Thursday, March 29, 2012

An Open Letter to the 2012 General Conference Delegates

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, along with 85 other United Methodist pastors, issued an open letter to the 2102 General Conference delegates expressing their support for the Connectional Table legislation stemming from the recommendations of the Call to Action work. They invite United Methodist clergy and laity to read and sign the letter also.

The letter begins:
“We are local church pastors and leaders in the United Methodist Church writing in support of the legislation being proposed by the Connectional Table related to the Call to Action. We love the church and want her to have a “future with hope.” We believe that the downward trends in church membership, attendance and giving will accelerate in the years ahead. If we do nothing, our church will be half the size she is today in twenty years. Now is the time for action.”
To date, the letter has so far garnered more than 1,700 signatures. We invite you to read this letter and consider signing it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Remember the Future: 30 Days of Preparation

In a little more than three weeks, United Methodists around the world will gather together in Tampa, Fla. for the 2012 General Conference. It has been quite a journey to get to this point in our collective history. I would like to recommend a new resource by Bishop Robert Schnase, "Remember the Future: 30 Days of Preparation" as we prepare to engage in holy conferencing to address the challenging issues facing our denomination. According to the blog, "these daily meditations explore the hope, purpose, leadership and making of disciples of Jesus Christ. "

Click here to sign up for these 30 days of inspirational messages.

Bishop Robert Schnase reminds us that General Conference is only one mechanism to help us reach our true destination, one with no walls. It's a spiritual destination where we have more profound connections with God and build up vital congregations to minister to a hurting world.

Excerpt from March 27, 2012: "The mission is not ours; it is God’s. The invitation is not ours; it is Christ’s. It’s not about us. It’s about God’s mission in Christ and how we embody that in our churches, and for that it makes sense for us to work to have as many vital, effective, fruitful congregations as possible. Otherwise, we will never reach the destination." Click here to read more of the blog post by Bishop Robert Schnase.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Future With Hope

A commentary by the Rev. Deborah McLeod, senior pastor of Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Florida and a member of the Connectional Table.

Jeremiah is one of my go-to books when I get depressed about our beloved United Methodist Church. Jeremiah has a tough job. He tries to hold God’s people accountable but they do not want to listen.

There are days when we also find ourselves carrying in our hearts the failures and missed opportunities of our people. That’s when I find Jeremiah helpful. He is called to tell it to God’s people straight, no matter how unpopular the message. Sometimes we are called to the same tough task.

Our theme for General Conference 2008 was taken from Jeremiah 29: 11, “A Future with Hope.” Jeremiah tells us "For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope…” We need to remember that these words were spoken to the well-off, better educated leaders of Judah who had been ripped from their homes and carried off into exile to Babylon. That future with hope was promised not to them, but to their descendents 70 years into the future. Jeremiah’s message was simple: repent. Stop worshipping other gods. Return to the Lord your God so that it may go well with you. If you do not stop worshipping other gods it will not go well with you. God will allow your enemy to carry you off into exile. See, I told you so. Then Jeremiah dies in exile.

The future with hope is not something Jeremiah or his hearers lived to see. It was for 70 years later, when they were all dead. Perhaps the same is true for us. There may be some repenting and unpopular things we can do that have the potential to make our church stronger, not for us but for the people out there in the world whom we will reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

God tells Jeremiah, “Don’t even bother to pray for these people.” Why? They disobey God, they worship idols, they walk in their own counsel, and they look backward rather than forward. I am wondering if we United Methodists in 2012 are not a little like Judah in 627 BCE. We worship idols. We don’t call them idols, but anything we cherish more than God is an idol. Some of us practice idolatry of the church building. We love it. We elect a board of trustees to care for it and make policies about its use. We want to sit in it for an hour on Sunday morning. We want it to never change. Sometimes we want our sanctuaries to be memorials to the meaningful moments we had with God. One of my jobs, as pastor, is to remind people that our buildings are tools for ministry.

When I was a district superintendent in South Florida I tried to get a particular congregation to think about how they could serve their neighbors. The lay leader finally said to me, “Can’t you just go away and leave us alone? We just want to sit here for an hour on Sunday morning and not think about it.” There are too many United Methodist church buildings located in strategic places for mission and ministry with the doors locked most of the time. Some of our people are huddled up inside the church building for one hour on Sunday morning trying not to think about realities. We disobey God when, instead of going to make disciples of all peoples, we circle up to help those we already know feel better about our inability to cope with a rapidly changing world.

It is clear that the United Methodist Church in the United States can no longer sustain the number of pastors or buildings. Eighty-five percent of our United Methodist congregations have memberships that are stuck or declining. When a church spends a majority of its financial resources on the care and upkeep of pastor and building, then it has a problem. If we shift the burden for decline to the 15 percent of congregations that are vital we will kill them too.

At the 2004 General Conference I presented the legislation that brought the Connectional Table into being. During these past eight years we have witnessed a new thing. The General Commission on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table have worked together to bring mission and money to the same table. Together, our General Secretaries led the church on four focus areas. The Connectional Table is an intermediate step. Now I am hoping that the organization I helped bring into being will die and that some workable form of a new, more effective and efficient structure will be adopted.

We disobey the mission and the ministry of the United Methodist Church when we resist change. How can a Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry and one board of 15 members possibly do all the meaningful work of our program agencies? Let’s vote against it. As we consider idols in our United Methodist Church, let us be careful not to worship our form, structure, buildings or benefits, lest we miss the kingdom’s goal.

The people of Judah “walked in their own counsel.” How many times have you and others at a United Methodist meeting looked at some disturbing facts and struggled with what to do? Sometimes we act like alcoholics who have not hit bottom. We deny the facts; we excuse our poor performance; we spiritualize the experience. We are nervous about accountability. Instead of fruitfulness, we claim faithfulness. We can be both fruitful and faithful.

We must pray for God to renew us and lead us. When we repent of our ways and change things radically, it may be easier for God’s spirit to move in and through us.

God’s kingdom is not in peril. Jesus’ purposes in the world cannot be thwarted by our greed, idolatry, and pride. The question is: Will the United Methodist Church be a part of God’s transformation of the world?

If not, God will use someone else—the Pentecostals in South America or the underground church in China. I do not fear for God’s kingdom. It cannot fail. I fear that the Methodist movement we love will become irrelevant.

In Jeremiah, God promises a future with hope, but between disobedience and hope lies suffering, exile, and death. Then, and only then, God will plant and build.

In Acts 4, when Peter and John have been admonished not to speak the name of Jesus, they go back to their friends and pray. They do not pray for a strategy. They do not pray for a structure. They do not pray for a world friendlier to their purposes. They pray for boldness. May we do likewise.

This commentary is adapted from a sermon Rev. McLeod preached at the Connectional Table meeting March 5-6, 2012 in Nashville, Tenn.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Pre-General Conference Briefings In the Central Conferences

We asked Tim Tanton of United Methodist Communications to give us an update on the briefings held in Manila and Harare this past February. Tim was the lead organizer of these events.

This spring, nearly 1,000 decision makers from around the world will meet in Tampa to set policy and direction for The United Methodist Church for the next four years. To help central conference delegates prepare for the legislative gathering, the Connectional Table sponsored two pre-General Conference briefings in the Philippines and Africa in February.

The events were designed to give delegates an understanding of how General Conference works, logistical information related to their trip, and a working knowledge of some of the major issues that they will encounter when the legislative assembly meets in Tampa, Florida, April 24-May 4.

Bishop John L. Hopkins, Resident Bishop of East Ohio and Chair, The Connectional Table and Ruth John Lamurde, laywoman, Northern Conference, Nigeria serving communion

The briefings, organized by United Methodist Communications, had involvement or support from nearly all of the general agencies. The events followed a similar briefing held by the communications agency for U.S. delegates in Tampa in January. The Connectional Table is sponsoring a fourth and final briefing on April 23 in Tampa for all central conference delegates.

The central conference briefings were held Feb. 4-5 in Manila, Philippines, and Feb. 11-12 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Each event drew capacity attendance, with 48 delegates and about a half-dozen alternates attending the Manila briefing and nearly 60 delegates at the Harare briefing. Attendance at each venue also included local and general church support staff, conference communicators, students from Union Theological Seminary in Manila and Africa University in Mutare, and other observers.

The briefings were moderated by Connectional Table Executive Secretary Mary Brooke Casad and featured expert speakers on each topic. For example, General Conference Secretary L. Fitzgerald Reist II provided a detailed overview of the delegates’ responsibilities, what they can expect as they travel and how the assembly works. With the Rev. Liberato Bautista from the General Board of Church and Society, Rev. Reist led the delegates through a discussion about the visa process that included role playing the visa interview.

Other issues and speakers included:
  • The church budget, presented by Moses Kumar of the General Council on Finance and Administration.
  • The ministry study and proposed clergy reforms, presented by the Rev. Kim Cape of the General Boa rd of Higher Education and Ministry in Harare and Rev. Reist in Manila.
  • Proposed pension plan changes, presented via video and teleconference by Barbara Boigegrain and Dale Jones of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits with additional on-site comments from the board’s Tim Koch.
  • Proposed episcopacy reforms, presented in Manila by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner and Bishop Daniel Arichea with additional support from Bishops Rodolfo Juan and Leo Soriano and a video clip of Bishop Larry Goodpaster.
  • The worldwide nature of the church, presented via webcast by Bishop Scott Jones with on-site participation by the Rev. Ruby-Nell Estrella in Manila and Rev. Forbes Matonga and Christina Mlambo in Harare.
  • The Call To Action proposal, presented in Manila by Bishop Wenner and in Harare by Bishop John Hopkins, with webcast participation in both locations by the Rev. Timothy McClendon and on-site involvement by Rev. Estrella in Manila and Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa and Rev. Matonga in Harare.
  • The Act of Repentance and other special observances, presented by Rev. Bautista and Rev. Reist, with video created on behalf of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
  • Social issues coming up at General Conference, presented by Rev. Bautista and Rev. Reist.

The briefings also included uplifting worship led by Jorge Lockward of the General Board of Global Ministries and incorporating regional volunteers and songs.

Technical support, video production and other services were provided by UMCom staff. Staff with the General Council on Finance and Administration provided guidance and help with financial matters, travel arrangements and other logistical details. In Zimbabwe, Africa University staff provided valuable help with visa letters for the delegates traveling from around Africa. General Board of Global Ministries staff and contractors provided indispensable support with interpretation in English, French and Portuguese at the Harare briefing.

Staff and volunteers with the host conferences in both Manila and Harare provided hospitality and assistance in countless ways, and their participation contributed significantly to the success of the events.

The delegates expressed strong appreciation at each event. On the evaluation forms, they overwhelmingly gave ratings of “excellent” and “good” for the sessions, with a few “fair” ratings. A very small number of “poor” ratings were given in Harare for the episcopacy reform topic, which had to be all but dropped because of time constraints.

Each briefing was followed the day after by a communications and marketing workshop hosted by United Methodist Communications. In Harare, the Rev. Larry Hollon gave delegates an overview of communications as a strategically important ministry for the church. Delegates responded enthusiastically to presentations on new communications resources, such as Frontline SMS texting, that can help grow the church’s ministries and save lives in their areas.