On Carts, Horses, and Vital Congregations – #GC12Book Study Part 2

As we approach General Conference 2012, several United Methodist bloggers are participating in a study of the books recommended for GC 2012 during Lent. The study is hosted by Rev. Jeremy Smith at HackingChristianity.net. We’ll read a different book each week. On Thursdays, HX will host discussion, and on Tuesdays, we’ll synchroblog our responses to the week’s book. For more information, check out this post. See my week one post here

In Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement, Gil Rendle argues that attempting to reclaim aspects of the movement character of Methodism’s origins will help the UMC to overcome institutional inertia and lead to increased missional faithfulness. What most struck me was the clash between some of Rendle’s suggestions and the assumptions of the Vital Congregations program. Vital Congregations (VC) is a program that arose as a result of the Call to Action report, and it attempts to address the adaptive challenge facing the UMC described in that report: “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” In other words, VC suggests focusing on congregations in order to help the UMC more effectively fulfill the mission of the UMC.

Rendle makes a competing suggestion. In contrast to the old UM paradigm that sought to produce “more dollars, satisfied clergy, and satisfied congregations” (43, ePub edition), he offers a new paradigm:

From output to input, members, clergy, and congregations have now been displaced as the object of attention and recipient of denominational resources to being the expendable resources of the system needed to make the critical difference of changed people who will change the world. (44)

For VC, the congregation becomes the object of focus as a proximate end toward the ultimate end of fulfilling the UM mission. For Rendle, the mission itself is the focus. My concern with the VC approach is that, while its congregational focus is ostensibly in service to the UM mission, focusing on congregations easily falls into seeing congregations as ends in themselves. As Rendle suggests, seeing congregations as resources rather than ends (even proximate ends) may better enable us to keep the horse in front of the cart when it comes to mission and congregations.

Part of keeping the horse in front of the cart concerns tracking the right metrics. VC and Rendle agree on the importance of measuring results, but they differ with regard to the best way to measure. VC seeks to develop vital congregations by asking existing congregations to set goals pertaining to five metrics: worship attendance, professions of faith, number of small groups, members in mission, and missional giving. Rendle suggests an approach that is less directive and potentially more fruitful. Admitting the difficulty of tracking the qualitative changes the UMC seeks, and drawing on business guru Jim Collins, he argues,

When one can’t quantify results by counting the difference to be measured, then one has to be willing to describe the difference. At every level of the system leaders need to describe the difference they are trying to make with the greatest detail they can muster. Only then can we have conversations in our congregations, our conferences, and our national agencies about whether there is evidence that we are moving toward the change that we want. (58)

While Rendle doesn’t prescribe a specific method comparable to VC, his approach does offer the possibility of measuring results in a way that is more missionally focused. Rather than using measures handed down from the general level, individual congregations, districts, and annual conferences could describe the differences they seek to make in their ministry settings and then choose measures relevant to their particular missions. These measures would then be used to set goals and foster accountability. In so doing, UM boies could be accountable to fulfilling the UM mission without putting excessive emphasis on the congregation-centric and context-nonspecific measures employed by VC.

While I have problems with the Vital Congregations program, I am not averse to metrics in general or those prescribed by VC. All five are important and worthy of our attention (except number of small groups – how is that a better measure than percentage of membership/attendees in small groups?). Working through the VC program even helped one congregation I worked with to identify areas of that need to be addressed. I am concerned, however, that VC makes it terribly tempting to put the cart in front of the horse – to put congregations before mission. In Back to Zero, Gil Rendle offers insights that, especially when compared to the VC approach, can help UM bodies to live their mission more faithfully. He offers little, however, in the way of concrete suggestions that might help us transform these insights into missional fruitfulness. Particularly, I have a hard time seeing how delegates might implement those insights at the General Conference level (perhaps why I’m not a delegate!). Nevertheless, Back to Zero challenged me to rethink the ways that I seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, both as a pastor and as a disciple.

Focus by Lovett Weems – #GC12Book Study Part 1

As we approach General Conference 2012, several United Methodist bloggers are participating in a study of the books recommended for GC 2012 during Lent. The study is hosted by Rev. Jeremy Smith at HackingChristianity.net. We’ll read a different book each week. On Thursdays, HX will host discussion, and on Tuesdays, we’ll synchroblog our responses to the week’s book. For more information, check out this post.

One of the reasons I opted in for the first two books of the #GC12Book Study is my familiarity with the first two authors, Lovett Weems and Gil Rendle. I’ve read Rendle’s work and found it very helpful – particularly Holy Conversations. While I’ve not read much of Weems beyond a few short articles, people I respect refer often to his work, so I was eager to get his take on the situation facing the UMC. He self-consciously writes “out of the pragmatic tradition of our heritage” and focuses on “the practical manifestations of [biblical, theological, and historical] commitments” (preface). Weems deftly presents the challenges facing the UMC, and many of his suggestions for the General Conference, Annual Conference, and local church are very helpful. I may even seek to implement some of his ideas for the local church in my ministry context.

I found myself unable, however, to get beyond one difficulty: the book’s framing. Weems begins by comparing the institutional positions of the UMC and the New York Yankees in 1964, when both entered a period of decline. Since 1965, the UMC has lost membership every year (the Yankees, however, have won a few World Series since then). Weems’s research indicates that the denomination has been able to stave off the effects of decline because giving and assets have increased each year during the same span. Because of what he calls the coming “death tsunami,” though, the effects of decline are about to catch up with us. From here, Weems goes on to outline his suggestions in order “to survive the death tsunami and return to the growth of our witness at the same time” (near end of Ch. 1).

Weems makes clear that his desire is not the survival of the UMC for its own sake, but for the sake God’s mission in the world. Still, when the issue is framed this way (1. We’ve been in decline for a while, but we’ve weathered it thus far; 2. We can’t weather it any more; 3. Here’s how not to die), the goal becomes survival for its own sake rather easily. At the local church level, I’ve encountered many situations where churches wanted to grow and/or survive, but, aside from references to the UMC mission statement or a vague imperative to bear fruit, they could not articulate why they wanted to grow. They could not compellingly articulate a clear sense of mission, why people need Jesus, or how their particular church offers something relevant to the lives of people in their context. In such situations, church members assume that they know the answers, but they find themselves unable to articulate them when asked.

I’m afraid that beginning with statistics of decline and talk of a death tsunami only exacerbates the problem of seeking survival for its own sake. Unless we begin with a sense of the Gospel’s power to save, with a desire to love our neighbors that doesn’t derive from their being (only) a potential new member, and a sense that the Wesleyan tradition offers a distinctive and relevant way of following Jesus in the 21st century, I worry that we will end up working only to survive. And we end up promoting a vision that is not compelling to anyone who isn’t already significantly invested in our institution.

In the end, I think my complaint against Focus is that it doesn’t address the questions I needed it to address – the deeper questions of the purpose for which the UMC exists. And while it may be unfair to ask a book to be something it is not, at the same time, Focus enables us to continue to pursue notions of success defined by the business world without a sense of who God is calling us to be. And if we continue down that path, suggestions like Weems’s, no matter how effective or successful they are, will not lead us into God’s desires for the United Methodist Church.

I welcome your responses.