ELCA: foreshadowing a UMC future?

In the United Methodist Church these days, it is all about “the plans.” Three have been recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. I note them here for reference, with reflections beneath about another denomination’s experience with their version of the One Church Plan:

The Traditionalist Plan: This plan maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, and provides a gracious (but as-yet undefined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language. Those who support this plan are often accused of being schismatic for their unwillingness to bend on what they would call core theological convictions — convictions written into the Book of Discipline and which traditionalists and progressives alike committed to at their ordination.

The One Church Plan: This plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine what their guidelines will be on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan, presumably because it allows churches, members and pastors to choose their theology. The lack of a gracious exit reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to have deeply held convictions about the Bible, holiness, marriage and the nature of discipleship. It requires those convictions to submit to the cause of institutional preservation.

The Connectional Conference Plan: This plan corrals United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no gracious exist attached to this plan, though it also requires a fundamental shift in understanding about what it means to hold core theological convictions. What the One Church Plan requires of laypersons and clergy, the Connectional Conference Plan requires of bishops, requiring them to set aside personal conviction for the sake of institutional preservation.

The One Church and Connectional Conference Plans — by their lack of exit ramp and the assumption that preservation trumps personal conviction — reveal the depth of our divide in the United Methodist Church, a divide that ought to be respected because it refuses to be minimized. Other denominations have proven the power of this kind of theological divide.

A colleague and friend, Reverend Dave Keener, witnessed this firsthand during the similar crisis in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Reflecting on the eventual division in the ELCA and its similarities to the current crisis in the UMC, Reverend Keener notes that something similar to the One Church Plan (OCP) was adopted by the ELCA in 2009. “The term they used was ‘bound conscience,’” he writes. “The assembly was assured that the theological and biblical positions of traditionalists and progressives alike would be respected. This did not happen.”

Soon after the vote it became clear to the traditionalists that there was in reality only one acceptable position and it wasn’t theirs. Since the the decisions of 2009 the ELCA has intentionally become more progressive and the traditionalists who remain in that denomination have been marginalized (most exited at the height of the crisis, forming the North American Lutheran Church, or NALC).

It may be helpful to take note of what happened within the ELCA in the aftermath of their adoption of a plan similar to the OCP. These reflections come from my Lutheran colleague:

  • Massive loss in membership. In the seven years after the decision to go against the historic teaching of the church the ELCA lost over one million members. They continue to decline but have not released numbers since 2016.
  • Massive loss of income. In the first few years after the vote the ELCA was forced to lay off hundreds of workers and experienced significant decreases in all areas of funding. Their current income for denominational expenses is less than it was in 1987, the year it was organized.
  • Global impact. Many churches in other parts of the world broke off formal ties with the ELCA — especially in Africa and the East.
  • Loss of confessional identity and loyalty.  It was no longer possible for local pastors to recommend that members who were relocating find an ELCA congregation since there was no longer unity in biblical teaching.
  • Theological education. Since the vote the ELCA has slowly purged itself of orthodox seminary professors. They have had to merge two of their seminaries for financial reasons and have removed one seminary president at the urging of progressive advocacy groups.
  • Diversity. One of the battle cries for the ELCA in making their decision was diversity, inclusion and welcoming. Ironically, according to a Pew research study last year the ELCA is now the second least diverse and multicultural denomination in the USA (96% white). The least diverse is the National Baptist Convention which is 99% African American.
  • Theological drift because of lack of accountability. Since the 2009 decision the denomination has continued to drift. With it’s decision the ELCA lost its ability to speak credibly to any issue. In saying that it doesn’t really matter what the Bible clearly states they reduce it to one resource among many and not God’s revelation to His people. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and soon the scripture has no authority for life. Congregations preaching various forms of universalism are becoming more and more common.
  • Generational impact. This article explains how quickly theology can drift in just one generation, once the theological core of a tribe has been removed.
  • Evangelism and discipleship. See point #1 for stats on loss of membership and attendance. As my friend notes, “Once biblical authority and historical teachings are removed, universalism and cheap grace are not far behind” … and neither breeds evangelistic urgency.

We owe it to ourselves and the thirteen million who call themselves United Methodist to learn from our brothers and sisters in other tribes who have may have tried too hard to hold together what isn’t theologically compatible. May God give us both grace and humility to go where he leads and to refuse the spirit of fear.

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Churches are Not McDonalds Any More

In the world before denominations began to disintegrate (and they are, but that’s not the real point of this post), people largely chose their churches based on the label. I am United Methodist (or Presbyterian, or Primitive Baptist), so that’s the label I’m looking for. To a much greater degree, we could count on a church with a given label to look like all the other churches with that label. Sort of like McDonalds, which (at least in the U.S.) serves the same hamburger, no matter which state you buy it in.

That was then. This is now.

In this post-denominational culture, two churches with the same label can be radically different in style and theology. With the promotion of the One Church plan within the UMC, this becomes more likely still. While we may grieve the decline of a more predictable world, this might actually be a good thing.

What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again?

Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. We won’t be able to trust the labels any more, so we will find ourselves engaging more intentionally, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.

Dr. Joe Dongell, one of my all-time favorite professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, has assembled what he calls twelve essential features of a Wesleyan mind. After making this list, Dongell concluded that he’d still missed what Wesley himself might call the defining mark of a Methodist: love of God and people (both neighbor and enemy).

Acknowledging that love is the prize, I offer his list here for those who want to better understand what it means to live with an emphasis on holiness of heart and life:

  1. Wesley was a man of one book. He called himself at one point a Bible bigot (someone focused upon and devoted to the Bible). For Wesley, the Bible was the touchstone of all truth. In contemporary circles, the Bible has been devalued to the point of being called “a valued resource.”
  2. Wesley did value reason, tradition and experience, but scripture has final authority.
  3. Wesley was Arminian, which means he was convinced we were created with a measure of free will.
  4. Wesley viewed the process of salvation optimistically. God can do amazing things, and can do them in you and me. God’s grace is so vibrant, so rich, that we can be changed in very real ways.
  5. Wesley viewed the human being as perfectible in certain ways.
  6. Wesley was convinced that all progress in the spiritual life comes through the means of grace. God has revealed pathways in which we walk, so we confidently embrace these paths. And possibly at the pinnacle of these means is the Lord’s Supper.
  7. Wesley believed all progress in the Christian life comes within the company of believers. We progress within the crucible of accountability and community.
  8. Wesley was convinced that every human being is desired by God to be saved, and God is constantly at work pursuing every human being. God is at work reconciling the world to himself.
  9. Wesley insisted that poor and marginalized people be cared for and that their suffering be relieved in both body and soul.
  10. Wesley was convinced that God desired to ensure our trust in our salvation. We can know we belong to him, not only through rational confirmation but also through the Spirit bearing witness to our spirit.
  11. Wesley knew that the transforming grace of God works at the deepest level of my being — beneath intellect and choice to the place of our affections (the deepest set of inclinations we have). God has the power to affect us and reorient us at a deeper level than our will, at the level of our core. Can I come to love holiness and be sickened by unholiness? Can I discover a delight in the deeper things of God?
  12. Wesley believed we must always embrace a catholic spirit. “If your heart is with me, give me your hand.” We must find ways to cooperate meaningfully even with those with whom we disagree.

Of course, I’m unashamedly biased about all these things. I happen to think highly of this way of looking at God and the world. When it was preached in its purest form, this worldview spread like wildfire across the early American landscape. Judging by the number of twenty-somethings at Seedbed’s annual New Room Conference, I am greatly encouraged to see that this way is still just as engaging today.

If you’re looking for a place to worship and call home, I can’t do better than to offer the above thoughts as a litmus test as you discern.

Because these days, the label doesn’t count like it used to.

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The character of a Methodist

Much is being made these days in my (admittedly very narrow) slice of the world about what it means to be a United Methodist. Wesley himself once wrote a tract called “The Character of a Methodist.” By his definition a Methodist is happy, full of love, prayerful, pure in heart, servant-minded, known by his fruit. (I want to meet those Methodists. They sound so attractive, don’t they?)

In this season, it seems important to articulate further the distinctives that make us Methodist. In my own study, I discovered this strong reflection on the character of a Wesleyan written more than a decade ago by Kent Hill, then president of Eastern Nazarene College. His thoughts resonate, so I share them as a starting point for your own formation of a definition of what it means to be Methodist (with apologies to Dr. Hill for using substituting the term “Methodist” for “Wesleyan” in this excerpt).

What does it mean to be Methodist?

First, to be Methodist means to recognize the primacy of Scriptural authority. John Wesley never left any doubt as to his convictions in this area. In a letter in 1739, he unequivocally stated: “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures….” Wesley was so serious about Scripture playing the primary role in what he thought and how he lived, that his sermons and letters are infused with Scriptural phrases. It became part of his very language.

Second, to be Methodist means to be consciously and proudly part of the broad, ancient tradition of the Christian faith. We do not belong to a religious sect that came into existence in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1777, at the founding of City Road Chapel in London, Wesley described the movement of Methodism this way: “Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England. This old religion…is no other than love, the love of God and all mankind.” If we are true to our Wesleyan heritage, we not only may, but are obligated to, draw broadly from Christian tradition.

Third, to be Methodist not only allows, but requires, that we be ecumenical. Though John Wesley believed strongly in his theological convictions, he never lost sight of the fact that the Body of Christ is much bigger than any one tradition or theological perspective. He neither swept under the rug important theological divisions that existed, nor allowed those differences to cloud the larger reality that what we hold in common through the creeds is of primary importance. In Wesley’s ecumenism, there was a commitment to a common humanity in Christ.

Fourth, to be Methodist means to affirm the cardinal doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Salvation is grounded in the merits of Christ’s righteousness and is appropriated by faith, which is a gift of God’s grace. Wesley insisted that we must respond to God’s gift through acts of obedience that flow out of faith. Wesley believed that humans can never do enough to merit salvation; still he taught that God in his sovereignty grants us a measure of freedom to respond to his transforming grace, and if we refuse to respond, then we will neither be saved or transformed.

Fifth, to be Methodist means to recognize the grace of God as “transforming,” as well as “pardoning.” This lies at the crux of what can be called the central theological distinctive of John Wesley’s thought – the quest, by God’s grace, for holiness or sanctification. Grace is more than the “creative grace” that has formed all things. It is even more than the “pardoning” grace that forgives us of our sins. It is the “transforming” grace which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, enables us to conform ever more to the image of Jesus Christ.

Sixth, to be Methodist means to be effective apologists of the Christian faith. John Wesley’s life and ministry reflects a compelling response to the command recorded in I Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience….” (NIV) If we reflect a Wesleyan perspective, we will cultivate opportunities to use Scripture, broad Christian tradition, reason and experience in defense of the faith. And we will do it in a way that shows restraint and love in the face of criticism.

Seventh, to be Methodist requires commitment to discipleship and accountability. Specifically, it requires of us a commitment to the importance of structured Christian discipleship. In June 1779, Wesley wrote in his journal: “This very day I heard many excellent truths delivered in the kirk (church). But, as there was no application, it was likely to do as much good as the singing of a lark.” In addition to participation in small accountability groups, Wesley insisted on the importance of private devotions, participation in larger church meetings, the taking of the sacraments, and acts of mercy.

Eighth, to be Methodist means to be involved in compassionate ministries. John Wesley always believed that it was imperative that a follower of Jesus Christ be simultaneously committed to the essential vertical relationship with his or her Creator, and to the necessary and redemptive relationship to the rest of God’s Creation. If the latter is not present, Wesley insisted that there is something fundamentally wrong with the former. No position could be more clearly rooted in Christ, who stated in Matthew 25 that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (NIV)

In our own day, may we see a revival of Methodism with such a strength and character that it regains its ability to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God. 

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Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This post is excerpted from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The 19 explores the 19 questions asked of those intending to preach in the Methodist Church since its earliest days. This post features #6: “Do you know the General Rules of our Church?” The General Rules are three simple statements meant to guide life in community among those seeking to grow in faith together.

Three simple rules:

Do no harm.

This seems on the surface like an unnecessary word. Surely, grown adults don’t have to be told to not harm each other … right? Except that we do it all the time. Not in obvious ways, of course. Most of us don’t kill people or do boldly illegal things. We don’t play around with evil on purpose and we try to stay on the right side of the ten commandments. We know how to avoid the more conspicuous harmful things. But it turns out that some of the worst damage is inflicted not by the obvious things but by more subtle forms of unkindness. Greed causes Christians to do harm by making us stingy when we ought to be generous. Fear causes us to be unkind by fostering a lack of trust. Living an undisciplined life can wreak havoc on all our relationships. When we can’t follow through on commitments because we’ve over-committed, and when we don’t honor others’ time because we’re disorganized and unprepared, we frazzle other people and fray our relationships around the edges.

Think honestly about this. Do you use people for your own ambitious ends? Do you stretch yourself to your emotional limits, so that others have to contend with your mood swings? Do you tend to the state of your heart not just for your own sake, but for the sake of doing no harm to others?

Be clear on this: doing no harm does not mean “never disagree.” To the contrary, I’d say that sometimes a refusal to call someone out on their foolishness is the most harmful thing you can do to them, not to mention plain unkind. Who wants to be left to sit in their sin while others use politeness to avoid confrontation?

In the issues being debated in the UMC these days, there is a premium placed on tolerance. Yet, our core value as Christians is not tolerance but holiness. God commanded, “You are to be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness informs my response to the culture around me. My opinions must be rooted in the values of holiness as I find them in the Bible. I don’t interpret the Bible in light of how the world turns. I interpret the world in light of the Bible, even when it means I will look a little crazy by the world’s standards.

Holiness does not give me a pass on practicing a whole host of other character-defining traits — patience, humility, gentleness, endurance, bearing with one another in love. When followers of Jesus take this call to holiness seriously then eventually, they will look less like the world and more like the Kingdom of Heaven in the ways they live life. I pray like crazy that as I live the art of holiness, I will “do no harm,” as Wesley counseled…

Do good.

If doing no harm is the “being” side of community-building, then doing good is the “doing” side. Authentic communities of Christ are doing communities…  It’s not that we work our way to heaven, but without works, there is no proof of what we believe. This is our divine design. Our faith is connected to what we do, and what we do connects us to each other…

Attend to the ordinances of God.

The ordinances of God are what we might call spiritual disciplines or means of grace — things like public worship, ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence, meeting together, and caring for the poor. The means of grace are the things I do that lead me more directly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This rule, then, is a challenge toward spiritual transformation. It is an inspiration to grow more deeply into holiness…

When Wesley asks if we know the General Rules, I suspect he is really asking if we have owned them. When we own them, these rules are not really rules at all. They are our ticket to getting a Kingdom perspective and making a Kingdom investment for the sake of a Kingdom impact. It is one thing to know what is right. It is another thing completely to be committed to it. Am I concerned only for my immediate surroundings — my family, my workplace, my church — or do I have the mindset of a Kingdom Christian? Is my heart yet broken for the whole community of faith? Am I so committed to loving the other that I will hold myself accountable to holy practices that strengthen my own soul and by extension the fabric of the community of Christ?

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Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

(Following is an excerpt from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The book addresses each of the nineteen questions asked of United Methodist ordinands since the days of John Wesley. This reflection is based on question #12: “Do you approve our Church government and polity?”)

Hannah Whitehall Smith says it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. And it is true, isn’t it? We always like our own ideas better than other people’s ideas. God knows this about us, so his way of working in us is to get possession of us so he can make his ideas our ideas. This is why Paul could say with confidence, “Christ in you is the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27, italics mine). Without the indwelling Christ, we are just another human being who knows the rules.

That difference between head-level rules and heart-level rules is the difference between life and death in ministry. Just as knowing the law but not owning it was death for the Israelites, so too it is death for us. We are designed for a “religion of the heart” (Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism). There is something to be said for signing on at the heart level, for embracing first our theology, then our polity, and allowing them to shape us from the inside out. We may not approve of every “jot and tittle,” but we can affirm the spirit of our tribe. In fact we should affirm this spirit, if we are going to be part of this connection.

Let’s be honest. No job is everything we love and nothing we don’t. Every job has its plusses and minuses. I didn’t come into United Methodist ministry because I fell in love with its discipline and polity. I came into the ministry because I love Jesus, and I sense that within the UMC’s system of connection and covenant I can serve him well. I complain with the best of them about Charge Conference and end-of-year reporting, but I manage to accomplish those tasks because they are part of a bigger ministry life I love dearly. I love healing prayer and preaching and the stunning miracle of seeing someone embrace Christ. I love seeing people get filled with the Holy Spirit. I love the countless hours spent listening and praying, and I love thinking strategically about how to extend this work as far as possible. At its best, United Methodist polity and discipline serves these other causes well. I am well aware that polity is not a matter of salvation, but I know that supporting and maintaining it is the only way our connection and covenant will function. If we all pick and choose which parts we like and which we don’t, it won’t work. Anarchy ensues.

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these [19] questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often with ministers who were weak in the spiritual discipline of letting their yes be yes and their no be no. How much confusion is caused by well-meaning people who have not counted the cost before building the house, who have signed on without letting the spirit of our tribe sink into their bones? Can I say this with complete respect and love? You don’t get to decide what it means to be United Methodist. That has already been determined. Any decision to change that must go through proper channels, covered with massive amounts of prayer. Do you approve that? Can you approve the spirit of our discipline and polity while maintaining a generous heart?

Obviously, I made it out of seminary with a degree because here I am as a pastor. To my absolute surprise, I found myself back in school a few years ago completing a doctorate. In our first session together, my doctoral cohort tackled a ropes course. One of our challenges was a two-wire exercise. The wires, about three feet above ground, were stretched between two trees. As they traveled from one tree to the other, they gradually spread apart from each other. One person balanced on one wire and a partner balanced on the other wire. Our task was to lean into one another while we slowly scooted down the wires, even as they spread further and further apart. The trick was to lean equally on each other (remember that) as counter-weights to hold each other up. It won’t work if one leans and the other doesn’t, so we both had to lean in and surrender all our weight.

We discovered through trial and error that the best way for two people to scoot down the wire was to listen to each other. We would ask, “What do you need? What does this look like from your perspective? How can I help?” Without verbalizing it, it was hard to know the other person’s challenge in that moment. Our teammates on the ground were also there to tell us what we couldn’t see. They would say things like, “Straighten up! Push in!” And I’d think, “I AM pushing in!” when evidently I wasn’t. It was almost impossible when I was wobbling on that wire to know my own position. It took all of us working together to get two of us from one tree to the other.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we need each other. This is the point of our connectional system. It is designed for people who trust each other enough to lean in. But it only works if everyone leans in. It won’t work if one leans and another doesn’t. The key to the whole system is vulnerability. It is in keeping my heart soft toward the people God places in my path so that they become the priority rather than the institution. The clearest way I’ve seen to maintain vulnerability is to speak honestly out of my own experience — even my own brokenness. The guy who said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” got a mention in the most-read book of all time (John 9:25). The guy who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” is my favorite unnamed person in the Bible (Mark 9:24). Both displayed the heart of flesh necessary for spiritual connection to happen.

As you make your own personal inventory of what you believe about our polity and discipline, ask yourself if you are sufficiently healed and whole to lean in — to give yourself wholeheartedly to a connection of Christ-followers who are bent on spreading “scriptural holiness over the land” (Wesley, Large Minutes). This is the great need. It is for people ready to partner in both covenant and connection for the sake of a lost and hurting world.

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The shoulders on which we stand

Some of history’s more interesting Christian movements have been initiated by women. Consider these ten women, some from within the Methodist movement and some from beyond it.

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) was the founder of the Four Square movement. Myrtle Dorthea Beall (1894-1979) started Bethesda Temple in Detroit. According to the Victoria United Methodist Church website, Barbara Heck (1734-1804) was the designer of John Street Methodist Church in New York and a planter who established congregations in both New York and Canada.

Margaret Fell (1614-1702) opened her home to many traveling evangelists, including George Fox, whom she later married and joined as a partner in developing the Quaker tradition. Because she would not take the “oath of obedience” to the King of England, Fell was imprisoned twice. During her first incarceration, she wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And How Women Were the First That Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and Were Sent by Christ’s Own Command Before He Ascended to the Father (John 20:17).”

Hannah More (1745-1833), far ahead of her time in her social activism on behalf of girls, was a playwright who taught Methodism and started new schools for the education of girls. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) began a social justice movement that spanned the globe, leaving four-thousand sisters as her legacy upon death, along with hundreds of others who served as monks, Fathers, lay missionaries and volunteers.

Several husband-wife teams birthed significant movements. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), Catherine Booth (1829-1890) and Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) all capitalized on exceptional partnerships with their husbands. Palmer and Booth were both Methodists who defected from that movement to start their own. Catherine Booth was the co-founder with her husband William of the Salvation Army. Palmer is known as the Mother of the Holiness movement, having started a prayer gathering in her home that spawned gatherings like it around the country. Palmer was also the founder of New York’s Five Points Mission. Smith and her husband were prominent leaders in an interdenominational movement, though she was definitely the more well recognized and received of the two. Hannah Whitall Smith went on to become a writer, her most widely read book being The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life, which sold two million copies initially and is still in publication today.

John Wesley found himself conflicted by the direction his movement should take. Officially, he asked women not to preach or lead men. Unofficially, however, he encouraged them to organize class meetings, teach in those meetings and conduct evangelism. Raised by a strong and outspoken mother, Wesley was never able to embrace a complete ban of women from the pulpit. He would say they ought not preach except by “an extraordinary impulse of the Holy Spirit.’’ Nonetheless, Methodist women found it difficult to be constrained. In 1787, Wesley would bless Sarah Mallet (1764-1846) to preach as long as “she proclaimed the doctrines and adhered to the disciplines that all Methodist preachers were expected to accept” (UMC website). Long before the more recent vote in the Methodist Church to ordain women as pastors (According to the United Methodist Church website, the Methodist Church gave full clergy rights to women in 1956, when Maud Keister Jensen was ordained an elder), women were actively preaching the gospel and extending the movement called Methodism.

My favorite? This one: in 1866, Helenor Alter Davisson (1823-1876) became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the Methodist Protestant Church in America. Her journey toward ordination began in 1863 when she was recommended — over some objection — to the Indiana Conference as a candidate for ministry, at which time she was considered fit to preach the gospel “or at least a small work.” Ordained or not, Davisson had already proven herself capable of bearing fruit for the Kingdom. Together with her father, the Reverend John Alter, she traveled by horseback as a circuit rider through Indiana, planting a Methodist Protestant congregation in Alter’s Grove. A second congregation was planted in the Barkley Township, making the first woman to be ordained in the American Methodist Church also the first woman to plant a church.

Be encouraged (and at peace), my sisters. It is in the DNA of Methodism to raise up women who preach the Word.

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Five Things You Should Know About the WCA

Since August of last year, some 1,200 clergy and laypersons have become invested in a renewal organization within the United Methodist Church called the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The WCA garnered some notice because of the timing of its unveiling, though actually it has been in the works for several years. The inaugural event in Chicago last October galvanized two thousand people around the prospect of “the next Methodism” and that idea has captured our collective imagination.

The obvious fact is that the UMC is in crisis but we all know that for imaginative people, a crisis is an opportunity in disguise. What opportunity does this crisis provide our faith tradition? What kind of renewal could rise from the ashes? If the UMC is heading for a significant change anyway (and it is), what would we want to emerge on the other side?

Those are the kinds of questions being asked in gatherings and conversations around the country. With such energy, we have the opportunity to shape the next Methodism. This is the very hope fueling the formation of the WCA. If you are new to the table, what five things might help you get into the conversation?

Our first love is Jesus. Every person at the WCA table is there because they believe the Church is the hope of the world. However, as faithful as we want to be to the United Methodist expression of that Church, I don’t know of a person centrally involved in the WCA who is clinging to institutional salvation. We all care a lot about the UMC — enough to invest in this work — but the glue that holds us together is Jesus. Our confidence is in Christ. Our covenant within the United Methodist Church is founded on its Articles of Religion, which profess an orthodox understanding of this gospel. Those foundational articles are grounded in Christ as the exclusive savior of the world. Those who remain connected must insist on a relationship built on integrity and true accountability around the confession of Jesus as the center of our gospel and foundation of our faith (Articles II and III). Likewise, we trust the authority of Scripture, which “contains all things necessary for salvation” (Articles V and VI).

Our goal is to breed confidence for the future. Last year’s General Conference set in motion a process designed to give the UMC a way forward. We want to trust both that process and God’s timing. We urge churches, clergy and laypersons to let the system do its work. Hang in there. Stay focused in this “already and not yet” season on the good work of your local church. We can be honest about what we suspect. There will likely come a day in the UMC when we all have to make a mature and hard choice, peacefully admitting that we are better off heading our separate ways. But timing is everything. Let’s let the system do its work so we can say on the other side of this that we stayed the course as faithfully and as transparently as we knew how. Meanwhile, the WCA exists as a good landing place, an advocate, and a supportive partner that is allowing hope to have its power. We are leaning into what can be.

We love people.  Every person at the WCA table is there because we believe the Church is the hope of the world and every one of us has a heart for the eleven million people who call themselves United Methodist (not to mention the seven billion who call themselves human). God so loved the world and we are motivated by that love. We are in this because we genuinely care about connecting people with the heart of Jesus and we believe solid, orthodox Wesleyan theology is the best conduit for making that connection. That’s what made us Methodists in the first place; that passion hasn’t changed.

We believe that for the gospel to be true, it must be global. Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. We seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the globe, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith. The WCA has had remarkable support from leaders in other countries, and we have invited representatives from each Central Conference to join our Council. We reject any revision of our structure that separates our connection geographically because we believe in the global nature of the gospel and the Great Commission.

We are here for the long haul. The existence of the WCA does not hinge on one vote at one General Conference. Folks, our issues are far deeper, our institutional divisions far wider, our concerns far more grave than the substance of one vote. Our intention is to build a bridge from what we have to what can be. That kind of vision will take years to live out but we are committed for the long haul. The WCA is here to stay.

When new things get started, getting off the ground can be a little bumpy. Since our first gathering of the WCA last October, it has been like drinking water from a fire hose. To build a thing that stands the test of time takes a tremendous amount of effort — developing systems, making budgets, writing (and re-writing) by-laws, making hiring decisions, talking theology, creating communication systems. And prayer … a lot of prayer. This is not a short-term fix.

As we’ve said often in these early conversations, let’s not waste a crisis. The UMC is in need of renewal. No one on any side of the equation should be in this to “win” on one issue so we can all go back to business as usual. Let’s shoot for something more noble, more grand — to see the Kingdom of God manifest within the Body of Christ on earth for the sake of the redemption of the world.

When that happens, we can all go home to the unhindered presence of Christ. And oh, what a glory that will be.

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Living A New Year Under the Leadership of the Holy Spirit

A version of this article appeared on Seedbed’s Church Planter Collective (to which I occasionally contribute) under the title “Planting Under the Leadership of the Holy Spirit.”  Find  it here.

To be a Methodist is to be disciplined. This is our great contribution to the Body of Christ. We believe spiritual disciplines work when we work them. As you plan for this new year, I want to encourage you to choose one or two spiritual disciplines and use them to move your spiritual life forward in 2017.

Spiritual inventory: In recovery, the real work begins when the inventory starts. This is a time to be honest with yourself about where you’ve been and where you are now in your spiritual journey. This tilling work can be an effective tool for anyone who is serious about going deeper. How often to you sit in quiet with the Lord? How often to you read the Bible? Who is challenging you spiritually? Confess to God and yourself where you are, so you can more productively pray into where you should be heading.

Examination of conscience: Honest self-examination will help to uncover unhealed wounds and character issues that can be dealt with in the presence of Jesus but it only works when we are willing to be brutally honest about how we are living. No excuses. No denial. Make a list of realities. What are your character flaws? What are your sins? This is like the spiritual inventory but it goes deeper, challenging us to honestly consider what we’re doing with our time, where we’re living in denial, where we’re wrapped up in unholy ambitions. An examination helps us to clarify God’s call on our lives so we’re living proactively instead of passively. It also helps us cleanse our days of mind-numbing escapes. What are you spending time on that you need to curb, for the sake of living your life with more integrity?

Devotional reading: Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest became a second Bible for me in my first year as a church planter. Chambers had the heart of a missionary, and his words seemed to resonate deeply day in and day out with the work of planting a new church. I recommend My Utmost for anyone who is on a journey with Jesus. If not that book, then find another wise devotional voice to speak into your life, who will remind you to stay in the deep end spiritually.

Bible study: I suggest you get a reading plan and a hunger for sticking with it daily. I will be working through the Life Journal Reading Plan found in the YouVersion app. Created by Wayne Cordeiro, this plan will take me through the whole Bible in 2017. But reading through the Bible isn’t the only option. It is also okay to focus. If you’re in leadership read Exodus and Nehemiah early on. If you’re new to Christ, read James and John. If you need to be recharged in your relationship with Jesus, get a red-letter Bible and read only the words of Jesus in all four gospels. It will change how you know him.

Sabbath: Keep one. This is your personal expression of faith in God’s ability to complete the work. If you want to read more on Sabbath-keeping, read here. Dr. Steve Seamands asks a challenging question that gets at the heart of Sabbath-keeping: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?” In other words, what is your starting point? Sabbath is about restoring the factory settings on my life, so that my default starting point is the Holy Spirit.

Fasting: Fasting has provided for me some of the most dramatic spiritual break-throughs over the years. I practice it especially when I have unanswered questions, as a sacramental way of expressing my hunger to God. I teach it to my leaders, and encourage them to fast regularly, with deeper seasons of fasting annually. Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God. Bill Bright says fasting “enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.” And as we begin to cut through the agendas and see truth more clearly and as we honestly begin to repent of unconfessed sin, we experience more blessings from God. For more on fasting, read this.

Journaling: This has been a great source of healing for me, and a great way to hear from the Lord. I used to journal in a notebook. Now, I journal on my computer. I make it a conversation with the Lord, and have often received answers to prayer through this practice. I prefer to journal in two colors, writing my own thoughts and questions in black or blue ink, and what I sense may be Spirit-inspired thoughts in red. I don’t try to analyze it; I just listen for the voice of the Spirit and write what I hear. A week or so down the road, I may come back to that entry to see how it sounds with the benefit of a little time and perspective. When I come across a thought that seems profound (“smarter than I could have thought of myself,” as Asbury professor Dr. Bob Tuttle would say), I note that thought in red, too, just like the words of Jesus in my Bible.  Often, I am amazed at how helpful those entries can be to my journey with Jesus. I do believe He still speaks into our lives; I have encountered him in the practice of journaling.

The most important thing you can do to create a healthy congregation, family, or workplace is to live the gospel in front of people. A regular diet of spiritual disciplines will help you to do that. Make it your passion this year to live a disciplined life.

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Abortion, Ethics and the Church

(This post was first published on this site a little more than a year ago. I am reposting today in recognition of Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary earlier this month, and in recognition that many are weighing the ethics of abortion as they make voting choices on November 8th.)

I once listened and prayed as a woman whose father was pressuring her to have an abortion weighed her options. She was young, unmarried and dating a man of another race. I encouraged her to choose life. She went on, despite her father’s protests, to give birth to a child with severe deformities. That child died within months of birth. Was my opinion justified?

In other conversations, I have listened as women who have had abortions suffer, years later, with guilt and shame. I’ve listened as couples talk about how spiritual and emotional wounds inflicted by a past abortion affect every aspect of marriage. I’ve never been asked to counsel the women who had no post-traumatic stress from the effects of an abortion but I’ve counseled plenty who did.

Getting beyond the emotions beneath the issue of abortion is a challenge. But beyond the stories and beyond biblical arguments, what are the issues beneath the abortion debate?

Morality and the sanctity of human life: The fundamental issue has to do with the nature of life itself. Pro-life supporters believe life begins at conception, in which case abortion is murder. Pro-choice supporters see abortion as basically the same as any other form of birth control, with an emphasis on the right of women to make their own choices. While the core issue is often framed in the form of the question, “When does life begin?” those who support the right of a woman to choose don’t count that unborn life as having a vote while it is still part of a woman’s body.

Separation of Church and State:  Is abortion a religious issue or a legal issue?  The answer to this question determines whether or not the State can be involved in its legalization and funding.  The question has resurfaced in recent years as companies like Hobby Lobby and The Little Sisters of the Poor protest the federal mandate requiring that they provide birth control, abortion and sterilization services as part of their insurance packages.

Dangers of illegal abortions: Before abortion was made legal, there were countless stories of women who suffered and died from illegal abortions. That’s no longer the case, at least in the United States. Ironically, in countries like India where abortion is not only available but encouraged as a gender selection tool (this is the case in many countries that favor boys over girls), countless women are physically damaged by legal abortion procedures.

Effectiveness of restrictions: Because abortions have always happened whether they were legal or not, many acknowledge that even if it were made illegal, people will still do what people will do. That argument, however, largely rides on a culture of shame. For instance, being single and pregnant in America in 1950 is wildly different from being single and pregnant in 2016.

Tactics: This part of the debate has to do with how the two sides — especially the radical activists on each end of the spectrum — seek to make their points. When clinics are bombed and doctors are killed or when the rhetoric becomes hateful, threatening or bullying, no one is helped.

Women’s Rights: For pro-choice activists, this is about women having the right to do with their bodies as they see fit. For pro-lifers, the issue is about making the kinds of choices that are just and that help to build a stronger, more loving society.

What does the Church say about abortion?
Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists may well be the most outspoken opponents of abortion. Both groups believe and teach that human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception and that a human being has all the rights of a person even before birth, whatever the circumstances of conception.

The United Methodist statement on abortion reads:  “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers … a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

I strongly disagree with the United Methodist statement on abortion. Abortion is not an ethical choice and I cannot conceive of a “tragic conflict of life with life” that would justify it. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose which children come into the world. That was never our charge.

The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens. It means throwing baby showers for single women far more often than I’d like, and toeing the line on what holiness means in unmarried relationships.  It means honoring the questions, too, and the suffering caused by shattered dreams.

Moses had a habit of railing against God when he got frustrated with the children of Israel.  Once or twice, God offered to wipe them off the face of the earth and start over. Those offers always brought Moses back to hopefulness.  “Aren’t these your children?” he would plead with God. At the end of the day, no matter how much suffering was involved, Moses settled on the side of life. And maybe that’s why, in his final days, he pleaded with God’s children to weigh blessings against curses, death against life. Moses cry is surely from the heart of God: “Oh, that you would choose life!”

Oh, that those who support and even profit from the abortion industry would hear Moses’ cry to choose life and in so doing, recover their own.

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If your heart is as my heart … (my video message at WCA)

The inaugural event of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was thick with the Spirit, by all accounts. I was there by video only, due to speaking commitments made long before the Chicago event was scheduled. I kept up throughout the day via Facebook and Twitter. It was stunning to see the crowd, feel the buzz and hear some of the speakers. A beautiful start to something we may not yet have vocabulary to define.

It was a pleasure to share a slice of our story as part of this event. The church I lead is not large or well-resourced by most standards, but we are doing our very best to be faithful to God’s call on our community. We are committed to keeping Jesus at the center, valuing all people and making community an essential part of the process of sanctification. These values have led us down eventful paths and into powerful stories of transformation. I share one such story here.

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