Friday, December 26, 2008

Week Before Christmas (2008)

Dear Friends of the North Central Conference,

Twas the week before Christmas and all was a chill,
Many churches were frozen, with frost on the sill.
Temps sank below zero and wind it did blow,
And pastors did wonder where attendance did go.
Yet emerging from winter’s cold, frosty grip
Were echoes of hope and prayers on the lip.
For Christ and Christmas endure for all time,
Whether snow bound Midwest or a much warmer clime –
Through persecution and famine, plague and the like,
A global depression and a big gas price hike,
The church has endured and proven victorious
So despite winter blight may your Christmas be glorious.

Merry Christmas & Victorious New Year,
Superintendent Mark

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Leadership & High Anxiety

As we near the time which observes the birth of the Son of God, I rejoice. At the same time, on occasion I’m flummoxed. Jesus just plain didn’t give us a lot of clarity on important things. Yes, we know he is the savior of the world, he certainly modeled and taught extraordinary love. On the other hand Jesus did not leave us with the 10 steps to abundant living or the top 5 practices that will guarantee happiness. Buddha made it easy, follow the Noble Eightfold Path and find enlightenment. Mohammed was clearer still – practice the Five Pillars of Islam. Granted, the good news of salvation through faith in Christ as a gift from God leading to a life of love is about as simple as it gets. But in this simplicity is the real difficulty. It’s ambiguous (in fact, this is a real complaint by Muslims against Christianity – too easy to interpret the faith in too many different ways).

In reality, however, Jesus is the ultimate model of excellent leadership. There is a temptation in times of high anxiety and stress (as had been first century Palestine and 21st century America – and really just about every era and place if you study history) to look to the guru with the clear, simple idea that saves the day. The leader people want is she who can promise a fix, quick is better, simple is best, to whatever ails us. The leader people need is she who can distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges, and provide the framework in which people learn to face hard realities, adapting their behaviors and attitudes for greater health.

There are two basic situations that require two different kinds of leadership. First, a technical problem requires technical leadership. Some situations have a technical solution, and clear leadership with 3 easy steps is exactly the kind of response that is necessary. My car is broken (situation), what must be done? The mechanic (in this situation, the leader of choice) will diagnose the problem (spark plugs need to be replaced) and fix it (replace the spark plugs). Most of the situations Jesus dealt with, and with which those who pastor churches or lead board and committees deal with, are not merely technical problems.

Second, an adaptive problem requires adaptive leadership. Sometimes, identifying the problem is not simple (why is my church declining?) for even the most expert of leaders, nor is identifying the solution (is it prayer, evangelism, worship style, discipleship, demographic??). It is maladaptive and unhelpful for leaders to provide easy answers. It is equally unhelpful for those seeking to be led to expect all the answers to flow from the point guru (or senior pastor). In adaptive leadership, the leader and those being led must covenant together to learn how to identify the real problems and their solutions. In a technical situation, the leader with the know-how should provide the easy solution, but in an adaptive situation the leader must assist those being led to grow and learn together how best to change under the circumstances.

Jesus said, “Come follow me,” and “take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” That was an adaptive invitation. God invites us into the God-life which provides no easy answers, but an invitation to continual growth, continual learning, continual facing of our own weaknesses and submitting them continually to the abundant grace of God. Indeed, how amazing it is that the God-Man would be born of woman, and by virtue of this entry into our lives, need to grow in stature and wisdom.

Leaders of the North Central Conference – resist the temptation to jump to easy conclusions about what you and the church you lead must be and do. Above all, resist the temptation, and it is very strong, to need to appear like the man or woman who has all the answers. Instead, keep focused on the Jesus-way, and do the harder and more honest work of keeping your congregation and community focused on the real-life challenges that lie ahead, while providing the environment of mutual love and respect that allows for learning, failing, risking, succeeding, failing and learning some more.

It’s not the 8-fold path or 5-pillars, or 3 things to fix your church forever way of thinking. But perhaps is more authentically the Jesus way of leading.

Your servant,
Superintendent Mark

Source of Comfort in Uncomfortable Times

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God,” writes St. Paul (2 Cor.1.3,4).

Since the last opportunity I had to write a “Bringing Jesus” blog, a new American president was elected, the economy has worsened, we have received news of increased persecution against the church in India, rebel-war recommencing in Congo, and so much more. A lot has happened in the USA, globally, and within the North Central Conference. Much has been good, yet the good appears overshadowed by a sense of doom, particularly economic doom.

It is good to reflect upon the source of our comfort in times of trouble. Paul says that in his times of trouble, the comfort he received came primarily from God. Consequently, he had a source of comfort to share with those to whom he ministered. Later in the text he reflects upon times that were far more challenging than our own when he says (verse 8), “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life! Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead!”

Our comfort does not rest in our economy, or our health, or our politics and our outlook on life cannot be determined by FOX, CNN or BBC. Rather, our outlook must be determined by our deepest hope – the resurrection of the dead and trust in the Divine Lord of Life who makes this a daily living reality for those who place their hope in Jesus.

Perhaps too many of us, too many of our churches, have relied upon our plans, our savings, our personalized hopes and dreams and find now, along with Paul, a time of hardship has come so that “we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” Perhaps the words of comfort we offer to our congregations and communities, our spouses and children, must be more centered on the promises and comfort of God. God IS with you! He IS risen! We ARE the children of God. Hallelujah!

Hard Times = Shining Moments

In a time of national economic turmoil, with looming global economic threats and the reality of significant cut-backs for companies and individuals, Christians can stand firm. This is your shining moment! We know that our well-being does not depend upon our stuff. We have a message that proclaims a glorious hope in spite of external struggle. We have a lifestyle (don’t we?) that proclaims simplicity and thrift combined with compassionate generosity and care for those in need. We have a heritage of ministry among the poor and broken-hearted. We trust in the God who has demonstrated the power to overcome death itself. Our foundation is the One who stretched out the cosmos, planning out our redemption in Christ 2000 years ago, establishing the Mystical Body of Christ on earth – the church – to endure and overcome every power and principality to God’s greater glory. The church was victorious through the rise and fall of the Roman empire, enduring the dark ages (providing the only ray of hope and succor during the great plagues), formed and reformed and continues to reform from age to age, staying strong through wars and rumours of wars and providing aid to uncountable victims of two millennia of natural disasters. The church provided the bedrock for the struggling during the Great Depression, and came through that storm with a renewed evangelical zeal and missionary heart.

This is our shining moment. We can be full of hope in God when others despair, to rejoice over what is really important when others weep over loosing the things this world has to offer, to promote peace and charity when stress brings out the rancor and hostility in those who have not yet grasped how wide, long and deep is the love of God for them. We can be beacons of hope as we live out the gospel of Christ, embodied best by a healthy community of believers who truly love one another and their neighbors, set ablaze through connecting with the eternal God in prayer, gaining greater focus upon the greatness of God, mercy of Christ and power of the Spirit through worship, and being conduits of God’s transforming power in their communities through actively loving, inviting, serving, and praying for their neighbors.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Great North Central Conference - BIG

The North Central Conference is a Great conference.

Great. There are multiple meanings of the word great, and to a great degree they all apply. Over the next several days, I'll blog a little about how the adjective "great" applies to the North Central Conference. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Great is . . .
  1. Very large in size.
  2. Larger in size than others of the same kind.
  3. Large in quantity or number: A great throng awaited us. See Synonyms at large.
  4. Extensive in time or distance: a great delay.
  5. Remarkable or outstanding in magnitude, degree, or extent: a great crisis.
  6. Of outstanding significance or importance: a great work of art.
  7. Superior in quality or character; noble: "For he was great, ere fortune made him so" (John Dryden).
  8. Enthusiastic: a great lover of music.
  9. Very skillful: great at algebra.
  10. Very good; first-rate: We had a great time at the dance.
  11. Being one generation removed from the relative specified. Often used in combination: a great-granddaughter.
  12. Pregnant.
The NCC is GREAT BIG. Spanning seven states (portions of Missouri, Illinois and Montana - all of Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa). From the vast prairies to the fertile Mississippi valleys and dells, to forested north woods and great lakes, rugged badlands and jagged needles and mountains the terrain is greatly varied and wonderful. Many varied communities exist within the conference, ranging from those situated in hamlets and villages like Fillmore, MN and Mt. Ayr, IA to large towns like Chillicothe, MO and Jamestown, ND to medium sized cities like Rapid City, SD and Mason City, IA to metropolitan regions like Des Moines, IA, Milwaukee, WI and Chicago, IL.

To drive from one end of the conference to another is a 1300 mile, 18 hour trek and at 50 cents a mile is 650 bucks. A church that's alive is worth the drive!

Enjoy a peek at all of the Free Methodist conferences in the USA @:

The great size of the conference creates great challenges as well. Please pray for creative ways to connect congregations and pastors who are separated by distance and often feeling isolated. Pray for creative ways for conference staff and committees to provide tangible support for spiritual and growth effectiveness for churches spread throughout so great a conference. Please pray for a movement of the Holy Spirit and dedicated women and men who will answer God's call to plant churches in many of the spaces between districts where no Free Methodist presence exists as of yet.

It's a great land with awe inspiring beauty everywhere you look. As you prayerfully drive through its highways and byways, may you, as our Free Methodist Christian Navajo leader T.H. Lee prays, "Drive in beauty."