Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Godspeed John Oliver

John Oliver, on his show Last Week Tonight, does a wonderful job giving a long commentary on one topic.  This past week he chose Televangelists.  Below is the result of months of research and correspondence.  (warning, harsh language is used in this clip and may not be suitable for young children and animals).

I thought he did a brilliant job taking a deep look at the plague that is Prosperity Gospel Televangelists, (although I don't agree with the language, especially when he says God says, "$&@ You.")  What is remarkable is the governments lack of oversight...ok not too remarkable, more sad, very sad.  The loopholes in the laws make it extremely easy to give to these "churches."

John Oliver has started his own church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.  Click on the site because it is hilarious but also has a point.  Here is their mission "When John Oliver found out that Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland and other pastors of their ilk have been taking advantage of the open-ended IRS definition of the word "church" and procuring a litany of tax breaks, he founded the Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption Church, a tax-exempt organization that you certainly can't say is not a church.  From that day forward, he has been dedicated to collecting copious donations and all manner of divine blessings, but mainly the donations."

I hope this tax experiment works because I truly despise what Prosperity Gospel Preachers do to harm the actual true work of God in this world.  They take advantage of the elderly, the poor, and the gullible all in the name of Jesus.  They pad their pockets and building huge amounts of wealth.  They are doing more damage then they are good in this world because people actually believe what they preach is gospel.  In reality it is heresy.

God bless you John and may your crazy notion that a TV show can be called a church shine a light on the these loopholes so they can be closed.

One final note, if you read the small print, any donations made to Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption will be used for good.  "Upon dissolution, any assets belong to the Church at that time will be distributed to Doctors Without Borders."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Multi-site and Connectinalism

I took part in a continuing education that was led by Brian Zehr.  It was a great 8 month journey as we looked at ways we can multiply and create solid leaders in the local church.  While at our last meeting we got into a discussion about multi-site congregations.  It came to my attention that we, in the United Methodist Church, have really lost sight of what our connectional system is supposed to be about.

Connectionalism, from what I remember in seminary, is our polity, which links us together although we are at physically different locations.  We are one body, the United Methodist Church, in different places around the world.  We are linked together by our districts, conferences, and jurisdictions in order to build up the Kingdom of God.  The means by which this is accomplished is through the local churches in those local communities.  Although we have different areas, we are still all linked together as one Church.

My understanding of what the connectional system is seems to be is similar to a multi-site mega church style.  From the outside looking in, a multi-site church claims to be apart of something larger.  They are one church in 7 locations.

I was talking with a gentleman who was attends a multi-site church near me and he was doing some bragging on his church.  He said his church has 10+ locations here in the area and one outside the US.  They have over 17,000 people attending their worship services on a Sunday.  He looked at me to gain my approval and ask "Not to bad for seven years, huh?"  I nodded my head silently.

What struck me when I got into my car is that I should have responded, "Yes, and I am the campus minister at Indian Trail.  My church has 136 campuses in this area and we have over 26,000 in worship.  Heck if you look at just this half of North Carolina, we have 1,131 campus and over 285,000 worshipers.  We have a campus on every continent except Antartica with 43,621 campus and almost 13 million people attending."  [mic drop and walk away]

The reality is that since the UMC has become so mainstream we forget our connectionalism.  We forget that we are a multi-site church that is now a denomination.  We are all linked together with our polity.

We can do amazing things when we work together.  This past week our Missional Network (a small group of local churches in our area of the our district) served over 1,200 students of our county and gave out backpacks, school supplies, socks and shoes.  We washed the feet of students and prayed for them as they headed back to school.  We came together, along with other people in the community to help students in our area.  The connection at work.

When you look into the denomination and the great work UMCOR does, Africa University, the Black College Fund, mission trips and all the other areas and agencies.  We should step back and be proud.

As more multi-site non-denominational churches pop up, I feel, as I guess many other small church pastors feel, ashamed they are not like them.  Since their congregation is only 100 people on Sunday somehow we are less of a church then one who has gained 13,800 attenders in 7 years.  In reality we are a part of something bigger and it is the small local church that is at the heart of it.

Let's reclaim the joy of our connectionalism and work together to bring about the Kingdom of God.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Looking at Sin in the Mirror - A Sermon on Racism

2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Looking at Sin in the Mirror

My heart broke, my soul cried, my mouth fell open when I heard that 9 people were shot, in a church, during a Bible Study in Charleston, SC.  I was sitting in the living room when of the house we rented for Annual Conference when Alycia got notified on her phone that there was a shooting in Charleston and 9 people died.  I remember saying, “That is horrible,” but then I continued doing what I was doing.

This is going to be a very honest sermon and it is a tough sermon but it is needed.  I need to preach it and I feel people, you, need to hear it.  I continued to do what I was doing because it is all too common these days.  My first December as the minister here was marked by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.  In the two years since there have been over 100 school shootings.  That is one shooting a week at either K-12 schools or higher education. We are surrounded by violence.  We are surrounded by hate and we don’t take notice anymore.

When Alycia shared with me that 9 people were shot in Charleston my heart took a millisecond to grieve but then I moved on, like I always do.  I have a feeling I was not alone in that moment.  However, then I learned more about it on Thursday.  I learned that a white 21-year-old, Dylann Roof, sat in on a Wednesday Night Bible Study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  There were 13 people at this Bible study, including the shooter.  During the Bible Study he started to disagree when they started discussing Scripture.  He soon took out a gun and when asked why he was attacking churchgoers, he said, “I have to do it.” 

He yelled racist statements the whole time as he shot 9 people and left only one person alive to tell the story.  Two others survived by playing dead.   All over the news we heard about the search for the suspect and we know his name, Dylann Roof, who stopped at an ATM in Charlotte and then was arrested in Shelby.  We know the shooter but do we know the victims?

I wanted read the names of those 9 who came to Church to learn more about God that day but then found themselves face to face with our Lord. 
·      Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54) – she was a manager for the Charleston County Public Library System
·      Susie Jackson (87) – she was a devote church and choir member
·      Ethel Lee Lance (70) – the church custodian
·      Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49) – a pastor who was also employed as a school administrator and admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University.
·      Clementa C. Pinckney (41) – church pastor and South Carolina State senator.  He was also getting his decorate at Wesley Theological Seminary.
·      Tywanza Sanders (26) – he was the nephew of Susie Jackson and when it was obvious that the shooting was going to start he dove in front of her.
·      Daniel Simmons (74) – a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church
·      Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) – a pastor, speech therapist and track coach
·      Myra Thompson (59) – Bible Study teacher

All of this came out as I sat in on the Plenary Sessions at Annual Conference.  We prayed and the bishop sent a letter on behalf of our conference to the AME’s bishop in that area.  Later the Bishops of the South Eastern Jurisdiction crafted a statement.  They said, “The College of Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church stands with our Methodist family at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, with our brother Bishop Richard Franklin Morris of the Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and with our colleague Bishop Jonathan Holston, of the South Carolina Conference.  We condemn this act of violence in the house of the Lord. We commit ourselves anew to the work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred. And we lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition.  Please join us in acts of prayer, compassion and justice on behalf of our Pan-Methodist sisters and brothers.”

I know many pastor left Annual Conference early to return to preach to their congregation last Sunday and to speak about this tragic event.  I wrestled with that idea but I knew the work that Connie and Leslie put into their preparation.  I also knew the rarity of being able to worship with my family and have my kids next to me.  I also knew I didn’t have the words yet and I needed to worship first.

God laid a grip on my heart and I wrestled with what to preach today.  Should I stick with the lectionary or forget it and preach about what weighed heavy on my soul.  My soul won out.  The Holy Spirit, which has not let me rest yet, won out.  Today I feel we need to have a conversation about reconciling ourselves to God and to each other.  Today we need to follow the Bishops’ advice and commit our own work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred.  Today we need to “lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition.”

If we look at the text in 2 Corinthians we see that the process of reconciliation is to understand that as we become followers of Jesus and let the love of Christ control us we will change.  We will no longer stay the same.  We will move beyond ourselves and into the likeness of Christ.  Original sin, Adam and Eve disobeying God, happened because humanity wanted to be like God.  In Jesus Christ, God shows us what it is like and how to become like God and now we aren’t interested anymore.  Yet, if I am to be a follower of Jesus then I have to give into the change God’s love and grace does for me and in me.  I have to change my ways because I am no longer the same.  This thought consumed me as I read articles and blog posts, while I listened to sermons and read scripture.  As I learned about the hate, the evil and the sin that occurred in Emmanuel AME Church, I knew that Christ’s love and grace is the answer…but how do we get there.

I can’t stand up here and call others out.  I cannot jump on the bandwagon to bash other people.  The only thing I can do today is to make a confession.  I confess that I thought we as a culture and me personally had moved past racism.  I saw what I thought were remnants of it in conversations I would have with people or the way others talked.  I chalked it up to an older generation or an outdated way of thinking.  I was born in Detroit, MI back when whites were only the slight majority at 55%.  Sure, when I moved to Charlotte in 3rd grade the majority of my classmates in Elementary school were white but that was because we lived on the outskirts of town.  When I went to Ranson Middle School our demographic changed and there were more black students then in my elementary school.  At West Charlotte High School I was one of the minorities where only around 35% of the school was white.  I grew up in diverse schools so I thought we had moved past all of this racism simply because I was in close proximity to people of other races.

However, as I looked back at my life growing up this week I confess it wasn’t always the case.  My close friends were 99% white.  My Boy Scout Troop was 95% white.  My church was 99.9% white.  My schooling may have been diverse but outside Middle School and High School, I lived in white America.  Not only that but I realized that many of my friends were extremely racist.  In middle school we would tell each other racist jokes and say horrible things about getting out of school for Martin Luther King Day.  I look back at those moments and I am completely humbled by shame and grief.  This is not how God wants me to treat people.

I confess that in the culture I grew up in I was taught to see non-white people as different and to be scared of them.  I can’t place why or where.  This is not something my parents taught me on purpose.  This is not something that I remember having a lesson in or a special class on.  No, it is something that was ingrained in my white culture that told me to be more scared of a black man than a white man.  I am sure it is because of media and news coverage.  I am sure it is because of the movies and TV shows I watched.  I am sure it is because of the people I grew up with and the subconscious decisions I made along the way.  I confess though that still to this day I view people of other races differently.   This is not how God wants me to treat people.

I confess that I did not realize the level of racism that is ingrained in our history and culture of our church.  In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church split into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South because the south wanted to keep slaves.  After the Civil War and the freeing of slaves the church still remained split until 1939, 95 years later.  When this church was founded on September 21, 1902 it was named, Indian Trail Methodist Episcopal Church South.  We were part of a system that wanted to keep a race of people enslaved.  This fact is in our name itself.

When we look at where this tragic event in Charleston happened we also get a picture of our racist past.  Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded 199 years ago.  It is part of the AME denomination, which is one of the Pan-Methodist denominations.   The reason the AME denomination exists is because of acts of racism, segregation and discrimination.  In St. George’s church in Philadelphia Richard Allan was a slave who purchased his freedom and started the Free African Society.  He lead prayer meetings among black members of the church.  But the people of St. George’s didn’t like the movement.  They segregated the sanctuary and cast the black members to the gallery upstairs.  Finally after two black worshipers were pulled out of the church while they were praying, Allan had enough and started Mother Bethel Church and the eventual start of a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Both AME and the AMEZ denominations were born out of the discrimination and racism of the Methodist Church and movement here in America. 

I say this not to bash us on the head but for us to recognize that this is in our country and our culture’s past.  We have not escaped it and we can’t ignore it, like I did for much of my adult life.  To do so is a sin.  This week I recognized in myself how much racism has played a part in my upbringing, my culture and my country.  I wrestle with this fact and I hope you will too.

Yet there is good news.  It can stop with us.  Nelson Mendela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  He is correct.  A child doesn’t see someone and focus on the color of their skin or their socioeconomic make up, they see another person.  We, as their parents, their church, their fellow citizens, teach them how to view that person.  Do we or will we teach them to hate, to judge or to love?

1 Corinthians 5:21, “God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.”  God knows our human tendencies and our need for that saving Grace.  We are in desperate need because sin abounds in our world.  Sin is everywhere and we need to be reconciled to God and each other for it. 

The 3rd verse of the hymn, Just As I Am, we are about to sing sums it up wonderfully.  It says, “Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”  If we are going to actually move past our racist history, reconcile with one another and live as on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to come to Jesus.  We need to recognize the racism and the sin inside ourselves and say, “This stops with me.  I won’t pass it on to the next generation.” 

As I have grappled with how I see others that are different than me I always pause and say to myself, “How does God see this person?”  Does God see them as their race? Nationality? Sexuality? Language they speak? Political party they vote for? State they were born in?  No!  God sees them as one of his children; someone who has the image of God imbedded into their souls. 

May we reconcile ourselves to God and be given this sight as well.  May we move into the future not repeating the sins of the past.  May we reconcile ourselves to God in order to be the people of God to this world. 

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Sacred Bundles and Cows

Don’t make today’s innovations into tomorrow’s sacred cows. — Jeanie Daniel Duck
The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change (New York: Crown Business, 2001), 263.*

My Pastor Parish Relations Committee and I recently went through a study together called Pastor and Parish.  It is an excellent study to help demonstrate what the PPRC is supposed to do and their purpose.  In this study it talks about something called the “Sacred Bundle.”  The “Sacred Bundle” is defined as “the congregational memories, taboos and traditions that define their church’s culture, but may not be readily apparent to a new pastor.” 

The Sacred Bundle is filled with the little things that make the congregation who they are.  Examples could be things like unwritten expectations like the Pastor always makes coffee for the Sunday School classes.  Or it could be that the offering plates were the only thing left after the church caught on fire in 1963.  Or the painting in the back of the church was the last one done by the matriarch before her passing.  It could be even emotional ties to events like July 4th BBQs or Christmas Eve 11:00pm worship services. 

The Sacred Bundle can be filled with glorious and meaningful things but it can also be filled with sacred cows.  The pastor and many times the congregations really don’t know what is in the Sacred Bundle until change starts to happen.  I think it takes at least two years to really start to understand what is in the Sacred Bundle, both the good and the bad.  A pastor almost needs two cycles of the Christian year, two Christmases and two Easters and everything after and in between, to fully understand the congregation.  For some congregations this process might take even longer.

It is only after truly understanding the Sacred Bundle that solid and lasting change can happen.  When you understand what is inside the bundle you can speak to the good parts and honor them and cherish them along with the congregation.  The bad sections, the sacred cows, you can speak to as well and start to discuss openly why they are there and if they need to be. 

However, one needs to be careful because as change occurs the Sacred Bundle changes as well.  Are you as the pastor setting things in that bundle that will build and nurture the congregation or are they simply sacred cows that will weigh them down in the future?  Do we remove congregational sacred cows and toss in our own?  Is the change we are offering the congregation fluid enough to go through its own change down the road?  Or do our egos as pastors get in the way because we see that specific change as our little baby or possession?

Jeanie Daniel Duck is right, “Don’t make today’s innovations into tomorrow’s sacred cows.”  Our job as pastors is to invoke, implement and invite change that will lighten, support, and build the Sacred Bundles within our congregation.  We cannot add more sacred cows.  True leadership through a time of transition and change is the willingness to admit if the change we desire has turned into a sacred cow and if so, are we willing to let it go?  We ask congregations to do it, but are we, as leaders, willing to do the same?

*a quote in Lovett H. Weems, Jr's pdf called "50 Quotations to Help Lead Change in Your Church"

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

As Fast As the Last

The work of adaptive change requires an open heart to respect and appreciate the pains of change that you are asking people to sustain. - Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky
 (“Leading with an Open Heart,” Leader to Leader, Fall 2002, 33.)

I have attempted to step back now and then, as I move a congregation through revitalization, to make sure I am bringing people along.  My brain is wired to think far ahead but I know that is not the case for everyone.  I am usually thinking two years ahead and then working back from there to see what steps or direction we need to be heading as a church.  I can get so caught up in my steps and planning that I forget to tell people what is happening.

For United Methodist Pastors it can be hard to remember the pain we are putting people in as we create and move a congregation into change.  We may be moving into a better form of Church and keeping what are core values are (see previous post for more) but do we recognize the pain associate with that.  Do we respect it?  Do we honor it?  Do we ignore it?  Do we speak to it?

One of the greatest moves I have witnessed in my congregation was the willingness for our senior’s Sunday School to move classrooms.  In other congregations, I have witnessed a vise grip on classrooms and they have been seen as sacred space.  Our nursery needed to move.  It was tucked into the corner of the first floor of our Education building.  It was way in the back and hard to get to.  There would be no way a guest would be able to find it.  We also (with the addition of my two kids) had more children in the nursery at that time and the space was too small for the amount of kids we had.  When I approached the class about possibly moving to give more space for the nursery, they did so happily and with pride.

They moved to another room right off the Sanctuary, which is smaller and doesn’t provide limited noise buffering from anything happening in the sanctuary.  There have been some pains since that transition and I admit there are times when I don’t give it much thought.  But their class has grown and they are filling up that space now.  The question I have to continue to ask myself is how can I continue to serve and honor them as we change?  My worry is that they will feel we are pushing them again with more change.  They might feel left out, ignored, or cast aside.  Yet they are a core of who we are and they are doing vital ministry within our congregation.  I cannot ignore them nor the pains we are asking them to endure as a class.

Change is a lot like hiking with a group of people.  You can only go as fast as the last person.  As a church leader we have to continue to look backwards and see who is at the back of the pack.  How are they doing and how are they reacting to the journey we all are going on.  This doesn’t mean you stop moving forward but it does mean you are doing it together without leaving people behind.