A colleague asked me how the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations relate to the Four Areas of Focus that United Methodist leaders have agreed upon to guide our denomination during the years to come. Thousands of congregations and many dozens of districts and conferences have emphasized the Five Practices as a means to draw attention to the appropriate work that helps congregations fulfill the mission of the church. Many conferences, districts and churches are also discussing the Four Areas of Ministry or Four Areas of Focus for their work.
Before I describe the connections, I want to remind readers of the Four Areas of Focus. Recently I asked a group of pastors and laity to tell me the mission of the church. In liturgical unison, they said, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Then I asked, “What are the Three Simple Rules?” and the great majority said, “Do no harm,” and “Do good,” and then they wobbled a little on whether the third was “Fall in love with God,” or “Stay in love with God.” Nevertheless, there was consensus of meaning. Next, I asked about the Five Practices, and people reiterated them perfectly from memory. Finally, I asked people to tell me the Four Areas of Focus. There was mumbling, stammering, people counting on fingers and helping each other along. A few people reached for their laptops to look them up. Most knew two or three, but hardly anyone could name all four.
So here are the Four Areas of Ministry (Four Foci) adopted by the Council of Bishops, the General Agencies, and the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church:
- Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.
- Creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations.
- Engaging in ministry with the poor.
- Combating the diseases of poverty by improving health globally.
I’m completely supportive of these emphases for our work. However, they require further explanation in order to understand what they are calling us to do. Their length, complexity, and lack of specificity make them hard to remember. Many involve multi-faceted subcategories of work.
The first draws our attention to the work of recruiting, developing, training, and supporting clergy leadership. It also calls us to focus on cultivating lay leadership and discipleship, and to attend to our commitments to higher education, campus ministry, and to reaching young people.
The second gives focus to starting new congregations and faith communities using a variety of models and reaching diverse populations that are underserved by the UMC. It also asks us to renew and transform existing congregations.
The third supports and encourages active ministries that change the conditions of the poor. It elicits hands-on ministries that work directly using volunteers to address hunger, housing, medical care, and education. It also stimulates engagement with social justice issues that address these same needs at societal, political, governmental, and global levels.
The fourth involves collaborating with others to reduce and eliminate killer diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and polio, and the conditions that contribute to them, such as inadequate housing, unsafe water, illiteracy, lack of access to care, etc.
With that background, here are my own personal thoughts about how the Five Practices and the Four Areas of Ministry are inter-related, and how each is best used for leading the church.
The Five Practices give congregations a fresh, edgy, memorable language that helps them understand and organize their work. It works best when the practices and adjectives are widely known and deeply embedded from top to bottom, shaping understandings and the collective identity of congregations, including pastors, staff, worship leaders, lay leaders, planners, volunteers, teachers, members, and guests. The words help everyone understand the mission of the church and the values and practices of the community. The practices create a clear line of sight between the service any individual volunteer gives to the church and the overall mission of the church. The language stimulates ideas, inspires congregational ministry, and generates commitment. A congregation that practices these with depth and fruitfulness will contribute to the Four Foci in incredible and positive ways: developing lay leadership and cultivating the context where people discern their callings to ministry; renewing their congregations by reaching out to others and starting new faith communities; and offering risk-taking mission and service that really does impact the conditions of those living in poverty or suffering from killer diseases. Churches that practice the five with excellence excel in their support of these kinds of ministries, and they work together with other congregations and conferences to make a difference. The Four Areas of Ministry cannot succeed without congregations that practice hospitality, worship, Christian education, mission and service, and stewardship with fruitfulness and excellence. The Five Practices and the Four Foci are clearly compatible and mutually supportive.
However, I see a difference in how these are best used. I personally think that the Four Foci are best used at judicatory and administrative levels of the church to shape priority, focus resources, and hold our systems accountable for fruitful ministry. It’s hard to imagine an engaging sermon series in a congregation that hangs on the Four Foci. For instance, the first focus addresses issues of clergy recruitment, credentialing and ordination processes, etc. That’s the appropriate work of a conference, but does little to inspire congregations.
Let me use an example from business to illustrate how I see the Five Practices and the Four Foci relating. Southwest Airlines has a defining tagline that immediately establishes their distinct mission: The Low-Fare Airline, (with an emphasis on the The!). Will you be served salmon in First Class on Southwest Airlines? No. There is no salmon and no First Class because they are The Low-Fare Airline. Will you pay extra for checked luggage? Will you find blankets, pillows and stereo headphones in the seats? No, because they are The Low-Fare Airline. Customers, employees, and management are driven by the same key, catchy phrase. It is succinct, powerful, concrete, convincing. In addition, the mission statement of the company speaks of “customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company spirit.” These words give specific, focused direction to employees. In memorable language, eye-catching posters, engaging TV commercials, employee team meetings and through frequent anecdotal stories, the culture of the company is deepened by these words.
I believe that the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations gives direction to pastors and congregations and creates cultural value in congregations in the same way the phrases described above give consistent and practical guidance throughout Southwest Airlines.
However, if we could peek in on a meeting of the Board of Directors of Southwest Airlines, we would discover that at the top levels of leadership, the work is organized around different topics and strategies. The Board’s conversation and work focus on controlling energy costs, pricing and revenue strategies, updating and replacing planes, “green” strategie