Monday, May 16, 2016

How Good Is God's Kingdom: MANY called, FEW chosen

Art installation and photo by Todd Pick. Used by permission. 
I've been working on General Conference worship for the past two years. I developed the Bible study that underlies our worship during these days.

Something about the reading for today (Matthew 22:1-14) has bothered me for quite some time.

It's the last line. Typically it's translated something like, "For many are called, but few are chosen."

This seems almost entirely out of sync with the parable, where many are called-- indeed, eventually, everyone is called-- and only one person who actually shows up is excluded.

I've been puzzling and puzzling over this. I've gone back to the Greek text to see if there's anything in the form of the verbs that makes sense of it. There isn't.

This morning, I had a lightbulb moment.

I've been reading that last line as if "the chosen" were the ones that mattered most. As if the "few that were chosen" were ultimately the "true disciples."

I'd failed to acknowledge just how much Jesus is subverting everything here. And I'd failed to acknowledge the audience to whom he was speaking.

He was speaking to the chosen-- or those who thought themselves so. He was speaking to the chief priests and Pharisees in the temple precincts-- some of the most powerful in the religious life of the people. It would be like talking to the Council of Bishops, or the Connectional Table, or even General Conference in United Methodism. They were the chosen of the chosen.

If anyone would be invited to the feast of Messiah, it would be these people.

They were the chosen.

And they already knew, as we read just a few verses before this (Matthew 21:45), Jesus was speaking against them.

Indeed, he was.

They were the ones who were invited first. And they refused the invitation. The king tried inviting them again. They not only refused, but beat up and killed some of the messengers who brought the invitations. The result was judgment: the destruction of those invited, their families, and even their towns.

Then he ordered that everyone else be invited. Everyone else. The many. The "hoi polloi." Some were good. Some were bad. But all were invited. And they came.

They said yes to the call.

They were NOT the chosen. But they were called. They came. They rejoiced. Everyone had a great time.

Except for one.

The one was acting like "the chosen," the folks first invited but refusing the invitation in one way or another.

This one person came but still in effect refused the invitation. He didn't put on the garment provided by the host for the celebration.

So his fate was exactly like that of those who were first invited and refused the invitation-- cast out into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The gospel here, the good news of this story, really is for the many, not the few. Many ARE called-- and get to enjoy the party to its fullness, if they actually show up and accept the garment the host graciously offers them. The hoi polloi are called, the good and the bad together. They aren't perfect. Some aren't even close. But they're all (except for one) willing to celebrate at this party, putting on the wedding garment the host provides so they can.

That garment doesn't make them better.

It just signifies they heard the call and wanted to be there.

So they were.

God is calling the many-- the hoi polloi, the good and the bad. Everyone. Everyone.

If folks refuse the call, or folks show up but show they don't really want to be there, they won't be for long.

But if they just come and agree to party-- to put on the garment-- they're in.

The many are called.

As for the few chosen-- well-- they could decide to hear the call and accept it. But being chosen isn't the basis for being at the party. Responding to the call is.

And Jesus is calling everyone-- to a party!

That's what the kingdom of heaven is like. Everyone who wants to be there, including just about all the "wrong people," are there, partying on.

So that last verse? It's amazingly good news! The MANY are called. Only a relative FEW find themselves in the position of the "chosen" (those first invited and refusing, or later invited and still "refusing in place").

Therefore, go-- call all! And party with all who come and want to party with you to celebrate the marriage feast of the son of the king.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How Google May Have (Sort of) Copied the UMC.. for Good!

Alphabet Blocks. Photo by Peter Miller. Used by permission.
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Yesterday, August 10, 2015, Larry Page, co-CEO of Google, announced a dramatic restructuring of one of the world's largest and most innovated companies.

No longer will the company, Google, be a single company by that name led by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Instead, it will be a collection of companies, each with its own CEO, coordinated through a sort of hub company known as Alphabet.

So Google will continue to exist as a company, but a company with its own CEO (Sundar Pichai), within a collection of other companies (Calico, Life Sciences, Ventures and Capital, and X Lab, among others) with their own CEOs, each focused intently on its core business, while coordinated, supported, and evaluated through Alphabet, where Larry and Sergey will be CEOs. Their key work, as Larry describes it on the new Alphabet website, aptly named, is
"to have a strong CEO who runs each business, with Sergey and me in service to them as needed."

Much has been made in the media about the parallels between what Larry and Sergey are doing with Alphabet and how Berkshire Hathaway is built.

But here I want to draw another comparison-- to The United Methodist Church.

How Alphabet Will Be (More or Less) Like The UMC

First, let me suggest an obvious way Alphabet will not be like The UMC. Alphabet will actually exist as a unified corporate entity.

This may surprise you. The United Methodist Church does not exist as a corporate entity. Instead, The United Methodist Church, corporately speaking, is a collection of separately incorporated entities (general agencies, annual conferences, and other bodies) connected under a common constitution and bylaws and commonly governed ultimately by the decisions and actions of our General Conference.

So, for example, the General Board of Discipleship (now doing business as Discipleship Ministries) and the General Commission on Communications (now doing business as Communications, though still commonly known as UMCom) are two entirely separately incorporated entities, each with its own board of directors, its own budgetary processes, and its own General Secretary chosen by its board. These two separate agencies do seek to work in coordinated ways, but neither governs the other in any way. Instead, both are held accountable for their work through the oversight of bishops (who chair their boards of directors), the ongoing work of the Connectional Table (where agency leaders and other leaders across the connection work coordinate their efforts toward common denominational goals), and, ultimately, the decisions of General Conference.

Still, they are fundamentally separate corporations with separate boards, distinct missions to accomplish, and staff hired to help them accomplish those distinct missions. Through the leadership of bishops and participation in the Connectional Table, the general agencies are both challenged and supported, individually and collectively, to deliver on their distinct missions. 

That's pretty much what Alphabet will be like, too. Though Alphabet will exist as a corporation, and its new companies will be wholly owned subsidiaries of it, those new companies will be staffed, challenged and led from within each one to develop and enhance focus and performance on its own particular mission and brands. Alphabet will exist to promote the success of these companies and their brands as each pursues its particular work.

Why are Larry Page and Sergey Brin doing this?

They say it will enhance focus on effective companies innovating and delivering the most effective products and services they each can.

As those companies each succeed in their core businesses, the whole of Alphabet succeeds. And as Alphabet succeeds, they hope the result is "improving as many lives as we can."

Better focus. Stronger individual companies and brands. And a mechanism (through Alphabet) to generate greater accountability, transparency and effectiveness for all of that.

What Alphabet Isn't Doing (But Many Restructuring Plans for the UMC Do)

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin unveiled their restructuring plan yesterday, it was fairly remarkable to me what they didn't propose.

1. They didn't propose "streamlining." Alphabet isn't an initiative to combine functions across different parts of the former Google enterprises. If anything, it is an initiative to increase differentiation among them, in an effort to increase the focus on each of them.

Contrast this to efforts in a variety of restructuring plans for The UMC to collapse the unique work of existing general commissions (notably GCORR, GCSRW, GCAH and even UMCom) into others thought to be doing similar (but not identical) work-- all in the name of a more "streamlined" structure.

Alphabet doesn't think long-term success comes this way. They believe it comes by keeping separate functions truly separate.

2. They didn't propose "cutting back." Nothing in Alphabet's business plan speaks of cutting back on any enterprise in which the former Google was engaged. Instead, Alphabet's role is to make sure each gets the kind of funding each needs to be as successful as each can be in its market space and hold them accountable for their success. For Alphabet, success in each new subsidiary-- subsidiary by subsidiary-- is what ensures sustainablity.

Part of the battle-cry for nearly every restructuring plan we've discussed is "sustainability." Having all of these separate general agencies with separate functions is decried as "not-sustainable." Cutbacks are necessary so we can "live within our means." Cutting back is heralded as a key strategy to ensure we are or become more sustainable going forward.

Yet cutting back isn't a leadership strategy for success. In successful enterprises, it's just a tactic, and usually a temporary one, sometimes used to reallocate resources from lower potential to higher potential initiatives. I've said it before-- and Don House is putting some of his money behind it--  that the current drive to keep reducing investments in our common work is counterproductive. We need to increase our investments-- substantially-- in those things most likely to generate success for the long term

That's exactly what Alphabet proposes to do.

3. They didn't propose a reduction or simplification in "bureaucracy," but, if anything, by creating more CEO positions across the whole of what will now be wholly owned subsidiaries, they actually increased bureaucracy and corporate complexity to a certain degree.

Most of the restructuring plans proposed for The UMC seek to make the UMC "more nimble" by appealing to an argument that reduced administrative structure across all systems almost necessarily leads to greater capacity for each system and the whole to act.

The thing is, and Alphabet's creation affirms, that isn't necessarily the case at all. Simply reducing administrative structure doesn't necessarily increase responsiveness to the environment. What enhances responsiveness is enhanced capacity to act on the mission of the organization-- which often requires more administrative support rather than less.

Alphabet recognizes the different kinds of efforts their different subsidiaries would be undertaking require different kinds of internal organization and enough leadership and management to make each work well on its own.

Related to this, is the belief that "simplifying" the brand experience increases success, and that to simplify the brand experience requires reducing the number of leaders, managers and, potentially, agencies.

And related to this is also the belief that having "too many" brands and brand messages out there is a problem more than an opportunity.

This also turns out not the work in the marketplace quite as is being advertised.

Alphabet understands the overall power of brand is both collective (Alphabet) and individual (Google, Gmail, YouTube, X-Labs, etc.) and that having not just different companies, but within them fundamentally different brands with distinctive brand identities isn't problematic, but the way forward. Greater complexity with more discrete, successful brands tends to increase overall market share. And it does take more leadership and management-- and usually not less-- to lead and manage greater degrees of complexity.  

4. They didn't create Alphabet to uniformize or micromanage the subsidiaries. Instead, Alphabet is an entity that, like Ronald Heifetz describes in his work on adaptive leadership, takes the "balcony perspective" with the purpose of directing financial and leadership support services to each of the companies under Alphabet's umbrella.

The key concept behind the restructure of Google, Inc. into Alphabet and its wholly owned subsidiaries is differentiation can increase opportunity when each of the different companies is highly focused on its particular mission and provided the leadership and financial resources necessary to deliver on its particular mission. 

Alphabet doesn't assume it know best how to manage those very different companies. Nor would it seek to apply a "one size fits all" solution to achieve just one kind of business outcome across the gamut of them. What Alphabet does assume is it can have the wisdom and perspective, in close association with the CEOs of the subsdiaries, to direct resources and leadership support in ways that maximize the effectiveness of each of them and, thus, their whole portfolio.

Several iterations of UMC restructing plans, some of which claim to be based on "sound business principles," have proposed the creation of one smallish and rather independent central body that would function more or less as a single governing board for all of the existing agencies of The United Methodist Church (the plan from the Interim Operations Team and the heart of what would become Plan UMC).

That basic plan was found to be "constitutionally unsalvageable" by the Judicial Council in 2012.

After that, some of those powers were then proposed to be taken on by a "beefed up" Connectional Table under Plan UMC 2.0, now undergoing Judicial Council review.  The new Connectional Table would get an Executive General Secretary, to whom the GSes of (at least) GBCS, GBHEM, GBOD and GBHEM would report and be accountable on matters of fiscal management and the performance of the agencies, while agency boards would be reduced to program management only. Based on an annual review process carried out by the EGS of CT, CT could also vote to reduce or change the funding for (any?) of the general agencies on an annual basis. The new CT would also have the final say on employing general secretaries for these four General Boards (GBCS, GBOD, GBHEM, GBGM), a role now given to the boards of those separate agencies.

Does that sound like what Alphabet proposes to do, or something else?

In one way, yes. Per Larry Page,
"We will rigorously handle capital allocation and work to make sure each business is executing well. We'll also make sure we have a great CEO for each business, and we’ll determine their compensation."

But in another way, no. There's a difference between "making sure each business is executing well" and creating a process that holds every separate entity to the fire for one (and only one) business result: increasing the number of "vital congregations," as the Plan UMC 2.0 legislation proposes to do. (See especially pages 9 and 14 of the document). Within the polity of The UMC, it needs to be noted that General Conference has never taken an action to state that our purpose as a church or the purpose of any given general agency or the purpose of Connectional Table was to ensure an increase in the number of vital congregations. Bishops and Connectional Table have been provided de facto leadership around this goal, but it has never been approved de jure. You will find it nowhere in the current Book of Discipline or Book of Resolutions. 

There is a single business goal for Alphabet: make sure its subsidiaries succeed in their varying kinds of businesses and business environments.

But is there, really, a one-size fits all business goal for the varying businesses themselves, beyond that? Will Alphabet evaluate X-Lab for how well it contributes to "search," or Calico for how well it contributes to or collaborates with Android?  I don't think so. Alphabet's sense is Alphabet prospers most when X-Lab, Calico, and Google, as separate companies, all do their own work and succeed in it, for necessarily different ends.

The is also an overall single mission statement for United Methodists: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We go on to say congregations are a critical (but not the only part) in this process.

So, if the mission is "world-changing disciples," in which congregations have a part to play, but only a part, why would GBCS be held equally accountable for vital congregations, or GBGM in the US, for that matter, when we already know congregational vitality is largely the result of effective pastors (whose formation and accountability is cared for by GBHEM) and local church and conference leaders in congregational and other forms of discipling ministries (the primary focus of the leadership and resources from GBOD/Discipleship Ministries).

Why indeed, unless there is some sort of a priori belief that increasing the number of vital congregations is the only measurable business outcome that matters, and others, such as international relief and development (UMCOR within GBGM) and advocacy for safe living and working conditions for all people at the highest levels of government (a big part of the work of GBGS) do not improve our "bottom line" around disciples of Jesus changing the world.

Alphabet clearly believes that diverse outcomes from diverse businesses do improve Alphabet's overall bottom line, and even can improve the lives of people everywhere.

How about us?

Overcoming Our Self-Persecution Complex 

For too long, now, United Methodists have been telling ourselves that we're failing, we're bloated, we're ineffective, we're inefficient, we're unsustainable, we're... you get the point.

It's like we're telling ourselves we're irresponsible, and so we have to make all kinds of changes, and, yet, drastic cuts so we can "live within our means" and do just what "really matters," because we can't afford to do anything else. Our diverse entities and agencies are a fool's luxury, and  now we've got to tighten our belts and get back to basics- or else!

Not exactly a happy message.

Yet this week's move to create Alphabet seems to tell a very different story, doesn't it? In a variety of ways, what one of the most innovative and effective companies on earth is doing actually both resembles and supports much of what our current structure is, has been doing, and can do-- with little or no further restructuring necessary-- if we'll just view it as opportunity for more and more focused investment that can yield multiple kinds of improved outcomes (as Alphabet seems to do) rather than as a burden we must shed while increasing our accountability (and austerity!) so we can generate primarily one kind of outcome toward our overall mission. 

We're seeing in the case of Greece, and before it, Ireland, just how damaging moving from a process of support for what's effective (as when the EU supported the building of highways and other infrastructure in Ireland that caused its tourism industry to boom!) toward a regimen of austerity (Ireland's economy is growing again, but that growth is still being hampered by the EU's austerity moves, and Greece's economy has only plunged more quickly as escalating austerity has been applied). 

Perhaps the creation of Alphabet signals it may be time we saw and embraced our full organizational diversity as a church, and the vast variety of things we are doing under our common mission of making and living as disciples of Jesus Christ, not as a burden or a problem (much less THE problem!), but a remarkable opportunity.

After all, we don't have to go and create diverse companies that support our common mission in varying ways. We already have them! We just need to stop telling ourselves that our diversity of agencies and brands is bad-- and instead rejoice in it, then find effective ways to inspire and support each of them to do their best possible work toward supporting the making and deploying of disciples of Jesus who will and do transform the world in all sorts of ways, including, but not limited to, increasing the number of vital congregations.

Our complex "alphabet soup" as United Methodists-- America's second largest Protestant denomination and the only Protestant denomination with any real claim to be a global one-- may turn out to be one of our most undervalued assets, after all!


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Missional theology is [excrement]?

Rachel Eggebeen thinks so.

Or at least she things the ways some congregations and proponents of missional theology talk about it fit that description.

Let me say to the degree talk or "programming" related to missional theology simply continues to enact paternalism, white privilege or other forms of paternalism under some other label, I would tend to agree.

But then I find a good bit of talk about "addressing structures" to reflect precisely a white privilege set of assumptions as well-- one that presumes because "we" are the powerful, if "we" were just addressing the right things (structures-- which is what we think we control or at least create for everyone else) "we" can fix it once "we" have the needed input and participation of the victims of those structures we uphold to uphold ourselves. How is "addressing structures" not, in some way, yet another act of controlling the narrative about being delivered from and accepting the freedom and power to resist evil-- regardless of where we find ourselves in relation to others?

So what is the alternative-- one that would truly turn not just paternalism but every narrative misaligned with the kingdom of God on its head-- or side-- or however it needs to be turned to become more aligned?

Read more about why she thinks what she thinks.

And comment below.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Monday, August 25, 2014

Listening for Abundance, Part III: "But first I needed to go blind and deaf"

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas"
by Matthias Stom, ca. 1620. Public Domain.
by Mike Mather

They wait like lowered gates while the mystery rolls past. Tomas Transtromer

How do you make visible whats invisible? I was that lowered gate.  The mystery was rolling past and I didnt see it. Id come to help.  My help isnt needed.  My eyesight is.

But first I needed to go blind and deaf.  So that I could see and hear.

The poet can have only one prayer: not to understand the unacceptablelet me not understand, so that I may not be seducedlet me not hear, so that I may not answerThe poets only prayer is a prayer for deafness.  Marina Tsvetayeva

THIS is the way things change, when we begin, to close our ears and eyes to what we have learned and begin to pay attention to the world as it is in all its wonder.

Thomas had to put his hand in Jesus wound.  Me too. I didnt feel it at first, but now I do. Did Thomass hand touch the various organs? The liver, the kidney, the stomach, or even the unnecessary appendix?  I was groping, too.

I was groping too.  I often came in contact with someone who was asking for money or food.  For a long time I would grab a bag or a little bit of money and help where I could.

As time went on I began to discover what I had almost missed.  The people sitting in front of me were my parents, my sister, my brothers.  They were people with interesting lives, but as the poet and physician of Paterson, New Jersey William Carlos Williams said no one/will believe this/of vast import to the nation.  I sure didnt.

I was missing the mystery of the lives before me.  I hadnt seen the entrepreneurs, the cooks, the clothes makers, the musicians, and the artists.  I was slowly awakening, as if from a sleep.

Step by step - poem, by cake, by clothing - I began to notice what I had not realized was there.

I began to see the way I was seen.   I was a bank, a credit card, a holder of money and power.  I wasnt considered one who saw dreams and lives, but only needs to be filled.  I had trained people well, we had trained people well.  Come tell us whats wrong, we cried.  Please. 

Could we begin to change the way our neighbors would see us?  Would people say - Im so interested in this thing Ive been spending my time on - I bet those people over at the church would love to hear about it!"

You only learn what you already know.  - something Phil Amerson said to me 490* times between 1986-1991

*Matthew 18.22

Monday, April 21, 2014

Listening for Abundance, Part II: By the Waters...

Fall Creek. Public Domain.

by Mike Mather
Pastor, Broadway UMC, Indianapolis, IN

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb from the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there.

Revelation 22: 1-3 (NRSV)

Joe King takes the room as soon as he walks in.  Plaid shirt, blue jeans, they wear like a suit.  He is at home in the board room or in the woods.  

He is all energy and explosions - laughter, ideas, movements.  Hes on the move.  Always.  Hes Muhammad Ali as naturalist.

He sees you.

He sold insurance, keeping his neighbors safe and healthy, writing policy and caring for the waters.

He loves a good time, out fishing with friends, they tell each other stories.

As a boy he would step into the waters of Fall Creek, where the men would gather and fish. That was my television, Joe says. Fatherless, they became his fathers, his teachers. It was here he heard stories, his feet cooling in the waters.  The men teaching
him about fish, and about life in the city.

He's talking with teen-age Cameron on his porch.  Cameron says, Im weird.  Joe says, Ive been weird every day of my life, and its a good thing.  Any time you are feeling weirdcome sit on my porch and well talk,” doing now what was done for him.

Hes always close to the waters.  It is a member of his community.

Fall Creek is never very wide. No more than 45-50 yards. During the dry of summer it can slow to a trickle. In the spring and in the fall it flows.  It carries fish and the waste of our civilization, such as it is.

Along Fall Creek the waters roll, not the mighty Wabash, not the roaring Mississippi, just waters that literally, in the past, have fed the people.  The men that Joe joined as a boy were catching dinner. The living water whose cost and benefit are rarely (if ever) counted.

We go down by the waters he and I. Every day he steps in the waters. Even now twice a year he leads a clean up of Fall Creek.


Because, he says, I talk to the creek and the creek talks to me and I tell it I will not forsake it.

His whole life he has loved this place, this water. Its more than H2O to him. The waters cleanse and heal.  They breathe, free, reveal,  teach. Fall Creek was his school, his home, his grocery store, his bank.

As they fished the men caught him. Instead of filleting him, they fed him. His gratitude was for the ways the waters gathered and nourished community.

Joe knows times have changed.  He and his friends (the Dirty Dozen Hunting and Fishing Club) still gather with their neighbors, young and old, women and men, to feed each other by the waters of Fall Creek.