Thoughts on Leadership Institute at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection

LI Mainstage

A couple of weeks ago I attended Leadership Institute at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, as part of my DMin studies. The assignment attached to the class was to write about the key observations and significant learning points that i was able to take away from Resurrection in general and Leadership Institute as an event/conference. Below is the main body of that assignment.

Observations & Impressions

Taking the time to spend three days at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (CoR) in Kansas, and attending the main sessions and various break outs of their Leadership Institute (LI) has been absolutely worthwhile. The experience has left me with a number of observations and impressions regarding CoR, as well as some key points of learning that will be applicable and also, I hope, significant in my own specific ministry context.

The first and most striking observation about CoR is its sheer size. Since CoR’s establishment in 1990 it has rapidly grown to become the largest United Methodist Church in the United States with a membership of 20,000 and an average weekend worship attendance of 10,000. According to a 2009 blog post by Michael Bell, which was based on the National Congregations Study of the same year, half of the churches in the United States have an average weekly attendance number of less than 75. My own church has an average weekly attendance of just over double that figure. When I consider the magnitude of the difference between what is considered average for half of the churches in USA against the huge numbers involved at CoR each week, I must confess to being quite staggered by the volume of people involved in CoR’s weekly operation. The being the case, in as much as I was staggered by the size of the campus and the numbers involved at CoR, I was also deeply impressed that I never felt over-awed by the size. The experience of visiting CoR was one in which I felt warmly welcomed and within which I sensed a high level of hospitality. To be able to pull this off in such a large church was/is a thoroughly remarkable feat.

I found the LI program itself to also be extremely well organized and managed. The range of break out session topics was wide and varied; the expertise of the break out session leaders and speakers that I attended was clearly abundant; the resources and hand outs were of a high quality; the main sessions were relevant, and the main stage speakers spoke in a manner which could be understood and related to.

The smooth running of the event – in a way which made sure that the size of CoR was never an issue – played a central role in creating the atmosphere in which I could learn many ministry lessons. The following are the key lessons that I learned at LI

1. Leadership Matters

I attended the pre-institute convocation on Church Planting throughout the day on Wednesday. There were two main sessions and two break out sessions for participants. The speaker in the first main session was Junius Dobson and his main point was very simple: Leadership Matters! He spent time emphasizing the point that in church life, solid leadership is a vital component for any church which seeks to engage in God’s mission and to experience any kind of growth. He teased this out further by offering some lessons for leaders that would help them sustain excellence in church leadership for the long haul. One of his main points was to remind the gathered leaders that if they want to remain in leadership for the long haul they must be remember “to check out the air at 30,000ft.” His point was that leaders must always take opportunities to remind themselves of the bigger picture of what they are doing; they must be able to step back at times and remember the vision behind what they are doing. Dobson enforced this point by reminding the gathered leaders that it is too easy to all too often be distracted by the minutia of ministry – the little day to day tasks that can bog leaders down in details and pull them away from being able to remember the bigger picture of what they are doing.

This reminder has specific implications for my own ministry at St. Andrew UMC where I can become guilty of allowing the daily tasks of ministry to become so prevalent in my daily actions that I become distracted and end up focussing on the “what” instead of the “why.” It is imperative that I put in place the practices and disciplines that will provide the necessary space for me to “check out the air at 30,000ft” and remember that while the daily tasks of ministry are important, also of vital importance is the fact I am called to visionary leadership and to being the chief communicator of the vision. If I cannot take the time to see the big picture of ministry in my context then how am I to lead the way in that vision or be the chief communicator of the vision?

From the main stage in one of the main sessions at LI, Adam Hamilton asked when had been the last time that we, as leaders, had taken an hour to walk and pray, or taken a day to go off and retreat in order to plan. One of the major implications for my ministry is that in understanding that my leadership in the local church does indeed matter, I must put in place the simple practices and disciplines, on a regular basis, which will allow me to be mindful of the bigger picture of ministry: the vision that is directing the next faithful steps for mission and ministry at St. Andrew UMC.

2. Small groups have many forms but they are vital in the life of the church

In selecting break out sessions, I had been careful to select sessions that would best fit the areas of ministry that are foremost in my own philosophy of ministry, and in what I am working towards in ministry at St. Andrew UMC. Undoubtedly, my key area of ministry development in recent years has been in recognizing and embracing the power and the influence of small groups in the life of the local church. It was with this in mind that I selected two break out sessions offering a focus on small group ministry.

Two years ago I attended New Room Conference and had the privilege of sitting in on a session being led by Kevin Watson. He spoke of the importance of small groups in the Wesleyan tradition and made a strong case for the rediscovery of the Class Meeting format among small groups. Since that time I have focussed on the birthing of three class meetings in my local church context. Those who are involved in them have found them to be of immense value in their journeys of growth in Christ.

At LI, I was attending the break out sessions on small groups to see what more I could learn about this important area of ministry. In the session with Craig Finnestad we focussed on the system of small group ministry that is employed at The Water’s Edge UMC in Nebraska. The most important lesson that I picked up on in this session was regarding the range of materials and styles that are used in the set up at Water’s Edge UMC.

Since being inspired regarding Class Meetings, I have allowed them to become my sole focus in terms of small group ministry and I have neglected to provide solid, curriculum based groups in which Christians can grow in Christ through the medium of a specific curriculum. Finnestad’s story of employing both the class meeting style and DVD/curriculum based teaching style groups opened my eyes to the fact that I have neglected the need to provide regular Christian Education classes, which offer specific teaching on a specific topic or theme, in favor of adopting a Class Meeting style of small group.

The implication of this learning in my local ministry context is simple: I can employ both the class meeting style for small groups AND the curriculum based style. In fact, I think it is imperative that i do become more proactive in employing both styles in order to provide a place for local disciples in my ministry setting to grow in both he ability to articulate their lives with God (class meeting style) and grow in deeper knowledge and understanding of God (curriculum based teaching on a specific topic). Already, in the weeks since LI, I have been formulating plans, and preparing a way to make this idea work in early 2017.

3. The personal touch matters

One of the pre-institute reading assigned to us was Adam Hamilton’s Leading Beyond the Walls. In the book Hamilton outlined the early days of CoR and outlined some of the methods and strategies that were employed by him to make sure that everything possible was done to ensure that when someone new attended CoR for the first time they would know beyond a doubt that they had been welcomed, and that the pastor people of CoR wanted to see them return again. The most effective method which Hamilton outlined in the book, and then again from the main stage at LI, was what he described as getting mugged at Church of the Resurrection. Each week after worship, Hamilton would find the names and addresses of first time visitors on the church attendance sheets, and would proceed to visit their home briefly to deliver the gift of a mug and to tell the recipient how great it had been to see them at church and how much he would love to see them again.

I have heard Adam Hamilton speak of this method before and it has always struck me as a deeply personal way for him to connect himself and his ministry, and the ministry of CoR in to the lives of people in his community immediately after they have visited CoR. In the break out session entitled, Leadership Lessons from Resurrection’s Early Days, the importance of making ministry personal was emphasized and reinforced for me. One of the means by which things were made personal in the early days at Resurrection was through hand written letters. We were told that Adam (in the early days and still to this day) took time to write personal letters to people and families within the Resurrection church family. It was stated that this was the best way to make ministry personal with people.

In my ministry I do seek to make a personal connection with the members of my community and church family. I seek to do this first and foremost by remembering the names of people, and then seeking to connect with them in conversation or through a home visit or over lunch. Sporadically, I have taken the time to write letters to church leaders and members to encourage them and thank them for their input in the life of our church. Last year, during Lent, I made it part of my Lenten discipline to write a letter to a church member each day to assure them of my prayers for them during that day. The feedback I received from the people who received the letters was that the personal touch had been something of great value for them. After hearing again of the personal nature of ministry at CoR, I am compelled to revive this practice of ministry, and inject the personal touch into ministry again.

There were several other lessons that were of significant importance for myself and my ministry context – making a commitment to excellence in all things; being able to ask the right questions in ministry; being clear on purpose and vision; using different approaches to preaching themes and plans (different from simply using the lectionary throughout the church year). Unfortunately, my maximum word count on this assignment will not permit be to expand on those lessons in this paper. However, already the implications of all the significant learning points outlined here (in detail or not in detail) are being put into action in my own ministry context. I look forward to seeing what differences a few significant changes and alterations will make in the life and ministry of St. Andrew UMC.

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Dear Donald…

I have remained silent online with regard to the 2016 Presidential Election face off between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Believe me when I say that the silence has not been anything to do with lack of material – there has been no shortage of that in the last year. Primarily I have remained silent out of love and respect for the people in my life and in my church. I am the pastor of a local church and it remains important to me that I do not alienate folks simply because of something that I write on social media or on a blog post. I have not and will not shy away from any conversations with individuals – respect, dignity, and love can be communicated in a face to face conversation in a way that it can’t be in a Tweet, a blog, or a Facebook post.

Social media silence has been my way thus far – but not any more.

At the end of last week a 2005 video of Donald Trump in conversation with Billy Bush was leaked to news networks. The storm of controversy which has followed that leak has been nothing short of sensational and shocking,. It also truly set the tone for the opening exchanges of the second Presidential Debate.

When I watched the video I found myself being quite shocked that anyone would talk the way he did. He was describing, with pride, how he could just grab females by their genitals, and how if he felt attracted to a woman he would just kiss her because he could not help himself. My shock arose because this is just something that would never, ever come to mind for me to do. I am as red blooded as the next male, and I find women attractive just like women, no doubt, find men to be attractive…but never, ever would I consider touching a woman anywhere on her body without permission; never, ever would I consider kissing a woman without her consent. NEVER. I was shocked by what Trump was saying because it is so far from my personal experience.

But that is not all. In the aftermath of the release of the video, Donald Trump made and released an apology for the things he had said. His remarks later became described as “locker room talk.” I found his apology to be canned and lacking in genuineness. He was speaking the word sorry to those who were watching but remorse seemed to be far away (I realize that this is just my personal opinion of the apology video). I also found the “locker room” analogy to be thoroughly weak. I played rugby for 25 years as a school boy and as an adult. During that time I spent time in sporting locker rooms up to 3 times every week and not once can I recall any conversation like this taking place. If any one of my club mates had spoken in this manner we would have been disciplined by our club at least, and possibly even shunned by our fellow players. Talk of sexually assaulting women is unacceptable anywhere.

I stumbled upon an article about the responses to a tweet by Kelly Oxford of the New York Times. In her tweet she invited other females to share in 140 characters their experiences of sexual assault and misogyny, and she invited the responders to use #notokay in their descriptions. After seeing the article I found the Twitter feed in question and began reading. It is no exaggeration when i say that I was almost sick as I read the short testimonies of women who had been assaulted or abused in their childhood, teenage years and even in their adulthood by their doctors, dentists, teachers, fathers, step-fathers, uncles, friend’s older brothers. It was a sickening collection of short stories which made me become painfully aware of the following:

1. I have never been a woman in the work place and therefore have never experienced unwanted advances by men who think they are wanted or who think they it is okay to make such advances uninvited. Not having experienced the fear, creepiness, stomach churning nature of such a moment means I will never fully understand the impact of misogyny on females. As I read those accounts I realized that this is something that is very live and very real in our culture and that it is absolutely and categorically wrong in any context. Before reading these stories I would have placed myself in a camp which was aware of sexual abuse and misconduct in the world, but was actually blissfully unaware of the reality and breadth of this issue. As i read them I began to think of what it would be like for my daughter to be in a position like this. What if her doctor, her dentist, her teacher, her friend’s dad or brother was to put her through an experience like this; an experience in which she would feel both powerless and objectified. As I thought of my wee girl i was nearly sick and had to stop reading, making a commitment to have the conversation with her and help her know that it is NEVER EVER okay for anyone to touch her or speak to her in a way that she has not consented to, or that makes her feel fear and lack of security.

2. This is a real problem in our culture. As I read these stories I thought to myself that this could be happening anywhere – in my church, in the local school, in our youth group, in any work place…anywhere – and the biggest problem is that there are boys growing up to become men who think that it is okay to treat women as sexual objects. Shame on us, as males, if we ever think like that or if we ever place a woman into that position through our words or actions. And for my part – if I have ever in my life even come close to making a woman feel like that – I am profoundly sorry for doing so.

3. There can be absolutely no justification for such behavior. Ever.

Which brings me back to Trump.

I have friends on both sides of the aisle politically. Some of those on the Republican side were very quick to accept Trump’s apology and challenge the world to move on from the video. one in particular is a long time friend of mine. She has sons of her own and grand-daughters too and she is the loving wife of one husband who adores her. When I read that she was accepting of the apology and wanted us to all move on, I could not help but want to challenge her to imagine for a second that it was one of her sons, or that it was her husband who was saying those things. How would she feel then about those words coming out of the mouth of someone that she raised, knows and loves deeply? Or what if the speaker of those words was speaking of doing such things to one of her grand-daughters without consent?

No. It is not enough for a man to brazenly boast about his sexual assaults on females, only to then say that he is sorry when the news unexpectedly breaks. Donald Trump has shown no remorse and no desire to repent and become a different man. He has proven himself to be a misogynistic, egotistic, narcissist again and again and again in this race. It is for this reason that he is profoundly unfit (not to mention inexperienced) for public office of any description never mind the highest public office in the land.

America – you must be smarter than to give this maniac an electoral mandate. America, you must waken up to the very culture which this man represents – a culture in which all people are not treated equally with dignity and respect. America, you must reject this man outright – even if you do hate Hillary Clinton. She is at the very least qualified and experienced enough to lead even if you do not like the manifesto from which she plans to lead.

Please America – wake up. You are already a great nation. you always have been. But that status will take an immense tumble if you vote the buffoon, Donald Trump, into office come November.

Hurricane Matthew – Was my part of Florida lucky or blessed?

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This image started doing the social media rounds on Friday/Saturday just after Hurricane Matthew had blown mostly by. It is fairly obvious in the graphic just what the thoughts of the artist were when he/she drew it – that Hurricane Matthew had been predicted to be devastating for East Central Florida, and that God had decided to spare us by causing the storm to “wobble” at just the right time.

Of course this is a very understandable position to take in response to what had been happening in the build up to the storm, and the night when the storm finally came. A frenzy of fear had been whipped up among the masses. We were ready for a major attack from this storm. Even before Matthew came close to us we were predicting massive damages to and losses of property, and even the potential loss of life. For this not to happen just because a storm wobbled at just the right moment could only have been an act of God, orchestrated to protect the good people of Florida.

There was a time when I would have got right behind this thinking. There was a time when i would have got up in front of my church the next day and said: “Surely God was with us in this storm and moved to protect us, His beloved, from the devastation that could have been brought upon us!!! Praise be to God!”

Now please keep reading while I tease that out a little. I still got up in church yesterday and said something along the lines of the first half of that sentence. God was with us in the storm – before it, during it, and after it – to bring peace and stillness to the moments when panic and fear could so easily have been allowed to win within me. I just have a problem with getting up in church and saying the words in the second half of that sentence above.

What is that problem?

Haiti.

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At the time of writing, and according to the BBC, it is estimated that more than 900 people have been killed and over 60,000 people are displaced as a result of Hurricane Matthew. Haiti is an island nation which has continually been battered and bruised by the might of nature’s strong arm. Haiti always seems to get the short straw when it comes to the impact of weather. This fact in and of itself is one that seems unfair, but when it is matched with the fact that Haiti is by no means a developed or wealthy country then things come even more into perspective – this country does not have the means to immediately bounce back like we do here in the USA.

Do you see where my concern is with the first image in this post? Like I said above – it is an understandable conclusion to arrive at when it seems that a miracle has taken place to your own benefit. But isn’t it a bit of a theological slap in the face to the people of Haiti? Isn’t saying that God protected the people of Florida from the full force of Matthew the same as saying that God did not protect the people of Haiti from the full force of Matthew?

That’s where I have a problem with the image.

I was talking with my wife yesterday about this and she referenced a book by Jen Hatmaker called ‘For The Love.’ Haymaker made the point that i am trying to make a lot more eloquently than I ever could. She said:

“It has taken me forty years to assess the difference between the gospel and the American Evangelical version of the gospel. Those were one and the same for ages – no take-backs, no prisoners, no holds barred. I filtered the kingdom through my upper middle class, white, advantaged, denominational lens, and by golly, I found a way to make most of it fit!…

But then God changed my life, and everything got weird. I discovered the rest of the world! And other cultures! And different Christian traditions! And people who were way, way different from me! And poverty! Then the system in which God operated according to my rules started disintegrating. I started hearing my gospel narrative through the ears of the Other, and a while giant bunch of it didn’t even make sense. Some values and perspectives and promises I attributed to God’s own heart only worked in my context, and I’m no theologian, but surely that’s problematic.

There’s a biblical benchmark I now use…Here it is: ‘If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian Mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.’

If a sermon promises health and wealth to the faithful, it isn’t true, because that theology makes God an absolute monster who only blesses rich westerners and despises Christians in Africa, India, China, South America, Russia, rural Appalachia, inner-city America and everywhere else a sincere believer remains poor. If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian Mom in Haiti, it isn’t true…”

A God that chose to protect me and mine over and above the people of Haiti is definitely a pretty monstrous God. Some people will malign me for making that statement – but that does not make it any less true. If we are all created in the image and likeness of God; if we are all loved by God with an everlasting ,and unbreakable, and unconditional love, which nothing can separate us from; if we were all in the heart and mind of God as Jesus hung, arms outstretched on the cross – then we cannot say that God protected one group of people over and above another without making God into a vindictive monster.

A God that would wreak such desolation on the poorest people of the earth, and then move God’s hand to protect some of the richest absolutely makes that type of God a monster.

But God is not a monster. Of that I remain quite convinced.

God was with us in the build up to the storm. God was in the hearts of the people who helped their neighbors put up storm shutters on their windows and homes. God was in the hearts and actions of the people who took each other in to their own homes so that as many people as possible could get safe shelter. God was in the hearts of the first responders and line men who have been working around the clock to make sure that people were and are as safe as possible and have power as soon as possible after power has been lost. God is in the neighborhoods where people help one another out in the aftermath of the storm. God was in the heart of Roberto, my friend, who came to church of his own accord and cleaned up the entire front of our property on Saturday so that it would look right for Sunday morning worship. God was in the heart of Kerry who stopped by the church tonight to fix a fence that had been take down in the storm. God is in the hearts of my friends who are already organizing supply drop off points so that people can make donations to the people of Haiti. The list and the stories could go on and on and on. I have no doubt that God was with us and remains with us to bring peace, minister love and offer hope to a community that has been visited by the edges of a quite frightening storm.

So is there an explanation for what happened? Honestly? I can’t give you one. I am not a meteorologist and my scientific ability is all but none existent. I do know this about the weather though – it can be haphazard and nefarious. Whatever it is that actually happened on Thursday night, we in east central Florida did not get what we were expecting and for that I am grateful. I do not think we were protected. I think we got lucky and i think that we remain blessed with the ongoing presence of Almighty God in our lives who brings peace to those who are troubled; who brings light in the darkness; who brings hope where their is utter despair.

My choice in the aftermath is not to simply celebrate a supposed moment of protection of me and mine by the divine. Rather, my choice is to look out and see where the divine is now sending me – one who is relatively rich and able – to be God’s hand and feet and heart for those who have been broken by Hurricane Matthew.

Watch this space.

In all things…

Hope

In all things I have hope:

when sin seems stronger than my will;
when temptation defeats me;
when I am troubled by the world;
when I am hurt by friends;
when those I trust desert me;
when it feels like I am alone;
when it feels like I am not good enough;
when I just want it all to be over;
when grades aren’t as good as they could be;
when grades aren’t as good as I thought they would be;
when I fail;
when neighbors gossip;
when I gossip;

when schools are attacked;
when innocence is stolen;
when politics is dysfunctional at best, and broken at worst;
when war persists;
when cancer comes;
when Alzheimer’s arrives;
when death knocks on the door and bereavement batters;

when I feel stripped bare, naked and ashamed in the world;
when I have hurt someone;
when I speak inappropriately;
when I withhold my contribution to the world;
when I am have nothing;
when I am unemployed, laid aside, rejected;
when I make bad choices;

when my spirit is crushed.

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In all things I have hope because i can call this to mind:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.
GREAT is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him!’