Tuesday, January 21, 2014

When I say Bishop, you say Deb!: What A Biblical Model of Episcopacy Ought to Look Like Through the Eyes of a Young Clergy (FL)

I've not been a United Methodist very long (about 6 years and 5 of those years under appointment), but long enough to know that not all Bishops are created equal. I mean yes they are made in the image of God and yada, yada, yada. What I mean is that not all of them posses the pastoral qualities that I think a bishop should have. Perhaps I'm treading on thin ice talking about our Bishop and such. I'm not even a provisional member yet (hopefully I be will in May). I'm just a FL (Full Time Local Pastor) who recently graduated from seminary and is serving in obscurity on the Northern boarder of the Saginaw Bay district, so maybe my opinion doesn't amount to much, but I've got to say...we in the Michigan Area are blessed to have one of the, if not the, most pastorally minded Bishops in the connexion.

In July of 2012 the North Central Jurisdiction assigned Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey to the Michigan Area, which is essentially a two point charge. It's composed of the West Michigan Conference and the Detroit Conference. This is an area of nearly 150,000 church members. Thats the size of many denominations in North America! She came to us from the Dakota's, perhaps serving in obscurity herself in a rather small episcopal area. There was a lot of hope and anticipation surrounding her assignment. Personally I attended seminary with a group of young clergy from the Dakota's and they all said great things about her. Particularly they said, and a concern of mine, was that she was very interested and responsive to young clergy and clergy families. I'm happy to say that I have found this report to be true and that all the excitement and energy surrounding her assignment was not smoke and mirrors, but very appropriate. One of the first things she did upon arrival was tour the area. I attended a gathering at Indian River UMC where she preached to and fellowship with clergy and laity. Thats when she told us we called call her, "Bishop Deb." Wow, I thought, she wants us to use her first name!? I think thats when I realized that we had been given a gift as an area, a truly pastoral bishop who is going to want, most of all, what's best for us. The following year in the summer  she spent a day and a night at camp with a group of young clergy families. She watched our corny talent show, sat around the fire as we told stories and asked questions. The next day she lead worship and followed it up with a 2hr question and answer session with both clergy and clergy spouses. She ended her time with us by eating lunch and giving us all a blessing as she departed. On top of those actions she has always responded to my personal e-mails, i.e. questions, invitation to preach and a welcome. 

Recently she has invited input on normally "top secret" discussions from area clergy, both lay pastors and ordained. She has opened discussion for all 150,000 Michigan Area United Methodists on creating a "new work in the Michigan area." A combined conference, not a merger, but a new work. Like I said, I've not been around very long, but I've been around long enough to know just how fortunate we are to have Bishop Deb as our Bishop and I, along with many other Michigan Area Clergy and Laity, are looking forward to a hopefully long relationship of leading by and following of Bishop Deb! 

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

MLK, Human Relations Sunday and the push for a progressive Wesleyan faith

This coming Monday, January 20th, America will take a moment, at least officially, to honor one of it's most prophetic and heroic figures...Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately even though it's an official holiday lots of people will ignore it and lots of people will treat that day with contempt. I recently had a member of one of my churches say that it's not fair that Martin Luther King, Jr gets his own holiday and that some schools and banks close to observe that day. He went on to say his kids are expected to attend school on Veterans day and that Veterans did more for this country than any Black preacher could ever do. I agree Veterans are important and so is their sacrifice, but that "black preacher" transformed a backwards, bigoted and racist society into one that, for the most part, has at lest learned tolerance for the other. Tolerance, however, is not and should not be the vision we desire to have for relationships with others in our communities who's skin, gender, and lifestyle is different from the prevailing and dominant raced as white and sexed as male culture we live in. Tolerance is not love, tolerance is not grace, tolerance is saying, "I wont hurt you, discriminate against you are even kill you because you are different." The truth is tolerance is the enemy of love and grace. What our vision ought to be is acceptance. We need to have a vision, or what Dr. King called, "a dream", of a society that embraces the various ways that God's image is in each and everyone of us, despite our race, gender and sexual orientation.

As a pastor I am disappointed that our church has not arrived yet at a place of full acceptance and inclusion of all the various ways God is imagined in humanity. Our church, the United Methodist Church, is at a crossroads with a traditional and prevailing view of humanity and society. We cling to an archaic interpretation of family and sexuality and call it "being faithful" to tradition and scripture. It seems like when Dr. King and the social revolutionaries of the civil rights era were advocating for a more just and advertent society many in our church then were against that as well. There were pastors defrocked, churches attacked and even people killed because of the radical idea that all men were created equal and that society can truly be a place of liberty and justice for all.

Unfortunately our church, at lest the Methodist Episcopal stream, has always sided with traditional interpretations of life and scripture (when threatened with loss of membership or money) , but fortunately many of the other streams, such as the Brethren and the Methodist Protestant streams, had embraced progressive visions of church and society, i.e the ordination of women and black ministers, when it wasn't popular. I think overall the leadership of the United Methodist Church is moving towards embracing a progressive vision of church. Now some still don't and cannot and won't. For example, I had an Elder in my conference tell me that because of my support for dialogue, just dialogue, regarding full inclusion of homosexual persons in the life of the church, he regretted helping me with my commissioning paper work and would be voting against me at Annual Conference when my name is put before the executive session of Elders for provisional membership. I'm sure 50 years ago there where Elders who said the same thing to young pastors, especially in the South, who dared to say "blacks should have the same rights as whites, in society and in the church."

So this Sunday the Church celebrates Human Relations Sunday. We are asked to have special prayers, litanies, hymns, and to take up a special offering that help raise awareness on how we interact with other humans in our own communities and globally. I think it's safe to say that the circus that has preceded this years Human Relations Sunday, i.e the Gay Marriage trials, might have a negative effect on what we are trying to convey by having a Human Relations Sunday. This Sunday I'm going to attempt to share the importance of keeping Dr. Kings "dream" alive, not just over issues of race, but all issues of bigotry, i.e homosexual rights, workers rights, and women's health rights. I'm sure that in the small Northern Michigan community I live and serve in, this won't be popular. It'll have to be nuanced a bit, but hopefully the message and the agenda of a Human Relations Sunday will "get out there" and maybe at least challenge, if not transform some hearts and lives.

The biggest challenge we have as a Wesleyan tradition is adjusting to becoming a progressive church. My understanding of Wesley's faith was that he, as a son of the enlightenment age, had a rather progressive vision for Christianity, also he struggled with the traditional world view he grew up with and lived in. Fortunately in the frontier world that Methodism thrived in, Mr. Wesley's Methodism found some rather progressive partners who challenged a traditional world view and championed a progressive world view...in some ways;). Methodist were the first to have racially mixed worship and women leaders and preachers. By 1800 almost 80% of Methodist were black, unfortunately then, like now, we allowed social pressures to cloud our judgment and instead of being a mixed racial church we helped blacks start their own Methodist tradition, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Methodism has in it's DNA the make up that is needed to be the most inclusive, gospel centered, evangelically minded form of progressive Christianity the world has ever seen!  The question is will we embrace that possibility or will retreat back to stereo types, bigotry and exclusiveness? This sunday, Human relations Sunday, is a perfect opportunity to reflect on this question and maybe develop a gospel centered response for it. We will have to wait and see.

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I didn't get the job, but instead found a calling.

About 7years ago I interviewed for a job at Birmingham First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, MI. I was then working at the Oklahoma United Methodist Boys Ranch as a counselor and resources officer. I enjoyed my job, but was anxious to find a job in ministry. There weren't too many full time openings in the tradition I was then currently part of, so I thought I tried my chances with a "sister denomination." I sent my resume, made my follow up phone calls and was eventually invited to a face-to-face interview with the leadership of Birmingham First. I was intimidated by the size of the church, committees and community and it was not my best interview. I few hours after the interview, the pastor, now one of my closest friends and mentor, Jack Harnish called to say, "Josh, you didn't get the job, but have you considered pastoral ministry?" I had, in fact that was what I really wanted to do, but as I mentioned, there were not many opportunities in the tradition I was currently part of. Jack went on to, "give me a swift kick in the pants" an encouraged me to pursue ordination and pastoral ministry in the United Methodist Church. I had consider this before, but I was intimidated by the sheer amount of work, education and discipline it took to become a United Methodist Elder, but for whatever reason, Jacks "kick to the butt" was enough that day and I decided I was going to do what it took to become a UMC Elder! 

The following fall I enrolled at Saint Paul School of Theology and began a journey that I am close to completing (only about two more years to go!). In the spring of 2011, thanks again to another one of Jacks "kicks to the rear" (this time it was someone else's rear he was kicking), I transferred to the Detroit Annual Conference. I completed my seminary education at United Theological Seminary (a great choice and a different story, but strongly related) and this spring I will, hopefully (baring any epic breakdowns on my part) be received as a probationary Elder in the United Methodist Church.

So, I didn't get the job I wanted, but I did get a vocation I am extremely proud of and happy with. I guess this goes to show that from time to time, we all need a butt kicking :) to get us going in the right direction and from time to time we don't get the job, but instead find a life calling. I'm looking forward to a life time of service as an Ordained person in the United Methodist Church and it all stared with a faithful, spiritually sensitive and life oriented church father who wasn't afraid to kick a little butt. Thanks Jack, you have my permission to land another swift kick anytime you think I need one! ;)

Me, my wife Amanda, Jim and Bev Miller and Rev. Jack and Judy Harnish at Onaway United Methodist Church