Playing by the Rules

The General Conference follows Robert’s Rules of Order along with their own Rules of Order that have been previously agreed upon. Many of our church committees, Civic Clubs, and other organizations follow a modified version of Roberts Rules of Order, but few really understand the depth of how they work and how to use them. The purpose of Roberts Rules of Order is primarily to carefully and respectfully manage conflict, and hopefully move along debate in an orderly way. These rules are usually confusing in a church’s Board of Trustees meeting, but get a lot more complicated and confusing in a body like The General Conference. Though our General Conference delegates are more adept and experienced at these kinds of proceedings than your average pastor or church-member, it is still very confusing. Watching from the sidelines or online can be very tedious, and a little frustrating. I sometimes think, “Why can’t they just move on.” This day will be filled with lots of amendments to the petitions and plans. Each one will have to be moved, seconded, and speeches for and against will be offered. As tedious and frustrating as this is, this is what legislative committees do.

The Traditional Plan, which is being amended and debated this morning had large parts ruled unconstitutional by our Judicial Council in an advisory ruling a few months ago. The amendments being offered this morning are trying to fix some of these issues. There are going to be lots of amendments and each one will be very tedious. With every vote that is taken, it seems that the strength of those with a traditional mindset are still in the majority and are trying to push the Traditional Plan through and are trying to repair the unconstitutional parts. The body (at approximately 10:35 AM) voted to close debate on the Traditional Plan, approved the most recent amendment then passed the plan by 56% which means it will go to the plenary session tomorrow to be debated, amended, and voted upon.

Next up: Debate about the disaffiliation plan #1.

The Plans

Today has been primarily about the basic three plans that have been brought forward by the Commission On a Way Forward. The Commission members (seemed like pretty much all of them) spoke about their process over the 17 month period. Presenters were chosen from the Commission to speak on behalf of each of the plans. Each persons chosen spoke passionately in favor of the plan about which they were speaking. The speaker speaking for the One Church Plan (which would allow the issues of homosexual marriage and the ordination of homosexuals to become more of a local matter) emphasized how this plan would allow for greater contextualization of churches to be in ministry with homosexual persons. The person speaking for the Connectional Conference Plan admitted that it was a complete restructuring of the church, however, said that the plan would allow the church to remain under a big tent together, while still being able to reach people for Christ in ways that fit their convictions. The final presenter, Rev. Jessica LaGrone, was the advocate for The Traditional Plan. She used the metaphor of a soccer field to talk about the need for the rule of Scripture and the accountability of the Discipline to play by the rules.

I appreciated the conviction and passion with which each speaker advocated for their plan. I was particularly inspired by the woman who spoke for the Connectional Conference Plan. I think most people rejected this plan pretty quickly because of the difficulty it would face in getting passed as well as it’s complexity. It would require at least eight Constitutional Amendments to pass. This is a very high bar, and the UMC has not had a good track record of getting large pieces of constitutional reform through all of the Annual Conference delegates.  In some ways it is the plan that actually provides a way forward beyond our ongoing debates about human sexuality. It would provide for a managed and orderly “split” of the church into three denominations: progressive, moderate, and traditional; while at the same time keeping the groups connected organizationally. There are plenty of problems and challenges with this plan, but I wish more people would take it seriously. The commission obviously put a LOT of work into it, we need to at least consider it.

Usually, when you go into a General Conference you have a hunch about what will happen. I don’t meet too many people who feel like they know what will actually happen. The Traditional Plan, or some version of it, seems like it would have the most support because it is most like what the UMC currently has. However, I’ve talked with One Church Plan proponents who feel confident it will pass. As I’m writing this (3:10 PM on Sunday) they are tabulating the results of the prioritization process. This will determine the order the various plans and petitions taken up by the legislative committee. The “voting” of this process took a good bit of time, but he tabulation seems to be taking even longer. Thankfully, the worship band has kept the group dancing and singing. I think the band may be the saving grace of this whole Conference.

I’m going to close this post by posting which plans and petitions are highest on the priority list. Don’t read too much into this. This will probably tell you more of what will not happen rather than what will happen. The high priority plans and petitions are as follows: 1) Wespath Pension Liabilities and CRS 63.56% (this is our UMC pension group that has developed plans to deal with the pension issues that these plans might cause; 2) Traditional Plan 55.57% (this is from the Commission on a Way Forward report); 3) Disaffiliation — Taylor — NEW 50.06% (this outlines a process by which UM churches could disaffiliate from the UMC and keep their property); 4) Disaffiliation — Boyette — NEW 49.51% (This is another petition that outlines a process for a UMC to disaffiliate from the UMC); 5) One Church Plan 48.67% (this is the plan supported by a majority of UMC Bishops and put forward by the Commission on a Way Forward.

The list continues on from here, but these were the top 5 petitions. Now, the whole Conference is moving into a “committee of the whole.” It’s hard to explain, but our process requires that legislation first go through a legislative committee and then be recommended to the plenary session. This listing simply means that this is the order the legislation will be processed and deliberated by the committee of the whole, it does not mean that any of these petitions have passed or will pass. It simply shows that these are the plans, in order,  that the group wants to work on and perfect to possibly move them forward. In my opinion, however, this vote tally indicates the strength of a traditional viewpoint of the delegates gathered here. It’s surprising that the One Church Plan which received a majority vote from our Council of Bishops did not garner a high priority by more than 50% of the delegates here.

We’ve now just elected the officers of the Committee of the Whole. The legislative committee’s work now begins!

 

 

Worship Around the World

This morning I’m reminded again of the global nature of the Church. We gathered for worship here this morning with well known hymns and praise songs and were also led in worship in Kiswahili, a Native American language, and other languages including English. Simultaneously my own church family, Christ United in Mobile, AL was gathered for worship. I fired up our live stream on my phone so I could see them gathered together. All of us are worshiping the same God. Of course that is happening in every time zone around the globe. People worshiping God in spirit and in truth.

I remarked in  a Facebook comment that the Spirit of this Conference already feels different than what I sensed at the General Conference in Portland in 2016. I’ve heard others say both verbally and online that they feel similarly. I was sort of dreading coming here, because I felt like the room would be heavy with anxiety and division. There is certainly plenty of that to go around here, however, there’s a Spirit of worship which feels good and right. The whole congregation here began to sing Siyahamba which is a South African hymn in the Zulu language. The English chorus goes like this: “We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God.” The whole group gathered was singing this at the top of their lungs. Many of our delegates in the bar of the Conference began singing and dancing. A conga line of sorts formed. Tears came to my eyes as I saw so much of what I love about the UMC in one view. God has done an amazing thing in the UMC. My tears were an emotion of appreciation for what God has done, but they were also tears of sadness of what we might lose here. There are some who believe that the worst thing that could happen here is the division of our church. I don’t think that would be the worst thing, but it would certainly a sad thing.

Today we begin “business.” The first Presiding Bishop, Bishop Christian Alsted, from the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area, reminded us that we are convening in what was once a football field, where teams battled one another to win. He said that we are not on a football field, we are now in a church. May God’s Spirit move in this place.

Home Sweet Dome

These shots were taken this (Saturday) morning of General Conference 2019 in St. Louis. We are meeting at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams (who are now the LA Rams). It’s pretty amazing to be meeting in such a massive facility. It makes it look like only a few people are here, though there are thousands here. We’ll see how things fill up as business sessions begin. I imagine more will be here for “business” than for worship and prayer. That’s too bad. I’m proud of our delegation. They are all here and engaged. There are also an additional 30-40 reserve delegates and members of the Alabama-West Florida Conference here. It’s a great showing.

The other pictures feature scenes from walking into the building this morning. General Conference is a magnet for protestors and those wanting to lobby the delegation. You can see some people holding up or wearing signs about human sexuality. There were also persons handing out gloves and bags of “hugs and kisses” (the Hershey variety). Inside the dome around lunchtime a large group of LGBTQ supporters sang hymns.

Much of today was devoted to reading Scriptures and singing. Representatives from the different global divisions shared about the missional opportunities and challenges they have in their parts of the world. I am struck powerfully by the global nature and reach of our church. It’s easy to get so focused on my own local mission context and community that I lose sight of the vastness of God’s work. I’m reminded of the many times I’ve looked around Jordan-Hare Stadium during an Auburn University football game and looked around at the 85,000+ people and thought, “Wow, God knows all these people as well as he knows me AND he loves them just as much as he loves me.” Of course, the world is a lot bigger than Jordan- Hare Stadium. God knows and loves every person on earth just as well as he knows and loves me. That is at the same time both inspiring and humbling.

As I look around this dome at all the different people, I see a dome with lots of people all known and loved deeply by God. We just experienced that love at the close of worship as we gathered for Holy Communion. This final picture is of the Bishops who served me communion. Two from The United States and another from The Philippines who anointed me with oil. A reminder of the vastness of God’s church and world.

We Agree on Barbecue

I plan to share reflections each day of General Conference…

After some small difficulty in getting here, our group arrived in St. Louis this afternoon and were able to settle into our hotel. We ran into Methodists everywhere we went. This morning we saw current members and former members of our church at the Mobile Regional Airport. From Dallas to St. Louis we met several fellow Methodist pastors on their way to GC2019 as well, including the former Associate Pastor of Christ United, Dr. Jim Kinder! Rev. Jean Tippit and I toured the Gateway Arch and behind us in line were some members of the Florida Annual Conference who I’ve met before. As we finally found the UMC entrance to the gargantuan America’s Center, we were suddenly surrounded by Methodists. In some ways General Conference (even a special session) is a little like a global family reunion. It’s one of the few places that United Methodists get a real chance to visit with their friends or make new friends in other geographic areas of the church.

I know that the stakes are high for this General Conference. The denomination that helped raise and rear me and so many others is at a critical point, and people who love her from all over the world have different ideas about what she needs to be or become. For the most part, like the vast majority of the UMC, General Conference is filled with people who are loving and kind, and want what they believe is best. We’re very aware of our differences, and deeply committed to our convictions. As a result, coming to this could feel like going to battle, but then you remember that the people on the other side are our brothers and sisters in Christ. One of my favorite songs when I was growing up was Sting’s “I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too.” I spent more than a little bit of time worrying about the destruction of the world through nuclear war. This was just part of growing up in the 80’s before the end of the Cold War. I listened to the 45 of that song over and over until I convinced myself that there was no way the Russians would blow up the world…they love their children too. There’s chance that a lot of damage and hurt could be done to the church and others this week. I hope, that whatever side we may find ourselves on, we’ll remember that each side loves their church too.

Tonight our group met up with someone else from our Conference and we went to the delicious barbecue place right next to the convention center called Sugarfire Smoke House. There were obviously lots of Methodist people in the restaurant and volleyball tournament families (the other big convention in town). While waiting in line we saw that Dr. Jeff Greenway (former president of Asbury Seminary when I was there) and Rev. Keith Boyette were there enjoying the amazing barbecue.  Jeff and Keith are two key leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association who are advocating for a traditional understanding of Christianity when it comes to human sexuality. As we were finishing up our meal, after Greenway and Boyette had left, we heard a commotion near the door. A group of people were clapping for someone walking in the door of the restaurant. I looked over and saw that it was Bishop Karen Oliveto, whose election to the office of Bishop in 2016 created great controversy because she was openly gay. One of my friends leaned over to me and said, “I guess we agree on barbecue.” This moment of levity reminded me of our common humanity no matter which side of this issue you are on.

 

Waiting for Christmas

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People don’t really wait for Christmas anymore. My almost nine year old daughter Ella and I were in Wal-Mart on September 23rd and found a dancing animatronic Santa Claus.  We were both amazed that Santa made an appearance so early in the year, of course, Ella was thrilled. Christmas can’t come early enough for her. I think a lot of us are like Ella, we don’t really want to wait for Christmas. To be honest, I’m kind of the same way. I think we typically interpret this impatience as a bad thing, but I think there’s a good reason we don’t really want to wait for Christmas. When the world is beset by adversarial political campaigns, devastating natural disasters, and so many dealing with illness and disease who can blame anyone who is longing for some Christmas magic. I think our nation is longing for this together. Christmas music, Christmas movies, and Christmas decorations seem to come out earlier and earlier. We don’t really want to wait for Christmas.

Of course our only choice is to wait. No matter when I start wearing my new Christmas socks, or when our Christmas tree is lit, Christmas still comes only on December 25th. My daughter Ella, about the first of October wished that the next day be Halloween, then the next day Thanksgiving, the next day her birthday, and finally, to end the week have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. My mom called that “wishing your life away.” No matter how much we wish, however, Christmas doesn’t come any sooner. So, we wait. The church has a special name for this season of waiting: Advent. This season recalls the long, often impatient wait of God’s people who longed for a savior. The word Advent means beginning and marks the beginning of the Christian calendar year. Christians begin their year with waiting. Like the Israelites we practice waiting with expectant hope.

At its best I think that’s what waiting for Christmas means: waiting with expectant hope. To be honest, I kind of like that much of the country can’t wait for Christmas to come. It’s a sign that everyone, even all creation, is groaning for something more and something better. Christmas is the day we celebrate the fact that God has heard the cries of our hearts and has given us a gift greater than we could ever imagine. During the weeks leading up to Christmas Pastor Jean, Pastor Jeremy, and I will be talking about Waiting for Christmas. Particularly we’re going to look at waiting for Christmas through the eyes of Elizabeth, Mary, Anna, and the many unnamed women who were longing for a savior. These women play a vital role in the story of Christmas, and their witness of faith in their waiting is inspirational.

By now the Christmas police have given you their full permission to deck your halls with boughs of holly. For some of us, our manger scenes will have been out for so long it may be time to dust them. Others of us may still be trying to find where we stored our ornaments. No matter how you’ve waited for Christmas, I pray that as you wait now, you wait with expectant hope. Jesus has come and is coming and for these reasons we have hope even in the midst of our broken world. As you know our church has so many special things going on this month : unique services, wonderful concerts, meals, studies, and gatherings all designed to help you wait with expectant hope. I hope you’ll take advantage of these opportunities and invite others to join you. I especially hope you’ll join us on Christmas Eve for one of our candlelight communion services, or if you’re out of town, that you will worship wherever you are. May God bless you as we all are Waiting for Christmas.

In Christ,

Rob

Overcoming Evil

Like most Americans I will never forget the morning of September 11, 2001. All of us were deeply shaken when terrorists hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. For Americans the world seemed to pivot that day. Suddenly we felt significantly more vulnerable and more afraid, and things have really never been the same.

The news of the massacre in Las Vegas has had a similar effect on me and likely many others. As Americans we believe that humans are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is difficult to comprehend how a lone gunman could take away the right to life for so many people in such a short amount of time.

With each of these horrific events, which have become disturbingly all too common, it feels like my faith and hope are being chipped away. It all seems too much to bear.

With each taking of innocent human life we see the face of moral evil and the deep darkness of human depravity on full display. Sometimes, in the face of horrible evil such is this it’s hard to have faith in a good God. Theologians call this difficulty “the problem of evil” or theodicy. Much has been written about this subject, and I am grateful for the wise and faithful persons who have wrestled with these issues over the centuries. One such person is St. Augustine. I learned in seminary that Augustine had difficulty in believing that God would create evil. We understand through the scriptures that God created everything and that God proclaimed that everything he created was “very good,” how could God create evil? It was Augustine’s belief that God did not create evil, but instead evil is actually the absence of good. Evil was not created, it is a vacuum devoid of good.

In Romans Paul writes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”(Romans 12:21). In the face of such dark evil as has been witnessed this week, I think this is the best response for people who follow Jesus. We must overcome the individual and systemic evil that led to this horrible event with overcoming goodness. In many ways we’ve seen the overcoming power of good through the stories of heroism, selflessness, and love coming out of Las Vegas this week. Everyday I’ve heard new stories of people risking their lives for others, people carrying wounded strangers to safety, and heroes literally laying down their lives to protect others. In this horrible vacuum of evil, you see goodness overcoming it.

It’s in this response of overcoming goodness and love that I am still able to find hope. With each act of bravery and love I’m reminded God didn’t create this evil, but it must be overcome by good.

Neighborhood Gatherings – A Great Way to Get to Know Your Congregation

All Things Charity

Over the years I’ve had pastors ask me about my process for getting to know a new congregation that I learned about first 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…

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Neighborhood Gatherings – A Great Way to Get to Know Your Congregation

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 to 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 great past of the church, 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 support 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 it’s 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.

A Way Forward?

As most of you reading this will probably already know, yesterday our Council of Bishops put forth a plan for our Church to establish a commission to examine the paragraphs in our Book of Discipline about human sexuality, discuss these, and then bring back a comprehensive proposal to change the Discipline in hopes of maintaining unity in the church over this issue. The commission would be appointed by the Council of Bishops and is to be made up of diverse representation of the church. The Council of Bishops then may call a special called General Conference to deal with this issue or choose to wait until 2020 for consideration.

Some of asked why the business of the General Conference is so emotionally and physically draining. First of all the days are very long for delegates and our delegates have been experiencing long, grueling days since May 10th. The work of our delegates is very tedious and involves work that most pastors and laity don’t typically do. The long hours and the level of prolonged concentration makes for tiring work. Of course, many of the issues that have been discussed in legislative committees last week are emotionally sensitive which raises the level of tension, stress, and fatigue.

I believe there is another, less obvious reason for the great emotional fatigue experienced by General Conference delegates. I think much of it is caused by the extraordinary measures which are taken to avoid talking about the issues of human sexuality. In one way our differences about human sexuality dominate almost every vote, every nomination, and every parliamentary maneuver. Every day delegates and visitors are protesting the UMC’s stance on homosexuality, and it is being discussed around lunch tables, over coffee, and even on hotel rooftops. The one place human sexuality is really not being talked about is by our elected delegates on the floor of General Conference. The way this issue has been handled at the this year’s General Conference reminds me of a family in crisis that refuses to talk about the problem that EVERYONE knows needs to be dealt with. It is extremely stressful and fatiguing to avoid talking about something that needs to be dealt with.

I try to always be hopeful, especially about the church I love. I am hopeful that the process being led by our Council of Bishops will bring about the unity of our church and fidelity to our biblical, Wesleyan foundation. My concern is that this may ultimately be another avoidance strategy. Eventually the General Conference delegates will have an open debate about human sexuality. I know that this debate will be painful, difficult, and will bring about negative media coverage, however, it will eventually happen. The General Conference, however, has spoken. My prayer is that this will bring about the vital, open conversation we’ve needed to have for years. Perhaps a special called General Conference devoted to this issue will bring us all to the table to have this discussion.