Friday, July 6, 2012

Lessons in Mission – Part Two

In the previous post I ended by asking the question, “How did we miss the mark?” A simplistic answer would be, “Well, we do what we United Methodists know best – build something!” Herein lies the conundrum; we are more adept at going into the world and perpetuating the false materialistic values of our Western culture utilizing our well-honed construction techniques than engaging authentic ministry that affects the quality of life issues of those mired in generational poverty. So what do we do about it? We keep on doing what we know to do best – build.

Clearly, this is no longer a valid solution to the needs of the world (if it ever was) to be undertaken by the church. Don’t get me wrong – I love to build things. But I am coming to see the real danger associated by well-meaning and well executed undertakings of the church that fail because nobody adequately discerned if this was God’s will for we should be doing in His name.

Likewise, I question whether there was adequate discernment when the decision was made a few years ago to use walk-on football as a vehicle to boost enrollment at Lon Morris College. The resultant explosion of the student population generated a scramble for acquisition of near-campus housing, precipitating an even greater debt service for the already strapped institution. It was the impending foreclosure of this same housing which triggered the decision to file for bankruptcy earlier this week. Clearly, more (buildings and associated debt service) is not better, but that’s what we continue to pursue in the name of doing mission and ministry.

One definition for insanity is the continuation of doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a change in results. One thing that is not changing; we’re still closing churches. So my question is, when will the madness end? When will we turn from the ways of this world, seeking to apply secular solutions to spiritual and social justice issues? When will we begin seeking God’s before we go out in mission and ministry instead of simply walking in the natural and materialistic ways of man? 

Just as Jesus set the world on its ear with his counter-cultural teachings and ministry so too the church is called to stand apart from the ways of the world and follow in his footsteps. By acquiescing to the value system our dominant culture and its materialism there is little remaining to distinguish the church from that culture. There are a growing number those who are looking for an alternative to the disappointments they’ve discovered in the empty value system of our Western culture and are now seeking a spiritual experience. In the meantime, we’re still closing churches…

There is an incredible irony found in the Gospels: Jesus was a carpenter who built things with his hands. But in searching through the New Testament I have yet to find where he actually built anything here on earth except for the beginnings of the church. This was a church without buildings made entirely of people. And in everything he did he first discerned the will of the Father. This is the model he left for the church. To deviate from it is not just unchristian, but madness.

Lessons in Mission – Part One

While enroute from a mission trip in the Navajo Nation of Arizona this morning a colleague forwarded to me the news of Lon Morris College filing for bankruptcy. We both have a pseudo-interest in the future of this school since we have until this point dutifully attended our CoS classes there and apparently were in the last LLP class to graduate from the campus. This year’s LLP class (2012) was conducted in a single week at Lakeview and our CoS fall semester has been moved to 1st UMC, Jacksonville. These developments coupled with my experiences while on mission gave me valuable insight as to some of the causes of our decline in the UMC. The events precipitating the decline of Lon Morris are chronicled in the previous post so I won’t rehash that here but merely refer to it for comparison. 

 Our mission trip was well organized and executed, as one would expect from a people called Methodists. We enjoyed a wonderful teambuilding experience as we worked, fellowshipped, and broke bread together during the week. For all but one of our party, we were each returning to solidify kindred relationships formed on previous trips to the reservation. And, overall it was a good experience for both the missionaries and the Native American brethren we interfaced with. So, what’s the problem? 

 My son asked our client one day if he could work on one of the many derelict vehicles in his yard and maybe get it running for him, thinking that by doing so that might help his impoverished situation. He did, and in short order got it running and the client’s grown children took it for a drive. During the course of their excursion it stalled multiple times after the engine had warmed up and lost what little compression that it had. You see, the engine was in dire need of an overhaul. And while, yes, the vehicle ran and could technically be driven, its lack of reliability made it practically worthless if it lacked consistent power to reach its destination.

We really hadn’t  done the client any favors as the repairs required were far in excess of his financial resources. We had merely exposed another reality of the generational poverty in which he lives and gained some personal awareness in the process. It is from that new-found awareness that I write these words. We were there on the reservation to build an addition that would include the first two rooms equipped with indoor plumbing in our client’s home, in addition to plumbing the sink in the kitchen. This would enable them to wash and dry clothes without necessitating a trip to the Laundromat, bath and wash dishes inside and probably most important of all, eliminate that early morning hike to the outhouse. The work was completed ahead of schedule and with beautiful results. We celebrated our success and never ceased to praise the Lord in our endeavors. Speeches we made, thanks given, pictures taken, and hugs were given all around. And then we left. 

 By all measures this appears to have been a highly successful mission trip. There is just one glitch: our client does not have the financial reserves to have water connected to his home nor does he have electricity to operate a washer and 220 volt dryer. Yes, we added greatly to the square footage of his home, but is it useable space? Did we bless him in our endeavors or did we merely obligate him to meet yet another financial hurdle with the meager resources available to him? One thing that is glaringly obvious; by giving him more material resources that require paring his already limited family budget to utilize without addressing the systemic condition of generational poverty that he lives in was like getting that derelict vehicle running – we really didn’t do him any favors. 

 No matter how good we might have felt by our accomplishment we merely perpetuated our false secular consumerist values in a situation which required social justice action undertaken by the church. The paradox is that we were going forth in mission as the church. So, how did we miss the mark?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Fate of Lon Morris

This posting is in response to the report on Lon Morris’ financial collapse found at:
In the week prior to this report the Bishop’s office sent out an email requesting that pastors serving in the conference solicit donations from their churches to fund three weeks of payroll for yet unpaid employees of the school. Summer classes have been canceled and it remains to be seen if Lon Morris will reopen in the fall or COS will continue to be hosted there.

Throughout my life I’ve made a number of friends who attended Lon Morris College on a pastor’s scholarship and went on to Perkins to fulfill their educational requirements and ultimately become pastors themselves. Our home church in Houston garnered considerable renown in the 1950s as a “preacher mill” because we sent a dozen or so fresh high school graduates to Lon Morris each year. But while this may come as a shock to some in the church, it’s not the 1950s anymore.

 Lon Morris’ financial difficulties span many decades. The most notable school president, Cecil Peeples, was renown for finding money for bricks and mortar during an era when that seemed to be the main mission of the church. Not only was he successful in this regard but he possessed tenacity in length of service as well. Peeples was president at Lon Morris from 1935 until 1973 and continued in a supporting role for another 20 years. Unfortunately, none of Peeple’s successors have approached his length of tenure or level of success in mining the revenue streams constantly required to keep the school afloat.

 While enrollment more than doubled in recent years with the inclusion of a walk-on football program, the school lacked housing for the resulting population explosion that took place. As surrounding homes were purchased as a stop-gap measure while new student housing was being constructed the infrastructure of existing systems continued to fail as funds were diverted from the already shoe-string budget.

 The failure of Lon Morris mirrors similar situations facing many of our older, declining congregations still locked in the brick and mortar mentality of the 1950s. Rather than seeking man-made, institutional solutions for our church, including its educational facilities, we should be turning to God for discernment. Instead of launching a new program aimed at increasing our numbers and expecting God to bless it, shouldn’t we first seek His will for guidance and direction of His church? As the institutional church continues to crumble around us wouldn’t this be a good time to admit that we don’t have all the answers and willingly hand the matter over to the One who has?

Until we can do this the rest of the world will continue to see us as irrelevant, and rightly so.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Reflections From the First Year in Service

I celebrated my first year anniversary as a pastor on Sunday, April 1st. I look upon the fact that this occurred on April Fools Day with no small irony because during that year it seems like I made just about every gaffe and blunder possible while filling in a pulpit.

Additionally, the strain of maintaining a full-time job at the far end of another county from home and trying to pastor two churches in yet two other counties has left me feeling totally spent and absolutely broken on more than one occasion, but evidently not broken enough. Allow me to explain.

Having weathered two church closures as a lay person, I maintain a strong and protective vigilance of my charges to ensure their spiritual nurture and continued growth. Although these are part-time appointments I regard them as my primary full-time occupation because of the critical importance of their continuation and success.

I also rationalized that if for some reason my employer, a military contractor, closed their business it would have only a negligible impact in the spiritual lives of those involved compared to the closure of a church. So, it was obvious to me which one of my two jobs I owed my primary allegiance. In essence, I had placed the one I’m employed half-time over the one that I am paid fulltime.

Obviously, I had my priorities reversed, but for the best of reasons, I thought. The inevitable occurred and I found myself burned-out and at the end of my rope just before my annual licensing review with our District Committee of Ordained Ministry. Acknowledging the situation, I decided to present these facts to this body and let them decide whether my service should be continued under these circumstances.

Then a funny thing happened, I began to laugh. Realizing the folly of it all, that I had placed myself in a “no-win” situation and lacked the time and resources to maintain the impossible schedule that I had constructed suddenly became ironically humorous to me. With this insight, I began to see that the churches I was pouring all my time into, valiantly trying to nurture, grow, and protect, weren’t really mine to play mother hen to. They belong to God.

Not the first time, I suddenly realized that I was guilty of getting in God’s way. Once again, I found myself trying to fill shoes way too big for me and do something that wasn’t part of my calling in the first place. He also showed me something else – the ministry opportunities at my workplace. The myriad and scope of these opportunities far outweigh those of my churches even when combined. Perhaps I was wrong in my assessment of its spiritual impact…

God continues to show me new things since I finally relinquished my will and offered myself to to His service. But they are far different from any lessons I would have anticipated encountering while serving in ministry. Instead of being about growing the church, the lessons that I most frequently seem to encounter are about growing me. We serve an awesome God who never gives up trying to teach us His ways or stops loving us. Keep those lessons coming Lord. With your help I might actually do justice to this job(s) someday.