Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The cost of knowledge....and more

Well here it is....only two and a half weeks to go before school starts!!! I must admit I am very excited! I am always excited for the beginning of a school year and more recently I am even more excited because it means peace and quite around my house, but that's excitement aimed at the children's school starting...I'm talking about my seminary classes. I began the seminary process feeling so overwhelmed. I looked at the degree plan that was handed to me the day of new student orientation almost two years ago and saw 9o credit hours and almost felt helpless!! I thought, "I'll never get through all this", but really it has gone by so fast it all seems a little surreal.

I must admit, when I began the process seminary was a means to an end. I had already been in ministry since I was 20 (I'm 30 now), I pastored my first church by the time I was 22 and I was ordained at 23, I felt like the old man of church :). I had already completed two degrees in Bible and Theology and had co-written a book with one of my Bible College professors. I thought, "what could I possibly gain from the church forcing me to spend 60,000 dollars to re-learn things I have already dealt with?" Well, two years later that is not the case. I would not trade one moment of my experience at seminary for anything, that is how valuable it has been to me.

I did "re-learn" a lot of things, but in a deeper and more meaningful way. I also learned a lot of new things, that helped me answer a lot of questions I had a bout my faith. For example, I was once a staunch and devote conservative and fundamentalist serving in the Assemblies of God. I believed without question all of what was taught to me over the years. Then I left the A/G and joined the Christian Church (DOC),(of which I was ordained in 2003) this is a much more progressive church. The drastic change caused some what of a theological void in my life, a void I could not fill because my faith had become so "heady". At St. Paul I learned about the mystics, I learned about the Wesleyan way of understanding faith and scripture, I learned that I could be and evangelical without being a fundamentalist, I learned how to reconcile the mysteries of our faith, without them having to be proven, after all they are "mysteries".

I am convinced that a seminary education, at lest one at theologically moderate and/or evangelical seminary, is invaluable to a pastor. I could not imagine having to have this great responsiblity as a pastor without a seminary education. Now thats not to say that some are called to minister, to preach and to even serve as ordained clergy...yes even as ordained elders...without it, but for me it was just that important.

Now this brings me to the point of all this. Earlier in this blog I commented on the $6o,000 of debt that will be incurred by me and many of my classmates over the course of 3-5 years in seminary. That is an astronomical load of debt for someone who will be, at most, making $41,000 dollars a year once they have completed the degree. I think that's a shame, and I think that this is one of the factors contributing to the decline of our church. Mark Beeson, who is a UM pastor in Indiana asks the question "how do we grow again?" Mark is a good way...of many of the "practices" of the Church and the cost of seminary issue is one of them. I think that is the question all of us should be asking, but I also think one of the answers is, elimnate seminary indebtedness. How can we expect our youngest and brightest to be fully missional if they can't go were they are needed because of financial needs? This leads to the discussion of guaranteed appointments, minimum compensation, apportionment's, and general agencies, all of these things are leading factors in the churches inability to be missional and apostolic, but we're only talking about seminary debt :).

Now, every UM pastor, before he or she is commissioned is asked a series of questions before they are approved by the executive clergy session at Annual Conference. One of those questions is "are you debt as to embarrass yourself or the church?" I suspect a little tongue and cheek when the newly graduated seminary students answer "no" (they have to in order to be approved).

In our Church we have whats called a Local Pastor. An LP is a full or part time clergy person (non-ordained) given the authority to do pastoral ministry and rites, but who normally does not have a seminary degree. Statisticly they are more effective as pastors that Elders are, why....I'm not sure, I have some thoughts though. Perhaps it's because they are able to serve in area's that otherwise would not get a pastor, perhaps it's because they don't have the weight of $60,000 over their heads, perhaps it's because they are not "guaranteed" an appointment, and have to prove their effectiveness for ministry every year to their superiors....but wait we're just talking about seminary :).

I love, absolutely love sits so right with my heart. I love it's history, it's theology, it's anthropology (in a theological context of course)....I simply just get it. I want our church to grow, I want the Methodist church in every town to be the biggest church in town. I am deeply saddened by our decline and want to do my part to keep it from happening. I think it all starts with a reevaluation on how we train, prepare and deploy our shepherds. I want our church to be missional, with the express purpose of useing the local church to reach the lost, but the local church needs a shepherd, a shepherd who is competent and free to do ministry that works in her community.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Some thougts on faith, hunger, and health

I have man in one of my churches who is actively involved in the health care debate, especially in my home state of Oklahoma. He shared some very somber statistics about health care and health care out comes here in OK. The majority of patience under 21 and over 65 seen by doctors in Oklahoma are on Medicaid/Medicare. The rates at which doctors in Oklahoma are paid for their services by Sooner Care (Oklahoma Medicaid/Medicare) is only about 80% of their costs. There is no Sooner Care available for people between the ages of 21 and 65 and 40% of them are uninsured. The only access they have to health care is the ER, a bill which they will most likely not be able to pay and a bill that will amount to loss for the provider. There were 9 million unduplicated visits to the ER last year in Oklahoma and of those visits the providers were able to recover approximately 70% of the costs. Oklahoma has the worst health care outcomes of any state in the Union, we have the sickest work force and the largest amount of adults with mental health issues. Some might say Oklahoma needs hope...hope for a better health care system, hope for a healthier generation to come, hope for...tomorrow. I respectfully disagree.

Hope is a useless emotion that is unreliable, unattainable and unpredictable by itself. I know this all sounds very discouraging, but it's true, hope does absolutely nothing to change anyone's situation permanently. Sure it might makes us feel good for a while, it might bring us up out of a state of sadness or depression, but as far as actually changing just doesn't! Who has ever accomplished anything simply by hoping it would change? Hope alone is a cool breeze, a drink of ice cold water on a hot day...hope only refreshes it does not change the situation. What is needed in a situation like this and what is needed in our world and in our culture is faith. Faith changes things, it is by faith that people enter into difficult situations and complicated issues and see change, it is faith that moves, faith that builds, and faith that transforms. I believe that if the Christians in Oklahoma and the rest of the U.S acted in faith towards the health care issue than there would be change, people would be covered and have access to health care.

Health care is not a stand alone issue. Faith can change any situation. Hunger is another problem he have in Oklahoma, not just malnutrition hunger issues, but over nutrition hunger issues caused by poor education on food choices and the fact that it is expensive to eat right. Poverty is a major issue in our state and with poverty normally comes nutrition problems. Some people can not afford food and are literally hungry, others can only afford cheap, inexpensive food choices or whatever they find at the local food pantry....which is normally beans, pasta, and sodium filled canned veggies and meat...high calories, carbs, and salt...this is a recipe for obesity. Faith can end hunger as well. Faith in Christ can provide opportunities for those who are less fortunate to have what they need to be healthy, there is no excuse in our country to have people without access to acute health care and healthy food choices, there is simply just to much wealth for this to happen, but I suppose one could say that "there is to much wealth, that is why this happens."

Hebrews 11 is the "faith" chapter in the New Testament. It is full of examples of people who acted in faith and it transformed them into new people. There faith actions were not easy, they were frightening, confusing, and difficult, but that's what faith does. Faith transforms us and our world because it challenges us to be something other that what we are. Faith should cause us to be uncomfortable, it should cause us to step out into the unknown, it should cause us to "love our neighbor as ourselves." and if I have access to acute and preventive health care, good food choices, and education...shouldn't my neighbor?

Back to faith....earlier I said hope was useless, but that hope also has it's place, it's important to have hope, but we cannot root ourselves in hope, we must be rooted in faith. You know what the main difference between hope and faith is....proof. We can prove that some has faith, we can prove faith by whats been transformed. We cannot prove hope, hope is a dream, hope is an ideal thought, something that looks good on paper....."Hope Floats"....while "Faith Sinks" sinks deep into our souls, it roots itself in our very being and transforms who and what we are....this is why we are justified through faith, because faith changes our relationships, especially our relationship with God, but it should also change our relationship with humanity.

I hope your faith challenges you. I hope it is transforming you and is causing you some distress. I hope your faith is justifying you towards God and towards humanity, bring you back into right relationship with both. In his weekly podcast from this week, Leonard Sweet says "Faith transforms, while hope adorns." Don't just look like you've changed, but become changed.

Grace and Peace.