Purchase (formerly Paducah) District on March 1, 2011. It was a weird time to start such work; my father had just died, I was already visiting SPRC committees anticipating moves, my first official act as a DS was to attend a cabinet meeting, and our district was hosting Annual Conference in three months. There was no "honeymoon." But there was a huge blessing. Bishop Dick Wills gave me this permission: "Don't be a personnel manager. Be a spiritual leader for your district." Bishops Chamness and McAlilly continued to support that mindset. Because of that, I can honestly say that I love my work.
Things to Celebrate
This district has a unique connectional nature to it that has allowed some things to be birthed much easier than if it had been otherwise. Paul Douglass, who had been the DS here from 1989-95, left copious notes in files and archives that lead me to believe he was a pivotal leader in this district being "connected." Vestiges of his legacy were still present when I became superintendent, which made my job much easier. Some things that have been birthed in the last five years:
1. Spiritual Leadership, Inc. It began as a book-reading group who wanted to go deeper. At the advice of friends from across the Southeast, we invited Craig Robertson of SLI (Spiritual Leadership, Inc.) to come meet with us for a day. What he said excited and intrigued us. A few months later, with the blessing of Bishop Chamness, a dozen lay and clergy folks from our district sacrificed time and money and began an incubator project. That blossomed into a district operations team. When our Area (Memphis and Tennessee Conferences) adopted an Area Mission Statement, we aligned our district work with it: to help resource and provide lay and clergy leadership for local churches so that we can make disciples of Jesus Christ in our neighborhoods. This has helped us bear fruit!
2. Generative Leadership Academy (GLA). This was one of our first dreams and envisionings that came out of the SLI process. We realized that if we as a district were going to grow our churches in ways measurable and immeasurable, we needed something simple, foundational, formative, from a Wesleyan perspective, that could help make disciples and leaders - as well as could identify spiritual giftedness from within the laity and clergy of our district We also knew that our clergy desperately needed formed and transformed partners in ministry. The fruits born from this include:
- Slowed decline of overall church membership and attendance across the district. In an area declining in both population and economy, we considered this a win!
- Increased numbers of people interested and trained as Certified Lay Ministers and Lay Servants
- A culture of call emerging, resulting in several laity answering a vocational call to ministry in both lay and clergy capacities. One such person served as a lay pastor for a year at a church typically served by an elder, had the most professions of faith after a year of any church in the district, and their lay pastor was awarded the Denman Award for her work. She is now a full-time licensed local pastor that continues to serve that church.
- Several churches, because of the witness of GLA clergy and lay graduates, are now contracting incubator projects with SLI with the purpose of growing their churches and diving deeper into mission and discipleship. One church is contracting with Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) to confront their stagnation and reassessing their call and witness to their community.
- A District Laity team was formed, based on spiritual giftedness identified at GLA. They recently completed a year-long SLI incubator project and now meet regularly with intention and a ministry action plan.
- The district was broken down into geographic clusters with lay and clergy leadership to replicate the work done by SLI and the District Operations team.
These are in no way laurels to rest upon, but beginnings that continue to need nurture and innovation. Deep change is difficult and slow!
3. Mission Blitz. This also birthed from SLI and the District Operational Team. One year we asked churches at their charge conference: "If your church closed tomorrow, would anyone from the local community notice?" That was a hard question for some churches to answer. So we set apart a day in the fall each year for churches/clusters to pick a local need/mission and spend a day out in their neighborhoods doing it. It ranged from barn raisings to jail visitation. The fruit: some local churches began to see needs in their own neighborhoods and starting making adjustments to their mission, operations, and budgets to reflect their neighborhood needs.
4. What We Can Do Better. Are we done? No - and this is just a beginning. Making disciples is our Great Commission, but it is also hard work after generations of not doing it well. There are also things that our district needs to do better:
- The Purchase District doesn't have one ethnic local church. Not one. We have ethnic persons present in our local churches, but we are missing a huge group of people that not only need the Church, but we need them. The good news is that I don't know anyone who would be opposed to such. The challenge is to resource doing it.
- We need to develop continued strategy that (a) helps declining churches objectively assess themselves and then become proactive about their next steps, (b) identify locations where a new church start could take place, and (c) continue to imagine what some missional communities could look like, being the church but not having/needing a church building.
- Increase our partnership with Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly with Dayshore Camp. There were three locations in the Purchase District where Dayshore took place this summer - and all of them were a huge success. Young lives were changed - and we need to partner and help resource that the best that we can. While this was a new concept for some, it falls within the innovation we need to embrace; new wineskins for new wine.
- We can't settle for just slowing the decline - we have to continue and try to reverse the decline. We've made great first steps, but we have to continue. There is no shortage of unchurched folks in the Purchase Area - we have to continue to challenge our present mindsets and practices and embrace the opportunities and needed change.
A final thought: a lot of energy and fear is being directed toward our denominational struggles and disagreements. The real truth is that - important as it certainly is - finalizing a stance on matters of sexuality is not going to gain us one disciple; if that were the case, either the Episcopal Church or the Southern Baptist Church would be growing... and both are losing members just like the UMC. If we're going to grow - conservative, progressive, orthodox, and any other adjective you want to label a local church - we have to get discipleship right. If we get discipleship right - we get everything else right. If we don't, our doctrine and discipline won't mean a thing.
The Great Commandment is to love. The Great Commission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. They both should get top priority - and that's where our passion needs to be.