A Letter to an Incoming D.S.–Part 4

This is a continuing letter to a friend of my who was recently named as a new District Superintendent in his annual conference. You can read earlier installments, here, here, and here.

Dear _______,

I’ve spent some time on building relationships, which is a key component of your new job. In a sense, my next suggestion is an extension of that work, for it better helps you to navigate the specific contexts of ministry settings and avoid making sweeping generalizations about pastors and their congregations.

4. Do your homework and learn all you can about your churches AND their surrounding communities.

In the face of all the demands that will be placed on you, finding time to do research will be difficult, if not impossible, but do it anyway. Ultimately this will help you avoid the pitfall of failing to understand the struggles of a particular minister and or his/her congregation. More important, knowing your churches and their neighborhoods allows you to make decisions about district emphases and ministerial deployments from a missional perspective rather than an institutional one. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of seeing congregations as cogs in the denominational wheel rather than unique, organic communities with their own gifts and idiosyncrasies.  Churches (and pastors too) become pawns in the difficult chess game that is the itinerant system, and I’ve seem issues of salary and church size play far too large a role in making decisions than missional concerns.

One of my D.S.’s began his tenure by scheduling an hour long meeting with every pastor in the district simply to have the pastor give them a tour of the facilities and to tell them about the church. This is certainly a good starting point, and if you ask the right questions you can learn much from the pastor. While the metrics of Vital Congregations are helpful, there are so many other questions that I would want to ask to gain a better sense of the congregation. That would include budget struggles, facility issues, the way the congregation deals with conflict, and the self-perception of the congregation. I would also want to know if the pastor has a reasonable grasp on the demographics of the community in which the church is located.

I mention the last point because I continue to be shocked by the number of my colleagues that have very little grasp on the community around them. Due to relationships in the church, they have a narrow sense of who is who in the neighborhood, but many have no concept whether the community is growing or not, whether the community is experiencing change, what the ethnic/racial breakdown of the community is, or any of a number of factors that would help them better reach out. They often have anecdotal generalizations of a community, but those are often disconnected from the reality on the ground.

Take my last appointment. As you know, the community that I served was one of the most ethnically diverse in our city. Everyone tended to point to the rapid growth of the Hispanic community, which was indeed growing by leaps and bounds. However what was often overlooked was a large and growing African American middle class population. Several predominantly black mega-churches were planting satellites in the area with great success, but the United Methodist Church was so fixated on the tales of Hispanic growth, they totally missed the need for a United Methodist presence in the black community and missed out on several opportunities to develop ministry in that area. While this was my parish and I tried to address the concerns as I could (being the fat, un-dynamic white guy that I am), this was a place where the D.S. and Bishop should be aware of growth trends in their district and working with the local clergy to address those trends, including initiating new ministries to meet community needs.

Or take my current appointment at a church that has gone from 1000 members in the 50’s and 60’s to a worshipping congregation of about a hundred. One might attribute the decline to the drop in mainline influence or a congregation that had lost its sense of mission (both of which may be true) but it helps to know that this church was built as part of a company town by a large chemical company which during the 50’s and 60’s had over 5,000 employees a mile from the church. With the decline of that business came a decline of the overall community, including the church. Thus we have a smaller base to draw on and in fact are comparable with other area congregations as we have to re-tool to a new community reality.

Of course, there is more to know than demographics. It probably is important to know who the matriarchs and patriarchs are in each church (people who have power regardless of any official office or title). It’s probably good to keep up with the history of previous appointments, which has an unbelievable impact on current success in ministry (says the pastor who served in one congregation in which a bad pastoral appointment led to a huge split in the church with over half of the congregation leaving, and who serves in another which had four single year appointments in a row prior to the appointment of my predecessor). What you are needing is to get a better sense of what makes a church tick, and what issues in the community may effect their ministry in the world.

I recognize that maintaining records on this data is a logistical nightmare. I could envision a notebook with a profile of every congregation including some of the data above, but with 80+ churches, that could be unwieldy. I think what I would try to do know is to create folders in Evernote, a great internet based note taking/filing program and keep all the data in the cloud so that I could access from my IPad or phone. All I know is that you will have to develop some means of keeping up with a plethora of information that helps you to know your churches and their communities.

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