Pastor’s Blog — What’s happening in the UMC

It’s very likely that you will be seeing some news articles in the coming days saying that the United Methodist Church is about to split. My friend Sky McCracken, the pastor at First Methodist Downtown in Jackson, TN, recently posted about this and I can’t it better than he, so here I’m sharing his words.

To First Methodist Downtown Jackson, and other United Methodist folks:

Our news media and social media will soon be blowing up about our denomination being “expected to split” over gay marriage (sound familiar?). The latest will be around this document that was released today (I’ll post the link on the first reply below).

Keep in mind while this is an important document and signed by many influential people in our denomination:

  • Half of the signatories are from bishops, who have **no** vote or voice at General Conference.
  • Other signatories on the document REPRESENT various caucus and interest groups in the UMC, but their groups may or may not be in total agreement with their leadership. It’s been my experience that few, if any, of these groups are monolithic in belief or sentiment.
  • This document may – or may not – be legal according to our Judicial Council.

This is not the first document to gain recent media attention; a few months ago the Indianapolis Plan was released, with a similar goal in mind.

Yogi Berra’s advice may be helpful here:
1. It ain’t over until it’s over.
2. When you get to a fork in the road, take it.

I have intentionally not made a particularly big deal about United Methodist political stuff in the wake of the St. Louis General Conference last year because I believe that there isn’t any value in worrying about “what if’s” until something firm is in place. I also believe that we have enough work to do in making City Road Chapel a place that welcomes all people, inviting them into a relationship with the one who created us. So, while this is an important development, it honestly makes little difference in our day-to-day lives at this point in time. Yes, I believe that it is very likely that there may be a split in our denomination, but until we know more about what that looks like I am placing it in God’s hands for God to work out.

I’ll post some links to articles and the documents below.

Love y’all,

It’s All About Relationships

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
–John 1:1

One of the unique characteristics of our Christian tradition is our belief in one God in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. The “Trinity” (as we call it) recognizes that Jesus was not only the Son of God but that Jesus was, in fact, the same God that created all the world, and that the Holy Spirit is likewise one and the same as the Father and Son. Honestly, the Trinity is a mystery that can boggle the mind at times, and while there are all sorts of ways of trying to explain it, it is something that we ultimately have to recognize as unexplainable and something that we affirm through faith.

For me, the central truth of the Trinity is that we believe in a God who at the very core is relational. Our belief in the Trinity should (if we really reflect on it) should help us see that Christianity is never something that is individual but rather always about relationship. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, understood that an individualistic approach to faith was dangerous to the church and God’s Kingdom. He wrote, “I shall endeavor to show that Christianity is essentially a social religion and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.” He would later say that “Holy solitaries” is a phrase that no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

We live in a time when there is a great focus on individualism — both in the secular world and in the church. We talk about Jesus as our “personal” savior and folks will talk about how they don’t need the church because it’s all about “me and Jesus.” But to make the message of Jesus about personal fulfillment without being part of a relationship is to miss out on the relational God who created us for connection.

A friend of mine recently told her story of coming back into the church after being outside for a while. She had developed a friendship with a Presbyterian pastor who didn’t hit her over the head with a bible or tell her how sinful she was, but rather simply loved on her. At one point she looked at him and told him that she was “spiritual, but not religious…” (a phrase I often hear among younger folks these days). He looked back at her and said “That’s like saying I play football, but not on a team.”

During the month of October, we’re going to think about what it means to believe in a God who is relational, and how we are called to be in relationship to that God, to one another in the church, and to the world. I really believe that Christianity is a religion that is all about relationships. Our calling as Methodist people is to proclaim a faith that absolutely believes that we are interconnected to one another, that we called to seek after God in community, and that the church is a place where Christ can be seen and experienced in a very real way, for the church IS the Body of Christ.

For sure, we are broken humans who often disagree — but in a world so polarized as what we experience today we have an even greater responsibility to model that we are still one body, even in the face of our disagreement. What is more important than our right belief (orthodoxy) is making sure that we maintain right relationships with God, with one another, and the world.

I hope you will join me this Sunday morning at 8 or 10 a.m. as we think together about what it means to follow a relational God.


Blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the weeping

This morning, the scripture focus in my devotional time was from Luke 6. In particular, verses 20-21 jumped out at me:

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Lukes version of these “beatitudes” (blessings) differs a bit from Matthew’s in the Sermon on the Mount, and Luke is careful to not overly spiritualize them. Given Luke’s focus on the poor and marginalized, it’s likely that he is talking about folks living in poverty, those who are hungry, and those consumed with grief. In Luke’s vision of God’s kingdom, there is a special relationship between God and those on the margins and there is always a word of hope for folks for whom life is a struggle (as well as a word of warning for those whose riches are built on the backs of the poor).

However, in my reading this morning, I found myself reading these verses in the context of our church, specifically the City Road Chapel congregation to which I’ve been sent to lead. As all of you know, City Road is a place that experienced great success in the past, but in recent years has struggled as the community and the world changed. While compared to some places we are a place of great riches, our current reality is that doing ministry in our context is hard and that we have challenges in maintaining that which God has given us. We have the riches of a wonderful facility, but as our Bishop likes to say, “…we are building poor…” in that the facility is larger than what we need and expensive to maintain. We have dedicated members committed to ministry in Madison, but it’s been hard to bring a new generation of folks to join us in the journey of becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. There are even times when we are brought to tears over the loss of what we were are we are heading toward an uncertain future.

And yet, as I read Jesus’ blessings this morning, maybe that place of poverty, hunger, and weeping is just where we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. You see, Jesus says clearly that it’s when we are poor we fully experience the riches of God’s Kingdom, when we are hungry that we begin to find satisfaction with the most basic things, and when we are weeping that we will be moved to joy and laughter.

I think this raises some important questions for our church:

  • How are we poor?
  • What do we hunger for?
  • What in the world is bringing us to tears?

We all will likely have different answers to these questions. None of them are right or wrong, but they are still important to think about as we pursue the goal of proclaiming and bringing forth Gos’ Kingdom here on earth.

The first question can be the most difficult in some ways because it’s easy to find ourselves with a list of things we are missing or ways that we fall short of our desires. Yet, one of the interesting things about folks who seem to thrive in the midst of poverty is their ability to see beyond what they don’t have and instead focus on the blessings that they do! We begin to experience the amazing bounty of the Kingdom of God when we are able to recognize the smallest of blessings as signs of God’s blessing and providence. These are lives of gratitude, thanking God that we are alive and seeing the smallest things as great gifts. To be “poor” and know the Kingdom of God is to live lives focused on abundance rather than scarcity.

The second question, how are we hungry, is important to think about as we consider what we do together as a church. For far too many years we have been churches focused on “programs” rather than understanding ourselves as a place called to feed the hungry – both physically and spiritually. Addressing spiritual hunger is absolutely as important as addressing true hunger, for it is the spiritual hunger that we carry with us throughout our lives whether our stomachs are growling or not. Many of us in the church rarely (if ever) miss a meal but give short shrift to thinking about and addressing our spiritual hunger. How are you hungry and are you taking any efforts to get fed, or are you simply sitting outside the gate grumbling at how hungry you are.

Finally, what are we weeping about? What are the things in our community that are bringing us to tears?

In my own life, there are many things that I see today that break my heart:

  • Those who are unable to believe in a loving God due to a church that has been judgmental and exclusive.
  • A community in which there is not a supply of housing for those living in poverty, and the tendency to blame these persons for their plight rather than finding a way to help them in their need.
  • A society that is deeply polarized with little conversation across political and theological lines, and a lack of respect for those who differ with us.
  • The proliferation of payday lenders in our immediate neighborhood which make a financial profit on the backs of those who are struggling financially.
  • The loss of a generation of youth to poverty, drugs, and violence through our inability to speak to them and address their needs.
  • The inability of the church to be a community of love and acceptance to all people.

I’m sure you have your own list, and I hope you will share it in the comments below. I simply hope and pray that there are things in the world that are bringing you to tears, things that make you hungry for finding a solution that is worthy of the one who created and loves us.

Blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the weeping.

May we be those people together.

Thinking about the Harvest

Yesterday we finished up our series on the Fruit of the Spirit. We finished by looking at the last fruit — self control, but then I tried to wrap up the series talking about harvesting. I’m not sure I really did that justice, so here are some thoughts about the harvest when you have some time to listen to them. Feel free to let me know your thoughts.

What does/will the harvest look like at City Road Chapel?

What are we doing to help fruit grow so that the harvest can begin?


Last week at the annual gathering of the Tennessee Annual Conference a resolution was presented and adopted (approved by 2/3 of the voting delegates) as a response to the actions of the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. As you likely know by now, that meeting was a special “called” general conference focused on considering a way forward in regards to the division we face in our church over the inclusion of LGBTQ folks in our denomination. Currently, our church law forbids “self-avowed practicing” LGBTQ persons to be ordained and forbids pastors from participating in same-sex weddings. As the church has been divided over these issues (although I would argue ultimately the divide is about how we interpret the scriptures), the Council of Bishops put together a commission to discern a “way forward” and presented several plans to the General Conference. Ultimately, after much heated and difficult debate, the General Conference adopted the “Traditional Plan” which retains much of the current language but significantly ramps up the penalties for persons who feel that they cannot abide by those provisions, and provides a pathway (albeit a difficult one) for congregations to leave the denomination if they disagree with the current church law.

There is much more involved in how that happened but I don’t have several hours to write a full treatise. What I can say with confidence is that a significant number of faithful United Methodists throughout the U.S. believe that the General Conference made a major mistake and are thinking about how to respond to the actions taken in St. Louis.

However, what folks on both sides of the issue agree on is that the St. Louis meeting was harmful to the witness of our church and to various individuals, especially LGBTQ persons, in what was said during the debate. Granted, in some cases, there were cultural and language barriers based on the reality of being a global church with representatives from all over the world who have very different understandings of faith in Jesus Christ. But those barriers sometimes led to speech that was violent in nature and certainly less than loving in dealing with those who believed different things. There have been many people who have struggled with their belief in Jesus in the light of those words, and the church leaders who submitted the resolution were attempting to address the toxic nature of the St. Louis meeting and offer values for our conference that were more sensitive to being in ministry with all people.

You can read a full copy of the resolution here, but I think the most important part is the last two paragraphs which outlines the actions and values affirmed by the conference in the passage of the resolution:

Therefore, be it resolved by the 2019 Tennessee Annual Conference that: the Tennessee Conference apologizes for the harm that actions at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference have caused LGBTQIA+ persons, their families, their friends, and the body of
Christ. We affirm that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God,” and urge all in ministry, whether lay or clergy, to affirm that no human being is incompatible with Christian teaching.

(2) And be it further resolved, that we urge all lay and clergy in the Tennessee Conference to make all reasonable efforts to address issues related to LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage in a manner so as to treat church trials and judicial processes as a last resort.

What does this mean?

First, that we recognize and acknowledge that the rhetoric used at the General Conference caused much pain and as brothers and sisters in Christ we express our regrets for the harm that was caused. This is not an apology for anyone’s beliefs or convictions, but rather a recognition that sometimes what we say can have unintended consequences and that we are called to humility in seeking reconciliation with those whom we may have unintentionally harmed.

Second, we affirm the current stance of the United Methodist Church that ALL people are of sacred worth, created in the image of God. This is nothing new — we are already supposed to believe this.

Third, noting that our statement about the incompatibility of Christian teaching about homosexual practice says nothing about individual identities. People will disagree about whether certain sexual practices are consistent with our faith, but ALL people are of sacred worth and are not rejected as human beings. LGBTQ folks are welcome in our churches and are not to be cast aside for their identity.

Fourth, we recognize that church trials are expensive and painful processes for all involved, and should be the action of last resort. Having served as the secretary for a trial a couple of years ago, I know first hand the expense of pulling a trial together, and as importantly the emotional toll on all involved, from the accused to the judge to the jury. Our Book of Discipline maintains a “just resolution” process which is to be considered first and the conference simply expressed their desire that this process is pursued fully before we try to obtain a resolution through a trial.

Nothing in this resolution falls outside the parameters of our current Book of Discipline. As reflected in our Social Principles, this resolution is completely in keeping with our church teaching, which says:

We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

There will be some who will continue to see this statement as supporting a “lifestyle” outside of God’s will, based on their reading of the Bible. There is certainly room for disagreement about the questions of identity and sin in relation to sexuality. However, what we as a United Methodist Church have consistently said is that ALL persons are created in God’s image and must be held in love. This resolution is an attempt to do just that.

A Report from Annual Conference 2019

Last week, Bill Howard, Nathan Baker, and I found ourselves at the Brentwood United Methodist Church to attend the 2019 gathering of the Tennessee Annual Conference. Meeting on Wednesday through Friday, Annual Conference is always a busy time of recognition of what is doing among United Methodists in Middle Tennessee, as well as making plans for the future. It’s always an especially busy time for me as I have leadership responsibilities at the conference, and I know that by the end of the final session on Friday afternoon, I was plum tuckered out!

Bill Howard, our Lay Member to Annual Conference, and Nathan Baker, our alternate member (who filled in for Bill on Friday) would be happy to share their thoughts about what happened at the conference, but I wanted to give an overview of what I think were the major takeaways from this year’s gather.

Perhaps the most significant issue for us in the coming years is that next year will be the last meeting of the Tennessee Annual Conference as both the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences passed a resolution asking the Southeast Jurisdictional Conference to allow our two conferences to come together as one to form a brand new conference. As you might imagine, there was quite a bit of conversation about this proposal, but in the end, the measure was supported by almost 70% of those voting. While there are still details to be worked out, what we know is that we will meet one last time as a Tennessee Annual Conference next year. The Southeast Jurisdictional Conference will vote on the proposal in the summer of 2020, and the new conference will begin in January of 2021.

One reason this is significant for our church is that the movement toward the new conference includes a new approach to providing financial support for the annual conference and the general church. Currently, the Annual Conference approves a budget and then “apportions” the total cost of the budget to churches based on the church’s spending in the previous year. For churches like City Road Chapel that have relatively high facility expenses, this can be a struggle. Starting in 2021 churches will not be apportioned their cost of the budget, but rather will “tithe” 10 percent of the dollars actually given to the church. By my rough calculations, this will cut the amount we pay each year significantly.

Connected to that, but starting in 2020, is to remove to take the expenses for clergy health insurance and pensions from the apportionments and instead bill each church directly for the actual expense of providing insurance and pensions to their appointed pastor. Currently, based on our high level of building-related spending, City Road Chapel is apportioned to pay for the health insurance of 2.5 pastors even though we only have one eligible for health insurance. Starting in 2020 we will only be paying for the pastors we actually have, and this will likewise lead to significant savings to our church.

As a member of the Council on Finance and Administration for the conference, I want to share that we have been working on this plan for the past three years, recognizing the burdens that local churches are facing. We’ve worked hard to cut budgets at the Annual Conference level, and believe that this plan is fair to all. While there WILL be churches that see increases in their expenses due to this legislation, the majority of UM congregations will see savings, and we have committed ourselves to work to help those congregations who find this a burden.

One of the heights of the annual conference is the ordination and commissioning service in which persons are ordained as elders and deacons, or commissioned for probationary service in preparation for ordination. This year 28 men and women were ordained or commissioned to serve the church. This is something to be celebrated given the uncertainty in the United Methodist Church at this time. If you ever have a chance to attend one of these services I would encourage you to do so as they are very special times of worship.

In terms of other business, the conference elected our delegates to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Electing these delegations took most of the day on Thursdays, but I was pleased to see a delegation that was inclusive and included both experienced and new voices. The 2020 General Conference will be in May in Minneapolis, MN and the 2020 Jurisdiction Conference will be in the summer at Lake Junaluska, NC.

As is normal, the conference received a number of reports regarding God’s work through the ministries of the Tennessee Annual Conference. The conference also debated and approved a resolution on inclusion which I will write about in another post.

All in all, it was a very significant annual conference signaling that many changes are ahead of us. I truly believe that these are changes for the good that will help strengthen our work in Madison. I want to thank Bill and Nathan for their faithfulness in representing you! May God bless the work that was done at this year’s Annual Conference!

Loving starts small…

I know that I talk about love a lot! It is, in my mind, the center of the life of discipleship, that is, the life of following Jesus. The Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor is the core of my belief, the lens through which I read scripture, and I sincerely hope the goal of my life.

This morning, as a part of my morning devotional reading, I opened an email by Richard Rohr, a Jesuit priest and author whom I follow. This week he’s writing about unity and diversity, and in the midst of a devotion on love drawing us together, he writes the following:

When we are truly “in love,” we move out of our small, individual selves to unite with another, whether in companionship, friendship, marriage, or any other trustful relationship. Have you ever deliberately befriended a person standing alone at a party? Perhaps someone who was in no way attractive to you or with whom you shared no common interests? That would be a small but real example of divine love flowing. Don’t dismiss it as insignificant. That is how the flow starts, even if the encounter doesn’t change anyone’s life on the spot. To move beyond our small-minded uniformity, we have to extend ourselves outward, which our egos always find a threat, because it means giving up our separation, superiority, and control.

I highlight the phrase above about not dismissing these acts as insignificant because I fear that sometimes in the church we focus so much on the big sacrifices that we fail to acknowledge that the most simple gestures can be amazing and fulfilling gestures of love. What Rohr reminds us of is that love simply requires us to extend ourselves outward. Reaching out may or may not lead to great transformation, but that’s not our calling. We are simply called to love — quietly, simply, without pretense or expectation of the other. To only offer love with the expectation of something happening is not real love, but rather is a transactional relationship (I’ll give you mine if you give me yours). Agape (the love demonstrated by Jesus) always understands that love is given freely regardless of the willingness of the recipient to receive it.

How are you expressing God’s love today and throughout the whole of your life?

A Prayer for the Tennessee General Assembly

Recently, I was asked to be the “Chaplain of the Day” and offer the opening prayer for the Tennessee State Assembly by Representative Bill Beck, who is the House member for our area. I was honored to have this opportunity and hope that I represented City Road Chapel well. Several folks have asked me for the text of my prayer and I am happy to share that below.

Gracious God,
Creator of all things,
whose steadfast love is everlasting,
we gather tonight as a people
called and elected to the task of leadership
in the service of our neighbors.

May we come without the illusion
that we are people of power,
but rather come with the humble knowledge
that we are servants to all who live around us.

Help us this night O God,
to remember especially those
whose voices are often muted in our society:
those who are struggling to make their way;
those who are just trying to make ends meet;
those who, through no fault of their own,
are judged as less deserving of our consideration.
Never let us forget
that we are no more special than they are,
and that their voices are just as important as ours.

As we debate our positions tonight,
help us to have the humility to listen,
the grace to speak carefully and kindly,
and the knowledge to recognize
that we work for the common good;
striving to make our state a place
in which ALL are welcomed,
in which ALL are kept safe,
and in which the vision of a place
dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
is open to ALL people.

Help us to remember that the conviction of our beliefs
does not mean that those who disagree with us are our enemies.

Help us to never forget
that your call for love and justice
applies to every part of our state,
from the river bottoms in the west,
to the mountains in the east;
along the Tennessee River in the south,
and the Cumberland as it travels through the Big South Fork.

Remind us daily,
that you are present in our large cities
and in the farms and hamlets far off the main road.

And may we always recognize
that the citizens of this state,
people of varied backgrounds,
genders, ethnicities, and nationalities
shall always carry with them
the volunteer heritage
that says that we help when we can,
serve when we must,
and respect all as people created in your image.

As we deliberate tonight,
may we remember the teachings of our forebear, John Wesley
to avoid doing harm,
to do as much good as we can,
and to stay in love with the one who created us.

Speak tonight, O God,
and give us your light in the midst of the darkness
that we will see your way
and carry out your desires.

We ask this in the name
of the one who created us in the beginning,
who reconciled us to you when we tried to do things our own way,
and who sustains us and empowers us to be people of light and love.


Getting Ready for a Beautiful Day


Howdy everyone!

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting excited about our upcoming Beautiful Day Festival  on August 26. This event is an opportunity to reach out to our neighbors in a new way, and I believe that it has the potential to build new relationships that will lead us to new callings and ministries in the weeks and months to come.

There is some excitement beyond our church this week about our Beautiful Day series and event:

  • Both Jim Neely and I were interviewed by The Tennessean this week for a story to come next week. A reporter and photographer from the paper will be joining us in worship this Sunday (the 19th) to hear about what we are learning from Mister Rogers and our hopes for the festival.
  • The Madison Rivergate Chamber promoted the event in their email materials, and we have been contacted by a local food truck that is going to come and be a part of the event.
  • Several community leaders have mentioned the event in their Facebook posts, and others have distributed flyers in their business. Of course, Jim has delivered invitations to over 1,000 homes!

All of this means that we don’t really know how many folks will show up!!! That is a good problem to have, but it means that we need all hands on deck to be present and pitch in for this great event.

How can you help now? Here are a few options:

  • We are always looking for donations from businesses for gift cards and other items to be used as door prizes. If you have a contact that might offer a donation please reach out. I’m happy to send them a letter of receipt that they can use for tax purposes.
  • We will probably need folks to help set up on Saturday, August 25 so if you are able to help please let Jim Neely know. We also need folks to commit to being a part of the cleanup crew on the afternoon of the 16th.
  • PRAY!!! Pray for God to:
    • Give us good weather for the event.
    • Keep us all healthy and grant us energy to be good hosts and hostesses.
    • Give us lots of opportunities to make new friendships that will develop into ongoing relationships.
    • Help our neighbors feel comfortable joining us and sharing of themselves.

God is doing a new thing in our midst. I hope and pray that you are as excited as I am, and that through this special season we will experience God’s grace in a mighty way.

See you Sunday!