We Win in the Trenches

February 12th, 2014
This article is featured in the Stuck: Now What? (Feb/Mar/Apr2014) issue of Circuit Rider

My twenty-two-year-old son Joey was a phenomenal multisport, multi-position athlete in high school. He had the intangibles necessary to win—a big heart, a perceptive mind, and a tough spirit. Joey played football, basketball, lacrosse, and golf; he did each of them well. But the sport he loved the most was football. In one game, he scored all the points while playing quarterback, tight end, and place kicker in the same contest.

The position Joey loved most, however, was defensive end. He learned a lot about life playing on the defensive line. I did, too, by listening and watching. One thing I learned is that football games are won or lost in the “trenches.” The trench is the place and space where leverage is gained or lost, where advance toward victory or retreat toward defeat is achieved or taken away. In football, if you don’t have a strong offensive and defensive line, or if either of those lines plays poorly in a game, you lose. And depending on the opposition, you lose a close one, lose decisively, or get stomped!

In The United Methodist Church, we are losing the game in the trenches. In some places, we are losing a close one. In others, we are losing decisively. In multitudes of places, we’re flat out getting stomped. We’re losing the battle to make learners and followers of Jesus Christ in the places and spaces that matter most—in the streets, in our communities, with nontraditional families, and the like—the places and spaces where Jesus invested almost all of his time and energy, where critical masses of people hang out daily, and where we as a collective church don’t spend much time witnessing.

If we did, we would be celebrating the many changed hearts and lives, instead of trying too often to cover up the fact that our method for going about God’s kingdom business just isn’t cutting it.

To be fair, we are changing lives in some places and spaces. All across our connection are examples of what can happen when people like you and me invest in the trenches. But we are experiencing far too many casualties. In many urban, suburban, ex-urban, or rural areas, The United Methodist Church doesn’t have a presence at all.

How do we change this?

How can we creatively win the war in the trenches?

1. Move our best players and coaches to the trenches.

When the superintendent in the Texas Annual Conference asked Kirbyjon Caldwell what it would take to turn around a downtown Houston church with nine members remaining in the trenches, Caldwell sent the best lay leader from his thriving south Houston congregation. Twenty years and six thousand changed lives later, Rudy and Juanita Rasmus, lay folks at the time with a call and a passion, showed us what can happen when we move our best people to the trenches. World changing things can happen!

We need to reposition all of the leaders who know their “Romans 12” giftedness into the places and spaces where the harvest is ripe but the laborers are few. This includes empowering laity with “Ephesians 4” giftedness to plant new faith communities, start new congregations, and do something different in neighborhoods and communities where the trenches are loaded with potential.

In addition to putting our best people (lay or clergy) in charge of new church starts or turnaround opportunities, it also means rethinking the role of the supervisor. It means that we open the door for “player coaches”—bishops and district superintendents—who have apostolic, prophetic, evangelical, shepherding, and teaching gifts to operate daily in the trenches, using their skills and influence to build particular places in God’s kingdom.

In my opinion, bishops who have apostolic, missional gifts are wasting those gifts in the administrative and legal machinations of United Methodist episcopacy. The body needs their gifts to be unleashed. Annual conferences that have bishops of this nature should hire executive directors who operate the day-to-day functions that take bishops and superintendents away from the mission field. Our bishops should be using their gifts to change the game in the trenches. And if that means starting new churches, providing pastoral leadership, or the like, that’s what they need to do.

By bishops and superintendents getting into the trenches at strategic points in the community, we can bring the best results out of our connectional system. We can empower more and more leaders who have great visions and dreams for transformation in their communities. Empowered by this type of implementation, where one is a superintendent and leading a congregation, one elder in my district merged two congregations into one, with plans to revitalize one campus for worship and use the other campus for missional purposes and new church starts. Another elder is using a cooperative parish model to launch laity and young pastors into turnaround church situations. A cluster of congregations and pastors has come together to implement a shared Latino evangelism effort. And multiple churches are networking to better distribute food and provide services to those who need it in the district.

We can have pastors who supervise other pastors at the same time. In this way, we don’t allow any superintendent to lose touch with what’s happening on the ground, and we position the institutional church to resource communities appropriately and effectively. No one knows a community like an effective and engaged pastor. And no one, in my opinion, can make greater appointment contributions to a cabinet than a pastor who knows what’s needed in a particular community.

2. Implement prayer and fasting strategies to win battles.

Nearly fifteen years ago, after inviting pastor Dennis Blackwell of Asbury UMC in Camden, New Jersey, to lead a prayer weekend, our church implemented a prayer and fasting ministry called “Jehoshaphat.” We were motivated by the story in 2 Chronicles 20 where King Jehoshaphat, surrounded by enemies on every side, called the nation of Israel into a season of fasting and prayer, petitioning God to intercede for them as they faced a heavy period of conflict.

The results of this ministry were so powerful that we began to use the prayer and fasting process along with sermon series and teaching opportunities to unite and align the congregation when facing opposition within and beyond our ministry. When led by the Holy Spirit, victories were won in the trenches.

What if we trained more churches in our connection to engage in the spiritual disciplines at our disposal, leading our congregations in these spiritual formation opportunities? What if we grew and developed spiritual leaders and followers to overcome the forces of selfish and sinful desires? I believe we’d change more hearts and lives in the trenches for sure!

The focus on basic spiritual disciplines will build a stronger bench of people on the front lines equipped to advance God’s life-changing mission on the ground.

One reason we are losing in the trenches is that we don’t have a deep bench in The United Methodist Church. Some would even argue that we have no bench and therefore can’t compete when our starters get tired. If I can put my best team on the field and then substitute with players just as strong if not better than they are, then when my first team gets weary, we will still succeed. But we are losing out in the field because we are relying on a system of recruitment that is limited, expensive, outdated, and in some cases not developing the skills needed in the trenches. Some of our best potential frontline players can’t afford or aren’t suited to the research agendas at a seminary. We need cost-effective, alternative ways of preparing leaders who are called to the five-fold gifts of ministry in Ephesians 4 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers).

3. Challenge churches to claim their zip codes for Christ.

Zip codes were established in 1963 by the US Postal Service for mail to reach its destination or delivery point in a more efficient and expeditious manner. Zip ironically stands for “zone improvement plan.” The Postal Service had zone improvement plans for effective message delivery to specific codes and destination points across the country.

What if your church had a commitment to getting out into its zip code to deliver good news? Those with a zone improvement plan make it a practice to get out into the streets and neighborhoods, meet people, build relationships, and, after developing relationships and street cred, share what Christ has done in their lives. They sit where people sit, feel what people feel, listen when people talk, and then cast a community-wide vision that engages people in the trenches with life-changing transformation.

Many of our congregations are filled with people who don’t live in the zip code of their church. At a recent charge conference, one church had an honest conversation about whether or not they needed to relocate to another zip code due to a mission field shift. To reach people for Jesus Christ, we need to be bold enough to make the move among our zip codes.

4. Operate from a position of strength.

One of my favorite vocal artists is Jill Scott. On one of Jill’s albums, Beautifully Human, she sings a song called “Talk to Me” twice—back to back. It’s the same love song sung to a man whose attention she’s been trying to engage with little success. The first song is sung in an R&B manner, but she can’t seem to get the man’s attention. So at the end of the first song, she says, “I bitch, you moan. So I try another tactic.” She then sings the very same song, this time in jazz and big band style, and wins the man over. Same lyrics; different genre.

Our denomination needs to stop bitching and moaning and “try another tactic.” We’ve been operating from a position of defeat rather than a position of strength. And we’ve been bitching and moaning instead of using our strengths more boldly and creatively to establish and do new things.

We need to hold on and dig in, particularly in some of our urban areas where our resources are precious and valuable but where too easily we are willing to sell the farm to leverage an asset, just to keep some aspect of our stale, dried out system operating.

One annual conference sold a piece of property in a major city for almost 1.5 million dollars less than what we could have received for it had we just held on. The building was huge and had so much potential. But we sold it to another church in another denomination, and now they are growing and thriving. I’m glad for the new church that acquired the facility and is bearing fruit. But I’m frustrated that we conceded a piece of property that, with prayer, fasting, and creative thinking, we could have used to transform lives in a very needy community. Instead of retreating for safety, we should operate from a position of strength.

A pastor and lay leader in an extremely diverse urban/suburban community wanted to sell property to pay for expenses in their main worship center. But the building they wanted to sell was prime real estate that everyone in the neighborhood was clamoring to use. If we continue to sell our buildings, we will lose our physical presence, which helps us influence the future of a community. There are many creative ways to leverage our physical resources, including land leasing, multipurpose usage, and collaborative partnerships. Some strategies may require churches to start nonprofit community development organizations to obtain grants and funding from secular sources. We need to operate from a position of strength rather than constant contraction.

What if the coaches and players in The UMC—our pastors and laity—had all of their resources directed for use on the ground in their zip codes? What if the superintendency played an active role in this, as chief missional strategists on the ground, with our troops mapping out zone improvement plans to make it happen? And what if our bishops and superintendents personally started churches in ripe mission fields or provided pastoral leadership in strategic areas? And what if our bench got so strong that we multiplied the creation of churches at a greater rate than closing them? I believe we’d start seeing the bloom of revival. I believe we’d gain the leverage we need to win.

I believe a whole lot of hearts and lives would be transformed with the mind of Christ. Do we have the guts to dig in, try something different, and refuse to lose? The game is won in the trenches by the people on the frontline.

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