Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Better Ways To Measure Churches

Oct 4, 2011

Bishop Joe Pennel By Joe E. Pennel Jr.
Special Contributor

Numerical growth and institutional maintenance have captured the thinking of many who write about the vital signs of effective congregations. I must admit that when I was serving as a pastor and as a bishop I was caught up in the same swirl of understanding. I am now feeling that there should be a different standard of measurement for meaningful congregational life.

Instead of numerical growth and stabilizing the institution, we need to put strong determined effort into a deeper set of measurements such as growth in compassion, forgiveness, mercy, kindness and justice. These are the benchmarks that bear kingdom fruit. It is possible for a congregation to experience financial and numerical strength and not grow in the fruits of the spirit.

I recently served as interim pastor of a congregation. As I was leaving the office one day to make hospital calls, I met a lady on the parking lot of the church whom I did not know. After a rather casual greeting, she pointed to the church building and said, “Is there someone in there who can teach me how to pray?”

I was stumped by her question. She was pointing to a full service megachurch that offers day care, a weekday school, athletic leagues, mission trips, social services, worship, choirs, a vibrant youth ministry and Sunday school for all ages. At a deeper level, she was inquiring about learning how to practice the spiritual disciplines. I had no answer to her question. I gave her my card and requested that she give me a call so that we could have conversation. She never called and I never saw her again.

When I got back to my office I looked at the calendar of activities for the week and not one had anything to do with learning, experiencing or keeping the spiritual disciplines. How can believers grow in the fruits of the spirit if spiritual practice is neglected?

Since 1996 I have preached in over 400 congregations. In each of these I have looked at the “opportunities for the week” that are listed on the worship sheet. It has been rare for me to see any emphasis on how to pray, how to search the Scriptures, how to do spiritual reading, or how to practice deeds of mercy and kindness. Yet these are the disciplines that strengthen the inner life. These help us to be formed into a living, loving relationship with God.

If we pay attention to spiritual practices we will be more able to get in touch with the gifts of a particular congregation. I hold to the belief that God has gifted every congregation. It is not necessary to search frantically for new gifts. We, as pastors and lay leaders, need to build on the gifts that are already present in the congregation. Not all congregations are gifted in the same way but all are gifted in some way.
Wise leaders find ways to maximize the spiritual gifts that are already in the hearts of the people. This has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the size or location of a congregation.

United Methodist people are searching for a meaningful relationship to the sacred, one that allows us to remain working, playing and loving; a path that enables us to experience the holy in the kitchen, in nature, in art, and in others. There is a gnawing hunger for doors to be opened to deeper levels of meaning and living. The church needs more and more congregations which truly believe that the inner life is more important than numerical and financial growth.

So, if we are focused on spiritual practices what would be the return? It would evoke harmony and genuine love toward the people around us, our families, spiritual associates, the poor and the marginalized. For others the return might be doing deeds of mercy and kindness in the community. For some it would result in a deepening of one’s commitment to meditation, prayer, cultivation of virtue and a more regular association with some who have the same desire.

I cannot prove it but I am of the opinion that congregations that focus on growing in compassion, forgiveness, mercy, kindness and justice have a stronger and more authentic commitment to social witness than those that are not so concerned. Such congregations are better able to organize themselves around the pain that is in the community where they happen to be located. Mr. Wesley taught us that real social concern grows out of vital piety. It is the latter that is missing from the church at all levels.

I am now 72 years old and I have been a pastor since 1959. As I look back over my years as a pastor I find myself wishing that I had organized my congregations around worship, searching the Scriptures, more Holy Communion, deeds of mercy and kindness, prayer, meditation and Christian fellowship. I now see that these are the most important means of Grace.

Retired Bishop Pennel is a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Same Calling/Divergent Paths

Much has transpired since the last posting to this blog on January 12th ("Methodism Deconstructed"). For starters, two people very dear to me, Pat and Hilda Baker, left the United Methodist Church to start a new one in Caldwell called "Area 3:16." Pat Baker was one of the CLMs who graduated in Class '10 and Hilda is the author of "Standing at the Cross Roads." Both are very devoted disciples of Christ and ardent supporters of Walk to Emmaus. Both lovingly give of their time at Cross Roads Retreat which hosts spiritual renewal programs for Christian groups and each Walk organized by the Brazos Valley Emmaus Community.

Hilda has the depth of faith that I've always wished that I could claim but never had enough conviction to fully embrace. She has always been one who has searched out God's will for her life, and once discovered, let nothing stand in the way of fully living that out. Maybe the one of the best examples of that is her influence on Pat - she was the instrument used to bring him to Christ. Today, as pastor of Area 3:16 Pat is no longer a mere follower of Christ but a spiritual shepherd ministering to others as well.

In contrast to Hilda's intense spiritual resolve and Pat's total surrender to His service, I spent 16 years pretty much hiding out from what I knew God's call to be for my life. With the exception of a brief foray to Lott and occasional service as pulpit supply around our district I never really surrendered my will. I found the oasis provided by my little country church in a town that time conveniently forgot to be the perfect spot for me to reside in comfortable denial of who I am in Christ and to Whom I am called to serve.

While the Bakers and I share pretty much identical viewpoints on how far the Methodist Church has strayed from its roots and the resultant tragedy of its decline, God was clearly moving me to a path separate from theirs. Like Pat, I too, felt the call to ministry but instead of doing a "new thing" I was led out of my oasis and into the mire of broken systems within our denomination – everything that I had purposely avoided for years.

Although God had been preparing me for pastoral ministry for 20 years, clich├ęs like "culture shock" and "mind-blowing experiences" don't even scratch the surface of what was to happen after finally submitting my will to His. In saying "yes" to Him, He has propelled me to an accelerated spiritual-growth regimen that leaves me feeling like I am waking up in a new world everyday and I no longer recognize the man that I have become. So much of what was once familiar has been transformed to become something distinctly different as seen through new eyes. But the same cannot be said of our denomination.

It is still full of broken systems and apparently stuck in a spiraling decline, but that doesn't necessarily mean God isn't still at work in the midst of it all. God's glory has been revealed in the numerous mistakes of mankind and religious systems flawed by well-meaning human intervention through the ages. Indeed, it is through just such situations that we often seem to encounter Him. Now, instead of looking at the brokenness of the church I search with my new eyes for where God is working in the church. Regardless of what detractors might say, He is still here and very much at work in our midst. And, there is still much kingdom building to be done regardless of existing conditions in our denomination. In recognition of all this He has led me to a place where I can finally respond, "Here am I, Lord. Send me."

COMMENTARY: A Missional Future—The United Methodist Way

Mar 24, 2008

By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Special Contributor

At the November extended cabinet retreat at Lake Junaluska, Duke Divinity School professor Randy Maddox presented a paper on “The United Methodist Way.”

Much of what was presented was very good and very hopeful for a missional United Methodist future. I want to focus on the critical paper developed by a team that Dr. Maddox led. A copy of Dr. Maddox’s paper is available athttp://www.gbod.org/extendedcabinet/UMWay.pdf. It’s well worth the read.

I’ve even downloaded it into a file I call “basics,” where I store core documents for my life and ministry. I think it’s that essential, and I hope its insights about early Methodism can be widely felt.

Dr. Maddox says United Methodism today looks far more like the Church of England during the 18th century than it looks like Methodism, being “marked by much nominal commitment and spiritual lethargy.” Why has this happened? He suggests it’s partly because we traded our heritage of an accountable way of life for bragging rights about our peculiar polity and institutional strength.

I’d say it’s also because we became confused about what church was and could be, after we changed from a movement that sprang up alongside churches to becoming a church ourselves through John Wesley’s action and the General Conference’s affirmation in 1784.

Wesley was afraid this kind of thing could happen, Dr. Maddox reminds us. In the most-quoted line from his 1786 “Thoughts upon Methodism,” Wesley wrote:

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Dr. Maddox says “doctrine, spirit and discipline” were the critical elements of early Methodism that made it the missional, incarnational, evangelical and transformational dynamo it was. As described in the General Rules, it was “centered in the work of the Holy Spirit,” “shaped by vital Christian doctrine” and grounded within “a rich set of Disciplines.”

He proposes that we try to help congregations recover these core principles and practices, beginning by highlighting where they are already taking place, such as Disciple Bible Study, Covenant Discipleship and Volunteers In Mission.

He also suggests a second step: a systematic analysis and “creative retrieval” of “those dimensions of the Methodist Way that have been lost over the years due to neglect or abuse.” This, he adds, will have to be carried out at all levels of denominational life; pastors, for instance, will need to retrieve their role as “practical theologians.”

Here’s the problem that I see with this proposed remedy: It won’t work. Indeed, it can’t work—at least not well. The politics and institutional realities of the church being what they are, the only things that can be generated by this kind of denominational analysis and attempts at retrieval will be a lot of work, a lot of bills (of the financial and legislative sort), even greater resistance because every stakeholder will want input, and almost no progress.

Attempting the second step could become a serious distraction that could precipitate a more rapid decline.

Here’s why: Think missional and think early Methodist. Our early Methodist missional DNA had no bias toward analysis and institutional process; it had a bias toward action. It did not try to reform the Church of England per se.

Let me say that again. Methodism was not a reform movement to rescue moribund Anglican congregations. It was a movement to make disciples who would live out every day what they professed on Sunday morning.

Trying to bring this new wine into the institutional mechanisms of the current denomination will result in either a busted wineskin and a wine-stained floor, or given enough institutional pressure/inertia, a deeply domesticated version of the original that won’t be recognizable as new wine at all.

This isn’t because institutions are inherently bad. The problem is that our current denominational and congregational institutions are simply not designed to make missional Christians, much less deploy much of what early Methodists were up to.

We are continuity structures and supply houses, not on-the-ground missiologists.

Some United Methodist institutions can and do provide support for those of us who try to live into Methodism. We have a lot of folks inside the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) and other agencies who “get it”: that some of the best help we can provide is to ask really good questions that tease us into thinking and acting missionally rather than to offer ready-made fixes.

We’re not the enemy. We can be helpful in a variety of ways. But we’re not the answer.

You are.

If Wesley had waited around for the Church of England to engage in a massive self-study about how it could reclaim the core practices of Celtic Christianity in the missional and cultural contexts in which congregations found themselves, Methodism would never have taken root. Methodism was not generated by the institutions of the churches nor by the congregations. In fact, it was often opposed by them—and at times, with due cause!

The Church of England did not and could not have done what Methodism was doing. The institutional churches couldn’t take credit for Methodism, though they could and did benefit from the renewal of life happening in Methodists who happened to be part of their congregations and institutions.

Methodism was the peculiar work of God enacted by the people, most of whom were laity, alongside their existing denominational/congregational/institutional structures, without analytical studies, organizational realignments and bureaucratic authorization systems, but with deep clarity, passion and commitment.

These people were out to become holy, to live and serve as Christians, and to invite others to join them. If the institutions came along supportively at times, great. If not, they were still committed to stay Methodist and whatever else they were, to be present and fully engaged with both as much as they could.

The current institutional forms of the United Methodist Church can be helpful but are probably not generative of the renewal we need. The appendix of Dr. Maddox’s article gives indicators for what Methodist-friendly (my term) congregations look like and what bishops and others could do to provide leadership toward that end.

The take away: Let’s live the Methodist way! Let’s support institutions trying to do this, too. But let’s not get confused and think the latter is the same as the former.

When we begin to live this way, maybe someday the institutions—including congregations—will figure out how to relate more helpfully to the Methodist missional DNA. But let’s not expect them to do it for us.

The Rev. Burton-Edwards is director of worship resources for the GBOD. This commentary was excerpted from a post at emergingumc.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Methodism Deconstructed (By Hilda Hellums Baker)

The deterioration of mainstream denominations has been a topic of discussion for many years. Everyone knows there is a problem, everyone has been encouraged to stay at the table, to be an agent for change and I bought in to that. But, it was devastating to read in one of the December Issues of the United Methodist Reporter that in 1932 the Methodist denomination recognized the crux of the problem was that the denomination looked to it’s Agency Staff instead of Christ as the head of the church. Unfortunately, very little has changed.

In the UMC the pastor is charged with discerning the will of God for ministries and programs, and then working to get his folks on board. This modus operandi usurps the lordship of Christ in the body of Christ and places an unsupportable burden on the shoulders of the clergy. It encourages individuals and churches to allow the work of the denomination to become a substitute for their personal involvement in God’s work. I believe the institutional church, clergy and members alike are suffering from the long-term consequences of that disconnect which has fostered an intrinsic humanistic mindset throughout the church.

The article stated that the problem identified in 1932 was the denominations’ proclivity to lean on the Agency Staff and hierarchy to decide ministry goals, instead of leaning on the Lord Jesus Christ. This operational method now permeates every aspect of church government from Agency Staff to Congregational committees. Theological intellection has redefined faith as good works rendering the Methodist Church a powerful philanthropic organization, but not a house of faith. A house of faith relies on the person of Jesus Christ to determine its’ mission and provision. In the United Methodist Church there is only one mission – to make disciples for Christ. Each church is called to accomplish this mission in a unique way, with ministries corresponding to its’ Spiritual gifts as a church. This should not be left up to church leaders, the congregation or clergy either. Every church has a God given set of it’s own tools to define and accomplish the mission to which they are called.

Only one person should make the decision of what any particular church will do– our lord and savior Jesus Christ and He gives us the answer by the tools he gives us through our members. No one is added to the Body by chance. We are supposed to go to Christ – we are supposed to watch what is going on around us – who He sends to us – what they are doing or want to do – and then use His tools by joining HIM in HIS work. When we see Him working, our only choice in the matter is whether or not we will follow His lead and not count the cost. Each individual has that choice to make – each church has that choice to make.

In the study Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby, states that “Koinonia (the experience of God’s presence) is impossible if a church is made up of individuals who are unwilling to submit to the lordship of Christ in the body of Christ. The same impossibility exists in a larger body of fellowship, such as an association or denomination,…” The culture of the UM organization from top to bottom actually discourages meaningful Koinonia within the church.

In 1978 the UMC Board of Discipleship began a spiritual renewal program called the Walk to Emmaus. It was intended to strengthen the local church through the development of Christian disciples and leaders. It has been enormously successful in helping individuals radically transform their lives and work environments into more Christ centered experiences. However, many Emmaus pilgrims are met with resistance and suspicion upon return to their local congregations. I have come to realize that most UM clergy really don’t want leaders. UM clergy are primarily interested in folks that they can plug into the prescribed programs and ministries of the institutional church. In many cases pastors and other “non-Emmaus” members of the congregation are actually intimidated by the passion for ministry frequently exhibited by members returning from an Emmaus Walk. Many pastors misinterpret this passion as a challenge to their authority which coupled with pressure from members afraid to explore opportunities for a deeper spiritual experience, pull back from full support of the new “leaders and disciples” that Christ sent to them to strengthen their churches. This pull back results in disunity, and frequently causes the pastor to deny the discipleship of the very people Christ sent into his church to bring change. These frustrated people often find it necessary to go outside of the institutional church in order to be obedient to Christ’s call to discipleship.

The above example illustrates a microcosm of the problem endemic throughout the UMC as identified in 1932. Clergy still cling to old ways where ministry flows from the hierarchy to the their congregants and community. Instead of from Christ through the instrument of His choice.

In Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby said that the only question a pastor should ask his congregation to vote on is solely whether they sense God is leading them to a particular ministry. He says that if they vote no, that church needs to pull back from moving ahead, because the congregants aren’t spiritually mature enough for the job. I am not sure that is true, but even if it is, I believe it could only pertain to churches truly dedicated to finding, regaining or renewing their spirituality and Christ Centeredness. Not to a church made up of individuals who are unwilling to acknowledge or submit to the lordship of Christ in the body of Christ.

When to move on is an age-old problem. Jesus, after making every effort to “bring along” his fellow Jews, broke with the synagogue, his church of the day, and moved on to fertile ground leaving His fellow Jews to move at their own pace. At no time did he coddle, cajole, or force His Word on anyone. Neither did the disciples, they did as instructed in Luke 9:5 “If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off of your feet when you leave…” Martin Luther faced the same dilemma. Calvin, John Wesley and many others found the same truth found in Luke 4:24 applied to them as well. “…no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” A truth is a truth, Truth is the Word of our lord Jesus Christ. Each of the men mentioned above found it impossible to institute meaningful change in a firmly entrenched organization. Christ’s spirit grieves for those that reject His challenge, but He did not let anyone or anything stop or immobilize Him from doing His Fathers work, and neither must we.

I do not believe the hierarchy of the UMC or any other mainstream denomination has the will to change. I believe we are on the cusp of a great spiritual revival. I had hoped that the UMC was up to the task of not only providing, but then accepting passionate spiritual leaders. Unfortunately, I now believe that history will repeat itself and the UMC and other mainstream denominations will continue their slow fade into irrelevancy.

The mainstream denominations have worn out the “stay at the table” mantra that they have been chanting for the last 78 years, by ignoring the need, indeed the hope, of its’ members for a life transforming personal experience at the table of Jesus Christ. An experience promised to free them for joyful obedience to HIM.