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In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 4

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part IV: Convicted Hope

But, I started the talk the way I did out of deeply held convictions. We are not just an Easter people; we are an Easter church!  There are signs of new life all around.  The Lord God really is doing something new!  McGrath is right: “The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity.”

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of this reality in the following quote.

“In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterston describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith” – the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilizations. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud.

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”

Embracing a full blown, unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us.  The way ahead is difficult.  It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful.  We are duly challenged.  Is Jesus Lord of our lives including our professional work?  Is this His church or a human institution?  Make no mistake: the way is strewn with obstacles, but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.  Do you remember that marvelous interchange which takes place between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Lucy in C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 3

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part III: Deeper Reflections & Observations in a Fog

Allow me for a moment to hit the pause button here to make a couple of strong assertions. First, whatever your position on same gender marriage & ordination, a decision should not be made on the grounds of losing or gaining members! I cannot say this strongly enough.  We should do what we best understand to be biblically and theologically faithful.  The advice to Timothy is well embraced.  “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Secondly, you know better than I that our current warfare over gender ordination and marriage is the presenting issue where the far deeper issues of theology and practice meet. What is really at stake is what it means to be a biblically faithful church and individual disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Pointedly we are wrestling with deeper issues of authority; how do Christians relate most faithfully to the culture and the future of the Wesleyan orthodoxy in America.  I find myself constantly reminded of the phrase “he (or she) who marries the present age will be a widow in the next.”

Third, we must cherish unity and simultaneously NOT make unity a cardinal cause or our highest value. I do not understand how a church which began by breaking away from the Church of England can claim unity as our highest institutional value. Please hear me carefully.  We must cherish, work towards and pray for unity but unity is not (and cannot be) our highest value.  Please allow me to stress this last.  We should pray for and work towards unity.  Even with deep differences unity is to be treasured, but it cannot be our highest value!  No one should be deluded into think that any kind of splintering will be easy or painless.  It will not.  It will be wrenching and painful for all concerned but faithfulness is the higher biblical virtue!

Peering through the murk and fog, allow me to hit the play button again and make some observations.

  1. We have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church.
  2. The anti-intuitionalism combined with a culture embracing a “free church” model makes church discipline and leadership increasingly problematic. Take the cultural mix of churches insisting on the right to choose their own pastor (I’m talking United Methodist now!), pick & choose apportionments, and decide for themselves what part of The Discipline they will abide by. Now mix in the growing number of acts of disobedience to church law (which is much greater than simple disputes over same gender marriage), many of which are endorsed by episcopal leadership. Stir this concoction, seasoning with a clergy culture that resists any form of accountability and a Council of Bishops that is absolutely unable to really lead. It takes no genius to assert that “the center will not hold.”
  3. We are in more financial trouble than we realize. As Lovett Weems has amply demonstrated, finances are a trailing indicator. In 2012 for the first time there was a reduction in General Church appointments (which we prefer in the Central Texas Conference to call “Connectional Mission Giving”). The General Secretaries Table has already suggested a modest ($12 million) reduction in apportionments for the next quadrennium. Now salt and pepper this with two things: a) there is significant discussion about the need for a much greater reduction, possibly as high as a $100 million reduction freeing resources for impactful local missions and ministry; and b) Some of our better financial leadership as a denomination have already held a national conference on right sizing the United Methodist Churches financial structure.
  4. As we are currently constituted, we don’t really need all the seminaries we have. Furthermore, MEF (Methodist Education Funds) which go to both official UMC seminaries and Conference Boards of Ministry will come under increasing scrutiny. Connect this with the anti-institutional spirit of the age, and the pressure to return all the money to Conferences for their own scholarship use will grow. It almost goes without saying that a splintering church will find it even more difficult to fund seminaries. With regard to the growing issue of orthodoxy, the question is being asked seminaries, do your preach Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)? Are you preparing students to pastor United Methodist Congregations with faithfulness and fruitfulness? Which leads naturally to the next point…
  5. We are in a local church leadership crisis of immense proportion. Bishops and Cabinets simply do not have enough competent clergy to appoint. This is intensified by the wave of baby-boomers retiring and conversely mitigated somewhat by the number of fulltime appointments being lost every year due to a declining church.
  6. The guaranteed appointment in its current form is a dodo bird. Regardless of Judicial Council rulings, the guaranteed appointment in its current form (again, a huge and careful qualifier) cannot be financially sustained. Boards of Ministries are struggling with a radically different way to understand the ordination process, the role of higher education, the importance of mentoring and need for jobs.
  7. We have to relearn how to engage in evangelism. This is not option. It is biblical and practical. We won’t be here if don’t! Obviously, I think the issue is tied to the reassertion of an orthodox theology. Lovett Weems’ “more people, younger people, and more diverse people” is prophetically accurate. If we evangelize more people they will by definition be younger and more diverse.
  8. The deeper theological crisis which has been the backdrop of this whole talk of this gathering itself, continually asks us to consider the “big tent” conception of the church as over against the disciplined, truly disciplined (and discipling) movement for God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I realize that this recitation can feel unmitigatingly depressing. I actually stand before you excited and hopeful.  I can be hopeful not in a winsome denial of reality (which is everywhere present in the United Methodist Church) but because of the gospel itself.  We do see in a mirror dimly. We must begin to face the future unflinchingly.  The United Methodist Church as currently constituted will not survive regardless of decisions at this General Conference over same gender issues.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 2

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part II: In a Mirror Dimly

I entitled this paper “In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church” for a reason.  A few years ago I decided to move out of the predictive business with regards to the United Methodist Church.  We see in a mirror dimly and must come to this whole subject of the future with vast humility and on bended knee.  The fact that I am (we are) so often wrong in our predictions about the future ought to humble us, shame us, and even leave us laughing.  I say this as an ardent Chicago Cubs fan earnestly believing in the memory of our patron saint (and my childhood hero) Ernie Banks that “this year will be the year the Cubs win it all.”  Nonetheless I have been asked to address the subject of the future of the United Methodist Church and so seeking an umbrella of mercy, I will go where angels fear to tread.

What will happen at General Conference just a few weeks away? Will the delegates vote to eliminate the “incompatibility” clause with regards to homosexuality and embrace marriage and ordination of those who self-identify as LGBTQ?  I don’t know.  Will current language about ordination and the prohibition of performing same gender marriages be retained as a chargeable offense?  I don’t know.

Conventional wisdom has it that while the Jurisdictional Methodism (i.e. the United States) has swung even more in favor of allowing same gender preferences for marriage and ordination, the Central Conferences (most notably in Africa) who remain steadfast in support of the current language on same gender marriage and ordination have gained votes. The prediction is that the two will cancel each other out leaving us a church with a narrow margin steadfastly defending current disciplinary standards.

What I think I do know is that the current deep United States divisions and growing refusal to abide by church law in any meaningful sense is inherently unstable. One of Lincoln’s quotes echoes in the recesses of my mind.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Secondly, should the Discipline significantly change on these presenting issues, those of us who live in the United States should expect some form of denomination- splintering rebellion in the worldwide (and in parts of the U.S. as well) church.  Just as the best predictor for how a high school student will do in college is how they did academically in high school, so the best predictors we have for the future of the United Methodist Church are to look at other denominations that have gone through such a change.  The chaos in the worldwide Anglican Communion continues.  Nationally, we have examples from the Lutherans and Presbyterians that are probably predictively accurate for United Methodism in America.

Consider the options should the General Conference vote in favor of a change through removing the “incompatibility” clause and allowing ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who do not concur face a limited series of choices:

  1. Embrace the change despite any misgivings and be hopeful that proponents are correct (despite all evidence to the contrary) that such actions garner an influx of new young disciples.
  2. Stay in the church as a loyal minority (especially in the United States).
  3. Leave the United Methodist Church to form a new branch of the Wesleyan movement as a part of the universal church. In doing so, make a corollary set of decisions around whether or not to pursue legal action over property, endowments and the like.
  4. Simply leave (presumably to take up membership in another Christian tribe).

It seems important to me to carefully consider these options (as well as other variations on them which I have not named) prior to the heat of General Conference. We all, both those in favor and those opposed to a change, have much to fear from hasty decisions made in the passions of the moment.  Discernment and prayer are first order activities here.  Furthermore, if such a change comes about, it will be important for those who are not sure they can remain in the United Methodist Church to create time and space for prayer, discernment, consultation, and consideration.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

“In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 1

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part I: “I am Doing a New Thing!”

It is indeed a high honor to stand before you this day and address some of the issues that confront us as a larger church. As I do so, I am reminded of a story that one of our truly outstanding preachers, Dr. Zan Holmes, shared on one occasion.

He told of a man who survived the Great Johnstown Flood. Historians in our group may recall well that this great flood took place on Friday, May 1, 1889, unleashing something like 20 million tons of water that devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is well documented that the flood killed 2,209 people. In the midst of the tragedy, not only our nation but the world was brought together to aid the “Johnstown sufferers.” The site is now actually a part of the National Park Service.

At any rate, a survivor of the Great Flood finally died of old age and went to heaven. There he was greeted by St. Peter and ushered through the Pearly Gates. As he looked around, he said, “You know I am one of the few survivors of the Great Johnstown Flood. People need to hear my story.” And Peter answered, “Well that’s very nice, thank you, but I don’t think so. Everyone has a story.”

However, the guy wouldn’t let it go. He bugged St. Peter. He talked to Jesus about it. He constantly shared his unshakable conviction that he had to tell people in heaven about his miraculous survival of the Great Johnstown Flood. Finally, with the Lord’s permission, Peter gathered together a huge crowd in heaven to hear the man address them on surviving the Johnstown flood. As the guy got ready to step on stage before the packed heavenly auditorium of millions, Peter turned to him and said, “By the way, remember that Noah is in the audience.”

“I am doing a new thing!”

 I feel somewhat like that man in addressing this distinguished gathering. Noah is in the audience. I’ve had the privilege of studying and being mentored by so many of you in your teachings and writings that it is difficult to adequately express my gratitude and debt. Even more, as we seek to address the topic of “The Future of The United Methodist Church,” I am made doubly mindful of the great cry that rose around Johnstown as the water went up behind the Southfork Dam – “The Dam is becoming dangerous and may possibly go!” We gather with that same cry ringing around us. So it is that “now we see in a mirror dimly” both the future of The United Methodist Church and the re-emergence of a vibrant orthodoxy in the North American mission field.

Counterintuitively, while the dam is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism simultaneously something remarkable, and remarkably good, is taking place.  God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 spring to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of orthodoxy budding around us, of which this gathering is evidence.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, causing heartache and much anxiety but this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy.

Consider some of the antidotal evidence:

  • Seminaries which focus on orthodoxy are showing growth, especially in young people.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes.
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the work of Dallas Willard among many others offers a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically-centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidenced by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and many of you is another sign of the reemergence of interest in theological orthodoxy. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity. It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • The search and experimentation for “something more” being conducted on the edge of Methodism offers a further hint both at the hunger for substance and the slowly awakening conviction that the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and an uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism (to use the term popularized by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary). We are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is inherently emaciated and entering a death spiral.
  • The growing sense among some bishops that we work side by side with two kinds of churches offers evidence of new day dawning. One kind of church is the fading, declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) and the other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. By very nature such a church, grounded in the gospel, instinctively understands that doctrine and practice cannot be separated. Furthermore the emerging church is passionately, outwardly focused in way that is evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.
  • The rise in a new generation of young scholars committed to an orthodox witness of the Christian faith speaks to the awakening orthodoxy which this group (United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy) represents. But then I am back where I started.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.

Rather than an excessive focus on gender preferences, I want to argue that we have been engaged as a denomination in extended affairs with various new versions of heresy. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Missional plagiarism, political infatuations of both the right and the left iced over with a prosperity gospel which surreptitiously tugs at the heart of the crumbling mainline edifice.  (With regard to the prosperity gospel, consider the casual embrace of financial resources and upper middle class status that accompany the hidden assumptions of virtually all United Methodists including myself.)

Alister McGrath rightly notes: “Heresy was a flawed, deficient, anemic, and inauthentic form of Christian faith that was inevitably doomed to extinction in the pluralist and intensely competitive world of late classical antiquity.” And we should carefully add, in the pluralistic and intensely competitive world of the early 21st century.  He continues, “Orthodoxy had greater survival potential, prompting a ‘search for authenticity’ as a means of safeguarding its future.”

The new or more accurately renewed Church which the Lord is calling into being out of the old “mainline” will be smaller, learner and more doctrinally coherent. We will recover, we are recovering, some sense of what it means to say Jesus is Lord and to assert core doctrines of incarnation, sin, justification and sanctification (to mention a few).  I have come slowly, painfully to believe that the Holy Spirit is moving us away from a “Big Tent” Methodism (and “big tent” Christianity) which enjoys periodic affairs with heretical suitors into a new movement of faithfulness and fruitfulness in the name of our Lord.  But then, I am ahead myself.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

A Significant Denominational Report on Congregational Vitality

The United Methodist Church has been engaged in a committed emphasis on building vital congregations who “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Bishop John Schol from the Greater New Jersey Conference has been the lead bishop in this crucial venture along with the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church and the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team.  With Bishop Schol’s permission, I am sharing his 2014 Vitality Report as a “guest blog.”  In the next blog, I will write more specifically about the Central Texas Conference vitality measures and how they help us shape the narrative of ministry and mission in the name of the risen Christ.   Bishop Mike Lowry

[Note: Due to reporting procedures by various congregations and Annual Conferences, the statistical data for 2015 is not yet available.  As always, it is important to understand that “metrics” only tell half the story.  The crucial addition piece of information consists of the narrative of contextual ministry taking place in the name of Jesus Christ.]

 2014 Vitality Report

Highly vital congregations are focused on growing their vitality by making and maturing disciples, not achieving numbers. Highly vital congregations grow and support disciples and leaders through worship, small groups, lay and clergy leadership development and ministry and mission engagement. Highly vital congregations are in every geographic region of the U.S. and are of all sizes and ethnicity. Vital Congregations is a broad based movement within the church that is making disciples and transforming the world.

The UMC began to measure vitality in the U.S. in 2010 and the latest 2014 vitality indicators show we are ahead of 2010 by 8 percentage points. We have made important progress in growing congregational vitality. Ultimately Vital Congregations is about changed lives and transformed communities.

There are hopeful signs and we still have challenges maintaining congregational vitality. Between 2013 and 2014, the latest vitality indicators show a 5 percentage point decrease in the percentage of highly Vital Congregations. But in 2014, three of the five markers of vitality increased.

Increased the percentage of worshipers in small groups from 59% to 61%

  1. Increased the percentage of worshipers engaged in hands on mission from 38% to 48%
  2. Increased the average percentage of a congregation’s giving to mission from 15% to 18%
  3. Number of worshipers to make one profession of faith went from 22 to 23 (this is actually a decline because a lower number is preferable in this measure)
  4. Percentage of congregations growing in worship attendance decreased from 31% to 30%

While we can celebrate that we have made important progress between 2010 and 2014 in the percentage of Highly Vital Congregations and that three of the five markers of vitality increased during 2014, we also need to face into the challenge of the decrease in vitality between 2013 and 2014 largely driven by decreases in professions of faith and worship attendance.

Our largest gain in U.S. vitality was in 2012, the year every conference and most congregations set goals for the five markers of vitality – new disciples, worship attendance, mission giving, mission engagement and small groups.

We can also celebrate the progress we made in 2014 in three of the markers of vitality – small groups, mission engagement and mission giving. I believe that as we continue to grow in these areas, we will begin to experience healthier increases by more congregations in worship attendance and professions of faith.

Below is a conference by conference look at vitality and also how vitality is measured.

Thank you for all you are doing to lead congregations toward health and vitality. God is doing life changing ministry through The United Methodist Church and your leadership is making a difference.

Keep the faith!

John Schol, Bishop
The United Methodist Church
Greater New Jersey

 

US Conference Vital Signs 2010 Highly Vital Congregations 2014 Highly Vital Congregations Vitality increase/ decrease between 2010 and 2014 Vitality increase/decrease between 2013 and 2014 Number of worshipers to make 1 profession of faith or restored % of  worshippers who are in adult Christian formation groups % of worshipers involved in a mission experience % of local church spending going to mission % of congregations growing
US TOTAL 15% 23% 8 -5 23 61% 48% 18% 30%
                   
NORTH CENTRAL TOTAL 12% 20% 8 -5 26 54% 44% 18% 27%
DAKOTAS 9% 15% 6 -4 27 37% 20% 19% 42%
DETROIT 9% 22% 13 -9 21 48% 43% 16% 25%
EAST OHIO 10% 21% 11 -1 26 55% 32% 18% 25%
ILLINOIS GRT RIVERS 11% 17% 6 -5 29 46% 27% 19% 25%
INDIANA 15% 21% 6 -13 30 60% 37% 16% 23%
IOWA 13% 15% 2 -4 23 46% 42% 19% 30%
MINNESOTA 12% 15% 3 -7 22 48% 40% 18% 25%
NORTHERN ILLINOIS 15% 21% 6 -9 20 49% 50% 16% 25%
WEST MICHIGAN 12% 21% 9 -6 30 55% 33% 18% 25%
WEST OHIO 14% 28% 14 -2 26 57% 67% 20% 32%
WISCONSIN 8% 21% 13 -3 18 49% 33% 16% 23%
                 
NORTHEASTERN TOTAL 11% 21% 10 -5 23 49% 37% 17% 31%
BALTIMORE-WASH 22% 35% 13 -4 17 56% 96% 19% 33%
EASTERN PENN 7% 17% 10 -9 21 56% 34% 12% 30%
GREATER NEW JERSY 16% 32% 16 -3 18 61% 42% 18% 33%
NEW ENGLAND 9% 19% 10 -6 21 46% 32% 14% 26%
NEW YORK 7% 20% 13 -5 13 48% 24% 15% 27%
PENINSULA-DELAWARE 16% 23% 7 -3 23 46% 32% 17% 33%
SUSQUEHANNA 8% 21% 13 -7 27 49% 32% 17% 30%
UPPER NEW YORK 7% 17% 10 -3 24 40% 28% 14% 32%
WEST VIRGINIA 10% 16% 6 -6 37 48% 24% 26% 33%
WESTERN PENN 8% 16% 8 -8 26 47% 21% 16% 29%
                   
SOUTH CENTRAL TOTAL 17% 26% 9 -6 21 69% 60% 19% 32%
ARKANSAS 12% 24% 12 -4 24 61% 56% 19% 29%
CENTRAL TEXAS 22% 29% 7 -2 21 91% 63% 18% 34%
GREAT PLAINS 15% 21% 7 -7 20 59% 64% 14% 31%
LOUISIANA 24% 24% 10 -7 24 64% 67% 30% 37%
MISSOURI 16% 28% 12 -5 23 58% 68% 18% 33%
NEW MEXICO 15% 26% 11 -6 28 58% 45% 14% 24%
NORTH TEXAS 32% 35% 3 1 16 83% 88% 21% 30%
NORTHWEST TEXAS 10% 27% 17 -6 19 90% 55% 16% 30%
OKLAHOMA 24% 26% 2 -1 23 75% 50% 23% 28%
OKLAHOMA INDIAN MIS 27% 37% 10 -4 12 46% 12% 18% 45%
RIO GRANDE 10% 13% 3 -12 25 36% 4% 16% 32%
SOUTHWEST TEXAS 33% 26% -7 -14 19 71% 51% 20% 34%
TEXAS 27% 25% -2 -10 20 89% 49% 20% 34%
                   
SOUTHEASTERN TOTAL 15% 23% 8 -4 25 64% 50% 19% 31%
ALABAMA-W. FLORIDA 15% 19% 4 -1 24 73% 41% 17% 36%
FLORIDA 13% 27% 14 -5 20 56% 36% 17% 30%
HOLSTON 22% 23% 1 -2 32 64% 59% 19% 31%
KENTUCKY 16% 18% 2 -10 28 57% 26% 18% 32%
MEMPHIS 9% 25% 16 -5 29 64% 54% 19% 34%
MISSISSIPPI 9% 22% 13 -5 34 62% 24% 20% 32%
NORTH ALABAMA 22% 17% -5 -7 25 68% 48% 17% 30%
NORTH CAROLINA 16% 26% 10 7 25 63% 50% 24% 33%
NORTH GEORGIA 14% 29% 15 -4 20 69% 76% 18% 32%
RED BIRD MISSIONARY 19% 27% 8 -10 23 51% 37% 11% 27%
SOUTH CAROLINA 15% 23% 8 -8 29 67% 36% 18% 30%
SOUTH GEORGIA 14% 18% 4 -7 28 69% 22% 18% 32%
TENNESSEE 16% 24% 8 -5 25 67% 41% 22% 38%
VIRGINIA 16% 25% 9 1 24 58% 66% 25% 29%
WESTERN N CAROLINA 22% 24% 2 -1 26 67% 63% 14% 28%
                   
WESTERN TOTAL 20% 26% 6 -5 22 61% 45% 15% 30%
ALASKA 18% 30% 12 -3 20 48% 65% 19% 43%
CALIFORNIA-NEVADA 21% 25% 4 3 22 62% 51% 12% 24%
CALIFORNIA-PACIF 24% 28% 4 -9 21 55% 30% 15% 37%
DESERT SOUTHWEST 23% 36% 13 -1 19 52% 48% 20% 33%
OREGON-IDAHO 11% 18% 7 -4 31 57% 41% 17% 26%
PACIFIC NORTHWEST 20% 26% 6 -10 25 56% 41% 20% 27%
ROCKY MOUNTAIN 23% 32% 9 -7 19 84% 71% 14% 37%
YELLOWSTONE 21% 14% -7 -7 26 59% 47% 15% 26%

Highly Vital Congregation Measures

Below are the specific measures used to identify highly vital congregations. To be considered as a highly vital congregation, a church must be in the top 25% of all congregations in two of the four major areas and cannot be in the bottom 25% in any one of the areas. Each specific measure is important as a highly vital congregation may not be as fruitful in every area but is fruitful in most of the areas.

Growth

  • On average, US highly vital congregations increase worship attendance by 4% over five years. The average worship attendance change for all US churches is -7%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations increase the number of professions of faith by 82% over five years. The average change in the number of professions of faith for all US churches is    -11%.

Involvement

  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 106% of their worship attendance involved in a small group or some ongoing study opportunity. This number may seem inaccurate but it is this high because the average worship attendance does not include some people who go to small groups like children in Sunday school or youth in youth group.  The average for all US churches in 71% of the worship attendance in small groups.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 9% of their worship attendance who are young adults involved in study groups that include Bible study, Sunday school and other groups for learning. The average for all US churches is 5%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 56% of their total professing members in average worship attendance. The average for all US churches is 51%.

Engaged

  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 20% of their worship attendance engaged in a volunteer in mission ministry. The average for the US is 8%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 6% of their worship attendance that join by profession of faith or are restored in a given year. This does not include confirmands. The average for US churches is 2%.

Giving

  • US highly vital congregations give 100% of their apportionments for the most current year.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations grow mission giving by 12% over five years. The average for all US churches is -15%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations grow non capital spending by 22% over five years. The average for all US churches is 2% over five years.

 Growing Vitality

Congregations fruitful in these areas have transformational stories and are engaging in four key areas of ministry.

  1. Ministry – vital congregations offer effective and abundant opportunities for children and youth ministry, small groups, and missional outreach in the community and the world.
  2. Pastoral Leadership – Pastors who use their influence to help congregations set and achieve significant goals, inspire the congregation through preaching, serve in an appointment effectively and for a longer period of time, and coach and mentor laity to lead effectively.
  3. Lay Leadership – Laity who demonstrate a vital and active personal faith, develop and grow in their leadership effectiveness, and rotate out of leadership positions so that more people have the opportunity to serve.
  4. Worship – Vital churches offer a mix of worship services appropriate to their context, tend to use topical sermon series, for mid-large size congregations they use contemporary music in contemporary worship and use multimedia in contemporary worship.

Highly vital congregations are focused on growing their vitality by making and maturing disciples, not achieving numbers. Highly vital congregations grow and support disciples and leaders through worship, small groups, lay and clergy leadership development and ministry and mission engagement.

 

A WITNESS IN HONOR OF ST. PATRICK ©

“I rise today in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.”

Thus opens the full text of the famous Celtic prayer St. Patrick’s Breastplate. There is more, much more, to the prayer but the opening lines anchor Patrick not in mythology but far more importantly in Christian theology.  St. Patrick’s Day is more than a day to celebrate all things green.  We do well to honor St. Patrick as a giant of a Christian leader, missionary, evangelist and bishop.  Even more, in celebration of the life and ministry of St. Patrick, we remember in order that we might learn and recommit ourselves to this same great mission in the name of Christ.

His story is a compelling witness to the Christ as Lord of his life and to his love in Christ through the Holy Spirit even for those who mistreated and harmed him.

Captured as a young boy and taken to Ireland as a slave, Patrick lived there for 6 years before miraculously escaping and returning to his native Briton. At age 48 – well past life expectancy in the 5th century – Patrick received a vision from God to return to the land of his imprisonment to share the gospel.  Ordained as a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history’s first missionary bishop, he arrived back in this wild and barbaric land with his assistants in 432 A. D.

For 28 years until his death in 460 A. D. he poured his life out leading others to Christ. He and his company baptized thousands, planted about 700 churches, and he ordained perhaps 1,000 priests.  “Within his lifetime, 30 to 40 (or more) of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. …Patrick’s achievements included social dimensions.  He was the first public man to speak and crusade against slavery.  Within his lifetime, or soon after, ‘the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare decreased,’ and his communities modeled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity, and peace to all the Irish” (George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 23).

I invite the reader to pause with me and deeply consider Patrick’s witness. In doing so I am reminded that he sought to honor and serve Christ in all he did, with the fullness of his very life!  Patrick’s return to Ireland was courageous.  His witness to Christ was electric.  His sharing of the Christ’s saving grace was bracing.  He offered a new possibility, a new way of living in and through Christ that converted a land.

George Hunter’s brilliant book The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again closes with the profound insight learned from St. Patrick.  “The supreme key to reach the West again is the key that Patrick discovered – involuntarily but providentially.  The gulf between church people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand them, we will usually know what to say and what to do; if they know and feel we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their heat to the God who understands them”  (George Hunter, The Cesaint_patrickltic Way of Evangelism, p. 121).

We who live in a land more pagan than Christian need to learn again from this great man. We are called like he was to share a witness of Christ for a people spiritually starving, living in a druidic darkness of fear, bombarded by religious quackery, and overdosing on confectionary falsehood.  We need to offer God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  The claim laid upon Patrick is laid upon us by the Lord.

A brilliant teacher and communicator of the gospel, Patrick used the ever-present native plant, the shamrock, as a symbol of the holy Trinity. Each leaf witnessed to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a prayer which comes, legend has it, from the breastplate of St. Patrick.  I read it first in the old Book of Worship for the United Methodist Church.  I use prayer regularly, and I invite the reader to pray the prayer as well:

“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me.
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger” (Taken from The Book of Worship of the United Methodist Church, 1964 edition, p. 244).

Appointment Making ©

This week we concluded Inventory in the Central Texas Conference. This is a yearly exercise which Bishops and their Cabinets go through.  The Cabinet Inventory Retreat is a time of assessing where the Conference stands on retirements, new people needing an appointment (especially new seminary graduates), and requests from pastor Parish Relations Committees and from pastors.  It is a time of looking at the whole in terms of Conference and church pastoral needs and then beginning to make appointments for the new Conference year.

Looking at requests from Pastor-Parish Relations Committees who are expecting a change in pastors – when they are asked what is most important in terms of ability in a new pastor preaching is listed in first place virtually every time. (In 7/1/2 years as a bishop I can only remember two occasions when preaching was not listed first!  On those occasions it was listed second.)

When I first entered ministry in The United Methodist Church, the conventional wisdom shared with young pastors was: stay close to God and close to your congregation and you will do well.  A high premium (very high!) was paid to happiness, quiet and conflict avoidance.

In truth, staying close to God and each other are very, very good things! We need, all of us, lay and clergy alike!, to stay close to God.  We should stay close in love and care to each other in our congregations.  After all, the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, a very colony of heaven here on earth.  Biblical admonitions abound.  Just reflect for a moment on passages like Philippians 2:1-5 or I Corinthians 12.

But wait! Hit the pause button and ask what is wrong with this picture?  If we stay close to God (a very, very good thing!) and stay close to each other in the congregation (again a very, very good thing!), who is left out?  The hungry, hurting and homeless, whether spiritually or physically or both, are left out.  Those far from God (and from the body of Christ, the church) are left out.  The great spiritual and social issues contained in the Lord’s Prayer – “on earth as it is in heaven” – are left out.  With the best of intentions the gospel and the church were focused inward on the already churched.  An emphasis on the Great Commandment to love God and love the neighbor (every accessible human being we may reach, Luke 10) was unconsciously a lower priority.  And emphasis on the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all peoples” baptizing and teaching obedience to the way of Christ (Matthew 28) was unconsciously given a low priority.  Risk-taking mission and transformation-focused evangelism were often (not always!) neglected.

Unfortunately in the church we tend to binary thinking. We tend to advocate an inward focus or an outward focus.  We tend to be consumed with taking care of each other or with an outward passion for justice and mercy.  With our Lord it is not an either/or.  Jesus consistently rejected simple binary thinking.  He nurtured love and taught the earliest followers at the very same time he commanded them to reach out.  Put John 21:15-19 together with Matthew 28:16-20 and the fullness of the gospel emerges.

By the grace of God and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the last few decades have led to a refocusing on the inclusion of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission in ministry and life of congregations. The rejection of binary thinking and the inclusion of a greater gospel vision has led to increased need (demand?) for pastors who can lead and for lay leaders who will join with them in offering leadership.  This truth shone clear as the Cabinet engaged in our yearly Inventory Retreat and began appointment making.

As I reflected on the conversations and feedback from local churches, pastors and the Cabinet, it occurred to me that the list of qualities we (the Central Texas Cabinet) lifted up in consideration for District Superintendents applied to congregational appointments, which means both (!!!) congregations and clergy as well.

In my blog of November 5, 2015 “Changing Central Texas Conference Leadership” I shared as list of non-negotiables that the Cabinet came up with for consideration. It began with the rhetorical question:  What are the qualities that should be met even to be considered for such a key leadership role?

  1. Deep Spirituality/Walk with Christ
    1. Tell me about your daily devotions/spiritual disciplines
    2. What differences has it made in your relationships?
    3. How do you experience God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in community?
  2. Open to Learning
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Team Player
  5. Integrity
  6. Passion for Disciple making/ministry (Is there evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness?)

These are central core characteristics which provide a foundation for appointment making. I emphasize again – they apply to both congregations and clergy. This core characteristics “fit” with what I like to call the “big 3” which will continue to drive our ministry together as a conference.

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focus on energizing and equipping local churches to be vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ
  3. Developing Lay and Clergy Leadership

Each church, each pastor is unique; a gift from God in and of themselves. Narrative and context differ widely.  One size doesn’t fit all.  The importance of long tenure and a fruit-bearing match of congregation and clergy continues.  Deep prayer and careful discernment ultimately drive appointment making.  God is with us in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Class Meetings and Making Disciples ©

In November of 2014 while meeting in Oklahoma City, the Council of Bishops heard an outstanding address from a class meetingyoung Methodist scholar named Kevin Watson. Dr. Watson (who is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology) shared a deep teaching based on his newly published book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.  I’ve had his book on my shelf intending to read it since hearing him in Oklahoma City.

On becoming one of the four supervising bishops for Rio Texas, his book leaped to the top of my long list of books to read. Along with Bishop Joel Martinez, I have picked up the task of representing the bishops at the upcoming Clergy Convocation of the Rio Texas Conference (an event similar to the “Clergy Day Apart” in the Central Texas Conference).  To my delight, I learned that Dr. Watson is one of the featured presenters for the event (along with Dr. Albert Mosley, President at Gammon School of Theology).

It is Dr. Watson’s connection, or more accurately reconnection, of the class meeting with the mission of the church which excites me. We know full well the stated mission of the United Methodist Church – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Clergy tend to get stuck in fruitless debate over precisely what or who a “disciple” is.  The technical navel gazing debate is more often than not a form of work avoidance.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “it may be complex but it is not complicated.”  I’ll stake my own flag in a fairly straightforward shot-hand definition.  A disciple of Christ is a committed disciplined follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If the reader wishes a bit more, I’ll add “who continues in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread while reaching out to share Christ with all others and helping those in need through the deeds of love, justice and mercy”  (See Acts 2:42-47).  Disciples are fully devoted followers of the Lord Jesus Christ living the great commandment (Luke 10:27) and the great commission (Matthew 28:29-20).  As already stated, it is not complicated, but it is complex.

Disciples are made not born.  Wesleyan’s have always understood that people are transformed into disciples primarily through small groups committed to the shaping of the heart.  Indeed, Professor Watson quotes at the opening of the first chapter Methodism’s first two bishops in America, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke:  “We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages.  But the most profitable exercise is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.” (John Ortberg has written an outstanding book, Soul Keeping, which focuses on the “state of the heart.”)

It is the reconnection of the historic class meeting with the primary mission of making disciples that is so exciting in Professor Watson’s work. He notes that we have three primary types of groups. Affinity groups are gathered around common interest.  My wife is in a group that knits stocking hats for infants, especially in situations of poverty, to help protect that most vulnerable among us.  Back in Corpus Christi I was in a small group that cheered on the Chicago Cubs. (It was a religious experience for us but nobody else!)  Affinity groups mostly function around fun and fellowship not making disciples (there are exceptions but as such the spiritual formation engaged in making disciples – attending to the state of one’s soul – is rarely the focal point of an affinity group.

The second major type of groups found in churches are information-driven groups.  Most bible studies fall into this category.  While there is some sharing, the primary purpose is knowledge/curriculum driven.  Such groups are needed and important but rarely reach the level of depth needed for spiritual transformation that leads directly to more mature Christians (i.e. disciples, committed disciplined follows of Jesus Christ as Lord whose live have been transformed by Christ).  Pungently Dr. Watson adds “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven groups and away from the class meeting” (p. 7).

The third and most transformative type of group is the class meeting.  Watson’s basic description is instructive.  “A class meeting is a small group that is primarily focused on transformation and not information, where people learn how to interpret their entire lives through the lens of the gospel, build a vocabulary for giving voice to their experience of God, and grow in faith in Christ”  (p. 6). This is where disciples are formed.  In all our fussing and fighting, a recovery of the class meeting or something closely equivalent is necessary to turn from an institutional church back into a movement for Christ.

True transformational spiritual formation groups create disciples of Christ. Therein lies our best hope for a future that captures the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life, justification and sanctification for a and to a hurting and hungry world.  I pray for such a movement for Christ!

The Force at Skellig Michael ©

I first caught sight of Skellig Michael while on vacation in Ireland last summer. On a long dream of trip (over 10 years in gestation) with dear friends, we were driving the beautiful Ring of Kerry in Southwestern Ireland.  The costal scenery 04island wholewas rugged, evoking fantasies of wild Ireland.

When I last saw Skellig Michael (a couple of weeks ago), I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, the movie closes with a dramatic confrontation with Luke Skywalker on the austere crags of Skellig Michael.  The Jedi “Force” struggles towards an awakening to combat the forces of evil.

Something similar took place for real on Skellig Michael. Saint Patrick began his epic missionary evangelism in the second half of the 5th century. As the country wrestled with the truth of the Christian faith, other Christ followers stepped forward.  One of those was the famous teach named Finnian.  “At Clonard Finnian built a little cell and a church of clay and wattle, and entered on a life of study, mortification, and prayer. The fame of his learning and sanctity soon spread, and scholars of all ages flocked from every side to his monastic retreat. Finnian established a monastery modeled on the practices of Welsh monasteries, and based on the traditions of the Desert Fathers and the study of Scripture. The rule of Clonard was known for its strictness and asceticism”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnian_of_Clonard). He was a great teacher of the Christian Faith who educated people such as Saint Columba of Iona fame.  Later Finnian moved to found the monastery at Skellig Michael as a place of retreat and learning, believed to be in the 6th century. There remained a functioning monastery on Skellig Michael until the 12th or 13th century, a period of roughly 600+ years.

So why does all this ancient history matter? It matters because there is a witness offered by the courageous monks of Skellig Michael that would inform and guide us in our day. The real force was awakened on Skellig Michael and didn’t involve Jedi Knights.  It involved people who stood up and stood out for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  They did so in an environment where faith and values were contested between pagan Druidic Ireland (with all its well documented cruelty) and the emerging Christian Faith.  We need to do the same today.09crosses

Secondly, the true force of Skellig Michael — Jesus Christ — led to a great awakening in Ireland. Even with all its flaws, Christian Ireland has been a beacon of hope and learning in our darkened world.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read Thomas Cahill’s marvelous little book How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Third, the hardship and the sacrifice of the monks call us to stand up for Christ in our world today. The days of nominal Christianity are a waning force.  This is actually a good thing.  The monks point us to a hopeful inspired future because the force, the real force is with us!

Training for a Job that No Longer Exists ©

I was ordained Deacon in 1974, graduated from seminary in 1976, and ordained elder in 1977. The church I entered was basking in the setting sun of cultural Christendom. As a newly minted pastor one of the primary points of my reference was my District Superintendent (DS). In ecclesiological terms a pastor under appointment to a local church reports to the congregation’s Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and to the District Superintendent. DSes were to serve as the pastor’s guide and mentor, supervisor and evaluator. The DS represented the Pastor in Cabinet meetings where appointments were made under the authority of the bishop. In short, the position of DS was designed to carry both pastoral and managerial functions. Evolving from the frontier days of missional outreach and connection, it was the natural outgrowth of a management culture. That job no longer exists. A DS who operates out of the 1960s management culture is a failure- and even worse a problem for both churches and clergy.

Unfortunately this job, which no longer exists, is one which I was mentored to do. For many the height of their ministry was not pastoring a local church but serving on Bishop’s Cabinet as a DS with supervisory responsibility for somewhere between 30 and 45 churches. Good DSes kept the system running. They settled conflict. They negotiated dilemmas. They coached younger clergy helping them to assimilate into a bureaucratic church culture. One of my mentors, Rev. Bob Grimes, who was himself both a very effective pastor of large regional churches worshipping over 1,000 in average attendance and a District Superintendent, used to comment: “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].”

Yet today the job of DS is so different that it effectively no longer exists as originally designed in a pastoral/bureaucratic structure. Our culture has changed dramatically. Typically pastors do not move as often. The tenure of a pastor changes the relationship with both the church and the denomination. Furthermore, we have slowly and painfully learned that someone can be either a pastor or supervisor but not effectively serve as both. Additionally, there is a skill set need for a DS that relates to church transformation/renewal/revival which involves a highly flexible collaborative and adaptive learning. It used to be that a DS ran her or his own district and conference staff did not interfere with his/her area of supervision. Now a DS that cannot work effectively with conference staff (and vice versa) needs to be replaced. The day of territorialism is dead and gone.

My list could go on but the reader gets the drift. I learned how to parent from watching my parents. Those who have served as DSes have learned to be a DS by watching those who went before. Today, however, the job is so in flux and change; the needs are so different and compel collaboration, adaptively and experimentation that length of tenure is no longer a critical criteria.

Over the years, various General Conferences have added responsibilities to the position of DS. They have done so with the best of intentions. Unfortunately now there are so many different disciplinary requirements for the job that no one can effectively meet all the requirements. As it is written in The Book of Discipline, the job is designed for failure. Which brings me to today.

Over the last 3 quadrennium (12 years), all across the United Methodist Church in America, experiments have been going on over the deployment of DSes for the stated mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There is widespread agreement that a District Superintendent is to be the “chief mission strategist” for their district. What is far from clear however is just what is meant by the phrase “chief mission strategist.”

Those who carefully understand the full implication of the Exodus Project for the Central Texas Conference will realize that over the past 6 or 7 years there have been a great deal of changes in how our Cabinet operates. Appointments are made based on mission-field effectiveness and not tenure. There is a high level of collaborative interaction between the conference staff and the districts (both HCI and our various Mission initiatives are examples of this morphing change). The role of the DS is far closer to that of a teacher and coach than as a pastor/supervisor.

In truth we don’t yet fully understand the role of the District Superintendent in this new post-Christendom world we seek to minister to. We are learning and experimenting. This is a good, godly thing. The Holy Spirit is leading us. My old friend and mentor Bob Grimes, gone now over 10 years, was and is right. “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].”

In a period of great adaptive change, we need good effective courageous DSes who “get it” now more than ever. We need the kind of people leading Districts who have themselves been faithful and fruitful building vital congregations. We need leaders who love the local church and are willing to go the extra mile to help in the development of a new generation of clergy and lay leaders. We need people who can put aside ego and territoriality to work joyfully with others. And most of all, we need people who are sold out on Christ – his ministry, mission and salvation.

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