Saturday, July 15, 2017

Pastoring in the Next Methodism

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen a new trend in the UMC blogosphere, a fun thought exercise dubbed “The Next Methodism.”  Pastors, professors, and laity have been offering their hopes and dreams for the United Methodist Church, which usually entails getting back to our roots, both in the early church as well as the early Methodist Movement.  Most of the writers long for the time when our movement was still a movement … Vibrant and growing, attending to the means of grace, creating close community, and reaching new people in the name of Jesus with our specific brand of holiness.

Here is my offering: the Next Methodism is already here.

And I had the great privilege to pastor within it for the last year.

From July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017 I served as a Path1 High Impact Church Planting Resident at Union Coffee, a new UMC church start in north Dallas.  A coffee shop, a non-profit, and a super-Methodist faith community.

But it doesn’t look like it.  At least, not until you dig in.  After all, how many UMCs are open from 7am to 10pm just about every day, inviting the whole neighborhood in to live, work, and drink amazing coffee?  Of course, there’s worship too … Just not on Sunday mornings.  Worship is Sunday night and Tuesday night, and entirely contextual to the communities they reach.

The Next Methodism is already here.  Here are a few things that I’ve found, that my peers across the connection think aren’t already here in abundance:

The Next Methodism is incarnational.  Union looks like its neighborhood and desires to incarnate Christ for all people who walk through the doors. It invites people in from all walks of life to get their work done, meet new people in a safe place, and grow new community.  Nonprofits startup within Union on a regular basis.  Study groups from local universities and high schools are always meeting.  Bible studies connected to Union and other faith communities are consistently happening.

The Next Methodism is collaborative.  At Union, things are collaborative from the bottom up.  Sermons are participatory and include the whole room.  Offering time always includes a testimony.  Worship is planned every Sunday afternoon by a planning teams cultivated from each service.  And planning meetings always include healthy critique of the previous week – did the message hit all the points?  Did the music strike the right notes?  Did anybody feel marginalized?  And any initiatives at Union, from small groups to clubs are lay-led with the support of the pastor.  Which brings us to the next thing:

The Next Methodism is younger.  Union is 95% 21-27 year olds, almost entirely millennials.  How is that possible?  They get to lead, they aren’t talked down to, they aren’t treated like children, or token young adults on some committee.  They are the church.  Entrepreneurial spirits are allowed to thrive at Union, where our young people are given the latitude to lead at every step, from worship, to the governing board; in all things.  Which leads to the next thing:

The Next Methodism focuses on apostleship.  Disciples are cultivated at Union, yes, but the average 20-something doesn’t stay in any one place for more than 2-3 years.  So, you have to pour into them as much as you can while you have them.  Leaders at Union are raised up for the good of the WHOLE church, not just for Union – because they’re going to leave.  And not only that, in Union’s almost five years of existence, it’s baptized many, and sent a half dozen young adults into seminary and the UMC ordination process.  There’s also an entire small group at Union of just local youth ministers – young adults that don’t find a whole lot of community in their local churches.  Leaders at Union are raised to be sent into the churches and communities wherever they may land in life to do good in the name of Jesus.

The Next Methodism is boundary-breaking.  When your church is open to the community all day, without locks on the doors, when it doesn’t look like the usual church, your neighborhood might be more likely to stroll in.  Still, it’s hard work to build a diverse community across every boundary society and history has put in place.  Honest evaluation, giving the mic to marginalized people, and vulnerable storytelling have led to a more diverse community at Union than in many other places.  The Next Methodism is also open to listening to an answering questions of belief, the Bible, anything, without cookie-cutter answers. Every-other month or so at Union, the message is given entirely over to the questions of the people – Stump the Pastor.  And anything is on the table to be asked.  If we want to break barriers between the sacred and the profane, the generations, whatever, we have to take questions seriously.

The Next Methodism is sacramental.  Life-giving Holy Communion is shared in every worship gathering at Union, and in United Methodist fashion is offered to all who would want to know the love of Jesus more.  Communion at Union is truly celebrated as a gift from our savior to bring people together in safety, to send them out in the world in his name.  Our liturgies are done in an improv style each week, done off the cuff in a way that brings the threads of worship together and offer God’s healing grace.  And baptisms … let’s just say that when our young adults are baptized at Union, they don’t get sprinkled.

These are just a few of my thoughts, long as this post is.  Those that might be struggling to see a future for Methodism need to remember that we only see through the mirror dimly, that more is being revealed to us everyday, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is leading the UMC through innovation at this very moment – and she’s not creating something out of nothing.  The Spirit is creating in the UMC – now.  The Next Methodism is already here, and it sure is good.

If you don’t believe me, check out Flipping Church, edited by Union’s Community Curator and pastor, Rev. Mike Baughman.  It shares a few things that are fun about Union and also gathers stories of innovative pastors and churches from across the UMC connection.

Because the Next Methodism is also connectional.  We aren’t just connected by doctrine and polity, either.  We’re connected by stories, God’s saving story in which we all get to take part.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

My Talking Couches

These are my talking couches.  They don’t talk … But they are where people talk to me.  Without fail.  If I sit down on these couches, I have to be prepared to get nothing I planned to do done … Except for talking to people.  I’ve written about these couches before, some nine months ago, and it still holds true.  These are my talking couches.

I’ve tried to read numerous books on these couches.  They’re comfy.  Perfect for laying back with a good book, which is how most people use them.  I’ve sat down on them when tables and chairs aren’t available, ready to write, post, or email.  I’ve chilled out on them looking for a brief break, with Netflix ready.

The thing is, though, I can’t sit on both of them.  I can’t take up that much room on my own.  Inevitably, somebody will sit down on the opposite couch, ready to get some work done for themselves.

And, inevitably, a conversation will happen.  Either the book I’m reading starts things off.  A book which might, indeed, be a Bible.  Or maybe the other persons mutters something.  Literally anything can start a conversation at Union.  For whatever reason it might be, a conversation always happens when I sit at these couches.

Every.  Time.  With.  Out.  Fail.

And whenever that conversation starts, I usually share as quickly as possible that I’m a pastor, and that I get to pastor at Union.  It’s a bit of a BS filter for me that I like to put out there for authenticity’s sake.  A lot of pastors have opinions on when to break the news that they’re a pastor when out in public, but I find it creates a quicker opportunity to get to deeper conversation.  Plus, if the conversation doesn’t continue at that point once somebody knows I’m a pastor … It’ll happen later.

To me, anything else feels like a bait and switch.  Sharing what I get to do opens up the conversation about the true nature of Union and how it builds community in it’s neighborhood and in Dallas at large.  What many of us might consider an interruption, and truth be told – initially I did, creates an opportunity to be a bit more like Jesus in the world.

Deeper conversations are what the church, at it’s best, facilitates.

The other week, sitting on my couches, a young black man from South Dallas, shared with me his story of returning home from college in the fall.  He’s looking at masters programs in public health for the next school year, but in the meantime he’s tutoring the young kids of his neighborhood for work.  He shared with me a detail that straight shook me.

He’s one of the few young men of his neighborhood that graduated from high school.

He’s also one of even fewer young men from his graduating class that’s still alive.

Violence and addiction have taken many lives in his Dallas community.  He got out, broke the cycle in his own life, but now looks around and wonders what he can do.  So, he’s answering a call to study public health.

All I could do in the moment, other than sit dumbfounded at this story that systemic racism in our community has caused, is affirm that he can demonstrate to the young boys and girls of his neighborhood that he’s mentoring and tutoring that it’s possible to transcend the history that surrounds them.  Life doesn’t have to be that way.

Yet, as I ponder that chance encounter, I wonder, is that true?  Have I participated in a system that keeps my black and brown brothers and sisters down and out of the abundant life that Christ and his representatives in the church call us to share?

We’ll often say that folks can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and get out of their circumstances.  A trite saying.  What if society has denied whole groups of people those very boots?  What could they possibly pull themselves up by, then?

I’m thankful for the interruption that young man brought into my worldview that evening on my talking couches.  There are so many more stories that could be shared.  Stories that lead to so many more questions...

How do we allow our community to interrupt our lives?

Where is the place that you meet people and invite their stories to be shared?

As my time at Union begins to close and I prepare for a new pastoral appointment in a new community, the first thing I plan to search for is that place where my work will be interrupted and ministry can actually happen.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tell Me Your (Mid)Wife Story

One of the things that I get to do at Union Coffee is help to coordinate the Naked Stage – Union’s almost-every-Friday storytelling experience where people are invited to tell their real story – without notes, props, or screens.  In other words, naked.  I’ve heard many stories over the last nine months.  Some that brought me great laughter, others that brought me great sadness, stories that made me think, stories that challenged assumptions, stories that called me to deeper faith in God and in humanity’s innate call to goodness.  The other week the topic, curated by Union’s pastor Mike Baughman, was “Tell Me Your Wife Story”.

I took the stage to tell a wife story.  I have a few wives in my life … My wife.  And our midwives.  The term ‘midwife’ might seem a little foreign to our 21st century ears, but what my family has found in our group of midwives is something sacred, something beautiful.  Here’s an abbreviated, not word-for-word writing of the story I shared a few weeks ago.


Way back in 2011, my wife and I made the decision to begin the process to move back to Texas, while also deciding that we were ready to expand our family.  Great things to do at the same time, right?  Serendipitously, we both found work the fulfilled our callings in ministry in the DFW area AND when it came time to make the move back home, we made the move while being around eight weeks pregnant.  So, when we landed my wife had to hurry up and find an OB practice to get that whole prenatal care thing started.

And we did find that practice.  And it was grand.  Literally the most efficient doctor’s practice I’ve ever been too.  We NEVER waited (I went to all of the appointments, because it’s the 21st century), and were usually in and out in about 30 minutes.  Even if there was a lot to do … It was always fast.

Which sounds great, unless you like having your questions answered.  Which my wife super does.

Gradually my wife became uneasy about the whole thing … I didn’t, because what do I know?  It came to a head when the doc said she couldn’t walk in the Susan G Komen 3Day at 30 weeks.  You don’t tell my wife she can’t walk 60 miles.  Not ever.  We also began to realize that they weren’t going to be natural birth friendly … Birth without interventions from the outset.  A nonstarter for my wife.  It’s her body.  She gets to have the baby as she feels called (made) to do.

A search for a new practitioner began and she broaches a strange idea … How about midwives?

I was all like … Nope.  We don’t need to be having our baby out in some hut in a forest with a lady in a frontier dress and her hair in giant Princess Leia buns bring our first child into the world.

Because that’s who midwives are and what they do, right?

Wrong.  My wife began throwing data at me and childbirth statistics.  On who midwives are.  On birth centers.  On hospitals.  We watched documentaries.  She made me read things.  Until I caved.

Which I usually do, by the way.

She eventually, I say eventually – but the clock was ticking, brought me to a nurse midwife practice at Texas Health Hospital in Fort Worth.  From the first appointment, we were in love with the practice.  It’s a practice of certified nurse midwives.  Not just midwives.  Nurse midwives.  Nurses that have gone on to get another masters degree … In midwifery.

Or, really, bad-assery.

It checked all of my boxes.  Felt safe.  They listened.  They set us up with a class with other expectant parents due about the same time as us.  A place where we could ask all of the questions we needed to ask in the weeks leading up to the birth of our baby.

But, actually, the biggest thing of all, aside from all of my concerns, was that my wife could bring our son into the world the way she felt called to do.  Under her own power.  Under her own control, as much as possible.  Safe, yes, but as she was made by God to do it.

It’s weird to say that it’s a ‘different’ way to bring a child in the world.  Midwives have been introducing babies to the world since … ever.  And … this isn’t a slight on modern medicine, or OBGYNs.  Doctors ARE wonderful.  Doctors ARE available to us any time we need them.  And if we need them, we LOVE them.

But … my wife found a freedom from our midwives that she didn’t feel before.

Through them we also found community.  Other people making different choices for their children, people that don’t look like crunchy-granola-hippies.  Although, there were some of those.  A class of people that weren’t afraid to ask the questions that we were afraid to ask.

When it came time to have our baby, a midwife named Candis shepherded us through the process.

“Dad, put your hands here.”
“Mom, push, now.”
“Take your breaths … Move here … Sit there … There’s his head … Every pain gets you closer to meeting your baby.”

My wife was able to bring our son into the world under her own power.  I can’t minimize the strain, the pain, the work my wife did to bring him into the world.  There were no interventions – but our midwife would have called on them if they’d been necessary.  It’s was unreal as a husband.  As a born fixer, I couldn’t fix this.  I could only support her as she needed.  I didn’t take my eyes off of the whole process.

I saw some things I’ll never unsee … But beautiful for the result.

And, now, we’re back with them.  Not five years later, pregnant, we found ourselves back with our midwife family.  These ladies that enable women to be superheroes.  We’re 31-weeks pregnant as I publish this and I find myself marveling at this different, ancient, kind of care that we’re receiving.

It’s relational.  It’s personal.  It’s life-giving.

We’re with an extended family of people that love our questions, hear our stories, and encourage us on our path to expand our family.

As a pastor in a church of young people, who’ve often felt that the church doesn’t love their questions, hear their stories, or encourage them to expand their faith, I couldn’t be more encouraged by the care our midwives have shown to us.

My wife also managed to walk 54 of 60 miles in three days, 30 weeks pregnant.

We can learn so much from how midwives help mothers bring new lives into the world.