Facing the Un-Tied Methodist Church

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Ignorance is not bliss. It’s not good to be unaware of what is happening.

That’s why I’m going to be blitzing you with information over the next few weeks about the General Conference of the United Methodist Church which is meeting in St. Louis from Feb. 23-26.

This could be an historic conference, a moment in which the United Methodist Church (UMC) as we have known it for fifty years will cease to be, or change in significant ways, or descend into further certainty.

The presenting issue is, of course, the church’s official stance on the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the full ministry of the church. According to the UMC’s Book of Discipline, our primary book of law, homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and therefore, same-sex weddings may not be performed by UM clergy nor take place in UM churches. Furthermore, “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained.

Several years ago, Kessler Park UMC voted to align with the Reconciling Ministries Network and register its complaint with the church’s stance, though we have continued to live under, and abide by, the denomination’s rules.

At the church’s last big global gathering, the 2016 General Conference, attempts to change the language in the Discipline failed (again), and delegates began to talk openly of schism. In a desperate attempt to keep that from happening, delegates pleaded with the bishops to take an active role in leading the denomination forward. The bishops responded by proposing to form a commission with the sole task of exploring and recommending a plan to hold the denomination together in spite of the division.

This plan was adopted, the commission formed, the plan recommended, and now the church will meet to hear it and decide if it is truly the way forward for United Methodists. 

Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. For one, the commission forwarded three different plans to the bishops. The bishops ultimately chose one called the “One Church Plan,” but included in their report the other two plans. A number of dissenting bishops argued that all three plans ought to be considered by the General Conference, and their argument was upheld by the Judicial Council.

Here is a (too) brief summary of plans being presented to General Conference, including one which didn’t come from the bishops:

One Church Plan: This plan would allow local churches and clergy to decide for themselves whether they will perform same-sex weddings, and would allow annual conferences to decide whether they will ordained LGBTQ people, and would not impose penalties on either.

Connectional Conferences Plan: This plan would create three different large all-encompassing “connectional conferences” in the United States: a traditionalist conference, a moderate conference, and a progressive conference. Each local church and clergy person would decide in which conference they wanted to be included. 

Traditionalist Plan/Modified Traditionalist Plan: These plans would maintain the prohibitive language against homosexuality and put severe penalties in place for churches, clergy, and bishops who do not comply. All conferences, bishops and clergy would have to certify their adherence to the Book of Discipline or face expulsion.

Simple Plan: This plan removes all prohibitive language against homosexuality from the Book of Discipline. Simple! But unlikely to pass.

Last Monday night, I gave a more comprehensive summary of the plans, as well as a preview of the upcoming General Conference in my Facebook Live appearance. It’s still available for viewing on the Kessler Park UMC Facebook page.

I will be appearing on Facebook Live each of the next two Monday nights at 9 pm with updates and analysis of the General Conference. You’re invited to join me to hear what’s happening.

Also, I have added a new page on the church website with information about General Conference, including links to groups connected to each plan, and sources of news throughout Conference. I’ve also posted a link to the live stream so you can watch what happens in real time.

We’ll have the live stream broadcast in the Fellowship Hall on Tuesday all day, so you can come and watch with staff and other church members. Together we can watch, pray, and celebrate or mourn the proceedings.

On the Sunday after General Conference, you’re invited to stay after worship for lunch during which I will do an extended presentation on what happened and what it means for Kessler Park UMC. We might even be joined by a delegate who attended the meeting; stay tuned for details!

Finally, I want to sincerely ask that we engage in serious and intentional prayer before and during the conference. That’s why we have decided to have a prayer vigil; the meeting will last for a total of 82 hours across four days. We’re looking for people to sign up to pray for a total of 82 hours during that same time period. You don’t need to pray at the church; you can pray in the privacy of your own home at any time which is most convenient. But we do want to make sure that we have people praying for a total of 82 hours. To sign up for the vigil, click here

If you don’t know how to pray for an hour, or would like some guidance, Ken Kelley has prepared a guide to prayer which will be available this Sunday at worship, and will be posted to the website this weekend.

This is not a time to panic or become anxious; it’s a time to pray and to wait to see what God will do through the people called United Methodists, and through those of us who are part of Kessler Park UMC.

Connect 52

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Sunday marks the beginning of the 2019 KPUMC Pledge Campaign, called “Connect 52.”

In the past, our pledge campaigns have focused entirely on financial pledges. We come up with a budget, we ask you to fund it, you return a card with your weekly or monthly pledge to pay.

The truth is that giving your money to the church is only part of the membership experience — an important part, for sure, but not the entirety.

This year, I’ve asked the Finance Committee’s permission to focus on the gift of time during our pledge campaign.

Did you know that when you joined KPUMC, you pledged your “presence” to the church? That means that you committed to spend time with your brothers and sisters in Christ, not only for your own good, but for theirs as well.

Not only that, but when you made your own personal commitment to Christ, you also made an implicit pledge about how you would spend your personal time. To follow Christ means to spend your time in conscious, intentional discipleship. It simply means that you have new priorities in how you spend your time.

That’s why I’m making a very special “ask” in this year’s campaign.

I am asking each and every one of us to give one extra hour per week to God in 2019. Thus, the name of our campaign — Connect 52. If you give an hour per week, then you’ll be giving a total of 52 additional hours to God’s work.

What you do with that hour is between you and God, but I encourage you to think carefully about what you want to do with that hour. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be musing on the subject of time and our use or misuse of it. Perhaps you’ll decide that you need to spend your hour in quiet prayer, sitting in God’s presence with no other objective or agenda. Or maybe you will get involved in some ministry that the church offers, such as reading at Hogg Elementary. Perhaps you will decide to join a weekly Bible study at the church. Or maybe you will simply decide to start attending Sunday School!

More than anything else, I am simply inviting you to spend time reflecting on how you use your time. If possible, keep an hourly time diary for a week — mark down how you spent each hour, what you accomplished, and how you felt. At the end of the week, go back over the diary and review how you spent that time. Tally up totals if you wish.

How much time did you really spend at work? in leisure time? in scrolling through Facebook? in wasting time? in conversing with family members? in watching reality TV?

Most importantly, ask yourself, “How much time did I spend with God? in improving my discipleship? in serving others selflessly? in prayer?”

If you’re not happy with your answers, then the pledge campaign is an opportunity to set things right.

What are you going to do with your 52 hours?

Discernment and Dreams

How do you make important decisions?

Not what you’re going to wear in the morning or what to fix for dinner, but the big questions of your life. For example, how do you decide where to live or what person to marry, or even when it’s time to move on in your job?

These are matters that can’t be left up to chance; you have to engage and invest some energy into making such decisions.

Ironically, the early Christians seemed to make at least one major decision in an entirely random way. In Acts 1, the disciples “cast lots” to replace Judas Iscariot in the inner circle. Scholars don’t know exactly what it meant to “cast lots” but it was likely akin to flipping a coin or choosing straws of different lengths.

But the disciples didn’t make decisions like this for very long, because in the next chapter of Acts, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and this changed the way they went about things. To be “filled with the Spirit” means that one has the very presence of God in one’s being, which means that each one of us can access God’s wisdom. Each of us can seek God’s will for our lives.

We call this practice of listening to the Spirit “discernment.” Sister Mary Margaret Funk wrote, “This is discernment: to sort our thoughts and follow the impulse of grace given by the Holy Spirit … We learn to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than our own voice, self talking to the self. The voice of the Holy Spirit is a dynamic voice that we hear and heed through our interior senses.”

Throughout the centuries, Christians have offered and embodied a number of different ways to understand and develop a discerning spirit. St. Benedict offered instruction on discernment in his “The Rule of St. Benedict”; St. Ignatius did the same in his “Spiritual Exercises”; Quakers introduced Clearness Committees to help persons find clarity in their vocation.

Discernment is not just for individuals, however. Groups can also approach God and ask for direction. In fact, using spiritual discernment for making decisions in a church setting is probably a much better process than the way we usually do things.

Thanks to U.S. Army Major Henry Martyn Robert, most of us do things in an extremely parliamentary way. Robert’s Rules of Order predominate most church meetings, regardless of denomination.

While Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful in all sorts of settings. They ensure that everyone has the right to be heard, and insist that things be settled democratically. Majority rules for Robert, as long as the correct procedure is followed.

But Robert’s Rules were not designed to hear, or respond to, God’s voice. In this matter, they are only helpful insofar as each person in the meeting is also hearing and responding to God’s voice.

Of course, the truth is that, using Robert’s Rules of Order, rarely is everyone able to agree on what God’s will is. In the end, Robert insists on a vote, and when there’s a vote, there are winners and losers.

Authentic Christian community is not about winners and losers, but it is about compromise, mutual subjection, and humility. I believe that there must be a better way to go about answering the difficult questions — and there is. It goes by the name of group spiritual discernment. And it’s not simple … or easy.

The practice of group spiritual discernment creates a sacred space where people can listen for God’s voice together, as well as listen to each other intimately and intently. The group enters into the space with a confidence that God will speak and lead the group to consensus. Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous vote, nor does it mean complete agreement. It simply means that the group has agreed to move forward in a particular direction, and that all are on board to support that movement.

I’m currently doing quite a bit of reading and research on this model, because I am convinced that it is an excellent way to go about pursuing God’s will. In fact, I’m using a group spiritual discernment model for a new task force which meets this Sunday night to discuss the long-term future of the church building and property.

I can’t wait to see what God reveals to us, because God’s dreams are always bigger than our own. The key is learning to dream God’s dreams …