For Love Of Our Church

I love The United Methodist Church. Period. When I began to follow Jesus after he pursued me into relationship with himself, it was The United Methodist Church that welcomed me. Members of local UMC’s gave me my first opportunities to preach. I attended my first session of Annual Conference when I was 14 years old…and I LOVED it! I believe that the doctrine and polity of The United Methodist Church are in harmony with Holy Scripture. I have had the privilege of being paid to do ministry in The United Methodist Church since 2006. I have served under episcopal appointment since 2008 (I’m now serving under my fourth Bishop). On June 10, 2016 I was ordained as an Elder in The United Methodist Church.

I would not have spent over 10 years in preparation for ordination if I didn’t love the UMC. Even in the midst of numerical decline in the U.S. and the theological quarrels, I choose to believe that The United Methodist Church can be a vital expression of Wesleyan Christianity. I share that pedigree of love for my Church to lead into my thoughts on the Commission on A Way Forward.

Since 1972 there has been a statement in the Book of Discipline that states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Discipline further forbids same-sex marriages from being performed by our clergy or in our churches. It also bars self-avowed, practicing homosexuals from being ordained as clergy. These provisions in our polity have been debated ad infinitum every four years at General Conference. In 2016, it seemed that the debate around this particular issue had reached a complete impasse. The Commission was called together by the Council of Bishops at the request of General Conference 2016 to help our Church find a way forward surrounding issues of human sexuality. At the time the Bishops were charged with the creation of the commission, I voiced my displeasure. We’ve had commissions before (3 come to memory) that have yielded no way forward. However, our Bishops asked that we all pause, take a deep breath, and let the commission do their work. I want to honor the voice of our shepherds and have decided that I will do what I can to support the work of the commission.

Now the commission has been named and is ready to begin its work which will ultimately culminate in a special called session of the General Conference where a resolution will be submitted that will suggest a way forward in unity (holding together The United Methodist Church) or a plan for amicable separation (breaking apart the denomination).

I will be watching the work of the commission with great interest. To start, each annual conference has been asked to take a week to pray for the work of the commission. This movement of prayer is to set the rhythm for the work of those named to the commission:

This prayer movement is a response to the Council of Bishops initiative called Praying Our Way Forward. We are called to a posture of prayer, praying for God’s leadership to guide us effectively in fulfilling the mission of the church. We invite you – clergy and laity, conferences and congregations – across the denomination to pray for God’s guidance.

umc_prays_logo_final-690x380The Illinois Great Rivers Conference has been assigned the week of January 22-28. I, along with many others throughout the conference will have set aside times of prayer during that week for the Church that we love. At the local Church where I serve, we are setting aside time during our Sunday worship services and Tuesday Eucharist service to pray for our Church and the work of the commission. Further, the sanctuary of our Church will be open each day for any wishing to come and cover the process in prayer.

I decided that I want to do something more, though. Brittney and I were talking about this the other night. We love our Church and our fervent prayer is that there be a way forward in unity. However, we don’t want to see us continue to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic while foregoing our top mandate of making disciples of Jesus Christ. So what the commission brings forth, and what the general conference decides is very important to us. We made the decision to do something more in our prayer approach for the commission, and I wanted to invite fellow members of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference to do the same. From midnight on January 22 until 11:59pm on January 28, Brittney and I will be fasting from social media in all forms as we pray for the Commission on the Way Forward for love of our Church.

Will you join us?

 

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Nineteen Questions-18: Are You in Debt so as to Embarrass You in Your Work?

Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in you work?

Every time I hear this question, I chuckle a little bit. It seems like a strange question to ask candidates for ordination. Most wish to keep their finances private. But then I start reading Scripture. There are many verses devoted to money and it’s place in our lives. The way one handles their financial house shows where their heart is oriented as a steward of what God has given them.

So am I in debt so as to embarrass me in my work? I used to be. Between the two of us, my wife and I have two bachelor’s degrees and one master’s. We’re all very aware of the cost of education in this country, and I’m certainly aware of the cost of a theological higher education. It’s part of the package deal when one enters the ordination process. For an elder, the Master of Divinity degree is required. I found places out there that would have saved me some money when it came to seminary, but Asbury Theological Seminary was my choice. ATS is certainly not cheap, but the quality of the theological education is second to none (in my humble opinion).

While we were in school, we knew that we were piling on the debt. When we completed our degrees it was scary to see how much debt there really was. We felt like we were drowning. We weren’t sure what to do and, frankly, it was embarrassing.

Then we took Financial Peace University.prioritizing-which-debt-to-pay-off-first.jpg I don’t agree with Dave Ramsey theologically on a few things, and there are a couple of things in his process that I don’t fully embrace. However, on the whole, his plan works. You can check it out for yourself here. Through working the process, we haven’t paid off our student loan debt, but we are paying it down faster than we ever could have imagined. We are in a much healthier financial spot than we’ve ever been in our married life. Thanks be to God.

As a Church, we need to be on the leading edge of helping our local church members get to a place of financial freedom. As far as ministerial educational costs, I’m glad to see that many conference Boards of Ordained Ministry are working to address the rising educational debt carried by those entering ordained ministry. We have to do a better job of supporting those who are committing themselves to lifelong service in the Church….they will have typical graduate level debt and enter the ministry at minimum salary. We must do better.

I’ll get off my soapbox now. Ordination is tomorrow!!!! AHHH!!

Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? I am not.

Nineteen Questions-16: Will You Recommend Fasting or Abstinence, Both by Precept and Example?

Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?

I just did some very quick research about fasting in Scripture. By that very quick search, I believe there are well over 70 references to fasting. To me this indicates a fairly common precept. fasting.jpg5_So it’s somewhat disappointing to know that this Biblical and Wesleyan exercise is not practiced widely in our church. Wesley himself recommended fasting and abstinence as a means of grace by teaching and pattern. Wesley often fasted once per week from sundown on Thursday through late afternoon/early evening on Friday’s.

I’ll admit that I’ve always struggled with the “example” part of this question. I do fast. I believe in the power of fasting and abstinence as a means of grace. I usually practice a weekly fast in the same way Wesley did from supper on Thursday evening until after dark on Friday. I always struggle somewhat with talking about it. I think part of it is that since fasting is foreign to so many people it comes across sounding like “look how holy I am.” I hear the Sermon on the Mount pushing against the temptation toward self-righteousness:

Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I’ve continued to wrestle with this even as I reflect on this question. What I share here about my own habits of fasting and abstinence is not about my own glorification, but because I believe that God is glorified through the practice.

First, I think it’s important to say a quick word about the difference between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is limiting the intake of food or some other item (television, social media, etc.), while abstinence is abstaining from a specific thing entirely (think the Catholic practice of not consuming meat on Fridays during Lent….that’s abstinence).

In my own life, I’ve seen the grace-filled spiritual benefits of fasting an abstinence in the following ways (and I’m sure others….but hey, I’m writing this in a hurry….I’m still getting to know my brand new daughter).

  • Fasting and abstinence help us to seek God’s will. When I’ve approached fasting and abstinence with a specific intention for prayer in mind, I have often found clarity, discernment, and answered prayer.
  • Fasting and abstinence are a means of grace that overcome sin. Our heart felt fasting can be a way that we repent and defeat sin in our lives. Joel prophesied:
    Joel 2:12 (NRSV)
         12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
          return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
  • Fasting and abstinence create a healthy rhythm of soul-tending. My weekly practice is a rhythm to my devotional life that I protect and hunger for each week. Fasting and abstaining from the things of this world makes me hungry for God! I know that no matter my intention for prayer is or even if I don’t have anything in particular in mind, that the Holy Spirit honors the sacrifice and moves in my life in life-giving, perfecting ways.

Very recently, Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary (my alma mater), called the worldwide Asbury community (faculty, students, alumni, and friends) to a day of prayer and fasting. The day was set aside with several prayer intentions such as a budget shortfall and the seminary visioning process. Classes were cancelled and the entire day was set aside for prayer, fasting, and worship before a Holy God. I was privileged to gather with my Asbury family for this day of prayer. I’ve been blown away reading some of the things that God did during this day. You can read them here for yourself. In short, as the community sought the face of God together: $350,000 was raised to bridge the gap in the budget shortfall that very week. A student was convicted of their unconfessed sin regarding academic integrity and was able to confess and be reconciled to the professor. An international student prayed for God to meet her financial needs for the next school year, that very night she learned that all of her needs would be met by four people. Praise God!

Fasting and abstinence help us realize that it’s not about us. The sacrifice…the fasting, the abstinence, the worship is all about Jesus. The Asbury community was reminded of that. I’m reminded of that over and over. Fasting and abstinence is not a magic bullet…it’s a means of grace that connects us to the living God and aids us in focusing our prayer and our hearts deepest desires and needs (and checking those desires in light of God’s will). I will continue to teach and practice fasting as a means of individual growth for the Christian and as and hope-filled prayer for God to forgive and heal God’s Church.

Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? I will so recommend.
             

 

 

 

 

Nineteen Questions-15: Will You Visit From House to House?

Will you visit from house to house?

My co-laborer Bruce and I took a much needed motorcycle ride yesterday afternoon. We enjoyed some of our areas beautiful scenery and winding highways. We stopped and hung out in the shade for some sweet tea. While we rested, we ended up talking about this question at one point. We talked about how this question, if taken literally, can be a really uncomfortable and even unproductive if not done in just the right way.

I do know pastors (of several denominations and non-denominations) who visit house-to-house quite literally. Personally, the idea of cold calling on someone’s porch sounds awful. About two years ago, I was sitting at my grandmother’s house when the doorbell rang. The young man at the door introduced himself as “the new pastor at [xyz] church and I’m going door to door in the community to introduce myself and invite you to Church.” The encounter was perfectly awkward and uncomfortable for everyone.

Even if the people were members of my congregation, I think it would be difficult to visit from house to house. First, most people work outside of the home and aren’t around when I would be visiting. Second, many people find a home visit to be an invasion of privacy.

So how is one to live out the spirit of this question in a way that is integrous? What I think it means is that pastors need to get out of their offices and be among the people! Make visiting a priority, especially those who are lonely, grieving, or ill. When someone is sick or in the hospital, don’t let your staff-parish relations team have to report that someone is upset because you didn’t go visit. In those moments, especially, people want a visit from their pastor. I know we’re not mind readers and people don’t always let us know that someone is in the hospital or having surgery or some other crisis….but when you know, make it a priority to be there. I remember when I took CPE that I experienced the priestly ministry of presence first hand. People to whom I was not and probably never would be their pastor welcomed my presence and prayers as a symbol of Christ’s presence and prayers. We represent Christ whenever we visit someone. This MUST be a priority for us.

Here’s some tips I have learned:

  • Especially with family’s that have young children, offer to meet them on neutral ground for a cup of coffee or lunch. My own house looks like a scene from Twister with a 19 month old running around (and soon a newborn). I’m much more comfortable meeting with someone outside of the embarrassment that is my home.
  • Always call ahead and schedule a time to visit.
  • Use the phone or texting to let people know that you are thinking of them and praying for them.
  • Have lunch in visible places where you know that you’ll encounter people.
  • Visit folks at work (by appointment, of course, and as their workplace allows).
  • Get into the community and go where people are: sporting events, school plays, concerts, etc.
  • Participate in community events.
  • Use social media (with cautiousness) to communicate with your people.
  • Personally get involved with a community project.
  • Join a community organization.
  • Coach a sport.
  • Substitute teach.
  • Join your volunteer fire department.
    People-Talking.jpg

The list could go on and on. I think the real intent of this question is “Are you willing to get out of the office and be among the people God has called you to serve?”
I know that we all (myself included) could do a better job of this, but time and time again I’ve found that the best relationships I foster happen outside of the walls of the Church.

Will you visit from house to house? This is my commitment.

Nineteen Questions-14: Will You Diligently Instruct the Children in Every Place?

Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?

I’ve always considered children’s ministry to be a growing edge for me. I’ll admit that working with children, especially small children, has been anxiety producing.

I remember right after I got to Wesley UMC, there was a miscommunication about chapel for our Lambs of God Daycare children. Our children’s director was out and had intended to cancel chapel but the daycare director missed the memo. The children were all assembled in the sanctuary with no one to lead them. Our office manager, Amy, came to the hall between the pastors’ offices and tried to judge whether Bruce or I looked busier….I failed. She said “you’re up! You need to do chapel right now!” Talk about fear and trembling! I can pull a sermon out of thin air for a group of adults, but coming up with a lesson for 25 screaming children? UGH!

I do think that this anxiety is lessening now that I’m a father and learning to relate to and teach my own child. Regardless of my comfort level, I know that Jesus loves children and so do I. My comfort level does nothing to diminish my love for children.

Mark 10:13-16(NRSV)

Jesus Blesses Little Children

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Jesus is teaching his followers that they should love children and put no barrier12108731_10201548438030221_5719593112764960690_n.jpg between him and the children. Second he teaches them that we should all receive God’s Kingdom with the heart of a little child. Yes, children make me nervous, I can admit that. But I will instruct them nonetheless because I love them and want to share God’s love with them. I have tried to insert myself into more and more situations where ministry to children is the focus.
I love talking with the kids that I drive on our bus for Kids Konnection on Wednesday. My day can go from bad to fantastic when I get bombarded with hugs when I visit Lambs of God. I want to take “instructing the children” so seriously that every church I serve becomes known as the place where children are welcome and safe. I want to know their names and for them to know me as teacher and friend.

I didn’t come to follow Jesus Christ until I was 14 years old. How I wish I would have known Him as a child. I want my girls to know Him and love him much earlier than I did. I’m striving to take very seriously this call to instruct my own children and the children in every place regarding the life-giving relationship offered to them in Jesus Christ!

Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? I will.

Nineteen Questions-13: Will You Support and Maintain Them?

Will you support and maintain them [our Church government and polity]?

I suppose it was pretty clear in my last reflection—in fact, I think I may have started reflecting on this question during the last, that having studied and approved of our church discipline, government and polity, I do pledge my support and maintenance.

I will support our discipline and polity by agreeing to be held accountable to the covenant I’ve made as a United Methodist elder in full connection. I will support our structure by working within the covenant. That to say that I don’t think Wesley intended this to be a question to which the answer was blind loyalty. I fully believe that the Church always stands in need of reform and that includes our structures….government and polity. We need to continually be inquiring whether our government and polity are structured in such a way to give us the greatest effectiveness to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” If something needs reformed, then appropriate channels should be pursued for achieving that reformation….not simply ignoring the problem or structure. I believe this constant striving for perfection of our government and polity is actually an important part of supporting it.

I will keep our church government and polity by teaching it. Frankly, I’m growing weary of the number of people who think that the denomination, or the bishop, or the cabinet, or open itinerancy, or apportionments, or the conference are some kind of sworn enemies of the local church. SupportSystem_118861858.jpgOur Church is organized to be connectional and we need to wave the flag on that…embracing our structure and working within it so that the whole Church moves forward in the establishment of God’s Kingdom. None of the aforementioned entities are perfect (that’s where the previously referenced reformation may come in) but we need to embrace all of who we are as United Methodists.

Will you support and maintain them? I will, with God’s help.

Nineteen Questions-12: Do You Approve of Our Church Government and Polity?

Do you approve of our church government and polity?

Having studied the United Methodist form of discipline and polity, the question now shifts to approval. I just right-clicked on the word “approval” and took a look at the suggested synonyms. synonyms.pngThey include words such as endorsement, support, sanction, consent, and agreement. So having studied the structure, government, and polity of the Church, am I ready to endorse it? Am I ready to support it? Am I ready to consent to it? Obviously the answer is yes. I’ve counted the cost and am willing to submit myself to the government and polity of this denomination.

To me, this is a question of loyalty and accountability. During the service of ordination, the Bishop will ask those of us being ordained and commissioned a question that, I believe, applies to this historic question:

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

I bolded some words there. If I desire to be an ordained minister in this tradition, it requires loyalty to the Church, acceptance of its order, defending it, and committing myself to be accountable. That’s a big commitment. This colossal level of obligation beckons an answer to the question: Do you approve of our church government and polity? If one doesn’t approve, agree, endorse, support, etc….then submission and loyalty is difficult to achieve.

I do approve of our church government and polity. There may come a day that I feel like Commissioner Gordon did in Dark Knight Rises: “There’s a point, far out there when the strutures fail you, and the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re…shackles…”, but if that day comes I pray that my brothers and sisters in the order of Elders will hold me accountable to the vows I have made and that I’ll have the personal integrity to work for positive change and not undermine or ignore the covenant I’ve agreed to.

Do you approve of our Church government and polity? I do so approve.