Earlier this morning I posted an overview of my participation in the UM Leadership Summit event, focusing on the first of the three “Summit Questions” and providing a sense of where the conversation was focused at Table 9 of the TN Conference Event, where I served as the scribe. This is the second of the three questions for conversation.
Question 2: The Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table have affirmed:
- The need for all levels of the UMC to align and focus for at least ten years on growing the number of vital congregations in part by employing statistical measures for tracking key performance areas.
- A call to reform the Council of Bishops to emphasize active bishop’s accountability for improving ministry results in churches and annual conferences they serve as Resident Bishops
- The need for improvements and aligning the process for identifying, training, credentialing, appointing, and evaluating clergy leadership
- Better coordinate the work of the general agencies by sharpening their focus and reducing their cost.
Do you agree that these four areas require urgent attention and action? What additional aspects of UMC life should be addressed?
The view from Table 9 maintained our focus from the first question that clergy support much be a primary function of the denomination, from the general church level down. As such, we agreed that the third bullet point was most important, especially in terms of providing training and support for persons serving local congregations.
In retrospect, however, the point made by the bishops offers some concerns as written, for the focus seems less connected to helping and guiding those already in ministry. It’s interesting to include “identifying” and “credentialing” in the mix for our church underwent a major change in how that was accomplished in 1996 which significantly tightened standards for ordination, creating a process that is much more difficult and which should have, by the standards suggested in that day, raised the level of competence of appointed clergy. Those clergy are just now moving into significant leadership roles in most conferences (as the baby book generation retires) and I wonder if in fact we don’t need more time to discern the impact of those persons upon the church. If this is a call to be more restrictive in guiding folks into ordained ministry, I believe we face huge problems as more and more younger leaders with passion continue to look at our process and opt out due to the requirements. These younger leaders are, for the most part, planting independent congregations, which has a value to God’s Kingdom, but begs the question of whether our denomination is losing valuable leaders due to our vetting process.
The issue of focus on statistical measures was recognized as important, but there was skepticism, for we wondered how the use of the same statistics that have been used in the past would lead to change in the church. Of course the CTA Committee and the Council of Bishops will say that the statistics have not been used for accountability purposes in the past, which is not exactly true. If you were to poll most any local pastor about the statistics they submit at Charge Conference time or for the year end report, many would likely say that they believe that the congregational statistics ARE indeed a factor in how they are deployed for ministry. Those who seem to be successful numerically are indeed moved into larger, more functional congregations, while those who struggle tend to serve smaller, more troubled ones. Creating a cycle of success and failure that empowers some and burns out others. It may be that the Council of Bishops and cabinets did not think they were using these statistics in significant ways, but their pastors thought that, and I think have always taken them seriously. I have yet to find but a few local pastors who may be complacent about growing their church. Every local pastor I know WANTS to be successful and WANTS to see the church grow, because they know that being a part of a vibrant church is more rewarding, more fun, and justifies the large emotional and spiritual demands that come with leading a congregation. Are there pastors who are less competent and need to think about other paths for ministry? Absolutely, and they are pretty easily identified for they tend to move every couple of years or so. But even these dysfunctional pastors want to be a part of something vital. Simply ramping up statistical accountability does not provide the means for systemic change which is required for growth in most congregations.
Table 9 also continued to recognize that the points made by the Bishops were by and large American issues and solutions, and may have little application for congregations outside of the U.S. We were concerned that there seems to be little appreciation for contextual differences, both between the U.S. and international expressions of United Methodism, as well as contextual difference within the U.S. church itself.
Much of our conversation was filled with stories of successes and failures in our ministry, but all in all we continued to focus on the need for clergy support.