God's Word for today

Sunday, 31 January 2010

How to fuel speculation by keeping quiet - lessons to be learnt?

What's the best way to fuel speculation when the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan? It's simple: Say nothing.

David Hallam, a Local Preacher who holds various other Methodist Church lay offices within his local Circuit in my home towm of Birmingham, England, has been waging an ongoing war on his blog Methodist Preacher with the "powers that be" of the Methodist Church of Great Britain over a document that is to be discussed this week.

The offending document that has sparked the war of words deals with what the authors regard as "appropriate" use of social media such a blogs, Facebook, and the like. And at first the whole issue seems to be a storm in a teacup, since the document does not appear to contain anything that one wouldn't find in any organisation that wishes to protect itself from abuse. Prohibitions on actions that bring the organisation into disrepute are not generally considered to be unreasonable.

So the Methodist Church of Great Britain (MCGB), it can be argued, is justified in putting together a set of guidelines aimed at protecting its reputation. Indeed, here at home the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, at its 2009 Conference, identified the need to "protect [its] corporate identity and image as their are mushrooming internet sites and social networks which purport to speak on behalf of the MCSA or being 'official' sites. For good governance purposes we are developing policies and guidelines to manage this practice" (MCSA 2010 Yearbook and Directory, Page 15).

The problem seems to come in, however, when an organisation seeks to develop such guidelines without consulting widely within the affected community. David Hallam's beef with the MCGB is largely around the lack of such consultation. While the MCGB document claims that it has consulted members of the UK's Methodist online community, David claims that none of the bloggers that he has regular contact with (himself included) were included in such consultation.

Given David's many years of involvement in both British and European politics (he is a former Member of the European Parliament), not to mention his reputation as one of British Methodism's most controversial bloggers, he was never likely to leave this issue to slip through quietly. And although his blog posts on this issue (see here, here, and here) have been considered by some to be somewhat "intemperate", the fact of the matter is that perception is reality in the mind of the perceiver, and given that we bloggers tend to be a feisty lot who are fiercely protective of our right to freedom of speech, David's posts were always likely to strike a chord with many.

Unfortunately, the official whom David consulted at Methodist House (the headquarters of the MCGB) appeared to have responded in a way that did little to dispel the speculation that the document was an attempt to gag bloggers. In 16 questions posed by David to one Toby Scott from Methodist House, 12 of those (i.e. 75%) were not commented on. Now while I don't want to speculate on Mr Scott's reasons - I don't know him from a bar of soap, nor am I aware of his position or role within the MCGB - not answering three-quarters of the questions posed to you can only add fuel to the fire of speculation that is already raging around this issue.

In my own experience, the more you come clean and tell people what they want to know, the less questions they feel the need to ask, and the more they would give you the benefit of the doubt and regard your motives as being honourable. I say this, not from having been spokesperson of any organisation, but from having had involvement with a number of organisations' finances (including the MCSA, having served as treasurer at both Society and Circuit level as well as serving on the District Finance Committee over a period of 12 years before I candidated for the full-time ministry).

And what I have found is this: 95% don't give a rat's proverbial about financial statements, policy documents, Laws and Disciplines, you name it. And of the remaining 5% who DO care, all they want to know is that things are being handled properly and in the best interests of the organisation.

Only a very tiny minority are passionate enough to make a song and dance out of it if things are not up to scratch. But when this minority gets its cage rattled, they can make waves that send ripples throughout the organisation, and once the "gripe vine" gets going, before too long half of the organisation's members believe its office-bearers are a bunch of self-serving, power-hungry megalomaniacs.

For the most part, organisations are better off imparting information than by withholding it. When South African food retailer Pick n Pay had a food contamination scare in its stores during 2008, it could have kept quiet and claimed that the blame lay with the supplier. Instead, it responded by publicising the launch a full investigation. A hotline was set up for people with concerns to 'phone for information. Full-page notices were placed in local newspapers. And Pick n Pay even offered to pay the medical costs of those who had eaten contaminated food. The result? Pick n Pay as an entity came out smelling of roses, it's trust by the shopping public greatly enhanced.

On a more personal level, two years ago the headmaster of my son's school wrote in the school's newsletter about the problems being experienced with illicit drug use by some of its learners. But instead of pushing his head in the sand and denying the existence of the problem, the headmaster instead acknowledged the problem and outlined the measures that the school was taking in response (counselling, rehabilitation, awareness programmes, and the like). And while I cannot comment on how any other parent may have felt upon reading this news, I for one felt confident that the problem was being adequately addressed.

The moral of the story? For goodness' sake, GIVE PEOPLE INFORMATION! This needs to be regular and timely. Obviously there are always going to be certain issues that need to be kept confidential, but in reality, how often is this actually the case?

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Muslim generosity - would we as Christians do likewise?

Today I decided to take my double-cab bakkie (a smallish pick-up truck, for the benefit of our non-SA readers) in for repairs, as the clutch was starting to "take" lower and lower on the pedal and I didn't want to run the risk of it failing completely, as this would not only leave me stranded but also cost me a small fortune. So off I went to GWM Pietermaritzburg, armed with a quotation for the work to be done, and seeing as the 30000km service was already overdue, I decided to have that done at the same time.

The employees of this particular branch of GWM were quite evidently Muslim, if their dress as well as the many Islamic prayers and the like that were pasted on office walls were anything to go by, and the quality of their service clearly went beyong doing just enough to extract some cash from my wallet. I was given a lift back to the seminary after I had dropped the vehicle off; was contacted when the vehicle was ready; and duly collected from the seminary to go and fetch my (now much cleaner) vehicle.

While I was going over the work done as per the job card, the workshop manager asked me what sort of work I did, and when I mentioned that I was a Methodist minister in training, he responded with some frenzied tapping on his computer keyboard, after which he presented me with a bill that was R300 less than the original quote.

Almost tripping over my mouth that was hanging open in amazement, I was led to the accounts office where my credit card payment was to be processed. Electronic devices being what they are at times, the transaction was declined even though my own bank had sent me an SMS to state that the transaction was authorised. Some frenzied 'phone calls from me to my bank ensued, as I was anxious that the money would have left my bank but not been transferred to GWM.

All the while the staff were completely unfazed, even being prepared to release my vehicle to me in the meantime while I sorted things out with my bank over the next couple of days (bearing in mind that they don't know me from a bar of soap, and I've only been in Pietermaritzburg for three weeks). Talk about trust!

Anyway, between Investec and Nedbank we managed to get the transaction processed, although I'm not altogether convinced that the transaction either went through twice or not at all! No problem to my new friends at GWM, who said that they would check their own bank account, and if they were paid twice they would not hesitate to refund me.

But the clincher was as I was leaving. I asked them to contact me urgently should the payment (for whatever reason) not come through on their side, and they responded: "Don't stress about it. You're a man of God - you won't run away".

As I was driving away in my purring, clean vehicle with a clutch that is as light as that of a Toyota Yaris, I was thinking: Here's a group of Muslims, who have demonstrated by their dress, office accoutrements, and actions that they are sincere in their faith. I'm a Christian, and a minister, but they couldn't see that from my dress as I was in shorts and a golf shirt. The only possible clue might have been the small cross hanging from my rearview mirror. Yet they extended me the utmost courtesy, respect, and geneosity, even going so far as to afford me a substantial discount (I know this as a fact, for the major service and clutch repairs came to just over R1600, whereas I'd been quoted R1200 in Johannesburg last month for just an oil change on my wife's Camry). They didn't know me from Adam, but were willing to trust me to come back and make payment for the work done if my credit card transaction had failed.

And I wondered: Would I, as a Christian (if I was still in business and not in the ministry) do the same for an ordinary Joe who walked in off the street? And would I buy his claim to be an imam or a rabbi in training, substantially cutting my profit margin in the process? What's more, would I display the same level of service, courtesy, and trust shown to me today? I'd like to think I would - after all, when I did run a business I always strived to be ethical and go the extra mile. But to this extent? I'm not too sure that my Christian brotherly love would have reached out to the same degree that I received this afternoon.

Clearly I have some repenting to do, for that needs to change. And it ties in with Neville Richardson's prayer this morning in our chapel service, in which we confessed the church's relative lack of response to the Haiti disaster when compared with that of Muslim organisation Gift of the Givers. I'm also reminded of the outpouring of generosity during the xenophobia crisis in 2008, when Muslim and Hindu organisations contacted me with offers of assistance (I still don't know to this day where they got my number from!) - all I had to do was rock up with my bakkie, and they would load up as much tinned food, baby food, and the like as I could carry.

If I truly believe that I serve a living God - One Who loves unconditionally, Who has saved me from my sinful state, and has poured out on me all forms of blessings (both material and spiritual) - I need to start acting like it. Just like Peter, if I claim to love Jesus, then I need to feed His lambs.

So thank you, Lord, for using some of my Muslim brothers and sisters to remind me what true Christian generosity is all about!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A lesson in communication?

One of the great things about social media is that it can be compared to a grapevine on steroids - very little happens without a wide group of people getting to hear about it virtually within seconds.

Two recent incidents involving disciplinary action taken against ministers by the MCSA are a case in point. While one has gone relatively unnoticed by those not plugged into the online community, the other has made national news. Unfortunately, in both cases "official" communication has been poor - at the time of writing this post, the Presiding Bishop's office has communicated with the media concerning the action taken against Paul Verryn, but so far not a peep to any of its ministers on either issue.

In the meantime, members of our congregations are asking questions. They read the newspapers. They watch TV. They read newspapers. And they participate actively in social media. And as their ministers, we are not in any position to give them any feedback beyond what has already been played out in the public arena.

Now granted, one cannot realisticly expect the PB's office to issue statements on EVERY matter, but official silence leads to a "gripevine" that goes bananas. And by the time any official communication is issued (if at all), the flames of speculation have been fanned so much that this gets lost in the din.

The British Methodist Church (MCGB) seems to be grappling with the same issue, especially since some of UK Methodism's bloggers are just as controversial as many of ours - and although, just like here in SA where the issues being discussed are real, the MCGB's feathers get ruffled (just like ours in the MCSA - we're not so different after all!)

And it seems that the MCGB has recognised the phenomenon of social media - the tremendous benefits it has when it comes to communication and comment on matters affecting the Church and wider society; but also the potential damage it can cause to the institution's reputation - and in response, the MCGB has issued a draft document providing guidelines to the appropriate use of social media by those connected to the MCGB (such as ministers and deacons, officers [stewards, Local Preachers, and the like], and lay employees). The full document can be found by clicking here.

True to form, two of Britain's finest Methodist bloggers have been quite vocal about this document, and hold fairly diverse views. David Hallam (a Methodist local preacher based in Birmingham), views this as an attempt at censorship by the MCGB, and the title of his post, Blogger Beware! The Methodist Church Will Issue A Fatwa, makes his feelings on this matter quite evident. He states: "It [the document] refers to public discussions 'as moderated by the Methodist Recorder' (the MCGB's equivalent of The New Dimension). Ah they were the days, when Methodists could only express a view through the pages of the Recorder, who could then be relied upon to 'moderate'. Those days are gone. The issues we need to address are transparency, legitimacy, and building relationships within the denomination. The days of a handful of well-connected people being able to control internal discussion and decisions are in the past. No amount of 'guidelines' and 'disciplinary action' will stop that. If countries like China and Iran are struggling to stifle online discussion how on earth does anyone think the Methodist Church can?"

On the other hand, Richard Hall (a Methodist minister in Wales) has no problem with the document, stating on his post, Methodism And The New Media, that "[f]ar from being an attempt to stifle debate, this paper recognizes that constructive disagreement has been a feature of Methodism which these new media will further encourage" and that "[a] healthy community will not need censorship, even if that were possible. But if you blog as a Methodist, that places a responsibility on you not to write anything that might harm the reputation of the church. It isn’t complicated, and there’s nothing new here really".

Given that here in South Africa there are many connected with the MCSA (clergy as well as lay folk) who are quite vociferous online, seldom shying away from robust debate about various issues, I wonder how we would feel if the MCSA were to put forward a document similar to that currently under discussion by the MCGB? Would we view this as censorship or good practice?

Every organisation I have ever been involved with (which includes four corporates as well as bodies ranging in diversity from The Welsh Male Voice Choir of South Africa, Toastmasters International, and the Scouting movement - and, of course, the MCSA) has, somewhere in its constitution or rules, a requirement that its employees / office-bearers / members may not do anything to bring the organisation concerned into disrepute - and this is a reasonable requirement.

The question, though, is this: When organisations get things wrong - and this is bound to happen in all organisations from time to time - where is the fine line between "speaking out" and "bringing the organisation into disrepute"? I have found that the more open the lines of communication are within an organisation, and the more the "top brass" are available and willing to listen to people's views, the less there is reason to air one's grievances on a public forum.

And while every organisation has its whinge-bags, much of what is written online is a cry highlighting what the writer perceives to be grave injustices within the organisation, which the "powers that be" are perceived to be turning a deaf ear to. And if that is "bringing the organisation into disrepute", how much of this "disrepute" is in fact self-inflicted? All organisations would therefore do well to ensure that its own communication channels before trying to regulate the use of those outside.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Thoughts on the charges against Paul Verryn

I have some mixed feelings upon hearing the news that Paul Verryn, former Central District bishop, has been suspended pending a disciplinary process. The charges laid against him, according to press reports, are around breach of internal church protocal - firstly in terms of speaking to the media, and secondly, in terms of initiating a court action. In terms of our Laws and Disciplines, only the Presiding Bishop is authorised to carry out both such actions on behalf of the MCSA.

My feelings are mixed, firstly, because one needs to understand the kind of person Paul is - he is a man of action. And yes, a number of his actions have caused me to have feelings of frustration (anger, even) during my days as a Circuit treasurer, especially when I was the one who had to try and sharpen my pencil to make sure that yet another "Paul Placement" (additional staff member imposed on the Circuit without any consideration to budget constraints) gets paid. (Looking on the bright side, this DID help hone my budgeting skills, and - often - my faith!) But there have also been actions taken by Paul that have been not only extremely courageous, but exemplify what the Christian faith is meant to represent. I'm talking, of course, about his work with refugees at Central Methodist Mission.

Many can of course argue that while his motivation is pure, his methods may be unsound. In this regard I'm loath to comment, for it's easy to stand on the outside doing nothing but throwing stones, and I don't want to get caught up in that. But the little I have been involved personally has made me realise that it's not about a once-beautiful building, or about numbers - it's about people. And one thing that is absolutely beyond doubt is that Paul cares about people.

Which brings me back to the current disciplinary action by the MCSA. And what this matter as well as that of Ecclesia de Lange seem to indicate is that many people are under the impression that the decision to follow the disciplinary process is one that is taken lightly, as though someone wakes up one morning and decides, among what to have for breakfast and whether to mow the lawn, that someone should be charged. And while it is unfortunately true that there are some who resort to disciplinary action at the drop of a hat, I believe that the MCSA's disciplinary process is sufficiently well-developed to allow for quite a bit of "sifting" before the relevant disciplinary registrar (who is required to have legal qualifications and at least 5 years experience, per L&D) formulates a charge.

Because we (those of us within the MCSA and outside) are not privy to the processes and discussions that took place before the decision to formulate charges was taken, it is inappropriate to comment on whether these charges are "just" or not. The disciplinary process includes means for defence and appeal, and Paul (according to press reports) has elected to avail himself of these processes, as is his right.

It may also appear unseemly on the part of the MCSA to be laying charges of this nature for what are "merely" procedural violations. However, such restrictions relating to who may speak to the media; who may institute legal proceedings; etc. are not unique to the MCSA - I have personally worked for four corporates before entering ministry, and all four have procedures whereby only certain officials (usually a main board director) may carry out such functions.

What is unfortunate is that something that is essentially an internal process has been emblazoned across the pages of the media, resulting in knee-jerk reactions both in support of Paul as well as against him. Some of the comments that have been made on various media platforms go even further, in a number of cases being direct assassinations of Paul's character and integrity. And while Paul may well be seen as a controversial individual by many, he doesn't deserve this.

My prayers, therefore, are that this whole matter can be handled in a caring and pastoral manner, and that this doesn't end up being a "trial by media" - either of Paul or of the MCSA.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Putting God in a box

I've just got back from a wonderful covenant service at Prestbury Methodist Church in Pietermaritzburg, in which Michael Stone reminded us that of our entire liturgy that we use, the covenant order of service is fairly unique for its Wesleyan flavour.

And for me as a probationer minister, the words of the covenant prayer are a particularly strong reminder of how God has called us, and what God has called us to.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

(wording as used in the Book of Offices of the British Methodist Church, 1936).

I sometimes wonder, though, that we pray the words of this prayer, and then shut the book, tick, that's the covenant service done for another year ... yet we pay so little attention to the words that we are praying.

Which brings me to a Facebook entry, posted by Delme Linscott from Howick Methodist Church, entitled "Sacred versus Secular", in which he also ponders the question of people the world over, going to their various places of worship, yet once the minister has said the final "Amen" they take off their "God suits" for another week and return to their "secular" lives.

Last year when I was a Phase One probationer in the Rosedale area of Uitenhage, it never failed to amaze me how one could drive through the area on Sunday mornings and literally see just about the entire community, decked out in their Sunday best, Bible under the arm, off to church somewhere. Yet the socio-economic problems in this particular area are in total discord with this apparent showing of faith. It's almost as though the attitude is that there are six days in which one can screw around, drink oneself into a stupor, and beat on one's wife and children, but on the seventh day one needs to be "ordentlik" (an Afrikaans word for "decent", "proper", or "respectable") and show one's face at church.

It didn't reflect well on my work as a minister!

But according to a recent statistic that I read (I can't remember which - it may have been the last census), 86% of South Africans regard themselves as being "Christian". But the vast majority take "Christian" to mean "not Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu". I also heard that, as a rough estimate, perhaps 10% of those who state themselves to be Christian actually believe in Christ, while only 10% of those venture through the portals of a church on some sort of regular basis.

I wonder how many of those who do in fact attend church regularly, actually have a relationship with Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour? This would be reflected, not in the volume of their "Amens" on Sunday morning, but by the volume of their deeds from Monday to Saturday. As St Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the Gospel of Jesus at all times - and, if necessary, use words as well".

Where do we measure up? Even as ministers - is Christ just something we do for a living, or is Christ a central part of who we are?

Saturday, 23 January 2010

We at Seminary don't get out much (yet)!

Today was a clear indication that we are starved for entertainment at SMMS at the moment - one of the guys decided to rotate the tyres on his car, and twelve of us took part! Imagine what would have happened if something really exciting was happening?!

Anyway, it's also days like today that make some people become industrious in strange ways. My wife and I spent the morning out shopping for groceries, and let me tell you, it was a harrowing experience trying to come in on a greatly reduced budget to what we are accustomed to! I'm quite ashamed to say that in my corporate days we used to fill our trolley giving little thought to the cost. There's nothing like a reduction in income to make you more careful with your money, not to mention more appreciative of what you do have.

Then it was home again to pack away said groceries, which can take as long as the shop itself. Because both of us are anally-retentive control freaks, packing away means that not only is there a specific place for all the tins, the packets, the bottles, etc. but we also (a) do a complete stock rotation (i.e. all of the stuff still in the cupboard from last month comes out, the new purchases go to the back, then the old stuff goes in front) and (b) ensure that everything is correctly displayed (all the English labels on the tins face the front; all the little tabs on the milk cartons face the same way; all the packets of pasta sauce are sorted, by flavour, in alphabetical order). Each freezer bag has exactly the correct quantity in it for a meal - right down to the number of Golden Smackeroos in each bag (there are 8).

Call it a bit OCD if you like, but doing it this way means that we always know where everything is and how many meals we have left for the month. We can go the last two weeks of the month without a brass farthing in our wallets or purses, but as long as there's food in the 'fridge, petrol in the cars, and the bills are paid, we're cool!

So what did I decide to do this afternoon after I had added my own two cents' worth to the cacophony of commentary supporting the wheel-rotation exercise? After stripping the two washing machines and giving them a good clean, then helping my wife load them up, my son and I re-enacted a scene from James Bond's "Goldeneye" as we pulled out the start knobs in perfect synchronisation.

Then I sat down on my annual quest to compress the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the year into a two-page format. I first did this two years ago as a reaction against lugging the Yearbook around with me, and made it available to others on my blog, and because people found it useful, I've done it ever since. So here's the 2010 version. If you have a fancy printer or copier that can print double-sided, you will end up with a one-pager which, if folded into three, will slot in nicely at the back of your Bible. I hope you find it to be of use. [To access the PDF document, click here: Lectionary 2010]

Finally, PLEASE pray that this year can fully get under way, so that we can get out more!

Now I'm off to make a jelly, while James makes us some "Bunny" (don't ask - it's a Jones "thing"!)

Friday, 22 January 2010

Some fun on Friday

Here's a song for all you corporate slaves out there... (My prayers are with you - I also used to be one)

The Friday Song by John Berks
(Tune: My Way by Frank Sinatra)

And now, the weekend is here
It’s been hard work – I’m weak and tired
My boss is really weird, is such a jerk
That geek should be fired
I’ve worked a day that’s full
I’ve travelled slow, on a crowded highway
But yes – it feels so good
It’s finally Friday

For what is a job, what is a career?
Five days a week, twelve months a year
At 5 o’clock, the whistle blows
The drinks will pour, the door will close
And you will cheer, I’m outta here
It’s finally Friday!

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Wrestling with doctrine

I had a few minutes spare after lunch today while Belinda has gone to fetch James from school, so I thought I'd catch up with one or two blogs that I haven't read for some time.

And what a joy to read PamBG's (*) post of the same name as this one - it is a timely reminder, with all the debate around various issues at the moment, that we grow not by changing things for the sake of it, but by engaging and wrestling with them.

The full post can be read by clicking here, and I encourage you to read it in full, but the following extract nicely sums up what I believe to be a healthy approach to doctrine:

"I think the Church and her officers are called to pass on the creeds faithfully from generation to generation. And we are also given the grace to wrestle with our own doubts and interpretations and we are asked to be gracious unto others as they wrestle."

(* Pam is a Methodist minister from Britain who is now based in the United States).

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Facing an academic dilemma

Today was Day Two of our orientation at the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary (SMMS), and our Registrar gave us some insightful information on how the academic component of SMMS came to being, having to navigate through a mountain of forms required by three different government bodies - the Department of Education (which registers institutions), the Council for Higher Education (which registers programmes), and the South African Qualifications Authority (which registers individual qualifications).

Clearly there's a whole lot more to setting up an academic instution than simply opening your doors and declaring yourself "ready to teach". Academic, staffing, finances - these are but three of the many criteria that need to be met.

But soon the discussion came to the granting of credits for partially-completed qualifications under the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) framework, and this became quite heated - mainly because our group of seminarians is in a transition phase as the Methodist Church implements its new ministerial training requirements, which incorporates three years of residential seminary training, which also means that a number of us have partially-completed qualifications, mostly from TEE College. With the implementation of the new programme, SMMS has registered its own theology degree and diploma programmes, which the MCSA's Education for Ministry and Mission Unit will in future require all new seminarians without completed first qualifications to complete.

However, many of us in the "transition" group have been studying through TEE (which was required by the MCSA before SMMS was established). And the fact that one can only be granted a maximum of 50% of the credits of an uncompleted qualification based on RPL towards another qualification - which is a legal requirement, not a seminary rule - many of us are facing additional time to complete our undergraduate studies, simply because, legally, SMMS is unable to grant us the full number of credits completed at TEEC.

So the question is this (I'm referring to the BTh programme as this is the one that impacts me personally - I cannot speak for those who are following the diploma stream): Assuming one is given the option (which seems to be the case - I'll know for certain tomorrow), does one switch mid-stream to the SMMS BTh programme, or complete the TEEC BTh?

Why is this such a dilemma? On the one hand, the SMMS BTh is the better option academically. No criticism to the TEEC qualification, but SMMS's programme would be more "cutting-edge" (having been developed from scratch over the last 18 months) and more oriented to Wesleyan studies (which, you'll agree, is fairly important if you are a Methodist minister in training!). Also, with SMMS's partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (both being part of the Cluster of Schools of Theology), going the SMMS BTh route will probably make entrance to the UKZN's Honours programme more seamless.

On the other hand, switching to the SMMS BTh would entail a further 18 months of study (compared to 12 months to complete the TEEC BTh - the extra time required is due to the RPL limitations). Now you might think, "So what? Six months is no big deal!" And on the face of it, you would be correct - except for the timing of my stay at SMMS. I am expected to be at seminary for two years, which (in my mind) meant: complete degree, 2010; do Honours, 2011. If I were to stay at SMMS for a third year, I would either be able to a Masters in that year, or explore the possibility of starting a PhD through the Commerce faculty (I already have a Masters in financial management, and am looking at the whole question of how theology and economics / financial management influence each other as a likely research topic).

But if I switch, this means that I complete the degree in mid-2011, which would result in either (a) a mid-year registration for Honours, or (b) waiting until the beginning of 2012. If I were to be sent to Circuit at the end of 2011, option (a) would be messy in that I would still have six months to go to complete the Honours (which I would have to do part-time, probably extending the period of study even further), while option (b) would force me to do the entire Honours part-time, unless I spent a third year at SMMS.

Tomorrow we have our interviews to discuss the various academic options available to us. And given that I have been given what is probably a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to be able to further myself academically on a full-time basis, I want to be able to make the most of this opportunity. So please pray that our minds will all be open (me, as well as the SMMS faculty), and that I will make the right decision.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Oh, this just has Dion and Wessel written all over it!

Because of my involvement with Moneyweb writing tax articles, I receive a weekly e-mail that gives a run-down of what's happening in the media world. This particular article (an invite to participate in a competition to win a Vespa) just screamed "Dion" and "Wessel" at me.

I trust the good Doctors will rise to the challenge?

Make a movie, take home a Vespa

Who says fame and fortune is overrated? Good-looking people herding after you, free stuff and a mention in the closing credits, sounds flipping fantastic. And you can get a free Vespa, fame and fortune with the Vespa Takeone Video Challenge.

Creative peeps all over Mzanzi are charging up their video cameras and deciding on their best camera "side" to show off their moving-making skills to the rest of South Africa. All it takes is a bit of creativity, a couple of willing extras and Vespaverde to make a two minute video about the classic style icon, Vespa.

What is Vespaverde? Verde means ‘green’ in Italian and there’s a lotta green to Vespa: saving greenbacks on petrol; lowering carbon dioxide emissions; green for go - decreasing traffic congestion; making your peers green with envy; and always the green light with the simple twist and go. There’s never been a better, or sexier, time to go green.

The best news is the winner of the competition will scoot away on a stylish Vespa LX 150. Take note, monthly winners will also be selected by the Vespa panel and rewarded with Vespa hampers consisting of authentic Vespa paraphenalia.

Winning is easy, just like commuting on a Vespa. Enlist a few buddies, make an awesome Vespa video, then submit the video on www.vespatakeone.co.za, making sure you’ve read the rules. Then, get your best friend, colleagues, aunties and gran to vote for it. The most creative video with the most votes will win.

When not in Rome, use animation. Remember, this competition is all about creativity, so don’t worry if you don't have a Vespa. Who says an aubergine with bottle caps can’t look like a Vespa? We do, so we’ll leave the imagination part up to you.

What are you waiting for? Get movie-making. Visit www.vespatakeone.co.za to check out your competition, deadlines and more info about Vespaverde.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Moving towards pragmatism?

Jenny's latest post on the whole same-sex debate is leaning towards a pragmatic approach, because, let's face it - with so many different views on this matter, we are never going to come to a common agreement.

So perhaps it could be a better idea for the MCSA to allow each minister to act according to their own convictions regarding same-sex relationships? This would include granting permission to those who wish to conduct same-sex unions (on a similar basis to that of a marriage officer), as well as to those who are themselves in same-sex relationships who wish to enter into such a union.

On the face of it this might seem to be the pragmatic route to go. After all - without wanting to trivialise anything - if, for example, a gay minister and their partner decide to enter into a civil union(*), what difference does it actually make to me, or to the wider church, or to society for that matter? Surely this is the private business of the couple concerned (as often stated)?

Unfortunately, some of the problems that such an approach presents are of a practical nature. Here are a few that come to mind (note that these are just scenarios, and don't necessarily represent any particular point of view that I may or may not hold personally):

- A same-sex couple approaches Minister A, wishing that minister to conduct a civil union for them. Minister A is against same-sex relationships (and so refuses), but is aware that Minister B does not have a problem. Does Minister A refer the couple to Minister B? Would ministers who have objections to conducting civil unions be duty-bound to refer the couple to another minister? What if such minister refuses to even make such a referral based on conscience?

- Minister C, who has adopted an inclusive approach to same-sex relationships, has meen ministering to a particular congregation for a number of years. As a result, many people of same-sex orientation have felt comfortable with this minister and have decided to make this particular church their spiritual home. However, the day arrives when Minister C moves on, and Minister D (who happens to be anti) comes in Minister C's place. What would happen to this particular congregation? This scenario would be quite a challenge for stationing committees, who would need to establish a prospective minister's stance on same-sex relationships when considering who to appoint. Some ministers may be unwilling to disclose their particular stance under such circumstances for fear of possible victimisation.

- Ministers adopting a particular stance could find themselves prejudiced when it comes to stationing / invitation. I'm aware of at least one minister who had an invitation overturned because of the particular minister's pro-gay stance. (The same thing could of course happen to a minister who is anti-gay, but this is a less likely scenario in the current climate within our church). Stationing opportunities may also be limited in the case of ministers who themselves have entered into civil unions.

Once again it seems that I am long on questions and short on answers, but these are some of the practical considerations that the church would need to look at if it decided to go this route.

(*) Some people may object to me referring to same-sex unions as "civil unions" rather than "marriages". However, while my intention is not to offend, the fact is that in South African law currently, heterosexual marriages are regulated by the Marriage Act whereas same-sex unions are regulated by the Civil Unions Act. (There is also separate legislation dealing with traditional / religious rites unions, but such unions are not part of the current discussion). Using these terms also make it easier for me to distinguish between heterosexual and same-sex unions without cluttering up the text with too many explanations.

Are you a nerd, a geek, or a dork?

I've always wondered where I "fit in" in the greater scheme of things, but having seen this disgram, I would like to think I'm more "geek" than "nerd". I know I'm not a "dork" - not most of the time, at least!

Where do you think you "belong"?


Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Grace, law, and the MCSA

The verdict is out on Ecclesia de Lange's disciplinary hearing that took place yesterday, and the finding of the committee was that her entering into a civil union with her same-sex partner is in breach of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa's disciplines, and has therefore suspended her from active ministry.

The period of time from when it first became known publicly that her Superintendent had laid a charge against her, up to the time of writing, has been accompanied by a great deal of emotion from both sides - those supporting the decision, and those against - and unfortunately there has been some subtle mud-slinging in the process.

My purpose in this post is not to air anyone's dirty linen in public - the parties concerned have already brought this matter into the public arena via Facebook and other forums. And I am also not going to use this particular post to further debate the matter of same-sex relationships per se. But I do have a question that concerns the right of an institution to set its own standards, codes, and laws to which those associated with it are required to comply.

Please indulge me for a few moments as I elaborate on where my mind may be going with this. In 2008 when I stood as a candidate for the ministry before the Central District Synod, there was some discussion around what we understand to be a "covenant relationship" between ourselves as ministers and the MCSA. Paul Verryn, who was then Bishop, summed up this relationship quite succinctly by stating that as people who present ourselves as candidates for ministry, we believe that God has placed a specific call on our lives to serve as ministers of this church at this time. The MCSA, as the said church to which we offer ourselves as candidates, has the role of creating a space for us to explore, develop, and exercise that call.

As part of that call we agreed to fulfil certain promises. Among those was to adhere to the Church's disciplines. For example, one of those disciplines is that we agree to go to whichever Circuit we are sent. Now readers of this blog need to go back about 6-9 months and recall the anguish that I was facing at the time concerning whether or not I would be going to seminary, remaining in Uitenhage, or going elsewhere. And you will also recall that I definitely did NOT want to go to the seminary - the idea of being a full-time student at the age of 40, especially given my family responsibilities, did not sit well. In the end, Conference decided that I would be going to seminary after all, and here I am.

Now I could have refused to come here, opting instead to remain in Uitenhage, but I would have been in breach of the promise I made and in defiance of the lawful (in terms of our Laws and Disciplines) decision of Conference, and would have been subjected to disciplinary processes that would have undoubtedly found against me. In such event I would not have been in a position to cry "foul", because I knew the rules beforehand.

Okay - perhaps not the best example. It can be validly argued that being moved from one Circuit to another is by no means the same thing as being denied the right to enter into a civil union, particularly since this right is enshrined in civil legislation and protected by South Africa's constitution. But having said that, there's lots of things that are permissible legally that organisations choose to exclude.

For instance, civil legislation doesn't give a hoot or a holler whether we as a Church choose to baptise infants, adults, or cats and dogs for that matter. And I must confess that despite infant baptism being the preferred practice for baptism within the Methodist Church, I'm not particularly wild about it. (I'll discuss my reasons in a later post). But if I were to feel so strongly about it that I refused (as a minister in the MCSA) to conduct baptisms of infants, I would surely need to reconsider my position within this particular church. Certainly the MCSA would be entitled to take disciplinary steps against me if I were to breach its doctrine in this manner.

And I think that this is where the issue lies. Different practices of baptism can be equally justified Scripturally and otherwise by their respective proponents, while the respective detractors can do likewise concerning their own positions. Such is the case when it comes to same-sex relationships as well - sincere Christians argue passionately on both sides.

But the question is not about who is right or who is wrong. Both sides of the same-sex debate sincerely believe that their position is the correct and appropriately Christian one, with the opposite view (by definition) being "wrong". Rather, it's about the application of the prevailing disciplines at the time of a particular action. And in any organisation, if you want to change a particular rule, you lobby through the appropriate channels, and if sufficient support is gained, the rule will be changed.

The MCSA has been engaged in debate around same-sex relationships since the early-2000s, and the fact that this issue is even being discussed has caused joy in some quarters and dismay in others. Many have left the church as a result. Some feel that we have gone too far in this area, while others believe we have not gone far enough. And certainly there is dismay at the fact that a firm decision has not been arrived at (either way) in six years of intense discussion. Possibly the long timeframe is precisely because there are so many different (and passionately-held) points of view? Whatever the actual reason for the lengthy time-frame, until the rules are changed (if in fact the MCSA goes this route), the prevailing rules remain in force. Which means that same-sex unions, despite being legal in terms of civil legislation, are not recognised by the MCSA.

Could the whole situation with Ecclesia have been handled differently? Arguably it could have. Many have argued that in choosing between grace and law, the MCSA came down on the side of law. But it was probably left with little choice in this matter. And those who formulated the charge, met as a committee, and ultimately came to the decision that they did were probably in a no-win situation as well - if they returned a guilty verdict, they would be vilified by those supporting Ecclesia and others who are wanting to go the civil union route (as has in fact happened). But if they found in favour of Ecclesia, they would have been equally vilified by those who feel that same-sex relationships and Scripture are incompatible.

My own take on this matter? To be honest, I'm still trying to process it all. And at the outset of this post, I hoped that trying to get some words down would help me do so. It hasn't. Part of me believes that the Church was correct in enforcing its discipline - it does, after all, reflect the will of the MCSA as expressed through various Conferences down the years, even if parts of the disciplines do not sit well with parts of the Church (I guess this is true of all of us, if we are honest - I for one don't agree with everything contained in L&D). Yet part of me also recognises that there is a human element here - that of Ecclesia, her partner, the local church community, and the "powers that be" involved.

But when all is said and done, should an institution have the right to set its own policies, rules, and regulations? I believe that it should. The difficulty is when the laws of the organisation are (in certain respects) different to those that exist outside of the organisation, such as in civil society.

Sometimes our human nature is to want the best of both worlds. And I'm not sure that it's always possible, especially when we agreed to accept the organisation's rules up front.

Not easy...

Some random thoughts on "tall poppy syndrome"

I was chatting to some friends a few days ago and the subject of "tall poppy syndrome" came up. No doubt there's a more scientific definition around, but my own understanding of this phenomenon is when, in a group dynamic, one person tries to rise above the norm and do something different, only to be pulled down by the rest of the group.

One sees this phenomenon throughout society - even in the Church. I experienced this first-hand at Synod last year, where I was criticised for even daring to stand up and say something because I was "only a Phase One". Readers of this blog will know that I don't subscribe to this theory, and in fact see it as one of my quests in life to break down "tall poppy syndrome" wherever it manifests itself - people should be given the opportunity to think and act independently without fear or favour, should they choose to do so.

But what actually causes this phenomenon? The answer well may lie in this interesting story that I found on a blog entitled geekrebel's posterous:

There was an experiment involving 5 monkeys, a cage, a banana, a ladder and, crucially, a water hose.

The 5 monkeys were locked in a cage, after which a banana was hung from the ceiling with a ladder placed right underneath it.

Of course, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, intending to climb it and grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the sadist (euphemistically called “scientist”) would spray the monkey with ice-cold water. In addition, however, he would also spray the other four monkeys…

When a second monkey was about to climb the ladder, the scientist would again spray all the monkeys; likewise for the third climber and, if they were particularly persistent (or dumb), the fourth one. Then they would have learned their lesson: they were not going to climb the ladder again – banana or no banana.

The scientist would then replace one of the monkeys with a new one. The new guy would spot the banana, think “why don’t these idiots go get it?!” and start climbing the ladder. Then, however, it got interesting: the other four monkeys, familiar with the cold-water treatment, would run towards the new guy and beat him up. The new guy, blissfully unaware of the cold-water history, would get the message: no climbing up the ladder in this cage – banana or no banana.

When the beast outside the cage would replace a second monkey with a new one, the events would repeat themselves – with one notable detail: the first new monkey, who had never received the cold-water treatment himself (and didn’t even know anything about it), would, with equal vigour and enthusiasm, join in the beating of the new guy on the block.

The researcher kept replacing monkeys until eventually all the monkeys had been replaced and none of the ones in the cage had any experience or knowledge of the cold-water treatment.

Then, a new monkey was introduced into the cage. It ran toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. None of these monkeys had ever been sprayed by cold water.

Could it be that groups have slapped individuals down so much in the past that people are now too scared to stand up anymore? That individual actions are seen always as being to the detriment of the group, rather than potentially to the group's benefit? Surely this can't be what ubuntu is meant to be? What do you think?

Monday, 11 January 2010

Trying to get my head around the latest same-sex developments

One of my long-standing struggles around the whole issue of same-sex relationships has been the inner conflict between understanding what Scripture states about homosexual acts (with all the varying interpretations around the said passages); applying a pastoral approach to those who are of same-sex orientation; and my personal in-built prejudices that arise from me being a heterosexual male.

This struggle has also been made all the more difficult by my encounter with close friends of both genders who are gay - listening to their struggles, I have to believe their sincerity when they say that their orientation is not a mere matter of choice. I also became close friends with the ex-husband of a woman who felt that she could no longer live the lie of pretending to be of opposite-sex orientation, and have shared many an account of his struggles as well.

So now we have the issue with Ecclesia de Lange, a Methodist minister who has recently entered into a civil union with her same-sex partner. (For overseas readers who are not aware of the legal situation in South Africa, same-sex "marriages" are legally recognised under the Civil Unions Act, which provides a legal framework for same-sex couples akin to that of the Marriage Act which governs heterosexual unions. I have used the word "marriage" in inverted commas, because technically the correct legal term for same-sex "marriages" is a "civil union".)

However, while the South African Constitution prohibits discrimination based inter alia on grounds of sexual orientation; same-sex marriages have legal recognition under the abovementioned Civil Unions Act; and the Methodist Church of Southern Africa has been in intensive and vigorous debate since the early 2000s around this issue, the official position of the MCSA at this point remains that the recognition of marriage is between a man and a woman only, i.e. same-sex unions are not recognised. This means that while the stance of the MCSA is that we as ministers must provide pastoral care to those of same-sex orientation - including those in relationships (whether civil unions or not) - we are not permitted to conduct civil unions.

Despite this, there are a number of ministers who are currently in same-sex relationships but because of the MCSA's position (not to mention the fact that such relationships are not widely accepted by society, notwithstanding the Constitutional protection), they have chosen to keep their relationships under wraps.

The dilemma in Ecclesia's case is that, by going ahead and entering into a civil union, she is now in breach of the MCSA's disciplines and doctrines. The result is that her Superintendent has laid a charge against her in terms of our internal disciplinary procedures.

The support for Ecclesia and her partner has been quite vocal, with a prayer vigil to take place at the same time and place where her disciplinary hearing is to be held. But while those who have come out in support see such support (quite rightly) as their pastoral responsibility, my concern is that her Superintendent who laid the charge has somehow been cast as the villain.

Since I do not personally know any of the parties concerned (Ecclesia, her partner, or her Superintendent), I'm in no position to comment on this particular situation. However, I do know from bitter experience that the decision to lay a charge against another person is a gut-wrenching and painful one. In my own case the charge that I laid was relating to financial irregularities during my tenure as Circuit Treasurer, and - trust me - it is a decision that one should only come to when all other avenues of reconciliation have been exhausted. It is a most unpleasant and draining process, and relationships are never the same afterwards.

I also know that the Superintendent in this case is a year or two away from retirement, and believe me - having served under a Superintendent who is at the same stage of his ministry, as well as being close friends with a number of ministers who have already retired - something like this is the last thing you want to do when you are so close to retirement! After a number of years in the ministry, which - although fulfilling - is also a stressful calling, one can be forgiven for wanting a quiet life in one's twilight years.

So what am I actually saying? It's this: While it may appear that I'm siding with Ecclesia's Superintendent (which I'm not - not because I agree or disagree with what he has done, but because I don't know the parties involved or the full circumstances), if we truly want to be Christ-like an "us-and-them" situation needs to be avoided (whoever the "us" and the "them" may be).

And most of all - irrespective of one's stance on the whole same-sex "issue", spare a thought for the people involved. And in this case it may well be about Ecclesia and her partner, but it's also about her Superintendent who has had to make a difficult decision. It's about the local church community, which will no doubt be adversely affected by the whole proceedings. And it's about the wider MCSA, which as an institution will be pressurised into making a stance on same-sex relationships one way or he other regardless of the outcome of this particular process. The whole covenant relationship between the MCSA and its ministers (as ministers we do not have employment contracts) could also be impacted.

Please pray for wisdom on all sides.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Thoughts on the next phase of ministry at SMMS

It's often been said (by me included) that if you are too busy to blog, you are indeed far too busy! Certainly this has been my experience of late, what with packing up to leave Joburg after about a month's break with my family, and trying to settle into my new flat at the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg where I will be spending the next two (maybe three?) years.

And the last four days has been spent unpacking bozes, drilling holes, unpacking boxes, setting up the hi-fi, unpacking boxes, mounting my certificates, unpacking bozes, rigging up a shower, unpacking boxes ... so as you can imagine, I am absolutely "gat-vol" of unpacking boxes! So I believe that my early night last night was well-earned!

But this morning I was wide awake just before 4 am, having just had a dream about me giving the opening address to my fellow seminarians at SMMS, and with a burning desire to get those thoughts down on computer. The resultant sermon (which is still in very raw form, and may or may not be preached) can be found here for those who want some insight into my currently scrambled state of mind as a new seminarian!

Having got that out of my system, I decided to catch up on some blogs that I hadn't read in a while, and found this interesting post on UK local preacher Fat Prophet's blog entitled "Young and looking for a job?" and, like in my dream, he raises the question of whether the ministry is a calling or a career. While I have in the past lamented the fact that young people in the MCSA are not encouraged nearly often enough to consider whether God may be calling them to full-time ministry - reflected in the fact that the average candidate for ministry currently is middle-aged - I have also experienced the other side of the coin where too many ministers see the ministry as merely a job.

I suppose it's easy for me to talk - I gave up a lucrative career in finance to follow what I believe to be God's leading into the ministry - a "career" not known for massive earnings (unless you're the senior pastor of an independent mega-church). The fact that I have been able to do this without an ounce of regret is evidence (for me at least) of God's call. I am also thankful to God that I have never experienced what it is like to be unemployed - even when I left the corporate world four years ago to start up my own consultancy, I may have experienced diminished earnings at first but was always able to put food on my table and pay the bills. So I don't know how unemployment feels, and have no concept of the resultant desperation. But a move into the ministry should not be seen as a solution.

If a minister is in ministry because they couldn't make it anywhere else, that is the worst possible reason one could possibly have for becoming a minister. Wanting the "status" of being a minister is probably just as bad. The combination of the two can (and does) lead to all kinds of abuses (financial, sexual, power) which the Church and society at large can well do without.