{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Why Immigration Matters to Me…And to God (A Guest Post from Rev. Stacey Harwell)

immigration-signs_onlineathens_130118-articleSomewhere in Georgia tonight, a mom will be missing her son. She will be worrying about whether or not he is thriving in a country that he does not remember. He was deported from this country during a raid that played out like it was a scene from a horror movie. The son “looks and sounds” American which equals rich in the eyes of the people in that small town and puts a target on his back for thieves.  He knows no family there and is scared. He is isolated and alone with no place to truly call home anymore.

This scene isn’t rare. I hear about it more times than I care to share. It’s not always a mother and son. Often it’s a woman with children, left here without their primary breadwinner, missing a husband and father, and left vulnerable in a world of searches, ID checks, and raids on homes.

While we have a great many systems that work and work well in our country, one broken system in particular has captured my heart and attention. The immigration system in our nation, simply put, is broken.  From the number of visas we give out, to the backlog of immigration cases, to the way we incarcerate those who are here without documents in for-profit detention centers, our system is in need of a just, humane overhaul. For United Methodists, the call for overhaul is especially felt. Within our very churches we can tell terrible stories of families that are torn apart. My church’s own sister congregation saw a dramatic loss in congregants when Georgia passed an Arizona-style law that seeks to viciously crack down on those here in this country without proper documentation.

The thing I hear most from people who disagree with me is that they wish the undocumented folks would simply “get in the right line” and follow the law.  I wish (and many of my undocumented friends wish!) that it was that easy. The so-called line does not exist for many who aren’t highly skilled and recruited by companies. Average laborers have short stay visa options and precious few green cards. The wait time for those green cards approaches infinity for unskilled laborers. [Reason Magazine had a great graphic detailing this back in 2008 http://reason.org/files/a87d1550853898a9b306ef458f116079.pdf]. Those here on those visas are easy targets for wage theft and substandard working conditions.

I wish I could tell you the situation has gotten much better since 2008, but it hasn’t. Children are left orphaned in the U.S. as their parents are dramatically taken from them at work or in their home while their children are away at school. Other undocumented children came here so young that they’ve never known another way of life. Many graduate and are then told they aren’t citizens and can’t do anything they would hope to do like college or the military.

I live in Macon, Georgia, which is not exactly the seat of progressive politics or theology, but I am surprised at who and which groups agree with me on this issue. Republicans and Democrats alike see the need for immigration reform. Farmers have need for migrant laborers. Business owners see the number of positions and institutions across our state rely on immigrant labor.  Many see the human rights concerns.

God’s people are crying out. Nobody wants to leave their home and come to a place where they will be treated like enemy combatants. Yet conditions in home countries are so bad that people are willing to risk arrest and deportation for a chance to feed, clothe, and educate themselves and their children – all in the hope that life, can in fact, be better. As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, the way we treat those strangers in our midst should NOT be dictated not by the government laws, but by the laws of God. Over and over again in the Old and New Testament we are commanded to take care of those who are a stranger in our midst and especially the widows and orphans among us. We are called to recognize the image of God in our brother and sister and to practice hospitality to strangers. We remember that our very Lord was once an immigrant in a foreign land when his parents fled to Egypt to flee a life of a fear. And we are called to live into the example of Jesus who lived on the edges, traveled more than he stayed put during his three years of ministry, and had a special knack for befriending the “marginal people” of his society. We are called to love and serve all of our neighbors – all of them.

Will you hear the call and ask our legislators for just, humane immigration reform? If politics aren’t for you, will you think about ways you and your congregation can be welcoming to those in our midst? Will you prayerfully and actively seek to find ways to be a place of welcome and love for even the most vulnerable among us? And will you hear the call of God to go out from your buildings, neighborhoods, and places of comfort in order to seek and find and be with the very people on the margins of our society? After all, there’s a good chance Jesus will already be there.

Rev. Stacey Harwell serves as Minister of Community Building at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, GA
She is an Ordained Deacon in the South Georgia Annual Conference.
[And I am very thankful for her wisdom and proud to call her my friend]

Can Churches Ask Too Much?

stressed family  “Will you be loyal to the church and uphold it with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness?”

These are the familiar vows of church membership in The United Methodist Church. Whenever you join a United Methodist Church, you affirm these vows of membership stating that you promise to give of yourself to the church in a holistic way.

But what if we expect too much from people? Worse yet, what if we expect the wrong things?

After 3+ years of ministry in a large, historic, urban church I’ve learned a lot not only from people who are faithful and active in the ministries of the local church — I’ve also learned a lot from the people who are no longer active. I’ve heard numerous stories, cautionary tales if you will, from people who were once active and slowly but surely were overworked and became burned out. They were asked to serve on or chair one too many committees. They were guilted into one too many pointless and unproductive meetings. They were pressured to join one too many bible study/community group/prayer group/Sunday School class. And now they’re out of the habit of attending worship regularly — they love the church and want to support it, but the seemingly never-ending work sucked too much life out of them.

Whenever I hear this story I can’t help but wonder — Do we emphasize church work in place of faithful living? When someone joins out church, are we quick to sign them up to serve on a committee or to volunteer for an activity because that’s the only way we know how to define discipleship?

Over the last 50 years, the Church has seen its place in society shift from the central station of life to just another outpost. It used to be you joined a church to make all of your social and business connections and you knew that your kids could be taught how to be decently well behaved and law-abiding people  to boot. You’d hear a sermon on Sunday and you knew the Bible was an important book whether you read it regularly or not.

But things are different now. In most towns or cities of any significant size, a person joining your church will likely have their closest friends in other areas of life. With social media and the Internet, business connections happen in less personal ways and coffee shops and restaurants have become a more casual, non-threatening meeting place to discuss business. Things like sports, scouts, dance, and other edifying activities have become just as central as youth groups and children’s choir. And people’s lives are too busy to locate its central point of existence in any one place.

In other words, people by and large do not consider the church the central station of their lives anymore. Gone are the days when you can say, “So and so is here at the church whenever the doors are open.” Here are the days of, “Well let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, people should prioritize their faith more. You can’t be a Christian by yourself and the rise of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” points to a shared belief that somehow you can be a Christian without the help of others. On the other hand, I’m a parent of a toddler and I know how ding dang hard it is to get anywhere. When two parents work full-time jobs the last thing they need is to be told they have to attend one more meeting or take their kid to one more practice. And church can become a life-sucking force like any other activity or commitment in life.

So is it possible to be active in the church and in your faith without being worked to death?

I think it could be.

For starters, pastors need to look long and hard at the committees that function in the local church. Do you really need all of them? Do they need to meet as often as they do? Could more work be accomplished by utilizing technology and not asking people to take 60-90 minutes out of a Tuesday evening to come to a meeting? Or better yet, can churches stop treating committee work and volunteerism as the totality of your discipleship?

Secondly, do we really need to programatize everything? Can we be a part of something without it being a weekly/monthly commitment from now until eternity? Can we be in ministry that is not so programmed and structured? Can the church find an important place in people’s lives without demanding a big chunk of a person’s schedule be devoted to whatever frivolous activity or program is going on in the church building?

Finally, Sunday morning matters a lot. Don’t let Sunday morning be a shallow, humdrum experience of worship and then tell people if they have deeper or more complicated questions, they need to join a weekly study or class. Give Sunday worship some depth. Remember that the purpose of Sunday worship is to glorify God and, in doing so, connect people with God. Life is too complicated for shallow messages and simplistic themes.

“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” does not mean signing people up for every committee seat and program idea and we should really consider new and alternative ways of helping people grow in their faith. But if you do approach it that way, I’d be willing to bet you might lose as many potential disciples as you “make.”

Debt and Questions About Digital Giving

debt and givingIt seems like everything is moving into the digital world these days. The Internet has quickly become a world unto itself where we can share the highlights of our life, purchase gifts, and do a day’s worth of work all from the comfort of our favorite spot on the couch. Online banking, which was once a little-trusted novelty, has now become the norm for keeping track of purchases and paying bills.

So it only makes sense that the church consider ways to offer digital means for giving. After all, what church could afford to say they’re taking in so much money through traditional measures that they don’t need to worry with this new way of giving?

Insightful articles have been written and even published on this site encouraging churches to make the leap into the digital age when it comes to giving. I strongly encourage an article by Shane Raynor from April 2012 for starters.

I’ll even echo much of what the experts say about giving patterns in the 21st Century: I don’t carry cash; I pay all but two of my bills online (those two bills are local companies who refuse to get into the digital age); and I prefer electronic banking.

If churches want to keep up with the ways people manage their money, then they must consider digital methods for giving.

But this article is not another in the long stream of articles encouraging churches to offer digital giving opportunities. This article is intended to offer some questions we should ask before we implement digital giving as a norm in our churches.

What methods of giving should you encourage when considering digital giving?

Do you offer debit card-only giving or do you allow people to use credit cards as well? This may sound like a no-brainer but it’s much more complex than we might think.

A CNNMoney article says the average American household with at least one credit card has over $15,000 in credit card debt (in 2012). The average interest rate runs in the mid-to-high teens at any given moment. Those are staggering figures. Credit card debt should already carry with it ethical concerns for Christians considering the biblical admonitions against charging interest to debt (see Exod. 22:25 for example).

Debt is real and churches have a theological obligation to not encourage the incurring of more debt. This doesn’t even address the gray area created in giving through credit—is it really giving of ourselves to give money that we don’t have? So if you’re looking to set up digital giving, you should ask some hard questions about the idea of asking people to give via credit cards.

Many churches who offer digital giving only accept debit cards. This is a purposeful decision on the part of churches to say that while digital giving is accepted, not every means of giving is encouraged. Deciding on a “debit only” system is something churches should talk about before encouraging digital giving. It’s not for everyone but it should certainly be a part of the conversation.

What else should you consider when setting up digital giving?

Before you invest in new kiosks and software, you should also consider some other additions to your church life. Namely, plan to offer small group studies about money and debt management. I personally think this is an absolute necessity for churches whether you’re considering digital giving or not. Churches have an obligation to help people live into the wholeness of life God offers, and that wholeness can all too quickly get lost under a mountain of personal debt. Further, if churches want to encourage digital giving as a means of taking in more revenue, then we better offer a wholistic approach to managing money lest we become just another life-draining source of debt.

Some ideas for curriculum to offer include:

Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity by Adam Hamilton

  • The title gives away the premise — in a consumption society, we need to learn when enough is enough. Adam offers some great biblical insight and Wesleyan theological perspective to some very practical material on managing money and growing in generosity.

Financial Peace University

  • This one is very popular in local churches. It’s the Dave Ramsey program and it stresses very practical ways to address issues of debt and financial management.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate by J. Clif Christopher

  • This book is a great resource for pastors, leaders, and anyone who works with church finances. It addresses the issue of trust between givers and organizations and offers some practical guidance for churches to become better at managing the gifts they receive while also doing a better job of capturing the imagination of the givers.

A friend recently told me, “digital giving is the new frontier for church stewardship and we better wake up to that reality.” And you know what, he’s absolutely right. But let’s boldly discover this new frontier with some caution and integrity. Jesus’ promise for abundant living and the coming of the kingdom means so much more than just taking in bigger weekly offerings.

[This article was originally published on Ministry Matters on Sept. 9, 2013]

There’s Just One Thing Missing: Our Missional Misstep in The United Methodist Church


“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

If you’re a United Methodist, then you probably recognize this as our mission statement. As a denomination, we proclaim these words make up our missional identity in how we exist as the church.

We crafted these words as our denominational mission statement over the last 20+ years and, in the process, we’ve worked on perfecting the language, teaching the biblical basis for the statement, and ensuring that no United Methodist forgets those important words.

We’ve plastered these words on letter-head, banners, websites, flashy ads, and church signs.

We’ve used this statement to justify just about every change and argument against change that comes our way.

We use this statement to set our goals, cast our vision, and critique those who may fall short of our desired outcomes.

If you know your Scripture (and if you’re reading this blog I’m assuming you at least know some Scripture), then you know this mission statement is based on Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20)

I’ve been a Methodist pastor for 3 years now. And I’ve been raised as a United Methodist for my entire life. But it’s only been recently that I’ve noticed something missing from our mission statement and how it aligns to Jesus’ words in The Great Commission. Maybe you’ve heard it explained how important the verbs are in this statement: We’re called to make disciples by teaching and baptizing.

The only problem is, we tend to forget one very important verb when we talk about the mission of the Church…


As we grow into a more heightened awareness of what ails the church, we naturally search for solutions. It’s only normal that when there’s a problem, we look to find the solution. But why is it that so many of the resources out there on how to “make disciples” says so very little on the church’s need to go? We talk a lot about what we need to do but so much of it seems to be confined to what happens within the walls the church buildings and program calendars.

I know what you’re thinking: “We have more and more out there on how to attract people who are outside of our church walls.”

Yes, but how much of that involves the church leaving its walls to go and find and be with those who are outside? Too much of our mindset is geared around attracting people to us when we ought to be following the Spirit’s call to go and leave the comforts of our buildings and programs and agendas.

Theologian, Marva Dawn, puts it this way:

“When we say we go to church on Sunday mornings, we’re exercising a bad theology. We don’t go to church. We participate in worship so we can be church everyday of our lives.”

We measure things like membership and worship numbers in order to gauge the health of a congregation. And these are important things to measure…to a degree. But too often we forget how easy it is to sit in a pew and never be a true follower of Jesus. And we fail recognize that what we need most are not more studies, meetings, circles, and small groups. What we need most are people who have the guts and inspiration to try to live like Jesus in their normal, everyday lives. And we pray that we learn to do that with some sense of community as the Body of Christ.

If we want to find our missional identity as the church, then it means confessing and asking forgiveness for the sin of self-preoccupation and narcissism. It means being willing to seek out real and authentic relationships with people for no other reason than because they are children made in the image of God. And it means learning to worry a little less about opening our doors, so that we can worry a little more about closing our doors behind us so we can go into the world where God is active and alive and at work in surprising ways.

This short (3 mins) video says this even better:


The Heart of Worship, The Heart of Discipleship

"Celebration" by John August Swanson

“Celebration” by John August Swanson

It’s 1:30pm on Sunday afternoon. I’ve finished my lunch and settled in for another routine Sunday afternoon filled with reading and writing and baseball whenever I’m not chasing my 16-month old daughter around the house. By all accounts it’s a typical Sunday afternoon except for the fact that this particular afternoon didn’t follow a typical Sunday morning worship service. You see, I felt the Spirit of God this morning in a way I’ve haven’t experienced for some time. And it all came about because of a simple change in rhythm.

This month at Mulberry we’re changing the rhythms of worship a bit. We’ve asked for people to submit their favorite hymns – preferably ones they haven’t heard in worship in a while. We received a good many submissions so we’ve decided to tweak our order of worship a bit to include more singing each Sunday during the month of July.

Maybe the change of rhythm was at fault, but I found myself noticing things in worship I’ve never noticed.

As we listened to a wonderful soloist, I noticed a mother and her 8-year old son on the 4th pew. The son had his head settled in his mother’s lap for the music. The mother sat and gently stroked the hair on the back of his neck. And for a moment, while everyone around her was focused on what was happening in front of them, she seemed to be taken to a special place. I watched as she stared at the back of her son’s neck gently stroking his hair relishing in a moment where her baby who was too big to be called a baby anymore found quiet rest in her arms. He soon will be much too big for these moments and yet, by God’s grace, they found this moment in the place and space where we worship the eternal God. And I got to peak into this moment where the in-breaking of God’s grace was quietly evident for this family.

My senses must have been heightened after that because I couldn’t help but see grace in other moments during the worship service – in the face of a squirming child; in the quiet dedication of couples who had been married much longer than I’ve been alive who innately know how to worship together; in the faces of families facing loss and heartache and stress and yet know that they need to be in worship even if they can’t fully explain it. Grace, present and palpable all around us.

Holy Communion was especially grace-filled. I found myself noticing peoples’ hands as they took the bread and dipped it into the cup.

“This is the body of Christ broken for you…”

Hands of all shapes and sizes and ages. Some were young and delicate. Some trembled as they approached and were visibly worn because years of love and work and dedication have a way of leaving its proof on our hands.

“This is the blood of Christ shed for you…”

I saw children bounce up the stairs to our chancel area to join their families around the altar for prayer. I saw young couples at the very genesis of adulthood kneeling together in prayer. I noticed one woman slowly make her way up the stairs with the aid of her cane. Aches and pain and a lack of mobility would not dare keep her from the altar of prayer.

We fit some more hymn requests into the communion time. Soon I heard the words of one of my all-time favorite hymns begin to add even more depth to the tapestry of this scene of grace. 

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!…”

“This is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for your sins and the sins of the world…”

I saw faces in the communion line light up as the congregation sang. Everyone began to sing that hymn particularly loud. It was as if we all knew that through this sacrament – this simple bread and grape juice – we were, in fact, sharing in a foretaste of God’s eternal glory.

The sacrament ended and we closed the Table. Timing worked out perfectly to where we had one more verse to sing together before we could proceed.

“Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Savior and happy and blest. Watching and waiting, looking above. Filled with his goodness, lost in his love. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

By the time we finished no one needed to say a word. We knew this worship service was delightfully surprising. Together we gave thanks for the holy meal and asked God to send us out into the world in the service of others. You could almost hear in the collective recitation of the prayer that this particular sending forth carried with it a certain hope and enthusiasm.

You know, we spend a great deal of time worrying and trying to brainstorm new ways to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We even run the risk of programming and gimmicking ourselves to death. Today I was reminded that our most basic (and primary) act as disciples is to faithfully offer ourselves in worship to the God who alone is worthy to be praised. So I challenge you to consider shifting your rhythms of worship and look around and listen. God is there, active and present, calling us all to be a people of worship. We are called to gather in praise. We hear God’s Word. We share in the holy meal together. And we are sent forth into the world to offer ourselves in service to all of God’s children. Sounds to me like the very heart of worship is also at the heart of discipleship.

Real Connectionalism: Connected Through Common Mission

photo courtesy of Meredyth Earnest, Bainbridge First UMC

Chapter 1: What the heck do we mean when we say “Connectionalism”?

Connection: The principle, basic to The United Methodist Church, that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns. (found in glossary of terms on umc.org)

As everyone across the United Methodist connection wraps up another season of Annual Conference gatherings, I thought it only appropriate to write a couple of pieces about the meaning of connectionalism as we face the challenges of trying to be a 21st Century denomination. These posts will address some of the challenges of connectionalism as well as critique some of the current ways the term is defined through our shared ministry.

I contend that if we are to truly live into what it means to be a vital church, connected to each other and to the world in the 21st Century, then we need to expand our definitions of what it means to be connectional beyond dollars and structure. It’s high time that “connectional” become a verb that describes the way(s) we engage in ministry at all levels.

Chapter 2: Stop Hunger Now Project, South GA Annual Conference

This year our annual conference gathering focused on the theme of justice. In between the annual reports, budget proposals, and debate over whether or not to cut districts from our annual conference, we were invited to participate in a mission project sponsored by the organization, Stop Hunger Now. Below is an excerpt from their “About Us” page on their website describing the nature of the event we participated in during annual conference.

Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief agency that has been fulfilling its commitment to end hunger for more than 15 years. Since 1998, the organization has coordinated the distribution of food and other lifesaving aid to children and families in countries all over the world.

Stop Hunger Now created its meal packaging program, in 2005. The program perfected the assembly process that combines rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and a flavoring mix including 21 essential vitamins and minerals into small meal packets. Each meal costs only 25 cents. The food stores easily, has a shelf-life of two years and transports quickly. Stop Hunger Now works with international partners that ship and distribute the meals in-country.

The packaging operation is mobile enough to go wherever volunteers are located, and can be adapted to accommodate as few as 25 and as many as 500 volunteers at a time. One SHN packaging event can result in the packaging of more than 1,000,000 meals. The use of volunteers for product packaging has resulted in an extremely cost-effective operation while, at the same time, increasing awareness of global hunger and food insecurity issues across the world.

So how does this foster connectionalism, you ask?

I had the duty of weighing meal packets that contained rice, grains, and the essential vitamins and minerals for the meals we were sending off. The packets had to be in a certain weight range and once they were packed by volunteers, they had to be weighed and adjusted if need be in order to move to the sealing and packaging stage of the process. During this process I had the opportunity to work next to Ken and Gloria.

Ken is a fellow clergy person. In fact, he’s moving to the district where I serve this year. I had not met Ken before this service project even though we both serve as clergy in South Georgia. But serving next to him on this assembly line gave me the chance to have a great conversation with him as our hands were busy doing work neither of us were used to doing.

On my left was Gloria. She is a lay person from a small, two-point charge in an area of South Georgia I doubt I could find even if I had a map. Gloria was a delightful woman with a contagious laugh which I got to enjoy as we fumbled bags of rice together. I realized how annual conference tends to be a setting where the clergy/laity divide is accented. Clergy see friends they haven’t seen in a year and often don’t get the chance to engage laity in-between sessions. But this wasn’t the case with Gloria. Through the power of mission, she and I shared a space together we otherwise would not have shared. And it was delightful!

Chapter 3: When connectionalism should mean more

I worry sometimes that we have defined connectionalism too narrowly. Surely it should mean more than dollars and internal structure. A couple of examples to illustrate my point.

We voted this year to reduce the number of districts in South Georgia beginning in June 2014. One of the arguments against this change was that churches would feel less connected when a district superintendent with a larger territory to cover visited less often. And so I wonder: Do we really depend on district superintendents to fulfill what it means to be connected?

Another example we hear is that we need to be more connectional through giving apportionments at the district and annual conference level. This call for giving is only heightened in a day and age where financial resources are harder to come by. And let me say this is a very important expression of what it means to be connectional. But should it be the primary expression of connectionalism? I know we’re Americans and we can’t help but buy into the rationale that all of our problems can be solved with our pocketbooks. So while connectional giving is vitally important, we also have to be honest about the fact that the vast majority of apportionment giving goes to support our own structure, while a much smaller portion goes toward outside mission. Do we really want to argue that connectionalism means first supporting ourselves?

I am a supporter of apportionment-giving. I believe in the importance of a district superintendent. But I also believe “connectionalism” should be more than structure and dollars. It should also mean relationship and working together at even the local level instead of seeing each other as competition. If we have any hopes of being a connectional denomination in the 21st Century, then we have to learn how to work together — clergy and laity, local churches with other local churches — and not depend so much on a top-heavy structure. We need to foster more collaboration amongst ourselves and not simply expect a structure to do the work of connection for us. [Spoiler Alert: More on this in an upcoming post...]

]That’s what I took away from annual conference. And to think, all it took was an hour or so of joining with others to worry about something other than ourselves.

Page 2 of 1612345...10...Last »