Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thinking theologically about British Methodism Ltd.

Good morning God,
Yes.. I've simmered down a little - enough at least to begin to think this through theologically rather than just emotionally. I want to get at the root of what really disturbs me in the way in which our Church is now being managed: I have, after all, been a great advocate of British Methodism, our theology and polity alike... So what is it that distresses me so much?

It's your seeming absence God.
Its the way in which all the things that bind us together as Church rather than institution, are so often missing from our communications, the Scripture, the theology, the faith hope and love.
Instead we have summaries of impact including risk assessments of what we propose to do...
It's the way in which we seem to have so little confidence in your ability to lead us that we are determined to do it all ourselves.

We have decided our priorities
We have fixed the buget
We have created our governance structures
We have rewritten our language and modus operandi 
All of which now allows us to determine how best to 'manage' the work of your Church - and decide what work we will do - and how to communicate it - based on OUR priorities of course, and the money available.

It can appear God, from our Conference and Council papers, that we have decided we can do quite well at being the British Methodist Church, without you.

I know that there are good, well meaning and capable people working within Methodism at every level - circuit through to Connexional team. People who are committed to serving you God to the best of their ability. Even those within the Connexional Team who have no faith or are of a different denomination, are required to uphold the stated priorities of the Methodist Church. The things that distress me are not their fault! They work hard at their jobs/ministry.

I cannot blame one individual or group of individuals or governance level for what distresses me now - I can only blame the apathy of the Methodist people themselves.

We have allowed this seemingly inexorable slide into secular religion by taking no real notice of what is being done in our name. It's perfectly possible in British Methodism for members and ministers alike to pay no heed to what the Connexion is doing. But by ministers and members taking no interest in, and not challenging the reports presented to Conference we have allowed you, our faith, language and theology - our very identity - to be replaced by what can often appear to be a godless secular business, complete with tiered management structures, officers, secretaries, senior managers etc, professional business and financial correspondence and a grim determination to complete a merger with some other 'company' before we go bankrupt.

As a former managing director of three IT companies, I am all too aware of the necessity of good management in business. I approve of good employment policies, sound accounting and risk assessments.

But I don't believe your Church was meant to be a pseudo business. I find nothing in Scripture to support that idea, no model of Church or community that can be used to justify or uphold this current seeming obsession with fiscal management, risk aversion and irreligious language.

Scripture seems to say that Your Church is not a business - it is a body: a disabled body, I grant - but a body nonetheless. It is, you tell us, the body of Christ on earth. I recognise that because of who we are, it is still significantly limited in its abilities and restricted in its movement, especially when it is not properly formed, missing its feminine qualities, or when it is dis-eased and suffering. But it is YOUR body, not ours. You shape and form us according to your will.
The life-blood of this body should be your Spirit, God - not money.
The body needs to be fed with your Word, not with our jargon.
This body needs to be held together by YOUR priorities - not ours!

But what does this mean in practice?
It doesn't mean that we throw away good practice in terms of oversight - but it does mean that we understand oversight less in terms of human resources, line management and power, and more in terms of pastoral care of the body of Christ.

It undoubtedly does mean we learn once again to 'manage' a little less and be prepared to take more risks - as you call us.. (regardless of the budget implications!)

It means being prepared to put YOUR priorities first - not ours, and learning once again how to speak the language of faith. How to communicate to one another in ways that also communicates your grace and your purpose rather than just our standing orders or budget implications.

It means being confident enough in your leadership of us to not need 'independent consultants' to tell us how well we are fulfilling our calling.

So yes - It means taking the focus off us,  and onto your creation, your people.
And I guess that means not being ashamed of the name that you gave us, the Word that inspires us and the task to which you have called us.

We have nothing to do but save souls...

Do we really need independent consultants to tell us how to do that?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

British Methodists Ltd.

Good morning God,
What does it say about a Church that invests so heavily in 'independent consultants' to structure and restructure its existence?
Looked at positively I would say it might help us to hear the opinions of those who have not yet come to Christ, to determine where we fail to persuade them of the good news. But of course, that's not the area that the independent consultants are looking at: what obsesses our Church at the moment is management, management and more management.

Managing Change, Managing vision, Managing Staff, Managing for the future, Managing Leadership, Managing policy, Managing training, and of course, Managing decline -

Dear God we are drowning in bad mangement, policies, reviews, restructuring, regrouping, reorganising - when surely all that is needed is good ministry - lay and ordained?

I don't believe that independent business consultants can help us out of the Methodist Church's current predicament of how to renew confidence in the gospel so that we proclaim it with conviction and hence inspire others to follow Christ.
I dont believe that independent business consultants can help us to make more disciples of Jesus Christ.
All they can do is highlight how insecure we are in our calling by recommending proposals that make us behave more and more like a corporate business. I wouldn't mind - if it weren't so obvious that this 'business' has no idea what product or service it is selling, but  appears to exist merely to ensure that it exists!

We speak less and less about you God and more and more about how to manage our existence.

I don't blame the independent consultants for their recommendations - either at Connexional level or at District level - after all - we brought them in.

The blame lies fair and square on our own heads: The lack of confidence that YOU are leading us at every level of the Church, that you are with us, creates general uncertainty and makes us ask - where are we going, what should we be doing? But shamefully for a Church, we then turn to the secular world for inspiration and answers, rather than to you.

It's sort of obvious isn't it?
The lack of good pastoral care for one another leads to the necessary imposition of line management.
The lack of loud and clear inspirational proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed from ministers and members but especially from our appointed 'leaders', be they Connexional secretaries or District Chairs, leads inevitably to a confusion as to what we exist for - which filters down to every level.

And I have reached the stage where I alternate between anger and despair. Between wanting to resign my ministry, and wanting to fight for the right to minister according to how you have called me.
It's getting to the point where I no longer know whether I am supposed to be a minister or an employee of the Methodist Church.  Do I now 'work' for the Methodist Church - or am I in a covenant relationship which allows me to fulfill my calling from you God?

As a minister, I can understand and accept the discipline of the Methodist Church. As an employee I would never tolerate such 'working conditions', but would be demanding that the terms of my 'employment'  be revised to accord with European directives concerning work-life balance,

As a minister, I believe in the covenant relationship which means that the Church will safeguard my physical and Spiritual health and well being: that I will be 'watched over in love' and supported and enabled to do the work of God. ... but that's the real problem isn't it?  I might believe in the Convenant relationship, but that doesn't make it real. It doesn't seem to work in practice as all too many ministers (including myself) have discovered, resulting in increased demands from some for a more 'secular' form of oversight.

Tell me God, is it too late to ask for and work towards being a connexional church where the Circuit Superintendent is a mature minister of 15 to 20 years who sees themself as the first among equals rather than a line manager?  Where circuit staff, with circuit stewards, consider the work of God and the pastoral care of God's people the most important items on the agenda of any meeting? Where circuit leadership teams don't exist because the circuit meeting is still the place where decisions are prayerfully taken and where lay and ordained watch over one another in love and work together to ensure the necessary work of the Circuit is done? Where District Chairs are seen as the pastors to the ministers, rather than the disciplinarians of the District and where the Connexional Team exists to support and enhance the ministry of the whole people of God and knows that it is part of the wider Connexion, upheld by all in love and prayer?

The London District is exploring the option of replacing a Chair (we have 3) with a Chief Executive or other 'senior management' post at an appropriate time.. That just about says it all for me - for the Gospel to flourish we just need the work of the District to be better managed by a Chief executive.
Please God, do we really need so many tiers of governance and management for such a small Church? How on earth did we manage when we were a growing Church without any of this?
(could it be that we were a growing Church then precisely because we didn't have so many tiers of governance and management?)

I grieve deeply because the Methodist Church as 'Church' just doesn't make sense to me any more. Wesley would undoubtedly disown us on the grounds of our current polity and practice, and it seems almost offensive to refer to ourselves as 'Church' when we place so little confidence in Scripture, in your leadership, and in our ability to respond to your calling of us to proclaim the good news.

Perhaps its time to take one further recommendation from independent business consultants - We need to rebrand and rename ourselves so that people can understand what we are really about:
how about - British Methodists Ltd?
(with apologies to the original Methodists)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

resurrection for Japan, and for Libya?

Good morning God
The United Nations passed resolution 1973 yesterday calling for a ‘no-fly zone’ in Libya. Meanwhile a nuclear catastrophe is threatened for Japan following the earthquake and Tsunami just one week earlier.
These events are a painful reminder of how, if it is to mean anything at all, the Easter story of death and resurrection of must speak powerfully and truthfully, not just to the comfortable and contented, but to the distraught and distracted of this world.
Help me then God,
What would resurrection mean for the people of Japan? It certainly has to be more than a rebuilding of the thousands upon thousands of homes that were torn apart or washed away by the sea. Pristine new homes, all spic and span, are no substitute for the parents and children who were lost. A renewed economy similarly cannot make up for the countless workers that died. Resurrection is not renewal or rebuilding – it is something so much more. It is the inclusion of the old into the new. Christ still bore his scars after his resurrection.  Resurrection is the transformation of pain and suffering, of death and destruction into God’s gift of hope and life. It does not dismiss wounds but incorporates them into the new fabric of life.
For the people of Japan, resurrection means that the death and destruction they have so painfully witnessed, is not the end. There is hope. What will emerge from this will not be the same, no – but it will not be empty of what has gone before either. 
I am told God that you work in mysterious ways, your wonders to perform.

But what then of the people of Libya and the UN resolution? More challenging this for we need to ask what sort of resurrection is it that we hope for in Libya, that we are sending people to die for in Libya?
Is it a resurrection of Western imperialism or European colonialism, or an  imposition of a Western style of government and its secular value system, or do we actually want a resurrection of the common humanity and unity of the Libyan people?  Such a resurrection would certainly need to bear the scars of its past both cautiously, and consciously.

As part of the Easter story – it is important to ask at what point did the cry go up -  ‘Crucify’  - and what coin helped to pay for it?  Such a question causes us to reflect on what it is that motivates us to fear, murder and hatred.

Christ’s betrayal on Good Friday is a painful reminder us of how fickle humanity it – how one moment it is more than happy to ‘eat drink and be merry’ and the next, it bays for blood.  This we have witnessed in all the events leading up to the UN resolution being passed, from Tunisia and Cairo through to the Bahrain and Libya: both in the actions of some of the protesters and in the obscene reactions of some of the so-called leaders.

The resurrection of Christ however, turns the world upside down precisely because it is not just a story. We can draw all the similarities and analogies we like, but in the end, the resurrection is all that we have to hope in. It alone promises that no amount of bloodshed or fear will keep the hunger for life in all its fullness at bay. It is a demonstration in history that no amount of protest or power politics can stop God’s plans for all of the created order – including humans. Even death itself will not stop the truth of human destiny. The simple fact is that the knowledge of what it means to be alive, to be a Child of God, will not stay buried. No matter how ‘mighty’ a people think they are, no matter how ‘right’ they believe themselves to be – YOUR will, WILL be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

The Commandments are clear and unequivocal. They are more binding than any United Nations resolution: They tell us we must:
love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength – and you shall love your neighbour – whoever he or she is – as you love yourself.
The resurrection gives hope because it reminds us that we are not commanded to hate, but to love, we are not asked to fear but to embrace. It is your claim that  violence never wins – love, only love can win through in the end.

This Lent as we walk the path to Jerusalem with Christ, we can take heart from knowing it is no ‘fairy story’. There is real power in the promise of new life which it contains and phenomenal  grace in the mercy that it shows to us. We might not yet have learned how not to crucify everything we are afraid of, we certainly haven’t learned yet how to stop trying to play God with the peoples of this earth, yet – even so - you do not seek our death. Instead, you offer us new life in Christ.

It’s easy to dismiss the resurrection as a myth, or a story or a scientific impossibility. It’s harder to live the sort of life where Christ’s resurrection is a daily reality. Yet when we do, neither earthquakes nor tsunami’s can shake us from God’s grasp. And our violence – no matter how convincingly justified or legalized – is transformed, dissipated by the knowledge that:

Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Libyan uprising - Condem posturing - the poor people suffering

Good morning God,
Sorry God, I don't get it
This unrepresentative, unelected government, not content with slashing social services, and decimating the educational, health and support infrastructure and income of the poorest in the land - is now going to take this country further into debt by going to war against a third country.
So much for cutting the deficit!

It's not bad enough I suppose that we are cutting back on the armed forces whilst still losing troops in Afghanistan and struggling to fulfill our withdrawal obligation to Iraq..? Of course not - that was some other government's doing - how can any of that make Cameron look good?

No - We needed another country - preferably Arabian, preferably Oil Bearing, preferably Muslim to demonstrate Cameron's statesmanship and the great creed of the West - 'Might is Right.'

The hypocrisy of a wedding invitation to the Royal family of Bahrain - and a planeload of bullets and bombs for the people of Libya says it all with regard to this country's foreign policy.

Here's a novel idea
Can you persuade Cameron to be a REAL man?  Help him to take the pat on the back (if you believe it is owed) for being the first to suggest a no fly zone - and then will him to step back.
let this 'no fly zone' be policed by the Arab states, not the Western World.

Help us God to ensure that we do not shed a single drop of Libyan blood in the name of the British people. (Hard to argue its in the name of the United Nations when it was Britain that pushed everything through the security council and Britain that seems to be chomping at the bit to get flying!)

how can we remind Cameron that he has no more of a mandate than Gaddafi has to rule!

Forgive us God
forgive us

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Psalm of Earthquakes and Tsunamis

O Lord, hear the cry of your people
as creation trembles and we are made small

The mountains are laid low and the seas rise
The planet shrugs its shoulders

The restless dirt groans and moans
under the weight of our living.

Crops and land are lost to the salt of the world's tears
Wave upon wave cascades over the face of your earth

Their weeping carries away
The witness of our living.
In one convulsive heave
pride and possessions, people and places

are shaken down by the land, thrown up by the sea
to be caught by the air:

tossed and turned, and returned
to the wave of anxiety

that crashes onward
An unstopable force of creation and destruction.

Though you called upon us to name the beasts of the field
And the birds of the air

Still the sea is yours
You made it - and its raging fury

The land is yours
You formed it - and its restless heavings

And we, moulded by your hands to hold your breath
are bound to this world by your will and your Word

So I will praise you God in the midst of the fury
From the depths of my grief, for the land and the sea and the lives that are lost

For the nurture and nature that shapes us and feeds us
Though its power astounds, and its might dismays us

Still your Word brings order out of chaos
And your mercies comfort and sustain us

Reminding us, even as we weep
of green pastures, beside still waters

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Speaking the Word in truth

Good morning God,
I am a great believer in the ability of good creative liturgy to assist us in discovering the meaning of some of the things we otherwise 'unthinkingly' do or say as part of our life of faith in the Church. One of the joys for me in Methodism is the freedom to use either our 'approved' liturgies - or our own. it speaks of a confidence in both the formal and informal means of grace. It also invites and encourages theological reflection on what we say and do, bearing in mind 'Lex Orandi - Lex credendi' (We believe what we pray).

But along with the invitation - comes the responsibility of ensuring that whatever we create conforms to the Gospel truth and to the doctrine of the Church - that we do not make a liar of Christ, for the sake of our sentimentality, or misuse the liturgy to control and manipulate the emotions of others.

The power of good liturgy to move people to laughter or tears, to bring them closer to you God, should be a testimony not to our inventiveness, but to the truth it conveys and to people's desire and willingness to be moved by you - and we forget this at our peril.

As a minister I have learned that it is frighteningly easy to craft a service that does manipulate the emotions of those attending through the careful choice of the spoken and responsive word, background music and songs, light, candles, visuals etc..  But is that what constitutes good worship?  It may well bring more people to Church - but does it bring them any closer to YOU God? Meaningful worship needs to engage all the senses, yes - but it also needs to be truthful and coherent. It needs to be open to your intervention - during the worship - as well as during the preparation! It needs to speak your Word.
So - for me - it also has to be theologically sound.. it has to proclaim the good news in a manner and in a language that can be understood and truly heard.

Which means, yes - I am trying to teach the congregation to only use the more modern form of the Lord's prayer - and many dislike it. I try and refrain from dropping back into old English when I talk to you God, or share your Word in public - I want it heard and understood!
Above all - I avoid referring to you in the masculine.

Paying close attention to what the Church is saying in its liturgies however does cause problems (to whit my last post concerning Ash Wednesday) Asking yourself not only 'what do I mean by this statement' but 'what will be understood by this statement' is hard work. It is so much easier to simply accept - these are the ancient words of the Church - they must be sound.

And they probably were - for their time and their context.

But such attitudes are why we are still in the dark ages with regard to inclusivity - how long did it take to change the creed so that we stopped saying ' for us men and our salvation'..?
When the Reformation happened - much changed - but much of our liturgy stayed the same - or has reverted back to what it was, in spite of the fact that our liturgical context is so vastly different today.

There are those of course, who will say - and that's the way it should be. It certainly makes life easier, all I would have to do is follow the script.. say the words, perform the rituals, follow the rubrics.. 'Dont worry what you have to say...'

But I can't do that. You gave me a love of your Word and a love of your people and asked that I speak the one to the other so that they can hear it. You talk to me of prevenient grace, of the need for the door to be opened, the invitation made - and you ask me to state it, clearly and unambiguously, truthfully and faithfully. You insist that in worship as in all other things, my first obedience must be to you, not to the disciplines of the Church. I accepted that responsibility - with joy.

So I am compelled to continue to reflect on the words that I am asked to speak for others, and especially on the words I am asked to speak that purport to be on your behalf. 
I repeatedly wrestle with the weight of tradition, and seek to find the balance - the pivot point where truth and integrity meet with wonder and majesty to proclaim the good news. You did not die 2000 years ago and stay dead! And your life, death, resurrection and ascension actually achieved something for us.

So I will strive to ensure the liturgy I speak  is also a 'living' word - that it reflects your ongoing revelation to us of your love and grace,  of sin and repentance, life in all its fullness, joy and perfect peace - now and always.  Its not a comfortable - or popular thing to do - but its worth it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Death of Ash Wednesday

Good morning God,
I'm sorry God but I just can't bring myself to do it - to buy into the cult of death which periodically sickens your Church, and participate in  'ashing' with its dreadful proclamation: 'remember that you are dust and to dust you will return'

What sort of manipulative lie is THAT for the Church to be saying?

It is a complete and utter denial of the Gospel?
I am come, says Christ - that you might have LIFE in all its fullness, that your JOY might be complete - for whoever believes in me shall NOT perish but have everlasting life:

I don't care what some sixth century Pope said -
And I am happy that Christ - the second Adam (if you want to do this theologically) has 'saved me' from Adam's fate - so - whichever way you look at it:

I am not DUST - I am YOUR child God - and I refuse to let any man tell me different!

We do not have to follow the crowd - some 'traditions' are best ignored or at least transformed.

So given that I am required by my congregation to observe this offensive catholic rite I choose to change the tradition and celebrate Ash Wednesday differently:

I am happy to trace in water and oil the baptismal cross on the forehead of those who wish to mark their acceptance of the forgiveness of Christ. I am happy to reaffirm:
Remember - you are a Child of God, you always were, you always will be.

(yes, yes, I do know God that your grace is resistible, but even a 'fallen' child of yours is STILL your child, God)

And to conclude the 'rite' with a prayer adapted from the baptismal service

'Remember and take courage from the knowledge that for you 
Jesus came into the world; 
for you he lived and conquered death; 
for you he prays at God’s right hand, 
all this for you, 
before you were even born. 
You are a part of  the congregation of Christ’s flock, 
so never be ashamed to call yourself a Christian. 
Rejoice, I say again - Rejoice
for you are a child of God.   

There will be ashes present for those who wish to ash themselves: But I can no longer bring myself to perjure my faith and the light of the Gospel to satisfy the longing for some for the Gospel to focus on death not life.
Death happens. It takes less than a second to actually die.
Now hear the GOOD NEWS
We are so much more than dust - we were made by you to hold your breath, your Spirit, your life, your love - for all eternity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The turning of the worm?

Good morning God,
Tell me, did you ever intend gender to be such a problem? When you created us, did you really think it would ensure a just and equal society if half of the people were treated as 'lesser mortals' than the other half? I ask because I've reached the point where I am past angry at the injustice - I am disgusted.

I recently learned that one of the most significant consequences of the 'Regrouping for mission' policy (aka mapping a way forward) is to decimate the number of women in leadership positions in our Church. Women simply don't apply for the Superintendency of these mega-circuits, especially not when it is a separated appointment. This means that in just a few short years we are in danger of setting back the equality of women's ministry in the Church by decades.

Sorry God - but I have to accept you made me, and you did so surely knowing that women are generally undervalued and disregarded in your Church (or more frequently - patronised and dismissed). Yes, I know that some women allow this to happen, but many more don't feel they have a choice - the Church has for too long proclaimed submissive behaviour to be the ideal female model.

Here's the bottom line God - I didn't choose to be female - and I didn't choose my vocation - you made me, you called me - as you have hundreds of other women - to serve in your Church, this community you gather and order.

And I am disgusted that so far we have achieved so little in the way of change -  with this powerful combination of gender and calling.

It's time to ramp things up - and I don't mean incrementally.

We wont change the culture of the Church by focus groups or positive discrimination - we will only change the culture of gender injustice that is warping our faith by changing the underlying generative structures. So, no,  I dont want another gender justice committee, I dont want more research, I dont want more gender awareness training.
I, for my part, am not content to say - but things are so much better than they used to be - I can do the theology and the math  of the number of women involved in the life of our Church - but more importantly:

I am not content to be grateful for the past, You called me to live for the future and I want more.

  1. I want Church leadership at every level that models the best Trinitarian practice; which does not try and invest in one man, the sole responsibility for vision or  'management, oversight and governance' but which invests in a truly equal and complementary team ministry of Lay, Diaconal and Presbyteral members, women and men working together.
  2. I want an end to unrepresentative governance structures at the highest level.
  3. I want an end to the unthinking super-efficient sexist business language (eg management, oversight, governance, risk aversion, clusters, focus groups, etc etc) which disempowers (to say nothing of disenchants) so many of our members - lay and ordained.
  4. I want an end to the dominance of business and finance over our corporate spiritual life. You cannot serve two Gods...
  5. I want the Church to consult with its members rather than paid business consultants - on the way in which it fulfills its calling, and on the 'well-being' of its members
  6. I want a forum where it is possible for all members to participate in discussion and considered REFLECTION on  matters before the Church,  where people are not made to feel either guilty or disloyal if they disagree with the 'stated' opinion.
  7. I want changes to standing orders which properly reflect the fact that there is more than one way of being church.
  8. I want circuit ministry - ie an end to 'sectional' ministry rubber stamped by a circuit meeting. 
  9. I want a Deacon in every circuit - not as a ministerial substitute - but as someone essential to the Spiritual health of a circuit.
  10. I want circuit plans that are designed to facilitate the means of grace, not just ensure that someone is taking a service at every church in the Circuit that week.
  11. I want collegial accountability in ministry which is borne out of, and reflects, the ordinal not some consultancy firm's annual appraisal scheme.
  12. I want an open and inclusive Church which welcomes people to become disciples of Christ and servants of your Church regardless of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, ability or sexuality
  13. I want a Church that is confident enough in its own calling to not have to sell its soul or its belief in Gender equality in order to work ecumenically on the things that really matter - like evangelism and social justice.
  14. I do not want the Church to be so slavishly TIED to the priorities of a previous generation that it becomes impossible to hear and respond to what the Spirit is saying to this generation.
Ok God - that's my neck on the line -
It's a tall list - but it's possible, some of it is already on the way - all it takes is an end to membership apathy and a heart for radical change.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Realised Ecclesiology

Good evening God,
I've just spent the last 5 hours time travelling - into the future
I have been in April - by which I mean I have been busy preparing the Easter worship for the two Churches I am privileged to serve in the Kingston Upon Thames Circuit of the British Methodist Church.
I mention this because It set me to thinking about the rather strange realised ecclesiology - the 'now and not yet' of the Christian Calendar for the minister.
Tomorrow I will be putting everything I have into persuading the congregation to be a part of Lent - to take the trouble to engage with a programme of study or discipleship so that they come prepared to the cross and the wonder of resurrection.  Over the next seven weeks, starting with Pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, members will have the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of Scripture through participating in the Big Read or deepen their discipleship through the Churches together in Britain and Ireland lent course 'The Unreconciled' or simply increase their awareness of Christian fellowship through Feast & Fast - a programme of shared meals with Lent conversations.

All of this was prepared months ago, before Christmas even!
And it's not over yet, for in order to ensure that membership classes are in place and the services are advertised and communicated - I am already having to prepare for Pentecost!!!

So whatever happened to living in the moment?
What space for spontaneity?

Is this what you meant by 'In the fullness of time?'
I do worry God, What room have I left for your Spirit to intervene and surprise us, transform us?

Like most ministers, I know the value and the importance of well prepared worship, but I can't help thinking sometimes that its all a little - well - a little contrived.
I do my uttermost to try and ensure that the worship creates space for each person to meet with you God, that means trying to be creative, informative, educated even, about the use of that precious one hour that we have together on a Sunday. I find myself hunting for the 'right words', for opportunities to create the 'right mood', for audio visual components which might underline the 'right meaning' or the 'right approach' - and all the time, I wonder - what would you have done? What do you want to say?

I think Jesus was lucky - he did Easter ONCE for ALL - we ministers have to somehow recreate or enable others to experience it every year. And woe betide the minister who does the same this year as they did last year - and woe betide the minister who doesn't remember - 'But we ALWAYS DO IT THIS WAY'.. and woe betide all ministers who come to Easter unprepared!
I well recall my first Easter as an ordained minister - I was so tired after a full programme of Holy Week services, Easter home Communion visits and three Easter Day services that by the time I came to the final discipleship celebration in the evening, I came out and wished everyone a happy Christmas!

And somehow it was right to do so.

There is something delightfully paradoxical about this 'now and not yet' dimension to worship preparation.. followed weeks later by worship celebration. Nothing else reminds me that you transcend all time, and all space, than the fact that the worship I prepare with you, weeks, sometimes months in advance, meets the needs of your people when it is prepared.
So thank you God, for time traveling grace
Thank you for your help in my preparations
But, any chance you could make sure I'm back in my own time to be able to catch the next episode of my favorite TV programme?
Before Easter?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Musing on Ministry

Good morning God,
Our General Secretary has been musing on ministry on the back page of the Methodist Recorder.. so I thought I would follow suit, and similarly wonder 'whether, if I had my time over again, I would become a Methodist minister'.
Like Martyn, my answer is yes, I still maintain that for me, there is nothing more fulfilling and rewarding than being a Methodist Presbyter or Deacon. But that's where the similarity ends, for whilst Martyn takes joy in the increased numbers and diversity of paid lay employees in the Church, I see nothing but the failure of the Church to embrace its inherited theology of the priesthood of all believers.

Let me be clear here, I do not mean to devalue or demean the work undertaken by the laity of the Church. neither do I wish to imply that there is no such thing as a calling to full time lay ministry. But the simple fact is that the rise of paid lay employees in the Church mirrors the decline of the ordained ministry and in many cases has much more to do with finances than any real strategy for mission or ministry.
The rise of the Lay pastor in the UMC tells the same story -  the decline of the Church means that the Church can no longer afford to pay for manses and health insurance on top of stipends. The easiest solution is to employ someone to do the same job for less.

Am I being too cynical God?
Of course, in the UMC there is the added problem of Church elders (presbyters) also needing to be educated to Masters level BEFORE they begin their ministry. So - yes - an ordained elder of the UMC is more expensive than a lay pastor, just as a British Presbyter or Deacon is more expensive than a paid lay worker.

I guess I object on two grounds really:
Firstly I think that the movement towards an ever increasing number of professional 'lay ministries' represents a really shoddy abuse of the gifts of the laity and devalues what has historically been seen as lay ministry. 
I too value and give thanks to you God for the way you continue to call men and women into both lay and ordained ministry but I now wonder  how much longer will it be before the only people actively engaged in the work of the Kingdom insist on being paid for it?

I have to admit I would much rather that Churches and circuits didn't need administrators - I don't believe the amount of money and resources we spend, either locally or Connexionally on administration and management reflects well on us as a Church. To the outside world we are more like a people obsessed with structures, risk assessments, targets, committees and contracts than a people possessed by your Word and your Spirit God.
Also, the problem with employing youth workers, evangelism enablers, family workers, Lay pastors and pastoral assistants etc is that once they are paid to do the work, the rest of the congregation often seem to feel no need to develop their own skills in these areas. The overall effect is therefore to deskill the Church rather than to equip it.
We are in danger of creating passive congregations who are more entertained by their faith than engaged with it.

Who will take the Gospel into the workplace, into the schools and toddler groups, the markets, cinemas and pubs when those lay people with a heart for mission and evangelism are paid to work for, and focus on the Church?
Who will keep our theology and ecclesiology rooted in the communities we seek to serve in Christ's name when the laity no longer feel it is their job to undertake the very real ministry of networking and gossiping the gospel?

And so to the second reason - I grieve for my calling.
I grieve for the mismatch between what we say Presbyteral and Diaconal ministry is, and what it actually is in circuit. The rise of the professional lay employee has led to a mountain of administration, management and personnel work which the ordained ministry were never trained for and which is not a part of their calling. I am confused by the impression we are repeatedly being given by the Connexion that there is no value in our ordination, we can easily be replaced by someone cheaper who can 'do the job' just as well. Ordination is somehow presented as rather a nuisance for our Church financially, and administratively. The fact is that ordained ministers within our Church are increasingly being treated as employees - awkward ones, yes, but employees nonetheless - and not just because of the government's legislation either!

But above all this, I hate the impression that we are in danger of giving that the ministry of the whole people of God can be replaced by a team ministry of paid employees. The truth may be that there are fewer not more people now involved in the work of God in many of our Churches. Finding class leaders, junior Church leaders, local preachers, pastoral visitors, worship leaders, stewards and other Church officers becomes harder every year. "We pay other people to do that"

I am convinced that our Church's stated desire to increase discipleship will never succeed as long as we continue to employ lay people to hide our ministerial vacancies, disguise our financial predicament,  or cover the passivity of our congregations.

So like Martyn, I too wait with anticipation to see what the Spirit will do with us all..
But I confess, I'm biased God, I still believe in ordained and lay ministry as being equal and complementary in value but different in calling and practice. I believe in a Reverend or a Deacon being allowed to be a Reverend or a Deacon wherever God has placed them. Just as I believe that neither can practice their calling without the support and full cooperation of the Laity.

The simple answer is that you called me by name - I am yours - and am still amazed that you called me to serve in the ordained ministry of your church.

So I look forward to a time when we can once again celebrate 'the ministry of the whole people of God', lay and ordained, not just that of the paid 'Leadership team'.
And I dare to dream of a whole congregation committed to mission and service in the name of Christ who will being people to YOU God - not just to the Church.