Last night I had a chance to sit down with Chuck Russell and Clif Guy, the tech gurus of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Jack Ewing, director of the Foundation On Evangelism, and Gavin Richardson, my partner in crime, to talk about technology and the church. As is typical in these conversations, we solved all the problems of the church, however one line of thought mentioned by Chuck has set some gears in motion for conversation.
We Methodists like to talk about being a connectional church, going back to the Wesley brothers notions of the “connexion.” By this we generally mean that individual congregations are connected to something larger than themselves, that there is a relationship between a larger organization (the “general,” jurisdictional, and annual conferences) and local churches. This connection is expressed these days primarily through the system of ministerial deployment (itneracy), the annual meetings of the Charge Conference, and the use of apportionments to fund ministries beyond the local church.
We have dreams of course that “connectional” means more. We want to believe that being connected provides a means of communication between congregations and church leaders and organizations that should help make local churches more effective. However, we all know that this is a myth, a pipedream, for the fact is that congregations generally continue to function more as individual entities than part of a larger system designed for sharing Christ with the world.
As a pastor in a local church, what this means is that congregations are pretty much ignored by the hierarchy unless there is a major conflict or crisis. The covert message of the system is that “no news is good news,” that “successful” congregations are one in which equilibrium is maintained and no one is rocking the boat. Of course, denominational leaders will deny this until they are blue in the face, but the fact is that pastors and congregations are rarely held accountable for their ministry if they are maintaining the status quo, and major intervention in the face of decline is rarely given until it’s too late to do much more than give a ministry a proper burial.
The fact is that Bishops and District Superintendents may see their role as supporting local congregations, of coaching pastors to be effective leaders, but most of the time they rarely have much knowledge about what is happening in the congregations of their district and area. They are dependent on the pastor’s initiative in sharing information about the congregation, something that the system itself discourages. And currently, the ability of the Bishop and Superintendents to get meaningful, real-time, up-to-date information on the ministries of the congregations they are charged to lead in minimal. There is almost no way for our leaders to identify the places that they need to be putting their energy, and what instead happens is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Last night’s conversation got me thinking about the definition of “connectional.” Connectional in Wesley’s days was tied to a network of relationships facilitated through regular meetings. However, the pace of the world has picked up since the day when a day’s horse ride to go a few miles was the norm. This past New Year’s Eve is was sitting at home when all of the sudden I received a text message from a congregation in Nigeria wishing me Happy New Year (they had just completed their Watch Night service). The days when getting together for an annual or even quarterly conference being a means of effective leadership have passed us. Instead the wheels of society function on a daily, weekly, and quarterly basis.
Think for a moment about 2008. When the General Conference met in April, we were still posting some of the highest levels ever seen in the stock market. By the end of the year we discovered that our financial system was nothing but a house of cards and the whole thing had collapsed. We set budgets in April based on a certain expectation only to see the whole world change within the next four months, and we have no way to make changes quickly to reflect that reality.
These days, to talk about connection is to think about a set of communication tools that allows businesses to respond quickly to the changing world around us. We still talk about networks of relationships but the definitions of those relationships are changing (what does it mean to be a “friend” in the age of Facebook). Networking has a completely different connotation than it used to hold, and the church has been slow in responding to these new definitions, failing to recognize that the world has passed us by.
Certainly we are not the world and have a place live counter to the culture. But there are some things in these new definitions of connectional that could remake our connection and help us to be more effective in the days ahead.
That vision will be the subject of my next post.