Mismatched clergy and congregations

The Rev. James Howell wrote an interesting blog post about the harrowing future that might be facing clergy and congregations in the United Methodist Church if we split apart.

He raises several interesting points, but one section of his post in particular grabbed my attention. In discussing the position of clergy in his conference if we sundered into two denominations, Howell wrote:

We would also have a rash of mismatched clergy and congregations.  If congregations get to choose which denomination to go with, I’d imagine the clergy would get to pick too.  At least in my part of the world, and I suspect all across the United States, on average the clergy are far more progressive than their congregations.  In Western North Carolina, for instance, out of 1,000 clergy I’d estimate at least 500 would choose the new progressive institution; but no more than a few dozen churches would do the same. Where would the clergy work?  And who would pastor the conservative churches?

Among those who observe clergy, it has long been remarked that clergy are often more liberal than their congregations in the United Methodist Church. Howell is merely speculating about some of the numbers. What is interesting in his numbers is the assertion that no more than a few dozen churches in his entire conference would join a progressive or liberal denomination while hundreds — about half — of its clergy would.

For my part, I do not know where I would land in the fall out of a broken church. I am comforted to know, however, that theologically, at least, I do not have the struggles of so many of my colleagues. When I teach and preach the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church and try to articulate the heart of Wesleyan theology, I do not have to hide my true theological beliefs or couch them in ways that disguise the fact that I secretly consider the faith of my church members somehow backward — or whatever the opposite of progressive is. I am too Democratic for many of the Republicans in my churches and too much a fan of Indiana University for the Purdue Boilermaker fans in my church, but I can pray for healing without crossing my fingers, speak of the resurrection without resorting to metaphors, warn of the devil’s works without feeling sheepish, and wrestle with holiness without trying to dispense with holiness itself. I am grateful for that.

Plucking souls from the fire

This morning, I was reading part of John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” In this work, he includes plea to sinners who rush headlong and continuously away from God and into sin.

Think a little for once. What is it you are doing? Why should you destroy yourself? I could not use the worst enemy I have in the world as you use yourself. Why should you murder yourself inch by inch? Why should you burn yourself alive? O spare your own body at least, if you will not have pity for your soul! But have you a soul then? Do you really believe it? What, a soul that must live for ever! O spare thy soul! Do not destroy thy own soul with an everlasting destruction! It was made for God. Do not give it into the hands of that old murderer of men! Thou canst not stupify it long. When it leaves the body, it will awake and sleep no more. Yet a little while, and it launches out into the great deep, to live, and think, and feel for ever. And what will cheer thy spirit there, if thou hast not a drop of water to cool thy tongue? But the die is not yet cast: Now cry to God, and iniquity shall not be thy ruin.

I am reminded in reading this that Wesley’s ministry and passion was stirred by a clear and specific theology, one that is not in favor in many Christian gatherings in the United States today. Wesley, in short, believed in eternal torment of the damned.

Now, an NT Wright would point out to us that Wesley’s picture of souls disembodied misses the good news of resurrection. A Rob Bell will attempt to drive us with beautiful questions to doubt that anyone would ever be condemned for eternity. More than a few United Methodist pastors I know would point out that Wesley had bad relationships with women and was a dictator in the Methodist movement.

All these are worthy of note, but they also all seem to miss an important point.

When we look at Wesley’s ministry, we cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer intensity and energy with which he set about his task. Here was a man driven by the conviction that men and women all around him were leaping into eternal torment, and he must do everything he could to pull as many back from the pit as he possibly could.

Many among us these days might make fine arguments about his theological or psychological faults, but I wonder how many of us would dare compare our energy and passion with his.

Acevdeo: Genius of the “And”

Here is the text of what United Methodist elder Rev. Jorge Acevedo said at the Wesleyan Covenant Association in Chicago. He posted this on his Facebook page, and I am sharing it here.

Genius of the “And”

Years ago, I was privileged to hear Jim Collins of “Good to Great” fame speak. This was before he wrote this seminal leadership book. He had just finished releasing his research that documented the slim margin that distinguished “A” companies from “A+” companies. In those days, it was the difference between American Express and Visa or Dell Computers and Hewlett-Packard. This research was recorded in his book “Built to Last.”
The part of his talk that I will never forget was when he taught on one of the distinguishing principles. Collins said that A+ companies practice the genius of the “and” instead of the tyranny of the “or.” In the talk, he described how choosing between seemingly contradictory concepts—focusing on this or that—leads to missed opportunities.
• Is the product low cost or high quality?
• Do I focus on short-term opportunities or long-term strategy?
• Should the company be bold or conservative?
• Is it great customer service or profit making?
Collins and his team at Stanford discovered that the best companies find a way to embrace the positive aspects of both sides of a dichotomy, and instead of choosing, they find a way to have both.
It seems to me that as followers of Jesus in the Wesleyan way, we practice this principle of the genius of the “and” in our understanding and living out of the life of faith. Think about some of apparent choices some in Christianity might want us to make:
• Is it grace or is it truth?
• Is it faith or is it works?
• Is it radical welcome or is it radical Gospel?
• Is it orthodoxy or is it orthopraxy?
• Is it love of God or love of neighbor?
When we in the Wesleyan stream get it right, we refuse to be sequestered to one corner or another, but instead choose the robust middle way, which we understand as the way of Jesus.
Maybe the most profound witness to genius of the “and” at work in our tradition is our Methodist understanding of the means of grace. A quick check on the umc.org website and you find this page (www.umc.org/how-we-serve/the-wesleyan-means-of-grace). We Methodists believe in holding in tension both works of piety and works of mercy. Faith expressed without a robust expression of both in the life of an individual follower of Jesus or a local church is incomplete and unbiblical in our understanding of what it means to live in Christ. For us faith is lived best when as a follower of Jesus I work on my prayer life and work to end human trafficking. My local church is being faithful to the way of Jesus when our hands are lifted high in transcending worship and our hands are reaching low to work with the poor.
This was part of the genius of the Wesley’s and the early Methodists. Early Methodists searched for innovative places and ways to find “ports of entry” where the Holy Spirit went before them to share the Good News of Jesus. Some of the early Methodists “ports of entry” included an amazing diversity of fresh expressions like:
• Field preaching
• Literacy efforts
• Medical care for the sick
• Homes for orphans and widows
• Care for the physically handicapped and chronically ill
• Opposition to slavery
• Inexpensive mass publications
• Economic development projects for the poor
Wesley and the early Methodists resisted making the Gospel and salvation simply a ticket out of hell. In “The Works of John Wesley,” Vol. 8, page 47, Mr. Wesley wrote:
By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy and truth.
For John Wesley and his spiritual progeny, salvation cannot be limited to deliverance from the penalty of sin, but also includes deliverance from the power of sin. At Grace Church where I am privileged to serve, we tell our people that Jesus not only wants to rescue you from the hell you are headed to, but also the hell you are living in. Salvation to the uttermost involves as Wesley said, “…a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy and truth.”
In the time that remains, I’d like to take a few moments and lean into what it means for followers of Jesus and local churches in the Wesleyan way to turbo-charge our rich Methodist heritage particularly in our ministry to the poor, addicted and marginalized. As a pastor in one local United Methodist congregation in Southwest Florida for 20 years, I have had the awesome privilege of watching a hard-working, blue-collar congregation live richly and deeply into this lush Wesleyan DNA.
A Wesleyan Ministry to the Poor
One of the hallmarks of the early Methodists was the way they invested their limited resources in creating places for people on the margins of society to receive the ministry of Jesus! The Industrial Revolution in England moved masses of people into living conditions that were catastrophic for that time. The invention of the steam engine and other laborsaving devices only heightened unemployment. The English attitude toward poverty was that it was the fault of the poor and carried a stigma of divine punishment.
Into this cultural milieu, listen to what John Wesley wrote about his ministry with and for the poor some 20 years after Aldersgate (Journal 4:358; November 17,1759):
It is well a few of the rich and noble are called. Oh, that God would increase their number! But I should rejoice (were it the will of God) if it were done by the ministry of others. If I must choose, I should still (as I have done hitherto) preach the gospel to the poor.
At Grace Church, Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan has helped us think about two kinds of ministry with and for the poor. You’ll remember that in Jesus’ story, the half-breed Samaritan saw the beaten Jew and was moved with compassion. So much so that he bandaged him up, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. This is was a first century Palestinian ambulance and hospital! The Samaritan met the poor man’s immediate need. He offered the man “aid.”
At Grace Church, we believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “When I was hungry, you fed me.” We have many immediate aid ministries like food, clothing, pet and medical ministries. These ministries bandage the wounded of Lee County and garner us relational capital to share the Gospel.
But Jesus’ story doesn’t end there because the Samaritan’s compassion for this man was not fully expressed. The kind man returned and promised to pay for his expenses until the man could get back up on his feet. The Good Samaritan was committed to beaten Jews on-going “advancement.”
For us, advancement ministries are those ministries that move people from dependence and reliance to independence and freedom. Ministries like GED, recovery ministries and Jobs for Life, a ministry that assists the un-employed and under-employed to become more employable help people advance.
Our most recent and exciting ministry for and with the poor is the adopting of the largest pocket of poverty in our part of Lee County, the Suncoast community. It’s the second largest trailer park in America with an under performing school in it. A few years ago, we began an after school children’s program. Last year, we sent 50 reading mentors to the school in this community and this past month we launched a fresh expression of church on Thursday night in what we are calling “Eat, Love and Pray.” It’s a incarnational dinner church that last month in it’s first month saw 339 people total with 136 different people and get this, two first time commitments to Jesus. This is a working poor community that is experiencing the love of Jesus through the Body of Christ in their neighborhood, not at our church facility.
A Wesleyan Ministry to the Addicted
Another of the other geniuses of the early Methodist movement was how its interconnected groups served as a tool to grow people in grace! You’ll remember the group model of the early Methodists:
• United Societies: large groups for instruction and worship
• Class meetings: 10-12 people for spiritual growth
• Bands: same gender groups of about 6 persons who were committed grow in love, holiness and purity of intention
But I wonder how many of us know about a fourth kind of Methodist groups called the “penitent bands?” Listen to what Dr. D. Michael Henderson wrote in his book “John Wesley’s Class Meeting” about penitent bands:
This final group of Wesley’s system was specifically designed for those who lacked the will power or personal discipline to live up to the behavioral demands of the class meeting but still had a desire to overcome personal problems. The target population of the entire Methodist system was “the dregs of English society,” some of whom had serious social dysfunctions. The primary goal of the penitent band was to restore its members to the mainstream of society and its regular channels of growth. The penitent bands met on Saturday nights, designed to keep them out their “old haunts.” The minister in charge was assigned the responsibility to help them deal with their problems especially alcoholism. The group was rigorous in format and stringent in means of personal reform; similar to today’s Alcoholics Anonymous.
In my estimation, many United Methodist Churches are guilty of what I call “spiritual malpractice.” That is, they offer Jesus the Healer without offering the people, places and processes for people to heal. My seminary professor, Dr. Fred Van Tatenhove told us “Don’t take the lid off the trashcan if you are not willing to help people clean it out!” Churches can be faithful to the evangelistic call to know Jesus as the Forgiver, Healer and Leader of their lives, but then stop short of helping that new relationship take root inside the battered life of the fledging Christ-follower.
In 2013, I was invited to join Dr. Matt Russell, Rev. Carolyn Moore and Dr. Dale Ryan from Fuller Seminary to speak at Asbury Seminary on Addictions, Recovery and Holiness. Dr. Ryan gave an address to the Executive Team and several other faculty at Asbury arguing that according to the World Health Organizations statistics on mortality that the number one cause of death globally is addictions. Hidden behind much suicide, heart disease and accidental deaths are precious persons who were lost in a life of addictions. Every one of us in this room today knows multiple people maybe close family who are struggling and even dying of addictions. My wife Cheryl and I have lived through a hellish decade with our son Nathan’s struggle with addictions and mental illness.
Grace Church has a profound commitment to creating healing people, places and processes for people in our community who are addicted. We call these our recovery ministries. On any given week, we host 25 traditional recovery groups, 2 full on Celebrate Recovery ministries and an evening of same gender six month long step studies. In total on any given week at all our campuses; we’ll have 600 people or more in recovery meetings. Besides this, we take a meeting into a detox center every Thursday. After 17 years of this kind of “penitent band” ministry, I can unequivocally say that it has changed my life, my family, our church and our community.
Just a few weeks ago, I hugged three different people after speaking at a Celebrate Recovery service. John who is a drug addict had received his one-year chip. A year ago, he was in jail and dying. Today, he is reunited with his wife and beginning to step into some simple leadership in our ministry. I also got to hug Patti after receiving her eight-year chip. Eight years ago, Patti sold her body for crack cocaine. That night, she was a stunning trophy of God’s healing and redeeming grace. The last person I hugged was Amanda. She was 90 days sober and 20 years ago, I baptized her as a baby at the same altar where that night I was embracing her. Only God! Frankly, this is my new addiction…watching Jesus put lives back together. I can’t get enough of it.
A Wesleyan Ministry to the Marginalized
One of the early Methodist bases for works of piety and works mercy was the Foundry in London. The main room of the building was large enough to seat 1500 people. At one time, the Foundry had been a place for casting cannons. After a serious explosion in 1716, the weapons operation moved to Woolwich. The Foundery remained damaged and unused until 1738 when John Wesley either rented or purchased it. He organized the Methodist Society there. In addition to worship services, other ministries occurred on the premises such as a school for marginalized children and the dispensing of money from a loan fund for poor people to help prevent them from paying exorbitant interest to others. Think micro loans. This is what early Methodists did.
Several years ago, God opened a door for our church to a marginalized and “unreached people group” in our community; persons with special needs and their families. We discovered that the divorce rate among families with special needs children is significantly higher than the national average. Mothers with children with special needs typically die earlier. And we also learned that in Florida after a person with special needs turns 22; there are limited community resources for them.
First, we began a Sunday morning “buddy” program that integrated younger children with special needs into our children’s ministry. Then we began a monthly 3-hour respite program for families with children of special needs. But the most exciting ministry we began was a ministry called Exceptional Entrepreneurs. This ministry had a vision to create employment and training opportunities for young adults. And it has exploded.
This ministry is a safe place where persons with special needs learn to make products that are sold. Several of the students receive a paycheck. Bible studies are a regular part of this fresh expression of church. About two years ago one of the volunteers was led to Christ and baptized on a Sunday morning. Several of our EE students began to ask questions about being baptized themselves. One evening I met with the students and their families to talk about being baptized and following Jesus and later that month, we baptized four of them.

Here’s their baptism video:
EE baptism video (2:29) https://youtu.be/vlrn_AL8Zc8
Friends, as I drove home that morning after their baptisms and I told the Lord, “Take me because it can’t get any better than this!”
One final thought: This passion for the poor, addicted and marginalized is who we are as Methodists. This is our spiritual DNA! It’s in our blood! Listen to how Charles Wesley weaves together works of mercy and works of piety into this hymn:
When first sent forth to minister the word,
Say did we preach ourselves, or Christ the Lord?
Was it our aim disciples to collect,
To raise a party, or to found a sect?
No; but to spread the power of Jesus’ name,
Repair the walls of our Jerusalem
Revive the piety of ancient days,
And fill the earth with our Redeemer’s praise.
-Charles Wesley
This is who we are and what we do as the people called Methodists. Let’s pray…