Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Have We Come To?

Several days ago a clergy colleague announced that he was “honored to be a part of” the annual “Winter SolstiCelebration” that takes place in Dallas each year.  When I first saw the post on Facebook, I was a little taken aback, because I was under the impression that the Winter Solstice was a pagan festival, but I thought that perhaps this was simply a secular name for a winter program.  When I investigated, I discovered that the “Winter SolstiCelebration” was indeed a celebration of a pagan festival.  So I want to ask this question: When did it become okay for a United Methodist Clergyperson to take part in a pagan worship celebration?

I find it deeply troubling that a United Methodist Clergyperson would think that this is appropriate.  The only possible reason to be involved would be as a Christian presence, but the two songs that he is singing have no references to God, much less Christ.  The song that is being sung at the “energy climax” of this pagan festival says “I can find peace within the very heart of a song.”  I thought that as Christians we found peace in Jesus – see John 14:27. 

The theme of the Winter SolstiCelebration this year is “Our Human Journey” and asks the following questions:
Can we guide our evolving humanity?

What are our choices for the future?

Are we doomed to endless war, social injustice and environmental degradation?

Or, is it our epic destiny to live in peace with prosperity for all?

Join the journey to the
future we choose
at Winter SolstiCelebration.

The Bible is pretty specific about the problems of choosing our own future and about what happens when we try to guide our lives without reference to God (and by God I mean the God we know in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit).  At the end of the book of Judges, the people of God are in a horrible mess.  They have been involved in murder, rape, and fratricide; they have degenerated to the point where they no longer resemble the image of the holy God of Israel.  And the reason?  As it says in the last verse of Judges  (Jdg 21:25) “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  The New Testament has something to say about that as well in Romans:
Romans 1:21-25, 28-32  “ . . . though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.  22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools;  23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.  24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,  25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  . . .  28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,  30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,  31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  32 They know God's decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die-- yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.  

Far from solving the problems of war, social injustice and environmental degradation, this focus on making our own choices and guiding our own humanity, particularly in the context of “alternative spirituality” will lead to a further descent into misery.

In contrast, Jesus offers a vision of the reign of God that offers us hope and joy.  We learn from Jesus to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  We learn from Paul that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  How can we improve on this by “guiding our evolving humanity?”
The Winter SolstiCelebration is clearly and unapologetically a spiritual event that includes pagan, Wiccan, and Shamanic traditions.  I might be uncomfortable with one of my parishioners participating in this festival, but I would accept it and engage them in conversation about how these traditions differed from Christianity.  However as United Methodist Clergy we have covenanted to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as found in the Bible.  We do not have the freedom to engage in alternative religious practices, even as a musician.  We must be unapologetically and exclusively Christian and we can’t separate parts of our life.

I believe it is wrong for United Methodist Clergy to participate in pagan festivals.  I am writing this post because I think that silence implicitly condones such behavior.  I want to be clear that I do not and that I think we need to stand firm in our faith.  I call on other United Methodist Clergy to join me in saying no to alternative spirituality and to return to the gospel .  Paul said it well: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 
 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

In Christ,


Check out the following links and decide for yourself if this is an appropriate venue for a UM Clergyperson.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Didn't Get the Memo

 Evidently it is not possible to bring a resolution to the conference from the floor.  So it is up to the trusty blog to have a forum to make this suggestion.  I recently read Dr. Beth Cooper's new book, Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Sexual Harassment of United Methodist Clergywomen by Laity.  This book tells it like it is.  While my current congregation has not been a place of harassment, I and most other Clergywomen have experienced what Dr. Cooper speaks about in her book at one point or another in our ministry.  Judi and I had hoped to bring this to the conference to raise the awareness of the issue and to ask our colleagues to make this resolution to do a better job all over the conference of changing the culture in our churches to make them more welcoming to women clergy, not just because we want an easier life, but because this directly effects our ability to be effective and to reach the unchurched.

We ask those of you who read this to spread the word and work toward this goal with us.

Resolution to Enact a “Covenant for Zero Tolerance”
Whereas we of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church want to ensure that every person, clergy or laity, male or female is treated with dignity and respect, 
Whereas we have experienced and are aware that many female clergy have experienced harassing and disrespectful behavior by lay persons, 
Whereas we have seen and experienced laity being abusive, harassing and disrespectful of other laity,
Whereas both laity and clergy have felt frustrated and powerless to address these behaviors in the local church context,
Whereas we support itinerancy based on gifts and graces for ministry and not gender,
Whereas a number of congregations specifically ask that female pastors not be appointed to their congregation and are reluctant to work with these female pastors, regardless of their competency,
Whereas the Book of Discipline, in para. 605.8 calls for annual conferences to adopt a “comprehensive policy for handling sexual and gender harassment of clergy when laypersons are the perpetrators,” and we now have the resources to do so in the form of the Center for Leadership Development,
RESOLVED, to take a first step toward such a policy by enacting this “Covenant for Zero Tolerance” as modeled in Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Sexual Harassment of United Methodist Clergywomen by Laity, by Beth A. Cooper (137):
We, the lay and clergy leadership of the North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, covenant with each other to create a safety net within our Annual Conference for the care and nurture of all.
The United Methodist Church calls all persons to reject sexual misconduct, gender and sexual harassment and inappropriateness in every form toward any clergy, members, or any person. We do not tolerate gender or sexual harassment in any form: inappropriateness, sexual jokes and gestures, gender stereotyping comments, or refusal to accept leadership on account of gender.
We expect pastors, teachers, leaders, members and constituents in the church to model and teach appropriate behavior. We covenant to do no harm to others.
By this covenant we declare that we will not engage in sexual misconduct, child abuse, sexual or gender harassment, or behavior that undermines the Gospel and the ministries of The United Methodist Church.
We agree to develop similar covenants to be used in our churches.
We will also develop Church Conduct Policies on the model of the Policies found on pages 138-139.

As pastoral and lay leaders in our local congregations we further covenant together to raise awareness of these issues by the posting of this or similar covenants, by including both covenant and a church conduct policy in training for leaders, teachers, etc. and by our own examples of behavior.  We are confident that this will pave the way for the Center for Leadership as this office develops the policies mandated by the Discipline.
Respectfully submitted by Rev. Martha Vail Myre and Rev. Judith Sarkozy Brandt

Church Conduct Policy
Inappropriate Actions
Sexual harassment.
Any unwanted touch or sexual contact, gesture or innuendo.
Sexual misconduct, assault or rape.
Name calling.
Putdowns, insults, or bullying.
Threatening, manipulating, or intimating behavior.
Damaging property, stealing or harming persons.
Entering the pastor’s home without invitation.

Recognizing Inappropriate Words and Body Language
1.       When touch doesn’t feel good.
2.       When words are spoken with sexual meanings.
3.       When body language or words are threatening.
4.       When a person is singled out for sexual behavior.
5.       When people are shunned or ignored.
6.       When behavior impedes the work of a pastor or the church.
7.       When someone exposes private body parts.
Conduct Policy for Children
Our Safe Conduct Rules
1.       Don’t hurt anyone.
2.       Don’t call people names.
3.       Don’t hurt, destroy or take what belongs to someone else.
4.       Don’t insult people.
5.       Don’t say bad things about other people.
6.       Don’t follow people to make them afraid.
7.       Don’t go with strangers.
Tell a Safe Adult About a Problem
1.       If someone touches you and it doesn’t feel right.
2.       If you don’t feel good where you are.
3.       If what people say about you doesn’t feel right.
4.       If you are being bullied.
5.       If someone makes you feel ashamed.
6.       If someone makes you feel uncomfortable.
7.       If people ignore you.
8.       If you don’t feel safe.                  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Why I keep at small town ministry even with the challenges

In previous posts, I have talked about the difficulties in being a small church pastor particularly in town and country settings.  Just because there are difficulties, does not mean that I don't value this kind of ministry.  In fact, I value it greatly and want to see town and country churches thrive and grow.  I also want to see town and country pastors and their ministry taken seriously.  I don't think this kind of ministry is for everyone.  But it is for me. So, let me tell you why I think this is a great setting in which to do ministry. 

1.     In a small town, I can (in the spirit of John Wesley) consider the town my parish.  I can be involved in the community and have a positive effect on the whole community.  In a town our size (~1900), our 190 membership is 10% of the town!  More realistically, our average attendance is about 6% of the town.  In order to get that kind of percentage in a larger town of, say 100,000, a church would have to average 6000 in attendance.  We can have a “mega-influence” without being a “mega-church.”  When I go to football games, band concerts, park days, etc.  my presence has a real impact. 

The downside of this involvement is that it is hard to be anonymous.  Any pastor who is uncomfortable living in a “fishbowl” should probably stay away from small town ministry.  The gossips can get after you and it is difficult to avoid people who just don’t like you.

Overall, however, being a part of the community is a small town is a joy.  I love going to the grocery store or the gas station or the pharmacy and actually knowing the people there.   I love the sense of being a part of the whole community and not just a little snippet of it.  I love being able to have lunch for the whole graduating class in one location.  The connections and relationships that one is able to form in a small town are truly wonderful.

I would encourage small town pastors to take their towns as their parish.  You may not be preaching to thousands, but if your church is the community center where kids come for their end-of-semester programs and graduating seniors come for senior lunch and everybody comes to vote, then when those unchurched folk need a pastor, they will think of you and your church as the community church.

Along the same lines, I would encourage small town pastors to get to know the local funeral director and volunteer to do funerals for people who were not church members. This is a ministry that touches the unchurched in a deep way.  You will plant seeds that you will not see grow, but the kingdom will be enlarged. 

2.      As the pastor of a small church in a small town, I get to use a lot of different gifts for ministry.  A small town/small church pastor has to be a generalist; we don’t have large staffs and most of the people who we work with are either volunteers or part-time staff.  We have to write our sermons while dealing with hail-damaged roofs, broken toilets and attempted suicides.  We might be visiting hospitals one day and leading a bible study the next.  We don’t have an office manager, so when we go into the “big city” we pick up copy paper and ballpoint pens.  We need to be good at worship, teaching, counseling, administration, evangelism, social outreach, youth and children’s ministry and if we can coach Little League or lead a Cub Scout Den then we do that as well.  Some of us get on the town council or the school board.  Many of us are members of Rotary, Kiwanis or Lions Club and provide leadership for those organizations.  I have listened to pastors that don’t fit into small town ministry tell me that they are bored, or don’t have enough to do.  I can’t imagine!  In a small town, at a small church there is always something to do or people to talk to.  There are always needs that aren’t being met because people do not have access to extensive social services.  Ministry in a small town can be frustrating, but it is never boring!

3.     Small churches are places where young people – children and youth – are not the “church of tomorrow” but the church of today.  We provide real opportunities for involvement and ministry for young people, not because we are trying to be nice to them, but because we really need them.  We can’t have VBS without youth helpers, we wouldn’t have a Praise Band if it weren’t composed of youth, our youth are generally our audio-visual people, and our youth contribute substantially to our committees.  Even in churches where “we’ve never done it that way” is a mantra, youth or children can get away with making changes that the pastor or other adults could never make.   Many small congregations are simply so happy to see the young people in church, that they let them get away with innovations that would otherwise not fly.  Smart  small church pastors know that inviting youth to be a significant part of any new activity can make the difference between older people griping or celebrating.

Of course, this only works if you actually have young people in your congregation. 

4.      Some small congregations have had a succession of student pastors or pastors straight out of seminary, so they are much more open than you might think to creative and innovative worship.   This openness to creativity has its limits and permanent changes can be extremely difficult, but I have found that I can try a lot of things once.  The ability to try new things occasionally helps to keep me from getting stale in my worship planning and preaching. 

Most of the challenges in small town/small church ministry come from lack of resources, both people resources and financial resources. On the other hand, lack of obvious resources can provide a great incentive to helping people discover their gifts for ministry.  And there is a deep sense of satisfaction in watching talents, gifts and leadership develop in people that would be passed over in a mega-church setting.  What is needed from the pastor is a good deal of patience and investment in the lives of people – difficult if the conference is moving you every 3-4 years. 

When a small town church is healthy and the pastor has a long enough tenure, small churches are excellent incubators of disciples.  In a best-case scenario, a small church setting can be less threatening and more warmly supportive of people growing in their faith and discipleship than a large church.   This is what we need to work for.  We don’t have to work at doing ministry with the poor and marginalized because poor and rich, well-educated and uneducated, the town sheriff and the town drunk all worship together.  In a small church, if we are doing it right, we can accept people as they are and love them into being who God created them to be.  

Small town/small church settings have the potential for extraordinarily fulfilling and fruitful, hands-on ministry.  Instead of looking to close small churches, we need to help them see their possibilities.   Instead of telling pastors that they need to “do their time” or “pay their dues” in small churches and then will be moved “up” to a “better” appointment, we need to train and mentor pastors who see small town/small church ministry as a calling and a challenge.  We need to make sure that small town/small church pastors have solid grounding in theology and preaching; every pastor should prepare and  preach as if she were going to preach to 1500 instead of 50.  Because small town/small church pastors are more likely to engage the community than pastors at large churches, they need to have excellent skills in evangelism and apologetics, ready to give an account of their faith at any time.  And small town/small church pastors must be willing to live lives that embody the gospel and are above reproach. 

It's a tall order.  Small town/small church ministry is not place to stick incompetent pastors or pastors who are looking for an easy gig for the last few years before retirement, but a place to send those who are well-trained, well-formed in the faith and deeply committed to a highly relational long-term ministry. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The consequences of the appointive system

In my last post I said this: “We are appointed to a church, sometimes against the wishes of the congregation, who have no say in whether or not they want us – and therefore no investment in our success.”  This is a problem unique to the kind of appointive system that we have in the United Methodist Church.  In a call system, the pastor and the congregation have to mutually agree on working with each other.   On the upside, this means that both sides have an investment in the success of the pastor.  On the downside, when conflicts arise, the pastor can be ousted as quickly as he/she can be hired.

What are the consequences of having such a system and is there a better way?  We already have consultation in the United Methodist system, but the way we go about it is not entirely open and honest.  We ask both churches (SPR Committee) and pastors to fill out yearly profiles and state whether or not they think the appointment is working.  Usually the pastor sees the church profile filled out by the SPRC, or at least has access to it, so the pastor generally knows when the SPRC is requesting a new pastor.  However, the SPRC rarely sees the Pastor’s profile.  This means that the pastor can request a move, or at least be open to a move without the SPRC knowing.   This also allows the pastor to blame the cabinet for a move without taking responsibility for having wanted it.  

Once an appointment has been decided on by the cabinet, the pastor is told where he/she is going and is introduced to the SPRC.  Depending on the Bishop/Cabinet, the pastor may or may not be able to ask for reconsideration.  The church may or may not be able to ask for a different pastor.  Thus both sides may be wary of the new partnership, but neither can do anything about it.

What if the cabinet played the role of match-maker instead of appointment-maker?  What if both congregation and pastor were able to have greater say in finalizing the appointment? What if there were a trial period of 3-6 months in which both sides had the opportunity to say “Yes, this is working,” or “No this isn’t”?  What if we were paid by the conference instead of the congregation?  I understand this would be the end of the so-called “guaranteed” appointment system.  But the Bishops are pushing to do away with this anyway.

At the very least, we need for our District Superintendents to know enough about the congregations to let the pastors know what they are really going to be facing -both positive and negative.  Many of us are willing to take on a challenge if we know what the challenge is.   But often we are simply told “Preach good sermons and love the people.”  “These are people who love their church.”   The churches are told that this pastor is happy to serve them and is just what they need, whether this is true or not.  The congregation doesn’t get to know if the pastor has had problems at former churches or not.  And, with regard to Town and Country churches, not all pastors want to serve in this setting. None of this is the fault of the District Superintendents, or even the Bishop.  They have too many churches and too many pastors to oversee to be able to know them well.  

Yes, I agreed to this system when I was ordained.  Yes, I will abide by this system as long as I am an Elder in the United Methodist Church.  But this system, which worked extraordinarily well in a former time and culture, may not be the best way to operate now.  

I grieve for churches and pastors who are in mismatched partnerships.  I grieve for pastors who are having an uphill battle to establish themselves in a congregation that doesn’t want them.  I grieve for churches who have had to take pastors that have damaged every church they have served. 

Once again, all of this is what I perceive to be true about small churches, particularly in small towns.  Large churches have different dynamics and sometimes (not always) more control over who they receive.

I would love to hear what other options people think might work.  I have suggested a few. What else?