Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Learnings of a New District Superintendent

A few months ago I wrote "Confessions of a New Superintendent." Since then, I have been in cabinet meetings to assist in pastoral projections, met with staff-parish committees, met with pastors, taken a lot of phone calls, visited with many people in my office, held a couple of district clergy meetings, and served as host superintendent at our annual conference (and yes, Jorge Acevedo, I wore a suit four days in a row). It has been a baptism by flame thrower.

What I've learned:
  • D.S's drive a lot - my predecessor drove over 200k miles in five years - so I bought a used car built for the high miles and low maintenance.
  • D.S.'s get thrown into the midst of conflict, and my sports officiating experience in dealing with coaches all these years has finally paid off: listen more and speak less, show respect in the midst of conflict and disagreement, and admit your mistakes.
  • Never wait to put something on your calendar later - do it then.
  • Listen to softer music when driving on "D.S. business." Save AC/DC and Rush for fun driving.
  • Even if you're in a hurry, eat smart. The "Freshman Ten" applies to new D.S.'s too!
The most sobering thing I've learned is that there is no correlation between education of clergy and clergy effectiveness. I wrote about this in an earlier blog, but I am beginning to see and hear about it first hand as a D.S. We have pastors who have little or no spiritual depth, yet are appointed to churches to serve as spiritual guides and leaders - and laity are noticing. Emmaus Walks, Academies for Spiritual Formation, SoulFeasts, and other such venues of opportunity for spiritual direction and formation are helping folks grow in their spiritual walk and discipleship. But they are also helping folks realize how much many of their pastors are neglecting to teach these basics of the faith AND, more to the point, have no spiritual depth or discernment of their own. It doesn't help that more and more clergy surveyed (anonymously of course) only read the Bible for sermon fodder, and rarely for devotion. In all of the consultations that I did this year, not one church asked me to send them a good pulpit preacher. But I did hear "Send us a praying pastor" more than once.

I am convinced more than ever that seminaries are failing us. And now, the perception is real among those who help fund them. Two conferences recently dealt with resolutions to sever connections with one United Methodist seminary.

I will readily admit that I know some local (licensed) pastors who are far more spiritually adept and mature than many elders that I know. Many of them are second-career pastors.

I am not trying to be anti-seminary. But it pains me greatly to admit that a seminary education may not be the best preparation for one to do ordained ministry, and I am more inclined to believe that it is not an absolute necessity anymore. I come from a family that greatly values education - indeed, I am the only McCracken in my family without a doctoral degree. But given the high price of money and time involved in a seminary education and the fact that we presently have pastors in a dying denomination who cannot speak, live, or teach a spiritual ethic and discipline to the congregations they serve - are we not guilty of horrible stewardship? Lest you think I am being horribly un-Methodist and anti-intellectual, consider this journal entry of John Wesley:
I had a good deal of conversation with Mr. N-----n. His case is very peculiar. Our Church requires that Clergymen should be men of learning, and, to this end, have an University education. But how many have an University education, and yet no learning at all? Yet these men are ordained! Meantime, one of eminent learning, as well as unblamable behavior, cannot be ordained because he was not at the University! What a mere farce is this! Who would believe that any Christian Bishop would stoop to so poor an evasion? - John Wesley, Journal Entry, March 20, 1760
Of course, John Wesley isn't the final authority on anything - but he saw the mistakes of being a complacent Church that put legalism above faithfulness. That is certainly nothing new to the faith! Practical divinity requires practical education and formation.

Homosexuality and political posturing seem to be at the top of the list of agenda items for the next General Conference. I would suggest instead a focus to the essentials of Christianity and Methodism: To go and make disciples, and to teach and practice the works of piety - in other words, to teach and preach the spiritual disciplines:
The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord's Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men. - John Wesley
Making disciples DOES matter, and while depth of discipleship is important, numbers are important too! Evangelical isn't a dirty word - if we're Methodists, it's OUR word. Teaching and witnessing isn't bad manners; it's the Great Commission. If our clergy can't and won't do these things, how can we expect our laity to do it?



Dan Tilly said...

Well said. Thanks, Sky.

Earl T. Dickerson said...

In years past, a previous DS always pushed for friendships among the clergy. I felt guilty that I was always attracked more to local pastors than other Elders. I realize that the lack of spiritual focus among Elders was the primary reason for this. Little wonder many Elders are retiring so young now. As Fred Craddock said, "It's not so much they are burned out as they were never on fire in the first place."

Paul Scheirer said...


Thanks for sharing your comments about the life of a district superintendent. Not having a close relationship with anyone who has served in that position I have only guessed at what the job involved. In reference to your comments on seminary education I know MTS is very intentional in spiritual formation with entering seminarians. Their goal is to nurture these disciplines in entering students hoping to instill the principles for life-long service in ministry. I grief for our elders who have lost their sense of call and their need for daily communion with God through the practice of spiritual disciplines. May we all never take for granted the individuals God has entrusted to us, and our responsibility to help them in their relationship to God.

Don Yeager said...

Found your blog on "Methoblog." Thanks for your reflections. It's always good to hear a different point of view. In your last paragraph, did you mean "evangelism" or "evangelistic" rather than "evangelical"? They share the same root but, as you know, mean different things.

PamBG said...

Just an observation, not a refutation.

I came to the US and joined a UMC church and found that lack of spiritual depth of which you speak.

I joined a church in another mainstream (some would say "liberal") denomination. A denomination which values theological education of the laity as well as of the clergy and there I did find spiritual depth.

So I don't know what the answer is.

I understand how and why seminaries are not training ministers spiritually - because they have been left in the hands of the academics. And no matter how good or faithful the academics are, budding pastors also need spiritual formation.

I certainly did find enough lacking in the UMC that, as a British Methodist clergyperson, I wanted to be in a different denomination. Which is pretty sad. I understand now from experience what folk on the internet have been saying and I can't really put my finger on anything specific.

Joe Baseball said...

Wow. Nice shot, Earl. Ignorant and sanctimonious in only four sentences!

John Meunier said...

I'm coming late to this post, but thank you for it. Please keep giving us these updates.

Duane Anders said...

I think you have some points but would not the failure also be the local churches and the districts and the board of ministry? Is it not the church that says these folks are fruitful? is it not the district that also looks at gifts and graces? Is it not boards of ministry that open the door for ministry? I believe that the seminary also has some work to do....