Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week - Then and Now

It came as a slow realization, then quickly doing the math in my head, I gasped...okay, today is Palm Sunday, and 45 years ago, I joined the Church on Palm Sunday.

I still remember processing from the back of St. Paul’s Methodist Church, Monroe, Louisiana, that spring morning, singing “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus.” I was wearing a new navy blue nautical dress and a white hat. I stood between Peggy Clay and Kay Bershen; we had been friends since infancy, attending Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and confirmation classes together, not to mention kindergarten, elementary school, birthday parties, play dates, etc. Now as fourth-graders we were being confirmed and joining the church.

My parents, Ben and Nancy Oliphint and my brothers Clayton (holding my dad’s hand) and Stuart and me in front of St. Paul’s Methodist Church, Monroe, Louisiana, circa 1964-65.

I stood in front of the same altar where my parents had presented me for baptism 9 years earlier as a 3- month- old baby. Now, my fellow confirmands and I took the vows and then my father, the pastor, moved down the line of children, stopping in front of each one to recognize them by name and say a word of blessing. When he reached me, his voice cracked with emotion and he hesitated. The congregation laughed nervously. I smiled and looked up at him as he struggled to regain control, his eyes moist with tears.

After the church service, my mother hosted one of her famous home-cooked meals at the parsonage, two blocks down the street from the church. Our district superintendent and wife, Ed and Hallie Hauk, were present. I still remember Hallie’s warm smile and words of encouragement and grace as she spoke of the significance of this day in my life. Then she gave me a beautiful mother-of-pearl heart locket with an over-laid gold cross, a cherished gift I later passed on to my niece and namesake, Erin Brooke, on her confirmation day.

Forty-five years as a member of The United Methodist Church! Taking time to recall those memories of that very special Palm Sunday caused me to reflect further on what church membership has meant to me. And I was overwhelmed as I thought of the joy and privilege of being a member of the Body of Christ, the love and support that has undergirded me in good times and bad, the opportunities for service the Church has graciously given me, the study of God’s word which has both nurtured and challenged my spirit. Can there be anything greater than the Body of Christ loving us on behalf of Christ?

The United Methodist Church has indeed nurtured and shaped me in the faith. I have come to realize that through these 45 years, my understanding of church membership has grown and changed. I no longer think so much in terms of being a member of a church, but of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. As we remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Crucifixion and joyous Resurrection of Easter Sunday, we remember the most dramatic and powerful part of the Jesus story. We remember the saving grace of our Lord, His tremendous sacrifice, His amazing gift of life abundant and life eternal. We remember...and like the crucified thief, ask to be remembered. And in the remembering, we wrestle with the true cost of discipleship.

I enter this Holy Week with prayerful gratitude for my heritage and with a renewed commitment to support our Church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. And I give thanks for a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit throughout our church, as I see persons living transformed lives as disciples. I’m thankful for the focus, the passion, the urgency I see expressed in lives lived abundantly as Christ’s disciples. I’m thankful for our church’s mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

UMPH's Neil Alexander Urges UMs to Take Call to Action Survey

Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House, speaks about the research underway for the Call to Action project and urges your participation in an online survey of United Methodist leaders.

The Call to Action project, endorsed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table seeks to review leadership, governance and other organizational issues in The United Methodist Church. The goal is to consider and propose actions that will lead to decisions that will help the Church better achieve its mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” and fully integrate the Four Areas of Focus (major ministry initiatives) into the fabric of the UMC connection.

Recognizing that alignment across the connectional church is essential in fostering and supporting effectiveness at all levels, one important aspect of the Call to Action project includes a focus on the factors that are most important in assuring vitality in local churches since they “provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” (Paragraph 120 in The Book of Discipline).

This survey is one part of a multi-phase research effort. The survey is one of the tools to gain qualitative insights and quantitative evidence about the factors associated with congregational vitality in United Methodist Churches. The results from this survey will be used to develop hypotheses about what factors (leadership, programs and structures) are most often found in churches that are seen as effective and vital. Those hypotheses will be further tested through another survey and statistical analysis. Our hope is to have as many persons as possible from across the church (clergy and lay) complete the survey.

Researchers from the independent outside consulting firm of Towers Watson are overseeing this part of the project and will report their findings to the Call to Action Steering Team based on a combination of personal interviews, focus groups, literature review, surveys and rigorous analysis of statistical reports from churches and annual conferences about what defines church vitality, and what impacts that vitality. The Steering Team will incorporate this information and other data as a part of its discernment process, leading to reports and recommendations that will be made in the fall of 2010 to the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table.

Click here to participate in this online survey.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Four Areas of Focus of the UMC

Heard about the Four Areas of Focus of The United Methodist Church? United Methodists around the world are:

• Combating the diseases of poverty by improving health globally.
• Engaging in ministry with the poor.
• Creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations.
• Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.

Last month, while attending the Association of Directors of Connectional Ministries I was asked to tell the story of how these areas came into being. Here’s what I shared:

“In 2004, the newly elected bishops requested that the Council of Bishops engage in a new process of accountability by regular reporting of how the mission of the church was being lived out in their episcopal areas. During the 2005 Council meetings as they conversed about the fruit-bearing ministries of local churches and annual conferences, a vision began to emerge. The bishops found the practices and qualities aligned along seven basic pathways:

1. Teaching the Wesleyan model of reaching and forming disciples of Jesus Christ;
2. Strengthening clergy and lay leadership;
3. Developing new congregations;
4. Transforming existing congregations;
5. Ending racism as we authentically expand racial and ethnic ministries;
6. Reaching and transforming the lives of new generations of children; and
7. Eliminating poverty in community with the poor.

In the fall of 2005, these Seven Vision Pathways were shared with The Connectional Table, and a conversation began. As the conversation broadened across the church, Four Areas of Focus, which incorporated the Seven Vision Pathways, were clearly articulated by the general secretaries of our boards and agencies and affirmed by The Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops.

The boards and agencies, Connectional Table and General Council of Finance and Administration worked to align goals and resources for the 2009-2012 quadrennium to support these focus areas. These were taken to the 2008 General Conference where delegates were invited to embrace them.”

When I finished with my story, Ava Berry, Director of Connectional Ministries for the Northwest Texas Annual Conference, said, “Well, I thought we were doing the Four Areas of Focus because it’s scriptural!” She then went on to explain that the Four Areas of Focus had given her a tool for talking about disciples who transform the world, and how exciting those conversations had been in various local church settings. They had given her an opportunity to explore Jesus’ teachings with United Methodists across her conference, and how these were to be lived out in local congregations. As a result, she was seeing marvelous ministries unfold, and lives being transformed.

Ava’s got it right! It’s not another program, nor a quadrennial emphasis; it’s about who we are called to be as world-changing disciples in the Wesleyan tradition. That’s why I do see the Four Focus Areas as having emerged from our local churches and the conversations that followed by COB,CT and others as a discerning of God’s spirit leading our church into a new vision and future. My hope is that every local church, annual conference and general agency will continue to be in conversation about how we partner together to bear fruit in these vital ministries.

Bishop John Hopkins, Chair of The Connectional Table, likes to share the story this way:

“We are the people of The United Methodist Church.
We believe in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We live by two kinds of holiness, personal and social.
We follow three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.
We work in four areas of focus: developing leaders, creating places for new people, eliminating poverty and improving health globally.”

So, how are the Four Areas of Focus lived out in your local church and annual conference? Here’s what Neil McDavid, Director of Connectional Ministries for Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference, had to say in a brief interview at the ADCM meeting:

For more information about the Four Areas of Focus, visit: