Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Pastoral Transitions

This is the week in most annual conferences in the United States known as “transition week.” Pastors who are moving to another assignment typically begin on July 1. There is a period of welcome and adjustment to a new environment, a new group of people, a new place to live and all the million things that go into a move.

Many pastors have spouses and children who transition with them, so it is not just the pastor who has many adjustments to make. Churches too have new things to get used to as they welcome new pastors. And there is often a bittersweet mixture of “good-byes” and “hellos” in the hearts of church members.

I ask that you do the following things listed below. (These suggestions are based on concerns that come up every year during transition week.)
  1. Pray for those in transition: pastors, families and churches
  2. Churches need to welcome their new pastors and new families with as much hospitality and love as they can muster. 
  3. Pastors need to leave their churches when they leave their churches, and not continue to have pastoral ties with families in ways that interfere with the ministry of the new pastor. At least a one-year window of absence from all contact is requested, unless one is invited back by the new pastor for some reason.
  4. Parsonages need to be left clean and repaired. 
  5. Pastors should attempt to learn about the new church before changing the worship style and things that people are used to doing. There is plenty of time to make changes, once people get to know the pastor and everyone understands each other. 
  6. Contact the district superintendent if there are any concerns about salaries or promises made at the pastoral take-in. They are there to help. 
Remember to pray for our retired pastors who may not be assuming a pastoral assignment in retirement. They are starting a new journey of life and need our support as well.

The itinerant system of moving pastors is not perfect, but it has many advantages. The gifts of pastors vary greatly. With pastoral changes churches get to enjoy a variety of expressions of worship and styles of ministry that can bring health, strength and imagination to our congregations.

The most important thing is to keep the goal of preaching the gospel and making disciples as the driving passion of the church. God will lead both pastor and church into new, potentially exciting opportunities for spiritual growth and outreach.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

To love and welcome all

Bishop Johnson (right) with the Rev, Herb Snyder
I had not planned to attend the Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade on Sunday, June 18.  Even though it was mentioned in one of our annual conference resolutions as a place that the church should be present, I imagined it to be a secular and not very sanctified event.

Since I was leaving to travel to Pittsburgh for an NEJ College of Bishops meeting that day, I was sure that time would not permit me to join the parade. However, God had other plans for my day. 

My husband Mike was asked to preach at Historic St. George’s UMC in downtown Philadelphia that morning. A member of the church told us the Gay Pride Parade was in walking distance of the church, and it would begin just around the time church service was over. Down 4th Street and onto Market Street we went with our faithful church member, who served as both our walking guide and our interpreter about the LGBTQ community. 

What I saw was much of what one would expect: a colorful, Mardi Gras-like celebration with much dancing, music, beads and candy tossed to onlookers.  What I did not expect were the many floats and marchers who were there as support groups that offer health care, education, family resources, counseling and yes, spiritual guidance--practicing what we so often preach.

There were people of all ethnicities, ages, and abilities present. A number of churches and interfaith groups were marching in the parade, including several of our Eastern PA Conference churches. Their message was about being welcome and sharing the love of God with and for all people.  I am so glad that the Church—our Church—was present there proclaiming this embracing, life-giving message.

I respectfully acknowledge, with every ounce of my bishop’s heart, that there are Christians of goodwill in our conferences who do not agree about issues around homosexuality and gender identity. Nonetheless, we are mandated by our Discipline to be in ministry with all people, and all means all. 

All means all 
All people includes this part of the world’s humanity. God makes the Judgment call at the end of the day, whatever that will be; so it is not our job. For far too long we have been arguing over particulars, authoring and amending resolutions, and speculating about a church schism. But all we are asked to do is simply to love and welcome all people. 

I encourage all our churches to exercise our denominational mandate to be inclusive. There is grace to be found when you meet and listen to the stories of people who are different from you. Be willing to stretch beyond your “comfort zones” and go there to listen and connect with them.

Christ calls us to invite and welcome folks—different folks—into our churches and activities. It means we need to go into communities and engage people where they are—where they live, celebrate, suffer and struggle daily to gain dignity, human rights and loving acceptance.

Editor’s Note: At the Eastern PA Annual Conference June 15-17, Resolution 2017-11 encouraged all churches to practice Radical Welcome to LGBT persons. It explained that, “practicing radical welcome can be defined as holding or participating in special events in June (Pride Happenings) and October (Coming Out Happenings) to let LGBTQ people in our churches and communities know that they are welcome in our churches, and by offering special prayers for the LGBTQ people and their families in our churches and communities on a special Sunday in the months of June and October.

The resolution further recommended “that the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference invite the Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania and other interested churches to represent the Conference as a welcoming presence at Pride Parades and Outfests in their communities in June and October 2017. Presenters withdrew the resolution after efforts by some conference members to amend it with deletions during debate.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A response to the opioid epidemic

When we hear the word “epidemic” we typically think of a disease like Ebola or some virus or infection that spreads rapidly and causes much illness and death. In the case of the current opioid epidemic, the disease is addiction and the results are as catastrophic as any killer disease.

Our country is currently experiencing a staggering pandemic of drugs that is taking the lives of millions and causes misery and sorrow to millions more family members and friends of the victims. The statistics are unbelievable. According to the health department, in 2016 there were 4,642 drug overdose deaths in PA (up by 37%); in Maryland there were 830 cases (up by 66%); and in Delaware 308 people died (up by 30%).

Nationally the number of overdose deaths in 2016 exceeded 59,000 (up by 19%). All are reporting increases in deaths happening in the suburban areas of their states. This epidemic is crossing all lines of class and culture. The Philadelphia Inquirer (June 1, 2017) reported that librarians are being trained to administer the lifesaving overdose antidote Narcan as part of their job. “Overdose drills” are as common as fire drills in public library facilities like the one in Kensington.

Recently I visited the Lebanon Women’s Detention Center and Chaplain Marilyn Nolte, with the Eastern PA Conference Cabinet. I met a number of inmates. Many of them are incarcerated because of drug offenses and have a history of drug addiction.

Most shocking to me was the large pink heart we saw on the bulletin board that was cut in two to indicate a broken heart. On the heart were the names of at least 100 women who had been in the prison, had done their time and gotten out, and had either committed suicide or died from drug overdoses. These are our young people, each one a precious daughter, wife or mother, trapped in the chains of this disease. I thank God that we have a UM chaplain there working with these women.

It is easy to throw up our hands in despair when we read these statistics and hear these stories. But as people of faith, every one of us can do something to light a candle of hope. The recent “UNITE Quakertown” anti-drug abuse rally, sponsored June 10 at a local park by Quakertown UMC, brought together interfaith partners, human service agencies and community groups, along with musical performers and speakers. All are helping to spread the word about this terrible epidemic of opioid abuse and offer some practical things people can do.

Here are some of the “take-aways” from this day-long community festival:
  • View addiction as a disease and not a moral failure. 
  • Decriminalize and offer more treatment options instead of prison time. 
  • Set up more Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery groups in churches and communities.
  • Teach elementary school children about the dangers of drugs. 
  • Offer after-school and summer programs for at-risk young people. 
  • Partner with hospitals to support drug-addicted mothers and their addicted newborns. 
  • Pray for and with addicted people and their families.
  • Promote laws and governmental policies that keep funding for health insurance and Medicaid that assists with drug addiction remedies.
At our Lenten Day Apart for clergy next February, in both the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware annual conferences, we will have more conversation about drug addiction. The Rev. Dr. Barry Steiner-Ball will present some of his work in this area of community outreach and treatment.

The root cause of drug use and drug abuse is pain. We experience physical pain, emotional pain and spiritual pain in life, and drugs may at first take away that pain. But with continual use and increased dosages it can easily become an addiction.

People of faith can come alongside people suffering pain, all kinds of pain, to offer healing, encouraging community support and helpful spiritual resources that no pain pill can offer. As followers of Christ and loving ambassadors of the gospel, we can bring the words of life to this drug world of death. Always offer people Christ and make your church a place of welcome and support.

Monday, June 5, 2017

June is Gun Violence Prevention Month

Violence is such huge part of our world right now that one can rarely listen to the news on radio or TV without learning of a new incident of horrific violence. We are still reeling from the recent terrorist bombings and mass stabbings in England, and attacks on other innocent people in our own country.

Gun violence is particularly prevalent in our country. I believe it is important for our churches to teach about this epidemic and promote healthy ways of preventing senseless harm.

The 2016 United Methodist Book of Resolutions encourages our churches to make “preventing gun violence a regular part of our conversations and prayer times.” It goes on to say, “Gun violence must be worshipfully and theologically reflected on, and we encourage UM churches to frame conversations theologically by utilizing resources such as Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities: Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4, produced by the General Board of Church and Society.”

(The 'Gun Violence Prevention' page on umcjustic.org is another helpful resource: www.umcjustice.org/what-we-care-about/peace-with-justice/gun-violence-prevention)

It also encourages us to “partner with local law enforcement agencies and community groups to identify gun retailers that engage in retail practices designed to circumvent laws on gun sales and ownership, encourage full legal compliance, and to work with groups like ‘Heeding God’s Call’ that organize faith-based campaigns to encourage gun retailers to gain full legal compliance with appropriate standards and laws.”   (2016 Book of Resolutions, page 394)

As a church we can also become politically active by promoting local and national level laws that prevent or reduce gun violence in some of the following ways:
  • universal background checks on all gun purchases;
  • ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty;
  • prohibiting from purchasing guns all individuals under temporary restraining orders due to threat of violence;
  • banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and weapons designed to fire multiple rounds each time the trigger is pulled; and
  • and promoting new technologies to aid law enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety.  (2016 Book of Resolutions, page 395).
Finally, my word to you today is to consider anger. The basis for much of the violence we see in this world today is anger. Jesus speaks of anger against one’s neighbor in a dramatic way in the “Sermon on Mount.”   

He said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

These are strong words based on much wisdom. Anger gives birth to murder and violence. Churches are also a place where we can teach faith-filled ways of dealing with anger through conversation, mediation, forgiveness and restorative justice. 

Every one of us can do something to curb the violence in our world. Ask God to lay on your heart what you can be doing to promote peace and end this scourge of murder and mayhem in our world.  Use the month of June, which is “Gun Violence Prevention Month,” to make some concrete plans.  We are to be the salt and light of the world!