Yesterday leaders from the United Methodist Church throughout the world gathered via Internet webcast for a conversation called the Leadership Summit. This conversation was an opportunity for the Council of Bishops to present their endorsement of the Call to Action report and attempt to gain feedback regarding how UM leaders felt about their conclusions.
During the webcast, there was a great “unofficial” on-line conversation happening via Twitter (search for #umlead), but I unfortunately could not be a part of that important conversation as I was the “scribe” (not a Pharisee) for Table 9 at the “official” gathering of Tennessee Annual Conference leaders at Brentwood UMC and we were asked to refrain from Internet usage due to fears about bandwidth issues at the church. We had about 100 folks gathered at BUMC, each assigned to a table, with a table leader to guide the conversation, and a recorder like myself to attempt to document the conversation. As is unfortunately typical for our communion, there was probably no one under the age of 40 involved in the conversation at the “official” site, which is why the Twitter stream is maybe the most important feedback of all. However, I want to try and offer a perspective on the conversation originating from Table 9 as a means of furthering the conversation.
The conversation was structured around 3 “Summit Questions,” with 20 minutes allotted for each question. I should say that folks took the process seriously, and even though we were trying to rush through a box lunch in the midst of the conversation, there was no down time and no dead spaces in our communication. Folks were not hesitant to share their opinions, and there was a great deal of skepticism in regards to the plan as a whole.
The first Summit question was:
The Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table have said that the adaptive challenge for the UMC 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.
Is the challenge clear and compelling? What must be changed about the UMC to redirect attention and resources?
The consensus at Table 9 was that we weren’t at all sure that the challenge as presented is clear. Certainly we are all for the creation and sustenance of vital congregations, however (as I have written before) the Call to Action report nor the presentation yesterday ever offered a clear and succinct definition of what it means to be vital. We found it interesting that the examples used in the videos of vitality tended (especially in regards to worship) to focus solely on large church examples (even though lip service continues to be given regarding small church vitality), and contemporary worship forms (even though lip service is still given in support of traditional forms). What was less clear to us, however, was what and where the flow of attention, energy, and resources will be taken from and what and where they will be directed to? Yes, what we are doing seems to be disconnected to vitality in some way, but the devil is in the details and the call as presented above leaves too many things open to suggest that the call is clear and compelling.
As for restructuring, we felt that the entire approach, with the focus on layers of accountability starting with the Bishops, has a top down orientation that is doomed to fail, rather than an empowering of the grass roots toward success. What CAN a Bishop do to keep his or her numbers up? The fear is that we see what we already experience, the Bishops chastising the District Superintendents and the District Superintendents chastising the local pastors, who are caught in the middle between a denominational system and a laity who may or may not really care about growth and vitality as long as the doors are opened for them on Sunday morning and they have someone around to marry or bury. Table 9 was distrustful of top down approaches, and this entire project feels like certain leaders offered up predefined solutions to our “problem” and are trying to impose them rather than truly learning from pastors and congregations about needs and creating structures to meet those needs.
One of the issues of restructuring that needs to be considered, but is not mentioned whatsoever in the report is the need for congregational accountability as well as accountability for the leadership. Accountability is great, but it has to include all parts of the system to be effective. When congregations are not held accountable for their actions, their desires, their willingness or unwillingness to take serious the call of Christ, there is only so much that a bishop, DS, or pastor can do. We were heartened to hear Bishop Palmer speak about the need to recognize that congregations may have differences in regards to their life cycles and that what the denomination offers should reflect those differences, however there are many congregations which have plenty of potential life based on location, facilities, etc., but are controlled by lay leaders who continually block attempts by faithful folks to be responsive to the call of God. We recognize that congregational accountability is difficult (maybe impossible) because we can’t hold things like employment status over the congregation’s head, but better attempts need to be made to create more relational connections between the church hierarchy (Bishop and cabinet) with congregational leaders to foster the kind of honest and active engagement that can lead to accountability. (The group didn’t discuss this, but what would it be like for a DS to host regular congregational accountability groups, much like a Covenant Discipleship group, where key leaders from congregations gather together to hold each other’s congregations accountable to fostering vitality across the connection?) There is much more I could say about this, but it really requires a separate post.
The other focus of our conversation was on the need to better restructure to support the work and mission of local clergy. Ultimately, the local pastors (both ordained and lay) are on the front lines of trying to implement the call and vision of vitality. And yet, many of our pastors feel isolated, are struggling for resources to draw on in their situation, and need help. Unfortunately the helps that seem to be coming from our connection (and which seem to be reinforced in the Call to Action report) are “one size fits all” approaches which fail to address the unique needs of each congregational context. Table 9 believed that more has to be done to help pastors recognize their context and develop the unique strategies needed to minister effectively in those contexts. This needs to include coaching, constructive critique, mentoring, and spiritual and emotional support in the face of the opposition that so often comes with change. I have to note that Table 9 was composed of a mixture of clergy, lay folks, and denominational
employees, and all agreed that more must be done in providing support for local pastors, not punitive measures of accountability, but providing the means by which they can succeed and some level.
There are other questions to come, and they will be the focus on further posts. I hope that the view from Table 9 can help continue the conversation regarding the future of the United Methodist Church into positive change.
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