Four Steps Toward Vitality

January 20th, 2012
This article is featured in the Call to Action (Feb/Mar/Apr 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

Nearly everyone in leadership in the United Methodist Church agrees that something must change. We’re aware of the decline in our denomination in the U.S. If nothing changes, the United Methodist Church in the U.S. will have less than one million people within four decades. We will, by that time, either have merged with several other smaller mainline churches or we will have eliminated nearly all of our boards, gutted our missions programs, and we will have reduced our number of bishops by two-thirds. We will also have closed at least 20,000 of our 33,583 churches in the U.S. It doesn’t take a prophet to see this—only a mathematician analyzing the most recent statistical report from the GCFA.

I don’t believe this has to be our future. In fact, I think there are a handful of strategies that could lead us to a very different future—one in which we become an even more vital movement than we are today, effectively making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In this article I’d like to offer four suggestions for changes and strategic initiatives that I believe could have a significantly positive impact upon the future of our denomination. Three are included in the recommendations of the Interim Operations Team of which I am a part.

  • Bring together nine of our existing general boards to function as one team.
  • Ensure that our seminaries are preparing graduates to create vital congregations.
  • Raise up 2,000 gifted, outstanding young adult clergy to reach new generations.
  • Encourage strategic partnerships between small and large churches.

Bring together nine of our existing general boards to function as one team.

Our current organizational structure emerged from the aftermath of the merger of two denominations. It made sense in the 1970s. Today the structure seems bloated and “siloed.” We have nine separate legal entities, each with their own board of directors, each working independently from one another, often in separate cities, and all vying for increasingly scarce resources. They are doing important work, and their staffs are remarkably gifted people. We are fortunate to have them in our church. But the organizational structure is outdated, ineffective, and unsustainable in the future. Rather than wait until our church simply cannot afford it anymore (many would say that time is already here), the Interim Operations Team is proposing that we reorganize now and bring nine of our boards together as one team with staff working closely together to fulfill the church’s mission.

As an aside, I don’t believe that restructuring the general boards is the key to having a future with hope; I see it as an opportunity to more effectively do the work of the church. This is more than rearranging the proverbial “deck chairs on the Titanic” but if this is all that we do, the Titanic will still sink.

Ensure that our seminaries are preparing graduates to create vital congregations.

I chair the board at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, one of our thirteen United Methodist seminaries. I am proud of the work our faculty do and believe in them. Our mission as a seminary is to “educate leaders to make disciples for Jesus Christ, to renew the church and to transform the world.” What is lacking, not only for Saint Paul, but for most of our seminaries, is a clear mandate from the United Methodist Church that identifies the specific skills we must provide so that our graduates are prepared to revitalize declining congregations, to effectively launch new congregations, and to reach new generations of young people while continuing to serve the older members of our congregations.

Raise up 2,000 gifted, outstanding young adult clergy to reach new generations.

We currently have more clergy than we need in the United Methodist Church. Our shrinking numbers have left us with something like 800 more clergy than we need. But our clergy are nearly 60 years old on average. We have thousands who will be retiring in the next ten years. The single most important key to revitalizing most churches is the shepherd who is appointed to love and lead the flock. Gifted and committed lay people eventually give up in frustration when their clergy are ineffective. When a gifted and effective clergy is sent to a local congregation that is struggling, the results are often surprising.

I recently spoke with twelve clergy across the United States who had been assigned to declining congregations that are now growing. Most were part-time appointments. When they arrived at their churches, average worship attendance ranged from 8 to 120. These were our typical churches. Only a couple of them were in growing communities, yet all of them had doubled, tripled, or quadrupled in size in the last five years. They shared common characteristics: an emphasis on caring for people, preaching effective sermons, intentional outreach to the community, as well as passionate visionary leaders.

We need outstanding second career clergy, and I am grateful for them, but if we are going to reach new generations of young people in the United Methodist Church, we must focus a great deal of our attention on raising up a new generation of clergy. All of these twelve pastors were under age 40 when they were assigned to their churches. We’ve seen a dramatic decline in the number of children in our churches. We’ve got to raise up a generation of clergy who will reach today’s 5-year-olds.

The Interim Operations Team continues to propose setting aside a fund from General Church apportionments to provide scholarships for gifted young adults to pursue ordained ministry. Many of these young adults are in junior high or high school right now. By the time they graduate from seminary, thousands of our existing clergy will have retired. This one initiative alone could determine whether our church has a future.

At the church that I serve we invite children to begin considering whether God might be calling them to be pastors when they receive their third-grade Bibles. We focus on this in one session of confirmation, and I preach about listening for God’s call at least once a year. Our members have set aside money in the budget and from memorial gifts to fund scholarships to raise up a new generation of gifted pastors.

Encourage strategic partnerships between small and large churches.

Finally, in a denomination where 19,000 of our churches have less than sixtry people per weekend in worship attendance, I believe we must find ways to create voluntary partnerships in which churches work together to strengthen one another. The Call to Action study found that we have 5,000 highly vital congregations in the United States. What would it look like for each highly vital congregation to invite one or two less vital congregations to partner with them in the hope of creating two or three highly vital churches?

In Indiana, a church of 220 per weekend in worship has voluntarily partnered with two churches with an average attendance of 14 each, supplying the pulpit with lay and clergy and sharing resources. All three churches are stronger today. At Resurrection, we are piloting a program in which we’re partnering with three smaller churches across the United States, offering coaching, tools, and Resurrection’s sermons via video to see if these resources can help revitalize these congregations.

If you are one of those highly vital congregations, would you be willing to partner with smaller churches that are struggling, to help them have a future with hope? If you are a smaller church, would you be interested in partnering and sharing resources with churches that are growing? This kind of connectionalism would see our large number of smaller churches not as a liability but a tremendous opportunity.

We stand at an important crossroads as we go into General Conference. Fear of change is understandable and very real. If our fear immobilizes us, we have a very limited future. But I believe that bringing our general boards together to work as one team to serve the church, giving a clear mandate to our seminaries on the practical skills our pastors must be trained in to revitalize existing churches, raising up 2,000 outstanding young clergy in the next 12 years, and creating voluntary partnerships between churches could lead us down a different path, one that offers us a future with hope.

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