Will the Culture Change?

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

The 2012 General Conference will be an important turnaround moment for the UMC for one simple reason: the decision of the Call to Action team to make “vital congregations” the central focus of our efforts for the next ten years. After decades of fumbling from one denominational initiative to another, there is new clarity and hope. The research-based work of the Call to Action team finally led them to the novel insight that vital congregations are the most dynamic and powerful disciple-making and mission-producing expressions of United Methodism.

The unanswered question is whether the culture of the UMC will change along with the structure. Today, great organizations, from corporations to local congregations, work hard to build cultures that reflect deeply-held values that propel the mission of the organization.

An example from the corporate world is Southwest Airlines, where every employee is a “stake holder” in carrying out the mission. Will the leaders of the UMC, primarily bishops and agency personnel, be able to change their leadership styles so that their words and actions align with the challenge of creating and sustaining vital congregations? In other words, will they be able to lead from the bottom up rather than the top down?

Lyle Schaller reports that between 1960 and 2002 he interviewed over 2500 former Methodists who had not changed their places of residence, but had switched congregational affiliation to a non-United Methodist congregation. When asked why, 30 percent said they “married out” and 10 percent pointed to the arrival of a new pastor as the reason. Nearly ALL of the others—about 60 percent—explained their objections by pointing to the degree of “external authority” exercised in the United Methodist Church. Most of them switched to completely autonomous, self-governing Protestant congregations. We ignore this research at our peril. Taken seriously, it points the way to cultural changes that can facilitate the creation of more vital congregations.


For instance, perhaps it is time for us to publicly admit what is widely known: many local church leaders, both clergy and lay, resent the way in which apportionments are administered and collected. This is not to say that they resent the ministries funded by the apportionments, but that the collection system no longer resonates with today’s church leaders. For too many years we have used euphemisms such as “the connection” or “missions” to represent what is, in fact, a system of taxation. You may treat people in the pews as donors who support ministries, or you may regard them as taxpayers from whom you demand payment. But you can’t have it both ways.

In 2009 the Call to Action team sent me a questionnaire as part of their initial research. One question was, “What will inspire United Methodists to give generously and joyfully to the denomination?” My reply was that people never give generously and joyfully that which is demanded of them.

I know others who answered in a similar way. That research should be revived and extended in an attempt to discover new ways of funding which ignite the hearts and passions of United Methodist stakeholders. United Methodists are generous and passionate givers when presented with compelling stories of how their dollars can change lives.


Another issue that must be reconsidered in a 21st century church that values vital congregations is the current way of making appointments. The concept of “consultation” has backtracked in recent years to have little or no meaning in many conferences. This leaves Boards of Ministry to invite prospective clergy to attend seminary for a minimum of three to four years, go through a grueling, multi-year residency program with no guarantees, and then be ordained with the promise that the new clergyperson will have virtually no control over his/her career or where they live.

This might have been a grand strategy in the 1950s. Today it is suicidal if, in fact, our future depends on the recruitment of bright young leaders. It is clearly possible to retain our connectional system, but to make appointments in a way that invites both clergy and congregational lay leaders to be partners in a mutual commitment, rather than participants in a shotgun marriage. This will require bishops who value leadership over authority, and who understand and affirm the dynamics leading to vital congregations.

If the UMC is to be serious about meeting this challenge, we must move from the current culture in which local churches exist to serve the denomination, to a culture in which the denomination focuses on empowering local congregations to serve Christ by making disciples. That means giving congregations enlarged roles in the critical decisions about leadership, money, and how each does ministry in its time and place.


comments powered by Disqus