4/29/2009

By Rev. Larry Pray
Guest Columnist

On the outside, the reason for my call to Bishop Hope Morgan Ward was simple. The Mississippi Conference and the Leading Causes of Lifeteam from Methodist Healthcare in Memphis have invited clergy and lay leaders of some 300 churches in southern Mississippi to a two-day conversation about life at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Biloxi, and I wondered what hopes she had for our gathering.

She knew that the gathering is organized around three basic texts:

• Ezekiel's compelling vision of dry bones springing to life

• Our actual experience of ministry — its hopes, challenges and joys

• The Leading Causes of Lifethat helps organize our ministries around life. When God sets before us the ways of life and death, what is it we choose when we opt for life? 

For two days we will talk and sing, worship and share, give and receive encouragement, and discern our call to life.

"Where do you hope the conversations lead?" I asked.

"To the preaching of life," she said.

"It sounds so simple," I said. "Why is this something we need to keep working at?" 

"I think the preaching, and sharing, of abundant life among our churches is something we really do need to understand and live into on a deeper, and more joyful level," she said.

"I agree," I said. "We live in an age in which it is easy, perhaps tempting is a better word, to get caught up in issues. That gets contentious and issues can separate rather than serve as starting points. First thing you know we are so aware of the problems we face that we have almost lost focus on life."

"I've been reading that building a just and gentle community requires a great deal of attention," she said. "It requires both attention to the promises of God in the here and now and the hereafter. It requires paying attention to life wherever it is found."

"What do you hope we will take away from Biloxi?" I asked.

"I'd like everyone to leave with a new way of looking at health and spiritual strength as a part of life. The Leading Causes of Life takes a positive rather than a pathological approach to ministry. We tend to spend way too much time in the pathology. We know what our problems are, and we sometimes keep diagnosing them as though that will bring about change. We end up knowing we're sick or sometimes even dying on the vine. I'd like the conference to help us turn outward and to give us a larger perspective. The conversation about life is a joyful thing. I believe it is possible for us to lead out of joy, and and a sense of abundance. If we don't have that we've missed the whole Gospel. I think the conference can help us do that.

"One thing I appreciate about the LCL approach is that the focus on life actually works. It is not a Pollyannish approach. It doesn't deny problems or issues. There are valleys of dry bones out there. But when we affirm life, the problems don't overtake us. And within our churches this is what we do on an every-day basis. All of us engaged in ministry know what it is to go into a hospital to visit someone desperately ill and leave feeling inspired. So that's the dynamic. In difficult places we proclaim joy. And that joy is contagious.

"So when I think of the time in Biloxi, I'm hoping it will cast a mantle of joy over the church."

It turns out that calling the bones to life is nothing new for the conference.

"We have a task force centered on creating a culture of call," said Hope. "At one point I said we need to nurture recognition that being involved in Christian ministry is fun, joyful. And yet at the very same time, it is not easy, and that sometimes we do need to pick up our cross and follow. There is an ongoing dialogue between those understandings of ministry. Do we perceive it as a burden or as a joy? And of course everybody has part of the truth. One of the wonderful things about Mississippi is that we're having these kinds of conversations all over the state. They are really about the nature of our life together. Mississippi is reported to be one of the most religious places in the country, and yet we also have some of the most dire poverty indexes and child-wellness indicators.  It's a real puzzlement." 

The many conversations about call are essentially conversations about life and about change. Hope shared that the conference had discerned a number of priorities after traveling throughout the state and talking with UMC congregations. Addressing health and wellness was the first priority. Others included starting new churches, thinking carefully about the welfare and future of small churches trying to serve towns that have virtually disappeared and engaging in conversations that reach across racial lines. Each is full of challenges that call for authentic ministry.

"In Mississippi we have 1,140 local UMC churches," she said. The sheer number almost took my breath away. "There are more Methodist churches than there are post offices. Most have 100 or fewer members at worship on a Sunday morning, and about 340 average 25 or so people. In some places there is a sense of depression and grief because times have changed, and they can't sustain what they could in the past. That brings us back to the discussion on life. What is abundant life in a church that once had 100 members but now has 20 or so at worship because of changing times? We close maybe 10 or so churches a year. We call them Elijah churches because they are casting a mantle on a new or emerging ministry that makes good use of their assets and buildings as they close with dignity. In one way their ministry came to an end, but in another way maybe it hasn't." 

"Perhaps once they were the loaf, and now they're the yeast," I mused.

"And we can name racial issues, but have a very hard time reaching across the line of race. We have a growing number of congregations and clergy for whom this is important, but there is some push-back against pastors who try to engage in ministry across racial lines. The same can be true for women ministers. These are not easy issues, but they are essential to our life, and so to really focus on life, what it is and what it can be, is an important conversation."

Concern for, and appreciation of clergy, are also part of the conversation.

"Our pastors want to be change agents," said Hope. "Deep down they really do want to proclaim life. When they get resistance, they don't know what to do with it, internalize it and end up getting sick. We've got to figure out how to help each other be more joyful, have greater endurance, resilience, to hold all of this and not take too personally that the problems overwhelm us.”

"Easy to say and hard to do," I said remembering the times I'd let problems almost eclipse the ministry to which I was called.

"No kidding," she said. "But it is so important. When we look at clergy health indicators, they show we need to pay attention to life. I'm glad health will be part of the conference. We really need to connect with life on so many levels. We need to not commiserate but to laugh at the problems we face and find our way through them.”

Pray is the senior pastoral scholar for Methodist Healthcare in Memphis.