My last observations of the 2007 session of The Memphis Annual Conference.
Between the "State of the Church" address of our Bishop, Dick Wills, and, the report of the cabinet - the language of "Urban Strategy for Memphis" is swirling.
A few initial comments -
I knew this was coming, having been approached by one of the primary architects of the project to participate on the team developing the strategy, some weeks prior.
He, Kevin, is someone I trust, respect, and believe his vision to be for the good of the whole church.
And I accepted the invitation - not only because I work in the city, and love the city, but because I serve in a context that is defying the urban church trend of a long, slow death - with a vitality and excitement of a congregation finding it's way and believe it's relevance is not something of distant memory, but current and future reality.
That I know and trust Kevin is a good thing. That measure of trust and respect is going to be essential for any strategy, any plan to have meaning, because to do what really needs to be done in the city is going to be difficult anyway. Any appearance of "other agendas" is going to kill it.
Given how poorly we, the Church, trust one another anyway, it's an uphill climb, at best, and it's easy to see how we will find distrust a continuing hurdle.
The other comment is this - it's not until you hear someone say we need to develop a strategy for Methodist ministry in the city, that you realize we haven't had one.
How that did happen? How is it possible that a "connectional" church practice being church with connectional language, but autonomous local church life?
These are questions I come into the process with - and I'm hopeful, truly hopeful that something "of God" will emerge to help us claim a focus of ministry sorely needed.
But what will not be o.k. with me is this - that we close urban churches, sell the property and use the proceeds for new church starts in the suburbs, while vacating the communities those urban churches showed it could no longer serve.
And friends, that's exactly what the Conference did when it met this month. The Oakhaven Church "merged" with Emmanuel, a suburban church - no problem there. Except that there's this - the sell of the Oakhaven property will go to Emmanuel, and not be reinvested as a different enterprise in the Oakhaven community.
I've seen this before - I lived it. When I was at Asbury as associate, I served a church of two congregations. One was the indigenous Asbury community from the Fox Meadows community of Memphis (a neighborhood I knew very well as a teenager and as a pastor), and the other was Rebecca Memorial church, formerly of the Bethel Grove community. Bethel Grove, once a community of predominantly white, blue collar, but tight knit, post WWII growth, had transitioned in the 70's to African American.
The congregation migrated east in Memphis, but drove back to Bethel Grove for Church, living with the frustration and grief that they were not nor wanting to be a community church anymore. So, they left Bethel Grove and merged with Asbury, and the proceeds of the property, which was being rented when I was there, stayed with Asbury.
There was no "backfill" of another model, another leader, another vision of Methodist ministry in that community.
There are many more examples of such abandonment.
I say all of that to say this - in the city - right now, we have numerous communities where a different model of ministry is essential. Most of the congregations in the city proper are struggling to survive in one way or another.
Something needs to happen - and soon.
The scriptures that bridge Luke-Acts have always guided me.
The soon to be ascended Jesus instructs the witnesses of where they are to wait for the evidence of the Spirit's leading - the city.
And so I wait, and hope, and believe that the One who frees us from our sins, will free, too, the church to be open to the fresh winds of the Spirit.