#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.

The Power of Words

powerofwords“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” Yehuda Berg

We see them everywhere. You’re seeing them now: Words. Whether spoken, written, posted, shared, blogged, tweeted, or even thought, words are powerful things. Words can build up, words can tear down. Words can encourage, and words can discourage. There is a reason that an English author by the name of Edward Bulwer-Lytton quipped, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

As a pastor, I am constantly searching for the right words to communicate a message that will give God a smile and help someone grow closer to the Lord. Sometimes I feel like God helps me to find the words easily, while sometimes I find myself searching for a long time. The words that I use as I preach and pray are vital and I want to make sure that I’m using the best ones possible. Words shape our perception of everything from food to God.

Our words carry great power, therefore we have a great responsibility to use them properly.

One of the biggest pet peeves that I have is the use of corporate jargon. Phrases such as “going forward,” and “best practices” sound like nails on a chalkboard to me. When I hear people say these kinds of things in everyday conversation, I can’t help but look at them as if they are crazy. Buzzwords in general really bother me. My experience has been when one uses such phrases they are only trying to make themselves sound educated and well-versed in whatever business they are engaged in.

Unfortunately, I have noticed the same in ministers.

More and more, I’m noticing pastors, lay ministers, and churches using more and more jargon. A lot of these words seem to be derived from the corporate world, but there are also a lot of “churchy” buzzwords making their way into the fray.

Here’s my question: Why?

Being a seminary student, I seem to be exposed to a lot more of these buzzwords compared to everyday folks. Walking around the quad and overhearing conversations containing words and phrases such as “intentionality,” “creative discipleship” and of ministries being “transformational” is a nearly everyday occurrence. It drives me crazy.

It needs to stop.

The reason I feel this way is not just my personal disdain for buzzwords but a concern I have that using such language simply does not meet people where they are. That in addition to the fact that I think using such words sounds pompous and otherwise just plain stupid. People who are seeking Christ are not going to care what our latest “discernment” (which, let’s be honest, is typically nothing more than an attempt at polite manipulation) on how to properly “do life” is. And they certainly are not going to give much thought to exactly what it means to “be intentional” about prayer, scripture reading, or eating fried chicken at the next potluck.

I don’t have to tell you that Jesus excelled at many things during his ministry, but one thing is really excelled at was truly meeting people where they were. He often used parables so everyday people without temple education could better grasp the point he was attempting to make and used language that people could easily understand. Perhaps I’m crazy and not hip to the latest ministry trends, but I feel that we should “go and do likewise.” It’s great that I and others like me are in seminary (or have been) and are getting (or got) great educations, but at the end of the day, people have to be able to understand what in the heck we’re trying to tell them. Using buzzwords is not going to advance the cause of Christ one bit.

I admit, I’m guilty of using some of these terms, but really it was an attempt to fit in. One piece of advice I received when I first began to preach was not to “use ten dollar words when a word that cost a dime will do.” As pastors, we must make sure that people feel like we can be approached and sounding too smart for the crowd is only going to alienate us from the people we are supposed to be ministering to.

Outspoken and very much non-traditional Lutheran pastor Rev. Nadia Boltz-Webber had this suggestion for using such buzzwords:

Let’s make sure that in seminary classrooms and at church conferences and in congregational life when we use a term or a phrase, that it points to an actual thing, or person or event and is not just a string of words that sound like something meaningful but in fact, lack real meaning. There is a reason that my computer does not recognize the word Missional.

When it comes to using churchy jargon and buzzwords, let’s keep it simple and weigh the cost of our words carefully.

Wakey, Wakey, Blog

wake-up-and-be-awesome-wooden-sign-closeupHas it really been almost two years since I posted here? Apparently it has. Wow.

Lots of things in my life have changed, I’m a little older, I’m a little wiser… Well, two out of three isn’t bad. For real, lots of things have changed. I’m going to try and write here a little more often because I have always found writing to be therapeutic.

I need lots of therapy.

I’m still a paramedic. Also, I’m still a United Methodist pastor, serving a congregation just outside of Meridian, Mississippi. I have entered my final semester as a student at Liberty University and I anticipate enrolling in seminary in the Fall Semester. If all goes as I hope and pray that it does, Jessica and I will be moving to Kentucky so I can attend Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore.

There is one other significant change that has taken place since I posted here. The change is both amazing and tragic, a truly bittersweet part of who I am now. On December 8, 2014, I became a father.

And the same day, about an hour later, I learned what it is like to lose a child.

The day that my daughter, Hannah, was born was supposed to be a joyous day. In part, it was. It was also one of the saddest days I have ever lived to tell about. I was at work just doing my typical paramedic things. Jessica had been put on bed rest and was seeing her doctor twice a week. On this day she was at her usual appointment and next thing we knew she was being sent to the hospital for some extra monitoring. We had noticed Hannah not moving as much as normal but didn’t think much about it at the time. Plus Jessica had been under observation before so, again, we just didn’t think much about it.

The next thing I know, Jessica calls me and tells me that nurses are running around and she is scared. I left work and went to the hospital. My EMS station was just up the road from the hospital so it was less than 15 minutes later that I was there. By the time I had arrived, Hannah had been born by emergency C-section. Soon after I found out that Hannah was not going to live. When all the pieces were put together, we found out that nothing we did or didn’t do caused any of this to occur. Hannah had somehow gotten sick and basically gone into heart failure, which caused her other organs to fail. It was a heart wrenching day. Probably the worst part of this whole thing is that we still don’t have all of the answers that we would like to have about Hannah’s death. Unfortunately, we may never know.

This is an ugly fraternity that Jessica and I have found ourselves in, the dismal one called “Angel Parents.” Jessica and I are mom and dad, yet our daughter isn’t here. It’s a strange feeling. Some wound argue that we truly are not parents but I say that is not true. I saw my baby. I held my baby. I rejoiced that, even if for a brief moment, I got to see a part of me alive. Even though Hannah is with God, I am still her daddy and I always will be. While we are sad, we also celebrate that Hannah didn’t have to linger long in a NICU. It doesn’t make it any easier, however.

Jessica and I have learned a lot through this experience and we are still learning. One thing that I think she and I can both agree on is that God will allow us to minister to others who are in this position. In that, I can take comfort. But right now, as we are still grieving, we are thankful for the many, many people who have ministered to us. There’s no way we can adequately express our gratitude.

I would like to go ahead and share some tips for dealing with people who have suffered this kind of loss. First, do not criticize. Do not criticize anything parents who lose their child do or don’t do as a result of their loss. People grieve in different ways. One’s grief is theirs, that grief does not belong to anyone else. No one has the right to tell someone how to grieve.

Also, the reaction of many people when they hear that a couple have lost their baby at birth is to ask, “what happened? What did they do wrong?” More often than not, the answer is “nothing.” This type of loss is tragic and the vast majority of the time is through no fault of either parent. Don’t do it.

This one grates on my nerves more than anything, especially since we’ve been on the receiving end of it now: Do not, and I mean do not, ever tell someone that it was “God’s will” that their baby died or say other pithy things like “God just needed another angel.” Now, I know people who say these things mean well. Sometimes these statements are born out of not knowing what to say (and if that is the case, to say nothing would be the better response). As a pastor, I can tell you that such theology is flat wrong. Not only is it not true but it’s damaging and anything but comforting. A God who takes children away from his or her parents is not a God that I could believe in, let alone proclaim.

So that’s all I have on my mind at the moment. I will write more on this, I’m sure. And I will also write of the other things that come about as we prepare for a big year of transition. Thanks for hanging with us on the long, bumpy ride.

Jonathan