As I have thought and prayed about my responses to these questions, I have come to appreciate the level of discipline required to keep the answers to a manageable length. I look forward to the chance to have a deeper discussion on these and other areas as well. As we all begin this journey together, the prayer of the Psalmist is the one I offer for all of us: “Teach me knowledge and good judgement because I’ve put my trust in your commandments.” (Psalm 119:66)
1. Why are you willing to be considered for election to the episcopacy?
I am willing to walk this path because I love the church. I have been blessed beyond measure in every appointment I have served. Through that journey I have come to see myself as a servant of the church. I have grown to love the Texas Conference as a place of service and cannot express how grateful I am for the network of relationships that define the landscape of my life. I offer myself because through the years I have also come to know United Methodists of the South Central Jurisdiction. It is blessed with great people and great conferences. The chance to dig deeply into their life and ministry by serving as Bishop in one of our conferences would be a huge blessing to me. I believe the sum total of who I am as a person, my passions as a follower of Jesus, and my ministry experiences all point to one who should be open to the high calling of the episcopacy.
2. What do you consider the critical issues facing the United Methodist Church? How would you respond in your role as bishop to those issues?
These are the symptoms of our issues: At the end of 2013, 80% of our churches averaged less than 150 people in worship, and decline continues. That means most of our churches are working hard just to survive. That struggle, already difficult in our cultural context, makes the calling and shaping of disciples even more challenging. The closing of historic institutions (colleges, UMR, etc.) is the canary in the coal mine of a deeply struggling organization. Infighting over homosexuality is unbecoming of a church with “united” in the name that prides itself on being connectional. Our church is getting older and an old church will eventually become a dead church. I believe the overriding issue for us as a denomination is lack of clarity about identity and mission. The path to our getting that way is complex. Some of it is cultural. Some of it is the journey of our church over the past fifty years. The interplay of these two factors have put us in a place where if something doesn’t change and doesn’t change quickly our grandchildren, and even perhaps our children, will be handed a United Methodist Church that looks very different than the one we know today.
My response as Bishop is to regard these challenges as opportunities to seek God’s new future for the UMC. How shall we overcome our differences? We are living in a deeply polarized time. Our history is to hold disparate ideas in tension in a manner that is consistent with the gospel. Our opportunity is to find a way to do that in these times. Most of our churches are turn around churches. We, in fact, have become a turn around denomination. That becomes possible when we become clear about who we are as a United Methodist people and how to do ministry with excellence in our current cultural context. Doing these things will not be easy but this is what I commit myself to with the Council of Bishops, denominational leaders, and anyone else who will join in the effort.
3. Where do you see God at work on the margins of the world? How would you embrace and encourage new, emerging forms of church among new people?
I have a church in my district which by all rights shouldn’t be there. It was started a few years before I became superintendent. It’s in an area where there are a lot of mobile homes. The people who make up this little congregation are not the kind of folks we normally look to to help us get new churches off the ground. The members include drug addicts and former prostitutes. The very kind of people Jesus associated with in his ministry. The pastor struggles to find people who have the skills and spiritual maturity to lead. The church struggles financially and organizationally. Here’s one way it doesn’t struggle: clarity of mission and kingdom impact on people’s lives. I have many great churches in the Central North District. I have many churches in the district which include missions. This church is a mission. That is one place I see God at work in the margins in my little corner of the world. Our district and conference work hard to do what we can to help them continue their important ministry. I have bigger churches. There are not any churches I love more than that one. I also think of efforts in district to care for refugees and victims of human trafficking. These are two significant issues in the greater Houston area.
When I think of God working in the margins of the world, I also think of our world wide impact. I had the privilege of being directly involved in the Nothing but Nets effort to distribute bed nets in Cote D’Ivoire. After raising the funds, I participated in the delivery and distribution in Africa. I will never forget a very brief exchange with a woman who after receiving her net came to me very excited. I was doing my best to give instructions using my high school French. In the middle of it all, she came up to me and in very clear English said: “God sent you.” It’s a moment I will cherish the rest of my life. I was inspired not too long ago to hear Yvette Richards, the national President of the UMW, quote the Bishop of Sierra Leone as saying the UMC helped eradicate the Ebola virus from his country. Though I have read there is concern about a new outbreak, this was exciting for me to hear. Those are evidence of God at work through the UMC in what to me are the margins of the world.
My ministry has been one of experimentation and innovation. Our conference has been a laboratory for ministry for the last ten years: lots of experiments with some of them working and some of them not. We have a pastor in our conference who has an amazing concept for a ministry which she has named “gastro church”. As the name suggests, it uses the medium of food to offer an experience of fellowship and spirituality for those who might not seek these out in a church setting. Conference money will be used to underwrite her efforts for a period of time to see how God will use it. We honestly don’t know how it will come out but we want to give it a chance. My prayer would be to be the kind of Bishop that would make it possible for this kind of ministry to take place in the conference and beyond.
4. How would you lead the church in reaching its mission field across divides of age, economics, ethnicity and culture?
The image of “crossing divides” is a powerful one. I have crossed the Continental Divide on foot, on a bike, and in a car. No matter how you do it, it’s not easy! To do so, you’ve got to want it bad and be willing to do what it takes. I would say the same thing about crossing divides of age, economics, ethnicity and culture. It begins with intentionality. Doing so in a conference begins with a careful study of a mission field to determine the need then evaluating what resources are available and/or can be found to serve that mission field. On the basis of that study, leaders must determine priorities. Clearly prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit are crucial. This is true of any ministry. It is even truer when seeking to “cross divides”.
To cross those divides successfully, leadership matters. Without gifted diverse leaders who are sold out for the underserved mission field those divides may never get crossed. This begs the question of where do you find such people. Generally speaking the divides exist because of the absence of leaders who are able to identify with and connect with the underserved. In the Texas Annual Conference we have worked hard to create an “ecology of call” which utilizes multiple strategies to raise up young people for ministry from within the churches of our conference even as we attract diverse, gifted clergy from beyond the conference. I have seen first hand the effectiveness of this approach. As a Bishop I would ask three questions: What mission fields are not being served? What pastors do we have who can effectively serve them? What action, if any, is needed to raise up and/or attract new leaders? I am very clear that the experiences I have had in our conference are information for the conversation and not a plan to be reproduced. Every conference has its own culture and story. It is by working with the leadership of a conference within the realities of its situation an approach is created.
In addition to leadership, to cross a divide successfully, resources must be made available to support such ministries. Whether it is by directing conference monies or creating new funding streams, to initiate a ministry without a commitment to funding it is an exercise in frustration and most certainly sets up a ministry for failure.
One last word about crossing divides: crossing divides becomes easy when we are willing to step out of our comfort zones and trust in the power of the gospel. In Galatians Paul speaks a powerful word about our response to dividing lines: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
5. What risks have you taken in your ministry? How do you leverage what you learn from failure and success?
Honestly I find it difficult to speak of the risks of my field of service. I think about those who toil around the world for the love of the kingdom in truly dangerous settings with little reward or fanfare. Compared with the relative ease and comfort of my life and ministry and the ways I am provided for by the United Methodist Church, I find it difficult to speak of risks that I have taken. Having said that, I have innovated and pioneered on many occasions in my ministry as well as stepping into situations fraught with the possibility of failure.
In my 20’s I played drums in a Christian rock band. This was in the 1970’s, a very different church world than the one we know today! We played in many churches which I suspect had never had drums in them before. Not everyone was on board with what we were doing and some did not hesitate to express their opinion. Nonetheless we believed in what we were doing. Those were exciting days of ministry I still cherish today. In the 1980’s I served a church at which I utilized something new called “cable television” to offer home Bible studies to my congregation. In 1990 I had the chance to start a new church. In those days, we were given a small amount of money to get started. There was no training for new church start pastors and really no process for determining who had what it takes to do it. They tapped your shoulder and told you to go get ‘em. As I reflect on it, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. After ten years of successes and failures, I agreed to go to a church that had split after a failed relocation effort. It was a high wire act for a couple of years until they learned to trust me and let me lead them into the future. My next appointment was to a congregation that had been led quite ably by a gifted pastor (and good friend of mine) for over ten years. They grieved his departure and were not ready to welcome me with open arms. Many left the church which broke my heart. Fortunately many stayed. This experience sent me to my knees and forced to be very clear about why I was in ministry. There were also magnificent victories at that same appointment. I came away from my ministry in Sugar Land grateful for the chance to have served there and more mature in my understanding of what it means to be in ministry.
Through it all I have learned to believe in the gifts God has given me and to trust my instincts. Given my background that was a lesson I needed to learn. Having said that, I have experienced glorious failures. I have learned in those moments to be real and vulnerable and most of the time you are able to learn from them and move courageously into the future.
6. What types of strategies would you emphasize to accomplish the mission of the church in two
areas: To strengthen the annual conference? To increase the number of healthy, vital congregations that effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ?
As Bishop I would lead my conference in getting clear about two things: what it is that makes our conference unique (identity) and what it is God is calling us to in reaching our mission field for Jesus Christ (mission). I would approach coming into a conference in much the same way I approached a church as a new pastor or a district as a superintendent. I would take steps to learn the mission field. That means taking the time to get into the churches. Learning about their struggles and their hopes for themselves and their conference. It also means learning about the communities that comprise the conference. Who is in the conference’s mission field? What are its demographics? With whom are the churches in the conference connecting and who are we missing? And why? What are the strengths of the area and what are its struggles? History is important as it creates context for understanding the mission field today and what the future holds. I would learn that history. Just as a new pastor does in a church, evaluating leadership is also crucial. Asking the Jim Collins question: who is on the bus and are they in the right seats? In my leadership style I have found I need around me a combination of folks with whom I can serve. I feed off of creative people. I love sitting down and bouncing around ideas. Lots of which get rejected while others lead to incredible new possibilities. I also need practical administrators who can sit down with me and hammer out the details of moving into the future. Like most people, I am drawn to positive people who enjoy life and approach doing ministry joyfully. Budgets matter. As with the finances of an individual, how a conference structures its budget speaks volumes about its priorities. My desire would be to see a conference budget that puts emphasis on starting new churches and strengthening existing churches. My desire also would be to have a conference staff that is organized around starting new churches and supporting existing ones. As one who has started a church both as pastor and superintendent I know what it takes for a successful launch. As superintendent, I have seen churches in my district revitalized by working carefully with the leaders and through mission field appointment making. I would do the same thing as Bishop.
There may be no more important job for a Bishop than the making of appointments. I am committed to the idea of making mission field appointments. This is a different approach to appointment making than has been practiced for many years. Rather than making appointments based on years of service or some “good old boy” philosophy, this is an approach that puts the emphasis on the mission field (communities) in which churches are located. The goal of mission field appointment making is to place the pastor who is best equipped to lead a church to serve its mission field. Making such appointments demands a deep knowledge of a pastor’s history, strengths and weaknesses as well as a deep knowledge of the churches and their mission fields. Understanding both the pastors and the churches is in part driven by the metrics of their ministry. But it’s not just about numbers. It is also about knowing the stories. What are those significant events that define the landscape of their history and who they are today? As superintendent I have developed an understanding of how to make appointments in this way and as Bishop would work with my superintendents in living into it.
Clearly the driver of any efforts to move a conference forward, create growth, and lead new people into a relationship with Christ is not the newest fad in business practice. We must ground our efforts on the wisdom of the scripture, the power found in prayer, and the guidance of the Spirit. As it says in the Psalms: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.”
7. One of the greatest struggles in appointment making is access to sufficient numbers of effective clergy. How would you work to recruit new, effective clergy? How would you address the issue of ineffective clergy? If a pastor has been asked by two or more churches to be moved due to his/her ineffectiveness, how will you handle the situation?
I spoke a little about recruiting new, effective clergy in my response to question four. I would simply add that some of the strategies I have seen work effectively in our conference include a program which engages senior high young people in a way that helps them grow in their faith and begin to explore their own sense of call, a conference funded college pastoral intern program which gives college students the opportunity to experience ministry in a local church setting, and more. Again, I am very clear that these are strategies adopted in our own conference does not necessarily mean I would seek to replicate them in other conferences. I offer them only as examples of what can be done.
Sometimes we do have churches being led by pastors who are simply ineffective. In those situations conference leadership should provide counselling, coaching, spiritual refreshment, and continuing education that will equip them to do the work of ministry. Where a pastor demonstrates chronic ineffectiveness, options can be explored to find other ministry pursuits more consistent with his or her ministry gifts. Where no path can be found, the Discipline provides multiple ways of exiting ordained ministry that minimizes the difficulty of that transition. I know that exiting a pastor for ineffectiveness against their will is very difficult. Given that it must ultimately be affirmed by the whole of the executive session, the Bishop, cabinet, conference staff, Conference relations committee, and the Board of Ministry must be on the same page about the criteria for such action.
A former superintendent whom I respect once described his biggest challenge with his pastors not to be incompetence or immorality or even lack of training. His biggest problem was that they were just lazy. I have thought a lot about that and I really don’t believe that is true of most clergy. While some pastors truly simply do not want to do the work, I have come to the conclusion that we have many pastors who’s hearts have been broken one time too many. There were simply too many times there wasn’t enough money, enough volunteers, or enough vision to see what God can do in and through their church. After a while they just throw in the towel. My prayer as Bishop would be to inspire pastors to return to their first love and dare to be bold and creative in their leadership. My hope would be to model it in my own leadership in the conference and to create an environment in which pastors are willing to risk glorious failure trying to do something great rather than quietly slip into irrelevance. I believe there are churches yearning for that kind of leadership some of which may not even know it!
Sometimes when pastors are struggling, the problem has to do with what is happening in the church they are serving. In the life of a church, the membership can become so focused on themselves. Their priorities can be more about protecting the status quo and not doing serious kingdom work. Consequently, they push back on any leader who tries to challenge them to step out of their comfort zones. When this is the case, in the same way it is important to identify issues pastors are having, it is equally important for conference leadership to work with church leaders to identify their issues and, where appropriate, utilize strategies to return them to their first love. As a District Superintendent I have worked with churches in those situations. Churches have found it helpful. I would seek to lead my conference in doing the same thing as a Bishop.
8. Describe how you work in partnership with laity in the planning and execution of ministry.
It may be self-evident but without the laity there is no church. Throughout the years of my ministry I have marveled at the faithfulness of so many laypeople. I am fully aware that while ordination is a high calling, those who do ministry simply out of their love for it share a nobility those of us who are clergy can only fondly recall from the days before our ordination. This is particularly true of those who, as they fulfill all the other demands of their day to day lives, give it up in countless ways to lead the church for kingdom work. As a preacher’s kid, I saw the church from the perspective of the pastor over and over again. It wasn’t until I began to date the woman who became my wife and became close to her parents I really began to see up close and personal the dedication, sacrifices, and spiritual maturity demanded of those who serve faithfully as leaders in the church. Since then I have been blessed and truly humbled as I saw over and over God working through God’s people to make possible what I frankly thought would be impossible. I think of this quote from Parker Palmer: “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am”. This is truly what we mean when we speak of vocation. Based on their deep understanding of who they are and what God is calling them to be, God is using laity to do amazing things. I bring that deep sense of respect to my day to day interactions with laity as I seek to work around their schedules and “go to them” as often as I can.
I am a consensus builder. In the Birkman personality assessment I am green which means I am the salesman or persuader. Very rarely have I played the “because I’m the pastor and I say so” card. Having said that, I will wear that mantle of leadership when needed and I feel it’s appropriate to do so. As I write this I think of so many people in each of my churches who have blessed me in countless ways as we have partnered together to seek God’s leading for the sake of God’s church. My prayer and fervent hope is that they experienced growth and encouragement in their faith as we did our work together.
9. Describe your understanding of the inclusive nature of the church. In what ways have you lived up to and fallen short of that understanding?
The church, at its best, is an expression of the present and coming kingdom of God. An overview of the kingdom parables of Jesus reveal it to be a reality to which all people are welcomed, no matter their station or situation in life. In the kingdom all people are equally blessed. And, in the kingdom, those who had previously rejected God’s love receive the most joyous welcome upon their entrance into it. That is who we are called to be as a church. I have been blessed to experience such moments in the church when young and old, rich and poor, people of all ethnicities have come together in beautiful ways out of their love for God. As pastor I have had men, women, and persons of various ethnicities serve in leadership in both staff and lay leadership. I observe with sadness the degree to which 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. I pray our churches will one day truly reflect the human tapestry that is God’s kingdom.
Seventeen years ago my wife and I came to the decision to adopt a little girl of a different ethnicity from us. Along with the birth of our son, her introduction into our life has been an incredible blessing to us. One of those blessings was to force me to come face to face with my own “oh so subtle” prejudiced attitudes. It helped me to admit that reality in who I am as a person. As I have watched her grow I have grown with her. When I see her I see the beauty of who she is as a person as much as I see someone who doesn’t look like me. I pray for the grace to approach every person that way.
While most of the churches in my district embrace and celebrate the gifts of women in ministry, I sadly report that I have seen sexist attitudes as well. Those clergy have responded faithfully and courageously. I continue to be in conversation with those churches and be in prayer for them as they grow in their understanding of who is called and who can serve in ministry. I pray that our church would truly reflect the kingdom of God by the variety of faces working side by side to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this broken and hurting world. As for myself, I do not in any way pretend that I have arrived in this regard but instead pray that I am going on to perfection.
10. What do you feel has been the most significant contributions or differences you have made toward fulfilling our mission as a church in the local churches you have served? In your annual conference? At the general church level? Explain why.
In the late 90’s I had the opportunity to make a presentation to a General Conference mandated task force on apportionments. One of several recommendations was to allow conferences to separate payments of general and conference apportionments. The intent was to introduce some flexibility to our system. This was endorsed by the committee and ultimately passed by the General Conference. I don’t for a moment take credit for it but I was glad to be a part of the movement of thought that brought it to reality. I know this has helped us as a church. Serving as a General Conference delegate afforded me the opportunity to lead subcommittees and participate in discussion to shape language that has gone into the Discipline. In 2008 I conceived and helped organize a bicycle ride from Houston to Fort Worth to raise money for “Nothing but Nets.” This was a huge privilege, but what I came to love the most was experiencing the hospitality of the UM churches in smaller towns all along the 250 mile route. We could not have done the ride without them. The joy they exuded in serving us was an inspiration to every rider and member of the support team. It turned the ride into a holy pilgrimage. Within the Texas Conference I was a member of the committee that worked with the Bishop in envisioning the new structure we have today. Today, I am happy to serve on the Core Leadership Team of the Conference. At the local church level, the privilege of founding a new church was an amazing blessing. Today, that strong church celebrates its 25th anniversary. Finally, I think of the apostle Paul speaking of the impact he made on the lives of others as being his “credentials for ministry”. I think of young (and not so young) people who are in ministry today who are doing tremendous work. I am so proud of each of them. I am grateful for any positive impact I have had on them and regard them as my ultimate “credentials” in impacting the church and world for God’s kingdom.
11. How would you describe your personal “theology,” or the basic tenets of your personal
faith that you would never compromise? What are the aspects of United Methodist belief and doctrine that you feel should never be compromised?
As the son of a UM pastor, I grew up in the church. My theology no doubt reflects the orthodoxy of the church. It wasn’t until college, however, that the love of God became real and personal to me. The simple revelation that “God loved me enough to make me” had the power to change my life. In that moment all I had learned and experienced in the church coalesced to set me on a journey of faith that continues today. An understanding of the love of God as unconditional and universal is crucial to my theology. That love finds its highest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is through Him that we receive the gift of salvation and the hope of eternity with God. God continues to work through the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, through that Spirit the church came into being and by utilizing the gifts of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to accomplish God’s will for the church. The Spirit is God’s plan for the church. There is no Plan B. The scriptures are our authority for understanding who God is and who we are called to be in relation to God and to one another. Certainly, their application to our lives requires careful study and thoughtful interpretation. Without the Bible, we are just making it up as we go along. As followers of Jesus we are called to a life of servanthood. We are at our very best when we deny ourselves and take up the cross and follow him. The hallmarks of our theological life as United Methodists include an emphasis on grace, the gift of assurance of salvation, the promise of perfection by the power of God’s Spirit, baptism in which God is the principle actor welcoming us into the family of God, and a communion table that is welcome to all. There is obviously much more to say regarding beliefs and doctrine but the above in my mind are foundational to our faith.
12. Do you have complete support of your spouse/family in seeking the Episcopacy? Is there any health or other issue in your family that could possibly affect your ability to serve as a Bishop?
Throughout my ministry I have been blessed to have a wife and then two kids who have been and remain supportive every step of the way. It was true of us as a young couple just married heading to Ireland to pastor a three church circuit for a year. It was true when we started a new church together with a two week old son. It was true when I became a district superintendent and had to move our then 8th grade daughter. It wasn’t easy all the time but we loved one another through it. That is true of this step as well. Our son is 25 and is employed as an Emergency Medical Technician. Our daughter is 18 and will be graduating high school in May of 2016. If elected Bishop, as my wife is an educator under annual contract, she may remain in the Montgomery area to complete that contract and then join me in my place of service. No plan has been made but we are discussing it. I had a complete physical in October of last year and received a clean bill of health from my doctor. I exercise regularly and try to attend regularly to my mental, physical and spiritual well-being and wholeness.
13. Under the current rules, how many quadrennia would you be eligible to serve as bishop?
I turned 60 as of this past July 24th. Under our present rules that means I am available to serve for two quadrennia.