Faithfulness vs. Mediocrity

Several months ago, Bishop Will Willimon made starting new congregations in the North Alabama conference a top priority. The North Alabama Conference also proposed increasing their budget for new church starts by 50%. I’m a Bishop Willimon fan, and I applaud him for his aggressiveness and vision.

Right after that, Shane Raynor, the guru of the Methodist blogosphere, wrote about new churches being the future of the United Methodist Church (click here). Again, a well-written and visionary statement.

In my experience of the Connection of the United Methodist Church, one conference that I’ve always admired is the North Carolina conference. They’ve always been cutting edge, well established, and with Duke Divinity School close by have always had the sharpest pastors and been well steeped in Wesleyan theology and tradition. Imagine my shock when I read this statement in The News & Observer, Raleigh’s newspaper:

Don Curtis was serving on a committee devoted to launching new United Methodist churches when a single statistic stopped him cold: Half the churches started each year fail.

"It's a very expensive thing to launch a church," said Curtis, a Raleigh businessman whose Curtis Media Group owns 15 radio stations in the state. "When you fail, you've dropped a lot of money."

After talking to Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn Jr. of the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, Curtis learned that church administrators were well aware of the problem and searching for solutions. With a $1 million challenge grant from Curtis, the conference came up with one: An academy to teach pastors and lay people practical skills to keep churches healthy and vibrant.
- Raleigh News & Observer, Aug 11, 2006

More of the article reveals that the population in North Carolina is growing. Somewhere along the line, there’s been a failure.

If you read the entire article (click here), I can't help but think that the Church is failing its people and its Christ. Permit me these observations:

1. Seminaries. In reality (at least in the UMC tradition), we really don’t have seminaries; we have schools of divinity. Lots of biblical, theological, and historical education – which are all essential – but very little practical education in areas of finance, conflict resolution and group dynamics, and training and enabling volunteers. In short, very little praxis. The argument is that these things aren’t the seminaries’ job. Perhaps. Whose job is it, then?

Hey… I got a great education at Emory/Candler. But I had to learn all the practical aspects of ministry on my own. Fifteen years later, I find myself a little angry that seminary (at the cost of $21,000 in 1991) didn’t prepare me to be a practice-ready clergyman when I was sent out into the parish. If I hadn’t served churches while in college and seminary, I’d have been even further behind.

2. Continuing Education. Doctors have to continually be educated in new medicines and new techniques and approaches in order to “keep up.” Members of state bars have to do the same in the legal profession. What passes for requirements in continuing education for UMC pastors, though, is a borderline joke. Greg Jones of Duke Divinity said it well: "What we've had too often in religious communities is mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness," Jones said.

3. The General Church is doing little or nothing about either. I am very glad that Mr. Curtis is putting his heart, soul (and yes, his money) into an Academy for Leadership Excellence to train pastors how to start churches. But this is a really damning statement to our General Church – why hasn’t the General Conference of our Church done this... in fact, why wasn't it done years ago? Why didn’t such a mandate come from the General Board of Ministry? Instead of spending a fortune on Igniting Ministry commercials, why didn’t we start such academies across the annual conferences?

Making disciples is supposed to be our Great Commission, as opposed to aligning ourselves with whatever caucus we like or acting like our government at General Conference in budgeting money we don’t have. And it’s really poor stewardship to invest money in new church starts that are currently experiencing a 50% failure rate.

It’s time we used the Connection to do something that will work, rather than do something mediocre. We can’t afford mediocrity anymore.



Richard H said…
Back when I was serving in a church in California while pursuing another degree I heard that new pastors were required to attend an extra year of education after seminary. It seems the Conference had finally admitted that their flagship seminary was not adequately training people for ministry.

I think many seminaries, speaking in their own defence, would say they DO focus on praxis. My perception though is their idea of praxis is too often along the lines of CPE and pastors are getting equipped to go out as hospice chaplains more than change agents to transform hospice churches. There's a huge difference.

Thanks for the post. BTW - Didn't you used to be in TN? Have you been in KY very long?
Sally said…
A challenge to the powers that be- I am currently in training here in the UK- a similar critisism could be made over here... placement may prove our saving grace!
Kevin Baker said…
Thought I would jump in here as a NC conference pastor and a 9 year pastor of a new church plant in Durham, NC.

I agree with a lot of your points, though I do have a few different conclusions about how to address them. When I finished at Duke Divinity School, I admit I was green and inexperienced and had to learn a lot on the fly in my first 3 point charge. When I was appointed to plant a new church on my second appointment, my learning curve went off the charts (and still does on a daily basis). Could Divinity School have done better? Maybe. Can a leadership institute better equip would-be church planters? Perhaps. But the article from the N&O does not tell the whole story.

A 50% failure rate sounds outrageous - but maybe only to people who have not started a new church. What is amazing is that 50% of the new church plants succeed.

I found the following list of challenges to starting a business, and would submit that all of them apply to a new church pastor (and I am not sure that an institute is an answer for most of these concerns):

* Having to wear all of the hats yourself -- from head of sales and marketing to janitor and bookkeeper -- whether or not they are the areas you're strongest in.
* Having to learn everything FAST -- another reason why preparation is so important.
* Cash flow. As seasoned entrepreneurs know, being busy doesn't guarantee that there's money coming in. And you may have to purchase necessary supplies and equipment for a project up front, often before clients have paid you anything at all.
* Time management. With everything vying for your attention at once, it's hard for solo entrepreneurs to know what to do first, let alone ever have the time to get "caught up." Entrepreneurs become experts at prioritizing and pacing, understanding that just because something is urgent doesn't mean it's important. Which leads us into the next item…
* Maintaining balance. With all of the demands of the business, it's easy for entrepreneurs to lose sight of what motivated them go into business in the first place. Protect your personal time like you protect your business time. Make sure you take adequate time out for resting and recharging. Remember, you are your business' most valuable asset. Protect it.

Some of the stats that are missing from the N&O article is that the new churches in the NCC are responsible for well over 50% (I want to say higher, but I need to check) of the net conference membership growth. Not bad for a "failure" statistic. Truth is, our office of congregational development has always assumed there will be church starts that fail. I am convinced that will always be the case. There may be ways to improve the percentage, and I'm all for it, but to commit to starting churches requires acknowldging up front that many will "fail."

I place "failure" in quotes, because I am not sure I know of any new church here that was a "failure" that was not also, simultaneously, a "success." I don't know of any that didn't reach new people for God, share the Good News of Jesus Christ, enrich and nurture the lives of new Christians, and deepen the Christian walk of others. If Reconciliation UMC were to close its doors tomorrow (which, thank God, is very far from happening), I would count it a rousing success in Gospel terms though it may look like a train wreck in the conference journal.

I could say more, but it is getting late - but I will add at least two more parting thoughts. First, some money (once we have paid for our new leadership institutes) would be well spent in helping with the "cash flow" (3rd point above) of new church plants. I think it has gone up, but it was $1200 dollars of seed money when we started (plus the typical 3 year decreasing salary package - so tithing of the pastor and familly was essential!)

Secondly: a lot of my professional learning was on the ground, and I am not sure a classroom can really do all that is needed. I found "holy friendships" (another great line from Dean Jones) essential - especilaly with church plant pastors who had been there, done that - and were willing to mentor someone like me.

Finally (ok, so I had a third point) ... not to sound cliche, but we still need to acknowledge that there is a difference between what works and what is faithful. I am aware that mediocrity has recently been found hiding behind the skirt-tails of faithfulness, but lets not forget - so has faithfulness.
Good posts all.

Yes Richard, I was in Tennessee for several years; have been in Kentucky since 2001. The Memphis Annual Conference includes part of KY... so a few of us get to do "missionary work" up here!

John B said…
I'm with Kevin, I think 50% "success" rate is pretty good. Remember the parable of the sower, only 25% of the seed that was sown borne fruit. Knowing that half the new church starts probably won't make it, just means we need to plant twice as many congregations.