Short-Term Sabbatical

United Methodist pastors are encouraged to take sabbaticals on a regular basis. Our conference allows for one-month sabbaticals once every four years (longer sabbaticals are available, a little less frequently). This will be our first sabbatical since beginning ministry in the UMC in 1998.

The appropriate committees from both Centre Grove UMC and West Side UMC, as well as the Bishop and District Superintendents of the Conference, approved a one-month sabbatical for each of us (plus, we’re adding two weeks of vacation). We trust this will be a time of growth and renewal, which will benefit us and also our congregations!

What is a sabbatical?
A sabbatical is not a vacation. It’s a scheduled time of rest, reflection, and renewal for ministry. According to Alban Institute, a sabbatical should have a balance of four components: 1) spiritual renewal, 2) physical rest and refreshment, 3) emotional recharging, and 4) intellectual stimulation.

What will we do on sabbatical?
Our basic goals are to renew our relationship with God, to retool for pastoral leadership through engaging in study, to seek spiritual renewal, and to experience physical renewal through a focus on healthy living.

The sabbatical will include time for intentional study, focused prayer, conversations with mentors, time at a clergy retreat center and visiting vital churches. It will also include our annual attendance at the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit.

It is said that healthy pastors build healthy churches. We pray this focused time will benefit our congregations as we return with renewed vision and passion for ministry!

We will do our best to “unplug” from phone, email, and social media, and will look forward to catching up with our congregations upon our return. We also hope this will be a time of renewal for our churches, as God’s Word is preached by different voices.

Please pray for us during this opportunity for spiritual growth and renewal. Pray for Centre Grove and West Side that God will continue to do great things in and through us!

Thoughts on General Conference 2016

The 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, met in Portland, Oregon, May 10-20. The top policy-making body of the UMC meets every four years. This year’s conference was made up of 864 delegates from around the world.

The UMC is becoming more and more of a global church!
Forty-two percent of General Conference delegates were from outside the U.S. (compared to only 20% in 2004), including 30% from Africa, where the church has grown 329% in the last ten years. Some seem to claim the growing global nature of the church is part of our problem. I disagree. The struggling church in the U.S. desperately needs the vital church in Africa and Asia. Our problems in the U.S. began long before we were a global church. I am grateful to be connected to what God is doing around the world!

The local church didn’t get much attention at General Conference!
One of my prayers at the outset of General Conference was, “God, don’t let them mess up what we’re trying to do in the local church!” We say “our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and that local churches are primary places where this happens. However, I didn’t get the sense there was much discussion about the local church at General Conference. If this is true, there’s a real disconnect between what we say is important and what General Conference spent eleven days focusing on (at a cost of more than $1,338/minute)!

General Conference is energy draining!
Throughout the 11-day conference, I tried to follow news through media outlets and social media. I watched many of the Bishops’ sermons, and parts of a couple of legislative sessions. I wasn’t even there, and it was still energy draining. I can’t imagine what is was like to be there; in fact, I received an email toward the end of the conference from a delegate from another state, who said, “This process is very frustrating and not very effective for getting ANYTHING done.”

General Conference decided to make one last effort to avoid a split!
Ever since General Conference 2012, a heavy cloud has hung over the United Methodist Church. There has been talk of schism, primarily over the issue of homosexuality, and there seemed to be an expectation that the UMC would split at this conference. In the end, the church found a way to make one last attempt at saving the denomination. The Conference approved the proposal from the Council of Bishops to appoint a diverse commission to study human sexuality. They will make recommendations at a future conference, possibly a special session of General Conference in 2018 or 2019; however, I will be surprised if this commission is able to complete its task prior to the regularly-scheduled 2020 General Conference!

On Tuesday, May 17, Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the Council of Bishops, made the following statement in an address to General Conference …

We have risked exploring what many would consider radical new ways to organize The United Methodist Church according to deeply held and differing values and convictions. Ideas brought to the attention of the Council by both more conservative and more progressive voices. We are not fearful of the level of vulnerability and humility required of anyone willing to engage new ideas.

I would like to have heard more about those “radical new ways” at this Conference. It’s hard to imagine a way forward where all parties will be happy, or even be able to coexist. It’s also hard to imagine a scenario where the denomination stays intact. But, it’s clear that something needs to happen, not just to settle this issue, but so that we can be a disciple-making, world-transforming movement again!

Unity appeared to be a strong theme at General Conference. Unity is important, but faithfulness to God and to God’s Word are even more important. In other words, our chief goal must be to be faithful to God’s Word (in a godly, grace-filled way), NOT just find a way to keep the denomination intact!

I keep thinking of John Wesley’s statement (incidentally, I mentioned this quote in a post after General Conference 2012) …

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

We must pray!
Please pray fervently and consistently for the United Methodist Church over the next few years, as the commission forms and studies our position on human sexuality and makes recommendations to the next General Conference. I recommend incorporating Jesus’ prayers: “I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22.42b, NLT), and “May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10b, NLT).

We have to find a way to move beyond this battle, which is keeping us from focusing on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

A Prayer for the 2016 General Conference of the UMC

The 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church takes place May 10-20, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. General Conference, which takes place every four years, is the top policy-making body in the UMC and is the only church entity that has authority to speak for the entire denomination. General Conference meets every four years to revise the Book of Discipline.

The 2016 General Conference consists of 864 delegates from around the world. Approximately 42% of the delegates are from outside the US, due to tremendous growth in other countries, particularly from Africa.

This is my prayer as General Conference gets underway …

O God, thank you for calling us to be part of this movement for such a time as this! Thank you for all who have gone before us and have spread scriptural holiness across many lands! Without them, we would not be here. Thank you for inviting us to participate in what you are doing in the world, and for loving the world through us!

Thank you for your Word and your Spirit, which have guided and shaped us. Please forgive us for the ways we have missed the mark, and have failed to be an obedient Church. Forgive us for losing sight of your mission and call upon our lives. And, forgive us for the deep divisions that exist in this body!

Please pour out your Spirit upon your Church, and particularly upon General Conference! Your Church needs your wisdom, guidance, and intervention. Please protect all who gather in Portland. Speak to them and speak through them in the decisions they make!

Give the delegates of General Conference hearts for you, for one another, for your Church, and for the world you love. Help the delegates to be faithful to your Word and to the leading of your Spirit. May they honor you through their actions and attitudes, as well as their decisions!

Please squash all personal agendas and plans that hinder the mission of your Church. Please help the delegates to hear your voice and sense your leading at this critical time in the life of the UMC!

I pray not so much that you will preserve this Church, but that you will empower and equip us to fulfill your mission. I pray that we will, as Wesley pleaded, “hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” As Jesus prayed, “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10, NLT).

“Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us” (Ephesians 3.20, CEB). Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer! Amen.

“Autopsy of a Deceased Church”

Thom Rainer’s book, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” (2014), grew out of a popular blog post he wrote in 2013. In the book, Rainer looks at ten common traits of dying churches based on his research of deceased churches.

Rainer estimates, “As many as 100,000 churches in America are showing signs of decline toward death” (7). He estimates that only approximately 10% of churches in America are healthy, while 40% have symptoms of sickness, 40% are very sick, and 10% are dying (86).

Slow Erosion
Rainer talks about slow erosion, which “is the worst type of decline for churches, because the members have no sense of urgency or change … decline is everywhere in the church, but many don’t see it” (13).

The Past is the Hero
Rainer writes, “The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as the hero” (18). He adds, “Yes, we respect the past. At times we revere the past. But we can’t live in the past” (21).

The Church Refused to Look Like the Community
“When a church ceases to to have a heart and ministry for its community, it is on the path toward death” (28).

The Budget Moved Inwardly
“In dying churches the last expenditures to be reduced are those that keep the members comfortable” (33).

The money … was symptomatic of a heart problem. The church cared more for its own needs than the community and the world. And no church can sustain such an inward focus indefinitely. It will eventually die of heart failure. (36)

The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission
When Rainer looked at dying churches, he noticed “Obedience to the Great Commission faded; it usually faded gradually” (42). He notes these churches “chose not to remember what to do” (43).

Members of the dying church weren’t willing to go into the community to reach and minister to people. They weren’t willing to invite their unchurched friends and relatives. They weren’t willing to expend the funds necessary for a vibrant outreach. They just wanted it to happen. Without prayer. Without sacrifice. Without hard work. (44)

The Preference-Driven Church
“A church cannot survive long-term where members are focused on their own preferences” (49).

Pastoral Tenure Decreases
“The problem is that many good leaders are leaving churches before they reach their prime leadership years at a church” (55).

The Church Rarely Prayed Together
“Not coincidentally, prayer and the health of the church went hand in hand. When the church is engaged in meaningful prayer, it becomes both the cause and the result of greater church health” (66).

The Church Had No Clear Purpose
Rainer notes, “the dying churches, at some point in their history, forgot their purpose” (75).

The Church Obsessed Over the Facilities
“A number of the fourteen churches became focused on memorials” (79). Rainer adds, “Dying churches, more often than not, experience severe battles over facility obsession before their demise” (80). This is certainly not to say that facilities are unimportant. Rainer contends, “Being a good steward of those material things that God has given our churches is good. Becoming obsessed with any one item to the neglect of his mission is idolatry.” (80)

At the end of the book, Rainer offers twelve responses that may help churches that have symptoms of sickness, are very sick, or dying. The book is helpful for churches in any stage. For healthier churches, it’s a good reminder to stay alert and to avoid some of the pitfalls and slow erosion that can happen in the life of the church!