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Moving Forward and Looking Back–Connecting

UMAC 2012

Wayne Rhodes, General Board of Church and Society, leads a workshop titled, “What You Need To Know About the UM Connection” at the 2012 United Methodist Association of Communicators meeting. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

In this fourth post in the series, I reflect on how communications technologies make it possible to connect with people half a world away, and why that’s important.

Connecting continents

New mobile technologies make it possible to connect with others in ways that were not previously possible. In The United Methodist Church, in which I am ordained, we often speak of ourselves as a connection.

The term is not well understood. It comes from the organizational system in which clergy and laity can conduct ministry and service as part of a global system. It is not a congregational-based organization.

Congregations are connected with each other in a regional organization called a conference. The conference is led by a bishop who is elected from within a larger regional area made up of conferences, called a jurisdiction.

Connection as asset

I believe the connection is one of our greatest assets. It gives us scope and scale that allows us to carry out mission and ministry that is consequential, the kind that can make a difference because of its reach and depth. Often, it is said about some rural parts of the world that the church is in places that even government ministries don’t reach, for example.

By this, it is meant that a local faith community exists beyond the end of the road in places that are not likely to get much attention, places where isolation can lead to poverty, lack of health care, educational services, and basic services. These conditions create stress and suffering that discourage the flourishing life that I believe God intends for all persons.

It means that ideas and resources can be shared in ways that would not happen otherwise. And it means people who might not otherwise be able to do so, can share at a scope that has greater result. This is undergirded by religious values that reflect a commitment to human dignity and belief in the sacredness of all life under God.

Haiti 2013

Teacher Sylné Guerdy works with students in the computer lab at the Thomas Food Project in Thomas, Haiti. The program is part of a United Methodist Communications effort to use technology for development. UMNS photo/Mike DuBose

It is an outgrowth of our understanding of the meaning of discipleship, to follow the teachings of Jesus to care for the world and for each other because we believe we are connected by the love of God and are responsible to and for each other.

Connecting for the common good

In a world of global messaging and influence by governments and corporations, a globally connected world, the means for people of goodwill to carry out works of religious value is needed. When religion is humanizing and compassionate, it contributes to the common good, and a connectional system that can offer, through its communications capacity and through its organizational mission, a deeper understanding of our humanity, a way to reach out with compassion, and to advocate for justice, is a valuable asset.

As we grow in members around the world, we are having conversations about an emerging understanding of how we are connected globally.

At its best, this connection means that we can do more together than we can do independently of each other, as individuals or as single congregations. It  allows us to achieve scope and scale, as when we give to Imagine No Malaria, which results in the provision of medicines, bed nets and health training that can affect whole regions and nations.

It also enlarges our influence for the common good, which is a direct outcome of our commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus to heal the world and reach out to those who are sick and in prison, poor and neglected, no matter where they are.

Connecting through global mapping

About five years ago, Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Episcopal Area and I discussed his concern that there were local churches, as well schools and health clinics operated by the church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that could not be identified. Lacking a developed road system or effective communications, these facilities were unconnected.  The options available at that time to map those locations were both limited and expensive.

In the last 12 months, United Methodist Communications initiated a pilot project to map the geographic locations of churches outside the U.S. and add them to a global database available to everyone online. This effort began with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines, and will extend to other countries within Africa, the Philippines, eastern and central Europe and Scandanavia in 2014. (United Methodist Communications began to provide communications tools and training to connect these conferences several years ago. A network of communicators has been created and the networking of conferences is continuing.)

For the first time, people looking for United Methodist churches, schools and health care facilities in Africa, Europe and the Philippines will be able to find them online and learn more about their ministries. This information is being gathered through the use of technologies that reside on mobile phones and take advantage of GPS and software called Ushahidi, an open source project that allows crowd source emergency information to be sent by mobile phones.

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Sam Perales configures link in Tacloban, Philippines to enable communication for humanitarian agencies while UMCOM representative April Mercado, and Randy Baido looks on. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

Ushahidi has never been used like this, so it’s innovation to the max. It’s also easy and cost free.

It’s important to understand where local churches and other facilities are located as we continue to grow into an understanding of ourselves as a global church. It will allow for more careful and informed planning, as well as better opportunities for sharing information, training, resources and personnel.

Global mapping is in its initial stages as I write, but as it progresses, we will have for the first time a visual database that offers a view of the geographic position of the mission and ministry of the global United Methodist Church.

Global connection is essential

There is real value in the phrase “think globally, act locally,” especially for Christians who inherit a theology spread by a global evangelist named Paul and the teachings of Jesus, who broke down regional and cultural barriers  through his actions and preaching.

Christian teaching calls us to open ourselves to our place in the world as well as our relationship to God and to each other. We are called to take responsibility for the whole of Creation. To be a follower of Jesus is to be connected through relationship with others and with God. We are called to consider the health of the entire planet and those with whom we share it, and to take action in our own communities and cities as well.

When we use information and communication technologies to connect us, they can serve as tools for ministry, and the outcomes, when they bring positive, transformational change, are ministry. I believe building an understanding of our global connection is important to the work of doing theology in the connected world of the 21st century.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Giving

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United Methodist Church Giving Tuesday logo

In this third post in a series on how communication and technology are shaping life today, I reflect on the unprecedented giving that occurred in the 2-year-old initiative known as Giving Tuesday.

Unprecedented giving

United Methodists, the faith community to which I belong, gave lavishly on #Giving Tuesday, a national day of charitable giving following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  The record-breaking total of donations — $6.5 million in one day — was more than notable. The resounding success of this effort leads us to new pathways for considering the value of communications strategy in support of the mission of the church as well as the power of social media.

The people of The United Methodist Church are generous and they have demonstrated that generosity over the years, but social media and the ready opportunity to give online to a variety of causes is a game changer.

Frequently, I hear in The United Methodist Church that people don’t want to provide funding support beyond the local church, but on #GivingTuesday, their willingness to support ministry beyond the local church, and in many cases in other countries, was readily apparent.

Several factors contributed to this remarkable outpouring of giving, not the least of which is the fact that people in this faith community are generous and give to those efforts by the church that they believe will improve lives. Whether it’s for education, health, or economic development, clean water, nutrition, medicines or bed nets, they have shown a willingness to give.

Factors in Success

Other factors in the success of Giving Tuesday included a wide range of choices for donors, direct access to information and an easy process for contributing, buttressed by a social media and print campaign that put Giving Tuesday before potential donors on virtually every social medium they use. This awareness led to contributions.

It’s significant that Giving Tuesday was  promoted in new media and in print. The interaction between the two gave the effort reach. The invitation to give was unavoidable; it was everywhere in the social media world. And it’s notable that people waited to give on Giving Tuesday, perhaps to take advantage of a matching grant that was available up to a limited amount.

There is still much to learn from the success of Giving Tuesday. Assessments and evaluations are still under way. Analytics are being reviewed, tactics assessed, and strategy evaluated.

As I write this, we have more questions than answers. What learnings can we glean from this overwhelming response about giving in the 21st century? What role did communications play in the favorable outcome and how did the various components of the communication strategy contribute to awareness? And finally, is this effort replicable and could it be scaled upward to include other beneficiaries important to the total mission of the church?

But one thing is clear, communication and technology have changed the game, and people will use these technologies to give generously to those things they care about when we communicate with them in the media where they are present.

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Note: Due to a typing error in an earlier version of this post, I wrote that Giving Tuesday is three years old. It is two years old.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Communication is Aid

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Training to re-establish communications system in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, sponsored by United Methodist Communications. UMNS photo

On the threshold of a new year, information and communication technology plays a more critical role in shaping life than we have experienced before. This is especially true in nations with emerging economies, many of which have leap-frogged over hard-wired communications infrastructure and moved into  wireless infrastructure.

When Typhoon Yolanda, as it was known in the Philippines, devastated the central Philippines, one of the first calls for assistance from the government was for help to re-establish communications infrastructure. Without it, emergency aid could not proceed at the scale necessary to meet the widespread needs of the people.

In the second part of this series on how communication and technology are shaping the church today, I explain why I believe that in such crises communication is aid.

Communication Is Critical Aid

Communication is a form of aid when the need to communicate is critical to saving lives. This was boldly underlined by the Philippines government’s call for assistance to reconstruct the communication system following the typhoon. Communications had to be re-established to control aircraft that were delivering humanitarian aid, rescue and military personnel, and to tell people where they could receive food and medicine.

Without the ability to communicate, people were isolated and at greater risk of disease, lack of medical care, hunger and exposure. Communication in the aftermath of a disaster is as important as food, water, shelter and medicine, according to a project supported by the BBC called “infoasaid.”

Information is necessary to life-saving efforts, while inaccurate information can be costly in terms of human life.

Following the typhoon, United Methodist Communications worked with technology partner Inveneo to do a site assessment of church communications needs to help people recover from the devastating damage, including mobile and satellite phones, WiFi, and low power radio.

Along with other partners, United Methodist Communications provided communications training, software and hardware to assist in the humanitarian effort, as well as assessment of the  long-term communications needs of The United Methodist Church in the region.

Solar cellphone chargers and combination solar lamps and chargers were distributed to local clergy in the affected area. Mobile phones and satellite phones were provided to United Methodist staff  and 50 tablets donated by Google were equipped with apps and maps in order to help 25 non-governmental organizations distribute aid and relief more effectively.

Tablets loaded with apple and maps were provided to  organizations providing humanitarian aid.

Tablets loaded with applications and maps were provided to organizations providing humanitarian aid.

United Methodist Communications also worked with NetHope, a collaboration of 41 leading international humanitarian organizations providing the best information communication technology and best practices, to coordinate a training event for the non-governmental organizations on the ground, including NetHope, Americares, CARE, Concern Worldwide, Catholic Relief Services, International Medical Corps, International Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Oxfam Great Britain, Plan International, Relief International, Save the Children, SOS, Children’s Villages, World Vision International, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and United Methodist Communications field staff.

Plans have been made to follow up with training participants to document how the tablets are being used to enhance recovery, looking particularly at emphasizing getting aid to areas that were ignored because they were “off the map,” or unable to communicate with the outside world.

The goal is to transition from assisting in the emergency to creating a sustainable communications system that will serve the church into the future.

Information has become essential to achieve a meaningful, productive life. United Methodist Communications is providing training and communications tools in areas where people have been left out of the communications revolution. Under the banner of information and communications technology for development (ICT4D), people are being trained to utilize sustainable communications tools that can be used education, health, agriculture and spiritual development.

In the 21st century, communication is aid.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Transparent Communication

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A website contains the background papers for a discussion about offering the sacrament of Holy Communion online.

The year 2013 is in our rear view mirror. As we stand on the threshold of a new year, it’s useful to review past experiences and build on them.

We’re in an information age in which technology and communication are as important as they’ve ever been in shaping our lives. Over the next four days, I’ll take a look at events this past year and four big ways I think the intersection of technology and communication is shaping the church.

Transparency

In fall 2013, a churchwide theological conversation about whether Holy Communion should be administered online took place both virtually and amid a gathering of 27 scholars, bishops, laypersons, clergy and agency executives. The conversation followed a proposal from Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., to launch an online campus that would potentially offer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

The discussion stimulated a thoughtful and constructive dialogue during a 10-hour meeting that took place in Nashville, Tenn., while many people followed along on Facebook and Twitter. The discussion was archived on Storify. The background documents considered during the meeting were widely circulated and posted online.

Everything said was chronicled for public consumption via social media sites. The discussion became a trending topic on Twitter and even caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal. Social media provided a means for widening the conversation from an academic arena to one that was more about the life of the local church, as social media users reported on the dialogue in real-time so others could react and post their opinions.

The result of the expanded conversation was that it generated critical thinking and a means for education as well. People going into the conversation had some predisposition about whether the sacrament of communion online was good or bad, but those perceptions were somewhat influenced, at least to the extent that many were not quite as sure that the answer was black and white.

The group asked the Council of Bishops to call for a moratorium on the practice of online communion and to initiate a study on best practices for ministry through online means.

Further, the experience served as a model for how we might conduct church affairs publicly and accessibly, and opened the possibilities for wider and more transparent conversation about a variety of issues that are of concern to people today.

Words Matter: Why Obamacare Is A Communications Disaster

Health Insurance InfogramWhen comedian Jimmy Kimmel asked people on the street whether they favored the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act won handily.

This confusion is not limited to Kimmel’s street prank.

Polls show that people don’t know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same. And they react more negatively toward Obamacare than toward affordable health care.

While Kimmel was working a comedy routine, the lesson should not be lost. Words matter.

It escapes me why the Obama administration allowed opponents of the health care act to define it and, ultimately, demonize it. Even worse, some administration officials use the “Obamacare” handle themselves.

This lack of message discipline, in effect, works against the signature legislation of the President they serve.

The lessons in this communications debacle are many.

 How to Do It Better

First, tell your own story. Never leave this to others. Define yourself before others define you.

Second, keep it simple. The complexity of the legislation overwhelmed the simple message that its purpose is to make health care affordable to more people.

While the opposition defined Obamacare as complex, unworkable and economically destructive, the wound is also self-inflicted.

Communications consultant Ann Wylie analyzed four text samples in an online training manual for field workers who are assisting people to sign up for health insurance under the new law. She found the passages difficult to understand.

Wylie shows how to present complex procedures in simple language. Her suggestions:

  • Use bulleted lists
  • Break up long sentences
  • Use active rather than passive writing
  • write to the reader in the second person
  • Use short words (two syllable words are easier to read than three syllable words)
  • Use personal illustrations
  • Ask a question

Most general interest publications are written for eighth grade comprehension level, but studies show that those who can read at a higher level are not insulted by reading downward.

Therefore, simplifying doesn’t lose readers or harm communication, it can enhance comprehension.

Third, communication is a strategic function. It’s not limited to tactics.

Communication is a Strategic Asset

Communicators implement tactics, such as deciding how to package and present information, but tactics come after thoughtful consideration about the key message, or messages, and how to deliver them. This requires strategic thinking.

When communicators start with tactics and don’t give sufficient thought to strategy we reduce our role to a support function and allow others to define us by that role.

I advocate for communication to be viewed as  a strategic function, especially in the always-on, multi-media environment of the 21st century.

Strategy requires thinking about who we want to interact with and how they use media. It involves knowing if the information we’re conveying is important for them and how we will reach them.

Most importantly, it involves developing a clear message and consistently presenting it.

Learning From the Mistakes

I hope the Obama administration is learning this lesson because access to affordable health care is important.

Even before the embarrassing website fiasco, the Affordable Care Act was in trouble because it had been defined as Obamacare, and that’s an epithet to some people.

Lack of strategic communications’ planning and consistent messaging had already created a void filled by negative perceptions. Now this botched communication threatens the most significant policy initiative of the Obama presidency.

Words matter.

 

Online communion sparks questions for digital age

Online communion stirs passions, so much so that a conversation by United Methodists on the subject under the hashtag #onlinecommunion became a trending topic on Twitter this week.

The conversation, including theologians, local church clergy, laity, bishops and staff of general agencies of The United Methodist Church, explored whether the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper could be administered  on the Internet. It was sparked by a proposal by Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., to create an online congregation that could potentially share the Eucharist.

A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

To its credit, the Central UMC circulated the proposal throughout the church for comment and discussion. And the proposal is generating thoughtful, critical thinking about the nature of the sacrament, the gathered community, the difference between virtual and physical space, the meaning of incarnational theology and the holy mystery, among a host of other important considerations, such as:

  • What is essential for community, online or face-to-face, to be authentic?
  • Can we worship online?
  • Does even speaking of these questions damage ecumenical relationships, and would serious consideration of online communion precipitate a global crisis in these relationships between United Methodists and other faith partners?
  • If the church is not present in the media, which are influential in people’s lives and shaping culture today, is it relevant to them?
  • Is the subject of online communion a first world affectation, a sign of our media-rich affluence?
  • Is it crazy to discuss conducting this most historic act of faithfulness through a mediated form that is foreign to our historic understanding?
  • Can a local church institute a practice that affects the entire denomination?

Holy Scripture, early church teachings, John Wesley, Martin Luther, papal encyclicals and Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam were invoked.

At the behest of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, papers were requested from a wide range of scholars, clergy and other professionals involved in disciplines related to the topic. These were circulated prior to the meeting. They will be made available online for public reading by mid-November on umc.org, the denomination’s website.

Exploring online ministry

After pointed but constructive conversation, the group agreed to request the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church take up the subject and provide guidance for excellent practices for online ministry. They also called on the bishops to declare a moratorium on all online sacramental practices and to give the matter of online communion attention in its Faith and Order Committee, in conversation across the church and with ecumenical partners.

The participants recognized that “historically, the church has understood a service of Holy Communion to be a celebration within a physically gathered community. The emergence of interactive digital media raises new questions about the meaning of gathered community and requires further thinking about our beliefs and practices.”

They also affirmed the church’s exploration and use of interactive digital media in the fulfillment of its mission.

Following Christ in a digital culture

I would characterize the conversation as neither Luddite nor innovation-at-any cost, but rather, as a constructive conversation that began to grapple with what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the 21st century, a time in which we are immersed in interactive digital media that are reshaping our understanding of ourselves, our culture, our relationship with one another and our understanding of the sacred. Such conversation is essential today if we are to carry out relevant ministry and effectively engage with people who are immersed in the digital culture.

Equally important was the willingness of the leaders of the conversation to conduct it in an open forum on Twitter. This expression of openness should be a witness to future meetings that transparency today is not a weakness but a strength and a means to engage with those concerned. It was a first step toward an important dialogue about how a mainline communion adapts, evolves and engages people in a new cultural context, not unlike the challenge that faced Paul as he sought to carry the new faith into places far from its birthplace and Wesley as he sought to reach people in the teeming changes of the Industrial Revolution in England.

If you’re interested in weighing in, or following the ongoing conversation go to #onlinecommunion on Twitter and read more on umc.org and Storify.

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Disclaimer: I was a participant in the conversation and participated in writing one of the papers used in the discussion. I am general secretary of United Methodist Communications, which was a sponsor of the meeting in partnership with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, General Board of Discipleship and Office on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

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In an earlier version of this report, I omitted the participation of a college chaplain and laypersons. I regret the omission.

 

The Astounding Impact of Innovative Technology in the Developing World

Nathan Myhrvold’s TEDTalk,”Could this laser zap malaria?” is an eye-opening look at how computer science and technology can help address an ancient and persistent disease that is responsible for 655,000 deaths each year. To think that it’s possible for a laser to not only kill mosquitoes in mid-flight, but determine from their wing beat frequency whether they are females (which potentially carry malaria) or males (which do not bite) is downright astonishing.

Yet even technology that’s far more accessible than what Myhrvold describes is changing the game in Africa — not only aiding in the fight against malaria, but opening a whole new world. Mobile technologies make it possible to have access to information that is transformative, whether it’s tracking disease outbreaks or educating children.

Once I was in a remote village in northern Senegal where there were no telephones or even electricity, disconnected from the rest of the world. Back home in the U.S., my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife, Sharon, was purposefully trying to get a message to me.

It took her an entire day to find someone who would agree to go to the village to locate me. It took a another day for that person to reach me by car — then yet another day for the two of us to navigate the poor roads to the nearest town with a post office that had phone service. Once there, I had to make an appointment to come back to use the phone the following day. By the time I was finally able to speak to her, my son was already recuperating.

Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

That’s what life was like in rural Africa before cell phones and satellites. Today, cell phone usage in Africa is commonplace, with more than 10.7 million mobile phones in Senegal alone. Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

Improving – and saving – lives

Pierre Omadjela, director of Communications and Development for the Central Congo Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, is using FrontlineSMS to share health information and increase awareness about malaria prevention (a major focus for The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative). FrontlineSMS is free, open-source software that can be used to send text messages to groups of people without an Internet connection that is being used in a variety of ways to improve people’s lives.

Using automated messages to mobile phones, Omadjela says they have already realized a 5 percent decrease from the work they are doing teaching people in the Democratic Republic of Congo ways to prevent malaria.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Blantyre, Malawi, for a meeting of The United Methodist Church of Malawi. During a workshop on Transformative Communication, which included presentations from leaders at Inveneo and Medic Mobile, one workshop leader asked the group of 85 participants how many owned and use mobile phones. Virtually every hand in the place was raised.

Later, at another training conducted in Madisi, Malawi, on how to use FrontlineSMS to communicate with key groups of people, local church personnel and caseworkers who work for ZOE Ministry, a program that helps empower orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, were in attendance. As one woman sent her first FrontlineSMS text message, she shrieked with wonder. “It worked!” she marveled.

While 75 percent of the world has access to a mobile phone, smartphones make up only 15 percent of the global market. biNu is a platform that allows those with feature phones to have a smartphone-like experience through cloud-based apps and services, providing them with immediate access to email, news, books, health information and social features.

That means the world’s information library is available through not only smartphones, but also conventional mobile phones. Children are able to read books they could not afford and have access to educational information they otherwise would not.

‘All about potential’

Access to information is also giving people the means to have more control over their circumstances. In Kenya, I watched as two women used a teacup-sized satellite receiver plugged into a boom box get audio digital information that was then translated into text, allowing them to check the market price of beans so they could negotiate a fair price for their own crop. No longer must they rely solely on the price quoted by a distributor.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says, “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Remarkable new information technologies are unlocking the potential of developing countries in ways that are not only empowering, but revolutionary. As new innovations and new possibilities continue to be presented, the digital future is becoming the digital present. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

When grief strikes the workplace

Our small work community has been buffeted by health crises and death since the days before Christmas, and they continue. While this makes us a stronger community, it also takes an emotional toll.

A colleague lost her spouse to a quick, previously undiagnosed illness. Another lost a young adult son. Still another, a matriarch grandmother. Another, an aunt and a childhood caregiver. A close professional colleague with whom we worked for years lost his battle with cancer, and another who led us through organizational change and leadership training, died this morning.

In addition, a colleague in a partner organization and who is instrumental in our work in Africa was hospitalized in France with a life-threatening illness. He is now recuperating.

When I walk through our building, it’s common to have a conversation updating one of these circumstances, and I often find myself in a pastoral role while also receiving pastoral care. That’s the strength of this community. It’s more than a workplace. In times like these, it becomes a supportive faith community, even more than is normally the case.

To be clear, these concerns that weigh on our hearts are not all-consuming. We get our work done, but our work and our faith are not in conflict; they are compatible, and, sometimes, interconnected.

Facing such difficult times, I can be caught up in a swirl of conflicting emotions, yearning for privacy and connection, experiencing pain, wishing for comfort. It’s a privilege when caught up in this whirlwind that we can experience community and comfort as distress abounds.

Speaking to staff in a prayer service this morning, I was grateful to them that we can be available to one another when grief is so deep it has no bottom.

When loss changes the course of our lives and leaves us feeling that we cannot dream or hope, a supportive community can at least share the journey and encourage the vision of a better tomorrow.

When life seems broken in a way that leaves us feeling too exhausted for the journey, a community of support provides strength beyond our own.

I came to believe early in my life that when we are in our most vulnerable state, we are closest to God, who is the source of life. We are likely to be most authentic and human because we are stripped of our false sense of security.

In fact, we are vulnerable to the vagaries of the universe at every moment. We really cannot know what’s coming next. But we make plans and take for granted that our plans will happen. And when they don’t, we’re caught short.

The loss of someone we love exposes our vulnerability in the most unsettling way I know. From doubt and despair through anger, questioning, bargaining, hope and finally to celebration.

As a person of faith, I take great comfort in scripture.  It’s clear to me that the writers of our sacred texts experienced life as I experience it, and their words come alive in remarkable ways.

This morning, I shared several selections that are meaningful to me in such times as these.

The affirmation in Isaiah:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49)

And Paul:
“We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:7,8)

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things past, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38,39)

To know that we share bonds so strong they span history, and so real they speak to our experience as we live it, is powerfully reassuring. That, along with the faces of the community, the presence of a spirit so holy it is beyond naming, and the promise of Jesus standing in our midst saying, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age,” make these difficult times more than bearable. They make them more comprehensible and ultimately, celebratory.

The Global Connection in Action

I just returned from a walk around our building. I do this every so often.

Frankly, it serves my own purposes more than anything else. I am surrounded by committed, creative, wonderful people, and to have the chance to chat with them is a real picker-upper.

Here’s why: I learned that a young woman who saw a video profile we posted on the web was moved to call the producer to ask for contact information because she “wanted to turn her life around.”

The two were connected and vetted each other, and she’s considering going on a mission trip to Liberia as an assistant to a team of dental practitioners.

Another person sent a note explaining how he is using a video on HIV/AIDS that we posted before World AIDS Day to convene an interfaith group to address HIV/AIDS in his city.

And we heard from a group in Kalamazoo that registrations for a Kalamazoo Christmas event are up over last year as a result of widespread coverage through Rethink Church advertising.

The author of the children’s book, “A Kalamazoo Christmas”, learned of the event and donated a couple of hundred copies to the event. (She said she’s never been to Kalamazoo, by the way, but she found the name intriguing.)

Interestingly, more than half (54 percent) of the volunteers for this community service event are not affiliated with a local church, reinforcing the idea that disciple-making today comes, in part, through mission engagement.

I received an e-mail from a writer in Bangkok who wanted to renew contact with a photographer who had done some work that we had posted on women in Sudan. Our staff helped them re-connect.

There are days when the value of the global connection of The United Methodist Church is manifestly clear to me. And it is a strength that supports and sustains meaningful human community and personal growth.

Today was one of those days.

Is the connection fraying?

Recently someone “deeply involved in budgeting” for a local church contacted United Methodist Communications seeking financial information. When we suggested contacting the conference treasurer, the response was complete lack of knowledge about who, or what, a conference treasurer is.

This is not an isolated occurrence. We often encounter United Methodists who are unaware of how our connection works, what it is doing in the world or what it teaches.

Is the connection connected?

An anecdote does not make a trend. However, when asked by United Methodist Communications researchers if their local church understands the concept of connectionalism, only 18 percent of pastors and 12 percent of laity strongly agree that they understand it. When clergy and laypersons are asked individually if they understand the church’s structure, 38 percent of clergy and 17 percent of laity strongly affirm that they understand it.

Couple this with participation in connectional giving and the story is consistent. The most widely observed offering in the church is One Great Hour of Sharing, yet only 28 percent of United Methodist congregations participate in it. This is the highest rate of participation for any of the general church offerings.

At a time when global realities call for deeper understanding of our interrelatedness and interdependencies, the fraying of the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is a cause for concern. The lack of awareness about how we are connected from the local church to the annual conference and from the annual conference to the general church is important, not only to us as a faith community but also to the world.

Let me illustrate. It is noteworthy that the World Health Organization is reporting that malaria is claiming fewer children today than in previous years. What does this have to do with the connection? I believe when the people of The United Methodist Church entered into the fight against this killer disease, we encouraged others and helped, along with other partners, to focus on something the world could do together: tackle a disease of poverty.

It was our scale partnering with others of scale that gave hope that together we could alleviate human suffering and death in a global movement. Our connectedness was, and is, an immeasurable asset in the mission to embody the leading causes of life, to quote Gary Gunderson’s marvelous phrase.

If we reclaim an understanding that the connection is about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (that’s scale), and that discipleship is expressed through missional outreach to the world (that’s scale), we can participate with God in the transformation of the world (that’s real scale).

I know there are many complex reasons the connection is fraying. But I’m asking a simple question. What if the connection were viewed less as a bureaucratic organizational model that’s a drag on finances and more as a life-giving movement for the healing of the world? What if we viewed it, interpreted it and embodied it in this way? What might happen?

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