‘Tis the Season: A Reflection and a Request for Prayer Concerning the United Methodist Appointive Process

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I ask for the prayers of those of you who pray.

I am honored to be part of a ministry team called the Appointive Cabinet. More specifically, it is the Appointive Cabinet of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

This week, I will join my Cabinet colleagues at Olmsted Manor for a retreat. Part of our work at this retreat will be to clarify our vison and prepare our hearts for the upcoming appointment season—a yearly time of discernment in which we give focused attention to the deployment of our clergy and the making of strategic clergy appointments.

As all United Methodists know, our denomination’s unique system of appointment-making is far from perfect. At times, it groans for redemption along with the rest of creation. While engaged prayerfully and diligently by a Bishop and District Superintendents who pour nothing less than a whole heart into their work, the truth of the matter is that perspectives are sometimes limited. Discernment is sometimes distorted or incomplete. Agendas and priorities are sometimes unintentionally misplaced.

As a result, our appointment system has sometimes led to woundedness. Painful disruption. Skepticism and cynicism born from frustrations over decisions that are seen as imprudent. Frustration over what is sometimes perceived as an inequitable application or expectation of itineracy.

Some have even come to the conclusion that our appointment system is too outdated—or too broken—to be effective any longer.

I am not debating that matter here, nor am I inviting such a debate.

I will simply share with you a perspective that my wife Tara offered to me several years ago. (Tara, by the way, was raised in the Baptist tradition. She lived in the same house for her entire upbringing. She had no idea that she would one day be a United Methodist—and married to an itinerant United Methodist pastor no less!) At one point, when we were approached by the Cabinet unexpectedly about the possibility of a new pastoral appointment, Tara responded in this fashion:

I like that we do not get to select where we live and serve and that congregations don’t get to select their pastors…Strange as it might sound, it feels right for us not to have that choice. So, if I have to decide between relying solely on my own discernment about where to live and serve and relying on the discernment of a Bishop and Cabinet that have been entrusted by the church with the responsibility of determining where we are most needed, I’ll choose the Bishop and Cabinet…not because I believe that the Bishop and Cabinet are always right, but because, concerning our appointment, I am more willing to trust their shared perspective than I am my own preferences. My preferences are too often twisted.

At which point I said to Tara, “Wow. You really ARE a United Methodist, aren’t you?”

I am grateful for Tara’s leadership in that moment. I return to her words often, simply because they remind me of what the United Methodist appointment system can be at its best:

Meaningfully disruptive.

Refreshingly hopeful.

Dynamically creative.

Unsettlingly adventurous.

Heartwarmingly sacrificial.

Evangelically strategic.

Imperfect, but purposeful.

Flawed, but redemptive.

Awkward, but linked to a narrative grounded in a countercultural theology of going where sent for the sake of the Gospel.

And so, I return to my initial request:

I ask for the prayers of those of you who pray.

Pray for Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, whose leadership I so deeply admire, whose integrity shapes me, and who holds the weight of appointment-making in her heart with consistent grace and wisdom.

Pray for the District Superintendents and the Assistant to the Bishop, that we might approach this appointment season with good priorities, clear vision, a right sense of our own fallenness, and a keen awareness of how deeply we are in over our heads.

Pray for those clergypersons who will be retiring this year and who are preparing for the next segment of their journey.

Pray for those clergypersons returning from seminary or licensing school, eager for what is perhaps their first full time or part time pastoral appointment.

Pray for those congregations that will experience transition in this appointment season, since such transitions often involve painful goodbyes and crucial hellos.

Pray for our appointive process, that it might become an instrument through which God equips the church to engage more comprehensively in its grand and glorious mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Thank you in advance for your ministry of prayer.

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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