Changes

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Do any of you remember the David Bowie song “Changes” from his 1972 album “Hunky Dory”? I find myself singing the chorus of that song even as I type these words:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Gonna’ have to be a different man
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time

Changes rarely happen without some struggle. And yet, in spite of the challenges, the rhythms of transition are often where God accomplishes some of God’s most magnificent work.

I am finding evidence of change wherever I look these days. Changes in our denomination. Changes in the political climate of our country and the nature of our social discourse. Changes in the dynamics of our churches and the communities to which they are connected. Changes in how people think about spirituality and its ramifications.

Changes.

On a personal level, the changes are even more daunting. Effective July 1, I will become the District Superintendent of the Butler District in United Methodism’s Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I will be succeeding my current District Superintendent, Joel Garrett, who will retire on July 1 and whose creative ministry and trustworthy friendship have been a regular source of blessing in my life for the last 26 years.

My new appointment requires that I  say hello to a work I have done before. It also requires that I say goodbye to the work of serving as a Senior Pastor to a congregation I dearly love and admire.

Changes.

In the eyes of some, District Superintendents are little more than denominational bureaucrats who toe the party line, extend the episcopal office, put out ecclesiastical fires on occasion, manage the distribution and collection of paperwork, and show up for the yearly administrative dinosaur known as the church conference. Others conceptualize the District Superintendents as the backroom negotiators who shuffle around pastors in that inscrutable segment of United Methodist polity called the appointment system.

For me to be able to return to the role of District Superintendent with a sense of integrity and purpose, I must cultivate within myself a vision for the work that might carry me beyond the sinking sand of cynicism to a more dynamic spirit of hope. District Superintendents, at their best, can be attentive encouragers who hold pastors gently but firmly accountable for their ministry but who also allow themselves to be held gently but firmly accountable by their pastors and congregations. District Superintendents can be facilitators of authentic worship who dare to see worship as humankind’s only appropriate response to God’s majesty and who diligently create opportunities for their brothers and sisters on the district to connect with one another in the context of the communal adoration of God.

They can be relentless champions for outreach and mission who work with other visionaries to create opportunities for hands-on ministry beyond the walls of the church building. They can be sojourners who travel alongside the pastors and laity of their district, comforting the afflicted with gentle words, afflicting the “too comfortable” with prophetic words, and listening quietly when no words are necessary, all the while cultivating the kind of attentiveness that honors the integrity of those they superintend.

They can be enthusiastic practitioners of the spiritual disciplines, who pray for their pastors and churches, who study the Word and meditate upon its revelation, who preach the Gospel with passion, who fast for discernment (in order to remind themselves that they are hungrier for God than they are for food), who worship as though their lives depended on it, and who commit themselves to holy conferencing (both with the churches on their district and the Cabinet).

District Superintendents have a unique opportunity in a changing denomination to lead with simultaneous compassion and vision, so that their ministry is driven, not by a commitment to institutional maintenance, but by a fervent commitment to relational evangelism and missional innovation.

My emotions concerning this new appointment are deeply mixed because of my love for the people of Butler First Church with whom I have journeyed over the last five years as Senior Pastor. Granted, I will have the privilege of serving as this church’s District Superintendent, which is both a blessing and an honor. That relationship, however, is something different than serving as the church’s Senior Pastor. Another Senior Pastor will come and will lead with beautiful giftedness and inspiring integrity. Of this I am greatly confident. One of the strengths of our denomination’s system of polity, after all, is our perpetual discernment of how pastoral leaders can be best deployed and how churches can be best served. With great sadness, I will let go of the role of Senior Pastor. With great joy, I will become an ardent supporter and encourager of my successor.

Please pray for me. Pray for my wife, Tara, who is as unsettled by this transition as I am. Pray for the incredible souls at Butler First Church and for their new pastor (yet to be named). Pray for our Bishop and Cabinet as they engage in the messy and meaningful work of another appointment season. Pray for Joel and Debbie Garrett as they prepare for Joel’s retirement. Along the way, allow yourself to be completely undone by the holiness and hugeness of God amidst all the “ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” with which you might be confronted.

Bridge

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About a month ago, I woke up at 2:15 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I knew that it was going to be one of those nights–or mornings.  For some reason, in those restless moments, I was thinking about “The Bridge,” our new weekly worship experience that launches this Saturday, May 6, at 7:00 p.m. “The Bridge” is open to all, but it offers a particularly attentive welcome to those individuals and families that are currently accommodating the struggle of addiction or the journey of addiction recovery.

My mind was flooded with both deep concerns and desperate hopes in the hours of my sleeplessness.  “Will people support yet another worship experience in our church and in the city of Butler?  Have we rightly heard the voice of God on this?  How will we sustain this service for the long haul? Do we have what it takes? Do I have what it takes? Will God raise up a congregation that sees the urgency of gathering each week simply to sing praises and to pray and to declare that the Lordship of Jesus holds authority over the drug epidemic of our community? What about the adults and young people of our community who are feeling crushed by the burden of addiction? Will they dare to believe that a place like the the church has a loving and hopeful word that is specifically for them?” Questions. Lots of them. My mind was racing.

Realizing that a return to sleep was nowhere close, I quietly made my way into our basement and sat at the electronic keyboard that we keep there. (A piano or keyboard is often where I place myself when I am confronted with things that are difficult for me to process. I think it helps me to pray.) As I allowed my hands to play some seemingly random chords, a pattern developed.  Then a melody. Then a rhythm. Without really knowing what I was doing, I began to mumble these words to the music, quietly and clumsily: “Grant me serenity, to accept the things I cannot change.” When I paid attention to what I was mumbling, I realized that I was giving expression to what has come to be known as “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, “The Serenity Prayer” is still used by millions of recovering addicts and alcoholics as a spiritual doorway into prayerful surrender. In my sleeplessness, I was thinking about my addicted and recovering sisters and brothers and praying the same prayer that is so often upon their lips.

By 4:00 that morning, additional words started to form in my consciousness as I sat at the keyboard. By 5:10, I had an entire song. Songwriting does not often happen that quickly for me. That morning, it did.

So, as the launch of “The Bridge” draws near, it is on my heart to share with you a very rough version of the song that I wrote in those hours.  I recorded the song hastily this morning on my iPhone.  Please pardon the poor quality of the recording and my pitchiness. I felt a sense of urgency about sharing the song with you just as it is, even in its unfinished and unpolished state. A better recording will come in time.

I hope to teach this new song to the Bridge congregation this Saturday night at our first service. Perhaps it will will give to people a musical way to call to mind, not only a familiar prayer, but also the truth that Jesus is the most trustworthy bridge upon which a person can stand.

Thanks for listening. Here’s the song:

Bridge (words and music by Eric Park)

Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Grant me courage to change the things I can
Grant me wisdom to understand the difference
Grant me strength to stand upon that bridge

You’re the bridge that leads to holy ground
You’re the bridge for captive souls unbound
You’re the bridge across a wildly raging sea
You’re the bridge into a serenity

Grant us patience to live one day and then the next
Grant us mercy, that sins will be made clean
Grant redemption, that life will be as you intend
Grant us grace to travel on that bridge

You’re the bridge that leads to love that heals
You’re the bridge that holds what God reveals
You’re the bridge that sets a lonely prisoner free
You’re the bridge into eternity

It’s a bridge we know will never fall
Come and see, there’s room for one and all
We will hear the call and come to take our part
Jesus is the Bridge to God’s own heart
Jesus is the Bridge to God’s own heart

 

 

 

 

Opinions, Convictions, and Community

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It is an extended season of rancorous debate. In the surrounding culture, the tone of political conversation has a sense of frightening desperation about it. Even in the ecclesiastical world in which I live and breathe (United Methodism), the divisions in our church are often clearly and painfully illuminated.

As a follower of Jesus, I am interested, not only in the particular position that one holds on an issue, but also in the process by which he or she arrived at that position and, even more important, the way in which he or she engages with those on both sides of the issue.

I have long believed that arriving at a passionately held opinion is the least demanding portion of ethical discourse. Strong opinions, while they may involve a certain degree of deductive or inductive reasoning and sophisticated cognition, require no artistry, nuance, or relationship. They demand nothing more than an individual’s intellectual assent to an articulated position. Following the intellectual assent, the opinion often becomes as comfortable for its holder as rhythmic breathing—rarely contemplated, but regularly expressed.

Holding strong opinions is the easy part. Everyone can do it and normally does.

The real challenge of ethical discourse, however, involves the territory that surrounds the opinion. Has the opinion been reached in a manner that is intellectually holistic and experientially reinforced? Has the opinion been cultivated with a reasonable attentiveness to all of the available data and not simply the portions of data that reinforce our preexisting predilections? Has the opinion been liberated from the weight of rhetoric and tested with the scrutiny of an open and rigorous mind? And is the opinion held with the kind of flexible intellectual grip that permits illuminating engagement with differing viewpoints? These are the questions that lead one well beyond the simple speaking of one’s mind and into the undulating terrain of ethical contemplation and moral decision-making.

If one is a Christ-follower, the task becomes even more complex. Christianity’s narrative is one that is rich with seemingly absurd instructions: Do not simply speak the truth (or speak one’s mind), but “speak the truth IN LOVE” (Ephesians 4:15). Do not simply insist on a particular course of action, but reflect a spirit that is “not arrogant or rude…or irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Do not become idolatrous about particular opinions, but be perpetually aware of the fact that “our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

In the face of a rather complex social issue in his day, the Apostle Paul addressed the question of what Christ-followers are to do about eating meat that had been offered to idols, since there existed an ethical and theological disagreement between those who felt free to eat what they wanted and those who felt obligated to adhere to strict dietary laws. Paul’s counsel in the matter bears witness to his conviction that, at least in certain matters, the particular position one holds is less important than the manner in which she or he holds it:  “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…If food is the cause of [people’s] falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:8-9, 13).

In this particular moment of Paul’s interpretation of Christian ethics, he expresses the rather countercultural idea that one’s individual viewpoint cannot be so monolithic and uncompromising that it refuses to allow for the preservation of that diverse and heterogeneous community that Christians call church. In other words, to borrow Paul’s language from earlier in this same portion of Scripture, love is the governor of individual opinions and not the other way around, since “knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

What does all of this have to do with us? Consider this: Followers of Jesus, if they are to be true to the narrative by which they are called to live, must be specifically Christian, not only in the opinions that they hold, but also in the manner in which they arrive at those opinions, steward those opinions, and communicate those opinions. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s framework, Christ-followers are simply not permitted to elevate a particular conviction, whatever that conviction may be, above their moral responsibility to preserve and honor the kind of Christ-centered community that is durable enough to accommodate differing viewpoints without rancor, without malice, and without a sharp-edged insistence upon one’s own rightness.

The Christian narrative, of course, in no way removes from the Christ-follower the responsibility of developing and holding passionate personal convictions. Christians are not called to be devoid of individual perspective. What is powerfully unique about the Christ-follower’s individual perspective, though, is the way in which the Christ-follower is called to manage and articulate it. Specifically, Christ-followers are called to hold and offer their convictions in a manner that bears consistent witness to their stubborn refusal to value their opinions over their relationships with those who do not share them. I see this as a critical portion of the sanctification of individual perspectives. Granted, a person may eventually discern that it is time to separate from a particular segment of community because his or her convictions differ so substantively from the direction of that community that the convictions can no longer be lived out with integrity. Even on those occasions, however, the separation must be stewarded with the kind of durable love that seeks to build more bridges than walls, more understanding than condemnation.

Practically speaking, all of this will mean that Christ-followers will commit themselves to listening respectfully and attentively to opposing viewpoints, thereby avoiding the temptation to become nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

It will mean that Christ-followers on both sides of an issue will refuse to allow the issue itself to become a divisive litmus test for relationship, thereby ensuring a commitment to being “patient and kind…not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

It will mean that Christ-followers will be far more interested in standing on the solid ground of ever-expanding discernment than they are in jumping on the bandwagon of convenient and divisive rhetoric, thereby generating a spirit that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Most of all, it will mean that Christ-followers will live with a perpetual and holistic awareness of the fact that, irrespective of what decisions are made related to various issues, our life-giving hope and deepest deliverance are not to be found in a particular collection of viewpoints, but in Christ’s astoundingly gracious invitation to participate in an often countercultural and radically peaceable Kingdom in which “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Eighth Avenue Place

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Do you ever wake up with an impulse on your heart to pray about something in particular?  That happens to me sometimes.

This morning, I woke up at 4:45 sensing that it was important for me to pray for a ministry that is dear to my heart.  The ministry to which I am making reference is called Eighth Avenue Place.

Located in Homestead, Pennsylvania (in the heart of Pittsburgh’s “Steel Valley”), Eighth Avenue Place is a unique Christian community in which people living on the streets have coffee with suburbanites; in which people with divergent narratives and diverse racial and ethnic identities find themselves at the same table, worshiping and breaking bread; in which marginalized, disenfranchised, and addicted people often find themselves drawn more deeply into recovery, healing, and authentic relationships.

That is Eighth Avenue Place.

Through its professional counseling ministry, its addiction recovery ministry, its care for the homeless, its work in community development, and its dual commitment to Christocentric piety and holistic social justice, Eighth Avenue Place creates an always-welcoming “sanctuary” in which unique but interrelated souls might worship, pray, seek, weep, laugh, love, and be loved.

The ministry of Eighth Avenue Place is overseen largely by my friend and colleague, Pastor Keith Kaufold, and his wife Monica.  In ways he probably doesn’t even realize, Keith always leads me to a deeper place through his sacrificial faithfulness, his willingness to laugh heartily at life’s absurdities, and his prophetic vision for Gospel-related transformation.  Together, Keith and Monica (and those who lead and serve alongside them) are helping to build and sustain a desperately needed ministry of Christ-centered community in a time and place where trustworthy community can be difficult to find.

So, today, even as I type these words, I am praying for Eighth Avenue Place, its ministry, and its leadership.  More specifically, I am praying that the Holy Spirit will be so dynamically present at Eighth Avenue Place that the transforming and life-giving presence of God will be experienced in every conversation there; in every cup of coffee consumed; in every moment of laughter, weeping, insight, and prayer.  I am praying also that Keith, Monica, and all those involved in leadership there will experience a fresh and energizing joy, accompanied by a renewed sense of divine calling.

A few years back, Tara and I recorded an original song that represents our best effort to tell just a small part of the story of Eighth Avenue Place.  I listened to the song this morning, and it led me into a more attentive experience of prayer for this ministry where “the suburbs intersect the streets,” where Jesus changes lives, and where servanthood is  practiced in some wonderfully engaging ways. I hope that the song falls meaningfully upon your heart today.

Eighth Avenue
(words and music by Eric Park; recorded by Tara and Eric Park and Rick Witkowski)

Streets replete with untold stories
Buried dreams and hidden glories
Some hearts warm and others broken
Some prayers voiced and some unspoken
We are joined in our addiction
Some to wine and some to fiction
Scattered lives in search of center
Drawn to depths we rarely enter

The suburbs intersect the street
In this haven of commingled souls
And nothing ever tastes so sweet
As sacred food in simple bowls
Poverty and privilege meet
On common ground of what’s perceived as true
Unlikely saints, we now retreat
To respite on 8th Avenue

Black and white and every label
Gathered ‘round a common table
Funny how a truthful vision
Builds a bridge across division
Summer’s heat and winter’s coldness
Make the streets a place for boldness
Open door to those who travel
Open heart when lives unravel

The suburbs intersect the street
In this haven of commingled souls
And nothing ever tastes so sweet
As sacred food in simple bowls
Poverty and privilege meet
On common ground of what’s perceived as true
Unlikely saints, we now retreat
To kindred on 8th Avenue

Save the city, save its soul
We are broken, make us whole
On hardened streets
On satin sheets
We are broken, make us whole
We are broken. Always broken.

Streets replete with desperate voices
Fragile hopes and bitter choices
Open door to those who travel
Open heart when lives unravel
Wonder if they’d hear me screaming
Through the rainfall’s steady teeming
Wonder if they know I’m praying
Or care about the words I’m saying

The suburbs intersect the street
In this haven of commingled souls
And nothing ever tastes so sweet
As sacred food in simple bowls
Poverty and privilege meet
On common ground of what’s perceived as true
Unlikely saints, we now retreat
To respite on 8th Avenue
To kindred on 8th Avenue
To Jesus on 8th Avenue

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Creed

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The Apostles’ Creed, at its best, provides the church with a succinct and memorizable expression of some of its most foundational beliefs.  To put it another way, the Creed identifies several of the theological pillars that have upheld the spiritual architecture of the Christian faith for two-thousand years.

Back in 2004, Tara and our friend Bill Hubauer recorded a song entitled “Creed” that I had written a couple of years earlier.  At the time, we utilized the song in congregational worship for the purpose of helping the congregation to sing its faith.  I share it with you here in the hope that it will usher you more deeply into a reflection on the importance and urgency of what we believe about God and the nature of God’s heart and work.

“Creed” (words and music by Eric Park)

I believe in God the Father

Maker of both heaven and earth

I believe in Jesus Christ

His only Son by virgin birth

 

Christ was born in humble fashion

Suffered under Pilate’s reign

Crucified, he bled and died

Only death would end his pain

 

I believe, I believe

I believe

I believe, I believe

I believe

 

On the third day Christ arose

Sin and death could not withstand

He ascended into heaven

Where he rules at God’s right hand

 

I believe in the Holy Spirit

And the church that he defends

I believe in the Resurrection

And the life that never ends

 

I believe, I believe

I believe

I believe, I believe

I believe

In a world that would often deceive

I believe, I believe

I believe

 

 

General Conference: Day Two

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Our Western Pennsylvania delegation began the day together rather early with a time of prayer in which my friend and colleague, Pastor Bob Zilhaver, offered an important word to us about the hard, sacrificial, and redemptive work of forgiveness. In many ways, Bob’s reflection was an excellent preparation for today’s morning worship in plenary, which was, at its essence, a communal time of confession and repentance. It was a kairotic experience for me as I sat in that crowded plenary room, brought the profundity of my sin to the foot of the cross, and wept over both the gravity of my personal transgressions and the enormity of God’s forgiveness. I can’t help but wonder how many others had a similar experience.

Bishop Gregory Palmer then offered what I received as an exceptionally compelling Episcopal Address, which was as prophetic as it was engaging and as challenging as it was insightful. Most striking to me about Bishop Palmer’s address was his description of sanctification as “an entire life, humbled and completely delivered from our hubris and our nagging sense of self-sufficiency.” He then boldly called the General Conference to embrace its deepest purpose while at the same time rejecting misguided impulses: “We are not here in Portland to wallow in unbridled doubt, fear, and cynicism…or to lick our institutional wounds or to fixate on our shortcomings and struggles. Rather, we are here to invest ourselves completely in the discernment of the work, the ministry, and the dynamic future of what God desires for the part of the Body called the United Methodist Church.”

Bishop Palmer concluded his address by daring us not to settle for shallow or superficial relationships in the ministry of the church: “Have our relationships in the church become so superficial that we won’t even risk saying something that we might later have to go back and apologize for?!” His words awakened within me a deeper desire for a church where people stubbornly refuse to remain in the realm of anemic politeness and instead opt for the riskier, messier, and holier territory of heart to heart engagement and relational authenticity.

This afternoon was devoted to what are known as the General Conference legislative committees.  Every delegate to General Conference is part of one of twelve legislative committees, each of which does a substantial amount of work in discussing, amending, and perfecting the thousands of petitions that come before the General Conference. Think of it this way:  Without the work of the legislative committees, the plenary of General Conference would have to give detailed attention to every single petition, which would demand an additional two weeks of conferencing! The legislative committees are what help the General Conference to prioritize and administer its legislative work.  I am a part of the Discipleship legislative committee, the responsibility of which is to care for a variety of proposals concerning the language, strategy, and disciplinary paragraphs related to our denomination’s disciple-making ministries.

My day concluded with a three-hour period of training that will enable me to become a small group facilitator for a newly-proposed process of group discernment. This new process (outlined in the proposed “Rule 44”) will allow delegates to experience extended time in smaller groups (no larger than 15 people) in which the more controversial legislation (such as legislation on human sexuality) might be discussed without the pressure of an immediate vote, thereby creating a safer and (hopefully) more hospitable context in which delegates might listen to one another’s hearts before having to legislate.

What complicates this matter is that Rule 44 is not without some controversy of its own and will be voted on by plenary tomorrow. If Rule 44 is not passed, then I just spent three hours being trained for something that will not occur. No matter what happens with proposed Rule 44, however, the training that I experienced tonight will help me to be a better listener and a more competent bridge-builder in every segment of my discipleship. I am honored to have been asked to serve as a small group facilitator.

Personally, I am intrigued by Rule 44. It may have the potential to provide for delegates a unique opportunity to recognize the personhood and integrity of the people standing on the other side of the proposed legislation. Even better, it might just help us to recognize that the unity we share in Jesus Christ is far more expansive than our divisions.

Perspectives on the 2016 United Methodist General Conference

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I am honored to be serving as one of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference’s twelve delegates (six laity and six clergy) to the 2016 United Methodist General Conference, which will be held at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon from May 10 through May 20.  I am praying about this event, even as I type these words.  Truth be told, I have been praying for the work of this General Conference since last September.  I know that many of you have been joining me in that prayer.

The members of Western Pennsylvania’s delegation have worked diligently, creatively, and strategically over this last year in preparation for both General Conference and July’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference. The members of the delegation regularly inspire me with how seriously they take the church’s ministry and how deeply they believe that the United Methodist Church still has something important to offer in the furthering of God’s kingdom.

The 864 General Conference delegates from Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and the United States will travel to Portland on or before May 10. We will be joined there by other visitors, observers, volunteers, marshals, and pages (some from Western Pennsylvania), all of whom will be there on their own dime and time, simply because they believe that something is about to happen in Portland that demands their very best efforts and attention.

General Conference, which meets every four years, is United Methodism’s highest legislative body for all matters affecting the United Methodist connection.  It is the only entity that has the authority to make decisions for the entire denomination. That may strike some of you as woefully impractical. What corporation, after all, would ever be able to be survive and thrive if its primary governance body included one-thousand people and met only once every four years?

And yet, for all of the practical and strategic questions that may be raised in any conversation about General Conference, I am deeply grateful to be part of a denomination whose authority is not centralized. No single leader, bishop, or committee has the authority to govern our church. Rather, our portion of the Body of Christ finds its governance in a praying, searching, occasionally-quarrelling, sometimes-divided, frequently-doxological quadrennial body called the General Conference. It is this historical priority of “governance by conferencing” that has enabled United Methodism to retain its emphasis on both communal discernment and communal responsibility.

We will worship vibrantly at General Conference over the course of the ten-day gathering.  Worship, in fact, is the very best part of what we will experience together. We will also turn our attention to some weighty and controversial issues, all for the purpose of doing our prayerful and discerning best to help the church to become more faithfully the church that Jesus Christ is calling it to be. These are some of the issues that we will address:

*As a General Conference, we will consider a variety of proposals related to the restructuring of the ministries of the general church. The proposal that seems to be generating the most conversation is entitled “Plan UMC Revised,” which revisits a conversation begun at the 2012 General Conference and aims to redefine the structure and the authority of the Connectional Table and to reduce the size of several general boards and agencies (while increasing representation from outside the United States). This type of legislation bears witness to our denomination’s struggle both to establish better institutional accountability on the general church level and to structure our boards and agencies in a way that mitigates institutional decline by the strategic reconfiguration of denominational ministry.

*We will make decisions related to the global nature of the United Methodist Church, including the continuing development of a global Book of Discipline. These decisions will hopefully enable the denomination to rid itself of its unfair and unrealistic US-centric bias in order to manifest a more comprehensive and expansive ecclesiology. Why is this important? Because, while American United Methodism has experienced significant decline in recent decades, the United Methodist Church in Africa has seen 200% growth over the last twenty years. There has been similar United Methodist growth in the Philippines.  In its current structure and ethos, United Methodism too often functions as though it still believes that the American church is at the unifying center of what God is doing through our denomination. The news from around the world bears witness to a different reality than this. At this General Conference, we have a unique opportunity to make several decisions that will help our denomination to incarnate a more global and globally-strategic perspective.

*We will consider proposals related to licensed and ordained ministry, the most compelling of which is the “reshaping of the ordination process.” This “reshaping” would move ordination to the front end of the process (at the time a candidate for ministry is elected to provisional membership). I would imagine that this proposal will lead to some important and challenging theological conversations about the relationship of ordination to conference membership.

*We will make important decisions about what our church will teach about human sexuality (and, in particular, homosexuality). The church’s current position is that, while all people are of sacred worth and precious to God, the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As a result of this discerned incompatibility, the United Methodist Church does not currently ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.  Likewise, United Methodist clergy and congregations are not currently permitted to conduct same-sex unions in their sanctuaries.

There is legislation before the General Conference that recommends a change in the denominational position on homosexuality—a change that the writers of the legislation believe would make for a more inclusive and compassionate church. Alternatively, there is legislation before the General Conference that would protect—and fortify—the denomination’s current position on homosexuality. We will also consider a “compromise proposal” that would remove the restrictive language from the Discipline and would leave the discernment to individual pastors, congregations, and annual conferences. Perhaps most alarmingly, there is legislation that outlines an “amicable separation” in the United Methodist denomination between those who advocate for a Disciplinary change related to the church’s teaching on homosexuality and those who wish to retain our denomination’s current position.

My prayer is that, as the General Conference makes important decisions related to the church’s teaching on human sexuality, we might resist the temptation to become so idolatrous about one side of the issue or the other that we lose sight of the fact that, for disciples of Jesus, human sexuality is not fundamentally a controversy to be debated. It is rather a sacred gift to be stewarded and sanctified in a way that bears witness to a dual commitment to sexual holiness and authentic compassion.

*We will consider a proposal for a new United Methodist Hymnal. The proposal is designed to maximize flexibility and usability by making the approved “canon of song and ritual” accessible in a variety of electronic formats. Also included in this proposal is the formation of a standing Hymnal Advisory Committee, the work of which would be to evaluate and recommend additional song and ritual resources for future inclusion. This will give to the hymnal the sense of being a perpetual work in progress. Historically, liturgical flexibility has been a difficult thing for an institutional church to generate. This proposal for an electronically-available and regularly-expanding hymnal may very well represent positive movement in that regard.

I hope to write and share posts throughout my experience at General Conference—if not for your benefit, then for mine (since this kind of writing is a form of public journaling for me, a cathartic discipline of praying and discerning and “working out my own salvation in fear and trembling”).

I know that many of you are already holding the General Conference, its volunteers, its organizers, and its delegates in your prayerful heart. I would be grateful if even more of you added your voices to the ministry of prayer that General Conference so desperately needs. Pray for the delegates and volunteers. Pray that people on opposite sides of a variety of issues will cultivate the ability to see the face of Jesus in one another. Pray for a spirit of deep discernment, patient attentiveness, and compassionate engagement. Most of all, pray for that portion of the body of Christ called United Methodism, that we might be a church that is as committed to holiness as it is to compassion; as devoted to justice as it is to love; and as passionate about sanctification as it is about Biblical truth.

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