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Amicable Separation?

Andy Langford

June 21, 2014

 

Who am I?

I am Wesleyan.  I love John Wesley, our Wesleyan history and theology.

I am Orthodox.  I believe in the Trinity and the Holy Scriptures contain all that is needed for salvation.

I am Inclusive.  My congregation in Concord welcomes gays, lesbians, African-Americans, Whites, southerners and northerners into membership and leadership.

I know our general church.  For thirty years I have been a church bureaucrat, participated in eight general conferences, been elected by this annual conference five times, now serve for the fourth time on the general church connectional table (previously General Council on Ministries).

I believe that our denomination is only an autonomous entity but part of the global Wesleyan movement and a part of the Church universal (see ¶ 6).

I even own a copy of the 2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline.

In other words, I am United Methodist.

 

Is amicable separation possible?  Of course.  It has happened in our past.

In the early 1800s, the African Methodist Episcopal Church withdrew with the blessing of our denomination.

The Methodist Protestant Church congregations withdrew over slavery.

In the 1800s, the Methodist Episcopal Church South withdrew, along with all its property and institutions.

The holiness movement created separation.

Just a decade ago, the Puerto Rico Annual Conference, a full member of the UMC, created an autonomous, independent denomination.

Amicable separation is possible.

 

Will amicable separation happen over homosexuality?  I doubt it.

General Conference, with the increased participation by Central Conference delegates, especially from Africa, is growing more global and more conservative.

The general conference will not vote in 2016 allow clergy to conduct same sex unions.  Clergy will be expected to remain celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage.  Marriage will only be allowed between a man and a woman.

The Judicial Council, an unaccountable power unto itself, will not consider amicable separation possible under our current Discipline, but will not announce this until the final day of general conference.  

Follow the money.  The Central Conferences and the general church agencies want the continual financial support of all the United States churches, especially the large contributions from the South East and South Central Jurisdictions.  We have the money and they want us to stay.

The forces for union are stronger than the powers to separate.

 

Let us be honest.  Almost every pastor and congregation violates our common practices in ways minor and major without consequences.  That will continue.

Some churches hold raffles!  Raffles are not allowed by our Social Principles.

Some pastors conduct same sex weddings.  A clear violation of the Discipline (¶ 341.6) as “unauthorized conduct.”

Some pastors re-baptize persons baptized as infants and call them professions of faith.  By Discipline (¶ 341.7) actions that are “unauthorized conduct.”

Some bishops clearly have violated their consecration to uphold the Discipline of our denomination by honoring clergy who have violated our Discipline (¶ 401 & 414).

Are these acts of schism?  I do not think so.  These people are faithful to their conscience (which they consider higher than their vows of obedience to the denomination.

Therefore, trials are not the answer.

 

So what do I see in the near future?  My personal perspective.

Persons who want full inclusion of all persons will accept only full inclusion without any limits.  They celebrate diversity without limits.  We should follow the cultural changes happening among us.  They understand their position to be an act of biblical justice.  They cite the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) as opening the church to all persons.  “Love” is the heart of the Gospel.  This is the direction of the Connectional Table.

Persons who want to conserve the traditional language will not allow any deviation from the Articles of Religion and other core doctrines.  We should resist all accommodation to secular culture.  They cite biblical authority and church history.  If God at created us male and female for each other, and Jesus blesses marriages, and the Church is the bride of Christ, our denomination cannot challenge the Word of God.  See the Group of 80 proposal to separate and the Timothy Tennant proposal to separate and multiply.

Most United Methodists are somewhere in the middle.

 

Because everyone on both sides is absolutely convinced that they have the moral high ground, no one will compromise.  Many compromises will be offered.  All comprises will fail.

 Everybody — left, right, and middle — will be unhappy, even angry and hostile toward one another.

 

The 2012 General Conference was ugly.  The 2016 General Conference will be even more ugly.

 

What is lost?  We have lost our focus on making disciples.

We talk primarily about human sexuality not the salvation of individuals and reformation of society.  Holiness of self and community are secondary.

Every congregation is full of sinners in need of transformation and our culture increasingly wanders far from the kingdom of God.  Yet, so much of our time focuses only on one topic that calls to battle political forces on both the left and the right.

 

This lost of focus is especially true at the general church level.  At the last Connectional Table meeting, we spent over half of our time debating inclusion of gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, trans-sexuals, and queers.  That issue is not part of the primary task of the Connectional Table.

We spent almost no time talking about making disciples.  At the general church level we have lost our way.

 

What is my way forward?

Change will never come from general conference.  Top down never has worked nor ever will work.

We began as a grass-roots movement from below.  We must become a grass roots movement again.

The essential connectional body of our denomination is not the general church but the annual conference, such as our wonderful Western North Carolina Annual Conference (¶ 33).  Clergy are not members of the general church but members of an annual conference.

 

Annual conferences such as ours must take charge and lead the way.  Bishop Michael Coyner has proposed such an alternative in “Is the Answer in Our Polity” at the website “Ministry Matters.”

 

Our WNC annual conference has exceptional episcopal and conference leadership.  We have great pastors, some on the left, others on the right, and many, many in the middle.  We have almost 300,000 wonderful laity.  We all want to remain in dialogue and communion with one another.

The property of local congregations are held in trust for whom?  Not the general church but the annual conference. (¶ 7 and ¶2503).  The UMC does not have a legal presence.

 

Pensions are not the property of the general church but are held in trust by the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits for annual conferences and the clergy who hold their membership within the annual conference.  Watch what happens when one of our conferences is unable to pay its pensions and GBPHB tries to take money from other conferences to  make up the difference; then we will truly see how well the global connection works or does not.

 

Now is the time for local congregations to distance themselves from the general church and general agencies and the loss of focus on making disciples.

The proposal to allow annual conference autonomy on some subjects (such as around the issue of sexual ethics) opens the door, but it should also include autonomy around finances, social principles, and all other issues.

Will we then be United Methodists?  Yes.

But we will be united in name only.

 

We must focus on our Western North Carolina Annual Conference and its focus on making disciples here.

In 2015, our WNC conference has been asked to contribute almost $6 million in its budget to support a dysfunctional general church and its agencies.  Why are we giving $6 million to institutions that only want to fight over an issue that has no solution?

Instead, the United Methodist Discipline does not prohibit and our conference rules allow congregations to reallocate that $6 million.  We can give those monies to our own annual conference for congregational vitality, new church starts, missions regional and global, and more.

 

We can begin this new future within the Western North Carolina Conference.

If you want to be United Methodist, I encourage you to join my congregation and reallocate your monies away from a general church that will get uglier and more divided.

 

Will we divide?  No.  What then shall we do?  Focus our attention and money on this annual conference and be faithful to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  

Response to Jeremy

A recent blog by UMJeremy, “Holding the UMC Hostage” required this response.

While Jeremy’s blog and some comments speak about my document, I believe that they often fundamentally mis-represent my position.

1. Initially, my paper stands in full agreement with the essential principles of the 2011 Call to Action report, as endorsed unanimously by the Council of Bishops and the general church Connectional Table. That call urges the UMC to realign the structure and resources of our denomination to focus on creating and sustaining vital congregations. Our denomination cannot sustain financially the current general church structure and emphases! I agree passionately with that focus. So did the majority of delegates to the 2012 General Conference! Yet, not one part of the Call to Action made it into our Discipline. That is a major tragedy that bodes ill for our denomination.

2. My paper is supported by the essential work of Lovett Weems in “Focus: The Real Challenges that Face The United Methodist Church” and Gil Rendle’s “Journey in the Wilderness.” Read both books for a sobering analysis of the crises facing our denomination, including financial. For example, Weems asks us to “reset” the financial baselines. Rendle expects 1/3 of our congregations to close in the next 15 years. In 2011, the UMC in the US suffered its largest percentage decline in membership and worship attendance in our history; 2012 will probably be worse. Only 15% of all UMC congregations in the US are vital. What are we as pastors, laity, and local congregations doing about these realities?

3. I am a non-conformist. Will Willimon and I introduced these ideas and more in 1992! I celebrate that many of our ideas then, also understood as controversial, are now in our Discipline. This denomination still needs more reformers than supporters of the status quo.

4. I am not aligned with the Confessing Movement, Good News, Methodist Federation for Social Action, or any other caucus group. I am theologically conservative and politically liberal. None of this argument has to be with the current denominational fight over sexuality or a particular position of the General Board of Church and Society or World Council of Churches or anything else. Do not read into the document what is not there.

5. I am a sixth-generation United Methodist. I have been and continue to be active throughout the connection. I sit on the general church Connectional Table and my annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry. I am not a “congregationalist.” I do support the Episcopal Fund (we cannot be United Methodists and not have bishops). I yearn passionately for our connectional denomination to be healthy. But, the answers for healthy congregations will not come from above but from below.

6. My congregation pays 100% of what has been apportioned to us (about 10% of our budget). In fact, we give about 30% of our total income away for missions. We are sponsoring a new congregation. We are deeply committed to sharing our financial blessings with others. There is nothing “selfish” about this proposal.

7. Essentially, the paper offers a strategy that reforms our denomination from the bottom up. It does not ask permission from the top down! I am despondent about the ability of our denomination to change from above. Therefore, in the tradition of the reformer John Wesley, let’s go to the people not in authority and create new models of ministry. Let’s be clear: the Discipline fully allows laity to make decisions about finances at the local level that may or may not be approved by the pastor or district superintendent. Let us trust the laity. They are way ahead of our “leaders” in many of these issues.

8. This paper fundamentally supports the position of our Discipline that annual conferences, not the general agencies, are the essential connectional body in our denomination. Since 1968, that position has been turned upside down. I am asking us to discontinue a system that in 1972 Albert Outler predicted would corrupt our essential Wesleyan tradition. Outler was correct. I want us to return to our true Wesleyan heritage as known for our first 150 years.

9. I have had encouragement for this position from some conference treasurers and bishops (some of whom added to the document before it was released) . Most do not want their names used. I have thick skin. I am simply willing to say publicly what others are thinking privately.

10. I strongly object to characterizations of “holding hostage” or “withholding” or “local.” Read the document. Do not attribute words to me that I do not use.

11. I suggest that local congregations redirect the amount of money apportioned in ways that create and sustain vital congregations, locally, regionally, and internationally. Essentially, let us rebuild healthy United Methodist congregations from the ground up; versus strengthening general agency work that often (but not always) is not focused on vital congregations. For example, my congregation is contributing more to our district mission fund and the conference vitality and congregational development teams. Let’s strengthen existing congregations and start new congregations first. When we have healthy congregations then we will have healthy general agencies.

12. I do believe that it is possible for units of the general church to support the work of vital congregations. For example, my congregation has had recently very fruitful conversations with staff of the General Board of Discipleship and United Methodist Communications. For the first time in years, they may be able to assist our work, and at that time I will reconsider my position, and support those who support vital congregations.

13. Next to last, get the first things first: what can pastors, laity, and local congregations do to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? That is our true mission. The answer from the Call to Action, the Connectional Table, and the Council of Bishops, supported by the most extensive research in our history, is to focus on strengthening existing congregations and starting new congregations. I absolutely agree. My paper suggests one strategy to make sure that local congregations use their money most effectively for the current and future health our entire denomination to fulfill our mission.

14. An invitation to Jeremy and all the readers of his blog, answer this question: what are you doing in your local setting to strengthen congregations and create new congregations? How does the use of your money help or hinder that effort? I look forward to your answers.

Church-Directed Allocations vs. Proportional Allocations

A Strategy for United Methodist Congregations
in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference
to Focus Apportionments to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ

Andy Langford

How may your congregation direct its financial apportionments to best fulfill Jesus’ commandment to make disciples of Jesus Christ? How may you help the Western North Carolina Conference fulfill its vision to strengthen vital congregations?

Each year, your congregation is notified about the total financial apportionments for your District, our Western North Carolina Conference, the Southeast Jurisdiction, and the general ministries of The United Methodist Church. In many congregations, the total apportionments range from 10% to 20% of the total budget of a congregation.

Most congregations consider all these separate apportionments as one lump sum. The apportionments, however, consist of at least fifteen separate funds from four different levels of our denomination.

The District budget is set annually in each District and includes several separate funds. The Annual Conference budget is set each year at Lake Junaluska and includes four line items. The Southeast Jurisdictional budget is set every four years and includes one budget line item. The general United Methodist Church budget is set every four years at General Conference and includes seven separate items.

Each of the apportionments must be asked from your congregation. Your congregation never “votes” on the apportionments. According to our United Methodist Discipline, our Annual Conference and its leaders must encourage your congregation to pay 100% payment of all apportionments.

There are two ways for your local congregation to pay 100% of apportionments: Proportional Allocation or Church-Directed Allocation. Most congregations are not aware of the differences between the two and the implications. For decades, the financial remittance form from the Western North Carolina Conference has offered both options to every congregation.

1. Proportional Allocation Simply send in 100% of the money requested, without any instruction about the use of the monies. When a congregation chooses Proportional Allocation (or makes no choice), the Conference Treasurer then pays each fund its designated proportion or percentage of the total amount. For example, if your congregation chooses the Proportional Allocation model, the Conference Treasurer sends in automatically 36.7% of all your apportionments to the seven funds of the General Church.

2. Church-Directed Allocation Yet, your congregation has the right to direct your apportionments. When a congregation chooses Church-Directed Allocation, the Conference Treasurer then pays each fund only what the congregation has designated. For example, if your congregation chooses to give more to one fund and less to another, the Conference Treasurer follows the designation of your congregation. No other person or body in the denomination can dictate how your local church pays its apportionments. This is a local church decision.

Which model of giving is best for your congregation? If your congregation supports every fund of the District, the Conference, the Jurisdiction, and the General Church at the percentage set by each level of the denomination, simply use Proportional Allocation. This way allows others to direct your apportionments.

If, however, your congregation supports some ministries more than others, select Church-Directed Allocation and designate your giving.

The process to use the Church-Directed Allocation model is very simple:

1. Your congregation’s Finance Committee reviews each of the apportionments: District, Conference, Jurisdictional, and General Church. Such information is available through the Conference website: http://www.wnccumc.org. The Finance Committee asks which of these funds best fulfill the mission of your congregation? Every congregation may reach different conclusions.

2. Your Finance Committee may then recommend that your congregation pay different amounts to different funds. For example, your congregation may decide to pay more to its District Mission Society (# 521) and Annual Conference Vision and Goals (# 508) , and less to the General Church funds (#513-520). The goal is that the total amount of money paid by your congregation will equal 100% of the total monies apportioned to your congregation.

3. Your Finance Committee must then make its recommendation to your congregation’s Church Council or Administrative Board or other authorized body. This action does not require a Charge Conference and requires only a majority vote by your church leaders. This action does not need to approval of your pastor or district superintendent. This vote may happen at any time, but ideally before the first apportionment payments are made in any calendar year.

4. Your local church treasurer will then submit your congregation’s payments according to the decision approved by your Church Council as a Church-Directed Allocation.

When the Western North Carolina Conference Treasurer receives your payments, the Conference Treasurer then pays the funds designated by your congregation. The Treasurer may not reallocate your payments without your congregation’s approval.

If a fund receives more funds than requested, the Conference Treasurer will remit the additional funds to an authorized body, such as the District Finance Committee or Conference Council on Finance and Administration. Each body has its own policies about how to use the additional funds.

At the end of the financial year, if your congregation has paid 100% of the monies apportioned to it (line 40a of the standard financial report), regardless of where the funds are designated, the Conference Treasurer will certify that 100% of your apportionments were paid (line 40b of the financial report). Your congregation will then have paid 100% of its apportionments in ways that fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples of Jesus Christ!

I encourage every congregation to consider Church-Directed Allocation, with a focus on district and annual conference funds, as your method for paying all apportionments!

The above statement is the personal perspective of the author. Andy, a pastor for 35 years in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, has been a delegate to the last five General Conferences, a member of the WNCC Council on Finance and Administration for 8 years, and serves on the General Church Connectional Table. He has also worked closely with all the general agencies of our denomination.

This paper was written in consultation with past and present conference and denominational leaders, especially persons knowledgeable about our financial policies and procedures. All the above statements are consistent with The United Methodist Discipline and the historic practices of the Western North Carolina Conference.

For more background information on the 2012 General Conference, see Andy’s 15 May 2012 blog at http://www.pastorandylangford.com.


Rationale for Church-Directed Allocation of Apportionments

Introduction

Following the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, many local congregations must seek better ways to use their financial resources to fulfill the mission of The United Methodist Church. In addition, local congregations must reassert that the annual conference is the basic body of our denomination (Article II of our Constitution) by providing more financial resources to their annual conferences.

The 2012 General Conference rejected a new focus on creating and strengthening vital congregations and empowering annual conferences. Not one petition concerning local congregations was even voted on by General Conference. Organizational flexibility for annual conferences was rejected. Instead, our denomination maintained the primacy and status quo of its general boards, agencies, and general church programs.

For over forty years, over three billion dollars have been spent supporting the general agencies and other endeavors of our global connection. And for over forty years, our denomination in the United States has been in decline. For three years, our United Methodist Council of Bishops, the Call to Action committees, and the General Church Connectional Table looked at solutions. As confirmed in a series of Abingdon books entitled “The Adaptive Challenge Series,” we discovered that the general agencies are not accountable for measurable outcomes and that the financial basis of our entire denomination must change. In addition, the annual conferences, not general agencies, are the primary arena for equipping local congregations.

The Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table petitioned General Conference for new emphases on local congregations and annual conferences. Yet, the 2012 General Conference, influenced greatly by the general agencies, minimized any change in our current organization and how it is funded.

It is time for congregations within the United States to follow the example of United Methodist congregations outside the United States (over 42% of all United Methodists) who only pay general church apportionments to the Episcopal Fund and none to the other six general church funds. In 2011, 99% of all monies that supported the general church came from the United States. United Methodist congregations in the United States must use the monies donated to God through them in better ways.

Does a congregation in the United States have the financial flexibility that is now used by United Methodist congregations outside the United States? Is there a superior way to strengthen annual conferences and fulfill Jesus’ command to make disciples for the transformation of the world through our connection? Is there a way for local congregations to reform and renew our denomination from the bottom of our organization?

For a generation, United Methodist congregations have yielded to the “superior wisdom” of the leaders at the District, Conference, Jurisdictional, and especially the General Church led by the general agencies. Today, United Methodist congregations have the responsibility to use their own wisdom and dollars in ways to transform individual lives, local congregations, annual conferences, and the world. Local congregations, where disciples of Jesus Christ are made, lead the denomination!

United Methodists in local congregations must now learn how to set their own priorities. Churches in the United States should no longer continue to contribute to a failing general church denominational bureaucracy that is a waste of money and faithfulness to God. Congregations should use monies in ways faithful to our Wesleyan tradition.

Increasingly, many congregations believe that their monies are better spent on district missions and conference ministries and benevolences, the essential connectional ministries. These ministries are led by people known and trusted. These monies focus more so on creating and sustaining vital congregations and empowering annual conferences.

The following description of the problem, and solution, are one option for congregations to consider as they pay their apportionments to The United Methodist Church.

A Brief History of Apportionments

Apportionments are the way each local congregation in the United States contributes its fair share to the connectional ministries of our denomination for the past 40 years. For the first 180 years of our denomination, all local congregations throughout the world were asked to contribute to the larger church for distinctively connectional ministries, such as the salaries of bishops, conference expenses, and global missions. There were no general agencies other than the publishing house and mission units. At times, specific goals were set. Sharing a common vision of mission, voluntarily and with joy, congregations responded generously.

Beginning in the 1970s, as the bureaucracy of the general church grew to historic number and size financial apportionments became mandatory in the United States. Through legislation written by the general agencies, apportionments were declared to be the first missional giving of local congregations in the U.S. The expectation became, for the first time in our denomination’s history, that every United States congregation pay 100% of all apportionments.

For the past forty years, many leaders of our denomination in the United States have insisted that paying apportionments is the clearest sign of being United Methodist. General church agencies and programs have become the primary connectional ministries. This emphasis denies the very constitution of our denomination that the annual conference is the primary connectional body of our church.

A number of leaders threatened clergy and congregations who did not pay 100% exactly as designated by higher authorities. Three-fourths of all annual conferences in the United States, however, do not contribute 100% of the monies apportioned to them by the general church. With the decline in members in the United States, our denomination has reached the point at which fewer dollars will be available every year for ministry.

Over the forty years, however, more and more of the apportionment dollars have gone not to districts, annual conferences, or jurisdictional missions and structure but to the general church agencies and programs. Local churches appear to exist to support the general agencies, not the other way around. Today, general Church apportionments total 22% of all apportionments in the United States.

Because annual conferences may not reduce any of the general Church apportionments allocated to congregations, over the past years, jurisdictions and annual conferences have cut back significantly missions and ministries. Over a third of all district superintendent positions have been eliminated in the last twenty years. District projects, conference institutions, and jurisdictional ministries have been cut. In 2012, one-fourth of all conferences had to cut their budgets. Bluntly, districts, annual conferences, and jurisdictions are being squeezed between the rock of high general church apportionments and the declining income of local congregations.

For a comparison, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., the Protestant denomination with the second largest Protestant bureaucracy in our nation, has an annual apportionment of $5 per member per year. Our general church and its general agencies expect about $20 per member in the United States per year. In other words, our general church bureaucratic expenses are four times larger than the next largest Protestant denomination. And our denomination continues to decline in the United States.

How Apportionments Are Determined

Each year each annual conference in the United States receives from the General Council on Finance and Administration the amount allocated for each general church apportioned fund ¶808). These amounts are set by the preceding General Conference.

The general church funds then become part of the total annual conference budget. This percentage is different in every annual conference. In some annual conferences, the percentage is as low as 10%; in another conference, as high as 60%. The average is 22%.

The annual conference Council on Finance and Administration must then allocate these monies to local congregations (every annual conference has a different formula for doing so) “without reduction” (¶615). The annual conference may not make any revisions to general church askings.

Annual conferences then allocate the monies for the districts, annual conferences, jurisdictions, and general church in their own manner.

There are seven general church funds: Africa University, Black College, Episcopal Fund, General Church Administration, Interdenominational Cooperation, Ministerial Education, and World Service Fund. Each of these seven funds must be asked from local congregations in the United States.

The Southeast Jurisdictional budget, cut by one half for the next four years, goes directly to pay off the debt of Lake Junaluska Assembly, a valuable resource for our own annual conference.

In the WNC annual conference budget, 36.7% of the total conference budget goes directly to the general Church. By the Judicial Ruling # 1121, an annual conference may not adopt a policy that encourages a congregation to pay less than 100% of its apportionments.

I am not suggesting that local congregations pay less than 100% of their apportionments. I am not suggesting that monies be reallocated to pay a higher salary to a pastor or put new carpet in the sanctuary. I believe that United Methodists want to be generous to others. But, United Methodists should be more direct in how their apportionment monies are spent.

Can a congregation realign apportionment payments to the district, conference, or general church anyway? The United Methodist Discipline provides such flexibility: ¶247.14 Powers and Duties of the Charge Conference: As soon as practicable after the session of annual conference, each district superintendent or designated agent shall notify each local church in the district what amounts have been apportioned to it for World Service, conference benevolences and other general Church, jurisdictional, and annual conference funds. In preparation for and at the charge conference, it shall be the responsibility of the district superintendent, the pastor, and the lay member(s) of the annual conference and /or the church lay leader(s) to interpret to each charge conference the importance of these apportioned funds, explaining the causes supported by each of them and their place in the total program of the Church. . . . Payment in full of these apportionments by local church is the first benevolent responsibility of the church (¶812). Please note, the Discipline does not say payment in full of each individual fund allocated must be paid, only payment in full.

The Charge Conference of the congregation does not take action on the apportionments. The Charge Conference receives the request. There is no vote to accept, amend, or reject the amount. There is no dialogue or negotiation. This method is called in the appendix of the Discipline “notification.” The assumption is that there will be full payment. Again, The United Methodist Discipline does not specify full payment of each fund, only full payment.

United Methodists Are Generous People

All United Methodists want to be generous in their giving for ministries and missions beyond their local congregations. Our denomination has regional and global connectional ministries that are essential to sharing the love of God with others. We cannot focus only on our own congregations. Our Wesleyan tradition is to be extravagant in our financial giving for the transformation of the world. Most congregations believe in paying 100% of the total of all funds that have been apportioned to them.
How to Be Generous?

Each individual apportioned ministry or agency throughout the annual conference budget does not need to be paid at 100%. Three-fourths of all conferences in the United States act this way already. All of the United Methodist conferences outside the United States give nothing to the general church except for the Episcopal Fund.

There are at least two models by which United Methodist congregations may pay their full apportionments. It is up to each congregation to determine which model best fulfills their understanding of connectional ministry.

The first method is “Proportional Allocation.” If a church selects Proportional Allocation (or selects no option), the monies paid to the conference for apportionments are divided between all funds in the proportion of the church apportionment for that line to the total apportionment as indicated by the conference budget.

For example, when a congregation in the WNC annual conference pays all its apportionment dollars in one sum, 36.7% of the total payment automatically goes directly to the general Church. Of those monies, 19% go to World Service and 2% to General Administration (the two funds that underwrite most of the activities of the general church agencies that have failed our denomination for forty years).

Church-Directed Allocation

The second method is “Church-Directed Allocation.” The church treasurer checks the self-allocation box. The church treasurers then pays the designated amounts on those specific fund line items.

No local congregation is required to pay every line item at 100%. The only expectation is to pay 100% of the total monies requested. For example, a congregation may choose to pay more monies to a district or conference or jurisdictional fund and less money to a general Church apportionment.

For example, like congregations outside the United States, a congregation in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference may pay only the Episcopal Fund (#503).

Especially, local congregations should choose not to pay the two general Church funds that are the least effective in the task of making disciples by strengthening local congregations: World Service (#520) and General Administration (#515). These two funds underwrite the general church agencies and their bureaucracies, the very agencies that wrote the legislation to require 100% payout without reduction. These two funds primarily support the status quo of continual decline of our denomination.

The total amount of these two funds in the WNCC budget total 21% of all apportionments; 19% for World Service and 2% for General Administration. If every Western North Carolina Conference congregation redirected just the monies from World Service and General Administration to District Mission Societies, this would be an additional $3.3 million dollars available in the Western North Carolina Conference for mission and ministry! If congregations contributed only to the Episcopal Fund, almost $5 million would be available for other purposes such as new congregations, conference institutions and benevolences, and new mission outreach!

Who Decides?

Who in the local church makes the decision about how much to pay their apportionments? The Charge Conference does not vote on the apportionments, that is not the place. The Charge Conference is simply notified of the total funds requested.

Pastors unilaterally cannot reallocate funds. Pastors are not in charge of congregational finances. Pastors have many responsibilities, including ¶340.2.c.2.c. “To provide leadership for the funding ministry of the congregation. And ¶340.2.c.2.e. “To lead the congregation in the fulfillment of its mission through full and faithful payment of all apportioned ministerial support, administrative, and benevolent funds.” This full payment of all funds speaks to the amount paid not which funds receive the monies. Pastors must allow the laity in their congregations to make such decisions. Pastors, however, may share this paper with their church leaders.

It is most appropriate that a congregation’s Finance Committee recommend to its Church Council or other appropriate body how to allocate its apportionments. By action of the Church Council, the church treasurer would then send in payments as designated.

Note to the Western North Carolina Conference Council on Finance and Administration

The WNCC Council on Finance and Administration has been sympathetic to this approach over the past twelve years. To encourage Church-Directed Allocations, the WNCC CFA should:
1. Continue to design all payment forms to indicate clearly the two options of giving.
2. Encourage congregations to choose the method best suited to each congregation.
3. Establish policies to handle over-payments to districts and the conference.
4. Support 100% payout of the Episcopal Fund as a prior-claim. The annual conference structure depends on the role of the resident bishop.
5. Each district should emphasize their funds, such as District Missions, that may receive additional monies.
6. Instead of just four unified funds, the WNCC should consider adding several more funds to help congregations focus their giving. Such individual funds might include congregational development (to start new churches), church revitalization (to support local congregations with new initiatives), ministerial scholarships (why should 75% of all the Ministerial Education Fund leave our annual conference?), volunteers in mission (for global hands-on missions), and regional and global missions (based on approved advance specials). Such funds would encourage local congregations to increase their giving for missions.
Conclusion

United Methodist congregations must be faithful and generous stewards of their financial resources to fulfill the mission of The United Methodist Church. United Methodist congregations must help re-establish the role of the Annual Conference as the basic body of the denomination?

Every United Methodist congregation in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, and in the United States, should seriously consider Church-Directed Allocation of all apportionments and designate more monies away from the general church and more to district, conference, and jurisdictional funds.

An Open Letter to United Methodists

Andy Langford — May 2012

I reflect on General Conference 2012 with deep and profound sadness.  Many persons are now offering their own opinions about what happened in Tampa.  At the adjournment of General Conference, Bishop Scott Jones said that he had witnessed “the death throes of a 1970s institution.”  Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the new President of the Council of Bishops, wrote, “Many people were not ready to do bold steps into a new model of structure and oversight and we fettered ourselves with a constitution that saves a dysfunctional system.”

Instead of replaying all the details about what happened, however, a more fundamental question is how does The United Methodist Church move forward?  With the increasing decline of congregations in the United States and impending collapse of our general church structures on the near horizon, how does our denomination live into the future?  Which new leaders will emerge?  Is there hope?

Even as we soon celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, our church needs passionate laity and clergy at the local level to be advocates for fundamental change, in order that our denomination might fulfill the call from Jesus Christ to make disciples for the transformation of the world.  No doubt, these advocates would include pastors from our leading congregations. In addition, members of the Council of Bishops, perhaps in conversation with the Connectional Table, are needed to join in the discussion and guide us toward clarity and wisdom.  Currently, we are a denomination without a rudder; we need strong leadership to steer us towards a hopeful future.

I offer this document as one of many invitations from leaders throughout our beloved denomination to join in conversation with prayerful hope and expectation that God will give us the courage and insight we need for this time.

Fundamental Questions About Money

The conversation among church leaders must include serious reflection about our general church’s monies: how the monies are raised, how the income is spent, and who makes such decisions.  Money is the fuel that powers our denomination.

Many United Methodists assume that the financial resources and governance we have had in the past will continue into the future.  All the evidence indicates otherwise.  Closing our eyes and hoping for the best is not a strategy forward.  We should instead follow the money and see where our monies lead us.

A Brief History

Let me share some history that shapes my views.  Going into General Conference, two mentors informed my perspective.  John Wesley once wrote:  “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America.  But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.  And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”  I believe that The United Methodist Church in 2012 has become the stagnant Church of England, which Mr. Wesley sought to reform.  As a denomination, too many United Methodists have come to love our established institution and have forgotten the spirit of personal and social holiness that gave us birth.

In 1968, Dr. Albert Outler, our most significant Wesleyan theologian in the 20th century, spoke against the general church organization we now have.  Outler believed that the proposed and adopted organizational model would not be faithful to our Wesleyan tradition, would scatter power, and would cause us to lose focus on making disciples.  Outler’s fears have proven correct.

Our crisis is most clear in the United States and Europe.  We have less than 70,000 United Methodists in Europe.  Since 1968, the United Methodist Church in the United States has been in decline.  We have older members, fewer members, and less money for ministry and missions.  Only 15% of our congregations in the United States are highly vital.  In 2011, the United Methodist churches in the United States saw the largest ever decline in membership and worship attendance.  Our General Council of Finance and Administration economists anticipate that The United Methodist Church will receive less money in the next four years for the general church than it received in the last four years.

Many United Methodist leaders have seen this crisis coming.  Since the publication of Bishop Richard Wilke’s And Are We Yet Alive? twenty-five years ago, many leaders in our church have called for reform.  Eighteen years ago, Will Willimon and I, seeking fundamental renewal, wrote A New Connection: Reforming The United Methodist Church.  Many others have joined this chorus, including those authors in the new Abingdon Press series on the adaptive challenge facing our denomination.

Over the past three years, our Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, leading pastors and laity, and many other people invested thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, and countless prayers preparing to lead our denomination forward.  Many powerful options for reform were offered.  Was 2012 to be the year to reclaim the Wesleyan movement for our denomination?

At the opening of General Conference, the report of The Call to Action described the United Methodist decline in the United States in graphic ways.  For eleven days in Tampa, at a cost of over $8 million, many people tried for reform in structures, finances, and direction.  The Interim Operations Team and the Connectional Table legislation sought not to save our United Methodist Church but to find new ways “to redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  No one doubted the analysis of the problems as described by the Call to Action research.

At General Conference, we had significant leadership from many of our bishops.  Laity and clergy, female and male, young and old, Central Conference and United States delegates joined in the conversations.  Many, many people gave of their time, skills, and prayers.

After the Call to Action report at the opening of General Conference, however, United States congregational decline was never mentioned again in the plenary.  The powers and principalities of institutional self-survival were too entrenched.  Many of our caucuses, most of our general agencies, and particularly the Judicial Council of our United Methodist Church have proven unwilling and incapable of significant reform.  Wesley’s fears of a dead sect were public for all to see.

General Conference reduced the size of the governing boards of the general agencies, including a significant reduction of the number of Central Conference members, yet preserved most the positions of the independent general agency executive staff.  For example, only 14% of the members of the General Council on Finance and Administration are from Central Conferences; the General Commission on Archives and History has only one Central Conference out of eleven whereas 40% of the total membership of our denomination are from Central Conferences).  Rearranging the deckchairs of a sinking ship, General Conference tossed the paying passengers overboard and saved the lives of the crew.

At the end of two weeks, not a single petition from the Local Church Legislative Committee had made it to the plenary floor.  General Conference debated divestiture from Israel, homosexuality, rules and mandates, and other topics for hours.  But annual conferences were again forbidden any flexibility for achieving mission.  Strategies to strengthen local congregations were not discussed on the plenary floor.  The goal to redirect resources to increase vital congregation was not added to our Discipline.  For any movement of redirection to continue, the movement will have to be on a church by church, conference by conference level, not at the general church level.  What a loss.

At the end of General Conference, an article in The United Methodist Reporter spoke of “a slow, agonizing, organizational death.”  Maria Hall, an organizational guru, believes that “we must dare to tear down to our foundations if we ever hope to be any good to the world.”  Further, “an 18th century structure cannot sustain a 21st century global organization.”

How does The United Methodist Church, then, move forward?  Where should leaders start?

General Church Apportionments

As we look toward the future, major financial and governance issues lurk just below the surface.  How are general church funds raised and spent, and who makes those decisions?

I increasingly question the financial support by thousands of local congregations in the United States of our dysfunctional denominational agencies.  The emperor has no clothes.  Is it time to stop contributing to the emperor’s clothing allowance?

Before General Conference, I spoke with a group of young clergy fearful about the future of our denomination in the United States.  I reminded these passionate young women and men that change rarely comes from the top but from the bottom.  The 2012 General Conference proved this point.  Is it time for pastors and laity in local congregations who seek to save our movement to reassert their leadership and cease funding a system that has led to our denomination’s decline?

Many of our leaders and my friends will continue to be loyal to our system and will pay 100% of their apportionments as dictated by our Discipline.  These leaders believe that the general agencies now understand the depth of the problems and will voluntarily change.  I honor that perspective but believe it to be far too cautious and optimistic.

The looming spectre of the “death tsunami,” as described by Lovett Weems in Focus: The Real Challenges Facing The United Methodist Church, indicates that our denomination has only a few years to change before the current funding model of our church collapses.  No one has disputed
Weems’ facts.  Yet, the only institutional response from our denomination has been to encourage the aging and declining members in the United States to be more generous financially to the existing system.

Continuing to fund our existing system, however, only encourages the status quo and inhibits efforts for renewal.  While Jesus Christ will never abandon the Church universal, I believe that ultimately much of our current United Methodist system must die before the Wesleyan movement can be resurrected.  The easiest and fastest way to hasten this death of many parts of our general institution is by the withholding of monies.

The single greatest institutional problem that hinders effective congregations is our general church agencies.  All of these agencies are filled with good people doing useful ministry.  But, we have thirteen different agencies with thirteen different governing boards with thirteen different executives with thirteen different agendas.  Most of the general agencies do most of their work only in the United States.  No one is in charge; the ruling of the Judicial Council indicates that no one should be in charge.  There is almost no focus on vital congregations and not enough attention paid to our global connection.  Agencies have little accountability.  We are like small kayaks paddling in different directions versus a crew of disciple rowers moving together toward a goal.

Why, therefore, are United Methodists in the United States continuing to support those disparate agencies? The only way that many of our institutional leaders may listen is to deprive them of money from local congregations through annual conferences.

By the adjournment of General Conference, our denomination chose to protect the status quo, the existing general agencies, mandates that focus beyond local congregations and annual conferences, and those persons and institutions supported financially by our current organization.  The next four years will witness continuing decline among congregations in the United States and thus declining finances.

Why will we continue our support of the World Service Fund or General Administration Fund?  These two funds primarily support the institutional status quo that resists focus on making faithful disciples and vital congregations.  While monies are needed for vital missions nationally and globally, are the general agencies the most appropriate avenue of giving?

Concurrently, United Methodists should continue to support the missions of our districts and annual conferences.  Districts and conferences are the primary building blocks of our connection.  Yet, the relationship between monies to be apportioned and sent “without reduction” from the annual conference to the general church is often not understood.  Annual conferences, by our Discipline, must send a large percentage of their receipts to the general church.  This percentage of the monies apportioned from local congregations by annual conferences ranges from a low of 9% in the North Carolina Conference to over 60% in the Oregon-Idaho Conferences.  The average is 22% of all apportionments from an annual conference to local congregations goes to the general church.  Who loses in this model?

The annual conferences are stuck between a rock of general church apportionments and the hard place of declining congregational monies.  In the last 20 years, annual conferences in the United States have lost almost one-third of all District Superintendents and even a higher level of annual conference staff due to budget cuts.  The trend indicates that in the near future the annual conferences will exist only to transfer money from local congregations to the general church.

Finally, the Ministerial Education Fund, the Black College Fund, Africa University Fund, the Episcopal Fund, and the Interdenominational Fund all serve vital functions.  They still deserve financial support.  All of us still want to be part of a connectional system.

Our finance leaders already anticipate that at best 85% of our general apportionments will be paid in the new quadrennium; and the total amount of money going to the general church will decline by over 6%.  This decline reflects the declining number of vital congregations in the United States.  What would happen if only 50% or less of apportionments were paid?  What if World Service and General Administration collapsed?  Would anyone in local churches or annual conferences notice any difference?  Would anyone in the world notice?

For such a financial realignment to work, this reformation would require a significant number of congregations and conferences to participate.  Unfortunately, many clergy live under fear of clergy misconduct charges for non-payment of apportionments (has this ever happened?).  Especially with the loss of clergy guaranteed appointments, does non-payment of apportionments give additional power to the leaders supporting the status quo?  Are there enough pastors and congregations willing to speak up and act?  Can the pastors of our leading congregations lead?  Are some bishops willing to support this shift?

Every pastor, every lay person, every congregation, every annual conference, every bishop must ask such questions about general church apportionments.  Do our financial investments in the general church encourage or inhibit the fundamental change that our denomination needs?

Global Realignment: Money and Governance

An even larger crisis will face our denomination possibly in four years and certainly no later than eight years: the financial and governance relationship between The United Methodist Church in the United States and our Central Conferences in Asia, the Philippines, Europe, and Africa.

Today, about 99% of all general church apportionments come from the United States.  Central Conferences contribute to local funding, local missions, and a little to the Episcopal Fund.  This giving simply reflects that while United Methodists in America and Europe have monies to give, United Methodists in Asia, the Philippines, and Africa have very little financial resources.  Almost all of the general church money comes from the declining congregations in the United States.

Yet, at the 2012 General Conference, almost 40% of all delegates came from Central Conferences.  All of these delegates together shaped the general church budget and other financial matters.  For example, all delegates, both inside and outside the United States, voted on the revisions to the pension plan for clergy and church professionals in the United States.

Possibly by 2016 and certainly by 2020, based on current demographics, Central Conference delegates will have over 50% of the vote at General Conference.  Central Conference delegates will have the majority vote on how the general church budget will be set, how it will be apportioned, and how it will be spent.  Will Central Conference delegates vote to lower a budget to which they do not contribute?  Will Central Conferences be apportioned funds?  Please note, the Judicial Council at General Conference also forbade the General Council on Finance and Administration from even discussing apportionment allocations with Central Conferences.  Will more of the budget be spent outside the United States?

In the corners and hallways of the 2012 General Conference, many delegates inside and outside the United States wondered about the implications of such a global shift of power.  Everyone celebrates the growth of United Methodist membership, especially in Africa.  But will United Methodists in the United States still fund a system in which they have a minority vote?  Will persons in the United States conclude that they are being apportioned without adequate representation?  The most probing questions deal with what will happen to pensions within the United States and the expenditures of the Ministerial Education Fund.  I sense real fear from many in the United States.

Is the fear warranted?  What is the Christian obligation of the wealthy for those without major resources?  Should we have regional budgets and regional governance?  Are certain financial issues distinct to certain regions and to be determined there?  Everyone knows a fundamental change in global financial governance is coming.  How will the change be handled?  Who is leading this conversation?  Will this shift finally end or strengthen our global connection?

On another side note, General Conference voted down legislation, which would have allowed the Council of Bishops to select a non-residential bishop to guide their leadership on this issue and others.  While the church cries out for leaders, we also restrict the ability of our temporal and spiritual leaders to lead.  Unfortunately, neither the Council of Bishops nor any other body has the ability, nor authority according to the Judicial Council, to lead on such significant issues.

To the best of my knowledge, no group within our denomination has even begun to have conversations about what happens
next regarding the general church budget and financial governance.  This lack of attention reaffirms the lack of leadership from the general church.  We have only a few years to make important decisions.  Who will lead the dialogue within our Wesleyan connection?

Conclusion

I write out of deep anguish, but I am not without hope.  I love The United Methodist Church, but am mourning what we have allowed ourselves to become.  Our historic commitment to payment of apportionments has fostered and entitled a dysfunctional system.  The possibility of global church division and conflict is real.  More than ever before, we need leaders who will lead.  I hope that such leaders will emerge.

I am certain, however, that ultimately we are not accountable to a system that seeks 100% payment of financial apportionments for a dying system.  We need a system that raises monies appropriately from every part of the church to be spent by one other with true collegiality.

Most importantly, we should listen to our living God.  During worship at General Conference, we heard Jesus Christ calling us through Scripture to leave our boats, to stop fishing in old ways, and to follow him to a new mission field.  Unfortunately, General Conference 2012 chose not to do so.

Our Savior Jesus Christ continues to call us. Will we listen?  Will we follow?

Andy Langford

Pastor, Central United Methodist Church: Concord, North Carolina

Western North Carolina Annual Conference

Member of the United Methodist Church Connectional Table

Five-time delegate to General Conference

Jesus the Teacher: Sermon on the Mount # 1

Matthew 4:23-25 — 16 January 2011

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in the Jewish synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.   24News about Jesus spread all over Syria, and people brought to Jesus all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and Jesus healed them. 25Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed Jesus.

Today, you and I live in a culture without strong moral leaders or clear moral values.  So many voices are speaking from so many different perspectives that we are unable to understand how we should think, speak, and act.  How do we determine what is right or wrong?  How can we decide to do this or do that?  On what foundation do we build our lives?

For example, everyone in our nation has the constitutional right to speak their opinions.  In Charlotte, a Mecklenburg county commissioner calls homosexuals “sexual predators,” compares illegal immigrants to “drug dealers,” and says Blacks “live in a moral sewer.”  His opponents call him a Nazi.  The rhetoric has become intense.  In public, on the internet, on talk shows, everyone has every legal right to say whatever they wish about anyone or anything. 

Yet, does this public leader or his critics have the moral right to speak words that are factually untrue?  Homosexuals are not sexual predators.  Illegal aliens are not drug runners.  Blacks do not live in a moral sewer.  And the one who says all these things is not a Nazi.  Does anyone have the moral right to lie and wound real men and women?  Does hate speech lead us to a more just and whole society? 

How do we, followers of Jesus Christ, determine for ourselves and judge others about what is appropriate to think, say, and do?  On what foundation do we determine what is right or wrong?  How can we decide to do this or that?     

For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, we do live under a higher moral system.  For people who claim Jesus Christ as their friend, our thoughts, our words, and our actions are judged by a standard established by Jesus Christ.  Within the Church, we are not autonomous individuals, who can think whatever, say whatever, and act however we want.  Instead, we Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God.  We are called to imitate a teacher who lived two thousand years ago.

On Sunday, we begin a new sermon series based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

A Christmas Paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13

(With apologies to Saint Paul, inspired by a meditation by Sharon Jaynes,

and freely adapted by Andy Langford)

Central UMC: Concord

28 November 2010

At Christmas, God offers to us the gift of God’s own son.

For hundreds of years,

               the people of God had dreamed that the Messiah would come.

And then, in a world dominated by sin and death,

Emmanuel, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit,

was born of Mary and appeared in Bethlehem.

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang about the coming of the Messiah.  Zechariah believed that Mary’s child would be the Savior of the world.  In his exuberance, Zechariah sang that the child of Mary would:  (Luke 1:68-72) 

               save God’s people from their enemies,

               show mercy,

               fulfill God’s covenant,

               forgive sins,

               shine on people in the midst of darkness,

               and guide us in paths of peace.

After the angel announced that Mary was God’s chosen servant, Mary sang that Jesus would: (Luke 1:46-55)

               show mercy,

               scatter the proud,

               bring down the powerful,

               lift up the lowly,

               fill the hungry with good things,

               send the rich empty away,

               and help the people of God.

And so the child born in Bethlehem fulfilled all of Zechariah’s dreams and Mary’s hopes and more.

How then shall we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ? 

Several years ago, I read on the Internet a version of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the 13th chapter about love, as adapted for Christmas.  Let me now share with you my own version of Paul’s anthem to love, as adapted for this season of the year.

If I say that I love Christmas,

               but do not have love,

               I may overlook the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem

forget Christ’s presence in my life today,

and lose hope that Jesus Christ will return in glory.

If I read the Christmas story, sing the carols, and say “Merry Christmas,”

               but do not listen to the meaning of the words,

I am just a voice.

If I decorate my house with red bows, twinkling lights, and shiny balls,

               poinsettias, wreaths, and garlands,

but do not celebrate all that is beautiful,

I am just a decorator.

If I watch every football, basketball, and hockey game,

               every high school, college, and professional game,

               but do not care for the friends watching with me,

I am just a spectator.

If I slave away in my kitchen, bake dozens of Christmas cookies,

               and prepare gourmet meals,

               but do not share my table with others,

I am just a cook.

If I watch “A Christmas Carol,” “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,”

               and “Miracle on 34th Street,”

               but overlook the magic of the season,

               I am just a jaded skeptic.

If I shop every sale, search for the best buys,

               and find the perfect gift for everyone on my list,

               but push to the front of the line, haggle with the clerks,

               and buy a present for myself first,

               I am just a consumer.

If I pack my car, fight traffic and airport security,

and  travel great distances to visit family,

               but forget why I hit the road,

               I am just a weary traveler.

If I go to every family gathering, kissing and hugging

               every aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent, grandchild,

               in-law, out-law,

and who was that in the outlandish Christmas sweater?,

               but forget that they are all my family,

               I am just a solitary individual.      

If I listen to Handel’s “Messiah,”

               “Amahl and the Night Visitors,”

               and Elvis Pressley’s “Christmas Favorites,”

               but do not join in the song,

               I am just a member of the audience.

If I give a gift for missions, for the church staff, for the church budget,

for the mail carrier, the garbage collector, the hair stylist,

the paper carrier, the teacher, and who did I forget?,

but do not say “Thank you” to the people who receive these gifts,

I am just a check writer.

If I mourn what I have lost, especially the ones I loved the most,

               but neglect who and what I still have,

I will not find peace.

If I smile and say the right words,

               but do not listen, hug, and weep for those who mourn,

               I am an empty person.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home,

and ring a Salvation Army bell,

               but only think about the next activity on my list,

I gain nothing.

If I set out all my nativity scenes, hang a star,

               and watch a live nativity,

               but see only the chipped paint, broken light bulbs, dirty animals,

               and restless children,

               I miss the wonder of the holy night.

If I trim my tree with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes,

               attend holiday parties, and sing in the choir’s cantata,

               but forget why I do all these activities,

I lose the meaning of the season.

If I attend every service, hear every sermon,

               listen to every anthem, light a candle, and share in Holy Communion,

but do not worship the Christ child,

I have missed the point.

Love stops talking to hear the angel’s voice.

Love stops decorating to enjoy the beauty of the season.

Love stops cooking to hug my family and guests.

Love stops grumbling to say “Merry Christmas” to everyone I meet.

Love mutes the television to talk with friends around me.

Love does not dread everyone coming over to our house,

               but is thankful that we have friends and family who wish to visit.

Love, though stressed out, tired, and frantic, is kind.

Love enjoys each activity during that activity.

Love does not envy another’s home with Christmas china and table linens.

Love does not outdo their neighbors’ lights and yard decorations.

Love worries less about the travel and more about the destination.

Love stops buying to simply be.

Love is less about the gifts and more about the giving.

Love does not show off what I got at Christmas.

Love does not dismiss what you got for Christmas.

Love does not fear the hurting and mourning people around us,

               but summons us to be compassionate friends.

Love does not give only to those who are able to give in return,

               but rejoices in giving to those who cannot give anything.

Love is less about giving to others and more about receiving from God.

Love is less about the worship

and more about the Child being worshiped.

Love bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, and endures all things.

Love never fails.

The Christmas tree will disappear, the decorations will be put away,

the Christmas china will be put back on the shelf, the games will end,

the wreaths will be taken down, the candles will burn out,

the video games will break, the jewelry will be hidden away,

the bills will arrive, the left-over food will be thrown away,

               the car will be unpacked, the television specials will be forgotten,

the golf clubs will rust, the children will go back to school,

and family will disappear but the weight we gained will stay.

But, but, but,

faith, hope, and love remain,

and the greatest of these is love,

the love that came down at Christmas,

the love we find in the Christ child born in Bethlehem.

November 7 Sermon: Jesus’ Death and Resurrection — Matthew 27:1 – 28:20

 

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death.  The authorities bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor. . . .

Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. When Jesus was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge– to the great amazement of the governor.

Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For Pilate knew it was out of envy that the religious authorities had handed Jesus over to him. . . . 

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” the crowd answered. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” . . . Then Pilate released Barabbas to them. But Pilate had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped Jesus and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. The soldiers put a staff in Jesus’ right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” the soldiers said. They spit on Jesus, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked Jesus, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then the soldiers led Jesus away to crucify him.  . . .

They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). There the soldiers offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, the soldiers kept watch over Jesus there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. . . .

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” — which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” . . . And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. The dead came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, Joseph asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed the body in his own new tomb that Joseph had cut out of the rock. Joseph rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. . . .

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.

“Sir,” they said, “we remember that while Jesus was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

 

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. The angel’s appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. The women came to Jesus, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” . . .

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

What does Jesus dying on the cross mean to you?

 

What does Jesus’ resurrection mean to you?

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