Bishop Willimon is wrong about small membership churches. He’s not completely wrong, but he needs correction on three key points made in his article posted at www.ministrymatters.com.
First, he neglects the Gospel mandate to preach the good news “to the ends of the earth.” That includes rural communities where United Methodist churches will be small. In small towns all over America, the United Methodist Church is usually an outpost of love, joy, service and the good news about Jesus. They are strategic and need to be strengthened as much as possible.
I once knew a young man from a small Kansas church. He was working as a clerk to a justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was not planning to go back to the farm and small church where he was raised, but was headed for a distinguished legal career. What will he accomplish over time? Will he become a Supreme Court justice? If so, his values and faith were shaped by worship, Sunday School and United Methodist youth fellowship of that small membership church. If rural communities often export their youth, they are changing the world by the young people whose character they have shaped.
The second point is about clarity. Bishop Willimon has confused the issue in harmful ways by overgeneralizing about small membership churches. Both large and small churches can be characterized by “deadly, club-like interiority, insufferable triviality, and hostility toward newcomers” that Willimon decries. He says his experience is that this is present more in small churches than in large ones, but no statistics are presented and we are left with his own unsupported generalizations.
In contrast, I would offer my own experience as bishop of the Great Plains Episcopal Area. I have found missionally effective, vital, small congregations doing amazing ministry in rural areas. Some are even open-country churches working hard to engage their mission field. I have also found club-like, internally focused dying churches with several hundred in attendance located in urban areas.
Bishop Willimon’s article has certainly stirred the pot, but the question is first and foremost not about the size of churches or location. Rural churches in Nebraska and Kansas are facing the difficulties associated with demographic changes, usually depopulation as a result of the changing economics of agriculture. Urban churches face other demographic changes. All of us face huge cultural changes like new technologies and the loss of cultural support for religious practice.
The key issue is a focus on God and God’s mission to save the world. Where congregations see themselves as mission stations whose time, talents and money can be used by the Lord to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, the Holy Spirit shows up and amazing things happen. United Methodism has too few of these congregations in all locations. We need more churches with high numbers of professions of faith, growing worship attendance, increasing participation in small groups and engagement in world-changing mission. That matters more than size.
The third issue is that Bishop Willimon never specifies what he means by “subsidy.” Some annual conferences still apportion some clergy benefits such as health care and pensions. Their use of the equitable salary budget hides the true cost of pastoral services. Every congregation should bear the full cost of the pastoral leadership assigned to that congregation. No congregation should be paying for the pastoral leadership of another church, with the exception of new congregations that have a fixed number of years of declining support. Where such subsidies still exist, conferences should end them now. Subsidizing pastoral compensation, except in temporary and rare instances, is bad practice. If this is what he means, I agree with Bishop Willimon.
But perhaps Bishop Willimon is referring to the apportionments that pay District Superintendent and Episcopal salaries. In those cases, DSes and Bishops should be focused not on taking care of dying club-like congregations, but on extending United Methodist witness for Christ as much as possible. If that is how we as leaders spend our time, small churches are paying their fair share of a missionary movement that God is using to change the world. That is how I want to serve as a bishop. Such an apportionment system is not a subsidy but a fair share of mission work.
I am grateful for the vital small congregations in my area. I am grateful for the vital medium and large congregations. Vitality, not size, is the issue.
The Judicial Council cannot stop leaders from following the Call to Action’s mandate. Their recent decision 1226 has made it harder for the church to send the best clergy to serve churches. Whatever one thinks of their interpretation of the church’s constitution, their decision is final.
The question now before us is this: How shall we lead the church to meet the adaptive challenge? Remember the wording from the Call to Action: “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The answer is that bishops, cabinets, boards of ordained ministry have to be focused on increasing the number of vital congregations. We must have high expectations of our clergy. We must provide them excellent education to prepare them for ministry. We must provide support systems to help them grow in their effectiveness. And we must be resolute in exiting ineffective clergy from the ministry.
After eight years of service as a bishop, I can testify that many parts of our connectional system have developed unhealthy patterns that detract from our focus on vital congregations. Bishops shy away from taking decisive action that would not be welcomed by the clergyperson. Cabinets want to be nice and compassionate to the clergyperson and not deliver unwelcome bad news. District Superintendents fail to build records in the clergyperson’s file that would support an administrative complaint. Boards of Ordained ministry function too often as the union bosses protecting incompetent colleagues.
In all of these cases, leaders are choosing to be nice and compassionate to the individual, while neglecting the mission of the church. The local congregations suffer because we do not tell the truth to those who should no longer be in the ministry.
Yet, there are effective remedies available to all of us as leaders. Bishops need to have the backbone to make the hard calls. District Superintendents need to build the documentation of ineffectiveness. Boards of Ordained Ministry need to focus on building a conference of the best clergy possible. Local church staff-parish committees need to nurture and support clergy for their growth and hold them accountable in evaluation.
If all parts of our leadership deployment system are focused on vital congregations, we can make significant progress even with security of appointment.
St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas launched a new worship service aimed at youth and young adults today. They did it right! They spent a lot of money to renovate a gymnasium, invested in talented musicians, great technology, and careful preparation. My son Arthur Jones is the lead pastor for a team of persons including church staff, volunteers and many supporters. At their first worship service on September 9, they had a standing-room-only crowd of 834. It was a powerful spiritual experience! Leading up to the service The Well Plano was featured on WFAA channel 8 and the Plano Star Courier. After the service a story was carried by CW Channel 33. After hearing about the secular media providing news coverage, one of Arthur’s friends sent him a message with this question: “What about this is news?” I have an answer which reflects an unfortunate situation: When a United Methodist congregation starts reaching young adults in these numbers, that is news. St. Andrew and The Well are not the only United Methodists connecting with people under 40. We can point to a number of congregations around the country that are equally successful in sharing the gospel with this slice of our culture. But the phenomenon of a mainline denomination connecting with young adults is rare enough that the secular media found it newsworthy. This should not be news. I long for the day when United Methodist congregations have more people under 40 than people over 60. I long for the day when starting new worship services with different styles of worship and high levels of technology is so standard people think it is normal. I long for the day when most of our existing congregations are prepared to make financial and scheduling sacrifices to attract the unchurched. I long for the day when vital congregations are the norm for the United Methodist Church, and no one is surprised that we are growing and increasing in every measure of vitality. I was sitting in the North Texas Annual Conference session in the early 1980’s when God stirred my heart. The Conference secretary was announcing another year of decline when the population numbers in our part of the state were growing. I decided then and there I would give my life to turning this around. It hasn’t worked yet, but we are beginning to see the pieces falling into place that will allow revitalization to take place. We are more clear about our doctrine than we were then. We have focused on our mission. The Bishops have committed to aligning our resources to increasing the number of vital congregations. Evangelism is no longer a dirty word. We are starting more new congregations. We are learning how to evangelize Hispanics and other immigrants. We are reducing our bureaucracy. I see signs of God’s power emerging in congregations of all sizes and locations. I am hopeful about the future of United Methodism. Someday, the successful launch of a United Methodist worship service reaching young adults will not be news. May God speed that day’s arrival!
I stand by my May 4 tweet from General Conference: “My summary: death throes of a dying 1970′s establishment church, birth pangs of a missional global 21st century church. It is messy.”
In the two months since that time, I have listened to many voices giving their summaries of what did and did not happen there. Almost everyone was disappointed about something that they wished had happened but did not. Many were pleased that the outcome was not worse. Few have come away believing that General Conference was the turning point in the history of United Methodism that will pave the way for a new church. General Conference may not matter much anymore.
I wish more positive change had been enacted. Yet I come away from the 2012 General Conference with real hope for the future. We are experiencing the messy birth pangs of a global, 21st century church. Here are some markers:
- The CTA’s adaptive challenge remains our priority. We must “redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
- The Call to Action process is alive and well. It takes the General Conference two or three sessions to absorb a really big idea, and many CTA ideas were approved, even if undone by the Judicial Council later. Key leaders including bishops, pastors and laity are committed to continuing the process.
- General Agencies will be consolidated. Plan UMC was the best compromise at the time, but was significantly inadequate. We need eight general agencies combined into one with one General Secretary. We do not need siloed agencies for whom cooperation is a struggle. By January 1, 2017 GBOD, GBGM, GBHEM, GBCS, GCORR, COSROW, GCAH and UMCOM should all be one agency. We now have four years to work out the details and get the structure right.
- We are a global church. The influence of Central Conference delegates was felt more strongly than ever before. We must change the way we think and act to live more fully into our worldwide nature.
- Proportional representation is the way of the future. Growing parts of our church should have more influence and declining parts should have less.
- Bishops must lead by changing themselves. The Council took some good steps toward becoming a leadership group. We still have a long way to go. Individual bishops need to continue figuring out how to lead their conference(s) toward increased vitality.
- We must develop a clear and widely accepted understanding of our mission statement. There are too many different and competing versions of what “making disciples of Jesus Christ” means.
- We must provide significant improvements to our leadership development system. Too many stakeholders are resisting change, and so those of us involved must begin by changing ourselves.
I am reading a great deal about innovation and how you turn around declining organizations. We are attempting something rarely—if ever—done in the history of Christianity. We are seeking to turn around a declining denominational church. This is hard and will take the rest of my lifetime. But we see a new church for the sake of a new world. The world needs the kind of church we have been, that we are in some places, and that God willing, we will be in many more places soon.
Are you willing to give yourself to this kind of hard but divinely inspired mission? I am all about it and I am grateful to have so many gifted and committed colleagues on the journey with me.
I have been writing about the various ways we see General Conference. It is doctrinal authority, it is family reunion, it is business session and it is also a revival.
In the early days of Methodist Conferences in America—especially quarterly conferences—people experience justification and committed their lives to Christ. For believers, these conferences were times of spiritual renewal and significant spiritual growth toward entire sanctification.
This historic practice continues today in the form of worship services and prayer ministries that take place at our conferences. Here at this General Conference, the Episcopal Address, the Laity addresses, the Young Peoples’ address and the evening worship services have been powerful. During Bishop Weaver’s presentation, I was moved to tears and was reminded of why I accepted the call to preach and then the call to serve as a bishop.
Many persons see the actions taken in the business session or the teaching about our doctrines and feel either pleased or disappointed. However, those attending General Conference have also been influenced by the worship and teaching that will never be included in the Book of Discipline or Book of Resolutions. I think there have been many inspirational moments that have impacted the lives of all who were present and all who followed online.
I have supported the Call to Action. At every point, the leaders of that effort have been clear. General Conference’s actions can help us focus on our resources on increasing the number of vital congregations. But the most important steps we can take for this effort are not legislative. They are changed behaviors by bishops, District Superintendents, pastors, lay leaders and individual United Methodists. Thus, the revival aspect of General Conference will change hearts and minds and further our progress to the church we need to be in the future.
At this General Conference, the need for more change about our worldwide nature has become very apparent to more and more people. The increased number of Central Conference delegates and their desire for greater inclusion is the way of the future. We can no longer behave like we are a United States Church with a few, small foreign outposts. Until we make some significant adjustments, we will be faced with confusion and difficulties. That has become more apparent this time.
I am still convinced that the constitutional amendments defeated in 2010 are the right way forward. Several delegates who opposed their approval have come to me this week and said they have changed their minds. They now see the wisdom of the way forward proposed by the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table.
This General Conference has approved two small but significant steps forward and received a global model for conversation.
The first step is the adoption of a Covenant. The Study Committee hopes this covenant will shape our hearts and minds and will bring greater mutual understanding and respect. There is a litany that can be used in annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences and local churches. The more we ponder these words, the more our awareness will be raised.
The second step was the adoption of a proposal that has been called a Global Book of Discipline. Petition 20407 is actually a first step toward that goal. As amended, it says that parts I-IV are not subject to adaptation by Central Conferences. The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, in consultation with the Committee on Faith and Order, will bring suggestions about which paragraphs of part V are to be listed here. Once that list is complete, it would be possible to publish a global Book of Discipline. It is also possible that Parts I-IV could be published in other languages immediately, and I have heard some ideas floated for that purpose.
Part I is the Constitution. Part II is Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task. Part III is the Ministry of All Christians. Part IV is the Social Principles.
The third step is contained in our report on pages 1276-77 of the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate, volume 2 section 2. It is a global model for the future. The Study Committee believes that it is premature to act on this model, but we hope that the Global Book of Discipline and more conversation will prepare the way for action in 2016.
Russ Richey has taught me that conference in the Methodist/United Methodist tradition has multiple purposes. One of them is family reunion. It started out as the covenant of itinerant clergymen who gathered annually and sang “And are we yet alive, to see each other’s face, glory and thanks to God for his almighty grace”. Over time the family grew to include lay members of conference and clergywomen as well. The General Conference had the same characteristics as the annual conferences, especially for those who attend several times in a row. As the church has expanded geographically, we are now multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and
We United Methodists are a family. We are sisters and brothers in Christ, and thus bound together with all other Christians. However, there is no unified Christian church to which we belong. We belong to particular denominations, and so the United Methodist Church is our most functional family.
We are bound together by our common doctrine, our common mission, and our common discipline. As we preach together, pray together, worship together and serve God together we build relationships. We form communities that embody the unity of the church and embody the missional work of the faith. Preeminently these communities are found in local congregations. Each annual conference is a family as well, and United Methodist clergy live in their conferences. Lay members of conference also belong to that community.
For everyone who comes to General Conference, both delegates and observers, a new form of the United Methodist family appears. In many cases this happens because people who have been partners across US/Central Conference lines, worked on general agency boards, or worked in Volunteer in Mission projects see each other again. These relationship are powerful, affirming, and help embody the diversity of the Body of Christ.
However, some families are dysfunctional. Such families allow for mistrust to breed. When leaders fail to behave properly, a breach between the leaders and the rest of the family develops and dysfunction increases. Sometimes these breaches develop because leaders misbehave. Sometimes family members take positions in the family system bent on disruption.
Most families I know have some level of conflict. The difference is that healthy families process their conflict well, usually exemplifying openness, honesty, love, transparency and integrity. Unhealthy families allow conflict to spiral out of control and use a variety of means to inflict harm on each other.
I have appreciated the opportunities at this General Conference for holy conferencing. We often have members of our family who are passionately committed to their proposals. We have occasionally behaved as a dysfunctional family using abusive, dishonest or manipulative behaviors to win. If we believe that conferencing is a means of grace, and that our goal is to discern the will of God for the people called United Methodists, we should exhibit the values that characterize a healthy family.
There is too much confusion about United Methodist Doctrine. Some of the comments on my earlier blog raised questions about whether the Social Principles are UM doctrine or not. I have offered an interpretation of the shape of UM doctrine in my book United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center. I argue there are three levels:
Constitutionally Protected Standards of Doctrine: Constitution, Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, and Wesley’s Sermons.
Contemporary Statements of the General Conference: Part II of the BOD (Our Doctrinal History, Our Doctrinal Heritage, Our Theological Task), Part III Ministry of All Christians (including the Mission Statement), Part IV Social Principles, doctrinal parts of the BOD, Book of Resolutions.
Liturgy: The United Methodist Hymnal and United Methodist Book of Worship.
I argue that these three levels differ in authority with Standards of doctrine (the hardest to change) being most authoritative and liturgy being least authoritative.
My concern is that most delegates to the General Conference do not know what we mean by the phrase “United Methodist Doctrine”. Seminary graduates from some schools have studied my book. But some seminaries do not use it and some annual conference Boards of Ordained Ministry do not want to focus on doctrine and so ignore it.
My academic concern is that since this book was published (about 10 years ago) there has been no serious discussion of my proposal. On some days I think it is because I have interpreted the Book of Disicipline correctly. On other days, I worry that there are people who strongly disagree with me but we have not yet found ways of talking about it well. For example, The Social Principles are doctrine because all of our doctrine is intended to be persuasive. It is also authoritative with whatever authority people give to our church as a whole.
My leadership concern is that we need a broader and deeper understanding in order to pursue our mission. Our doctrine is fundamental to the mission statement and to our practice of evangelism and our work for social justice. It is also part of the glue holding our global church together.
For 10 years I served on the Commission for Dialogue Between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. They asked deep questions about how Methodists in the WMC family decide doctrinal issues. For Roman Catholics, it is the bishops who listen to the church and decide matters in Council under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome. The Pope also teaches at a lower level through encyclicals. Each bishop teaches in his diocese so long as he does not contradict what the Council has said or what the Pope has taught.
Who has the ultimate teaching authority for the United Methodist Church? The answer is the General Conference. Part of what happens at each General Conference is prayerful discernment about what we should teach as the gospel of Jesus Christ. This goes back to one of the questions Wesley asked at the first Conference in 1744.
Because our General Conference no longer has all of the traveling elders of the Connection present (we have had delegated general conferences since 1812) and because not all of the lay members of annual conference are present, some of our doctrinal statements are protected by restrictive rules that require a ¾ vote of all annual conference members to change them. The Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Sermons and Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament are covered by these rules. Other doctrinal statements are not protected in these ways. The rest of Part II of the Book of Discipline, Part III (The ministry of all Christians, including the mission statement) and the Social Principles are doctrinal statements of the General Conference. They are binding on the worldwide church and are official church teaching.
Thus, when we ask candidates for ordination, “Have you studied our doctrines? Will you preach and maintain them?” These are the beliefs we are referring to. It is General Conference that has the authority to establish our doctrine. In fact, for most of our history our book was called not the BOD, but “The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church”. It is a chargeable offense for clergy to disseminate teachings that are contrary to our doctrinal standards.
I hope that we will talk about doctrinal matters more and get a better understanding of what we believe. Many of the conversations about our church have doctrinal implications and the General Conference is engaged in those conversations in many different legislative committees.
One of the most insightful comments I heard this week was from someone who said that we are like a patient who knows he has cancer, but just doesn’t want to have the surgery done. I hear no one disputing the facts, but lots of discussion about how best to respond.
One of the tweets I read this week said that people should recognize that support for Plan B and its version of restructuring the general agencies does not mean opposition to change. The author of this remark is quite correct.
However, all persons should recognize that the three major proposals for restructuring the general agencies differ primarily in how much change we need. Plan B is, in my view, a small step in the right direction. The Connection Table proposal is a big step in the right direction.
The crucial question for our work through the general agencies is alignment. The most powerful image in Adam Hamilton’s presentation Wednesday night was the individuals in kayaks competing, heading in different directions and sometimes colliding. The alternative is one team rowing one ship in the same direction, working together.
Our general agencies are staffed by good people who love the church and seek to make it fruitful. Many of us who watch their work have concluded that they suffer from being siloed. There is a significant amount of duplication, acting at cross purposes, operating alone and thus the effectiveness is much reduced.
The most important change the General Conference should make is to combine 8 agencies into one under one General Secretary. In this way we can maximize our fruitfulness in increasing the number of vital congregations.
Most of the support for Plan B is not focused on fruitfulness. Supporters do not argue that their plan will do a better job of increasing the number of vital congregations. They do not make that argument because their plan is focused on two objectives. First, they seek to minimize change by preserving as many silos as possible. Second, they worry about two much power invested in too few people.
We must always pay attention to the concentration of power and appropriate checks and balances. I hope the legislative committee moves to one board that is large enough to address these issues. However, it is time for our church to focus on the adaptive challenge and chose the maximum amount of change. We must stay focused on fruitfulness and effectiveness for our mission.
Two other considerations should be laid to rest. Some Central Conference delegates worry that the one board will reduce their resources and relationship to the general church. The CT and IOT did not make it clear enough that all of those relationships will continue. I believe they will even be more effective. Programs like Imagine No Malaria will be stronger and more fruitful.
Some have called the Call to Action a power grab by the bishops. This has always been inaccurate and a false, fearful response to change. The Call to Action has not given new ongoing powers to the Council. Instead, it has called for the Council as a group and individual bishops in their areas to do their work better and with greater accountability.
I tweeted yesterday that all who heard Adam Hamilton’s presentation Wednesday will go home changed. Even those who disagree have now seen the choices before us. We may choose the lesser change by adopting Plan B. That, despite my misgivings, is a step forward. But more change will be coming in the future.
- World Wide Nature of the UMC 2007 report to COB
- Why We Pay Apportionments
- Becoming an Evangelistically Effective Congregation
- Extreme Center: Living as United Methodist Today Workbook
- Council of Bishops: For the Sake of a New World, We See a New Church: A Call to Action
- Thank God for Colleagues
- Extreme Center: Living as United Methodist Today