Friday, June 22, 2012

Annual Conference - Wednesday Report

Every other year, we devote a good chunk of a day to a guest presenter who will present to us on a critical aspect of ministry.  Two years ago, we talked about holistic ministry that attends to the needs of the body.  This year, we had as our guest Bishop Scott Jones of the Kansas Episcopal area.  He is an expert on John Wesley and was talking to us about the key aspects of Methodism we need to be grounded in as we seek to lead the church in the future. 
Bishop Jones indicated that “One of my deepest fears is that we UMC’s are in the profess of forgetting who we are.”  Too often, we don’t know what to do as pastors or as congregations.  But John Wesley was very clear about who God was and what God was doing.  Wesley had at first thought that holiness was at the heart of the Gospel so he started by committing himself to be more and more holy through spiritual discipline.  However, in interacting with Moravians (a type of Lutheran), Wesley began to realize he was a sinner and sought a personal relationship with God.  Thus, the core of the Wesleyan movement is both about personal relationship (salvation) with God and a continued drive toward personal and social holiness.   At the core of both beliefs is the idea that God’s grace proceeds all of us and seeks to draw us close to God.  Thus, Wesley’s message of inclusiveness is a deep part of our inheritance.
Bishop Scott indicated that April 2, 1739 should be perhaps the most important date for those of us who want to follow Wesley.  Prior to this date, Wesley believed it was a sin to convert someone outside a church building.  His friend, George Whitfield, tried to convince Wesley to go beyond the local church but Wesley was resistent.  Rather than dismiss it entirely, he decided to take it to his small group.  By drawing lots (not recommended) he confirmed he should go out the church.  As he put it, he decided to be more “vial by preaching to people in the fields.”  However, thousands flocked to him and he saw the importance of getting beyond the doors of the local church in seeking to find converts.
Bishop Scott indicated there are four crucial lessons we can learn from our history about how to lead today.

1.  Be clear about your values  

We must remember that grace is extended by God for all people.  Furthermore, we need to leave the church to bring people into a converting relationship with Jesus.  We then need to all work to bring about holiness.

2.  Align your practices-  
Everything we do must be in pursuit of the above.  Thus, “If there is something in your church that is not serving the need to make disciples or transform the world, then stop doing it!”

3.  Flexibility in our communication standards.
Methodists weren’t doing much with German speaking people, but Otterbein decided they needed to do communicate to people.  So they began to reach people where they were- in German- and the Evangelical movement flourished.  We cannot insist people come to us in our way, we must meet people on their terms.

4.  A willingness to sacrifice.
John Wesley traveled thousands of miles on horseback.  Early Methodist pastors did not marry and went via horseback whereever their bishop sent them.  Yet today, we have an appointment system that too many pastors view as there HR department that will place them where they want.  He declared that we as pastors should go to our bishop and say we would obey our bishops no matter where we are sent.
Sacrifice is part of who we are.  Scott argued that We preachers are settling for mediocrity when God deserves excellence.  Furthermore,  too often we pray for God to bless what I am doing.  We ought to be praying to be a part of what God is blessing.  These are the sacrifices pastors need to make.
However, pastors are not the only ones, or even the primary ones, who must sacrifice.  Scott argued that Too many UM churches see the appointment process as the bishop sending them a savior and then blame the bishop when it doesn’t automatically turn around.  In the early church, it was the laity who were the evangelists.  It was the laity who were inviting people to do God’s work.  Scott challenged- “If you are depending upon the preacher as the servant of your local club to bring in more members so that the budget will be better met, you’ve forgotten who you are.”
One way that that sacrifice should happen is be re-envisioning what it means to be a member of a local church.  Bishop Scott related that when he was serving in a new church start, he would tell the following to anyone who expressed interest in joining-
"Membership has no privileges here- you can participate in anything. So there is no reason to join 
But if you want to join as part of your spiritual development, then 

We expect you to be in worship every week and we are going to track it
We expect you to belong to two small groups- one where you are spiritually fed, one in which you feed others
We expect you to tithe. The leadership of the church is  going to know it and track it."
I find this to both intriguing and challenging.  How would you react to a pastor who said this to you?
Bishop Scott concluded with his favorite scene in a Disney movie.   In the Lion King, after Simba leaves his family and travels, his father comes to him in a dream:

We need to remember who we are.
The afternoon session was marked by the debate and adoption of two resolutions.  Resolutions are statements of position taken by the conference on various issues.  While they express the will of the body, they are not binding.
The first resolution, adopted without debate or objection, is entitled “A Call To Advocate Anti‐Harassment, Anti‐Intimidation and Anti‐Bullying”
The full resolution can be seen on page 49 of the pre-conference workbook (click to access).
The resolution calls on all levels of the conference to among other things- 
categorically oppose the practices of adult, youth, and child harassment, intimidation and bullying; and 
urge our churches, General Boards and Agencies, Campus Ministries, and the Council of Bishops to create safe space for each and every child of God, including those but not limited by the following enumeration – age, color, creed, national origin, race, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical or mental disability, ancestry, socioeconomic status or familial status; and 
endorse a zero‐tolerance within their sphere of influence for harassment, intimidation and bulling in any form;
The second resolution proved to be more controversial.  Entitled “An Affirmation of Open Table Worship”, the resolution declared that:
The East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church affirms the availability and efficacy of the holy sacraments to all people.
We encourage all of our congregations to welcome into community and membership all persons, regardless of race, gender, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic position.
We believe such inclusion and openness offers the greatest hope, through faith, that the power of God may change all lives, forgive all sin, and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
One delegate asked whether this was essentially endorsing homosexuality by allowing “unrepentant sinners” to join the church when we have declared “homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In response, I pointed out that our book of resolutions calls war incompatible with Christian teaching and yet we do not require people to forsake war before joining the church.
The resolution was altered and adopted with the final version reading- “We encourage all of our congregations to welcome into community and membership all persons”
A resolution calling for the enforcement of Human Trafficking Laws was also adopted.  These resolutions can be found in full on pages 49-52 here.
The remainder of the afternoon was a series of reports from various annual conference committees.  The finance committee indicated that apportionment payment to the conference had increased over the past year and that the 2013 apportionments would either be held steady or reduced by approximately 1%.  The Congregational Vitality team reported they were working on various strategies to help make congregations more vital.  One that caught my eye was the Healthy Church Initiative.  It allows congregations to apply to bring in a consultant who would do a top to bottom evaluation of the congregation and offer five recommendations to make the church more vital.  Though this interests me, they highlighted that churches must be prepared to make change to be considered for this program.  Do you think we are ready?  Can we make the plunge and step out in faith?  Let’s pray on it!

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