Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Five Point Note To The Special Commission From Just Another Face In The Crowd

As the Special Commission created by General Conference 2016 meets to come up with some sort of solution to the church's divide over human sexuality, word of this has trickled down to the congregation I serve. As a result we've talked about this here at Shawnee UMC, where I'm in my 10th year as Lead Pastor, 16th year of appointment, and a total of 19 years on staff. At Leadership Board, PPRC, Lay Pastor classes, or just in the lobby of our office, opinions are shared as to what people think the Special Commission should do, and where the denomination should go.

Let me make it clear, Shawnee UMC is a great church, but in terms of size and scope were not some behemoth in the denomination. Our worship, averages in the 300's. We pay about $70k (and change) in our total apportionment. We worship one traditional service early in the morning, and contemporary service at 11am. So we have a band, but we're one of the last congregations in our shrinking midwestern town who still has a choir.

We do cool things like hold a large motorcycle themed service each spring, serve as one of the principle funders of the regional food bank, serve in Family Promise, and our growing small group ministry - Go Communities or GoCo's - are taking care of one another while serving others in a myriad of ways. One GoCo sponsors about 8 neighborhood food distributions a year. Another interviews older members and creates a packet of info about their life that they give to the families. Others do everything from serve a local women's shelter, to serve the families of our large day care, and pray for others in need. We have a large, active lay pastor program that serves in multiple capacities from everything from shut-in visitation to finance ministry to making "prayer squares" as a sign of comfort for those in need.

We worshipped together cross-culturally with a large Missionary Baptist Church in town a year ago, and are about to do so again. More than a 100 people from those two congregations came together for a program on race and faith about a month ago, and they want to continue to meet to begin addressing challenges in our community.

It's a cool place.

It might seem like I'm bragging (and I probably am), but we have our challenges too. The congregation is aging, which means I've had to bury lot of good folk and challenges for resourcing and leadership have been created. In the course of the regular turnover that comes with the church in is age, we've had periods where people disagreed, and in resulted in folks leaving. Cultural changes have challenged us, changed us, divided us, and push us. In turn, all feel welcome here, but the congregation has felt the pain of change.

And right now I'm going thru a very public, and painful, divorce. The overwhelming majority of folks have been supportive and protective of us. A few have disappeared. It's been tough on my family, and I know tough on the church.

So, I want to make it clear that as someone whose been ordained 22 years, I'm just another face in the crowd, leading a good, solid church made up of other faces in the crowd. A church who has been impacted by the polarization of this age, struggles at time to keep everything resourced, and is very much not of one mind when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. It is the friendships that have been formed among those who disagree, and commitment to our mission that hold us all together... but the apple cart can still be upset.

And while it is true that I was the "Steering Committee Chairperson of the United Methodist Centrist Movement", outside of stealing an election in the West Ohio Conference from the an overconfident and under-prepared evangelical caucus, I've not been politically active since. If fact, given my personal life, I checked out of all these discussion last summer. So, I'm no mover and shaker. Nobody in Columbus is asking the question, "How does that divorced pastor in Lima, Ohio feel about (fill in the blank)?"

But with the discussion taking place in what I'd call a typical midwestern United Methodist Church (although, given more than 80% of our congregations in our conference worship less than 100 folks, maybe we're not as "typical" as I think), I thought the special commission might like to hear what folks here have been saying. I've organized it into five points. Here they are...

1. There is no compromise that will make everyone happy, so expect some folks are going to leave by church, block of church members, or individual.

Allen County is a pretty conservative part of Northwest Ohio. After fifty years of economic and population decline, people have become pretty disillusioned and suspicious of change. You would, as an example, have expected the county to vote Trump in 2016. After all it's voted Republican for decades. But after eight years of a sluggish recovery from a catastrophic economic recession, wars, terrorism, cultural undulation, endless news regarding race and the police, and the continued political work of evangelical Christianity and a large Catholic population frustrated with "Roe v. Wade", this was one of the counties in the state where the margin of Trump's victory grew substantially over Romney's back in 2012.

Allen County though is a diverse, dynamic place. We have sizable African-American population whose parents and grandparents migrated here to work in the steel mills during WW II. We have a couple of large hospitals which have attracted professionals from around the world. We have a growing college population thanks to a branch campus of THE Ohio State University, a local community college, and a growing local state supported university (University of Northwest Ohio). Large corporations like Ford, P&G, Dana, PP&G, Ineos, Potash, and Husky Oil want to attract and keep the best talent, so they engage regularly in diversity training to eliminate road blocks of bias. And like everywhere else, we have a sizable LGBTQIA population, and in turn a lot of folks who are friends and family of a LGBTQIA person.

The upshot is that all the cultural changes, relationships, and diversity have resulted in an increasingly polarized community around cultural, political, and theological issues. But simultaneously, in our largest evangelical churches, there's been a softening on LGBTQIA inclusion. Evangelical pastors who came out strong against inclusion a decade a year, are quick now to mention that they have some one or more LGBTQIA persons who attend their church in private conversation. How public that information is, is directly related to how permissive the congregation's leadership happens to be, but the fact that evangelical pastors and lay-people don't want to appear homophobic is a big swing in the last decade.

But there are still plenty of laity who if they think their pastor is too "soft" on the issue, will step out of the congregation for the sake of "Biblical truth". Every congregation locally has experienced this. That's why the discussion here is that there is no compromise that will make everyone in our own church satisfied, let alone the entire denomination. If the Special Commission is instant on hardening the language and position of the UMC one way or the other, the result will the loss of persons in our church, and churches across the country. Either one at a time, in blocks from congregations, or churches as a whole. Nobody is saying the Special Commission shouldn't lead in the way God is telling them too, but they should do so with the expectation that this will result  in loss of members, attenders, congregations, and contributions.

So whatever the special commission announces, it will have ramifications in our church, and other UM churches. Just expect no matter what is decided that it's going to happen.

2. Nobody Expects Continued Unity In the United Methodist Church, And That's OK

If you just read everything in point one, then you'll understand point two. Since the special commission is really focused on the thorny issue of human sexuality, there is no expectation that they'll be able to come up with any kind of statement or direction that will keep the denomination together. Lean in the direction of relaxing the prohibitive language regarding homosexuality, or allow some sort of ordination for gay and lesbian clergy in parts of the country who are more progressive, and the WCA (and I suspect many, many others) will walk.

Keep the current language, or make it more prohibitive, and not only will some progressive congregations give up, but the prospect of more disobedience and fighting will lead some conservatives - and even some moderates -to start looking for a way out. The era where one side gets it's way while the other just kind of waits until a different season agreeable to what they want begins, is now over. There's been enough movement of individuals in and out of our churches to somewhere more "likeminded" and enough cultural changes that have come to pass, that the breaking point in this divide has come. Some people just can't live with those who are different than them any more, and others are just tired of all the fighting.

And you know what.... folks here say that's ok. If it's time for breaks and fissures, either planned or anticipated, then so be it. The stress of the continued uncertainty is taking it's toll on our people and clergy. The people of this church understand this is just a part of this age and time. To pretend that somehow that things can remain the same, or very close to it, doesn't seem reasonable to this church. Nothing else has stayed the same for them. Why should this denomination be any different?

3. Since There Are People Who Will Want To Leave, Let Them While Avoiding Litigation Costs

One of the benefits of having watched the other mainline denominations go through this before us is that we've had a chance to witness the fallout from their experience. The Episcopalians have really been most instructive in what could be awaiting us. According to various sources, more than six billion dollars has been spent in litigation costs to settle property disputes in congregations who have split and fight over ownership of their building, or between congregations and the denomination when they try to leave. Considering there are eight times as many United Methodists as Episcopalians, it's not hard to figure out that the biggest winners if we follow their example, will be the attorneys.

In this case, most everyone who has talked about this, even attorneys, agrees litigation costs are a waste of money. In fact, the "in-trust clause" - where the ownership of all church property is held "in-trust" by each conference - has never been more unpopular among the faithful. At worst, folks believe this is being used as a stick to whip unhappy congregations in line. At best, given that the local congregation does the paying for and maintaining the property, the general feeling is that the congregation should have a greater say in the destiny of their building(s) and land.

So there isn't much (if any) opposition to giving congregations a window to take their building with them, or change the nature of this arrangement between local church and conference so that the "in-trust" clause is ended entirely. There's a lot opposition to helping a lawyer make his or her boat payment with UM funds.

4. If The Special Commission Can't Live With Natural Attrition and Are Talking About A Split, Forget a Planned One Into Two Denominations. Let Individual Churches Make The Choice To Leave Or Go How They Want.... With Stipulations

The most disastrous decision for congregations like ours if a two denomination split. It'll just split us wide open. And even if you open this up to a three denominational split, the overriding questions I hear people ask is, "Why can't we just be given the choice to do what we want to do if it's time for the denomination as we've known it, to come to an end?"

Big institutions right now engender a lot of mistrust from people at this stage of our nation's history. I've heard a lot of support for Shawnee UMC being a part of a smaller, stripped down denomination or association. Whether or not that is the new version of UMC, or something new entirely doesn't seem to matter much to people.  Those who have been a part of non-denominational churches sing their praises and wonder why we'd ever consider ceding the kind of control those congregations have to bureaucrats who really "don't know our church or community". Those who are life-long UM's voice the belief that the current structure is unsustainable and needs radical reform. Those from other denominational backgrounds didn't come here because we were UMC, but rather because the Wesleyan translation we use to conduct our ministry. Big bureaucracy is questioned, and held in disdain by all.

Increasingly I've heard the talk about a "buyout". This idea really came to the forefront because of the "buyout" the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference came to with a large congregation in Quarryville who voted to leave last year. A settlement payment that would not only cushion the transition for the churches in the denomination who stayed, but also make sure that any unfunded liabilities (i.e. clergy pensions, new church start commitments, health insurance obligations, property costs, etc...) are met. People ask a lot if that's what is coming, and how much it would be.

In any event, instead of determining where each church ends up, folks here believe we should leave the decision up to each church. Maybe smaller, regional associations or denominations will get started up. Maybe Centrists will follow the WCA's example and organize something nationwide or international. Or maybe a "limited" UMC membership can be established where the conference apportionment is paid, but the world service is paid a la cart. Who knows. All I know is that Shawnee UMC members want an option that prizes the local church over conference staffs and general church agencies, and they want all the energy that's gone into keeping the denomination together into serving the world as disciples of Jesus.

They just want the age of big bureaucracy to end, which leads into this last point....

5. Embrace the change and the pain.

Once upon a time, the largest employers in Allen County were either owned locally, or had a headquarters not-too-far away. So whether you were talking about Lima Locomotive or Ohio Steel or Standard Oil of Ohio or both of our hospitals, chances are the CEO lived in a nice neighborhood, or headquarters were nearby in Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, or the like. Plenty of good jobs in area factories were available, with good benefits.

Now our oil refinery is owned by a company out of Canada. The chemical plant once all owned by Standard Oil, is now broken up into twenty-three separately owned units by entities from all over the world. The hospitals are owned by large medical conglomerates with headquarters somewhere else. Our downtown continues to struggle to hang on, while now the local mall and strip malls all struggle against big-box stores that buy on a scale that was once unimaginable, or web sites who deliver goods via Fed Ex or UPS. I have as many people in the congregation working for a Japanese owned Honda, as I do those employed by American owned Ford. And those jobs are prized because while there are fewer of those with high pay and benefits, and more with low and no benefits to speak of.

Everything has changed. People are smaller cogs in a bigger machine, or starting something small and independent to take control of their lives or achieve a long-held dream. The internet and globalization has changed every facet of our lives. Retail, medicine, industry, education, communication, relationships.... nothing has gone untouched.

People realize this as they pass by their local churches. The mainlines who were once a crucial piece of the local safety net are all in decline. They've largely replaced by either big, more evangelical congregations that are non-denominational, or are part of an evangelical denomination but hide it which became the vogue over the last thirty years. Or, more likely, with now almost 55% of the county either agnostic, atheist, or "none of the above", they've been replaced by "Pastor Pillow" at "St. Matts of the Springs". Large churches, which rise and fall, just pass around attenders who make their church choice based on what they want, and what the church offers. Old loyalties and traditions which governed how generations of families worshipped have largely gone by the wayside.

The upshot is that all of us aren't making large numbers of new disciples of Jesus. As longtime members go onto glory in an age where people look at the church more as a place of services offered as opposed to a spiritual family to be a part of, this is an age where we are managing change, and the pain that comes with it.

And you know what people think? Just like they've had to in their working and personal lives, they believe the church and the denomination are going to have to embrace same kind of radical change,.... and pain.

Guaranteed appointment..... Itineracy.... MDiv's.... Seminaries... Jurisdictional conference.... Bishops elected for life.... General church agencies.... A General Conference meeting in Zimbabwe....  Districts.... Cabinets.... Conferences as we know them.... Judicial councils and Council of Bishops..... multiple churches in communities as a product of a fifty year old merger.... professional clergy.... pension and health plans....

everything is up for grabs.

Everything except the local church, which can continue without all these listed things. A total re-examination of our priorities, operations, and distribution of resources our people believe must take place if we are to continue to fulfill the mission of "making disciples who change the world" in our Wesleyan tradition.

So, in short, what people are looking for is a stripped-down, more unified denomination, or a stripped-down more unified alternative. Not unified as a theologically monolithic entity with strict rules and boundaries. Unified in the sense that the basics about Christ's mission, ministry, and teaching are stood upon, while we allow plenty of discussion, creative dissonance, and a trust in grace from God and among us to sustain us along the way.

All things being equal, they'd rather stay in a new version of the UMC. But after a couple of disastrous General Conferences, as a member of my leadership board remarked, "It looks like the people with the most to gain by keeping things the same, have the power to make that happen". So our people are not optimistic that change will come out of a denominational will to do so, but rather the consequences that come from not being willing to do so. To them, this is tragic.

And these folks, while not particularly passionate about the denomination, support it. This is not a disgruntled church. We pay our apportionments. We've received grants to help re-start another local UMC, and are thankful for the support of the conference while I took three months of leave after announcing the end of my marriage. People see the good the UMC does, and the idea of making their future within this denomination doesn't upset them.

But they're suggest to the special commission is this.... if you're not going to kick the can down the road in regards to human sexuality, then don't kick the can down the road on anything else. All the issues, challenges, and the reality of decline with which we are confronted, be honest in your assessment of where we need to go, what we need to do, and what it will cost.

The time for change, and pain, have come. We just need to be realistic, embrace it, and use this as an opportunity to think differently about the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church so we might realize a different, but brighter, future.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Lord Comforts

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort."                                                           (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

I was talking with a friend of mine who over the course of the last month or so has had to deal with a host of health and personal issues. He was openly lamenting how life is filled with heartbreak and pain. Filled with problems that have no easy solutions. People and situations you'd like to fix, but you just can't. 

"I don't know why life has to be so hard", he told me. "Why it has to have so much heartbreak. I wish it were different."

I agree. I wholeheartedly agree. More than you know, I stand with my friend on these sentiments. I wish life wasn't so hard, so full of heartbreak. But it is, and the only thing we can do is use our own painful experiences to learn some hard lessons, trust more deeply in the Lord, allow ourselves to be tended to by others, and ultimately bring some comfort to someone else.

This is the pathway through pain toward comfort we find in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The Lord is the Lord of comfort. In this is our hope. And whether that healing come through the power of the Holy Spirit, the simple passage of time, or through the words and actions of good friends, the promise we hold onto is that there is always a daybreak at the end of a long-dark night. 

As a pastor for twenty-five years I believe once of the the most important parts of my job has been to bring comfort to others. Those moments are the moments I've felt the most useful in terms of the work the Lord was trying to do, and the most memorable of my career.

One of the best friends I ever had in all my years of ministry was Stan Weller. Some of you may remember Stan. He retired many years ago as the principle at Cridersville and was a long time member of this church. Even though there was about a 40 year age gap between us, Stan and I enjoyed hanging out with each other. Frequently he would call me and let me know he'd just made a pot of a chili, and if I hurried to his house to lunch there might be a bowl left before his wife Betty ate it all.

After getting a chili call one day, I moseyed my way over to Lorain Drive, and made my way up the front steps for lunch. Immediately though when Stan let me inside I could see he was stressed out. Stan was a man's man, but he was on the verge of tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he just waved his hand to have me take a look at his living room. And there, everywhere on the walls, pictures, and furniture were little homemade signs on copy paper. I walked around and started to read...

"No your mom isn't coming today. She's been dead many years."

"We are not going to school. We've graduated."

"I can't go get your sisters to come and play jumprope. They don't live near us anymore."

"You father isn't coming home after work. He passed away."

All over the room these little signs spelled out some other detail of his wife's life that her dementia had robbed, that she asked about again and again and again and again. I gave Stan a big hug and just let him unload all his frustration and sorrow as he grieved the slow loss of Betty to this terrible disease, and struggled with keeping the patience he needed to be her caregiver.

Stan just needed a little comfort, and that's what I believe the Lord longed to provide to him that day. I don't know about you, but I am gratified when God uses me for this kind of work.

But sometimes comfort isn't something we give. Sometimes we need to receive it. To allow the Lord to fill our cup when it's empty. I'm not comfortable with receiving comfort. I'd rather be showing compassion that receiving it. It's humbling, and sometimes embarrassing to admit we need to be comforted. And it's painful. We need comfort when we are in pain, or have failed, or been hurt, or come to the terrible realization we have failed someone else. I think to be on the receiving end of the comfort of the Lord and others, and just learning to humbly receive the gift is grace is one of most important steps we can take on our spiritual journey.  

The Apostle Paul makes it clear that he is one who is used by God to provide comfort to others, but he's also grateful to receive that comfort also. To grow in Christ's likeness is to seek both bring and receive comfort to others. Sometimes that's easy, and other times it's not.

This morning I come to you as someone who, while normally seeks as best he can to bring comfort to others, as a man broken, seeking comfort and solace in a very difficult time. After a particularly difficult season in our twenty-six year long marriage, Aimee and I are separating. This has been an incredibly painful decision with terrible consequences to so many people we love, particularly our children. However, we must now admit that the issues between us not properly resolved, the pressures of living in the "fishbowl" of ministry, and all the ways life wears all of us down have eroded the commitment we've made to one another. For different reasons individually, we simply do not have the needed resources to seek reconciliation. It is unfortunate, but we agree new boundaries are necessary to keep our relationship respectful and fruitful for our children, others we are called to serve.  

We've loved each other since we were kids. I've loved her since she was fifteen years old. We just don't want to hurt each other anymore.

We both have a hand in this failure. From my perspective I have not practiced what I preached and tended to the garden that is my wife's love. Too many times I've asked her to "shake it off", "gut it out", and "toughen up", when rather I should have listened, embraced, and comforted. Plenty of times I've talked about the importance of the fruits of the spirit from this pulpit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control - and yet I've played my part in allowing the weeds of indifference, the urgent, and obligations which too, too often rendered her second, to choke out those fruits in our own marriage. 

While I want to make it clear that I have nothing to violate the vows I took at my ordination, and am still in good standing as an Elder in the United Methodist Church, I am sorry I have failed both her, my children, and you, the congregation I serve. I am simply a man with feet of clay, who has failed miserably by loving imperfectly. 

I must also admit today that the visibility and pressure of ministry has played a major part in my marriage now coming to a close. As we make this change in our lives, I cannot ask Aimee or our sons to go through this trial on a public stage. Now is a time we need privacy. We need to assure our children of our love and commitment to them, and help find a new "normal" which will nurture them. I need to provide space to Aimee to find healing and comfort in the wake of this storm. 

So beginning at the close of this service, with the blessing of our Pastor Parish Relations Committee and Bishop Palmer of the West Ohio Conference, I will begin a three month leave. This will allow our family to step out of the spotlight, and make all the necessary arrangements to close this chapter, and begin a new one. The plan is that I, after a review of PPRC and our District Superintendent, will return to the pulpit here at Shawnee UMC in January. That review could determine that another course of action, or different timeline for my return be established, but at this juncture the goal will be a return after the new year. During this season two interim pastors, our friend David MacDonald, and an old friend of mine, Loran Miracle, will serve this congregation. I encourage you to welcome and support them warmly.

Please pray for Aimee. The journey of a United Methodist pastor's wife - of just being my wife - has not been an easy one for her. While I'm sure she would say she's made mistakes along the way, for as long and well as she could she carried these burdens with mercy and grace. Pray for her healing and restoration as she makes this journey, which I know for her will be both painful and hopeful as she seeks to become who God created her to be. 

Please lift me in your prayers. I simply have little to offer others right now, and our kids need me more than ever. It's a terrible feeling to want to fix something terribly broken that you know now could still be intact if just little timely fixes of tiny fragments had been repaired along the way. This is has created within a substantial amount of shame, anger, hurt and disappointment. Someday I hope to turn the difficulty of these moments into words of hope for someone else... 

but that day is not today. It's just going to take time. Thank you for giving some to me.

But most importantly, please pray for Max, Xavier, Elijah, and Toby. We love our kids and hate to see them hurting like they are right now. It is the comfort of the Lord and the peace which passes all understanding for our sons that I know is Aimee and I's most fervent prayer. Please just love on our kids.  

Today we take communion. It's the sacrament that reminds us that the price of abundant life is brokenness. We celebrate this together, corporately, because life is hard and full of heartbreak. And the difference between finding joy out of despair, goodness out of evil, and light in the darkness is whether or not we'll let the Lord carry us, and carry each other. To offer each other the bread of life, and the cup of salvation with each prayer, embrace, listening ear, and willingness to just be present. Or to accept that quiet presence of someone else.

So as we close this service let us remember that our God is a God of comfort. This  is the promise we cling to in Jesus Christ. Let us trust in this promise, while we love one another, and love our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.


Monday, July 18, 2016

The Bridge Is Out

We had a professor at Miami University named B.H. Smith who started every class he taught with the same question: "Why do we study history?" Of course us students knew the answer, and every hand rose to make a good first impression: "So that we don't make the same mistakes made in the past." Smith would look at us, pause for dramatic effect, and with great emphasis reply, "Most of us will never be important enough to make the mistakes made in the past. For us history is about two things - dates and dead people."

It would get a big laugh, but there was an air of truth to the man's words. Most everyone reading this will never be in the position of making a bad treaty with some nation or propose some economic program that led to hyper-inflation. But if you are a United Methodist know that this last week, you were all a small or large part of a repeat of our denomination's history. One-hundred and seventy-two years after we split into the M.E. North and M.E. South over the election of a bishop, we're on the verge of doing it again.

I have no idea exactly how it will all go down but I am certain that some progressives won't go forward without an openly gay or lesbian bishop, and some traditionalists won't go forward with one. We've reached a dead end, and the bridge so many of us prayed would get built, spanning our divide to allow us to go forward together, isn't even in the design stage.

As a centrist it would be easy to point my finger at the traditionalists or progressives for this position were in right now. The traditionalists in my opinion, never came to the table in good faith to discuss some sort of compromise. In fact, compromise that resulted in any change in our Discipline as it relates to human sexuality to many traditionalists has always been non-negotiable. So whether it was accomplished by taking a majority in General Conference or via a schism, the end game for traditionalists always seemed like total victory without compromise. But all that said, what other arena of work on the face of the planet are you considered the "bad guys" because you follow the rules?

I can't blame traditionalists for this place we've arrived.

I could wag my finger at the progressives. Years of both peaceful protest and civil disobedience to finally get a substantive conversation on the place and role of LGBT persons in the denomination, and just as we are on the cusp of this happening they give half-a-peace-sign to both traditionalists and the growing number of centrists who worked to make this possible. Seven non-compliant conferences and one elected bishop later, the hopes for the special commission aren't dead, but like in the movie "The Princess Bride", you could call them "mostly dead". Short of "Miracle Max" coming up with an eleventh-hour magic chocolate pill (go back and watch the movie), the prospects for maintaining unity where traditionalists, centrists, and progressives could make peace AND reach out to all as their conscience allowed and the Spirit led....  are thin.

But all that being said, with no door or window to open, why should any of us be surprised that the question of inclusion was forced through a new hole in the roof? These are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends who the progressives see themselves standing up for. I can't lay my dismay this at their feet either.

In the end centrists have nobody to blame but themselves. We kept turning a blind eye to the ills that bedevil us. Not just a blind eye to the ever-growing divide as more prohibitive language was added to the BoD, parallel mission societies were formed, thirteen bishops wrote a letter, a challis was shattered, Elders were getting drummed out, time was wasted in Tampa, and the letters "LGBTQ" couldn't even be uttered on the floor in Portland. We turned a blind eye to more than forty years of decline and increasing irrelevance by largely just settling for the status quo.

We turned a blind eye to forty years of cultural, demographic, racial and geographic shifts. We turned a blind eye to a growing group of increasingly ineffective Elders and underprepared Local Pastors. We turned a blind eye to the local church which was hemorrhaging even as we forced her to give more blood to a bureaucracy that's only grown more bloated and ineffective. We turned a blind eye to the "death tsunami", the corrosive influence of partisan politics via the IRD, and generations of Americans who thought it better to be "nones" than "United Methodists". We turned a blind eye to the escalating cost of seminary and a growing distaste for itineracy among younger clergy even as locationalism has made it less viable.

We turned a blind eye to changing attitudes toward LGBTQ persons, and refused to use our influence to heed the wisdom of Gamaliel to open up pathways of inclusion so see if this was a movement of the Spirit. We turned a blind eye to the frustration of our conservative colleagues and congregations who felt increasingly like they were the "villains" even though they largely just upholding the Discipline.

I blame us.

And while there have been successes, pockets of spiritual growth across the connection, for every one of these great stories I can point out ten examples of congregations we've managed into obsolescence. The writing was on the wall. We just decided it was better to keep the prophet locked up in prison and pretend the writing was for somebody else.

We've been reactive. We asserted our influence to keep the boat from rocking. We didn't take seriously Bishop Schnase's assessment that the church needs to engage in "risk taking mission" to be considered healthy and growing. Instead of organizing and forcing hard discussions between bitterly divided parties so that a clear vision could emerge, we just let the ship sail until it absolutely had to turn... and now it's listing near the rocks.

So at this late hour, my prayer is that the bishops to act quickly. Please don't wait to nominate the special commission but please have them in place by Labor Day, their work completed by next year, and the special session of General Conference meeting in 2018. The denomination cannot withstand four more years of resolutions, counter-resolutions, pronouncements, and acts of defiance. Further, if the failure of the "Connectional Table Plan" has taught us anything, it's that under-representing folks in the connection will most likely result in a solution that in real terms, has no chance passing General Conference. So please consider proportionally representing the global connection on the commission as they're represented at General Conference.

Centrists, as we think about being proactive, given the reality of our current situation, as the special session of General Conference nears, let's keep everything on the table. We can introduce restructuring plans which would essentially create multiple apartments under one roof. But we also need not avoid planning for a possible future where "live and let live" cannot be abided by a significant number of clergy and congregations. Since the "trust clause" and the sustainability of the pension system are poor reasons for us to stay together, let's not be afraid to explore a potential pathway where money on litigation isn't wasted on lawyers, and a mutual respect for those who served before us can still be honored, even if our unity cannot.

In closing, in this season of uncertainty we all need clarity to effectively plan for future ministry. It's not reasonable to allocate funding for new church starts or recruitment of new clergy when funding streams could be upended abruptly. It's not sensible to keep working the itinerant system as if all things will likely remain same, when great upheaval in our local churches is now more than just speculation. It's not ethical to keep promising retirees that we will live up to our obligations when so many things are in the air.

And it's no longer acceptable for those of us in the center to keep expecting things to just work out. You can't a build a bridge people don't want, to keep the illusion of familiarity and "sameness". Hard choices will need to be made about what may have to be dug up and pruned so a new season of planting can begin.

In our prayer and devotional lives, local church ministries, communities, conferences, nation, and denomination it is time to heed the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14; to humble ourselves, pray, seek the Lord's face, and turn from the wickedness of worshipping the idol of "not rocking the boat because we're so close to retirement and it might reduce revenue". Then and only then, if we're truly earnest and faithful, we will be forgiven our sin of turning a blind eye, and through us God will heal our church, and our land.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Three Thoughts And One Plea To My Traditionalist Friends In the United Methodist Church

A couple of weeks ago, Talbot Davis on the "Ministry Matters" blog made a post entitled "A Plea To My Centrist Friends in the United Methodist Church". As one of founders of what we call the United Methodist Centrist Movement, he seemed to be reaching out to all my colleagues who proudly will serve GC 2016 under the centrist moniker. I pondered his thoughts, and decided that it might be a good idea to respond back. So before General Conference begins in a month or so, here are three thoughts and one plea as a Centrist I'd like our Traditionalist friends to ponder. 

First, traditionalist friends you don't have to panic about GC 2016, or any future GC because math is on your side. The ever-growing African delegation assures a traditionalist majority at GC perpetually. So when it comes to human sexuality there are really only two likely outcomes at GC 2016. The most likely outcome is that the current language (and all the legal wrangling that goes with it) in the Book of Discipline will be maintained. Maybe this doesn't bring you much comfort given the all the upheaval the past four years, but at least in principle your desire for the BOD language to remain the same is secure.

The other less likely - but still possible - outcome is that the current BOD language will be replaced with a proposal written by four of our colleagues entitled the "C.U.P. Plan". I say this is "less likely, but possible" because you have a simple majority this year, but you'll need a few of us centrists to lean your way for the "CUP Plan" to see the light of day.

In case you don't know what the Cup Plan is, here's a summary. It will...

  • strengthen the current BOD language around the prohibition of same-sex marriage and same-sex ordination 
  • end our current practice in the United States of maintaining order in our respective conferences usurping the authority of our respective conference Board of Ministry, order of clergy, cabinet, and bishop on matters of human sexuality
  • mandate suspensions and expulsions without what we in western civilization would recognize as "due process" for those who conduct same-sex ceremonies, essentially creating an entirely new class of offense above and beyond all others
  • allow those churches and clergy who have had enough of the United Methodist Church to leave with property and pension in tact after a "discernment period" of sixty days (remember this one... we'll talk about it more later)
So at least from an institutionalized perspective, traditionalists have nothing to worry about. And given the long-term prognosis both for membership growth in Africa and membership decline in the United States, you will always have this advantage. You only need centrists to vote for a more punitive form of discipline. 

But that's isn't likely. Let me explain why. Here's my second thought.

Three out of the four authors of the CUP Plan are ordained Elders here in my conference. Despite the fact they were all running, and heavily endorsed by the traditionalist caucus which for 20 years had dominated our elections, none of them were elected as full delegates to GC 2016. Want to know why? 

The CUP Plan. Or to be more specific it's less punitive predecessor, the A&W Plan. 

The A&W was recognized by centrists as a fraudulent call for "unity" masking a demand for "uniformity". Unity implies we stand together despite our differences. Uniformity is tossing anyone out who can't pass a very narrow, focused, unnecessary litmus test.  For traditionalists to not, under any circumstances, entertain the possibility that the passion of so many United Methodists regarding inclusion was anything more than just individualism run amok was disappointing and disrespectful to a lot of people we admire and respect. The A&W Plan just hammered that disappointment home.

Centrists don't like trials. They don't like kicking people out. They believe unity can be achieved on matters of vital importance while differences exist on the rest. They seek compromise. They don't want mandatory minimums. They have no respect for those who continually threaten to leave or try to force their way by refusing to pay their apportionment unless they get what they want. As Wesleyans who learned the Quadrilateral in seminary our love for free will extends to our desire to be in a denomination that encourages free thought, discussion, reason, pragmatism, and putting aside our differences to do the important things: make disciples of Jesus Christ, and together serve others as He would will it.

If it makes you feel any better we aren't interested in the didactic demands of the Love Prevails crowd either. After all Paul said it best.... love doesn't demand it's own way. Good News, the IRD, Love Prevails, the Reconciling Movement and MFSA in our opinion major in the minors. It's just that the most radical traditionalist voices in that choir actually have the power to put the rest of us under their thumb. Heck, it's their dream. And to that vision we will not bow.

That's why in West Ohio, at least, we rejected this vision for the future of our denomination while we still can.

Third, not speaking for any other centrist but myself, when I read Davis' article I couldn't help but be troubled. Of course I was troubled by an Elder who was single boasting about her active sex life and the unmarried-but-engaged ordinand candidates boasting the same. Know that us centrists believe in the Book of Discipline. We follow it. In fact we probably follow it better than you traditionalists do. On the whole we generally practice infant baptism, both sprinkle and dunk, pay all our apportionment as best we can (even when we don't agree with our bureaucracy), seek inclusivity in our leadership circles, and have no issue with the institutional empowerment of females. 

Your crowd's record in those areas, you have to admit, is a little spotty.

But I was equally as troubled by something else Davis wrote: "I want you to know your vote is not simply about homosexuality and it’s not about justice. It is instead about dismantling the entire sexual ethic that has helped define the Christian faith for two millennia."

The church has been wrong about a lot of things, some of which were taught for hundreds and hundreds of years (and in some corners are still being taught). I was reminded of this just this morning when I read an article in the New York Times about the effort Georgetown University - a Jesuit school - is making to find descendants of 242 persons who the school sold into slavery to pay their debts in the 1850's. The church taught slavery was a defendable institution for over 1800 years.

I was reminded of this again when I stumbled on a quote by our first female bishop, Leontine Kelly:

"[On ordination of women:] We must recognize the kind of culture in which Jesus and his disciples lived. It was a very male-dominated culture. However, Jesus did violate the customs of the culture in that he talked with women, shared with women. Women were part of the entourage of Jesus Christ. God calls whomever God would call."

The church taught for over 1900 years that women had no place in the institutional leadership of the Christian movement that involved having any authority over men.

And I was reminded of this again when I thought of Copernicus and I looked at a globe.

What seems to define us as centrists is the Holy Spirit moving amongst us in the form of pragmatism and practicality bending to what Dr. King called an "arc toward justice". LGBT persons and their families are active in our churches. Many of these good folks have exhibited the kinds of spiritual fruit that are helping create vitality in our congregations. They are highly ethical and committed to the cause of Jesus. They have witnessed the destruction sexual immorality has wrought within both  the straight and LGBT communities and are rejecting that kind of practice for something committed and stable. As they raise children and get certified as foster parents, they are looking to us. They are helping us work with LGBT teens who are suicidal to give them hope for the future. They believe in monogamous, life-long commitments between two consenting adults, and are just as appalled at the destruction "sleeping around" creates. They challenged us to treat them like regular old people - regular old sinners - just like the rest of us.  

And we as pastors are serving many, many traditionalists who are becoming "former traditionalists" or "modified traditionalists". They've been challenged by the people they've met, the studies they've read, and reflection in which they have engaged. They searched the scriptures and prayed for direction. And while maybe they (and many of us centrists) aren't really sure what to do with all of this, they know that growing more punitive right now makes little sense. They're ready for a new season.

We can work with this! Let us. We'll leave you alone as we do so. We promise.

Which leads me to my plea..... traditionalists, if you are delegates to GC 2016, or can lobby someone who is, know that the least you can do is reject the CUP Plan, while the most you can do is work with us and willing progressives to find a "third way" for our denomination. 

I know you have the Rob Renfroes and Maxie Dunnams of the world warning you that a change in BOD language to allow a "third way" will result in churches leaving and endless litigation just like it did in the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian denominations. But same-sex marriage wasn't legal when those folks made those choices, and the attitude of the nation - particularly young adults - has shifted significantly in that same time period. I venture a guess that vast majority of you reading this who call themselves a traditionalist don't harbor any ill-will toward to the LGBT community, and maybe over the last decade or so yourself have had your heart slightly soften on the matter of inclusion.

We can do this differently, but traditionalists only if YOU choose to do so. Come to the table. Tell the hardcore traditionalists and progressives to chill out and give your own willing traditionalist, progressive and centrist brothers and sisters a way to stay together and maintain their own convictions. We won't find a perfect solution, but we will find a workable one. Give it a chance.  

And one last thing... about that CUP Plan. Know that we centrists are rule-followers. Progressives will most likely stick around and fight til the bitter end of the denomination or you kick them all out (which ever comes first). But as for us centrists, well we'll just follow the rules. 

A few of my centrist friends and I were sitting around one evening drinking cold beverages and talking about what a post-CUP Plan UMC might look like for us. None of us were all that encouraged. 

I mean the status quo isn't exactly paradise. Everything already seems to take more energy and stamina than it did when we first started in ministry. And as for our denominational leadership, there appears to be great resistance to the kinds of radical change that's necessary to make sure the local church has what it needs to do good work in the current climate while not getting dragged down by a status quo that's not working. 

Now factor into this discussion the CUP Plan, which none of us as centrists are in favor of. The denomination will come apart at the seams. Progressive conferences will ignore it. Traditionalists will use the leverage of the BOD to enforce it. The rancor will only grow, and we'll do all we can to shelter our congregations from the mess. 

And yet the CUP Plan DOES allow for pastors and churches to leave with property and pension in hand after a sixty day period of reflection. This got us wondering, what if the opportunity, legally, came along to form a new denomination? It could be...
  • One built on the doctrine of the Wesleyan movement, but leaves behind the deaf-to-change bureaucracy who only really seemed to care about us in terms of "nickels and noses" and the preservation of their own position/power. 
  • One that assigns the decisions of marriage and ordination to each of it's local churches and pastors to work out as best for their context.
  • One that only seeks pastors strong in character and committed to creating healthy local churches where they can be effective in partnership with laity in all different types and kinds of settings 
  • One that asks for, say, 3% of General Operating Expense as the only apportionment. 
  • One that, without layers upon layers of denominational staffing and an impossible decision making process, can focus it's available resources on new church starts and church revitalization toward the end of what is the heart of any denomination - strong local churches 
  • A denomination without bishops or a method for assigning church leadership that was perfect for an era when the horse and walking were the main modes of transportation 
  • One that would insure you wouldn't need a boatload of debt to become a pastor
We could call it the American Methodist Church. We've even got an idea for a logo for it. We think the hipsters will love it!

(you have to be kinda old to get the joke... not "Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show old", but still, Millennials you'll need to go ask your parents)

Traditionalists, we don't want to do this. We're the ones killing ourselves trying to keep this thing together. But if you change the rules you give us the ability to put that energy to work in more constructive endeavors. Again, it's not what we want, but traditionalists, we've been asking for a compromise and you won't listen. You won't take us seriously. You want to use us to your own ends, but besides us doing a lion-share of the work and paying the bills, you don't seem to want us around.

We could arrange that. It's your choice. Choose wisely at GC 2016.

Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Late. It's Late. But not too late... for kindness?

Was listening to internet radio when unexpectedly this song came on...

It's not exactly one of Queen's bigger songs. I only know it because it's on "News of the World", which was the first "album" I ever bought with my own money, album being in parenthesis because I actually bought an 8-track tape (millennials, ask your parents). I'm sure as a kid I made the purchase solely for "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" but 8-Tracks didn't rewind or fast forward (at least mine didn't), so I'd just listen to the rest of the album passively til it came back around to those two songs.

Now let me say this... I really liked those two songs, so I heard the rest of that album plenty. Songs like "Sheer Heart Attack",  "Get Down, Make Love", and "All Dead. All Dead (a very sad song written by Brian May about the death of his cat) are imprinted on my brain.

(And yes, my parents let me listen to a song like "Get Down. Make Love". It was the seventies, baby! But I digress....)

Despite the hundreds of times I'd heard "It's Late" I never paid much attention to the lyrics, so I looked them up. They were written by Brian May supposedly with the idea that it's a three-act scene or something (I don't know... Wikipedia did it's best to explain) with two different women, one whom the protagonist is in a long-term relationship with, and another who he takes consolation in when the long-term relationship seems to be on the rocks.

(Once again, it was the seventies)

But putting that all aside, this is a tune about a couple who are having trouble holding a relationship together.

The way you love me
Is the sweetest love around
But after all this time
The more I'm trying
The more I seem to let you down, yes
Now you tell me you're leaving
And I just can't believe it's true
Oh, you know that I can love you
Though I know I can't be true
Oh, you made me love you
Don't tell me that we're through

It's late - mmm, and it's driving me so mad
It's late - yes I know, but don't try and tell me that it's
Too late - save our love you can't turn out the light
So late - I've been wrong but I'll learn to be right
It's late - It's late - It's late
But not too late

Pretty sad lyrics. Anybody who has had trouble in their relationship or marriage can relate. These lyrics paint an accurate picture of everything going on in the moment when two people are on the verge of wondering whether or not their love is going to survive. There's a lot of questioning the intentions of each other. A lot of begging and pleading to keep the relationship going, while simultaneously wondering if the investment needed to be made will save the relationship (or even worth making). A lot of guilt and anger at yourself, or your partner, or both for not having made better choices. And there's sadness. Sadness that can only come when something that at one time was so alive, so good, is now in real trouble... or even done.

Years ago I came across an article about a study The Gottman Institute did seeking to define the key factor in marital success. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that couples who initially respond positively toward one another were more likely to pick up on cues that enabled them to relate better over the long term, than those couples who tended toward a "fight or flight" response geared to manipulate control in the relationship. As the article states simply....

"People who give their partner the cold shoulder — deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally — damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner's ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships." 

In short, the most important trait in a healthy marriage according to Gottman is kindness. Marriage partners who seek to be kind to one another tend to fair better than those who aren't. What's more Gottman goes further in stating that the key to kindness is the way you think about it. 

"You can think about (kindness) as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. (Those who navigate marriage successfully) tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work."

The most successful marriages are ones where those involved seek to not just show kindness, but actively work to become increasingly more kind. I think that's good news for any couple who find themselves in a difficult marriage, or in a good one they seek to improve. The way out and up from where you both are is to begin exercising "kindness muscles". Gottman gives a number of examples of practical ways to do this:
  • Offer small acts of generosity 
  • Be generous in regards to your spouse's intentions
  • Seek every opportunity to share and celebrate your partner's joy
While I see the direct application of Gottman's work in marriages, I have hope that if those of us who are United Methodists took his advice, we might be able to fare better in the future than we are now in terms of the fortunes of our local church, and the future of the denomination.

At the local church level, if a church in decline is looking to turn it's fortunes around, or a church doing pretty good is looking to do better, figuring out ways to begin exercising "kindness muscles" is the way to go.  I'd gather, for example, that at the heart of "Missional Christianity" (which are buzzwords denominational leaders have become so fond of and yet unable to really define) is the intentional collective exercising of "kindness muscles". To become so attuned to being kind toward others that it becomes instinctual and automatic. Kindness not defined by who is or isn't or might become "a member" of the church, but rather the church being kind to one all whom they encounter. That seems to be heart of the "missional movement". Given that Jesus called us to love each other, as an expression of our love for the Lord, this makes sense.

To think about this further, in the life of the denomination beyond the local church, I wonder if the vitriol we've spewed against one another has been so great for so long that we've forgotten how to be kind to one another? Kindness, it seems, has taken a backseat as the caucuses representing the polar ends of the denomination seek to destroy each other.

Progressives, as an example, hear evangelicals talk about "loving the sinner and hating the sin" and just roll their eyes. There have been far too many examples of "love" which resulted in rejection and expulsion on the part of evangelicals particularly toward LGBTQ persons for progressives to take that rhetoric seriously.

I had one of these experiences at an event recently sponsored by our conference where there were two presentations by two opposing speakers regarding scripture and homosexuality. The evangelical presenter laid out what was essentially a hard-core-take-no-prisoners perspective that left little, if any, hope both for inclusion now in local church and in the "great hereafter" for LGBTQ persons. Even though he did end his presentation with a "but we're all sinners" and "no sin is greater than another" grace statement, by the time he reached his conclusion the air was out of the room. Those seeking inclusion and those who stand with them were "all out of listen". They had heard it before. The attempt to "soften the blow" seemed to have the opposite effect. It came off as condescending and dishonest. 

On the flip side, I know evangelicals hear progressives talk about following Jesus' lead by welcoming all and wonder what chaos will be introduced into the community if everybody gets to play by their own rules, or at least new rules as a whole we don't all understand. Why, they wonder, if someone points out that we need to have some basic ground rules so we can live peacefully together, and those ground rules have been well-established for centuries, do they get painted as bigots and haters when they attempt to live them out? Since when did trying to be faithful to scripture and what the denomination has determined to be her Discipline warrant being painted as "evil"?

I know that at the same presentation, when the progressive speaker gave her more nuanced argument it seemed to the committed evangelicals in attendance that the "black and white" presentation of the evangelical was a lot easier to understand. The clarity offered by the evangelical is really the trump card when many UM's are presented with the progressive justification for full inclusion. How do you explain these changes in light of the traditional understanding of scripture? How do you explain these new ethics to your children and grandchildren? How do you stand before a congregation that's always more or less unilaterally agreed that the old ways are the right ways, and tell them that they've been wrong and make a change?

Leaning on history and tradition is much easier and understandable than a new reality where behaviors that had never been condoned, now would be. Accusations of "watering down" the Gospel, "trampling on scripture", and an unwillingness to adhere to our mutually agreed upon Discipline create specters of demonizing the "other" and making it impossible for little more than superficial conversation to take place among people who disagree with each other. 

In the end so much time and energy has been invested in the two camps beating on one another it has made their "relationship" so toxic nothing short of Maxie Dunnam and Amy DeLong washing one another's feet at General Conference could begin to move them toward some resolution to even "agree to disagree". Kindness could pave a way forward for all us United Methodists, and begin breaking this stalemate, but I'm pretty sure the polarized caucuses won't let that happen.

It will take those of us who believe unity isn't uniformity, but rather meeting the demands of sacrificial love toward all, to stand up, speak out, and work toward keeping our denomination together.

Just to go ahead and show my hand, I believe that the only role those of us who are sympathetic toward full inclusion, but also realize that there is wisdom in moving deliberately and wisely so as to not too quickly throw out church tradition is to advocate following the advise of Gamaliel. Create a pathway where folks willing to prop the door wide open can do so, and wait and see what the Lord does, or doesn't do, with their work at least for a season. We also need to simultaneously stand for the committed traditionalist and allow them to live out the Discipline as it's been understood historically until such a time where we can see if in this new arrangement we can continue to live together, or seek a peaceful separation.

In any event, we have to keep encouraging those diametrically opposed to show a little grace to one another, even if they vehemently disagree. Evangelicals need to love the LGBTQ much more sincerely than many of them have been willing to do so historically. Progressives, while not moving off of their sincere commitment to include all, need to concede that you can't legislate into existence something that generally takes personal relationships and loving conversations to change.

We need to stand for unity, and not as some critics state just for unity's sake. But rather unity seeking in love to call all standing at every point of the theological spectrum to raise their own bar of personal holiness, so we might have great capacity for both grace and justice. Unity rooted not in uniform understanding of a few particular points of church tradition, or a disdain for those who have been "oppressors", but unity which seeks to live out the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and Great Requirement - to love justice, offer mercy, and walk in humility in the presence of the Lord - with the intent that al of us begin acting more like servant leaders in the footsteps of Jesus Christ in all of our unique, yet necessary, expressions.

Unity which makes us a true light of the world. Not a taillight burning dimly as an afterthought, or a flashlight used for interrogation, but a beacon of hope for all people. People who know that in the storm, there is a port, and that port is the United Methodist Church.

In any event let's figure out simple ways we can begin exercising those kindness muscles in our personal relationships, local churches, and across the United Methodist connection as we keep making the journey of following Jesus. Cause love is a long road, and we need to be in better shape than we are now if we hope to make a journey that ends with the words "well done, good and faithful servant".   

All the while, please join me in praying that's while it's late... maybe VERY late, it's not too late for a new season of vitality for the people we call Methodists. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015


(This is a rough edit of the eulogy for Jon Andrews)

As we conclude this service I just have a couple of thoughts I want to add. Promise not to keep you much longer. Just wanted to leave you with this...

First and foremost, I want to thank this community for all the ways they've come together. All the Shawnee students who have been praying, taking time to visit, light a candle, let loose a balloon, write a #6 on their wrist, wear red, leave memorial flowers at the soccer field..... I know that you have been a tremendous blessing to the Andrews family during this most difficult week.

And all the students from the area high schools who have shown their support... wow! All I can say is wow! The pictures of students at LCC, Lima Senior, Wapak, Bath, Elida, other WBL school, and schools from all over wearing red in Jon's honor... you have no idea what that's meant. The teams that came last night. The football team on it's way to O-G. The Shawnee soccer team dressed to the nines last night. All the area high school soccer teams who came in their jerseys yesterday evening. The swimmers... there were literally hundreds of swimmers, coaches, and officials from all over the region who came to pay their respects. Thank you all.

Thank you to the administration - Superintendent Lamb and Principle Cox - faculty, guidance counselors, and staff at Shawnee. Thank you for leading this school with a grace grounded in love for your students. 

Thank you to all the clergy and church staff in the community. Thank you to Pastor Shane Crites of Shawnee Alliance Church, who as Chaplain to our "First Responders" tended to these brave heroes, as well as those grieving last Sunday night. Thank you to Angie Soules, Director of Life Teen, the youth ministry for the area Catholic churches for all the work you've done with students this week. For Father Dave Ross and Father Steve Blum and their good work and support. Thank you to those first responders, as well as the West Ohio Crisis Team who worked with the Mental Health Board to come serve the students and staff. 

Thank you to all the parents... all the adults. to any adult who has done anything to help or comfort others,  the family, I know, appreciates everything all you have done during this most trying, difficult week. 

And just to take a moment of personal privilege, I just want to thank this congregation I serve. I have the most amazing staff. All they wanted to do was help in any way they could. And our lay pastors and all our servants... I'm so thankful to all of you. You proved to me once again that "Serve Like Jesus" isn't just a tagline or hashtag at Shawnee United Methodist Church. I want to personally thank all of you. 

Once again, thank you, everyone, for everything you have been doing, especially praying, so Shawnee could stand strong, and show the Andrews how much their family, and in particular, Jon, meant to you. You have truly loved your neighbor, and served as the hands and feet of Jesus.

I hope that covered all the thank you's. If I missed someone, my apologizes.

As I sat down to put this together, there was only one question I had on my mind. Why? Why are we here today, mourning the loss of Jon Andrews?

I mean he was gifted in a multitude of ways. He was a good student. he had good grades. He understood the material. He was known to help other students with their studies. 

He was a gifted athlete. You heard Coach Quatman. He was a leader on the soccer field who fought for every possession. A captain of the team. And did you see the pile of swimming medals out there in the hallway? Even as a little kid swimming for Sherwood Jon just cut through the water. He was fun to watch. A tremendous athlete. 

He was well-rounded. As a hunter, he bagged a buck the very first time he ever went deer hunting. His dad had to beg a pickup truck on the fly to go pick up a deer that by the time he arrived Jon had already skinned. The mounted duck you might have just seen in the hallway? Jon got it the first time he ever went duck hunting. It literally fell out of the sky into his uncle's arms. 

He loved wildlife. As a child he kept reptiles as pets. Snakes. Didn't make his mom too happy when she'd be folding his laundry in his bedroom and his pet ball python, would hang on the mirror and give her an unexpected jolt. I bet they could hear Julie scream all up and down Lochloman Way. Jonathon Scot Andrews!!! Put that snake away mister or there's gonna be trouble. Trouble! 

As an artist he had quite a flair. There's a whole table of pottery here that's Jon's. Pottery. That's a skill that takes years to master, and Jon's work, as a teen, is just outstanding. 


Certainly it wasn’t a lack of love from his family. Scot and Julie adored Jon, they’re youngest. They went to games and meets. They chuckled when they saw him, up early, reading the paper and drinking his coffee like a little old man. Jon’s parents loved him and did everything they could to help him. Everything. Stephen and Sarah got to enjoy their younger cute-but-annoying little brother turning into a great friend with whom they could have adventures… the stories of which someday they may have the courage to tell their parents.

 I think the family has a million Andrews and Greenes, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins upon cousins abounding. Plenty of dinners to enjoy together. Someone always stopping by. It’s a big boisterous, loving family who loved watching Jon grow up from a tiny ring bearer to a handsome homecoming date.  

It wasn't from a lack of friends. Certainly he had a tight circle of good friends, but I can't count all the stories I’ve heard this week of people who said Jon helped them with this, or Jon did that with them. You were either this friend, or if you saw him walking down the hall or across the field or driving his beloved truck, you wanted to be his friend.

He had a great sense of humor. He wasn't above the occasional practical joke. Whether it was an escalating TP war with a friend,or eluding the township 5-0 during an evening of hijinks with friends in Indian Brook he was up for some fun. On the first night, for example, he and Avery went out he brought her to his home, asked her to stay in the kitchen and be absolutely quiet. In the next room was his mother, so he rounded the corner.

"Hey mom, I'm home. I finally got rid of that Avery Shirk girl."
"Jon, what was wrong with Avery?"
"Oh, I don't know, she just talks too much. She's really annoying."
"Well, I thought she was sweet."
"That's a good thing, cause she's here and standing just around the corner. Aren't you glad you didn't call her a witch?"

Yeah, he really did that. He could make you laugh.

And he wasn't one to give up. Jon wasn't a quitter. His dad remembered a baseball game when Jon was little. A 3rd grader pitching to 5th and 6th graders, and he was just getting shelled. Eventually little Jon put his glove up over his face began to cry. So Scot went to mound to see if he was OK, and since there weren't any more pitchers, he asked him if he could grind it out. And he did until he got out of the inning.

Jon could grind it out. He was grinding it out.

So, why? 

Have you ever been lost? I remember - maybe my earliest surviving memory - when I was a really little kid, three years old, our family moved to Charleston, West Virginia from Columbus. My parents were helping get all the stuff moved into the house with the movers, and I wandered off. Soon I realized that I had no idea where I was. I started to scream and cry, thinking I’d never see my parents again. 

Now, I was standing at the end of our driveway, about 50 feet away from the house. I wasn’t actually lost, but I thought I was. Feeling lost is terrible.

All of us, from time to time, feel lost.  We struggle to make sense of this world we live in, with all it's complexities. Life can often scare us. It’s hard, difficult, chaotic... and we're supposed to be able to make sense of it... 
crack the code... 
figure out the answer... 
not burden others with our problems. 

And when we can't, it's exhausting. It's humiliating. It's defeating, and we forget that we are a precious child of God. We believe lies that echoing in our head, that if we said them out loud to others who know and love us, would be rebuked. 

This is not a rational, understandable, predictable world we live in. It is beautiful and it is broken, just as we are beautiful and broken. Broken even as the world's brokenness is thrust upon us. 

Why are we here today? Because life is difficult, doesn't come with a clear-cut road map, and we get lost. And being lost is no fun. In fact it's terrifying. Lost leaves you scared and angry and frustrated.

Which is why I love Jesus. The One who seeks the lost. The One who'll leave the ninety-nine to go find the one out in the wilderness. I mean, that's the point of John 14. Not even death, apparently, keeps Jesus from seeking us out, seeking out the lost. 

I am coming to you, to take you to my Father's house, to a place I've especially prepared for you. And if you've experienced the love and grace that is mine, that is at the heart of why all things have been made, then you will know my voice, and you will know you're home. 

I wish, with all my heart, that the love and grace Jon Andrews was so capable of extending to others, the love and grace of Jesus that is at the heart of all created things, he could have extended to himself.  

Love and grace greater than all our sin. Greater than all our flaws. The love and grace which binds us together as a community. Love and which seeks to serve first, and judge later. 

When Jesus came seeking Jon, that love and grace washed over him like rolling waters of a flowing stream, and he knew it was his. It always was his, It always will be his. It’s just hard, from time to time, to figure that out on this side of paradise. 

So as we prepare to leave this place, to rebuke the darkness, to chase away the chaos, to crucify the lie that we are no more than our shortcomings, we must engage in practicing love and grace to one another. Love and grace which allows for honesty among us in the community. Love and grace which allows us to admit our flaws and seek those willing to walk the journey with us. Imperfections and all. Love and grace which rebukes the tempter, who seeks to deceive us into believing we are isolated and alone. Rebukes the author of lies, who would seek to distract us from the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who has come to bring us peace.

Whatever the demons are that haunt us, that haunt our homes and our families, let us seek to make earth more like heaven, like we pray in the Lord's prayer, and confess our shortcomings, our sins, so as we find the Lord's forgiveness as we forgive each other. It is in that divine forgiveness we might find new ways to defeat the tempter, and be delivered from evil that would deceive us into falsely believing that we deserve to feel isolated and lost.

May the grace and love of the Living God rain down on this community. May it rain down as you tell others that you love them. May it rain down as we step out of a feeling of helplessness and ask others for help. May it rain down in our willingness to listen. May it rain down as we embrace the gifts of those who are skilled healers, as we continue to pray for healing. And may it rain down as we understand that if we are to love our neighbor as yourselves as an expression of our love for God, that fundamentally we need to love ourselves. Flawed, mortal, imperfect, and yet still capable of being loved. 

And may grace and love rain down on Scot, Julie, Stephen, and Sarah in the form of our continued prayer and concern. May it rain down as we refuse to let one dark moment define the life and meaning of Jon Andrews as we remember his friendship, his gifts, his humor, and love he had for others. 

May you find hope in the Risen Christ, who nails our sins to the tree standing on Calvary, so that we may rise again as new people, ready to overcome evil with good.

Amen and amen.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Bill Croy - Three Personal Memories

It's growing late, but I can't sleep. A good friend of mine, Bill Croy, died today after a long, hard 4 1/2 year battle with ALS. So, if you don't mind, as a means of simultaneously paying tribute and clearing my head, I'd like to share some memories (actually, three) with the world. Hopefully they'll make you smile, and maybe understand what a great guy Bill Croy was.

First, a little background. I met Bill as a kid who moved to Lima, Ohio at the age of 10. My parents attended Trinity largely because 1) my mom could sing for her high school choir director (Ron Richards), 2) my Dad's boss (Henry Hollinger) invited us to come check the church out, and 3) at the time they had the reputation of having best children and youth program in the city. That last one was all thanks to Bill's leadership as he was the Associate Pastor of Christian Education.

Bill left either at the end of my eighth or ninth grade year (I really don't remember), but as a United Methodist Elder ordained in 1995, I was able to stay in touch with him. I got the gift of not only having him as a pastor, but then a mentor, and ultimately a great friend.

In any event, here are three (of many) memories I have of Bill.

Memory One: Death By Green Bus

Bill taught my confirmation class, and let me tell you it was a doozy. I can't recall every single classmate, but I remember the class was somewhat large (17 or 18 of us I believe), and we were a handful. I just remember Bill always looked much older after spending an event with us than he did before. We really made him appreciate High School ministry.

This was never more true than on our confirmation class trip to Dayton. Bill was a proud alum of United Theological Seminary and he liked to take the confirmation classes there to see where the United Methodist church minted fresh pastors. As a part of the day we also visited a UM-related mission and an urban UM congregation. We wrapped up the day swimming at a YMCA and returned home.

This was the early eighties - or as I like to think of it, the era of the "boom box". Just so happened that Jeff Gluck and I owned identical Panasonic boom boxes, and we could be link them in tandem using stereo jack cords. We called our paired tandem the "Wall of Sound", and it was loud, man.

I mean really, really loud.

So we spent that day on an old school bus painted dark, forest green (hence the nickname, "The Green Pickle") with Bill at the front driving and seventeen of us listening to the Wall of Sound pound out songs from the J Geils Band as far in the back as we could sit. I don't know how many times Bill had to listen to Freeze Frame, Centerfold, or Piss On The Wall that day, but they had to be many. It was his own personal Highway to Hell (which probably got played once or twice also).

So we go all the places we're supposed to go, including the Y where a bunch of clueless 13 year old boys were ogling the 13 year old girls. I'm sure inappropriate things were said and done all day (as is generally the case regarding 13 year old boys) and after getting yelled at by Bill many, many times, we finally headed back to Lima.

Along about Troy, Ohio was the point the bus quit. Centerfold pounding out of the Wall of Sound above the din of a bunch of teenagers cackling at one another, and the bus just dies. And all I can remember, was Bill, looking in that big mirror above the windshield so he could see us, and hearing him shout,

"Turn that damn radio off!" Only time I ever heard him cuss.

And I remember, distinctly, thinking that maybe (just maybe) his job, which meant he got to hang out with the likes of us all day, was not exactly always "rewarding". It even, occasionally, might have - in the vernacular of that day - "sucked".

I thought about that moment on the side of I-75 in Troy often over the years. I thought about it while stuck in a van with a bunch of teenagers on a 15 hour drive to the deep south. I thought about it while I was in an office with a parishioner who was chewing me a new orifice for something I said in a sermon. I thought about it the night I arranged for police to bust a pot dealer working the parking lot outside our youth meeting (true story... happened in Goshen). I thought about it again and again and again.

I've thought about that moment a lot, and all I can say is that I can't ever claim I didn't know what I was getting into when I chose to do this ministry gig. Horny teenagers blasting terrible pop music on unreliable ancient school buses, or even worse. Much worse. That's probably why when I told Bill I was thinking about the ministry, he encouraged me to think twice, or maybe go to law school first.

Ministry isn't for sissies. Bill Croy was as tough as they came.

Memory Two: Thinking Differently

I wasn't happy when I left Shawnee for Epworth in 1997. It wasn't that I didn't need a change of scenery. As my wife reminds me now, I was pretty restless my last year at Shawnee, and most likely was itching for a new challenge. It's just they moved me over my own objection. I mean after I told my DS, L. Cean Wilson, "no" to a move, she took my wife out for dinner and based on that conversation decided we need to go elsewhere.

Has that happened to any of you Elders out there? I'm guessing not.

So I went to Epworth feeling very torn about the itinerate system and whether or not I belonged in it. As a result, my 18 months in Toledo were an unsettling time. I chafed at being in a "high steeple" church. My wife was a high school band director who worked 90 hours a week, so since we never saw each other, our marriage was strained. We bought this house that should have been condemned in the Old West End, with neither the money, time, nor expertise to restore it, so it looked like the British had bombed the inside of it until the day we sold it (to a guy who advertised "I Buy Houses" on the back of a city bus). It was a tough time, and I was in a poor frame of mind to handle it.

But one good thing about my Epworth experience was that my approach to ministry began changing for the better. After replicating at Shawnee the youth ministry I remember Bill Croy leading at Trinity - which was kind of a "one man show" - I found myself at a church with a slew of adults willing to help with pretty much anything that had to be done. At first, to be honest, I just didn't know what to do with them. I was so used to pulling things together with not much more than spit, a ball of twine, and a Rubik's Cube, that I remember the leader of those volunteer adults - Bob Knowles (who is now the youth director at Epworth) - getting rather angry at me for not sharing more responsibility. I mean, here they finally had a lot of kids (which I guess, hadn't been the case right before I arrived) but the goofy youth director was still just kinda winging it, week to week. I just didn't know any other  way.

So, I called Bill, and that's when he explained to me that at Worthington as an associate he had led ministry with a far different philosophy than at Trinity. He talked about the need for fostering relationships between adult leaders and students, and crafting an environment where those relationships could succeed. He gave me a sketch of what empowering servant leaders looked like, and to everyone's relief I started implement this strategy at Epworth.

I didn't realize the full scope and effectiveness of empowering adult leaders in youth ministry until my five year stretch at Goshen First. That's when I was able to witness what good ministry work could happen when 22 adult volunteers and a couple of underpaid college interns could focus on discipling hundreds of teenagers. Admittedly, I'd love to figure out how to do this more effectively with adults discipling adults. It's really the only way to do ministry well by centering it on Jesus, and not your own personality and talent.

All that to say that Bill was a great pastor, but inside of that he was one of the best strategic thinkers I ever came in contact with. Can't tell you how many times over the years I gave Bill a call to pick his brain, and how more often than not, the guidance he gave was spot on.

He was really good at what he did, and he loved sharing that experience with the rest of us.

Memory 3: Living Down Your Past Life

For those who don't know, in 2004 I returned to Shawnee as an associate, with the chance (not a promise, but a chance) of becoming the next Senior Pastor. It's kind of a long story as to how this came to pass, but the short version is this: Churches with long-term pastors (15 years or longer) tend not to do so well after they leave. I actually did the numbers on this historically in a few UM conferences, and they were just downright scary. Statistically, most successors to a long term pastor don't last more than two years. If they aren't named as interims, they become de-facto interims.

Given that my predecessor was an exceptionally charismatic leader but not as strong systems creator, the powers-that-be in the West Ohio Conference were greatly concerned about what was going to happen to Shawnee after he left. That's where I came in. The cabinet and the senior pastor liked that I had a history at this church, but had also served as an associate at two other churches that were much larger than Shawnee. I had seen how that sausage was made so the hope was I'd get Shawnee off the plateau it had been on (around 400 in worship) for years and years. Even though I'd never been "the big kahuna" I'd seen a couple of them in action.

Having a past history at a church, I discovered though, is a mixed bag. When you're younger you make a lot of mistakes, some of which are pretty memorable, or worse, legendary. Legends take on lives of their own, and after eight years gone, a few of mine had taken on Paul Bunyan-esqe proportions. By the time I left Shawnee I was neither as reckless, nor disorganized as the legends recalled me to be, but that didn't matter. In the minds of many, I was still just a kid out of a college finding my way, as opposed to a married-father-of-two-sons who had just had a distinguished stint at what was one of only a couple of UM teaching churches in the midwest.

In any event, among staff and laity both, I found this was a significant barrier I had to get over both before, and after the transition. But, like most everything else I'd encountered in ministry up to that point, Bill had already gone through this professionally. In 1993, he'd been re-appointed to Trinity as the Senior Pastor, about eight years after leaving there as an associate. So I leaned on him pretty heavy to find out what he had learned in his experience. There's been more than one phone call, email, text, or PM that was made between Bill and I as I looked for advice as to how get out from under the shadow of not just my predecessor, but also myself.

Even after he got sick, I kept looking to Bill for guidance. And Bill kept looking out for me. Not too long ago he saw something I posted on Facebook, and PM'ed me to find out if I was OK. He's dying of ALS, and he wants to know if I'm OK.

Bill was a rock. He was solid. Pastor, mentor, teacher, and friend.... he was great.

And so, with a good many other stories left untold (not the least of which involved Croy sticking me in a cabin as the counselor to this son, Jeremy... he did that with a twinkle in his eye), a number of epic battles on the basketball court left to recount (on days we had off from school I'd always call him about using the gym at Trinity to run a game or two, and I learned he always said yes if I let it drop that I was bringing an odd number of guys and we'd need him to run as our 8th guy for 4-on-4), and much, much respect, I gotta wrap this up.

Grace, peace, and love to his lovely wife, Dort, his kids, Jeremy and Megan, and all his family who I know he loved with all his heart. My heart breaks for you all.

Godspeed, my friend. I'm gonna miss you. See you on the other side of the river, in the place where there is no darkness. May you rejoice this day as you find the place prepared for you at our Father's House.