Archives for November 2014

When Is Accountability of No Account?

A trend is developing in the way that some United Methodist bishops are handling complaints against pastors who perform same-sex weddings or unions. Instead of bringing accountability, the complaint process is being turned on its head and used to promote the very behavior that is the subject of the complaint!

This trend began with the Amy DeLong trial in 2011. As the penalty for performing a same-sex union, Rev. DeLong was “sentenced” to write a paper during a 20-day suspension on the meaning of covenant and to help lead discussions among Wisconsin Conference clergy on how to live together in covenant, given our disagreement over same-sex marriage.

This strategy was refined in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, where two pastors charged with performing same-sex weddings were given a one-day suspension, and the bishop committed to holding clergy conversations on how clergy can live and work together in covenant, given our disagreement.

A high-profile example took place in the New York Annual Conference, where a retired seminary dean was charged with performing a same-sex wedding. The complaint was dropped with no penalty, and the dean was asked to help lead a clergy conference on living together in covenant with our disagreement.

Bishop Melvin Talbert performed a high-profile same-sex union service in Alabama, against the wishes of the resident bishop of the area, as well as against the wishes of the Council of Bishops Executive Committee. At the Council of Bishops meeting, it was reported that the Talbert complaint process “had been followed.” As of yet, there has been no public statement about the Talbert complaint process. Nevertheless, Bishop Talbert was asked to speak as part of a panel of bishops addressing the issue of how the church should resolve our disagreement over same-sex marriage.

Finally, just this week, two clergy persons in Michigan had their complaints resolved over charges that they performed same-sex weddings. There is no acknowledgement that what they did was wrong, nor is there any promise not to repeat the violation of our covenant. Instead, the offending pastors are invited to be part of a design team to plan a state-wide series of events “at which LGBTQ and other interested United Methodists can have a safe place to tell their stories.” The goal of the events is to “reduce our church’s harmful rhetoric and actions toward LGBTQ persons.”

I could give additional examples of such complaint “resolutions.”

In other words, those who have violated our covenant are invited to help instruct us on how to change our covenant (or at least the way we act under our covenant) to permit the very actions that they were charged with. Rather than consequences for disobedience, we have here the promotion of more disobedience. Only the hope here is that it won’t be disobedience anymore because the church will change its rules.

I don’t think every pastor who performs a same-sex wedding ought to lose his/her credentials. On the other hand, I do believe that there should be some consequence for intentionally and knowingly violating our clergy covenant. To have no consequence means that such violations are permitted and even encouraged. Part of the power of civil disobedience is the willingness to live with the consequences of breaking what one perceives to be an unjust law. But here, practitioners of “ecclesiastical disobedience” have figured out a way to disobey what they perceive to be an unjust church law and not experience any negative consequences at all. In fact, the consequences are to instead undermine the church law and the integrity of the covenant itself.

Umpire-School-6-1This situation reminds me of the neighborhood baseball games I played with my friends as a kid. There were times when one of the players violated a rule of the game, but wouldn’t accept the consequences of being ruled “out” in that inning. Because there was no impartial umpire to enforce the rules, the disagreement would sometimes degenerate into an argument. When we all couldn’t agree on the enforcement of the rules, the game would usually break up and the players would head home.

In The United Methodist Church, we now have a number of annual conferences (maybe a dozen?) where it is permitted to break the “rules of the game.” Despite what the Book of Discipline says, pastors are permitted to perform same-sex unions or marriages. Most are performed quietly, under the radar. When a complaint is filed, an agreement is reached that involves no apology or recognition of wrong-doing, simply a plan for guided discussions of covenant. This Orwellian approach hopes that by continuing the endless discussions and allowing violations to occur unpunished, the opposition to same-sex marriage will weaken and disappear.

Why do we need to pass the Hamilton/Slaughter “local option?” We already have local option in at least a dozen annual conferences, no matter what the Discipline says.

One can forgive evangelicals for becoming cynical at this point in believing that progressives are determined to get their way in the church by any means possible. It appears that in many places there are no longer any umpires interested in ensuring that the rules of the game are being followed. Certainly, the disagreement has degenerated into an argument. All that remains to be seen is whether the players break up the game and head for home.

Missional Church: The Need for Incarnational Ministry

51b75cf9e4b07ca6249060cdWith this post, I continue a series of reports on the recent New Room Conference sponsored by Seedbed and the Wesleyan Covenant Network.  One of the keynote presenters was Alan Hirsch, a pastor and Missiologist from South Africa who has served in ministry in Australia and California.  He is in the unique position of being a theorist and academic who is actually putting his ideas into practice, along with his wife, Debra, who is a partner in ministry and the “lead pastor” of their current congregation.

Alan pointed out the changed context in which we are currently doing ministry:

  • Most of our ecclesial habits were formed in a different time.  Most of our ideas about church were formulated in the context of Christendom in Europe.
  • Our context today is no longer Christendom, and it is becoming more diverse culturally by the day.
  • In the U.S., 18 percent of people attend church on any given Sunday (from a recent Pew report).  Forty percent of people resonate with the non-denominational evangelical model of attractional church (people come to the church to receive ministry).  We need strategies to reach the other sixty percent!
  • Within 3-5 years of becoming a Christian, a new believer loses all meaningful connections with non-believers.  Most Christians in churches today do not have any friendships with non-believers.  The result is that we are requiring the unchurched to do all the mission work of coming to our church culture.

When confronting ministry in our particular context, we need to ask two fundamental questions:

  • What is good news for these people?  (In other words, how do we frame the proclamation of the gospel for people in this particular context?)
  • What does church look like for you?  (We need to adapt our missional strategy to where the people are and the cultural context in which they live.)
  • We should ask these questions of unchurched people and listen to their answers in order to discover their cultural context.

The life and model of Jesus is key.  We are all missionaries (sent by Jesus into the world – John 20:21) to engage in incarnational ministry, just as Jesus did.  Incarnation implies going deep with people.  We need to answer the question: to whom am I called/sent?  Only then can we identify how to connect with these people.

The six P’s of incarnational ministry:

  1. Presence – identification with the people.  What do I need to change about me in order to remove barriers between me and them?  How do I need to limit myself (as Jesus limited himself, Philippians 2)?
  2. Proximity – being up close and personal with people, hanging out with them.  Where you stand determines what you see.  [We can understand their culture better when we stand where they stand.]
  3. Prevenience – knowing that God has gone before us, working in every person [a good Wesleyan doctrine!].  Our task is to connect the dots for people, help them identify and interpret God moments in their lives.
  4. Powerlessness – we must empty ourselves, not try to be a superhero.  Exhibit humility and servanthood, learn from and receive ministry from the target people.
  5. Passion – carry some of Christ’s suffering.  Make up what is lacking in the suffering of the “body” of Christ (the Church – Colossians 1:24).  Jesus suffers every day for a lost and broken humanity.  We are to be motivated by the suffering of the world to bear one another’s burdens.
  6. Proclamation – of the Gospel, needs to follow all the other steps.  We earn a hearing by being incarnational.

These thought resonate with our current emphasis on being a missional church, taking church outside the walls of the building.  We need to find ways to connect with a lost and unchurched culture, in order that we may invite people to experience the presence and power of God (or rather to understand and appropriate it when they do).  Just as Jesus became human first before he could minister to people and teach us God’s truth, we need to become “all things to all men, so that by all possible means [we] might save some” (I Corinthians 9:22).

We live in a new day, when even in our own country (perhaps the most “Christianized” on earth), we need to consider ourselves missionaries to reach our neighbors for Christ.  To be missionaries, we no longer need to go to the exotic locales of Asia, Africa, or the South Sea Islands.  We just need to be willing to go across the street!  Herein lies the rebirth of our church’s vitality, through the energizing presence and power of the Holy Spirit working through us.