Thursday, November 30, 2006

Body Parts

Rusty Palacios, special to the Gazette

As chicken magnate Frank Perdue used to say, “parts is parts.” That was the theme of a recent message by southern California United Methodist Bishop’s Assistant Clement Baker. Baker wrote in the June issue of Way Out West, the denomination’s regional publication. It is known widely as a source of encouragement and hope for United Methodists in several communities where such churches can still be found.

Baker began his message with a joke from his brother-in-law. A man goes to see his podiatrist with problems with his toes, ankle and foot. The podiatrist says “The good news is, we can save the toes. The bad news is, you’re going to lose the foot!” As Paul himself might well have said – if his brother-in-law had also been a podiatrist – “without the foot, the toes don’t do so well.” That was the encouraging word for any congregation that might previously have thought it was healthy, in the face of the precipitous decline across the rest of the denomination. It may look OK right now, but it’ll never last. Gangrene, presumably representing other congregations, has set in and will soon be taking the rest of the body with it.

“The churches really don’t do anything important anyway,” Baker added. “All the really cool stuff takes place at the Conference level.” Such achievements as the Civil Rights Movement (40 years ago), and the founding of hospitals (50 years ago) and universities (even longer!) were cited to prove his point. “All the churches really do is help people discover the grace of God in their daily lives. That’s just not a big deal any more.” He also quoted an anonymous (!) expert in the field of engineering, who stated that it is the organizational structure of the United Methodist Church that is our “competitive edge”. Others, who might point instead to the grassroots nature of the movement’s founding, rather than its bureaucratic organizational structure, were not quoted in Way Out West. No actual expert could be found to corroborate Baker’s anonymous attribution. Several were offered money to do so, but none was willing to go on record with anything so obviously stupid.

The health of the Annual Conference would seem to rely on the health of its many members. One could even be allowed to wonder, without its parts, whether there even IS such a thing as an annual conference.

Coming as it did on the eve of the annual meeting, and right before Bishop Vonda Woodward’s famous “honey or vinegar” postcard, Baker’s editorial brought a tear to the eye, and bile to the throat, of several readers who previously had thought they had seen it all. Or, as one quick thinking church secretary observed, on reading the article, “At least we know who the heel is!”

Bishop's Baseball Prophecy Tragically Wrong

Emory Carlyle, Senior Sports & Religion Writer

Among those mourning the sudden firing of Dodger General Manager Paul DePodesta, perhaps none is more surprising than southern California United Methodist Bishop Melba McGowan. McGowan, who commented back in the June '05 issue of the denomination’s regional publication, Way Out West, “I don’t know much about baseball,” had become quite a fan. Back then she praised the revolutionary and radical revision of the Dodger organization under DePodesta’s leadership. Of course, at the time the team was leading the National League’s West Division, with a remarkable 12 win, 2 loss record.

Back in June McGowan noted “DePodesta took his talent with numbers and figured out new ways to interpret baseball’s abundant statistics, and then use[d] those statistics to build a winning team.” With the Dodgers on top of their game, it seemed like an obvious illustration of the value of change. What could possibly go wrong? The remaining 148 games in the season – that’s what. When they finished the season with the second worst record in team history, 91 losses and 71 wins, it was a disaster.

Even before the annual meeting some felt that the bishop’s words were a transparent and flagrant misuse of sports for religious purposes. “She was basically ‘proof-texting,’” said one observer. “It seemed obvious that Conference leaders were planning to abuse and befuddle attendees with their own ‘abundant statistics,’ and were simply using the Dodgers out of context.” But then, as the season went into a tailspin, a sports-metaphor hush fell over the conference office. “When the Dodgers were going like gangbusters, she wanted us to see the value of radical change. When they crashed and burned, we didn’t hear so much about the brilliance of Paul DePodesta.”

The bishop’s office refused comment on DePodesta's firing, and would not speculate on the likelihood of future sports commentary by McGowan. Bicycling enthusiasts remain hopeful that the new episcopal silence will soon include their sport as well.

Los Angeles District Superintendent Dr. Raymond Ho maintained that the bishop’s effort was widely misunderstood. “I think these people are making a chasm out of a ravine – heh heh.” As former conference staffer Conrad Tolbert pointed out, “While the bishop makes the case that we are in the change business, the Dodgers help us to see that some changes are more equal than others.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Get More Anxiety from CLC

Aldersgate Gazette Advertorial

Students of the immensely successful 40 Days of Anxiety program for church growth now have a host of new products to enhance the experience. The Christian Leadership Consortium, developer of the 40 Days series, unveiled a line of add-on products this week, including a desk calendar, personal care items, ties for men and scarves for women, and even a mood ring.

The mood ring, in particular, drew rave reviews from the retail executives gathered in Atlanta. The ring enables the wearer to assess his or her level of anxiety throughout the 40-day program. The user can record these levels--green for “devilishly calm” through red for “heavenly anxiety”--in the specially designed desk calendar. Once the ring has recorded the requisite number of “heavenly anxiety” readings, program participants can open up a bottle of 40 Days blood pressure medication.

Each of the 40 Days of Anxiety includes a slogan for the day, and the tie-in hair care products remind participants to repeat the slogans while in the shower. Each slogan becomes progressively more anxious as the days pass. For example, Day One’s thought is relatively simple, “What happened to all the kids in our Sunday School?” The slogan for Day 25 is much more intense: “If we don’t get more members now, we’ll be bankrupt in five years!”

The ties and scarves come in a variety of bold colors, and are suitable for worship, church councils, and denominational committee meetings. These feature the 40 Days logo, which is an image of dark storm clouds eclipsing the sun.

Each add-on product enhances the total 40 Days of Anxiety experience. The program, which models the ministry style of Jesus, helps participants to develop the sense of worry and fear that will drive them to decisive action and stronger commitment. Those who are not able to complete the program are necessarily broken in spirit and leave the church. This weeding out process is essential, because clearly, those people never cared enough in the first place.

You can purchase the full line of 40 Days of Anxiety products at any church supply house or your neighborhood Wal Mart store.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bodensee Notebooks Surprise Scholars

Martin McFague, Staff Writer

If, after completing all 14 volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, you still crave more, never fear. A recent discovery near the shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance) in Central Europe, will keep you reading for years.

Last month, a young boy was herding his goats near Central Europe’s second largest lake when he stumbled through a narrow opening of rock that led to a cave. Within that cave, the goatherd found several large clay jars. Inside each jar was a notebook filled with handwritten entries, all in German. The boy took one to his father, a professor of theology at the University of Basel.

When Professor Eidel Luzen saw the notebook, he was stunned to realize he was reading the original writings of Karl Barth. “At first, I thought it was a joke,” said Luzen through an interpreter. “Then I realized this was really Barth’s own work.” Luzen’s son brought his father the rest of the notebooks, and the professor assessed the treasure.

Not only did the cave contain very old copies of Barth’s Dogmatics and other works, there were eight additional volumes to the Dogmatics that had never before been seen by scholars. Luzen showed the material to colleagues, who agreed that the work was indeed Barth’s.

“The value of this find is incalculable,” said June O’Connor of the University of California at Riverside. “This is the greatest discovery ever in the field of theological archeology. It will spawn a new era in the study of neo-orthodoxy.”

Controversy, however, has already emerged. Luzen and his colleagues are only releasing the notebooks to select scholars for study. The contents of each notebook will not be available to the public until the work of translation and interpretation has been completed. Neil Dunnsdorff, a theologian at New York University, believes the material should be made available to everyone immediately. “Why should we have to wait while the translators take their time publishing the results? The importance of the new Barth writings is too great to keep them under wraps.”

When this question was put directly to Luzen, he said, “The ducks on the Bodensee are the children of the mountain trolls.” This Swiss idiom means, essentially, “finders keepers, losers weepers.”

In the meantime, interested students should place advance orders with publishers immediately. Oxford University Press is already planning a hardcover release of the eight new volumes of Dogmatics in the spring of 2059, and it expects all copies will be spoken for by this Christmas.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

This Church Keeps Faith Hidden

James Choate-Munitz, special from The Christian Centurion

A man in his mid 30s sits in a recliner in a dark room. Bursts of light from an episode of Dancing with the Stars appear on the walls and furniture. In his hand is a cold beer, and in his lap is a bag of potato chips. This man is a pastor, and he is--at this very moment--leading his flock.

When most people think of ministry, they conjure images of prayers with upraised hands, bold marches for peace with justice, a praise song to a rockin’ beat, or fiery sermons. “That’s just not me,” says Michael Bunglebottom. “My congregation understands that and even appreciates it. We’re not your ordinary church.”

The church Bunglebottom refers to is The Master’s Playhouse in Toledo. The congregation is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), but you’d have a hard time figuring that out if you wandered in to one of their worship services on a Sunday morning. “We understand that people don’t go for labels anymore,” notes Martha Edwards, one of the church’s Assistant Directors, which is roughly equivalent to a Deacon.

Actually, you’d have a hard time even getting to one of their services. They do not advertise--not even in the yellow pages--and their telephone number is unlisted. Their denominational office only has a post office box on file for the church, not even a street address. In order to attend one of their Plays--as they call worship services--I had to be blindfolded and driven on a circuitous route through Toledo by one of the Cast Members.

“We try to eliminate the temptations inherent in most ministries, the pride, power and politics of what they do, including the fascination with numbers,” said Bunglebottom in an interview conducted on the Playhouse’s Main Stage, an exquisite mahogany platform supported by the latest in audio, visual and lighting equipment. The stage is framed by a series of giant maroon velour curtains edged in gold stitching. “We don’t worry about the ego of huge numbers because most people don’t even know we exist,” he said.

Despite the wealth of theater images, it is the intentional invisibility that is the identifying mark of The Master’s Playhouse and similar groups in what is called the Submergent Church movement. The core theological distinction of Submergents is that they see their faith lives as “hid with God.” “We stay put in our prayer closets. With all the violence in the world driven by religious fervor, we don’t feel the need to show off,” said Bunglebottom in a quiet moment backstage. “Besides, we’re comfortable here with our close friends and family. Having strangers come into our midst would throw off the delicate balance of fellowship.”

For all the subdued praise Bunglebottom and his Cast Members--as church members are called--give to the Submergent Church movement, there are many detractors. “What about the call to make disciples?” asked Violet Long, Bunglebottom’s presiding elder in the Presbyterian Church’s Northwest Ohio District. “What about ministries that strive for God’s peace, justice and mercy?” Long suspects that advocates of the Submergent Church movement are simply lazy.

Johnson Clinebell, chair of the national board of the Submergent Church Dialogue Team, says Long and others like her do not understand the movement. “With respect to God’s grace,” he says, “less is more. It is not something that should be received in large doses. Nor should we show it off like it’s some expensive pearl.”

This theological approach means that in most Submergent churches, worship seldom lasts longer than 15 minutes and, apart from the service, there are usually no other activities. Instead, they believe faith is lived out in the ordinary moments of life. That means while Bunglebottom is watching television alone at home, eating potato chips and drinking beer, he is feeding his own soul and providing a good example for the congregation.

“What we have found,” said Clinebell, “is that people are more than happy to put a lot more in the offering plate if they don’t have to sit through long sermons or serve on committees.” The Master’s Playhouse is a prime example. The congregation generates so much revenue from its weekly offering that the church could purchase--in cash--and completely renovate a historic downtown Toledo theater. Bunglebottom is also able to farm out all the administrative work to outside companies. In fact, he works only about an hour and a half each week for his full time salary, and that 90 minutes includes his commute time.

Many people, Clinebell says, have a hard time picturing a 15-minute worship service. “Most Submergent congregations have great sound systems and will listen to a praise song on CD. Then, if they can find a Bible, someone might read something. After that, the pastor will say what’s on his mind. Then they go home.”

Clinebell admits that most people “just don’t get” the Submergent Church movement. “That’s okay. That’s just the way we like it--off the radar. We’re the unseen leaven in society.”

A Submergent Church may be coming to a neighborhood near you soon, but you won’t ever know about it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Minister's Heterosexuality Causes Uproar

The Rev. Jane Goodallson decided she had to tell the truth. Now, from the looks of it, she will have to find a new career. Last week, Goodallson, who is the pastor of New Wine Church in Seattle, told her congregation she is not a lesbian. The problem is that her church is a part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, who believe homosexuality is built into the fabric of Creation by God and is not a sin.

There were audible gasps in the sanctuary when Goodallson, who had been with partner Julie Borg for the last 15 years, told her congregation she had been hiding her heterosexuality since high school. "My lesbian relationship was just a smokescreen," she told her parishioners. "As long as I put up a good front, I could pretend. For a long time, I even fooled myself. Now I can finally be honest with myself, with God and with you."

Goodallson felt she had to come out of the closet when it appeared that her romantic relationship with a man would become public. She decided to take the initiative and tell the congregation before the rumor mill began. The man’s identity is being kept hidden because he is a New Wine parishioner who came to Goodallson for counseling with his own life partner.

In her sermon, Goodallson gave no indication she intended to step down. Congregation leaders, however, were soon calling for her resignation. "This sort of thing just doesn’t happen here," said one church member who asked to remain anonymous. "What are we going to tell our children? Will we have to tell them there might be straight people running around the church?"

Adding to the damage is the unconfirmed report that Goodallson and her male lover never did drugs together. Nor, in fact, does it appear that they ever had sex. These additional charges will likely make Goodallson unemployable in other Metropolitan Community Churches, even if they do not prove to be true.

The church council is scheduled to vote on Goodallson’s continued employment in a meeting tomorrow night. But even if she goes, Goodallson is satisfied she did the right thing. "I could no longer live a lie. I ran from the truth for too long," she said.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Celebrating the Eucharist in Style

Kyle Swedenborg, Staff Writer

On the first Sunday of each month, many United Methodist churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper, also known as Holy Communion or Eucharist. Those who participate in the sacrament normally share a small piece of bread and a sip of grape juice. Worshipers at Bread of Life UMC in Baton Rouge, however, are now receiving a complete culinary experience.

Bread of Life debuted its new Communion concept, “Brunch with Christ,” at last Sunday’s service. Instead of the usual Communion line or kneeling rail, a host seats worshipers with prior reservations at one of several tables set up near the altar. Once seated, servers offer coffee, juice and wide selection of muffins and pastries. A buffet set up in the choir loft contains eggs, sausage and bacon, potatoes and fresh fruit. All this costs only $29.99 per person. Tip is not included.

Visitors or parishioners without reservations are not left out. They can still sample a Wonder Bread cube and a small cup of thawed Welch’s grape juice. First-time guests are given a two-for-one coupon for their next visit.

Pastor Jon Hodgman noticed a significant difference on the first Brunch with Christ Sunday. “It added a whole new level to the sacrament,” he said. “I could tell the people were really savoring Christ this morning. The eggs were a little rubbery, though.”

The church’s Stewardship Committee chairperson, Neva Norwich, also believes Brunch with Christ gave the congregation a spiritual boost. “When the people who get the free bread see how much the others are enjoying brunch, it will encourage them to increase their giving by that $30 each month,” said Norwich. Her committee felt the brunch would also be a way to compete with the town’s bustling Sunday morning breakfast business and bring in more members.

Despite the morning’s success, Hodgman has even bigger plans. “By January, we hope to have an omelet bar.”