Thursday, January 27, 2011


I said goodbye to a good friend this week. Bodhi, my Labrador Retriever took his last breath on Tuesday afternoon after about 16 years of life. I cannot begin to express the hole in my heart. I can't really remember what it felt like to not have Bodhi in my life. Bodhi's story is so much part of my story that it is going to take me some time to reconsider my own narrative without that gentle, loving dog.

Bodhi is as much a part of my spiritual journey as any person I can think of. I live my life now as a pastor, and ordained leader in the Church of Jesus Christ. But when Bodhi entered my life, I was not - not a pastor, not a Christian, not a shadow of the person that I now am. Because I am a Christian and a pastor now, I have access to a vocabulary, words to try and explain what God was doing in my life. I now know that we were all created for a relationship with God. I also know that God reaches out to us through what we refer to as prevenient grace. That prevenient grace is God's unconditional love reaching out to us, calling to us, even when we don't know what it is or have any interest in responding to it. I believe that it was that prevenient grace of God that called me to make the most absurd decision - to get a dog. Getting a dog is not an absurd decision, unless you are a twenty-something, overachieving, self-centered, radio disc jockey who was more likely to be working an extra shift, locked up in a production studio or doing a midnight appearance at a bar than to be doing the sort of things dog owners do. In fact, I wasn't really sure what dog owners did, but it probably made sense that they were home sometimes.

With this clear thinking in mind I got the perfect dog for someone with limited time and misaligned priorities - a Labrador Retriever. Ask any lab owner, they will tell you that they take very little time and effort, once they pass age 7 or 8 or maybe 9. Going from pure bachelorhood to being charged with caring for a pure-bread, high-drive bundle of love and destruction was more of a shock to my system than becoming a father.

Bodhi changed my life. Bodhi completely changed my life. For the very first time, I had no choice but to look outside myself and learn to love and care for "the other." I had been in relationships. I had friends and girlfriends. But this was different. With friends and girlfriends, I always selfishly chose how much of myself I wanted to offer. I could alway retreat when I didn't feel I was gaining anything. But now, there was something other than me that needed me. My choices could no longer be solely based on what I wanted. There was a life that depended on me for food, exercise, training and love. If I failed to provide any of these things in a proper manner, that life would let me know in loving ways like barking, peeing on the floor, eating the leg of my table, or somehow gnawing through the drywall in the kitchen.

I didn't realize in the midst of it, how profound a change was occurring within me. Maybe Bodhi did. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, "Lord, let me be as good a person as my dog thinks I am." I don't pretend to know what really goes on in the minds of dogs. I cannot speak to what their level of understanding or "love" is. But what we receive from good dogs is a feeling of unconditional love. So, as God was reaching out to me with that prevenient grace, that unconditional love was being demonstrated to me through Bodhi. Bodhi was the all the best that a lab can be. He was fun and crazy and sweet and snuggly. In my twenties, as I was trying to understand my life and its purpose, as everything in life that I thought could bring me joy was failing me, as I was searching and searching for something I couldn't seem to find, I would get to come home to this dog who seemed to believe that the news that my returning to the house was the greatest thing that ever happened! Just the idea of getting petted, taking a little walk and throwing a Frisbee was celebrated everyday as a grand celebration. I learned years later, as I read the parable of the prodigal son that Bodhi was showing me a glimpse of the love of God and the celebration that occurs when we finally respond to God's calling to us.

Bodhi also caused, or maybe forced me to open my eyes to the world that God created. Sporting dogs like to walk. So, walk we did. We walked for miles in the woods behind the house that I moved into just before I got him. (My apartment building was a dog-free zone.) I learned the art of hiking. Bodhi and I hiked hundreds of miles together in parks and forests, streams and mountains. He introduced me to a slower way of living that allowed me to look around and take in the wonder. That walking and that wonder caused me to ask bigger questions and seek new answers.

While Bodhi forced me to reconsider my life, he was quite patient to go along for the bumpy ride of my journey. When I decided to move to Texas to figure out the next phase of my life, Bodhi hopped in the truck. When I decided that might not have been the right choice, Bodhi climbed in again and joined me for a two-week cross-country camping trip. When I decided to head back to Austin, he was right by my side. When I came home from my baptism, he greeted me with the same tail wag and famous bunny hop that greeted me every day. When I first felt a calling to full-time ministry, he joined me for a week in the woods of the back country of New Mexico as I sorted through what God was doing in my life. So are dogs just incredibly resilient or do they just see the big picture?

As I consider the events of my life since my twenties, I can picture where Bodhi was. If he wasn't next to me, I can tell you where I had to leave him - in the kennel at the house while I was at work, in the boarding kennel if I had to fly away, at my sister's house for my first semester of seminary. It is going to take me a while to get my brain not to leave that bookmark. As I write this in a hotel in Dallas, I am catching my brain checking in... he is in good hands, but I can't locate him.

In the second half of his life Bodhi got a new job. He was still my dog but he took to a different role. When I met my wife Alisha, Bodhi was crazy about her, like she was supposed to be there. Just after our marriage, Alisha had major surgery. I think Bodhi decided that his major work was done with me and I am pretty sure he spent most of the rest of his life taking care of her. I know some people doubt exactly how far the intelligence and sensitivities of dogs goes, but dog experts make a pretty good case for the power of canine instincts and perception. Ask the owner of a good dog, dogs like to have a job. Bodhi glued to her side. Bodhi was part of changing who I was and when it became necessary, he changed to take care of the one I love. As his bones grew older, he was much more suited to snuggling and napping than running and hiking.

When I preside at funerals, I almost always begin with a prayer asking God to help us to move beyond our regrets surrounding the one we have lost. I ask God to to remove the regret for things we wish we had done for or with the person but didn't. I ask God to remove the regret things we said or did that we wish we hadn't. I just regret that I didn't offer Bodhi back as much grace as he offered me. Not just for his sake, but for mine. I could have stopped on our walk to let him smell one more thing. We could have taken more trips to the lake or ocean. I could have spent hours and hours more rubbing his ears. He would have enjoyed it and I would have been a better human being. But the love of Bodhi reflects the grace of God, he didn't love me more or less because of who I was or what I did.

I am so grateful to God for Bodhi. It will take a long time to fill that space in my heart, in my mind and in my life. But I was truly blessed to have such a friend.

Monday, January 24, 2011

More on Small Groups

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our need to really clarify our language surrounding the concept of "small groups." (See How does one declare a moratorium?) The post, curiously, caused someone to accuse me of being arrogant. I say curiously because, by the standard used, the entire blog should cause one to think me arrogant. The blog is my place for clarity. I tend to be a lot more nuanced in conversation. Anyway, that is beside the point. I was talking about "small groups." Brian Jones has taken the discussion a step further over on the blog In his post "Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups" he doesn't claim it be be a language or clarity issue. He just thinks church initiated small groups don't work. I guess there is a place for clarity here. He is not saying that small groups of people can't get together and walk together on a journey of discipleship. He is just saying that planned and programmed and measured and controlled by the church, this isn't a viable way to make disciples.

I will need to reread and digest the entire post before I say that I agree with everything the author says but I heartily agree with this paragraph:

"The Achilles’ heel of the modern-day small group movement is simple: Small groups don’t create disciples; disciples create disciples. And modern-day small groups are led, for the most part, by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves."

Head over to the post and read it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups at



Wednesday, January 19, 2011


It is time for my annual January "Oh my! Why did I agree to do all this stuff this month?" post. (See last year's "Whew!" post.)

It does indeed happen to me every year that I get through Christmas only to get crushed by the January calendar. I will eventually learn to answer the question "what if we just wait until January?" with "NO!!!"

The hard part is that all of this stuff is great stuff and I enjoy almost all of it. (Almost - really, there just are parts of the job that aren't fun.) Here is some of the cool stuff I get to do in January.

I recently got back from two days at Mt. Wesley. I am a Liaison Pastor for the final year of our Covenant Connection process. It is the final year for this group of ordination candidates and the final year for this version of the process. It has been replaced by something called Residency in Ministry. You can read all about Covenant Connection in an earlier post: Covenant Connection... from the Other Side. Long story short, I get to hang out with some of the folks who may be ordained this year as Elders and Deacons and they are gifted and talented pastors who have so much to add to our Annual Conference and the Church Universal. The Liaison pastors are part of the process of mentoring and evaluating them but we also get to learn a lot from them.

On the subject of ordination, this week I will also lead a small group interview team to evaluate some ordination candidates in the area of theological understanding. Every candidate has to submit written answers to some significant theological questions. We are talking about around 35 pages of answers to questions on doctrine and theology in The United Methodist Church. It includes theoretical and practical application on issues like atonement, christology and sacraments. If you happen to be a theology geek, this is fun, but still difficult stuff. My group has five interviews tomorrow. The interviews are fascinating and include a little pressure. The recommendation of this group is one of the components the Board of Ordained Ministry looks at in its final decision on ordination for each candidate

With that behind me, I get to head to Dallas for another meeting with the Leadership Network Leadership Development Community. It is always a blessing to get to work with Leadership Network and the amazing churches they pull together for these learning communities. This one has already been exceptionally fruitful as we consider how our Pathway to Discipleship is part of our overall plan to help raise up Christian disciples and leaders.

Oh, and there is more. This Sunday is the launch of Confirmation Classes. With Pastor Ryan Barnett heading out on sabbatical, I will be leading the class this year. Again, fun! But a little daunting. I have taught plenty of individual confirmation classes but this will be my first time through leading the charge. Fortunately Pastor Ryan has left behind his time tested curriculum and pattern. Nobody panic.

January also means the launch of a number of things in our Pathway to Discipleship. The Forum, our online Message Phase offering begins with orientation this evening and a new semester of New Testament Survey begins soon. My staff is working hard on another u|connect this Sunday as well as the launch of Alpha and our first West Campus Jesus 101.

But, as it always does, January will come to and end. But then in February, I will be again preaching every week. Again, what of my favorite things to do. But, I'll need to pace myself.

So, I will see you around the church. And, if I haven't returned your email, you may want to send it again. I am a little behind.



Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How does one declare a moratorium?

I don't quite have the status within the Church or even within my denomination to declare a moratorium on the use of a term, but perhaps I can suggest one. I would like to recommend that we stop using the term "small group" especially without further clarification. Here is why. I have no idea what anyone is talking about anymore. I see in blogs, on twitter and in numerous other sources of endless wisdom, quotes like this:

"Small groups are essential for building community in your church."
"Discipleship development is most effective in the context of small groups."
"Small groups are the key to church growth."
"The only way to create relationships in a large church is through small groups."

Here is the problem. Any one of these statements may contain truth. However, without knowing what exactly is meant by the term "small group," these statements could mean a lot of things.

Is the focus of the group fellowship, faith formation, Bible study, accountability? Is there a focus at all? Is the group self-driven or is there a facilitator? Is the facilitator trained? Are we talking about a self-selected group, a group generated through random sign ups, something created through a complex computer system? Are these open groups or closed groups? Is there an expected life-span for the groups or do they go on indefinitely? Are they based on geography, or life-stage, or hair color?

Don't get me wrong, in asking for a moratorium on the term, I am NOT asking for a break from the concept. There are churches doing some amazing ministry with small groups. But, there is an essential element involved. Churches who have effective small groups have identified the purpose and designed them to accomplish that purpose. For instance, if the purpose of a small group is to deepen member's level of discipleship, a church would have to ask some questions? Are the leaders of the groups disciples themselves? Have them been adequately trained and given adequate resources to lead? A church successful with this model would know that small groups don't make disciples, it is what happens within those groups. What if the purpose of a church's small groups was simply to create new relationships? The church would have to ask, do we have leaders who are good at helping people to get to know one another? Do we have a way of connecting people to these groups? (Otherwise it is likely they will be made up of people already in relationship.) Do we allow these groups to remain together for a long time or, for the purpose of creating new relationships is this a dynamic process?

What can get confusing about small groups is in the difference between products and by-products. We use this distinction in evaluating the effectiveness of different ministries at University. The products are the intentional output of a ministry. The by-products are the other things that might happen, that might be great but aren't the central purpose. For example, if we were to have an evangelism event at the church, the product (main purpose) might be measured on how many new people we go to meet and talk to. The by-product might be that be that we have a really great time with the people we already know. When the event is over, it is really easy to measure the wrong thing. "Well, we didn't meet anyone knew, but is sure was fun. We should do it again next year."

If the intended product (main purpose) of a small group is disciple formation, its success needs to be evaluated in terms of that. I realize it is hard to quantify growth as a disciple, but we can certainly ask questions related to how people are growing in their Christian journey. However, just looking at the narrative and accepting "we have all become really good friends" as success is measuring the wrong thing. It is great that people have become friends but was that what you were trying to do?

I think a lot about this because University does not have a "small group" program. However, people do meet together in small table groups throughout our Pathway to Discipleship; people do gather on Sunday morning in groups for Sunday school; and we do have a fairly decent number of organic small groups that organize and meet on their own. These groups have different purposes and the ones that we do organize are organized around those purposes and measured based on the intended purpose. In our Pathway to Discipleship, we are attempting to evaluate whether or not the program is helping people to "look to Jesus and look like Jesus." That is hard to quantify but there are questions we can ask. The overall goal of the Pathway is to connect people to their Jesus Mission. We can ask, are people serving in the Kingdom and using their God given gifts?

There is now another dimension to this discussion at University. In launching our west campus, West U, there is another need and another purpose for a small gathering of people. In the launch of a new church, there is a need to create community. This is especially important and challenging because you are basically creating a community of people from scratch. At West U, The Pathway to Discipleship will remain the primary way we develop disciples. Under the direction of West U's lead pastor, Adam Knight, we will use small groups primarily for community building. With this purpose (product) in mind Adam is forming groups in a particular way. There is a need to be intentional. They are not going to be based on Bible study or discipleship, we do that in other places. They are going to be designed around leaders and activities that build community. The initial plan includes meeting twice a month - once for simply fellowship and the other for some form of community building mission endeavor. This is new ground, so we don't know how it is going to work. But, we do what were are looking for, so we should be able to figure out how to measure effectiveness.

Okay, so you can keep using the term. But, in doing so, also tell us what you are talking about. What is the purpose? What is the intended outcome? What does it look like? And, how do you know if it working?



Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reading the Bible in a Year

I have recently seen lots of tweets and posts and yielded a fair number of questions on the topic of reading the Bible through in a year. It is a common resolution and one likely a little less successful than weight loss or watching less television.

If you are setting out to read Genesis through Revelation this year, I suggest a visit to Jon Acuff's SCL website and read:

Already being behind on your read through the Bible in a year plan.

If you have indeed already fallen behind or if you have decided to put it off until next year or if you have decided it sounds like a good idea but is never going to happen, here is another thought: What about an opportunity to read the grand, sweeping narrative of the Bible and to experience the the stories and chronology of the work of God and of God's people in the words of scripture? What if you could do that in about twelve weeks? What if you could do that in community so that you could hold yourself accountable to get it done plus have a chance to learn a little bit more of what is behind the words, share your thoughts and questions and discuss new insights? What if there was only one meeting at the church and the rest of the course could be done online on your own schedule?

Well then... join us for The Forum a core course in the Message Phase of the Pathway to Discipleship. There is one required meeting at the church on January 16th at 5:30pm or January 19th at 7pm. The rest of the course will take place online for 12 weeks starting the week of the 26th. The cost of the course is $15 which includes a copy of The Story, the text we will use.

You can register online (soon) at or email Elizabeth at