Oct 4, 2011
Bishop Joe Pennel By Joe E. Pennel Jr.
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.