Archive for April, 2013

Resurrection Church: Hope from Death

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Ive often heard from my more properly-mannered counterparts that if I dont have anything nice to say, I shouldnt say anything at all. Well, Im not quite as properly mannered as them, so Ive always got quite a few things to say, particularly about General Conference 2012, now that were a year down the road looking back upon the wreckage. In the colloquial language of my generation, it was a hot mess.

And here we are, a year after that holy hot mess, trying to navigate another quadrennium of this terrible wonderful church. A church that still excludes queer people from ordination, that cannot even agree to disagree on the words that do harm, that we areincompatible with Christian teaching.A church still facing the reality of shrinking attendance in the US. A church which, in my humble opinion, needs to get its act together. And in spite of all that, a church we all (presumably) still love.

That is the reality we still face. Our reality has not changed, as no shocking policy or operational changes were made at General Conference. And yet we continue moving forward, some of us convinced that the struggle to change these realities must go on, others convinced that that struggle and those realities are no longer ones they wish to claim as their own.

We face a choicedo we continue to work to change our reality, all the while living as though that reality were never the case or do we abandon all hope of change, pessimistically believing that the reality will never change?

In a recent conversation with a very wise friend, a comment she made shed a completely different light on the problem. She said simply that no system is flawed. All systems are designed to produce exactly the results they produce. Simply that. Nothing more, nothing less.

The primary problem is not poor church metrics or ineffective evangelism. It is neither the rather high average age of clergy nor that of congregants. It is not poor ministry and outreach at the local level nor is it wastefulness and inefficiency at the general level. It is not even the General Conferences constant refusal to strike harmful language about queer people and allow the church to become more inclusive.

Those are not themselves the "problems", but rather the products of the whole system and its setup.

So that's where we are. The system itself is set up to fail. What do we do, then? Do we sit back and let it come to a self-destructive point of utter failure and rebuild from the ashes? Do we continue the efforts to reform the system? Do we abandon it entirely and let go of all feeling of ownership or responsibility?

I'm not sure there is an easy answer to that question. I personally feel pulled in all directions by it. To be perfectly honest, it is generally on my most optimistic days when I am ready to let the system collapse and prepare myself to be willing to help with the rebuilding efforts.

At General Conference it was preached over and over that The UMC is a “resurrection church.” At the time, I wasn't sure what that meant in the face of the rhetoric of the supposedly “dying church.” If we believe in the power of the resurrection, shouldn't we be willing to just let it die and mourn it, followed by the rebuilding and resurrection that naturally follows? I often wonder how much we really do believe in the resurrection if we're constantly fighting to save the church from self-destruction.

In Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus tells the disciples (really he sings) that “To conquer death, you only have to die.” Maybe there's something we need to learn there– a lesson in how to really resurrect The UMC.

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Kara Crawford is a Mission Intern serving with New Day UMC and the UMC's Ministry with the Poor Focus Area where she coordinates community action and communications. Kara loves reading and is fluent in Spanish, a skill she used profusely as an educator and organizer for women in Bogota, Colombia.

Preparing Our UMC for Pentecost!

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

The next two weeks are going to be a critical time for The United Methodist Church.  The Connectional Table (CT), called to bring together all of our connectional ministries, will meet in Chicago next week.  I like to envision them meeting at a large round table in Camelot, attempting to bring all of our worldwide ministries together. The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), the money folk and current drivers of so much of our agenda as a denomination, will be meeting May 2 to 3.  If you don’t believe me when I say that money is driving ministry, “at the 2008 General Conference, a Petition (#81071) ‘General Church Support’ was referred to GCFA to form a study group, in conjunction with the CT, to explore alternative structures for the apportioned general funds of the UMC.” The result was the CT investing a half million dollars and two years on re-structuring… and the restructuring debacle of General Conference (GC) 2012 was born!  Finally, the active Bishops will be holding a closed door, “private meeting” in San Diego on May 5 to 8.  They are doing this even though several of us who asked to be present at the Council of Bishop’s (COB) meeting in November were informed that it was “a retreat meeting – and it is closed to ANYONE other than bishops and their spouses.”  However, we were reassured “the next open meeting of the COB will be in San Diego in May of 2013.”  I guess our Bishops either need more retreat time, or they are weary of growing criticisms and imagined that a closed door session might instill more trust.  (Just a reminder for all you Methogeeks out there: Paragraph 722 of the 2012 Book of Discipline says that “in the spirit of openness and accountability, all meetings of councils… of the Church at all levels of the church… shall be open”).

 The next two weeks are formational preparations times for these three key leadership groups. They will be focusing on how to lead the UMC through what appears to be four of the most crucial years in United Methodism’s short 45 year history.  What are we facing? Financial ruin, societal irrelevance and a dying colonialist institution in a post-colonialist world – interconnected pieces of the global United Methodist puzzle! 

Here are five things impacting current discussions that every United Methodist should know:

1)      Approximately 33,750 US UM Churches will be asked to pay around $4,500/year (through 2016) in apportioned funds, to support our worldwide, connectional ministries.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that’s what your individual congregation’s apportionment will look like.  There is a complex formula that GCFA uses to determine the amount of apportioned dollars for which each Annual Conference is responsible.  That apportioned formula (on pages 42-45) is online.

2)      Another interesting fact about apportionments is that your congregation’s apportionments are impacted by “per capita income for the counties that comprise the conference’s geographic area” and “by adding (1) local church clergy expenses, (2) local church current operating expenses, and (3) payments toward budgeted annual conference costs (excluding general Church apportionments).”  In other words, if your Annual Conference is in a more affluent region, your apportionments will be slightly higher.  My question for GCFA is this: does this explain why per capita giving is slightly higher than average in the Western, North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions (40% of the US UMC) as opposed to the slightly lower than average per capita giving of the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions (60% of the US UMC)?

3)      Last financial fact: Central Conferences (Europe, Africa and the Philippines; representing 33% of the UMC membership worldwide) do not pay apportionments (except for 10% of their Episcopal Fund – all costs associated with their Bishops).  This means Central Conferences contribute little more than $2.25 million of the annual apportioned total of over $150 million.

4)      The United Methodist Church is declining or stagnate in all Jurisdictions in the US.  For the first time, in 2005 – 2008, we saw a decline in Central Conferences.  However, the Central Conference decline can be explained by regional difficulties and is expected to revert to a growth pattern. In fact, the Central Conferences are expected to represent 40% of the worldwide UMC by 2016.  Also, note that Annual Conferences of Central Conference do not have to do things the same way as US Annual Conferences. They have a constitutional right “to make such rules and regulations for the administration of the work within their boundaries including such changes and adaptations of the General Discipline as the conditions in the respective areas may require, subject to the powers that have been or shall be vested in the General Conference” (UM Book of Discipline ¶31.Article IV.5).

5)      Three of our five US Jurisdictions are currently studying how they are and will continue to relate to the overall denomination given the reality that they do not have similar freedoms and latitude as the Central Conferences.  Yes, this has much to do with differences in faithful understandings around some heated social issues, but for many who have raised the need for study, this has as much to do with their understanding of being faithful United Methodists and being relevant to the congregations and communities they serve.  Some fear this to be the precursor to a denominational schism along Jurisdictional lines.  I don’t believe such an action will, or even should, happen!  However, unless our highly politicized and divided denomination finds some way to compromise, the continued decline of the UMC in the US, the perceived irrelevance among younger US citizens, and, the rapid movement toward financial ruin is all but inevitable.

I was so grateful to find some hope this week.  I found hope within the documents of something I’ve been highly skeptical and critical: the “Vital Congregations” movement within the UMC.  The document is called, “Toward Vitality Research Project: Final Report” (TVRP) and I encourage you to read it with an open heart and mind!  The team interviewing congregations that had gone through a process of change that they felt led them to more vitality in ministry (not quantitative – numbers, but quality – ministries), found something interesting. “Often congregational leaders who related this experience of change were unable to verbalize what happened. In listening to these stories over and over again, the interview team affirmed that the Holy Spirit had descended on these congregations… The three strands (Eccl. 4:12) that seem to be universal in all the interviews… conducted across all lines of diversity are (1) a clergy leader who is not afraid of change, (2) laypeople in leadership who partner with the clergy leader, and (3) a sense of God’s vision/purpose to fuel mission and ministry. When these three factors work well together, a vital and enthusiastic ministry is the outcome!”  I’d invite our Bishops to see themselves as the clergy of their Annual Conference congregations!

As I read through this TVRP report, I couldn’t help but imagine all three of these important meetings taking place over the next two weeks.  Everyone worried about what will be the fate of our beloved UMC.  Some even behind closed doors in some private (maybe upper) room.  Everyone wants to find a way to save what we perceive we had, even though there is no way to revive what was.  Instead, we might allow the Ruach, the Holy presence of God to blow through us, so we can start facing the real changes that need to occur to make our people want to be a part of the new thing we are doing.  Then we might find support for our connectional work by everyone’s prayers, presence, gifts, witness and service.

Rather than trying to control the outcome and force something that causes the UMC as an institution to implode; “This new understanding commonly involved a decentering of the ministry. Instead of focusing on the pastor, the ministry was focused on the calls and the gifts of the people in the church, with the pastor working to emphasize empowerment, rather than detailed, hands-on leadership… The role of the pastor in these churches was to communicate the need for change and the methods of change, exercise authority where needed, and resolve conflicts that could not be resolved otherwise.  For many, this is a new—or perhaps rediscovered—paradigm for what it means to be a church.”

Come on CT, CGFA and Bishops – be those pastoral leaders, don’t try to control the Church, but don’t be afraid to challenge us –really challenge us – either.  The fate of the UMC is not in your hands, so let the Spirit flow freely and then invite us ALL in to help create this new and Spirit filled United Methodist Church!  We’re waiting… see you in two weeks… travel well and know that our hearts and prayers are with you!  With Love, The Church!
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Rev. Steve Clunn serves as the Coalition Coordinator for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Clergy in the Upper New York Annual Conference, Steve's work at MFSA focuses on coordinating United Methodist caucus groups in their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo of Bi-National Couple Courtesy of JeeHye Kim Pak. Copyright 2013. Used with permission.

Unwelcome Visitors in Taybeh Village

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Communities have a character, too: towns project personas. There is an ancient village, which was once called Ophrah and later Ephraim, where Jesus visited after raising Lazarus. Sultan Saladin renamed that village “Taybeh”, which in Arabic means “good and kind”, when he met its residents in the twelfth century. Ramallah flourished to their West and they were all Christians, before, as they are today. Taybeh claims the title of ‘last Christian village’.

I know Taybeh. We met for the first time when I helped shepherd fifty Bethlehem children from the ruins of a crusader chapel to the Catholic and Orthodox churches and, eventually, to visit the elderly in Taybeh’s nursing home. The village is not just a piece of Arab Christian heritage but also a strong pillar in the West Bank community. We wanted the young Bethlehemites to grow-up with the sense that they, too, have a stake in the life of Taybeh village.

During Oktoberfest weekend in the village, I socialized with visiting internationals and our good, kind hosts from the brewery, municipality, and local businesses. The local beer came in several varieties, including a delicious nonalcoholic ‘halal’ brew that was suitable for all, whether underage or abstaining. We went on a hiking tour of the surrounding hill-country and I felt much closer to the land than I had before. I made gorgeous memories in those hills. My affection for all things Taybeh heightened my outrage at the latest violation.

Taybeh’s monastery and chapel were forcibly taken hostage by Israeli settlers. These hate crimes are not new: photos of the tainted Latrun monastery in East Jerusalem are re-circulating and one need only browse a little further to see that other churches and mosques are falling prey to hateful graffiti and other shows of power. On October 5th of last year, Religious and Civil Society leaders gathered in Bethlehem for a conference they called “Together Against Racism”. A film about Holy Site desecration was screened and followed by statements from bishops, imams, and elected officials. In the final forty minutes, several lay people came to the microphone as well.

Yet those other places are not like Taybeh, to me. It was as if someone I had met and befriended personally was suddenly on the news, the victim of an assault. The impact of the hate crime fell unusually close to my heart because of my treasured memories, of course, but also because of what Taybeh represents: an enduring presence that is “good and kind” but also clever and vibrant, nestled in those storied hills with their ancient churches and joyous beer festival. People deliberately went into that historically welcoming community without consent and did things they knew would cause feelings of hurt, helplessness, and shame.

Hate is more than a feeling. Hate is a bitter resolve that undergirds every committed effort to demean, fragment, and control. More than just hate speech, than mere words of distaste, these were forceful incursions. Settlers’ deliberate attempts to dishonor and agitate are nasty and the Christian community outside of Palestine cannot afford to omit being equally intentional about loving and supporting insulted communities. Our collective soul is at stake.  

Taybeh’s offenses were being Palestinian, Christian, jolly, and (now) famous. The people who live there cannot be mistaken for the caricatures peddled shamelessly by pundits and politicians to fuel their agendas. Taybeh’s neighbors in the Ramallah governorate are largely also a mismatch for those archetypes and the time has arrived where we need an intentional culture of respectful acceptance, demonstrated last autumn at the Bethlehem conference. We can all be more ‘Taybeh’ by mirroring the welcome they gave Saladin 900 years ago. It is fitting that Taybeh became unwaveringly Christian in the wake of welcoming its neighbors from another faith tradition.

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JD (John Daniel) Gore is a young adult missionary working through the General Board of Global ministries. JD serves Methodist Federation for Social Action as the 'Associate for Movement Building' and worked previously in Bethlehem for The Wi'am Center. JD is a product of the Michigan State Wesley Foundation and of greater West Michigan. He aspires to work for a culture of acceptance and collective responsibility through better dialogue, both in higher education and the general public.

Message in a Bottle: Let Justice Flow like a River

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

I came to Belize in 2008 for a one-month, intensive course in sociology. Our class made a field-visit to the dump. Trash-picking was not necessarily a desperate act of abject poverty but the secret income of working-class people who came from Guatemala to forage for material: mostly, metal and glass to resell to manufacturers. Some plastics were also salvageable but  no expertise was needed to see that plastic water-bottles were not. Pickers cast them aside into giant piles, like bubble mountains, because the company that manufactured them preferred to make more new bottles while the old ones inundated the dump.

If readers expect me to point out how much energy it takes to make a plastic bottle, they will not be disappointed. I can google that and so can you: estimates are somewhere between 3 and 5 “megajoules” making them (hard to visualize). The production process takes additional water, so that one liter to drink could represent around three expended. Add to that hauling them over land and sea using fossil fuels (easier to visualize) and we might begin to imagine our footprint. Many of us walk around with reusable bottles, feeling good about ourselves, without asking a key question: “why are people in Belize drinking so much bottled water?”

Because a foreign-owned electric-company dammed their river. Unable to flush itself naturally, the river has stagnated and its water must be heavily treated to prevent disease. Each time I took a shower, I felt like I was in a swimming pool – it’s undrinkable. The best option are five gallon jugs that can be purchased at local grocery stores and returned, which are then refilled using energy from the same dam. The electric company is building another dam to harness more energy, causing even more stagnation and damage to the river eco-system. While I was there in 2008, they created an intentional black-out to show the people and government of Belize just how much leverage they have.

Bottled-water is more than a carbon foot-print sitting in a vending machine: it is a cosmetic solution to problems in and around how we obtain the water our bodies need. This reminds me of a recent film version of Seuss’s “The Lorax”, where an entrepreneur capitalizes on ‘thnead’ pollution by starting to bottle clean air and sell it. Bottled water manufacturers might make a quality product but that product should be optional. Citizens in industrialized countries find is easier to leverage their affluence and avoid drinking tap water rather than using their influence to improve water access and quality for all God’s creation. The planet pays the price via carbon emissions, no matter what their public relations rhetoric insists. To add insult to injury, the debris produced is worthless to the market that created it , getting underfoot for diligent garbage pickers.

There are several actions we could launch from this point. We can cut that carbon foot-print by saying “no” to the bottle. We can go several steps further and create clean water sources in distressed places, becoming part of efforts already in progress. To tackle the central and essential problem, we must address corporate manipulation of basic needs and the environment we share. Too often, potential advocates balk at promoting what is ‘green’ out of fear they will be painted ‘red’ – as if restoring the river to the people of Belize was an assault on all free-markets! Putting community needs above a corporation’s interests, no matter how ‘unfair’ to stockholders, is not a destructive act of communism: this is the proper order of priorities. A river should be neither monopolized nor degraded. Furthermore, the flora and fauna of that water-shed cannot speak for themselves and need representation.

It is what the Lorax would do. Will you join me?

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JD (John Daniel) Gore is a young adult missionary working through the General Board of Global ministries. JD works with Methodist Federation for Social Action as the 'Associate for Movement Building' and worked previously in Bethlehem for The Wi'am Center. From West Michigan, JD is a product of the Michigan State Wesley Foundation. He aspires to work for a culture of acceptance and collective responsibility through better dialogue, both in higher education and the general public. 

Praying for Boston, Standing for Peace

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – April 16, 2013 – In the wake of the bombing at yesterday’s Boston Marathon, the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) offers its thoughts and prayers to the families of those killed and those injured, first responders and caretakers, participants of the marathon, and the people of Boston.

“Violence in any form is anathema to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” says Chett Pritchett, MFSA’s Interim Executive Director.  “Our contemporary culture of violence is no longer limited to our televisions and movie screens. It has taken hold of the public square – our schools, our workplaces, and our celebrated community rituals. The Church must not only be a soothing balm when such violence occurs, but take a pro-active stand against the culture of violence leading to so great a harm.”

Sean Delmore, a member of the New England Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, states, “In a time in which fear might take hold, it is important to remember that Boston is a city of immigrants and sojourners. Instead of fearing those who might fit a certain profile, I urge us to remember Jesus’ command to love your neighbor.”

“Bostonians are resilient people,” asserts Pritchett. “We commend the work of congregations and social service agencies in reaching out to those with questions and needs in this time of uncertainty. We thank Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the Boston Episcopal Area and Reverend LaTrelle Easterling, District Superintendent of the Boston Metro District, for providing leadership to The United Methodist Church in the Boston region at such a time as this.”

Since 1907, the Methodist Federation for Social Action has worked to mobilize, lead, and sustain a progressive movement, energizing people to be agents of God’s justice, peace, and reconciliation. As an independent, faith-based organization, MFSA leads both Church and society on issues of peace, poverty, people’s rights, progressive issues, and justice within The United Methodist Church.

 

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Rolling Away the Stone of Mental Illness

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Everything about Easter is celebratory; Lent and Holy Week are always ushered out as throngs of the faithful gather to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. As I led worship at my local church, I couldn’t help but look out over the sea of faces and wonder if maybe, just maybe, some of the parishioners were experiencing the same pain I was.

You see I suffer from clinical bi-polar depression, mental illness hits home for me. It took the life of my uncle; it’s changed my family in so many ways. However, to admit that I suffer from depression could be costly: to many it’s still taboo. We all walk around as survivors of mental illness, either directly or through a family member, but to admit such to one another would mean that we are somehow less perfect. To admit that we are in pain is to take away our neatly formed lives and realities.

It’s in those moments that I look to the resurrection. The women found the empty tomb, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.” Jesus appeared to Cleopas and his companion in the blindness of despair on the road to Emmaus. The one I have come to know as Lord is the one who appeared in the darkness, who gave voice to the light. So in that knowledge, I’m pretty sure Jesus is somewhere amidst the depression, the doctor visits, and hospital stays. So why aren’t we acknowledging the need for a conversation about mental healthcare in our country and world?

There are countless United Methodists and others who are entrusted to our care who desperately want to have a conversation about mental health. For me, a church member who knew of my illness and simply acknowledged it was a reminder of God’s present within the church. The second we give voice and acknowledge the problem we are then able to look for the solution.   

The solution will not come easily, there’s money involved, there’s power involved, there’s pride involved. But Jesus came into the world to confront problems such as these. If we follow this resurrected Lord into the forefront of the conversation, people will follow suit. When mental health is on our minds, we are able to shape church policy and care around those who need it most.

In the end, the resurrection for me means that, one-day, depression might not be an issue for me. Whether that happens on this side of heaven or not, I think I’m ok with it because in those moments of weakness Easter is there to remind me that darkness did not have the final say. Let’s start a conversation; let’s start a revolution. May this Easter season bring blessing to us all!

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Rob Lee is a Religious Studies student at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, with plans to attend seminary. A delegate to the 2012  General Conference, where he engaged others on a variety of social justice issues, he has been published with Reconciling Ministries Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and the Huffington Post. He currently writes a column for western North Carolina newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @roblee4 or on his blog, www.robleetheology.blogspot.com

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