Saturday, June 30, 2007

I'm on Holiday

Tomorrow, I practice the liturgy of my life for these many years.

After I pronounce the Benediction at the close of worship, I'll get in my already packed ride, and drive south about 500 miles.

No lingering, no extra stuff, I'm outahere in an "Elvis has left the building" kinda way. I'll take almost two of the four weeks I'm allowed during this time away.

But just what is it?

The language of our culture calls this thing I'm about to do "vacation." And I've used that term for most of my life.

But recently, I looked at the etymology of that word.

One definition, from the Latin vacātiō, vacātiōn-, means freedom from occupation with other allusions to freedom as leisure.

Freedom from what occupies - I like that - not really good at it, regardless of where I am geographically. It is the bane of most clergy person's existence. When are we ever truly away?

Our friends from England call their time apart "holiday." Pretty obvious that holiday is an alteration of "holy day."

There are all kinds of those - secular, national, religious - and as it is this week in our country and in our churches, we seek to find an appropriate balance between the two.

A word I've lived with - we may hold two citizenships, one in the Realm of God and one as a citizen of a country - but they are not dual, as in equal. Anything and everything, even a country's observance of it's Independence (which gets my red, white and blue blood pumping just like everyone else), must never supplant what occurs in the context of Christian worship. If the whole of worship focuses on anything other than who God is in Jesus Christ and the sustaining work of the Spirit to guide us, it is idolatrous. Period.

But being on "holiday." Holy days. Feels like something to which I might need to aspire. For this time apart, if it is to be edifying, cannot be only that to which I might think I'm entitled. Neither can it be "freedom from occupation." Rather, this time is the place in which re-creation is known. To be re-made, re-created, re-minded of the nature of all the relationships I have and that each is sacred.

That is my hope.

That is my prayer.

And, frankly, it is my expectation. And the true measure of whether or not I've been able to do that is this - if I, after returning to my work, say out loud, that I "need a vacation from my vacation," then, I didn't get it, and an extraordinary opportunity has been lost.

That whole "vacation from my vacation" thing? That'll come next year, as it looks like it's time to take the crew to Orlando.

Jeez, I'm tired already.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

JC - Update

For the few of you monitoring my progress - no report until week 10 when I get back from vacation. We'll see how I do. Hopefully, no backsliding.

AC '07 - Strategery for the City

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.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

AC' 07 - And a Leader Shall Rise, Part I REVISED and CORRECTED

There is a vacuum of leadership in our Conference.

For an order charged with "Word, Sacrament and Order, " most Elders stink at the "order" part. Sadly, we've got a few who hit the trifecta of ineptitude, but most of us get the point to what we've promised. And, if we're not great at any part of of our order's expectation, we, at least, give a faithful effort.

The Memphis Annual Conference has been blessed over the years with profound and relevant leaders. The ones I have known are those who helped raise me. They were among those who were in leadership in the church when I was little more than "Johnny, Jerry and Ann's boy."

In those days, the connectional church looked different than it does now. There was belonging tied to mutual value in each other's vocational work.

These days, we are a mess.

As it is in the life of most systems, there comes a point when the message, the impetus that drives the engine is no longer "the first love," but rather, doing what is necessary to keep the engine running, regardless.

There's another issue at play, too. We aren't connected as we used to be. As congregations have become more localized outlets for their ministry, so, too, have the clergy. We are concerned less by the needs of the many and much by the one (thank you, Mr. Spock), or, to be more honest the "one" is me.

The disparity between those, in our conference, who make near $100K, and some, who make more, and those who make significantly less is glaring. To make matters worse, consider the plight of those who make on the lower end of the scale.

Any Elder in full connection and in good standing, is obliged to make a minimum salary - the low $30'sK and change. You don't have to like the guaranteed appointment, and it something that needs to be rethought, but as it is now, it stands.

Within the last few years, the General Board of Pensions of The United Methodist Church has changed to formula for what the Annual Conference pays in for each of its clergy. It used to be the case that a contribution was made for us by the Conference that was uniform. We all got the same benefit - based upon a percentage of the denomination's average compensation. As it is now, the percentage is based on what the individual clergy person makes.

Disparity abounds, I say.
An editorial change as of 6/26/07 - I would have never thought that I'd be dealing with question so directly as events have pushed me into in the last couple of weeks, but I understand now that I am in error on the interpretation of the Pension formula - the amount contributed to the the GBOP on behalf of the Conference for the Elder is based now on the demoninational average. I stand corrected - but the case for disparity is not harmed that much by that correction, is it?

Some of us, like me, serve churches without parsonages. We have housing allowances to purchase our own homes.

I'm able to do in the active part of my ministry what my father couldn't do until he retired.

I don't judge that - I'm just observing it as another factor in our dis-connectedness. How? Two notable ways - I'm building equity in a property. Those who live in parsonages don't have that benefit. Two? Motivations for where a clergy person moves are now influenced by the desire to remain in our homes, if possible.

Thus, the itineracy is vitiated even more.

The void in our leadership resides not just with who is bishop, or who is superintendent, it resides with us all. When within any covenant community, the assessment of blame is always in the hands of the "other," and not each of us, then we are nothing more than cowards who do not love each other enough to tell the truth for the sake of making the covenant whole by grace.

As it is, we're in covenant, but we don't trust the covenant we're in. For some it's a contrivance. For others, an annoyance. And for others, still, it's a dream sought but never fully realized.

Because "nature abhors a vacuum," the sad to truth to acknowledge, and the even harder truth to speak aloud, is that there are some among us who have manipulated the confusion and inequity of the system to meet personal ends - even at the expense of the covenant community of which they are a part and the congregations they are called to serve.

I don't question the temptation to do that - for any individual in any system that's always present. That's why the covenant community "watching over one another in love" is the critical component for all other actions.

In our day and time, however, these manipulations are going unchecked and unquestioned (at least systemically), and people's lives are being hurt. And such moves are not even covert anymore.

So bold. So audacious.

Daring anyone to say or do anything about it, and knowing that no one will.

Until now.

Within the body of faith, there are those whose fidelity to their call stands as a beacon for the recovery and re-formation of the Church.

At the Memphis Annual Conference this year, the singular highlight was observing it happen, and, in some small way, helping it along.

A leader rose among us last week and spoke the Truth to the clergy.

His name is Randy Cooper.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Friday, June 15, 2007

AC' 07 - And A Leader Shall Rise - Part II

Let me state from the outset - I'm a huge Randy Cooper fan.

I have been for a long time.

Before knowing him personally, I'd observe him at Conference, and think to myself, "Man, he's really serious about his ministry."

Over the years, observation has given way to relationship, and trust me, I'm the better for it.

I had the privilege to be in a Covenant Discipleship group with him for a couple of years when I was serving Bemis Church in God's country, south Madison County. In the past couple of years, I've been in a continuing conversation with him about the church and our ministry.

Of all the things I could say of him, "intentional" is the one word that most readily come to mind.

He is intentional about the task of ministry.
He is intentional in thinking of all of life theologically.
He is intentional in his leadership of what the church is and can be with Christ at it's center.

His fellow clergy sisters and brothers know this about him. Several years ago, the Elders of the Memphis Conference rose to ask his leadership as the chair of the Order of Elders.

Now, for a denomination whose polity, one would think, would have it's act together on such things as Orders, ordination, what it all means - stuff like that - would it shock you that form has been one thing and our practice another?

Randy's task as chair of our Order has been to help those of us who are Elders understand that we are not Lone Rangers, but, in the truest Methodist tradition, we are to "watch over one another in love."

My own doctoral work was on this point - I wrote on "the sanctification of the clergy."

It's been a thankless job - and he's done it well. A generation from now, we'll understand more completely how important these steps taken are.

At every Annual Conference, during the clergy session, he, as chair of the Order, speaks as a part of the Board of Ministry report.

This year, he stood in the role of prophet. For while all of us in the room have bitched and moaned about our plight in this Conference, we've only done it in the relative safety of those few with whom we could say such things without fear of reprisal.

In the tradition of the prophets of old - Randy spoke truth to us - out loud, out of love, but unfiltered.

But stating out "condition" was not the most important thing, reminding us that in whatever state we find ourselves, we are not exempt from the call.

Randy was elected to chair our delegation to General Conference.
Randy was endorsed by our Conference as a candidate for the episcopacy.

It is clergy and laity who understand their call, like Randy, who will be the architects of reform and renewal in our Conference.

Watching this happen reminded of the story of Esther, who, needed by God to do a particular thing at a particular time, determined that it was "such a time as this" that a call was to be expressed.

The caveat to the story was that God was pretty clear - if that call wasn't fulfilled, no worries, God will find someone who will.

With folks like Randy, nothing could be more true.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Friday, June 08, 2007

AC' 07 - The Gospel Is Partisan

It should noted as a "proud" moment for the 2007 Session of the Memphis Annual Conference.

Upon the report of the Resolutions Committee, we entertained a number of resolutions - position statements on matters of varying kinds. Any member, congregation or group with the Conference may bring a resolution for consideration.

The Resolutions Committee receives these, insures that they are in proper order, and offers a word of concurrence or nonconcurrence to the Conference. In effect, this group determines if the resolutions brought is something they believe the Conference should support or not.

Sometimes the resolutions are position statements on the current issues of the day, sometimes they deal with reaffirmation of doctrinal issues.

One time, we had to entertain a resolution from a member of one of our local churches seeking to change the language of the Apostle's Creed - seems he wasn't too keen on the words "holy catholic church."

My Lord, we stink at teaching in our churches, don't we?

We obviously voted that one down - who are we to change the language of a foundational creed of the church?

You get the point.

This week, we had before us a resolution seeking to claim the climate crises as an issue of faith for the church and that we, the church, should see our role as God's children as being good stewards of creation.

Within this resolution was data pulled from The United Nations on the state of the planet. It is data that states without any equivocation whatsoever, that there is a change occurring in our planet.

It also draws the correlation that humanity's industrialization is hastening what is a naturally occurring process. More than hastening it, humanity is causing it to be far more dramatic than what it would be otherwise.

So, what would be the prophetic stance of the Memphis Annual Conference?

Well, as is any delegate's right, one of my beloved clergy brothers rose to offer an amendment to the well written resolution. His amendment was to gut the "data" found in the resolution and leave it as saying, in short - "something may or may not be happening to the planet, but we promise to be good stewards of God's creation anyway." (a Jeffords paraphrase)

No way this is going to pass. Not a chance.

It did.

And not with any help from me.

I heard a clergy brother spout Rush Limbaugh's talking points that all this data amounts to "junk science" (that's a quote, friends), and that there is not a scientific consensus, and that we should keep the politics out of this issue.

Strangely, for some, scientific data, with overwhelming consensus, is political because, if it's about the planet, and about global warming, it must, therefore, be from Al Gore.

Hence, so their rationale goes, I must reject it out of hand.

Another conversation or two later, in other contexts, I heard another delegate say, "is there some way we can be relevant in the world without being partisan?"

My answer?


"The Gospel is unapologetically partisan, and so should we be."

And friends, I believe that with all my heart. I really do.

You cannot read the Gospels of Jesus Christ and not be taken by the overt nature of its confrontation with the principalities and powers of its time - Rome, and that cannot be done in a nonpartisan way.

It is a logical and spiritual fallacy to believe that religion should not be a part of politics. If you think Jesus was not as political as he was religious, confronting both the State and the religious leaders of the day, then you ain't reading the Gospel.

But sure enough, there are those churches, if not most churches, who worship the American freedom to worship as you choose rather than the be guided by where that worship choice leads.
Oh, it can be done, and is being done. And to those churches we must be reminded of the Revelation to John, in which, in a letter to the Church at Laodicea we find the following:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3.15-16
Or, worst yet, what of those churches who claim to be nonpartisan, but hide their true agenda by some other systemic means?

You don't think that's happening? Wake up, people!

Also at AC '07, on the first day of regular business, before we really got started, another delegate rose to make a motion that all delegates running for election to General Conference should be surveyed on their stand on "controversial issues" confronting the Church.

And I'll be damned if that didn't pass, too. Barely.

The argument? All I have in common with these folks I'm electing is Jesus Christ.

As if that's not enough.


Call this what you will - this is a litmus test to perpetuate certain positions in the Church from being talked about or reformed.

No one ever raised what the "controversial issues" were, but c'mon, we get it.

It'll be overturned because it's illegal in the Church's constitution. One AC cannot bind the actions of another, and, our Judicial Council has ruled that while a delegate can be asked their position on any issue, the delegate is not obliged to give an answer.

And it would have been helpful if the Chair of the Conference had recognized that - would've saved us an hour of parliamentary drivel.

So, can we be partisan and not endorse particular political candidates?

I think so. In fact, I think we have to be.

The partisanship of the Gospel is allied to the issues of justice, the poor, the marginalized - not candidates, and not parties. It is issue based on the things that matter to God, not what matters to you. Make no mistake about it, the Gospel will not be mocked, and those who co-opt it for political purposes will, in the end, be exposed.

Oh, and by the by, human sexuality has very little to do with the Gospel. I can only surmise that these are the "controversial issues" they want to survey delegates on.

The Gospel has another list of controversial issues - faithfulness, integrity, mercy, love - an advocate's voice for those whose voices are drowned out the the masses - you know stuff like that.

It's the kind of thing to make the religious sort of Jesus' day scoff - "He eats with tax collectors and sinners."

And a Church that can begin to do that will understand that this is not about political parties - it's about the radical nature of the Gospel that shames every political group for their ultimate self-servitude, including political groups within our very own beloved United Methodist Church.

AC '07 - Reflections

Several of my colleagues, and even my parents, noted how silent I was at Annual Conference this year.

It's not unusual for me to be at the mic saying something on any given year.

But not this year.

Reasons? I don't know, maybe because there was no room for anyone other than the same three or four voices who seemed to find their way to the mic with every issue.

It was ridiculous, bordering on embarrassing.

No, that wasn't it. There was something more going on, at least in me.

I was observing. Listening.

I spent most of it in the back of the room.

I watched the work of my people. And they are my people.

I'm a child of this Conference.

The soil of my soul is from West Tennessee and Western Kentucky.

I love them.

I don't agree with 'em on a bunch of things, but I love them deeply.

And I think they love me.

I was watching. Thinking. Listening - measuring what I was witnessing with my Conference, which, by any objective measure, can be called a system under stress, with what I needed to do or say.

But the troubled waters of our lives needn't be a bad thing. There is a new day coming, and soon.

Juxtaposed with the concerns of our Conference is clear evidence that something is emerging. There are reasons for hope.

There is a remnant - and as we know from Holy Scriptures, that's enough.

And amidst all the fears that pervade, I couldn't help but think of the keen opportunity that is mine to serve a Church that is defying the odds of urban churches, and doing so in extraordinary fashion.

What, I wondered, of my experience at Saint John's, informs the fears and concerns of my Annual Conference? At first blush, maybe not much. But since I've been home, a vision is beginning to coalesce.

Over the next few posts, I'll be reflecting on episodes at annual conference and considering them in that light.

Whether or not it's efficacious to the Conference, or, to any of you who read it, it is at least good for me to go through the exercise and write it.

Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, June 03, 2007

AC '07 - In"vest"ed

O.k., here's the deal - I'm not obstinate, neither am I a rebel.

Well, I guess sometimes I'm obstinate, and sometimes I can rebel, but it's not anything I seek to do for my own sake.

Tonight, at the ordination service for our Annual Conference, I sorta stuck out like a sore thumb. True enough, some were sore, and others were more of the "that's Johnny for ya," mentality.

One of the highest moments for any gathering of Methodists at annual conference is the ordination service. The clergy all process in together. It is a powerful thing to observe, and it is always an honor to participate in the procession.

Now what you don't know is that a couple of weeks before Annual Conference, we clergy get this note from the folks who put this service together, reminding us of the procession and that we are to wear a black robe for this event. And, if we don't have a black robe, we may wear a nice suit or something.

Those of you who know me, know what I wear - an alb. And I have since I was ordained elder by in 1992. It was a conscious choice for me to do that. Prior to that time, I wore my academic, black robe with pride.

I associated it with memories of what I remember my dad wearing in the pulpit. The black, academic robe has a place in the history and even the present for clergy in The United Methodist Church - but not for me.

When I was ordained elder in the church, the alb, as a vestment, sorta found me. Every time I vest in what is, by all accounts, a common garment of a long time ago, I am reminded of who I am, and what I'm called to be as a minister of the Gospel.

Now if I was the sort to sniff out some other agenda (which I am), I'd be left to wonder why at this black tie, oops, I mean black robe event, if I don't have one, I could just wear a suit.

Anybody have a problem with albs - much?

I have no problem whatsoever with those who choose to wear a black robe, that's fine, but don't tell me I'm not welcome to wear what I wear at this high moment in the church.

But we're not all uniform in the procession - we don't all look the same.

So what! Precisely.

It is not our uniformity of apparel that makes clergy one.

It is the covenant we have made that binds us together.

Anything else is foolish window dressing and a waste of time when the Kingdom of God needs women and men to be authentic to who they are as messengers of Good News.

So, here's to the half dozen or so of us who represented tonight in our albs, as well as to those who kept faith with who they are by wearing their black academic robe. Not that we wore a certain garment mattered most, but that we knew there was something about how we understand the ties that bind us linked not to apparel or uniformity, but to vows and an oath.

That's the yoke of obedience, and to that I have vowed my life.

And to the rest, who grumbled because we didn't "conform,"

Get over it.