Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Going Forward in the UMC

This morning was filled with tears as I listened to the connection of the United Methodist Church continue to erode. It hurt because I have been here before and I know that if we do not pay attention, we will end up repeating the same mistakes I witnessed back in my college days at Baylor University. You see, I was not always Methodist. I grew up in a wonderful Southern Baptist Church whose cornerstone included the name of my beloved grandfather. I was born in Waco, Texas, and even though my parents were both from Arkansas and returned to Arkansas, Baylor University was always where I planned to attend college.

I entered Baylor in the Fall of 1974, the year we won the Southwest Conference football title for the first time in fifty years, On Sundays, you could find me in worship at First Baptist Church in Waco, listening to the wonderful sermons of Rev. Peter McLeod. I had trouble finding my major but finally ended up in the School of Music, studying organ under Dr. Joyce Jones. I found a parttime job as organist for First United Methodist Church in McGregor, Texas. and that is where things began to change.

The fundamentalist movement began to sweep through the Southern Baptist Convention and it took aim at Baylor. I remember specific incidences but it is doubtful that my memory is 100% accurate. The tipping point for me was the banning of the book used by Dr. Lester's Old Testament class. I remember the book well because Dr. Lester was tough and I spent many hours of study going over and over the readings and my notes. The book was written by the Chairman of the Religion Department, Dr. Flanders. In the end, the book was banned because it mentioned evolution as a theory of creation. It did not teach evolution as truth - it gave many theories. It did not matter. The sentence was struck and the book eventually republished without it. That was it. I was done with my beloved Southern Baptists.

Before you jump to conclusions, I still love my Southern Baptist roots. They taught me the Bible. I witnessed firsthand the glories and tribulations of the local congregation. My love of the local church grew out of my experience at Second Baptist Church. They have always been wonderful to me and my family and I will forever be grateful. But there were questions that never seemed to have answers and I found the emphasis of living the way of Christ taught in the Methodist Church more helpful than the arguments over end times that seemed to prevail in Baptist teachings.

When I finished graduate school at Baylor and moved to Houston, Texas, I finally moved my membership and my loyalty to St. Luke's United Methodist Church. At the time, I had no idea that the call to ministry I experienced at age 14 would be fulfilled in the Methodist Church. Still, I grieve for the destruction that has followed in the denomination that birthed me.

So, for those who are curious, here is what I painfully learned. Litmus tests never work. What I witnessed in the fundamentalist takeover was about power and money - it was not about God. Period.
The motives may start out as something pure but the more lines are drawn, the argument becomes about us. Even the best of us with the most sincere motives cherry pick our scriptures. We are errant. We are sinners. In "defending" God, we create idols and we cannot even see them. 

As I told my congregation Sunday, I am a walking oxymoron because I absolutely believe in the authority of Scripture and yet I'm a 60 year old divorced woman who has the privilege of serving as a senior pastor of a large United Methodist church and I absolutely love my people, my staff, and my job. I experienced grace in an event that I believed would send me straight to hell. Wow! God has me in a place where I will forever be grateful and I will forever extend grace to both the great and small.

So where do we go from here? My brother reminds me to look where the fruit is being produced and fruit is being produced in conservative churches, in progressive churches, and everything in between. God is working and we are way behind the eight ball in finding a way to organize a church around that. So let us stop drawing lines between us and begin finding connections first to Christ and then to one another. Yes, we will all need to repent and become humble but in my experience, that is exactly where God wants us to be.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Mother Emanuel

It is a typical Wednesday night bible study. A guest arrives and everyone opens their hearts to make certain this stranger feels welcomed and embraced. Present at the bible study were four members of the pastoral staff, the elderly church sexton, a young man who had recently graduated from college, a matriarch of the church, a librarian who had spent her life opening up the world through books, and an Episcopal Vicar’s wife. After an hour of scripture and prayer, the guest declares his intent, pulls out a gun and begins shooting.

I am not of African descent. My ancestors arrived from Scotland, England, and France sometime in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They settled in Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia and eventually moved their way to Arkansas. They fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World Wars I & II. They owned slaves and married Native Americans. As a child, I remember seeing remnants of participation in the Klu Klux Klan. My grandfather’s wholesale house had a bathroom and a drinking fountain for “Coloreds.” I heard the word “nigger” on a regular basis and started my education in segregated schools. And yet, my parents, in spite of their own prejudices, insisted that my brothers and I treat all people with respect and equality. Desegregation began timidly with “freedom of choice” when I was in the fourth grade. My mom made sure that my birthday parties included every little girl in my class regardless of color.

The courts required full integration in the eighth grade so my district closed all the black schools in town and we were forced to find a way to navigate our way in a new world. It was not easy. The black schools gave up their rich heritage as Washington Hornets to become Rogers Rams, Barton Wildkittens, and El Dorado Wildcats. There was racial tension that sometimes overflowed into fights and walkouts but we moved through it. Occasionally, we got the courage to talk about it but most the time we muddled through it, allowing our common enthusiasm in sports, band, choir, and other school activities to help us move past our differences and experience our common humanity. While I wish it had been more, it was enough to bind us together so decades later as we gather for class reunions, we are able to celebrate our lives as parents, grandparents, and humans beings who share the same hopes and dreams for our world. I am and always have been a gun owner who believes that hunters are some of our best conservationists and that if we were able to put aside the commercialization of gun ownership, responsible gun owners would be capable of writing effective gun laws. After full disclosure, my heart is broken and my determination to strive for God’s justice and mercy is without hesitation.

I grieve today for the families of Emanuel AME. We are all a part of a rich heritage of Methodism. The AME and CME churches are a reminder of the bigotry of early Methodists; a bigotry that remains even today in a mutual heritage that actively seeks reconciliation in the name of our God whose very nature is defined by a love that is unearned and is without labels. I grieve for my country that lacks the moral courage to repent of the subtle and obvious ways we draw lines and make judgments about people who we perceive are “not like us.”

But today, what pierces my heart and drives me to my knees is the bond I share with three of the victims. Yes, I identify with the others in the room – the senior pastor, the older associate pastor, the church staff, the matriarch. and the librarian – but it is my sisters in ministry that make this truly personal. The victims include two female pastors and a preacher’s wife. These were women who, like me, have given their lives to vocational ministry. They have struggled with the balance of family and ministry and they have struggled with the traditional expectations and condemnations of those who still believe all women are second class citizens as a consequence of the actions of the first Eve. They were faithful to a call that required them to take a stand against a narrow religious culture that devalues what God has chosen to use to further God’s Kingdom. They gave their lives to serve and it turned out to be costly in a way they could not have anticipated. They are my sisters and their lives mattered as women, as mothers, and as witnesses of the Good News. I pray for their churches, I pray for their children, and I pray that we will all stop for a moment, take out our rakes, and begin to remove the lines we have drawn in the sand against one another.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Still Living Yesterday

Last month I read an article about a ninety-nine year old man filing for divorce from his ninety-six year old wife after seventy-seven years of marriage.  Did you see it?  Apparently, he was cleaning out the attic and discovered love letters from a brief affair she had during World War II, seventy year ago.  What she did was wrong and she apologized but he could not forgive her.  It did not matter that they had been together almost eight decades.  It did not matter that they had five grown children, twelve grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.  Forgiveness was out of the question.

Jesus preached about forgiveness often.  He not only provided direct examples of forgiveness in his ministry on earth; he uses parables to teach us the consequences of being unforgiving.  He says plainly that if we want God to forgive us, we must forgive others.  I have yet to meet anyone that does not need forgiveness.  We make mistakes.  We act out when we are stressed.  We react or overreact in various situations.  Sometimes we say things we wish we had not said or do things we wish we had not done.  We make judgments against others and find out we were wrong.  Every single one of us is guilty of being a sinner.  We want God to forgive us but how willing are we to forgive?

Forgiving does not mean we forget but we do let go.  We no longer relive the situation and we do not allow the situation or the person who wronged us to have power over us.  Forgiveness and trust are not the same thing.  While you may let go and forgive, rebuilding trust can take more time and may not be appropriate.  As we approach Lent, let us each take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are continuing to hold a grudge over something in the distant past.  If you are estranged from a former loved one, pray that God will provide a means for reconciliation, if possible.  If it is not possible, pray that God will provide you both peace.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Still Learning....

Ten years ago, I was privileged to be part of Group Four of the Arkansas Conference's Connected in Christ ministry.  Taking the Birkman personality assessment was a significant part of this project.  Birkman identifies your usual style, your needs, your interests, and your stress behaviors.  The report is generally used for leadership development, team building and conflict management.  Most of the report was familiar to me - I wasn't surprised to learn I was a "blue" or learn the traits that were identified as my strengths and interests.  What I had not seen before were my stressers. 

Now most of us do not like to admit the things that stress us.  We prefer to give the appearance of being cool, calm, and collected, especially those of us who strive for continual competence.  While I found it helpful ten years ago, I had forgotten just how accurately it nailed me.  Until this afternoon.  My associate pastor and I were discussing our upcoming planning meeting and I mentioned the Birkman for a future retreat.  I pulled out my report and there it was:
               Under stress people with the Square in this quadrant:
                        ignore social convention
                        become indecisive
                        find it hard to act
                        see the worst possibilities

Yep, that is me.  Truthfully, it would be nice if it were a description of someone else but no, not so.  When faced with too many stress factors, I stand on the shore line with the tsunami coming and I do not move.  If that were not enough, it also suggests I may become impatient and restless, self-protective and distracted, and overly cautious.  Yes, I have been there and in the not so distant past.

The thing is not to beat yourself over the head or think the sky is falling.  Everyone has stress factors and we all react to stress in different ways.  Some become distrustful and domineering, others become dismissive, and some become obsessed with following rules.  We are human.  In this age of economic uncertainty, political polarization, and cultural changes, we are all facing stress.  We see it at work, in our homes, at school, and even within the congregation.  The key is developing the ability to recognize stress behaviors in ourselves and stress behaviors in others.  The colleague that just dismissed you may not be reacting to you but to other situations that have nothing to do with you.  For those of us in ministry, whether by vocation or service, it becomes crucial not to judge each other in stress but to find ways to help our brother or sister in Christ deal effectively with their own stess behaviors and stressers.

Fortunately, most of us have at least one person in our lives that will hold up the mirror and ask what we see.  They cannot fix it - their job is to help us see our own reflection and how others are responding to it.  Yes, the tsunami was coming but thankfully, my feet have finally lifted out of the sand....but truthfully, there will probably be a next time....

Monday, June 20, 2011

Deep Change

To my younger colleagues in Christ who dream dreams and see visions:
Eight years ago, I experienced my first election to General and Jurisdictional Conference in Arkansas.  As a probationary Elder, I did not have a vote.  Since my opinion did not count, I was not privy to the politics taking place behind the scene.  No one had sent me an email or letter.  No one had called to influence my vote.  If I remember correctly, there were no elections on the first few ballots.  Speeches were made to be inclusive as we began electing white male Elders as our delegates.

On one particular excursion around the arena, I could overhear a group talking even though the rounded configuration meant I could not see them yet.  Neither could they see me.  A loud voice exclaimed that he thought he would have to put on a skirt to get those last votes to be elected.  Another voice warned him that he should be careful saying things like that.  His response was there wasn't any of "them" around.  He said that just as I came into view.  Of course, I was a nobody so it really didn't matter to anyone gathered there that what had just been witnessed was inappropriate.  And if that is where the story ended, this would have long been forgotten.

A few minutes later, the same man was sympathizing with another lay delegate over the pressure to be "inclusive".  Fifteen minutes later, he was standing before the conference with many pastors who were fighting for diversity holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome."  It was a bit confusing for someone in ministry less than five years.

As a woman who has spent most of her career(s) in male-oriented professions, I do understand the longing to have a place at the table and how foreign that appeared to those who have been at the table for years.  Inclusivity was initially met with hostility, then skepticism that evolved into indifference.  Inevitably, someone discovered it could be exploited for political gain.  Experiencing this in the church has always bothered me. Until this year, I had stopped attending national conferences because reverence, even in worship, seemed to be secondary to other agendas.  This spring, I attended three conferences that gave me hope - two were United Methodist and one was with the Lilly Foundation.  A different model was at work - it was a model of coaching and mentoring, encouragement, and accountability.  The only agenda in place was the making of disciples.

In April, I was invited to a conference called "Lead Women Pastors in Large Membership Churches."  Currently there are 1200 United Methodist churches with memberships over 1000. Only 93 of those churches are pastored by women and many of those are serving with their spouse as a clergy couple.  For the last three years, the Board of Discipleship has researched the leadership styles of those women in the United Methodist Church that have managed to successfully push against the envisioned "glass ceiling" of the local church.  About forty women were present for this particular conference.  Many had been leading large membership churches for years.  A few had experienced difficulties and were exploring other options.  They were an incredible collection of women from various parts of the country, various ethnic groups, and various ages. 

The amazing thing was there was not one word of entitlement, discrimination, or political agendas spoken there.  Instead, we listened to how women lead differently, where deficiencies had been discovered, and how we could help mentor the younger and less experienced but gifted women in our conference to prepare them to one day take lead roles.  Many of the women had experienced difficulties because they were not prepared when they were given a place at the table.  Yes, some of this had to do with the fact the women had not been mentored in the same fashion as some of their male counterparts but that is something we can change.  No one was acting victimized there.  It was a "let's roll up our sleeves and get to work so that the generations of women behind us will be ready because they will get the opportunities not granted women even ten years ago” type of meeting.  The Conference was enlightening and inspiring.  It was empowering and uplifting.    

Needless to say, going into Annual Conference I was so hopeful regarding our own gathering of both the Conference and clergy.  Although I had my own questions regarding the main agenda item, Imagine Ministry, I was inspired by the honest discussion and genuine connection displayed on the Conference floor. Our leaders had called for deep change and it was happening.  Trust was building, people were engaged even in our differences, consensus was building, accountability was happening, and we were fully focused on one result - making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Patrick Lencioni could not have told a better tale.  It was a new day with a new narrative.

Would deep change occur as we voted for delegates to General Conference?  Unfortunately, it was the old narrative being repeated without any seeming conviction of deep change needed.  Colleagues were labeled by gender, color, and assumed theology.  Agendas were set.  Deals were brokered.  We were told how we should vote and all too often, it was by gender, race, and theology.  The clergywomen's luncheon was not the uplifting experience the national conference had been.  These women deserved better.  There was no talk of mentoring the next generation or striving to make certain those in leadership positions were prepared to lead all people striving to make disciples.  I felt like a child being told what a potty was years after I had been out of diapers.

Now I realize this is the way things have always been done and for many who have grown up with this system, it is simply part of the process but for those of us with different life experiences and who have seen a better way, it is a huge disappointment.  Perhaps rather than promoting a position from the standpoint of diversity, we need to be mentoring each other and mentoring the next generation of leaders.  For me, the politics of demanding a seat at the table simply because I am a woman no longer rings true.  We have a place at the table and will continue to have a place at the table - not because we are entitled but because we have leaders among us that have a greater vision of all the church can be and was created to be.

There will come a time when color and gender no longer matters.  There will come a time when the process is more known for its spiritual discernment and less about politics.  There will come a day where our children can look at us and see authenticity in our conduct as disciples of Jesus Christ.  It is my dream but as I have been privileged to see, it also the dream of so many others.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Paying Homage

The Christian calendar celebrates the birth of Christ differently than our culture celebrates Christmas.  In our culture, we typically think Christmas is over on December 26th.  We take the wreaths off our doors, put away the stockings and dismantle the tree for other year.  The ancient Christian tradition sees December 25th as the beginning, not the end of Christmas.  The end does not come until twelve days later with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th, the revelation and arrival of the wise men from the East.

The wise men came to pay homage to a King as foretold by the prophets and an unusual star.  The event was filled with wonder, awe and gratitude.  We typically celebrate Epiphany in our churches on  the first Sunday of the new year but this year, I found myself in a sister church on January 6th in a worship service that celebrated the life of a man who had given his life in service to pay homage to Christ every day.  The man's name was Jim Lane. 

I did not know Jim personally but I knew of his ministry.  He spent countless volunteer hours establishing connections between United Methodists here in Arkansas.  Jim had email before others had computers and he recognized the power of social networks while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was still experiencing puberty.  Jim established an email network among us.  It distributed all kinds of information - some relevant, some irrelevant, some irritating.  We learned as we went along what was appropriate and what wasn't.  It was a powerful tool of ministry.  Our conference eventually took over the project but it was Jim's vision and leadership that connected us first.  We should all be appreciative.

Since Jim had been such a connecting figure, I expected the service to be packed.  I was wrong.  There were many there from Jim's time at Levy United Methodist Church, a few retirees and the family.  It was, however poorly attended, a beautiful service.  Jim, as those who knew him would expect, had preselected the hymns and Scriptures.  Revs. Davis Thompson and Leon Gray, and Dr. Earl Carter did an outstanding job retelling Jim's story and how his faith in Jesus Christ had shaped his life.  Jim's life and death had something to say and those who gathered were blessed to hear it.

But where was everyone else?  Had we already forgotten what Jim had done for us?  Is our connection so broken that we no longer feel drawn to be there when one of the links that bind us together is lost? 

In this day of text messages, twitter, social networks, and email, we have unlimited ability to communicate but, I wonder, have we lost the art of connecting?  John Maxwell in his book, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, reminds us that the ability to connect with others begins with understanding the value of people.  If I have learned one thing in ministry, the greatest value we bestow one to another is with presence.  Being there is the tweet you don't have to write or the sermon you do not have to preach.  Jesus tells us whenever two or three are gathered, he will be there.  If we are present with each other, he will be present with us.

Yes, we are all busy but perhaps we need to think seriously about how we are practicing ministry through presence.  Being present to hear the re-telling of our stories helps us understand who we are and provides hope and strength for the ministries at hand.  It also inspires gratitude for how their ministries have impacted ours.  It adds value to our connection and adds value to our lives.  When a colleague shows up to be present with us, it reminds us we are not alone.  There have been crisis times in my own ministry when my colleagues have come to be present.  In the chaos of my secretary being stabbed, it was the presence of those who came to be with me that provided a miracle of grace that guided me through what had to be done in my congregation.   I have also felt the absence when I needed the presence of my brothers or sisters and felt left in the cold when the cavalry did not arrive.

Our nation is mourning the tragic deaths and wounds this week from the shooting in Arizona.  There is great debate among the talking heads about the language we have employed in our political debates and our every day verbiage.  Maybe it is just a symptom that we have forgotten presence as the most powerful tool in our communications tool chest.  We write covenants, ministry plans, and vision statements but perhaps all those things would be unnecessary if we could strengthen our ministries with a real and unwritten covenant of presence.  Previous generations seem to have understood this far more than the baby-boomers currently leading many of our congregations today.  Somehow we think we are individually more powerful than we are collectively.  That is neither biblically or theologically sound.  Christianity was always a community based faith.   So - while others blame and point fingers, I will look in the mirror and repent.  There are times I should have been there but wasn't. 

The wise men paid homage by traveling a great distance to be present with the Christ child.  They did not send an email or post an update on Facebook.  They were there to pay homage.  They were there to connect and as a result, they were blessed and so were we.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Resurrection Story

Over the past several weeks, many major news organizations have been posting stories related to clergy stress and burnout.  Both The New York Times and The Huffington Post have provided excellent glimpses into the unusual world of modern pastoral ministry. It is truly a profession where "the old grey mare, she ain't what she used to be."  This morning as I was reading the wide variety of responses to The Huffington Post article, I was reminded that it was a year ago this week when I walked into my District Superintendent's office to resign.

It wasn't the first time I had considered resigning.  The appointment I was serving had stressed me financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually but I did love the people and I understood what I was being asked to do there.  But on that day, I felt ineffective.  I felt as if my leadership was ineffective.  I felt my preaching was ineffective.  I believed the congregation would be better served by someone else - someone who could be heard and followed.

The situation that had led to this decision had been an issue for quite some time.  It had been discussed among the leadership and the committees involved.  My District Superintendent had noticed it when he visited and my own son confronted me about it when he last visited.  Both parishioners and visitors had mentioned it in their evaluations.  It had to be tackled and the pastor was the only one with the authority to do so.  So after months of prayer, I finally took action.  It was handled as gently and professionally as possible in hopes the response would be equally professional and gentle.  The danger in congregations that tend to be inwardly turned is that most things are personal.  The larger picture often remains in a fog of self-interest.  The response was, unfortunately, personal rather than professional.  Loyalty to those who had been there longest triumphed over effectiveness.  It was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. 

Fortunately, my District Superintendent was not there.  I made an appointment and walked out of the office only to have my iPhone ding with a new message.  It was an email from a shaman.  It was someone who knew me and cared enough about my ministry to confront me with the truth.  He started out by saying, "You may not speak to me after I say these things to you but you need to hear them and it is worth the risk."  We all should have a friend like that.  The email was followed by a phone call.  He was direct and he was personal.  He wasn't there to join my pity party.  His words stung as I was confronted with my own fears, doubts, and lack of faith.  He spoke the truth as he knew it from years of experience in the pulpit and years of reflection since leaving the ministry.

Most of the afternoon and evening were spent in prayer and the next morning, the burden and stress had dissolved.  I kept the appointment with my District Superintendent but the topic of conversation centered around ministry, not resignations.  I retell this story as an example of what is happening to my brothers and sisters in ministry all over the United States.  We become damaged in these constant challenges to be the Kingdom of God in a culture that encourages us to be a civic, social, and/or political organization that uses an emblem of a cross as its logo.  Some colleagues that I know well have become too damaged to be effective and my great fear was that I, too, had crossed that line.

In the midst of the stress, I had become disappointed and disillusioned.  Every day seemed to be another day simply to keep digging the hole that would consume me.  It was a struggle to just be present much less lead.  I had forgotten one of the lessons to be learned from the story of Job - the by-product of suffering is self-absorption.  My ministry had become lost in a fog of self-interest that I had created.

What saved my call was, indeed, the Holy Spirit but it was also a shaman/coach who was experienced enough to see God's larger picture, courageous enough to clear the fog and confront me with the truth, and intuitive enough to understand my calling in the Kingdom.  There are very few of these shamans available and most religious institutions have no idea how to use such a resource.  (I'll save that discussion for another blog.)  Leading congregations in this environment requires pastors to be, as Friedman terms it, a non-anxious presence.  It is difficult to be a non-anxious presence in a world that not only generates its own anxiety but actually hires marketing experts to create anxiety to influence public behavior.  Those of us in pastoral leadership must confront the anxiety created by our own insecurities and deal with them theologically.  You cannot expect a congregation to work through issues theologically if you as a pastor have not modelled it first.

It is now a year later and so much has changed.  I love what I do.  My ministry and my hope have experienced resurrection.  Hopefully, when the stress pops up again, I'll be better equipped spiritually to handle it or maybe the shaman will step in before I actually get into crisis mode.  But today I am profoundly grateful and amazed at how God works.