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.