Stuck: Now What?

February 17th, 2014
This article is featured in the Stuck: Now What? (Feb/Mar/Apr2014) issue of Circuit Rider

As a church and as a group of people, United Methodists were forged through the American experience and experiment. Given the present social problems and cultural shifts facing the United States, The United Methodist Church is faced with similar massive challenges.

When Francis Asbury began his ministry in America, Methodists represented between 1 and 3 percent of the total population. Our forebearers were competing for people’s hearts and minds in a culture that wasn’t centered around churches. Asbury, along with a multitude of followers and other leaders, built a movement organized around circuits and guided by apprenticing young pastors and conferences. They assembled to train, guide, and find a way forward as a new body of believers. As the United States matured, so did our organization. By the Civil War one-third of Americans were Methodists. By the late 1800s and early 1900s we became one of the dominant forces in the religious landscape, and we began building institutions.

After the United States performed a pivotal role during two World Wars, American leaders continued building institutions (hospitals, schools, churches), and much of this effort was initiated through the people called Methodists. Large organizations emerged in the religious arena, and they developed into large, flat, representative institutions that people joined by the millions.

During the 1960s, everything changed. That was the beginning of the end of the institutional era for denominations, though we could not admit it at the time because a lot of money was flowing. During the 1970s and 1980s, boomer pastors started building nondenominational churches and parachurch organizations. We also experienced a counterreaction from the cultural right to the progressive experiences advocated in the 1960s by the cultural left. We saw the rise of the moral majority and the polarization of America between the fringes of the right and the left. Over the past twenty years we have experienced a widening gap and polarity between progressive and conservative values. In the middle of this gap between left and right sits the millennial generation. Americans are so fed up with the cultural rift that the most recent American census indicates the single largest religious group: Nones. (See David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007]; and Reggie Joiner, Chuck Bomar, and Abbie Smith, The Slow Fade [Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010].)

This much change situates The United Methodist Church in a state of confusion, denial, grief, and rapid decline. In our attempt to be something for everybody, we have become irrelevant to most people in our mission fields. Once again the United Methodist movement represents between 1 and 3 percent of the US population, and we find ourselves competing for the hearts and minds of people who don’t know us and seem very disinterested in an organized church.

This has resulted in at least a 40 percent decline in The United Methodist Church since 1963. The rapid decline is well documented, and this contributed to a corporate depression and malaise across the system. Due to aging leadership, contracting income, and cultural polarizations, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church functions very much the same way as the United States Congress, which is to say that it doesn’t really function very well at all.

As with the US Congress, we elect people to general church who represent special interests, passions, causes, and approaches to ministry. Very few leaders are willing to give up their agendas for the good of the whole. The last time we met at the 2012 General Conference session, we were stuck in the eleventh hour, having voted out an old system but unable to vote in a new system. We sat for two hours (or four more years) in limbo, unable to move backward or forward. We were trapped in our own web of organizational structure, with a faulty constitution. We engineered our version of a government shutdown, and in the end the people excited about the possibility of change left disappointed, and the people who defended the present system felt vindicated. Meanwhile, nothing really changed.

So What Do We Do Now?

First, real organizational change always comes from the bottom up and the outside in. It rarely occurs from the top of the organization itself. Very few organizations can self-reform without a major crisis (e.g., exile). Although we are experiencing a slow fade and a slow death as an organization, we have yet to face a major crisis. We have enough resources and feel secure enough with our decline that few of us are particularly motivated to compromise our positions or give up our rights or agendas for the good of the whole. We are very good at passing resolutions, making pleas on the floor, and caucusing with folks that are like us, while the mission field and the culture become further and further disconnected from the general United Methodist Church.

Step One: Rightsize the Organization

I believe that our organization won’t change until we see a significant funding reduction. We’ve lost the very mission field that interests us, and we seem to be unmoved that 80 percent or more of our congregations are in significant decline. We don’t concede that what intersects the mission field isn’t the General Conference (including the agencies) but rather the local church.

Our general church is sized and structured for 1968, when we were about 40 percent bigger than we are now. The first step in reform is to rightsize the general church, which would start with a 40 percent budget cut. That would cause every general board and agency to take a harder look at who they are and what they are doing. The general church should reflect the actual size of the current denomination. Some of this rightsizing has happened in our general boards and agencies, as budgets have been cut slowly over the past twenty years, but the cuts weren’t enough to create an appreciable difference in the amount we ask from our local churches. If we want to see change, it will happen when the money changes.

Step Two: Invest in Our Congregations

The congregation, the local church, actually intersects with the mission field. When churches spend more than 10 percent of their budgets on apportionments, we take away their ability to engage their own mission fields significantly. In some annual conferences, the apportionment asking is as high as 22 percent of a congregation’s budget, and it is 20 to 30 percent of an annual conference’s total budget. In either case, when it is more than 10 percent, it hinders the annual conferences and the congregations from spending the adequate resources on their own mission fields. It’s true that giving the money back to the local church is no guarantee of wise investing. Many will use it for their own survival. However, our more compelling and vital congregations will in fact use the investment to reach out into the mission field, the fruit of which would far outweigh the noninvestment of churches that don’t reach out to their mission fields. If indeed we believe our mission is to make new disciples for the transformation of the world, we will prioritize the budgets of our local churches by not requiring so much funding from the congregation to operate the general church.

Step Three: Healthy Annual Conferences

Don’t be concerned about the transformation of the general church, apart from rightsizing through budgetary constraints, because change and reform aren’t going to come from the center. Real transformation must come from the local church, and the best catalyst for that kind of reform is located in the annual conference.

Annual conferences were the building blocks in the early 1800s, driven by Francis Asbury. The conferences swept across America with direct impact on the mission field. A healthy annual conference is key to turning the denomination around. For seven years, I’ve personally led seminars in thirty annual conferences. In my observation, where we have a healthy conference, we see healthy churches. Where we have unhealthy conferences, we see widespread decline of congregations. Healthy conferences and healthy churches are inseparable. The annual conference is the catalyst, along with their districts, district superintendents, and conference staff, to create and sustain a system of transformation for their local churches.

Step Four: Build a System of Transformation

A system of transformation includes eight elements, which must be implemented simultaneously if a conference expects to get the results it wants. In the Missouri Conference these eight elements are contained in strategies called the Healthy Church Initiative and the Small Church Initiative. For further information go to the Healthy Church Initiative website and The Missouri Conference.

  1. Focus on the transforming grace of Jesus Christ: People can get their minds and hearts around being missionaries. When I look out at a sea of rooftops in a community, I think about how many of those people are far from God. We must be compelled by what a difference it will make for people if they have Jesus Christ in their lives. It will change their trajectories. I won’t spend time debating theological convictions or social causes, but I care most of all whether you are compelled to reach people you don’t know with the love and witness of Jesus Christ.

  2. Conference alignment on missional focus: We never “get aligned.” We’re always in the process of aligning. I align the wheels on my car on a regular maintenance schedule. You must keep your mission and vision in front of you to keep everyone on the same page, because the players will keep changing. I work for the annual conference and spend a great deal of my time in local churches (e.g., I served and consulted in thirty-five churches over a sixty-day period). Transformation happens one church at a time and must be the primary focus of the annual conference. Many conferences aren’t very well focused and therefore operate an inch deep and a mile wide. Healthy conferences understand what they are trying to accomplish, establish clear expectations, and relentlessly help churches reach the mission field. In Missouri we’ve focused on Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase.

  3. Continuous lay and clergy collaboration and learning: United Methodists love and need information. They need information to willingly take a risk. We used to tell people to plant churches without any training and had a fail rate of 50 to 75 percent. Now we have new church starters’ boot camp, coaching, and mentors, and we’ve reduced the fail rate to 35 percent. We can apply that same thinking to transforming existing churches. We take pastors who have grown up in declining churches; send them to declining seminaries; use a declining conference to appoint them into declining churches, often in subcultures where the pastors have little experience; and ask them to turn around declining churches. And then we wonder why it doesn’t happen. If pastors, laypersons, and churches are to experience transformation, they need a different way to collaborate, and they need retraining with a new set of “best practices.” For example, 90 percent of clergy in the Missouri Conference participated in some part of the Pastor Leadership Development process, which involved peer mentoring as well as study of the best practices and new forms of collaboration to help them move forward. We have approximately two thousand laypersons participating in the Laity Leadership Development, where they also are learning best practices and collaboration. Transformation takes continual collaborative learning. It’s too hard to do by yourself in one setting.

  4. Apostolic and entrepreneurial leadership: We need different kinds of pastors and lay leaders than the kinds we have been trained to be. The church is in desperate need of entrepreneurial leadership. It’s no secret that we’ve trained (and that the congregation expects) most pastors to be shepherds and caregivers. We’ve trained chaplains to be Barnabas first, rather than teaching them to act like Paul or Timothy, too. The church needs both shepherds and apostolic leaders among laity and clergy. Most congregations need a shepherd who leads—not merely a shepherd who protects. The apostolic leader is not adverse to conflict and is grounded in reaching the mission field, whatever the cost. And the conference needs the courage to collaborate with congregations willing to suffer when changing from an inwardly focused church to an outwardly focused mission post.

  5. Continuous coaching: A coach isn’t there to be a friend and hold your hand. A coach’s job is to help you run plays and achieve a win. The best coaches are people who were good players—not necessarily the best players, but good players. The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Mike Matheny, was a good catcher, but he wasn’t the most gifted catcher in baseball. He had to work very hard to be a good catcher and to tap into all the available techniques and training that he could. The work ethic is what makes a coach effective. A coach is someone who knows what it takes to strive for big goals and go beyond what comes naturally. Continuous coaching isn’t something that happens a few times a year. The best results come when coaching is happening every ten days. A conference needs a system of identifying, training, and deploying those who will help our churches and clergy accept a different set of expectations.

  6. Independent assessment of the congregation: Each congregation deserves an independent evaluation of its church’s system, which focuses on its strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. Without an outside voice, it is very unlikely that a system will reform itself. The annual conference is the only mechanism in our structure that can make this happen. There must be a process in your conference for a team of people to roll up their sleeves and go into a local setting to work with the congregation over a course of time to make changes. This is a very slow process; it requires a lot of information, and it takes a lot of determined patience. Without this kind of objective assessment, there will be no transformation.

  7. Accountable action plan for the congregation: When I was appointed to Church of the Shepherd, I found a report with a detailed assessment of the church that included twenty-six recommendations by an outside consultant. All of the recommendations were good ones, but there were too many, and no action steps were developed. The congregation didn’t know where or how to get started, though they knew something must be done. The annual conference must assure a system of accountability and a way to help congregations follow through on any new information they are receiving through collaborative learning and consultations. Having a system that helps congregations set goals, evaluate them, and take specific steps is the way they will see new fruit. Most pastors can’t accomplish this without some collaborative help.

  8. Openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit: You must prepare yourself for the results. When the Holy Spirit actually leads, you can go anywhere. The result might be closing a church, moving a church, or starting a second campus. You never know what the outcome will be. Sometimes consultants will make recommendations that are rejected by a church, and we will think our efforts have been a failure, but then a call comes four or five years later from someone at that church who says that things are starting to happen. If you build a system to help churches, have confidence in your system, and trust the Holy Spirit to lead you to a new place and to truly welcome you to whatever the new place is. Learn not to judge what the outcome will be. As it turns out, it really isn’t in your control.

    Patrick Lencioni states that the single greatest advantage any organization can achieve is health, and yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it’s simple, it’s free, and it’s available to anyone who wants it: “The health of an organization provides a context for strategy, finance, marketing, technology, and everything else that happens within it, which is why it is the single greatest factor determining an organization’s success. More than talent. More than knowledge. More than innovation” (The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012], 3).

    The annual conference is the basic building block for the United Methodist movement. The health of our conferences is the most determining key factor in our ability to once again reach our mission field in a compelling and vibrant way. Therefore, we should focus our attention on the health of our annual conferences, which focus their attention on the local churches, which focus their attention on the people they don’t already know—especially the young, more diverse population. That is the mission field.
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