Preparing for South Africa

I am aware that my announcement on Sunday came as a big surprise to y’all. I was not planning on leaving Kessler Park UMC anytime soon; Leah and I were perfectly happy as members of the church family.

Graduates of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary celebrate in the school courtyard.

Graduates of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary celebrate in the school courtyard.

What happened was a shock to us as well. I received an email on January 9th from the General Board of Global Ministries saying they had identified a “potential missionary appointment that may be a match for your skills.” When I spoke to a staff person a few days later, they told me about the position at Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary.

Primarily, I will be a Lecturer in Theology with some additional responsibilities, including mentoring students who are struggling academically and providing guidance in the Distance Learning Program.

I still have lots of questions about this job; I hope to get some answers soon, including and especially, what kind of housing will be provided for me and Leah.

This is a three-year appointment, at the end of which Leah and I will be expected to travel around the US for three months, reporting back to partner churches and trying to create new partner relationships.

I also need to let you know that I am required to attend Missionary Orientation in Atlanta for three weeks, beginning April 24. I will be back on May 9 to attend Chloe’s graduation and lead worship on May 12, then return to Atlanta through May 15.

At this point, it looks as if my last Sunday at KPUMC will be June 30th. We don’t have our tickets to South Africa yet, so I don’t know exactly when we’ll be leaving the country, but I promise you this: Leah and I plan to savor every moment we have with each and every one of you until that time.


A Note from SPRC

The Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) met with the District Superintendent, Debra Hobbs Mason, this past Monday, March 25th to begin the conversation regarding Kessler Park's next pastor. SPRC shared information with her about our congregation and surrounding neighborhood; our priorities and preferences for inclusivity, service/outreach, and worship style; and characteristics that we would like to see in the pastor who will shepherd KPUMC through its next season. Our feedback was informed by our and our families' personal experiences at KPUMC as well as feedback provided by several staff members and members of the congregation. SPRC welcomes additional reflection from staff and the congregation, so please don't hesitate to connect with a member of SPRC or chair Ashley Flores (ashbryanflores@gmail.com) to share your insight.

Debra's next step will be to discuss what she learned during the SPRC meeting with the Bishop and Cabinet so that they might collectively consider who might be a good fit for KPUMC. She expects to have an update by mid-April, and SPRC will continue to keep you informed as things progress.

When We Butt Heads in the Pews

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My central thesis in preaching and teaching on Matthew is that one of the author’s major concerns in writing the gospel was teaching his readers how the community of faith was supposed to live together.

Being part of the faith community is a non-negotiable for Jesus. As I have said in the pulpit recently, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. You can’t follow Jesus all by yourself; the path of discipleship wasn’t designed to be a solitary road.

Sometimes we wish we could walk it by ourselves, because it’s not always easy to be part of a community. We might discover we are called to follow Jesus alongside people whom we may not particularly like. Or we may protest we are too “different.” Or we might say, “I’m not comfortable around people like that.” We might not like the way another member of the community prays or sings; we may disagree with their politics, or find their wardrobe distasteful.

But that’s all beside the point in the faith community, or “church,” if you like. When God calls us to follow , there is always a group of disciples ready to accompany us on our journey of faith. And these disciples are just as flawed and imperfect as you and I are. We learn on the road together. That’s the beauty and the struggle of church.

Fortunately, the Gospel of Matthew also gives us some great advice on how to navigate the conflict which will ultimately confront any church. In the eighteenth chapter, Jesus gives us a three-step process and one guiding principle by which disciples are supposed to handle conflict.

The three-step process goes like this:

1) “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.” (Matthew 18:15)

This step is the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, and as a pastor, it is the primary way I advise all staff and laypeople to act towards each other: if someone has wronged you, then you are supposed to go to that person directly and speak to them about it. Not to a third party, nor to Facebook, nor to anyone else.

This is also the least-followed piece of advice I have ever given. It’s difficult to confront people with whom you are in conflict. I know that because it’s hard for me, too. However, it’s the best way to address conflict, and it prevents things from circulating on the rumor mill or gossip circuit. Most conflict in the church would immediately cease if this practice were followed as a general rule by everyone.

However, Jesus recognized that this tactic wouldn’t always work …

2) “But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.” (Matthew 18:16)

If the situation escalates, Jesus recommends that you take one or two friends with you to confront the person with whom you feud. The presence of others keeps everyone honest, and can de-escalate tension.

But if that doesn’t work …

3) “But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)

This step sounds extreme; in fact, it sounds as if it can be used as justification for kicking someone out of a church. But is that a bad thing?

Let me suggest some moderating thoughts about this passage:

First, I believe that this is an extreme step to be taken only when and if someone’s behavior is harming someone else. We can all think of situations in which a church member’s actions could be so destructive that we would have to take drastic measures to keep them from hurting people in the congregation.

However, this process ensures that there would be no arbitrary and punitive measure taken against anyone. If there is a problem, the offender is confronted privately first; if he or she doesn’t respond to mend the problem, only then is the matter widened to a larger group of people.

And third, scholars have argued that treating people like Gentiles and tax collectors isn’t as bad as it sounds. After all, we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors — he ate and drank with them! He treated them as people worthy of his time and attention!

Finally, there is one overriding general principle that Jesus preaches about community life — forgiveness. Just after teaching this process of conflict resolution, Peter asked Jesus, “But what if the same person keeps sinning against me? How many times do I have to put up with it? How many times do I have to forgive — as many as seven times?”

We all know how Jesus answered: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Forgiveness is the heart of church life. This is the only thing that will hold us together in the end. For we will offend each other, we will sin against each other, and we will say harmful things and do hurtful things. That's just the way humans do each other.

But as the redeemed disciples of Jesus, we have a remedy for reconciliation — the ability to say, “I forgive you.”

Let’s learn to say that a little more frequently.

Wish List for the Next Methodism

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Permit me to dream a little, or maybe a lot.

The debacle at last week’s General Conference was heartbreaking and tragic, yes, but it’s also an opportunity. Even though the United Methodist Church appears to be irretrievably broken, maybe something new is going to burst through the cracks of the old structure.

I mentioned that there is lots of talk going on at the moment about the possibility of creating a new Methodist movement, a brand-new denomination.

So while we’re talking about it, let’s sketch the contours of what might be ahead, first by considering what we could (finally) leave behind, and second, by dreaming of what we could actually incorporate in a new system.

What of United Methodism could we leave behind?

Obviously, my first answer is that we could leave our homophobia behind. We could leave behind the ridiculous statement that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” But there are other things we could do without, or at least reconsider:

Our obsession with paperwork, forms, and counting things: Do I really need to say more?

Lifetime terms for bishops: I would propose that bishops be allowed to serve up to 12 years, then must return to an appointment in their Annual Conference. This would require a true sense of humility and servanthood among bishops, and would equalize their relationships with other clergy.

Legislating by Robert’s Rules of Order: There are other ways to run meetings besides voting, preferably something which favors spiritual discernment and consensus.

An appointment system which favors white males: There is an unspoken “ladder of success” in appointments; somehow only white guys end up with the biggest pulpits and biggest salaries.

Structural racism: See above, but also note that there is an amazing lack of UM resources devoted to south and west Dallas in our own conference.

Emphasis on buildings and properties: I’ve noticed that appointments in our conference congregate around already-existing buildings, instead of recognizing that the best evangelistic opportunities in our society require being outside of the walls of a physical church.

What should we include in a new Methodism?

Again, my first response would be that a new church must fully affirm and include LGBTQ people. This is a non-negotiable. But there are other things that we might consider:

Equalized clergy pay: In the Methodist Church of Great Britain, all pastors make the same salary, with only slight adjustments based on years served. This would completely eliminate the competition that pastors in the US feel about “moving up the appointment ladder.”

Greater flexibility in pastoral appointments, including those outside of traditional church settings: Over the last few years, younger clergy candidates are consistently opting out of ordination because they feel called to ministry outside of the local church. We must find a way to allow them to follow their call while supporting them with a network of accountability.

Greater flexibility in local church organization: If you’ve ever served on a church committee, you know that we are required to have a Board of Trustees, a Finance Committee, a Staff Parish Relations Committee, a Church Council, as well as a host of other committees or groups to effectively get things done. Small churches often have a difficult time filling all the positions required, so it makes sense to widen the options for organization.

Conferences to be gatherings for corporate prayer and worship primarily: Every year, our Annual Conference provides numerous experiences to worship together, and these are the moments we remember. We don’t go home with fond memories of the pension report. More worship, less reporting and voting, please.

Those are some of my dreams for something new. What about you? What would you propose we leave behind? What do you hope we could include?