Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” comic routine is one of those timeless classics. (For you younger readers, look it up on youtube.) The back and forth conversation gets confusing because they are saying the same thing, but mean something different. One makes a statement, while the other uses the same words but it comes out as a question. While hilarious in their presentation, it kind of reminds me of some conversations among church leadership. But it’s not so funny then. It’s irritating and frustrating.
Recently, Bishop Whitfield announced changes in roles and responsibilities here in New Mexico. I can tell by the questions people have asked that there are some people who feel like they are caught in a “Who’s on first?” conversation. In this blog I will try to offer a bit of clarity. Bill Sylskar is no longer the Director of Mission and Administration – he is now the Superintendent for Congregational Vitality. I am still the Albuquerque District Superintendent, but also Provost of the Annual Conference. What does this mean? Wait … “What” is on second … right?!?
First, Bill takes on a role that has been discussed for many years. There have been many conversations stating that it would be extremely beneficial to have a cabinet level position that was primarily dedicated to resourcing congregations and pastors to help them better fulfill our common mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Bill will give greater time and energy to things like Healthy Church Initiative and provide guidance and leadership regarding issues of local church sustainability.
Second, I take on responsibilities as a Provost. While this is a term typically used in a university setting, it also has uses in church world. For the purposes of the New Mexico Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, it is a role that includes responsibilities of the former Director of Mission and Administration position but then expands to serve as a bridge between the programmatic/administrative work of the Annual Conference and the work of the Bishop and Superintendents.
For example, supervision of conference office staff is now my responsibility – a typical Director of Mission and Administration job. But I am also working to design instruments and coordinate efforts of the Superintendents for greater supervision of pastors and congregations. That is a Provost responsibility.
Ultimately, the role of Provost is to align all of the Annual Conference’s energy and resources so that local churches and pastors and lay people can more effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ. There is no other mission.
It’s a red 2003 Honda Shadow, American Classic Edition, 750 cc. Hearing of someone getting one of these at 51 years old and not having owned one before can raise interesting rumors and opinions. As fun as it would be to entertain those here, let me cut to the chase: I rode a motorcycle throughout my teenage years and always knew that someday I would have a motorcycle again. I was not shopping for it, but this deal literally fell into my lap and I could not pass it up.
But that’s not really the point of this.
The first time I rode the thing on the streets of Albuquerque I was getting “the wave” from other motorcyclists. You have probably noticed it. When approaching another motorcycle on the road the riders extend their left arm outward at about a 45 degree angle toward the road. There are variations of the wave and there is truly etiquette to it. (Feel free to read articles by googling “motorcycle wave etiquette.”)
What struck me in the first few minutes was that I was already accepted. Riders on cruisers and crotch rockets, ape hangers and trikes, tattooed or completely covered in state-of-the-art protective wear: they all waved at me. It is a sign of the motorcycle rider “brotherhood and sisterhood” (according to one of those aforementioned articles). Just like that. Get on a bike. Ride down the street. And I am “in” with the rider crowd. And parking next to a fellow rider in a parking lot almost always turns into a conversation about your bike, what modifications you have made, how long you have been riding, etc.
That’s a big contrast to an experience a few weeks ago. Thanks to a friend of a friend, I had the opportunity to golf with some guys at a local country club. When we made the turn (finished the 9th hole and got ready to play the back 9– for non-golfers) we went into the club house to get a snack and a drink to carry with us. As we walked through the room toward the counter almost every conversation stopped and everyone watched us walk through. No one said a word to us. It was hard to shake the feeling that we had stepped into territory that was not ours and that we did not belong.
You already know where I’m going with this … What is the experience of a person walking into your church for the first time? Is that person immediately greeted and accepted as another “rider” through this life? Or is that person stared down because he/she is not a member of the club? Since you cannot control the other people in your church, I hope you (yes, you, the one reading this) will take it on as a personal initiative to genuinely welcome people at your church regardless of how they look, smell, act, speak, or otherwise present themselves. It might just change a life – maybe yours.
I remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t know many people at my school and I had not yet played many sports. In the usual games played at recess two teams would be picked by two of the better/stronger leaders. There were a few times that I was the last one picked. For those of you have been the last one picked you know how embarrassing and demoralizing that is – especially when it happens multiple times.
That kind of experience sometimes gets internalized in a way that turns into an inferiority complex. A person begins to develop a self-identity of worthlessness and that he/she has no value among others. This influences not only any kind of future ambitions, but also changes how he/she behaves in the present moment – any situation can easily be seen as reinforcement of their already inferior self-identity and a self-fulfilling downward spiral gains momentum.
A common sentiment expressed in the wake of being the “open” area to be served by interim bishops has been something like, “Why are we always the ones to get the bad end of the deal?!? The bigger annual conferences always get their way! New Mexico and Northwest Texas is the bottom of the barrel!”
These kinds of comments presuppose, of course, that the current situation is bad. The other thing that is suggested by these comments is that there are some in the NWTX/NM area that have an inferiority complex about our area.
It IS true that we are the smallest annual conference in the jurisdiction. It IS true that we are in the top 2 or 3 in terms of declining membership in the jurisdiction. It IS true that we have one of the lowest “Shared Ministries” (apportionments) payouts in the jurisdiction. I will not try to deny these facts nor try to put a positive spin on them.
But I am not willing to let these things define me and my ministry. I am not willing to let these facts influence the way I approach my calling. I am not willing to internalize these things in a way that diminishes the emphasis on the true mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ.
New Mexico and Northwest Texas Annual Conferences stand at a unique crossroads. While we will have excellent leadership by interim Bishops Hutchinson and Solomon, we also have the opportunity to step up. To rise above. To take some initiative. There is more than one possible response to “being picked last.” We can face the challenge. We can work to be better. And that is something that each individual must decide – regardless of who is Bishop. Maybe this is just the opportunity we needed.
I have chosen to be pretty quiet on Facebook this past week for several reasons. One, my to-do list was pretty darn long and involved. Two, I was still worn out from Jurisdictional Conference (and it doesn’t work well for me to say things when I’m tired – I tend to sound angry). But mostly, it was because I was not sure what I wanted to write about being the “open” area that would be led by an interim Bishop. Certainly, there were many people who wrote many things – some things were even relatively accurate and hopeful. And being on the South Central Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee means that I was on the inside during the entire week of the conference. But I can say very little. There are rules about personnel issues, you know. Things you cannot say. I find it interesting that most people think this is a great idea when it pertains to their own employment, but when it involves someone else they think its dumb and think information should be shared.
So, what can I share about the events and decisions of Jurisdictional Conference? I’m reminded of a Chinese Proverb. A wealthy man bought a prized horse. His friends came over to celebrate and congratulate him. He responded, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse escaped the corral and ran into the mountains. The friends returned to lament. “We’ll see,” he said again. A few days later the prized horse returned from the mountains with 20 wild mustangs. The friends showed up again to celebrate. “We’ll see.” The man’s son went to work with the horses to train them and one kicked him so hard it broke his leg. The friends cried and lamented. “We’ll see.” A few weeks later war broke out in the countryside and the government went house-to-house to take able-bodied young men and enlist them in the army. The man’s son was not forced to go to war because of his broken leg. “We’ll see.”
There are many variables surrounding Bishop Bledsoe’s status whether his appeal is rejected or sustained. And unfortunately there is nothing to be done or decided on that issue until the Judicial Council has made its ruling. So, I am not going down any one of those paths yet: what if? what if? what if? On the other hand, I am deeply grateful that we have the opportunity to be led by Bishops Dan Solomon and Bill Hutchinson. These are two of the most respected Bishops in our Jurisdiction and their influence has been felt beyond our neck of the woods. We are surely in good hands.
Am I disappointed that we are the “open” area? Yes. Did we get the short end of the stick? No. Am I worried about future developments. No. Am I confident that we can do effective ministry in the here and now? Yes. But on so many other things I guess my reply is, “We’ll see.”
Stay tuned – I’ll say more in the coming days.