Friday, February 12, 2016

Lent: A Time to Fast and Pray

Greetings in God’s Love!  

The Pre-GC Briefings in Central Conferences have begun!  

A question came to me at the briefing from a delegate in a rural area of the Philippines.  Because I spoke the language, he asked me the question in his native tongue.  Here was the question translated: “Why are our apportionments going up when we in our tiny rural farming community can barely pay for our pastor’s salary and our own ministries?  Why do we have to pay anything when we don’t see the benefits of paying our apportionments?”  As you all know, the Central Conferences are being asked to increase their contributions to the apportionments in some areas in order to get to our “equitable sharing of our God-given gifts” value which we have been conveying across the connection.  I told this man that this is the same question that is being asked in many rural faith communities in the United States and across other parts of our connection.  I did my best to articulate the gifts and graces of being a part of the body of Christ and sharing in blessings of abundance that God gives us when we remember one another and joyfully offer our “widow’s mite” for God’s mission through the Church.  

It really is a hard conversation to have when we see how many people throughout our connection are struggling to offer that “widow’s mite.”  It makes me all too aware of our deep role and responsibility in spending these God given resources called apportionments.  Remembering that they come from the rural farmer in the Philippines who is offering what little he has, entrusting us to do God’s work faithfully with his pesos.  It’s the same with the small rural churches throughout the U.S., who are struggling to keep their doors open as they watch their membership dwindle and they feel the pressure of bills accumulating and yet, they willingly offer to God their apportionments, expecting us to be good stewards of these resources.  This question is not necessarily just about money, it’s more about our ecclesiology and our stewardship.  Who are we as a church?  What are we doing with those resources?  This question is about whether or not this delegate trusts that we, as church leaders, are doing the right things with the precious resources they are entrusting to our care.  How are we building the Kingdom of God?  How are we bringing HOPE to the broken world with the money that has been set aside for this connectional work?  How are we offering Christ through every meeting, every gathering, every dollar that is spent?  Our understanding of our ecclesiology should be a part of this narrative of stewardship.  It’s not about what’s in it for ME (or my local church, or my annual conference, or my agency), it’s about Jesus Christ work in the world THROUGH each and every one of us!

As we continue to prepare for General Conference 2016, I know the delegates are going to be asking more questions like this farmer from the Philippines.  I pray that as the church, we will take time during this Season of Lent to search our own hearts and souls and be prepared to respond openly and honestly about how we have used God’s resources entrusted to us to “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World!”  Let us tell the stories of how Christ has helped cut the death rate of young children in Africa in half because of what he has done through our work on Imagine No Malaria!  Let us tell the stories of how Christ has used these gifts to ensure seminary students across our connection are receiving scholarships and E-reader resources because of what God has done through our collaborative partnerships.  Let us tell the stories of how we as the UMC have joined other ecumenical leaders to engage in deep and thoughtful dialogue about being partners in mission and ministry through our full communion relationships.  There are so many stories to tell how God has multiplied the “widow’s mite” through the people called United Methodist for the sake of the mission.  Prepare your hearts and minds this lent to listen carefully to the whispers of the Holy Spirit so that we might be better stewards of these resources AND lift up the stories that build up the Body of Christ ensuring those who doubt that God is still using the people in and through The United Methodist Church that we are being faithful!

Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, PhD
Executive Secretary
The Connectional Table.

Monday, February 1, 2016

What are the Essentials for Mission in a Worldwide United Methodist Connection?

We live and lead in a very troubled and divisive season of the United Methodist Church’s global movement. We are beleaguered and burdened by several unresolved issues, chief among them, matters related to human sexuality and the realities of being a world-wide denomination. Long-term, unresolved issues or questions lead to deep conflict and diminished productivity or mission effectiveness in any organization, including the Church. Further, the revivalist and evangelical energy that fueled and directed the early Methodist renewal movement has become increasingly shackled by our more contemporary experiences and expressions of polity, power and politics. Exceptions are found in pockets of innovation in the United States and in many of our missions and conferences outside the United States where the focus on reaching people and transforming lives and communities is often more organic and less “structured.”

There are many bright spots within our worldwide United Methodist connection that can, I believe, serve as a blueprint for a future with hope. One of the bright spots is the nearly universal affirmation and articulation of our mission. I will never forget the Sunday morning I worshipped with one of our United Methodist congregations in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the pastor began the service by reminding the congregants that their mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Many clergy and lay leaders have discerned more accessible ways to state this mission. The specific wording is not essential. But, what is essential to any organization, and particularly a world-wide church, is a clear, compelling and shared mission.

Likewise, the four areas of missional focus – developing principled Christian leaders, creating new places for new people and strengthening existing churches, ministry with the poor and stamping out the killer diseases of poverty – are proving essential expressions of congregational vitality for our world-wide connection. Many of our congregations, large and small, have embraced these four areas of focus as building blocks for their missions and evangelism ministries. They recognize that these four areas of focus are sound Wesleyan practices, and engagement in them bears kingdom fruit. The four areas of focus lead to vital congregations; and, vital congregations generate fruit in each of these areas of mission.

Another essential for mission effectiveness will be a recovery of connectionalism grounded in its historical purposes of fostering spiritual accompaniment and spreading scriptural holiness across the land. When the polity of The United Methodist Church adopted the characteristics of the emerging corporate and bureaucratic structures of late 19th century and early 20th century United States’ culture, connectionalism began to become synonymous with committee membership rather than discipleship, agencies rather than agents of transformation, paying apportionments rather than cultivating stewardship, and rules and regulations rather than missional entrepreneurship.

The Global Book of Discipline proposals coming from the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and endorsed by the Connectional Table, begin to offer a corrective essential for the mission of a worldwide church. While retaining our core beliefs and ecclesiology, the proposals move us away from disciplinary and structural obligations devoid of missional context toward greater flexibility and freedom to adapt to the missional needs and opportunities present across the globe. Similar proposals are being developed to extend these adaptive principles to the U.S. conferences as well.

Wesleyan connectionalism and its inherent evangelistic and pietistic impulses cannot survive in a regulatory environment. The “connection” can only foster growth and vitality in a rapidly changing, social-media driven world when we re-define or recover connectionalism as a spiritual, relational, adaptive and missional movement.

Vital local churches across the globe are also essential for the mission of the United Methodist connection. We affirm that local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs. The Council of Bishops has identified increasing the number of vital congregations as the critical adaptive challenge currently confronting the United Methodist connection. Why? Because local churches, with their multiple, diverse and entrepreneurial avenues of outreach can efficiently go to the people in the streets, the workplaces and our communities to offer the hope, healing and saving grace of Jesus. People worship God in local churches. People profess their faith in local churches. People engage in true Wesleyan holy conferencing in local churches. People are equipped and sent as witnesses through local churches. Local churches call forth and develop leaders. Local churches create new places for new people. Local churches are in ministry with the poor. Local churches bring healing to the world.

But, perhaps even more significantly, local churches are innovators. They can go to the edges of the connection and expand its reach and impact. They can move into the shadows where people are forgotten or forced to hide. They can go into the stress fractures that arise from our divisions and bind up the wounds. They can facilitate people seeing Christ in the “other.” They can give expression to orthodoxy through unorthodox methods. They can address unresolved matters by building relationships. They can spread scriptural holiness into the nooks and crannies, the highways and byways of cultures throughout the world. They can recover the vitality and power of a truly spiritual and practical “connection.” The innovative and adaptive energy of our local churches will likely determine the extent and impact of our Methodist revival movement in the 21st century.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Chair
Connectional Table
Dakota-Minnesota Episcopal Area

Monday, January 25, 2016

Essentials for Mission in a World Wide United Methodist Connection

When serving as pastor at one of our denomination's primary Heritage Landmark's, Historic St. George's Church (1767), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I was often asked what history reveals about the heart and soul of a United Methodist. My current work with the General Commission on Archives and History, affirms what I said back then all the more:

United Methodists are people whose relationship with God is grounded in A THEOLOGY OF LOVE AND INCLUSION. The distinctive theological text of our tradition, our hymnal, is the Wesley brothers’ cover-to-cover tome to God's jaw-dropping, amazing, boundless, boundary-breaking, life-igniting ALL consuming, merciful, redeeming, perfect, perfecting and sufficient love. More than pen to paper or note to score, our forebears believed, sang and gathered in ways to make it plain that God's love is fully available and must be made accessible to EVERYONE.

United Methodists are people who EXPERIENCE God's love and are TRANSFORMED by the encounter.  The Lay Leader in my home church, thought to be the congregation's model Christian, surprised everyone one day describing a fresh experience of spiritual renewal at work in his life; about faith moving from his head, where it had comfortably resided for years, to his heart, where he felt fervor as never before. All at once, that fire moved from head to heart, then to his hands and feet. From as far back as the Wesleys to this very moment, United Methodist DNA energizes the rational and doctrinal into the experiential, what John Wesley called "practical divinity." Our Book of Discipline's says: Our Theological Task is essentially practical. It informs individuals’ daily decisions and serves the church's life and work... incorporat[ing] the promises and demands of the gospel into our daily lives (The Book of Discipline, pg. 79).

United Methodists, propelled to put God's love into action become DIFFERENCE MAKERS. Grounded-in and experiencing the life-changing love of God, United Methodists can't sit still. The experience of "Amazing Grace" is dynamic. The Holy Spirit provides the energy. The United Methodist family album kept at the General Commission on Archives and History is chock-full of examples of Spirit-driven difference-makers. From the Wesleys, Otterbein, Albright and Boehm to Asbury, Allen and Hosier, from Francis Willard, William, Catherine Booth and Mary Mc Cleod Bethune to the Methodist-influenced Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Graca Machal, we have been and are witnesses in and to the world—in word and deed, personally and institutionally, collectively, spiritually, materially acting-out God's love demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On the verge of another General Conference, thinking about essentials for mission in a world-wide United Methodist connection, here's a UMC DNA test: How will what we decide and do demonstrate grounding in God's boundless, boundary-breaking love? How will what we decide and do bring people to a awe-struck, heart-stirring life-changing experience of  Jesus Christ? How will what we decide and do translate into a Spirit-filled, difference-making, invitation for those to whom God's love a stranger, bringing them to discover  people called United Methodist, as godly, generous friends?

Rev. Alfred T. Day III
General Secretary
Commission on Archives and History,