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

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Para. 123 The Global Nature of Our Mission

The Connectional Table continues to seek to “discern and articulate” (¶904) our vision in a worldwide connection.  The Book of Discipline gives us language that says:

The Church seeks to fulfill its global mission through the Spirit-given servant ministries of all Christians, both lay and clergy. Faithfulness and effectiveness demand that all ministries in the Church be shaped by the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. (¶123)

Keep in mind, this paragraph is preceded by our United Methodist mission statement, our rationale for the mission, and the process for carrying out our mission.  The process for carrying out our mission was heavily shared throughout General Conference 2016.  In Portland, we illustrated how we proclaimed the Gospel, led persons to commit their lives to God, nurtured persons in Christian living, and sent people into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ. (¶122) But what does “Spirit-given servant ministries” throughout the world look like?  And do we define “faithfulness and effectiveness shaped by the mission,” the same way?  In other words, what does the fruit of mission look like in our worldwide Church?

The Connectional Table is tasked with “reviewing and evaluating missional effectiveness” (¶905.4) in our worldwide church.  The Discipline asks us to look at general program-related agencies and connectional structures of the church and see what they do “collectively” in order to aid annual conferences and local churches as they fulfill the mission of The United Methodist Church…  (¶905.4).

In this task, we have discovered that in order to fulfill our global mission, we have to look at each region of our world with a culturally and contextually sensitive lens.  What is needed for missional effectiveness in one part of our world may not be the same in another part of our Church.  Despite these differences, we believe what we are doing is “shaped by the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.” (¶123)

“So, what?,” you might ask.  Leaders throughout our connection are trying to figure out WHAT we need to hold together because we are a part of the United Methodist family throughout the world and WHAT do we need to let each region in our connection figure out for themselves.  This will take courage, humility, honesty, and grace.  Gil Rendle wrote in a monograph on courage, “Doing what is right because it aligns with purpose, as opposed to doing what is desired, is a courageous act because in church systems our leaders exercise their leadership ‘in community.’ The pastor, or the denominational executive, is a part of the community to which he or she offers leadership. In other words, the leader is dependent upon the very people he or she leads.” (Rendle Monograph)

The Connectional Table represents the whole church and all people who call themselves United Methodist in every nook and cranny of our world.  Our challenge is to serve our community well as we seek to fulfill our purpose through our mission of “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

On Christian Perfection: Wesley's Sermon #40 - 1741

On Christian Perfection: Wesley’s Sermon #40 – 1741

For me, Wesley’s sermon on Christian Perfection has always been a challenging topic for discussion as it brings so many cultural and contextual issues with the word “perfection.”  Heitzenrater and Outler remind us in their introductory comments on this sermon what they believe Wesley had in mind when he put this message out there for people in his time and place.

 “For Wesley, salvation was the total restoration of the deformed image of God in us, and its fullness was the recovery of our negative power not to sin and our positive power to love God supremely.  Wesley chose to call that furthest reach of grace in sanctification and its triumphs in this life ‘Christian Perfection’, a position that he had stated earlier in ‘The Circumcision of the Heart’ (1733).” (John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, p. 69)

They go on to state how few from a western cultural milieu ever “envisioned it as a realistic possibility in this life.” (p. 69)  As we enter into this time of Lent, I’ve been challenged to think about how Wesley’s message of Christian Perfection applies to our United Methodist connection.  If sanctification is about “what God does in us,” then what evidence will we find that God is at work in the quest for human flourishing for all who have been transformed through their relationship with Christ?  Is this what Christian Perfection means?  And if this is the case, then what is the Church’s role in partnering with God on this quest for human flourishing?  What is our role and responsibility as The United Methodist Church? 

Wesley goes on to unpacking what he means by “Christian Perfection,” and points to the Gospel of John, and the Gospel of Matthew, the writings of Paul and the words of James.  He states, “And as Christians indeed are freed from evil thoughts, so are thy, secondly from evil tempers.  This is evident from the above-mentioned declaration of our Lord himself: ‘The disciple is not above his master; but everyone that is perfect shall be as his master.’”  Then he points to how Christ lived:

·      Christ was lowly of heart;
·      Pure from self-will or desire;
·      Christ desired only to do the will of his Father and to finish his work;
·      Pure from anger, in the common sense of the word (for all anger is not evil);
·      Christ was meek and gentle, patient and long-suffering.

If our role and responsibility is to be as the master, then maybe the role and responsibility of The United Methodist Church is to be lowly of heart, pure from self-will or desire, desiring only to do the will of God and finish God’s work.  Can our church be pure from anger, meek, gentle, patient and long-suffering?  Is that God’s call?  At the same time, I wonder about what it means to be “angry at the sin, and in the same moment grieved for the sinners” as Wesley states in his sermon.  Should the church practice “righteous anger?”  In the uncertainties and disparities in the world today, I tend to believe there is a time and place for Christians through the church to step forward. 

But, I also struggle with the call for meekness and gentleness, patience, and long-suffering.  Maybe this is why all Christians are invited to come together as the whole Body of Christ.  Where one part of our Body steps up in one arena of Christ’s perfection, the other part of Christ’s Body can be challenged to rise up.  This is why we need one another in a vital connection.  We must strive together to live into the vision of “Christian Perfection” as the whole Body of Christ.  For if we just live as individual parts, we lose the gift of grace offered to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Well, at least that is the wisdom I have captured today as I re-read Wesley’s sermon on Christian Perfection. May by God’s grace more wisdom come through our collective reading of the scriptures and our study of our forefathers and foremothers interpretations of God’s Word.

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