Our Adaptive Challenge

During the past two days, the Council of Bishops (COB) has worked extensively on the Call to Action Report.  Yesterday we embraced the adaptive challenge as explicated in the Call to Action Report.  (Adaptive challenge/work is change work that engages us in a new way of thinking and being.  By definition it implies that we are moving through a time of investigation, discovery and new learning. It is often contrasted with “technical” work, which is work where we in principle know the skills, abilities and changes we need to bring about.)  We embraced the following;  “The adaptive challenge for the United Methodist Church is: To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  (Call to Action Report, page 8 )

With embrace of the adaptive challenge we also adopted the key recommendations:

  1. “For a minimum of ten years, starting in January 2011, use the drivers of Vital Congregations as initial areas of attention for sustained and intense concentration on building effective practices in local churches.
  2. Dramatically reform the clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.
  3. Collect, report and review, and act on statistical information that measures progress in key performance areas to learn to adjust our approaches to leadership, policies, and the use of human and financial resources.
  4. Reform the Council of Bishops, with active bishops assuming (1) responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, participation in servant/mission ministries, benevolent giving, and lowering the average age of participants in local church life; and (2) establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  5. Consolidate program and administrative agencies, align their work and resources with the priorities of the Church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations, and reconstitute them with much smaller competency-based boards of directors in order to overcome current lack of alignment, diffused and redundant activity, and higher than necessary expense due to independent structures.”  (Call to Action, pp. 8-9)

You can read the full text in the Call to Action report under the section “Steering Team Report.”  (Go to www.umc.org/calltoaction).   In a sense we as a larger church are wrestling with the same alignment issues that the Central Texas Conference is facing at our called session of conference on November 13th

I find all this exciting, deeply challenging, and immensely hopeful.  I believe winds of the Holy Spirit are blowing through the church.  Jeremiah 29:11 comes to mind:  “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future of hope.”

On the Road Again

            Today is a day for finishing up administrative details and preparing to leave.  Sunday Jolynn and I will fly to Panama for the fall meeting of the Council of Bishop followed by two additional meetings (one for Methodist Bishop – UMC with Affiliated and Autonomous Methodist Churches in the Americas; the second a conference of ecumenical leadership in the Americas called CEMIAL).  I ask that you keep both us and the entire Council in your prayers.

            At the COB meeting we will being discussing in depth the Call to Action Report. You can access the report in full at www.umc.org/calltoaction. There is much to consider and pray over.  Clearly the church as a whole is calling the bishops to exercise greater leadership.  Simultaneous with that call to greater leadership is ongoing resistance to the tough change that must take place.  Obviously the two are not compatible.  A wise friend commented to me recently, “The problem for the bishops is not that they need someone else to give them more authority [which I might add they do!];  it is that they [the bishops] need to take more responsibility.”

            In addition to The Call to Action Report, we will receive reports on the Four Focus Areas (Developing Leaders, New Places for New People & Transformation of Existing Congregations, Combating Poverty, and Eradicating Killer Diseases).  Together we hope to learn and strategize on how we as a church might move forward in the both faithfulness and fruitfulness.

            I will try to write blogs during the 11 days that I am gone.

Set Like Flint

I remember when my son took Texas State History in high school. Somewhere in that class he ran into a quote of William Tecumseh Sherman (the Civil War General and later Secretary of War under President Grant).  The irascible Sherman said, “If I owned Texas and hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in hell.”  Well, I couldn’t disagree more.  I love Texas.  However, Sherman’s quote helps me remember how dangerous it was to be a Texas pioneer after the close of the Civil War.  Those who launched the Methodist movement for Christ in Texas lived out of an incredible commitment to our Lord and to his Gospel.            

Last Saturday we had a great Centennial Celebration for the Central Texas Conference.  In my speech at that hallmark event, I shared a story that Dr. Wayne Matthews had given me.  The early Texas Methodist, both lay and clergy, came to offer a courageous witness to Christ and the Kingdom of God.  “James T. Griswold, who arrived in Texas straight from college in Alabama, was never able to adequately explain his attraction to Texas.  He said: ‘A strange thing happened to me not many days after I received my license–an impression came over me to ‘go to Northwest Texas to preach.’  I hesitated not, but promptly said, ‘That I will do.’  My face was set like flint to do that thing.  As I began to talk Northwest Texas among my colleagues at college, they would say, ‘You are crazy, boy!  That is nothing but a desert.  There are no people out there, and why throw away your life?  You will either starve to death or freeze to death.’  All this and more was said to me but to no avail.”[1]

Reflecting on the witness of James Griswold, I was forced to ask myself.  To what am I “set like flint?”  Am I willing to brave the rigors of life (in a very different 21st century way) out of a commitment to Christ in sharing the gospel for others?  It is a challenging question which assaults the life of comfort and ease which I lead.  Romans 12:1-2 reminds me to be transformed by a renewing of the mind to discern the will of God.  In that prayerful discernment, I seek to be “set like flint” to carry out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.


[1]              R. Wayne Matthews, God’s Plan and Us, October, 2010  The quotes are from The Methodist Excitement in Texas by Walter N. Vernon and others pg. 156.

Surrounded by a Cloud of Witnesses

I am nearing the end of a round of District meetings and other gatherings to both listen and share with laity and clergy alike on the future of the Church and the re-alignment of ministry resources in the Central Texas Conference. 

Earlier today I met with the retired clergy to discuss realignment.  Their perspective was and is invaluable.  As I listened to their questions and comments, what struck me most deeply was their forward thinking.  Many, if not all of them, understand that this is a different day and we desperately need greater flexibility to respond to outreach opportunities.  Imbedded in their comments and questions were passionate convictions about changing a clergy culture.  A number of speakers spoke of the need to engage the non-Christian culture with a stance of open listening and interpersonal involvement.  There were strong comments about recovering a sense of how to share the faith (evangelistic witness) and move beyond the church walls. 

Listening and dialoguing with them, I felt that sense of “being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).  Their openness, their commitment, their engagement was and is impressive.  We as a Conference have been and continue to be blessed by them.

Developing Pastoral Leadership

Today (Thursday, October 14, 2010) I have been visiting St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.  They have been gracious hosts of the SCJ College of Bishops.  (The South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops meets once a quadrennium with Perkins School of Theology, St. Paul’s School of Theology, and Lydia Patterson Institute.)  St. Paul’s commitment to developing clergy leadership for the local church is impressive.  Like virtually all seminaries the economic downturn has negatively impacted finances and challenged the full implementation of ministry.  It is a harsh fact that lower endowment drives the cost of higher education up (less scholarship money!).  In addition, with some exceptions (notably Duke, Candler & Asbury), seminary enrollment is down.  I am impressed with what St. Paul is doing, but issues of seminary education continue to challenge the church as a whole.

In my thinking I overlay the issue of seminary education (in part) with development of a new generation of leaders.  Seminaries are designed to develop pastors.  Church wants leaders.   The expectation of pastoral leadership in the local church has gone up phenomenally.  People don’t just want the Bishop and Cabinet to send them a pastor.  They want the Bishop and Cabinet to send them a leader.  Seminaries, even good seminaries, are rarely well equipped in leadership development.  New experiments and partnerships are coming into being (teaching church working with seminaries, etc.).  The need for lifelong learning among both clergy and lay has never been greater.

It strikes me that we often ask seminaries to deliver what they are not really equipped to deliver.  What do seminaries do best?  Obvious answers begin with biblical and theological education but do not end there.  There is emerging a wider discussion on the issue of leadership development that is encouraging.

Making Room for New Leaders

For the past two days I have been at a retreat sponsored by the Texas Methodist Foundation entitled “Making Room for New Leaders – The Third Path Dilemma.”  With a wide spectrum group of Bishops, Board of Ministry Chairs, and various other leaders, we have wrestled with how to create “third paths” in ministry (ordained?) beyond the conventional routes for Deacons and Elders – new leaders for current congregations, new leaders for special settings, leaders for new forms of congregations that are emerging.

There are many takeaways for what was clearly just a beginning conversation.  How do we make room for creative new experimentation in leadership?  How do Boards of Ordained Ministry, Bishops and other leaders together focus on the purpose of making disciples rather than serving an embedded constituency?  What is clear is that we must redirect the focus to mission and purpose (away from representing/protecting a group).

An interesting book we read in preparation was Church Morph by Eddie Gibbs.  At one point Gibbs writes: “The church urgently needs not just younger leaders, but a different kind of leader.  The church needs visionary, risk-takers who do not look to institutional churches to provide their financial security or career opportunity.  They are prepared to venture into the unknown not as isolated individuals, but as cohorts that belong to a wider dispersed community.  They do not undertake lengthy periods of training for mission, but are trained in mission.  Recognizing that most failure in church leadership occurs through failure of character rather than competence, their training focuses on becoming biblically literate and on internalizing the spiritual disciplines.” (p. 148)

Clergy Age Trends

Recently a colleague passed on to me a summary of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership report on Clergy Age Trends.  You can get the report at http://www.churchleadership.com/.

 Among other highlights the report noted that ….

  • For the first time ever, just over half of active elders are between age 55 and 72.
  • The median age of elders is 55, the highest in history, up from 50 in 2000 and 45 in 1973.
  • The percentage of elders aged 35 to 54 continues to shrink, from 65 percent of all active elders in 2000 to 45 percent in 2010.
  • The number of young United Methodist clergy grew in the past decade
  • There are more young elders, deacons, and local pastors than ten years ago.
  • While fewer in number than young elders, young deacons and local pastors are growing in number faster than young elders.

The Central Texas Conference had the third highest number of young elders (under 35 in age) in the United States!  10% of our elders are under 35.  Forty percent are in the 35-54 age range and 50% are 55 and above.  The breakdowns for Deacons and Local Pastors are similar.  (Deacons = 12%, 38%, 50%; Local Pastors = 3%, 49%, 49%.  Don’t ask me how the additional 1% snuck into the Local Pastor numbers.  I don’t know.)

This is genuinely good news.  Thank God for the growth in younger clergy and in local pastors.  Those groups have and are blessing us and the church as a whole.  It also notes the challenge of the next few years as one generation retires and the age cohort of those currently 35-54 struggles to fill the gap.  There is much to think and pray about here.

The Spirit and SBC 21

I see the Spirit of the Lord moving among us as we struggle to engage the church we love in transformation.  Over and over again, the call of a new day in the Lord beckons us into the future.  Recently this conviction has come to me through a variety of events.  Allow me to explain.

 One of the Four Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church is the development of new places for new people (new church development) and the transformation of existing congregations.  (An important aside:  I vastly prefer the term transformation over revitalization or renewal.  We don’t need to, and in fact can’t, go back to the past – which the “re” language suggests.  We need to be transformed under the Lordship of Christ as the church of the 21st century.)  Thursday, September 30th, our area (and I personally) was blessed by Dr. Fred Allen, Executive Director of SBC 21, guidance and leadership in transformation.  SBC-21 is Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.  It is one of a crucial transformational partners as we move through this wilderness way.

 The Core of the SBC 21 plan of action is: 

1)      Selection of 25 vital congregations to serve as Congregation Resource Centers (CRCs).
2)      Teams of lay and clergy from CRCs to serve as a resource with partner congregations (PCs).
3)      Utilize geographic and needs-specific models to meet rural, urban and suburban church needs.
4)      A strong intentional focus on the laity.

We have a long way to go, but the Spirit is blowing among us with fresh ways of thinking and acting.

Who Teaches You?

I saved a few vacation days and with my wife got away to the mountains of New Mexico.  It was beautiful with the leaves turning gold on the aspen trees.  The time to think and read was precious.

As a part of my reading (and in preparation for an upcoming series of Wilderness Way articles), I delved back into Dallas Willard’s great classic The Divine Conspiracy.  The subtitle of the book speaks volumes – Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God.  The opening of chapter 8 struck me forcibly.  Willard writes:  “Who teaches you?  Whose disciple are you?  Honestly.  One thing is sure: You are somebody’s disciple.” (p. 271) 

I paused to do some personal inventory.  The name that of course leaps immediately to my mind is that I want and intend to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Indeed the foundational affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” is declaration of both intend and purpose.  Yet, as Willard later points out, virtually all of us are disciples of multiple significant teachers in our life.  He comments:  “IT is one of the major transitions of life to recognize who has taught us, mastered us, and then to evaluate the results in us of their teaching.” (p. 272) 

I found myself with much to reflect, meditate and pray about.  I know how blessed I have been by a variety of excellent mentors (both current and in the past).  I also know how continually challenged I am to keep the Lord as my primary, first and foremost, mentor.  With the Apostle Paul, my firm decision is to work from this focused center. (II Corinthians 5:15, Mg)

Preliminary Report on Listening Posts

Last night I went to my fourth District “listening post.”  (So far I have been to the Temple, Brownwood, Waxahachie, and Mid-Cities.)  My basic schedule is an hour with the clergy, a meeting with the District Superintendency Committee and a little over an hour with the laity.  I find the time extremely helpful in giving me a point of interaction and information.  The exchange of comments and ideas are stimulating.

 A couple of tentative observations are emerging.  The laity in particular are intrigued by my abridged presentation of the Call to Action: Report on Congregational Vitality. (You can access that report by going on line at http://www.umc.org/atf/cf/%7Bdb6a45e4-c446-4248-82c8-e131b6424741%7D/CV_PRESENTATION.PDF ).  There is great interest on the part of lay leaders in discussing and learning about what might make their congregations more fruitful and faithful.  I am impressed and very encouraged by the evident faithfulness and commitment.  Significantly, the laity have very few questions (almost none!) about re-alignment.  They are interested in two things.  Are we (the churches) going to get more help in our congregations?  And, will this save money?  (The answer to both is yes.)

The clergy find much of the Call to Action: Report on Congregational Vitality to be an affirmation of what they already know.  They (the clergy) have an anxiousness over re-alignment that is not evidenced by the laity.  Once again, I am deeply impressed by the evident commitment and faithfulness of the clergy.  The questions and comments are thoughtful and probing.  Together we wrestling with the wilderness way.

 I look forward to my time with the other three districts.  In addition, I have scheduled a special time with and for retired clergy (October 21st, 10:00 a.m. at Arlington Heights UMC). (Retired clergy are, of course, invited and encourage to attend any of the listening posts.  I treasure their wisdom and insight.) 

 Jolynn and I are taking some time away for a few days to celebrate her birthday.

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