Church and Scouting Relationship at the Current Time

As the BSA bankruptcy case nears its conclusion and the outline of a settlement hovers in view, attorneys are playing hardball over every dollar. To better understand what is going on, one must remember that there are several players in the game. BSA and the attorneys representing alleged victims of abuse are only two of them. The bankruptcy court appointed another set of attorneys to represent future claimants not currently a party to the case on the one side; on the other, the local Councils have agreed to fund the major part of any settlement in order to be covered by the final order. That leaves BSA’s insurers, past and present, who will make whatever settlements they are required to after BSA emerges from bankruptcy. But it also leaves the Charter Partners, those organizations who operated a Scouting unit and against whom misconduct or negligence might be alleged.Collapse )
saxon cross

Psalm 62

To the choirmaster: according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
     from him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
     my fortress; I shall not be greatly moved.

How long will you set upon a man
     to shatter him, all of you,
     like a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
They only plan to thrust him down from his eminence.
     They take pleasure in falsehood.
They bless with their mouths,
     but inwardly they curse. Selah

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
     for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
     my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
     my mighty rock, my refuge is God.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
     pour out your heart before him;
     God is a refuge for us.  Selah

Men of low estate are but a breath,
     men of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
     they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion,
     set no vain hopes on robbery;
     if riches increase, set not your heart on them.

Once God has spoken;
     twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God;
     and that to thee, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.
For thou dost requite a man
     according to his work.
hound of heaven

Preachers on the move

One of the screwiest things about the United Methodist pastorate is how we can't have rational discussions about pastoral succession. For one thing, I was forbidden to discuss who my successor might be, lest I precondition the delicate negotiations between the local congregation and the powers that be. That might infringe upon the bishop's prerogative to appoint whoever he feels ought to occupy my chair.

But even in the case of retirement, we are really loath to let anybody know a change is coming up. I made my final decision to retire on September 1, 2016 (I'd been thinking about it seriously for at least a year), but ten months was way too long to say good-bye. I informed the bishop and Board of Ordained Ministry in December. Some of my fellows announced their retirements immediately after Christmas, but I held off until the first Sunday in February. Even at that, five months is still way too long to say good-bye, but the Cabinet wanted my announcement so they could initiate the appointment consultation process with the congregation.

In normal changes of appointment, only a few weeks are needed to make the transition. Even in such cases, however, we can't tell the church we're moving, even if we've been planning it for a year, explicitly asked for it in our last meeting with the Superintendent, etc. You can't say it until you have permission to do so. This often catches the church off-guard. I informed my Staff-Parish Chair the day before I announced my retirement in church. I felt cheap springing it on him so late, but at least I didn't catch him flat-footed in worship.

Why so ginger about what is, after all, a routine fact of life? Because the day you announce you're leaving -- the day you speculate openly about leaving -- the day enough people suss out that you might be leaving -- your pastoral effectiveness drops at least 50% and rapidly tails off from there. It takes a long time to build the kind of trust necessary for people to follow you where you think the congregation needs to go. As soon as they get the idea you might not be there any longer, their willingness to commit to anything new is over. They switch to good-bye/hello mode and are already looking past you. They may weep and say they can never do without you, but you'd better have all your goals accomplished, 'cause there's no more scoring for you. You may stay on the field, but you're just managing the clock.

So, that all-important pastoral relationship is a big part of the reason pastors are different from other executives, who can announce their impending retirements a year or more ahead and have the organization start planning for the succession in a productive way. The historic frequency of pastoral moves has also made most Methodist congregations jumpy about retaining their pastors. I remember pastoring a little two-point charge and having people tell me -- in my first year -- "you won't stay long, you're too good." All my protests that I intended to stay a good, long time were of little avail. They were used to having preachers yanked all of a sudden, sooner rather than later. It's hard to build trust in such a situation. So all of us UM clergy say a variation on, "I'm here until I'm not here any more" and hope to last long enough to get something done.

The length of pastoral appointments in The UMC has been growing in recent years, and I think this is all to the good. We're still all weird about discussing appointments, however. Touching the third rail of the episcopal prerogative can get you in trouble. And allowing the merest whisper about your plans to leave to escape -- even if they're only day-dreams -- can too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the people shift into transition mode and you can't swing them back and you wind up moving sooner than you expected to somewhere you never envisaged. This means your family, to the youngest child, must learn to keep secrets and put on a false face at times, and that's another thing that feels wrong.

I don't know what can be done about it. But it's a weird way to live.
saxon cross

Apologia pro vita sua

On my entry into my fifth year of retirement, I look back over what I accomplished – and didn’t – over forty-one years of ministry. Amidst the ongoing collapse of The United Methodist Church and the struggle to create a new expression of ministry, I do so not to congratulate myself but to probe whether I spent my time well over all those years. Did what I spent my time on matter? Should I blame myself for my part in the decline and disorder within The UMC?

For I never significantly grew a congregation; indeed, except in a few instances, I barely succeeded at retarding the erosion of the churches in my care. I could bring ‘em in the front door, but I lost ‘em out the back door with depressing regularity. The fact that I did as well (or at least no worse) than the vast majority of my colleagues doesn’t sound like much of an excuse to me. But I must not be too hard on myself in this regard. The tide was going out for the church all through my career, and has not turned yet. The question is what one did with what one had to work with, not whether one made bricks without straw.

So what did I accomplish? Well, I gathered those who heard the call. In almost every congregation I pastored, of every size, I showed a consistent pattern of new members. And not just people transferring to my charge from some other body: year after year, I sought out and brought in people on profession of faith. Many of them were young people in regular confirmation classes, but I had my share of adults – even mature adults – whom I confirmed or baptized. On behalf of Christ, I asked the question, and found those who were willing to answer the invitation. I rarely gave altar calls; instead, I went out and talked to people.

I taught the Faith. I told people things they’d never heard before. I preached the whole Bible. I drew from twenty centuries of theological discourse. I used the creeds. I had to teach a lot of history and literature – and even science – in order to present the Christian story so as to make connections between what people already knew and the gospel. I was not so much an Evangelist as an Explainer. Having been brought up in no particular religious subculture, I was not bound to any, and used what language I thought would communicate the truth. At the same time, I exposed the easy heresies offered both within and without organized religion. And I tried to show how the Christian life could actually be lived and a relationship with God sustained. Whether in the pulpit or the classroom, I did not waste people’s time.

I pastored the flock. I visited the sick. I comforted the grieving. I sat with both young and old. I listened to people, even those who were boring, even those who were angry. I sat through interminable meetings and cared for the ordinary administration of what is, after all, a small business. I went without sleep, skipped days off, went the extra mile so that nobody could say that I neglected the people in my care. (Of course, they did say it occasionally, as people will. But let God judge between us.)

I upheld the clergy covenant. I was a good steward of the mysteries of the faith in my sacramental practice. I served as a mentor to many new clergy. I kept the rules. I filed the reports. I left things in good order for my successors. I participated in all manner of denominational meetings. I even presided over Charge Conferences occasionally, at the Superintendent’s request. In my particular specialty of Scouting ministry, I served on a general agency of the church and led national and international teams. I trained others in Scouting ministry and Christian education.

In the midst of all this, I tried to nurture my own relationship with Christ. Now in retirement, I still try to be active in the church, helping out as I can. It matters to me that I now act as I counseled so many others to act, and continue to follow Christ and be part of the church.


The Methodist Circuit Rider
Harper's Weekly
pirate ship

Who determines a poem's meaning?

Gwen Berry, the hammer-thrower who turned her face and covered it with a shirt during the National Anthem at the Olympic Trials says that the Star-spangled Banner disrespects black people because of a line in the third verse, which runs,
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In Davis's view (and that of the NAACP), this is a racist statement that implies that black Americans of the time (mostly held in slavery) deserved to die in order to preserve our flag and social system.

Well, that's one interpretation. But is that what the lyrics actually mean? More mainstream musicologists say this refers to British attempts to recruit black slaves to fight for their side in return for their freedom. I disagree with both of them.

The poem was originally entitled "The Defense of Fort M'Henry," and whatever it says must refer to the circumstances of the assault of that night. In the previous stanza, the author, Francis Scott Key, built up the threat of the British by calling them "the foe's haughty host" which reposes "in dread silence." Having been frustrated in their object, he is now deriding them as hirelings and slaves.

For who else can "that band who so vauntingly swore" be? Nobody but the British forces. And how could they constitute hirelings and slaves? Because many British soldiers joined up in order to escape poverty -- in other words, it was just a job (this dismissive attitude -- shared by British officers -- persisted into World War One, cf. "Epitaph On An Army of Mercenaries" by A.E. Housman). And, of course, there were the Hessians and all that, whether any of those were actually present in the battle that night or not. As for slaves, I take this as a comment on the poor, press-ganged sailors who staffed the Royal Navy, who weren't so much drafted as kidnapped into service.

Meanwhile, the following verse refers to the Americans as "freemen" standing "Between their loved homes and the war's desolation." America had a very small professional army in the War of 1812. The cult of the militia -- that all we needed were patriots who would rally to the colors with their muskets to see off any foe -- was still very strong. Even up to the Civil War, many units were volunteers who were spontaneously organized and who elected their own officers.

Key may have been a racist. He might even have said disparaging things about American blacks held in slavery. But in the context of the defense of Fort McHenry, I don't think he's thinking about them at all. He's seeing the war as a conflict between two white nations. That's blindness of a sort, of course, but it isn't what Gwen Berry and the NAACP think it is.

So, how did we get to this point? We got here because academic Departments of English decided that the Reader determines the meaning of a text, not the Author. That means whatever offends you in a text, even if you have completely misunderstood it, is the responsibility of the author, who is an oppressor to be done away with. This gives power to ignorance, which is always dangerous.
junior woodchuck guidebook

Mountain Men

Monday, June 21

First day of summer. The eastern sky was just turning pink as I left to pick up Grandcub No. 1 for his birthday trip to the Smokies. Daniel had just turned eleven the Friday before.

Indianapolis was all cut up with road repair. I spent an extra forty minutes battling my way over to Richmond. When I got there, instead of having a half hour to rest up and get the news, I was faced with a boy tearing with impatience to be gone. I barely had time to use the bathroom, and we were off. We took I-70 over to Dayton, then got on I-75 for the long pull to the mountains. As we came through Cincinnati, we saw the traffic stacked up to use the Roebling Bridge over the Ohio, about three miles of it. I skirted around downtown to pick up I-471 on the other side, crossed the river, and worked my way back to I-75. Collapse )
how long

The problem with the Annual Conference is more than who's running it

I have been saying for some time now that the Indiana Annual Conference is no longer a credible ministry organization. Oh, sure, we still see pastors appointed to churches and services extended to churches, and various programs done by the Conference. But the essence of the Annual Conference is how it connects us to each other: not only the churches and pastors on the periphery to the bishop and leadership at the center, but from every point on the web of relationships within the Annual Conference to every other point. At this, the INAC fails, and fails miserably. And I can tell you when we passed the point of no return on this with some exactitude.

But first, let me explain how to do ministry in and through the Annual Conference. I’ve been doing Scouting ministry at the Conference and District levels for almost thirty years now. Back when I did a lot of training of other District and Conference Scouting Coordinators, I would tell them that the Annual Conference will not do your ministry for you; however, if you’re “official,” then you can use the resources of the Annual Conference to connect with people throughout its web of relationships to do ministry. This has become more and more difficult over the years, to the point where we are mostly operating on outdated information, just hanging on and waiting for the Great Change in United Methodism and the launch or redo of the org charts.

When the North Indiana and South Indiana Conferences merged back around 2008 (?), it eliminated most of its volunteer structure. There was no longer a CYSA/Scouting Ministries Committee, though the position of AC Coordinator remained, sort of free-floating. This didn’t just mean that there was no budget for meetings or program; it meant that the Conference no longer bothered to recruit or publish the membership of the now unofficial committee. At the same time, all our information went electronic, and the Conference quit publishing the directory of Lay Members and lay volunteers every year; not only that, but accessing clergy information – even for other clergy – became a nightmare of trying to navigate the Conference website. So, finding the like-minded people with which to connect became very, very difficult, and updating your own mailing list became laborious. Even providing accurate mailing addresses for Superintendents is something the Conference finds difficult, or shows reluctance to do. They really only expect to communicate with people on their terms.

Partly for cost reasons, but also because electronic was the new thing, the Conference quit publishing its newspaper, Hoosier United Methodists Together. This meant that you could no longer publicize events through this regularly-appearing paper, nor insert stories on your ministries. You could ask to be included in the e-mail blasts and whatnot going out, but everybody’s e-mail got so overloaded, many people simply don’t read what the Conference sends out. Besides which, the Conference’s electronic communications and website have been poor quality, scattershot, and mostly concerned with what the central staff is doing.

In-person Annual Conference is now a trade show, not a meeting of the extended church family. It’s also poorly attended. You get little pass-through traffic at a booth in the vendors area. Business has been curtailed, so getting a chance to give a live report at the mic is restricted to a very few essential functions; apparently, blather from the bishop’s progressive cronies is considered about the only essential business.

“The Annual Conference” is now, simply, the people at the central office (cabinet and staff). Everybody else (churches and pastors) are either seen as customers or subordinates. The essence of belonging -- and the connectedness that goes with it – is gone. Over. So, if you’re representing Scouting ministry, or UM Men, or Christian educators, or people interested in spiritual disciplines – whatever your group’s focus is – the Annual Conference is now an obstacle in your quest to connect with like-minded people, not an avenue to help you find each other.

This was done deliberately, and the doer thereof was one, Bishop Mike Coyner. This was his goal, to merge the two Conferences. That's a fine goal, but just bringing us together wasn't what was being contemplated. Under the guise of promoting efficiency, of saving money, of all kinds of baloney, the two staffs were merged, but volunteer structures were gutted. Money was put in a big pot controlled by a very few people at the center. Everything flowed into and out of the central office. Districts mostly ceased to have meetings, even of clergy – except for the Roundup-style hoop-de-do of what passed for Charge Conferences. Everything but the central relationship of HQ to each component was stifled. And what you see is as we are now.

The only groups that have managed to navigate the stifling environment of the Annual Conference are the political groups: WCA/Confessing Movement on the one side and Room For All/MFSA types on the other. Indeed, the only actions of any consequence that get done by or through our Annual Conference these days are those pushed by one or the other side of our current polarized relationships. Not because these are the only things that are important, but because these groups have found a way to get around the gravity sink at the center of the Conference and still connect with people.

We Scouters continue to do ministry, and continue to have at least some success at connecting with the people who’d like to hear from us, but it’s a constant struggle. So, like everybody else, we are waiting to see what kinds of structures and relationships emerge on the other side of the Great Dividing to come. There may be a chance to renew lots of kinds of ministries – but only if the structures we wind up in learn from the deadening example of Mike Coyner’s dream how not to do Annual Conference.
sin happens

On open communion

I’m seeing a lot of ignorant commentary on Methodist “open communion” vs. Roman Catholics’ “withholding” of communion (prospectively, at least, as regards RC politicians who vote to enable and extend abortion). Many of the commenters misunderstand not only the RC understanding of the eucharist but their own official theologies, in favor of an easy, made-up, “y’all come” kind of understanding.

The eucharist is for sinners, yes, but it’s only for those sinners who desire to be united with Christ. To invite someone to partake without belief is to invite them to call down judgment upon themselves (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27-32). This is why we don’t hand out consecrated bread on street corners. You have to want to participate, and it’s our job to explain to you the implications of your participation.

Yes, John Wesley taught that communion could be a “converting ordinance.” Many, if not most, of his hearers were formally part of the Church of England, but had no real faith (yet). They needed to accept Christ (in all the senses of that phrase). And here’s the thing: there is no wrong way to do this, no “official” words that make this the moment that it’s finally real. The person who accepts Christ has accepted Christ – which means that if you accept him in the reception of his Body and Blood, you have accepted him just as surely as if you have wept buckets at the altar rail following a more explicit invitation. Now, the person from outside the faith who feels suddenly moved to take communion with us should be followed up on. That person has taken a serious step toward a relationship with Christ. Movement toward ongoing participation and public profession of faith (with baptism, if needed) should be in the offing.

The point here is, we have boundaries just like the Catholics and Lutherans (inter alii) do. Our understanding of who is within the Church and who is not is just different. We believe that the Church includes all believers, even if they don’t agree with all the points of our theology or belong to our organization. And we’re willing to be gracious to those who have few or none of the marks of Christian belonging, but who evince a desire for Christ. But “open communion” doesn’t mean we’re operating a spiritual buffet for all and sundry. There are those for whom this supper is intended and for whom it is a means of grace; but there are others who ought not approach it in their current condition, and we owe it to them not to cheapen the grace we offer OR endanger their souls by saying that this is for everybody who happens to wander in, regardless of what they believe or what they follow.

But what about withholding communion from those who are officially part of the Church (as defined by one’s own denomination)? This is a matter of church discipline. And the problem here isn’t where the Catholics draw the line in disciplining their flock, but the fact that most Protestants have obliterated any notion of church discipline (short of a trial). We are the poorer for our refusal to set expectations and enforce them. Many who lionize Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his stand against the Nazis haven’t read his works with attention. As he put it,
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?
To restate the issue: "Open Communion" doesn't mean open without conditions, open without expectations, open to non-believers. It means that we will welcome all who come at Christ's call. And while we probably wouldn't withhold communion from someone acting in what we deem as a manner that damages the Church, we need to think seriously about what we would do about those (clergy, mostly) who teach heresy or who (laity, mostly) drive others away with their crazy-making.
fudd tenor

Stuff and nonsense

The first quatrain of this came easily. The rest took a bit of work.

(with apologies to William S. Gilbert)

I am the very model of a public intellectual
I have solutions that are guaranteed to be effectual
I’m syndicated, educated, compensated to the max
And my opinions are to be regarded simply as the facts

For interviews on TV I am always quite available
My propositions always are completely unassailable
I scorn the opposition from a height that is unscalable
Hmm . . . unscalable, unscalable . . . aha!
By those whose retrogressive folly is beyond-the-Pale-able!

I publish books on every topic that is currently in vogue
When serving in the government I cannot help but play the rogue
Administrations come and go but I hang on, perpetual
I am the very model of a public intellectual

Whaddya know

I grew up with Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Others grew up with the work of Thomas Bulfinch, also titled, Mythology. These were the authoritative guides to the stories of the past, mainly from Greece and Rome, but also from Old Norse sources. The format was the same. They were written as a guidebook, telling the story of each myth as coherently is possible, and sprinkled with quotations from the ancient poems.

Reading Edda by Snorri Sturluson, I expected something rather different, but what I found was almost exactly like Edith Hamilton's work. Story after story, sprinkled with quotations from older poems. While Hamilton and Bulfinch treat Snorri as a source and excerpt him, they mask the fact that Snorri was doing the exact same thing. He was an antiquarian and poet, a secular man of letters (rather a rare thing c. 1200) writing a guidebook to old stories and poems that were passing out of fashion. He engaged, according to his lights, in some speculative literary criticism, too, trying to explain where the stories came from and how they were put together.

The result is, I don't feel like I'm penetrating behind the carefully curated veil to the real secrets of the ancient stories when I read Snorri. I'm just reading another carefully curated veil summarizing what came before. But that's not Snorri's fault. It's the fault of people like Hamilton and Bulfinch, who picked the best quotations out of Snorri, neglecting to point out that often, they were merely recycling Snorri's choices.

This doesn't mean that Snorri isn't worth reading. It's just that I experience him as very modern. He is looking back at a world that had largely vanished by his day. The real world of Norse myth, the society that first wrote the surviving poems and where people actually believed in the Norse gods, is at a further remove. Most of what remains to us is preserved in the Elder, or Poetic Edda, though there it is often assumed that one already knows the outline of the stories the poems ornament.