Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday Letter to the President

10 December 2013
Dear Mr. President:

My name is John Feagins, and I am pastor of La Trinidad United Methodist Church, a Mexican-American congregation in San Antonio, Texas founded in 1876.

Before answering the call to ministry, I studied Physics.  A chance opportunity allowed me to visit with the late Dr. Edward Teller at Livermore National Laboratory.  Dr. Teller spoke about the development of the “Nuclear Deterrent” and the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction.”

That conversation shook me.  I perceived that something had seared Dr. Teller’s conscience, allowing him to see the H-Bomb as a deterrent or utilitarian instrument rather than a potential doomsday weapon exceeding the holocaust in destructive potential.

His lecture and the personal conversation following played a big part in my decision to leave Physics and pursue Christian ministry. 

The matter of nuclear weapons is particularly important because our society, with each new generation, is losing its sense of urgency and anxiety regarding these weapons and the risks they still pose our planet and human civilization.

This holiday season, I write in the Spirit of the Prince of Peace, to encourage an examination of the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” that forms the warrant for producing and maintaining an arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

I believe the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” is obsolete.  It assumes the enemy is a nuclear state, geographically and culturally defined rather than a movement among a few individuals.  It assumes that such a state represents the culture and values of its people, that it values the lives of those people, and that its people are accountable for the actions of their government, in essence, that the enemy is a democracy.  It assumes that destruction is a deterrent, rather than a pathway to martyrdom and paradise.  All of these assumptions fail in the context of today’s conflicts.

Worst of all, the M.A.D. doctrine implies that deep inside ourselves, we possess the same genocidal potential we fear in others, a potential waiting to be unleashed in an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, city for city, society for society retaliation at the push of a button.

We must come to understand the WMD for what it is: an abomination of technology developed during a time when genocide and racism were taken for granted, when the distinction between military and civilian targets was irrelevant, and when few understood or valued the fragile and interdependent nature of the earth’s ecosystem and world economy.   

Even in storage, we must acknowledge that such weapons, like all technologies storing or harnessing great power, are subject to the statistical laws governing accident, theft, and error.  Those statistical laws (sometimes called Murphy’s Law) dictate that unintended outcomes will happen if enough time elapses, and today, that risk and the risk that such an accident would unleash a chain reaction of deployment, outweighs any potential benefit. 

Under your leadership, the United States has made tremendous progress against terrorism, the use of military or paramilitary violence to terrorize civilian populations for ideological or political gain.   The nuclear warhead is the quintessential instrument of civilian, environmental, and economic terror.  Any deterrence it offers is deterrence via terror, and as such, its presence in our arsenal undermines our moral distinctiveness and authority in the war against terror.

I recently watched the film “Lincoln.”  In this film, President Lincoln expresses his belief that a constitutional amendment is needed to abolish slavery.  Lincoln observed that slavery was a matter of natural law, a matter of our core values and commitments, a constitutional matter.  I believe the same can be said of our commitment against terror, that our repudiation of terror is a constitutional matter.

A constitutional amendment renouncing terrorism – genocide, weapons of mass destruction, death threats against civilian populations, would provide a strong moral basis for U.S. leadership in the world and an excellent legal foundation to move us, and others, toward a world without WMDs.

Finally, I would like to recommend a new book I am reading, Dallas 1963.  This book provides insight into the cultural and ideological mindset of the Cold War that informed the nuclear arms race and other tragedies of the late 20th century.  We have come so far since then, and for that, and for your leadership, I give thanks to the Almighty. 

Thank you for your time and kind consideration.  Have a blessed Christmas and prosperous New Year.

Most Respectfully,

Rev. John P. Feagins

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Over the past several months, I have been researching the ministry of A. H. Sutherland, the first presiding elder of the Mexico Border Mission District.  Sutherland is writing to the editor of the Christian Advocate.  I found his thoughts, hopes, observations, concerns, and convictions, penned at the very beginning of Methodist work among Mexican Americans, to have a certain timeless quality.

Corpus Christi, Texas, Dec. 20, 1876

To the Editor of the Christian Advocate.
MR. EDITOR: - The Advocate has such an extensive circulation especially among the preachers, that though it I wish personally to say some things of these missions [Mexico Border Mission District, West Texas Conference].
By consulting a map of Texas one will see the extent of territory included - it being the Mexican population between the San Antonio River and the Rio Grande, and on each side of the later, the one thousand miles that Texas borders it.  Within these limits I believe there are one hundred and fifty thousand Mexicans and several thousand Americans, who have no opportunity to hear the gospel only as preached by our missionaries.  To strengthen the claims of these people to the consideration of our Board of Foreign Missions, let us make a few inquiries:
1.  Has the word preached yielded any fruit?  Are any truly convinced of sin and converted to God?  Thanks to the Giver of the increase, by the foolishness of our preaching many are brought to God who, by holy lives and happy deaths, demonstrate the genuineness of the work.
2.  Have we access to the people?  Will they come to hear, and let us visit and "testify from house to house?"  I answer in the affirmative.  So despotic have been the priests, and so general the diffusion of liberal and enlightened ideas, that among all classes there are attentive hearers and ardent advocates for reform.  Even our first visits to new places are often more like triumphant marches than arduous campaigns.  Perhaps no foreign field presents people better prepared to receive the word - no greater harvest promised to the laborer.
3.  Are these fields of importance besides the salvation of those who now reside there?  We think they are.  Christianize the Mexicans of this frontier, and no earthly changes or circumstances can keep Mexico from being evangelized.  Texas borders Mexico one thousand miles, blessing with a stable and free government scores of thousands of Mexicans of all classes.  An immense trade and extensive intercourse are kept up between the two countries, reaching far into the interior of the latter.  Thousands of the better class of Mexican citizens are looking and coming, as never before, to this country, weary of the wars and changes to which their Government and society appear forever doomed.  These receive the gospel more readily than those of long residence here, and many of our new converts are of that class.  Invariably their first care and attention are for those left behind them.  Several have returned to their old homes and "showed how great things God had done for them, and hath had compassion upon them."  Thus is the gospel being introduced into all Northern Mexico; and it will be more and more so until there shall be found "going everywhere preaching the word."  One family from Corpus Christi, returning into Mexico, were instrumental in the conversion of many souls in one village.  Besides, there is another aspect of the work.  As I said, there are several thousand Americans that receive the word of God in no other way than through this mission.  Excepting in Brownsville, there is no other English preaching on the Texas Rio Grande frontier.  These Americans welcome the missionary gladly, hear our message, and generally express themselves as anxious for our continuance and success.  This country is going to be much more populously settled by them, and now is the time for us to enter.  Let all your readers know that no other agency is so influential in reconciling the Mexican population to the American Government.  They publicly and fervently acknowledge the hand of kindness and Christian liberality that sends them the gospel, and are anxious to become better acquainted with the customs and laws of this country.  Nothing will so allay the border strifes as the gospel of love.
4.  No other Foreign Missions in our Church are yielding so large returns for the outlay, and the prospects and increasingly promising.  Our preachers and members are becoming educated in Methodist doctrines and discipline, and are imbibing its powerful and progressive spirit.  I am learning their language, customs, and wants; and the people, Americans and Mexicans, are beginning to look with respect and confidence at us and our efforts.  Besides, and above all, the Holy Spirit is beginning to manifest himself with power.  Never were our encouragements so great as since the late session of our Conference.  Almost every mail of late brings news from the preachers of our new conquests; and yet the work is not fairly begun.  Are not these marked evidences of the Divine presence and approval?  But there is another consideration not at all pleasant.
5.  It is, that though six new Mexican preachers were admitted at Conference, making in all ten, yet only half are employed for lack of funds.  They all received appointments from the Bishop, but I judge it not a good policy to pursue for the men to go to their stations without being sustained in the work.  As yet this is truly a foreign field, and not analogous to Domestic Missions; and until the people are convinced, converted, and educated, the missionary must look abroad for his support.
6.  Next to the employment of the preachers comes the building of six or eight churches.  They are very much needed; our cause has suffered, and still suffers, for lack of them.  Ten or twelve thousand dollars, with what could be raised on the ground, would build them.  Than aiding in the building of these churches a better pecuniary investment the Board could not make; for these would secure valuable local assistance in the support of the ministry, and proportionally lessen the future expenditures of the Board.  My desire to have all these preachers employed and churches built is very great indeed.
These, Mr. Editor, are some of the facts.  Is it needful that I should "add a word of exhortation?"  To the Board it would be unnecessary, for I am sure it will do in all its power.  But should I urge greater fidelity on the preachers I do not think I could be considered either impertinent or presumptuous.  Brethren, the preachers are the "stewards" of the Missionary Board.  As in the pastorate the stewards are chiefly responsible for the support of the ministry, so are the preachers chiefly responsible for the support of the missionary cause.  The congregations will give when intelligently requested to do so.  To deny this is contrary to fact.  The ministry, more than any other agency, makes the Church what it is.  O brethren, when shall our zeal equal our faith, and our faith measure itself with the word of God?  Soon could we remove the reproach from the Southern Methodist Church of being the most unmissionary of any of the great evangelical denominations.  We of the ministry must bear the blame; it belongs to us.  We have never done our duty, nor are we doing it now.  One united and intelligent effort all along the line would double the funds of the Board in one year; and I am convinced that in five years, such a course would find us placing half a million annually at the disposal of the Board.  May God enlighten and guide us into all duty!  


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Profile of an Ineffective Pastor

Ineffectiveness is a serious concern for any denomination, especially one that is suffering decline.  We felt it would be helpful to provide this profile of an ineffective pastor, taken from actual history, as an important reference point.  The person will remain anonymous in order to respect confidentiality.

Over the course of three years, church leaders received reports of the following incidents:

1.  Distributing alcoholic beverages to persons who were already intoxicated at a wedding.
2.  Insulting an immigrant woman in need of help for her family.
3.  Neglecting to promptly conduct a hospital visit until the parishioner had already died.
4.  Alienating wealthy visitors to his ministry.
5.  Consistently working on his day off.
6.  Pilfering food.
7.  Disowning his mother and brothers in front of church members.
8.  Practicing psychotherapy without a license.
9.  Exposing his co-workers to infectious disease.
10.  Private meetings with women of ill repute.
11.  Insubordination.  Consistently insulting the character of his superiors.
12.  Grandiose claims about his own self-importance.
13.  Cruelty to animals.
14.  Placing a known thief and insurgent in charge of church finances.
15.  Losing his temper and violently disrupting a local church fund raiser.
16.  Making a terroristic threat against church headquarters.
17.  Securing only one profession of faith in three years, and that person later recanted. 
18.  No baptisms.

In addition to these complaints, the pastor was moved so often that he himself claimed to have "no place to lay his head," having been asked to move from several parishes, including one in his own home town.  His last pastoral charge suffered a 99% loss of worship attendance and membership.

This pastor was brought before a committee and a hearing was conducted, yet he failed to answer or refute any of the charges brought against him.  The committee then consulted with the secular authority to verify that no employment laws would be violated and issued a verdict against him.  To ensure fairness, this verdict and sentence were placed before an assembly of his peers for a popular vote. The assembly, including many of his former parishioners and followers, unanimously upheld and ratified the verdict.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Letter to UMR Editor

Dear Mr. Hodges,
I write today in response to the recent article “UMC Reformers feeling thwarted by Judicial Council.”   By naming those advocating for the legislation “reformers” this article lacks objectivity.  Those who opposed the rejected legislation also seek reform.
Reform is a central tenet of our historic mission, “to reform the nation, especially the church, and to spread Scriptural holiness across the land.” 

I am concerned that much of our coverage of the “security of appointment” issue has missed the true warrant for this security and promoted an anxious, cynical image of a declining UMC in North America held hostage by a labor union of straw men incompetent pastors and threatened with a takeover by foreigners.
We cannot solve problems of integrity in our pulpits by dispensing with it in our polity.  We cannot reach the poor by having longer pastorates for the rich.  We cannot claim that security of appointment corrupts good administration, but only for others.  Giving the most powerful clergy less responsibility will not help us deal with clericalism.  If we truly want to make “missional appointments,” we cannot arbitrarily tell some pastors that there are no missional appointments.
This focus on decline, ineffectiveness, and scarcity has emboldened antagonists, scandalized the public against our church and ministry, and exacerbated the painful sense of inequity among those working at the margins.  Blaming the straw man has also given us a pass from dealing with the real and complex pathology of top-heavy bureaucracy and local church decline.
In a moment of remarkable unity, diverse groups across our denomination laid aside their differences and celebrated this decision as have many others among the rank and file.
They recognize that reform cannot be purchased at the price of integrity. 
Integrity requires us to honor our principles and values.  Because we value every human soul in our context, we require our Bishops to send itinerant ministers as fully and broadly as possible into that context.  Because we value stewardship, connection, and justice, we provide for this deployment through the equitable distribution of church resources.  Because we value each other, we reserve the power to elect and to discipline to the conference.  Because we value Scriptural holiness, we honor fair process in dealing with conflict and seek to serve out of love rather than fear.  These principles are at the core of our identity and are embodied in our constitution.  They are the essence and criteria of true reform.

Rev.  John P. Feagins

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On the fate of Cokesbury Storefronts

One of the many aspects of the genius of John Wesley was his use of the media.  His theology of "Means of Grace" took the notion of communication with God beyond the traditional sacraments to include the Word in print, in outdoor preaching, and in song, and practices of spiritual discipline.  The Wesley's were the first evangelists in the Anglican tradition to make such ample use of media that the movement itself was for many years sustained by the sales of tracts and songbooks.

How times have changed.

As the world developed new and innovative means of public communication, radio, television, film, and retooled various forms of print media and personal visitation, United Methodists have ceded the media world to more sectarian forms of Christianity, heretical movements, and religious cults.   Embarrassed, perhaps, by the flamboyant television sets and personalities, the political interests and scandals of television evangelists, we have simply withdrawn.  

No longer do we see the Sunday morning television broadcast of worship services at "First UMC" or hear the ongoing radio broadcasts of prominent UMC pastors.   No longer do people hear that knock on the door and see United Methodists waiting to inquire as to their needs or share an invitation to church or an encouraging tract.  Few churches have the practice of opening preaching points and missions in underserved areas.

Little by little, the UMC has abandoned its concern for "reforming the nation, especially the church" and "spreading Scriptural holiness," dismantled its US domestic missionary infrastructure, and withdrawn from being a visible presence and influence in the culture.

This withdrawal is profound.  Evangelistic extension ministries were abandoned in favor of ecumenical/disinterested distribution and advocacy programs.  Campus ministries were closed and moved into local congregations.  Primary and secondary schools were shuttered, and hospitals struggle to hold on to their United Methodist identity against the bottom-line concern for profits.  Urban churches were neglected and abandoned.  Church leaders respond to geographical contraction and church closures by seeking the arbitrary layoff of pastors.

Our use of the Internet is encouraging, yet the Internet no substitute for other forms of media.  Save for the use of "spam" - the Internet is also entirely client based.  Its "servers" provide media content only on demand, leaving it to the client to find and access church related content in a distracting realm of voyeuristic stimulation and social simulation.  Similarly, our churches have "open minds, open hearts, open doors" but the impetus to  experience those blessings is still on the potential client.  The people must seek us.

We use "multi-media" - inside our church services, and can package this into portable churches "in a box."  We have national marketing campaigns, yet those campaigns intentionally express what I have said above - that our churches are client driven, focused on their own character (open minded, friendly), inordinately modest of our Christian identity, most proud of the disinterested work we are doing, and leaving it up to the viewer, hearer, reader, the potential client to take the initiative to show up.  

In light of these trends, it is no surprise that the UM Publishing House has chosen to close all the Cokesbury Retail stores by 2013.  

Cokesbury storefronts suffered the fate of many of our local churches and for many of the same reasons.  

1.  Unintelligible brand.  Cokesbury is the combination of the names of Bishops Coke and Asbury, and the logo features a 19th century circuit rider, personalities known only to Methodists, like the word "Methodist" itself.
2.  Retro Inventory.  What is offered on the shelves reflects the complexion and needs of the UMC itself in terms of theology, ministry, and liturgy, rather than larger cultural trends or needs.  
3.  Introverted marketing.  Like everything from church newsletters to new church starts (where demographics are used to bias site selection to wealthy, white, pro-Methodist areas), Cokesbury offered its wares almost exclusively to those already affiliated with the church.
As Aristotle observed, "nature abhors a vacuum."  Think of all the other "Christian" bookstores in your city, and how many are a meeting place for people of many denominations and perspectives.  Now expand this idea to the secular book store, the coffee house, and you can see the missed opportunity.  Others will most certainly fill this void.

On the way to work the other day, I was waiting at a bus stop when two well dressed adherents of a non Christian sectarian religion approached.  They had a message, they had literature, and more importantly, they had initiative.  Its no surprise that they have a strong presence among our emerging demographic groups. 

While I grieve the closing of Cokesbury Retail Storefronts, what grieves me more is that we have chosen, again, to withdraw from our culture rather than to retool, deploy, try new and unique ideas even though they may fail, and to take initiative and engage people where they are... in the marketplace, outside the church.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Feagins Oral Argument at Judicial Council Docket 1012-2

In the aftermath of Judicial Council decision 1226 reversing the action of 2012 General Conference removing the episcopal responsibility to make appointments and respect due process, bloggers and bishops and blogger bishops are releasing statements reflecting on the decision.  Being that there were very few people actually present for the hearing, I felt it would be helpful for at least part of the oral argument to be posted online so that the reasoning behind our argument against calendar item 355 could be known.  To be clear, this was our rationale.  The Judicial Council decision has been published and "speaks for itself."

The oral hearing was divided into four parts, a 30 minute presentation by each side, rebuttal, and questions.  This transcript represents the first 10 minutes of the argument against the legislation which I led.  I was followed by the appellant, Fred Brewington, then Bishop Gwinn.  Fred and I then offered rebuttal and all parties answered questions.
-Rev. John Feagins

Oral Argument
Judicial Council Docket 1012-2
24 October 2012    Rev. John P. Feagins


In a recent training offered by the GBHEM to Bishops, Superintendents and BOOM chairs, the trainer explained that there were two reasons why a Bishop could deny an elder in full connection an appointment.  1) there is no missional appointment available and 2) ineffectiveness.

The first rationale is self-justifying.   As my spouse, an Hispanic, female, provisional elder serving as a part-time hospital chaplain was keen to observe, what this really means is that “there is no missional appointment available – for you.” I told her it could also mean that the church has completed its mission and the world has already been reconciled to God in Christ – but considering our decline and the state of things in the world, I think her explanation is probably more accurate.
The second rationale, ineffectiveness, grants the Bishop the ability to establish and act upon a character judgment of ineffectiveness before investigation, hearing, or trial.  Note that the language in the calendar item is “ineffectiveness” not “alleged ineffectiveness.”
The possibility of denial of appointment and involuntary appointment to part time service grant the episcopacy the authority to enact involuntary changes in clergy status.

The Judicial Council has always upheld the following aspects regarding involuntary changes in clergy status:
1.     The separation of powers between the annual conference and the episcopacy. The conference determines who will serve, and the bishops determine where.
2.     The requirement of a fair process including but not limited to an investigation, a hearing, the ability to face one’s examiners or accusers, and an attempt at reconciliation or remediation. 
3.     The executive session of annual conference has the final voice on any change in clergy status, voluntary or involuntary.

We assert that by granting the power of involuntary status change to the episcopacy, calendar item 355 falls short of these criteria.  By enacting this legislation, the General Conference of 2012 attempted to create a constitutional change in the definition and separation of powers without the appropriate process of constitutional amendment and consequently violated the 3rd and 4th restrictive rules.  Since it acted beyond its authority, its action is out of order and void. 

Restrictive rule 3
¶ 19. Article III.—The General Conference shall not change or alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with episcopacy or destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency.
At issue here is not the disappearance of episcopacy but the destruction of our plan for itinerant general superintendency.
I agree with the Bishop’s assertion (in their brief) that this legislation gives them more options.  Under the constitutional plan, the language reads that the Bishops "shall appoint" the ministers to the charges.  The calendar item reduces this constitutional “shall” to an optional “may.”  This is a significant conflict. 

The reason we have bishops is to make appointments.  In an 1848 text titled the Ecclesiastical Polity of Methodism Defended, Doctor Frances Hodgson writes, “ministerial labor will be distributed by a distinct, well-defined, and responsible authority, created for the purpose.”[1]   

The calendar item also requires that the Bishop provide rationale for decisions on appointment making to the annual conference.    This offends the separation of powers between the episcopacy and the annual conference and undermines the confidentiality of the appointment process while still falling short of the standards of fair process.  My own conference takes this confidentiality so seriously that supervisory notes kept by superintendents on each pastor are shredded between appointments.
¶ 20. Article IV.—The General Conference shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of an appeal;

The Judicial Council has ruled in decision 351 that trial is a broader concept than a mere judicial or administrative process under complaint.  Trial is the means by which conferencing takes place before decisions are made concerning the conference relationship of clergy.  Constitutionally, these decisions take place not secrecy of the cabinet room, but in the open and responsive forum of the annual conference.

By allowing Bishops to enact an involuntary change of appointment status prior to any fair process within the annual conference and by subjecting members of the executive session and potential jurors to what could be a coercive denial of appointment, the legislation undermines the clergy right to trial with appeal.

When can a conference compel a bishop to appoint under this new plan? Even after a finding of innocence or a vote disapproving of a part-time appointment status, it cannot.  The Bishop always has the option of telling a clergy member “there is no missional appointment available.”

We have heard the arguments against security of appointment, the straw man who becomes complacent due to lifetime election – present company excluded, Bishop Gwinn, of course.  Security of appointment is not analogous to lifetime tenure.  Elders are continued annually by the executive session with the question “are all ministers in good standing and blameless in their administration?”  

As for it being a recent innovation meant to protect certain persons from bias, Dr. Hodgson writes in 1848 “With us, churches are never without pastors, and pastors never without churches.”[2]  In a 1914 text titled “The Itinerant System” MEC Bishop Thomas B Neely’s writes, “(the system) guarantees, first, the preacher shall be provided with a pastoral charge“ [3]  Here, a Bishop makes explicit use of the word "guarantee" in 1914 to describe our plan for the itinerant system.
Full deployment of those in full connection, and its consequence, security of appointment, arise from our radical commitment to the mission field.  The deployment of itinerant general superintendents and pastors directs the attention and ministry of the church outward, into the world.
The obligation to make appointments requires our bishops to deploy every available resource into the mission field. If we have more pastors than pulpits, perhaps its time to revisit our four focus areas and plant some new places for new people.  If a surplus of itinerant, missionary pastors had been a problem for our Methodist forebears, the movement would have never spread beyond the East Coast.

Consider what we are saying when we tell a gifted, willing, called commissioned or ordained elder “there is no missional appointment available.”  There are only two choices.  One – the church is unwilling to adequately and equitably deploy its resources into the mission field.   Two – there are questions with this individual’s fitness for ministry.  In the first case, we require our bishops and our conferences to give due diligence in their response to the mission field in their charge.  In the second, we require them to respect due process.   This legislation undermines both, due diligence and due process.  

[1] Hodgson, Frances  The Ecclesiastical Polity of Methodism Defended, Lane and Scott  1848 p 36
[2] Hodgson, p 77
[3] Neely, Bishop Thomas B, The Itinerant System, Revell, 1914 p 46