Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Defining Connectionalism

By: Rev. Meredith E. Hoxie Schol, Ph.D.
Director of Communication & Research
Last week, Cynthia & I were discussing the two part blog series written by Dr. David Scott for UM & Global (Part 1 & Part 2).  While we appreciated the historical content and the concise summary of diverse potential scenarios, the title, "Whither the Central Conference in a 'loosened connection'" gave us pause.  The blog focused on what scenarios might emerge as the Commission on A Way Forward’s works to articulate possible structural options that, as they say, will likely provide a “loosening” of our connection.  What seems to be implied in this use of “connection” is the changing of structural identity – the loosening of a denominational framework that has become, for some, limited and no longer adequate or effective.  

We began to reflect on a broader definition of "connection."  Our Book of Discipline currently explains connectionism as follows: 132 - The Journey of a Connectional People - Connectionism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust.  Our connectionism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another.  It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.

In other words, our connectionalism is not defined by our structure. Our connectionalism is defined by our relationship to one another. We are a connectional people on a journey, sharing a tradition of faith, a constitutional polity, a common mission, and a distinctive ethos (132).

It is critical, then, that we as a Connectional Table are clear about what we mean by “connectional.”  If our connectional identity is defined first by our structures, we begin the visioning process bound by these parameters.  If our connectionalism is more relational in nature, we see our vital web connecting us to new opportunities for ministry in light of God’s vision for the church in the world. 

The Connectional Table has an opportunity to raise awareness and engage conversations related to this broader definition of “connectionalism.”  While we have some clear technical tasks before us as a board, our adaptive work focuses on discerning a vision for the future in light of current missional trends and our ever-shifting demographic realities.  The Table’s work – together with the Council of Bishops – is to discern and articulate the vision of the church (904) emerging from simultaneous rapid growth and decline, which has led to the liminal space in which we now find ourselves.  

As we work together this quad, particularly in the work engaged by the Worldwide Nature working group, the Connectional Table has an opportunity to keep this relational understanding of connectionalism before the denomination in some very important ways.  While we too will be engaging conversations of structure this quad, in particular the need for a U.S. decision-making body and the make-up of our own board as a leadership body for a global church, we first center ourselves in our purpose and identity as a connectional people. 

We are grateful for the leadership of The Commission on A Way Forward.  We look forward to the fruit of their faithful work in the coming months. We will continue to pray for these leaders as they discern what shape this “loosening” might take.  At the same time, we commit ourselves to the adaptive work before us – to continually shifting our understanding of The United Methodist Church to better reflect our worldwide nature.  

Understanding our connectionalism to be rooted in relationships, rather than structure, might very well unleash us for more innovative mission and ministry as we continue to pursue this long-term paradigm shift.  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Stewards of the Vision


by Rev. Meredith E. Hoxie Schol, Ph.D.
Director of Communication & Research 
Last week I had the opportunity to join the new District Superintendents and Directors of Connectional Ministries for their orientation week in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.  The CT Staff has been a part of the faculty for the new DCM track of this event for the past few years, and each year it proves to be a rich opportunity to connect with leaders who have a similar, connectional functions within our church. 

Our time together focused on the strategies and best practices for navigating their new role as “stewards of the vision.”  I was able to share with them some of the ways the Connectional Table is also seeking to steward resources toward our missional priorities.  We continue to focus on bearing fruit in the Four Areas of Focus, and we are designing assessment and evaluation tools to help us measure our collective progress in this work. 

The keynote speaker at the event was Rev. Lisa Greenwood from the Texas Methodist Foundation. She spent time helping leaders understand the importance of articulating their aspirations, priorities, and outcomes.  Rev. Greenwood shared with us the definition of “outcomes” used by Texas Methodist Foundation.  While we (the CT) haven’t used this definition explicitly, I found this articulate helpful for our work as well.  They define an outcome as: 

“The difference that you believe God has called you to make in this next chapter of your life.”

The “YOU” here is collective.  We know as disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to make a difference – to transform the world.  We must actively discern the ways God is calling us to carry out this work.  These outcomes are also time-bound. They are, as Rev. Greenwood said, “proximate steps” that we can see, and measure, that bring us closer to the priorities and aspirations we have articulated at General Conference. 

The UMC aspirational mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  In order to focus our collaborative, connectional ministries to fulfill this mission, UM leaders articulated Four Areas of Focus in 2006 that represent missional expressions of our Wesleyan identity and help us to define our scope and align our resources.  When we do the hard work of articulating more specific, concrete outcomes, we can be more effective with the resources with which we have been entrusted.  In our work, we have defined strategic directions in each focus area that serve as these internal benchmarks for our collaborative ministries. 

The role of the Director of Connectional Ministries varies by conference, but they all work on the development, clarification, interpretation, and embodiment of the vision. As “stewards of the vision,” DCMs are keenly aware of the need for focused strategic planning and a refined scope of mission.  The CT plans to be in regular contact with these connectors in the Annual Conferences in the coming months, partnering with them in the roll out of the Connectional Assessment tool.   We hope these partnerships and this tool will generate the data and strengthen the connections needed to be better stewards of more holistic, integrated resources to achieve the desired outcomes across the worldwide connection.

I left the DS/DCM Orientation event encouraged by The United Methodist Church’s ongoing investment in equipping key leaders of the church to be more strategic in their planning.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

AWAKE, THOU THAT SLEEPEST: Charles Wesley’s Sermon #3 – 1742


Do you focus on the palms or the passion?  That was the question that the worship leader asked me the first Sunday I was responsible for preaching at the contemporary worship service at Athens First United Methodist Church in Georgia.  I had never thought we had any other options except to focus in on the celebration and Christ’s triumphunt entry into Jerusalem.  But, as she shared with me, the contemporary service congregation wouldn’t really have the chance to wrestle with the passion prior to Easter because they weren’t really engaged with the other services of the church, and since the church only offered the Good Friday service at noon, they wouldn’t likely get that chance to walk the journey to the cross.  So, do you focus on the palms or find a way to introduce them to the Christ’s journey to the cross?

That question has arisen in my heart every time I reflect upon this Holy Week experience.  As the members of my Sunday School shared yesterday, it’s not “either/or” but rather a “both/and” opportunity.  Yes, we focus on the celebration of Jesus coming into Jerusalem with all the glory and honor befitting a king.  And then we walk with him to Gethsemane where he prays “My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me.” (Matthew 26:36-39)  He finds himself feeling alone as his disciples fall asleep while he prays. 

I found Charles Wesley’s sermon to the University of Oxford community in 1742 quite appropriate for this week’s reflection on the journey from palms to passion.  He is quite bold in declaring the difference between those who are “sleeping,” and those who are fully “awake” Christians.  He proclaims that as Christians we must accept and believe that the “Holy Ghost” and all of the “power” granted is within us. 

This presence is “participation of the divine nature, the life of God in the soul of (wo)man: Christ formed in the heart’, ‘Christ in thee, the hope of glory’; happiness and holiness; heaven begun upon earth; ‘a kingdom of God within thee’, ‘not meat and drink’, no outward thing, ‘but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’; an everlasting kingdom brought into thy soul, a ‘peace of God that passeth all understanding’; a ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’? (Awake, Thou That Sleepest II.9)

Jesus was fully awake when he went through that journey to the cross.  Unfortunately, he was doing all he could to “awaken” the Disciples to the magnitude of what they were experiencing when they were experiencing it.  Charles Wesley was trying to tell the Christians during his time about the journey and the magnitude of every experience on the journey when one was finally fully awake.  Were the Disciples paying attention?  Did they understand it in that moment?  Were the Christians of 1742 paying attention?  Did they understand Christ’s call in their lives at that moment? 

In the holy season of The United Methodist Church, we, too, are on this holy week journey.  Nearly one year ago, we celebrated together at General Conference the gifts of the connection that the Holy Spirit has offered.  And now, there are those who believe we are on the passion journey, experiencing the deep and troubling pain Christ endured on his journey to the cross.  Some would say we’ve been focused on the passion and have seen little palms in our life together over the past several years.  But the question I pose to leaders in the church today is this:  Are we, 21st Century Disciples of Jesus Christ through The United Methodist Church, paying attention?  Are we awake at this moment?  Do we understand what is happening as we listen to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit?  Are we so AWAKE that we are willing to walk the journey with Jesus to the cross?  What is the promise of the resurrection going to look like for the people of The United Methodist Church?  There are so many questions, but the vision for the resurrection celebration is still unclear.  And yet, the promise is known.

Charles words are the assurance that we can depend on as we take each step with Christ this week and beyond.  He writes:
‘Christ shall give thee light.’  This promise I come, lastly, to explain.  And how encouraging a consideration is this, that whosoever thou art who obeyest his call, thou canst not seek his face in vain.  If thou even now ‘awakest and arisest from the dead’, he hath bound himself to ‘give thee light’.  ‘The Lord shall give thee grace and glory’; the light of his grace here, and the light of his glory when thou receivest the ‘crown that fadeth not away.’ ‘Thy light shall break forth as the morning,’ and thy darkness be as the noonday. ‘God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness’, shall ‘shine in thy heart, to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (Awake, Thou That Sleepest III.1)

And that’s all we need.

With God's Love,
Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker