Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Lessons from a Construction Company

Our church, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist, is surrounded by new activity. There are condominiums, apartments, a grocery store, some office buildings and a few places to shop all being constructed within a few blocks of our church. Our neighborhood is constantly evolving - one of the many things I love about being in ministry at this place.

In addition to this construction, the city's largest hotel is being constructed directly across the street. A Marriott Marquis is the needed complex to sway convention planners to our city according to the Convention Center authorities. And while we have learned to see hotels as places that host individuals that we are called to bless and be in relationship with on Sunday mornings, we have been tremendously blessed by the construction company building the new Marriott.

The construction company, Hensel Phelps, is teaching us how to be the church.


The doors of our church open at 6:00 a.m. each Tuesday and Thursday morning and some 25 to 35 unhoused men and women come inside to get clean. Once inside the doors, they are greeted with hot coffee, boiled eggs, granola bars, clean undergarments and a buffet of toiletries from which to choose. The individuals rotate in and out of the four showers located beneath the sanctuary while community is created in the center. The ministry is organized and executed by church members. On Thursday mornings, Hensel Phelps employees are added to the mix of volunteers seeking to make a difference.

Hensel Phelps has been sending volunteers across the street for months. They have donated coffee and basic supplies. They have prepared holiday meals for our guests. They have done simple repairs. They have provided some cleaning. They have been partners with us - in real, tangible and generous ways.

We have been told often how stories of life-changing interactions with our unhoused neighbors are lifted regularly in team meetings. Lives are being transformed through interactions with those who have so little materially and yet somehow seem to have everything, teaching all what is really important. This ministry is impacting construction workers is deep and penetrating ways. But this is not the main reason the company sends laborers across the street.

I learned from the coordinator of our shower ministry how Hensel Phelps seeks to never just build a building. Rather, when they know they are going to be in a community for several years working on a project, they also seek to become part of that community. They want to build a better community while they build buildings. They want to invest themselves where they are in ways that make a difference.

When the coordinator of the shower ministry told me about Hensel Phelps' commitment to make a difference, I quickly interrupted him. "Jason, that is our job!" I then continued, "Our job as a church is to invest ourselves so deeply in the communities of which we are a part that the community knows we are here and would miss us if we were gone."

Hensel Phelps is embodying what the church is supposed to do! They are providing an amazing example that we can learn from.

What would it look like for us to invest ourselves widely in the communities of which we are a part? To go searching across the avenue and down the street for places and people with needs that we can help meet? What would it mean to have one member of our church whose ministry is to scour the internet looking for ministries in our community that need assistance? What would it look like for us to see that our real job is to provide spiritual nourishment for those who come inside our church while constantly seeking to make sure that the church is bigger than a building but has legs and arms, hands and feet, hearts and minds touching all kinds of pockets and people in the community?

Can you imagine?

We are trying hard to be the church - to be the body of Christ on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts. But we are also seeking to allow ourselves to be transformed so that God can use us to transform our city and even our world.

And a construction company is teaching me lessons in what this kind of impact looks like. A construction company is setting the bar.

Thank you, Hensel Phelps.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Becoming a Bishop

I cannot recall any of the specific lessons taught during our confirmation class but I'll never forget the day we met the bishop. I was a twelve-year-old precocious girl being raised by two goal-oriented parents who taught me the value of setting goals, getting the right job and turning dreams into reality. At the time, Robert Schuller was one of the religious figures I gravitated to weekly, turning my attention to his glass-enclosed building whenever my parents allowed me to stay home from church. I loved his charisma, his passion and his ability to tell stories. He had gifts that I had never before seen in my local church. I did not know any pastors with that kind of charisma until I met Bishop W.T. Handy at the Bishop's annual confirmation rally. 

Bishop Handy could preach, and I was completely taken by him. I was so taken by him, in fact, that during the question and answer period I asked a question that pushed some people to laugh and others to become uncomfortable. Bishop Handy, how much money do bishops make? I still don't know what provoked me to ask that question other than I was in an idealistic phase in life where I believed any job worth having was one that paid a lot of money.

There was something about Bishop Handy that caused me to want to be like him. There was something about his spirit that captivated me. He commanded respect and attention the moment he said, "Good morning!" To this day, I think bishops should have a certain presence about them - that's what Bishop Handy taught me.

I've seen a lot of bishops since that time. I remember going to one Bishop's Retreat filled with joy as I anticipated meeting a new bishop. I watched as the bishop entered a room, said "hello" to a few people and then left to play golf with a group of his buddies and I've had another bishop hold the door while greeting every person coming to a retreat. I have observed compassion overflowing from the lips of some bishops sitting in the presiding bishop's chair at General Conference and watched other bishops lose their patience when people were seeking deep change. I have questioned why some bishops would want to give up the role they currently have to enter the episcopacy and seen others who entered the role as a natural step in life. And, I have become the pastor I am today because of a bishop who continued to stand by my side when my congregation was anything but eager to have me as their pastor, teaching me specific skills from how to be a better preacher to how to turn around a dying church. We have all kinds of bishops.

I'm thinking a lot about what it takes to become a bishop as we prepare for Jurisdictional Conferences to meet next week. I'm the second clergy alternate so I'm not sure if I'll get to cast one vote, but I have read with interest the information received on each episcopal candidate for the Northeast Jurisdiction.

Most of our candidates call themselves visionary leaders. Several of them want to learn a second language. The majority have served in the role of District Superintendent. Some of them are well read. Quite a few of them are working on taking better care of themselves. Most of the candidates followed the directions given for how to format a form. Other candidates showed an inability to follow directions. Some are quick to admit their shortcomings and others seem to have struggled to find their growing edge.

What does it take to become a bishop? What am I looking for in an Episcopal leader?

1) An ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ and lead congregations through change. It's no secret that the United Methodist Church is in decline. Less than half of our congregations are growing. The average age of a United Methodist is increasing. I want a bishop who knows how to make new disciples - someone who has grown churches. If you have not grown churches and made disciples yourself, then how are you going to teach others to do so? Show me a proven track record for leading churches that have grown and made a vital difference in their community, and I am more likely to support you.

2) A commitment to diversity that seeks to radically open the doors of worship, membership and ordination. We talk a lot about racial diversity while forgetting the fact that we are denomination that continues to close its doors to many people. The official teaching of the United Methodist Church describes one-third of my congregation as incompatible with Christian teaching while denying hundreds of people the opportunity to fully accept the claim God has placed on their lives because of their sexuality. If you can only talk about racial diversity, then you are not seeing how our church continues to do real harm to thousands of people. I want a bishop who values diversity at all levels - a bishop who is not afraid to take a stand and say our denomination has to get over its deep-seated prejudices if it is ever going to be the body of Christ.

3) An understanding of what it takes to connect with people who want nothing to do with the church or have been hurt by the church. Our jurisdiction asked every episcopal candidate to respond to the question, "There are roughly 28,000,000 un-churched people in the Northeast Jurisdiction. How would you be 'their bishop?'" 

Labeling people as "saved" and "unsaved" is not going to do it. Fliers are not going to get people in our churches. I want a bishop who understands that church is more than what happens on Sunday mornings. Church is what happens when people are making a difference - a real difference - in a community. People don't want to hear about the church. They want to see the church. And sometimes an invitation to church comes first when we invite someone to help us meet a basic need. Bill Easum recently taught me that every pastor needs to be spending 20 hours a week with unchurched people. It's a huge undertaking. We all need to be spending more time having coffee at Starbucks or even a beer at the bar. I want a bishop who is not afraid to close churches so that new churches can start. I want a bishop who is going to push me to constantly get out into the community. I want a bishop who talks about the unchurched because she knows dozens of unchurched people and not just her two college-aged children who no longer go to church.

4) The capacity to ask pastors about their spiritual lives as much as they ask about our numbers. While I am now asked to report weekly the number of people who come to worship and participate in a small group, I have yet to be asked by anyone in a supervisory role how many hours I spent praying or searching the scriptures in any given week. I want a bishop who knows Jesus, listens to Jesus, walks with Jesus, serves like Jesus, stands alongside of the broken like Jesus, and asks me about how much time I am spending with Jesus vs. simply telling others about Jesus.

5) Someone who will work with their cabinet to strategically make appointments based upon missional needs and specific gifts vs. years of service and salary level. The old boys network has faded away in most places but is still alive and well in other places. Enough said.

Bishops play a crucial role in our denomination. Bishops can lead change and transformation or continue with the status quo. I'm in awe of the people who have offered themselves for this role and praying continuously for God to show us who is being called to equip the saints for ministry.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come and show us the way.