Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Changing Needs of Churches

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - The Changing Needs of Churches

Yesterday I commented on the life cycles that churches go through. There is birth, life, and death. All three are part of the experience of being a community. I also made the implication that death is the outcome for a church that cannot change to adapt to the change in community around it. One of the statistics that was brought up during Annual Conference this year was the positive growth that we have seen in our Annual Conference in the area of hands on mission. Everything else in our work as churches has declined. Our attendance and Sunday School/Christian education has declined. Our membership has declined. Our financial giving has declined. But the time and effort people gave to DO something has increased significantly.

This is a change that churches need to adapt to or die.

If a church believes that showing up to sing archaic or peppy songs is drawing new people in (or even connecting with long enduring people already in the church), then it is wrong. If a church believes that the preacher or Sunday School teacher or the evangelism committee is going to convince new people (or even long enduring people already in the church) to invest in the life of the church, then it is wrong.

People are active. People want to know that what they do makes a difference. People are doers. The days of passive church are waning. There are some hold-outs. There are plenty of churches that believe that the work of the kingdom involves hymnals and quiet time for 45 minutes. But the statistics seem to point that those churches are missing the change of the community around them. Active churches are seeing engagement. They are connecting with people. If a church makes the effort to DO something, they are going to attract new people (and long enduring people who have been wanting to DO something).

Missions is a loaded term. It conjures up trips to some far off place, staying in uncomfortable lodging, getting dirty and stinky, and being generally in a unfamiliar environment. Or it springs the old stereotype of going to Africa to bring the gospel to primitive people. Missions were replaced with missional giving to help people feel better about not going "out there" and to give the false impression that they were doing something. But that isn't what mission is about.

The Kingdom of God is about making lives better for people. And that begins right where you are. There are people around us that need to experience the Kingdom. It doesn't take building a cement block house in Mexico or running a clinic in Central America, or teaching English in China. There are hungry children in our neighborhoods. There are people whose houses are not safe to live in. There are people who feel that no one loves them, cares about them, or remembers them. Those are people in the field ripe for the harvest of experiencing the Kingdom of God. And it doesn't take traveling to a foreign country. It doesn't take getting dirty. It may be a little uncomfortable. It may require a little effort. But it is what makes a difference in people's lives.

Churches can change and do this. It doesn't require a startup fund to do some of these things. You don't have to be trained (but it may help prevent doing something stupid). It only takes a desire to see the church as a community that can DO something.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - Life Cycles

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - Life Cycles of Churches

Every year at Annual Conference, we vote on the discontinuance of churches within the boundary of the AC. It is never a cheery moment. It is a reminder of the nature of life and death. This year, Bishop Nunn commented on that cycle of life and death of churches. I believe that churches need to be aware of their life AND death.

We don't have a long history in the USA when we talk about churches. I have been in church buildings in Russia that are hundreds of years old. Many Oklahoma churches are celebrating their century + anniversary lately. And 100 years is a nice number to mark. But when we think about all of the churches that have come and gone in 100 years, 200 years, or even the last 1900 years, then the number of churches that have been birthed, lived, and died, we have to be honest about a cycle that happens with churches.

Now, I know that no church wants to think about dying. A church is a place of memories, powerful moments of sacred life, life transitions, and people who we love. As followers of Christ we concentrate on life, new birth, and resurrection. Death makes us a little uncomfortable at times (most times). When we talk about the death of a church, it seems as painful as losing a friend or family member. It is necessary, though, to look at the probability of our church's death.

Death is not always a bad thing, though.

A church is born out of the community that surrounds it. A community is then born within the church. There is a pattern that we can see in churches. Eventually a change happens and the community inside the church loses connection to the community outside the church. It is possible for a church to reconnect with the surrounding community. Maybe the community surrounding the church has changed nature. People move or demographics change and the community is no longer what it was when the church was birthed. A church has to "die" to what they were in order to stay in contact with the new community.

It is prideful and ego-filled to assume that the community surrounding the church should change to meet the community identity within the church. The reality is people from the community will seek out a place to belong that identifies with them or is willing to adapt to who they are. If a church refuses to change (die to self), they will not be able to connect with the community among whom they reside. And as long as a church will not adapt to the surrounding community, it will have to honestly accept that its death (closing its doors) is imminent.

Dying to self is not a bad thing. It is what all Christians must do in order to be in connection with Christ. Dying to self is the only way to receive Christ as Lord. Getting ourselves out of the way makes it possible to follow Christ along the Way. That isn't a bad thing.

And adapting to the community does not mean forsaking fundamental Christian identity. It means slaying sacred cows that stand in the way of being a welcoming community. It means killing behaviors that exclude new people, strange people, different people. It means letting go of "that is how we have always done it" to be able to connect with newer innovations that may actually be better. It means allowing the attitude of "our way is the right way" to die its full and final death.

But death is still sad.

It is possible to experience a "good death" and it will still be sorrowful. It may be necessary for something to die. It doesn't wipe out the life transitions or sacred moments. Those were days of life and new birth and resurrection. The death, as good or inevitable as it may have been, is still a time of grief. It deserves to be recognized and grieved over.

That happened for me at Annual Conference this year. One of the first churches that I served as a Local Licensed Pastor was discontinued. The Stuart UMC was one of three churches that I served in the year between college and seminary. It was a wonderful church of good people. It was one of the places I felt the affirmation to continue in ministry. Lisa and I were showered with love and gifts before our wedding. I learned to preach through distractions (like preaching with a child on my hip who wandered to the front of the church).

This was the third church that was discontinued that I have served. It was a sorrowful and painful time of grief. I had to face the futility of ministry in knowing I gave of my life and it wasn't enough to continue the church. I poured myself out, but death was still inevitable.

But ours is a faith of new birth and resurrection. My prayer is that somehow a new community will give birth to a community within a church that can share life and sacred moments in Stuart, Alva, and Camargo.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - What is the UMC? part 5

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - after the fact

Where does the UMC exist?

I think this question has been at the center of our exploration of mission and purpose for a number of years. It has been central to our Annual Conference through structural change, leadership change, and focus of vision. It has been, and still is, a center of our current struggles as a denomination. The issue of existence relates to identity, structures, priorities, and connection to one another as United Methodists.

Four things come to mind:
  • Does the UMC exist as local congregations that are resourced by a structure and system?
  • Does the UMC exist as a structure that is resourced by local congregations?
  • Is it regional entities that are connected to a global fellowship?
  • Is it a global system that is made up of diverse (and disparate, contrary) units?
These are not questions that should answered with yes or no, and then be done. These questions are meant to focus our attention on what they mean for our life together as United Methodists. The answer is yes to all of them. At various levels of our identity, each of these are true and applicable statements. But the burden that each question puts upon our identity and existence needs to be duly and heavily considered.

I have been pastor to congregations that did not see themselves as United Methodist. Yet they received pastors appointed to them by the Bishop. They contributed to ministries that were important to them that were possible only through the Annual Conference. They occupied property that was not theirs (even though they chafed at this). They represented a desire to be more congregational in operation, yet they could not stand without the support of the structure and system they were part of.

I have been a member of the Annual Conference and have had to remind structural representatives that what works for some churches doesn't fit every church. Representatives of Annual Conference agencies have shown expectation of every local church to react the same way. But sometimes there are not the resources. The expectations we have on a local church for ministry or outreach or full connectional giving are unrealistic when there are 4 people who attend regularly. The expectations that are laid on a congregation to use technology or media resources to do the administrative work when there isn't a computer, technological resource center, or even reliable technological infrastructure ignores the fact that Oklahoma is behind the times and that parts of Oklahoma are barely into the 1980's when it comes to technology and communication media. The conceit that we have in saying that every church should shoulder its fair share of the ministry, while not paying adequate attention to the deficits of the local congregation in financial resource is to be blind to our current reality.

I have been part of a history and tradition that has said that we have boundaries that unite us. There is a Discipline and order to how we work. But there has been a lot of talk of doing things differently because we think differently. We in the USofA do things much differently (and I have heard some ego saying "better")  than other parts of our fellowship around the world. I have heard plenty of voices saying, "Hey, if they want to act that way, then they should leave and find their own way instead of disrupting our way."

And I have spoken in multiple places of the division that exists within the UMC. It is contrarian at its extremes. All 4 sides are pulling against one another. They all want a UMC that is defined by their own definition, their own view of identity. I don't think that I'm too far off base when I say that those who lie closer to the middle are being broken as much as the denomination is being stress. And by middle I mean people like myself who are related to persons in all 4 camps. There are some of us who know what each side is saying and are empathetic to what they are wanting to accomplish.

Until we determine what the UMC is, and all agree that is what the UMC is, it may all be a series of running debates.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Hard Question. Part 4.

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was written after returning home from Annual Conference.

The Circle of Care represents our ministry to children in the state of Oklahoma. We operate homes and foster care programs to give children a safe place to belong and a nurturing environment to help them grow healthy. Circle of Care does great work. They announced that they want to build new houses where there aren’t houses to grow this ministry. There is a need for ministry like this happen in the state. Oklahoma has a terrible foster care and child welfare record. There are more children who need a place to belong than there are places for them to go. And we have a strong ministry history doing this work through Circle of Care.

As we move into a reality that asks “what is vital?”, how could we say no to this work? Our overarching mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And there is transformation that happens through children ministered to through Circle of Care. But does that directly impact our declining state? Does the work that they do alter our future course?

Business models are horrible ways to approach ministry. But when we start talking about building homes and increasing support, there is a need to consider returns on investments. What is a life worth? I don’t know that we can weigh what the future potential of a child is over their lifetime. But I know that we have to ask the hard questions going forward. This is one of those subjects. This will present an overwhelming task for our future. I don’t know how we could possibly say, “No, we can’t pay for this ministry to continue.” But as we continue to decline, it may come to that decision and declaration.

Vital ministry isn’t easy to tack down. It is no easier to define than effective ministry. For every child that is a success, that would be a vital ministry. But there is no question that a lot of resource will be paid out to make that child successful. And it will happen in the context of churches continuing to dwindle down in attendance and financial resource.

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The mission. Part 3.

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was begun during Annual Conference last week.

In the Conference Lay Leader report, we heard that we have been desiring the exact same thing for 55 years: to make disciples. In 55 years, we have not found an effective way to do what we claim is our purpose and what we have been entrusted with as our legacy by Christ. And 55 years ago, there was a respect and honoring of what the church represents. Today, that respect is gone and the church does not hold the honor it once did because it is deemed to represent something completely different in the hearts and minds of many. Even within our congregations, there is no wide scale interest in increasing the discipleship of members. Neither is there a sense of urgency in seeking out persons who may be marginally or non-religious. The prevailing attitude remains where it was 55 years ago: people who are seeking something will come to church. That is no longer a viable perspective.

The greatest revelation I have had this year at Annual Conference is the honesty I have heard about the division we are experiencing. I believe that there is some honest declaration of division that exists. And it is causing fear and denial to a greater degree. While we are clearly stating that there is division, there is also a louder cry “we must be united”.

I am completely torn. I have commented in writing and conversation that there are 4 sides in the current dividing atmosphere of the United Methodist Church. The sides are represented by the general description: traditional/conservative, progressive/liberal, united without reference to our differences, and united with respect to our differences. These last two refer to a simpler generalization of “we must be united in spite of our differences” versus “we can be united and maintain our differences”. I argue that we cannot sustain our way forward in this type of environment. I argue that we cannot currently find a common ground because the sides are distancing themselves from one another. I argue that in this environment, we will not be able to continue to work together in ministry. And our witness is only going to continue to decline among the general population.

I do not desire the division and/or dissolution of the United Methodist Church. I dislike the divisions that exist. I believe that we are limping along, and will continue to limp along, in anything that we attempt until there is some clear decision made on how we will move forward into the future.

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Budget. Part 2

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was written last week during Annual Conference.

During our pre-conference budget session, we heard that the budget is being cut by less than 2%. That number is a very conservative response to the deficit we experienced. And it will not be adequate for the continued decline we will experience. Please understand that I am not being pessimistic. I am stating projections that are based on trends that cannot be reversed swiftly. We are declining in people and financial support. We are losing ground in the effort to draw people into our churches. These declines are going to continue for some time. We may see some relief with a rebound of oil and natural gas industry. That cannot be guaranteed, though. And it will only address the financial shortfalls many of our congregations are experiencing. What we can be certain of is that for the next few years, the numbers will slide below the previous year’s. The budget will not be sustainable for too much longer by making minor adjustments. There will come a point when we have to ask the hard questions of what will we cease to do.

But that question of doing does not have to interfere with our being. We are fully capable of continuing in ministry as United Methodists. It may just mean that we do smaller things together and center more things within regional partnerships of churches. Even the district model may be too bulky. There is no effective way to have our southeast, southwest, and northwest districts in ministry together in their respective areas. I believe that we will be required to draw 3, 4, 5, or 6 churches together to make an impact in their region.

I believe one area that will be necessary in the near future (before my retirement) will be returning to a model of ministry that resembled the early circuit riding ministry of frontier “churches”. I put that in quotes because the concept of church will need to undergo a transformation. Ministry will have to be relocated in the members who make up the church. There will not be a pastor available to the congregation full time. It isn’t that we won’t have pastors. Churches will not be able to support a pastor by themselves. It will require that multiple churches together support a single pastor. 3, 4, and possibly 5 churches will need to partner together to support a clergy person.

But if the congregations will become the center of mission, then we have to face the reality that the Annual Conference will not be able to do as much. Some ministries will cease to function. There will need to be a discernment of what is absolutely necessary as a structure. Will that mean that our favorite ministry will be discontinued? It may. And I am not the one to answer the follow up question: which ones? I am more convinced that starting at zero may be the most effective way. By starting at 0 ministry, we swiftly discover the necessities. I realize this is not practical. But neither is continuing to meet the realistic decline with unrealistic adjustments.

Reflection on Annual Conference 2017 part 1

Reflection of Annual Conference 2017. This was written a week ago during Annual Conference.

Each year at Memorial Day, United Methodists from across Oklahoma gather to discuss ministry and functions of administering the life of the people called United Methodists in Oklahoma. Each year we hear reports of what has been happening and looking forward to future efforts.

I am writing this as I sit in session. Contrary to my reputation, I do attend. There are years when it is more difficult to do so. I struggle with my role and my effectiveness (or perceived lack thereof). I struggle with identifying with colleagues. I struggle with being inferior and not worthy of the calling to which I live into every day. This year I am more positive than some years. But I am still struggling.

As I listen to colleagues in United Methodist mission, I think there is a sense of struggle as an Annual Conference. There is an air of unease among the gathered people. There are questions about the future of how we will go forward. There are questions of how we can afford the ministry we desire to do. There are questions of expanding ministry in a period of declining resources. And there are questions of how does a church with significant differences and mounting divisions continue to work together under a single banner of United Methodism.

As we move through the business of Annual Conference, I am making observations. There are things that rise to the surface of my thinking. Things to which there are no easy answers for or solutions to achieve.  I will share some of these observations here and post my understanding and own reflections as I am able.