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Devious Diversions – Joker and Monty Python

Transform My MindKey Bible Verse: But let the Lord Jesus Christ take control of you, and don’t think of ways to indulge your evil desires. Romans 13:14

Bonus Reading:  1 John 2:15-16

In the movie Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker has more fun by far than anyone else, leading audiences to appreciate and remember this psychotic murderer more than any of the good guys.

Another surprising example of the glorification of evil is a Bibleman episode in which the Scripture-quoting hero is boring compared to the villain, who gets to star in his own MTV-like video.  After watching this show, my children couldn’t quote any of the Bible verses, but danced around singing over and over, “I am the prince of pride; I’ve got an ego ten miles wide!”

The concern of today’s Bonus Reading is the heart.  John doesn’t say that we can’t view or listen to anything that comes from worldly artists, but he does say we’re not to love the lust and pride in them, and often presented by them.

So I can split my sides with my friends and older children as we enjoy the unique, insightful humor in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while skipping scenes like the “virgins in the castle” and the cartoons depicting God.

I can expose those examples of inappropriate humor by explaining to my family and others why those parts are wrong, and in doing so we can enjoy a spiritual benefit as well as a good laugh.

—Dave Swavely in Who Are You to Judge?

My Response: I’ll plan to lead an informal evaluation of the next movie or TV show we watch together.

Thought to Apply: Indifference to evil is complicity with evil.—Sourcer Unknown

Adapted from Who Are You to Judge? (P & R Publishing, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, transform my life by renewing my mind in accordance with Your good and perfect will.


Church History Made Before Our Eyes: United Methodists Make History, Affirm Biblical Standards of Sexuality

Ever wonder what non-United Methodists think about the outcome of yesterday’s special General Conference?

Dr. R. Albert Mohler serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.  He has written nine books and authored thousands of articles on a wide range of topics.

Here are his views on yesterday’s events and the future of the United Methodist Church:

Church history spans two millennia—2,000 years of recorded experience. The weight of that history is heavy and humbling. Seen in that light, it takes a really big event to rank as historical, even as it happens. Such an event happened within the last seven days.

In St. Louis Missouri, the United Methodist Church met for a special General Conference to answer unavoidable questions central to the sexual revolution and the LGBTQ agenda. The United Methodist Church stands as the last mainline Protestant denomination that has not yet fully surrendered to the sexual revolution. The church has long agonized over this issue, with many in the church advocating for capitulation while a slim conservative majority still held to an orthodox teaching of marriage and sexuality.

A standoff has engulfed the church since the 1970s, with liberals pushing for the full acceptance and normalization of homosexuality and the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ ethic—they demand the ordination of openly gay clergy, the affirmation of same-sex marriage, and even electing homosexual bishops. But the liberals within the United Methodist Church have been thwarted in this effort – and the reason is illuminating.

Despite its basic theological liberalism, the UMC made history this week by upholding a biblical ethic on sexual morality. The General Conference sustained its biblical standards on marriage as an exclusive union between one man and one woman and rejected the LGBTQ revolution. This has never happened before and thus history was made. A mainline Protestant denomination long characterized by theological liberalism defeated the LGBTQ juggernaut and affirmed the biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. This demands our attention.

Though Methodism stretches back to the 18th century with the teachings of John and Charles Wesley, the UMC, as a denomination, is only about 50 years old. In 1968, The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged, forming the United Methodist Church. Generally identified with liberal Protestantism, the UMC also included a large representation of classical Methodists committed to traditional Christianity—many of these Methodists could rightly be described as evangelical.

Those conservative members have long summoned the UMC back to its historic, evangelical roots. In the wake of liberalism within mainline denominations, the evangelicals in the UMC founded the Good News Movement, which promoted conservative and orthodox theology, encouraged evangelism, and opposed the abdication of biblical morality.

As the sexual revolution targeted and captured many mainline Protestant denominations, the UMC held its ground. The committed conservatives within the church did not leave; they pressed on with convictional leadership as they attempted to stem the tides of secularism and liberal theology. Moreover, conservative leaders in the UMC received encouragement when the denomination opened its membership to international churches in Africa and Asia—these churches maintained a deep fidelity to traditional, biblical sexuality. Indeed, over the last several decades, the majority of the UMC’s growth arises from those Methodist churches abroad. Thus, when the denomination gathers every four years for its General Conference, conservatives have enjoyed greater representation because more representatives hail from places like Africa and the Philippines.

Liberals saw the writing on the wall—they understood the general trend of the denomination towards a conservative theology and biblical ethic. As such, the liberals who fought for the UMC’s acceptance of the LGBTQ agenda understood that with every passing year, their chances of success dwindled. The liberal leaders within the UMC knew they needed to force a vote on these issues fast, hence the special General Conference of 2019.

The showdown in Missouri stems from a long line of debates held at every General Conference since 1972. For the last 47 years, liberals have already fought for the liberalization of the UMC’s official teaching, which is known as the Book of Discipline. The historic discipline of the denomination asserts that “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained as ministers, even as it is to be recognized that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” It also promotes marriage as union of one man and one woman, and states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Despite the clarity of that language, the liberal faction in the UMC has repeatedly defied the denomination’s dogma. Dissident pastors have affirmed the LGBTQ agenda and celebrated homosexual marriages in their churches. Openly gay pastors serve in pulpits, and one conference of the UMC is led by an openly gay bishop – all in open defiance of the Book of Discipline.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Church practice cannot be severed from official church doctrine. The separation between doctrine and practice will doom any denomination. Indeed, the UMC stood at a crossroads. It would have to go one way or the other—a decision that would assuredly lead to a massive division in the church and eventuate in a denominational split. After yesterday’s decision, the UMC will most likely endure a schism between conservatives and liberals, with the conservatives holding onto the UMC while the liberals start a new denomination made in the image of the sexual revolution.

When the delegates arrived at the General Conference, they faced three different proposals: the liberal option, the traditional option, and a middle option. The middle option, known as the “One Church Plan,” boasted the overwhelming support of the bishops in the church. It promoted a local option, where congregations and conferences (regional jurisdictions of the UMC) could decide for themselves which direction to take.

The middle option was illogical and unprincipled. The UMC’s bishops would willingly sacrifice doctrinal and moral clarity on the altar of denominational unity. The “One Church Plan” surrendered theological conviction for a loosely defined and weak ecclesiology.

Furthermore, 93 presidents of historically Methodist universities implored the General Conference to join the sexual revolution. These presidents represented universities like Duke, Boston University, Emory, and American University in Washington D.C. They demanded the liberal option.

Thus, the battle lines were drawn. Liberals and conservatives marshaled their forces, counted votes, wrote articles, preached sermons, and descended on St. Louis for a historic showdown over the future of America’s second largest Protestant denomination.

The final vote not only rejected the liberal option but the defeat of the  “One Church Plan” as well. The General Conference upheld the historic teaching of the church regarding sexuality and marriage. The vote, however, was remarkably close—438 to 384, or 53% to 47%. This marks a deep divide within the UMC.

There is no going back. This divide will not heal. The theological divergences that have plagued the UMC bubbled over this week in St. Louis and the results will undoubtedly lead to a massive split in this global denomination. The two sides of this debate essentially affirm different religions, not just different visions of Methodism.

Perhaps the most important decision taken by the General Conference centered on its rejection of the middle option. Even though an overwhelming number of UMC bishops called for the “One Church Plan,” the delegates decided that unity at the expense of doctrine is no unity at all—if the church does not present a unified and clear teaching on something as basic as sexual morality then it is no church at all. It cannot stand as one body, unified by its faith in Christ, if half the church upholds orthodox sexuality while the other half joins the sexual revolution. This decision by the General Conference took an enormous amount of conviction and fortitude. It sent a clear message that the UMC will not join the sexual revolution.

Even though the UMC remains a generally liberal denomination, that will likely change as the ripples of this decision spread.  Eventually, a church must decide which road to take. The forces of modernity and the tides of secularism have swept many churches and denominations away. The UMC, however, drew a line in the sand and made no compromises on sexual ethics. As such, part of the history made yesterday is not only a mainline denominations refusal to join the sexual revolution, but a denomination that may, in the years to come, return to its evangelical heritage and theological roots that reach back to men like John and Charles Wesley.

The General Conference’s decision amounted to a surprising and stunning turn for this major denomination.  It contradicted the wisdom of the world, which demands that all churches dance to the tune of the sexual revolution.  Long ago, many denominations surrendered their theology in the service of cultural relevance. Those churches are now dying—the churches that are growing are those who have held fast to the clear teachings and admonitions of Scripture.

No church or congregation can move in two contradictory directions at once.  Theological fidelity cannot mix with cultural capitulation. One must give way to the other.  Yesterday, the UMC stood upon the authority of the Bible.  History was made, and such a moment, rare as it it, should give hope to all biblically minded Christians.

Small Churches Are … Growing

This headline triggered a double-take. The number of small churches is proliferating, sadly, due to declines in church attendance and population shifts:

Small churches are growing in America. They are growing, not in attendance but in number.

The most accurate indicator of church size is average attendance at weekly worship services, as church membership lists may be outdated and reflect numerous long-time inactive members.

Sixty percent of Protestant churches in America average less than 100 people in weekly worship.

There are many factors at work here, some negative and some positive. At the very least, this trend means the work in small and rural churches is critical.


When You Can’t Find an Organist

So you are a church that depends on organ music for worship, but after a long and exhaustive search you cannot find an organist willing to play on Sundays.

What do you do?

Here’s what one church in Morgantown, West Virginia, is doing:

The congregation of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Morgantown, has found one solution that fits its small group perfectly: a Rodgers digital organ that has the technology to store and play, with a simple touch of a button, hymns, preludes and postludes even when there is no organist available.

It’s an interesting concept. we’re guessing this will require some explanation, at least the first Sunday, when people look up from their hymnbooks and see the organ playing itself. “No this is not an episode of the Twilight Zone. This is an automated organ.”


Devious Diversions – Laugh Lines

Transform My MindKey Bible Verse: Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes; these are not for you. … Don’t be fooled by those who try to excuse these sins. Ephesians 5:4, 6

Bonus Reading: Ephesians 5:4-14

God hates sin.  It is therefore wrong for us to enjoy it in any way.

Unfortunately, much of modern entertainment is designed to make money by appealing to our sinful nature. This is obviously the purpose of most sexual content, and much of the violence motivated by ungodly revenge and uncontrolled rage.

But the popular arts appeal to our sinful nature in more subtle ways, such as our covetousness (beautiful stars, rich characters, exotic locations) and pride (motivations of self-glory).

In today’s popular art, God and religion are played for laughs, and jokes about sex have almost become synonymous with the concept of comedy.

But the Bible is very clear that both of these matters are not to be played for laughs.  The third commandment says, “Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7), and the hottest hell is reserved for those who mock God.

Today’s Bonus Reading uses similar language in regard to sexuality.  It is a sin worthy of God’s anger and condemnation to be amused by jokes about Him.  It is equally wrong to laugh at coarse sexual humor.

—Dave Swavely in Who Are You to Judge?

My Response: Have I ever turned off a TV show part way through it or walked out of a movie or play?  Should I have?

Thought to Apply: Television makes so much [money] at its worst that it can’t afford to do its best.—Fred Friendly (broadcast news producer)

Adapted from Who Are You to Judge? (P & R Publishing, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, transform my life by renewing my mind in accordance with Your good and perfect will.


So What Did the 2019 General Conference DO?

Here is a summary from the Institute of Religion and Democracy of the actions taken by the 2019 special General Conference.

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The United Methodist Church has just concluded its historic, specially called 2019 session of General Conference. The General Conference is our denomination’s highest governing body.

This February 23-26 special session in St. Louis, Missouri, was called for the special purpose of seeking “a way forward” for internal United Methodist conflicts related to sexual morality.

Our denomination has long taught both that we love and welcome all people, including members of the LBGTQ community, and that God’s good design is that sexual relations are only for monogamous, heterosexual marriage. However, in recent years there have been growing tensions, with some clergy and bishops openly breaking the rules banning “self-avowed practicing homosexual” ministers and forbidding our congregations from hosting or our pastors from performing same-sex unions.

Competing proposals to this General Conference would have taken our denomination in very different directions.

Those favoring the Traditional Plan (which would maintain our current position and increase accountability for clergy leaders) found ourselves facing one unusual barrier after another. For many months ahead of time, and through much of the final day, it looked like a real possibility that after all this time, effort, and money, we could actually have the result I had called “Option Zero,” of not passing anything.

At one point this afternoon, a leader of a liberal caucus who is also a delegate gave a fiery speech denouncing the “hateful” Traditional Plan and openly admitting that he and other liberal delegates were pursuing any-means-necessary tactics to run out the clock for the sake of making the General Conference unable to pass proposals with which they disagreed. So much for the Golden Rule.

The conference showcased the very deep divides in our denomination. It was particularly odd to see liberal leaders call evangelical United Methodists hateful, “a bunch of evil folks,” and all kinds of names, and then at the same time see these same liberal leaders promote their primary liberal plan as reflecting their desire for “we’re better together” unity with us. There was plenty of loud, angry protesting. So much hurt all around. It was a rather stressful day.

I will likely have more to say about such things in the near future.

In the meantime, I know United Methodists back home are wondering what was actually decided and done by this General Conference.

It is no small thing that a majority of delegates defeated the “One Church Plan” to liberalize church teaching and standards, by a final vote of 449 to 374 (54.6 to 45.4 percent). This was a dramatic rebuke of the way in which the Council of Bishops has tried to lead our denomination for the last several years. If this plan could not get passed at this General Conference, with all of the focused money, energy, institutional support, and marketing thrown behind it, it is hard to see how a plan like this could ever pass at future General Conferences, which beginning next year will have fewer American delegates and more from the Global South.

Then we adopted a partial version of the Traditional Plan, by a final vote of 438 to 384 (53.3 to 46.7 percent).

Now here is where it gets a bit confusing.

The Judicial Council had previously declared that some parts of the Traditional Plan impermissibly conflicted with our denomination’s Constitution, while others were fine and constitutional. Several of us orthodox delegates had a series of amendments we were trying to offer to the Traditional Plan that would address the Judicial Council’s concerns. But the cynical “hours of delaying tactics” (in the words of the United Methodist News Service) by an organized bloc of liberal delegates, along with the already rather cramped schedule and some unhelpful moves from bishops (again, more on all of that later), severely limited the time available for serious work of perfecting the Traditional Plan.

So we ended up passing an omnibus package of a mix of some provisions that have already been declared unconstitutional (and so we cannot expect them to take effect) and others that HAVE been declared constitutional (and so which do become our church law now). Unless otherwise specified, anything adopted at General Conference becomes church law in our denomination of January 1 of the following year.

Here is what WAS passed in the Traditional Plan that the Judicial Council has already upheld as constitutional, and so which will be our new church law before too long:

  • First, we enacted a Traditional Plan petition (#90032) that clarifies the definition of what we mean when we say we forbid “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to be ministers, candidates, or appointed pastors in our denomination.

It was widely understood what the church meant by this. However, for many years, liberal bishops and others had treated this as a loophole, and claimed that unless even openly partnered gay ministers said the precise words “I am a practicing homosexual” or answered uncomfortable direct questions about their regular “genital contact” with someone of the same sex, then there was “no evidence” that they had actually violated our moral standards.

Through such word games, some clergy in some liberal areas have been allowed to remain in good standing while knowingly violating our moral standards. This petition closes this loophole, by saying that from now on, anyone who “is living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union,” or “who publicly states that she or he is a practicing homosexual” automatically meets the definition of who is in violation of our ministry standards, with no required further questions about “genital contact” or awkward reliance on whether or not someone says the magic words. This will make enforcement of this longtime standard much simpler and easier to prove than it has ever been.


  • Secondly, we enacted another Traditional Plan petition (#90044) that limits the ability of bishops to dismiss complaints against clergy accused of wrongdoing.

Our process for disciplining wayward clergy begins when someone files a complaint with his or her bishop. However, in recent years, we have seen liberal bishops simply dismiss complaints against clergy who violated sexual-morality standards with which the bishop did not agree.

Such abuses of their ability to dismiss complaints had the potential to let each bishop unilaterally both nullify any part of our standards for clergy with which they disagree and also perhaps protect personal friends from facing accountability. But now this petition forbids bishops from dismissing complaints unless the complaints have “no basis in law or fact.”

This petition also requires that any time bishops dismiss a complaint, they must share a written explanation with the person who filed the complaint, something which bishops had not always readily done.

And all of this also applies to complaints against bishops.


  • Thirdly, we enacted another Traditional Plan petition (#90046) that reforms the “just resolution” process (the UMC equivalent of out-of-court settlements) that had been subject to such abuse by liberal bishops in recent years.

This petition prevents how some liberal bishops had arranged “just resolutions” for violations of our sexuality standards that completely cut out the person who filed the complaint (the complainant) from the process.

This new church law makes the complaint filer a party to the process, and requires that “every effort shall be made to have the complainant(s) agree to the resolution before it may take effect.”


  1. Fourthly, we enacted half of another Traditional Plan petition (#90045) on “just resolutions.”

This one requires that all just resolutions must “state all identified harms and how they shall be addressed.”

This is an improvement over how previous “just resolutions” with clergy who violated our sexuality standards have avoided any pretense of addressing the concerns of the complainants.


  • Fifthly, we finally adopted another, particularly significant Traditional Plan petition (#90042), that has been filibustered for seven years since the 2012 General Conference, which requires mandatory penalties for clergy found in a church trial to have violated our covenant against performing pastorally harmful same-sex union ceremonies.

Specifically, it requires that for a first offense, ministers must face a minimum penalty of a one-year suspension, while for any subsequent offence, they must be permanently removed from ministry.

The idea behind this is not to inflict pain, but rather to prevent people from abusing the status of a United Methodist minister, and to ensure that there is a serious deterrent against our clergy harming people by violating this standard.

Previously, disobedience to our standards has doubtless been encouraged and increased by the confidence liberal clergy in some regions have had that they would not face serious consequences.


  • Sixthly, we adopted another Traditional Plan petition (#90047) that establishes a church right of appeal.

This is a key accountability measure evangelical reformers have been seeking for many years.

Basically, if you had a case of “jury nullification,” in which a church trial refused to enforce certain church laws with which they disagreed, even when the facts of this church law being violated were clear, previously there was nothing that could be done.

But now, for such extreme cases, there is be a right for those seeking accountability to appeal if there were clearly “egregious errors of church law.”


  • Seventhly, we enacted another Traditional Plan petition (#90043) that explicitly requires district committees on ministry and boards of ordained ministry to conduct a “full examination and thorough inquiry” into every ministry candidate’s compliance with our standards, forbids them from recommending any candidate who does not meet our standards, and requires bishops to prevent candidates who obviously violate our standards from being approved in clergy session.


  • Eighthly, we enacted another Traditional Plan petition (#90036) that establishes a duty of bishops to refuse to ordain or commission clergy candidates if these candidates are openly gay or if the board of ordained ministry (the group who reviews ordination candidates in each annual conference) has not provided certification that it has conducted the required full examination of whether or not this candidate meets our standards.

This petition also prohibits openly gay candidates from being consecrated to become bishops, even if these candidates are elected by vote of their jurisdiction.

There was an unfortunate unintentional error in the version of the Traditional Plan that was submitted, of omitting the key word, “practicing.” One of the amendments I and other traditionalist delegates wanted to make to the Traditional Plan would have fixed this to be clear that the barrier was only against openly “practicing homosexuals,” and not against persons who may be same-sex-attracted but who are committed to traditional Christian doctrine and a celibate lifestyle.

And this amendment would have been made, were it not for the filibustering led by “Mainstream UMC” leader Mark Holland and others. This should be fixed at the 2020 General Conference.

All of the above petitions have been now enacted by this General Conference and have already been declared constitutional by the Judicial Council.


  • Additionally, we enacted a ninth Traditional Plan petition (#90037) which directly addresses the problem of how some boards of ordained ministry in some annual conferences have refused to screen candidates for their compliance with our expectation that United Methodist clergy abstain from homosexual practice.

This new church law requires that before individuals can be appointed to the annual conference board of ordained ministry, they must be willing to uphold the entirety of our ordination standards.

It also requires bishops to certify that they have only nominated people to this board who will uphold all of our ordination standards. An earlier version of this petition was ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council because of how it only focused on our ordination standards related to homosexuality.

However, this petition was amended from the floor to broadly include such concern for all of our ordination standards (including but not limited to those on sexuality).

While this amended petition is now being challenged before the Judicial Council, the updated version certainly seems to satisfy the Judicial Council’s expressed concerns.


There were also a few other noteworthy actions.

This was no small feat, given the fierce opposition of bishops and liberal caucuses as well as the factual inaccuracies in the floor debate.

This petition is currently a bit of a confusing legal situation.

The petition’s language explicitly states (but not in what it adds to the Discipline) that it is to be “effective as of the close of the 2019 General Conference.”

But the Judicial Council had hastily issued an advisory review of an earlier version of this petition, and six of the Council members bizarrely claimed that it was unconstitutional unless it required the permission of a two-thirds vote of the annual conference to let any congregation leave.

Three other Council members sharply disagreed in a brief, must-read Dissenting Opinion (which can be read by scrolling to the bottom of this page).

Before this petition was adopted, there was only time to make one of the two amendments needed to satisfy all Judicial Council concerns. As a delegate, I was in the pool to make the second amendment, but I was never recognized by the presiding bishop (who, to be fair, was dealing with a lot of stressful filibustering from many other delegates) before this was adopted.

In any case, this puts our denomination’s highest governing body on record as supporting some sort of gracious exit for congregations to leave our denomination with their property if they find that they cannot live with United Methodism’s current approach to sexuality matters, in hopes of avoiding the ugly property lawsuits seen when congregations have departed from other mainline denominations over similar conflicts.


  • Pastor Pensions – We also adopted another pair of petitions that help ensure the financial viability of pensions for retired clergy, including by requiring relevant fair-share payments from any congregations who may leave the UMC.


What General Conference Accomplished

Here is a brief summary by Thomas Lambrecht of the accomplishments of the special called 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in St. Louis.

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Given the opportunity to support the full court press of the majority of North American bishops in their advocacy of the One Church Plan, a decisive majority of delegates instead chose the Traditional Plan.

• By a vote of 438 to 384 (53.3 percent), adopted the Traditional Plan, parts of which will not be able to go into effect because they are unconstitutional. Parts that will go into effect are:

• Expanded definition of “self-avowed homosexuals” to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or union or who publicly proclaim themselves to be practicing homosexuals.

• Explicitly prohibits bishops from consecrating bishops, ordaining or commissioning clergy who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals

• Requires all persons nominated to serve on the annual conference board of ordained ministry to certify that they will uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline’s standards for ordained clergy

• Establishes a minimum penalty for clergy convicted of performing a same-sex wedding of a one year suspension (first offense) and loss of credentials (second offense)

• Explicitly prohibits district committee and conference board of ministry from recommending a candidate for ministry who does not meet the standards, and orders the bishop to declare any such unqualified candidate out of order

• Prohibits a bishop from arbitrarily dismissing a complaint against a clergy person

• Requires the involvement of the complainant in all stages of the resolution process and that every effort must be made to have the complainant agree to any just resolution

• Allows the church to appeal the verdict of a trial court in cases of egregious errors of church law or administration

• Petitions defining how clergy pensions are to be handled when a clergy person or congregation leaves the denomination

• An exit path for congregations seeking to leave the denomination with their property, in exchange for one (extra) year’s apportionments and payment of pension liabilities. This legislation will not go into effect because it is believed to be unconstitutional.

• All constitutional defects in the various pieces of legislation could have been fixed with simple amendments. But stalling tactics by proponents of the One Church Plan prevented these important amendments to be enacted. It would be possible to pass them at the 2020 General Conference next year.

• Defeated the One Church Plan by a vote of 374 to 449 (54.6 percent opposed)

•The most vitriolic atmosphere ever at an annual conference, with even leading centrists engaging in hateful rhetoric, lies, and character assassination, casting doubt on their claim to want to live together in one church body.



Conservative Christians Just Retook the United Methodist Church

Delegates at the United Methodist Church General Conference react to the defeat of a proposal that would have allowed pastors to perform same-sex weddings and LGBTQ people to serve in ministry in some areas.Sid Hastings / AP
The United Methodist Church has fractured over the role of LGBTQ people in the denomination. At a special conference in St. Louis this week, convened specifically to address divisions over LGBTQ issues, members voted to toughen prohibitions on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. This was a surprise: The denomination’s bishops, its top clergy, pushed hard for a resolution that would have allowed local congregations, conferences, and clergy to make their own choices about conducting same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ pastors. This proposal, called the “One Church Plan,” was designed to keep the denomination together. Methodist delegates rejected its recommendations, instead choosing the so-called Traditional Plan, which affirmed the denomination’s teachings against homosexuality.

This is a consequential vote for the future of the United Methodist Church: Many progressive churches will now almost certainly consider leaving the denomination. It’s also a reminder that many Christian denominations, including mainline groups such as the UMC, are still deeply divided over questions of sexuality and gender identity. While the UMC in the United States is roughly evenly divided between those who identify as traditionalists and those who identify as moderates and liberals, it is also a global organization. Many of the growing communities in the Philippines or in countries in Africa are committed to theological teachings against same-sex relationships and marriages.

Self-described traditionalists in the United Methodist Church got the outcome they’ve been fighting for. Still, “I think there’s a lot of grief on all sides,” said Keith Boyette, the head of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and a main proponent of the Traditional Plan, in an interview on Tuesday. Methodists are in mourning for a United Methodist Church that may be on the brink of a mass exodus.

[Read: The divided Methodist church]

For years, LGBTQ Methodists, clergy, and their supporters have argued that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities should be fully included in the denomination as leaders, and that their families should be recognized. “As someone who has grown up in our Church, as someone who is gay and goes to one of the least religious colleges in the U.S., my evangelism on campus has grown,” said J. J. Warren, a senior at Sarah Lawrence College who hopes to become a Methodist pastor, during the conference on Tuesday. “We have brought people to Jesus … They did not know God could love them, because their churches said God didn’t … If we could be a Church that brings Jesus to people who are told can’t be loved, that’s what I want our Church to be.”

Others in the denomination, however, see LGBTQ issues as a proxy for bigger divisions over biblical teachings. “This is not a political or social kind of difference. It is primarily, for us, a theological difference, and the truth that the Church has been raised up to share,” Boyette said. “When a Church begins to fracture around its compliance with its doctrine and ethics and discipline, it becomes a house divided. It becomes dysfunctional.”

According to its Book of Discipline, the denomination’s collection of laws and doctrines, Methodist pastors are not allowed to conduct same-sex weddings, and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained. In practice, however, a number of Methodist clergy and churches have made clear that they disagree with this teaching, at times openly defying it. A lesbian pastor, Karen Oliveto, was even elected a bishop in the Church, a position she still holds even though the denomination’s judicial council later ruled that her marriage to a woman violated Church doctrine. At the same time, other churches remain deeply committed to UMC teachings against same-sex marriage and relationships.

The United Methodist Church, which was formed in a 1968 merger between two denominations, has known for a long time that it would eventually have to address these deeply felt disagreements over LGBTQ issues. At the denomination’s 2016 General Conference, delegates asked UMC bishops to produce recommendations for how the Church should resolve divisions over LGBTQ issues. Over the next three years, Methodist leaders developed the One Church Plan, which would have allowed local pastors and regional conferences to make their own decisions, keeping the denomination together but allowing for diversity in its ranks.

In order to put that plan into place, however, the bishops needed the support from a body of Methodist delegates from around the country and the world, so they convened this special General Conference. Denominational leaders worked hard to win support: “There’s been a full-court press to adopt the One Church Plan,” said Tom Lambrecht, an elder at a United Methodist church in Wisconsin who served on the Commission on the Way Forward, a body convened to advise the UMC bishops on what to do, in an interview on Tuesday.

[Read: Hating queerness without hating the queer]

The bishops clearly did not have the support for which they had hoped. During a vote early in the conference, delegates did not put the One Church Plan at the top of their collective agenda. On Tuesday, they definitively voted against any further consideration of the plan. “The fact that that’s been rejected shows that our leadership has lost its ability to influence and lead our Church in a way that people are willing to follow,” Lambrecht said.

Although the United Methodist Church is often described as a liberal, mainline Protestant denomination, in reality, the body is much more split, even in the United States. In a poll of its American members, the denomination found that 44 percent of respondents described their religious beliefs as traditional or conservative, 28 percent said they are moderate or centrist, and 20 percent identified as progressive or liberal. While the survey didn’t ask directly about LGBTQ issues, this is one of the clear theological dividing lines in the denomination. “There are thousands of us in churches … fiercely committed to a traditional definition of marriage: one man and one woman,” said Aislinn Deviney, a delegate from Rio, Texas. “I am a young, evangelical delegate. We young evangelicals want you to know that we are here. And we are striving to leave a legacy of scriptural holiness for generations to come.”

Worldwide, those numbers would likely shift even more toward a so-called traditional perspective. The United States accounts for roughly 60 percent of the UMC. At the General Conference in St. Louis, pastors from global communities were resolutely opposed to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. “The Church in Africa is growing in leaps and bounds because we are committed to biblical Christianity,” said Jerry Kulah, a reverend from Liberia. “The United Methodist Church is not a United States Church.”

[Read: Gay and Mennonite]

While LGBTQ issues drove the debate at the UMC’s gathering, delegates seemed to disagree about something deeper: what Jesus actually teaches about sexuality and how LGBTQ people should be treated in the Church. Conservative delegates argued that their position is a matter of biblical fidelity. “Traditional believers regard scripture as being the ultimate authority,” Boyette said. “When it comes to something like our teachings on human sexuality and what the Bible spells out as the boundaries there, those are essentials.” Other delegates, however, argued that conservatives focus on this issue to the exclusion of others, such as divorce, and that conservative Methodists are perfectly willing to interpret the Bible’s teachings on other issues, such as women in ministry. “I’ve listened to a lot of people talk about the Bible as though the rest of us don’t love the Bible, read the Bible, interpret the Bible, understand the Bible,” said Adam Hamilton, the pastor of a prominent Methodist congregation in Kansas who supports LGBTQ inclusion in the UMC.

Now that the UMC has voted to reaffirm its stance against homosexuality and toughen punishments for churches and clergy that violate its teachings, a number of progressive churches may consider leaving the denomination. Before the meeting had even begun, churches from across the theological spectrum had begun looking into this possibility—Daniel Dalton, a lawyer in Michigan who specializes in religious-property issues, says he has talked with more than 700 churches that are thinking about making an exit. In the past, this hasn’t always been so simple: While local churches build and run their own congregation, bishops largely have control over what happens to their assets when they want to leave the denomination. “Everybody wants out,” Dalton says. “The only thing that’s holding them back is that their property could be taken away from them.” For some churches, this is about theology and unity. For others, “it’s a battle over money,” Dalton says.

Even some of the conservative churches that supported the Traditional Plan may leave, Boyette said. His group, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, was founded as a potential alternative denomination for churches that describe themselves as orthodox and that oppose same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. Conservatives got what they wanted out of this General Conference, but “the patience of people is wearing thin,” he told me. His group will meet to assess next steps later this week.

In the final hours of the conference on Tuesday, the debate turned acrimonious: One delegate alleged, without clear evidence, that people at the conference were bribing others for votes. Another speaker’s mic was silenced when he threatened to filibuster any vote before the end of the day. And the debate came to an abrupt halt: Delegates had to clear out of the conference hall so that it could be turned over for a monster-truck rally.

Some Methodists, however, seem determined to keep fighting this battle within their denomination. “I am a 32-year-old, and I am one of the youngest delegates here. For a denomination who claims so desperately to want young people in our churches, maybe we need to reevaluate,” said Alyson Shahan, a delegate from Oklahoma who seemed to support LGBTQ inclusion in the denomination. “This body is not where the disciple making happens. Thank the good Lord, am I right?”

Another General Conference will take place in 2020, where any of these issues or proposals could be taken up again. “With the Traditional Plan that adds teeth [to Methodist standards and discipline around LGBTQ issues], you’ve not only alienated progressives, but also centrists,” Hamilton said. “Do you think these churches will quietly accept this regressive Traditional Plan with teeth? Will these churches protest less, or more, for LGBTQ persons in the future?”

“You’ve inspired an awful lot of people who were not really engaged in this struggle before,” Hamilton said. “And for that, I thank you.”

United Methodists Vote to Keep Traditional Marriage Stance

Here’s a quick summary courtesy of Christianity Today of the UMC’s Special General Conference that concluded earlier tonight.

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After days of passionate debate, deliberation, and prayer—and years of tension within the denomination—The United Methodist Church (UMC) voted Tuesday to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy, bolstered by a growing conservative contingent from Africa.

The plan passed, with 438 votes in favor and 384 against (53% to 47%), in the final hours of a special UMC conference held this week in St. Louis to address the issue of human sexuality.

The decision leaves a sizable, vocal opposition, ensuring the exit of many progressive pastors and churches in the largest mainstream Protestant body in the US.

After the final vote, protesters began chanting, “no” and “stop the harm” through the rest of the session until the conference ended over an hour later.

The “Traditional Plan” preserves existing UMC positions and adds further accountability measures for those who violate them by performing same-sex ceremonies or ordaining gay clergy. But this is not the outcome many Americans, including most bishops, had been praying for.

In the States, a large portion of Methodists wanted to see the church accommodate LGBT ceremonies and clergy, as other mainline denominations have done in recent years. One poll through Mainstream UMC reported at least two-thirds of US delegates supported the inclusive “One Church Plan” instead.

But the growing global presence among the 12 million-member denomination held more sway. Methodists from outside the US, who favor more traditional positions on sexuality, made up 41 percent of the 864 delegates at the general conference, including a full 30 percent from Africa.

“This session of the [general conference] has made it clear that there has been a dramatic shift in the center of gravity in the UMC,” said Kimberly Reisman, executive director for World Methodist Evangelism, which connects 80 Wesleyan denominations in 138 countries. “It appears that we are now a much more thoroughly global, evangelical church, rather than simply a mainline, American denomination with missionaries outposts outside the US.”

Horatio Vilanculo, a delegate from Mozambique, said that the Traditional Plan “keeps the church in the way of God” and “is what God wants in the church in this world.”

Though the Traditional Plan was ultimately approved, some amendments were rushed through the process to be able to vote before the conference’s 6:30 p.m. deadline. Certain details may be later overturned upon judicial review.

Another holdup came over rumors of vote-buying; the delegation moved this afternoon to investigate the claims. The ethics committee was not able to return a full report prior to the vote, but are expected to share their findings in the final publication.

“The traditionalists did a bang-up job of political organizing and counting the votes. The progressives were all busy talking about unity and community and listening and loving,” said Will Willimon, former bishop of the North Alabama conference and Duke Divinity School professor, in a Religion News Service interview. “The conservatives were on the floor getting the votes.”

Many leaders who favored alternate options that would sanction greater LGBT inclusion pledged to leave if the denomination did not change its stance. The “One Church Plan,” backed by the bishops, would have allowed individual pastors, churches, and regional bodies to follow their own conscience on the issues of homosexual marriage and ordination.

“Some people will leave because of feeling attacked, unwanted, and excluded. Some churches will leave seeking safer, more accepting, and less conflictual settings in which to do their ministry,” said Frank Wulf and Cyndi Kent, co-conveners of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition.

The UMC also voted to pass a disaffiliation petition, often called a “gracious exit” plan, to help the transition for those who felt they could not remain part of the denomination.

Though all UMC church property is deeded to the regional body, under the new legislation, churches with a two-thirds vote among professing members would be allowed to leave with their property after paying any pension liabilities and outstanding financial obligations. Some are concerned that these accommodations will facilitate a larger number of churches leaving.

Rob Renfroe, a pastor at The Woodlands UMC in the Houston area, said he believes the exodus of churches under Traditional Plan will ultimately be smaller than those that would have left under the One Church plan.

“But again, some are so frustrated by what has happened that they just want to be done,” he said, citing cases where individual churches and leaders may have felt in conflict with their regional bodies after years of disagreement. “Every congregation will have to think and pray and go through a period of holy conference to discern what God is calling them to do.”

A faction of evangelical leaders backing the UMC’s current stances were poised to create a new denomination had the One Church Plan passed. “Some evangelical churches are frustrated with the dysfunction in the church and may still elect to leave, but we don’t anticipate that this will be in any coordinated fashion,” said Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

The Traditional Plan received strong support in the legislative committee yesterday, when it was initially approved to move forward with its amendments by a vote of 451 to 375.

However, the One Church Plan, which many had hoped would keep the denomination united while allowing for expanding its positions on sexuality, did not win enough votes from the delegation to be considered in a final vote, with 386 votes for to 436 against.

Similarly, the Queer Clergy Caucus’s “Simple Plan” was also defeated, though the discussion brought passionate testimony from gay delegates at the conference. “We have brought people to Jesus saying they had not heard this message before,” said Jeffrey Warren, a Methodist college student. “They didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t.” His speech was drowned out with applause from supporters among a crowd of 3,000 observers at the event.

Many prominent US Methodist leaders walk out with a heavy heart disappointed with what transpired over the four-day legislative meeting.

Willimon described a shift in tone as delegates on both sides began to see a denominational split as inevitable. “I can’t decide if the Lord is saying now, ‘You created the structure and polity of the United Methodist Church. I didn’t. You wrote the Book of Discipline. I didn’t. If that’s being dismantled, that’s OK,’” he told RNS.

Clara Esther, delegate, civil rights activist, and vice president of United Methodist Women said that the denomination has spent millions of dollars on the tagline “open hearts, open minds, open doors,” but “we are not living it out.”

“Many of us have members that will leave and have already notified us to tell us,” said Virginia pastor Tom Berlin, before the One Church Plan was brought before the delegation for a second vote “After watching yesterday’s proceedings… they feel their church is exhibiting itself as being against gay people.”

Now that the gathering has concluded many are turning their eyes toward how they move forward together.

“I pray we, as a denomination can now move forward, working with each other in the spirit of Christian love and joining together as one,” said Bishop Scott J. Jones of the Texas Annual Conference. “We are stronger together in serving God’s mission as a diverse body of Christ.”

At a press conference Tuesday, fellow bishops discussed the factions of the denomination whose petitions did not get passed. “My heroes are the people who have been harmed by the church and yet stay at the table,” said Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Annual Conference.

After this week’s special session, sights now turn to the denomination’s next global legislative gathering in 2020 in Minneapolis, where the UMC will consider legislation for all of its normal business with an additional 18 delegates from Africa.


Devious Diversions – Talk Back

Transform My MindKey Bible Verse: Test everything that is said.  Hold on to what is good.  Keep away from every kind of evil.  – 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22

Bonus Reading: Philippians 4:8

If you soak up the media with your brain in neutral, you’ll be captured by the enemy’s destructive ideas.

To apply today’s Key Bible Verse to the entertainment you enjoy, keep your brain in gear, know your Bible, and evaluate based on what it says.

Talk back mentally to your TV, music, books, and the movie screen.  When you see or hear something good, note the truth communicated or illustrated.  If it’s bad, note how and why it displeases God.  That’s conquering rebellious ideas and teaching them to obey Christ ( 2 Corinthians 10:5).

If I enjoy a certain kind of music, I can thank God for giving musicians the talent to produce it. But when the words aren’t coming from hearts that love Christ, I’ll often intentionally hear or sing them with an elevated meaning.

Many songs on love and sex written about an unmarried couple can apply to my relationship with my wife.  Single people can think of the lyrics as describing a future marriage relationship.

This is applying today’s Bonus Reading command by finding the good in the things we observe and disciplining our minds to dwell on that.  Of course I don’t sing or let my mind dwell on songs that can’t possibly be reinterpreted like this.

—Dave Swavely in Who Are You to Judge?

My Response: Do I passively accept media messages or do I talk back to them?

Thought to Apply: All television is educational television. The only question is, what is it teaching?—Nicholas Johnson (former Federal Communications Comm. chairman)

Adapted from Who Are You to Judge? (P & R Publishing, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, transform my life by renewing my mind in accordance with Your good and perfect will.


Devious Diversions – Take Jesus to a Movie?

Transform My MindKey Bible Verse: And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through him to God the Father. Colossians 3:17

Bonus Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:30-11:1

When you view or listen to some form of the arts, your motive can’t be merely to please yourself, and it certainly can’t be to enjoy ungodly pleasures.

Your motive must be to please God. Jesus said, “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (Matthew 4:10)  Today’s Bonus Reading says you should engage in only what you can thank God for, and what brings Him glory.

Many Christians haven’t learned how to enjoy the popular arts in a way that brings glory to God. They’ve watched movies, for instance, only because they wanted to pass the time, or experience the thrill of action, romance, or a good laugh. Or the movies have been a time they were spending apart from God, because they were deriving enjoyment from things He wouldn’t like.

So when a friend asks, “Would you watch that if Jesus were sitting next to you?” (a good question to ask, by the way), they could never honestly say yes, because they’ve never taken Jesus with them to see a movie!

But I’ve watched many movies fully aware that Jesus is with me, and I’ve communed with Him during the entire movie. Next, we’ll discuss how.

—Dave Swavely in Who Are You to Judge?

My Response: Would Jesus have accepted an invitation to the last movie I saw?

Adapted from Who Are You to Judge? (P & R Publishing, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, transform my life by renewing my mind in accordance with Your good and perfect will.

Devious Diversions – On a Scale of 1 to…

Transform My MindWho Said It…Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier should know entertainment.  He was the first black actor to gain widespread acceptance by audiences of all races.

In 1963 he won an Oscar for Lilies of the Field, and in 1967 he memorably played Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night.

But as a young Bahamian immigrant, Poitier arrived in New York city with an accent so thick that—after his first audition—the director told him to become a dishwasher.

What He Said…On a Scale of 1 to …

It’s late at night as I lie in bed in the blue glow of the television set. I have the remote control in my hand and I go from 1 to 97, scrolling through the channels.

I find nothing that warrants my attention, nothing that amuses me. So I scroll up again, channel by channel from bottom to top.

This vast, sophisticated technology and … nothing.  It’s given me not one smidgen of pleasure.  It’s informed me of nothing beyond my own ignorance and my own frailties.

But then I have the audacity to go up again!  And what do I find?  Nothing, of course.

So at last, filled with self-disgust, I punch the TV off and throw the clicker across the room, muttering to myself, “What am I doing with my time?”

It’s not as if I’m without other resources—treasured books and art objects, photographs and mementos.  I have a rich network of friends, whom I could reach on the phone within seconds.  So what am I doing with my time?

Adapted from The Measure of a Man (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000).

Prayer for the Week: Lord, transform my life by renewing my mind in accordance with Your good and perfect will.

Staying Power – Strength through Adversity

StrengthFor the first-century Christians, suffering was the rule rather than the exception.

Paul holds out encouragement to his hard-pressed readers by painting a portrait of what they will eventually become.

But this is no escapism.  Spliced together with that vision of the future is the understanding that we must overcome now before we can become then.

Interact with God’s Word:  Romans 5:3-5

  1. Is Paul telling us that we should learn to like pain or deny the tragedy of suffering?
  2. If not, why should we rejoice when we encounter difficulties?
  3. If, as verse 5 claims, God dearly loves you, why may He be permitting trials in your life?
  4. How does the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit underscore God’s love?
  5. What does Christ’s death tell you about your value to God?
  6. Why would a strengthened character promote deepened confidence about the future?
  7. How can you deal with the problems you face daily in God’s strength?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Thank God for what you are confidently expecting. Ask Him for the strength of character to grow strong through endurance.

Romans 5:3-5

3 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve placed me in a challenging spot. Give me the faith, courage, and strength to stand tall there.


Staying Power – Steady Steve

StrengthKey Bible Verse: Be strong and steady, always enthusiastic about the Lord’s work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. 1 Corinthians 15:58

Bonus Reading: Romans 5:3-5

When I think of people who demonstrate endurance, I think of my friend Steve.  Steve is a faithful husband, the father of two girls, an elder in the church, and a real-estate appraiser.  He cares for his aging parents, gives generously to the work of Christ, and can tell a great joke.

He does nothing spectacular. He’ll never receive a standing ovation, and his hometown will probably never have Steve Day in his honor. But every day he eats his oatmeal, reads his Bible, does honest work, plays with his daughters, sends e-mail to friends, hugs his wife, and says his prayers before he goes to sleep.

When others left his church during the hard times, he stepped into leadership. When others compromised their ethics to get ahead financially, he stayed true. When colleagues sacrificed family to get promoted, he scaled back, preferring more time with his daughters to having more stuff in his garage.

When others are cynical, Steve is hopeful. When friends are in trouble, Steve is there with a smile, a helping hand, an open wallet. He is a solid, dependable, caring man whom I can count on for anything, from walking my dog to raising my children if I should die.

—Tod Bolsinger in ShowTime

My Response: A “Steve” in my church whom I’d like to emulate is …

Thought to Apply: It is better to be faithful than famous.—Source Unknown

Adapted from ShowTime (Baker, 2004).

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve placed me in a challenging spot. Give me the faith, courage, and strength to stand tall there.


Staying Power – Called to What?

StrengthKey Bible Verse: Though they stumble, they will not fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand. Psalm 37:24

Bonus Reading: Psalm 73:21-26

[continued from yesterday]  Winding my way through dark city streets, I found myself wishing for light. In today’s exchanges with four friends serving at the extreme ends of society, no trite God-has-you-here-for-a-reason advice would be helpful. Their questioning of their own calling, though fearful, was necessary. Questioning God was honest. Their doubts had integrity.

Surely God doesn’t toy with the emotions of those who desire to follow Him. But when we’ve listened as carefully as we know how and have positioned ourselves as best we can discern in the epicenter of His will, why would we encounter so much resistance, frustration, and stress?

Spiritual warfare?  Lack of faith?  Wrong method or timing?  I can’t give an answer.  But regardless, there seems but one appropriate response to this holy entrapment: endure.

Could it be that divine calling isn’t even about accomplishment?

What if success is defined not in measurable productivity but in the quality of our interactions with others?

What if the criterion by which we’re ultimately evaluated is faithfulness rather than performance?

Even more baffling, what if calling isn’t primarily about effecting change but rather about being changed ourselves?

—Robert Lupton in Renewing the City

My Response: If God has called me, can I expect the results to be visible?

Thought to Apply: Don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty.—Corrie Ten Boom (Dutch speaker & author)

Adapted from Renewing the City (InterVarsity, 2005).

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve placed me in a challenging spot. Give me the faith, courage, and strength to stand tall there.


Staying Power – Facing Frustrations

StrengthKey Bible Verse: “If racing against mere men makes you tired, how will you race against horses?”  – Jeremiah 12:5

Bonus Reading: Hebrews 12:12-13

[continued from yesterday]  My day ended at a restaurant in a converted warehouse with Dana Walker and Kerry Reid, in from D.C. for a conference they’d initiated.  “Why is doing good so hard?” these leaders of President Bush’s faith-based initiative asked as we dipped sourdough bread chunks into a saucer of garlic and olive oil.

These dynamic, visionary leaders, elevated to positions of responsibility at a high level of government, confessed their weariness in doing their best to accomplish a kingdom mission, only to have their efforts challenged, undermined, ignored, and devalued by both government and church.

The President, committed to the church’s re-engagement as a service provider, had inspired them both to join him in this mission. But his handlers, they soon discovered, had other priorities, diverting his attention from the faith-based agenda.

Career bureaucrats proved resistant to new ideas that disrupt their familiar routines. And the church is suspicious of government involvement, afraid of “strings,” fearful of trading away its message for the seduction of easy money.

“We’re not sure now that this is where we should be.”  Consternation and doubt were etched on their faces. [continued tomorrow]

—Robert Lupton in Renewing the City

My Response: How do political, psychological, or spiritual opposition factor into my understanding of God’s guidance?

Thought to Apply: Our extremity is God’s opportunity.—Rees Howells (Welsh miner turned Bible school founder)

Adapted from Renewing the City (InterVarsity, 2005).

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve placed me in a challenging spot. Give me the faith, courage, and strength to stand tall there.


Staying Power – Dealing with Doubts

StrengthKey Bible Verse: And I say to the rest of you, dear brothers and sisters, never get tired of doing good.  – 2 Thessalonians 3:13

Bonus Reading: Luke 9:57-62

My day began over an early breakfast at the Good News Café with Chris and Rebecca Gray.  They dove right into a matter heavy on their minds.

“Why is doing good so hard?” Rebecca teared up as she uttered the words.  “We do our best, we’re as responsible as we know how to be, we try to stay sensitive to God’s leading … yet something always derails our plans.  Our best efforts don’t accomplish half what they should for the kingdom!”

The Grays aren’t complainers.  Far from it!  They’re high-capacity military officers who left active duty four years ago to assume a leadership role in our ministry.

But serious fatigue registered on Rebecca’s face. Weight loss from stress-aggravated digestive disorder added to her anxiety.  Chris, unflappable and rock steady, wore a concerned expression.

No couple I’ve met has grasped the essence of urban ministry as well and quickly as the Grays.  The moment they hit the ground in Atlanta, they began to distinguish themselves as capable and sensitive leaders.

Called, visionary, unthreatened, and unthreatening, they combine all the gifts required to lead Family Consultation Service into the future.  Yet Rebecca implored, “Have we made a huge mistake?” [continued tomorrow]

—Robert Lupton in Renewing the City

My Response: How should the Grays view job offers for more money with less stress?

Thought to Apply: God gives burdens, also shoulders.—Yiddish Proverb

Adapted from Renewing the City (InterVarsity, 2005).

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve placed me in a challenging spot. Give me the faith, courage, and strength to stand tall there.


Staying Power – The Seven-Year Itch

StrengthKey Bible Verse: Patient endurance is what you need now, so you will continue to do God’s will. Hebrews 10:36

Bonus Reading: James 1:1-4, 12

The “seven-year itch” shows up on the job as well as in marriages.  I decided I needed different work.  All I had to do was tell my boss.

Ours had been a turbulent relationship.  I was certain he would be glad to see me go.  I was wrong.

Bob sat on his side of the desk, arms folded.  I looked out the window, then, at him.  “I’m leaving,” I announced.  “I’ve done the best I can, but I need to move on.  Here’s my letter of resignation.”

His eyes followed the envelope.  Silence.  “No you’re not,” he said.

“What did you say?”

“I said you’re not leaving.  We need you.  You’re an excellent employee.  We can’t afford to lose you, Cliff.”  It was a rare compliment.

“Bob, I’m telling you I’m leaving.”

“And I’m asking you to stay,” he said quietly.  “Please?”

More silence.  A songbird sang outside his window.  My eyes filled with tears.  “Then, I will,” I said softly.

“Thank you,” he answered.  “Thank you.”

That was 27 years ago.  I’m still here.  By staying with my organization, I have matured, grown in faith, and learned what it means to serve.

—Clifford Denay Jr. in Michigan

My Response: I’ll consider if my inclination to quit might be a long-term solution to what is really a short-term problem.

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve placed me in a challenging spot. Give me the faith, courage, and strength to stand tall there.


Staying Power – Against the Flow

StrengthWho Said It…Les Knotts

Raised in an army family, Les attended West Point and was voted president of his class. Now a lieutenant colonel, he’s alternated infantry, ranger, and airborne assignments with schooling stints, and teaches English courses at West Point.

Les also teaches Sunday school to officers and cadets and their families, and serves on the Military Community Youth Ministries board.

Last summer’s highlight: hiking Italy’s Tuscany hills with his 15-year-old son, Tyler.

What He Said…Against the Flow

The first thrash sounded like someone had fallen into the water.  Monika and I turned just fast enough to see the dorsal red of a fish through his translucent scales.  Thirty pounds of salmon airborne!

After swimming against the current for at least 20 miles, the salmon was climbing these man-made concrete stairs around the falls on a tributary of Oregon’s Alsea River.  I began silently to root for him. “Hup, hup!”

But what was I rooting for? A fish making the ultimate sacrifice. He’d made the run downstream as a fingerling a year or two ago, adapted from fresh water to salt water then back again.

In doing so, he fought not only the current but the tide of extinction, the over-fishing, and the wooden grates blocking the rivers.

In giving the chunks of flesh from his battered and once-piked jaws to make the climb, he offered himself up for the perpetuation of his kind. He was running upstream to spawn and die.

We soldiers talk about tough, but we don’t know tough.

Adapted from Command (Officers’ Christian Fellowship, 5/05).

Prayer for the Week:  Lord, You’ve placed me in a challenging spot. Give me the faith, courage, and strength to stand tall there.


Prayer Isn’t Aladdin’s Lamp – The Answerer’s Perspective

Prayer 10Key Bible Verse: And even when you do ask, you don’t get it because your whole motive is wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. James 4:3

Bonus Reading: Philippians 4:19-20

Say you’re planning a week’s vacation for your family in the Smoky Mountains.  You pile the kids in the car and head for Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

If you were traveling from our city—Louisville, Kentucky—you’d probably think, We’ll make a pit stop at Berea.  That’s about a third of the way.  Then we’ll fill up with gas and eat lunch near Knoxville.  That’ll get us to Gatlinburg in about five hours.

Suppose a half-hour from home your 14-year-old son announces: “Some of my friends are going to Cancun for vacation.  I don’t want to go to the Smokies.  Let’s go to Cancun!”

That request isn’t going to be answered affirmatively no matter how hard he begs.  Going to Cancun is neither in his best interest nor in your budget!  Some of our requests seem as silly as that to God.

But let’s say that an hour down the road your 5-year-old says, “Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom.”  You say, “We’re going to stop in about a half-hour, if you can wait.”  But he insists, “I really need to go to the bathroom.”

In that case, love causes you to alter your plans to fit a reasonable request from a child you want to be happy and comfortable.

—Bob Russell in When God Answers Prayer

My Response: I’ll thank God for sifting my true needs from my cravings.

Thought to Apply: God answers prayers one of four ways: “Yes,” “No,” “Wait,” and “You’ve gotta be kidding!” —Source Unknown

Adapted from When God Answers Prayer (Howard, 2003).

Prayer for the Week: Heavenly Father, focus my heart on seeking Christ’s purposes more than my own and on bringing Him glory.


Prayer Isn’t Aladdin’s Lamp – How to Pray

Prayer 10Jesus made a sweeping promise about prayer. But He made it while the disciples were gawking at the results of His acted-out parable.

The barren fig tree He’d cursed represented His anger at the Jewish leaders’ religious life without substance.

So His promise rested on an understanding about praying with priority given to seeing God receive the glory that is due Him.

Interact with God’s Word

Mark 11:11-16, Mark 11:20-25

  1. What does this Scripture teach about God’s ability to answer even “far-out” prayers?
  2. What immediate requirement does Jesus give (v. 23) for having one’s prayer answered?
  3. What exactly is it that must really be believed?
  4. What limitation to the “anything” of verse 24 does Jesus immediately add?
  5. How does Jesus’ initial statement (v. 22) condition what you may pray for?
  6. What does this imply about prayers based on your own wisdom?
  7. What consequences could prayers that seek to glorify ourselves or satisfy our earthly desires have?
  8. Would it be possible for selfish prayers to provoke Christ’s judgment?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Ask God to make Jesus’ glory your greatest desire, highest joy, and deepest fulfillment.

Mark 11:11-16, Mark 11:20-25

11 So Jesus came to Jerusalem and went into the Temple. After looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples. 12 The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit.

14 Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it. 15 When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace.

20 The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. 21 Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!” 22 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God.

23 I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. 24 I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. 25 But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.

Prayer for the Week:  Heavenly Father, focus my heart on seeking Christ’s purposes more than my own and on bringing Him glory.

Prayer Isn’t Aladdin’s Lamp – Better Than We Can Ask

Prayer 10Key Bible Verse: “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it.”  – John 14:13

Bonus Reading: John 15:7, 16; 1 John 3:21-22

Verses such as John 14:13 aren’t blank checks. They’re something better: God’s assurance that when we seek Him first, He’ll answer to glorify His Son.

Jesus is most glorified when His wisdom, goodness, and greatness are most on display. So when we dare to “pray backwards,” heaven delights to answer.

But we live in a fallen world.  Biblical prayer doesn’t solve all our earthly problems, and God never promised that it would.  Jesus told His disciples, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33).

But prayer does assure us that no difficulty comes without a purpose.  When we pray “in Jesus’ name,” we have God’s assurance that He’ll answer our prayer in a way that brings glory to Jesus and furthers His kingdom.

When the Lord said of the apostle Paul, “he must suffer for me” (Acts 9:16), the Savior was not ignoring the apostle’s prayers but promising to use them beyond Paul’s imagining.

The difficulties Paul would have been crazy to want, God used to glorify the name of Jesus throughout the world—precisely Paul’s deepest prayer whenever he petitioned “in Jesus’ name.”

—Bryan Chapell in Praying Backwards

My Response: It’s a relief to know God’s answers aren’t limited by my wisdom or faith because …

Thought to Apply: It is far more important to pray with a sense of the greatness of God than with a sense of the greatness of the problem.—Evangeline Blood (writer)

Adapted from Praying Backwards (Baker, 2005).

Prayer for the Week: Heavenly Father, focus my heart on seeking Christ’s purposes more than my own and on bringing Him glory.


Prayer Isn’t Aladdin’s Lamp – “Unanswered” Prayer

Prayer 10Key Bible Verse: We can be confident that he will listen to us whenever we ask him for anything in line with his will.  – 1 John 5:14

Bonus Reading: Ephesians 3:20-21

A couple in our church phoned to ask me to pray about a house they wanted to close on. It was near a preferred school and the price was right. We prayed over the phone. Later their realtor called. Someone else had offered a higher price.

More than the deal collapsed. Faith crumbled too. The couple’s disappointment watered previously hidden seeds of doubt that God really cared for them.

We countered their crumbling faith by praying repeatedly that God would provide the best. Then we waited to see what God would do.

Two weeks later the local building inspector, also a friend of the home-searching family, called. In preparation for a loan approval, he’d inspected the house they wanted. It was full of dangerous mold and faulty wiring. Thousands of dollars would be required to make it safe. The family now realized that God had spared them from a financial disaster.

A home that provided for the family’s needs eventually became available. It wasn’t pretty on the outside, but the couple no longer doubted God’s care. Seeing how God had spared them from greater pain made them confident of His love and of the power of prayer.

—Bryan Chapell in Praying Backwards

My Response: A prayer experience that deepened my trust in God was …

Thought to Apply: The only time my prayers are never answered is on the golf course.—Billy Graham (evangelist)

Adapted from Praying Backwards (Baker, 2005).

Prayer for the Week: Heavenly Father, focus my heart on seeking Christ’s purposes more than my own and on bringing Him glory.


Prayer Isn’t Aladdin’s Lamp – Try Praying Backwards

Prayer 10Key Bible Verse: Not to us. O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. Psalm 115:1, NIV

Bonus Reading: Luke 11:1-4

Something in us whispers that it’s not right to treat our God like a celestial vending machine into which we place faith nickels to get the jackpot we want.

Somehow proper prayer must put more trust in the will of an infinitely wise God than in human wants and wisdom. Otherwise failure to get the things we want will force us to doubt either the power of prayer or the ability of God.

Jesus taught His disciples not to doubt when they prayed and to expect answers. If this doesn’t mean that prayer is simply a means of snapping our fingers to get God to do our bidding, what does it mean?

Answers come as we weigh each word—skipping none of Jesus’ instruction to pray with belief and boldness and—strange as it may seem—to simultaneously consider the wisdom of praying backwards.

To pray backwards is to put first priority on the words we say last in our prayers. If we’d remember to start where we end—daring to pray backwards with the desires of our hearts (if not the actual words of our mouth)—we’d discover the foundation of blessing on which all answered prayer is built.

Praying entire prayers in Jesus’ name profoundly alters our priorities and powerfully sends our requests to God.

—Bryan Chapell in Praying Backwards

My Response: What enables me to pray without doubt is …

Thought to Apply: Before we can pray, “Lord, Thy kingdom come,” we must be willing to pray, “My kingdom go.”—Alan Redpath (Scottish preacher)

Adapted from Praying Backwards (Baker, 2005).

Prayer for the Week:  Heavenly Father, focus my heart on seeking Christ’s purposes more than my own and on bringing Him glory.


Prayer Isn’t Aladdin’s Lamp – Lifesaving 9/11 Delays

Prayer 10Key Bible Verse: For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray.  – Romans 8:26

Bonus Reading: Romans 8:26-30

Ken Smith learned of a company housed in the World Trade Center and decimated by the attack. The survivors, he says, were troubled by the circumstances that separated them from the deaths of their coworkers:

  • The head of the company got in late that day because he wanted to be with a child starting kindergarten.
  • Another man is alive because it was his turn to bring donuts.
  • Another was delayed because of an accident on the New Jersey Turnpike.
  • One missed his bus.
  • One person’s car wouldn’t start.
  • One went back to answer the telephone.
  • A man with new shoes developed a blister. He stopped at a drugstore to buy a Band-Aid.

If any of these were regularly Christians, they might have prayed for God to spare them the inconvenience of that morning. But the inconvenience spared their lives.

Before we adopt a prayer philosophy that requires God to provide all our wants, we must consider the limitations of our understanding.  In our finite wisdom, we may least want what an infinitely wise God will most bless!

—Bryan Chapell in Praying Backwards

My Response: A prayer I’m grateful God didn’t answer as I requested is …

Adapted from Praying Backwards (Baker, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Heavenly Father, focus my heart on seeking Christ’s purposes more than my own and on bringing Him glory.


Effective Stewardship – Month #6

Money is one of God’s gifts to people.

“Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and

possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them,

and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil —

this is the gift of God” (Eccl. 5:19).


“Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil — this is the gift of God” (Eccl. 5:19).

Don’t you just love gifts?  There is great satisfaction both in getting gifts and in giving them. Since we are created in the image of God, it stands to reason that He also must take great delight in giving and receiving gifts.

All that we have comes from His hand, but in particular, Solomon indicated that money and riches and the ability to enjoy them are gifts from God. In other words, God gives us that which is rightfully His, and then He allows us the enjoyment of wealth and money. As we enjoy what He has entrusted to us, no doubt He takes great pleasure in our enjoyment if our actions are in conformity to His Word and His will.

How can we be sure that our enjoyment of money and wealth is according to God’s plan? The Bible contains a great deal of specific instruction as to how we are to use money, but this guiding principle is to motivate our entire lives, including the use and enjoyment of wealth: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

There’s nothing wrong with money. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the things that money can buy. Solomon was correct when he said that both are gifts from God. The key is to use money in such a way that our enjoyment will bring glory to God. One of the primary ways to do that is to give to the Lord and His work here at Central United Methodist Church.

During the past few months, have you kept God’s glory as the number one priority in your use of money?  Or have other things taken the place of your giving to God?



Prayer Isn’t Aladdin’s Lamp – Wish Upon a Star?

Prayer 10Who Said It…Bryan Chapell

Bryan Chapell is the president of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. But he still teaches the introductory homiletics courses.

The two words Bryan stresses for this generation are authority and redemption. Our culture and the church, he observes, are desperate for dependable truths that address the world’s brokenness. And the redeeming work of Christ empowers all we must think and do.

All of God’s Word, he says, is a unified message of human need and divine provision.

What He Said…Wish upon a Star?

When the farmer prays for rain to water wilting crops, and the Sunday school teacher prays for sun to protect the church picnic, whose prayer should be answered? Will God simply answer the one whose prayers are best and whose faith is greatest? Is our world controlled by billions of competing wishes?

When we treat prayer like a surefire wishing star, we tether God to the leash of our understanding. And if our wisdom defines the limits of God’s, then our world will inevitably unravel.

The job we want for extra income may take us from the family that God knows needs us more. The immediate cure for our sickness may deprive us of the patience that God will use to bring Jesus into the hearts of our children.

Surely we have to depend on wisdom greater than our own when we pray. But how do we reconcile this instinctive understanding with the Bible’s teaching about praying for whatever we want?

Adapted from Praying Backwards (Baker, 2005)

Prayer for the Week:  Heavenly Father, focus my heart on seeking Christ’s purposes more than my own and on bringing Him glory.


In God We Trust – Relying on God

Relying on GodAs the elected leader of the local synagogue, Jairus was likely responsible for supervising worship, running the weekly school, and caring for the building.

Since many synagogue rulers had close ties with the Pharisees, it’s probable that Jairus had been pressured to withhold support from Jesus. So bowing before Him was a significant, perhaps daring, act of respect.

Interact with God’s Word:  Mark 5:21-24,Mark 5:35-43

  1. Jairus knew his situation to be desperate. When have you been in a similar situation?
  2. How do you think Jairus felt about the diversion (vv. 25-35a) created by the woman with the hemorrhage?
  3. Was the messengers’ comment about not bothering the rabbi logical?
  4. Jairus was of course devastated by their news. But why do you think Jesus told him “Don’t be afraid“?
  5. In what sense is fear—rather than unbelief—the opposite of trust?
  6. How was Jairus’s continued trust tested by the mourning ritual already underway at his home?
  7. How did Jairus and his wife respond to the vindication of their trust? How have you responded?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Ask God for the discernment to not misplace your trust, and for calm endurance as you await God’s outcome for your circumstances.

Mark 5:21-24,Mark 5:35-43

21 Jesus got into the boat again and went back to the other side of the lake, where a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Then a leader of the local synagogue, whose name was Jairus, arrived. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet, 23 pleading fervently with him. “My little daughter is dying,” he said. “Please come and lay your hands on her; heal her so she can live.” 24 Jesus went with him, and all the people followed, crowding around him.

35 While he was still speaking to her, messengers arrived from the home of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. They told him, “Your daughter is dead. There’s no use troubling the Teacher now.” 36 But Jesus overheard[a] them and said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.” 37 Then Jesus stopped the crowd and wouldn’t let anyone go with him except Peter, James, and John (the brother of James).

38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw much commotion and weeping and wailing. 39 He went inside and asked, “Why all this commotion and weeping? The child isn’t dead; she’s only asleep.” 40 The crowd laughed at him. But he made them all leave, and he took the girl’s father and mother and his three disciples into the room where the girl was lying.

41 Holding her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means “Little girl, get up!” 42 And the girl, who was twelve years old, immediately stood up and walked around! They were overwhelmed and totally amazed. 43 Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell anyone what had happened, and then he told them to give her something to eat.

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve never let me down in my past. So help me to really rely on You for my present and future.


Worship Quote: N.T. Wright on Good Liturgy

[W]hat we wear, where we stand, how we move (vesture, posture, and gesture) all matter, not because we are ritualists but because this is God’s drama and we can easily get in the way.

When those leading worship stand to one side, this makes the point dramatically; when worship-leaders, including musicians, assemble directly in front of a congregation like a rock group at a concert, this can make exactly the wrong point.

There is, no doubt, a sense among many modern worship-leaders that this does not matter; but, precisely because worship is about human integration, it matters very much indeed. What you do with your body says something about what you are doing with the rest of you.

Of course kneeling down, raising your hands in worship, crossing yourself, taking up particular positions, can all become rituals and turn into magic. But to insist on sitting down to pray — the one posture the Bible never mentions in connection with prayer—because kneeling is “ritualistic” is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

To insist on a free-flowing succession of worship songs at the whim of one leader is not to strike a blow against ritualism, but to put that leader precisely in the place where the Reformers saw the medieval priest, coming between the worshipers and God.

Good liturgy preserves us from personality cults whether Catholic or Protestant. – N.T. Wright, “Freedom and Framework, Spirit and Truth: Preserving Biblical Worship”


The Way Forward – the Western PA View

In advance of the special UM General Conference later this month, the “WPAUMC Way Forward Task Force” has just issued its Final Report, which will be forwarded to the special General Conference later this month with the results of the responses gathered during the recent Listening Sessions that were held around the Conference.

Here are the highlights:

1.  One Church Plan:

2% of responders agreed or strongly agreed that they would support the One Church Plan.

65.4% of responders disagreed or strongly disagreed that they would support the One Church Plan

12.3% of responders agreed or strongly agreed that their church would support the One Church Plan.

63.8% of responders disagreed or strongly disagree d that their church would support the One Church Plan.

2.  Connectional Conference Plan:

8.9% of responders agreed or strongly agreed that they would support the Connectional Conference Plan.

73.9% of responders disagreed or strongly disagreed that they would support the Connectional Conference Plan.

10.6% of responders agreed or strongly agreed that their 7 church would support the Connectional Conference Plan.

70.8% of responders disagreed or strongly disagreed that their church would support the Connectional Conference Plan.



3.  Traditional Plan:

5% of responders agreed or strongly agreed that they would support the Traditional Plan.

20.7% of responders disagreed or strongly disagreed that they would support the Traditional Plan.

63.4% of responders agreed or strongly agreed that their church would support the Traditional Plan.

17.0% of responders disagreed or strongly disagreed that their church would support the Traditional Plan.




Premium hikes have churches scrambling

Here is an informative article by the United Methodist news service that describes the situation now impacting many United Methodist local churches due to the financial challenges being faced by the United Methodist Insurance company.

Central Church is among those local UM churches.  UMI is now proposing an incredible 72% premium increase for Central Church, who has faithfully paid premiums and made no claims during the past few years that it has insured through UMI.

About a week before Christmas, historic Washington Street United Methodist Church in Petersburg, Virginia, got a certified letter stating that its annual premiums under United Methodist Insurance were going from about $6,000 to $30,000.

And a payment was due Dec. 28.

“We were shocked, to say the least,” said the Rev. Tom Lester, pastor.

Washington Street — host of the first General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1846 — scrambled to find more affordable insurance from another carrier.

The church even closed the doors of its 1842 sanctuary for the first two weeks of January.

“We didn’t have worship. We didn’t have recovery groups. We encouraged no one to be in the church. … We had no insurance,” Lester said.

Washington Street recently found property and liability insurance from another carrier for less than it had been paying.

But it was hardly the only church to have a tense Christmas because of large rate hike notices from United Methodist Insurance, a wholly owned, not-for-profit subsidiary of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration.

“I was very frustrated to receive multiple calls just before the Christmas break from church pastors and trustees,” said Jim Allen, treasurer and director of administrative services for the Tennessee Conference. “Many indicated they were being held hostage by exorbitant premium increases with short notices over Christmas.”

About 3,700 United Methodist churches in the U.S. were covered by United Methodist Insurance as of December, and about 500 got premium notices just before Christmas.

The Virginia Conference treasurer, David Dommisse, shared his frustrations on the conference website.

“From my perspective, it is appalling and unacceptable that notifications were not sent out allowing local churches to be aware of large rate increases and affording time for review of options,” he wrote.

Moses Kumar, top executive of GCFA, addressed complaints in a Jan. 28 press release.

“We acknowledge there have been issues,” he said. “We apologize and are working diligently to find solutions, both to the issues around competitive (pricing) quotations and timing.”

The Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — has since 1976 required the finance agency to provide an insurance program. It’s been organized and focused in different ways under different names, including United Methodist Insurance Program and United Methodist Property and Casualty Trust.

Since 2011, it’s been called United Methodist Insurance.

The program has been backed by reinsurers, such as Swiss Re, while retaining some risk for insurance-related losses. Until recently, Church Insurance Agency Corporation, affiliated with the Episcopal Church, handled much of the administrative work.

United Methodist Insurance itself has just two employees — Mike Plesko, president and CEO, and Sid Gray, vice president and treasurer.

Though enrolling more churches as clients in recent years, United Methodist Insurance has struggled financially. Its most recent audit shows net losses of $454,213 in 2017 and $835,216 in 2016. Those owed to individual large claims filed late in the year, Plesko said.

But a former president of United Methodist Insurance, the Rev. Stephen Hundley, said it has long needed more capital to grow and to take on more risk — thus being able to claim a greater share of income from premiums.

“That was always the challenge, to have enough capital,” he said.

In late August, GCFA announced in a press release that United Methodist Insurance had entered into an agreement with AmVenture, a subsidiary of AmTrust Financial Services, to provide property and casualty insurance to United Methodist churches.

When asked recently the reason for the shift, GCFA officials provided this written answer:

“The change is the result of the desire to be more competitive and provide more choices for the churches and less loss for GCFA. The change was made by UMI and its owner, GCFA, in order to move to a fully insured program — where all risk would be held by non UMC-related entities.”

In a Q&A prepared for United Methodist Insurance customers, GCFA elaborated on the change:

“Your prior coverage with UMI was administered through a captive program, where UMI assumed partial risk for insurance-related losses. As stewards of the church’s resources and to provide the best protection for United Methodist churches, the current program is being replaced to offer independent protection for the ministries it serves.”

GCFA, in its written responses to United Methodist News Service, described AmVenture as an insurance producer that secures coverage from insurance carriers “rather than insuring or reinsuring the risks themselves.”

Plesko, in a followup interview, noted that the GCFA committee overseeing United Methodist Insurance wanted it to return to being merely an endorser of a brokerage that would find carriers willing to take the risk.

The hope is that United Methodist Insurance will stop its losses and be able to pay back annual conferences that had provided capital in years past, he added.

But the August press release from GCFA did not mention United Methodist Insurance’s financial challenges. Instead it dwelled on the better customer experience churches could expect, as well as a wider array of insurance products.

The Pacific Northwest Conference had all 242 of its churches with United Methodist Insurance, and conference treasurer Brant Henshaw sought to learn what the new arrangement might mean for costs.

“We were told at the beginning that we probably would not see a big premium increase. When we got to December, after a few administrative slips here and there, we had a different story,” he said.

Henshaw said the increase was in the 40-50 percent range. He acknowledges that wasn’t as large as what some individual churches elsewhere would face.

“Our jaws still dropped,” he said.

The Pacific Northwest Conference chose to go elsewhere to insure its churches and with its longtime broker’s help found coverage for about what it had been paying, Henshaw said.

Wright’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Cookeville, Tennessee, also made a switch after learning just before Christmas that its United Methodist Insurance premiums would rise from about $900 to $4,600. A quarterly payment was due Dec. 28.

“Why didn’t we start getting letters back in October and November, so people could start looking?” said Morris Irby, administrative council chair of the small church, part of a three-point charge. “That rubbed a lot of us wrong.”

Why the late notice and large hikes?

Plesko said he understood that the carriers AmVenture was working with wanted more data about churches before premiums could be established.

“It was taking them quite a long time,” he said. “It’s a matter of reaching the church and reaching the right person at the church.”

The unfamiliarity with churches and the recent history of large individual claims by some churches were factors in the premium hikes, Plesko said. He added that United Methodist Insurance, as a nonprofit, had tax advantages that helped keep rates low when it operated a captive program.

Exactly how many churches have moved away from United Methodist Insurance since the December notices is unclear, Plesko said.

But the recent GCFA press release included a statement from Sam Liotta, president and founder of AmVenture, acknowledging churches’ and conferences’ unhappiness.

“We are actively seeking ways to correct any problems created by the coverage quotes received by churches insured with UMI,” he said. “We apologize for the timing and communications shared for January renewals.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News Service.



In God We Trust – Lean Which Way?

Relying on GodKey Bible Verse: But when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.  – Psalm 56:3

Bonus Reading:  Psalm 56:1-4, 9-13

I was about 12 when I took the terrifying and exhilarating plunge of learning to water ski. In between swallowing my body weight in lake water and torpedoing beneath the surface when I forgot to let go of the towrope, I managed to get vertical on the skis. What a thrill it was!

My dad’s advice struck me as ridiculous: “If you start to fall, lean into it, not away from it, and you’ll come back upright.” Preposterous!

But as I was skittering along the water on wobbly skis, I began to tilt. And somehow, before it was too late, I was able to engage my father’s preposterous-sounding advice and lean toward the fall. It was the hardest, most counterintuitive thing I’d ever done. But darned if it didn’t work, and to my surprise—up I popped back on my feet again!

Astonishing, isn’t it?

When we’re falling and the surface is rushing up at dizzying speed to meet us, two conclusions rush to our consciousness: either God isn’t really all that good after all, or He’s simply not big enough to enforce His good intentions. So we grasp desperately at anything that promises to restore control.

But grabbing on to what seems most natural is the worst thing you can do.  Lean into the fall!

—Jerome Daly in When God Waits

My Response: A counterintuitive instruction of Jesus I need to lean into is …

Adapted from When God Waits (WaterBrook, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve never let me down in my past. So help me to really rely on You for my present and future.


In God We Trust – Uptight Senior

Relying on GodKey Bible Verse: But Jesus ignored their comments and said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me.”  – Mark 5:36

Bonus Reading:  Mark 5:21-24, 35b-43

The radio played one popular song after another from 1966—my senior year in college. I sang along, nostalgia oozing out of my pores.

But then I remembered how miserable I was that year. The girl I loved had jilted me; I’d almost gotten into a fistfight with one of my roommates; I was tired of school, uncertain of my calling, and afraid of the future.

Thinking of how good my life had been since then, I murmured gratitude to God for the woman I married, the kids we’d had together, the work He’d graciously given me to do, and the great friends I had.

All my 1966 fears had since been unmasked as frauds. What a waste it had been to be so anxious and fearful back in college. Had I only known, I could have relaxed and enjoyed my senior year. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live that year again, I fantasized, knowing what I know now? Too bad I can’t.

But then something glorious occurred to me: I can live from now on knowing that my life is going to turn out fine. I can let God’s future dictate the terms of the present. I can give thanks indiscriminately as an act of hope, acting as though everything God promised about the future is true. Because it is.

—Ben Patterson in He Has Made Me Glad

My Response: I’ll thank God for His promises to watch over me and guarantee my future.

Thought to Apply: Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.—Corrie Ten Boom (Dutch speaker)

Adapted from He Has Made Me Glad (InterVarsity, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve never let me down in my past. So help me to really rely on You for my present and future.


In God We Trust – Now!

Relying on GodKey Bible Verse: Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord. Psalm 27:14

Bonus Reading:  Lamentations 3:24-26

Joe knew he was a fundamentally impatient person. It wasn’t that he had bad values and wanted the wrong things in life; he just didn’t know how to wait for what he wanted. And as an adult living in the real world, Joe wasn’t getting what he wanted when he wanted it the way he used to as a kid.

As Joe grew in faith, he learned about the patience of God. He learned too about the patience of faith giants like Abraham and Moses—who went to their graves not fully realizing the work of their lives. Joe realized that his impatience was the cause of many conflicts in his life and tensions in his home.

Joe’s prayer, worship, and reading of Scripture became a search for a new pattern of living. He asked God to help him gain a more relaxed attitude toward life. Gradually, this new attitude took root. Joe’s habits changed so that he began to live life instead of attacking it.

His expectations of his kids and wife became more relaxed. He gave up the notion that he knew how many decades he would live and that he knew the perfect script for his life. His family relationships and friendships developed deeper roots. As a bonus, Joe slept better and had more energy.

—Mel Lawrenz in Patterns

My Response: Is my lifestyle too driven or too relaxed?

Thought to Apply: If the door is shut, don’t put your shoulder to it. Wait till Christ takes out the key and opens it.—John Stott (British pastor)

Adapted from Patterns (Zondervan, 2003)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve never let me down in my past. So help me to really rely on You for my present and future.


In God We Trust – The Climber’s Protection

Relying on GodKey Bible Verse: “This is our God. We trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, in whom we trusted.”  – Isaiah 25:9

Bonus Reading:  Psalm 18:1-3, 30-33

Sixty miles or so up the sunshine coast from Vancouver is the Stawamus Chief, a 2,000-foot-high vertical slab of smooth granite popular with rock climbers. On summer days, they are spread out across its face in varying levels of ascent.

Looking up from the valley floor with my naked eye, the climbers appear to be improbably exempt from gravity. But with my binoculars, I can see that each climber is equipped with ropes and carabiners and pitons.

I’ve listened to my sons—both climbers—plan their ascents. They meticulously plot their route and then, as they climb, put in what they call “protection”—pitons, sturdy pegs constructed from a light metal, hammered into small crevices in the rock face, with attached ropes that will arrest a quick descent to death.

Our protection comes as we remember and hold on to times when we’ve experienced God’s faithfulness in our lives. Every answered prayer, every victory, every storm that has been calmed by His presence is a piton which keeps us from falling, losing hope, or worse yet, losing our faith. Every piton is a steppingstone in our ascent toward our ultimate goal of finishing the race and receiving the crown of glory.

—Eugene Peterson in The Unnecessary Pastor

My Response: A piton of God’s faithfulness that can anchor me as I inch upward is …

Thought to Apply: All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.—Ralph Waldo Emerson (author)

Adapted from The Unnecessary Pastor (Eerdmans, 2000).

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve never let me down in my past. So help me to really rely on You for my present and future.


In God We Trust – Buc Up!

Relying on GodKey Bible Verse: Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. … Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you.  – Psalm 37:3, 5

Bonus Reading:  Psalm 37:1-40

When Tony Dungy was fired as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach back in January 2002, the media marveled at how he responded to the decision with class, integrity, and faith.

Tony’s wife, Lauren, says that she and Tony have their disappointments and hurts but experience God’s grace and strength in the storm. “When our family, friends, and the community see that we face difficulties like anyone else, then we can communicate how our personal relationship with Jesus Christ sustains us … how God’s Word encourages us in trying times.”

The night after Tony was fired and before he signed as the new Indianapolis Colts head coach, Tony and Lauren invited the Bucs’ staff to their home. The Dungys shared from their hearts what they were going through and distributed copies of Psalm 37 to each person. “Be still in the presence of the Lord,” Tony read, “and wait patiently for him to act.”

While the sports world swirled around them, full of worried ponderings about what they would do, the Dungys calmly read Scripture and trusted God.

—Roxanne Robbins in Sports Spectrum Power Up!

My Response: When adversity strikes, do I panic? Or does reliance on God’s power sustain me?

Thought to Apply: And this be our motto, “In God is our trust.”—Francis Scott Key (in U.S. national anthem)

Adapted from Power Up! (Sports Spectrum, 5-6/02)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve never let me down in my past. So help me to really rely on You for my present and future.


In God We Trust – Whose Problem?

Relying on GodWho Said It…Todd Wilson

You may have already met Todd, his wife Debbie, and their six kids through his humorous “Familyman Weekly” column. At Purdue University, Todd told God, “I’ve run the first 20 years; you’ve got the rest.”

After 12 years as a youth and associate pastor, he decided to go with his passion to serve families. To encourage home-schooling parents, Todd spends several months each year traveling with his family in a 30-foot, gas-guzzling RV.

What He Said…Whose Problem?

My friend Kevin stands out—not because he’s tall, thin as a rail, and looks like a misplaced cowboy here in the Midwest, but because of how he trusts God.

Most people pray but trust in hunches. Kevin prays against the odds and, when the situation looks bleak, simply believes God is going to do what’s best for his family and for His own glory. At times I thought he’d have to show at least a little concern, but he didn’t. When he was suddenly laid off from work, he just grinned and said, “Well, I guess God’s going to have to provide in a different way.”

Most people panic, throw all they say they believe about God’s provision out of the window, and scramble to make it happen. Not Kevin. He doesn’t force the issue, rush in to take care of it himself, or throw up prayers of panic. He works hard, does the best he can, and then waits on God to make it happen. And God has never let him down.

Prayer for the Week: Lord, You’ve never let me down in my past. So help me to really rely on You for my present and future.


To the Frontlines of Faith – Personal Evangelism

Personal EvangelismInvoluntarily thrust into a pagan culture, Joseph decided to engage it. He served his owner so well that he became “quite a favorite” with him (Genesis 39:4-6).

Then, after being unjustly imprisoned, he earned a position of trust while bringing God into his conversations (40:8).

So when summoned before Pharaoh, he was divinely prepared to exert influence on a national scale.

Interact with God’s Word

Genesis 41:14-16,Genesis 41:33-40

  1. To whom did Joseph give credit for the interpretation of the two dreams?
  2. But whose thinking was behind the famine survival strategy that Joseph sketched out?
  3. What do you think so positively impressed Pharaoh and his advisers in this initial interview?
  4. Do you think your relatives, neighbors, and co-workers perceive you as a person in whom the Spirit of God lives?
  5. Joseph didn’t resist assuming an Egyptian name or taking an Egyptian bride (v. 45). How much of your culture can, and should, you assimilate as you represent Christ in it?

Spend Time in Prayer:  Ask God to guide you to know how to positively and effectively represent Christ to those you interact with in your social setting.

Genesis 41:14-16,Genesis 41:33-40

14 Pharaoh sent for Joseph at once, and he was brought hastily from the dungeon. After a quick shave and change of clothes, he went in and stood in Pharaoh’s presence. 15 “I had a dream last night,” Pharaoh told him, “and none of these men can tell me what it means. But I have heard that you can interpret dreams, and that is why I have called for you.” 16 “It is beyond my power to do this,” Joseph replied. “But God will tell you what it means and will set you at ease.”

33 “My suggestion is that you find the wisest man in Egypt and put him in charge of a nationwide program. 34 Let Pharaoh appoint officials over the land, and let them collect one-fifth of all the crops during the seven good years. 35 Have them gather all the food and grain of these good years into the royal storehouses, and store it away so there will be food in the cities. 36 That way there will be enough to eat when the seven years of famine come. Otherwise disaster will surely strike the land, and all the people will die.”

37 Joseph’s suggestions were well received by Pharaoh and his advisers. 38 As they discussed who should be appointed for the job, Pharaoh said, “Who could do it better than Joseph? For he is a man who is obviously filled with the spirit of God.” 39 Turning to Joseph, Pharaoh said, “Since God has revealed the meaning of the dreams to you, you are the wisest man in the land! 40 I hereby appoint you to direct this project. You will manage my household and organize all my people. Only I will have a rank higher than yours.”

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help me to penetrate my corner of Your world with the salt of the gospel.


To the Frontlines of Faith – Jocks for Jesus

Personal EvangelismKey Bible Verse: “Paul and Silas have turned the rest of the world upside down, and now they are here.” Acts 17:6

Bonus Reading: 2 Corinthians 2:14b-16

There’s a dynamic Christian presence within organized sports.  Why?

Because Christians decided years ago to infiltrate that community with the salt of the gospel.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has a ministry in almost every high school and college in America. Athletes in Action provides a way for Christian athletes to win a hearing for the gospel.

Every team in Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA has a chaplain, who provides for weekly chapel services and disciples team members and coaches.

The World Series, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, All-Star Games, major coaching conventions, and NCAA meetings all have prayer breakfasts, luncheons with Christian speakers, or special Bible studies. Many well-known stars make their commitment to Christ very public.

Faith is present in the sports community because believers didn’t run away the minute alcohol was served in a stadium, when games were played on Sunday, when gambling entered the picture.

Instead, they reasoned that because these troubling elements were a part of sports, that was all the more reason for Christians to stay and add as much salt as possible.

—Bob Briner in Roaring Lambs

My Response: How could a similar visibility of respected Christian leaders alter my field?

Thought to Apply: Salt retards spoilage. It doesn’t prevent it. I shudder to think about the condition of sports without Christian influence.—Bob Briner

Adapted from Think Before You Look (Living Ink Books, 2005)

Prayer for the Week: Lord, help me to penetrate my corner of Your world with the salt of the gospel.