For my church folks – this is another post dealing with the issues facing the church in general. I think everyone should be in this conversation, but so you know, this is not a short reflection. It’s really more Mike’s Manifesto than Mike’s Musing. Read it at my own risk!
The United Methodist Church (UMC) continues to seek ways to regain a sense of vitality in our local churches. I believe, at our core, we long to have a church that is impacting lives and communities with the love and grace of God. I believe our heart’s desire is to see more people engaged in the new life Jesus has for everyone who accepts that gift (what I like to call “life at its very best”). To that end, the UMC had a webcast conversation on April 6th. There were many people gathered at various locations watching and many, like me, who logged on at home. The webcast presenters included men and women, young and old, bishops, pastors, and laity (the lack of significant racial and global diversity has been a point of contention). If you want to see more you can go click here and watch the webcast. Or go to these blogs to see some analysis: “Hacking Christianity” and “Missional Orientation” – these are two that give some insight into what was good and what was lacking. If you are on Twitter, search hastag: #umclead to see tweets sent during and just after the webcast.
I hold to a similar opinion as many others – there was far too much emphasis on numbers and statistics and accountability, and little on spiritual health, greater allegiance to the gospel, or even a mention of Jesus. It is the institution striving to make the institution stronger, but seemingly at the cost of truly building the Kingdom. One difficulty of this process is that it is once again top-down driven (the church higher-ups telling the local churches the best things to do). I believe the more significant renewal will only come from the bottom up. Change can best happen through a grassroots effort where churches decide to take on the vision of serving God’s purpose, even more so than the challenge of growing the church.
Having said all that, grassroots efforts are not easily ignited (but once they are, the resulting fire is virtually unstoppable). One of the key figures in this renewal effort is the local church pastor (and others like campus ministers). The top-down effort sees the local church pastor as needing more accountability and better tools for measuring their local church ministry. The grassroots people (mostly pastors) see the local church pastors as needing more training and support for implementing local vision initiatives.
I agree that local church pastors are the key to renewal in the UMC. They (we) are called to expend our energy equipping the local followers of Jesus to live into, and live out of, the vision God has for His Kingdom – the Kingdom we pray will come. The problem is that this great effort is hindered by various obstacles facing the local church pastors. Below you will find several hurdles that come to my mind very quickly. The answer, as always, is Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit he gives to us – power we must rely upon if we are to overcome these challenges.
Obstacles local church pastors face in the work of church renewal
Salary/ family needs & concerns
I do not believe, as some do, that preachers these days are looking for a comfortable salary or pursuing bigger appointments for the sake of a salary. I do believe we all want to take care of our families and provide a stable life and future for our children. I saw this Facebook post on a UMC preacher’s discussion page:
“[I] taught several course of study classes [to preachers not yet ordained but serving local churches, both part time and full time]. The people I have in my classes can probably turn around churches that seminary-trained clergy are too good to touch, simply because they love Jesus and they don’t know they’re not supposed to be able to do it. Of course, they can’t . . . but God can.”
The comment that seminary-trained, fully ordained clergy feel they are “too good” is unfair. However, it could easily be that they are so burdened with seminary debts and the needs of family that serving smaller struggling churches would be a hardship for them. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t, it just means it can be hard to make that choice.
The reality is that many of us who serve local churches are nervous, even fearful of not giving our families a life similar to the ones enjoyed by those in our churches. It’s hard to ask your children to do with little when their friends, cousins, and others have more. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, just means it’s hard. And yet, I would say that the financial stability of our family is not an unreasonable priority. And that leads to the next obstacle.
Church stability / finances
One of the underlying issues in the challenge of renewing the United Methodist Church is the desire to strengthen the financial resources of the church as a whole. As local church pastors we are asked to make certain our churches are paying their fair share of the overall financial needs of the global church. Again, not unreasonable, but difficult to do while at the same time trying to implement real change in a declining church environment. If you take a church that has nominal Christians who are more inwardly focused and you preach the need to be outwardly focused, you face not only opposition by voice but opposition by feet – people begin leaving the church. That will impact finances, which impacts the stability of the local church, possibly impacts the pastor and family, and certainly impacts the payout to the global church.
In just about every story of successful local church renewal and revitalization I have come across there has been an exodus of people who were not ready for the changes being implemented. These are the ones who liked their church “as is” and didn’t want all these new things and new ideas. More than losing membership we are most likely going to lose money. And that’s a challenge at all levels. There are bills to be paid and ministry to be resourced. Secondarily, the “top” of the church is measuring effectiveness by our overall giving. To implement real renewal with this challenge in front of us is hard
Reputation /conference standing
The first two challenges factor into this last one, but this one falls mostly on the shoulders of the pastors. We must be willing to get a bad reputation and to lose a bit of our standing in the Annual Conference. Sometimes our desire to affirm the “top-down” processes for the sake of staying in favor becomes an impediment to our work of renewal. It’s not an issue that needs great explanation – the Bishops and District Superintendents should be respected, but not feared (what they intend for evil – if they do – God can use for good). If we’re more concerned about how our appointments will be handled than we are about seeing the Kingdom of God become a reality in and through our churches, renewal will never take place.
We must begin speaking up for what we believe needs to change and stop worrying about how we are perceived by higher ups. We must also be willing to do more than just throw out criticism, we must begin to do what God wants us to do where we are – even if it means losing the favor of others. The Twitter-verse conversation during the CTA webcast spoke to “grassroots” not “top-down” work – are we ready to really take that on in a real way? If we disagree with the metrics and “dashboard” measurements, are we willing to do what needs to be done regardless of how we look on paper? It appears we want to implement real change, but at the same time cannot bring ourselves to not meet the expectations imposed upon us. If that’s not an issue of fear regarding our reputation and standing then tell me what it is. I’ll say it one more time – it’s not easy, but it is necessary.
This list is not exhaustive and the explanations could be fleshed out a good bit more, but I think it is a good beginning to looking at and naming the challenges we face. Those reading this may either disagree or have a whole other list. But the fact remains, if a grassroots effort is ever going to happen we will either need to find ways to address these issues or find the boldness to move forward in spite of them. We cannot wait for the institutional leaders to “get it”.
Holy high-five to you,