The Final Nail in the Mainline Coffin?

Let me say–“I am a traditionalist.” There. Now that’s out of the way. You know where I stand.

I have been reluctant to comment on the current state of affairs in the United Methodist Church as we head into the special called session of General Conference scheduled for St. Louis, February 23 – 26, 2019. The special session was called by the Council of Bishops after the 2016 General Conference for the purpose of dealing (definitively?) with the issue of “full inclusion” of LGBTQI+ individuals in the life of the church. The debate centers primarily on the issues of same-gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.

There are several reasons I have not commented (at least not very publicly). For one, I serve a diverse congregation, and discretion being the better part of valor, I want to be able to be a pastor to everyone no matter where they lie along the spectrum from traditional to progressive.

Another reason I’ve been reluctant to comment is my own acknowledgement that I could be wrong. After all, I’m “Not the Perfect Pastor,” so my imperfections do tend to get in my way.

My prayer for 20+ years has been, “Lord, change my heart if I’m wrong.” Being the traditionalist I am, I believe God actually hears and answers prayer, so I continue to pray, but as of this writing, the Lord has not answered this prayer (at least in relation to the presenting issue facing the UMC). I also know that there is still more for me to learn. I take to heart the advice Jordan Peterson offers in his book 12 Rules for Life. Rule # 9 states, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” If I offered too many comments, I might have to walk some of them back, and being of the male species, I don’t like to walk statements back.

Yet one more reason I’ve been reluctant to comment is the fact that there really hasn’t been enough information to have an informed conversation on the matters before us. Prior to July 8th about all one could say is “We really don’t know what the possibilities are at this point.” Everything until that point was pure speculation (although there is still much speculating to be done), and I figured why confuse the conversation or risk upsetting people dear to me if I couldn’t have an informed conversation. Besides, I have numerous colleagues with whom I disagree on the issue of same-gender marriage and the ordination of homosexuals, and I dearly love them. I have no desire to have our relationships broken because a speculative conversation devolved in to name-calling and accusations. Not worth it!

Then, of course, there is the issue of giving my focus to the work of the congregation I serve. As an alternate delegate to General Conference, it is very easy to get distracted by all the information, blogs, speculation and social media posts concerning the future of United Methodism. Yes, we are a connectional church, but at the end of the day, I’m appointed to a local congregation, and the mission of the United Methodist Church (to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world) gets carried out in the local congregation. People’s lives will be transformed in and through the local church. That is my primary focus.

Now that sufficient information has been made available and petitions filed with General Conference, it’s time for me to weigh in on the situation we United Methodists find ourselves in. Many people have asked my thoughts over the past few months, so I figured this medium is the best way to communicate to the broadest number of people.

I know a post such as this will get feedback, both positively and negatively, and I’ll probably get called a few names if I don’t take the position that someone thinks is the correct one. But, I suppose I will take that chance. February will soon be upon us and the conversation can no longer be avoided.

The Commission on the Way Forward

The Commission on the Way Forward

The Commission on a Way Forward was appointed by the Bishops subsequent to the 2016 General Conference to “do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.” The Commission completed its work and submitted its report to be translated for General Conference. The report includes three possible ways forward for the UMC. The Traditional Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan. I’ll unpack each later in the post.

The Council of Bishops has recommended adoption of the One Church Plan. That is their preferred future for the UMC. Initially, the bishops sought to direct the debate of General Conference, but after a challenge before the Judicial Council, the Judicial Council ruled that any United Methodist with standing could submit legislation to General Conference. That means, obviously, there will be a plethora of legislation presented to General Conference. As a side note, the bishop’s recommendation was moved to a footnote in the report.

General Conference, 2019

The General Conference is slated to last four days. With a plethora (I’ve used that word twice!) of legislation, the work will be daunting, and the reality is it may not get done at all. Historically, the work of the General Conference begins with adopting the rules of order. There may be a four-day fight on the rules and the Conference may never get around to doing the actual work. Can you imagine having two years of conversations and meetings, and spending millions of dollars to accomplish nothing? That’s exactly what could happen.

Other than a significant waste of time and money, nothing happening would not be the worst thing to happen (in my humble opinion). The status quo would remain, which means the Discipline would not change (of course, neither would the current lack of enforcement). The proverbial can would get kicked down the road to General Conference 2020. Speculation? There will be some laity, clergy and congregations who depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. It would also break my heart.

One thing that could happen even before February is the Judicial Council could rule one, two or all three plans included in the report as unconstitutional. The Council of Bishops has asked for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the three plans. If all three plans are declared unconstitutional, there would be no work for the Conference to complete. I suppose it would be cancelled, still costing an unknown amount of money and kicking the can down the road. There will be some laity, clergy and congregations who depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. It would also break my heart.

The Three Plans

The Traditional Plan

The Traditional Plan retains the current language in the Book of Discipline that states all persons are “of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and also states that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Traditional Plan dramatically enhances accountability to the church’s requirements and closes many of the loopholes currently being used to avoid accountability by those who, in practicing “biblical disobedience,” conduct same-gender weddings and ordain “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. At the same time, the Plan offers a gracious exit for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the church’s historic standards. 

This plan has the best possibility of passing General Conference (again, in my humble opinion) simply based on the votes of previous General Conferences in similar matters.  It will likely be supported by evangelicals, southern delegates and the delegations from the Central Conferences (outside the U. S.). The groups together constitute a majority. I won’t bore you with every single detail of the Traditional Plan. For a more comprehensive treatment, my colleague Thomas Lambrecht has an article here, or you can read the legislation by clicking here.

I am a supporter of the Traditional plan because it maintains our current position which I believe is grace-filled even if it doesn’t sound like it in this 21st Century shifting culture. I believe it remains faithful to the biblical witness and to 2,000 years of church history and tradition. It also remains faithful to almost every cultural understanding in the world of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

There will likely be some people who depart the United Methodist Church should the Traditional Plan pass, but they would likely be fewer in number. Many of the most progressive leaders in our denomination have stated they will not depart under any circumstances. Of course, that means acts of disobedience would continue, so it is a realistic possibility that the Plan would ultimately be ineffective, in which case, laity, clergy and congregations would depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. That would break my heart.

The Connectional Conference Plan

The Connectional Conference Plan is perhaps the most confusing of the three. The plan as proposed would do away with our current five jurisdictions and replace them with three “Conferences” aligned along theological perspectives. There would be a traditional Conference (maintaining the current Disciplinary language), a progressive Conference (ordaining homosexual clergy and performing same-gender marriage) and a centrist Conference (each did what was right in their own eyes).

Each of the three conferences would continue to operate under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church, and as I understand the legislation, each Annual Conference would choose to align with one of the Conferences. Each would continue to share some doctrinal standards, missions work globally and administrative infrastructure (think General Boards and Agencies here).

If a local church did not want to affiliate with the Connectional Conference chosen by its Annual Conference, it could vote to become a member of one of the other Conferences. Clergy would have the same option, but would be obligated to abide by the standards of the chosen Conference. If I understand the legislation correctly, the Bishop and Cabinet of the Annual Conference will still control the appointive process. I’m not sure how that would work, but that’s what it says. Consideration for re-affiliation would be provided every four years.

As for bishops, the current Council of Bishops would be retained with each Connectional Conference having a College of Bishops composed of those bishops who chose to affiliate with each Conference. They would continue to lead in ecumenical relationships and in oversight of the administrative agencies of the Church. Funding for bishops inside the U. S. would be provided by each bishop’s respective Connectional Conference, and bishops outside the U. S. would be supported by the umbrella organization. Confusing, huh?

Each Connectional Conference would adopt its own Book of Discipline starting with the Articles of Religion, Doctrinal Standards, Confessions of Faith and General Rules. Everything else would be contextual to the particular Connectional Conference. Still confusing, huh?

Again, for the full plan you can click here and read the enabling legislation for yourself. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a legal nerd.

I believe this is the most impossible plan offered. It would take up to six years to implement and the passage of five constitutional amendments. Does anyone realize how hard it is to pass a constitutional amendment in the United Methodist Church? Each amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a two-thirds vote of the aggregate members of each of the Annual Conferences voting. What it really means is this plan isn’t likely to gain any traction in 2019 (assuming that GC 2019 gets around to voting on any plan).

The confusion created should this plan be adopted would likely lead to many laity, clergy and congregations departing out of sheer frustration and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. Heart-breaking, no?

The One Church Plan

The One Church Plan as proposed would remove the “restrictive” language (some have called it “hurtful” language) in the Discipline as it refers to the practice of homosexuality, and would change the definition of marriage from “between one man and one woman” to being between “two adults.” Additionally, each Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry would be allowed to determine its own ordination standards as it relates to human sexuality.

Okay, this is where it gets sticky. Some have referred to this as the “local option” plan because individual clergy would not be compelled to violate conscience if he/she was opposed to same-gender marriage. The clergy would not be required to perform weddings in celebration of the aforementioned, nor would local congregations be compelled to host same-gender weddings in violation of its collective conscience. (Here’s why I don’t believe this plan would ever work.)

Likewise, bishops are not required to ordain or license homosexual persons in violation of their conscience, but it does make provision if the Annual Conference has opted to ordain, for another bishop to ordain the individual in that bishop’s stead. It does not, however, protect a bishop from having to appoint a clergy person that he/she believes to be unfit for ministry. The Plan does include provisions that prevent a bishop or District Superintendent from retaliating against a clergy who refuses to violate her/his conscience.

I’ll not go into greater detail about the One Church Plan. I’ve linked to the entire plan in a couple of different places already. Read it at your leisure (or at your peril!). I will tell you why I think this plan is untenable.

The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church

Proponents of the One Church Plan (including the Council of Bishops–though not every Bishop agrees) believe it is possible for those who disagree on issues of human sexuality to peacefully coexist in one denomination. I think nearly 50 years of continuous debate over the issue proves that theory incorrect. Proponents of the plan see human sexuality as a non-essential. Opponents of the plan disagree greatly, and based on the conversations I’ve had, are not likely to change that understanding.

Adopting the One Church plan will accomplish one thing: It will remove the debate from the General Church level. What it will do, in the alternative, is take it down to the local church level where each local congregation will have to determine and debate its own understanding of human sexuality, thus increasing the conflict in the denomination rather than lessening it.

The One Church Plan would also weaken the understanding of what it means to be United Methodist. Well, it would just set up a situation where neighboring UM churches could have differing standards–UM churches in the same town…on the same street, for heaven’s sake! Talk about brand confusion (forgive the secular marketing reference, but…)! We can call it the One Church Plan, but it does, by default, create two (or more?) churches with its implementation. It is, at best, a false unity.

The One Church Plan makes me ask the question, “If we can choose our standards on human sexuality, why can’t each local congregation (or clergy) choose their own standards on baptism or communion?” Seems to me to be only one of the Pandora’s boxes we open with the passage of the One Church Plan.

Additionally, as a former District Superintendent, I can see the nightmare the appointive process would become under such a plan. It was difficult enough to connect clergy and congregations in a fruitful way without the One Church Plan, and for Annual Conferences with a shortage of clergy, the issue would be multiplied even more. I also envision a time in the not too distant future when bishops and cabinets would say, “Sexual preference is not a consideration in the appointment-making process.”

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this Plan disregards the historic, biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, and puts the United Methodist Church firmly outside the broader global community of the body of Christ on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. Do we really want to do that?

If the One Church Plan passes GC 2019, it will precipitate the departure of many evangelical, traditional members (both lay and clergy) and congregations for whom the issue of human sexuality is a non-negotiable. Their departure will weaken the United Methodist Church, and that breaks my heart.

Other Considerations

This has become a long blog (I apologize), so I will only briefly mention a few other considerations involved in the debate. Bishop Bruce Ough has rightly discerned, “Let’s be clear, if we divide, nearly all our essential unifying institutional activities would be lost or severely diminished.” Our UM institutions will be harmed, and the future of many will be uncertain–some will, in fact, cease to exist. Our global mission partnerships will end or be financially limited. Pension obligations may go unmet (especially pre-1982 pensions [Methodist nerds will know what that is]), and that would be devastating to countless faithful clergy. Property fights would ensue, diverting precious resources away from the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I contend that each of those things will happen regardless of which plan is passed. Perhaps not on the scale of a full-blown dissolution, but harm will come nonetheless.

The Final Nail in the Mainline Coffin?

The decline of the mainline church in North America is well documented, and while our denomination is growing globally, membership and attendance continues to decline in the U. S., and has since I entered vocational ministry in 1991. Ed Stetzer wrote a piece in 2017 noting that unless something happen, mainline Protestantism has a mere 23 Easters left. My heart aches as I consider the possibility that General Conference 2019 will hasten that decline, and will serve as the final nail in the mainline coffin (at least in the U. S.).

United Methodism is still the largest of the remaining “mainline” Protestant denominations, and the singular one which has not yet embraced the ordination of LGBTQI+ persons or same-gender marriage. Only the Traditional Plan will (ostensibly) prevent this from happening, but even if it passes, the UMC is likely to come out bruised and weakened. Regardless of what happens February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, everything will be different in the UMC on February 27th. At least, that’s my speculation.

Alarmist, you say? Negativity? Hyperbole? Divisive? Well, I prefer the term realistic.  I don’t want our church divided. I don’t want to see our congregations diminished. I don’t want the United Methodist name to be tarnished. I don’t want to break fellowship with sisters and brothers with whom I’ve traversed the highway of ministry. Each of those possibilities break my heart.

Yet, I am not one who is without hope. I do believe in miracles, and I am praying for a miracle to happen in St. Louis. I believe God has the power to work a miracle among the people called United Methodist. The problem doesn’t lie with God’s ability, but rather with our openness to the move of the Holy Spirit among us as the work is done. So, I pray that all our hearts will be open to what the Holy Spirit desires to accomplish in us and through us during that time.

In the meantime, I’m going to focus as much effort as I’m able to reach the lost in the community around me. I’m going to look to the future with plans for continuing ministry to the broken among us. I’m going to do all I can do to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That mission hasn’t changed.

Even still, I’m not without hope. Should February 2019 drive the final nail in the mainline coffin, I am certain the work of the Kingdom will continue. God is in the resurrection business, and we all know there has to be a death before there can be a resurrection.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

On April 28, 2017, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church issued its ruling regarding the July 2016 election and consecration of Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Almost everyone I know (from a Methodist perspective anyway) was waiting for this ruling, and many of them have asked me what I thought of the ruling. My answer has been: “I think it’s better than it could have been and worse than it should have been.”

BETTER THAN IT COULD HAVE BEEN

It’s better than it could have been because the Judicial Council could have decided it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter. That is, in essence, what they ruled in part of the case. The Council concluded it did not have jurisdiction over the nomination, election and assignment as Bishop (you can read the entire decision here), but that it did have jurisdiction over the consecration of a homosexual bishop, and in that matter, the Western Jurisdiction violated church law. The decision goes on to say that any clergy who participated in the consecration are subject to a “chargeable offense.”

I’m not going to comment on the intricate details of the case because I’m not an attorney steeped in church law, but I will say that any intelligent person could read The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and conclude that the consecration of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is a violation of church law. No matter how one parses the words, they say what they say, and no matter a person’s gifts and graces for ministry, the words say what they say. If we don’t like what the words say, then the words should be changed, but every four years for forty plus years, the wording has been reaffirmed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

So, the ruling is better than it could have been. The Western Jurisdiction violated church law when it consecrated Rev. Dr. Oliveto bishop (although Oliveto was not specifically named in the petition). I believe it was the correct decision, and it helped to bring some clarity to the current debates within the United Methodist Church around human sexuality.

WORSE THAN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

But, the decision is worse than it should have been. I know many will disagree with that statement, and that’s perfectly okay with me (this is me assenting to your right to dissent–so please keep the nasty and snarky comments to a minimum). The decision left Oliveto in “good standing” in the office of Bishop, and remanded the case back to the Western Jurisdiction for what is called an “administrative process.”

Yes, others have asked what that means, too. Let me see if I can explain it briefly. Just like in the secular world, a person has a right to “due process,” so in the church a clergy person has the right to “due process” before any action can be taken against him/her (this is a good thing), so the ruling sends it back to the Western Jurisdiction for the process to play itself out.

So, while that’s good, it’s bad because the Western Jurisdiction is the entity that elected  and consecrated Oliveto in the first place, so I anticipate that nothing of substance will be done through the process, and when all is said and done, Oliveto will still be a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and those of us who hold to the traditional biblical understanding of marriage will continue to be frustrated with the politics of it all (I’m speaking purely of church politics here). It’s also bad because it will continue to be a distraction from the mission of the church, and will continue to drain time, energy and resources away from the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

WHAT NOW?

So, what do we do now? We wait…just like we’ve been doing. We’ll wait to see how the administrative process works itself out in the Western Jurisdiction. We’ll also continue to wait and see what the Commission on a Way Forward recommends when it completes its work, and we’ll wait to see what the special called session of General Conference does with that information when it meets in February of 2019, in St. Louis, MO.

In our waiting, we might discover that the Holy Spirit is prepared to do a new work with these people called United Methodist. The Holy Spirit could, in fact, be giving birth to a new Methodist movement. If we react now with frustration and anger (no matter which “side” of the debate we take), we might just miss the greatest move of the Holy Spirit in Methodism since John Wesley‘s heart was strangely warmed at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. Let’s all remain faithful with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness (those are the vows every person takes when she/he joins the United Methodist Church).

There is one thing we can do in the waiting, and that is to pray. We must pray for unity…but not unity for an institution…we must pray for unity in the body of Christ that goes far beyond any human institution. We must also pray for unity in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must also pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us with fire so that our singular purpose will be a people who have nothing to do but save souls.

More than waiting, though, is the necessity of work…the work of the Kingdom. We must continue to be in ministry to the least, the last and the lost. There are homeless people to feed. There are foster children to care for. There are churches to build. There are souls to save (there’s my evangelical bent coming through). There are people to love, there’s a God to worship and adore and there’s Jesus to follow. Nothing any Council (Judicial or otherwise) could ever do will change the commandment Jesus gave us to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20 NLT).

So, I’ll wait, and pray and work. May I invite you to join me in that endeavor.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Call to Prayer…

It’s time to pray. Of course, as disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s always time to pray, but that sentiment is never more true than now for those of us called United Methodist. The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church begins its semi-annual meeting in Newark, New Jersey April 25th, and one of the main issues on its docket is the legality of the election and consecration of a homosexual clergy person to the office of Bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Members of the 2016-2020 Judicial Council. (From left) Front: Ruben T. Reyes, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., the Rev. Luan-Vu Tran. Back row: Deanell Reece Tacha, Lídia Romão Gulele, the Rev.Øyvind Helliesen, the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, and the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko. (Not pictured, Beth Capen)

In July 2016, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as the first openly gay bishop. As Bishop Oliveto was being elected, the South Central Jurisdiction was still in session, and upon the announcement of Dr. Oliveto’s election, delegates of the South Central Jurisdiction passed a resolution asking the Judicial Council to rule on a specific set of questions regarding the legality of the election.

Oral arguments in the matter are expected to be heard on April 25th, and the expectation is the Judicial Council will issue its ruling soon afterward. There are several possible outcomes in the case. For a review of those possibilities and more docket information, you can click on these links:

https://juicyecumenism.com/2017/04/20/preview-umc-judicial-councils-april-2017-cases/

http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/finance-and-administration/lgbtq-united-methodist-allies-prepare-for-judicial-council-s_1/

For me, this week is a watershed moment for United Methodism. In the interest of full disclosure, I was at the South Central Jurisdiction in July 2016 as a delegate, and I voted in support (as did 56% of the delegates) of the request to the Judicial Council. How the Council rules (or fails to rule) may well determine the future of our denomination. I have had persons tell me they were preparing to leave our church if the ruling went one way, and I’ve had people tell me they were prepared to leave our church if the ruling went another way. That’s a no-win either way you look at it. The ruling will likely impact mission, membership and money, and in a cultural environment that is increasingly hostile to the Gospel, it is an unfortunate witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, no one really knows how a ruling may impact the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.  The Commission has been working for several months now to discern a unified way to move forward in the face of the diversity that exists, both within the Church and within culture. It will also be unfortunate that the General Conference has invested such resources to render the work moot.

Please don’t read any of this blog as anything more than a simple call to prayer for our United Methodist Church. Mine is simply another in a litany of such calls. You can read one here. I have a number of sentiments I could share here, but a colleague, Rev. Shane Bishop, has done a masterful job here, so I share his thoughts, not as my own, but as a summation of where I am personally and professionally.

So, please join me in prayer this week. Pray for:

  • Wisdom and discernment from the Holy Spirit for the Judicial Council
  • Grace for those who will present oral arguments
  • Peace among the “opposing” sides in the continuing debate
  • Strength for our bishops as they lead us amidst the chaos
  • Unity in our denomination as we face the uncertainty of the decisions and their consequences, both intended and unintended
  • Bishop Oliveto
  • Our pastors who lead congregations that hold a diversity of opinions
  • Our laity who desire to serve Christ through their local congregations

It’s time to pray folks! If you’ve never prayed for your United Methodist Church before (well, shame on you if you haven’t!), please do so now. While you’re praying, keep in mind that whatever happens, we are an Easter people. Things may not be the same after this week, but each day provides an opportunity for new life. The Lord is not done with the United Methodist Church yet. It just remains to be seen what the Lord might do with us next.

Until next time, keep looking up…(and, pray while you’re doing it!)

 

The Malone Family Annual 2016

So…I haven’t been blogging, but I’m committed to changing that habit. Look for a post once a week with mostly random thoughts, but to get back in the “spirit” of things, here’s a Christmas season catch-up for anyone who is interested.

The Malone Family Annual 2016

I must confess that I took 2015 off from writing the Malone Family Annual. I don’t know why I did. There are no good excuses, but as someone once said, “When you’re looking for an excuse, any excuse will do.” I won’t make an excuse. I took the year off. Don’t think, however, that you’ll get two years’ worth of news. I’ll bring you up to date on the past year and if you want news from other years, well, get on Facebook!

The year started off with Vanessa and me doing one of the silliest things we’ve ever done. We bought a house in Alabama! I don’t know why we did. I’d like to say it was my great business acumen that convinced Vanessa it would be a great investment, but really it was our banker convincing her we could make money on it if we decided to sell it. Anyway…we bought it, and yes, it is for rent! If you’re looking for a beach vacation, give us a call. We’ll hook you up! (Click here to make a reservation!)

pushmataha2016 also afforded Vanessa and me the opportunity to be reality TV stars. That’s right! We appeared on an episode of Island Life on HGTV. Oddly enough, the episode aired on Easter Sunday, March 27th. Here’s what I learned about reality TV during that adventure:

  • There’s nothing real about reality TV (it’s all scripted).
  • Making a TV show is hard work (three 14-hour days to shoot 19 minutes of video).
  • When someone asks you “Would you like to be on a reality TV show?” your first question should be “How much are you going to pay me?” (Our 15 minutes of fame actually cost us money!).

gc2016-logo-color-hi-res-690x370I was blessed (if blessed is the right word) to spend two weeks in May in Portland, OR at the General Conference for the United Methodist Church. It was my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, and it is a breathtaking part of the country. I took a day trip to Seaside, WA and dipped my toes in the Pacific Ocean. It was on a Sunday. May I confess I DID NOT go to worship that day? May I ask your forgiveness? General Conference was a neat and interesting experience.

Vanessa and I spent four days in Wichita, KS in July for Jurisdictional Conference for the South Central Jurisdiction of the UMC. It was the culmination of what I call my “pseudo” candidacy for Bishop in the UMC. I thought I heard God’s call to offer myself for the Episcopal office. Well, after Jurisdictional Conference, I’m not certain what I heard, but it obviously wasn’t that! I continue (gladly) to serve as Pastor at FUMC, Monroe. But, enough about me…

Vanessa continues to spend her time taking care of me and taking care of our grandchildren (she much prefers taking care of the grandchildren). Of course, each of those tasks over the past year fell between the demands of the BIG news in the Malone family this year (more on that in a minute), but suffice it to say, she’s stayed as busy as she wanted to stay. She has stayed busy settling us into a new house. Yes, that’s right, we sold our house here in Monroe, and no, that’s not the BIG news. Why did we sell our house? Well, when someone knocks on your door and asks you how much it would take to buy your house, you throw out a number and they accept it, you tend to sell it. It only means one thing, though: we left money on the table. We’re in a rental and looking for a new one to buy. Check next year’s Annual for updates.

family-wedding-pic-2So, on to the BIG news. On December 3, 2016, Kelsey Malone became Kelsey Malone Ingram as she married Matthew Ingram. The couple are at home now in West Monroe, LA where she is a customer service representative with State Farm Insurance (and she continues to serve on staff at FUMC as contemporary worship leader) and Matthew is in computers with CenturyLink.

Brittney is at home in West Monroe and is a sales representative with Republic Beverage. Adam and his two boys (Kade and Kobyn) call West Monroe home but he works half the year in Malaysia. Josh, Piper and their brood (Peyton, Ryder and Skyler) still call Minden home. Not much news about the children this year. They don’t live at home anymore, so we don’t have nearly as much news as we once did.

Well, that’s certainly the Reader’s Digest version of the Malone family news for 2016. I’ll stop because I’m tired of writing, and I KNOW you’re tired of reading. I’ll simply say “Merry Christmas and Happy and Blessed New Year!”

Unexpected!

unexpectedEvery one of us has certain expectations at Christmas. We expect to buy gifts and we expect to receive gifts. We expect the lights and the colors and the sights and the sounds of the season. We expect to eat a lot! We expect long lines in the department stores, and apparently this year more than ever, we expect to avoid those lines by ordering on-line and having it delivered to our home or office. We expect to be rushed from event to event, from party to party, from school play to church social. We expect to see family and friends. There is much about Christmas that is expected.

We expect, too, when we go to church at Christmas that we’re going to hear something about the Christmas story. It is quite unexpected to be reading and hearing about John the Baptist at Christmas! God did some pretty unexpected things that first Christmas—like coming into the world as an infant! But, God has always done the unexpected, and John the Baptist is an example. Besides, this is Advent, and remember that Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, and John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare for the coming of Christ. God used an unexpected time, and an unexpected person, and an unexpected message to speak His revelation.

It was an unexpected time. Luke sets the time in the context of the political and religious climate of the first century ancient near east. Israel was under the hand of oppressive leadership, both politically and religiously. Luke, ever the historian, notes Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Herod and his brother Philip as the political leaders, and Annas and Caiaphas as the high priests—who would be considered the religious leaders. Additionally, the prophets (who were God’s spokespersons) hadn’t spoken in over 400 years. Everyone expected that God didn’t care. Yet, when it was least expected, Luke tells us “it was at this time a message came from God…”

There was also an unexpected person. This message, Luke tells us, came to John, the son of Zechariah. We call him John the Baptist. It was quite unexpected that God would use this strange man who lived out in the desert and had a crazy wardrobe of camel hair, and had a steady diet of locusts and wild honey. No, we would expect that God would use the religious leaders, or even the political leaders of the day. Don’t they speak for God? Ha! We can’t always assume that God will use the religious leaders to do His bidding. This passage…this event…challenges me. After all, I’m considered a religious leader. It forces me to ask, “What am I doing with what God has entrusted to me?” And, we say we live in a Christian nation (debatable, I know), but seriously, we can’t ever expect our political leaders to speak for God. We can pray for them. We can hope they’ll be in tune to God’s will, that they’ll embody some kind of spirituality, but this passage reminds me that God chose a crazy man from the backside of the desert to deliver his message to a hurting, longing world.

There was an unexpected message, and that was “The King is coming!” It was a call to get ready, and there was some pretty specific instruction as to how that was to look: repentance and baptism. Well, what was unexpected about that? After all, these were not foreign concepts to first century folks. The Old Testament has many examples of people turning from sin and God forgiving them. One of the most prominent examples the Jewish people knew was of David’s repentance when Samuel confronted him concerning his sin with Bathsheba. David said, “I have sinned against the Lord!” But, Samuel said, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you.” Zacchaeus, in Luke 19, is an example of a Jewish person who repented. After his encounter with Jesus, he gave away half his wealth and paid back up to four times that which he had cheated from others. I’m not sure whether you realize it or not, but that’s a lot of money!

Likewise, these Jewish people would be well familiar with the idea of baptism, for Gentile converts who came to the Jewish faith had to be baptized to be considered Jewish. They were baptized into the faith. But, baptism was for Gentiles. The unexpected twist was John was preaching baptism to Jewish folk. They needed to be baptized? Now, that was unexpected! It was an unexpected person in an unexpected time preaching an unexpected message. There are a few implications we can draw from this passage.

First, God is never not near. God is always present, even in those times we can’t see or feel him…even in those times when God seems silent. Sometimes (so I’ve been reminded), God is simply too near to see. God hasn’t forgotten us! God hasn’t forgotten the United States of America. God hasn’t forgotten the Syrian refugees. God hasn’t forgotten the hungry child in Africa. God hasn’t forgotten the lonely widow. God hasn’t forgotten the unemployed oil field worker, and God has forgotten you. When we least expect it, God will be right here…meeting our need, but more importantly, doing His will.

Second, life always happens in God’s time.  Our problem is our understanding of time. How is it we say that we never have enough time, but we’ll make time for that project or meeting or social event we desire to attend? We mark time by dates on a calendar, by days and weeks and years, by hours and minutes and seconds. The ancient Greeks had two words for time—chronos and Kairos. Chronos time is that time we mark with the calendar and watch. We measure it. Kairos is different. We can’t translate it precisely, it refers to time that is opportune. Chronos is quantitative. Kairos is qualitative. God operates by Kairos time.

Third, God uses nobodies from nowhere. I’m the perfect example of that fact. I’m just a Bubba from Jackson Parish, LA. Jackson Parish may not be the backside of the desert, but it’s as close to the backside of nowhere as you’ll ever come. Never in a million years would I have ever dreamed of pastoring First United Methodist Church of Monroe. Actually, being a pastor at all was not one of the things on my check-list of things to do. But God uses nobodies from nowhere to speak to a hurting and broken world.

Even after I came to ministry, I could never believe I’d pack my family up and move them 800 miles away to go to seminary, but God calls, and when God calls we go. Because God uses people from the backside of nowhere to make a difference in the Kingdom. Never would I believe that I would pastor some of the best churches in Louisiana. Seriously, I’ve had colleagues share horror stories of churches served, but I can honestly say that I’ve never had a bad appointment. Not one.

Never in a million years would I believe I would have the opportunity to serve the church as a District Superintendent, but when God calls we answer, and I served the best district in the Annual Conference for two years. And, I must confess, never in a million years would I believe God would ever call me to offer myself in service to the larger Church as a candidate for the office of bishop in the United Methodist Church. But, Vanessa and I believe that is what God is calling us to do in this coming year. Now that is totally unexpected!

What does this mean for First United Methodist Church? Nothing, for now. Nothing will change in the near future. Bishops are elected by the Church, and election for bishop will be held in July 2016 at Jurisdictional Conference. Because it is an elected position, there is the very real possibility that nothing will change. I will stand for election, and if not elected, I will continue serving as your pastor. If elected, however, I will begin service as a bishop immediately and FUMC will be appointed a new pastor. In the meantime, I will continue to preach and lead as I’ve done over the past two and a half years. The vision God has entrusted to us will continue to move forward in the same manner as if I were not surrendering to this call.

I love serving you as your pastor, and nothing would please me more than to continue serving you as such for a very long time. God may, indeed, make a way for that to happen. Surrendering to this call is simply my desire to live in obedience to God. Vanessa and I have wrestled with this call since January, and after having said “No” on two occasions, we were compelled to not say “No” a third time (I’ll have to tell you the whole story sometime).

I know there are a multitude of questions. I confess I don’t have all the answers. This is a new experience for me, too, so we’ll walk this journey together. But, I’ll answer as many questions as I possibly can in the coming months. I covet your prayers for Vanessa, my family and myself as we offer ourselves to the broader Kingdom of God in this way. And, continue prayer for our congregation as we seek God’s will for all our lives.

 

We still have to live in the meantime. How appropriate, especially since Advent reminds us that we “live in the meantime”—between Jesus’ coming and his coming again. In the meantime, Jesus still meets us in quite unexpected ways. Where is He meeting you?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Not Enough Hours in the Day (And Other Rambling Thoughts)…

clergy burnoutI belong to a private Facebook group for clergy, and one of my colleagues posted a question about work hours to the group. The person pastors a growing church and was concerned about the number of hours worked in a typical week. The person was asking the members of the group to respond with their own typical hours. It made for some interesting responses, and prompted me to consider (or reconsider) “work” hours for myself and others.

First, a disclaimer: I write as one who went through a period of clergy burnout, so my responses may be colored by that fact. Don’t hold it against me, please. Here’s a helpful list of resources dealing with clergy burnout.

The person made the statement that he/she was working 48 – 60 hours per week, and wanted to know from others in the group is this was normal. My response? Uh…YEAH! Especially if the church you pastor is experiencing any growth. Of course, this raises the question of overwork for pastors (keep the lazy preacher jokes to yourself–and also the jokes about only working one day per week).

Here are my thoughts on pastoral work hours, and only a little rationale underlying why I think what I think. Please be gracious with any responses. Pastors have feelings, too!

I begin each week with the expectation that I’m going to “work” 50 hours per week. I also begin each week knowing the week is unpredictable, and there is no legitimate way to know how many hours I may work. I do anticipate that 50 will be the minimum. If there is a funeral or a wedding (or two, or three funerals…), then that number will stretch to nearer 60. This is my own expectation, not one anyone has placed upon me. Actually, if you look in the United Methodist Book of Discipline at the “job description” of a clergy, it would take closer to 90 hours a week, but that’s another discussion. Dr. Thom Rainer found that if you add up all the hours  for the congregational expectations for the various tasks clergy perform in a week, it would total 110 hours per week.

Here’s my rationale for my 50-hour work week. My average congregational member will work a 40-hour week. Then, I (as a pastor) expect the most committed member to offer ministry and participation to the local congregation, and if that most committed member offers 8 hours per week (including worship attendance, Sunday school, bible study, servant leadership, etc.), then that person has “worked” 48 hours per week. Why in the world would I ask any member to do more than I am willing to do myself? Aren’t we to lead by example? A subsequent question I ask is: Where does my “vocation” as a pastor end, and my calling as a “disciple” begin? There is a fine (very fine), gray line between the two.

Here’s a typical week for me:

  • Office hours 20 hours/week
  • Sermon preparation 12 – 20 hours/week (depending upon whether I’ve preached a particular passage before)
  • Hospital visitation 2 hours/week
  • Committee and Administrative meetings 4 hours/week
  • Denominational meetings and expectations 2 hours/week
  • Worship 4 hours/week (yes, leading worship is work! Try it sometime and see!)
  • Bible Study preparation (seasonal) 4 – 12 hours/week (depending on the resources utilized in prepartion)

Yes, I know the list totals more than 50 hours, but not every week includes everything on the list. There are some weeks when there are no denominational meetings or expectations, but then there are weeks when those expectations demand far more than two hours per week. The same with administrative meetings at the church, and also with hospital visitations. Throw in a single funeral, and we can add 6 – 8 hours of additional preparation time.

Please don’t misunderstand me. None of this is complaining! In one regard, I’m trying to figure out how my colleagues in ministry can possibly work less than 40 hours a week, or even limit ministry to 40 hours a week. They must be better at time management than I am! Of course, I’m the first to admit that I’m no good at time management.clergy chill

The real question for me (and this is a matter of boundaries, I suppose) is this: How much of what I do, do I do because I’m a pastor, and how much do I do because I’m a disciple? Therein lies the struggle for me. How much of what I do as a pastor would I do because I’m a disciple first? Yes, I know. There would be no sermon prep nor office hours, but I would be doing office hours somewhere, and I would be putting together projects or making sales calls, or doing whatever my chosen profession expected of me to be successful, so it would all balance out. I just figure if I haven’t invested 50 hours a week I probably haven’t done as much as my most committed member. I should do as much as my most committed member.

One of the great benefits of being a pastor is flexibility in scheduling work. With the exception of Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, we can flex our schedules relatively easily. That is definitely a benefit. This week might demand 60 hours, but next week might demand only 45, and I can greatly influence how I order those 45. There may even be the odd week that offers me the freedom to work less than 40 (those are rare, but they do happen) hours. God usually sends those at just the right time.

None of this is to say that overwork can’t be a problem. We should always observe a Sabbath. Sabbath rest is a biblical principle, and as congregational leaders (and disciples) we should lead by example. Since my burnout in 2008 I have pretty much honored my Sabbath. Yes, sometimes, funerals, special events, and unforeseen circumstances prevent it, but that’s where flexibility of scheduling becomes the benefit. We must take our Sabbath rest…must! The greatest problem many of us clergy have is getting past our own need to be needed. Take the Sabbath rest. The work will still be there when we get back. Perhaps we need the Sabbath rest to wrestle with the question, “Why do I need to be needed?” The greatest lesson I’ve learned as a pastor (a little hyperbole, folks) is that if something happens to me, there’ll be another pastor right behind me to take my place (especially in our United Methodist system of appointment). That’s also a humbling lesson. I’m not indispensable.

There’s much more I could write on this subject, but the simple fact is that I’ve already invested too much time this morning writing this blog, and I didn’t include writing this blog in figuring my hourly work load, so I’ve totally messed up my week. But, is this blog work, or is it discipleship, or is it for fun? I wonder? See how gray the line gets?

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Value in Growing Smaller…

A phrase kept going through my mind: Reduction is a strategic endeavor. Like a song gets stuck in your head, I simply could not put those words out of my mind. I finally got up at 3:30 a.m., and wrote them down.

tape measureAt first, the phrase didn’t make sense to me, especially in light of the fact that I’m supposed to be “growing” a church. That was my first connection to the phrase, but for some reason, that left too much undefined. So, what did I do? I went to Facebook (isn’t that what we always do these days?). I posted the phrase with two companion sentences: Reduction is a strategic endeavor. Some things must grow smaller before growing larger. Some things get better by being smaller. I asked for comments. Yes, I got quite a few (and no, there were no snide comments about reducing my waistline), but they all helped bring some clarity to the idea that “reduction is a strategic endeavor.”

Here’s what I’m thinking:

It’s a personal statement about de-cluttering one’s life. We must be strategic in eliminating the right things from our life to make margin for those endeavors that are fruitful and beneficial to helping us live healthy lives. There are a lot of things with which we can occupy our time. Most of them are good things, but not all of them are the best ways for us to grow as healthy persons and disciples. We must be strategic in eliminating the distractions, and focus on the things that matter most.

Okay, so it’s also personal, and can refer to my waistline. If we want to lose weight (and I can’t think of many people who don’t want to lose weight), we must develop a healthy strategy of exercise and diet. Without a strategy (and subsequent implementation) we’ll never take the first step in doing the necessary things to accomplish the goal. I might add, this is purely self-referential. I’m not casting a dispersion on anyone else and their waistline. Developing a strategy for healthy weight loss allows us to plan our work and then work our plan.

As I reflect, I understand that “reduction is a strategic endeavor” is also an intensely spiritual statement. I am reminded of John the Baptist’s words in John 3:30, “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” It is a statement about humility. We must be strategic in living lives of humility so that our mind becomes the mind of Christ. What are those things that keep me from humbling myself before Him? Is it my pride? How do I deal with that issue? Is it my arrogance? How do I deal with that? Is it my self-centeredness? How must I deal this that? Is it my laziness? Is it the fact that I rather enjoy having my own way? There are so many questions I ask myself that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what it means to become less and less that He might become greater and greater. More than identifying them, how do I develop a strategy for dealing with them. Come Holy Spirit!

I discover the statement is also a professional statement. As I ponder this aspect of “reduction is a strategic endeavor,” I consider the “busy-ness” of many churches. We are busy with activity, but is the activity fruitful. Activities become the “end” for many churches rather than the “means.” We end up doing activity for activities sake, and that only serves to make the church more insular and stifles involvement in the community (where the people who need Jesus hang out). Thom Rainer did a great podcast on the subject recently, and made some very salient points:

  1. Activity is not biblical purpose.
  2. Busyness can take us away from connecting with other believers and non-believers.
  3. An activity-driven church often is not strategic in its ministries.
  4. A congregation that is too busy can hurt families.
  5. An activity-driven church often has no presence in the community.
  6. Activity-driven churches tend to have “siloed” ministries.
  7. Churches that focus on activities tend to practice poor stewardship.

As the body of Christ, we must be strategic in eliminating every activity that does not specifically address the mission of reaching others with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will probably get into some touchy areas, but without a strategy, we will continue to be busy, but not rather effective. What a shame!

I also reflected on “reduction is a strategic endeavor” for the church as a whole. It sounds counter-intuitive to us as we see “mega-churches” (and now, “giga-churches”) growing by leaps and bounds, and we know that growth is good, especially when others accept Christ as Lord and Savior. But, I was given pause as I considered the words of John 6:66, “At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Sometimes, discipleship is simply too hard. It’s easier to turn away from the challenges of being a disciple, and one reason the western church may be (and I’m only speculating here) in the state of decline is because we’ve had a lot of “cultural Christians”–those who were part of the body of Christ for the benefits that came from a religious affiliation. Perhaps (and again, I’m speculating) persecution is the Lord’s strategy for winnowing out His church.

Finally, there is another consideration on the phrase “reduction is a strategic endeavor” that I’ve pondered. It stems from my time as a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church. It’s painful, but it’s true, and I hesitate to even mention it here, but I feel compelled. There are many congregations in the UM Church that lack effectiveness (for a number of reasons). Those small congregations draw resources, energy and attention away from the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Is it a matter of stewardship to develop a strategy for dealing with those congregations, for developing a strategy for reducing the number of congregations that are not achieving the mission? That’s a challenging thought, and one for which I will receive much push back, but shouldn’t someone be asking the question?

There are probably many other considerations I should make, but that’s about where I am this morning. And, now, you know what I’m thinking (as though you even cared!).

Until next time, keep looking up…

Who Said Church is Dying?

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. For those from non-liturgical traditions, Pentecost Sunday is the day we acknowledge the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples 50 days after Jesus resurrection. Luke records events in Acts 2 that occurred that day. Let’s call it the birthday of the Church, and it was one of the most awesome displays of God’s power recorded in the Bible.

pentecostUnfortunately, in many circles today the Holy Spirit is either neglected, forgotten, or misunderstood. The Holy Spirit was given to unite the body of Christ, but the Spirit has become the center of controversy. Sometimes I wonder if we lack unity because we’ve quenched the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches, and in our personal lives. I wonder if we could actually have worship without a bulletin on Sunday morning. Dr. A. W. Tozer, author and pastor, said, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.” He said that prior to 1963. I wonder what he would say in 2015?

The first Pentecost was a demonstration of God’s power that changed the world forever. God’s power brought transformation. That’s what God’s power does. Not only was this past Sunday Pentecost, but it was historically significant for those of us who call ourselves Methodists. We Methodists call May 24th, Aldersgate Sunday. It was May 24th, 1738 that Wesley recorded these events in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death…     After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”

John Wesley had an experience with God’s power, and it too, changed the world. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that is credited with reforming England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians have suggested that England didn’t go the way of France in the 18th century because of John Wesley. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that swept across North America when, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest Protestant denomination in America. One in five Americans called themselves Methodist. Today, 80 million people worldwide find their religious roots in Wesley’s Methodism. That’s what happens when the power of God explodes on His people. The same power that was present on that first Pentecost is the same power that was present with John Wesley on Aldersgate Street in London, and it’s the same power that’s available to you and me today, and it’s the same power that fuels the church.

The recent Pew Research Center study on religion in America reveals some interesting findings about the faith of American Christians. As one who has served as a denominational official, and has studied the decline of our own denomination, the research only confirms what we already knew. I am blessed to serve a mainline church that is bucking the trend, but the truth is that mainline Protestantism has been in decline since the high-water mark of 1955. Someone said, “If 1955 ever comes again, the mainline church will be poised for explosive growth.”

While we may lament the decline of the Church in North America (and other places in western culture), the church is a long way from dying. The power of God revealed in the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost is still active today, and it is just as transformative as it ever was. The Washington Post ran a recent article sharing some of the amazing and encouraging facts about the growth of Christianity around the world. Here are a few facts worth noting:

  • Africa’s Christian population stands at 500 million today. Roughly one in four Africans are Christian.
  • Christianity in Asia grew at twice the rate of the population on the continent. In the next ten years, it’s projected that 110 million more people will convert to Christianity on the Asian continent.
  • Demographers estimate that more Christian believers are found worshipping in China on any given Sunday than in the United States.

As United Methodist, I’m particularly encouraged by what’s taking place in Africa. Today, there are nearly 5 million African Methodists, with an average of 220,000 more being added each year. Within ten years there will be more African United Methodists than in the United States. The Philippines is also seeing an explosion of Methodism. There, nearly one million people are  being reached through the 24 Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church.

There are other statistics I could point to that affirm the fact that Pentecost is still happening. People are being touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, and their lives are being changed. Though we lament the direction of the church in America (which says a whole lot more about us than it does the power of the Holy Spirit), it is a bit like Mark Twain said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” No, the church is not dead. It’s not even dying. It’s more alive today than ever before. If we would be the Church, and see the power of God revealed then we must, once again, open ourselves to the mind-blowing, life-changing, and as John Wesley wrote, the heart-warming Holy Spirit.

Let the fire fall, O God! Let the fire fall!

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Malone Family Annual 2014…

I started a “tradition” in 2003 of writing an annual letter to send to friends and family to catch them up on the happenings of the Malone family. Not that anyone cared about the happenings of the Malone family, but a letter seemed an easier (and less expensive) method of staying in touch with friends from churches we served, and with family that we rarely ever saw, than purchasing tons of cards, writing a personal note in each one, and getting them in the mail.

So, 2014 will mark the 12th letter in the series, and the web and Facebook have made connecting with friends and family old and new easier than ever before. I’m posting the annual letter on my blog, I’ll link it to Facebook, and there’ll be a link on Twitter. All that kind of makes mailing the letter seem a little archaic, but we’ll mail as many as we ever do (actually, a few more–we add a few more each year), only those we mail will be later (you’ll probably get them after Christmas–it has something to do with four funerals in a week, preparations for three Christmas Eve worship services, and the lack of color ink for the printer). So, read it now…or, wait for the print edition…or, don’t read it. The choice, as always, is yours!

The Malone Family Annual

Christmas 2014

Malone Family 2014 (2)One more year behind. It doesn’t seem quite possible that an entire year has passed since I last wrote. I must confess this has been the fastest year of my life. I’ve blinked and it’s gone. I’ve blinked and the children are bigger (grandchildren, I mean—I suppose “older” might be a better word). I’ve blinked and my hair is a little grayer (at least it turned gray and not loose).

I’m not sure how much news there is to report this year, and I’m so late writing that this is more apt to be a New Year’s update rather than a Christmas update. I’ve just been too busy to sit down and write, and when I’ve not been busy, I’ve simply been too tired. Yes, I know. “You’re a pastor. You only work one day a week!” Yes, but that one day is a killer. Takes a whole week to recover!

Where should I begin? Vanessa and I have completed another year at First UMC, Monroe. It’s been a great year, too. We still enjoy spending as much time as we can on our back porch, especially by the fire pit, and Vanessa is enjoying spending as much time as possible being grandma. She travels every Thursday to Minden to keep Josh’s three—that’s right, three—but I’ll share more about that in a moment. One thing I’ve even considered is that with Facebook, this annual letter is becoming a little obsolete. Want to know what’s happening with the Malone Family? Just log on to Facebook. We post way too much stuff on there.

So, here’s the skinny on the Malone Family for 2014. Adam is at home in West Monroe with Felicia and their two boys, Kade (15) and Kobyn (11). Both the boys are quite musical, and we hope they continue to hone those talents in the future. They are all very active at FUMC, Monroe, and that’s a blessing, too. Also, Adam is now a professional writer. He writes a regular article at www.whodatdish.com. It’s all about the New Orleans Saints, a passion he and I both enjoy, so I’ve had fun reading his musings. He continues working for Noble Drilling Corporation, and is headed for Australia (probably by the time you receive this letter).

skyler (2)Josh and Piper’s big news, of course, is the birth of their third child at the end of September. Skyler Augustus Malone was born on September 29th. Mom and Dad call him Skyler (well, everyone else, too), but Poppy prefers to call him Gus-Gus. We’ll see how long he (or they) let me get away with that. Of course, the twins (Peyton and Ryder) have already taken Skyler under their wing and are teaching him all their mischievous ways. We’ll see where that leads.

Brittney and Kelsey are living at home now. Kelsey graduated from LA Tech University (Go Dawgs—we’re now a three Dawg family) in May, is exploring permanent, long-term (at least, that’s what Dad hopes) employment options, and continues to play the keyboard for our contemporary worship service as well as for J-Force, our children’s choir. Brittney will be moving to Bossier City in January. She’s taken a new position as manager at Hooter’s in Bossier City. She’s commuting from Monroe right now (send money, please), but will have her apartment beginning January 1. We’re happy for her. It’s the job she’s wanted for a long time. We’re glad it finally came to fruition.

That about catches everyone up on the happenings of the Malone Family for 2014. Seriously, just check Facebook. You’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know. We love you all. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Better, or New?

This past weekend has been incredible. Incredible in the sense that I’ve had three days with John Ed Mathison. I invited John Ed in January to come to FUMC, Monroe, to work with our leadership in discerning a vision for God’s future in our community. John Ed led our Church Council and staff in a retreat on Saturday, preached in worship on Sunday, and led the staff in a retreat on Monday (albeit shortened due to the storms). For me, the best part was having three days to pick his brain concerning life, ministry and the United Methodist Church. Anyone who spends even a day with John Ed quickly understands why he has been so effective and fruitful over 50+ years of ministry.

john ed mathisonJohn Ed never offers platitudes or complex strategies. He offers simple advice and direction. When he says something so strikingly simple, you’re like, “Duh! How could I not have known that?” The weekend was filled with those moments for me.

One such moment came Saturday morning during the Council retreat. One simple statement has resounded over and over in these three days following: “Jesus didn’t come to make us better, he came to make us new.” That, my friends, summarizes the idea of transformation. We’re not meant to be better people as followers of Jesus Christ, we’re meant to be different people. I suppose that single phrase struck me so deeply because I heard it in light of my preparation for Bible study this week. I’m reflecting over Paul’s letter to the Romans, and we deal specifically this week with the powerful transitional passage in Romans 12: 1 – 2:

12 And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. 

I love Paul’s great transition from the theological to the practical in his letter to the Romans. I like it precisely because it moves from the abstract realm to the practical, and after all, the Christian life is meant to be lived practically in community. It would be great to know the mind of Paul as he wrote to the Romans, but I get the sense as I read his letter that perhaps he felt at the end of the day if the theology didn’t become practical it wasn’t much good at all. Paul’s message in Romans 12: 1-2 is as simple as John Ed’s reminder that we are meant to be different people, not simply better people.

Paul, never lacking in boldness (after all, he did tell the Corinthians “imitate me”), shares specifics concerning what this transformation ought to look like (Paul also liked lists!). It is in reflecting on Paul’s specifics that I find myself most convicted. I might even call his counsel in the verses following his call for transformation another set of “be” attitudes. Here’s what I see:

  • “Be” honest with myself (12:3)
  • “Be” in ministry to others (12:4-8)
  • “Be” loving (12:9, 13:8-10)
  • “Be” ethical (12:9, 12:21, 13:11-13)
  • “Be” grateful (12:12)
  • “Be” patient (12:12) (Seriously, he had to add this one?)
  • “Be” prayerful (12:12)
  • “Be” hospitable (12:13)
  • “Be” ‘other’-focused (12:14-15)
  • “Be” peaceable (12:17-18)
  • “Be” a good citizen (13:1-7) (Uh, huh! How many of you find this a hard one?)

As I reflect on Paul’s instruction, I’m compelled (again!) to surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. I hear Paul saying (again!) that life is a daily surrender of all of who I am to all of who Christ is. Isn’t that what Paul meant when he said, “Give your body to God?” The old KJV renders the passage this way: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

The term Paul uses for “service” carried the understanding of a worker offering him/herself to an employer. Paul is saying, “Make this transformation thing your life’s work. Make a living out of living for Christ.” In the same sense that I get up and go to work as a pastor, I should get up giving myself to Christ. In the same sense that a person gets up and goes to work as an attorney, or a doctor, or a teacher, or bus driver, or a (well, fill in your own blank), each of us should get up giving ourselves to the one who gave himself for us. As we do, the Holy Spirit will do God’s transforming work in our lives. Transformation is not a one-time proposition. It’s a lifetime affair. Yes, we’ll likely be better people, too, but more importantly, we’ll be new people.

Until next time, keep looking up…