Wednesday, April 30, 2008

General Conference- April 30

I looked at some of the news wrap ups last night after I published my rather lengthy rant on the General Conference's lack of action on the ordination process. While my central argument remains the same: that more substantive action is needed now and delaying another four years will only hurt us, I want to acknowledge a couple things in the interest of fairness on the issue.

First of all, it is true that the Study on Ministry Commission asked for another four years to study the plethora of issues facing it. These are complex questions and I think a continual study on the issue is a good thing. But it's also true that the Commission made a number of recommendations that could have reasonably been acted upon by this General Conference and not put off for another four years (I'll address one of them below). With an issue as crucial to the life and identity of the church as the meaning and structure of ordination there will always be more questions to consider no matter how many years we study it. The fact that not every issue is resolved does not absolve us of the responsibility to take at least a few steps toward fixing a very broken system.

I have seen one petition that may be voted on that changes some of the language in the Discipline by renaming "Commissioned Probationary Ministers" as  "Provisional Ministers". As it currently stands, one is commissioned as a probationary Elder or Deacon, serves at least three years in said capacity, and is then fully ordained and admitted into full conference membership. I like the change from "probationary" to "provisional" because it softens the language and makes it seem, on the surface at least, less adversarial. In John Wesley's day new preachers were "on trial", so we're making progress. The language still does not show the level of care that our brothers and sisters in other denominations do, who use language like "in discernment", "postulancy", or "under care", but progress is progress.

I feel this General Conference can go one step further in making the ordination process seem much less cumbersome and adversarial. The perception of what the process is is a major problem, so one of the recommendations of the Study on Ministry Commission would achieve a change in perception and retain the oversight and accountability that supporters of the current system value.

This proposal, which was put forth in several petitions to the 2008 General Conference, but was rejected by the legislative committee, separated ordination from full conference membership. In the case of Elders, full conference membership is important because Elders itenerate and are guaranteed a full time appointment. This proposal would have Elders and Deacons be ordained at the time of what is now commissioning, while keeping the three year residency process so that the minister can demonstrate their fitness to have the tenure that comes with full conference membership. As it exists now, the tenure aspect overshadows the spiritual component of ordination. Rather than a celebration of one's gifts and graces for ministry, and an affirmation of their calling, getting ordained is more like a graduation or an initiation where the person is just glad that the hard work or hazing has come to an end. If ordination if a communal affirmation of an individual's God given gifts and a beginning point to their ministry, then ordination must, of necessity come an the inauguration of one's ministry, not three or five years into it.

I believe that this General Conference can and should move ordination to the time of commissioning, keeping the three year residency process intact before full conference membership. This would retain the structures of oversight and accountability necessary to ensure effective ministry by the ordained, and revitalizing the spiritual aspect of ordination by not muddying it up with the tenure that comes with full conference membership. This would help make ministry in the United Methodist Church much more attractive to prospective candidates because it would celebrate the spiritual aspects of ordination and make the process seem less cumbersome and adversarial. There are still a few days left and there is time for the delegates to change their minds. I pray that they do so.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

General Conference- April 29

OK, let me clear one thing up first. In my previous post I talked about a hypothetical situation in which I could justify denying church membership to a person who served in the military under a recent Judicial Council decision interpreting part of the Book of Discipline. I would never actually do such a thing for a plethora of reasons. I love and support people in the military, even though I disagree with certain decisions that are made by their superiors. It was only an example to show how stupid said action of the Judicial Council was. At least one person misunderstood me, although I'm not entirely sure they didn't deliberately misinterpret what I wrote. But I digress.

I've been tracking the progress of legislation through the different committees because I know there are some things that won't get covered in the news blurbs that come from the journalists at the Conference each day. Not because they're trying to hide anything, of course (if they were why would they put the progress of legislation on the web?). There's just so many topics to cover that they can't all get the full treatment.

One of the big issues that is before the General Conference is the current state of the ordination process. As it stands now it takes the better part of a decade to become a fully ordained Deacon or Elder. The 2004 General Conference commissioned a Study on Ministry Commission to evaluate the current process and make recommendations for improving it. Dozens of very gifted people devoted countless hours to this project, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent, and a very thorough report was produced with some very clear and reasonable recommendations. 

So what did the 2008 General Conference do with all this hard work? They chose to extend the Study on Ministry Commission for another four years and not take the risk of changing anything.

The process of ordination is one of the most critical issues facing the United Methodist Church today. I'm rather biased, of course, because I'm in the middle of the process, so take my analysis with the appropriate grain of salt. But I can't tell you how many people I've met over the last few years who have found the process so cumbersome and adversarial that they have chosen to drop out and pursue their calling elsewhere, or have taken one look and said "no thanks" altogether. In a time when we face rapidly declining membership and an ever growing shortage of clergy to serve churches (I haven't had a conversation with my District Superintendent where he hasn't lamented how hard it is to fill every pulpit), it is completely irresponsible for the General Conference, which is the only body that can make changes to the Book of Discipline, to put off making any decisions for another four years just because some people might not be happy about it. 

We cannot afford another four years of gifted people choosing to pursue their callings elsewhere while our membership declines and our clergy age. The General Conference has a few more days ahead of it, and it is not too late to make the courageous choice to deal with the problem now rather than let someone else deal with it later. Such delaying tactics are currently being employed in regard to other issues as well. The question of whether to reorganize the United States into a Central Conference, thus putting non-US conferences on a level playing field with ones in the US, and the ever present question of whether to fully include persons of differing sexual orientations in the life of the church are receiving the same silent treatment.

Not making a decision is itself a choice. It says loudly and clearly that either we feel the problem in question is not serious enough for us to face right now, or that we do not have the courage to deal with these issues just because they are controversial. I feel that the UMC is sending the latter message. The Church of Jesus Christ is called to be courageous, not to be popular. I fear that if we continue to delay and equivocate we will be failing our millions of members, and even worse, failing to live into the calling that our God has placed before us. It is not too late. I pray that the delegates to the 2008 General Conference will have the courage to face these issues now and not do further damage by delaying.

General Conference- April 28

One very positive development at General Conference is giving me some hope. The slate of delegates for the Judicial Council (the United Methodist version of the Supreme Court) approved by the Council of Bishops and ratified by the GC delegates (again, kind of like the President nominating judges and being voted on by Congress) are a much more moderate group than has been elected to the JC in recent years. In the past four years the Judicial Council has been populated with people who lean toward the extreme conservative end of the UM spectrum, and as such have produced a number of disappointing and frankly unjust decisions. 

Chief among these unfortunate decisions was the case of a Virginia pastor who refused to admit a man as a member of his congregation for the sole reason that the man in question was homosexual. The pastor was disciplined by his Annual Conference, but the decision was reversed by the Judicial Council, citing the paragraph in the Book of Discipline where it says that pastors are charged to make sure people are adequately prepared for membership. This interpretation basically opens the doors for me as a pastor to refuse membership to anybody who I deem unfit for pretty much any reason I want, no matter how small the disagreement.

For example, I believe very strongly that Christianity is against violence in all of its forms, including war. So according to the Judicial Council, I could refuse membership to someone who is in the military because they could be called upon to serve in a war and possibly have to commit acts of violence against another one of God's children. Aside from being an extremely unpopular choice in Clarksville (Ft. Campbell, a huge Army base, is right next door), I would be sending the message that to be a part of the church you have to get all your opinions straight. I would be saying that the church is a place for those who have already achieved perfection, rather than a place for those who are mutually seeking perfection together.

I hope that this decision will be reversed by the new Judicial Council. Electing JC members is a proscribed duty of the General Conference, so I'm glad they made a good decision when they were forced to make one. There are a number of other important decisions that the GC seems to be postponing, but that will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, April 28, 2008

General Conference- April 27

Sunday at General Conference a couple of important issues were discussed.

The body voted to create a task force to examine the issue of global climate change and to prepare recommendations on how local churches can reduce their negative impact on the environment. I hope that in four years when these recommendations are presented that local churches will take them seriously. Even if the problem is not as bad as Al Gore and others say it is, it's clear that humans do have a negative impact on our climate, and these will help us be better stewards of God's creation.

Bishop Minerva Carcano of the Desert Southwest Conference (Phoenix Area) gave a sermon at one of the worship services in which she reminded us that the call of the church to serve the poor and marginalized included undocumented workers here in the United States (others prefer the more pejorative term "illegal immigrants").  We may disagree on how the current immigration problem needs to be handled, but I hope we can all agree that those that are here illegally are still human beings and deserve to have enough food to eat, shelter, and adequate medical care. Hopefully we can see those as human rights and not just privileges enjoyed by citizens of this country.

Finally, a number of prominent figures from the Civil Rights Movement, including James Lawson (who is an absolute legend at Vanderbilt Divinity School), spoke out on the issue of full inclusion in the United Methodist Church. Currently people whose sexual orientation (something we do not choose) is not hetero are prohibited from serving as clergy, and in many churches are even denied membership. Lawson and other leaders said that this practice constituted heterosexism and was as grave a sin as the racist practices that used to be legal. The rally marked the fortieth anniversary of the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction, which kept black and white churches and clergy separate from one another regardless of geographic proximity.

I hope that the fact that people are speaking out on these important issues fosters a healthy dialogue amongst the delegates instead of causing them to retreat into their partisan camps to only trade soundbites with one another. We've already seen some evidence of the latter with the free cell phone incident. Let's hope that's the last of it and that we can all speak openly and honestly with one another.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

General Conference- April 26

The first few days of General Conference were carefully scripted and intended to put the UMC's best foot forward. It didn't take long, however, for underhanded partisanship to rear its ugly head.

It was discovered yesterday that a group known as the "Renewal and Reform Coalition" has been offering the use of free cell phones to delegates from African, Asian, and Philippine conferences, as well as inviting them to "informational gatherings" where they will be instructed on how to vote on certain issues.

The "Renewal and Reform Coalition" is one of those groups that has chosen a seemingly harmless name, kind of like the "Family Research Council" or the "Institute for Freedom and Democracy" to avoid being upfront about their conservative agenda.  Say what you want about groups like "Reconciling Ministries" and "Mosaic", but they are upfront about their agenda and stance on particular issues. Perhaps we'd be able to have a more open and honest dialogue about the real issues at and if we quit pretending we weren't divided on them.

What's even worse about this is it seems like the "Renewal and Reform Coalition" have read Rudyard Kipling a few too many times and feel a sense of "white man's burden" to instruct people from the two-third's world on how to vote, as if they couldn't make up their own minds for themselves.

It's time to stop this underhanded garbage, put away our bags of tricks, and sit down together and speak openly and honestly about the issues. I hope this will be the last incident of this type at General Conference, but only time will tell.

General Conference- April 25

The most notable thing about General Conference today was the first ever "Young People's Address". There is already an Episcopal Address from a member of the Council of Bishops and a Laity Address from a lay person. At the last GC a new section of the General Board of Discipleship was created to focus on Young People's Ministry, specifically young adults between college age and their thirties. This is a demographic that is largely missing from the UMC, so to show the denomination's commitment, the 2004 GC decided to have this address as part of the 2008 GC.

The Young People's Address came from six speakers- five of them young adults and one a young clergy person that works with young adults. They were all very impressive. I didn't have their public speaking skills when I was in high school or college. One in particular, Matt Lockett, had a couple of quotes that really stood out: 

It is time for us to set aside the fear of not being in control, and the ounce of comfort that comes with pretending to be righteous.” 

Will the church even exist if all we do is talk about the future without acting?

What was not said explicitly in any of the Young People's Addresses, but I'd like to think was implied, was that while young people want to be a part of the church, they want to be able to make it their own. They don't just want to copy the way their parents and grandparents did it. There will be some of those elements that were handed down, of course, but they want to make church uniquely their own. This can be scary because it means that older generations will have to give up some control and get used to the fact that things might not look the same as they always have during their lifetimes. But just because it looks different doesn't mean it's not real. The same Spirit that brought thousands into the Church on the day of Pentecost still calls and drives people of every generation to follow Jesus and live out the Kingdom of God in their own way.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

General Conference- April 24

General Conference got underway yesterday, most of the day being devoted to orientation and organization, so there was not much in the way of controversial issues being discussed. The legislative committees begin their work this evening, so we will begin to get a sense of how this GC will play out.

Two notable things about yesterday were aspects of the opening worship. The communion table, and many of the other furnishings and elements used during the worship, were crafted from elements taken from areas that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Since the General Conference is taking place in Ft. Worth, they are only a few hundred miles from areas that are still struggling to recover, their efforts remaining sorely underfunded. I hope this will be a reminder to the General Conference that one of the most important things we do as a denomination, and one of the things we seem to be best at, is mobilizing our resources to help clean up after disasters. As a denomination we have way too much bureaucracy and red tape, but the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is very good at getting resources where they need to be in a timely manner.

The other notable thing about yesterday was Bishop Huie's opening sermon, where she preached on the theme of Resurrection Hope. The past several GCs have been admittedly divisive, so those in charge of planning this year's GC put a lot of energy into encouraging the delegates to remain open, loving, and hopeful. One line from Bishop Huie's sermon interested/amused me: 

"Hope has become a 'marshmallow word'. It sounds soft. It looks sweet and appealing. Get it close to the fire, and hope melts off the stick and drips on the ground. ... Resurrection hope transforms lives and changes the future. Tonight, through us, the people of The United Methodist Church gather around this table filled with resurrection hope."

The line amused me because Bishop Huie is making a not so subtle reference to Barack Obama's frequent use of the word "hope". Perhaps she's a Hilary or McCain fan. But more likely she is preaching the very real truth that some words tend to lose their meaning when they get used a lot. Christians gather not with a general sense of hope, but with a hope that is grounded in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

A lot of people, myself included, approach this General Conference with a bit of dread because of the divisiveness and negativity that has come before it. But that does not necessarily mean that this GC will be the same. If the Resurrection, and the hope that it gives us, shows us anything, it is that what has come before does not define what will come in the future. With God all things are possible- even getting one thousand people from all over the world to set aside their partisan agendas and work together to build a better future for the United Methodist Church.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

General Conference Blogging

Today the UMC's quadrennial (every four years) General Conference begins. As an interested/concerned person in the UMC, I will be providing some daily commentary on this blog.

You can follow the news at

Also, if you are in the Clarksville, TN area, you can come to a daily gathering at Bethlehem UMC. Each day at 5pm we will gather in the sanctuary to discuss the day's events at GC, as well as pray for the delegates as they go about their work. All are welcome.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Finding Theology in "Desperate Housewives"

I can’t believe I’m writing this sentence, but there was some very good theology in this week’s episode of “Desperate Housewives”. This episode contained the typical “Housewives” fare, of course: secrets and deception, cheap sex jokes, dysfunctional relationships, and women over 40 showing way too much cleavage for most of our tastes. But one of the secondary story lines managed to sneak a valuable message about faith amongst the guilty pleasure that makes this show such a hit.

Lynette (played by Felicity Huffman) is the only character in this show I’d want to know in real life. Not only does she have a functional relationship with her significant other, but she actually manages to find healthy ways to deal with her problems. What such a character is doing on a prime time soap opera I have no idea, but I digress. Lynette grew up in a family that didn’t go to church, and she is one of the few residents of her neighborhood who doesn’t get dressed up and go out the door on Sunday mornings. But Lynette has been through a lot lately, having lost her hair in chemotherapy for breast cancer, and have witnessed a tornado wipe out half the neighborhood. As anyone facing these kinds of things might, Lynette has a few questions about God, so she seeks out her most religious (outwardly, at least) neighbor, Bree, and tags along to her Presbyterian church.

After what appears to have been an extremely long, boring sermon, Lynette stands up and raises her hand to ask a question, much to the chagrin of her friends and family. She didn’t grow up in church, after all, so she doesn’t know that you’re not supposed to do that. Bree later seeks out Lynette to set her straight. “Church isn’t a place for questions,” Bree explains, “it’s a place for answers.” This statement prompts Lynette to try the Catholic church instead, where presumably the priest is more open to questions, although I seriously doubt they’d stop the whole Mass just because someone had a question about the homily. Bree apologizes to her pastor later, only to find that he enjoyed the fact that someone cared more about understanding the sermon than about preserving decorum. “After all,” he says, “church is a place for questions, not just for answers.”

I loved this episode for a couple reasons. First of all it was nice to see a pastor on TV who was something other than a blithering idiot, a lecherous pervert, or a stodgy bulwark of the status quo. Also, I’d love it if people did what Lynette in my church. I’m much more interested in people understanding what the sermon is about than in preserving decorum or getting out on time, but for some reason we’ve developed a culture in the church, and perhaps in society at large, where maintaining the appearance of everything being nice and neat is more important than our struggle to really understand what is going on around us. I’m not sure why it is that we’re so afraid of asking questions. If someone comes to ask me a question about the sermon, they’ll usually preface it with, “I don't’ want to be disrespectful, but...”, not realizing that they’re paying the preacher the ultimate compliment by demonstrating that they were listening! Imagine that!

I’m not expecting next week’s episode of “Desperate Housewives” to have any theological value in the way this one did, but it was nice to see that even shows that can be as morally devoid as this one can have some heart from time to time. I guess it’s just proof that truth can be found anywhere.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Give God what is God's

“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give unto God what is God’s.”

So says Jesus in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels. This is one of the best known sayings of Jesus, even among those who rarely if ever crack open a Bible. And let’s be honest, it’s one of the most overused proof texts ever. This verse has been used to justify Christian non-involvement in political issues, the idea of total non-participation in “secular” society, the idea that one should never question governmental authorities, and to justify labeling certain brands of right wing politics as “Christian”. I’m sure the same kind of loose proof texting has been used by those on the political left, too. I’ve just never encountered it myself.

I’ve commented on the intersection of religion and politics on a number of different occasions (they were my two undergraduate majors, after all), but the reason I’ve been thinking about it lately has been because of James Dobson, founder of “Focus on the Family”. Dobson is perhaps the last major voice of the first generation of the “Religious Right”. Jerry Falwell is dead, and Pat Robertson’s frequent outlandish comments have relegated him to practical obscurity. Recently Dobson went out of his way to continue his criticism of Sen. John McCain, who will be the Republican party’s Presidential candidate in the fall. Dobson said that he still wasn’t sure if McCain was a “true conservative”, and not so subtly implying that that massive voting bloc that he controls (whether this control is real or imagined and how big said bloc may be is up for debate, of course) may not support McCain in the general election. Dobson clearly fancies himself a king maker, or at the very least a major power broker in right wing politics.

Seeing people like Dobson make these kinds of comments makes me think of the Middle Ages when the popes gladly swung about their “two swords” (as defined by Augustine) of temporal and spiritual power. There’s a story about one particular pope (I can’t remember who at the moment) who got mad about something a European monarch did, so he excommunicated the king. The king, knowing darn well that he would be bound for Hell, if not in reality then at least in the minds of his subjects, realized he was defeated. The king proceeded to travel to the castle where the pope was staying and stand outside in the snow, barefoot, for several days before the pope agreed to absolve him of his sins and let him back in the church. While Protestants have no official means of excommunication, threatening to withhold votes from a politician is the most comparable weapon a religious leader can have today. But is having, let alone using, such a weapon really a good idea?

Religious leaders like James Dobson are committed, at least in theory, to doing the work of the Kingdom of God. Dobson believes that by following his teachings, people will be more in line with God’s will. In theory, this is “giving unto God what is God’s”- the hearts and minds of people. So how effective can one be in doing the work of the Kingdom when they’re so preoccupied with determining who gets to be Caesar? The Roman Emperor, the Caesar, was unquestionably the most powerful person in his time. Who holds such a position today if not the President of the United States? So forget about “giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”, some religious leaders are obsessed with the power to crown Caesar!

I like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s take on the intersection of religion and politics (we’re mourning the fortieth anniversary of his untimely death tomorrow, by the way): “the church should be neither the master of the state nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state”. Threatening to withhold a large bloc of votes seems to be an effort to be the master of the state. Unconditionally supporting a war and all the atrocities that come with it because Caesar claims the Christian faith seems to be acting as the servant of the state.

For us to be the conscience of the state we have to be engaged in what it is doing, but to be clear that our first loyalty is to God. This means more than allegiance to a particular political platform, no matter how many Bible verses we may be able to whip out to prove that it is the will of God. I’m not sure exactly what being the conscience of the state really looks like over the long term because I’m not sure that anyone has been able to sustain it for an extended period of time. So all that I can say is that when we find ourselves disagreeing with Caesar, not liking the direction our government is going, we need to identify ourselves as the loyal opposition. The concepts of loyalty and opposition aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are in tension with one another. So perhaps tension is the best way for us to be the conscience of the state: wanting the best for it and occasionally having to resort to some tough love. It’s not an easy job, but it’s one that is sorely needed.