#CurrentUnitedMethodism Is Alive

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Photo Credit: Joe Iovino

Another week, another UMC-related hashtag, but this is one that I can get behind with full force.

The rumors of the UMC’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Last summer when I went on my Wesleyan Pilgrimage with the UMC’s Discipleship Ministries, I met Joe Iovino. Joe is a web content manager with United Methodist Communications (UMCOM), which means he oversees and contributes a lot of the articles and other electronic publications of the UMC and UMCOM. Joe has felt a lot of the same frustration I have in the seeming obsession of so many of the church’s best and brightest in what a new Methodist movement may look like in the #NextMethodism discussion. Like me, Joe feels that the church needs to be about God’s business now instead of pining away for something new, and he feels that there is need to highlight the good things that UMs are doing right now. Also, like me, Joe disagrees with those who have seemed to give up on the church and are ready to throw it all away as dead and useless.

Joe has begun a conversation that I feel is an important one to have, much more important than giving in to the distractions that the enemy can use to derail the work that we should be doing now. I want to contribute to that conversation in hopes that several others will join in and that we will help the world and our well-meaning colleagues to see that there is work to be done now, there is much more to be done now, and that we are wasting our time and potentially giving in to a trap set by Satan to keep us from doing that work.

One of the tenants of any Wesleyan, but especially United Methodists, is putting our faith into action. I want to share stories from two churches: My own and one pastored by my friend and mentor Rev. Phil Bradley.

Shiloh United Methodist Church is the church that I am appointed to. Shiloh is located just outside of the city of Stanton in Powell County, Kentucky. Powell County has one of the highest rates of poverty and drug use in the Commonwealth and arguably in the nation. Powell County can be a tough place to do ministry but there is also so much greatness everywhere and, at the risk of being biased, among the people called United Methodist. Shiloh participates in the county’s ministerial association and we were the host church for this month’s Praise in the Park, an ecumenical community worship service held in a city park. 200ish people enjoyed some great food, heard some amazing music, and heard of how we are all united in the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Backpack Blessings backpack and school supply drive is underway which will culminate in the donated backpacks, donated supplies, and school items of Shiloh’s students and school staffers being prayed over at an upcoming worship service. The donated supplies will be taken to the schools throughout the county to be given to students in need. Additionally, we are in the midst of a heatwave and Shiloh is opening its fellowship hall as a cooling station and offering water, fellowship, and the love of Christ.

This is faith in action. This is #CurrentUnitedMethodism.

My friend and mentor, Phil Bradley, is wrapping up his first month as the new pastor of Bardstown (KY) United Methodist Church. Last weekend, a young man named Tariq Armour drowned in a tragic accident. Tariq was a beloved member of the community and the death was devastating to many, especially his friends at Bardstown High School. Bardstown UMC opened their doors to the student body and to the community for a grief counseling session facilitated by professional counselors, as well as teachers and administration from Bardstown High School. Bardstown UMC showed the community that they were loved and that they were grieving along with them. Most importantly, Bardstown UMC shined the light of Christ into the darkness of grief and showed one and all the love of Christ.

This is faith in action. This is #CurrentUnitedMethodism.

These are just two examples of how United Methodists are ministering and moving right now. There is much work to be done. I say again, the enemy can use our denominational struggles to distract us from the vital work that we have to do now. I simply will not allow myself to give in to that trap and to concentrate on a future that may or may not even materialize.

#CurrentUnitedMethodism is strong, alive, and being used of God for his work. Our church will be even stronger if we resist the temptation to throw it away and instead work as we have been commanded to do.

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Are We Almost or Altogether Christian?

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – Brennen Manning

For the last few weeks, we have been doing a sermon series called The Words of Wesley. I am preaching a few of John Wesley’s sermons but they are somewhat shortened and are in modern language as opposed to the “King James” English that Wesley used. Today’s sermon was “The Almost Christian” where Wesley discussed the attributes of one who is an “Almost Christian” and one who is an “Altogether Christian.” Wesley’s message can be boiled down to say that the Almost Christian seems to be doing everything that a Christian ought to do – going to worship, appearing to reject sin, even praying, etc. – but they lack a sincere faith. A sincere faith and desire to truly serve God are what separate the Almost Christian from the Altogether Christian. In other words, Almost Christian looks and even sounds Christian but they are merely going through the motions for nothing because they lack faith.

In preparing for this sermon, I began to think of cultural Christianity. I have written about this before and how I long for the day when cultural Christianity is dead. I still long for that day. It was not that long ago – and somewhat this is still the case – that churches were filled with people who were only there out of expectation or as a means of material or political gain. Using the name of God for personal gain is nothing new but, as I wrote in my previous article, there was a time when one could suffer in business and politics if they did not attend any church or even the right church. If we take a good, hard, and honest look at why so many people attended worship services in the so-called “good old days,” we find that personal gain was a major motivation.

‘Merica.

Wesley’s sermon makes one take a good, hard, and honest look at their spiritual life to decide if they are truly an Altogether Christian. Toward the end, Wesley asked the congregation gathered at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, England that day a series of questions. For me, this one is the one that really strikes to the heart of whether or not one is an Altogether Christian.

The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All”? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing?

So much of what certain people who proclaim Christ engage in can be perceived that the answer to the question above is a resounding “no.” There are so many among us who are using the name of Christ as a means to gain political points. We have church choirs singing political propaganda songs under the guise of a worship anthem. We have an extreme end of a certain political party who insist that they are the only ones who are the true Christians in the political realm.

They may say this but the way they treat the poor and the marginalized say otherwise.

I don’t intend to go off on a political tangent but I do want us to think about whether we are truly part of the church and claim the name of Christ strictly as a means of personal or political gain. If we do the right things, say the right words, and have no motivation other than looking good than we are maybe an Almost Christian (if we are anywhere close to Christian at all). But if our motivation is nothing but the glory of God and we desire nothing but Christ, if we can truly ask ourselves the question above and shout a resounding “yes!” then we are an Altogether Christian.

So are you Almost a Christian or are you Altogether a Christian?

Lessons From The Hunger Games

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A map of Panem from the Hunger Games books, as seen at the Hunger Games Exhibition in Louisville, KY.

Jessica and I spent some time in Louisville, KY for a short get away. Wednesday before we came home, we went to see an exhibit of The Hunger Games movies at the Frazier History Museum. If you didn’t know, Jennifer Lawrence is from Louisville so it makes sense that this exhibition is right up the road from us. Some of the background information told of how the author, Suzanne Collins, came up with the idea for the books. It began when she was watching coverage of the Iraqi military action and she began to ponder how media coverage of violence desensitizes people to the true suffering involved in a war. For the storyline, she incorporated elements of Roman history, specifically the oligarchy and the violence of the battles to the death of the gladiators.

An argument could be made that this is also a reflection of modern society.

We simply can not deny that much of our current society reflects that of ancient Rome. Much of the political power is held by the wealthy, who are in the minority. We only care about our own comfort, our own well-being and as long as we are comfortable nothing else matters. We are oblivious to the suffering of those who are in poverty (and even having the audacity to say it’s entirely their fault), who are marginalized, and who are embattled in addiction. We have reality shows that keep us sedated, news coverage that exposes us to so much violence that we learn to tune it out, which crosses over into real life. We pout over our first world problems like not having the latest phone and forget that people in places like North Korea and Iraq are in fear of their lives on a constant basis. We indulge in excess of all sorts and waste enough food to feed many small countries while children all over the world hope for a bowl of rice. We also do all of this with a straight face while many of us claim to love Jesus and what he teaches, yet we would turn someone away from our churches because their sin is different than ours or because they are not dressed “appropriately.”

We are Panem.

In Revelation 3, we read the words of Jesus to the Church of Sardis:

“I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive—but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again.” Revelation 3:1-3a (NLT)

The American church claims that it is strong and, in many ways, this is correct. However, the American church is also very weak in its witness. We have equated our faith to God to the level of our patriotism. We have equated our relationship with God to how large our houses, bank accounts, and SUVs are. We have forgotten/ignored that Jesus was not a caucasian with perfectly maintained brown hair and blue eyes but rather was a Middle Eastern Jew who looks nothing like us. Many of us still look at Christianity as simply doing what is expected and going through the motions of being in a pew on Sunday morning rather than truly having a life of reconciliation and transformation. We treat our neighbors as sub-human while demanding respect for ourselves (and count any perceived disrespect as “persecution.” We also do not truly acknowledge the cruelty and brutality of his death and instead look at it as something “dignified” if we even truly believe it at all.

The question could be asked if it’s too late for the American church to make a turnaround. In small ways, it already is.  We do have devoted disciples who truly live out their faith and who do more than simply go through the motions. They believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaim it not just with their words but also their Christ-like love. Jesus provided such encouragement later in Revelation 3.

“Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” Revelation 3:4 (NLT)

I believe there is much good in the American church but we definitely need to do better. The worst thing one who claims to love Christ can do is to simply go through the motions. Let us not be so desensitized and self-absorbed that we are oblivious to the reality right outside our front doors and beyond the walls of our church buildings. Let us also not be arrogant enough to think that the level of our discipleship is tied to material wealth. Let us not call ourselves Christians unless we are actually prepared to live out our faith, instead of simply wanting our fire insurance.

The people of the Capitol in The Hunger Games were so sedated by excess that they had no idea of the suffering in the outlying districts. Hypothetically, if they were aware they likely did not care. The American church is, unfortunately, the same in some ways. A lot of churches do amazing things but there are others that are so wrapped up in “doing” church that they have no interest in being the church. Where does your congregation fall? What are you doing – what are we doing – to not only proclaim Jesus with words but also with our living?

Are we the church or are we just playing church?

#NextMethodism? What About #MethodismNow?

Another day, another UMC-related hashtag.

The hashtag flavor of the week is #NextMethodism. Some of the United Methodist Church’s brightest – mainly on the conservative side but a few moderates – have been engaging in conservation about their visions, hopes, and dreams of what may come out of any split of the United Methodist Church. The authors seem convinced that the UMC is too far gone to save and so they are preparing for something new to come about, perhaps in the form of a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

If such a thing were possible, John Wesley would be spinning in his grave that such a discussion was even happening.

I know, I know… The whole Methodist movement came about from a schism within the Church of England. And I also know that Wesley never set out to begin a new church. But once the new church began to take shape, Wesley had some heavy expectations out of the people called Methodist. In a nutshell, it was his way or no way (the whole bishop thing excluded) and he was not afraid to let his pastors know that they were out of line. 

I can not help but think that if Rev. Wesley were alive today, he would be having some serious discussions with several of our clergy to remind them that their minds were better served by offering the people Christ now instead of engaging in political pandering and other activities which I believe are unbecoming a clergy person.

This discussion has borne a little quality fruit but mostly it has yielded only horse apples.

There have been conspiracy theories and accusations floated, name calling and backbiting, defensiveness, and a general smug tone taken by those engaging in the #NextMethodism discussion. And frankly, I feel that much of the childish behavior that I have witnessed has been vastly unbecoming of a clergy person and some of the people involved would do well to check themselves.

And at least one lay person (who is no longer UM, I may add) would do well to stop his childish name calling campaign.

I have also been outright offended by some of the articles that have been written (that I will not even dignify with a link from this blog – you will have to find them elsewhere). One particular gem was “The #NextMethodism Will Believe in Christ.” Another was, “The #NextMethodism Will Be Biblical.” Really? So, am I to believe that you, as UM clergy, do not proclaim Christ or proclaim scripture, therefore you want a do-over? 

If one attends any given UMC worship service, they will hear scripture proclaimed and the name of Christ lifted up. In many instances, they will also experience the body and blood of Christ consecrated and given to the people. Hopefully, they may even see and participate in faith being put into action outside the walls of the church.

That is #MethodismNow

I know there is clergy who like to proclaim their political agendas from the pulpit instead of preaching the gospel (this does not seem to be confined to one particular political realm or another) but the vast majority do not engage in this behavior. This entire notion of “they’re bad so I’m going to take my toys and go play somewhere else, and here’s what I want it to be like” is just plain ridiculous.

We have better things to do than further advance political causes to score points with the leadership of any potential new denomination. I am also way too busy ministering in a very drug-infested and poverty-stricken area to be too concerned about engaging in such discussions.

I am not naive, I realize that the UMC as we know it likely will not exist in a few more years. I am also not naive enough to think that I will not have to make some serious decisions about how I live out my calling to pastoral ministry. But I also am not willing to engage in fruitless discussions or to accuse the current UMC of being anything but a Christian church (a charge that I think is despicable).

If there are those among us who truly feel that they can no longer minister in the UMC, I may encourage them to begin considering where they can best serve God and go there.

When it comes to such discussions, I will end with the words of the great philosopher Sweet Brown: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

HIPAA and the Church

hellohipaa_wideWhen I first became an EMT, I worked for an ambulance service that was based at a hospital in rural Mississippi. As it was a hospital-based service, I was required to sit through the same new employee orientation as nurses and others who worked within the hospitals. A large chunk of the session was spent talking about HIPAA. As I have worked for other services and did internships while in paramedic school, I had to have further training on HIPAA. With these numerous training sessions and other research have done on my own, I feel pretty confident that I am well-versed in what HIPAA does and does do and to who it does and does not apply to.

There is much confusion and I would like to try and address some of that.

HIPAA – the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act – is a very far-reaching law and has many moving parts to it. The short version of what HIPAA is for is to specify how one’s health information is to be stored, the type of security measures which should be taken, who can access information, and so on. One of HIPAA’s requirements is that healthcare workers and healthcare organizations who have access to one’s health information may not disclose it in any way to anyone without express written permission, except in very limited ways as allowed under the law (and there are not many). This aspect of HIPAA seems to be what has caused the most confusion. There are many people who think that the general public is subject to HIPAA, who think that clergy persons are bound by HIPAA and that even such things as sharing a diagnosis during prayer requests during a worship service is a violation of the law.

If you are a pastor or a parishioner who fears that sharing about Aunt Mabel’s bunions is going to land you in hock due to a violation of HIPAA, fear not. That won’t happen because HIPAA does not apply to such things.

Simply stated, HIPAA does not even apply to the general public in the first place. You can share your own information to your heart’s content. Further, you can share diagnoses and other health information about anyone with anyone and you are not in violation of HIPAA. Is sharing information without permission unethical? Yes. Illegal? Not so much. The only way you would be in violation of HIPAA is if your information was obtained while you were an employee of a clinic, hospital, etc. and you were obtaining this information in the course of performing your job.

HIPAA does not apply to clergy any more than it does to anyone else. While pastors are bound to ethical standards – which certainly includes not sharing private information without permission or without a legal reason such as to report a person who is a danger to themselves or others – clergy persons are not bound by HIPAA in the performance of their pastoral duties. If a pastor is visiting Aunt Mabel in the hospital, HIPAA does not apply to them. The exception to that is if the clergy person is acting within the capacity of a hospital chaplain or other employment with a healthcare organization. Further, clergy persons are not going to get in trouble with the law for sharing health information in settings such as prayer request time.

Again: Is sharing health information without permission unethical? Yes. Is it illegal (in most cases)? No.

I get really bothered when clergy persons are told that anything they share with their congregation is a violation of HIPAA because this simply is not true. Unfortunately, this is the misinformation that clergy persons are given over and over again by people who should know better but don’t. I know of clergy persons who have been told by leadership within their annual conferences that if they share any sort of health-related information that they are in violation of HIPAA. This is simply not true and I encourage my colleagues to become better educated in the legal aspects of ministry. Such education is a benefit for many reasons.

For more about HIPAA and what it does and does not cover (and it’s likely not what you think), this is a good place to start.

Patriotism in Church

bible-american-flag1There was a time when I was a volunteer firefighter. Sometime after I joined with Stonewall Fire and Rescue, I was having a conversation with the chief, at the time it was a man named Jimmy Andrews, and he told me something that I have continued to remember even since I have moved on from being a firefighter. Jimmy said that when he first became a firefighter he heard someone say that the following should be one’s main priorities (and in this order): God, country, family, the fire department, and everything else. Someone else once told me to always make sure that I “keep the Main Thing the main thing.” The takeaway from both of these bits of wisdom is that God should always be the number one priority over all else in our lives, period. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else.

We especially need to remember to keep the Main Thing the main thing when we gather to worship. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else. Now, that should be obvious but I feel like we can sometimes get carried away with celebrating other things to the point that it becomes idolatry. In other words, we forget to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

I’m proud of my country and I love the fact that we, as Americans, have a lot of freedom that we tend to take for granted. We are able to speak our minds, able to gather in worship, able to choose our elected officials and pursue our lives as we see fit. We can come and go as we please without a government official checking our “papers” every few miles. These are things we should be thankful and I feel that it’s appropriate for us to give thanks to God for these freedoms and for our country. Having a flag in the sanctuary is OK. I even like belting out “God Bless America” on Sundays around the patriotic holidays. These things are fine and, so long as they are done properly, I believe they are acceptable to God. But we do have to be careful not to cross a line and make our worship activities more about Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, and Old Glory than about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A few days ago I read an account of last Sunday’s worship service at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I have to be very honest: Reading about this service – and watching some of it – made me very uncomfortable and I can’t honestly say that I would have wanted to be a participant in it. The author points out that the worship service was much more about American and very little about God.

The fact that there was a red, white, and blue hued cross made me cringe.

To me, this is a major problem that, unfortunately, seems to be an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in churches in the United States. This does not seem confined to any particular denomination or type of church but more and more American Christians are equating their faith with their patriotism. This is nothing short of idolatry. In celebrating our country, we must be very careful to make sure that we do not place our loyalty to our homeland equal to or even greater than our loyalty to God. Our love for anything (or anyone) should not be equal to or greater than our love for God.

In scripture, we are reminded that we are to place nothing – absolutely nothing – above God. When God told the Israelites, “You must not have any other god but me” (Exodus 20:3 NLT) he wasn’t just talking about a statue of Buddha or the like. An idol can be anything that we are willing to worship or otherwise place above God. This includes patriotism. I want to emphasize that it is perfectly alright to be thankful for our country and to celebrate that blessing but we must be careful to make sure that we do not do so at the expense of our loyalty to God.

We must keep the Main Thing the main thing.

When a celebration of anything overshadows God in a worship service, the line between acceptable and unacceptable has not only been crossed, it has been ignored altogether. It’s also worth noting that in many countries such celebrations are virtually unheard of in Christian worship. I look back on the Wesleyan Pilgrimage I set out on last summer and out of all the churches I visited in England – Methodist or Anglican – I can not recall one that had a Union Jack anywhere on or in the building.

All I’m saying is that we must be careful to make sure that we do not cross a line that should not be crossed.

Inevitably, someone is likely going to accuse me of not being a patriot or of condemning those who do acknowledge patriotic holidays during worship. That could not be farther from the truth. Sing a patriotic song recognize the military, say a prayer of thanks for our freedom (we will be doing all of these things at Shiloh this Sunday). I am not against these things. I am against a worship service not being centered on God and centered on other things, be it a nation, a celebrity, or anything else that is not God. These thoughts – which are mine and mine only – are only intended to serve as food for thought as to what boundaries should be set.

I will close with the words of the author of the article I linked above, as his concerns are also mine.

What would a Christian from another country say? Would they recognize their place in this church?

What about those for whom this has not been such a great country? What about those who still bear the stripes callously inflicted upon their ancestors’ backs?

What about those who don’t claim the Christian faith? Would they come away from such a celebration understanding anything about the gospel of Christ, and hear its call on their lives?

What would happen if Jesus showed up in the flesh? Would we recognize him as our guest of honor? Would we even recognize him at all? (emphasis his)

I don’t think so.

Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone desperately wrong.

God, forgive us.

And may it be so, Lord. Amen.

We Don’t Get to Choose Who Receives Compassion

compassionIf you didn’t know, I’m a former paramedic. During my time on the ambulance, I responded to my share of overdose calls and I also expressed by share of frustration over them. Part of the reason was that I was simply following the example of my peers – I was expected to deride and offhandedly insult people who had overdosed so that’s what I did. One day I realized how wrong that attitude was when I responded to an overdose call and had to administer the drug Narcan. The house I responded to was where the patient lived with her husband and two young children. The husband expressed to me that he had been trying to get her to seek help for addiction but that so far his efforts were ignored by her. While I was working on his wife, I remember him saying “I just hope she gets help before it’s too late.” This with the backdrop of two young children who had to witness their mother almost die right in front of them because addiction had sunk its sharp teeth into her was used by God to convict me of my attitude and to change my heart.

EMS responders have a moral and an ethical (and when on duty legal) to render the best care possible to all regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they live, or the choices they made. None of the matters. EMTs and paramedics practice medicine and are not supposed to base their care on the circumstances of the patient. If someone calls for help, EMS is supposed to respond and is supposed to render the best possible care they are able, period, full stop. For the most part, in spite of some who feel that only certain patients deserve the best care (these providers have no business in EMS and should be stripped of their patches, but that’s another rant), EMS responders give excellent care and indeed save lives.

So imagine my shock, disappointment, and anger when I read about an elected official who wants EMS providers to pick and choose who deserves to live simply because of their poor choices.

Dan Picard (hopefully no relation to Jean-Luc) is a city councilman in Middletown, Ohio and wants EMS units to stop responding to calls for help involving opioid overdoses (story). He says that these calls are too expensive and that the city can not afford it. Mr. Picard is also in favor of issuing a court summons to overdose patients and requiring them to perform community service to compensate the city for saving his/her life. Here’s what Mr. Picard said he wants to do:

I want to send a message to the world that you don’t want to come to Middletown to overdose because someone might not come with Narcan and save your life. We need to put a fear about overdosing in Middletown.

That statement drips with something but compassion is not that with which it is dripping.

The councilman wants to punish people for seeking help for a condition which could very easily kill them (the fact that they took the drug is irrelevant). This plan is illegal, immoral, and unethical but let’s say it was implemented. The city would have a much larger problem: A sudden influx of overdose deaths because people are afraid to call for help for fear of being branded a criminal. I feel that would have a much worse effect on their budget than administering a bunch of Narcan (in addition to the moral, legal, and ethical considerations). Addiction is a disease (this is not up for debate – medical science proves this) and should be treated as a disease, not as a criminal offense.

For Christians, there are other issues to consider.

Whether we are talking about the medical field or anything else, we don’t get to pick and choose to whom we will show compassion and mercy. For Christians, compassion is supposed to be our way of life. Compassion is what Christians are supposed to be known for! From the very beginning, God was setting the example of showing compassion. We read in Genesis of the fall of humanity when Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to eat. He could have killed them where they stood but instead of showed compassion on them by making them animal skins to cover their newly discovered nudity.

Throughout scripture, we see other examples of compassionate action and instruction that as we have shown compassion we should show compassion. We read the words of Paul: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NLT). We also see an account in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus happened upon some blind men who cried out to him for their sight. This was his response: “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 NIV).

While we don’t have to be Jesus, we are called to be like Jesus (Ephesians 5:1-2). Jesus did not pick and choose to whom he showed mercy and compassion when they were crying out. He freely showed compassion. If we are Christians, this is part of our calling. We do not get to pick and choose to whom we show compassion. We are called to be compassionate to the entire world.

I have no idea what, if any, faith Mr. Picard claims but I feel that he would do himself and his citizens well to follow the example of Jesus rather than the example of a group of politicians who do not believe in showing mercy to the poor and marginalized.

We all would.

More LLP Conversation

25806_picture2If you look down the main page, you will see that my previous post was one where I proposed some ideas for reforms on how Licensed Local Pastors are viewed, utilized, and treated in the United Methodist Church. I went to bed thinking that, as usual, relatively no one would notice my musings or care. Oh boy, I was wrong. The last thing I was expecting was for the post to receive well over 2,000 views (and counting), and several comments. A couple of days ago I found out that the post had been shared to a Licensed Local Pastors group on Facebook and there was a good bit of conversation happening there as well. I have also been contacted by a few people who want to discuss ways we can work together to find a way forward for Licensed Local Pastors.

Sharing this news is not to brag but rather to show my appreciation for the fact that a conversation has begun and that people are taking notice. One person shared with me that their bishop made the statement that LLPs should have a say in constitutional amendments and be able to vote for JC and GC delegates. The DS I serve under in Kentucky had this to say in a tweet to me:

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For the record, I completely agree with Rev. Williams. LLPs who are making the effort to participate in the connection should be allowed to have more of a say in how the connection is governed. Clearly, this is a conversation that has needed to take place and may have more support for change than many – including myself – thought.

The comments I saw were overall positive. There were some who say that I didn’t go far enough in my proposal because it did not call for full equity. Frankly, full equity (whereby LLPs and Elders are truly treated as equals in all ways) was not what I was going for. I began to realize that I needed to clarify some things that I had said and positions that I hold. It is that which I will try to do right now.

  • Let me say this plainly and clearly: I am not de-emphasizing ordination. Quite the opposite. Recall that I intend to pursue ordination as an Elder myself. The callings for LLPs and Elders overlap in many ways but there are also distinctions in each of their callings which I feel should be preserved. Elders are appointed to a congregation but they are avowed for life and are submitting to itineracy. LLPs typically are not subject to itineracy (though in cases like Mississippi most full-time LLPs and some part-time LLPs are often part of that system, mainly out of necessity), LLPs and their license is not truly a permanent form of clergy association. Having said that, LLPs are nonetheless clergy and are nonetheless members of the United Methodist Church. As such, LLPs should be given the same voting rights as their other clergy colleagues and the laity to which they minister. LLPs should also be allowed to have a vote in matters of licensing, continuation of candidacy, and other matters that are not directly dealing with ordination in the clergy session. LLPs are clergy and should be given voice and vote.
  • Let me also say this plainly and clearly: I am not de-emphasizing seminary education. How in the world anyone could think I was doing this is beyond me as I am a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. I do feel that regardless of whether one wants to pursue COS or seminary they ought to be able to complete their studies completely online. However, this should be done in consultation with one’s DS and/or DCOM and BoOM. One of the concerns raised by a colleague was that the spiritual formation aspect of education may be neglected by allowing one to complete their studies online. The candidate ought to be expected to participate in covanent groups and the like and should be held accountable for this. One’s participation in such groups should be taken into account when their annual consultation takes place.
  • I am not calling for full equity of LLPs and Elders. Going back to what I said above, the calling of an Elder is different from that of an LLP in several ways. I am not advocating for and am not in favor of LLPs serving as district superintendents and bishops. Such ministry is outside the purview of the LLP and should not even be considered as a possibility. I’m aware that there are some who will not agree with my stance on this but so be it. Such is simply not the role of an LLP.
  • I meant exactly what I called for actual enforcement of the current standards for LLPs. LLPs who refuse to make adequate progress on their education within the prescribed timeframe, who refuse to participate in continuing education, who preach doctrine and practices contrary to that of the UMC, or who otherwise are not in-line with what is already expected of UMC clergy per the Book of Discipline should be discontinued, period, full stop (and for the record, I feel the same about Elders).

Here’s the reality: The UMC already heavily relies on LLPs. LLPs already outnumber Elders in several annual conferences (including Kentucky). This is a trend that appears to be increasing in spite of young clergy and other initiatives by annual conferences and the denomination at large. I do not feel that Elders will completely go away, rather that there just will not be as many. As we race toward the future, the reality is that many of the current full-time appointments will likely become part-time appointments sooner rather than later.

The trend continues to be that pastors will more and more be bi-vocational. Given current UMC structure, Elders are not even allowed to serve part time/bi-vocational appointments without approval. What I’m saying is that the make-up of clergy within the UMC is changing and is only going to continue to do so.

The UMC may choose to bury its collective head in the sand about some issues but it can not continue to ignore this one. This needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed at the 2020 General Conference.

I want to encourage anyone who wishes to discuss this further to please reach out to me via email or social media. I would love to discuss this more and I will gladly work with anyone to reform the way LLPs are utilized and recognized within the UMC.

An Ignored Injustice Within the UMC

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818If you follow my social media, you may know that I have just completed the 2017 edition of what I have dubbed the “Tour de Annual Conference,” where I attend sessions of the Mississippi and Kentucky annual conferences. I feel that since Mississippi is giving me financial aid for seminary it’s vital that I continue to participate in the life of that conference. Likewise, as I am serving in Kentucky I am there to represent my congregation and to participate in the conference which is allowing me to serve.

Just as other annual conferences have done/will do, Mississippi and Kentucky took up the proposed constitutional amendments that General Conference passed for affirmation or defeat by the annual conferences. Both Bishop James Swanson (Mississippi) and Bishop Leonard Fairley (Kentucky) issued a reminder that while the ministry of licensed local pastors is important, they are not allowed to vote on these amendments. I do believe that their words were sincere but it was also a reminder of a major injustice that has been allowed to take place in the United Methodist Church that has been mostly ignored.

In a nutshell, licensed local pastors are not treated as equals.

Currently, I am a licensed local pastor (LLP). I became licensed during the 2013 session of the Mississippi Annual Conference, the last class of new licensees to be part of Mississippi’s Ordering of Ministry service (the explanation is that LLPs are not actually licensed until they receive an appointment, so now they are recognized and presented their licenses once appointments are set). I affirm this vital part of ministry because I am doing it now, but I do intend to pursue ordination after I complete seminary.

For various reasons, some LLPs – either by calling or their life circumstances – choose to remain as LLPs for their ministry careers. In order to do this. LLPs are required to complete the prescribed Course of Study (which takes several years) and to participate in continuing education. Under our current polity, LLPs are not ordained and can only perform the duties of an Elder within the parameters of their appointment. Elders are always Elders but one is only an LLP as long as they are under appointment. No appointment, no license. In that vein, LLPs are also not guaranteed an appointment.

Most of the LLPs I have had the pleasure to know are committed to their church. While some, like me, are not cradle Methodists, LLPs are no less committed to their church and have invested much time and energy into becoming better pastors and in serving their congregations well. Most participate in the life of their annual conference and districts.

And yet, LLPs are not allowed to vote on constitutional amendments or to serve as delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference.

Increasingly, the United Methodist Church is having to rely more and more on LLPs in order to ensure that as many congregations as possible have a pastor, lest we return to the circuit rider model where a pastor may oversee many churches at once, often serving the sacraments and preaching at each congregation once a quarter and utilizing lay preachers to fill in the gaps. The numbers from the Lewis Center tell the story. Here’s a quote from an article that United Methodist News Service ran about the rise of LLPs that uses numbers from GCFA and the Lewis Center:

The denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration reports that from 2010 to 2015, the number of ordained elders and provisional member elders serving churches dropped from 15,806 to 14,614.

Though the denomination was shrinking in the United States, local pastors appointed to churches climbed from 6,193 to 7,569 in that time. Both full-time and part-time local pastor numbers grew, with the latter growing faster.

The Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center, has long followed United Methodist clergy trends. He notes that in 1990, elders outnumbered local pastors 5 to 1. That ratio is roughly 2 to 1 now, and drops further when looking just at those in church appointments.

Conferences vary widely in clergy makeup, but the West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma Indian Missionary and Red Bird Missionary conferences had more local pastors than elders serving churches as of summer 2015, according to GCFA. Some other conferences, such as Upper New York, East Ohio, North Alabama and Missouri, are close, and still others acknowledge they are highly dependent on this growing category of clergy.

In other words, the ranks of the ordained are shrinking and the ranks of LLPs are growing. It seems fair to speculate that this trend is not going to change anytime soon.

Other research which has been widely publicized indicates that the numbers of bi-vocational pastors are going to rise to the point that there will come a day where one who is truly in full-time pastoral ministry will be limited only to the largest of congregations.

There are all sorts of reasons why one would choose not to attend seminary but one is certainly the cost (even with financial aid, students often come out of seminary with a heavy load of debt). There also has to be consideration given to the number of people who are coming into pastoral ministry as second or even third career persons.

All of this is to say that the UMC must change the way it treats LLPs as the church’s reliance on LLPs increases. This is not to say that ordination does not still have a place (remember, I plan to pursue ordination) but we must start treating LLPs as equals. Currently, the Book of Discipline indicates that LLPs do not have a vote on constitutional amendments, can not vote for or serve as delegates to General and Jurisdictional conferences, and there is also virtually nothing that an LLP can vote on in the clergy executive session to which they are amenable to.

It should be noted that lay delegates to the annual conference have full voice and vote on constitutional amendments, lay delegates to GC and JC, and other matters not related to ordination and clergy connection. The LLP who potentially serves their congregation does not. If for no other reason than the equalization of clergy and lay representation, this issue needs to be addressed.

I also note that there is a disconnect between how LLPs are treated by leadership and the ordained clergy. I have not personally experienced this but I have heard from many LLPs that they feel very disconnected from the conference due to events and other matters seemingly geared more toward the ordained clergy. Some LLPs do not even feel obligated to participate in district and conference events or even Course of Study due to the perception that they are viewed as second class or that the leadership does not care about them. I have to acknowledge that this is sometimes due to the LLP choosing not to participate in the life of the connection but I also do not doubt that some have been outright mistreated. Conference and district leadership must begin to take LLPs seriously and to hold them accountable.

So I’ve given my thoughts on this topic long enough so now I would like to propose some changes that I would like to see made. I do not have all the answers. I also do not know how some of this would be implemented, but others do and I hope that they will be willing to take some of this on.

  • LLPs must be held accountable so that they finish their educational requirements, take continuing education, and participate in the life of the larger connection. With greater respect and responsibility comes greater accountability. This is probably one of the biggest issues with LLPs at this time. I know for a fact that there are LLPs who have been continued for many years and have made little to even no progress in Course of Study and do not attend anything dealing with the conference or district. LLPs must be connectional and must be willing to submit to fulfilling their educational requirements of they want to be treated as equals.
  • If an LLP refuses to abide by these standards, they should be discontinued. There is no reason to keep someone in an appointment when they refuse to be held to the standard simply for the sake of having a warm body. This does not serve the church or the Kingdom. LLPs who refuse to pursue their education, who refuse to participate in the connection, or who are found to have doctrine and practices that are contrary to that of the United Methodist Church should be removed. To do otherwise is unacceptable.
  • LLPs who have completed either Course of Study or seminary (some with seminary education choose to remain LLPs) should be given full voice and vote in the clergy session (except on matters directly dealing with granting probationary status or the ordination of Elders and Deacons), be allowed to vote on constitutional amendments, to vote for and be eligible to be elected as delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference. With the number of LLPs rising, it simply does not make sense for LLPs to not have representation.
  • Upon the recommendation of the LLP’s DCOM and approval of the Clergy Session, an LLP who is making satisfactory progress on their education should be allowed to vote for delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference (but not allowed to serve as delegates) and to vote on constitutional amendments. Again, a LLP who is serving and following the standards and rules should not be deprived of their voice and vote on matters that will impact them. This is not fair and, frankly, does not make sense.
  • Course of Study should be offered with the traditional classroom method along with the option to complete CoS online. This would give more flexibility for LLPs to complete Course of Study faster and in a timeframe and method which would be more conducive to their schedule. This is with bi-vocational pastors in mind but all LLPs would be able to potentially complete Couse of Study faster.
  • Those who pursue seminary should be allowed to complete their Master of Divinity degrees entirely online. Currently, one can complete 2/3 of work online with the remaining 1/3 being obtained in residential classes (often as intensives which meet for a week or two on campus). With modern technology, there is absolutely no reason why one should not be able to complete seminary online. The ability to complete the degree online should not be a replacement for the traditional classroom model but should be allowed to be an option for those who do wish to pursue a seminary education. Not only would this be a benefit to one who wishes to remain an LLP but would also be wonderful for those who wish to pursue ordination.

Licensed Local Pastors are vital to the ministry of the United Methodist Church. Licensed Local Pastors provide vital ministry to small rural churches, at least one megachurch in Texas, and in congregations in between. If current trends hold, LLPs will outnumber Elders at some point. It’s time for LLPs to be treated as equals but also to be held to the same standards of participation and sound doctrine as their ordained brothers and sisters. This injustice in the UMC has been ignored for far too long. It’s time for this to be made right.

And if others won’t work toward it, someday when I’m able… I will.

#StillUM

StillUMThis week I’m attending this year’s session of the Mississippi Annual Conference. I feel that since they are paying for part of my seminary education, I should continue to participate in the life of my home annual conference with my presence, even now when I don’t have voice or vote on the plenary floor. I have thoroughly enjoyed connecting with several friends and witnessing the business side of the church in action. I know many people who don’t enjoy this part of being a United Methodist but I actually look forward to it. I will even get another dose of the fun next week when I represent Shiloh at the session of the Kentucky Annual Conference in Bowling Green.

The practice in Mississippi for as long as I have been part of the Annual Conference has been to deal with matters pertaining to church closures on the final day, but instead, they made this one of the first items of business. As has been extensively covered in Methodist media, two congregations – The Orchard and Getwell – reached agreements to leave the  Mississippi Annual Conference. These disassociations have been very controversial so apparently, the decision was made to go ahead and deal with these official closures.

While sitting in the gallery, I heard several passionate speeches about the situation and the closing of churches in general. By far, the best speech was one given by Rev. Chris McAlily whose father, Bishop Bill McAlily, was the founding pastor of Getwell. The closure of churches is always painful but, as Chris stated, this is different because we were not dealing with the death of congregations. Instead, we were finalizing a divorce.

I am very disappointed that these congregations chose to leave. Both congregations cited the human sexuality issue as a “distraction” to their ministry and, therefore, decided that leaving was their best course of action. May God bless their ministries. These are still brothers and sisters in Christ and I wish them nothing but the best. I remain disappointed and, to a degree, angry over this situation. I still, however, hope their ministries are fruitful and that God does great things through them.

But I maintain that, now, leaving is not the best course of action.

There may come a time when I and many others may have to discern whether remaining part of the United Methodist Church or if going elsewhere is in the best interest of my calling that God has given to me. Now is not that time. I remain hopeful that we can figure out some way to remain together so that the word “united” in United Methodist Church is not merely decoration or lip service. God has me at this table, I am attending a seminary that produces more United Methodist ordained clergy than any of the 13 official seminaries of the UMC, I am serving in a United Methodist congregation, and I intend to remain in the UMC until I feel that the time has come for me to go. But again I say, now is not that time.

My hope is that I am not alone.

That is why my profile picture on my Twitter and Facebook pages are the image at the beginning of this post. I made this image as a way of saying that I am still a UM and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This is also a declaration that I will continue to pray for the United Methodist Church and I remain committed to its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Do you feel the same way? I invite you to join this mini-movement and declare that you are a proud United Methodist and that you are not going anyway. Our first obligation and loyalty should absolutely be to God but if you are a United Methodist clergyperson or layperson, God has us here because this is where he wants us to work for him. If you feel the way I do, save the picture and use it on your social media. Use the hashtag #StillUM when making posts.

For those of us who are in the UMC, God has us planted here. Let’s bloom.

#StillUM