Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reflections on the Disciples of Christ General Assembly

I'm catching up on my blog after a very busy month.  I wrote the following earlier this month for the newsletter, The Dialogue, of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

Last week I returned from the national meeting of our denomination, the General Assembly of the Christian Churches, Disciples of Christ in the United Statesand Canada.  These meetings take place every two years and it is a time to learn about what is happening in the denomination, network with like-minded folks and address particular social issues.  Being new to the Disciples, I still feel like a bit of an outsider at these events, but I’m growing more comfortable in my new denomination.  This is only the second General Assembly I’ve attended.  I feel sure those who came up in the denomination, attending Disciples colleges and seminaries, active on denominational committees and boards, could give you a better picture than I of what the Disciples are up to nationally, but here are my reflections.
In an age when denominations like ours are declining in numbers and influence, the Disciples are especially so.  The combined pressures of the bad economy and a shrinking church could be felt everywhere at the meeting.  Yet, compared to my first General Assembly two years ago, I experienced a much more positive and forward-thinking outlook by the church’s leadership.  Last time around, I came away feeling the denomination was in survival mode and merely circling the wagons as it slid into complete irrelevance; this time, I saw some of that but saw a lot more of people forced to let go of ways of doing things that no longer work in today’s context.  The net result was a meeting that highlighted churches who were transforming from dying congregations to communities with new life and vitality.  Granted most Disciples churches continue to die, but it was both hopeful and exciting to learn about churches that had made the right decisions to dream new dreams and make a difference in the 21st century.
Yes, as is true of most mainline denominations like ours, the average age of participants was somewhere above 175 years old, but compared to two years ago, I saw more younger clergy and laity represented at all events.  Also, throughout all events, the leadership had made a concerted effort to be inclusive in terms of gender and ethnicity.  The result was a program that looked a lot more like the Kingdom of God in its diversity than just a bunch of Caucasian men. 
A disappointing omission in the diversity of people in leadership at the meeting was the lack of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.  With a few exceptions, the elephant in the room that many seemed not to want to discuss remains the full inclusion of LGBT people in Disciples life.  I was encouraged, however, when Sharon Watkins, the Disciples General Minister and President was reelected for a second term and she mentioned pursuing meaningful dialogue as a denomination regarding the inclusion of LGBT people as one of her priorities.  While at the assembly, I attended the GLAD Alliance Banquet (GLAD = Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples).  GLAD Alliance continues to be the main voice for speaking up for the full inclusion of LGBT people in Disciples life.  Our church was recognized at the banquet for becoming Open and Affirming in 2010.  I was proud to represent FCC at the event.
Of course, I gained much from hearing wonderful speakers like Holly McKissek ofSt. Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, KS, the dean of Disciples preaching FredCraddock and the celebrated author and leader in the “emergent church” BrianMcLaren.  I also felt blessed to participate in a healthy discussion about immigration reform and an immigration reform prayer walk on the streets of downtown Nashville.  Yet, I especially appreciated the business sessions which took on some difficult issues but did so with civility.  A resolution regarding sexual abuse in the church became a little difficult when different people who had been abused took issue with whether they should be called “victims” or “survivors” of sexual abuse.  People spoke against and for both terms based upon their experience of abuse.  In the end, a compromise was struck and both terms were used, but more importantly the voices of those who had previously been silenced were heard.  My sense was that discussion and debate still mattered at the assembly rather than things being rammed through by a few power brokers in a back room
On a personal note, the General Assembly was meaningful for me because I attended it with my father, who is now also a Disciples minister.  Both of us know the pain of leaving the church we grew up in, yet he lost more than I did when he left Baptist life behind.  He let go of a lifetime’s worth of relationships that mattered to him.  I had only begun my career in ministry when I chose to no longer claim the Baptist label.  On the last night, he sat with a group of ministers who had all previously been Baptist but were now Disciples.  They had known each other in their previous lives.  As they sang and worshiped together, they experienced a sense of healing as they reunited in their new church family.  Perhaps that is what I will take away most from the General Assembly—the belief that at its best, our denomination—just like our local church—can be a place for those who have been rejected and excluded elsewhere.
Grace and Peace,

Stories from Royal Family Kids Camp 2011

I'm catching up on my blog after a very busy month.  I write the following earlier this month for the newsletter, The Dialogue, of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

Last week First Christian Church held its 19th Royal Family Kids Camp at Camp FarWesta in Stewartsville.  34 children who have experienced abuse and neglect from their families enjoyed a week where they could just be kids in a setting that was safe and where all attention was on them.  Unlike other camps which have “camp counselors” who take care of many children, at RFKC “special friends” (for these kids the word “counselor” has a particular and possibly negative connotation) have only two children a piece in their care.  At the end of the week, camp staff debriefed and told about their experiences with the children.  Here are a few of them.  (Names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of the children.)

A girl named “Jane1” told her special friend near the end of the week that she wished camp would last for two weeks.  The special friend replied, “Oh, but we have to go back to our families.”  Jane1 then said, “My family doesn’t want me to come back home.”

On the last night, a boy named “John1” blew bubbles with his special friend to whom he said, “I’m going to blow a bubble big enough to take you home to Kansas City with me.”

            A girl named “Jane2” refused to talk all week long until the last two days.  On the last night of the week, the children, who often do not get to celebrate their own birthdays, receive a box filled with presents.  One of the presents was an MP3 player with the camp songs loaded on it.  Jane2, whom had been almost silent all week, put on her earphones and walked around singing songs about God’s love at the top of her lungs.

            “John2” had been difficult all week and often combative.  Toward the end of the week, his special friend spoke sternly to him.  John2 stopped and asked, “Are you going to hit me?  That’s what my dad does when he’s mad at me.”

            “Jane3” asked a special friend at bedtime one night if she was safe to fall sleep.  The special friend assured her that she could fall asleep because she was safe here.  Jane3 responded, “One night I thought I was safe.  My mommy was there with me.  But I wasn’t safe.”

            “Jane4” cried at bedtime, so her special friend stroked her hair and sang to her.  Jane4 said, “God put you here as my special friend, my guardian angel, because no one has ever been able to put me to sleep except you and my mom.”

            “Jane5” opened up her birthday box on the last night of camp to find a box containing a necklace.  Jane5 stared in wonder at it for a moment then quickly closed the box.  She then found some Scotch tape and taped the box shut.  A staff member said, “Oh Jane5, that necklace is yours.  You can wear it.  Nobody will take it away from you.”  The small girl replied, “I want to give it to my mom.”  The staff member answered, “Oh, O.K., but I’m sure your mother has lots of nice things, and this was a gift for you to enjoy.”  Jane5 said, “We don’t have nice things in my family.”

  • ·       Almost five children die every day as a result of child abuse. More than three out of four are under the age of 4.
  • ·  Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.
  • ·       Over 60% of people in drug rehabilitation centers report being abused or neglected as a child.
  • ·       About 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children.
  • ·       About 80% of 21 year olds that were abused as children met criteria for at least one psychological disorder.

Please pray that the 34 children who attended RFKC this year.

Grace and Peace,

What I Learned at Conflict Resolution Training

I'm catching up on my blog after a very busy month.  I write the following last month for the newsletter, The Dialogue, of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

            This past weekend First Christian Church of St. Joseph along with First Christian Church of Maryville hosted a 2-day training on Interpersonal Conflict Resolution Training.  The training was led by facilitators from the Community Mediation Center in Kansas City, and eighteen people attended from St. Joe and Maryville representing social service providers like the YWCA, InterServ, Youth Alliance and the abuse shelter in Maryville, along with MWSU faculty and staff, and other members of the community.  Together we learned about what is necessary if you want to be a peacemaker by helping others work through conflict.  Here are a few of the many things I took away from this important event.
            Start with yourself.  I came prepared to learn tools about helping others work through their conflict, but I discovered that we spent the bulk of our time learning how to manage conflicts within ourselves.  I guess I should have known this already, but it turns out if you actually want to help others communicate and work through conflict, then you have to do things like listen and communicate in a way that makes sense to others.  Huh?  I thought I was just going to focus on other people’s issues, but I found out that can’t happen until I work on my own first.
            Stress changes things.  Again, put this one in the column for things I probably should have known already but never really spent much time thinking about before.  When a person is under stress, that person doesn’t listen as well.  In fact, stress takes strengths possessed by a person and amps them up to an excessive level which can turn them into weaknesses.  For example, a person who likes helping others can become needy and dependent upon others' approval; or a person who is a decisive leader can become demanding and dictatorial.  Conflict is stressful, and even when you are trying to help someone else work through their problems, their stress can become your stress turning you into part of the problem rather than an ally in finding a solution.
            Having winners and losers doesn’t end conflict.  Many of the world’s so-called peace treaties don’t lead to real peace, instead they only continue the conflict.  Whether the stakes are an accord between warring factions or a divorce decree for warring spouses, when only one side wins, the conflict hasn’t really been resolved.  At the training, we talked about the idea of moving beyond winners and losers towards helping people in conflict to create something new.  For example, a divorced couple fighting a bitter custody battle could choose to continue the fight disregarding the needs of their children or they could create a new situation that puts their children first.  Finding that shared purpose is at times a difficult process, but the end result looks a lot more like real peace rather than a simmering continuation of the fight.
            People are people.  A highlight for me was working through some of the exercises with another participant who happened to be African American and Muslim.  He and I have had very different experiences in life, but as we shared our own experiences with conflict in our own lives and talked about healthy ways to deal with them it turned out we had quite a lot in common.  We both struggle with the frustration that comes when we feel misunderstood and effort it takes to communicate with others we disagree with in ways that build bridges rather than deeper divisions.  I was reminded how much alike people really are.  We all wish to be understood.  We all desire others to really listen to us.  We all seek positive ways forward in complicated relationships despite our limited skills.  
            Grace and Peace,

Who Would Miss First Christian Church of St. Joseph?

I'm catching up on my blog after a very busy month.  I write the following last month for the newsletter, The Dialogue, of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

How does a church measure success? A for-profit business can measure its success according to its profit in a given year. A non-profit entity can measure its success in clients served. Yet, a church can have lots of money and members and still not be a success. Why not? A church’s success is entirely dependent upon its faithfulness to God and its decisions to model itself upon the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. A church can be faithful to God and sacrificial in its love—or not!—no matter its membership or money. Of course, at First Christian Church we work hard to respect different points of view and different under-standings of God’s leadership in our lives, so how do we—in our diversity—come to a common understanding of what it means to be faithful and sacrificial in our love? Here’s one idea.

One way of determining if we as a church are faithful to God and sacrificial in our love is to ask the hypothetical question “If First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO were to close tomor-row, who would miss it?” After all, if we are truly be-ing faithful to God then we would be creating a space where people’s lives are transformed by their experi-ence of God, and if we were being sacrificial in our love, then people both inside and outside the church would know firsthand what it means for a community of people to care for them. If not, \then neither those inside or outside the church would miss First Christian if it closed.

From my perspective as FCC’s minister, I do believe the church would be missed by the members of the church who actually attend and have relationships that matter with other church members. (As for those members who either rarely or never attend or partici-pate, I can only wonder if the church matters to them open or closed.) I also believe that the church would be dearly missed by some more recent members and regular attendees who have experienced a welcome at FCC that they have not known elsewhere. These are folks who have felt excluded or judged at other churches but who have found FCC to be a community that truly welcomes them. I also think the church would be missed by people in the community who at-tend other churches or no church, but who nonetheless appreciate that there is a church like FCC in their town, a church that welcomes all people, values freedom of belief and seeks to care for those who are considered “the least of these” in society.  An acquaintance of mine likes to say, “I’m not a religious person, so I don’t go to church, but if I did, I would go to First Christian.”

In terms of outreach (ministry to the needs of people outside the church), however, I wonder how much FCC would be missed if it closed tomorrow. Our church has played a significant role in past years of getting minis-tries started, such as the Open Door Food Kitchen, Faith in Action and others, however the success of these ministries since their beginnings now means (thankfully) that FCC is only one church among many involved in them. While our contributions of funds and volunteers matter and would surely be missed, other churches would hopefully step in to fill any gaps left by our disappearance.

There is one big exception to this rule when it comes to our outreach ministries, however: Royal Family Kids Camp, our annual ministry to abused and neglected children in our area. Although camp directors Sandy and Ken Hamlin do a great job of drumming up support from other churches and area groups and businesses, the fact remains that if our church did not make RFKC happen each year, it would not happen. In the 19 years that FCC has made a RFKC camp happen in our area (there are al-most 200 other RFKC camps elsewhere), hundreds of children who have experienced difficulties that are hard to comprehend have experienced God’s love in tangible and dramatic ways. If FCC closed tomorrow, RFKC would cease to happen in our area and these children who have experienced the worst that life has to offer simply would not know that there are adults in the world who serve a loving God and seek to care for children rather than abuse them.

This Sunday is RFKC Sunday where we as a church will commission this year’s 34 staff members and celebrate what God has done in the camps of previous years. We will be reminded of the difference our church can make in its community when it chooses to be faithful to God and to love in sacrificial ways. Thankfully First Christian will not close tomorrow. I hope you will come Sunday and see one of the most significant reasons why that is a good thing!

Grace and Peace,