4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. – Acts 1
God is a Methodist.
At least according to Branch Rickey in the film 42. Branch Rickey was one of the greatest general managers of all time and in the film he is contemplating which of the many talented African-American baseball players he wants to recruit for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He’s going over the files with a couple of his guys and he decides on Jackie Robinson. When one of the men objects, Mr. Rickey says, “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. You can’t go wrong.” Turns out, Mr. Rickey was right – at least about Jackie Robinson. But is God a Methodist? And what is a Methodist anyway? We call ourselves the people of Palm United Methodist Church, but how does that make us different than the Catholic Church down the street or the Baptists or the Presbyterians? One of the most significant aspects of being United Methodist is our connectional system. It sounds weird and if you have no idea what it means, you are not alone. Being connectional can be a challenge at times, but overall, we believe that our connectional system is what is one of our greatest strengths.
Think of it like McDonald’s.
When I visited Hawaii for the first time, we were driving by a McDonald’s and I saw something I never expected – Portuguese Sausage and Rice! I was surprised to find something so unique to Hawaii and so different from anything else McDonald’s sells. They also have Spam, Eggs, and Rice, Haupia Pie, and a Spam McMuffin! Since then, every time we’ve gone somewhere far away or with its own unique cuisine, I have to stop by a McDonald’s just to see what new goodies they have. Sure enough, different places have different stuff. France has macarons and croissants in addition to their normal menu. They even have two versions of a fish sandwich. In Japan they have an Ebi Filet-O. Think Filet-O-Fish with shrimp. They also have a Teritama burger which is a burger with an egg on top of the patty dipped in teriyaki sauce. You can find all sorts of variations around the world. They have a falafel wrap in Israel, a spicy chickpea burger in India, a bratwurst sandwich in Germany, a McRice burger in Singapore, and more! And while they have all sorts of different stuff around the world, you can get a Big Mac anywhere. And the famous McDonald’s French fries. And a whole lot more you are used to seeing. Because while McDonald’s caters to each local area, they are also known globally for being distinctly McDonald’s. That is how the United Methodist Church functions – uniquely local, globally distinct.
Our global church believes strongly in local communities.
It is through the local church that people are reached for Jesus Christ. It is our understanding of local communities, local needs, and local concerns that help us provide context for how we know Jesus is among us. That’s why the United Methodist Church strongly emphasizes the importance of the local church. Our mission statement even emphasizes that. In our Book of Discipline it reads, “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” That’s why we put special emphasis on preserving the local church whenever possible. But we also strongly feel that being connected to one another gives us more power to reach the world than we ever could alone. We sponsor global ministries to help combat poverty, racism, gender inequity, disaster relief, and so many other causes. But more than that, we coordinate the resources of the local church and funnel aid and assistance wherever its needed.
For that reason, I love apportionments.
Just as we ask our members to strive to tithe, we also challenge churches to tithe to the conference. We send a tenth of the pledges and donations we are given to the larger United Methodist Church. And I think that’s AWESOME! While some people look at it like a “tax,” I think of it as our way of contributing to causes beyond our church that alone we would make very little difference, but together we make a HUGE impact. Think about the Imagine No Malaria campaign. When our larger church decided to take on this challenge, to eliminate deaths from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa, about a million people were dying every year from this 100% preventable disease. Today, there is still a significant challenge to preventing malaria deaths. About 438,000 still die every year, but it’s estimated that because of our efforts as a global church, we have helped to save over 6 million lives through prevention, improved healthcare, training and treatment. One church might have been able to help some, but because we are part of a global connection we had the resources to renovate healthcare facilities, send professional instructors to train others in treatment and prevention, and do other things that a smaller church just could not do on its own. I went to seminary because of the willingness of people in local churches all over the country who gave to The United Methodist Church. The Ministerial Education Fund offers grants to students seeking to join the ministry of the church and it gets the money to be able to do that through worldwide giving and apportionments. That money helped pay for thousands of dollars in books I had to buy just to make it through seminary. When you have a family and your budget is already stretched thin, not having to worry about thousands of dollars in books is a huge blessing.
The connectional system is also why I am leaving Palm UMC.
That might seem to be a bad thing on the surface, but it is also BECAUSE of the connectional system that I came in the first place. When my District Superintendent at the time said the Bishop wanted to send me to Dinuba, the first question I had was, “Where is Dinuba?” To be honest, had I been given the choice of places to go, it’s unlikely I would have chosen this small rural set of churches to serve. I was a city boy, lived most of my life in suburban neighborhoods, and was used to the diversity of a much larger area. My own arrogance would have made me feel this was not the place for me. But because God is so much wiser than we are, this is where I was sent, and it was the exact place I was meant to be. Our family felt loved and supported by our churches and this community. We found a place for Emma to grow and learn. And I grew more as a leader and pastor than ever before. And it was thanks to the wisdom of our Cabinet and the people of our churches that we had this opportunity, and I will be forever grateful for our time here. But now, the wisdom of our Bishop and our Cabinet along with the needs of both my family and our church is leading me somewhere new. And I am sure that just as I found a home here, so will the next person who steps in.
Unlike most denominations we have a sending system instead of a call system.
A call system allows the local church to hire a pastor much like you would interview for any job. They put out a “Help Wanted” sign and screen the different applicants until they find someone who they like and who likes them. Sounds great, right? But it’s difficult for small churches and especially those in rural areas to attract talented pastors. Not impossible, because we have some very talented and kind-hearted leaders in Dinuba as proof that it can work. But definitely harder. Smaller churches are not always in areas that people want to move to. They have less money to offer than a bigger church. Healthcare can be extremely expensive. And it can literally take years to find a new pastor. In the United Methodist Church, the Bishop examines the situation every year and together with the Cabinet, the local church, and the pastors, decide if the time is right for a change. If it is, they consult everyone involved to find the right fit, taking into account the needs of the church, the make-up of the community, and the talents of the pastor. Typically, no matter the size of your church, the Cabinet makes sure that a pastor is there to help take care of the people there.
Is it a perfect system? No.
Even as deliberate as our church is, there are times when we get it wrong. Sometimes on a small scale, and sometimes on a big one. The reason there exists an African Methodist Episcopal Church in the first place is because we were short-sighted in meeting the needs of African-Americans and treating them with the respect they deserved. But we continue to seek to right the wrongs of our past and address the mistakes we’ve made. We have built relationships with many other denominations that bring us into communion with one another, meaning we recognize the work of Christ in each other even if we maintain our separate identities. And there is something appealing to me about belonging to a group that is connected to one another. There is comfort in knowing we share many of the same ideals and ideology. And even though we might differ on some things, the framework of our beliefs still holds true. People love McDonald’s because it’s reliable comfort food. While they might have some cool local dishes, it’s pretty much the same wherever you go. You know what you’re getting into and the local flavors just add variety to the mix. As Methodists, it is much the same way. We aren’t just Methodists in name only. We are all part of a global network that seeks to help one another and our neighbor at the same time. We pool our resources so we can make a bigger impact together and do more than any one of us could do alone. And while we might differ on how we carry out the mission of the church, at its essence we are all striving toward the same goal – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.