United Methodists Ponder
Strategies for Survival
(We Can, Too)
I had an uncle who was a United Methodist minister. He had a pastoral philosophy that went something like this: “Jesus is the answer. What is the question?”
He often said this in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but I’m pretty sure that it was truly a part of his faith.
I remembered him this week when I read about the United Methodists as they meet in advance of their 2016 General Conference.
At one planning meeting, held this week, Donald House, a lay member with a PhD in economics, warned financial planners that the next 15 years are pivotal to survival.
He predicted that unless things change soon, the denomination in coming decades will not have enough U.S. churches to pay for its connectional structures. Such structures include conferences, bishops, agencies, missions and international disaster response.
The Methodists are struggling with the same problems facing all mainline churches. Their studied approach to current challenges is worth following.
The temptation as we all face these problems is to measure our success by our ability to fund national oversight. Following this temptation will speed our downfall.
The Church has always grown from little up. This is likely to be even more true today.
Changing World Calls for Changing Structure
Today’s Church structures were all created pre-internet. They helped us connect when connecting was expensive and a logistical challenge.
This is no longer true. Small churches, willing to use the internet to its fullest capabilities, can be big influencers—directly, without the national and international networks of the past.
Survival of out-dated structures should not be our mission. The struggle to support them beyond their usefulness may be a huge part of Church decline.
The road to survival may mean restructuring—even rewriting our governing documents.
That’s a huge job. That’s what leaders are for.
Some points to notice from the Methodist’s planning: (return to this link for references)
This Methodist economist proposed a Benchmark Project to focus on developing funding for lay leadership. His solution for finding this funding is to turn to congregations—including congregations as small as 125 members. While our denomination focuses on down-sizing, this Methodist plan calls to double the number of “vital congregations.” Interesting! I wonder what their definition of ”vital” is!
Note also the term “culture of call,” which hints that they might see the concept of call reaching beyond the clergy.
This is long overdue. The Church has neglected the concept of call for a very long time—talking about it in broad terms but compartmentalizing it in practice. God calls clergy.
This limitation on God’s people serves two needs—control and measurability.
The controls and measures of the past will no longer work.
For example, the predecessor body of the ELCA forbade congregations from publishing. This concentrated the power of the press in its official publishing house (control). Congregations had to use the resources provided. Titles selected for publication came from vetted sources. Sales were the measure of success.
Today, it is impossible to stop people from publishing. Control is lost, but the potential to witness is enormous! So is the ability to measure. Online metrics are available by the minute!
What Are We Measuring?
Return for a moment to the economist’s warning.
Unless things change soon, the denomination in coming decades will not have enough U.S. churches to pay for its connectional structures.
We measure congregations by how well they support structure. Sounds good. But it can be crippling.
Concentrating on structure means this: The unstated primary mission of every congregation is to support a pastor. The secondary mission is to support the denomination. The biggest piece of the church budget pie goes to these two things. Mission is secondary. Connectedness is primary.
These connectional structures are growing increasingly archaic. Continuing to seek funding, just so hierarchy and agencies can continue what they have done in the past may be a waste of resources. These structures, even when well-run, are expensive! More than this, it may be blinding us from seeing better ways. The Church has a choice—preservation or innovation.
A Changing Reality
Congregations can now connect directly. This calls for changes in how we lead.
A regional office might have a communications department. In most cases, the communication department will act as a public relations office for the regional body. They will operate the online presence and communicate, mostly with pastors. They will address the needs of the regional body and its role in the national body. Congregations are supposed to be content to pay for services with little benefit.
A better use of communications dollars may be for the regional body to make sure each congregation has a modern communication network that connects with its community. They won’t be able to control this, but it is key to evangelism. As it is, very few congregations, even those with fancy web sites, have a clue how to use these tools. Clergy are woefully behind in these skills. Laity to rescue, if we dare!
Big May Not Be Better
There is efficiency in big. But there is recognition of mission in small.
A denominationally sponsored agency may deserve a great reputation in delivering services. The connection often is lost between congregations that fund services and the recipients. The acceptance of public funding makes the connection even weaker. The people behind the agencies are invisible. Their message is unheard.
The message behind providing service (that God is love) is best communicated the more hands-on the congregations can be in the delivery.
The old view is that these agencies need the congregations. But the opposite is also true. Congregations need these connections. Without these connections, congregation have a difficult communicating their message—that God is love. Truth be told, they may even have trouble feeling their own message when they are viewed as little more than faithful funders.
Fortunately, connectedness was never easier!
The Methodists are correct that empowering the laity is key to success.
It may be how churches grew to support large national entities in the first place.
Jesus is the answer. Now, what is the question?