Steven C. Van Ostran: Incarnating Christ through Bivocational Ministry

How can the incarnational church enable holistic mission in the community? What are the incarnational beneifts of bivocational ministry?

Steven C. Van Ostran, an ordained Baptist pastor, serves as Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains and previously taught at Ottawa University.

This is one of a series of video posts from the authors of Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry (forthcoming April 2022). This book is an edited volume for church leaders and those that teach and support them. Contributors include bivocational pastors and other reflective practitioners as well as theological educators and researchers.

In Chapter 9, “Incarnating Christ through Bivocational Ministry,” Steven C. Van Ostran encourages the church to reframe its understanding of bivocational ministry as a positive way of incarnating Christ. First, he offers the “incarnational church,” based on 1 Corinthians 12 and Luke 10, as a model of holistic mission. Then, he presents four benefits of bivocational ministry that might lead churches and pastors to engage in bivocational ministry even when a full-time ministry is possible. The incarnational benefits of bivocational ministry include breaking down the sacred-secular divide, creating community and relationships outside the local congregation, uncovering new opportunities for ministry and mission outside the walls of the church, and reducing the dependencies of the pastor that hinder authentic leadership and prophetic action both in the church and in the community. This chapter draws on Ostran’s experience as a pastor and as an Executive Minister in the American Baptist Churches, as well as experiences of the many bivocational pastors he knows personally.

For resources on bivocational and multivocational ministry, see the book’s webpage.

Financial Basics for Church Leaders

Spreadsheets. Budgets. Fundraising. Debt. If you’re a church leader, lay or ordained, a new four-part series Financial Basics for Church Leaders helps you get more comfortable with these aspects of your ministry. The series is offered by the Pennsylvania Academy of Ministry at Lancaster Seminary. Take all four classes in the series for the price of one, and earn 10.3 CEUs. First class starts Feb. 17. Get the details: https://tinyurl/PAMseries

Phil Baisley: Preparing to Teach Bivocational Ministry

This is one of a series of video posts from the authors of Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry (forthcoming April 2022). This book is an edited volume for church leaders and those that teach and support them. Contributors include bivocational pastors and other reflective practitioners as well as theological educators and researchers.

Phil Baisley, a recorded Friends minister, is Professor of Pastoral Studies at Earlham School of Religion and serves as pastor of Greenfield Friends Meeting in Indiana.

In Chapter 16, “Preparing to Teach a Bivocational Ministry Seminary Course,” Phil Baisley shares the research behind his seminary course syllabus in bivocational ministry, informed by his own bivocational experience as well empirical research. As part of a larger grant-funded project, the author spent much of 2015 driving across the United States, from Pennsylvania to Oregon, interviewing bivocational pastors and members of their congregations. He discovered a wide variety of ways of being bivocational as well as many commonalities among bivocational pastors and congregations. Interviewees also shared their ideas about what seminaries should teach about bivocational ministry. The author provides a succinct list of topics to be covered in a bivocational ministry course, along with suggested resources. He concludes by noting continuing challenges to teaching about bivocational ministry.

For resources on bivocational and multivocational ministry, see the book’s webpage.

What Centrists Need to Know about the Proposed Global Methodist Church

Traditionalist United Methodists are making plans to launch the Global Methodist Church. This would be their new church home upon leaving The United Methodist Church (UMC). Heather Hahn, assistant editor of United Methodist News, has written a helpful background article. What do centrists need to know about this proposed denomination?

To answer this question, I have examined their Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline (updated October 10, 2021), which offers a glimpse of the kind of church imagined by members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and their allies. This denominational blueprint provides a lot of detail, grist for debate, but there is also a lot unstated. One could easily get into the weeds of itinerancy, sacramental privilege of deacons, election and term of bishops, educational requirements for ordination, no trust clause, the definition of “valid Christian baptism,” exclusively masculine language for God, and of course the pages and pages of judicial administration. Steve West does a good job naming the most critical features of the Transitional Book in his open letter to Chris Ritter. I will focus on what I consider to be the most problematic issues: control, privilege, and patronage.

Control. Conservatives in the UMC have long lamented the theological pluralism of this denomination. Through church law and judicial enforcement, they have fought to reign in a denomination considered out of control. The Transitional Book serves as a corrective. First and foremost is an emphasis on right doctrine. The first few pages of this 103-page document emphasize orthodoxy, “settled doctrines and discipline,” canon, creed, authority, protection, preservation, fidelity, and accountability. The book provides “constitutive standards” as “a bulwark against false teaching” (para. 106).

How are true teachings discerned? There is no Wesleyan quadrilateral to be found in the Transitional Book. Scripture is touted not only as containing “all things necessary to salvation” (UMC Article of Religion V) but is also considered “the primary rule and authority for faith, morals, and service” (para. 104). Scripture is the moral rulebook. Apparently, the bulwark requires more than scripture, though, as adherents must affirm and are held accountable to the doctrinal standards and moral statements. The paragraphs of Social Witness assume a “consensus vision transcending cultures” when interpreting and “affirming a scriptural view of sexuality and gender,” for example (paras. 201–202). Not surprisingly, this “scriptural view” consists of heteronormativity, marriage, and a gender binary: “We believe that human sexuality is a gift of God that is to be affirmed as it is exercised within the legal and spiritual covenant of a loving and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman” (para. 202.7). Gender is “defined throughout this Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline by a person’s immutable biological traits identified by or before birth” (para. 306).

This attempt to provide a culture-free “consensus vision” ignores the multivocal witness of scripture as well as science. While admitting a role for scientific knowledge, “we encourage dialogue between faith and science as mutual witnesses to God’s creative power” (para. 202.4), the Global Methodist Church’s understanding of sexuality and gender seems uninformed by science. This impression is confirmed a 22-page document produced by the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Task Force on Sexual Brokenness (December 2021). The writing team set out “seeking the wisdom of our God who is love through Scripture and our Wesleyan heritage.” The Traditionalist understandings of sexuality and gender, as explained in these documents, has nothing to do with science. Instead, the writers asserted what they call “our Christian sexual counterculture” in the face of “the clash of cultures between the Kingdom and our earthly surroundings” (pp. 8–9). This stance begs the question, Who are the arbiters of this Christian counterculture?

Privilege. The interpretation of scripture and tradition controlling the Global Methodist Church and its members’ moral behavior is shaped by white, US privilege. The Social Witness statement in the Transitional Book provides clues. It does not speak as the poor; it speaks about the poor (who are presumed not to have Jesus). There is no solidarity here. There is a presumption of privilege when offering Jesus, alms, and protection to the “less fortunate” and “those who may be powerless to protect themselves” (paras. 201–202).

The presumption of privilege is no accidental feature of the Transitional Book. Privilege is an inherent feature of the Traditionalists’ proposed denomination. The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s offer to provide vaccines to non-US delegates to General Conference is an example of this harmful mentality. Likewise, US privilege is enshrined in the Transitional Book through its funding for bishops (para. 505). All bishops’ salaries in this proposed, global denominational would be paid for by US funds.

This is a white, US project infused throughout with the trappings of hetero-patriarchal privilege and a need for control. All of the authors of the members of the Task Force on Sexual Brokenness are white people from the United States. The drafting team for the Transitional Book consists of only white men from the United States. This is an alarming starting point for anyone who takes seriously the racist past of white Protestant America as a sinful part of our history as Methodists.

Patronage. Conservatives are protecting more than their version of theological orthodoxy. They are also conserving a system of privilege and patronage with deep neo-colonial roots. Folks considering joining the Global Methodist Church must consider where they fit within this power structure—economically, politically, and morally. Will the protection and authority of the Transitional Leadership Team serve their best interests?

The answer will likely depend on the ways in which they benefit from US, hetero-patriarchal, white privilege. There are many in the UMC—both in the United States and abroad—who want to preserve their relationships of patronage and privilege, and Global Methodist Church promises a way of doing so.

Kathleen Owens: Empowering the Full Body of Christ

This is one of a series of video posts from the authors of Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry (forthcoming April 2022). This book is an edited volume for church leaders and those that teach and support them. Contributors include bivocational pastors and other reflective practitioners as well as theological educators and researchers.

Kathleen Owens, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is former moderator of the John Knox Presbytery in Wisconsin.

In Chapter 13, “Empowering the Full Body of Christ,” Kathleen Owens aims to equip the full body of Christ for ministry using the variety of gifts, or charisms, found in all members. She employs the image of the Body of Christ, as developed by Paul in the early church and invoked by Luther during the Reformation, to guide the church through times of great technological and societal shifts, such as today. The church still needs people trained for various forms of ministry; changing, argues Owens, is the need for all these skills to be found primarily in one person. She proposes a new model of theological education, empowering the full Body of Christ through discernment of gifts, education and training, and ongoing support and accountability. The transition from full-time to part-time, or bivocational, pastorates offers the church an opportunity to utilize existing educational resources to empower and equip members with specific gifts for ministry. Bivocational pastors need the partnership and support of seminaries and middle-judicatory leaders in this effort.

For resources on bivocational and multivocational ministry, see the book’s webpage.

Distributive Ministry by Kwasi Kena

This is the second in a series of video posts from the authors of Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry. This book is an edited volume for church leaders and those that teach and support them. Contributors include bivocational pastors and other reflective practitioners as well as theological educators and researchers. The book is scheduled for publication in April 2022.

Kwasi Kena, an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, is Associate Professor of Ethnic and Multicultural Ministries at Wesley Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan University.

In Chapter 8, “Exploring Distributive Ministry,” Kena argues that bivocational congregations are well positioned to offer the gospel to people in an ever-changing environment. Congregations in the midst of change have an opportunity to re-imagine their ministry configurations as bivocational, allowing non-ordained followers of Christ to participate fully in leadership. For these churches, the shift to bivocational ministry includes a shared-ministry framework the author calls “distributive ministry.” Distributive ministry employs a team approach to leadership in which all persons in the congregation function as ministers, sharing pastoral responsibilities. This understanding of distributive ministry is derived from four schools of thought: the priesthood of all believers depicted in Scripture and Martin Luther’s writings; missional ecclesiology, as articulated by Lesslie Newbigin and others; distributive leadership theory; and the distributed pastorate model described by Geoffrey MacDonald.

For resources on bivocational and multivocational ministry, see the book’s webpage.

Meet the Multivocational Authors: Introduction

This is the first in a series of video posts from the authors of Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry. This book is an edited volume for church leaders and those that teach and support them. Contributors include bivocational pastors and other reflective practitioners as well as theological educators and researchers. The book is scheduled for publication in April 2022.

Darryl W. Stephens, an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church, is the editor of Bivocational and Beyond. For resources on bivocational and multivocational ministry, see the book’s webpage.

Renewing the Call to Reenvision Christian Ethics

I first issued a call to scholars to reenvision the field of Christian ethics in April 2018. The resulting conversation proved thought-provoking and timely. The high quality of published papers from that collection are inspiring. Yet, the world looks quite different now, three and a half years later. In the face of multiple global pandemics and widespread political disruption, we need to continue the task of reenvisioning Christian ethics. Thus, I am renewing the call to Christian ethicists. I am pleased to announce that this special issue of the journal Religions is once again open for submissions.

This special issue of Religions is now open for submissions.

Religions is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal by the Mulitdisciplinary Publishing Institute (MDPI). Deadline for manuscript submissions: 15 December 2022.

Christian ethics is a wide, varied field. So diverse are the methods and approaches, theological perspectives and starting points, and scopes of inquiry and purposes—dare we even call it a “discipline”?—that the field is rarely considered as a whole. Christian ethics includes descriptive, critical, constructive, and applied projects on countless topics. Lending creative energy to this field of scholarly endeavor are a range of partner disciplines, including, most prominently, theology, philosophy, and sociology—each with multiple schools of thought within them. To envision the entire field of Christian ethics is a difficult task; to reenvision the entire field, perhaps impossible for one person. Thus, in this special issue on Reenvisioning Christian Ethics, we invite papers that offer a distinct perspective from their primary partner discipline for the purpose of contributing to a composite reenvisioning of the field.

The purpose of this special issue of Religions is to reenvision Christian ethics by refracting our collective vision through the prisms of diverse academic and methodological perspectives in this vast field of inquiry, study, and practice.

The Late George E. Morris, Evangelist to the Poor

The Rev. Dr. George E. Morris, founding director of the World Methodist Evangelism Institute, died last week at the age of 86.

I did not know Morris personally, though I learned from his legacy as a scholar and church leader when studying congregational vitality. As a tribute, this post provides a glimpse of his vision of “kingdom-oriented” congregations in contrast to the reigning “church growth” paradigm of evangelism.

Morris drew attention to idea of “vital congregations” in the early 1980s by hosting a five-day consultation of 100 church leaders from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In the resulting edited volume, he explained his views. “The congregations we develop must be kingdom-oriented . . . mean[ing] that the local church is essentially evangelistic and missionary, or it is not a church.” This description anticipated by several years the main theme and image of the widely read book, The Logic of Evangelism by the late William Abraham. Both men offered a critique of the church growth movement.

Contrary to church growth’s homogeneous principle, Morris advocated expending more resources and energy evangelizing in areas that did not yield immediately quantifiable success.

Since Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel to the poor is a concrete sign of the kingdom of God, it also becomes a powerful criterion by which we judge the validity of our congregational development. It will mean that mission analysis always gains ascendance over demographic analysis and that we concentrate larger and larger amounts of human and material resources in our cities, among the poor of the earth, and with struggling ethnic minorities.

George E. Morris, Rethinking Congregational Development, p. 32.

The measure of missional vitality for Morris was not church growth, as such. Instead of measuring faithfulness by the fruit of increased church membership, his “kingdom-oriented” congregation focused primarily on ministry to the poor.

Rest in Peace, George. The kingdom is always but coming.

The above is adapted from my article “Healing Congregations: A Corrective to the Metrics of Congregational Vitality,” Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education 34. September 2020.

What Happens If General Conference Does Not Meet in 2022—or Ever Again?

United Methodists are facing the very real possibility that General Conference will not meet in 2022, as scheduled. David Scott explored the near-term implications of not meeting in 2021, examining denominational division in one post and budgets, boards, and bishops in another. The following discussion is becoming my annual reminder to the people of The United Methodist Church (UMC) that we do not have to wait on General Conference to declare this denomination broken. We do not need to approve a flawed “protocol” in order to move past intractable divisions. Here, I explore the question, What would happen if General Conference never met again?

For those church members worried that such a possibility would mean the end of the UMC, it is important to recognize that the UMC does not currently exist—nor has it ever existed, at least not in a legal sense. According to our own Discipline, the UMC “as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes” (General Discipline 2016, para. 141). In other words, the general church is a fiction.

To be sure, General Conference is a real thing. It met May 10–20, 2016 in Portland, Oregon and again February 23–26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. It even passed legislation and approved a general church budget to fund the work of boards, agencies, and commissions between sessions of general conference. However, General Conference ceased to exist as soon as the meeting came to a close, February 26, 2019. It will not exist until it meets again—if it ever does. The boards, agencies, and commissions mandated to carry out work on behalf of the General Conference continue to exist between sessions of General Conference. They are independently incorporated legal entities, and most have positioned themselves to serve multiple, splinter denominations in the event of a denominational schism. But that which we know as “The United Methodist Church” or “the general Church” does not exist.

What does this fiction mean? The UMC is a figment of our collective imagination, or to put it more theologically, the UMC is a covenantal agreement. The Discipline is our “book of covenant”: “It is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together” (General Discipline 2016, p. v). The UMC “exists” only as a covenant. The only thing animating the idea of the UMC among United Methodists is our mutual buy-in. Consider funding: apportionment formulas are precise and much debated, but actual payouts are unenforceable. Congregations and annual conferences pay what they choose to pay to the general Church.

The UMC is only as “real” as we allow it to be. When we participate faithfully and with integrity in this covenant, the denomination takes on life. Our covenantal life together can become a wondrous instrument of God’s grace. To whatever extent we fail to be in covenant, the UMC also fails to be the general Church that we so value. For many in the UMC, that covenant has already been broken; the UMC has failed to be a church for many years. Thankfully, the general church is not the essence of United Methodism.

United Methodist ecclesiology is based on connectionalism. Connectionalism, that “vital web of interactive relationships” (General Discipline 2016, para. 132), distinguishes Methodist polity from congregationalism. Connectional relationships between the general Church and every annual conference and congregation embody the functional and financial relationships of the UMC. However, we do not need a “general Church” for connectionalism. There are more immediate levels of covenant within United Methodism. This is why United Methodists claim that “The annual conference is the basic body of the Church . . .” (General Discipline 2016, para. 33).

If General Conference never met again, most of what we recognize as United Methodism would continue uninterrupted. The annual conference is the heartbeat of connectionalism. United Methodist congregations are connected to each other in an annual conference through participation in an itinerant ministry; clergy are connected through the Order of Elders and Order of Deacons; laity are connected via elected members to annual conference. In practical terms, the annual conference is where ministerial candidates are evaluated and nurtured, where clergy are commissioned and ordained, and where elders itinerate and receive pensions.

Some aspects of connectionalism would change. Political wrangling in the quadrennial arena of General Conference would cease, along with the vitriol practiced there. Annual conferences in the US, independent of the general Church, may choose different means of inculturation for Methodist polity, adapting the Discipline to their own missional needs, as conferences outside the US do currently. The process by which certain elders are elected, consecrated, and assigned as bishops would be opened to adaptation—perhaps within a pan-Methodist or wider ecumenical environment. It is also possible that some annual conferences might follow the example of the Methodist Church of Great Britain or the erstwhile Methodist Protestant Church, choosing to forgo an episcopacy. General apportionments would cease. Annual conferences would still be free to send money to general agencies, boards, and commissions to support ministry and mission around the globe. True, those payouts would be unenforceable. But is that not actually the case today?

If General Conference never met again, new relationships would be allowed to form while remaining true to the core of United Methodist ecclesiology. Old, forced relationships could be allowed to end rather than fester in acrimony within a divided denomination. Removing the denominational façade might actually help foster more genuine connection between individuals, congregations, and conferences—especially across national borders. We would have to give up the imperialistic features of our global connection and our ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. Rather than relying on structural ties, annual conferences and congregations would have to do the hard work of relationship building. The dissolution of the UMC by abandoning General Conference would open new possibilities. Recentering our connectionalism in the annual conference could renew United Methodism in ways we have yet to imagine.