A Word Audit

A Word Audit

words

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

When I find free moments to reflect on my life and ministry, I often think about the words I use to describe what I’m experiencing. If the words are positive, uplifting and energetic, I know I feel good about what’s going on. If they are negative, it’s equally obvious. And if they are snarky (and, yes, that’s a theologically appropriate term), I know there’s something going on in me I need to figure out.

Quite frankly – and it’s embarrassing to admit this – I don’t like the negative words I’ve been choosing recently to describe the contentiousness that occurred at this year’s Annual Conference, congregations complaining about “those people in Little Rock,” pastors expressing an entitlement attitude about their appointments, or all the talk about the future disintegration of the denomination. In fact, I deeply despise the fact that I have been mired in a sea of negative words when I talk about our church, people and future.

It’s very different, however, when I think about the words I’ve been using to talk about the “Body of Christ.” Suddenly, it’s like I’m talking about something that’s the polar opposite of what I so often experience in the “church.” And my vocabulary reflects it as I invoke positive words that describe God-nods, Holy Spirit breakthroughs, reconciled relationships, the bright light of Christ shining, and the making of disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world. 

So why do I speak negatively about the “church” and positively about the “Body of Christ”?

I think it has everything to do with whether we are acting like the church belongs to us or whether it belongs to Jesus. I instantly get negative about the “church” when we treat it like a human institution that we believe we’re in charge of because, whenever that happens, we get what we’ve got – something far more reflective of the worst of humanity instead of the best of Christ. I speak positively about the “Body of Christ” when we are able to step back from our urge to control and are instead controlled far more by Jesus’ heart and mind.

Of course, it’s one thing for me to understand why I do what I do. It’s quite another for me to do something about it. That’s why I’m glad God has stepped in and convicted me in a way that will keep me from throwing up my arms at the overwhelming impossibility of the task and just walking away.  

And because God has stepped in, here is what I intend to do. 

I will divest myself of the notion that I can fix the “church” because I somehow live under the delusion that I am in charge. Rather, my vocation will be to experience the “church” more and more as the “Body of Christ” in which I experience Jesus as our literal and spiritual head who directs our life together. And while I don’t know what the future of our beloved United Methodist Church is going to be, I do know that this way of being “church” offers a wonderful opportunity to be part of a group of people who live in true love, joy, justice, new life, resurrection, healing and hope.

And that’s more than enough for me.

The Gift of an Unexpected Pause

The Gift of an Unexpected Pause

stop

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

There’s “THE QUESTION” that overshadows everything in the Arkansas Conference, “What is the future of the United Methodist Church going to be – and when is it finally going to be decided?” The fact that we cannot answer it – and anyone who tells you otherwise is just wrong – has led to uncertainty, anxiety, frustration, anger and impatience.

Our current experience shares much in common with the people of Israel who were delivered from oppression in Egypt and then spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

Their journey began after a dramatic deliverance from Egypt, and God’s promise that they would end up in a land flowing with milk and honey. Along the way, God did amazing things. And how did the people respond? Sometimes faithfully. But often they were impatient and impertinent, grumbled about how much better life was back in Egypt, threatened to rebel against Moses, and built a golden calf to worship.

Our journey began nearly 50 years ago as a disagreement over theology, especially pertaining to matters of human sexuality, and morphed into a painful breach as we have sought our own promised land. Not a place, but the promise of a solution that will finally “fix” the deep division in our denomination either by seeking to have certain people leave the United Methodist Church or by finding a way to exit the United Methodist Church. And as this has not been difficult enough, we are turning on each other as if we refuse to believe that we actually are sisters and brothers in Christ.

I understand why so many of you have reached the point you have – just ready for something to happen so it is finally all over. But I wonder if our impatience, anger and desire to settle things as quickly as possible are signs that we do not trust God, and so God is keeping us wandering until we are formed into a more faithful people. Just like God kept the people of Israel wandering until they were formed into a more faithful people.

We have a very important decision to make.

Are we going to be like the people of Israel who threatened to overthrow Moses, constructed idols and grumbled about returning to Egypt because we do not think things are going the way they should? Or are we going to trust that God is leading us on this journey designed to take us to the future God dreams for us?

I choose to see this period of time leading up to General Conference – and whatever it decides – as the gift of an unexpected pause during which God can form us into a more faithful church as we engage in three holy ventures that are at the heart of the Christian faith, the Wesleyan movement and the United Methodist Church.

And I pray that you do, too.

First, use the gift of this unexpected pause to flip-flop how you look at things. Instead of letting denominational issues – as important as they are – determine the health and vitality of local churches, let’s let local churches, where so many amazing things are happening, make the denomination more alive and faithful.

Second, embrace this time as a wonderful opportunity to double down on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world.

Third, use these months to fall head-over-heels, passionate and crazy in love with Jesus. God has done something in Jesus that is unique and essential. He gives you what you absolutely need and cannot get in any other way by reconciling you with God, with others and with yourself through his death on the cross.

I believe Jesus is at the heart of everything. As imperfect as I am, I believe it. As many times as I have turned away from him, I believe it. As educated as I am, I believe it. And on this – the 40th anniversary of my ordination as an elder – I believe it. In fact, I believe it so much that if I could have one do-over in my ministry, it would be to make it more about Jesus.

They’re Just Words – Or Are They?

They’re Just Words – Or Are They?

letters

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

It seems that almost every United Methodist meeting I attend these days includes the following words and phrases: liminal, asynchronous, actionable, emotional intelligence, nimble, new normal, transparent, and adaptive. In fact, I even use them myself. And while they can be helpful in describing the world in which the church finds itself, I am increasingly convinced we also need to employ the language of faith. The reason is simple. How we talk about something goes a long way in determining what we actually do about it.  

I believe it is time for those who love Jesus as Savior and Lord, those of us who seek to live as his disciples, and those of us who long for God’s will to be just as real on earth as it already is in heaven to inject the language of faith into our lives far more intentionally. I also understand this is a challenge for many of us because we tend to shy away from using faith language, often for very appropriate reasons.   

But if we don’t use the language of faith, we will soon discover our lives being shaped primarily by things other than faith. That’s because faith impacts every single part of our lives all day long. How often we talk about Jesus as Lord and Savior, mention the Kingdom of God, speak about the fullness of grace, or share our commitment to growing deeper in discipleship and living out that discipleship speaks volumes. Quite simply, if these things are an important part of our lives, they should be expressed in the words we use.

There’s one place, in particular, I am convinced using the language of faith will make a significant difference: our quest for racial justice.

Last year, we introduced the phrase, “Dismantling Racism – Building Reconciliation” to describe our work in addressing racism. I was convinced it was clear, to the point, and indicated the work ahead of us. What is more, it focused on more than merely eradicating something horrible. It also talked about replacing it with something good. 

But along the way, I realized some people aren’t interested in addressing racism because they don’t think it’s an issue, at least their issue, or they simply don’t know what to do. As I struggled to deal with this reality, I realized something was missing that is absolutely essential if we are truly serious about addressing racial justice: our Christian faith. So in recent months, I have started talking about our work in a new way, “Dismantling the Sin of Racism – Building God’s Reconciliation.” These additional words that talk about sin and God’s reconciliation dramatically change how we understand what we are facing and give a clearer direction about our ultimate goal. Racism is a sin and the Christian faith offers a way to address that sin. True reconciliation is rooted in Jesus’ ultimate reconciliation through the cross. It is my hope and prayer that being intentional about using our faith vocabulary will help us address racism far more quickly and powerfully than we otherwise would. 

We always walk a fine line as Jesus’ disciples when it comes to employing the language of faith. We never want to be arrogant and we certainly don’t want to act disrespectfully towards others. But we need to include the language of faith in the totality of our lives because we live most fully into our true identity when we acknowledge Whose we are and who we are. That’s why the words we choose every day are so important. Perhaps now more than ever. May we choose words that remind us and others of what we believe about life – both now and for eternity to come. 

Do We Really Need a Savior?

Do We Really Need a Savior?

cross on a hill

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

Tomorrow is Good Friday.

As I’ve been thinking about the event that exists at the very heart of our identity as Christians, I’ve found my mind drifting to the current state of the Body of Christ. There’s no way to gently put it, so I’ll be blunt. I am deeply troubled, my heart is breaking and my soul is distressed. The reason is simple. I don’t see much evidence that we really think we need a Savior.

Rather, I see something quite distressing. We have become a church that is concerned with almost everything but Jesus. If you have any doubt, look at how we spend our time and energy. We are so shaped by the political and ideological wars going on around us that we see each other primarily through the lens of secular culture, instead of as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are so much part of a polarized world that we accept as normal the demonization of others with whom we disagree, instead of seeing them through our common relationship with Jesus Christ. We have become so self-centered that we are convinced the church’s primary role is to cater to our wishes and make us comfortable, instead of seeking to carry out the will of God. We fight so much about whether the people we want to help are worthy of our help that we become self-righteous, instead of taking seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 25. We are so hell-bent on arguing whether we should have to wear masks that we spend much of our time engaging in internal combat, instead of spending our time reaching out to people so they can get to know Jesus as their personal Savior and invite him to be Lord of their lives.

To put it simply, we have lost our passion for Jesus’ passion on the cross. Of course, I’m realistic enough to understand that this statement will probably be greeted with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders. But the fact of the matter is that we do need a Savior. Whether we think we do or not. And we need one right now.

But I have hope even though things seem bleak. Indeed, more hope than I can begin to describe. That’s because there are signs all around that the Holy Spirit is at work right now stirring us up so we will be laser-focused on Jesus who died for us so that we will experience the fullness of his unconditional, invitational and transformational love. Not just so we can experience forgiveness, healing, joy and hope. But so that we can be part of Jesus’ mission of unleashing grace that transforms lives, communities and the world.

Indeed, tomorrow is Good Friday. It will be a somber day filled with mystery that cannot be explained and power that changes everything. I pray that this Good Friday will help us realize – perhaps for the first time, or perhaps for the first time in a long time – just how much we need a Savior named Jesus.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

sign

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

The United Methodist Church has been filled with people who have significant disagreements for decades about how to involve LGBTQIA+ individuals in the life of the church. The first time the denomination addressed the matter was in The 1972 Book of Discipline. Every General Conference since has held contentious debates concerning what action to take.

Not surprisingly, matters have become more polarized in recent years. People on both sides of the issue hoped that a definitive decision would be made at the 2016 General Conference. It wasn’t. Instead, the delegates narrowly voted to ask the Council of Bishops to lead. The Council chose to do so by appointing the Commission on the Way Forward. The Commission faithfully carried out its work and the Council endorsed the One Church Plan but also forwarded the Traditional Plan and Connectional Conference Plan to the 2019 called General Conference. Most people anticipated, or at least hoped, that this special session would settle the matter once and for all. The General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan that enhanced and clarified the church’s existing stance.

Not surprisingly, this action did not settle the matter. The outcome was unacceptable to a portion of the denomination, and organizations were formed and plans made to overturn the changes. At the same time, the Wesleyan Covenant Association began formulating plans for a new Methodist expression that would be more traditional in makeup.

The denomination seemed stymied. That’s why the late Bishop John Yambasu began a series of conversations during the summer of 2019 with leaders of more traditional and progressive groups within the church. In the fall of that year, a diverse group was formed from this group and an internationally acclaimed mediator, Kenneth Feinberg, facilitated a process that resulted in the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation that was released in January 2020. It provided a means for Annual Conferences and congregations to join a new Methodist expression, committed significant United Methodist financial resources to address racism, and offered financial support for the starting of new Methodist denominations. While not formally a part of the legislation, the assumption was that the post-separation United Methodist Church would be centrist and progressive in its theology and practice.

Legislation to implement the proposal was submitted and, at the time, many assumed that this was the pathway the United Methodist Church delegates would embrace at the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.

Then COVID-19 struck and an unexpected pause ensued. The 2020 General Conference was postponed. The United States experienced a spring and summer of killings of Black citizens by police. The pandemic spread, shuttering normal life and inflicting hardship on billions of people globally.

Attention shifted from human sexuality to COVID, racism and colonialism. Churches were forced to adapt to a virtual world of worship, discipling, fellowship and mission. And in the process, something unexpected happened. Many United Methodists discovered a new appreciation for connectionalism and forged deeper relationships with those with whom they disagreed about a variety of issues, including exactly how the church should include LGBTQIA+ persons. During this period a number of new ideas were floated as alternatives or enhancements to the Protocol: The Christmas Covenant, a proposal from the Alaska General Conference Delegation, and the Overlapping Regional Conference Plan to name a few. Just a couple of days ago, the Global Methodist Church formally announced that it will be a new expression of Methodism in the coming years.

The Commission on the General Conference announced on February 25 that the General Conference has been postponed and rescheduled for August 29 – September 6, 2022. At the same time, the Council of Bishops announced that a called session of General Conference will be held virtually on May 8, 2021, to address 12 amendments to the Book of Discipline that will enable the denomination to carry out some basic responsibilities in the midst of the COVID pandemic and other future possible disruptions. The actual vote will be taken by delegates using paper ballots to ensure that all persons can participate equally in a fair way that allows their voices to be heard. The results of the vote will be announced on July 13, 2021.

So where does all of this leave you?

Some of you are frustrated by yet another delay of General Conference because things have been unsettled for too long and you are ready to get it done and just move on. I understand this and respect your feelings. In fact, I feel that way myself some days.

However, I am seeing increasing numbers of signs that God is at work in the midst of this unexpectedly prolonged pause giving the people called Methodists around the world a new vision of what it means to be a spiritually revived and missionally alive global United Methodist church. In other words, God is doing something in God’s own time, which means I need to be patient enough to wait for it because God’s timing is always better than my timing.

Everything has been turned upside down in the world, in your life and even in your church during the past year. We now seem to be turning the corner and will soon begin to find our way to the new normal that awaits us. Much will be the same because we are still called to share Jesus’ love, help people accept him as Lord and Savior, walk with them as they grow in discipleship, and equip and send them to bring God’s transformation to lives, communities and the world. However, we will have to find new ways to carry out this Gospel work.

Our work is quite simple. Pray for our world and beloved church. Keep the main thing the main thing by focusing on Jesus and his mission. Listen carefully to the voice of God about new possibilities for our denomination. And do everything with joy, passion and hope because God is still God, Jesus is still Lord and the Holy Spirit is still at work.