Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Name:
Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.

6/11/2005

Regional Politics Heat Up in the UMC

Several southern annual conferences are considering a resolution intended to increase the power of the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions on denominational boards and agencies, according to Jay Voorhees at The Methoblog.

The resolution requests a ruling of the United Methodist Judicial Council about the way the secretary of the General Conference interprets the very complicated formula in the Book of Discipline (Paragraphs 705 and 706) used to divvy up between jurisdictions the seats on general church boards and agencies, such as the Board of Church and Society, the Board of Global Ministries, and the Connectional Table. Voorhees discusses the issue here and here, but his most thorough discussion is on his Methodcast # 7, about 14 minutes into the podcast.

As I understand the issue, the current General Conference secretary has decided to follow the tradition of making sure that each jurisdiction has a representative on denominational boards and agencies, then she follows other aspects of the formula. Those advancing the resolution believe that language in the Discipline which charges the secretary to insure "to the extent possible that membership of each board reflects the proportionate membership of the jurisdictions based upon combined clergy and lay membership" (Paragraph 705.5 and elsewhere) should result in an end to the practice of allowing each jurisdiction to have at least one representative. The attitude behind the resolution is: if the proportional numbers do not entitle a jurisdiction to a seat, tough luck!

If the resolution passes in at least one annual conference, and the Judicial Council agrees with its interpretation of the language in the Discipline, it might mean that some jurisdictions will have no presence on some denominational boards and agencies.

Voorhees, a member of the Tennessee Annual Conference, opposes the resolution for a couple of reasons. He argues that the Judicial Council is being used too much. If the paragraphs in the Discipline are poorly written, he says, they ought to be fixed by legislation at the next General Conference rather than be taken to the Judicial Council.

But he also argues that it is neither fair nor healthy to exclude any jurisdiction of the denomination from at least a minimal presence on general boards and agencies. This argument, it seems to me, is right on target.

The motivation behind this resolution and other such efforts to strengthen the power and control of the two southern jurisdictions on denominational agencies is due to the significant difference between the South and the rest of U.S. United Methodism on the issue of sexual orientation. The more power the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions have, the less likely the church will change its policy of excluding gay and lesbian people from ordained ministry and from church celebrations of their committed relationships.

Southern strategists learned the power of changing formulas at the 2000 General Conference. They brought a resolution to the 2000 General Conference to change the formula used to determined how many delegates each annual conference gets to send to General Conference. The formula is based on both the number of clergy and the number of laity in each annual conference.

The pre-2000 formula said each conference got one clergy and one lay delegate for every 140 clergy members of the annual conference plus one clergy and one lay delegate for every 44,000 lay members. The 2000 General Conference changed the numbers to one clergy and lay delegate for every 375 clergy plus one clergy and lay delegate for every 26,000 lay members. This change significantly increased delegates from the two southern jurisdictions and from the Central Conferences, and decreased the number from the Northeastern, North Central, and Western Jurisdictions. (See a pre-2000 UMNS story about this here.)

This is the reason why, although the church as a whole had become more open and understanding of gay and lesbian Christians between 2000 and 2004, General Conference became less so. Southerners had maneuvered the formula so as to strengthen their own power as well as to increase the number of delegates from Central Conferences.

Since a number of the denominational agencies, such as the Board of Church and Society, the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, have been supportive of a more inclusive church, the South is now hard at work to capture control of the general church agencies in order to halt their support for change.

Some United Methodists no doubt remember the impact the Board of Church and Society had on integrating the Methodist Church in spite of the resistance of the southern jurisdictions. W. Astor Kirk, who describes his role in desegregating the Methodist Church in his book Desegregation of the Methodist Church Polity: Reform Movements That Ended Racial Segregation, was an staff member of the Board of Church and Society during the time he worked for an end to the Central Jurisdiction and other racist structures within the church. (See "Methodists and Segregation.")

The argument used by delegates from the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions at the 2000 General Conference was the principle of "one person-one vote." I covered the legislative section where this formula was discussed for the Daily Christian Advocate and had the opportunity to hear the debate. Some southern delegates articulated a great sense of injustice and victimization because they had more members in the churches of their conferences but not necessarily as many more delegates. "This is a matter of justice," they said again and again.

Actually, the principle of "one person-one vote" has never been absolute, at least not in U.S. democracy. Every state gets two senators no matter what its population. Iowa has as many senators as New York. The democratic commitment to "one person-one vote" is tempered by the need to insure the presence of every state at the table.

Also, the basis for determining representation at annual conference is hardly "one person-one vote," and it is annual conference delegates after all who elect the delegates to General Conference. The principle used to determine representation at annual conferences could be more accurately described as "every charge-at least one vote, and maybe more." So the sudden promotion of the principle of "one person-one vote" is suspect. Other considerations, such as the inclusion of all the jurisdictions, also represent democratic values.

I have an evangelical friend who is upset about how political General Conferences have become. He objects to the demonstrations and vigils held by those of us advocating for change. He says it makes the church look as though we are battling for power rather than mutually submitting ourselves to Christ.

But the little vigils and demonstrations we hold at General Conference are prayer meetings compared to the politics of those who have learned how to adjust formulas and manipulate the rules for the sake of their agendas. Our vigils are direct and transparent. We are openly and honestly trying to touch delegates' hearts and to persuade their minds.

On the other hand, while back rooms may not be smoky anymore, there are still back rooms.

6/09/2005

An E-interview with Evangelism Award Recipient James Farmer

Rev. Jim Farmer
The Rev. James Farmer, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Prince Frederick, Md., is a 2005 recipient of the Harry H. Denman Award for Evangelism presented by the Baltimore-Washington Conference. He was recognized because of his effectiveness in reaching people who join the church on profession of faith -- brand new members as distinct from those transferring from other congregations or denominations. In 2002 the Baltimore-Washington Conference reported that almost 200 churches in the conference had received no new members --not one-- by profession of faith the previous year, and in 2003 the Rev. Rodney Smothers told the conference that 40 percent of United Methodist churches nationally had not received a single new member by profession of faith in the past year. Untied Methodist asked Rev. Farmer to share insights into his church's effectiveness at reaching new members.

Are there secrets you can share about your church's effectiveness at reaching new members -- people who are not already church members somewhere else?

Dean, there are no secrets I have discovered over the years. In each of my three appointments I have been privileged to serve in churches and communities that have been receptive. The successes are tempered further in that in our polity our confirmation classes are part of the profession of faith category.

I remember an earlier Connection interview from the 1980s where I said, "New branches bring new fruit." It was the new members that were bringing new people to church. Today that is still true; older established families rarely invite others to visit the church. The only difference I see today is that it is not only new families in the church but those whose faith is fresh and current. Most of our witness to God's work in our lives becomes dated and old when it should be as fresh as today. People are excited about God working today.

If there were a secret to reaching unchurched new members, I believe it is caring that they are unchurched. Before programs and events there must be a heart for the lost, those without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If we truly care we will invite them to a journey of
faith.

What role does a pastor play in helping to create a congregational spirit that supports reaching new people?

I believe the pastor/staff are critical to setting the temperature, to establishing the climate of caring and acceptance that is necessary. As you well know, the congregation will often follow the heart of the pastor. Without your heart for social ministry, Foundry would not be the church it is in the larger Washington community. Sermons, teaching, and personal action are all a part of opening your own heart and communicating the importance of reaching out to and making a place for new folks in our shared life together.

Is preaching important in reaching new members? Can you summarize the core message you emphasize in your preaching?

Preaching is very important in a variety of ways. It is the event that gives us the opportunity to reach the largest number of people and to offer the heart of Christ. Luke 19:10 and many other scriptures remind us that Jesus came for the lost. It is not the healthy but the sick.

My preaching and my life are out of a deep gratitude for the love of God in Christ. My personal journey is not one of a perfect climb rather I have been forgiven much and having nearly lost my life in Viet Nam a long time ago. It is now lived thanking God for each day.

How do you get the word out to your community that new people are welcome?

We invite the larger community to all of the ministries of Trinity Church, via mass mailing, personal invitation, and the televising of our weekly worship. The local access cable is a good way to for the local community to get to know our congregation . The primary tool, however, is a personal invitation to join us in worship. Each individual can influence others in ways the entire congregation cannot.

How do you extend an invitation to membership?

We extend an invitation to discipleship at the end of each service and have new member orientation days three or four times a year, depending on need.

Each of our three services offer a welcome to guests and, at the offering time, they are ask to be our guest for our offering time in an opportunity for those of us making our church home here to return to the Lord our tithes and offering. Following worship or at announcements folk are invited to consider becoming a member.

Are most of those who join by profession of faith people who were raised in church but became inactive, or are you seeing many people with no church background whatsoever? Do those who join by profession of faith tend to be people who were already believers in Jesus Christ but not church members or are these brand new Christians?

Most who join by profession of faith are those who have not been in church since childhood and are looking for spiritual meaning in their lives. Some are folks who have never attended church; however, they are the minority. Most seem to have a basic belief in Christ but no framework around what that means.

Even in confirmation we sometimes encounter young persons with no real faith experience. It is not uncommon to baptize both parent and child at the same time. These are folk who have been raised with church in their lives.

Are there any special efforts you need to make to incorporate people who are not experienced church members into the life of your congregation?

There needs to be an effort to receive and accept these new persons as they are and to get them into our Nurture/Discipleship ministries as soon as possible. In addition to Disciple Bible Study, which may well be too much for a brand new person, we have a variety of other studies and small groups that can help to continue the growth process. We use both a Spiritual Gifts inventory and Every Member in Ministry inventory from the new member orientation to help in this process. Being attentive to the present needs of the person is critical, as you well know. Helping the present membership understand all of this is difficult but necessary.

Do you hold new member classes? If so, what are they like?

As I mentioned earlier, we do have new member classes (more orientation). We go over the Trinity story, have a ministry team presentation of an overview of current ministries and a time of sharing Wesleyan theology and polity. This is an important piece for, in addition to brand new Christians, there are folk from three to five denominations other than Methodist in their background. The understanding of Sacraments, basic theological thought and how the church is structured is important. We also share about what it means to be a member. It is a time of commitment rather than a time to receive benefits.

We give out a packet of information from each of our ministry areas and, as mentioned, give a Spiritual Gifts Inventory. We usually have a family from the early days of the church to share about that time, a new person or family and I cast the vision of the future as I understand it. As you can see this is a major process for us.

Is it ever threatening to long-established members to have new people coming into membership? In your experience, is there a limit to a congregation's capacity to incorporate new members into their fellowship?

It can be very threatening to established members, and it is something we continually look at. There is always a shift taking place and it is important that in major things folks from each era of the congregation are present. When major issues are before us we want everyone and every voice present.

I believe the capacity for incorporation will vary according to the congregation and the size of the congregation. By adding ministries, integration is not as difficult. Adding to existing groups can be more problematic. The addition of staff brings new persons and ministries
into their own place and space in the church.

Are there any books you have found helpful in thinking about how to reach new people?

From the early days I read about the program at Frazer Memorial UMC called Every Member In Ministry. I have visited Saddleback, Willow Creek, First Church of Houston, COR, churches in Denver and Colorado Springs, and read book upon book about church growth, and have incorporated principles that are transferable. Size, scale and location are very different yet common principles can be used.

One of the best today is Adam Hamilton from Church of the Resurrection. He is young, bright and effective, I find his writing about the church today to be excellent. All of us, though, must be authentic. We can only offer what we have.

What else can you share about reaching new members that would be helpful to other United Methodists?

I hesitate to offer to others because I am truly the least of these. In 22 years I have been privileged to receive many person into membership and to help many along their journey of faith, some 400+ of these have been by profession of faith. I am thankful to God for allowing me to be a part of this ministry. There are many among us with much more wisdom and ability. I look to learn from all. I am continually looking for new and different ways of reaching others for Christ.

6/07/2005

Laying Down our Methodist Swords -- A "thank you" to Kathryn Johnson

I have just ordered a copy of the Zion Herald magazine's new book Hardball on Holy Ground: The Religious Right v. the Mainline for the Church's Soul, edited by Stephen Swecker. Swecker is a smart and balanced guy, a thoughtful and skilled editor, so I will read the book. Still, the appearance of another book on this topic makes me nervous.

Like United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake Up Call written by Leon Howell, I worry its very existence will foment more heat than light. While the so-called "renewal" groups in the mainline churches need to be held accountable, as do we all, fighting fire with fire makes it likely we will burn down the whole village.

Publicity materials for Hardball include a quote by Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches: "Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others will be dismayed to learn that the churches they love are targets of a campaign of destabilization. We ignore this reality at our peril."

I suppose Edgar might be accurate about some of the players in the mainline church renewal movements: those professional fundraisers who raise money by playing on the anxiety of ordinary people confused by changes they don't understand. The fundraising letters, written I assume by some firm specializing in doing this, pander shamelessly to people's fears.

But I also know other members of the renewal movements whom I believe --even when we disagree on basic concerns and perspectives-- to be fully sincere, honorable, and in love with the United Methodist Church. They, like those of us working for a more inclusive church, are not conducting "a campaign of destabilization," but are trying to build a denomination consistent with their understanding of the Gospel.

In a review of United Methodism @ Risk, Swecker and Andrew Weaver likewise go too far in labeling the motives of people with whom we disagree: "... the political right seeks to gain top leadership positions in the church by spreading misleading information and incendiary allegations against organizations and individuals. These groups employ the propaganda method of 'wedge issues' like abortion and homosexuality to cause confusion, dissension and division. Mr. Howell persuasively demonstrates that the IRD [Institute for Religion and Democracy] and other self-proclaimed 'renewal groups' are uninterested in genuine dialogue, desiring only to impose their belief systems on the target churches."

I am afraid that this kind of polarizing weakens us. It gives us permission to be a tad baser and more extreme than we might otherwise be. They are so bad, we think, that we can --nay, must-- nail them back. We become more and more like what we suppose our enemy to be.

This is why I am mightily impressed by the address Kathryn Johnson, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), delivered at the organization's Voices of Faith conference held last April in Los Angeles. I have thought about her speech often since I heard her deliver it. What she had to say was a powerful reminder of our self-definition as followers of Jesus Christ. Many of us in her audience last April have been so frustrated that, I suspect, we may have begun to forget who we are.

Entitled Lest We Lose Sight of the Vision: Laying Down Our Swords Within the United Methodist Church, Johnson's speech draws heavily on the work of Roger Conner of Search for Common Ground, an organization that mediates between warring parties on a global basis.

Johnson lays out four guidelines suggested by Conner about how to creatively engage those with whom we strongly disagree:

1. Be passionate. It is okay to be passionate about what we believe to be true, just, and beautiful.

2. Be honest about who we are. It is important that we state clearly and directly the positions we believe in and the positions we believe to be wrong. We don't need to fudge or apologize.

3. Be respectful. Here there are two sub-points: a) Call people by the name they want to be called. If my name is "pro-choice," don't call me "pro-abortion," Johnson says. If there are those who choose to call themselves a "renewal group," call them by their name and expect them to live up to it. b) Do not speculate on other's motives. If someone says they want the church to be more Christlike, do not assume they really are just interested in power. Accusing others of base motives is terribly divisive and often wrong.

4. Be truthful. Here there are four sub-points: a) No guilt by association. I find us doing this more and more. So-and-so, who was on the board of this-or-that group, was also a member of this-or-that awful organization, so the group we don't like must have the same horrible agenda. Johnson asks us to stop doing this. b) No caricature, exaggeration, or "straw-man" debate techniques. c) Hold people who disagree with us up to the standard of their highest values. d) Hold ourselves to the standards of our highest values. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in her speech; she is holding us to the standard we say we believe in.

Johnson adds one more guideline of her own. She says: "I believe that we also need to recognize the truth in one another. ... I believe, and I am aware that all present may not share this belief, that each of us, conservative or progressive, Good Newser or MFSAer, that each of us holds some truth."

This is a gutsy speech. A lot of us who were in the room to hear it were tired and frustrated. We have worked too long and too hard for too little progress. Johnson would have probably gotten a more enthusiastic response if she had chosen to go on the attack.

But I am convinced Johnson's speech is the word we need to hear at this point in the struggle. Not that we will stop working for the change that needs to come, and will come. But, in the process, it is critical that we remain graceful rather than accusatory, transparent rather than manipulative, assertive rather than reactive, direct rather than hostile.

Kathryn Johnson, thank you.