A Pastoral Word on the Presidential Election…    

Greetings friends!

As the late hours of Tuesday night unfolded and paved the way toward Wednesday morning, the surprising news of an upset became a reality as Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Presidential election. Of course, not all were surprised at the results, but based on what was being projected prior to the first polls closing, it appeared that Clinton had an 80% likelihood of winning the election and taking up residence in the White House. Instead, however, now President-elect Trump (as of this writing) secured 279 electoral votes to Secretary Clinton’s 228. (It appears, after Michigan, Arizona and New Hampshire are settled, the final tally will be Trump 308, Clinton 232.) The results have also indicated that for the second time in the lifetime of most of us, the candidate that had the higher popular vote lost the election. (Secretary Clinton has roughly 300,000 more votes overall than President-elect Trump; similarly, President George W. Bush won the electoral college while losing the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000.)

My message to the community of faith I pastor at Ellendale UMC is not about my personal feelings or opinions about the election results. What is undeniable is that we live in a land and are part of a people that are divided very deeply on a number of significant issues. Having only been a part of the electorate for now five presidential races, it is without question that this political season has been the most tense of my lifetime and it has unveiled some of the worst in our capacity to speak and do harm unto others. Based on things that were said and done during the campaigns, it is not surprising that many went to bed Tuesday or woke up Wednesday feeling a wide range of emotional responses, and for many, this feeling won’t just go away overnight. I could go into more detail about why this is and would be glad to do so at another time or in private conversation if you would like to follow up with me.

However, what I do want to speak to at this point is how I believe we as a people whose ultimate allegiance is to Jesus the Christ as the Sovereign over our lives and the created order, ought to begin to respond in moving forward. I think it comes down to the three simple rules of Methodism: 1. Do no harm; 2. Do good; 3. Practice the means of grace (or, as the late Bishop Reuben Job put it, ‘Stay in love with God.):

  1. Do no harm. Enough harm has been done in this election season. Hateful things were said by and about the candidates and also about the people who voted differently than you did. Understandably, then, a large number of people are deeply grieving about the results. Of course, there are many who are celebrating. Meanwhile, based on the rhetoric spewed over the last year or so – comments and actions that degraded others because of their sex, race, nationality, economic class, religious convictions, sexual orientation, education level… – many are sincerely afraid of what the future holds for them in our land and whether or not they are truly welcome to be a part of it. So…let us be a community of light that does not engage in that kind of behavior – no name-calling, no hate, no referring to others as “nasty” or “deplorable.” Every human being is made in the image of God.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5

  1. Do good. Please, please, please let us learn to love one another. Jesus said it quite simply, though it may be the hardest thing for us to do. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you…’.” (Matthew 5:43-44). As contentious and negative as the campaigns were, I am encouraged by the tone and tenor of the manner in which Trump, Clinton, and also President Obama have charted the course and given us a gracious example thus far of “the peaceful transfer of power.” Coming together after this election will be difficult and for many, the grief and anger will take a long time to process. If you are angry or saddened by the results, that is okay. Feel free to speak your mind about it! If, on the other hand, you’re elated or satisfied with the result of the election, then I would encourage you to be gracious and understanding with those who are not. Again, the hateful words filled with racism, classism, sexism, etc. have left many wounded and afraid. Let us remember that God has always come to the side of those who are oppressed and that Jesus ministered at great length with the vulnerable, with those whose beliefs were different than his own, with people of all ethnicities and was gracious to all, while especially challenging the religious majority and those in power. Let us be instruments of peace and reconciliation, especially by modeling love and encouragement to the most vulnerable in our world.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8

  1. Practice the means of grace. Again, the late United Methodist Bishop Reuben Job rephrased John Wesley’s third rule (“attend upon all the ordinances of God”) to say, more memorably, “Stay in love with God.” But staying in love with God is not a mere sentimental expression to give you all the warm fuzzies…it is a call to action and involves doing things, practicing habits that center our hearts, minds, souls and strength on God! What does this mean? It means that we need to take part in things that God’s people do: pray, search/read/study the Scriptures, take part in the worshiping community of faith, partake of the sacrament when offered, build relationships with others in the community through discipleship and fellowship, show mercy to those left on the side of the road, practice hospitality… In other words, don’t retreat! We really are stronger together (no pun intended) when we unite in our allegiance to Jesus the Christ in worship, in love to God and to our neighbors (including our “enemies”), and in our witness by being the light of the world.

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16

Now as we seek to put some pieces back together in witnessing the fragility and brokenness of our nation, let us keep our intention on these – avoiding harm, doing good, practicing grace – and ask for God to work through and far beyond our efforts, for healing can only come through God’s grace. We used this prayer of confession in our post-election communion service and I find it a fitting note on which to end my message to you:

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace. Come into the brokenness of our lives and our land with your healing love. Help us to be willing to bow before you in true repentance, and to bow to one another in real forgiveness. By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice which separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love, which casts out our fear, and bind us together in that unity which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

-from The United Methodist Book of Worship #482

three-simple-rules-parkerumc-dot-org

Photo credit – parkerumc.org

I was a nervous wreck, still a mostly impressionable 22-year-old young man, recently married in the summer of 2003 as I ventured from one side of North Lexington Avenue in Wilmore, Kentucky, to the other. In the opening chapel service of my orientation weekend at Asbury Seminary, Maxie Dunnam, the president of the seminary at the time, addressed the incoming graduate students and began with these words:

 If you don’t remember anything else during your time here in seminary, I want you to remember these two things for the rest of your life: number one – There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill; number two – There is something that you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Well I’ve forgotten a few things I’m sure and with the help of notes and textbooks I’ve remembered other things, but those two statements have kept coming back over and over. As I look back, however, I have come to realize that he was only reiterating something that I had already known and been taught ever since I’d sensed the call to ministry that would take me to the pastorate. They were instilled in me by my loved ones, but especially my Papaw & Granny.

 

Five and a half years prior, right around my 17th birthday, about half the age I am now, I had broken the news to my family that I had sensed the call of God upon my life into ministry and that I intended to follow that call. I shared this over dinner (where I grew up, that’s the big meal in the middle of the day that others call ‘lunch’) that was our custom on every Sunday after church at Papaw & Granny’s house, just a few hundred feet from our church in Oscar, Kentucky.

 

Papaw's Letter

 

Later that week I received a hand-written letter from Papaw (left) in response to the news I shared. He vowed his unconditional support and from Granny as well as I pursued my calling. There were several things in that letter that were quite prophetic but one thing he said curiously yet subtly foreshadowed the second point of that inaugural message to my seminary career. Papaw wrote:

Just remember, always, that nothing can happen to you in life – no setback, no disappointment, no temptation – nothing that you & God together can not handle.

Papaw’s life and teaching exemplified to the nth degree the value of a life of humility and acknowledging that life’s fulfillment is found in depending on the Lord to live into God’s purpose for our lives and to make it through the most difficult of times. There have been plenty of setbacks, several disappointments, and a multitude of temptations, many to which I have fallen prey. But every victory, lesson, and new beginning have been because of the help, saving help, of God’s Spirit. I’ve held onto that letter Papaw wrote. It was the last one he addressed to me. He died six months later.

Granny and Me

 

And then there’s Granny (right), who I’ve known my whole life to be filled with infectious joy that manifested itself in her seemingly incessant singing. That’s a trait that has found its way into my ministry as those who are burdened with the task of listening to my preaching can attest when all of a sudden I break into song. I shared this with her on my last visit to see her before she died earlier this year. In recent years, the smile became rarer and rarer, but one adorned her face that day. That’s how I’ll remember her!

 

But there was something she always wrote in my birthday card every year that stood out to me when I recall the first point of that opening chapel. She would sign every card written to me with this phrase:

There is a special place in my heart just for you.

With each child, and son- or daughter-in-law, with each grandchild, and expansion of the family with more weddings, and with every great-grandchild that arrived in our family, we saw Granny’s heart grow. And so, I believe, it is with God. With every new creation, with each bundle of joy, with every masterpiece, we see another chamber of the heart of God. In this small, yet significant, way Granny gave me a picture of the loving God who prepares a place for each of us.

 

In a few weeks when I am ordained as an elder in full connection in The United Methodist Church, I will kneel down and have hands laid upon me as a closing, of sorts, to the chapter upon which Papaw and Granny helped me embark and through which they prayed me. But it will be a new beginning as well as I start a new journey in ministry as lead pastor of Ellendale UMC in Bartlett, Tennesse, just outside of Memphis. The ordination will be enjoined with celebration not unlike how I began this journey at half my current age when eating a meal at Papaw and Granny’s table surrounded by loved ones who always encouraged one another in our love for God and our neighbors. At the service, there will be beautiful singing and I will long to hear the angelic voice of my Granny belting out louder than the rest of the congregation. There will be praying that I may humbly take up this yoke and I will long to see the face of my Papaw who quietly but dependably taught me about the importance of humility. But though I won’t get to hear her voice or see his face, I’ll experience the truth and beauty of all they embodied in the faithful community that seeks to follow the Lord of us all. After all, they’re now a part of that great cloud of witnesses who urges us on in our pursuit of the One who authored and perfected this faith that unites us in our acknowledgement that:

  1. There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill;
  2. There is something you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s grace enough to carry us the rest of the way.

Offer Them Christ

Primary text: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

(A Sermon preached on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B – World Communion Sunday, 2015 – Jackson First UMC; Jackson, TN)

Have you ever just failed something miserably? Perhaps you went into some project with the highest of expectations of how successful and fruit-bearing it would be. Then perhaps at the very start, or perhaps a few months into the process chaos ensued and you were losing your grip and the desired outcome became far out of reach. You ever felt like a failure? Well, you’re not alone.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was in his early 30s, he set out from England to the colony of Georgia with a grand vision of converting the Native Americans and establishing a grand movement that would spread from Savannah throughout the land. On the trip, however, he realized his own need for depending on God’s grace through a series of unfortunate events. He fell in love with a lady named Sophia Hopkey in Georgia, but he didn’t make a move quickly enough and she got tired of waiting on him so she married someone another man, William Williamson. (Seriously, William’s parents? You couldn’t get any more creative than “William Williamson”?) Well, Wesley got jealous and for reasons to minute to go into detail in this setting, Wesley used his pastoral authority and refused to offer them Holy Communion on the next occasion of their attendance at worship. The husband sued him, some reports say that he challenged Wesley to a duel, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. The trial ended in mistrial but by then the trust in Wesley’s leadership had declined and it became clear he needed to leave. To put it in our terms: it was time for the S/PPRC to inform the bishop they desired a move. If Wesley had a twitter account, he would’ve tweeted out: “Gotta get Georgia off my mind. #MissionFailed” (See what I did there? h/t Ray Charles.) So he went back home to England and never came back. That was in the mid 1730’s.

Fast forward about fifty years. Wesley had matured a lot over those years. The Methodist movement had really taken off, both in England and in the colonies that were now becoming the United States. The Revolutionary War was coming to an end and many ordained clergy were returning to England and this was going to leave many, many Methodists in America with no access to the sacraments. Wesley knew that he couldn’t go back to America. He was over 80 years old and loyal to the crown. But he was a pastor and saw the American Methodists as sheep without a shepherd. So he ordained Thomas Coke with the purpose to go to America and ordain and commission Francis Asbury, a Methodist preacher in America, to be the superintendent, or presiding elder, and begin a new denomination. Wesley was in his 80’s and as he was saying goodbye to Thomas Coke on the boat heading to America, Wesley said the famous words, which were his last to Thomas Coke: “Offer them Christ!”

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, "Offer them Christ!" (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, “Offer them Christ!” (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

Offer them Christ! Fast forward about 230 years: the movement had become an institution and established roots across the globe and throughout America, including where we are in the Memphis Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Under the leadership of our current bishop, Bill McAlilly and the Nashville Area Strategic Mapping Team, a mission statement for our conference was revealed last year after a year-long process of discernment, prayer and conversation on many levels. The mission statement that was the fruit of those efforts was adopted at Annual Conference in 2014 reads thusly: “The mission of the Memphis Annual Conference is to discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that OFFER JESUS CHRIST TO A HURTING WORLD, one neighborhood at a time.” That is, our mission is to be the church, then, that follows Wesley’s call: “Offer them Christ!” How are we living up to that?

What does all this have to do with Hebrews? Well, let’s rewind and go back to the first century and ask what is going on in the opening parts of Hebrews. This is one of the beautiful poetic passages in the New Testament that speaks to the supremacy of Christ. Here the author of Hebrews speaks of how Christ is superior to all that has gone before and is superior even to the angels. Then there is this clear allusion to the psalms as the author quotes Psalm 8, which reflects on the magnificence of creation and ponders on how amazing it is that God esteems humanity so highly even given the vast expanse of the universe and how small we are in comparison to it all. But then the writer of Hebrews turns the psalm on its head when applying it to Christ. While the psalm wonders soaring heights, Hebrews voices amazement over surprising depths. Ponder the depths of the exalted Son, who is supreme over all, nonetheless stooped to a status ‘lower than the angels,’ to be joined to the lowliness of the human condition. As Tom Long, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory, notes, “Hebrews does not wish to argue that Jesus…came just to the edge of human life and dipped his little toe into the pool of suffering. Rather, he wants to claim that, for a brief moment in time, the eternal and exalted Son purposefully and redemptively plummeted to the depths of human suffering and weakness.”

The author of Hebrews is well-acquainted with the brokenness of the world. He or she would have read the headlines that doom our newspapers, that run across the ticker on the bottom on the screen, that fill the trending topics of bad news on twitter, and said – Here is a world that is hurting and broken: a hole in the ozone and a fragile created order – offer it the Christ who according to Scripture is the One through Whom the creation came into being; the torn fabric of a society that is stripped of grace and bent on death as innocent people get senselessly slaughtered from a college campus in Oregon to the streets of Jackson – offer them Christ who offers a peace to a world at war; a people spreading destruction in the non-redemptive act of putting someone to death as though “an eye for an eye” demonstrates the justice of a forgiving God – offer them the Christ who is rich in mercy and came to give life; bodies are plagued by cancer that advances and is so aggressive as to bring bones to break – offer them Christ who heals; the broken places of the human heart and fractured relationships – offer them Christ who reconciled us to God and one another! This world and our lives are broken. Chaos reigns, it seems. But, Hebrews reminds us that if we would see Jesus…that he entered the chaos and lived among the brokenness and took it all on, all the way to death, then maybe we too would see that resurrection is on the other side of this, that we might cling to the hope that Christ brings us, his brothers and sisters, to glory.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face – [a face that was scarred and crowned with a wreath of thorns piercing his head];

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. – [but the path to glory goes through Calvary. What depths of love!]

The world is broken. This town, this neighborhood is broken. Our lives are broken. Christ entered our brokenness. Offer the Christ who heals to the world who hurts, for Christ brings us, the children of God, to glory.

Offer them Christ! But do not miss this: before you can offer them Christ, you must receive Christ. Receive Christ in your life. Receive Christ in the bread & wine; in his body & blood. Receive Christ in the holy meal, the holy mystery. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is with both great sadness and tremendous excitement that I share the news that was broke Sunday that I am projected to move from Liberty & Post Oak United Methodist Churches in Camden, Tennessee to become the Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tennessee.

It was only two years ago that my family packed up our stuff in Nicholasville, Kentucky to move to Camden, where we were welcomed by a remarkably hospitable community of people at these two loving churches. Liberty & Post Oak have undergone several leadership transitions in the last few years. What is a true testament to the health and resilience of these congregations is that amidst these transitions, Liberty & Post Oak have experienced growth in worship attendance, professions of faith in Christ, and increased participation in mission efforts and lay leadership, including young people who are often taking the lead in exciting new ways. It is truly difficult to leave these growing congregations when things are moving forward. But I want to commend Bishop Bill McAlilly (see his recent post about pastoral appointment announcements here) and the cabinet for identifying and sending a quality pastor here in Rev. Travis Penney, who has served as the pastor at Big Springs UMC in Hardeman County the last four years. Travis is young, energetic and eager to lead Liberty & Post Oak as they turn the page from this short chapter I have shared with them. Just as my predecessor did a great job of making my entry into this appointment quite seamless, I will do my best to do the same in working with Travis to make this transition a healthy and fruitful one!

While I will greatly miss these great folks in Camden, I am also thrilled for the opportunity to take on a new role by joining the great work that the people at First UMC in Jackson are doing by serving as their Associate Pastor. First Church is located in downtown Jackson and has recently added a campus at Andrews Chapel, which is situated just a few miles west of the downtown campus. With there being two campuses, I will still be able to preach on a weekly/regular basis and lead in worship, which is one of the most fulfilling parts of my ministry. I will also have pastoral care responsibilities, which is one of my strongest spiritual gifts, including leading Stephen Ministry. In addition, I will have opportunities once or twice per week to lead in Christian formation and discipleship by teaching classes. To go along with this, I will get to work with the Senior Pastor, Rev. Dan Camp, who is a great leader from whom I will have much to learn. One of the areas where I feel confident I will grow in this context will be in terms of administration.

This, of course, only scratches the surface of what all is going on at FUMC and I am very eager learn more of how I can and will be co-laboring with them and taking part in the great kingdom work being done in their midst! See you in June, Jackson!

A look inside the beautiful sanctuary at Jackson FUMC! (photo credit: jacksonfumc.org/about/wedding_policies)

A look inside the beautiful sanctuary at Jackson FUMC! (photo credit: jacksonfumc.org/about/wedding_policies)

As some of you who read my blog are aware, not long ago I was a PhD student at Nazarene Theological College (accredited by The University of Manchester) in the United Kingdom. I wrote about the decision to step back from that pursuit in this post from August of 2012. What I didn’t share in that post but what has become clear since then is that there has been a transition in my research interests of a Wesleyan doctrine of the atonement from an historical quest to more of an investigation of the doctrine and its implication for the contemporary audience. In other words, I’ve been drawn to wrestle with this question: “What would a Wesleyan theology of the atonement look like in the church?” I think this transition has been quite natural given the shift in my vocational path from the classroom to the pulpit.

Several people in the churches I am serving have been made aware of this shift and of my continued interest in the subject. So when a couple from Liberty UMC went with Carrie and me to the opening weekend of the Generative Leadership Academy, and we were challenged to do some sort of Lenten project, they asked me about the possibility of my leading a study on the atonement during the Lenten season. It seemed like an ideal time to talk about such a topic. Lent is about the journey to the cross. Jesus’ sacrificial death there is at the heart of what we mean when we talk about the atonement. Sure, let’s do this! In my mind (and in my saved files) I had a structure in mind for how the study might go if we broke it up into a weekly study, so we began making plans on making this idea a reality.

We talked about the nature of Lent, how it is a season of ‘fasting’ for 40 days, excepting Sundays which are days when most observers of Lent are encouraged or at least permitted to ‘break’ their fast (otherwise the fast is 46 days, in total). And as you can easily discern, the meaning of the word that describes our first meal of the day is derived from this very sort of practice (break-fast). So we thought an ideal pairing would be to have a breakfast meal before each session of the study. The trouble is, however, that Sunday morning breakfasts at Liberty UMC are not feasible as the first worship service I lead is at the other church to which I am appointed, Post Oak UMC. So we talked about other days when a breakfast meal would provide an opportunity for people to participate in the study. That’s how we arrived at Saturdays, when most people are off work, and we wouldn’t have to make it too early (we’re set to begin at 9:30am each week).

I’m really excited about this study and it seems to have garnered a good deal of interest from lots of people in the church as the sign-up list has grown over the weeks that we have announced it, and I’m aware of neighboring churches advertising it and that we’ll have outside participation as well. My hope is that we as United Methodists can discover how this central doctrine to our faith is related to the rest of it and how the atonement in Christ can be seen as the shape of how God’s grace is made known in the world and in our lives.

Image created by the folks at memphis-umc.net

Image created by the folks at memphis-umc.net

So if you are anywhere near Camden and have an interest in the doctrine of the atonement can be seen through the lens of Wesleyan/United Methodist way of being a follower of the Christ, or if you just like to eat breakfast with other people, I encourage you to join us on Saturdays in Lent at Liberty UMC at 9:30am. The first breakfast (March 8) will begin in the Wrather auditorium, which will require your entrance through the sanctuary. (We’ll have signs and people pointing the way.) The remaining breakfasts will be served in the fellowship hall. All of the sessions for the study itself will be in the sanctuary. Come and join us! (If you’re not able to join us, I plan on sharing highlights here when possible.) The address for Liberty UMC: 3135 Highway 69A, Camden, TN 38320.

May God guide us in our quest this Lenten season as we journey to the cross!

We’ve talked about some of the basics of the confirmation process and the “what” or content that needs to incorporated into this discipleship formation. However, I realized in the last post that I forgot to post any resources to check out in terms of using curriculum from a United Methodist perspective. The primary one for United Methodism that you’ll see advertised at Cokesbury is Credo. Also be sure to check with your pastor or district office, who might have a resource director who might be able to make an additional option or two that are specifically designed for United Methodists.

Credo: United Methodist Confirmation Curriculum (Photo credit: cokesbury.com)

Credo: United Methodist Confirmation Curriculum (Photo credit: cokesbury.com)

So let us now move on to this last part of this series, where we will examine the procedural and logistical matters pertaining to confirmation. Know that these are just recommendations, some of which will be more general while others will be quite specific, so adapt it to your own context as necessary.

Also, I want to offer a big thanks to my Superintendent, Dr. Joe Geary, who passed along many of these pointers to me:

–Finding the Right Age–

One of big questions is regarding age. At what age is a youth ready for confirmation? Be sure to use the language of “youth” and never “child”…using “youth” or “young person” helps us adults as much as it does the young person to orient our minds toward the reality of their growth and maturity and that their input is significantly valued. St. Paul talks about “milk then meat” as the process of growing in discipleship. Saying “youth” or “young person” rather than “child” affirms to everyone involved that they is ready for the meatier content of the Christian faith and journey.

With that said, the most ideal time in a young person’s life for entering confirmation is when he or she is in 7th grade or later. There are exceptions as some curriculum recommend ages 11-14, so if someone shows remarkable maturity then beginning them in 6th grade might be acceptable. But it’s best, in my mind, to maintain a clear starting point for the youth of your church so that there’s no sense of competition or failure among youth or their parents. Because “If their daughter Suzie got to go through when he was in 6th grade, why is my son Joe not permitted until next year?” Best thing is to set a boundary and stick to it. If a problem arises and persists, then gather the leadership of the church to make a change across the board rather than just making one or two exceptions.

–Orientation Session–

Have a session of orientation for the parents/guardians and sponsors, ideally the week before your sessions start with the youth. This orientation does at least four things:

  1. The parents/adults see and receive the materials that their youth will be using throughout the process.
  2. It eliminates most surprises about expectations of the process. If need be, offer an entire adult confirmation class to the whole congregation so they’re acclimated to the process for themselves and may become more open and excited to incorporate it into the life of the youth.
  3. It addresses the basics of what confirmation is and isn’t; including its relationship to baptism – i.e., there won’t be “rebaptism” for those baptized as infants.
  4. It lets the parents/guardians/sponsors know that youth will not necessarily be getting on and/or coming off at the same point – that is, it’s a community thing, but each youth will make their own decision based on their readiness (or not) to embrace the Christian faith more fully in confirming or professing it themselves.

–Individual Sessions with Youth–

Around the session(s) when “commitment” comes up, the pastor or youth leader should have a 1-on-1 conversation with each young person asking about their readiness to make the commitment or not.

  • The idea here is to allow them the most amount of freedom in making the commitment. Having their sponsor or parent/guardian there can very easily lead to coercion
  • Remember: welcoming presence and invitation, not high octane, high pressurized coercion to make a decision
  • Provides opportunity for the youth to raise questions they were perhaps afraid to ask in a larger setting
  • Accountability: remember the importance of ethical boundaries by remaining visible to others but not that others’ presence influences what the youth say(s)

–Length/Schedule Confirmation Class–

The ideal length of a confirmation class is at least 8 weeks. I’ve known some that do a whole year. Follow the guides and supplement as needed with other materials or “field trips” and work with your youth leadership to make the schedule out. Some things to remember and communicate to all involved:

  • This is a commitment of the parents and mentors too!
  • Parents should choose a mentor in consultation with pastor – mentor should be non-family member.
  • Ideal to take at least 1 field trip out of town – visit a place of worship with a difference expression of faith than expected in your setting. Examples: Roman Catholic Mass; Eastern Orthodox worship; Jewish synagogue; Anglican/Episcopalian service – bodies from which our tradition comes
  • This experience(s) will help youth see several of the aspects of our faith, observe similarities and dissimilarities with other faith traditions, and to discover in person the continued expression of some of our story’s elements and past – where we came from.

For each session it’s ideal to carve out a 2 hour block with a 15-20 minute break with prepared snacks

  • Sunday afternoons from 4-6pm has proven to be a fruitful time for many, but adjust according to the needs and schedule of your community

–Rehearsal–

At the end of the confirmation class, when you have all the decisions of who will be confirmed and/or baptized (if the confirmand wasn’t baptized prior), make sure to do a rehearsal of the service (Baptismal Covenant I – UM Hymnal, 33ff.)

–Employing our Connection–

Now for small membership churches, sometimes it is difficult to do the class for just one or two students, or such a number might make them feel more pressured one way or the other. In cases where there are very few young people in the congregation, here are some ideas that might open the door for the possibility of clustering with other small membership United Methodist Churches in your area:

  • In Benton County, Tennessee (where my current appointment is located), we United Methodist clergy have met and decided that Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly would be a great location to have the sessions. So if there is a retreat center or campground nearby that would be hospitable, use it!
  • Meet at the various churches who are participating in the confirmation class.
  • Rent a space or find a hospitable place – just be sure the background noise, if any, can be kept to a minimum.

It comes down to this reality: We are a connectional church – while small United Methodist churches do have things in common with small churches of other traditions, when it comes to discipleship we can be mutually supportive of other small United Methodist churches and resource with one another. Let’s use the connection to our advantage, which by the way, is a significant reason why it exists!

–Others??–

What other ideas or aspects pertaining to the details or procedure of confirmation would you include? Anybody have best practices you would recommend for such settings?

In the last post, I introduced a basic understanding of what confirmation and why it is a valuable venue for making disciples in the church. Now, let’s dig a little deeper and talk about the basic and essential parts of confirmation.

One of the first things you should do is to take some time reviewing resources or curricula to follow, and then decide, along with the youth leadership of the church, which one to use. It is best, in my mind, to start with resources that have been published and proven to benefit the confirmation process because coming up with or writing material on your own is daunting and it would be far less time consuming and stressful to slightly amend (if necessary) the schedules that the resources suggest than to start from scratch. People in our United Methodist tradition have spent LOTS of time and energy and good thinking, writing, and planning into these resources. And do please use United Methodist materials (or resources from whichever tradition your church belongs to), even if mentors, parents, or even the youth find themselves at times at odds with parts of our theology.

As a guide for find the right curriculum, here are some of the basic components of the content that is to be taught in the confirmation courses:

  1. Knowledge and understanding of the Christian story
  2. Core beliefs of United Methodist Christians
  3. Exploring vows and commitments

The words to describe these parts may vary from resource to resource so don’t be too legalistic about it. For instance, in one church I attended before entering ministry, the new membership course for adults was 3 weeks and was based on these 3 primary aspects of confirmation. The 3 sessions were called “What it means to be a Christian,” “What it means to be a United Methodist,” and “Exploring spiritual gifts.” Even for most adults who were joining the church, those 3 weeks weren’t nearly long enough and we didn’t get to address some of the things we really needed to, but there was opportunity for discussion for those who had further questions. But confirmation for youth at that church lasted longer as they expanded on these three elements. And we won’t uncover it all now as you can see how each resource handles them in detail, but we can go over some of the ground you’ll need to cover.

Confirmation is like a guided path (photo credit: 1ms.net)

Confirmation is like a guided path (photo credit: 1ms.net)

1. Understanding the Christian story is learning about the basics of Christian faith and theology, and also examining a bit of our particular tradition within the larger Christian story. In growing in such an understanding, questions that will guide healthy conversation with youth and/or adults will include:

  • Who is God?
  • Why do we speak of the Trinity when we talk about God? And how best do we understand the Trinity?
  • Who is Jesus?
  • Who is the Holy Spirit?
  • How do we understand creation and our role/relationship to it?
  • How do we define sin?
  • What is redemption?
  • What (or who) is the Church?
  • What role has and does Scripture play in the Church?
  • Who is John Wesley and what is his story?
  • Who are others in the history of our heritage we can learn from?
  • What is a relationship with Jesus and how do we live in it?
  • What does it mean to be transformed and transforming?

Teaching about Core United Methodist beliefs will involve discussing more about our doctrine than our history, which is more a part of our story. But talking about United Methodist beliefs will include:

  • The various “motions” or “modes” of grace – prevenient, justifying, sanctifying
  • The relationship between grace, faith, and free will
  • What we believe about the mysteries, or sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper)
  • Why we baptize infants
  • Why we don’t rebaptize persons
  • What it means to have an “open table” at Communion rather than a closed Communion, and why
  • Why we believe women as well as men can serve as clergy
  • Why our clergy are “appointed” by a bishop rather than chosen/called by the local church
  • What it means to be a “connectional” and “global” church
  • Learning the other various aspects of worship
  • Discovering a Wesleyan way of reading Scripture and understanding the Christian faith – this often includes speaking of the key sources that guide us in our faith and understanding: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (or what is termed the “Wesleyan quadrilateral”)

The third component is to talk about vows and commitments. When you get to this point, you’re nearing the time of when you can converse with each youth as to whether they are ready to make this step (to profess/confirm/reaffirm their faith in Christ). But talking about vows and commitments needs to include some vital parts, which are things that are asked in the worship service when they will be confirmed:

  • We’ve talked about “sin” and “evil.” So now, what is it to renounce wickedness, to reject evil, and to repent from sin? And how do I live these actions out?
  • What does it mean to accept freedom and power from God to resist evil, injustice, and oppression?
  • What is it to confess Jesus Christ as my Savior and to put my trust in and serve Christ?
  • How serious are these promises I’m supposed to be keeping?
  • Why is loyalty to the United Methodist Church a part of our membership vows? How can I strengthen its ministries within and beyond my participation in my local church?
  • How can I support the church through my prayers?
  • How can I support the church through my presence? Is it just coming to worship on Sunday? (It’s more – attending in worship, in the life of mission and discipleship of the church, etc.)
  • How do I participate by giving my gifts to the church? Is this all about money? How can I discover my “spiritual gifts” so that I can use them to benefit the church?
  • What are some ways I can offer the church my service?
  • How can I be a more effective witness for the kingdom of God in my community and world?

You can now see why 3 weeks is simply not enough to dig this deeply. And each of these are vital matters to consider because, in my experience, youth are asking at least these sorts of questions and MANY more!!

What are your thoughts? What would questions would you add (I didn’t intend to be completely exhaustive, so I might have missed some key elements)?