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Archive for the ‘United Methodist’ Category

Note: The United Methodist press & web are going to town about a book of inspirational writings that the United Methodist Publishing House published, then recalled after it was revealed that the author (or, “author”) had plagiarized at least some of the work in the book, presenting it as if it was his own.

The author is a United Methodist pastor that most of us wouldn’t have heard of. But the book would have been a best-seller, at least in church circles, because the contents were daily reflections that he had sent to a parishioner whose name we know: Hillary Clinton.

From all accounts, it would have been a really good book, if permissions had been received where permissions were required, and if credit had been given where credit was due. But instead, it’s just a mess.

Here’s what that gets me thinking about. 


Faith Callahan with her walker, Mount Rainier in background

The week after Annual Conference one year, I visited my Grandma Callahan at Wesley Terrace, her retirement home. She was unhappy, and perplexed.

Sunday morning, she’d attended worship in her nearby church, where her pastor had preached a really inspiring sermon, a sermon that hinged on a story of something that had actually happened to him that very morning. Grandma Callahan was really moved.

That evening, she went to vespers at her retirement home.  This guest preacher was another United Methodist; he had a pretty good sermon, but it hinged on something — the same thing — that had actually happened to him that morning on the way to church.

I could help her with her perplexity. At Conference our bishop had opened his sermon with “When I was walking this morning, … .” It was a really good story, and it gathered energy because it had actually happened to him just that morning, and it was a perfect illustration for his point!

(My text-criticism sensors were going off during the bishop’s sermon. I get suspicious about preachers’ stories that are just too neat or clever. It might be my Saturday Night Live hermeneutic, with Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character announcing, “How conveeeenient!” The bishop could have gotten that story from a book of sermon illustrations for all occasions.)

Both of Grandma’s preachers had heard the Bishop’s sermon the previous week. And, perhaps weary from a week at Conference, both had used it. And both had passed it off as their own experience.

I could help her with the perplexity: how the two preachers happened to use the same story on the same day. But I couldn’t help her with the unhappiness: how two [or, counting the bishop, three!] preachers could have such lack of integrity as to tell a story that obviously wasn’t their own, as though it was their own? If my own pastor tells one experience that’s patently not their own, how can I trust them in any other thing they say? And if two out of two (or three out of three) pastors have that lack of integrity, what is to be inferred about all the others?

I still can’t help her with that.

The very idea that preachers can get “sermon illustrations” from books of sermon illustrations has always baffled me. But at the very least, the VERY least, the preachers — including the bishop — could use the line I heard Fred Craddock use (giving him credit, of course): “I don’t know if this ever happened, but it’s True.”* Where quotations are used in print or online, the citation should be complete, like a proper footnote. Where a person’s words or ideas are used in preaching or speaking, credit should be given orally, and (wherever possible) in text as well.

It’s about showing ourselves trustworthy in a few things, at least in one thing. It’s about not losing people’s trust, not only in ourselves, but in others. And it should be so easy!

I think our bishops can help with this. Let them decide to model ethical preaching & writing , and to state that it’s one of their expectations of the pastors they appoint. Let the preachers they invite to address the Conferences also model these standards.

I think the United Methodist Publishing House can help with that. Let it decide to do due diligence in considering manuscripts and screening for plagiarism before agreeing to publish, and make its policies & procedures public. When it fails, let it show how it failed, and how it is revising its policies & procedures, to minimize the chance of a repeat.

I hear the seminaries are already doing a decent job of encouraging ethical preaching & writing, and the ethical environment is far more diverse, with social media, electronic communications, and more awareness of power & privilege differentials, but ethics around use of other people’s material in preaching & writing wasn’t really emphasized in my day (except of course for academic writing).

I think my Grandma Callahan can help as well (along with the many Grandma Callahans of the church who are still in this life). Let them go to the preacher whose story they suspect, and ask pointed questions: “Did you write that, or did it come from someone else?” And give them pointed feedback: “When I notice you doing that, I lose trust in you.” But don’t just  be negative. Be just as engaged when they DO cite their sources: “I really appreciate that you shared that story from ______. Could I borrow the book? I want to know more.”

It might make the after-service handshake line a scarier place for preachers, but that’s not a bad thing.


* Substandard footnote: I remember Fred Craddock say this at Kilworth Chapel, the University of Puget Sound, many years ago. It stays with me, and I probably have the words right.

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As I write this on June 8, I’m witnessing the Senate Intelligence Committee questioning James Comey, and thinking about the importance of leadership without intimidation or coercion, with mutual trust and respect for differences. Presidents can abuse their authority, and so can pastors. We can abuse our position: rank or title, our resumé, our uniquely defined roles. We can abuse our personal characteristics: size, gender and personality traits. We can use these positional or personal realities to get our way even when it’s wrong, illegal, evil. And we can do damage.

Even in the United States, with its government of the people, by the people, and for the people, presidents can seek to become autocrats. Even in the Church, which exists for God’s glory and the development of disciples of Jesus Christ, pastors and laity can abuse the authority God and church give them.

Jesus said to them, “The rulers of the nations lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. … I am among you as one who serves.”   — (Luke 22:25-27 NRSV, alt.)

I, and most pastors and laity I know, desire to lead like Jesus, without domination or manipulation. But now and then, in our denomination and in our congregations, we “throw our weight around.” (Isn’t it interesting that this common saying portrays aggressive use of physical size as a metaphor for inappropriate coercion using positional authority!) Now and then we seek to get our own way using force or emotional manipulation: we threaten; we use anger, we take offense, we withdraw, we use financial pressure, and more. Instead, we should work together as partners who seek to understand and collaborate, appreciate, and come to a shared way that’s better than our own.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with this prayer:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

Grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
           — source: Book of Common Prayer

May this be our prayer as we work with each other, especially if we are called to lead, in church and in nation.

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I’m thankful to the recent video from the Wesleyan Covenant Association for reminding me that when I entered ordained ministry I gave my assent to the United Methodist doctrinal standards and General Rules (Par. 104, 2016 Book of Discipline), and that “promises should be kept.”

I have not kept those promises. To begin with some of the most important, I have broken the promises I made the year of my ordination, when my bishop asked, “Do you know the General Rules of our Church?” and “Will you keep the General Rules of our Church?” (Par. 336, 2016 Book of Discipline) I answered Yes to both. Since that time,  I have violated many of the General Rules. I invite the Wesleyan Covenant Association to bring formal complaints against me for the following:

a) The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling. (On Sunday, February 26, 2016, I purchased ferry fare from Winslow to Seattle, and two hours’ parking in the parking lot at First United Methodist Church of Seattle. And I would offer my credit and debit card records to the prosecution, for evidence of earlier offenses.)

b) Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity. (While I have not been drunk within the statute of limitations, I have at one time or another consumed spirituous liquor — not to mention beer & wine — and it has never been in the case of extreme necessity.)

c) Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling. (On this item, I must plead guilty to the last point, the use of many words in buying. Specifically, I have purchased an automobile. I have purchased software. I have purchased home appliances. Did you ever read all the fine print? MANY words!)

d) The giving or taking things on usury— i.e., unlawful interest. (On this item, I expect that the Wesleyan Covenant Association would insist that the timeless biblical meaning of “usury” be the standard for what is “unlawful interest,” rather than bend the Bible to the whim of secular law that changes from year to year. My specific offense was buying that same car, taking out a loan from my credit union, at interest.)

e) Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation. (Facebook. Need I say more? And Twitter.)

f) Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us. (Too many times to count … but I did not stop to give change to a roadside beggar yesterday, though if I had been begging by the roadside, I’d have wanted someone to stop for me.)

g) Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:

 (1.) The putting on of gold and costly apparel. (I have a gold ring on my left hand. The coat I wore today cost about as much as my first paycheck. I could go on.)
(2.) The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus. (I watched NCIS the other day. Part of the Late Show last night.)
(3.) The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God. (Song: Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. Book: The Great Gatsby.)
(4) Softness and needless self-indulgence. (You name it. Turning the heat up to 68. The seat-cushion in my car. The second and third cups of coffee in the morning. The vacations over the years to PEI, Thailand, Europe, the ocean … .)
(5) Laying up treasure upon earth. (Savings, pension plan, even Social Security, if you think about it.)

I’ll get to my violations of parts 2 and 3 of the General Rules some other time. I expect the Wesleyan Covenant Association will not wait for these before they designate serious-minded, promise-keeping, evangelical, orthodox members to hold me – and the rest of the people of The United Methodist Church – to account.

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