Our episcopal area – the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences – has recently embraced a study of Gil Rendle’s Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement, and it has become the main work of our church’s charge conferences this year. As a district superintendent, I have had a love/hate relationship with this book. It states so clearly what we need to do to regain our mission, but challenges so many things we have grown into, become comfortable with, and accustomed to in our lives and churches.
Of all the sentences in Gil’s book, the two most trying and challenging to this me was this one:
Our denominational life has become more regulatory than missional. We have become a rule-following people.
And there is no denying this fact. The United Methodist Church mirrors our world governments at their worst. We regulate. We have policies and standard operating guidelines. We create watchdog groups to be sure others are “acting right.” We caucus ourselves to get more people on our “side.” And when we end up at General Conference, each side tries to present their rules to be enacted so that they will be followed. Having presented my own petition to the last General Conference (Petition 20769, and getting it approved and enacted with 889 votes for, 20 votes against), I have been part of the fray. Granted, it was not a controversial measure, but still just a “rule.”
And in the midst of all of this we somehow forgot our primary mission: to make disciples. Not to forward social causes, not to triumph or champion our “side” as the right one – but to make disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Discipleship is what Jesus commissions us to do. Anything else is at best secondary to that, and if we believe we are something else first, then we are no longer a church.
Unless we want the Book of Discipline to continue to become larger and the UMC to continue to become smaller, we have to break the cycle – not just because we’re dying, not just because pastors won’t have a pension, but because we’re not making disciples for the transformation of the world – our mission! If we rely on the General Conference to make these bold changes, we will fail. We have to become bold ourselves, and transform into individuals who embrace and enable change.
So this D.S. is willing to break a few rules, not for the sake of going rogue, but for the sake of being faithful to the Kingdom. I don’t want to meet my Maker one day and be asked why I chose to be a Pharisee instead of bold leader and disciple-maker. There has to be a better way.
What are essentials for district superintendents in this season? Permit me to offer these.
1. Hold individual charge conferences. Yes – I used to think CC’s were a waste of time, and the way they were often previously done they usually were. Reports can be filed and read by anyone who’d like to read them. But what if churches were challenged about what programs and ministries they are currently investing in and seeing how effective they are in making disciples? What if conferencing and conversation took place about self-reflection and self-awareness about what needs to change? What if we shared God stories about how lives were being transformed and how we as individuals can change the way we live out our faith so others hear the good news and not only become disciples, but disciple-makers?
For a D.S. to truly be a chief missional strategist, s/he must be involved at the congregational level. Having cluster or area charge conferences is a poor substitute for making relationships and leading clergy and laity in substantive change. Approve the pastoral and staff salaries, approve the church leadership for the next year, and file the rest. Spend the bulk of the charge conference in dialogue, assessment, celebration, repentance, and prayer. It might not be 100% kosher with the Discipline, but it gets at the heart of what we should be doing in conferencing as a means of grace. And while D.S.’s certainly can’t and shouldn’t micromanage every church’s mission in context, they can certainly challenge congregations to ask the right questions, challenge themselves, and become less insular and more neighborhood minded.
If someone doesn’t like it, I guess they can file charges on me. I’m willing to break these minor rules for the sake of enabling mission, instead of preventing it.
2. Be Willing to Risk Being a Pastor Instead of a Supervisor. It is a very tough line to walk, to be both a steward of order and church law and to be a shepherd to pastors and congregations under their charge. Unfortunately, we have created a climate where distrust is fostered and pastors are understandably reticent to confide and trust their D.S. It is a messy and uncomfortable place of tension. Having said that, D.S.’s have to know when to be a D.S. and when to be a pastor, and be able to live with and discern when to be which. That’s not quite kosher to the Discipline either. But I remain convinced that our mission far outweighs our need to be just personnel managers.
Having a sphere of distrust is antithetical to Kingdom work. It’s doesn’t mean we don’t hold accountability for our leaders – we do. But we cannot continue to operate out of fear or distrust in a Kingdom that is build upon agape and grace. Moreover, if we are asking people to make one-on-one relationships with others to foster discipleship and evangelism, we clergy are going to have to model transparency and vulnerability.
3. Trust Your Bishop (and Bishops, Be Trustworthy). You cannot ask pastors and congregations to trust you as their leader if you don’t trust your leader. Resist the temptation to tell a congregation, “The bishop is saying this – I’m just the messenger,” or “Our bishop believes this is the faithful way to go. He’s my boss so we’re doing it.” Those are dishonest ways of voicing to others that you disagree but are just doing your job. A D.S. is an extension of the bishop’s office – you are his/her voice. If you have disagreements with your bishop, tell him/her yourself. If we disagree, some conversation in is order so we can discern the work of the Spirit correctly. In the cabinet I serve in, we have found that transparency with each other leads us to leave the room with shared vision and focus.
4. Be Willing to Get in Your Car and Drive. I bought a used ‘03 Toyota Avalon in 2011. It was used but well-maintained, large enough to be comfortable for long drives and driving other passengers but economical enough to be a good steward. It’s also designed for high mileage (I’m currently at 230k miles). There is no substitute for being physically present with congregations and committees to engender trust and sincerity, and no other way to lead clergy and laity into shared mission and ministry. It does wear on the soul… but I take some comfort in reading Bishop Asbury’s journals – it sure beats horseback! When the weather is nice I ride my motorcycle or open the windows. It is a wonderful way to enjoy God’s creation.
5. Know your Strengths and be Self-Aware. Bishop McAlilly had all of us cabinet members take the Gallup/Tom Rath StrengthsFinder assessment. I also had taken the Myers-Briggs personality assessment several years previous when in spiritual direction. While no one is solely “their assessment”, these are good tools to know about one’s self in how you follow, lead, and where your gifts and challenges lie. My strengths lie in Achieving, Relating, Strategy, Learning, and Arranging. My Myers-Briggs type is INFJ (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Judging). That means I’m good at being intuitive and have a “feel” for things, and like to work independently and with details. But it also means I have to guard against expecting perfection in others, that I keep in mind the whole picture, and that I seek to be collaborative rather than a lone ranger in my work ethic. If I don’t keep these things in mind, I won’t lead as effectively.
Being a D.S. has never been easy. But in this season, as the UMC lives into a changed reality, it is more crucial than ever that we take thou authority to make sure we are equipping clergy, laity, and local churches to make disciples. That is our mission – and nothing else is sacred but the mission; that is, everything must be on the table for change, revision, renewal, and transformation, so that we might make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.