3 Reasons Why Itinerancy is an Idea Whose Time Has Come…and Gone #UMC

asbury horse

Bishop Asbury struggling with his horse, courstesy Asbury Seminary. What if Asbury is the UMC and the horse is itinerancy?

Here are three reasons why the itinerancy (the United Methodist system of deploying clergy) should go.

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today.  Originally, itinerancy emerged in a context where a large number of laity were being served by too few clergy.  Then, itinerancy strengthened the ministry of the laity, as preachers served a “circuit,” only visiting local parishes semi-regularly.  In their absence, a strong system of lay leadership maintained and grew Methodist communities.  The situation is now the opposite: the church has come to be a support network for a large number of clergy to hold down jobs, and lay leadership has suffered.  The Order of Elders functions more as a guild or union to protect clergy rather than a covenant community deployed for God’s mission.  What remains of itinerancy today is at best a husk; I daresay neither Wesley or Asbury would recognize much of the machine we call “itinerancy.”

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men.  Itinerancy, as conceived by the early Methodists, was not designed to be a system for anything but single men.  Preachers who wanted to have families were “located,” that is, taken off of the circuit.  Itinerancy has not evolved to handle the realities of female clergy, clergy families, or clergy couples; despite the excellent service many of these clergy render, they are still considered a burden to a system that thus rewards men, unmarried clergy and clergy whose spouses do not work outside of the home.  Oh, and it’s (still) a system that rewards white men in particular.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service.  The UMC is coming around to something that many other denominations and church networks have already figured out: longer appointments are better for churches and for clergy.  The old standard – a 3 or 4 year term – is now recognized as the bare minimum amount of time a pastor generally needs to start earning trust and be able to lead serious change.  Some conferences are now telling their clergy not to even request a move until 4 or 5 years in.  Yes, John Wesley did argue, “We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best.”  With all do regards to our denominational progenitor, we have found by longer experience that this is no longer the case.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing sacred about itinerancy, as best as I can tell.  It is an organizational habit that is no longer effective; like a post for tying up horses, it is frontier architecture to which the United Methodist Church of the 21st century has no need to retain.  That is not to say itinerancy is without any merit; Joel Watts raises an excellent point that itinerancy serves as a safeguard against cults of personality (a danger any alternative system would have to attend to, as well).  But there are plenty of communions that avoid this danger absent the itinerancy.  All in all, I think the picture above sums up itinerancy nicely: represented by the horse, itinerancy is a system designed before both cars and trains, which was effective for a time, but which is now a burden to accomplishing our mission.*

But What Alternative?

For more on this conversation, and what an alternative might look like, I recommend you check out the discussion on the latest episode of the WesleyCast, available here (and even if you aren’t interested in the itinerancy discussion, listen for the interview with Duke Divinity School’s Warren Smith).

*As I am not familiar with the realities on the ground outside of the US, I am open to suggestion as whether this is still an effective system for clergy deployment in other areas of the Connection.  The last thing we need is the US dictating policy to the rest of the world in yet another area.

Sanctification After Brené Brown

gifts of imperfection“There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offense than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them.”

-John Wesley, Sermon 40, “Christian Perfection”

“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect.”

-Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

A problem: I believe in the biblical, ancient view that salvation involves a radical transformation of character by the power of the Holy Spirit, a process named theosis by some and sanctification by others.  I also count myself a fan of sociologist and author Brené Brown.  This is particularly problematic because Wesleyan Christians (Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, etc.) believe that sanctification can be “entire,” or, as Wesley himself put it, that Christian Perfection is not only attainable in this life but is God’s will for all people.  But if Brown is correct that “perfectionism” is not not only a bad idea, but an addictive attitude that is immensely harmful, what do we do with the cherished Christian teaching that our goal and calling is to become like God?

Of course I realize that Dr. Brown’s research is secular in nature, and that her books are usually found in the section of the bookstore labelled “self-improvement” – a genre into which far too many preachers thoughtlessly venture.  I do believe, however, that it behooves those of us in the Wesleyan (and broader Christian) family to assess her work in light of our most sacred teachings, not just because of her popularity, but because Christians committed to authentic community and spiritual vitality cannot ignore either the classic teachings about holiness or Brown’s research into shame, vulnerability, and perfectionism.  Wesley himself was a voracious reader of the latest science of his day, and I believe he would appreciate the effort to bring Christian teaching into conversation with cutting-edge research.

An ancient Eastern dictum states the Biblical case succinctly: “God became human so that humans could become God.”  Many Christians today focus so much on justification (forgiveness, pardon), that sanctification is an afterthought at best.  But full-orbed Christian thinkers do otherwise, including prominent evangelicals such as C.S. Lewis:

“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command….The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.” (Mere Christianity)

To be sure, this is a noble ideal, a beautiful picture of what full salvation can look like.  But what do we do with this if we’ve read Brown or (along with millions of others) watched one of her TED Talks?  She is blunt about trying to be perfect.  “Where perfectionism exists,” says Professor Brown, “shame is always lurking.”

Christian Perfection via Wesley is not about shame, but love.

Christian Perfection via Wesley is not about shame, but love.

Wesley holds the answer. Sanctification, even the language of entire sanctification or perfection, is too biblical to simply let go of it.  Were the Church only to promote doctrines which were immediately accessible and palatable to anyone and everyone, we would soon be left with a banal non-starter like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or worse, instead of the faith once and for all delivered.  As Wesley says,

“We may not, therefore, lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God, and not of man. But we may and ought to explain the meaning of them…”

Wesley goes on to do just that in Sermon 40.  Christian Perfection is not a kind of angelic or gnostic state, free from error or temptation.  For Wesley, it is a perfection in love, in which our tempers, our habits of heart are fully conformed to God. “Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations,” says Wesley.  He adds, “Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.”  And what Christian would say we should not strive for holiness?

Likewise, while Brown rejections “perfectionism,” this does not mean she rejects a holistic vision of betterment.  She clarifies the difference thus:

  • “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame….”

  • “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.  Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports)….we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.  Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – what will they think?”

So for Brown, there is a drive for improvement that is healthy, but short of “perfectionism.”  For Wesley, similarly, Christian perfection is not a mistake-free state that seeks to guard against disappointing others.  We would say that Christian perfection is other-focused, not on other people but on the One who is Wholly Other.  Viewed within the larger framework of Wesley’s teaching on grace, we can also add that this focus on God is not in search of approval (for prevenient grace already means God has reached out to us in love and compassion).  Sanctification viewed as Wesley intended and, I believe, in a manner that Brown would recognize as healthy is about striving to respond to God’s perfect, amazing, radical love in kind.

To conclude, Christian perfection or entire sanctification, thus rightly ordered, ought not to drive the perfectionism from which Brené Brown rightly seeks us to steer.  A church which teaches and prays for theosis is doing nothing more or less than equipping God’s people to be what God has declared them already in Christ: saints.  Event the most sanctified among us will not be “perfect,” at least in the usual sense of the term.  But they will have hearts renewed after the Image of God,  restored to the Love they were made to receive and to share.  As Charles Wesley envisioned it, this is a beautiful vision of

A heart in every thought renewed

and full of love divine,

perfect and right and pure and good,

a copy, Lord, of thine.

Source: Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center: Hazelden 2010), 55-57.

The Quadrilateral or the Word of God?

Portrait of John Wesley with his most favorite of books.

Portrait of John Wesley with his most favorite of books.

“My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.”

-John Wesley

In too many UMC conversations, from worship to trustee meetings to bake sales, the Bible is little more than window dressing.  Rather than living under the authority of God’s Word, we use it for our own ends.  We piously reference Scripture, tacking it on to the end of this or that, when in truth neither this nor that have been informed by God or God’s story preserved in Scripture.  At our best, Christians live in, through, and by the narrative of God’s self-gift in Christ.  At our worst, we twist the story to make it serve our own purposes.  The Bible is used to justify war, poverty, wealth, homophobia, abortion, quietism, and every other sin or vice imaginable.  But, as Raneiro Cantalamessa suggests, our efforts to tame the text ultimately stand under the judgment of their Author:

“The Word of God revolts against being reduced to ideology. Ideology is what is left once the current from the Word of God has been cut off, once the word has been unplugged from the transcendent and personal reality of God, so that it is no longer the Word disposing of me and leading me where it chooses but I who am disposing of it and leading it where I choose. God will not tolerate his almighty Word being used to garnish a speech for this occasion or that, nor to cloak with divine authority speeches already composed and entirely human. In recent times we have seen where such tendency can lead. The gospel has been exploited in support of every kind of human project, from class war to the death of God. But this is all old hat…the gospel has been bent this way and that to say whatever happened to be socially fashionable at any given period.”

In United Methodist circles, it can be argued that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral has contributed to this ‘bending’ of the gospel over the last several decades.  Opinions vary as to whether Outler’s construct was defunct from the beginning or misunderstood and misapplied, but the results are the same: Scripture, despite efforts to re-narrate the Quadrilateral to the contrary, has become just one of four implicitly equal sources from which we can draw on for theological truth.

The result is rather like what we’ve seen in the The Episcopal Church: though our official liturgies and doctrinal standards speak in accord with the Church across time and space about the Triunity of God and the centrality of Christ, it is quite possible that the presiding clergy and any number of congregants may actually be worshiping the Giant Spaghetti Monster.  God becomes whatever and wherever one finds meaning, and the only dogma recognized is that all dogma is stifling and harmful.  This is not how Wesley, the “man of one book,” did it.  His approach was much closer to what Cantalamessa, the official preacher to the Papal household, suggests:

“When dealing with the Church’s doctrinal and disciplinary problems, therefore, we need bravely to start out more often from the Word of God, especially as revealed in the New Testament, and stay bound to it, chained to it, certain that in this way we shall much more surely achieve our purpose, which is, in any question, to discover where the will of God lies.”

For too many, the Quadrilateral has meant (maybe) starting with Scripture and then going to to something a bit more flexible or likable.  Cantalamessa, though, invites us to consider the radical alternative: treating God’s Word as God’s Word.  We have traded true freedom for a bondage to our own fancies.  Only in binding ourselves to Scripture are we truly free to hear, discern, and live out God’s will.

Source: Cantalamessa, Raneiro. The Mystery of God’s Word (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press 1994), 49-50.

Is Sprinkling the Best Way to Baptize?

dropsHere in the Bible Belt, sacramental Christians sometimes feel like the nerdy kid on the playground when it comes to explaining our practices of baptism.  In many Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational congregations, baptism is only done “like John the Baptist did it.” That means getting dunked like an early morning cruller in hot coffee. For many in my part of the world, baptism means one thing: immersion.

United Methodists actually aren’t against immersion (which is a common misconception).  We are people of the via media, after all, and we simply recognize that God’s grace, rather than the amount of water, is the most important agent of baptism.  Our official church teaching on baptism states,

“In United Methodist tradition, the water of baptism may be administered by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. However it is administered, water should be utilized with enough generosity to enhance our appreciation of its symbolic meanings.”

A “generosity” of water is encouraged, not because it makes the baptism more legitimate, but because it suggests symbolically what we proclaim in the liturgy: that God’s grace is abundant, free, and there is plenty to go around.  Thus, even when sprinkling, I will pour a large amount of water into the font, as noisily as possible.  I run my hands through the water for emphasis.  Sacraments rely on the reality of the Incarnation, after all, and best experienced through as many senses as possible.  But the effectiveness of the sacrament does not rely on getting as much of that water onto the newly minted Christian as possible.  In fact, God seems to relish in working powerfully through the small, the inferior, the minute, and the insufficient.  Consider:

  • Hebrew families are spared the death of their firstborn sons in Egypt by the blood of the lamb painted over their doorways.
  • Israel is sustained in the wilderness by manna, a heavenly bread, but they are only allowed to keep enough for each day, not store it in CostCo-sized jars.
  • Jesus feeds thousands with just a loaf of bread and two small fish.
  • Jesus compares both the faith that moves mountains and the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. (They are tiny.)

God, it seems, can do a lot with a little.

Hence the logic of baptism by sprinkling.  Because it is water that has been touched the Spirit which hovered over the waters at creation and over the Jordan at Jesus’ baptism as a dove, the amount is irrelevant.  Just a few drops are enough to make a Christian.  For Hebrew men, all that separated them from the covenant community was a little bit of skin.  For us, it is a little bit of water and some prayers.

We live in a consumer culture that constantly stresses more, and larger, and greater.  Why get the V-6 when the V-8 goes so much faster?  Surely you need the 50″ flatscreen because your 46″ has already become boring and your neighbors have a 56″!  Why settle for a standard cheeseburger when you can get two or three patties?

In such a world, I can think of few better witnesses to Kingdom of God than making a new Christian with just a few drops of water.  By sprinkling, the pilgrim church on earth dares to say that death and resurrection, new birth, and covenant identity in Christ Jesus can all be granted by the smallest of gifts from God’s abundant storehouse of grace.

Just a few droplets leave an indelible mark that cannot be removed.  Luther points out the power of sprinkled grace in his Large Catechism:

“Therefore our Baptism abides forever; and even though some one should fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access thereto, that we may again subdue the old man.  But we need not again be sprinkled with water; for though we were put under the water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism, although the operation and signification continue and remain.”

St. Paul told us, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, that “faith, hope, and love abide” but “the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)  One of the chief ways that these three, and chiefly God’s love, abide in us throughout our lives is by the gift of baptism.

All the more amazing, then, that God’s grace can mark, claim, save, and sustain us with only a few sprinkled drops.  In that sense, baptism by sprinkling is not just one of several “good” options.  Might it be that, of all the possible modes, baptism by sprinkling tells the good news (“gospel”) of God’s grace better than any other?

Infant Baptism: God’s Gift


My daughters, Auden and Amelia, at their baptism.

On Sunday, December 7, as Bishop John Schol sprinkled water on the heads of my twin girls, Auden and Amelia, they were named as God’s own. Through an indescribable and unfathomable gift of grace, my girls were “initiated into Christ’s holy Church, incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation, and given new birth through water and the Spirit.”* It was a beautiful, holy moment.

I grew up in a tradition that does not baptize babies. Baptism is understood as an ordinance; not a sacrament, and something only for those who can understand and choose for themselves. This is typically called “believer’s baptism.” One of the primary distinguishing features between an ordinance and a sacrament is the primary actor. Who is taking the initiative? In an ordinance, the individual is the prime mover; the baptismal ordinance is an individual’s response to God’s activity. A sacrament, however, posits that God takes the action. God loves us, calls us by name, and embraces us before we can know or understand it. And let’s be honest: if any of us had to wait to receive baptism until we really understood it, most of us would still be dry. This is why prevenient grace is so clearly integral to our baptismal liturgy: it is in the Invitation and Welcome, the Thanksgiving over the Water, the Commendation and Welcome into the Body of Christ. It’s the grace greater than our understanding.

John Wesley articulated and defended infant baptism in his work “Treatise on Baptism” (you can find that here; it begins on page 225). He offered support for the practice in several ways, addressing Jesus’ welcome of children and the practice of infant baptism by the Apostles and in the early church.  However, perhaps his most persuasive and nuanced argument was his understanding of covenant. He pointed to the necessary inclusion of infants in the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17 and St. Paul’s linking of circumcision and baptism, namely in Galatians and Colossians. After all, under the Abrahamic covenant, infants were admitted into the covenant through circumcision. Wesley said, “Infants are capable of entering into covenant with God. As they always were, so they still are, under the evangelical covenant. Therefore they have a right to baptism, which is now the entering seal thereof.” The covenant made available through Jesus Christ — the “evangelical covenant,” to use Wesley’s phrase — is all grace. It is something God has done for us; we need not demand certain criteria such as age, understanding, or family status, to be welcomed into it.

At the same time, my wife Amanda and I, along with all those who witnessed the baptism that day, have a significant part to play in Auden and Amelia’s growth in grace. We all promised to raise them in the life of faith and to nurture that in them, until they are able to publicly profess the faith for themselves. As Amanda and I made vows to live our faith that our children may in time live out theirs, I felt the weight of this responsibility. To put an ecclesial spin on a cliched phrase, “it takes a church” to live into baptismal vows. Covenant means we who have received this sacramental gift from God are in this journey together, and it is a journey that will only bear fruit if its roots drink deeply from the generous source of Living Water.

The following is the blessing in our baptismal covenant that the presider offers after the commendation and congregational welcome:

The God of all grace,
who has called us to eternal glory in Christ,
establish you and strengthen you
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
that you may live in grace and peace.

May it be so. Amen.

* Click here to access our United Methodist baptismal liturgies.

Photo by Aaron Harrington.

Abortion Is Not Funny

social principles

Let me put my cards on the table. I agree 100% with the official United Methodist stance on abortion. You can read the full text here, but let me highlight some of the most important aspects of our official stance:

Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.

But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.

We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We support parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics.

Two things jump out at me almost immediately when I read these excerpts:

  1. We believe in the sanctity of unborn human life.
  2. Our approval of abortion is intrinsically connected to the concern for the mother.

We even go on to say that “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control.” The answer behind 92% of women surveyed in 2004 about why they were getting an abortion was birth control. The United Methodist Church is not a blanket “pro-choice” denomination. We allow for abortion in extreme circumstances with which most pro-life people would agree.

So when the Director of Civil and Human Rights at the General Board of Church and Society decides to be funny on a day filled with emotions around the issue of abortion, it makes me upset. His apology is that it was meant to be a joke, but i don’t know if that makes it any better. Is this an issue to be humorous about?

Maybe I should reveal another card. I don’t think abortion is funny because my wife and I cannot have biological children; so, we have been foster/adoptive parents for two years. We have seen unwanted children; we want them to know that they are wanted. There is nothing funny about unwanted children. Thousands of children are in the system today because they are unwanted, but there is a growing number of us who want these children to know that they are loved and that they are wanted. Everyone I know who is a foster/adoptive parent would tell you that they are pro-life. We put our money where our mouth is every single day. We believe that all babies and children need and deserve a loving home. They should be allowed civil and human rights too! We can never affirm abortion as a means of birth control.

Want to know something really ironic? People who are foster/adoptive parents are Republicans and Democrats, Christian and non-Christian, gay and straight, rich and poor, black and white. We became foster/adoptive parents thanks to a lesbian couple who were members of my church. Being pro-life is an issue for many us foster/adoptive parents that bridges a lot of different divides that we have in the church today.

And nothing about abortion is funny.

Baptism: A Gift Remembered (But Never Repeated)

baptism water

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

For much of my life growing up, I attended a Southern Baptist school.  Though I was baptized United Methodist and we had faithfully attended a UM church in my earliest years, my parents sent me to an SBC school for middle and high school.  For much of this time, mostly because of my parents’ work, we did not attend church regularly.  That makes the next fact all the more interesting.  My parents could have saved a lot of money on my education had we been members of the church to which my school was attached.  A LOT of money.  But we never joined.  We thought about it, but never could pull the trigger.

For me, a major part of my lack of interest in joining that baptist church is that I would have to be re-baptized (and dunked, of course, because baptist water has such a small amount of grace that it takes a whole tub).  Mind you, I had no sacramental theology of which to speak at this time.  I simply knew that I had been baptized, and I felt their insistence that I be re-baptized to join their congregation was deeply wrong.  It was an instinct, a powerful instinct, more than a conscious thought.

Later, I would learn that historically Christians do not re-baptize, but instead recognize “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” as we have at least since the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was adopted in the 4th century.  As the title of Stookey’s excellent book on baptism underscores, baptism is Christ’s Act in the Church.  Because it is a gift that the Triune God shares in God’s holy church, to repeat it would be to insult the One who hovered over the waters to make us new creatures.  In short, it would suggest that Christ’s work was ineffective, or that he went back on his promise.

One of the worship practices I greatly appreciate in the United Methodist tradition is the remembrance of baptism, in which the congregation is invited to touch water that has been prayed over and recall God’s claim upon them.  This is done often, though not exclusively, on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, commonly known as Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Perhaps I appreciate this so much because I am a forgetful person.  I am, in the words of my favorite hymn, “prone to wander…prone to leave the God I love.”  And so it helps, now and again, to center down, to come back to the natal waters, and remember that God’s claim upon me is more powerful than my spiritual dementia.

Baptism is never repeated, but it is to be remembered, to be claimed.  Like a tattoo or a branding iron, God’s mark does not go away.  But it can dull or fade over time, and when that happens, a few drops is enough to wake us up, to jerk us back to reality, to bring us back to that strange and wonderful river of grace that makes us Christ’s own.

When Agreeing to Disagree Fails

Sometimes we just see things differently. Can we have a unified front anyway? Image courtesy bryanridgley.com.

Sometimes we just see things differently. Can we have a unified front anyway? Image courtesy bryanridgley.com.

My wife is in the leadership of the Junior League. She often goes to meetings to discuss the future of the organization, leadership, upcoming changes to the league, and the mission of the league. I remember one year she had to go to a lot of these meetings because they were discussing changing the entire structure of the league. She would mention to me that the discussions went back and forth for the year. Should we change? Should we not change? They brought in consultants and analysts. They read reports. They studied other organizations that had made the change. They studied other organizations that hadn’t made the change. Finally it came time for a vote. I remember the vote night because their leadership meeting started at 6 and she didn’t get home till late that night. This was going to be a highly charged issue so I was sure there was going to be a lot of debate on both sides. Some of the league wanted to change others in the league wanted to stay the same. My guess is that those in leadership probably felt the same way. When she got home that night I asked her how the vote went. She told me that the league had voted to make the change. Knowing some of the situation, I asked her how close the vote was. She told me, “Oh the vote was unanimous to make the change!” I thought there was no way that vote was unanimous with that much debate over this issue. Then she revealed something to me that has stuck. She said,

“Whatever the vote is it is unanimous because all of us in the room realize that the league’s mission is bigger than any of us.”

When the leaders return to the league, they all agree to support the outcome…no matter how they feel about it. Because they have all agreed that the league’s mission is bigger than any one person.

On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope on the 5th ballot of the conclave. Four complete ballots were burned with no papal election. This means among the 115 Cardinals voting there was no clear frontrunner. Speculation didn’t have Cardinal Bergoglio in the top 5 Papabile, but after his election as Pope Francis every one of those 115 Cardinals support him as Pope. Can you imagine the impact to the church if one or more of the Cardinals started going around the world proclaiming they don’t support the pope because they didn’t vote for him? All of the Cardinals see the church as much bigger than any one of them. So whether their person got elected or not they offer loyalty and respect to Pope Francis.

What would happen if Ford announced they had a breakthrough with gasoline engines that would allow cars to double there mpg and they were going to commit to this new thing and give up all their old designs? If the Ford dealerships hated the new designs and said they weren’t going to sell them no matter how great the technology, was it would never work.

Too often, a leadership team has done the research, analyzed the situation, invested their time into figuring out the plan, and come up with a solution only to have it fail because there is dissension from the beginning. Think about the way our government works functions right now. Instead of working together to come up with the best solution for everyone, we work together to come up with our solution for everyone. Then we blame the other side when our solution fails.

The problem comes from us not having a common understanding of what our mission actually is.

Is it social justice? Is it professions of faith? Is it membership? Is it attendance? Is it worship? Is it Sunday school? Is it mission trips? Is it outreach? Is it being the prophetic voice? Is it discipleship? I believe the church has read 1 Corinthians 9:22 too literally. We want to be this and this and this and this. We want to be high church and low church. We want to be mainline and evangelical. We want to be sacramental and non-sacramental. We want to be Baptists and Episcopalians. We want to be big and small. We try to do all these things, but in the end they just become another thing we add on top of what we already do. There ends up being very little focus on what our mission actually is; instead, we end up endlessly debating who we are.

After the Junior League implemented the changes, the emphasis was renewed on sticking to what their mission already is: impacting the lives of women and children in the area. They made some people very upset because they ruthlessly cut programs that they had done for years because they didn’t meet the mission of the league. They cut popular programs because they didn’t meet the mission. Every single thing they did was analyzed to see if it was something did because of their mission, and they were willing to sacrifice every single thing that didn’t. The league and its mission was more important than any one person no matter who they were.

The two things I have learned from all of this are:

  1. There has to be crystal clear agreement about your mission. Everyone must agree that this is who we are and what we are about. There is no room for disagreement when it comes to the mission.
  2. There has to be a willingness on the part of everyone in the church to commit to the mission of the church even when their idea is not the one that is chosen. The vote is always unanimous.

“Those Kinds of Christians” (Guest Post by Rev. Brian Morse)

"They will know you are my disciples if you have disdain for one another," said Jesus never.

“They will know you are my disciples if you have disdain for one another,” said Jesus never.

We conclude 2014 with a personal reflection from Rev. Brian Morse, whose story reminds us how important it is to love Jesus more than we love being the ‘right’ kind of Christians. Brian is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  He serves as Director of Spiritual Care for Truman Medical Centers-Lakewood, in Kansas City, MO.  He lives in his hometown of Independence, MO, and loves to sing and play the guitar.  

A few weeks ago, I was reading the Via Media Methodists Facebook page. I saw this post:  “If you despise ‘those kinds of Christians’ more than you love Christ, we have a problem.”  This post triggered a memory in me, so I posted the following response:  “It took years of intentional work, but I am free. For years, I recognized that I hated (I called it “passion”) fundamentalists more than I loved the Gospel. God freed my heart.” I was pleasantly surprised when a curator for Via Media Methodists contacted me, requesting that I expand my story. I accepted, and what follows is the expansion.

I was raised in a small Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I deeply loved God, Christ, and Church. In fact, I felt called into ordained ministry at the age of 16, but resisted until I was in my 30’s. During college, I stopped attending church, and began to have doubts about the faith.

In my twenties, I found myself yearning to return to Christianity, but I had trust issues.  My home congregation had called a fundamentalist to serve as their minister.  When I say that this fellow was a fundamentalist, I’m not talking about a person who is doctrinally and politically conservative. I’m talking about a walking and talking stereotype for all things fundamentalist. His version of the Gospel was ham-handed and cartoonish. He sickened me. To be frank, I hated him, although I would never have said that at the time. I felt as if he had betrayed the faith.

I felt ready to abandon Christianity, when I read Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism by John Shelby Spong.  He communicated exactly what I needed to hear at that time.  It wasn’t just his content that resonated with me; his tone was important to me as well.  He was angry, and so was I!

Jump ahead a few years. I’m now safely in a wonderful, liberal seminary. I recall the evening when I had the following epiphany.  I was meditating in my student apartment, when I realized that I had a deeper passion against fundamentalism than I did for the Gospel.  I wanted to believe that my feelings were those of “righteous anger”, but I knew that this was not true; at least, it wasn’t true for me. I was confronted with the fact that I felt hatred in my heart, and I knew this had to change.

How do we differentiate righteous anger from hatred?  St. Paul puts this problem to us in Ephesians 4:26-27: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil”.  Demonic imagery is appropriate. When we find ourselves seething with rage, it feels as if a wicked sentient being is taking control of our consciousness.

One way to discern between righteous anger and hatred is to observe external behavior.  After all, one can be filled with intense feelings of despising someone and still outwardly behave in loving ways. This is an important skill, but it doesn’t address the intense power of the inner experience.

To understand the inner world, we must spend some time in self-awareness exercises. We must set aside time to detach and observe. Intentional moments of detached observation are necessary for sharpened clarity. With this increased clarity, we will be able to discern between righteous anger and hatred.

I’ve discovered that righteous anger leads you to clarity of values, and increased energy, but hatred eats a person up. Hatred drains energy and muddles clarity. Hatred hurts me and you, hurts those we love, and hampers mission.

Every person who is committed to loving and following Jesus Christ will experience righteous anger. There is much to be angry about. This is why it is important to set aside intentional time to detach emotionally, and to observe our inner world.  We need to explore our most intense emotions.  There is always clarity to be found there.

For Christians, and for all who strive to be more loving, we must put in the effort to discern if our feelings are toxic or life affirming.

The reason that I share my story is because there is much hatred in today’s Church, and this hatred is fueled by leaders claiming to have a passion.  I am convinced that deep soul searching and honesty is needed.   I leave you with these words from Jesus, to us, his disciples:  “…By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Sharing Means Caring, Part I: Holiness is Not Just for the Conservatives

Viola and Mina Sharing Food, courtesy Kathy Simon.

Viola and Mina Share Food, courtesy Kathy Simon.

When did holiness become something that only conservative United Methodists talk, preach, and write about?  In both our early British days and our American frontier period, the Methodist movement was known for taking seriously Wesley’s call to “spread Scriptural holiness” across the land.  For Wesley, holiness was not something optional, it was not an agenda for a particular group, it was the Christian’s calling.  In his famous house analogy about salvation, repentance is the porch, justification is the doorway, but sanctification – the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” – is the house itself.  Holiness, the restoration of the Divine Image, was for Wesley the point of it all.

My amateur historian’s guess at the demise of holiness as a broad consensus for the faith, practice, and focus of the church would be the rise of Sunday School in the early 20th century.  As Methodism gained prominence in the US throughout the 19th century, there was a pressure to assimilate to the emerging Mainline Protestant consensus.  We stopped requiring small groups thus transitioned from a soteriological focus to a pedagogical one.  In many of our churches the only sense of holiness that remained, if at all, was some version of social holiness.  Two things are important here, however.

First, the artificial division of personal and social holiness is not from Wesley, who always spoke of the two together, indivisible.  Secondly, this falsely divided vision of holiness was then combined with a too-uncritical appropriation of Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, and thus eventually even a Wesleyan social holiness was overtaken by a theologically bankrupt and anemic idea of social justice.  Add to that the desire of many Mainline Methodists to differentiate themselves from the fundamentalists, who began to roar about this time, and you have a perfect recipe for a near-total loss of holiness from all but the most conservative corners of Methodism (it didn’t help, of course, that the Nazarenes and Wesleyans split off over holiness matters).

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis’ classic take on the basics of the faith, he argues for holiness as the purpose of the church in a way that should ring familiar to those of us in Wesley’s family tree:

“…the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

There will be no vibrant Wesleyan movement in the future unless we rediscover, ad fontes, the classically Methodist insistence that holiness leaves no corner of personal or communal life untouched.  As Lewis says elsewhere in Mere Christianity, we may want God to only renovate one room, but He aims to give us the full treatment.

This teaching is too important to be left to the conservatives, who too easily make holiness a legalistic rather than holistic endeavor.  Some conservative UMs talk like the Southern Baptists I left behind (pun intended) many years ago.  But there is more, much more, to holiness than not drinking, smoking, and dancing (in fact, these often go quite well together).  On a more relevant note, holiness is not just about sexuality, either.

Holiness means pausing to call BS on the consumerism of what the world calls Christmas, and we name Advent. It means hospitality to the stranger, whether the stranger is rich or poor, gay or straight, male or female, African-American, Latino, Asian, or Caucasian.  Holiness demands justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry, and it means trying to put the ax to every form of pride we find buried in our inflated egos.  In short, holiness is not, and never has been about a conservative, progressive, or moderate agenda.  Holiness in its myriad forms is about God is making all things new, including us, which means it is too powerful, too beautiful, to be the possession of any one group within the church.

It’s time to stop allowing holiness to be the property only of the conservatives.

What do you think? Can this be done?

Stay tuned for future posts in this series:

Sharing Means Caring Part II: Prophetic Witness is Not Just for the Progressives

Sharing Means Caring Part III: Moderation is Not Just for the Moderates