Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is It About the Kingdom, or the Institution?

Bishop Will Willimon posted Ten Theses About The Future of Ministry on his blogsite this morning. They are a gutsy and rare prophetic voice from one of our bishops (Bishop Tim Whitaker also comes to mind as one of those voices). I'll comment on a few of these as a 45 year old pastor in between the generations that the Bishop speaks about.
  • The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will continue to experience numerical decline as well as be pushed to the margins of this culture. The mainline is old-line that is becoming sidelined.
Hard to argue with. The numbers and diminishing resources back this up.
  • The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to lead the church in redefining itself in the light of the spiritual needs and aspirations of people under 35 or else will continue to decline because it has limited itself to the spiritual affairs of one generation.
Yes again. We pastors have failed to culture leadership and legacy among the "one generation" to leave the church better than they found it. We haven't passed the mantle - it's been held on to for far too long.
  • The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right).
The gutsiest statement yet. Theological liberalism was a theology found wanting - and sometimes, seemed to delight in the shock value of turning Christian doctrines at the heart of Christianity into a cafeteria Christianity. The IRD and ilk like them would have us be in bed with the correct politics... which resembles spiritual prostitution in being "of" the world rather than "in" the world. I would say that progressive Christianity has done the same thing where American politics are concerned.
  • The pastoral ministry must be supple, adaptable, and willing to experiment on the basis of biblically supported leadership styles.
Another true and hard statement. Cut-and-paste ministry doesn't work. Leadership is blessed but hard work. It isn't all about preaching good sermons anymore (although it's not a bad start). How are we making disciples? What is our plan to do so? How do we BOTH (1) grow disciples in maturity, and (2) increase the flock?
  • The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.
The Great Commission was this: "Go, make disciples, baptizing and teaching them in my name." The Book of Discipline gets bigger and bigger (and more largely ignored and irrelevent), the number of Judicial Council decisions increases as does the docket, and yet the church membership continues to decline. As much of a baseball fan that I am, it simply isn't true that "if you build it, they will come." We must be willing to make disciples, and to do that, we must be willing to build relationships. We have done what the medical community has done - become specialists while forgetting our general health and wholeness.
  • Methodists will either become engaged in the mysterious, relentless growth of the Kingdom of God or they will continue to decline. Growth is our most needed focus.
One does not have to be an actuarial expert to know that the denomination will financially and administratively collapse within 12 years. God isn't dead, but it is possible that we are realizing Wesley's worst fear (and I know, we all know the quote... but are we listening?):
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. - J. Wesley
As a Lutheran friend once told me, "Methodists have lost their method."
  • The pastoral ministry will recover the oddness and the excitement of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Seems like I remember being taught that Christians are to be counter-cultural. "Oddness" is probably a good word. Why would anyone in society who is cynical and distrustful of secular institutions want to be part of a Church that simply resembles another institution with a cross slapped up on the side of the building?
  • The pastoral ministry will either find a way to attract and empower a new generation of pastor’s critique and reconstruct pastoral ministry or we will pass away with this generation.
Again, numbers don't lie.

This OUGHT to be a ripe opportunity for the UMC: We are connected. We have a framework for the deployment of ministry and a catechetical process for making Christians and disciples. In theory, we have a framework and discipline to deploy pastors and match gifts to churches. But in practice, we are failing. Miserably. Our connection is serving little purpose and laity have finally woken up and asked, "Is our apportionment money being used to increase the Kingdom or support a dying structure? Are we getting our money's worth?"

The itinerancy and appointment process has become a pastoral tenure system that is self-serving to clergy but not really helping the Church much. As far as catechesis... a lot of folks don't even know what that word means. Or words like catechism. Discipleship. Or disciple. I mean, have you asked anyone lately to define what a disciple is? It took a group in my church several weeks to arrive at a definition - not because they aren't good or faithful people, but they simply inherited a faith tradition that didn't hand that understanding down to them! We failed to teach and equip - hence, the present problem.

Nothing is beyond redemption, and if we are indeed a faithful people, then we are a hope-filled people. I am one with such hope. After a lot of prayer (more listening, less talking), I am convinced that some very faithful, hopeful, and risk-taking folks are going to have to rise to the challenge and call to extreme leadership. We need bishops not elected out of entitlement or pedigree, but out of spiritual and prophetic depth. We need risk takers. We need superintendents who lead pastors spiritually and boldly, not folks who got there because of a salary sheet or gender, or because it was "their turn." We need folks who can with muster and gumption do some hard work: some churches need to close. Some pastors need to be encouraged to leave pastoral ministry because they are ineffective at it. We need folks to take thou authority. We have to quit playing slot machine with pastoral appointments. And in the case of bishops and superintendents, we need some folks who are willing to do these things with the knowledge they might not get a guaranteed paycheck... since our system is presently collapsing to the point where conferences and episcopal funds won't be financed in a few years. That will call for creativeness and a willingness to think beyond present institutional practices.

I know I paint a bleak scene - but it is hard not to be concerned given the present realities. Lyle Schaller wrote a few years ago that to avoid financial and institutional collapse, we should have taken action at the 2008 General Conference on many of these things. Perhaps he is right.

God can redeem anything - but just like grace, we must be willing to receive it instead of push it away. Is God giving us the signs that we need to change? I don't see how we could interpret them any other way.

Instead of a dead sect, I sure would like the UMC to take the lead. We certainly have all the ingredients.



John Bonson said...

Great analysis Sky! Now, what specific things can those of us in leadership rols - not associated with appointment makinig - do to help turn the course?
I have found that very few people know the vision of the annual conference. And, as you have pointed out - even fewer know how to define disciple, or discipline.
I beleive that we are experiencing either a rebirth of our passion for those who don't know Christ, or we are experiencing a death spiral that has lost our own connection to Christ.
The struggle to discern the difference may help provide the momentum to move into the future.
The generation that you describe cares little for institutions, but cares greatly for causes. We need to yoke with that generation in the cause of Christ.
Thanks for the wake up call! As usual, your thoughts sometimes sting, but always - like cold water - refresh.

"CAPTAIN DAVE" said...

Hey, JB - I know you asked Sky, but let me give my 2 cents worth.

How about if we make starting new churches a real priority instead of just paying it lip-service? Let's train some pastors in how to do it right, and let's provide the funding necessary to do it.

Furthermore, vision statements and mission statements are worthless. We've got the Great Commission... what more do we need?

And why can't district meetings serve a real purpose instead of just being a semi-annual, onerous transferral of dates and information that could be just as easily mailed to us? Why can't the superintendents try to teach the pastors under their care? Share the vision? Shape the minds?

Wait, I believe that was 3 cents. You can keep the change.

John Bonson said...

Thanks Dave,

The Great Commission is the vision statement of Jesus, and should also be our own. The Memphis Conference vision is "Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the church and the world." If we were doing that, we would have more churches than we could supply qualified pastors or lay ministers (lay leadership).
As Sky noted in his original post, this opportunity is far too complex than any single solution that we can use to navigate through our current state.
I do know that there are districts within our conference where teaching is a critical part of the district' mission.
By the way, thanks for the extra cent. Let's keep in touch.

Bro. Dan said...

I’ve just read Bro. Dave and John’s comments on Sky’s blog. I know I’m old fashioned but it seems to me that all we need do is take Wesley’s charge to Coke, Whatcoat and Vasey as our conference mission statement; “Offer Them Christ”.

Should we make “Offer Them Christ” the conference mission statement we could then have conference wide discussions of what it means to “Offer Christ” in the different areas of the Memphis Annual Conference. Those could be held in each district with the D.S. leading our discovery discussion and in the process we would also be addressing how those offerings could be made. Those district conversations could then be taken to cluster levels as we pastor’s of local congregations talk in more detail concerning our communities’ needs. I can even see these conversations occurring in the local church as we talk about a congregation’s specific call of “Offering Christ” in our community.

But then, we’ve just canceled our district preacher’s meeting because there was not enough to call us together. So, maybe it’s just as well that we continue traveling the road we’ve been on for these past many years.

Grace to all, Dan

John Bonson said...

All it takes is a resolution.


John Meunier said...

Great post, Sky.

We don't need to attract a new generation, we need to make discipleship exciting for a new generation. We need to help them hear the call of Christ in their lives - and this is not just to ordained ministry.

Hmmm ... but how to do that.

"CAPTAIN DAVE" said...

Bro. Dan writes, "But then, we’ve just canceled our district preacher’s meeting because there was not enough to call us together."

That is my point. It would seem in this day, when our preachers are being labeled "ineffective", when our churches are struggling for survival, and when our conference is at the fianncial brink, there is plenty to talk about!

Instead, our district clergy meetings have been reduced to once or twice a year, we get a paper copy of the district calendar, and we hear pleas for help from our agency leaders who are also struggling to survive.

John Bonson writes, "I do know that there are districts within our conference where teaching is a critical part of the district' mission."

This should be the rule instead of the exception. It has been more than 10 years since I was in such a district.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I’m the DS that cancelled the District Minister’s Meeting. I hesitate to join in blog discussions because they usually leave more questions than answers. I appreciate Sky’s efforts to call the church to faithfulness and I agree with him more times than not. So, here are a few thoughts that probably won’t resolve anything.

I cancelled the meeting because the agenda items did not merit the time and effort that would be spent to attend. I am not going to have meetings to pass out calendars or do mindless promotions of some conference program. You also need to consider that out of forty ministers in the district, I feel blessed when I have 50% participation at our meetings. It has actually been as low as 25%!

Of course that doesn’t mean we don’t have things to talk about. We could talk about toxic churches, ineffective ministers, incompetent leadership, bloated bureaucracy, the lack of stewardship, irrelevant preaching and the always present entitlement attitude affecting both clergy and laity. Our district has had some good discussions and I hope we will have more.

I am convinced more than ever that we are approaching the problem from the wrong direction. We are trying to program and organize our way to faithfulness instead of looking at the beginning of our faith: conviction, confession and conversion. The church will never be able to mask the lack of this beginning by slick campaigns and another book on leadership that I am now being required to read.

Honest conversation calls for tough action and as Jack said, “You [we] can’t handle the truth!” Now this is where I would normally go into a laundry list of items that need attention. I can’t change the entire church. I can only try my best to be faithful to the tasks that are given to me. I truly appreciate the collegiality we have in our district.

Sky McCracken said...

My D.S. said: We are trying to program and organize our way to faithfulness instead of looking at the beginning of our faith: conviction, confession and conversion. The church will never be able to mask the lack of this beginning by slick campaigns and another book on leadership that I am now being required to read.

Absolutely. And meetings without substance do nothing but add to the level of ineffective connectionalism.

We CAN'T change the entire church. And if things truly begin with conviction, confession and conversion, then that will start from the bottom up, since "the top down" is obviously not working.

Good post, boss.

A reminder to us all - be careful what you write. You never know who might be reading. [grin]

Anonymous said...

Dear Boss

Sorry, bur for some reason I cannot get my comments to upload as Bro. Dan. So, here is my response to you and Sky

My words were as much about us ministers as they were to you, for you are one of us. Your words are very meaningful to me. As a matter of fact as I think about your response I am wondering why we couldn't have had the conversation you are talking about even there were are only a handful of us willing to take that risk.

Also, I missed our time together.

Bro. Dan

Bro. Dan said...

I've never blogged before responding to this one [Well, maybe i'm like Paul and his baptisms. I may be responded to one or two, but I don't remember.]

Anyway, I've had time to think about my boss’ response and mine to his. The more I consider it, the more I'm certain that his assessment of our mutually agreed upon mess I am certain he is correct. Here is what he said and I quote “toxic churches, ineffective ministers, incompetent leadership, bloated bureaucracy, the lack of stewardship, irrelevant preaching and the always present entitlement attitude affecting both clergy and laity.”

However, if we do not take every opportunity, as women and men of the United Methodist connection, to talk, discuss – or to use the Wesleyan term “conference” about these issues then are we not missing excellent opportunities to further our understanding of the connection, but more importantly to better understand each other and in that process strengthen our life together as followers of Jesus.

Will it be hard? YES! Will it be worth it? YES!!!

Grace and peace to all.

Bro. Dan