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Church is a Miracle: Reflections on General Conference 2016

umh-545 lyricsI’m not certain what I think about General Conference.

The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis.  Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland.  Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020.  The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass.  As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.

Regardless, the Church goes on.  I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on.  And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.)  This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.

In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:

Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.

These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).  In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.

We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen.  Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)

We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ.  The truth is that it is a miracle.

The church is always a miracle.

thereforegoThis is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God.  It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this.  But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.

As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom.  As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.

When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.

But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church.  We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.

I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace.  But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.

But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us.  The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed.  That’s the definition of cold comfort.

But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life.  It is not too late for a miracle.

I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.

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Why the Nicene Creed?

confessing one faithHow does one choose the most significant Christian confession?

There are thousands of different creeds, catechisms, and confessions which Christians have used in liturgy and for instruction over the centuries.  From the earliest centuries until today, various Christian bodies have searched for ways to distill Scripture and tradition into statements that serve the church in forming disciples.  These statements are ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, Reformed and Arminian, progressive and evangelical.  How does one decide?

The World Council of Churches, in a series of meetings and documents throughout the 20th century, decided to use the Nicene Creed.  First drafted in 325 and approved at the First Ecumenical Councils in Nicea, it was modified and again approved in Constantinople in 381 (thus its formal title is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).  In 1991 the WCC produced a document, Confessing the One Faith (Faith & Order #153), expounding on this creed as a basis for the doctrinal work needed to work towards full visible unity of the constituent churches.  The essay addresses up front why the WCC chose the Nicene Creed for this important role:

Why was this Creed chosen? At a time when erroneous positions on Christ and the Holy Spirit were already tearing the Church apart, the Ecumenical Councils set forth the faith of the apostolic community which it is the Church’s mission to safeguard, defend and transmit. The essential truths of this faith were summarized and articulated in creeds or confessions of faith, most often in the liturgical context of baptism.

The credal statement known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is a typically Eastern creed, the core of which dates back to the Council of Nicea (325), while its third article is linked with the Council of Constantinople (381).  Because it is used in the liturgies of both East and West it is undoubtedly the best witness to the unity of the churches in the apostolic faith, as Faith and Order affirmed at Lausanne (1927). It reminds all Christians and all communities of their faith, and links it with the faith of all ages and all places. The churches of the Reformation have included it in their credal books as a reference text that objectively expresses the faith, making no concessions to religious sentimentality, and drawing directly on Scripture.  (Preface, ix.)

Eastern Orthodox icon of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). Public Domain via WIkimedia Commons.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). Public Domain via WIkimedia Commons.

The World Council of Churches has judged this statement of faith so significant that they made it the basis of ecumenical dialogue for nearly a century.  This alone should be reason enough for Christians in 2016 to embrace it.  For in confessing together this creed from the 4th century, we join with Christians across time and space.  The WCC document continues:

The Nicene Creed as a confession of faith belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the Nicene Creed the individual joins with all the baptized gathered together in each and every place, now and throughout the ages, in the Church’s proclamation of faith: “we believe in”. The confession “we believe in” articulates not only the trust of individuals and God’s grace, but it also affirms the trust of the whole Church in God. There is a bond of communion among those who join together in making a common confession of their faith. However, as long as the churches which confess the Creed are not united with one another, the visible communion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church remains impaired.

Just as in baptism the confession of faith is made in response to God’s grace, so too the Church’s on-going confession is made in response to God’s grace and love, most particularly vouchsafed in the preached word and celebrated sacraments of the Church. Hence the Church’s liturgy is the proper context for the Church’s confession of faith.  (pp. 15-16)

This is why the Nicene Creed is, as its broad use across a number of communions and by the chief ecumenical body on the globe testify, the preeminent statement of Christian confession.  As Christians have recognized since 381, nothing else witnesses to the unity of the apostolic faith in the undivided church with both the theological beauty and ecumenical authority that can match this ancient confession.

Why the Nicene Creed? There is simply no substitute.

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3 Theological Reasons the #UMC Should Reconsider its Stance on Same-Gender Relationships

essentialsThe debate we have been having for over 40 years as a church has been decidedly un-theological.  Below are three ways to enter this conversation that force us to think a bit more theologically, channels that deserve more attention than they usually get.  Here are three theological reasons the United Methodist Church Should Reconsider its stance on same-gender relationships.

3) Divorce

All churches, in formulating their teachings on marriage and sex, are faced with a variety of questions.  These are interrelated.  What you think about sex impacts what you think about marriage; what you think about marriage impacts your view of divorce; views about a host of other matters like abortion and contraception also must cohere within this web.

The fly in the ointment of conservative United Methodists who argue that it is impossible for the church to change its stance on same-gender relationships is divorce.  On one hand, we are told it is impossible for the church to “compromise” the clear teaching of Scripture about divorce, but in the other, we see evangelical leaders getting divorced and remarried with hardly the bat of an eye.

It makes no sense to threaten schism over same-gender relationships and remain almost silent on divorce.  We have come to see, as most Protestants now have, that divorce is sometimes a necessary option – not just in cases of adultery but particularly in situations of abuse or neglect – and that remarriage is often a blessing.  This is against the clear teaching of Matthew 19.  Why can we reinterpret (or ignore) Scripture here, and not elsewhere?  I do not agree with the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox on everything, but their practices vis-a-vis marriage, divorce, and same-gender relationships are coherent.  On the other hand, I’ve known many couples who have their second marriage to be a profound blessing.  If this is a possibility, despite Scripture’s teaching, might not there be room for a conversation about same-gender marriage?  (Note: we already let individual conferences make policies about divorce.)

It makes no sense to argue we cannot bend on sexuality while in practice being silent on divorce.  It is incoherent for our clergy who are in the closet to have to remain there when we say nothing to heterosexual clergy who are serially monogamous.

2) The Keys

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” -Matt. 16:19-20

If you have read my work elsewhere, you probably guessed that I take ecclesiology (the nature/study of the church) very seriously.  I believe this is because Scripture and tradition treat the church as an entity of utmost importance.

Jesus gave the church “the keys of the kingdom,” and promised to honor whatever the church bound and loosed. (Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox differ over who precisely Peter represents here.) We see a clear example of this in Acts 15 over the question of dietary laws.  I’ve often thought that Acts 15:10, about “placing a yoke” on the neck of disciples that neither they nor their ancestors could themselves bear, applies to the UMC’s treatment of gay and lesbian persons.  To call people to lives of celibacy, without lifting that up as an honorable vocation and providing resources and community to make this a life-giving possibility, is indeed a heavy and unjust yoke.

The church has authority, given by Christ, to bind and to loose – to come together in prayer and humility – and discern these matters. We’ve been doing it since the earliest church.  God, amazingly, trusts us and honors our discernment.  On ecclesiological grounds, I believe that anything that is not core doctrine (say, what is contained in the historic creeds), is subject to the binding and loosing of the community.  “In non-essentials, liberty,” as the saying goes.

1) Holiness

Methodism is a holiness movement. Even the most cursory reading of  Wesleyan history shows that holiness is at the core of our mission and ethos.  This is perhaps the most neglected, most fruitful avenue for discussion in the long-simmering debate over same-gender relationships in the United Methodist Church.

In the church, marriage is not a right but a rite, not a ceremony but a vocation.  The best reason Christians marry is because they find a partner who will draw them nearer to the triune God.  If the whole of a Christians’ life is to be directed towards a greater love of God and neighbor, then the deepest purpose of marriage must align with this end.

United Methodists would do ourselves a favor if we took seriously the work of Eugene Rogers, a lay Episcopal theologian of uncommon nuance.  His Sexuality and the Christian Body is a hefty read, but you can read more succinct versions of his work here and in this Christian Century piece. In the latter, he argues explicitly for a holiness view of marriage and suggests that we

…take marriage as an ascetic discipline, a particular way of practicing love of neighbor. The vows do this: “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Those ascetic vows—which Russian theologians compare to the vows of monastics—commit the couple to carry forward the solidarity of God and God’s people. Marriage makes a school for virtue, where God prepares the couple for life with himself by binding them for life to each other.

Marriage, in this view, is for sanctification, a means by which God can bring a couple to himself by turning their limits to their good. And no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples do.

I am moved by this vision of marriage as “a school for virtue.”  Re-discovering this sense of marriage as a calling directed towards sanctification could do much to sanctify our own conversations within the United Methodist Church and beyond.  Let us not treat as a piece of paper what God has given as a gift and a vocation.

Conclusion

Too much of our denominational conversation devolves into categories imported from outside the church.  To be frank, there are better avenues for debate, three of which I have outlined above.

I long for us to argue better.  I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means.  How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.

So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content.  By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate.  We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.

I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church.  I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist.

To that end I shall continue to study, work, and pray.

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Premeditated Abdication: A Rejoinder to James Howell

Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

Premeditated abdication is a strange way to run for Bishop.

Going back to 1784, American Methodists have been guided by a Book of Discipline. Though it has changed over the years in response to new laws, splits, and mergers, the Discipline has been a staple of Methodist life here in the former colonies.  For as long as there has been an entity called the United Methodist Church, the Discipline has also been a source of controversy.  Since 1972, questions about sexuality have led the agenda for many Methodists.  With increasing fervor, arguments about the clauses related to LGBT persons have raged as the decades rolled on.  Rev. Dr. James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, NC, has recently offered these pre-Portland thoughts (high-fived by Bishop Willimon here) on our meddlesome book:

A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?”  This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in.  The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.

I wish we wouldn’t speak in code.  Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced.  But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all.  Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive.  Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.

It seems strange to argue that enforcing church law “sounds punitive” when it is bound between two covers with Book of Discipline on the front. If what we have is church law, and many churches (along with non-profits, states, cities, and middle school student councils) are governed by laws, then said law can be broken or maintained, defended or flaunted, enforced or ignored.

I also think it’s important to note that Dr. Howell is himself speaking in code. The issue is clearly not whether or not “enforcement” is a positive or negative practice.  The real issue is that he disagrees with some parts of the Discipline and, in a coded way, is arguing for ignoring them.

It may sound shocking, but there are times when enforcing the Discipline is wholly uncontroversial.

For instance, when a Virginia pastor was removed from ministry because he refused membership to a gay man, I do not recall progressives decrying the worldly, legalistic culture of “enforcement.”

Moreover, when a pastor runs off with the Sunday offering or with a partner who is not their spouse, we not only expect, but we hope for enforcement of clergy standards.  If you’ve ever been in a church wounded and riven because that enforcement came too late, you learn to appreciate it.

In the Christian tradition, discipline can actually be a means of grace, or even an act of love.  Augustine argued that it was loving to rein in the Donatists, because their apostasy was ultimately destructive to themselves and others.  Dr. Howell rightly notes the example of the eccentric St. Francis, but we might also mention the more ancient Rule of St. Benedict, in which we discover that correction includes not just public excoriation but excommunication and even corporal punishment.

Can enforcement be an act of love?

Earlier this month a judge in Fayetteville, NC sentenced a veteran to 24 hours in jail.  The veteran, Sgt. Serna of the Special Forces (retired), spent twenty years in the Army including four tours in Afghanistan. He was almost killed three times, and has one Purple Heart and many other awards to his credit.

His life post-service has been difficult. Like so many combat vets, he’s struggled with PTSD in the ensuing years.  Serna turned to alcohol for relief, which has led to several DUI’s.  Though he’s been working a treatment program, he confessed to Judge Lou Olivera recently that he had lied about a recent urine test, which led to the 24 hour sentence.

But what came next was astounding. Judge Olivera himself drove the veteran to jail, and then joined him in the cell.  Worried that Serna’s PTSD might rear its hideous head if left alone in a cell overnight, he stayed with him.  They spent the evening talking about military service. Olivera, you see, is himself a veteran of the first Gulf War and knew Serna’s pain better than most.  An overwhelmed Serna had this to say:

I cannot even put into words how I feel about him…I look at him as a father. I’ve seen a lot of things, and this by far is the most compassionate thing I’ve ever seen anyone give to anybody. I will never let him down again.

broken chaliceCompassion and enforcement are not of necessity opposites.  As Christians who have tethered ourselves by sacred vow to a church whose foundational doctrine is grace, governed by laws together compiled as the Book of Discipline, this should not be surprising.  Grace and discipline. Love and order.

It is fashionable to decry those who are in favor of church order as Pharisees and fundamentalists – cheap attacks are easier than relationship and engagement, sadly – but this of course ignores the many positive references to correction in Scripture. To name just two:

Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admonition gain understanding. (Prov. 15:32, NRSV)

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. (Gal. 6:1, NRSV)
Scripture values correction, and so does our own particular church history. For those following Jesus in the company of the Wesleys, discipline should not a four letter word.  John Wesley and later Francis Asbury held their circuit preachers to high standards of accountability. Likewise, band and class leaders who formed the skeleton of the Methodist movement also maintained serious (though loving) boundaries. (Remember, it is not unheard of in our tradition to have to receive a ticket from one’s spiritual overseer to receive Communion!)

I am especially concerned about the outright rejection of enforcement because Dr. Howell is my conference’s nominee for Bishop. Going back to ancient precedent, Bishops are in fact to be foci of unity for the church. Thus, St. Ignatius wrote in the 2nd century, “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop.” If one were to imagine the church as a house, Bishops are charged with ensuring there are not termites in the wall or cracks in the foundation. If there are, some action will be necessary.

Elsewhere, Ignatius argued that the unanimity of the bishops and the priests was to model and reinforce the singleness of the one Lord Jesus Christ:
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent.

The United Methodist Church operates in like manner. We “come together in one place” and decide how to order our common lives. No one is forced to be a United Methodist, but if you have decided to be a lay or clergy member, the results of these quadrennial gatherings shape our mutual life. If some decide instead to follow what is “reasonable and proper to [them]selves apart,” if the oneness of the church is broken, we have a process for restoration that must be followed. The hope is that this can be done short of something punitive or drastic, like de-frocking. But more severe corrective measures are certainly on the table.

To say otherwise, a priori, is an abdication of a crucial apostolic duty that belongs to bishops alone.

The Book of Discipline is an imperfect document by and for imperfect people. In that, let us grant each other grace. But let’s also care enough about our life to not shy away from this sacred bond.

I would hope that someone called to the office of Bishop in our particular corner of Christendom would see that our covenant, warts and all, is a sacred bond: a bond worth preserving where it is eroding, worth defending where it is threatened, and worth enforcing where it is violated.

While I greatly respect Dr. Howell as a preacher, a theologian, and a leader not just in my conference but across the denomination, I cannot support a candidate for episcopal office who has already signaled a premeditated abdication of duty.

This is a path to increased chaos, not coherence.

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When Will the Tail Stop Wagging the #UMC Dog?

by Drew 9 Comments
Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

When will the tail top wagging the dog? When will the whole United Methodist body cease to be driven hither and thither by what is really a small appendage?

I’m a longtime critic of the various caucus groups in the UMC.  While I don’t think they are all equally villainous, I do believe that on the whole they serve to draw resources from United Methodist pews that are better spent elsewhere.  Moreover, they form a sort of self-reinforcing system that goes something like this: RMN organizes to change the Book of Disciplinee; Good News fundraises to counter their efforts; Love Prevails then bounces off the “harmful” rhetoric of evangelicals and announces ahead of time that they plan to make sure nothing gets done in Portland which they don’t explicitly condone; then, finally, the IRD fills their coffers by reporting on the adolescent shenanigans of Justice’s Storm Troopers.  The caucuses have a sort of symbiotic relationship and form a vicious cycle.

These groups, in many ways, lead our denominational conversation – though I’m not at all convinced that, even all combined, they remotely represent the views of a majority of United Methodists.  I’m reminded of this quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, who noted that the bluster of radical groups often far outstrips their real influence:

“The vanity, restlessness, petulance, and spirit of intrigue, of several petty cabals, who attempt to hide their total want of consequence in bustle and noise, and puffing, and mutual quotation of each other, makes you imagine that our contemptuous neglect of their abilities is a mark of general acquiescence in their opinions. No such thing, I assure you.”

Despite the noise, there is no “general acquiescence” to the caucuses.  They are merely the loudest voices in the conversation.  If the Trump living nightmare candidacy has taught us nothing else, we’ve sure learned this: being loud, rude, disagreeable, loose with the facts, quick to attack, and light on nuance can actually get you a lot of attention.  It will even get you a seat at the table.  The committee in charge of organizing General Conference even met with the leaders of these groups last year.  Now, really, do we think this will placate the caucuses or embolden them?

Burke again would urge us not to take such tactics seriously:

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring…whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Most United Methodists do not share the priorities of the divisive caucuses.  A representative sample of over 500 parishioners was taken in 2014 to get a sense of the real priorities of the people who sit in our pews.  Sexuality did not even crack the top 5.

I see no future for us unless we stand up to the denominational hostage-takers and refuse to let the tail way the dog.  Much like Americans are experiencing in the national arena, denominational politics are not well served by letting the loudest, most divisive voices lead the conversation.  They don’t represent us.  They have every incentive to increase outrage and bend the truth to fund their own projects.

For the United Methodist Church to have a healthy and vital future, we cannot allow the most brutal voices to dictate the conversation.  We can do better.  We must do better.  But make no mistake: it’s up to us.  We, the vast majority of Methodists who love each and every one of their neighbors and want to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, decide this future: the ways that we engage one another, the things we read and share, the delegates for whom we vote give away whether we are directing our mental, emotional, and other resources towards victory or agape.

The tail does not have to wag the dog. But that’s up to us.

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Our Hope for #UMC General Conference 2016

GC 2016 banner

                      The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;                  she is his new creation by water and the Word.
       From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
                   with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.                        – “The Church’s One Foundation”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -Pope John Paul II

Something broke inside me during the 2012 General Conference.  I watched the proceedings via live stream and followed the conversation on social media.  I read the reports and stories.  I lamented and pulled out what little hair I had left.  But my Rubicon was not legislative in nature, despite the horror of watching the Judicial Council’s determination to guarantee gridlock.  Oddly enough, what affected me so strongly (and from so far away) happened at the Lord’s Table.

A group of people, in protest, seized the Communion table and held a kind of mock Eucharist.  The reasons do not matter, for it would have been as problematic to me no matter the motivation.  This was, to me, a signal that something was deeply wrong.  The means of grace that is our most cherished gift from Christ was abused.  We tried to use God rather than enjoy Him, to employ an Augustinian formula. It was an embarrassment, a low point during a gathering that would become famous for doing nothing.  The blog post I wrote in response was the first really significant piece of writing I ever published about denominational matters.  I wasn’t ordained yet. I was concerned that speaking out might cost me.  But I couldn’t be quiet any longer.  Much of my writing, my subsequent motivation for in the Via Media Methodists project and WesleyCast podcast began with that schismatic Eucharist.  Whether you enjoy my work or despise it (or something in between), you can blame that malformed psuedo-sacrament as the genesis for what has come after.

Several years and many shenanigans later, I remain committed to the denomination that sometimes vexes me.  At the wonderful church I serve here in North Carolina, we sang the lyrics above last Sunday before I preached on 1 John 4:12b: “If we love another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)  With Christ as our sole foundation, the church is called to a mutuality of love, in imitation of the love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a denomination, such mutual love can be hard to spot.  In the midst of Annual Conference season, temperatures are running hot as delegations are being elected and legislation being recommended to General Conference, taking place in 2016 in Portland.  Depending on who you think should “win” in 2016, some of the delegations look promising, and some look horrifying.  I don’t think it’s about winning, though I confess to a degree of dread about what is ahead.  But I do not believe the Spirit permits me to distance myself from the ugliness.

I recently told a friend of mine, who finds it difficult to stay in his own ecclesial home and wondered about the pathologies of my denominational family, that this is the church in which I have been led to Christ, nurtured in faith, and called to ministry.  This church, our embattled UMC, is who has supported me despite my failures, and given me opportunities to serve that have been deeply humbling and formative.  I cannot abandon her simply because the road ahead is fraught with difficulty. As we say in the South, “You gotta dance with the girl who brought you.”  R.R. Reno puts slightly more eloquently:

“However chaotic and dysfunctional the institutional and doctrinal life of the church, we must endure that which the Lord has given us.” (14)

All of us have our own ideas of what the church should look like, how it should function, and what she should teach and exhort.  There is no sense in pretending otherwise.  We have competing visions.  That is okay, so long as those competing visions don’t become anvils on which we hammer the Body of Christ.  That’s how a vision becomes an idol:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Bonhoeffer, 36)

Those competing images, though they are usually genuine in nature, make it tempting to either 1) retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, or 2) withdraw from the fray altogether.  But to avoid the dissension in favor of echo-chambers and indifference is to do exactly what Christ has asked us not to do: to distance ourselves from his body.

“We need to draw ever nearer to the reality of Christian faith and witness in our time, however burdensome, however heavy with failure, limitation, and disappointment. The reason is simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in the flesh. We can draw near to him only in his body, the church. Loyalty to him requires us to dwell within the ruins of the church.” (Reno, 14)

Distance is tempting.  But, to paraphrase Peter, to whom would we go?  Methodists have always known that we cannot hope to grow nearer to God absent companions on the journey.  That is why the church, the community of faithful, is a gift from God.  We neglect this too often.  Thus, Bonhoeffer reminds us:bonhoeffer lt

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.” (30)

If he is right, our neighbors who are sometimes exasperating are yet a means of grace.  The fellow United Methodists whom I sometimes long to throttle are beloved children of God, with whom I am called to be in community.  That community is not based on our shared vision for the future of the church, on mutual agreement on this or that question, but solely on Jesus Christ.  Again, Bonhoeffer notes,

“Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us….we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.” (34)

As the Confessing Church leader hints at, the church will endure, and we shall be graced with one other forever, not based on anything other than the fact that Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has been pro nobis.  I do not need to agree with someone to recognize that Christ is for them just as Christ has been for me.

My hope for Portland in 2016 is not based on this-or-that plan, or in the “right” delegates being elected. My hope for Portland is in Jesus.

“Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;                                                       their cry goes up: ‘How long?’
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”

Brokenness and discord are perishing.  They have no future in God’s Kingdom.  One way or another, God’s church will endure.  Her foundation is upon Christ, and though the winds blow and the rains beat down, the Christian family is not going anywhere.  Despite all our efforts to tear asunder the Body of Christ, we will feast at his heavenly banquet together one day.

I suggest, if you’ll permit a bit of realized eschatology, that perhaps we should go ahead and learn some table manners now.

This beautiful rendition of “The Church’s One Foundation” comes from the choir of Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Sources:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together & Prayerbook of the Bible: Works Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005).

R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

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Welcome to the #UMC Straw Man Fighting Championships

Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn't really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.

Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.

The Walk Out

In the world of combat sports, someone who pads their record by defeating unskilled opponents is said to be fighting “tomato cans.”  This is essentially what the crotchety trainer Mick says to Rocky in Rocky III: you’ve been fighting easy fights, and you’re not ready for Clubber Lang:

Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

When our opponents are hand-picked to make us look good, there isn’t much glory in victory.  The academic parallel to picking easy fights is the logical fallacy known as a straw man.  When you engage in a straw man attack, you are misrepresenting an interlocutor’s position, offering a counter-argument to that misidentified position, and summarily declaring victory.  But in reality, you have dodged your opponent, and you become what Clubber Lang called a “paper champion.”

The following are two examples of the straw man fallacy at its strawiest.

Round 1

In a recent series of blogs, a few people have suggested closing the floor to all but delegates, bishops, and essential personnel at the UMC General Conference in 2016.  There have been many helpful critiques, corrections, and questions about these proposals along the way, and for those I am appreciative.  But not all of them have been so thoughtful.

Jeremy Smith over at Hack[ing] Christianity dismissed many of the critics to his analysis by pointing to their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.  In a follow-up, he essentially declared victory on the grounds that his only pushback was from straight white men who were less enlightened than he, as a straight white man 2.0 (note that, as far as Adam West’s Batman is removed from Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, so is Smith removed from all straight, WASP-y men who might dare to question his insights):

There was significant online critique from straight white men who felt strongly that pointing to their common social location was unfair–and it was quite confrontational!

The problem is that this was a straw man, because he did indeed get feedback from people who were not SWM, which he ignored.  Comments at David Watson’s blog included well-reasoned perspectives from women and African-American men.  This part of the former comment especially (but not strangely) warmed my heart, since I was one of the people “hacked” by Rev. Smith:

All three people you “engaged” in your post, who come from very different places theologically, reacted to your post by insisting that you distorted what they themselves thought was at stake. This is intellectual vice. You also, despite their diversity of theological perspectives, lumped them in together and acted as if they were all the same because of their race, gender, and marital status.

While Jeremy responded to several folks on that thread, he did not respond to either of the comments above, perhaps because they did not fit the narrative around which he had built his straw man argument.

Round 2:

Another recent post by former Methodist seminary president Philip Amerson similarly jams together all of those who’ve suggested closing the GC2016 floor with this epic straw man:

Recently, some traditionalists have suggested that our General Conference should become a closed-door meeting that would allow only delegates to participate.

On an outlet featuring almost exclusively progressive voices like UMC Lead, the casual label “traditionalist” is more than enough to have an argument dismissed with no further adieu.  Sadly, it mirrors almost exactly an experience about which Stephen Rankin recently wrote.   Even worse, had Amerson done a bare minimum of homework, he would have known that at least 2 out of 3 of the folks he labelled “traditionalists” are anything but – including yours truly! – and spend as much of their time critiquing the UMC right as they do the UMC left.  Instead, he lumps all of us in with the far right of the church (with whom I would not identify Watson) and delves into deep psychoanalysis to suggest this proposal is really offered “out of a need control the outcome.”

This neglects two very important points: 1) The proposals have not been targeted at any particular groups, but at anyone who is not a delegate, bishop, or necessary personnel; 2) Don’t those who want the floor to be open actually want to “control the outcome” by interfering with the process we have?

Amerson has also set up a straw man, in naming all of those who are interested in this particular proposal control-mad traditionalists and assuming within them the worst possible motives.  Like Smith, his critique is really little more than shadow-boxing, because the boogeyman he’s fighting simply doesn’t exist.

The Judges’ Decision

The Straw Man Fighting Championship will not move us toward any desirable outcome as a church.  I am well aware that I’ve never written anything that is above critique, and I truly enjoy all kinds of healthy dialogue and pushback.  I have thick skin.  I was a Just War advocate at Duke Divinity School, for Augustine’s sake! (For those unfamiliar with my alma mater, it would be like walking across the OSU campus in a Michigan sweatshirt.)

I love a good argument.  But I can’t stand being misrepresented, and then watching others claim trophies for defeating a phantasm.  I can’t say this emphatically enough: we must do better.

As David Watson has suggested in the piece I mentioned above,

How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter.

A good argument can accomplish much.  But lazy, fallacious, dismissive, and surface-level arguments like we’ve been having will not take us anywhere we want to be.

The choice is ours, church.

 

P.S. For the sake of consistency, I fully expect progressive UMC critics of the proposal in question to begin a letter-writing campaign to their elected officials to ensure that the floor of Congress is opened to the Tea Party, Code Pink, the KKK, the Nation of Islam, and any other group who might feel a need to be heard in that venue.

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Review: Seeing Black and White in a Gray World by Bill Arnold

by Drew 3 Comments

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I recently finished Dr. Bill Arnold’s new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin: Seedbed 2014).  Dr. Arnold, a professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written this book in response to Adam Hamilton’s popular book (of a similar name) Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.  Professor Arnold is going to be one of my conversation partners at an upcoming forum in New York, and I thought reading his recent book would be helpful preparation for that discussion.

In short, I found much to appreciate in Arnold’s work. His purpose is fairly straightforward.  As he describes in the preface, Arnold read Hamilton’s book in advance of his service as a delegate to the (now infamous) 2012 General Conference in Tampa.  His initial description hints at many of the critiques he develops later in the book:

“I was not disappointed in Adam’s honest and straightforward book seeking a ‘third way’ through and beyond the controversies confronting the church today. I was disappointed, however by other features of the book.  I was surprised by the number of unsupported assumptions, errors of reasoning, and flawed arguments running throughout the book.  I also had questions about some of the theological assumptions, and Adam’s reliance on pragmatism, sometimes at the expense of theology.” (xv-xvi)

If you’ve never before studied logic, you are in for a crash-course. Arnold offers a helpful introduction to logical fallacies at the outset.  When reading, it is critical to catch these as he describes them because Arnold refers to them throughout.  Especially helpful is Dr. Arnold’s discussion of Scripture from a Wesleyan point of view, including his critique of the rampant misappropriation of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral and the need for a canonical reading of the Bible (what Wesley referred to as the “whole tenor” of Scripture).

Furthermore, I found Arnold’s discussion of the “myths” (as he calls them) that hinder our debate about same-sex relationships in the church quite helpful; these include “orientation” as determinative, liberation as a desired telos, and civil rights as an analogy for the current church struggles over same-sex relationships.  For my own part, I would grant that these would have a great deal more purchase on questions our society faces vis-a-vis civil unions and rights of visitation, inheritance, etc., but they are not adequately theological categories to ground discussion within the church.

There are some difficulties in consistency with Arnold’s work.  He accuses Adam Hamilton of the fallacy of “false dilemma” for asking, “Are John Shelby Spong and Jerry Falwell our only options?” but then goes on to hammer the extent to which (using a Yogi Berra quote) questions about same-sex practice leave us two paths.  “Sometimes we simply stand at a fork in the road. There is no sense complaining or crying over it. We have only two choices before us.” (86)

Similarly, he frequently disparages the search for a middle way (and of course I take this a bit personally), but yet approvingly observes in the preface that the current UM position already is a third or middle way:

“The current UMC approach is already a balanced and healthy third-way alternative…between those who simply accept and celebrate same-sex practices on the one hand, and those who condemn both the practices and the people who experience same-sex attraction on the other.” (xvii)

Later, Arnold will also stringently critique Adam and others like him who seek a compromise or middle way between any two alternatives for falling to a logical fallacy called begging the question: “Instead of asking whether or not such a middle way is possible, this time Adam has failed to consider whether such a middle way is preferable.” (97)  It appears, though, as if middle ways are preferable when he likes them, or can picture them, but to be avoided when he cannot envision them.

This is important because Arnold is not always accurate when deciding which questions are black and white (“fork-in-the-road”) or when compromises are possible.  For instance, he discusses Adam’s reflections on just war and Christian pacifism, concluding: “His is no gray area position. He has effectively taken a position on the side of justifiable warfare.” (166)  This overlooks that Just War is itself a middle or alternative way between the extremes of pacifism and realism, and that there are many construals of Just War theory, some of which would agree with Hamilton’s position (supporting the first Gulf War but not the second), and some of which would not.  Of course, this could be something overlooked by Hamilton as much as Arnold.

It’s worth pointing out, and it is to his credit, that Dr. Arnold is very complimentary of Adam Hamilton and says he counts him as a friend (though he seems to be making a cottage industry of critiquing Church of the Resurrection’s pastor).  By and large his reading of Hamilton is thorough and when he is critical, he is fair.  I wonder, though, about Hamilton as the conversation partner for this particular book.  It is not often that books are written that so directly refute another book, and in this case we have a very odd dichotomy: Arnold, an Old Testament scholar who was heretofore not written much at all in the popular vein (as he admits from the outset), taking on a popular and successful pastor whose work is more practical than scholarly.  Moreover, while Arnold says (on xvi) that he is only “using Adam’s book as representative of others in the same vein,” he never names who those others might be.

This leads to perhaps my most significant question about Arnold’s work: he has few conversation partners, to judge from the footnotes, who would disagree with him.  That is, a large number of his interlocutors are folks of similar conviction: names like Billy Abraham, Kenneth Collins, Joy Moore, and Maxie Dunnam come up regularly, but critics from the other end of the spectrum, or even from the middle, are largely absent – though Richard Hays might be a noticeable exception.  All that to say, it seems a somewhat problematic to write a book about the virtues of “seeing black and white” if the footnotes indicate one mostly only consulted those who already agree from the outset.   Arriving at the promised land of “black and white” is a cheap victory if it is done by not engaging opposing voices.

Lastly, I am not as convinced as Arnold in his conclusion that, “the problem with the church today isn’t that there is too much black and white, but not enough.  What we really need is less gray, not more.” (198)  Many things, even great and central matters of the faith, are not all that “black and white.”  At our best, Wesleyans, similar to the Christian East, have not shied away from mystery when it comes to the things of God.  The two foundational doctrines of the church’s faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are mysteries at their very heart.  Moreover, in a few short days Christians will observe Good Friday, and remember the affliction of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity; the Fathers of the Church would remind us, however, that somehow he suffered “impassibly.”  Finally, the Eucharist is described in our own liturgy as a “holy mystery,” which harkens back to the Wesleys, who had little interest in delving into the quagmire of sacramental mechanics that occupied previous generations.  Thus Charles, showing a distinct lack of concern for “black and white” understandings of Chris’s presence at the Table, would have us sing,

How can heavenly spirits rise,
By earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith Divine supplies,
And eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father’s Wisdom how;
Him that did the means ordain!
Angels round our altars bow
To search it out in vain.

Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown…

(Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, #57)

Gray, it turns out, is not something from which God’s people should flee.  In fact, it is impossible.  Nevertheless, Professor Arnold’s new book has given us some helpful paths forward and named some of the major problems with how we are going about our most pressing conversations.  I am not convinced that dialogue is dead, mostly because we have not been doing dialogue well at all.  Bill Arnold’s book, if read and received by many across the ideological divides in the UMC, would help us all be more charitable, clear, and effective conversationalists.

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Cumbersome By Design? Thoughts on ‘The Process’

“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”

-Sirach 2:1

Taking on UMC ordination practices is all the rage.  I appreciated my pal John Meunier’s thoughts about the ordination process, and I’ve been following Jeremy Smith’s investigative blogging about young clergy falling out of the ordination track with interest.

All this has me wondering: Jim Collins has argued that great organizations are Great By Choice.  I wonder if our ordination system is Cumbersome By Design?

There was much discussion last General Conference about simplifying the ordination process for Elders and Deacons in the UMC.  Not long ago, the Book of Discipline was changed so that Annual Conferences could choose to ordain after a two-year full-time ministry “residency” rather than the previously required three years.  My own AC is one of the few that stuck with three years (though, to be fair, neighboring conferences seem to have found other ways to gum up the process that more than make up for the change).

But the infamy of ‘The Process’ (as many of us affectionately refer to the ordination gauntlet) is not only due to the time involved. Yes, a minimum 9 years of training (undergrad, seminary, ministry “residency”) before one is fully accredited is daunting.  But in the meantime, there are a plethora of smaller steps: mental health evaluations, local church and district gatekeeping, required coursework (sometimes seminary curricula and conference requirements clash), reams of paperwork, vetting, District Superintendent and SPRC evaluations, culminating in a two-stage paper-writing & (usually) interview process where one is judged on criteria that are anything but objective. Think about it: How do you define effective preaching? Which forms of Wesleyan theology are acceptable?

Needless to say, I’m glad to be (almost) done.

But does that mean all of this should be made easier streamlined to encourage more young people to enter ordained ministry?  I’m not so sure.  Pastors’ work is often ambiguous and difficult, the relational and organizational systems of our churches and communities are highly complex, and being agents for change and growth means fighting rudeness, apathy, and roadblocks at every turn.  Welcome to leadership.

In that sense, then, ‘The Process’ just might perfectly prepare ordinands for the world of the church: a world where good deeds are punished, where everything is not simple, fast, or fair, and which requires a surprising level of personal fortitude.

Does that mean everything is perfect? No.

‘The Process’ too often becomes a forum for personal vendettas and agendas.  Many people are dangerous with a little bit of power and unfortunately they know how to gain it.  Too often, as I have experienced, upper-echelon clergy in these settings are unwilling to police their own and put a stop to borderline-abuse of ordination candidates.  Stories abound; if you don’t believe me, ask around.  Ordination should not be an easy thing, but it should not be hazing either. There must be systems in place that guard against such maltreatment.

Does an extensive and laborious process guarantee the quality of those who get through it? No.

Like any other method of vetting, there are people who get through who are quite gifted and talented, and some who aren’t.  There are brilliant young clergy who are held up needlessly (and some drop out), and people who get through who should never be in any kind of leadership position.  I know PHDs in theology who have been held up by theology committees, and theological n00bs who have sailed through.  Systems are made of people, and as such no system will be perfect.  I have friends who absolutely should be on stage with me this year, and their absence makes my presence a near-farce.  That probably happens every year in every conference.

I have no illusions that everything is right in the world of ‘The Process’.  But just maybe the difficulty does us a favor.  Perhaps we are not well-prepared for church leadership by administrative pats on the back.  Perhaps the proper response to a “crisis” or “exodus” of young clergy is not to make ordination as simple as starting a Pinterest account.  ‘The Process’ as currently arranged in many parts of the denomination will prepare us well for a future that is difficult but promising, ministry settings that are often unfair but sometimes grace-filled, and systems that are complex and flawed but also full of people doing their best for God.

“Systems are designed to give you the results you are getting right now,” we are often told.  Maybe ‘The Process’, cumbersome though it is, is an excellent preparation for the church we are seeking to lead.

ImageP.S. I understand that, at its best, the ordination process is designed to be a holistic formation for effective ministry, and not merely a series of “hoops” through which to jump.  In that sense, it is not entirely satisfying to speak of the transition to set-apart ministry merely as a “process” or something to get “through.”  While I appreciate that sentiment and welcome efforts to change those tendencies, I have described it as I experienced it, and not as it exists ideally.  Please share with me places where your own experience is either similar to or divergent from my own.  May God bless his church, whom “the gates of hell will not overcome.” (Matthew 16:18)

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The Entitlement Plague in the Church

From Bishop Grant Hagiya’s brand-spankin’-new book:

“This leads to another deep-seated systematic constraint of The United Methodist Church, and perhaps other denominations: namely, the culture of entitlement over service in ministry.  With the professionalization of ministry in North America and the setting aside of full-time vocationally compensated clergy members, a culture of entitlement over service has crept into our clergy orders.  It works in two ways, one for the clergy and one for the laity of local churches.  As it plays out for clergy, there is a built-in expectation of a livable salary and accompanying benefits for full-time ministry.  Because The United Methodist Church currently has a guarantee of full-time ministry employment for life in its polity, there is the expectation of that entitlement by the clergy.  As it applies to the laity, there is the built-in expectation that they will receive a full-time minister, even if they cannot sustain the cost of that minister.” (pp. 64-65)

It would not be difficult to twist this into a screed about a culture of entitlement writ large over 21st century Western life, but that is not my purpose here.  Rather, it is to name what is a great part of our problem in the church: entitlement.  While the above quote hints at the entitlement mentality of churches (and he does develop it somewhat), as a pastor I want to focus on the clergy.

General Conference 2012 was disappointing in many respects.  I remain hopeful that some lessons will be learned and that meaningful changes can grow from the seeds planted last year.  What we know is that the one meaningful thing that passed – ending the (yes, admittedly, “so-called”) guarantee of appointment – was later rejected by the Judicial Council.

As Bishop Hagiya concludes, “entitlement has become embedded in the fabric of the church culture itself.”  Culture doesn’t change overnight, and evidence suggests it may not change from the top down.  It starts with me and with you, it starts with a focus on the responsibilities of the gospel and not just the benefits of the church.  Changing the culture of entitlement means focusing more on my duties and my God-given call as a pastoral leader than my rights as a member of the clergy; it means thinking more about what I owe (and to Whom I owe it) than what I am owed.

One person, one church, one conference at a time.  That is how the entitlement plague ends.  As the old hymn goes, “Let it begin with me.”

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