work of what would become Easter Seals. The “seals” had the image of an Easter Lily, which became the symbol for the organization. My dad’s book title played off the theme of Easter. Due to the great work of Easter Seals of Alabama, every day was a day of resurrection for persons with disabilities. Every day the organization was giving new life to persons with disabilities.

We have an outstanding Easter Seals organization in Mobile, AL combined with Goodwill, which has a similar mission. Our local organization is called Goodwill Easter Seals of the Gulf Coast, and the founding pastor of Christ United Methodist Church Jeff Spiller and I are proud to serve on their advisory board. One of the faithful members of our church, Frank Harkins, has been the director of this local organization for the past 40 years! The stories of resurrection that are told by Frank, his staff, volunteers, and clients are so inspiring. Interestingly, my dad was one of Frank’s professors at Auburn University. Who would have thought that when I was just two years old that my dad was teaching Frank Harkins and writing a book about Easter Seals and 44 years later, I get to serve on Frank’s Board and learn from him as one of my mentors.

Easter this year is on April 12th. Thousands of people will stream to our church to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ll put on our new Easter clothes, sing “Up From the Grave He Arose” (or other resurrection songs), and take pictures of our friends and families. Most importantly, we will celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ defeated sin and death and that because of his incarnation, death, and resurrection, we can live new lives in Jesus. Though Easter is just one day on our calendar, Easter has to be something that is every day for us. One of the most stirring passages of the Bible comes from 2nd Corinthians 4:8-14:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.  11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.  12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.  13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture– “I believed, and so I spoke”– we also believe, and so we speak,  14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.

No matter what we face or what trials we endure, we are people of the resurrection EVERY DAY. Jesus told Mary near the tomb of Lazarus, “I AM the resurrection.” Because of this, we are people of the resurrection! This message is good news for the world. No matter what we are facing, we are living testimonies that Jesus wins, and the world needs to know this EVERY DAY. Give thanks to God for what he’s done for us and remember that every day can be Easter in Alabama and everywhere else!

Seven Ways to Preserve Christian Community During a Political Season

img_6790Many faith groups align politically, and for that reason, most board meetings, Sunday school classes, and other church gatherings typically become echo chambers. Since people more or less have the same political persuasions and are usually reading, watching, and listening to similar influences there isn’t room for a lot of disagreement. Many churches and this is especially true of United Methodist Churches, don’t enjoy this level of political homogeneity. Churches with political diversity can be difficult to navigate because it can be hard to worship, learn, and serve alongside people we feel are wrong about important political issues. Many of us see our political stances as matters of faith and belief. When this happens a person’s political opinion isn’t just something we disagree about, but it is seen as something that their opinion is morally wrong. It doesn’t take longs for these viewpoints to go from theoretical to very personal. Pretty soon it seems like we can’t be in community with a person that is so morally wrong.

So what do you do? What can a person do to worship, learn, and serve along with people who are so wrong!

  1. Realize that not everyone sees the world the way you do. 

    This seems pretty obvious, but I frequently find myself in conversations with persons who assume that I see the world precisely as they do. They make assumptions about my political beliefs, my religious beliefs that often are not true. I think there is a tendency to project our own viewpoints on people that we like or that we think are similar to us. A friend of mine who once taught Government to High School seniors told me that she attempted to keep her personal political beliefs to herself while teaching her students. On the final exam, she would ask students to describe their political identity and then give them a chance to guess her political identity. Nine times out of ten her students stated that their political identity matched hers.When politics comes up in conversation with church friends, don’t assume that others see the world exactly as you do. Avoid making sweeping statements about how wrong or right a particular political viewpoint is. Feel free to express what you believe, but leave room for others to express their beliefs as well. Use I statements like “I believe…” or “I think…” and avoid making declaratory statements that prevent others from saying what they think or believe.

  1. Leave Room that You Could be Wrong

History is littered with very opinionated people who felt very strongly they were right but turned out to be wrong from a viewpoint of history and time. Most of us have probably changed our minds about something over the years and could tell a story of how we once thought one way about things, but now think about things differently. There is a temptation to strain family relationships and friendships over our strongly held political views. When we leave room that we could be wrong, no matter how right we believe our viewpoints are, we can have grace for others and can prioritize friendship over our political convictions.

  1. Find places of Commonality.

If you have a relationship of trust with another person and you can talk about political topics with them without damaging the relationship you might try to find places of commonality. Persons might disagree about the cause of climate change, but both might want to find ways to have a cleaner planet. Maybe people differ on how best to improve our healthcare system but can agree on ways to care for those in our community who need help. Maybe there is a deep disagreement about abortion but can come together to help teen moms. Finding common ground like this, even in the midst of deep disagreement, we can find common causes to help make the world a better place.

 

  1. Try to see the other person’s viewpoint.

Try to see if you can get into the head of a person who seems “wrong” to you. Maybe you spend a week watching the news station you feel is wrong. Maybe you read publications that you typically wouldn’t read in order to try to see the way the other side is looking at the world. Many of our strongly held political opinions are emotional reactions to deeply held convictions and cultural understandings. We are good at finding facts and ways of thinking that back up these ideas to which we are so emotionally connected. We easily see the logical fallacies in others arguments but are pretty blind to where our own arguments break down. It’s unlikely your opinion will change after considering the other viewpoint seriously, however, the process of doing so will signal the care and respect you have for your family and friends who disagree with you.

 

  1. Realize Your Greatest Influence is Local

Most of our news sources look at things at the global or national level. Many of our local news sources are dwindling or can be overly sensational. The problem is that we spend a lot more time being informed and thinking about issues we have very little ability to do anything about (national and global issues) and are often gravely underinformed about things happening in our own back yard. We may have very strong opinions about gun violence but are not engaged in reducing gun violence in our own community. We may be concerned about environmental issues, but unaware of what is happening in our own rivers and streams.

  1. Beware of Your Use of Social Media

Many a friendship was lost or damaged due to things posted on social media. People are frequently unkind on social media, and it breaks my heart when I see followers of Jesus forget that they are also supposed to follow Jesus when posting on social media. There’s a popular meme that indicates that 0% of people’s minds are changed via social media. Of course, this isn’t true. Studies have shown that information and misinformation on social media has been very influential. For the most part, however, posts about politics and other controversial subjects tend to break down Christian community rather than build it up. The book of James warns us that the tongue can be a dangerous fire. This fire spreads even more quickly on social media. Before posting on social media ask yourself, is this going to build people up or possibly tear some people down?

 

  1. Get ready to forgive.

Jesus forgave you everything, so we must stand ready to forgive. Each week in some of our services we repeat the Lord’s prayer which says “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those trespass against us.” We ask God to forgive us as much as we forgive others. When it comes to living in Christian Community our default posture must be forgiveness.

Fixing Appointments

Today our Bishop, David Graves, “fixed” the appointments which are the pastoral assignments of each pastor in our Annual Conference. I love that we use the word “fix” to describe what Bishops do in sending clergy to the four corners of our Conference. Of course, this use of the word refers to fastening them, in place, but the more common definition of that word makes me want to ask, “Is there really that much brokenness in our churches that the Bishop has to fix so much every year?” Perhaps. Many pastors will go to new places this year and if they’re not careful a great misunderstanding might occur in the minds of those pastors. You see, when some pastors go to new churches they mistakenly believe that they are being sent to a church that needs to be fixed, rather than being sent to a people who need to be loved.

This is a great and understandable temptation because the Lord knows our churches need to be fixed in all kinds of ways. Some of them literally need to be fixed: leaking roofs, bad AC compressors, offensive carpeting in the Sanctuary not to mention the decades old color schemes that are begging to be changed. Some of the churches in our Conference have been ravaged by storms and many need significant physical “fixing.” But many churches have more serious problems to be fixed: a lack of concern for the community around them, a lack of vision for who God called them to be, and in too many churches the idols of consumerism or racism or college football are all too real. When so much fixing is needed, it’s hard not to want to roll up your sleeves, put on your work gloves and hard hats, and get fixing right away.

But God (with the Bishop’s help) is not sending you to a church to be fixed, but a people to be loved. We easily forget the words of that strange hymn “I Am the Church” that says “the church is not a steeple, the church is a people.” They are beautifully, wonderfully made people who are children of God. Of course, they need fixing! They’re just like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Peter, James, and John, Ananias and Sapphira. They are both beautiful and broken. They are in need of fixing, but not by you. God just needs you to give them a Pastor’s love, and he’ll do the fixing.

Of course, the love of a pastor isn’t all fried chicken, casseroles, and going fishing. Certainly, pastors should eat, fish, play golf, and have a grand time with the people of their churches. But, don’t forget they need a pastor, not a buddy. The love of a pastor speaks the truth, challenges, knows, soothes, casts courageous vision, pushes boundaries, but does it all in the context of a deep love for the people.

The church you’re going to is broken. Love the people, and let God do the fixing.

fixing appts

Neighborhood Gatherings – A Great Way to Get to Know Your Congregation (Re-Post)

This was originally posted in May 2017

Over the years pastors have asked me about my process for getting to know a new congregation which I first learned about from Dr. Jim Jackson when he served as the Senior Pastor of Chapelwood UMC in Houston, TX. I’ve used this process in two different churches and a modified version in my current context. I hope you find it helpful.

Upon entering a new congregation a great way to get to know your congregation is to hold neighborhood gatherings throughout your new community. Here is a quick step by step process you can use to do the same.

  1. Find the persons best able to organize these for you. For me, it was the church secretary in all three churches. You need someone who knows the community and the congregation well enough to figure out how to best do this.
  2. Ask this person to group the congregation’s members/prospects into neighborhood segments. This will be most easily done using a good database program which I hope your new church has. Some churches have access to MissionInsite which has some ways of doing this pretty easily. The groups should be about 20-30. Some may be more and some less.
  3. Once the groups have been put together have the person assisting you choose a good host/hostess for the gathering. You’ll need to find someone who has a large enough home to accommodate the number of people and preferably find someone with hospitality gifts. Have your assistant (or you might be even better) ask this person personally to host the gathering. Find a time that is convenient for them.
  4. Scheduling: This is the hardest part of doing this method. You need to find the best times that you can commit to doing this. In one church I held nine neighborhood gatherings, so scheduling wasn’t too hard. In another church, I held 25 of them, so it was much more difficult to put these on my calendar and spread them out. I had to change this process at my current church because I would have had to hold over 150 of them to accommodate all the members. Typically I scheduled two every Sunday: one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Then I scheduled two others on evenings during the week. These gatherings typically lasted about two hours (I’ll describe the schedule below). At this rate, I could hold about four per week. Once you’ve decided when you can hold them and find hosts to host them, you’re ready to start inviting neighbors!
  5. I began the neighborhood gatherings in August and continued them through October. This is a good time to start. This may mean that you will have to spend less time doing other things during this busy season of the church calendar. Hopefully, your staff and members will recognize how vitally important these gatherings are in addition to the other church events on the calendar. I did not preempt any church programming for these gatherings, but I did lessen some of my responsibilities as I added this to my plate.
  6. The Gathering: The gatherings have three main purposes. First, it is a way for you to meet the members/prospects of your congregation in smaller, more informal settings. A secondary benefit is that members of your congregation meet one another in a smaller, more informal place. At one neighborhood gathering, two members met for the first time. I discovered they had been sitting 12 feet from one another in worship for several decades. It took a neighborhood gathering for them to finally meet! A second goal is for you to get a chance to truly listen to the members of your congregation. During the meetings, I asked the members to briefly (you have to emphasize this) describe what first brought them to the church and when. For this question, I go around the room and allow each person to speak. The second question I typically ask openly to the group, “What dreams do you have for our church?” Listening to how the members of your congregation answer these questions will tell you a lot. You’ll hear of the church’s great past, and you’ll hear their attitudes about the future. The final goal of the meeting is for your new church members to hear from you. This is a time to talk briefly about your life history and then share with them about your core values for ministry. It is also a good time to invite them to lean into their vows of membership. In my tradition persons commit to supporting the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This is a good time to define what those commitments are and ask them to renew their commitment to them. I prepared a small handout that outlined the things I wanted to share so they could take it with them. Jim Ozier, in his book The Changeover Zone, describes a similar process and suggests some other similar questions. I recommend his book for any transitioning pastor!
  7. The gathering schedule: Typically I allow 20-30 minutes of informal visiting and refreshments. You’ll need to ask your host/hostess to prepare some appropriate refreshments for the gathering. This time of gathering is important so that you can meet people informally and it sets the atmosphere as friendly and welcoming. Gather the group together for formal introductions. This is when you ask the two questions above. This will take 45 minutes to an hour. Reserve the last 15-30 minutes for your remarks. Conclude with a time of prayer for the church and its future.

Over the course of however long, it takes you to hold these meetings you will meet, listen to, and share with a majority of the members of the congregation. In the church where we held 25 gatherings, I met with more than 450 persons. Once you’ve done this you will likely know more about the church and its members than just about anyone else in the congregation. Beyond the actual knowledge you will gain, the congregation will discover that their new pastor desires to know them and listen to them, and you will have a head start on casting vision and shaping the culture of the church as their new leader. This is hard to do. There are hundreds of reasons why you “can’t” do this. I modified it for my current context to make it easier, but it wasn’t as effective. Learning your congregation is one of your main tasks as an incoming pastor, this may be some of the most valuable time you will spend in ministry. I encourage you to give it a shot.

Disaffiliation Petition Passes

The General Conference just approved the Disaffiliation – Taylor Petition with revisions which lays out a process for churches to leave the denomination while retaining their property and assets provided that they meet the financial obligations in the plan. This would allow any church the opportunity to leave the denomination in a more detailed, structured, and unified fashion than is currently provided in the Book of Discipline. A representative from our General Council on Finance and Administration reported that on average for ever 1% of UMC churches that leave the denomination the General Church and Annual Conferences will lose 5.2 million dollars. It will be interesting to see if many churches choose this path moving into the future.

 

Traditional Plan Passes

At approximately 4:46 PM the Traditional Plan passed. As I reported earlier, parts of the Traditional Plan were ruled unconstitutional. Some amendments were made to some of the parts of the plan, but not all of the constitutional problems were fixed. The rulings from the Judicial Council are advisory rulings. The ultimate constitutionality of the plans will have to be tested on a case by case basis over time. In time, parts of the plan will be ruled unconstitutional officially. At the same time, other parts of the Traditional Plan were constitutional and further narrow the stance of the UMC on issues of homosexual practice, marriage, and ordination.

After the ruling some who are of the traditionalist viewpoint sang hymns of praise. Those who were hoping for the One Church plan began singing, “This is my Story, This is my Song” and began chanting phrases between those on the floor to the observers in the stands. In an earlier blog I remarked about how I love the diversity of our denomination. The scene in the arena today is the painful part of being part of such a diverse denomination. We have divergent viewpoints about theology, the Bible, and how to practice our faith. More homogeneous denominations would not get to experience the beauty or the pain of the scenes we’ve witnessed this few days.

It’s important to acknowledge that persons within the Christian faith have different viewpoints on these issues of human sexuality. Those hoping for a more inclusive UMC will walk away from today hurt and disappointed. We need to remember that the UMC Discipline continues to say that “homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons, are individuals of sacred worth.” All people are loved by God.

One Church Plan Does Not Pass

As mentioned in earlier posts The One Church Plan which would allow local churches to make their own decision about same-sex marriage and pastors would be able to make his or her own decision about whether to do same-sex marriages. This plan did not pass through the legislative committee yesterday, but was brought forth today as a minority report. Dr. Tom Berlin, a pastor in the Virginia Conference, presented this report and urged delegates to vote for the One Church plan or to abstain from voting if they could not, in good conscience, vote for it.  After the votes were cast the One Church Plan failed to pass. It will not be able to be passed at this point.

This afternoon the delegates of the General Conference will continue to work through the proposals which passed yesterday. They will be amended, and ultimately voted up or down. We General Conference must adjourn at 6:30 PM based on our standing rules and also because the arena in which we are meeting will be used for a Monster Truck Rally this weekend and there are dump trucks of dirt poised to come in and radically change this place (it’s hard to make this stuff up). This time limit means that it is possible that all of the proposals will not be able to be considered. This is a common problem at General Conferences. It is hard to slowly work through legislation and be done when you have to be done.

One of the fears about this Conference that some have had that we would gather and nothing will really get passed. It seemed overly optimistic that this decades long debate could be figured out in the course of four days.  I’ve heard some say that the worst thing that could happen is nothing. I’m not so sure that is true. There will be another General Conference in 2020 where further work can be offered on these challenges. I’m grateful that in our local church in Mobile, AL we continue to be focused on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world: love God, love people, and change the world.

 

Judicial Council Rules

The organization of the UMC is similar to the organization of the U.S. government with three basic branches that have separation of powers. Our legislative branch is the General Conference which passes legislation and the only body that can officially speak for the UMC. Our “executive branch” could be described as our Council of Bishops. This is probably where our system is MOST different from the U.S. government. Bishops have a role in enforcing the church’s rules as well as making initial rulings of law. Also, they do not have any kind of veto power over legislation. The third branch is our Judicial Council which is similar to the U.S. Government’s Supreme Court. The Judicial Council reviews the rulings that Bishops make, and also rules on the constitutionality of legislation (our church has a constitution like most organizations) in a case-law fashion.

The Judicial Council will provide a declaratory ruling of legislation if asked by the General Conference to do so (some other groups can also request this). The Council of Bishops requested and received rulings about the three plans a few months ago. They ruled on the Traditional Plan and the One Church Plan. The Traditional Plan had many things in it which were ruled unconstitutional; the One Church Plan had fewer constitutional problems. Only a few amendments passed that would have “fixed” the constitutional problems, so it is not a surprise that the Judicial Council just released their ruling that most of the Traditional Plan is still not constitutional.

Right now Dr. Tom Berlin is presenting the minority report from yesterday’s legislative session. He is proposing that the Traditional Plan be substituted by the Once Church Plan. I’ll update after the vote on the minority report.

 

One Church Plan

The One Church Plan would allow local congregations, local clergy, and Annual Conferences to make their own determinations regarding same sex marriage and the ordination of homosexual persons. This plan was supported by a majority of our active Bishops and a majority of those serving on the Commission on a way Forward. This plan was amended and debated today, but was defeated. This means that the One Church Plan will not be move forward to tomorrow’s plenary session as a majority motion of the committee. This does not, however, mean that the One Church Plan is “dead.” It will most assuredly come to the plenary session tomorrow as a minority report and could be taken up by the plenary session by a majority vote. This seems unlikely to happen since the members of the legislative committee today are the same people who will be voting in tomorrow’s plenary session. Time will tell.

Disaffiliation – Gracious Exit

Two petitions about disaffiliation were voted as “high priority” and are being discussed and debated this morning. Some have called these types of petitions as a “Gracious Exit Clause.” The idea is that some churches may not be able to accept the decision of this General Conference regarding human sexuality. These plans outline a process by which UM churches can disaffiliate or leave the denomination. Currently there is a process for leaving the denomination in the Discipline, but it isn’t very uniform or clear. It basically leads to a case by case process for each church that desires this.  Each of these plans give churches a certain time period to use this option to disaffiliate.

At approximately 11:40 AM this morning the first of the disaffiliation petitions was passed by the legislative committee (the Taylor one for those keeping track). This will be forwarded to the plenary session tomorrow. I want to be clear, the decisions being made today are not binding. They are preliminary actions to perfect legislation before being voted upon by the official General Conference. Only a vote of the entire General Conference tomorrow will make things officially church law and become part of our Book of Discipline. Of course the people making these decisions today are the same people who will be voting tomorrow. Things which pass with a majority today will likely pass tomorrow with a majority. That is likely, but not guaranteed.

Both the Boyette Amendment (which also ended up passing) and the Taylor Amendments (both disaffiliation amendments) will require churches to pay a significant sum to the Annual Conference in order to leave the denomination. This sum would, for the most part,  be tied to the amount the Annual Conference will need to fulfill commitments to clergy in terms of their pensions in the future. These have both been called “gracious exit” amendments. The thinking is that this would graciously allow churches to leave the denomination with their property (real, tangible, and intangible) while not leaving the Annual Conference in the lurch of having to meet pension obligations without the ongoing support of leaving congregations. As you probably know, local UM churches hold their property “in trust” of the Conference. This means that ultimately all local church property belongs to the Annual Conference. These disaffiliation plans would provide a way around that provision.

Many of us may recall the many lawsuits that ensued when Episcopal churches began to attempt to leave their denomination years ago. Many of those lawsuits were ugly, expensive, and divisive. These proposals are meant to avoid these kinds of lawsuits in the UMC. The concern of this legislation is that it opens the door for many churches to leave the denomination which may cause the UMC to splinter apart.  The deeply held convictions about human sexuality that persons hold will likely mean that some churches will opt to leave if that is made available to them depending on what all is decided here. There will be, however, a significant financial cost to churches who wish to leave with these options in order to ensure the denomination can meet it’s pension demands.

Next up: debate over the One Church Plan