The house will stop burning on its own eventually

I’ve been following the goings on at the Reconciling Ministries ChurchQuake event only sporadically as folks I follow on Twitter have posted things. And even then only off and on.

But this Tweet caught my attention and would not let go.

I’ve been trying to think through the implications of this statement.

On the one hand, I am the last person to defend the Book of Discipline as something that every local church can or should follow to the letter. To enact every program and host every special Sunday and engage in every activity envisioned by the Book of Discipline would be impractical and would undermine the actual mission of local churches. No one is a Book of Discipline purist.

But isn’t it nearly an abrogation of the office of bishop to make it the center of a movement to ignore and void the Book of Discipline? Bishops, after all, exist for the purpose of protecting the doctrine and discipline of the church. That is why you have bishops in the first place.

If bishops really believe the Book of Discipline is perpetrating evil, why did they seek the office in the first place? Bishops don’t get a vote at General Conference — the only body that can change our doctrine and discipline. If you think we are advocating evil, wouldn’t it be better to run for election to General Conference where you can constitutionally do something about it?

For all its faults, the Book of Discipline is our church’s collective statement about what the Lord requires of us. It is produced by humans so is surely flawed in many ways, but having bishops praised for refusing to enforce the Book of Discipline is a bit like praising fire fighters for refusing to put out fires.

I waive my right to guaranteed appointment

I sent this message to my bishop after reading the Judicial Council decision on guaranteed appointment a couple of weeks ago.

Dear Bishop Mike,

I am not ordained. It is quite possible that the Indiana Conference, in its wisdom, will decide I should not be ordained in the future. But if I am ordained to the ministry of an elder, I wish to make one thing clear.

If ever it is the judgment of the cabinet of the Indiana Conference that I am an ineffective pastor, I pledge to work as hard as I am capable to become an effective pastor. If I fail at this, if in the opinion of the cabinet I am deemed ineffective and harmful to the mission of the United Methodist Church in Indiana, I pledge to submit my credentials and seek a different way to live out my calling.

I ask that if it ever should come to this that the Conference will help me transition out of the order of the elders in a way that does the least possible harm to my family. I know there are limits to what the Conference can do.

I am seeking to be ordained an elder to bring glory to Jesus Christ and fulfill his mission for the church. If I fail to do this, I would rather leave the order of elders than do damage to the kingdom through my fear or reluctance to find another way to earn a living.

When your days as bishop in Indiana come to a close, please pass this note along to your successor in the episcopal office. And God bless you in your ministry.

Grace and peace.

Bishop: We need backbone

Bishop Scott Jones pulls few punches in his call to action for United Methodist leaders:

After eight years of service as a bishop, I can testify that many parts of our connectional system have developed unhealthy patterns that detract from our focus on vital congregations. Bishops shy away from taking decisive action that would not be welcomed by the clergyperson. Cabinets want to be nice and compassionate to the clergyperson and not deliver unwelcome bad news. District Superintendents fail to build records in the clergyperson’s file that would support an administrative complaint. Boards of Ordained ministry function too often as the union bosses protecting incompetent colleagues.

How to judge episcopal effectiveness?

The news about Bishop Bledsoe in North Texas has me thinking about our much vaunted systems of accountability.

We have bishops being told to step aside because they are deemed ineffective, but we do not have public declarations about what those criteria of judgement are. Or do we have that and I am just ignorant of them (a distinct possibility)?

What are the standards for judging whether a bishop is effective or not?

Renewing the call to force Adam Hamilton to be bishop

Now that General Conference has come and gone, I want to renew my call for The United Methodist Church to make Adam Hamilton a bishop.

Hear me out.

Sure, he would reject it. Sure, he is doing lots of important work in his local congregation and beyond. Sure, bishops have limited power and are viewed with suspicion by most of the UMC.

But I still think it would be a good idea. My reason? Ambrose of Milan.

Back in the day, bishops often had to be drafted or press-ganged into the job. Ambrose, according to Gary Wills, tried to resist his elevation to the purple by hiring a string of prostitutes to prove he was not fit to be a bishop. The good Christians of Milan saw through this ploy and eventually he consented to baptism and elevation to the bishop’s mitre. Yes, he was not baptized when he was selected as a bishop, so you can see that my proposal is rather conservative in comparison.

Here is my theory. When you are dragged against your will into being a bishop, you refuse to be complacent about things. If you life is taken from you and you are forced into leading this dysfunctional mob we call church, you use whatever power you have to shake things up. Ambrose faced down emperors and battled Arians for the soul of the faith.

Dragging Adam Hamilton against his will into being a bishop in The United Methodist Church would give him powerful motivation to force change — out of revenge if nothing else.

Note: While this post is a joke, I’m still not convinced it is a bad idea.

Willimon: God intends the church to be fruitful

Will Willimon’s book Bishop does not say much I have not heard before, but in the wake of General Conference, I find myself reading this book that was written long before GC for some indication of a path forward from the wreckage of Tampa.

Willimon writes of faith that refuses to accept the sociological explanations why our churches are dying.

A suburban pastor told me the main reason it was tough to have a thriving youth group: “Parents would rather their children win in Sunday-morning soccer than succeed in being disciples.”

The pastor continued, “Be we have faith that we can beat them at their own game. We are working with a couple of other churches to form a youth soccer league that doesn’t play on Sundays. Our aim is to make it the best league in town.”

Now there’s a pastor unwilling to submit to the faith of the dominant social order. A productive, fruitful church begin in faith that God really intends for the church to be fruitful and faithful.

Our new campus minister at the University of Alabama, embarrassed that we had reached less than 1 percent of UA students, planned a summer of free concerts and backyard parties in order to “out rush the frats.” He told me, “If we don’t get a hundred new students in my first year, fire me,” warming the heart of this campus minister turned bishop.

Two of my favorite writers about being a pastor are Willimon and Eugene Peterson. In the examples above, I see how the Methodist Willimon differs from the Presbyterian Peterson. Peterson argues in more than one place — but perhaps most eloquently in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work — that the size of a church is not something pastors should fret about. The Calvinist peeks through in Peterson’s disdain for the notion that we pastors should strive to reach those who God does not call to our pews.

The Methodist Willimon appears to believe the claim of free grace: God wants all people to be saved. He appears to agree with John Wesley that if the people will not come to us, we must go gather them up. He appears not to care too much for my personal discomfort as a bookish English-major turned pastor for beating the bushes in the service of a God who wants everyone in his kingdom.

I find myself challenged to consider the examples Willimon lists above as the contemporary equivalent of Wesleyan field preaching.

Bishop Willimon is taking some heat for a recent commentary he wrote that scourges the General Conference as a waste of time and money. Men and women I respect in the general boards and agencies certainly feel wounded by his rhetoric, but I am a local church pastor with little contact with such airy heights of the denomination.

We’ve seen a rash of bishops issuing criticisms of the General Conference since the delegates slouched out of Tampa toward home. I find Willimon’s the most uncomfortable. As one called to take up my cross daily, that discomfort may just be the sign I have been seeking.