Mending Nets at General Conference

The Opening Service at General Conference was sensational in many ways. 

The Bishop’s message reflected on water, how it was at the water’s edge that some fishers were mending their nets when the Nazarene came up, engaged them in conversation, and called them to “follow me.”

One focus on that Scripture is that the men stopped taking care of the equipment that supported their livelihood to “immediately” follow Jesus.  They radically changed their entire way of living.  Perhaps this was the primary message:  we are called to follow Jesus, to step up and do it.  Follow Jesus!

As I twist my head and look again at the Scripture, the prism of my spiritual trifocals brings into focus another equally compelling component of the message.

The fishers tending their nets was something that needed to be done if they were going to fish. However, investing time in net care no longer was important. 

Agenda and legislation of the 2012 General Conference require delegates and the church to spend a great deal of time examining and repairing the “fishing nets” of the church.  Nearly 1,000 delegates will invest hours considering the structure of the denomination, the ordering of the church’s ministry, and how the vitality of these ministries—especially congregations and pastors—will be evaluated.  

For me, the haunting reflection of these past five days is a question: are we just mending institutional nets?  Will all the work folk are about in Tampa bring the realm of God to greater fulfillment?

I remember an evening in my United Methodist Polity and Doctrine class at seminary.  We were a fine group of aspiring United Methodist clergy, eager to be part of the structure we were studying.  We would be clergy of the Methodist book!  Imagine our horror when a guest speaker, a pastor from the largest United Methodist congregation in the state, declared before us that he only used the Book of Discipline when it was helpful that is, to his advantage!  

Forty years later, I think there was some wisdom in the pastor’s apparent Methodist heresy.

As important as tending institution nets is, as important as having an efficient and streamlined church organization is, the critical issue is how we support and encourage one another in faithful living and loving in the Way of Christ.  That does not come  structure.  It comes from passion; it comes from commitment.  We cannot order that.

John Wesley had plenty of rules for his movement.  Perhaps the best—and most simple—rule is this: 

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

That cannot be legislated.   In fact, when Christians follow Wesley’s admonition, it is uncontrollable!!  It is not a program.  It is, dare I say, a “Wesleyan movement!”


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Jack hammers

Today is Ash Wednesday, and I decided to work at home today. The decision was far more practical than spiritual in nature.

Contractors were scheduled to do some needed improvements to the house. As I write, they are hard at work on the lower level—what a friend says is a “sub-basement!” Whatever it is called, I know the men are working there. Jackhammers do not operate in “silent mode!”

They are cutting up the floor, digging down to below the footings of the foundation, to install a drainage system that will assure the lower level will remain dry and usable for my spouse and me. The sounds from below the living room tell me going down below the “foundation” is not easy work. In fact, it is difficult, noisy, and a little dusty and dirty.

We could not have found a better day to this work—the beginning of Lent.

Traditionally, Lent is a time of when folk think about “giving up”. This year, I am giving up French fries. That is good thing for me to do; yet, I am not confident that the Christian mothers and fathers would see my fry-less discipline as the reason for the season.

Lent also is—and primarily is—a season of deep introspection. It is a time for daring to dig deep inside who we are to examine the foundations of our being—the values, practices, and relationships that shape and define who we are. Such digging is not always easy. Forgiving fries is very easy compared to daring to examine oneself and how one—at the very bedrock of our being—is related to God’s way in Christ.

The men ripping out floor beneath me right now are going down to bedrock—below even the human-made footing for the house. The result of their efforts today will be a better foundation for the future quality of life in this house.

The result of honest efforts to dig deep to discover how we relate to the Ground of our Being will lead to a deeper and richer life for all who undertake the task.

The digging deep of the contractors will be done in one day (I hope!). Digging deep to discover and remember who we are and Whose we are will take a lifetime.


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So you are planning to go to seminary?

A marvellously funny–or not so funny–video.

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Are you in debt so as to embarrass?

“Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” That is question number sixteen asked by a United Methodist bishop of those who present themselves for ministry in The United Methodist Church.

The question sometimes awkward giggles and laughter at the annual conference session when it is asked. Even the Episcopal leader posing the question may make a side comment to lessen the tension and unease! Some have suggested the appropriate answer should be, “I don’t embarrass easily!”

A major source of potential embarrassment is the cost of the candidate’s education. Student debt is an ongoing subject in the media. It also weaves its way into student conversations, deliberations by academic administrators, and—when thinking about theological education—the church. Of particular concern is the size of the debt for which a student is responsible at the completion of her or his education, whether it be undergraduate or graduate studies—or theological study.

A study of graduates from a Lutheran seminary reported the total educational debt for graduates increased from $28,882 in 2000 to approximately $40,000 in 2010. The figure represents the combined debt from both undergraduate and seminary education.

A Presbyterian survey indicated the average Master of Divinity graduate in 1991 left seminary with a $5,267 debt as a result of her/his seminary education. Ten years later, the average debt had tripled, to $15,599. By 2010, the debt is likely to have increased to $23,000. When a modest undergraduate debt of$16,000 is added to the mix, a student may leave seminary with as much as $39,000 in total educational debt.

Considering modest pastoral salaries, it could take an individual fifteen to twenty years to pay back the loans. That is a long time!

Garrett-Evangelical annually awards more than $2 million in financial annually. Even with generous aid packages, students must secure loans to pursue the training necessary to fulfill their call—and meet the requirements of the church—to be an ordained clergy. The average student debt accrued from study at the seminary is approximately $27,000.

I have a modest proposal.

In United Methodism, an individual pursuing ministry goes through several steps. A criterion for being recognized as a Declared Candidate is to be recommended by the charge conference of one’s local congregation. The folk of the church in essence attest they believe the individual is worthy to be a declared candidate and recommend her/him to be one. A requirement to continue in candidacy is the annual recommendation by the charge conference.

Without the official annual support of the home congregation, an individual cannot continue in candidacy toward ordination!

My proposal is “support your candidate!” Support occurs in several ways. The official action of the charge conference or other sponsoring body is one. Ongoing prayer and affirmation is another. There is a third: financial support.

Underwrite the candidate(s) for ministry from your congregation with a scholarship. The annual scholarship could range from $5,000 to the total unmet financial need—as much as $8,000. Over the three years of study for a M.Div. degree, the total financial support would range from $15,000 to $24,000.

What a difference that would make when the bishop asked clergy candidates the “embarrassment” question!

It is a special moment when a United Methodist congregation has an individual emerge from their midst to declare a call to ministry. For most congregations, this happens more rarely than regularly. The needed financial support would challenge the congregation to grow their budget for a few years. Alternately, the congregation could include the cost of the scholarship investment as part of a major fundraising campaign. I am sure there are other options.

One individual has reflected that “financing healthier graduates can only benefit the church.
I see the proposal as more than finances; it is investment in Christian leadership and ministry for generations to come.

It all fits together: a demonstrated commitment to the clergy candidate by a vote of affirmation, continued prayers of encouragement, and providing the financial support necessary for the candidate to prepare for ministry.

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Re-starting blogging!

The change in my employment meant the loss to my former blogging location. 

My blogs will resume again soon at this site.

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