Congregational Communications-Changing Appointments

A few weeks ago, I got the call.  United Methodist pastors, you know the one.

I see a lot of boxes in my future.

I’ve been in my present appointment for seven years.  We’ve been doing great ministry that’s been growing the church and making a difference in the community.  So this is hard.

I want to see the congregation I’m serving now keep moving forward. And I know that the way a pastor enters and exits a congregation makes a big difference. I want the transition to be as smooth as possible  for my own sake, for the congregation’s sake, and for the sake of my successor.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this question: what are the right messages to communicate during this time of transition? What are the right strategies for talking to your congregation about an appointment change – both as a whole and one-on-one?

Our conference has a prescribed format for making the announcement of a new pastor (which we used last week). Here’s our announcement, prepared by our SPRC chair from the script. The first two paragraphs are according to the prescribed format, with the third paragraph a self-description written by my successor and the fourth and fifth written by our SPRC chair. This announcement was read during worship, sent via email and posted to Facebook immediately after worship, and then sent via snail mail and posted to the church website this week.  In each case, we used exactly the same text.

In our annual conference, the two announcements – that the old pastor is leaving and that a new pastor is coming – are typically made on two separate Sundays. Knowing that there was a prescribed format for the announcement of an incoming pastor, I was surprised to learn there wasn’t a prescribed format for the departing pastor. I was on my own for that. Here is the text of the email / FB / snail mail announcement I made on February 10.

I’ve only moved twice, so I don’t have a lot of experience with this. And it’s also something they don’t teach in seminary or during the provisional membership process (though they definitely should). So I’m wondering – what are your best practices for communicating the news around a change of appointment? For example, how do you handle it when:

…the appointment is working well and the move is due to a bishop & cabinet decision rather than in response to a request from the church or the pastor?

…the appointment is not working well and you (or the church) have requested a change?

…people have concerns, questions, and challenges to the appointment system in general?

…there is a significant time between the announcement of your departure and the time when your successor is named?  (This is a unique challenge and I wonder how pastors can help people keep faith with the process when it happens.)

I also have begun to think about best practices for reminding the congregation – gently but regularly – that itinerancy is part of the deal for us as United Methodists. This is important because regular communication around that point makes these transitions easier. I always talk about this in new member classes. We also make it a point when our lay representative gives the annual conference report to say, “I’m very happy to announce that our bishop has appointed our pastors to the church for another year…”  (Well, except this year.)

I’d love to hear how other UM pastors remind their people of the nature of our system, and your lessons on what to do and what not to do when communicating around appointment changes. It seems to me that so long as we keep doing church this way, we should learn to do it in the best way we can.

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When Violence Hits Home

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”

Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

-Revelation 7:13-17 (NRSV)

It’s been a week since Newtown.  I’m not sure if all the funerals have been held yet or not.

Yesterday there was news from my hometown, literally a couple of miles from my Mom’s house, that a man shot three people and wounded three police before he was shot to death.  One of the killings happened in a church.  One of the victims was a classmate of mine.  I remember playing football against him in the fifth grade.  His wife, another of my classmates, lost not only her husband but also her father in the violence.  Our class is supposed to have its 20th reunion tonight.  At that very same hour, there will be a candlelight vigil at a local church.

One thing some people will say after a tragedy like this is, “we don’t understand it, but it must be part of God’s plan.”   That sounds like a good and pious thing to say.  The only problem is, I don’t believe it.  I don’t believe God’s plan ever involves the murder of anyone, especially children.  And if there were such a god who had such a plan, I certainly wouldn’t be his minister.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary or in Frankstown Township, PA, is about as far from God’s plan as anything I can imagine. But we human beings want our world to make sense, so we observe the good that comes in the wake of a tragedy and say, “that must have been God’s purpose here.”   I can’t help believing that God would much rather see evidence of human kindness prior to a disaster rather than as a response to it.

So the only true part of that statement is “we don’t understand it.”  We don’t understand how anyone could have so much anger and hate to even contemplate killing 20 children.  But we do understand sin.  We know that we abuse daily the freedom God gave us to make loving choices.

The question that people always ask, when they get the details of the lives that were lost and begin to grasp the enormity of a disaster, is always the same:  “where was God?”  That’s humanity at our most honest moment, and it’s a question asked even by the faithful.  In it we reveal our hurt, and our anger, and our distress over the world as it is.

Where was God when Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary?  I believe God was right there.  In the teachers’ selfless courage.  In the friends who held each other’s little hands.  In the children who grabbed classmates and led them to safety.  In the principal’s quick, life-saving decision to turn on the PA system.

And even in the tears, the screams, the blood, and shell casings rattling on the floor.  God was there.

And God will be there, in the wakes and the funerals and the tearful burials.  God does not abandon us in our hour of need.  That’s the message of Christmas.  We are never alone.  God is always with us.

Pray for the families of Newtown and Frankstown.  Remember the children whose presents will go unopened.  Pray for God to wipe away every tear from their eyes, trusting that the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.

To all my classmates:  I’ll miss you this evening.  God bless you all.  Hold on to hope.  Hold on to faith.

Leading the 47%

I didn’t set out to do a political blog, so I’m not going to deal with all the dimensions of Mitt Romney’s comments on the 47% here.  As much as possible, I want to set aside the content to see what we can learn about leadership from his mistakes.   (I’m sure that those on both sides of the aisle can agree that as far as political blunders go, this was a big one.)  Unfortunately, as I look at the thought process behind the comments, I see errors I make all the time.

First is the tendency to impute motives to opponents without checking the validity of our assumptions.  For Governor Romney, that meant taking a valid statistic – that 47% pay no income taxes – and using it as a springboard to the conclusion that the same 47% a) will vote for his opponent, b) perceive themselves as victims, and c) are dependent on government.  These kinds of unfair, sweeping generalizations are not far from any of us whenever we open our mouths to say, “You know what your problem is?”

It’s easy for leaders to get stuck in the thinking that our opponents are fatally flawed.  We perceive that they argue against our self-evident wisdom because they are selfish, or immoral, or just too stubborn to change.  In the church, we see this in conversations around human sexuality, worship, spending priorities, and all the questions around how best to reform our institutions.  We make the mistake of assuming that we understand the nature of the opposition – either because it seems to fit a familiar pattern or because we’ve had some conversations with a few people and assume they stand for all.  The problem is, they do not.

In the local church, if we’re willing to invest the time and energy in relating to our opponents, we sometimes learn that there is deep emotional content to their complaints.  Our opposition is not monolithic.  People start out being against our ideas for all kinds of reasons, most of them very personal.  I think it’s only when people realize that they are no longer seen as individuals but a bloc that they begin to react as a bloc.  Partisanship begets partisanship.  If your opposition has developed the trappings of a bloc and you’re relating to them that way, change your approach.  Try talking to them one-on-one.  Listening may not change their minds, but it may begin to re-humanize them for you, so that in your mind they are no longer part of the 47%.  I’ve found that having my own attitude changed is often a victory in itself.

Re-humanizing our opponents is important, because it can save us from overreaction.  I have some sympathy both for Governor Romney and President Obama.  As thick-skinned as politicians try to be, it has to be incredibly difficult knowing that every day, half the country is talking about you in unfavorable terms.  It feels very personal and usually is.  I hope the opposition you face isn’t at 47%, but even at 10%, the constant drip-drip-drip of criticism is maddening.  It’s an incredible challenge to be unemotional and see opposition as a natural part of the process of change.  Both advocates for change and preservers of tradition have a role to play.  We have to remember that.  If we don’t, we’re likely to react to our opposition from an irrational place of anger and hurt.  That anger might take the form of a public exchange we’d rather take back, or it might slip out as frustrated exclamation in a room of like-minded people.  The problem there is – and you can ask Mitt about this – not everyone in the room is as like-minded as we think they are.

I’m not sure where Romney goes from here.  It is, of course, possible to be elected president by 51% of the people, or even 50.1%.  But leaders in the church don’t have the luxury of functioning that way.  It’s not possible to be pastor to only 53 out of the 100 people in worship (unless you’ve set a goal of having only 53 in worship).  So somehow we’re going to have to learn to lead the 47%.

Next time you’re faced with opposition, talk with your opponents and then pray over this question:  Even though I don’t agree, can I understand why they would hold the positions they hold?

Until we can understand what’s at stake for the opposition, we’ll never learn to lead the 47%.

Review: The Greatest Story Never Told by Len Sweet

My clergy group recently read Len Sweet’s book The Greatest Story Never Told: Revive Us Again (Nashville: Abingdon, 2012).  I figured I might offer a few thoughts; if you’ve read it would be happy to hear yours.

I confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for Sweet’s work.  I remember reading a few of his books before going to seminary and being thrilled to find out he was at Drew, where I planned to study.  I took my first couple of classes with him.  If you have a copy of SoulTsunami on your shelf, I challenge you to pick it up and see if it wasn’t pretty much on the money about emerging trends in both the church and American society.

That said, Sweet definitely isn’t for everyone.  He loves his metaphors and his stories, and sometimes he’s willing to lose the flow of the narrative for the sake of an illustration.  Sometimes the wordplay gets a little too cute and clever (woe to readers for whom English is a second language).  You have to remember he’s a preacher at heart – and quite a good one.  He loves a good one-liner, and sometimes it seems like a book is just a convenient place to gather a bunch of them in one place.  Here are a few examples:

  • God puts life’s goodies and cookies on a low shelf.  You have to get on your knees to find them. (46)
  •  “Duh!-ciples,” I call them.  Do they ever get it? (51)
  •  [Wesley] advised early Methodists:  “Be electrified daily.”  Not bad advice for our future. (61)
  •  Methodists are people who sing in the key of love. (111)

But Sweet is also a scholar – not only of Wesley but of American Protestantism.  In this book, he sets out to remind us of who we are as Methodists and exhorts us to reclaim that heritage.  In his introduction, he states the problem this way:

What Voltaire once said of the Holy Roman Empire – it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire – might arguably be said of the UMC:  it is not United, not Methodist, and less a church than a bureaucracy, and sometimes less a bureaucracy than a circus.  (xvii)

Sweet usually tries to connect his chapters with a running metaphor, or (more often) metaphors.   Here we’re about music (a favorite Sweet trope) plus the four elements, so we’ve got “The Song of Water,” “The Song of Fire,” “The Song of Wind,” “The Song of Earth,” corresponding to holiness, passion, connection, and hope.  For me, the chapters on passion and connection are the strongest of the book.

When Sweet speaks of connection, he keeps it in its proper context of relationships.  The connections that are most important are not the large C’s of “the Connection,” which has become shorthand for our structure and bureaucracy, but the connections between people that result in mutual support, encouragement, growth in faith, and power in mission.  Relationships are fundamental to our identity, and he offers this challenge to those who would root our identity elsewhere:

When the grammar of God moves from the relational language of withness and worship to the descriptive language of absolute determinative proposition, we have moved away from Methodist heritage to Methodist heresy.  (77)

On passion, Sweet quotes Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century, who called Methodism “Christianity in earnest.”  Wesley, often accused of “enthusiasm,” would surely be disappointed by the stunning lack of enthusiasm for much of anything in many of our churches today.

But here’s the challenge, as a good friend put it to me during our discussion of the text:  “Sweet’s describing a church none of us ever knew, that doesn’t exist except in history books.”  Is it possible for a people to reclaim a history they’ve never seen or experienced?

Sweet has been trying to remind us for a while.  Did you read 11 Genetic Gateways to a Spiritual Awakening (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998)?  Probably not.  I bought my copy when I heard him preach in Raleigh  in 2000, and when he signed it, he said something like, “Congratulations!  You’re the sixth person to have bought this book.”  While The Greatest Story Never Told covers a lot of the same ground, and recycles a few of the same lines, it’s much simpler and conveys more of the essence of what I believe – after three years of seminary and ten years in ministry – what we’re about.

But here’s the thing about Sweet’s work that touches on Methodist heritage and history – it always comes back to the experience of Jesus in the heart of the individual.  That’s what moved Wesley.  That’s what powered the movement.  It was the experience of grace in one life, and another, and another.  We’re talking about revival.  And revival can’t be programmed or planned from Nashville or anywhere.  It can only be prayed into reality, one person at a time, one pastor at a time, one church at a time.

When Methodists Mattered

Gentlemen, -In response to your address, allow me to attest the accuracy of its historical statements; indorse the sentiment it expresses; and thank you, in the nation’s name for the sure  promise it gives.

Nobly sustained as the government has been by all the Churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any. Yet without this it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the best, is, by its greater numbers, the most important of all. It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospitals, and more prayers to heaven than any. God bless the Methodist Church! bless all the Churches! and blessed be God! who in this our great trial giveth us the Churches!

May 18, 1864

A. Lincoln

A few months back I was at Old St. George’s Church in Philadelphia with my confirmation class, and came across a history of the former Southern New Jersey Conference. I bought it for $2. My wife makes fun of me for doing things like this, but last weekend I was sitting in the backyard, my feet in a kiddie pool, lounging and learning more about the roots of Methodism in NJ.

The book included this incredible letter from Abraham Lincoln, one that I had read before in seminary, but had long since forgotten. I couldn’t help but think:  really? Did Abraham Lincoln just describe the M.E. Church as “the most important of all”?

It’s good to read the address that prompted Lincoln’s reply to gain some context. Lincoln was not unprompted. The General Conference offered him its unqualified support, characterizing the war as “most unnatural, utterly unjustifiable rebellion, involving the crime of treason against the best of human governments and sin against God.” To some degree we went fishing for the compliment.

Still, to read this – in a time when we wonder whether the UMC will survive, when we find it impossible to find our place in the national conversation, when we spend big money on advertising just to let people know we haven’t disappeared from the face of the earth, it’s good to remember that there was a time when Methodists mattered.

I hope that seeing this reminder of our history reinforces your hope for the future – that we Methodists can matter again. And I pray that when you look at your local church, you see ministries that already do.

In the end, you know what’s important is not what those in the seats of power think of the Methodists.  It’s about what the poor, the hopeless, the helpless and the hurting think of us.  That’s how we know what Christ thinks of us.  That’s what matters.

We’ve Got Trust Issues

“We have huge trust issues.” – Adam Hamilton

Finally I’ve calmed down enough to do some thinking about GC 2012 without getting worked up.  Like a lot of folks, I spent a few weeks angry and depressed.  So I threw myself back into the work of the local church…confirmation, new members…and again God proved to me that the actions of GC don’t change anything about Jesus or about the community I pastor.  For that, I’m so grateful.

Adam Hamilton is absolutely right, building trust will take a lot of conversations.  Not just among Methodists in the US but around the world.  I’m convinced American Methodists have no clue about the structural, spiritual, or cultural realities of the Church in Africa or Europe.  I know I don’t.  In fact, I doubt those in the Southeast Jurisdiction really understand the situation in the Northeast, or vice versa.  So conversation is definitely important.

I want to remind us of another key component of trust:  transparency.  Hamilton alluded to the issue in the interview linked above, when he touched on (hidden) “agendas.”  He said, “Sometimes there IS an agenda going on and sometimes good people are trying to make the next best decision.”

We all have agendas.  Let’s start there, because the statement implies that good people don’t.  I disagree.  I hope all of us – and I imagine at least most of us – are good people who want what’s best for the Church.  But we all have different visions of what would be the best Church and hence different agendas.

Usually when we use the word “agenda” it’s a pejorative to describe a preferred outcome that is driven more by ego than by big-picture, what’s-best-for-the-Church thinking.  No question, that element is always present, even in “good people.”  We’ve got to ask God’s wisdom to recognize it.  That said, much of what we derisively label an “agenda” is simply someone else’s preferred outcome based on someone else’s vision for the Church.

In other words, when we do it, it’s “wanting what’s best for the church.”  When someone else does it, it’s an “agenda.”

If we want to build trust, we’re going to have to find the courage to bring our agendas into the light of day.  I can work with someone when I know where they’re coming from and what they want – even if we disagree – because then I understand what might make for compromise.

Here’s the catch.  Revealing our agendas often means revealing either:  1)  that we fundamentally distrust the other person; or 2) that we believe they’ve failed to do their job.

An illustration:  it’s hard for me to look at the restructuring proposals and counter-proposals without seeing them as a clash of agendas between (primarily) the bishops and the agency executives.  We talked about the various plans in terms of efficiency and adequate representation but my sense is that what we really should be talking about is 1) why these two groups distrust each other and 2) why someone feels someone else isn’t doing their job.  Of course, this is what we’re not doing.

Ugly, I know.  Personal, I know.  Best done one-on-one, in private, behind closed doors.  But I don’t see evidence that it is happening.  Because if it were, where people were coming clean on their agendas and working out their interpersonal stuff, I’m guessing we wouldn’t be slugging it out on the floor of GC.

The problem:  the only alternative to working things out in private is speaking them in public.  Maybe this can be done, but it strikes me as incredibly risky for everyone involved.  What’s spoken at arm’s length seems harmless enough until you suddenly find yourself in the same room with the person who’s been insulted by something you’ve said.

I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder and pray over:

Do we value transparency – in ourselves and others – as foundational to relationships?

Are we willing to reveal and articulate our agendas, even if they paint us in a negative light?

Can we develop trust without first revealing the dimensions of our distrust?

When Democracy’s Not Working

Like you, I’ve been struggling to digest all of what happened at General Conference, still trying to process the emotions and the results (or non-results, as the case may be).  Not having been there, I’ve been reading all I can and trying to discern what kinds of questions might help us move forward as a church.

Here’s my first one…does democracy really work?  Seriously, I want us to consider the question.  Have we bumped up against the limits of what democracy can do?

It strikes me that GC did what was expected of it and approved a restructuring plan.  Judicial Council did what was expected of it and pronounced a ruling on the legislation.  The democratic process “worked” in that sense.  But we didn’t get any closer to solving any of our problems, and in fact the process seems to have wounded us more deeply than ever before.

The Call to Action Steering Team Report identified the UMC as facing an “adaptive challenge.”  An adaptive challenge is different than a technical challenge.  Adaptive challenges are not about tweaking what we’ve got, they’re about redefining who we are and our fundamental approach to almost everything.  That’s hard to do at General Conference when your starting point is:  “what section of the 2008 Discipline would you like to amend?”

I would argue that democracies are not inherently good at dealing with adaptive challenges.  Tampa is my exhibit A.  My own reaction to the removal of guaranteed appointment is emblematic of the problem.  (I’ll use myself as an illustration, but I’m still not ready to concede that point just yet.)  My reaction is about loss, and responses to adaptive challenges always lead to feelings of loss somewhere in the system.  In a democracy, the result is a divided/fragmented electorate marked by interest groups who become focused in their opposition to any reforms.

It strikes me that the democratic process seems most prone to failure and dysfunction precisely at the moment when the need for change is most critical (field trip to Washington, anyone?)

Winston Churchill said, “The Americans will always do the right thing…after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”  I wonder if this isn’t true just of the U.S., but of democracies in general.  It may take a real crisis moment before adaptive change becomes an option.  Perhaps nothing less will do.

So what are the alternatives?

I know what happens in the local church.  Dying churches don’t vote their way to vitality.  Typically, someone – usually a pastor together with a couple of lay people – starts doing something different.  It might be worship, it might be small groups, it might be missions.  They don’t ask permission or take a vote, they just start doing it.  At least, that’s how I’ve done it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on democracy and declining institutions.

Next post:  We’ve got trust issues.