In November, the Council of Bishops unanimously approved the key recommendations of the Call to Action Steering Team. The Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church (with representatives from all the General Boards) also unanimously approved the report. I hope that you have taken the opportunity to read news stories about the Call to Action. If not, you may wish to go to the website www.umc.org/calltoaction. With all the statistical analysis and data, the report runs to nearly 250 pages; however, the essentials are in the first 44 pages, and the Executive Summary and Key Recommendations are found on pages 23-30.
I am much encouraged by the actions of the Council and the Connectional Table. The directions set by this report have huge implications for our life and ministry, and for the mission of Christ through the United Methodist Church. Over the next few weeks, I plan to comment on many aspects of the report, and to encourage laity and clergy to think with me in fresh ways about our mission. Today I will introduce the five key recommendations, but during the weeks to come I hope to delve more deeply into what each of these might mean for the mission God gives as a church.
Key Recommendation One reads, “For a minimum of ten years, use the drivers of vital congregations as initial areas of attention for sustained and intense concentration on building effective practices in local churches.”
I think this is a wonderfully positive step. The primary place where the United Methodist Church fulfills its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is the local congregation, the faith community that invites, embraces, and welcomes people in the name of Christ, offers life-changing worship that connects people to God, provides opportunities for people to mature in faith by learning in community, and helps people discover God’s call on their life to make a positive difference for the purposes of Christ through service, mission, and justice ministries. If we do not figure out how to fulfill our mission through healthy, strong, outward-focused congregations, then there will be no connectional ministries, no effective efforts at fighting malaria, no disaster response teams in the future. I agree with the observations of one of the professional lay consultants who worked with the Call to Action Team when he said, “I actually think this should be a 40-year focus rather than a ten year emphasis.” This recommendation calls for sustained obedience in a consistent direction over time, and this will be hard for the United Methodist Church, but I’m excited by the prospects. In blogs to come, I will reflect on what this means for our understanding of connectionalism, how annual conferences can direct their attention, resources, and personnel in more intentional ways, what the implications are for the Five Practices and other helpful initiatives to strengthen congregations, and what the implications may be for general boards, seminaries, foundations and other UM institutions during the years to come as we seek to align resources, personnel and our best work toward fulfilling the mission of Christ through congregations.
Key Recommendation Two says, “Dramatically reform the clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.”
There is much in this important recommendation as well. How do we design recruitment systems and credentialing systems that are understandable, accessible and appealing in order to attract gifted people to ministry while also sharpening our focus on fruitfulness, effectiveness, and accountability? How is our current system conducive to these outcomes, and how does it undermine these efforts? Do the recommendations coming out of the Ministry Study support these efforts? How might the appointment processes improve to strengthen the mission of the church and what are the real implications of adjusting our concept of the guaranteed appointment? What are the best means to prepare people for ministry in the future, and what are the varying and appropriate credentialing processes for diverse settings of ministry? For me, the fundamental issues are excellence and fruitfulness in ministry.
Key Recommendation Three says, “Collect, report and review, and act on statistical information that measures progress in key performance areas to learn and adjust our approaches to leadership, policies, and the use of human and financial resources.”
This recommendation requires us to focus on results, outcomes, impact, and fruitfulness in all of our ministries so that we break the unhealthy habit of merely focusing on inputs and of measuring success by how many people work on a project, how much money is spent, or how many buildings are built. Many things in ministry are measurable – attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, contributions, etc. On the other hand, much of the fruit of ministry is immeasurable and beyond our capacity to quantify and report. But this doesn’t get us off the hook and does not release us from the obligation to focus on fruit. We should use “measurables” where we can, and use “describables” where we cannot measure, and hold each other accountable for fruit. Most importantly, the recommendation says we must act on this information and adapt to better fulfill the mission.
Key Recommendation Four reads, “Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops (1) assuming responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, participation in servant/mission ministries, benevolent giving, and lowering the average age of participants in local church life; and (2) establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.”
This recommendation places the responsibility for forming a culture of accountability on the Council of Bishops. Also, notice that the language particularly focuses on the “active” bishops in contrast to the retired bishops. The Council is comprised of both, and there is much to be worked out on how this recommendation will be fulfilled. The consultant to the Call to Action Team made an insightful observation when he told us, “The Council of Bishops is a group of leaders who seeks to be a leadership group, but faces many restraints, internal and external.” I agree. Many effective and passionate leaders of the United Methodist Church serve on the Council of Bishops, but when we gather as a Council our leadership becomes diffused, blunted, distracted, and of questionable helpfulness to leading the church. I hope this call to reform the Council opens the way to new ways of leading.
Key Recommendation Five says, “Consolidate program and administrative agencies, align their work and resources with the priorities of the Church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations, and reconstitute them with much smaller competency-based boards of directors in order to overcome current lack of alignment, diffused and redundant activity, and higher than necessary expense due to independent structures.”
While this recommendation primarily focuses on general boards and agencies, I believe it calls for similar alignment at conference, district, and local church levels of ministry. General boards took their current form in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Since then, much has changed about how congregations fulfill their mission and about where conferences turn for resourcing and leadership. The size, focus, and diffused sense of purpose has contributed to a sense of disconnection from those who fund general church ministries, the local congregations. This recommendation invites open conversation about merging, reducing, redirecting resources, collaboration, and reconsidering how best to perform those functions that support the mission of the church that are beyond the capacity of local congregations and conferences to do for themselves.
Those are the recommendations of the Call to Action. The centrality of the mission of the church at the congregational level, the emphasis on congregational practices, the orientation toward results and fruitfulness – these and many other aspects of the Call to Action report mirror the work we’ve been doing in Missouri in recent years and reflect the same principles lifted up in Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. The alignment of our conference with Congregational Excellence and Pastoral Excellence provides one model for how conferences can take the first steps. I’m delighted and encouraged by the leadership of the church moving in this direction.
Pray with me for a spirit of openness, for a fresh receptivity to this moment, for a level of patient cooperation intertwined with an appropriate sense of urgency, so that our pastoral and lay leadership at every level of the United Methodist Church may see this as a moment ripe for deepening our mission so that Christ’s love and hope thrive in the hearts of increasing numbers of people, calling them to nothing less than the transformation of the world.
Yours in Christ,