Saturday, July 12, 2014

Inspired by Faith - Welcomed by Fear

One hundred years ago, the Mexican Revolution drove entire families to seek refuge in Texas. Communities of faith embraced their language and culture and provided them with resources needed to establish new lives. One of those communities was La Trinidad United Methodist Church of San Antonio.

Today, a new wave of refugees from Central America is fleeing places in the world with the highest murder rates and gangs who kidnap and exploit children. Many of these refugees are devout Christians. Some have received aid from Christian missionaries on their journey, such as the volunteers at the Laredo Humanitarian Relief Team, where I had the privilege of volunteering yesterday.

As Christians, these immigrants find inspiration in the Bible with its stories of pilgrimage and deliverance. Scripture tells of a human race expelled from paradise, seeking to find its way back. It tells of God calling Abraham to enter a new land, of Hagar and Ismael, abandoned yet rescued by God. It tells of Joseph, sold into slavery, yet blessed by God, and of Moses leading his people out of slavery through a journey in the wilderness. Scripture speaks of Ruth, an ancestor of Jesus, who left her people and land to follow God. 

The biblical God is also a sojourner, dwelling in a tent, traveling as a pillar of cloud and fire, coming to earth as the child Jesus, the Word made flesh, born to a migrant family without lodging, and becoming a child refugee. Jesus also traveled into the wilderness before opening an itinerant ministry of teaching and healing.

Scripture also provides the teachings of Jesus, the mandate to love our neighbors, to welcome and protect children, to do unto the foreigner as we would do unto Christ.

Unfortunately, the biblical vision of redemption through sacrifice, pilgrimage,and hospitality no longer informs U.S. immigration policy.

In recent years, the U.S. has deported more than 4 million people, many of whom had already assimilated to American culture or had U.S.-born children.  Spending on enforcement has increased ten-fold. Corporations operate immigration prisons and use their profits to propose harsher laws. Immigrant detention centers are saturated and 50,000 unaccompanied children are being held in concentration camps, isolated and invisible, until their families come out of secrecy to be deported with them. 

Our immigration laws not only oppress our most vulnerable neighbors, they threaten any decent American who would offer them hospitality with severe fines, property seizure and a prison sentence.

These policies are repugnant to the values of faith and destructive to our society. They make enemies of people who would be our friends. They deprive our military of recruits with a proven resilience and determination. They waste our investment in education. They tear apart families. They prevent competition in our economy. They harm our food supply. They deprive our government of revenue and create exorbitant costs for enforcement.  Finally, they undermine our authority as a leader of the free world.

Conflicts of interest have crippled all attempts at reform. The void of leadership is filled by xenophobic propaganda, biased news coverage and anti-immigrant demonstrations, all appealing to our most cynical prejudices.

The frenzied protester thus holds a placard saying, "Not our children!" and she is correct. They are God's children. In God they trust.

When we sacrifice our most cherished values in order to deter others from coming, we are the ones turning America into a third-world country, not the immigrant.

We have responded to the poverty of our neighbor with our own poverty of character, and we have lost our own way along the pilgrimage of redemption.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Deconstructing the Division

Within the church, we generally experience disunity as a breakdown of community and the onset of antagonism.  People want to believe whatever they want, keep whatever they want, and do whatever they want, and don't take kindly to others getting in their way.

Christian unity, in contrast, calls us to a common faith and order, a common ministry, and a common purpose in mission.  Unity, in turn, helps promote a credible Christian witness (John 17:21).

Within the United Methodist Church, three components of church government specifically support these aspects of our unity.

The Book of Discipline is our common book of doctrine and law.  The General Conference is the steward of our Book of Discipline and has authority limited by the Restrictive Rules to create and change legislation.  Those Restrictive Rules ground us within the Christian tradition, the itinerant form of ministry, and the episcopal form of church government. Our Discipline orders the church and our doctrines establish standards of authenticity for our itinerant ministry and our episcopacy.  The Book of Discipline helps us live by a common faith and order.

The Itinerancy is our common and shared ministry.  Obedient to their bishops, our pastors move between churches and new mission fields.  Their common authenticity facilitates these transitions.  As pastors share pulpits, churches share resources to cooperate in the work of mission and ministry.  The Itinerancy helps us share a common ministry. 

The Episcopacy provides a common oversight and authority.   The unique perspective and authority of these traveling general superintendents help our common ministry establish a common purpose, while conforming it to our common faith and order, linking our itinerant ministry to the Discipline and to the mission field.  Our bishops are elected by the jurisdictional conferences and are accountable to the General Conference and the Judicial Council.

Conflict within the UMC generally manifests itself as antagonism toward one or more of these three elements of church government.  These forms of antagonism can be classified as follows: 

Antinomianism.   Standing against our Book of Discipline, antinomianism considers the rule of law or common standards for authenticity to be antithetical to freedom and grace.  It resists order as unjust, unfair, and oppressive.  Within our church and culture, we encounter antinomian attitudes in the following:
  • Relativism (different strokes for different folks)
  • Hedonism (if it feels good it must be good)
  • Utilitarianism (the ends justify the means)
  • Nihilism (nothing matters except the will to power)
  • Anti-semitism (disdain for Jewish people and the idea of scriptural holiness).
Antinomianism lets people believe whatever they want.

Congregationalism.  Standing against shared itinerant ministry, we find congregationalism, defining each church by its special needs, idiosyncrasies, ideology, economic status, liturgical preferences, cultural and racial identity, rather than by its common faith and order.  Each church understands its assets as its own and resists the imperative to share its pulpit, ministry, and resources with others.  We find congregationalism in the following:
  • Abolition of appointment security / equitable comp 
  • Schism and The "Local Option"
  • Proposals to abolish the trust clause
  • Very long pastorates for the most wealthy and ideologically eccentric
  • Opposition to paying apportionments
  • Economic bias against ministry with the poor
Congregationalism allows people to keep whatever or whomever they want.

Corrupting the integrity of our episcopacy and leadership, authoritarianism shuns responsibility even as it seeks greater privilege and power. We see authoritarianism in the following:
  • The Cult of Personality (popularity = authority)
  • Bureaucratic Clericalism. Consolidation of power in the executive by dismantling elected, volunteer, oversight
  • Undermining fair process and church trials
  • Ideological, gender, race, and economic bias in appointment making
  • Ultramontanist claims to direct divine revelation
  • Breakdown of accountability (see David Watson:
Authoritarianism lets people in power do whatever they want.

We cannot reduce the conflict in the UMC to mere differences of opinion or agenda between liberals and conservatives.  Such differences of opinion will exist within any diverse and democratic society.  Unity does not require unanimity.

If unity is at risk, it is due to a much deeper conflict undermining the values of authenticity, charity, and accountability that inform our commitment to shared order, ministry, and oversight which are embodied in our Discipline, Itinerancy, and Episcopacy, respectively.  These values hold us together, ground us in Christ, and send us forth in mission.  Disunity is a symptom of their disintegration from within our practice and polity.

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.