Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Engage (1st of 6 parts)

A month ago I wrote a summary of my first Superintendent's Address that I gave at annual conference in June. (If you missed it, read it here.) It was an abridged version outlining the six points I emphasized and I promised to expound on each of them at a later time. That time has come. For the next six weeks I will be sharing my thoughts on each of the six aspects of mission and ministry in Alaska that I am deeply passionate about. My prayer is that you would catch the passion and share in the vision.

If your church closes its doors today, would your community notice it?
This question was my biggest take-away from a Rethink Church workshop we had a few years ago. It underscores the importance of our call to community engagement. We are called to reach out to our neighbors as the hands and feet of Jesus. Is our church's existence in the neighborhood impactful enough that closing it would be detrimental to the community as a whole? Or is our church visible only to its members and our neighbors don't even have a clue that we are there?

Here's a 5-minute video by Lovett Weems, Jr., Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership about the Why Community Engagement Matters.

I call us to know and engage our mission fields.
Who are the people in our neighborhoods that God is calling us to reach? Who and where is our mission field? How are we reaching them? What are the ministries we are engaged in that are truly impacting our neighbors in real and positive ways?

We already have churches who are positively engaging and impacting their communities and I celebrate that! The stories are heartwarming and I challenge you to keep it up! But sadly, we also have churches who can't seem to look past themselves and their own concerns. I challenge you to step it up and reach out beyond yourselves to the communities God has planted you in and calls you to reach.

The Dead Sea
Ever wondered why the Dead Sea is dead? It's because it is too salty. No creature can live in it because the salinity of the water is too high. And that, in turn, is because the Dead Sea has many river and stream tributaries that flow into it but has no outflows. It receives and receives but doesn't give.

A quick look at healthy, vibrant churches would yield that they have both a strong inflow (nurture programs and ministries for members) and a strong outflow (outreach ministries and missions to their communities). Are our churches healthy bodies of water or dead seas, always receiving, never giving?

Small Steps: What if...
What if all of our churches had signs in our doorways as we go out or in our parking lots as we drive out saying: "You are now entering the mission field!". What mindset and behavior change would this simple act do?

Recognizing that we cannot do it alone, what if we partner with organizations and groups in our communities to bring about change and lasting positive impacts. What are the things already being done in your community by other groups that you can partner with? There is no sense reinventing the wheel or even duplicating efforts. Or what can your church do to augment and/or complement an already existing ministry in your community? Perhaps there's a segment that's not being met, or maybe a gap somewhere where your church can fill-in.

Not being challenged
In a recent study, one of the top reasons people are leaving church is not pastoral leadership or worship styles or preaching. It is the lack of a sense of mission. People are leaving church because there isn't a mission bigger than them that they can be a part of (or at least its not communicated to them in a very compelling way). Many people feel that the church is all about institutional survival instead of its mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. And that, sadly, is turning them away.

I heard a United Methodist lay person who works with a prominent, cutting edge film outfit recently say about their church, "I haven't been challenged in 30 years. I just come out of obligation."

What if beyond nurture, we work on challenging our members for mission. What if we look at each member of the congregation as a missionary and so every Sunday becomes a commissioning service for everyone to go out into the world and be the hands and feet of Jesus?

Friends, its time we come to terms with the reality that our mission field is out there, outside the walls of our sanctuary; out there, among our neighbors; out there, among the people God is calling us to reach. In the reading of appointments at annual conference this year, we made a small language change that would hopefully make a big impact. Instead of naming just the churches where the clergy were being appointed to, we also named the mission fields (i.e. St. John UMC in the Anchorage Mission Field). We were trying to send the message to our clergy and lay leaders that the ministry of the Alaska United Methodist Conference will not be confined to the walls of its church buildings.

It is my hope, my prayer that our churches would become mission outposts where significant outreach and community engagement can be launched from. May we truly be the hands and feet of Jesus in our communities, allowing us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Come Run With Me... Again

This blogpost is almost a repeat of the one I wrote exactly a year ago: Come Run With Me. Hence the title.

On Sunday, August 16, I will again be running the 49K Ultra Marathon of the Big Wild Life Runs here in Anchorage. And just like last year, my plan is to do it again as a prayer run.

Because the distance I will be running (49 kilometers) is equivalent to 30.44860 miles and there are 28 United Methodist Churches under my care as Superintendent of the Alaska United Methodist Conference, I will be dedicating a mile for each of these churches. As I run each mile, I will prayerfully hold the church assigned to that mile, their pastor/s, lay people, missions and ministries. The remainder I will dedicate to conference-related ministries.

Last year I found this especially helpful for me as a rookie Superintendent to mentally wrap my mind and spirit around the task before me. The prayer run helped me spiritually "walk" or "run" through the different ministry settings to prepare me for the season of Charge Conferences, consultations and appointments that came soon after. My goal is to stay healthy and fit enough to do this every year during my tenure as Superintendent.

So I am doing it again. And this time around, I feel that I have a deeper knowledge of each of our ministry contexts and their specific needs having visited all but one setting at least once during the past appointive year.

Here's a mile-by-mile breakdown of my prayer run:
I invite you to run the race with me again. No, I am not asking you to physically run 30+ miles (unless you're up to it, of course. I'd definitely love the company). What I'm asking you to do is to join me in praying for the different ministry settings of the Alaska United Methodist Conference on Sunday. I invite you to pick a church (or two) from the list and promise to set aside time to hold these ministries in prayer. Each church name above is a live link to their website or Facebook page to give you more information about them.

On race day, I may average anywhere from 10-12 minutes per mile. Can I ask you for 10-12 minutes of your time on Sunday to pray for a church in the AUMC? Or perhaps your are a fellow runner or perhaps a walker, a swimmer or a biker. Can I ask you to find time on Sunday to run, walk, swim or bike a mile as you pray for the church you pick?

Will you come run (and pray) with me again?

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Getting in trouble for the sake of Christ

My role entails a lot of flying, both in state and out of state. A quarter of our churches  in the Alaska Conference can only be reached by plane. For a couple more which are on the road system, it is more economical and also more time efficient to fly than drive. Being part of the Greater Northwest Area Cabinet means regular trips to either Portland or Seattle. Add to that the Western Jurisdictional meetings I attend twice a year also because of this role and the role of Director of Connectional Ministries which is part of my portfolio.

I think you get it. I travel a lot. I am in airports a lot. And I go through security a lot. And half the time, I get "in trouble" because of what's in my bag. Let me explain:

When I travel, I always bring my totem cross with me. Every clergy person being commissioned for ministry in the Alaska Conference receives a cross with a miniature replica of the Easter Totem pole carved by Rev. David Fison (Click here to learn more about it). Typically, we receive our commissioning crosses at Annual Conference after having served a year in our appointments. There have been instances, like this year, when the clergy persons were in attendance at the Annual Conference prior to starting their appointment and so were commissioned then. Regardless of when it is presented and received, the totem cross has been for me and for many, a reminder of our being called to mission and ministry in this special place with and among its wonderful people.

So, I love my totem cross. It is a simple reminder of my call. It also allows me to represent. It is a conversation starter that allows me to share the many wonderful stories of what God is doing in and through the people called United Methodists in Alaska. So I bring it with me in all my travels and wear it whenever appropriate.

And because of that cross, I "get into trouble" at security. I travel light and rarely check-in my bags. So when my bag goes through the TSA x-ray machine, more than 50% of the time, the agent cannot figure out what this suspicious shape is. They say it looks like a small knife. So my backpack gets whisked out and checked. Thankfully, after they see what it is, they let me "off the hook" without further hassle. Some have even asked what it is so I briefly share the story. Then I go on my way.

The "trouble" I go through for the sake of the cross is really no big deal. It just means a few more minutes to my time through security and the occasional suspicious stare from people at a person of color whose bag is being checked. Like I said, no big deal. It's nothing compared to the trouble our ancestors in the faith faced for the sake of Christ- persecution, scorn, abuse, even death. And it's nothing compared to the trouble many of our sisters and brothers today face for the sake of their faith in Christ. I think about people practicing faith where it is outlawed to do so. I think about people who stick out like sore thumbs in schools and workplaces because of the Christ-like life they live. I think about our LGBTQ sisters and brothers whose faith in Christ gets them in trouble with the very people they feel called to live in Christian community with. I think about our Native American and Alaska Native sisters and brothers whose faith in Christ is enriched by their own cultural traditions but are branded as pagan by many in the body of Christ.

Whenever I travel, I get in trouble for the sake of my totem cross. But it's a risk I am willing to take. In a much deeper sense, I invite us to ask ourselves as individuals and as communities of faith:

What risks are we willing to take for the sake of Christ?

What trouble are we willing to go through for the sake of our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

Are we willing to stand in solidarity with sisters and brothers who are already in trouble for their faith, willing to get "in trouble" with them for the sake of Christ?

What risk is Christ calling us to make?

Your fellow disciple,