Episcopal Address to the Central Texas Conference


June 9, 2014

By Bishop Mike Lowry ©

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:4-8) This passage from Philippians 4:4-8 has been a committed part of my devotional life over the past few months.  In a world awash in bad news, we need to be a people of the good news, the gospel news.  The peace of Christ really will keep us safe in these perilous times. I rise for my 6th meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference with joy in my heart and song on lips.  I think God is doing a good and wonderful thing among us.  For the last five years we have focused on the cardinal mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Indeed, we have consciously rejected slogans and fads for the towering vision of Churches alive in Jesus Christ all across the conference.  The Conference Center has one clarion goal – “to energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The news is good. During the past two years the Central Texas Conference has participated in a pilot project with eleven conferences from across the nation working to build vital congregations.  In the Vital Congregations project of the UMC there are five vital signs we track.  These signs are similar to a physician tracking our blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, etc.  They are:
  1. Worship attendance (the spiritual vibrancy of the congregation to attract and engage disciples to praise God) New Disciples (the congregation’s ability to reproduce)
  2. Disciples engaged in small groups (the congregation’s ability to engage disciples in faith formation)
  3. Disciples engaged in mission (the congregation’s ability to inspire disciples to engage in the purposes of God and effect transformation)
  4. Generous giving, particularly to mission (the congregation’s ability to fund ministry and mission)
[As I have said over and over again, by themselves vital signs never tell the whole story.  They are imperfect metric measurements designed to help us look deeper and more coherently at the fruitfulness and faithfulness of a congregations life.  At the same time, just as I learned from the pain in my knee (which led to arthroscopic surgery 2 months ago), vital signs can’t be ignored! By themselves vital signs are always incomplete.  They must be linked with the narrative or story of what is going on in the life and outreach ministry of a congregation.  Often the narrative changes before the metrics.  We begin to hear stories of life transformation through commitment to Christ as Lord and great service through risk-taking missional outreach in love, justice and mercy.  But I digress.  The news is very good.] In every single category we are up as a Conference.  The number of vital congregations has increased to 31%.  Professions of faith (that is new converts and confirmation classes) have risen.  The number of people engaged in missional outreach to the hurting, hungry and homeless went up.  Worship and Giving showed a rise!  Furthermore it is not just the numbers or metrics.  We are increasingly hearing stories like this one. Tom Beaty moved from full time pastoral leadership a few years ago to serving as a part-time pastor in Palo Pinto UMC and Cedar Springs UMC.  He has engaged in his own evangelistic outreach through a part time job at Stewart Tank out in Palo Pinto County. Tom just retired from Stewart Tank Company (largely due to health issues) but he reported. “The fruit of the ministry included four professions of faith followed by baptism and one reaffirmation of faith.  I conducted one funeral service for the father of an employee and made several hospital visits to visit employee family members.  Additionally, I helped Mexican employees with legal paperwork and sent a letter to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico trying to help an employee unite with his son here in the U.S.”[1]  Tremendous! Look at this: http://vimeo.com/97584491 True life transformation through allegiance to Christ as Lord and Savior is taking place!  Disciples are being made through the ministry of faithful and fruitful local congregations. Behind the good news of wonderful ministry taking place in Central Texas, there lives the reality of engulfing waves of deep cultural change crashing over us.  Today it is common for many to see the church as irrelevant and Christianity as quaint.  Intellectually Christianity and the Christian church are often dismissed by high culture.  Amid signs of spiritual starvation, we in the church are wrestling with deep institutional change and embattled in a crisis of relevancy.  Toss into this mix a growing fiscal crisis as a giving generation that is only partially being replaced by a generation that does not give regularly but episodically and related to a cause and not to an institution.  Stir in huge portions of aging and the concomitant leadership crisis that comes with it.  Season with deep theological divisions.  And then frost this concoction with a heartfelt soul deep argument over same gender issues, inclusion and the role of biblical authority.  Small wonder the church is sagging to the point of splitting. Nicky Gumbel tells the story of “a [who] young police officer was taking his final exam at a police training college in north London.  Here is one of the questions:  ‘You are on patrol in outer London when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street.  On investigation you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van lying nearby.  Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol.  Both occupants are injured.  You recognize the woman as the wife of your Divisional Inspector, who is at present away in the USA.  A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realize that he is a man who is wanted for armed robbery.  Suddenly a man runs out of a nearby house, shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and the shock of explosion has made the birth imminent.  Another man is crying for help, having been blown into an adjacent canal by the explosion and he cannot swim.  Bearing in mind the provisions of the Mental Health Act, describe in a few words what actions you would take.’ The officer thought for a moment, picked up his pen and wrote:  ‘I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.’”[2] Aren’t’ you glad you’re here!  The United Methodist Church has been struggling to engage this new cultural reality during most of my 40 years of ministry.  Amazingly, it is when we are at the end of our machinations that God is most active!  It is an exciting time with wonderful new ministries emerging.  It is trying time with vast change sweeping like tsunami waters over existing congregation.  To paraphrase Dickens’ marvelous quote; “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.”  I really mean it.  I am glad I’m here. It is good to be a part of the Central Texas Conference!  I believe we were called for “such a time as this.”[3]  These are “the best of times, the worst of times.”  The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad! So what do we do with news that is very good and very bad; what do we do in the best of times and the worst of times.  Today I want to not only report but lift up two crucial acts of faithfulness that we individually and collectively as churches and as a conference must live out in faithfulness to Christ as Lord and Savior.  For such a time as this, we need to live in perseverance and hope! The Healthy Church Initiative and its partner The Small Church Initiative are making a difference.  There are things we need to improve – shorter waiting time for the consultation and ramping up our coaching – but the difference of HCI & SCI is demonstrable. There are other outstanding options.  The Holy Conversations initiative from the Texas Methodist Foundation is tremendous.  Some churches and pastors have worked with individual coaches and organizations to great effect.  There are still others.  We are open to various possibilities. I firmly believe that we must work with the coalition of the willing.  No one is forced into an option.  However, doing nothing is not an option!  Let me be unmistakably blunt.  Pastors, if you reject all the offered options, refuse to come up with your own, do nothing and expect to move to a new church with a higher salary.  It is not going to happen!  Lay Leaders, if you church rejects every opportunity to move into a new future and yet requests a wonderful new pastor.  You will not get first pick in the draft!  Pastors and congregations that show a demonstrable willingness to move forward in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world will be strengthened and encourage (“energized and equipped”) to the best we are able.  Don’t get squirrelly on me here.  We – the Cabinet – understand context and we understand narrative.  Judgments will be made on more than just metrics (though the metrics will be carefully looked at and are a part of the assessment). This is a time for faithful perseverance.  I call on us to live Philippians 4:4-8; remember especially verses 6 & 7.  “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”[4] It is also a time for hope.  Hope not in ourselves but the leadership of the Holy Spirit who is calling us into a new church for a new age.  We have to live the promise of Jeremiah 29:11.  “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.”[5] In a memorable speech given to the graduating class of The University of Texas this spring, Admiral William H. McRaven, the ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, shared 10 critical life lessons he learned in SEAL Training.  The ninth of those lessons is as follows:   “9. The ninth week of SEAL training is referred to as Hell Week. It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment and one special day at the Mud Flats. The Mud Flats are an area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slues—a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you. It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing-cold mud, the howling wind and the incessant pressure from the instructors to quit. As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some "egregious infraction of the rules" was ordered into the mud. The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit—just five men and we could get out of the oppressive cold. Looking around the mud flat, it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up—eight more hours of bone-chilling cold. The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night—one voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two, and two became three, and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well. The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing—but the singing persisted. And somehow, the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away. If I have anything learned [said Admiral McRaven] in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan named Malala—can change the world by giving people hope.”[6] This is a time for hope.  Ezra, of Old Testament fame, once wrote in the 3rd chapter, the 13th verse of his book:  “No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, because the people rejoiced very loudly. The sound was heard at a great distance.”[7] Sing with me, and in the singing not only remember but lean forward into the great future the Holy Spirit is leading us to. “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, Who thee by faith before the world confess, Thy name O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia, Alleluia! Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might; Thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; Thou in the darkness drear, their one true light. Alleluia, Alleluia! And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song, And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia![8] It is my joy and high honor to serve the Lord together with you.  Let’s keep singing!
[1]               Tom Beaty, personal email, June 6, 2014 [2]               Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life, pp. 234-235 [3]               Esther 4:14 [4]               Philippians 4:6-7 [5]               Jeremiah 29:11 [6]               Admiral William McRaven, May 17, 2014, The University of Texas [7]               Ezra 13:3 [8]               “For All the Saints,” No. 711, The United Methodist Hymnal