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Is It Only About the Number?

Recently Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth wrote a concise article which was printed in the Smith Center online newsletter. It is an outstanding summary about why numbers matter (each number represents a person Christ died for!) and how each number has a narrative behind it. Rev. Ramsdell takes the significant next step to show how numerical growth enriches church vitality in faithfulness and fruitfulness. With his permission, I am offering this excellent article as a guest post.

A small church that I served back in the 80’s had become stagnate and unhealthy, and God blessed us with new members right away. One member volunteered as our Choir Director, another volunteered as our Education Director, and another led the Finance Committee. They and their families changed the culture of the church far more than anything I could have made happen. Growth changed the church and helped create a growth culture that I enjoyed for nine years. Our first Sunday, four kids came for the children’s sermon and two were ours. The last year we were there almost 100 children came for the Easter children’s message where I gave them ARISE balloons as a celebration of the resurrection.

The question is sometimes asked in church circles, “Is it only about the numbers? I think almost all of us automatically say no, like numbers are somehow bad. Yet numbers are basically neutral, unless they represent a value; as in a child being baptized, someone connecting with a hope giving, life enriching, soul saving church family, or even those three members back in the 80’s who partnered with me for years in ministry. In a church each number represents someone in worship, someone professing their faith, or someone uniting officially with the church family which represents the highest of value, someone that God loves and Jesus gave His life for. It’s why the church exists. Every number represents someone. Each number has a narrative behind it that God, church pastors and leaders should highly value. I value numbers because they reflect people, and everyone matters to God.

  • Healthy churches grow
  • Growth creates positive culture change for churches
  • Declining churches eventually become unhealthy

In my experience, new people in a church constantly changed the conversation from inward to outward. The people created positive momentum, added energy, brought excitement and motivated myself and all our pastors. New people need to be discipled so discipleship becomes central. New people come because they have expectations, needs, hopes and dreams that might be different than the existing congregation’s and this requires change for the church. New people bring fresh gifts and ideas into the church. New people change the dynamic of stagnated classes, static worship services, dried up missions and ministries, and the traditions that long term members often get comfortable with. New people want to be involved, do ministry, connect with missions so their presence causes all of this to become more vital with a greater impact. New people connect with parts of the community where existing members did not, and this increased the reach of Christ into places we had not yet reached. New people are the life blood of a healthy church.

It’s not just that we must change the culture to create growth, but that growth changes the culture. When growth stops long term, stable decline will ensue and all that goes with it. Churches that decline in attendance for too long will eventually become unhealthy. They will focus on money, the building, the traditions that they love, each other, resist change, and blame the pastor.

Tweaking things very seldom grows a church; it’s the new that does.

If you have not yet registered for the Creating New Faith Communities Workshop this Saturday, Oct. 28th, from 9:00 – 4:00, please know that you are still welcome. This event is for our 100 New Faith Communities Initiative that kicks off January 1st.

Rev. Mike Ramsdell
Executive Director, Smith Center for Evangelism & Church Growth
God give us success!  Psalm 118:25

 

Guest Post from Rev. Frank Briggs

Below is Rev. Frank Briggs’, Lead Pastor at Lighthouse Fellowship, Day 6 of Lent, which he posted March 6th. He is posting on Facebook a Lenten devotional to help and guide us through this season of remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus for all.

Lent- Day 6   Three Little Words

Krissie [Briggs] says that though this is longer than most, it’s worth the read, I pray you agree.

“We are lost.”  I’m not sure that those three little words are welcome at any time, but in my lifetime, this time, they caused me concern like I’ve not experienced it before.

On my recent trip to Kenya, two of us on the mission team were privileged to accompany our Bishop, Mike Lowry, to a very important installation service for a District Superintendent of the Methodist church in Kenya.  With our Bishop from America expected at the event, it was a big deal.  In fact, there were probably between 1000 and 1500 in attendance at the service, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Justice was the name of our van driver; love the name, don’t you?  He was the one who, without fanfare, calmly stated the fact, “we are lost”.  I had ridden many hundreds of miles with Justice by the time this trip took place, and found him to be a strong Christian, a loving husband and father, who was very wise.  He was also a terrific driver who navigated through the absolute chaos of Nairobi traffic, to the miles and miles of dirt roads in and around Maua, where we spent our first week.

To appreciate the magnitude of Justice’s three little words, you need to know that the vast majority of Kenya has few paved roads.  Nairobi, yes, good roads there, but you get away from Nairobi, and it becomes difficult to find pavement.  Consider this, in the larger Maua area, there are at least 100,000 people living, and there is one paved road, the two-lane highway that runs through town.  So, 99% of our driving was down silty roads that hadn’t seen a road grader in what I would guess would have been at least 100 years (but perhaps I exaggerate).  Anyway, these dusty roads twist and turn and there are no road signs, so navigation along them comes by way of experience, and Justice had a full measure of it.

Unbeknown to his three passengers, Justice had never been to Tharaka, where the installation service was to be held.  And though we all knew that the route to Tharaka would take us off the main highway (the one previously mentioned), what none of us knew was that this journey would require us travelling down 60 miles of some of the dustiest, siltiest roads you’ve ever seen (think of the famous Baja 1000 off-road race).

The folks who “knew” had told Justice it would take us about 2 hours maximum, to get to the church, but in reality it was a three hour journey, one-way.  It was about an hour and a half into the dusty roads, that Justice pulled over where two roads intersected and stopped, to utter those three little words.

I have to admit that when Justice said, “we are lost”, my first reaction was to think to myself, ‘hey, wait a minute, I’m not lost, because I’m with you, I put my trust in you…you may be lost, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be, so there’s no we in this lost business, it is you who are lost’.  But alas, my rebellion was short-lived as I realized that, at the moment, if Justice was lost, so was I.

Justice chose the turn he thought would get us in the right direction and when we came upon the next little village, he conversed with a few of the men, who confirmed that he was going the right direction, and they coached him on which turns he needed to make ahead.  And when we chanced upon another village, Justice asked again, and then again, at subsequent villages, until we finally arrived at our destination, to the cheers and applause of his three passengers.

Though we were under the impression that the service would start at 10, it wasn’t’ actually to start until 11, so our arrival at 10:15 was no problem as they had not served “breakfast” yet.  Being honored guests, we were some of the first in line to get our food.  None of us knew exactly what we were eating, other than the boiled eggs, and I had the privilege of sitting next to the wife (Pauline) of the Bishop of Kenya.  I must admit that I had to regroup a bit after Pauline asked me how I liked the ______ (a word I cannot remember), but when I looked puzzled at her word, she clarified when she said they were “entrails” a ”delicacy”,  which she was enjoying, like I do Oreos.  But I digress.

The service went swimmingly, as much as a six hour service can go swimmingly, in probably 92 degree heat, all of us outside and under tents (praise the Lord).  And oh, did I mention that I was in a tie with a jacket, and the Bishop, along with the probably 200 clergy who attended, were all in robes.  Yes, picture that would you; but I digress again.

Well, Bishop Lowry did a terrific job bringing the message to the crowd and shortly before the service actually ended, Justice came and let us know that we needed to go, as he didn’t want to go the distance that was required of us to get off the dirt roads, before dark.

We of course did arrive safely back in Maua at about 9:30 that night.  It was a day unlike any other in my life…and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lent is about our willingness to admit that we have strayed from the highway that we know we should be on, and for some of us, it’s about recognizing, “we are lost.”  It is about taking responsibility for our relationship with Jesus and not finding the nearest scapegoat on which to pin blame for our lack of direction.  Do you know where you are? 

Justice did what we all need to do:  own the reality of our position, head the direction that we think we need to go, and find people we can trust to coach us as we find our way.  Have you?

So the next time you find yourself lost, if Justice isn’t around, you can find your own justice, when you seek Jesus.  He will help you utter three other little words, “I am found.”  After all, in this life, there is nothing greater, than being found.  Are you?

Your servant in Christ,

Frank W. Briggs
Lead Pastor
Lighthouse Fellowship
A United Methodist Community of Faith

Pride and Integrity

by Rev. Mike Ramsdell

 Rev. Mike Ramsdell served for 21 years as Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Mansfield, Texas in the Central Texas Conference.  He is currently the North District Superintendent. Mike has a clear grasp on the many appointments which flounder because of relationship confusion.  Increasingly, especially around “hot” political and moral issues, clergy and lay leaders run into conflict.  Listening to Mike argue that clergy are often confused and fail to make a distinction between pride and integrity, I asked him to write a guest blog on the subject.  While I am away on a mission trip in Kenya, I commend his blog to you for its important insights.

I remember some years ago having a conversation over lunch with a pastor who was in trouble.  His church was in conflict and a ministry that had begun well was about to end badly. It did not have to happen.  He was talented, likable, and called.  But he had yet to learn the difference between pride and integrity, and thinking he was about integrity, he had created and exacerbated personal conflict with church members over issues that weren’t really that big of a deal.   Everyone paid the price; he the most.  He was left in a position where he could no longer lead his church.

Integrity is on pretty much every list of characteristics of effective leaders, and it should be.  Integrity is about faith, about the cause, about holiness, humility, right, the truth.  It is one of the cores of following Jesus Christ, an unwillingness to compromise our faith and what is good and right. It’s where we find the rules we will not break, the lines we will not cross, and the life in Christ we choose to live. It is the foundation of long term success in ministry and leadership. Humility is the foundation of integrity – being willing to put the cause of Christ, what is right and good – ahead of ourselves.

  • Integrity: a moral compass that doesn’t waver, a wholeness of character (dictionary definition)
  • The integrity of the upright guides them (Proverbs 11:3)

My guess is that conversations about integrity are not new to Church leaders.  The problem is that often people get integrity and pride mixed up, and thinking they are making decisions and dealing with relationships from a foundation of integrity they sometimes damage themselves, others, and the cause of Christ.  Yet pride just might be the real motivation.  There is a difference!

  • Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)

Integrity is about Christ, about faith, about the truth, about selflessness.
Pride is about us, about me, about my feelings about self-centeredness.

Integrity in a leader will build the Church, strengthen relationships, form and shape the cause that the leader is about, focusing the Church on Christ and His mission, a focus away from the leader. It is the foundation of long-term ministry and success.

Pride destroys relationships, creates division, breaks down the cause of the Church, and focuses people on the leader, his or her personal ambition, the leader’s feelings and self-importance.  Pride limits the long-term life and success of a Church leader and the Church they serve.

For the prideful Christian, everything becomes personal, it’s always seems to be about them.  For the person who is about integrity, everything becomes about Christ and the mission of Christ.  Knowing the difference makes all the difference.

 

Using Social Media in Ministry ©

Three or four months ago, I approached Rev. David Alexander (who has been a mentor for me in using social media – the improvements are due to his coaching, the persistent errors are a reflection of his students fumbling) to write a guest blog on using social media in ministry.  There were multiple reasons for asking help in this area.  First, I am a visitor or late immigrant to this world.  My instinctive reactions are those of someone who entered ministry in the age of typewriters.  My children are early adopters.  My grandchildren are natives.  Yet, as is obvious, we live in a social media age.  To share the gospel in its full dimensions we must master the use of the Social Media.  (This is similar to the change clergy went through in Reformation moving from an oral age to a print age.)  Second, in our Cabinet work, we have run into increased communication difficulties with people placing careless and/or controversial statements on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and congregations negatively reacting.  This exposes generational miscommunication through the use of a platform of communication that is understood differently by different generations. Context and background are lost. Fragile relationships between pastors and parishioners are damaged. Trust is threatened.  Third, we (both lay and clergy) need a more coherent dialog on how we use social media. Hopefully this guest blog will be a start.  -Bishop Mike Lowry

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An Opportunity not to be missed ©

bannerhomepagentwright

N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews University in Scotland, author and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England is coming to Perkins School of Theology at SMU November 15-17.

Perkins School of Theology has issued a public invitation to join them in Professor Wright’s presentation. “We hope you can join us for lectures and discussion related to his book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. More information and registration can be found at the following link: http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/Events/NTWright .

I believe that Perkins offers us a rare opportunity not to be missed in learning from Bishop N. T. Wright. Three free public lectures are offered:

November 15 at 7:30 p. m                  “The Jesus We Never Knew”
November 16 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus at the Crossroads of History”
November 17 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus and the Future”

There are two special workshops offered (a fee is charged) on Wednesday which will focus on five books by Professor Wright’s:

I strongly urge you not to miss this great opportunity for learning!

 

Statement from the United Methodist Bishops of Texas

In response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent press release regarding Texas’ intention to withdraw from the federal refugee resettlement program , the United Methodist bishops in the state of Texas have issued the following statement. You will notice in our signing of this statement that each bishop is listed by Episcopal Area. Please know that the Fort Worth Area (of which I am the bishop) includes all of the Central Texas Conference; the Northwest Texas Area is the Northwest Texas Conference; the Houston Area includes all of the Texas Annual Conference; the Dallas Area is the North Texas Conference; and the San Antonio Area includes all of the Rio Texas Conference.
-Bishop Mike Lowry

As bishops of The United Methodist Church in Texas we join with other faith leaders in our state to encourage Governor Greg Abbott to seek a pathway that will affirm the worth of all humankind.  

As Christians and as Texans our values are grounded in respect and hospitality toward newcomers. Those values lead us to welcome refugees to our state. We recognize that these are difficult and complex times but as Christians, we rely on Jesus Christ to overcome our fear of those who may be different. 

The United Methodist Church in our Social Principles states, “We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God…. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.” 

We ask for God’s blessing on those who will step in to serve in the absence of our state’s participation in the resettlement effort, for they are truly being the hands and feet of Christ. 

Bishop Earl Bledsoe, Northwest Texas Area
Bishop Scott Jones, Houston Area
Bishop Michael Lowry, Fort Worth Area
Bishop Michael McKee, Dallas Area
Bishop Robert Schnase, San Antonio Area

Discipleship as Spiritual Formation

Last Fall Bishop Ken Carter, The Florida Conference, wrote a series of blogs on “Fresh Expressions of the Church.”  Taken as a whole they are outstanding and well worth reading.  As a part of my own recent writing about deeper discipleship centered on allegiance to Christ, I reprint, with his permission, the 9th of those blogs entitled Discipleship as Spiritual Formation and Mentoring: The Heart of Fresh Expressions of Church.” – Bishop Mike Lowry

The Bishop’s Blog

(Ninth in a series of reflections on Fresh Expressions of church, the Florida Conference and United Methodism, and our relation to the “Nones,” “Dones” and the “Spiritual but Not Religious.”)

If we are listening to God’s call in the present moment, in increasingly non-churched and de-churched environments, we may discover that we are being led back to a fundamental experience—an encounter with the living Jesus. We encounter him in the gospels, even as he is anticipated in the Old Testament and as his message is embodied and proclaimed in the later writings of the New Testament. The encounter is always one that calls us into deeper relationship, which we call discipleship.

Discipleship as Spiritual Formation
So how do we become a disciple of Jesus?

Becoming a disciple or apprentice of Jesus is a cumulative process. It involves small steps and giant leaps of faith. It is like swimming against the stream and riding the rapids. It is unconscious and intentional. It is planned and spontaneous. It is work and at the same time a gift.

1.  As a cumulative process, discipleship is a daily spiritual practice: reading scripture, sending a tweet about a passage of scripture or a God-sighting, memorizing a verse, offering an intercession, acting with kindness, writing in a journal.
2.  Discipleship is also a weekly activity: an hour of worshipping God, a meal with a mentor or with friends, reflecting deeply on the neighborhood as a context for mission, encouraging a small group of Facebook friends, contributing money to God’s mission.  Note: While the Christian life may begin as an individual search, it can only be sustained and supported through participation in a small group, where we are loved, blessed and held accountable. The contribution of the Fresh Expressions movement is that these groups are not confined within our local churches, although they may happen there—this is the “mixed ecology.” And, as we have noted, this is deeply embedded in the practices of the early Wesleyan Christian movement (class meetings and band meetings).
3.  Discipleship as a sustained habit might include monthly experiences:  a day of silence and prayer and deeper scripture reading, meeting with a spiritual director, reading a book/spiritual classic, a deeper act of service in the community, serving in a leadership role.
4.  And discipleship as a more reflective and long term way of life might include annual practices: an extended pilgrimage or retreat, a mission trip, an evaluation of financial giving to God’s mission.
5.  Discipleship is a lifelong process; in Eugene Peterson’s language, it is a “long obedience in the same direction.” It will help to document your spiritual formation; for some, there are life-changing events, and for others, the process is more gradual and even generational. In the Wesleyan tradition we have called this sanctification.

The Bible itself can be read in this way:

  • it is the journey of God’s people from slavery to freedom;
  • the passage of Jesus from baptism and wilderness to suffering, death and into resurrection;
  • the experience of the disciples who follow Jesus, listen to his teaching, witness his death and resurrection, receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and are sent into all the world.

For the non-churched (nones), the language of becoming a disciple is entering a new world of practices, habits and relationships. For the de-churched (dones), the path of discipleship requires a detachment from negative experiences of church in the past and a turning toward the gift of new forms of church. And for leaders, lay and clergy, there is the essential and lifelong basic work of spiritual formation. At our best, we will be most effective and faithful as we accompany each other into the future that God is preparing for us.

Making Disciples as Mentoring
Once we are on the path of being a disciple, we soon discover that we are also called to invite others into this way of life. Thus, we want a simple method for making disciples or mentoring friends to be closer followers of Jesus.   So how do we mentor (or make) new disciples?

1.  Listen to the other person. This may happen in a meeting, perhaps in everyday life and in planned or unplanned ways, or over a succession of conversations. In a culture that is cynical about faith, it is not wise to rush this step. Listening is a lifelong activity!
2.  Reflect back to the person that you are wanting to get to know and understand them. For many persons, this is a rare experience to discover that others are listening to (honoring) their stories.  Note:  These first two steps are essential and cannot be bypassed.
3.  Connect their story with your own story and a part of the gospel. This assumes that we know the gospels (the importance of daily reading) and can access the presence of Jesus in most any human situation: fear, loss, anger, poverty, betrayal, confusion, pride. You may share an experience where the power of Jesus helped you to overcome an obstacle. This connection is not about institutions or denominations, but is instead about relationships and the spiritual journey.
4.  Ask how you can be in prayer for the person. And ask if the other person will pray for you. This places you together on the same level.  Note:  Here you will want to be as humble as possible, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to speak through the gospels and the act of prayer. At this point the action is more important than the response, which you cannot control.
5.  Seek to connect the other person to your community. In our time, the basic steps will be a group that meets outside the church (say, in a coffee shop) or in a context of mission and serving, or in a new group in formation. Don’t worry if you get stalled here, but don’t hesitate to name your own worshiping community. It is a relational process.
6.  Stay in touch with the person, and continue to develop the relationship, no matter the response. You are investing in the friendship for the sake of the other person, and not for any congregational or institutional gain.
7.  Continue to pray for the other person each day, and occasionally let the other person know you are doing this.

There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between becoming a disciple (spiritual formation) and making disciples (mentoring). We often learn best by teaching and leading; and at the same time, our lives are shaped, formed and enriched by deep friendships.

It is also true that where spiritual formation and mentoring are not present, our Christian life can become stagnant and rigid. How do we break this cycle?

If we are stuck, we might seek out a spiritual director, pastor, coach or guide.  This person is likely less appealing to us because of credentials and more through an authenticity and depth of faith.   Note:  A word about generations. Many younger adults have a strong need to live in relationships with persons who are older (not of their generation). At the same time, many younger adults have a great deal to teach older adults. This is sometimes called reverse-mentoring. There is a need for both mentoring and reverse-mentoring in our church.

By definition, Fresh Expressions “come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.” And, so, our first priority is not to create Fresh Expressions of church; instead, we listen, serve, and become incarnationally present and discipled. In our time, this will take the form of spiritual practices that shape us, and intentional relationships that empower others.

Questions:
What two or three spiritual practices or habits would strengthen your life as a disciple of Jesus? What happens weekly, or monthly, or annually? And, is there someone near to you who might be open to your spiritual mentoring?

-Bishop Ken Carter, October 26, 2015

Sharing on the Future of American Methodism ©

In November of 2014 a young faculty member from Candler School of Theology, addressed the Council of Bishops on Christian Conferencing and the recovery of the Wesleyan Class Meeting.  It was a fascinating deep address that unpacked his excellent new book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group ExperienceDr. Kevin Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler.  With his permission, I am sharing his recent blog posting as a guest blog.  I commend it to the reader for thoughtful reflection.  Dr. Watson will be the Conference Teacher at the Center Texas Conference in June, 2017.  – Bishop Mike Lowry 

The Future of American Methodism: 5 Predictions
Posted: 01 Aug 2016 06:43 AM PDT

Methodism in America is in the midst of change. It is not yet clear how exactly American Methodism is changing or whether change will lead to a bright future for my own denomination in particular (The United Methodist Church). But it does seem clear that it is changing.

During the three years I taught at Seattle Pacific University, I experienced life in a major U.S. city that is profoundly post-Christian. Moving from Seattle to the Atlanta metro area was a kind of culture shock, because cultural Christianity appears to be alive and well in many parts of the southeast. My sense is that within one generation the landscape of the U.S. as a whole will look much more like Seattle than Atlanta.

And so I’ve found my mind wandering again and again to this question: What is the future of Methodism in America? Before I enter fully into these thoughts, let me assure you that I am aware of what a speculative enterprise this is. I offer these thoughts as ultimately nothing more than one person’s thoughts about the kind of Methodism that will be most likely to thrive in twenty years or so.

  1. American Methodism will experience a paradigm shift as the desire to pursue cultural respectability becomes obsolete. American Methodism will slowly recognize its loss of cultural respect, eventually acknowledging it and then grieving it. Ultimately, American Methodism will emerge on the other side with a much clearer sense of its own identity, mission, and purpose and will learn to live authentically from these, even though much of what American Methodism stands for will be alien and perhaps even offensive to the broader culture(s) it is situated within. Moreover, given broader cultural changes, American Methodism will recognize that it must form people into a new worldview, and not merely a few ideas and practices that serve as self-help strategies adorning mostly unchanged lives.
  2. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a theology that is ideally suited for a post-Christian context. Methodists will preach the Wesleyan understanding of grace in its fullness with renewed conviction and boldness. Methodists will insist that God’s grace is for everyone, no exceptions. And Methodists will maintain that God’s grace saves us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who cancels (forgives) all of our sins. And Methodists will also boldly proclaim the audacious optimism of God’s sanctifying (life-changing) grace, which can enable us to love God and neighbor to the complete exclusion of sin. American Methodists will be known for their passionate belief in entire sanctification and God’s ability to changes lives radically.
  3. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a practice that is ideally suited for such a time as this. In a post-Christian context, a thriving faith community must not only proclaim the gospel, with the accents just mentioned, it must visibly demonstrate its proclamation by embodying what God makes possible. American Methodism will embrace social holiness (communal formation, especially through transformation-driven small groups) as a part of its fundamental and foundational essential practices. Participation in weekly small groups like the class meeting and the band meeting will be seen as more important than attending a weekly worship service. It will be impossible to be a member of American Methodism in the future and not regularly attend corporate worship and a small group focused on God’s work in your life.
  4. As American Methodism passionately preaches entire sanctification and makes an uncompromising commitment to social holiness, it will find God’s deepest blessings through being in ministry with all of God’s children, especially those who seem beyond hope from a worldly perspective. American Methodists will not send money and resources to help those who cannot help themselves, but will be in relational ministry with them as a natural expression of their practical theology. As one example, American Methodism will recognize that recovery ministry is not something that a church lets an auxiliary group anonymously do in their building, but is something that is a core ministry of the church. American Methodists will not see this as a ministry for “those people,” but will seek complete freedom from addiction to the ways of sin and death together, by the grace of God. And many will experience the fullness of God’s amazing grace.
  5. The boundaries of American Methodism will be blurred by close connection and cooperation with global Methodism. Methodist missionaries will both come to and from America. American Methodism at every level will be changed through relationships with brothers and sisters from across the globe, especially Africa, Asia, and South America. American Methodists will place significantly greater weight on the Methodist aspect of their identity than the American. Methodists across the globe will be united by a common mission to spread scriptural holiness across the globe.

There are so many possibilities for the future of American Methodism. It is impossible to predict with certainly what will be. I do know that when I think about this possible future, I get extremely excited. Come, Holy Spirit!

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Excerpts from Remarks Made by President and Publisher Neil M. Alexander

of the United Methodist Publishing House at the New House Commons/John Dickins House Dedication; July 28, 2015

 While I have been away on Renewal Leave, I have shared a variety of material from various parts of the United Methodist Church. For the past 11 years it has been my joy and honor to serve on the Board of the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH). The UMPH does not receive any apportionment money (put differently it must be physically self-supporting). Few industries are under as deep a threat and wrestling with as great a change as the publishing industry during the opening decades of the 21st Century. The UMPH has been incredibly well led by President and Publisher Neil Alexander. Recently the old downtown facility was sold, and this July the UMPH relocated to a new site in Nashville (at a great financial benefit and cost savings). With permission I share excerpts of remarks made by President and Publisher Neil Alexander.

“Perhaps it all started to gel when Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, first showed his deep conviction about the importance of learning, thoughtful discourse, and a disciplined life of devotional reading and prayer.

It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading,” he said.

And he added, “A reading people will always be a knowing people.”

Perhaps things started to mesh in 1789 when John Dickins was named the first steward, or when three branches of the Methodist family decided in 1939 to join forces and establish a publishing house in Nashville.

Or maybe things came together in October 1954 when the board authorized erection of the new five-story Nashville office building at Demonbreun and Eighth Avenue, South, with a budget of nearly two and a half million dollars. The 350 employees moved in over a period of three weeks, starting on July 12, 1957.

That move set us in place to reap the benefits when several years ago our real estate advisor explained that with the new Music City Center being built across the street, there was a possibility that developers would be interested in our property.

… And step-by-step (and after maddening delays), our new place for our new work took on form—turning what was an elusive dream into a reality. And this result simply could not have come about without the many, many staff who have taken on special assignments and helped in obvious and often unseen but important ways at every turn.

… All around us is evidence that the outcomes have been delightful and encouraging. There are clear signs that our new house is a place people want to be; a place to invest their minds, hearts, and labor; and a setting from which we will reach out to serve more people in more places.

The enthusiasm about the new space has been palpable. We’ve seen staff in every department show great patience, flexibility, and appreciation for the new offices.

The notice went out to all staff and read in part:

Yes, this is it! The long awaited, the much talked of—the seriously doubted—is HERE! On Friday afternoon . . . the exodus begins. It took us 53 years to get to this point, and the move itself won’t be accomplished overnight. . . . You may need something right away that is packed in a box that somehow got put somewhere else. . . . Above all, keep your sense of humor.

The funny thing is this: That notice was sent in 1957 when the house moved to the Eighth Avenue, South location.

It might have just as easily been written 58 years later when we began moving staff in stages from the old house to the New House Commons! We are indebted to all of the folks listed on the acknowledgments page in your program …

So the evidence is mounting. This is not only a New House Commons and a new work space; it is a new day with great possibilities and prospects.

  • A place where people feel connected to each other, to creation, to God, and to all those across the world whom we might yet serve
  • A new house that our colleagues experience as a place for fresh start, a state-of-the-art facility, full of possibilities
  • A place for creativity and faithful service
  • A place to imagine new ways to reach more people in more places

A lot of elements and events gave us signs that things were starting to gel; that 225 years of history and God’s providence had brought us to this place, and that by God’s grace we are about to use our life at this new house to do a new thing.

It seems we are poised, ready to join forces and serve with excitement and ingenuity, empathy and insight; ready to reach more people in more places with quality services and resources that help them come to know and deepen their knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, learn to love God, and choose to serve God and neighbor. …”

I close these excerpts of President Alexander’s moving address with my own addition. It is tempting to bemoan the fate of 21st Century Christianity (postmodern, post-Christian, etc.). It is tempting (indeed easy!) to be capture by the distress the United Methodist Church is currently facing over controversial issues which threaten to splinter us. However, admit all the chaos of our times. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is truly doing a new thing! – JML

“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” (Isaiah 443:19).

 

What It Takes to Revitalize the Mainline

by Bishop Bruce Ough and Rev. Susan Nienaber

[While I am out on renewal leave, I will periodically offer “guest blogs.” Bishop Bruce Ough is Resident Bishop of the Dakotas/Minnesota Areas and President-Elect of the Council of Bishops. Rev. Susan Nienaber is District Superintendent of the Big Waters District of the Minnesota Conferenc. Their article appeared in the July 20th edition of the Alban Weekly and is re-posted at this site with their permission.]

It is possible to revitalize our mainline congregations and denominational structures. And it is happening all around us, in spite of the numerous challenges we are still facing. It’s true that we are still challenged by an aging population in our mainline churches, fewer younger clergy, seasoned clergy who are struggling to learn new skills and ways of being because what worked at the beginning of their ministries is not working now and recovering from several decades of despair and exhaustion. Despite these challenges, we are bold to say that we now know what works.

The mechanics of reversing the downward trends in our denominations have been well documented in books such as Bishop Robert Schnase’s Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences. But, the mechanics alone will not create the kind of revitalization that is needed. Just as important as the mechanics is the attitude, mind-set, stance, and practices of leaders leading this revitalization work, whether they are clergy, lay or denominational leaders. In our work together as denominational executives (Bishop Bruce Ough of the Minnesota and Dakotas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and Susan Nienaber, District Superintendent), here’s what we are finding:

  1. Prayer is Absolutely Essential. Every day it is essential to ground yourself in God. There is so much coming at you as a denominational executive (or pastor or lay leader for that matter) that taking time for your spiritual disciplines helps you know how to keep the main thing the main thing. “An active prayer life keeps it from being about you.”(Bishop Ough) We still operate in a culture where prayer is often about getting something rather than an act of letting go. The kind of prayer that is necessary to effectively lead is about opening ourselves up so that we can be available to God’s purposes—essentially, getting out of God’s way. It is acknowledging through prayer the power and presence of God. And, it’s being reminded that we can’t do it ourselves but God can.
  2. The Belief that God is at Work and Will Work to Guide and Direct our Efforts. Closely related to prayer is the firm belief that God is already at work and will work to guide and direct our transformational efforts. While it is possible to have a fundamental belief that God is at work in the world without fully understanding one’s place in God’s work, prayer provides the space to discern how we can cooperate with the Spirit that is already moving. Related to what a leader fundamentally believes, another key to success is the language that we use. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “What we speak becomes the house we live in.” The pall of despair and decline has been too pervasive in the past 30 years. The lamenting must stop and we must focus our whole selves on God’s work – this means being very careful and intentional about the words we choose to use.
  3. Looking for the Miracles that are Happening and Telling the Stories of Transformation. The definition of miracles that we are using here is not just the literal miracle of whether or not the person with cancer is healed. Rather it is the more ordinary moments when God’s love and grace overwhelms our sensibilities; when we see our faith communities become submerged in God’s goodness. Recently, one of our small churches gathered together to do the funeral of a stranger, someone who was destitute and without family. That story went viral in the media. This is a miracle. A miracle may simply be that people believe that God’s grace has been unleashed. When we do something ordinary God takes that ordinary act and creates something incredible. We still have to be honest about the despair, brokenness and decline in our mainline situation but we can’t allow ourselves to believe that despair has the last word. It’s about God transforming us and changing us. The stories that we tell only have power if they are told and heard and believed. The stories have to touch the heartstrings in order to inspire change.
  4. Developing a Clear Sense of One’s Mission as a Leader. A great leader at this time in history has to know how God intends to use them and how God is already using them. “I have a fundamental belief that God wants to work through me to create new life here.” (Bishop Ough) It is important to be bold and have the confidence that God has a clear plan and mission. The other critically important belief is that we cannot control the decline and revitalize simply by being a skillful manager or technician. We will stay stuck in a rut with the only the mechanics. Mechanics and technicians make things efficient but this is not ultimately what will get us to the revitalization of the mainline. It’s about God transforming us and changing us. Again, “we cannot manage our way into revitalization, we can only be led into it.” (Bishop Ough)
  5. Being Willing to Color outside the Lines. Most of us spend the bulk of our lives and energies trying to create boxes of sensibility. We spend time trying to figure out how to manage our lives according to our denominational rules while our churches feel the pressure to put together predicable programs and governing structures. Boxes can be helpful and are a necessary evil in some ways in order to keep large organizations in check but when those boxes begin to keep us from seeing where God is at work they then keep us from being able to live into the miraculous. The task of the leader is to work to break down those boxes in order to get to a different place or to create a different organizational culture. All organizations need to constantly re-create themselves. The whole journey of a leader is orientation to disorientation to orientation. We only grow if we have seasons of disorientation. “We typically cannot be arrested by God’s presence unless we are a little disoriented.” (Bishop Ough) A leader sometimes needs to say outrageous things in order to lift up an idea that is out of the box for it is “only when we are disoriented that God can command our full attention.” (Bishop Ough) We can’t get too comfortable with the way things are because we will then feel trapped or, even worse, come to believe that we don’t need God. A critical piece of advice: you can win many trust points by taking a good, calculating risk but you lose a lot if it doesn’t work.
  6. Being Fearless in Making Extremely Tough Decisions and Choices and Managing the Anxiety that Is Generated. Being fearless is in large part about being consistent. It is one thing to make a tough decision, it is something else to stay with that decision even when the pressure builds. It is important to live with a tough decision long enough to make an impact. But there is a difference between being fearless and being reckless. Being fearless is about courageously living out of one’s values and one’s faith that God is at work. Being reckless sometimes happens when we do or say outrageous things only to get the attention of the organization or to create disorientation instead of making a tough decision because it is the right thing to do.
  7. Humbly Admitting Mistakes and Working to Fix Those. If a risk doesn’t work you can’t ignore it and you can’t blame someone else for the mistake. A courageous and effective leader readily acknowledges mistakes, takes ownership of them, and humbly and sincerely apologies for those mistakes. This is the only way to build and maintain trust. When you take risks, not everything is going to work. One doesn’t always know for sure if it is God’s right time. Sometimes leaders want to be fearless without a willingness to take responsibility for the outcomes. This will be a disaster for the organization if you cannot admit your mistakes.
  8. Always Being Grateful. Every day is a gift and it is a tremendous privilege to be in religious leadership at this time in history. God is doing powerful work in the refining of our mainline traditions and as a people of faith we are breaking free from the structures that held us in bondage. We are confident that we will break free to do God’s will in order to create disciples for the transformation of the world.

Whatever role you play—as pastor, lay leader, or denominational executive—you can help to reverse the steep decline in our traditional systems. We will lose some churches that are too far down the life cycle of decline, while others will turn around in remarkable ways. Choosing life, in whatever form it takes, is key. The spirit, attitude, and tone of our leadership will make all the difference.

Alban Weekly, July 20, 2015; http://www.congregationalconsulting.org/what-it-takes-to-revitalize-the-mainline/

 

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