Thursday, May 29, 2008

An 80 Percenter way of life

Not long ago I came across a quote by Yvon Chouinard that I think resonates well with those of us who have perfectionistic tendencies, you know, that persistent urge to keep pressing on until it's "just right." It's the 80 Percent Rule (hat tip to Thommy Browne at Artifacts)

“I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself
passionately into a sport or activity until I reach an 80 percent proficiency
level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that
doesn’t appeal to me.”

I think the 80 percent rule has a lot of application in ministry. The various skill groups demanded of a pastor require proficiency but because there are so many, it hinders mastery. And we just have to accept the fact that doing the job well calls for being an 80 Percenter.

And it isn't just skills, it also applies to particular projects and expectations. In a day when we have created appetities for "the best" (the best graphics and media, the best sound on our ipods and boise headphones, the best bodies, teeth, and hair, the best in education, and the best in what the church can offer, etc. etc.) is there still a place for the "good enough?"

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why the Media Didn't Show

The other day the local paper ran a feature article about my daughter and I attending General Conference. In commenting about it, several people (good Methodists, and some other good Christians) have complained that they didn't see anything about the Conference in the news. Ususally, they said, the state paper has an article, but this time nothing.

In a recent post Larry Hollon, Gen. Sec. of United Meth. Communications, might have the answer. His entire post gives good cause for thinking about the quality of news we receive on a regular basis.

The bipolar template of conflict that is applied to many stories from politics to religion and much in-between, creates its own filter and outcome. I believe it manufactures the news in a way that is detrimental to those who are covered.
In this instance the fact that a 13-million member religious community pledged to join a global partnership to end a killer disease (malaria) and raise $100 million to contribute to the effort was not news. In the scheme of things a protracted disagreement over human sexuality, a disagreement that is now more than a decade old, was still “newsworthy” because it involved conflict.

It’s tiresome. Journalism has fallen into a predictable track and when it heads down this particular track it’s increasingly irrelevant. There is nothing new to say about the debate over sexuality, at least nothing new has been said that I’ve heard. So making conflict the rationale for covering an event of this magnitude and ignoring the wide range of concerns of this number of people seems remarkably out of touch.

Overall, Hollon said that with the incompetence of the way mainstream media covers religion, he wasn't disappointed they didn't show up in Fort Worth.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Polka Dots It Will Be

This afternoon I spoke with one of my elderly members who had surgery today to amputate part of her leg. She's suffered for months with pain and has been in and out of the hospital with circulation problems. Now with the source of the problem removed, her health should improve.

She looked at me as I seated myself beside her bed and said, "Stephen, I've made a critical decision."

"Yes ma'am," I replied, using the manners my momma taught me, and wondering what other critical decision she'd had to make after deciding to have the surgery. "What have you decided?"

"I've decided I want polka-dots on my peg-leg."

Then polka-dots it will be!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Getting Ready to Move

Several of my friends (on line and in real life), as well as my wife, are expected to move to new appointments this year. Since I don’t have to move, I’m in the perfect position to give unsolicited advice on leaving an appointment. The only problem here is that someone will direct me to my own words when my moving day appears. Even so, I can’t resist.

There is often unacknowledged temptation to be the super-pastor, hard at work up to the minute the moving van pulls off. Totally Unrealistic, and Inappropriate! Once the announcement is out that you are moving, you’ve basically “left” in the minds of the people. That’s normal, and healthy, as they begin to disengage from your leadership. That disengagement prepares them to more readily engage the new leadership when she/he arrives. So don’t disrupt it. You might dislike the teasing of being a “lame-duck” pastor, but realize that the lame-duck status is necessary and right. Accept the new status as a mandate to giving time to cleaning out files and books and “stuff,” and giving good attention to your own family members. That said, here are my three simple rules for moving from an appointment.

1. Let go what you’ve left undone.
This is often the hardest thing to do. We all have things in our ministry that we didn't really get to, or only partially got done. There are people we still feel the need to visit or counsel. Leave all of these as they presently are – undone, and definitely do not propose or start anything new! Your work is finished there, except for a few acts of closure and celebration. Trust God to care for those who need caring for and to carry the church through the transition. Let go of it. Your ministry in this place, as all ministry, will be incomplete. Draw a line in the sand and give your attention to a good transition.

2. Say goodbye with gratitude, but without promises.
Every pastor has a few people they tend to grow closer to than the rest of the congregation. Maybe you’ve been through difficult times with them, or you just “connected” as friends. Make a short list of these and make a way to say goodbye. Let there be gratitude for the journey shared, but avoid any promises that suggest you can continue to be a pastor to them. Tell the ones you leave that their new relationship to you as “friend” will not be the same as the one they’ve had to you as their “pastor friend.” Whoever your successor is, speak positively of him/her, and encourage the people to make the new pastor feel welcomed and loved as they have done so for you. And don’t overlook staff members in this process.

3. Don’t assume the transition will be good, make it good.
Get your sermons and worship notes for the first six weeks already lined up. You know you will have to write introductory articles for either a bulletin or newsletter. Go ahead and prepare them. And keep a couple of your decent funeral messages on hand. Free yourself from tasks you can expect so you can focus on settling in, and on putting your energies into meeting the new people.
Leave behind “descriptive” (as opposed to “advisory”) notes about things your successor will need to know, as well as an up-dated membership list, a list of shut-in’s and current critical care needs, positive words about people, job descriptions, the name of a trustworthy car mechanic, a list of your favorite restaurants, and, a written prayer for God’s blessing on her/his ministry. And finally, God’s already way out ahead of you and you’re already playing catch-up, so don’t go back.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Dancing with God

A visitor at one of our worship services this morning blew me away with her comments about the sermon. I had just I preached about dancing with God. The sermon used the metaphor of dance to describe the relationship God desires with us. Part of my emphasis was to provide a balance to the popular “purpose-driven” attitude toward life. I said, “God doesn’t need us to achieve anything with all our purposeful behavior, but God did create us for relationship. One way to look at it is to say, God wants to dance the divine dance of creation, life, love, and joy with us.”

My closing illustration was one borrowed from Max Lucado, who tells of a man who bought a book about dancing so he could impress his wife. He worked on the steps and then invited her into the room to see what he’d learned. She watched as he held the book, reading aloud each instruction, and mimicking them with his movements. When he finished, she just looked at him. Instead of affirming him she said, “You’re missing something critical.”

She took the book from him, put some music on, took his hands in hers, and encouraged him to sway to the music with her. Soon they began to move about the room together, not counting steps, but dancing. I encouraged the congregation to begin to sway to the rhythm of God’s Spirit, who transforms our own labored lives into a movement of love.

The visitor spoke to me with a beautiful British accent and told me she loved the sermon. “My husband was a professional dancer,” she said. “I didn’t dance, but he insisted on teaching me. But, I would only dance with him. When he was sick, he would still look at me and say, ‘Dance with me.’ So I would help him into his wheelchair and I’d take his hands and we would dance around the room.” She paused, and finished, “Thank you, that was a most wonderful sermon.”

As strange as it may seem, there is a time to learn your sermon was meant for the stranger passing through, and a time to find healing in remembrance - there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Too Many Houses

I don't own a home, but right now I have too many houses on my hands. The Trinity Trustees, after a review of the parsonage earlier this year, decided it was time to buy a newer one. After a special Charge Conference last night, things are moving ahead on the purchase of a beautiful home in a new subdivision.

That means we need to get this home ready for sale, but that's not as simple as it would have been a few weeks ago. Since my wife is changing appointments this year, we have been moving some personal things out of the parsonage at her church so that they can repaint the place and put in new carpeting. The things we moved out we just brought to this parsonage. Now they have to go somewhere else so the Realtors can come in and take photos for the listing. Oh boy.

On top of this, I have two homes to deal with through the Aldersgate Ministry, our ministry for adults with developmental disabilities. One home, in Orangeburg, is completed. So we are working on getting the furniture in and hiring a management group so the four men selected for that home can move in. The other home, in Columbia, is still under construction, and I just learned the contractors put the wrong kind of sprinkler system in it. It has to have a commercial system in the home, so I've got to get that straightened out. This will probably put a 4 to 6 week delay in our plans to open that home, to the dismay of the six women residents greatly anticipating the day they can move in.

It's all nearly enough to drive me crazy, but how can I complain? The church is making sure they have a wonderful home for their minister, we are nearing our ministry goals of providing semi-independent living for adults with developmental disabilities, and my wife no longer has to worry with a parsonage that she only used as a church office. In addition I am aware that so many in our world are homeless.

In the midst of this I recall (with romantic idealism) that when a scribe wanted to follow Jesus, Jesus turned him back saying, "The birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of man has no place to lay his head." (Mt 8) Yes, it is a different world, and it will all get resolved in a couple of months, but right now its just odd to have too many houses on my hands.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An Interesting Thing Happened on the Way to Communion

This past Sunday we celebrated Holy Communion at Trinity. It is usually the first Sunday of the month, but since I was away then, it was moved to Mother's Day. However, Sunday morning I was sick. Didn't know exactly what had hit me, but it felt like a flu or something. I went on to church and at the early service asked my Dir Christian Education, Johannah, to assist with communion. I told her I would do the eucharistic prayer, but that she would handle the elements, and would then help distribute them with the other servers.

When it came time in the service for Communion, we both went to the Table. She stood behind it where I usually do, and I stood to the side. Right as we started and I motioned for her to unwrap the bread and fill the chalice, a clap of thunder resonated over the sanctuary. Needless to say, it had been raining here all morning, but that was the one and only instance of thunder we heard.

Johannah looked at me and asked, "I'm not going to get struck with lightening, am I?" I took a step away from her and said, "I don't think so."

Anyway, the service finished without incident, and at the second service I had our retired minister celebrate the communion. But what timing...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

All together in one place

When the Day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. What does that tell us? It tells us that they weren't scattered about, each doing their own thing.

Peter didn't have his group of followers, as opposed to Matthew having his. Thomas hadn't started Doubters Anonymous, and James and John hadn't yet created the five simple steps to sitting at the right hand of Jesus. They were all together, in one place, and the spirit of God moved upon them.

We are so caught up in the culture of American individualism that we have a difficult time grasping the significance of how the day of Pentecost began. Before there was a rushing sound, before there were tongues of fire and languages, and before Peter's powerful sermon was given and converts were made, the people were together, in one place, in one prayer.

We have a harder time being present to one another than being present to God - but can we truly be present to God if we are not present to one another?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Holy Living

Reading in my devotional guide this morning I came across these words from I, Francis by Carlo Carretto, words that I thought provide a good transition from the heavy blogging and business of General Conference to the living of faith in our places with fellow disciples.
You have more wealth than before, and you talk more of poverty. You are middle class and you play "poor Church." You talk more of community, and you live more isolated, more divorced, from one another.

Now would you care to know why I am not inclined to give you a "tough talking-to?" Because you are the tough ones, not I. All one has to do is to listen to you when you gather together. It is a terrible thing, how hard, unyielding, and radical you are.

What a pity that this harness, this radicalism, is always directed against others, and never against youselves. One would say that your great passion is to convert others! And I, Francis, tell you, aim at your own conversions. You will see that you understand things better.

My brother and sisters,
be holy, and the world will appear to you as holy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

GC Prognostications Revisited

A couple of days before leaving for GC, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post predicting the outcome on several GC issues. So I thought I'd look back at my Prognostications and see how I did.

Global church and Regionalism
Right on this one, it passed, and what it holds for us we'll have to see. Score 1.

Judicial Council Elections
As predicted Boyette and Daffin did not get re-elected, but was wrong in thinking the Renew coalition would muster the votes for more conservative seats. Score 1/2 point.

Ministry Study
A) Full Deacons did get sacramental priviledge, when needed for a specific ministry location and approved by the Bishop. Score 1.
B) Local Pastors' sacramental priviledges were not limited. Score 0.
C) No changes in ordination (at least not at this GC). Score 1.
D) Residency changed from 3 years to 2 years. Score 1.
E) Voting rights for LP's after Course of Study and two years - exactly. Score 1
F) Guaranteed appointments changed by giving the bishop more options, including suspension and involuntary leave of absence, for those not demonstrating continuing effectiveness. Score 1/2
G) and yes, there is another Study commission on ministry. Score 1.

Mission Statement
We added the phrase for the transformation of the world as predicted. At least we left the Jesus Christ in, as in making disciples of Jesus Christ (!) Score 1/2

I'll give myself a 1/4 point. The projected $642 million budget remained at that level, even though we added several million in non-budgeted expense. GC Finance and Administration made the agencies absorb the increases.

We did pass more resolutions, but none about Grandma's Chicken Soup. 1/4 point.

The worship WAS great. By the third day someone stole the cushion out of my chair and replaced it with a piece of concrete that looked exactly like the cushion, so the seats WERE uncomfortable. The food was tolerable, the friends were great, and yes, we blogged this GC!

Nine points out of a possible twelve! 75% - if only I'd done that well with my March madness basketball bracket!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Great Daughter and Friends

What a surprise to see the post just prior to this one. I had forgotten I'd added Lauren as an author on this blog. And she knows I wouldn't say anything about my back. When it's worn out from so much sitting I'm in danger of aggravating a damaged back muscle. When I got the dogs home I reached over awkwardly to pick up the puppy and the muscles locked up on me. When that happens I take my "knock out" meds and go to bed for a day or two. This evening the pain has subsided and I am nearly at the point of standing up straight again. So thank you Lauren and great friends who lifted me in prayer.

The ending of GC was no surprise, running up to the last possible minute with a determination to deal with every petition. That's what we did, but exactly what we did I don't know yet. A lot of petitions get approved on the consent calendar, so it will all come to light as we look back on it. I know I've been surprised to read some of the reports on the GC site reporting what was passed. But I'm not all against the consent calendar process. If 90% of a legislative committee (usually 70-100 people) agree on a petition, then it is extremely probable the whole plenary will go that way with it.

I do know that like everyone else I was frustrated with our legislative process. We talked a lot about "Holy Conferencing," but in the time precious process there is little time for talking together or more importantly, for listening to one another. When the rules end up being one speech for and one against, limited to one minute each, you're just pitting sound bite against sound bite. If we just depend on the sound bites, we're not much more than a presidential election (!)

Now for some positive. You can't help but be impressed with the greatness of God's grace working through our church as you participate in a general conference. With the amazing variety of backgrounds and perspectives we have, it's no wonder that when we pull it all together we are a church of the middle ground (the "via media," or the "extreme center").

I also come back grateful for several new friends. "Surviving" a general conference is a bonding experience. On the way home my girls said, "There's no way you can explain what we just experienced to people who've never been to one." (I've heard that said about the Walk to Emmaus week-end, but didn't think to apply it to GC.) Still, while I didn't always agreed with the new friends, I was grateful for their faith, their commitment to serve the church, and the opportunity to work with them. And finally, all that said, it is good to be back home.

A Prayer for my Dad

Hello everyone! So this is not the usual Stephen post but a quick prayer request from his daughter, Lauren. After two weeks of intense "General Conferencing" and a little over 30 hours in the car, roundtrip, my father's back has gone out on him. I ask that you please pray for a quick recovery because you know how busy he keeps his schedule. I believe it's also the reason you haven't seen a post from him in a few days!

God Bless you all,

P.S. Dad, don't get mad that I'm telling everyone, even you can use some prayers:)

Friday, May 2, 2008

It's A Long and Winding Road

It is after 10 PM central time and we have 25 petitions left to address. The agenda called for an end of Gen Conf at 3:00 PM today. That was a joke. During the supper break (of 2 and a half hours - why so long I don't know!) I found an easy chair on the upper level and took a nap. That turned out to be a good choice. I feel OK as we plod along, and plod is the correct word here.

A high point for me was the action we took on allowing Deacons the ability to provide the sacraments in certain circumstances. I thought it was dying, but then a colleague moved to refer it, giving us another chance to speak in favor of the petition. I support it because, as I said, in our Methodist movement form has always followed the function of ministry. Wesley ordained Coke, Vasey and Whitcoat because the people in America needed the sacraments. We allow Local Pastors to provide the sacraments because the people need them. We do ministry with people and keep adjusting our forms to accommodate our ministry. Some Deacons are in places of ministry where the ability of offering the sacraments truly meets the needs of the people. The Deacon has to receive the approval of the Bishop for the particular ministry setting, and I know this makes us keep working on our understanding of the Orders of ministry, but I think it is in keeping with who we are.

Wow. Kathleen Baskin -Bell, the chair of our Ministry and Higher Ed Legislative Committee just took the podium and said since it was her last petition to present she wanted to say hello to her son back home who is watching by webcast. Then she took our hearts by sharing personally:. Some of what she just said was: "This church of ours is absolutely the greatest blessing in my life and my family's life. In my battle with cancer these last 14 months we have known no greater joy than the fellowship of the church." I couldn't catch all she said, but what a witness. Battling cancer, and knowing time could be precious, she took all this time away from home to lead us here because she believes the church is the best hope for her son, and for the world.

It's a long road, to finish conference, and then the drive home tonight. Well, we won't make all the 1400 miles, but hopefully we'll get to Shrieveport.

The Cross of Brokenness

Center stage today is the cross from the Mississippi Conference, made of broken items collected from the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina. Bishop Ward gave us an excellent sermon reminding us that God is always present and is over all, wherever our journey takes us. Bishop Wade is the episopal leader of the Mississippi area.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton is presiding this morning. He reminded us that we will be in session for 3 and 1/2 hours this morning and during that time 430 children will have died from malaria. It is a sobering reminder. On the positive side of this reminder, the delegations continue to raise money here for our Nothing But Nets campaign against malaria. As of last night at closing, the secretary reported we had collected (or pledged) over $350,000. Our SC delegation has collected over $2000, which qualifies us to receive one of the basketballs signed by all the bishops, which I imagine we will present at Annual Conference and may try to use to raise even more money.

Also, we have 68 petitions left to act upon and some are pretty big, including the budget for the next quadrennium. There are calls for us to use restraint in our comments, motions and questions. One good quote: "Kicking a dead horse harder don't make it run any faster." But the way it works is that everyone who speaks does so because they think the issue/comment is important. Yet we have also basically affirmed the decisions of the legislative committees on 98.6% of all the petitions, even those we dealth with individually. Even with that, we probably won't finish until late today.

102 And Counting

On Thursday of General Conference we were greeted by Mrs. Louise Short, the widow of Bishop Roy Short. Mrs. Short is 102 and was full of pep, ready to talk to us. She has attended every General Conference since I believe it was 1938! The Daily Christian Advocate has an article on her today and reports her answer to their question, "What's been the single most importnt development of her lifetime?" She said, "The empowerment of the laity, that has made them the heart of the church."

When she spoke to us she said she was disappointed we haven't done much on temperance lately. "I am saddened by so many deaths of young people driving when drunk." She said she is a member of MADD - Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "We quit talking about liquor in the church."

What a witness, and what an inspiration. "Keep the faith!" she said. And so we shall.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Just Representation for Local Pastors

After some difficult legislative wranglings, the Conference passed a Constitutional amendment that would give local pastors and probationary (now called provisional) members of the Annual Conference the right to vote for delegates to jurisdictional and general conferences. The constitutional amendment will now have to be ratified by the annual conferences, but this is a historic and just step for the church.

I spent a lot of time working on this legislation in the Ministry and Higher Ed Legislative Committee and tried to help shepherd it on the floor. That was difficult because the presiding bishop would recognize me only for a point of order. But as the mood of the delegates became more apparent, I knew that finally, after three general conferences, it was on its way.

Paragraph 35 of the Constitution would now read:
The clergy delegates to the General Conference and to the jurisdictional or central conference shall be elected from the clergy members in full connection and shall be elected by the clergy members of the annual conference who are deacons and elders in full connection, associate members, and those provisional members who have completed their educational requirements and local pastors who have completed the Basic Course of Study or the Masters of Divinity degree, and have served a minimum of two consecutive years under appointment immediately preceding the election.

Notice that there are "qualifying" indicators, so that only certain local pastors will attain the right to vote. I do hope the Conferences will see this as a fair way for just representation for colleagues in ministry who do wonderful ministry and need inclusion.

Together Against Malaria

Just haven’t had the energy, physical or emotional, to write a post until now, and now is Thursday after lunch. Mr. Bill Gates, Sr. is speaking to us, since we have entered a historic partnership with the Gates Foundation to eradicate malaria. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as has been announced, has pledged $5 million to join us in our Nothing But Nets cause.

“We have wiped malaria off the face of one continent (North America) and allowed it to continue on another (Africa)…. Brothers and sisters don’t just sit back and watch children die. We must tell the world “malaria is no longer acceptable.”…”You are 12 million people armed with the conviction that all the world is your parish, which makes you the most powerful weapon against disease.”

“People are dying and that ought to be enough. They are human beings, and we ought to help them.”

“Let me end with telling you a story about the kind of leadership your church has for this cause. Candy Marshall, who works at the Gates Foundation in Seattle, grew up on a farm in Nebraska and attended the local UMC. She said that her church, when she was growing up, had a birthday bank where children deposited a penny for every year of their life. She got a letter from her mom. They still keep the bank and this year the gross receipts were $62.

Williamsburg UMC sent $62 to the work against malaria. Candy’s mom sent a little extra. Her minister heard what Candy does and invited her to come speak. The power of your church is that it teaches children in Nebraska and the children in Zambia that they are part of the same parish. That is your gift, and it will end malaria.”

This was a great message about Our Future With Hope, a timely message as we needed to refocus on the world beyond our internal struggles.