Speaking difficult truths to friends

As a Christian, have you ever had those times when you thought, “I can’t speak that hard-to-hear truth to my friend. That could cause a rupture in our relationship. Or lead to future awkwardness…”?

I certainly have.  Especially since I tend to be a harmonizer — someone who looks for concensus and doesn’t enjoy conflict.

Grace and truth are held together in Jesus Christ (John 1:17).  But let’s be honest, most of us are better at extending grace than speaking difficult truths in love to those we love.

One of my former seminary professors prodded me in this area with his challenging words below.  While his words are directed to pastors, they easily apply to all Christians.  This excerpt was drawn from an 11,000 word theological discussion on facebook (yes, things like that tend to show up on your mini-feed when you’re friends with professors).

A young Methodist preacher
La Iglesia Evangelica Metodista El Buen Samaritano in Nicaragua

“After one sermon I preached at a friend’s church, I noticed the pastor and his wife, who are dear dear friends, were silent.

Finally, I asked, “You did not like that sermon did you?”

He said, “It was too ‘Christ against culture’.”

She said, “It did not sound like you.”

That is the point, I thought.

The message is the word of God and sometimes the Scriptures lead us where we do not want to go and say things that we do not want to say. Every honest pastor feels the contradiction between his life and the message he is called to preach.

Anytime we render a judgment about the good someone is going to feel the sting.

To use Luther’s language, some will hear it as gospel that liberates and delights and others will hear it as law that condemns because it names an omission or a commission.

As a Christian, submitting to the Lordship of Christ fundamentally means that no element of our lives is off limits. All aspects are subject to his judgment. And because we all have sined and fallen short, all of us will feel the sting of God’s judgment – a sting intended to call us to repentance and the joy of grace.

Sins such as gluttony are forms of the world’s brokenness. When we name such and such actions or thoughts as sin we name that brokenness, that disordered love that is in need of healing and reordering.

The prophetic office entails naming sin, naming the brokenness of the world (and declaring God’s good will for his creation), however painful it is to say and for them to hear. But the good pastor/prophet in compassion is with her people in their brokenness.”

Do you have trouble speaking truth in love?  Have you ever had an experience where this went much worse than expected?  Better?

How do United Methodist pastors end up at their churches?

“How many times did you worship at the church before you went on staff?  Once, twice?” asked a friend the other day.

“Zero,” I replied.


“It’s a bit complicated, but let me try and explain how United Methodist churches work…”

I’ve had the above conversation many times recently.  Most of my friends from high school and college are members of Presbyterian, Baptist, or non-denominational churches.  Explaining how a pastor ends up at a church in those traditions is similar to how anyone else in America ends up at a job—you’re open for a position, you find openings at churches you’d like to serve, you interview and send in reference materials, a group at the church gives you an offer, and you decide whether to accept or keep looking.

To understand how pastors end up at United Methodist churches, forget all of that.

Churches in the UMC receive new pastors through a system called itinerancy.  Itinerancy is a system of church organization in which ministers are sent to local churches by a Bishop and are regularly rotated from one to another.  Ministers and Bishops are all part of a geographically organized conference (mine is North GA), which is broken down further into districts.  The conference limits where a Bishop can appoint each pastor to serve.

The appointments aren’t random—every year the Bishop and District Superintendents consult with those like me seeking a pastoral appointment and with each church in the conference.  Through much prayer and conferencing, they then seek to determine where to send pastors so that the UMC can best live out its mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The gifts of the pastor, his or her family/life situation, the needs of a local church, the needs of the denomination, and many other factors are involved in the process.

Bishops send pastors to their churches in the UMC
Bishop Mike Watson of the North GA Conference. Photo courtesy of NGUMC.org

Typically, pastors find out where they’re sent via a phone call in the spring.  Some are sent far away, some are sent to a church nearby, and some are asked to stay where they are.  Those moving begin to envision life and ministry at a church they’ve never visited.  One week in June, all the pastors who have been appointed to new churches move and begin ministry at their new churches.  All appointments are made for only a year at a time.  However, the average length of a UM pastor is around four years.  There is also a trend towards longer appointments.  You can read more about the current itinerant system here.

Many Methodist Churches in Britain, Central America, and all over the world continue to use this system that has a historical basis from Methodism’s earliest days.

The UMC website sums up the history well.  “John Wesley began the itinerant system during his work in England. Wesley developed circuits for his assistants to travel, each of which included a large number of appointments. Preachers visited these appointments about once a month and changed circuits from year to year, depending on the current circumstances.”

Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. Established 1839. Wilmore, KY.

On American soil, itinerancy adapted to the conditions at hand.  Traveling preachers became known as circuit riders as they rode from one outpost to another helping organize, lead, and perform the sacraments for groups of Christians across the frontier. This system enabled Methodist preachers to reach new settlements quickly.  The rapid growth of Methodism throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in America can be partly attributed to this form of organization.

“We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.” – John Wesley

If you are still reading at this point and you’re not a Methodist, you are probably thinking, “What a crazy system!”

If you are a Methodist congregant, you are probably thinking, “I’ve seen a lot of itinerant preachers come and go.  I’ve seen some crazy ones and many gifted ones.  I’m just thankful that we’ve never had a time without a pastor and that this church isn’t dependent on one person.”

If you are a Methodist pastor, perhaps like me you are thinking, “Lord, this itinerant system is counter to a culture that tells us to do what we want, look out for ourselves, and never submit to authorities.  I’ve placed myself in the hands of your church—in its beauty and brokenness.  I’m trusting that the Holy Spirit is present in the appointment process and that you are actively working all things together for good.  Give me strength, peace, joy, and a renewed love for you and your people as I travel to a new place.”

In the future I hope to write about the strengths and weaknesses of the itinerant system.  For non-Methodists, what do you think about this system?  For Methodists, how have you found living within this system?

My first full-time position in ministry

Last Tuesday, Bishop Mike Watson licensed me to be an Assistant Pastor at Hamilton Mill United Methodist Church in Dacula, Georgia!

My role on staff will largely center around discipleship—introducing new people to Christ and his call for a new way of life and helping those who have already placed their faith in Christ follow him more faithfully.  I will oversee the small group ministry, facilitate opportunities for people to participate in God’s mission in the community, and serve on the pastoral team in many other capacities.  If all of that sounds somewhat vague… it’s because the Senior Pastor of the church and I are still discussing the vision for this new role.

Hamilton Mill UMC was started 16 years ago, leading it to be a rather young United Methodist church.  The church is located on I-85 twenty-five miles north of Atlanta.  It is in an area that has experienced rapid growth in the last 20 years.  Currently, around 1,000 people worship there each week.  Many of them have already made me feel welcome by donating furniture to my barren rental home (facebook and hospitality are to thank for that hookup)!

Everything moving from Durham to GA fit in that little box. Sharing an old house with five others helps cut down the need for many househould items.

The founding pastor, Dr. David Davis, continue to serve as Senior Pastor and has already made me feel welcome and like an integral part of the staff and church community.  I’m beyond excited to be in a place where I am part of a team of ministers.  One of my desires for my first full-time position in ministry was to be in a place where I could be mentored into ministry by others with years of experience.  Hamilton Mill UMC is an environment that provides exactly that.

Those who talked with me throughout my last year at seminary know that the above description is the type of situation I prayed for and desired for this next season of ministry.  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort!

I have one request for you as I share this joyful announcement.  Please keep me in your prayers as I enter my first full-time position in pastoral ministry.

And feel free to visit the church when you’re in the area, or make it your community of faith if you live nearby.

Things John Wesley never said

This is the second post in a series: “Wesley – The man, the myth, the legend

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, as long as ever you can.”

“Set yourself on fire with passion and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.

“Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. Thy creatures bless and grant that we, may feast in paradise with Thee. Amen.”

People regularly attribute these four quotes to John Wesley. You may have seen them on t-shirts, printed on materials in your church, used them in your sermons, or tweeted them out.

Yet, none of them were written by John Wesley, and there is no record that he said any of them either.

Mis-quotes like these have great staying power. “Wesley’s Rule” (Do all the good you can…) was first attributed to John Wesley in 1904 and has found its way into quote books ever since.

The internet has only helped spread such mis-quotes further. Although we now have better access than ever to historical archives, the abundance of information online leads many of us to trust information that is repeated often and communicated by people we respect. The “set yourself on fire” quote is a particular favorite in the twittersphere due to its length, which is < 140 characters.  See the latest tweets and how they all seem to somehow modify this fake quote here.

The above information may make some of you feel the same way you did on the day when your elementary school friend told you that he saw his parents sneak into his room and place a half-dollar under his pillow after losing a tooth.

For consolation, I offer a word from a scholar who has spent his life debunking Wesley myths and providing the church and academy with new insights about the great man of faith.  Heitzenrater has written, “Many of the quotations cited to Wesley simply sound like something he might have said or written, rather than being something he actually expressed.”

See, even the expert cuts you some slack for believing them.

Mis-quotes like the ones above may not be true in the historical sense, but often they align with principles found throughout Wesley’s writings that we can apply to our world today.  Doing good, being full of passion for the gospel, exhibiting charity to others, and giving blessings for God’s gifts to us are all great things Wesley that Wesley promoted.

Even so, as I mentioned in the first post in this series, we must be wary of re-creating Wesley for our own purposes. Cherry picking quotes from his works—quotes that may be way out of context or even historically inaccurate—are a quick and easy way to fall into this trap.

Below is a portion of an interview I did with Richard Heitzenrater where we discussed his encounters with misinformation associated with Wesley. Here, he discusses some of the most common items he comes across and how he has handled such situations:

[Read more…]

Lake Atitlán :: Guatemala, Central America

One year ago I traveled to Central America to learn Spanish and work with the Evangelical Methodist Church of El Salvador.

I had a life changing summer as I learned a new language, embraced a new culture, and made many new friends — both inside and outside of the church.  I knew little about the countries I was headed to before I left.  However, one friend told me that I HAD to make it to Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán) while in Guatemala.  This advice was confirmed when I found Lake Atitlan listed in the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die” while I was packing my bags.

My friends and I made it to Lake Atitlán. We were not disappointed.  The crystal blue water of the lake fills the cone of a collapsed volcano, leading it to be the deepest lake in Central America.  The lake is surrounded by three volcanoes and over a dozen villages in which Mayan culture still holds strong.  Aldous Huxley once wrote of Atitlán, “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”  There is no telling how many photos and paintings have been made of this beautiful place.

While the city of Panajachel is the hot-spot for most tourists in the area, we stayed in the village of Santa Cruz at La Iguana Perdida.  Santa Cruz is only accessible by boat, and our hotel offered us spectacular views in a fun Euro-Hostel setting.  Throughout our time on the lake, we traveled by boat to many of the villages, relaxed, and enjoyed perfect weather.  My friends were also kind enough to spend sunrise and sunset alongside of me and my tripod.

I’ve included some of my favorite photos from Lake Atitlán below.

But before you look at them I’d love for you to know a little more about why I love photography. Lately, I’ve felt the need to more fully integrate my photography with the theological content of my blog.  Perhaps one day I’ll write a post detailing how my photography fits into my work as a Christian and future pastor.  For now, I’ll let this quote from John Calvin explain why I love taking photos, particularly ones of nature:

Wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his [God’s] glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness. The reason why the author of The Letter to the Hebrews elegantly calls the universe the appearance of things invisible (Heb. 11:3) is that this skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible. (Institutes, I.V.1)


Two out of Three






Santa Cruz Dock


Sunrise at Santa Cruz


An early morning


Above Santa Cruz


Santa Cruz Night