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A New Thing ©

After the called General Conference in St. Louis, I (along with others) was asked to write a brief article for Circuit Rider, an online magazine put out by The United Methodist Publishing House. The writers were asked specifically to not re-argue or “re-litigate” the issues of General Conference. Rather, the request was to share our “personal pastoral guidance to UMC clergy elders and local pastors” in light of the actions taken at General Conference. With permission, I am sharing a draft of that article below. The online edition is scheduled to appear in the May-June-July edition of Circuit Rider,  which can be accessed at ministrymatters.com/circuit_rider .

Bishop Mike Lowry, The Central Texas Conference of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area

A New Thing ©

Recently, I watched a news report about a town on the Missouri River, which was inundated by flood waters. The receding flood waters left behind a ruined landscape. Crumpled building and mud caked streets offered stark evidence of the destructive power of the flood. Accumulated litter and splintered debris served as ghastly decoration of what was left behind. The report was punctuated and highlighted by stories of human anguish, which were shared through expressed grief and evident pain. Such is an apt description not just of a flood ravaged town but of much of The United Methodist Church in the United States.

For many, it is hard to comprehend the reality that both those on the progressive side of the equation and those who hold to a more traditional position perceive themselves to have lost at the recently concluded Called General Conference in St. Louis. The rejection of the One Church Plan leaves many in shocked grief. The adoption of a limited Modified Traditional Plan with parts still to go before the Judicial Council leaves many others with the soiled remains of an unenforceable and hence unworkable church governance and disciplinary structure.

I write not to relitigate the issues that divide us, but rather to speak pastorally to the Central Texas Conference and The United Methodist Church as a whole.

Before General Conference met, I (along with the Cabinet of the Central Texas Conference—a majority of whom would probably consider themselves to be moderately progressive on issues of human sexuality) called upon the pastors, lay leaders and congregations of the Central Texas Conference to spend the month following the called General Conference in prayer, discernment and respectful conversations with others. Regardless of the outcome, we wanted to help pastors and congregations move beyond an initial inflammatory response. In the immediate aftermath of such a contentious General Conference, things can be spoken in the heartache of pain and the crucible of conflict that cannot be taken back; relationships can be permanently damaged.

Prayerful listening is I believe the first crucial step to take with each other and with our congregations. Such listening is difficult and often painful, but it is critically necessary. We all need safe places to vent. Likewise, however difficult, we all benefit from prayerful quiet discernment. One of the painful lessons relearned in St. Louis is how many of us tend to live in “echo chambers.” We need to embrace the words of the Apostle Paul shared with the church at Philippi as a guide for our conversations. “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5)

A second crucial task is simply to get the facts right, as to what was and what wasn’t adopted and/or declared unconstitutional. We need to play a graceful but firm game of “Whac-a-Mole” with unfounded rumors. Help people and congregations check out facts (whether you like/agree with those facts or not!). The facts are our friend. Knowing them correctly is a necessary step forward if you wish to advance or repeal/change a decision made. Don’t embrace the cynical and profoundly unchristian concept of “fake news.” (Consider re-reading James 3.)

Third, stay connected. In hurt and pain the tendency is to withdraw. This is not the Wesleyan way of faith. Recently, David Watson of United Theological Seminary wrote, “When Wesley said that there is no holiness but social, he meant that holiness is something we receive in community with each other. When we pray together, worship together, encourage one another, and confess our sins to each other, we grow in holiness. In short, Wesley felt that ‘watching over one another in love’ was essential to our formation as Christlike people. This principle applies not simply to individuals but to communities.” (https://davidfwatson.me/2019/03/29/methodism-means-connectionalism/)

Look for the workings of the Holy Spirit. God has not abandoned a people called United Methodist! I find myself going back to the prophet Isaiah. As he gazes out over the ruins of his land, he finally realizes a deep truth - it is not over. Isaiah sees a new world and new way to that new world. God speaks.

“Look! I’m doing a new thing;
  now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert,
  paths in the wilderness.” Isaiah 43:19, CEB

At the risk of reaching beyond my mandate in this article, we need to be connected in a new way and in different way. Hopefully, conversations across the typical “camps” in the fields of United Methodism might well emerge through the workings of the Holy Spirit. God is not done with us yet. It is of critical importance that both pastors and lay leaders offer the hope of the Lord to a struggling and painfully divided church. Patience in nurturing these fragile conversations is a virtue. It is a worthy work of the Lord for pastors and lay leaders to remind their small groups, Sunday School classes and other gatherings that God is at work in our conflict.

In A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Rabbi Edwin Friedman recalls research done on survival in extremis. In writing about those who survived the Holocaust, Rabbi Friedman notes the importance of having ability and imagination to see beyond the limits of their current situation. “Both those who have written about their survival and those who have researched the survivors consistently note a capacity to see beyond the barbed wire.” (Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick, p. 153; Seabury Books: New York 2007)An ability to see beyond the current divide is act of trusting the Holy Spirit’s leading. Such leading calls for radical faith—faith of primal allegiance (obedience) to Christ and deep trusting in the out workings of the Holy Spirit. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing.

“But you need to remain well established and rooted in faith and not shift away from the hope given in the good news that you heard” (Colossians 1:23, CEB).

Stay focused on the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world.” This is a holy task given us (both individually and collectively) by the risen Lord. Now more than ever people need Christ; the grace of the Lord in their lives.

Regardless of conviction about which “plan” is best, I urge each person (pastors and laity, individuals and congregations) to hold fast to our shared conviction that all stand in need of God’s grace. “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. . . . We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, ¶161G, p. 113)