I was invited to serve on the Commission on a Way Forward in the fall of 2016. I said No. I was asked again, and I said No. I did not want to expend extraordinary time and energy to attend meetings if the approach was to “solve a problem” that the church has been unable to resolve for forty years. Eventually, a couple colleagues spoke personally with me to encourage me to serve. What won me over was the Mission, Vision, and Scope statement that served as the basis of the Commission’s work. If this work was about multiplying the witness of the United Methodist Church by cultivating more contextual differentiation while maintaining as much unity as possible, then I believed this could be worthy service.Read More
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Two weeks ago, the Council of Bishops received the final report from the Commission on a Way Forward. After considerable discussion and prayer, the Council voted overwhelmingly to share the work done by the Commission on three different plans and to recommend the One Church Plan.
The One Church Plan will be placed before the General Conference for legislative action.
I am excited about the work done by the Commission and the Council. Your bishops, following the charge of General Conference 2016, are sending a proposed way forward, the One Church Plan, to be considered at the special called session of General Conference next year. While no plan is perfect, I believe this to be the best answer to the question of how we move forward together.
To honor the work of the commission, and in service to the delegates to the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops will also provide supplemental materials that include a historical narrative with disciplinary implications related to the connectional conference plan and the traditionalist plan. The recommendation adopted by the Council of Bishops reflects the wide diversity of theological perspectives and the global nature of the United Methodist Church as the best way forward for our future as a denomination.
Why The One Church Plan?
The One Church Plan provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of the church.
No annual conferences, bishops, congregations or pastors are compelled to act contrary to their convictions. The plan grants space for traditionalists to continue to offer ministry as they have in the past with explicit disciplinary assurances that no pastor or church shall be compelled to perform ministries that represent a conflict of conscience. The plan gives space for progressives to exercise freely a more complete ministry with LGBTQ persons by allowing pastors and churches to offer same gender weddings. The plan provides space for conferences in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines to practice ministry according to their national and regional contexts. The One Church Plan provides space for all United Methodists to continue without disrupting their ministries. There is no mandate that requires a local church, conference, or pastor to participate in a vote that divides, segments, or separates. Voting is kept to a minimum except where it is helpful. The United Methodist Church remains in connection, upholding unity of mission without uniformity of practice.
But the Plan is not merely about giving everyone space, so we can all just get along better; it’s about multiplying the United Methodist witness.
It helps the church reach people it would otherwise be unable to reach with the good news of Jesus Christ. In our own conference, we see incredible mission work being done in our communities. And yet, we know that one congregation reaches people another church cannot while another congregation can reach those the first will never be able to engage. The One Church Plan fulfills the mandate given the Commission to find a way forward that maximizes a United Methodist witness, grants as much contextual differentiation as possible, and maintains as much unity as possible.
The Plan maintains the leadership and connectional structures of the United Methodist Church, including annual conferences, the Council of Bishops, the General Conference and the Judicial Council. United Methodist institutions, foundations, universities, hospitals, and general agencies will continue to offer their ministries without significant disruption or costly legal counsel related to their charters or articles of incorporation. Wespath (The Board of Pensions) will continue to offer its services without disruption.
What Happens Now?
At this point, the One Church Plan is only a recommendation from the Council of Bishops. The decision about what General Conference will do rests with the lay and clergy delegates as they meet in Special Session in February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis.
At this year’s gathering of the Rio Texas Annual Conference, I’ll share a little more detail about the recommendation from the Council, the other plans that were considered, and the Special Session of General Conference. During the fall of 2018, I look forward to more extensive conversations about what such a proposal might mean for our churches, our pastors, our conference, and our ministry together in Christ.
In the meantime, I invite you to continue to pray for the church, the clergy, the laity of The United Methodist Church, and for mission entrusted to us by Christ. I feel confident that we will find a way to move forward together so that we may continue to offer the healing presence of Jesus Christ around the world.
Yours in Christ,
I drive to work in the dark many mornings during this time of year, and often return home after the sun has set. Most of the leisure activities I enjoy—walking, running, birding, fishing—are daytime pursuits. I prefer light to dark.
Day by day in December, the time grows closer when the increasing darkness becomes a receding darkness, and the light begins to win against the night. The winter solstice is approaching, the day of the year with the shortest period of daylight and the longest period of darkness. After December 21, each day will grow a little longer as the light reclaims the day. I look forward to the shift.
In an Advent devotion, I heard a pastor say that “light and dark rub against each other during this season.” I like that phrase. Every day in the news—close at home, across the country, and around the world—we see images of light and dark rubbing against each other.
As John writes his story of Christmas, he refers to Christ as light. In Christ, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” He makes the bold statement that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Our lighting of an additional candle each week in the Advent wreath bears witness to the coming of light to push away darkness.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” Those words by Albert Camus attest to a nascent longing for the light, even among those who do not view the world through the lens of faith. We, as disciples of Christ, have a name for the light. In Christ is the life, the hope, the love, the peace, the justice, the grace that pushes against every form of darkness.
During this season of the year, I’m full of appreciation for the pastors, the congregations, the ministries, the people who belong to our communities of faith, and the people we seek to serve around us. I know that ministry is not easy, and I do not take the good efforts and hard work of our people for granted. Each day throughout the year, disciples formed through the ministries of our faith communities arise to push away a little more of the darkness and to celebrate the everlasting promises of light.
I pray God’s blessings upon us as we celebrate the birth of Christ, the advent of the light. I count it a privilege to serve as your bishop, and I give God thanks and praise for all you do for the purposes of Christ. May you and yours enjoy a blessed Christmas and a joyous New Year.
Grace and peace,
The beginning of a new year also brings a sense of anticipation about the future. What will the days ahead hold? What doors will open and what ministries will God entrust to us that we cannot now see?
While the opportunities for ministry for us as the Rio Texas Conference are infinite, the challenges before us are also significant. The next paragraph includes some numerical realities that are hard to read. Breathe in, breathe out. These are not meant to deepen despair or to blame or to scapegoat, but rather to give us all a more accurate sense of reality. Denying or ignoring reality seldom contributes to creative response.
The Rio Texas Conference includes 379 congregations, with 123,543 members, and an average weekly worship attendance of 47,190. The number of churches with 100 people or fewer in attendance is 257, or 68% of our churches. Fifteen churches account for 29% of our attendance on any given weekend. The number of large churches (350 or more in attendance) has declined from 36 to 23 since 2005. Since 2005, the Rio Texas Conference has lost an average of 1,137 members each year and an average of 895 attendees each year.
To faithfully address these trends in a manner that extends the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ requires us all to do a great deal of learning, of experimentation. It requires boldness, honesty, and courage. We’re going to have to hold each other accountable to ministry that is outward-focused, Christ-centered, fruitful, and excellent. We’re going to have to learn new ways to engage the communities where we serve, to take greater initiative in offering ministries that relieve suffering, confront injustice, heal divisions, and bring the good news of Christ to people we have had difficulty reaching in the past—especially younger, more diverse populations.
For many people, leadership means influencing people to follow the leader’s vision. For me, leadership means helping the community face its challenges. I don’t come to this task with hundreds of answers or dozens of secret formulas and a crystal clear plan that I expect everyone to adopt. Rather, my role is to ask hard questions that help us learn our way toward more fruitful ministry, questions such as, “What is the purpose of an annual conference? Are we doing the right things with our resources? What are the activities that are so critical to our mission that failure to perform them with excellence will lead to continued decline? How can we learn to do ministry more effectively with next generations?” These kinds of questions require deep conversation, earnest prayer, and active decision-making about the future goals and uses of the conference’s resources.
Among the most immediate challenges before us are: rethinking apportionments, including re-evaluating the size of our budget and the use of our resources; addressing general morale issues and anxieties about division in the church; continuing the unification process; and aligning our conference work in the most effective way to support an increase in our ministries among local churches.
I’m exhilarated by the challenge. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the readiness and willingness of nearly every group of pastors and laity I’ve met with to begin the hard work of learning how to address the challenge of increasing the number of healthy, fruitful congregations that impact the world through the work of Christ.
In the previous blog, I mentioned the journal I keep of personal experiences and reflections. Each year I start fresh. I used to list goals—how many miles I would run, how many hours a week or days a month I would give to some activity. But in recent years, I’ve moved away from numerical goals. Instead, I begin the year by expressing several key commitments I’m willing to make and hold myself accountable for. For instance, in my personal life, I’m committed to a satisfying and happy marriage with Esther. I’m committed to supporting Karl and Paul through their next steps toward self-sufficiency, independence, and general happiness. I’m committed to helping my parents navigate the joys and losses, hopes and fears, of their later years. I’m committed to good health, and to developing patterns of exercise, diet, and self-care. I’m committed to spending generous amounts of time outdoors—walking, fishing, birding, hiking. Under each of these statements, I add a few specifics that I aspire to fulfill to help me live out the commitment.
I also try to articulate a list of commitments for my spiritual life and for my life in ministry. I’m committed to the daily rediscovery of grace. I’m committed to nurturing my relationship with Christ, growing in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. I’m committed to offering my utmost and highest in service to Christ. I’m committed to pushing the church to look outward, beyond its own survival, to bring Christ’s healing to the world.
I have great hope for the future ministry of the Rio Texas Conference. As we start our first new year together, I invite you to join me in some common commitments. Let’s commit ourselves to a mutual ministry of encouragement, to talking one another into greater boldness for the mission of Christ. Let’s commit ourselves to learning together, collaborating, figuring out how to reach next generations with the message God has entrusted to us. Let’s commit ourselves to strengthening our churches—small, medium, and large; urban, suburban, and rural. Let’s commit ourselves to praying for and with one another.
The move from the language of goals to the language of commitments changes the questions we ask ourselves when we deal with complex issues. “How much does it cost and how long will it take?” becomes “what commitment am I willing to make and what price am I willing to pay?” “How do you get those people to change?” becomes “What changes am I willing to make? What contributions am I willing to offer toward a solution?” “How are other people doing it successfully?” becomes “What do we want to create together, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in the mission field God has given us in the Rio Texas Conference?”
Here is my prayer for the Rio Texas Conference as we start 2017:
“O Lord, I pray that in you, we’ll break ground both fresh and new. Grant us a sense of adventure, of openness to possibilities none of us can now see. Help us abandon ourselves to your will and live beyond our own expectations to discover your way forward for us. Give us the courage to leave the familiar and journey into the unknown, holding fast to one another in the unity you give us as a gift of your spirit and leaning ever more earnestly into the mission you’ve revealed to us in Christ. Let our memory provide no shelter for grievance against one another so that we might start afresh. Grant us good humor, mutual affection, and deep hope in our work together. All whom we love, we offer to your safe keeping; the church which we serve, we offer to your tender care; all that we work on together, we offer into your perfect will. Bless us to your purposes revealed to us in Christ. Amen.”
Yours in Christ,
Like most people at the close of one year and the beginning of another, I find myself sifting through memories from the past and sorting out hopes for the future. Friends know that I keep a journal, and that in addition to recording thoughts and experiences, I keep an eccentric accounting of a whole range of activities. In 2016, I spent 142 days in hotel rooms, boarded 97 flights, identified 298 different species of North American birds (adding 17 to my life list of new sightings!), went fishing 10 times, rented 18 cars, and either preached, taught, or spoke at 203 different speaking engagements. I presided over eight days of annual conferences, and attended fourteen days of General and Jurisdictional Conference. I lost 14 pounds during the first eight months of the year and then gained 13 back near the end of the year.
I read or re-read about 35 books ( reading some part of each of them and all of some of them in the attached photo). I walked/hiked/ran at least an hour a day for 296 of the 366 days of 2016. I’ve lost count of how many lunches, dinners, or meetings I’ve had with leaders of organizations affiliated with the Rio Texas Conference. I’ve unpacked at least 42 million boxes since our move to Texas, or so it seems. I found $2.57 in coins during 2016, and I spent fewer hours writing than in any year for the past decade.
Since starting in September as Bishop of the Rio Texas Conference, I’ve spoken, preached or taught 77 times to various groups, teams, committees, churches, or gatherings of pastors. I’ve been in 31 churches, and I’ve walked the property of at least another 25. I’ve appreciated hearing a number of our pastors preach and I’ve been pleased by the many outreach ministries in our communities. Since September, I’ve also been elected to serve as the Chair of the Board of Directors of Wespath, formerly called the General Board of Pensions, which manages $22 billion in pension assets for nearly 100,000 pastors and lay workers. The Council of Bishop also has asked me to serve as one of the 32 persons from across the global church on the Commission on a Way Forward.
Of course, the most significant event in my life and ministry of this past year was my assignment to the Rio Texas Conference. Esther and I are so pleased to be here and to work with the pastors and laity and churches of the Rio Texas Conference. The welcome has been warm, and I’m excited about the possibilities of our ministry together.
Threading all of this together, 2016 has been a year of change, of hope, of loss, of stress, of anticipation, of exhaustion, of transition, of anxiety, of newness, of joy, and of possibilities. We have felt blessed, and I hope that you have, too. I give God thanks for every one of you, and for all that you do for the purposes of Christ.
Grace and Peace
Every pastor and active lay leader knows about the “C & E” people. These are the inactive members, nominally engaged constituents, sometimes-but-infrequent visitors who suddenly fill our pews to overflowing on Christmas Eve and Easter morning. They are the people brought by their spouses, cajoled by their Moms, threatened by their Dads, or intimidated by their in-laws into attending services with the family on Christmas and Easter even though they seldom, if ever, attend on other occasions. Or they are the neighborhood folk and surprise guests who have no formal relationship with the church, but who feel compelled by nostalgia, nascent spiritual yearnings, or guilt to at least make an appearance in church once or twice a year. Preachers have tons of jokes about them, and perhaps you have heard some. “Preacher, what I don’t like about this church is that every single time I have ever attended in the ten years you’ve served as pastor, you preach on exactly the same scripture, the birth of Jesus. That’s why I don’t come to this church!”
I had an interesting learning experience about twenty years ago about the Christmas and Easter crowd, and it changed my attitude forever. I’m indebted to a caring, persistent, and perceptive church member who had the courage and fortitude to gently correct me on something.
One Easter Sunday morning, while leading worship to a large, overflowing crowd, I made a humorous reference to all the “extra” visitors we had, and joked about not having seen them since last Easter, and how I hoped maybe they’d join us for Christmas eve. This kind of sarcasm, by God’s grace, is not common to me, especially in public, and I felt awkward as the words rolled out of my mouth.
The following week, Mrs. W visited in my office. She was genuinely concerned about something that was important to her, and I could tell she was uncomfortable about this, but felt compelled to say something. As her eyes moistened, she gently told how much she appreciated me and my preaching and leadership, but….. And then she told me how she prays constantly for her adult children and grandchildren, and how her highest hope is for them to grow in Christ, attend worship, and get involved with a church. On Easter, she had successfully managed to get them to attend church, and she felt hurt that I had spoken sarcastically about the “Christmas and Easter people.” She was not angry or antagonistic, but she was disappointed that my comments had not helped foster and support her desires for them to experience the welcome and warmth that otherwise characterized our congregation. She lamented, “What a missed opportunity it was, and I don’t know if I will be able to get them here again.”
She was right. I was wrong. I asked her forgiveness, and realized right at that moment that I needed to look at inactive members, nominal attenders, and infrequent guests in a whole new way. God had provided me and the church with a wonderful opportunity to touch the lives of people we seldom are able to communicate with, and I had blotched it up.
I think that rather than making “C & E” folks feel like outsiders and foreigners, we should be doing everything we can to make them feel welcome and engaged. We should give God thanks that we have this opportunity, even if it’s just an hour, and we should pray for the wisdom of right words and right tone and texture to help foster a next step for deeper engagement with the church. In fact, we should go to great effort to ease feelings of self-consciousness during Christmas and Easter services for those who are unaccustomed to worship. We should make the services as meaningful, authentic, accessible and approachable as possible. We should go to great effort to avoid insider language, acronyms, and coded shortcuts we commonly use to communicate to the insiders and regulars. Our goal is not to scold, belittle, provoke, or offend, but to invite, welcome, embrace, and treat with respect. The Radical Hospitality we see in Jesus Christ would have us do our best and offer our highest.
I hope our churches during Advent and Christmas will see the extraordinary opportunity God gives us during this season. What do we hope for our inactive and infrequent members? We hope that they get involved and grow in faith. Why should we feel resentment when they take a small step by coming with their families at Christmas?
Churches that practice Radical Hospitality welcome and engage and invite back anyone who attends. They follow up with phone calls or personal notes that express appreciation and to encourage further activity. They see Christmas Eve services as un-returning moments of opportunity that God gives us to reach those we usually miss. They plan Christmas Eve services to be “visitor friendly” and go out of their way to welcome family members and extended family relatives to the services.
I’m grateful Mrs. W had the spiritual boldness to correct her pastor. From that moment on, I’ve been thankful to God for every single person who attends worship, regardless of what family pressures or inner urgings cause them to walk through the door.
Yours in Christ,
While driving along a city street listening to the news on the radio about continued conflict in the Middle East, I noticed a car that had a bumper sticker that read simply, “Pray for Peace.” When we approached a stop light, I pulled up beside the car and saw that the driver wore the sandy brown camouflage uniform of the U.S. Army.
I suppose that if I placed a bumper sticker on my car that said, “Pray for Peace,” people might project onto me any number of political motivations. They might suspect me of being unsupportive of those families who have loved ones in the service. They might presume a particular political leaning, a partisan perspective. But when this young officer in the car beside me, who has offered himself in service to his country, reminds us to pray for peace, he does so with an integrity and authenticity that is hard to match.
Pray for peace. This Christmas, join me in praying for peace. Our faith finds its roots in the hope of a day when “the lion shall sleep with the lamb.” We serve a Lord who said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” For nearly two thousand years, we offer “grace and peace” in every greeting after the example of our early Christian forebears of faith. During this season of Advent, we watch and wait for the Prince of Peace, and we sing the good news with the angels of nativity, “and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all.” Peace is our hope, our prayer, our yearning, our aim, our end.
Whether you vote Republican, Democrat, Independent, or don’t vote at all, pray for peace. Whether you are fiercely patriotic or suspicious of nationalistic impulses, whether you are new to the faith or long established, whether you support strategies that increase engagement in troubled areas of conflict or call for less engagement, pray for peace. Whether you are career military, have loved ones in the service, or have no personal connections at all to the military, pray for peace. Whether you are conservative, liberal, middle of the road, old, young, middle-aged, pray for peace.
Sometimes church leaders, pastors, and vocal Christian lay leaders are criticized for supporting or promoting particular strategies, policies, or agendas. Sometimes these criticisms are justified because there are diverse paths and conflicting opinions about how best to achieve some of the outcomes that reflect the core of our faith. But while we may disagree about strategies, policies, and agendas, there are certain basic visions that God calls all of us to pursue. There may be various pathways that take us there, but all of us should long for peace, for justice, for the elimination of suffering, of hunger, of poverty, of sickness, and of racism.
We love children because Jesus loved children, and Jesus reveals the heart of God. We love justice because Jesus loved justice, and Jesus reveals the will of God. We love peace because Jesus loved peace, and Jesus reveals the mind of God.
Will there ever be peace throughout the world? As long as there is original sin, there will be violence and responses to violence, bloodshed and attempts to limit, avoid, protect and heal from bloodshed. Will we ever agree to a single policy, strategy, or plan for peace? That is difficult given our varying experiences, perspectives, and commitments. But as to the direction, goal, and vision….as to the commitment of our lives, we should lean toward a future marked by peace. That’s part of what it means to be the people of the way.
During this year’s Christmas services and during our personal devotions and private prayers that mark this season, let us all join the anonymous soldier in the car I saw, and let us all, for God’s sake, “Pray for Peace.”
Grace and peace,
When I was in fourth grade, our congregation in Del Rio received a new pastor, and I still remember the title of his first sermon. It was simply called, “The Preface.” Rev. Platt described how the preface of a book gives the reader an introduction, a sense of the purpose of the book and of the author’s intent. He told the congregation that his sermon that day would serve as a preface to his ministry in Del Rio, a brief introduction of who he was, his background, and some things that were important to him. While I’ve never titled a sermon “The Preface,” I’ve often thought that this was a great way of starting ministry in a new place.
So, consider this a preface, a brief introduction to who I am as I begin service as bishop of the Rio Texas Conference.
The movers carried the final box from the moving van into the conference office in San Antonio around 7 o’clock on Friday evening, September 2, after a full day of unloading our belongings at our home. Graciously, several fine conference staff members stayed late to welcome us and to help us begin to set up my office. Esther and I spent the Labor Day weekend unpacking boxes, figuring out keys to various doors, and finding the nearest grocery store and Whataburger. During the two weeks since our arrival, we’ve enjoyed worship in several Rio Texas churches, including University UMC and Alamo Heights UMC in San Antonio; and El Divino Redentor UMC in McAllen. In each instance, the preaching and music were excellent and inspiring. Thank you.Read More