“All Things New”

As we roll out the changes to our ministries at FUMC that are the result of the Reorganization Plan we adopted in July, it’s important that we all know what’s going on. I’m using this space to share news about several new ministries and some new versions of existing ministries. Please take the time to read these notes so that you can help share the news of All Things New!

SUNDAY MORNINGS AT FIRST UMC!

Beginning September 1, Sunday mornings will have an entirely new look. Here’s what you can expect to see when you arrive each week ….

8:30 AM—The doors will be open and you’ll find coffee in the Pecan Street Foyer and a warm welcome

8:45 AM—Children’s Gathering will begin in the Music Room (a.k.a the Choir Room)

9:00 AM—Sunday School begins for all ages

10:00 AM—Sunday Worship begins in the Sanctuary

As I have shared in worship, we will continue to celebrate “5th Sundays” with a covered dish brunch and Service Sunday mission activities, so that the entire congregation has the chance to spend time together.

Remember that moving from three worship hours to one means that “your” seat may be someone else’s seat, too! Please be kind & gracious as you find a place, especially for the first few weeks. This may be the perfect time for you to shake things up and—gasp!—even sit on the other side of the room!

THE TABLE: A Community Meal & Spiritual Life Experience

If you were involved in helping the Reorganization Task Force craft the proposal that became our ministry plan in July, you know that one of the most important parts was the creation of an alternative worship opportunity. Though the plan identified that new venture as happening in an evening time slot, we had many details to be determined. Would it be held at FUMC or an off-site venue? What evening would it be?

As I have shared in worship and in church-wide emails over the past couple of weeks, most of those details have now been set and I’m pleased to share with you that this new worship experience, The Table, begins on Sunday, September 15! Each Sunday, we will gather at the Gainesville campus of North Central Texas College at 6:00 PM for a meal, followed by 30 minutes of shared music and 30 minutes of discussion about the scriptures. It really won’t be like any kind of church experience you’ve had before—the congregation will help create worship every week, selecting music, offering testimony, and sharing thoughts and questions about the Bible and theology.

The Table will be open to anyone, but we are looking for members of our congregation who might be willing to commit to regular attendance for the next several months. If you’d like to be one of our pioneers, please contact me by email (john@fumcgainesville.org) or phone (214-384-1139) as soon as possible.

WEEKLY BIBLE STUDIES BEGIN THIS MONTH!

The fundamental question behind our Reorganization Plan was: “How can we continue to grow our own spiritual life as we create relationships between our congregation and those in the community who do not have a church home?” Bible Study is a cornerstone of the Christian life, and I’m pleased to say we will be offering two NEW opportunities for encountering the scriptures this fall.

“Bible Journey,” a Spirit-led opportunity to engage the scriptures, will begin Wednesday, September 4, and will be held each week from 6-7 PM in Room 113. FUMC member and STAR Partner, Jim Thompson, will facilitate the discussion each week.

Instead of leading the former Pastor’s Bible Study, I will be starting a new group, “Bible Discovery,” that is designed for those who may never have spent time studying the scriptures. I’m hoping to build on the great foundation that Pastor Kathy Nations helped lay for us during her time with us, by gathering this group at Second Time Around Resale. We will also be meeting weekly from 6-7 PM, and I’ve been working with the Partners at STAR to invite some of our Neighbors—that’s what we like to call our customers at STAR.

…….

Friends, as we enter this new age in the story of our congregation, it’s my hope that every one of us might find some new way to intentionally encounter God and love our neighbors. We really can’t say we’re the church without doing just that.

Grace and peace, Pastor John

“Dominion or Stewardship”

On Sunday, July 28, I shared some reflections with the congregation about my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, including a visit to Northern California. My close friend and clergy colleague, Rev. Clay Andrew, is currently on a Renewal Leave funded by a grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation, and he invited me to be one of several guest preachers who have been helping lead worship in his congregation this summer.

Because I had the chance to travel on someone else’s dime, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit a place I’ve wanted to see for as long as I can remember—the Redwood Forests of Northern California. It was a truly awe-inspiring experience, one which is difficult to adequately describe. As often happens with a visit to such places, I was able to experience the presence of God in the majesty of Creation.

My experience of God’s presence, however, came in a way that was slightly different from what I might have expected. Following my sermon on Sunday, one of our church members approached me to share that he “felt like this”—holding up two fingers barely apart to indicate how tiny he seemed standing among the giant trees, some of which are taller than a 30-story building!

I certainly had those feelings as I walked among the giants, and I eventually gave up taking photographs of them since there was almost literally no way to capture one in its entirety and even less likely that I would be able to capture its essence. It was another epiphany, though, that most profoundly affected me.

I had done quite a bit of research in preparation for my visit to the Redwood National and State Parks, but mostly in regards to what trails I wanted to take through the forests with the little time I had available. What I did not realize was just how extensively the Redwoods had been devastated by logging from the 1850s through the 1960s. During that time, about 95% of the 2 million acres of Redwood Forest had been clear cut along the California and Oregon Coastlines. In roughly 100 years, mankind had reduced to almost nothing what God had taken thousands—probably even millions—of years to create.

This is a common trait of humanity—the will to exercise dominion over nature. For those of us who count ourselves children of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, the word “dominion” holds particular meaning and is tied directly to a specific interpretation of the Biblical story of Creation. In that story, found in the first chapter of Genesis, the Creator is quoted as saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Dominion, in this case, is often understood to mean that we may do with creation whatever it is we want: In essence, that creation is subject to human will. But there is another, equally valid interpretation of the Hebrew word that is most often translated as “dominion.” In the other interpretation, God gives humanity “stewardship” over creation, rather than dominion.

In this alternate understanding, having stewardship of Creation, rather than dominion over creation, recognizes two important aspects of Christian faith:

  • First, that all Creation—including humanity—is subject to the will of God; and
  • Second, that we have the responsibility to care for Creation so that it continues to thrive in the ways God intended and intends in the work of creating.

As I walked among the Redwoods that day, seeing the light filtering through their leaves and limbs high above me, I realized that in some ways, God’s creation in that space might have been better served if we had never arrived. That was an extraordinarily sad thought to me and I began to be extremely grateful for those whose work preserved the last remaining Old Growth groves—the ones whose names adorned them.

My faith and understanding of the Scriptures lead me to believe we are partners with God in the work of caring for all things. The Redwoods have taught me a new lesson and I commit myself even more fervently to the work of stewardship, for all things have been created by God and are precious in God’s sight.

Grace and peace, Pastor John

“Pastor’s New Year”

The past few days have been really interesting for me, as I’ve watched dozens of clergy colleagues and friends post on social media about the first day in a new appointment. As it turns out, 2019 has been a big year for moves in the North Texas Conference, and yesterday, July 1, was what I like to call Pastor’s New Year.

Of course, we are experiencing that here at First UMC with the departure of Kathy “Kake” Nations as she takes on a new role, serving as a connection to the community of Denton for the worshiping community at FUMC called Open. (FYI: I’ve started using both Kathy’s given and called names recently, since she’s known by most people as Kake, rather than Kathy, as we’ve called her here in Gainesville.) As you know, Kathy has done a remarkable job helping us create stronger, more systematic connections with our own community and I’m glad that she will be able to help another congregation do that same work. Technically, Kathy isn’t yet appointed at FUMC Denton, even though she will relate directly to the church. She’s currently appointed to what’s called Transitional Leave as she, the congregation, and her new District Superintendent work out the details of her appointment there.

What you may not know, even if you’re familiar with the way that Methodist pastors move from time to time at the direction of the Bishop and Cabinet, is that it’s a new year for me, too—and for every other clergy person in the Conference who’s serving under appointment. Just this weekend, I had a conversation with a guest from another UM church who’s been a Methodist for a very long time. He asked me what the average appointment in the UMC is and he speculated that it might be about seven years. I told him that, although pastors are typically staying in one place longer than they used to, we are all appointed one year at a time!

I shared with the congregation on June 30, during our Unified Worship for fifth Sunday, that on that very day I was completing my 3rd year at Gainesville, my 17th year as a pastor-in-charge and full-time preacher and my 24th year in full-time ministry. Twenty of those 24 years have been literally one year at a time.

As we continue to work though this extraordinary time of change and transition at FUMC Gainesville, I pray that all of us will engage in the work of ministry together. In spite of the considerable challenges we face, the fact is that there’s a great deal of incredible ministry happening in and through our church.

For my part, I’m happy to be say that I’ll be taking on some of what Pastor Kathy has been doing, as I become the staff member whose responsibility it is to relate to and foster the work of STAR (Second Time Around Resale) and continue to develop our connections with many of the community organizations that Kathy helped create. I am looking forward to leading some continuing spiritual life ministries in our community, using STAR as a base of operations, as part of our effort to create relationships with those in our community who don’t have a church to call home.

As I begin my 25th year in pastoral ministry, I celebrate this Pastor’s New Year!

Grace and peace, Pastor John

“ROI”

As most of you no doubt know, I’m not trained in business principals. My formal education has been in the humanities—an undergraduate degree in English Literature and, of course, a Master’s degree at the Seminary level. The training I’ve received since those days has been significant and helpful for my work as a pastor, but almost everything I’ve learned about business has been acquired by learning in casual settings, mostly from members of the churches I have served.

It was only a few years ago that I encountered the acronym, “ROI,” for the first time. If that’s a new one for you, as it was for me, the letters stand for “Return On Investment,” and it’s such a standard way of referring to the term that I often hear business people use the acronym in casual conversation.

The principle behind ROI—in my untrained words—is that you only invest in things when you understand there will be a return that is worth the investment.

Over the past several months, as our congregation has been struggling with a picture of what our future looks like, I’ve been thinking about how we can apply the principle of ROI. I have also been thinking of ways to respond to questions people have asked about the nature of our connection to the United Methodist Church and what the ROI is that we receive from our participation in this system.

In the most basic way, that question is formulated, “What do we get for our money?”

Personally, I think we get a great deal more than most people in our congregation realize, and I’m willing to take part of the blame for why more people don’t realize the value of our investment in the UMC. My perspective, of course, is informed by my participation in many more connectional activities than pretty much anyone else here, as well as my participation in more congregations that almost anyone here. And, to be perfectly honest, my perspective is biased somewhat because I rely on the church for my livelihood.

I have often answered these kinds of questions by citing common examples like: the mission activities of the Church like the network of missionaries who serve in the US and around the world and the work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR); the network of fine UM-related colleges and universities, as well as campus ministries; the resources we have at our disposal that inform our worship life and help us with practical tasks like building a new website; and, most recently, I have grown to appreciate the way our connectional system guides people into ministry and qualifies people (or doesn’t qualify them) for ministry.

But I have recently experienced what I now know as the absolute BEST thing we get for our money—the true ROI—the Connection itself, the relationships we gain access to when we invest ourselves fully in the system.

You may know that I recently had the chance to travel with a dear friend of mine, Clay, on a trip around Texas to eat barbecue. During the trip, I had the opportunity to play music at venue in Austin, a dream of mine for at least the past five years. It was a wonderful evening with the best part being me counting the ways those who came to support me were connected through the UMC.

  • Denis, the club owner, who I met through his mother, Debbie Faulkner, a member of our church;
  • Clay, my clergy friend, with whom I worked on staff a couple of decades ago in Allen;
  • My friend since Jr High, Jim, who lives in Georgetown who I met through youth group at my home church and who was a huge help to our family while Emma was at school there;
  • Jim’s sister, Cheryl, who I know primarily through my home church in Richardson;
  • Clay’s college friend, Jenny, who was a classmate of his at Southwestern, the UM college in Georgetown, but I have grown to be friends with on a completely separate path because she married someone from my home church;
  • And, finally, the daughter of a close friend from my days in Henrietta, Kendall, whose wedding I performed and who is, for the first time in her life, embracing Christianity through a UMC in Austin—and who goes to church with Jenny, by the way.

I could never have created that network of friends on my own, nor brought those connections to bear in such a powerful way, without the United Methodist Church—and, of course, the grace of God that has been at work over the past 45 years or so to make that evening possible.

What do we get for our money? We get the Body of Christ, that’s what.

Grace and peace, Pastor John

“A New Day”

As we have encountered the Holy Scriptures together in worship over the past several weeks, they keep reminding us of God’s intention to establish a new day, the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. This concept comes through most clearly in the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19)

We’ve been talking a great deal at FUMC about the future, especially in light of the recent decisions of the Special Called General Conference session in St. Louis in February and the Judicial Council rulings that affirmed much, though not all, of what General Conference approved. Many of our people have been deeply upset by the work of the General Church: Some are upset by the decisions that were made, while many are upset by the lack of voice they have felt throughout the process. Additionally, the realities of our decline in participation and giving have us wondering what the next phase of our congregation’s history will look like.

It’s important for us to remember a couple of things as we experience what the scriptures often call the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

First, we must remember the good things that we have accomplished together over the past three years:

We have restructured the worship life of our congregation to offer a greater diversity of experience; we have negotiated new partnerships with VISTO and other community organizations that will serve the needs of our community; we have renewed the ministry of Second Time Around Resale, not only doubling the revenue it generates, but establishing it as a true ministry of hospitality that is welcoming more new persons into the life of our church than any other ministry we offer; and we have opened the possibility of reallocating financial resources toward ministry by eliminating our debt.

We should be proud of all of these incredible accomplishments, especially since any one of them could have taken much longer to complete than they did.

Second, and more importantly to be honest, we must remember the promises God makes to us in the Scriptures, promises of hope and renewal even—or especially—in the midst of devastation. The message of hope God shared through Isaiah, for instance, came to the people of Israel in the midst of total devastation during the Babylonian conquest of Israel and the decades of captivity they experienced.

The challenges we face are real—there is no denying it. In fact, one of the things I would argue is that times like these strip away the false sense of security we often embrace when we are able to cover up what’s going on underneath the surface.

We can enter into the future with one of two basic perspectives:

  • A theology of scarcity in which our decisions are grounded in a sense of despair and panic; or
  • A theology of hope in which our decisions are grounded in God’s promise of a new day.

I am pleased that at our April meeting of the Administrative Council, we approved a proposal to create a Reorganization Task Force (RTF) charged with forming a plan for the future. This group will lead a collaborative process that will hopefully result in what one of our younger members recently called the “radical change” we will need to become a vital congregation whose presence in the community brings a sense of hope in the years to come.

The RTF will be intentionally solicit input from the congregation, both through individual conversation with those who have experience in reorganizing businesses and other groups and through Town Hall Meetings that will offer everyone a voice who chooses to participate.

I’d like for you to mark you calendars now for three important dates:

  • Sunday, May 12, at 4:00 PM will be our first Town Hall Meeting in the Fellowship Center;
  • Wednesday, June 5, at 6:00 PM will be our second Town Hall Meeting in the Fellowship Center; and
  • Sunday, June 16, at 5:00 PM will be a called meeting of the Administrative Council to which everyone will be invited for the purpose of considering and approving the plan submitted by the RTF.

In times like these, the church has the opportunity to demonstrate our faith in the promises of God. This is our new day, friends.

Grace and peace, Pastor John

“On the Threshold”

It was a great day of celebration for First United Methodist Church when we gathered for our Fifth Sunday Unified Worship and Covered Dish Luncheon on Sunday, March 31. Many of us have been looking forward to the day since we marked it on our calendars soon after the congregation was able to pay off our mortgage note in December and become officially debt free.

The anticipated celebration did not disappoint! Our worship was vibrant and meaningful, with great music and the ceremonial “note burning” and ritual Act of Dedication, something that many of us have never before had the opportunity to experience.

For a generation, FUMC has held some sort of capital debt, so this moment in our history is nothing short of monumental. Many of our members have no memory of a time at which we did not have a mortgage note of some kind.

Now that is all part of the past, which gives us the opportunity to imagine a different kind of future. We are, as I shared with the congregation in worship, on the threshold of something new—something that only God can imagine at this point.

What that means is that we have choices about how we will approach our ministries in the future. We can decide either to rest upon what we have accomplished or see this moment as an opportunity to do something new, different, and creative.

As part of my sermon preparation for March 31, I did a great deal of reading about the meaning of the word “threshold,” since I had chosen that as the guiding metaphor for my message. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t misrepresenting its meaning and I was surprised to discover that the common knowledge I had accepted wasn’t the full story.

I had learned long ago that the reason the door entry was called a threshold was that it was built to keep in the straw or similar material that families typical used as flooring for their homes. What I learned is that although that was indeed a common practice during the time Modern English language was emerging, the true meaning of the term had more to do with the way wheat and other grains were “threshed” in order to remove the chaff. The full stalks of grain were typically beaten or literally stomped on, then the chaff removed by various methods. The term threshold was derived from the word that was used to describe the sound of stomping to break down the stalks of grain, the same sound that people typically made when they entered a home and stomped their feet to remove snow, mud, and the other debris their shoes and boots had accumulated while they were out.

You may recall that Jesus instructed his disciples to “shake the dust from their feet” if the message of the gospel didn’t take root in the places they went. Learning about the people of the Middle Ages stomping their feet at the threshold of their homes reminded me of those words. It makes me think that sometimes, those things that cling to us keep us from moving ahead unencumbered.

I believe that our congregation has an incredible opportunity in the years to come and that we must shake the dust off our feet in a way, leaving behind the memory of our debt and claiming the promise of new ministry! As we cross this threshold, may we accept both this new-found sense of freedom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as God leads us into a new day.

Grace and peace, Pastor John

“A Way Forward”

As many of you are already aware, the Special Called Session of the General Conference of the UMC is now concluded and some decisions—tentative as they may be—have been made about the future of our denomination.

The General Conference, a body of elected clergy and lay delegates representing the global UMC, typically meets every four years on a cycle that reflects the Presidential election cycle. This Special Called Session had been part of a plan to address the continuing conflict within the Church over matters of Human Sexuality. The hope was that the GC would make a definitive declaration that would allow us to move forward, one way or another.

In some ways, we have gained some clarity. The GC voted, by a margin of 54%-46%, to adopt the Traditional Plan (TP, also known as the Traditionalist Plan). In addition, the GC voted to adopt a plan for “disaffilitation,” the process through which local churches and other agencies of the UMC could choose to leave the denomination.

What we do know, however, is that both of these plans have already been deemed “unconstitutional” by the Judicial Council of the UMC, a fact that means neither of them can take effect until they are reformulated and approved in a new form by the GC. Since that can only happen when the GC is in session, the earliest that could happen will be in May of 2020.

These decisions, and the fact that they cannot take effect because of the constitutional flaws, have caused great consternation across the denomination. Supporters of the TP feel as if opponents deliberately blocked them from making the necessary amendments that would allow the TP to pass constitutional muster. Opponents of the TP feel as if the church has refused to acknowledge the complexity of the issue and has turned its back on LGBTQ persons.

If you have spent much time at all following these developments or thinking about your own understanding of what the Scriptures say about this issue, you already know that the way I have describe it above is a vast simplification. There is a very broad spectrum of belief about this issue and many thoughtful people have come to very different conclusions about what it means for us to be a faithful church.

One of the things I shared with those who gathered for the two teaching sessions I led earlier this week is that our discipline demands that we welcome all persons, just as clearly and definitively as it states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” By church law—and by the command of Jesus Christ that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves—it is our duty to create a welcoming environment for all people, regardless of how we interpret the scriptures on this issue.

Often, we hear people say, “You can love the sinner and refuse to accept the sin.” To be honest, I’m still chewing on that idea—not because I think it’s untrue or unscriptural, but because of the fact that it’s a moving target. Things that we once applied that statement toward are no longer thought of in that way by most people. Furthermore, there’s literally only one sin we have identified as a church that should be held to this standard. Many of us in the Church even question the basic premise that there is no way in which homosexual persons can practice their sexuality without being sinful.

Many of you are well aware of the fact that I am personally more aligned with the progressive viewpoint on this issue. I have tried to make no secret about that, but I have also tried to teach with respect for differing points of view and to keep the integrity of the pastoral office which I have accepted. I want to assure you that I have made a covenant with the Church and I intend to honor it. Though this is a deeply personal issue for me, none of you has to worry about your pastor breaking the covenant as an expression of conscience.

More importantly, I want you to know that I will continue to give my love and support to each of you and to pour my energies into leading our congregation into a new day. The world around us is changing and the things we used to do that produced such great results in the past are simply no longer working as well as they once did. Though it is certainly a reflection of the times in which we live, the fact is that the church has been dealing with such realities for 2000 years.

Each time a new challenge has arisen, the church has found new ways to offer relationship with God to people in need. That, my friends, must be our focus, our Way Forward. We cannot allow our disagreements or policy decisions to distract us from offering people relationship with Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace, Pastor John

“Holy Conversations”

In my very first meeting with a church leader from FUMC Gainesville in the spring of 2016, I received a challenge: Can you help us address our future? That’s not an exact quote or even a paraphrase, really, but the essence of what was said.

It was just a couple of weeks after the announcement of my pending appointment here that was to take effect in July, but I was already being asked to consider how we might envision what our congregation could look like in the years ahead. What I found as I continued to meet with the leadership here—Rev. Don Yeager, the staff, and lay leadership—was that there had been an expressed hunger to develop the ministries of the church in new ways.

That work began with a focus on re-imagining our worship life, a conversation that began even before I officially arrived and resulted in the launch of two new weekly worship experiences nine months later. It continued as we talked about what ministries with youth and children might look like, hired new staff, and began to address our debt with more vigor.

Along the way, we had multiple opportunities to engage with programs designed to help congregations like ours do that work in systematic ways. Though our lay leadership often felt as if that kind of process might be helpful, we continued to wait for the right time.

Now is that time! I’m happy to share with you that we have begun a process called “Holy Conversations,” a program designed and facilitated by the incredible folks at the Texas Methodist Foundation. Over the course of the next 6-7 months, a wonderful team of people from diverse perspectives and stages of life and relationship with our congregation will meet with our consultants, the Rev. John Thornburg and the Rev. Carol Montgomery. Our first meeting was held on February 5, and it was a wonderful start to the process.

Our team includes people young and not as young 😊, some of whom have been members of FUMC for decades and others who are new to our church. The team members are:

  • Kent Wooldridge
  • Kay James
  • Gary Sutton
  • Katie Brinkley
  • Jason Brinkley
  • Bernadette Trammell
  • Edna Slater and
  • Pastor John.

Our work together will be focused on assessing where we are as a church, what our resources are, and how our gifts match up with the needs of our community. And, if you’re wondering, you will have plenty of opportunities to participate, as well—to offer your thoughts and perspectives along the way. I hope that you will be in prayer as this work ensues. Without you, it will be incomplete!