We can kill symbols or we can redeem them. We can kill a flag or we can redeem it. One is easy and one requires much more personal effort and responsibility. Lets not remove a flag lets remove it’s potency. Jesus did this with perhaps one of the most humiliating, offensive and oppressive images of his time the cross. He didn’t get rid of it he changed what it stood for. Now folks wear the horrible thing around their neck.
The shooting at a historic church building in Charleston, South Carolina, was a horrific tragedy. It was an act of hate and racism in one of its most violent forms. Unfortunately, it is probably not the worst atrocity of racism that the USA has seen in the last 200+ years. No, I think slavery and lynch mobs were probably worse. Still, this is the most recent display of violent racism and a hate crime. May God be with those who are heartbroken and grieving the loss of loved ones who were taken from them by such evil. It is amazing that they offer forgiveness. (Please follow the link and watch the powerful video)
In the days and now weeks following this current tragedy, the conversation shifted towards two things mainly: Gun Control and The Confederate Flag. I have friends and relatives and fellow church-goers who have a variety of opinions about those two issues. I came across one that was interesting partly because of the title, but mainly because of the idea of "redeeming" a symbol like The Confederate Flag, "Feral Cats and Confederate Flags." Here's a quote:
Personally, I have always chosen not to wear or display a confederate flag in any way. I have always assumed that it might not just be offensive, but an expression of hate towards my brothers and sisters of color. No one ever specifically told me not to display it. I just assumed from what I learned in history class that it was probably not the best or right thing to do. I think many people, when they saw the images of the shooter with Confederate flags, and the South Carolina State Capitol still flying a confederate flag at full mast while the rest of the flags were at half mast; many people made the connection (rightly so) to a history of severe slavery and oppression of African Americans, and thought "this is not right."
In my opinion, I don't think we should pressure people to take down a confederate flag. I am ok with official government bodies NOT flying it because I don't think government should be imposing values on folks in that way. But as for taking on a campaign on social media to ban it, or to convince my friends/family to stop displaying it, I think I'll pass. Why? Because a symbol is not the issue. Racism is.
I am afraid that if we get rid of the symbol, then racism will continue to pervade us silently. I live in Missouri. It was a border state. We have tons of nice people here. People will be really nice to each other. But I still hear and see racism. I see it among the teenagers of the youth groups I've worked with. I see it in our systems of oppression. It's not blatant, in-your-face racism. It's quiet and nice-to-your-face. It's hidden. Racism is far from eradicated.
This is where The Confederate Flag could serve a good purpose. It can continue to remind us that our country is still journeying toward reconciliation. It can remind us of the suffering, hurt, brokenness, and oppression of our past so we can say, "we will overcome some day."
Now, I don't think we should treat a confederate flag like Christians do the cross today, but perhaps we can think of it differently. I have heard some compare The Confederate Flag to the Nazi Swastika. So I asked myself, "What happens, or how do you feel when you see the swastika?" My answer, I pray. I have compassion and sorrow. I am reminded of death and destruction. My heart breaks, and I pray. I pray for our world to become a better place where something like that will never happen again, not because symbols and guns are banned, but because people's hearts choose love instead of hate and violence.
So, what should the Confederate Flag be? Emptied of its power. Whenever I see someone displaying a confederate flag, I'll read it as a call to prayer, a call to healing, a call to reconciliation, a call to love. That's what I think it could be. A person can keep flying it; I need to pray more and love more anyway.
What I'm about to say may not surprise anyone, but I'm pretty sure it's true. I feel it to be true, like a gut feeling. Sometimes, it's like a punch in the gut. It has to do with what is the most difficult part of being a leader. The leadership role that I know is Pastor. So that's what I'll talk about, but I think this applies to anyone who is in a leadership position and responsible for an organization or group of people. If you're a follower/worker/member, or second in command (or third or fourth, etc.) then it's not quite the same, but you've probably felt it too. Some of you may not realize how much your leader feels it. What am I talking about? What is the most difficult part of being "the leader"?
First of all, it is NOT failure. As a pastor, I've failed. Some times it's big failures, some times it's small ones. I've read leadership books that say it's good to fail because it means you're trying and taking risks. It would be far worse to not even try. But failure is not the most difficult part of being a leader.
"Everything rises and falls on Leadership." I've heard and read that quite a bit. I'm not sure who coined it first (was it John Maxwell or Mike Slaughter?). Notice it's not "some" things rise and fall on leadership. No, it's "EVERYTHING." You see, that's the hardest part of being "The Leader" or the one in charge; the one who is ultimately responsible. Look at baseball managers. They get criticized when the team is losing, but they're geniuses when the team is winning. Lose enough, and the manager is fired. It doesn't matter if the players are terribly worse talent than every other team in the league, or the ownership isn't willing to spend more money, or any number of other people who could have done their job better. The Manager is ultimately responsible for the baseball team on the field, so if the team is losing, then the manager is out, and a new leader is brought in.
The hardest part of being "the leader" is: The Pressure of Ultimate Responsibility. It nags at me nearly everyday. Sure, I can place blame on other people or things: church members, the District Superintendent, the Bishop, "the community transitioned but the church didn't," "people just don't give like they used to," ... there's tons of reasons we can look at and analyze, but ultimately, I am responsible for the church that I've been sent to. God's given me a responsibility for this time, and this place...these people. Because, "everything rises and falls on leadership," right?
I'm not sure many people in the pews realize this pressure that the pastor faces. I'm not talking about a "woe is me" "everything is my fault" attitude. But it's just the pressure of being a passionate owner of the responsibility for the direction of the organization. Knowing that pretty much every problem, tension, failure or success you face is somehow related to you either directly or indirectly.
So, if you're wondering what stresses out your Pastor, President, CEO, or other leader, now you know. No matter how many times he or she tells oneself or hears "it's not your fault," it doesn't matter, because deep down, the leader knows who is ultimately responsible regardless of fault or blame. The leader will always think, "If I was just a better leader, we could overcome and make it through..."
How do you handle that? I guess you have to realize who it is that is really in charge, and it's not you. AND, you have to realize that Leader is more capable and powerful than anything you ever even imagined, a very trustworthy leader. Who is it? God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He has this way of accomplishing things, directly and indirectly, in spite of the shortcomings of the people He sends. He is The One on Whom everything actually rises and falls. Jesus Christ. (Colossians 1:16-17, Ephesians 1:20-21)
How else do you handle it? Like a 162 game baseball season: you win some, you lose some. You brush it off, forget about it, and "get 'em next time (or next season)."
Here in Missouri, our current bishop, Robert Schnase, has worked to adjust our vision of the Annual Conference. He has put the focus on "Growing, fruitful, vibrant congregations changing lives through Jesus Christ." The idea is that the Annual Conference exists to support and equip local churches, instead of local churches supporting centralized ministries of the AC. This way, the apportionments that we pay end up being poured back into our local congregations and communities. There have been at least three major shifts to align with this vision:
These shifts are made because the thinking is the local church is where disciples are primarily made (as opposed to the AC). There has been a constant refrain of the importance of strengthening local congregations while we seemingly cut back on AC operated properties and ministries. This has caused some of my friends, mostly clergy types, to suggest that we are becoming congregationalist. I strongly disagree. Here's some questions I have:
Historically, where were disciples made/formed in the Methodist Movement?
Often, I hear people say "according to ___________ (typically the Book of Discipline or some other authoritative document), the basic unit of the UMC is the Annual Conference." Does "basic unit" equate to "the primary locale where disciples are made"? Probably not. If we look at the history of the Methodist Movement, I don't even think it was the local church that was the primary place that disciples were made/formed. I would have to say it was an even smaller group of people: the small group, or the class meeting. It's in those smaller groups within a local congregation of 5, or 8 - 12 people where disciples were formed. And I'm not talking about our modern day Sunday School class that is so focused on curriculum or a book that they forget the Bible and Covenant Accountability for Following Jesus. I think if we're really honest, that's where disciples were and continue to be made because that's where the deeper relationships happen. We need our churches to have vital small groups (class meetings).
How much of The Connectional system has been inherited from prior to the Methodist Movement, and how much developed with the Methodist Movement?
Take a look at the beginning of our UM Book of Discipline. There's a historical documents section. I'm pretty sure that even a vote of General Conference cannot change it. We inherited it from the Anglican Tradition, who inherited it from previous Christian Tradition. Point being, there is a connectional system that existed prior to the UM Book of Discipline. In addition, the UM BoD has greatly expanded over the years as we have "fine tuned" our connectional system. We have developed a lot of baggage in addition to the stuff we inherited. We are currently in a time when we find The Connexion, as is, is unsustainable, but we seem unable to change it, as evidenced by the last GC and subsequent Judicial Council decisions. We have created an institution that protects itself to survive to a fault. I say all of this to ask: What is really important that we need to preserve? What are the essentials? What essentials take priority over others for a season? Maybe some of this connectional system needs to be trimmed down and drastically changed so that we can emphasize the original vision of The Methodist Movement. Maybe some of this connectional system needs a season of rest and we can come back to those things at another time if we really need them. If you want to defend The Connection, defend the essential portion of it: local churches. (keep reading)
Does a focus on having healthy local churches make us congregational?
Having healthy local churches is not antithetical to Connectionalism. In fact, it improves The Connection. Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion. Read that sentence again: Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion. There would be no need for an Annual Conference or any of its properties or ministries if there were no local churches. Healthy Vital Local Congregations are what enable us to have a strong AC, and in turn a stronger global church. By putting the focus there (on local churches), we are not weakening the connection, but strengthening it! One more time: Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion.
So What to Do?
To my friends worried about us becoming Congregational, how about you focus more on connecting with other churches. Most of us are so focused inward on our own congregations that we miss opportunities to be truly collaborative and do great things. I hear you worried about us becoming congregational, but that's not a polity concern for me. It's more of a state of mind concern. I think most of us are stuck inward on our own congregations. Many choose to not connect in deep meaningful collaborative impactful ways. I'm in a city with 9 UMCs. If we worked together, I think we could really make a huge impact in our community with our combined resources. But for the most part, we are all too busy, each with our own struggles for increased worship attendance (because that's what really counts, or at least, that's what gets counted). What if we conferenced more? Picked up the phone and checked on each other more? Met regularly for more than sharing stories, but for strategic planning too? Our communities need us to lead as a team and to combine our resources. This is the connection we really need. In my mind, too often we have a Connectional System in name and polity only, but we operate as congregationalist already. If we change our mindset to be truly lived-Connexion, then there's no worry about becoming Congregationalist. Because I guarantee, our polity isn't changing (at least not any time soon). Bottom line: Be Connectional. Healthy Congregations connecting together for the good of God's Kingdom in our communities, that's transformational.
So... I am excited for the future of United Methodist camps in Missouri. Yes, it won't be anything like what we are used to, but it will be good, even great. Already, our new "Ignite" mobile camps have 1500 registrations of students ages 6-12. Camp properties may have closed, but camping ministry is strong. Our "Impact" Mission Camps continue with similar participation. The one piece that is yet to take shape for 2016 are the "Infuse" Camps for spiritual formation of teens ages 13-18.
One of the planned locations for these camps is Central Methodist University in Fayette, MO. Most of the feedback I've heard from people who have participated in our previous United Methodist camping ministry in Missouri, both parents and youth, is that this is "not" camp. In fact, they are pretty certain that this just "won't work." They may be right. But, I think it's worth trying before we write it off. Why? Because others are doing it well, and I think we United Methodists of Missouri could do it just as good or better. Who is doing church camp on a college campus? Well, here's the ones I found in Missouri:
The baptists seem to have been using college campuses for a while now. Granted, they also use Windermere and other Baptist Association camps across the state of Missouri. But check out this page with two camps listed: www.sbuniv.edu/ConferenceCenter/YouthCamps/. One of the camps, Centrifuge, is for teenagers, 7th-12th grades, and is focused on Youth Groups. The other, CentriKid is for older elementary students, 3rd-6th grades. I've never been to Centrifuge, but I've heard about it, and only good things. The description seems to be very similar to what I have planned for Metamorphosis at CMU. Centrifuge is put on by Lifeway (the Baptist bookstore/publisher). They have these camps all across the USA some at retreat centers, and some on college campuses. I think we should learn from them, and do our best to build new United Methodist Christ-followers (aren't there enough baptists already? j/k LOL).
Here's another Baptist camp: Super Summer. This year it's at Hannibal-LaGrange University. According to their website, this is the Missouri Baptist Convention's time to develop leadership among the next generation. It is also focused on Youth Groups. They have time for equipping adult leaders as well as teenagers. We should probably talk to these guys and learn from them too. A lot of my Baptist Youth Pastor friends take their groups to this, and I've heard good things. These are not just large-church youth pastors, but small town rural groups where Youth Pastor is an un-paid volunteer. Again, I haven't been, but still, this is another example of a camp at a college campus that works.
Christ In Youth puts on this camp for middle schoolers. There's one right here in my town, St. Joseph, MO, on the campus of Missouri Western State University. You can check the camp out here: www.ciy.com/mix. This is also a ministry that happens nationwide at various locations, including college campuses as well as retreat/conference centers like Windermere. I don't know much about Christ In Youth as an organization, but they seem to have a good reputation. They are based in Joplin, MO, and don't appear to be affiliated with a denomination. They've been doing events for almost 50 years now. I think we should learn from them.
What Have We Learned?
So, can there be a great church camp on a college campus? Yes. I think these three are examples that are happening right here in Missouri. There are probably many others if you look for them. Some of you may say these are "conferences" not camps. Ok...that's a difference in words/terms, but they are still much the same. I would say about the only difference is location. The main activities and focus are virtually the same. The focus is Jesus Christ, and the activities are Prayer, Worship, Bible study, shared community, fun. It will be different, but I'm not sure that it can't do those things excellently just like we have done at our traditional camp sites.
Another important thing we see is that all of these camps are focused on Youth Groups. So local churches register their group to go together and bring volunteers with the students as chaperones. Our camps, no matter where they take place should be similar. This is a paradigm shift for us. Typically, individuals could go to whichever camp piqued their interest. Even if you have a small group of two campers and two adults, I think it's better than going alone. Those four people will now have a shared spiritual experience to build upon and share with others when they get back. This can happen with individuals, but the strength of Christianity is "together is better". I think churches attending events as groups is better. It's the way I remember first going to church camp, as part of my youth group. When I was the main youth leader (as well as pastor), taking a group of students to church camp together helped us build our small youth group in our small church in our small town of less than 1500. I attribute this partly to attending camp together and having that shared experience of Jesus Christ. In my mind, this shift in paradigm, (focusing on church groups instead of individuals) will greatly enhance our camp participation and enhance our local churches. [I have some more thoughts on some paradigm shifts to think about as camping ministry changes, but I'll have to work up a different blog post for those.]
Finally, if Baptists are ok with it, then why can't we? Surely we United Methodists can do it even better, right? I know when the announcement of closing the four camp sites in Missouri was first made, the idea seemed to be only CMU camps; but I think we can see that's not the case going forward. It is CMU and other locations, one of which might be our own Camp Jo-Ota. CMU has great facilities and the capability to provide experiences that our traditional camp sites couldn't (unless you got really creative and transformed a barn into a worship center). I imagine the future of camp at CMU as similar to a week-long WOW (Missouri's Annual United Methodist Youth Weekend), but with more depth and spread out over a week. We should take a look at the examples above and learn from them. I'm sure Centrifuge and CIY MIX don't focus on just one denomination either. We could open up to others in our Christian family...if we offer something of excellence that other youth groups would bring their students to.
So please, don't write off a camp just because it's on a college campus. God can and will move on a college campus. God can even move among United Methodists, not just Baptists. ;-)
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?