Find a comfortable position in a peaceful place. Bring a cup of coffee. Take a deep breath. Breathe in slowly, and then release. I’m about to share bad news. Everyone who loves you before you read this will love you after you are finished. God is with us. We can handle talking about things we’d rather avoid.
Let’s look at why we face some hard decisions in the United Methodist Church:
We operate using financial models that are intrinsically unsustainable. Membership and attendance in the US fall while expenses at the local, conference, and general church increase. The closing of churches, the move to part-time ministry, and the reduction of costs for hundreds of churches result in ever-increasing cost shifts to the 15% of our churches that are growing. If we do not radically reduce costs or create new systems for supporting connectional work, then the disproportionate weight will slow the growth of our most fruitful congregations. In addition, some conferences face pension liabilities that they cannot meet, several seminaries face financial hardship and reduced enrollment, and because of our high median age, we will lose large numbers of our most generous donors during the next two decades.
Most of our congregations are not reaching younger generations. The age disparity between the leadership of our congregations in the US and the communities we serve increases each decade. Our denomination, like most mainline churches, is perceived by youth culture as irrelevant, conflicted, hypocritical, insensitive, and out of touch.
Our clergy leadership systems for recruiting, educating, training, credentialing, deploying, evaluating, and (when necessary) removing clergy are not serving us well. The default in most conferences is: “if you meet the requirements and have done nothing egregious, you will be approved,” rather than “you will likely not be approved unless you demonstrate exceptional fruitfulness and promise for ministry.” The number of people approved for commissioning and ordination has no relation to the number needed to serve churches. Even among our most gifted clergy who are excellent at maintaining current ministries or leading a growing church to further ministry, few have the ability to actually transition a declining congregation toward growth.
Our organizational structures are not conducive to our ministry. Local churches struggle with complex disciplinary requirements derived from an era when we expected uniformity. Annual conference sessions conduct business with three times as many people present than thirty years ago, even though we have fewer districts, churches, and members (the unintended consequences of changing the status of local pastors, lay/clergy equalization requirements, and the role of retirees). Vertical alignments between general, conference, district, and local church boards, based on 1950s centralized organizational models, restrict creative contextual organizing according to the mission. At the general church level, autonomous structures function with limited accountability and with few mechanisms to unify efforts. The disconnection between members in the pews and the bishops and the general agencies fosters the perception that congregations exist to serve conferences and general boards. The Council of Bishops gathers as a group of leaders rather than functioning as a leadership group. These dysfunctions foster mistrust, conflict, and despair.
We lack clarity about our mission. Most of our churches do poorly at connecting with the unchurched and nominally churched in their communities. We wait for people to come to us, to find our churches and to like our worship styles rather than reaching out to engage people. We began as a “go to” church, but we’ve become a “come to” denomination.
We are resistant to change, suspicious of accountability, averse to metrics, defensive about letting go, and protective of the patterns and models that have brought us to this point. Congregations long for young adults but will not make the changes that would attract them and involve them in new forms of ministry. Pastors resist asking for help from those who are successfully experimenting with outreach models that work. Conference leaders have difficulty truly aligning resources and personnel toward the mission.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a sip of coffee. You are still loved. God is still with us.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to all the challenges listed above. Nor do I believe that the Call to Action, the petitions from various task forces, or a service of repentance will fix everything overnight. And this is not a good people versus bad people discussion. I am one of us. Like you, I’ve inherited, lived with, worked through, cultivated, benefited from, and led the systems we now have. Blaming others is not nearly as helpful as taking responsibility.
These challenges do not tell the full story of United Methodism today. We touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of people through our ministries, we have thousands of deeply committed and highly gifted laity and clergy, and we practice a theology of grace that the world needs. God continues to work through The United Methodist Church. However, the fact that we do many things well should not keep us from addressing the elements of our life together that restrain and weaken our mission.
The Call to Action expresses a healthy sense of urgency. I pray we begin to address these situations seriously and courageously. We need all the creative responses we can imagine.
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, writes, “We can either have a hard decade or a bad century.”* We have to make some hard decisions—about our own discipleship, about our congregational mission, about how we organize our work in conferences and the general church—or we will face an increasingly difficult future.
*My appreciation to Lovett Weems for drawing my attention to the Thomas Friedman quotation, from The New York Times, September 20, 2011.
Do you feel the challenges listed above are real and valid concerns which need our attention? What other challenges are critical to our future?
How do you personally feed the passion for ministry while also fostering the patience to work through an organization that responds slowly?
What ministries, initiatives, and experiments with new models and practices give you hope?
For deeper reflection, explore Philippians 4:6-9 from The Message for new insight into a familiar teaching.
For more, Lovett Weems’ new book, entitled Focus: The Real Challenges that Face The United Methodist Church, may be the most helpful resource for understanding our unsustainable financial models in particular as well as the larger missional challenges. Also, I would commend to you Gil Rendle’s Journey in the Wilderness.