A few weeks ago, I wrote an introductory blog on the Call to Action, the report unanimously approved by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table seen here http://robertschnase.com/blog/179-call-to-action/. You can read the Call to Action report at the website http://www.umc.org/calltoaction. Focus on the first 31 pages, with special attention to the key recommendations contained on pages 20-23. To enter this conversation, please read the document! Over the weeks to come, I intend to address the following themes within the report: accountability, the sustained emphasis on congregations, the mission of the church, the four drivers and the Five Practices, congregationalism and connectionalism, clergy leadership development, the guaranteed appointment, the Council of Bishops, and the general agencies. This represents an ambitious undertaking, and I appreciate your patience. If you have other topics you would like addressed, please suggest them.
One theme that runs through the Call to Action is a distinct emphasis on results, impacts, and outcomes in our ministry and mission. The word I prefer, which occurs several times in the report, is fruitfulness. How fruitful are our congregations, pastors, connectional ministries, bishops, youth work, camping ministries, campus ministries, social justice ministries, global work, and conference efforts? Are our systems conducive to bearing greater fruit for the kingdom, or do our systems dampen and restrain our efforts?
Vines, branches, seeds, vineyards, farmers, fig trees, harvests, sowers, soils, weeds, roots—fruitfulness provides a rich scriptural metaphor for ministry. Jesus uses fruitfulness to draw our attention to the impact, the consequence of our life in Christ. He describes kingdom fruit, the effect and promise of the reign of God and the difference it makes to live in God. Fruit refers to what Christ accomplishes through us. Jesus cursed the fig tree that bore no fruit and describes the pruning of fruitless branches. Jesus expects our life of faith to make a difference. He says, “My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). Fruit evidences discipleship; following Jesus and fruitfulness are inextricably linked. Disciples bear fruit.
The mustard seed story reminds us that unanticipated and consequential transformation emerges from the most surprising sources sometimes. In the parable of the sower, Jesus reminds disciples not to lose heart, but to keep sowing, even when some seeds land on rocky soil or get choked by weeds. Paul speaks of the inner qualities of spiritual growth, describing them as the fruit of the spirit.
In all cases, fruitfulness refers to what results from what we’ve received, the change wrought within us and through us by the Holy Spirit, and the impact we have with our lives and ministries. The quality of effect God has on our inner lives and the resulting outward impact we have on the lives of people around us—these comprise fruitfulness. Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” reminding us that our fruit derives from our relationship to God in Christ. Our fruit is God’s fruit.
It is entirely appropriate and necessary for those who serve Christ to focus on fruit, results, outcomes, the transformation within the human soul and the change in the conditions of the world that God desires to make through us.
Jim Collins and Ronald Heifetz remind us that when an organization has an unclear mission or loses focus on its purpose, the organization begins to measure “inputs” rather than “outputs.” Inputs are all the resources of people, work, time, and money that we pour into a task. Outputs are the results, the fruit, the actual difference that’s made. If we only measure inputs, then we begin to congratulate ourselves for increasing these, without regard to whether our efforts lead to greater results. We believe that hiring two people instead of one, increasing the budget by 20% instead of 10%, or working 100 hours and having six meetings instead of 75 hours with three meetings means we’ve accomplished more. People, budgets, buildings, work time, and meetings are all inputs.
For instance, I visited a church one time that took great pride in its youth ministry. The lay leader showed me the newly remodeled youth rooms, pointed out the brand new youth vans, introduced me to the newly hired youth director, and spoke with satisfaction about the funds in the budget earmarked for youth ministry. “Bishop, like I said, we have one of the best youth ministries in the state!”
Do you notice anything missing in the description? The youth! When I asked about the youth, the leader said they have six to eight youth who attend regularly. Friends, how do we describe the fruit of a youth ministry? First, it is fair to ask about numbers—how many young people are actually reached by this ministry? Second, we must ask ourselves, what are the youth learning and experiencing that forms them in the faith? Are they learning to pray, to explore the spiritual life, to serve, to become comfortable with scripture, to belong? These point toward the fruit of youth ministry.
At every level of the church, we focus too much on inputs rather than outcome because we’ve become unclear about our mission. Salaries, buildings, staff, committees, agencies, offices, camp facilities, buses—all these may be helpful and sometimes necessary tools toward the mission. But we kid ourselves when we measure and count these with a sense of accomplishment instead of focusing on the fruit—lives changed, people reached, suffering relieved, conditions of the world transformed for the purposes of Christ.
If you are performing ministries that are no longer bearing fruit, stop doing them. Prune. Practice planned abandonment. Feed the ministries that make a difference. Starve those that have no noticeable impact.
Sometimes it’s not merely that a particular ministry is unfruitful. Sometimes we continue systems that are not conducive to our mission. Congregations that require numerous complex steps of approval before initiating even the simplest new mission project or bible study have a system that provides what Jim Collins calls “a thousand points of no.” These systems kill creativity and support intransigence. Congregations should organize according to their mission with systems that are agile, quick to respond, and supportive of outward-focused initiatives. This affects every level of the church. The bane of every creative Bishop is how many complex conference systems are required by the Book of Discipline, even though many of these bear little or no fruit at all. Nothing is more debilitating than doing excellent work to improve on something that has no purpose and makes no difference!
Some things are measurable in ministry, and these we should attend to unapologetically. The Call to Action pushes us to notice and respond to trends of worship attendance, professions of faith, numbers of small groups within congregations, the number of ministries and people involved in hands-on outreach and mission, the financial health and outward giving patterns of a congregation. These are measurable, and many churches, pastors, and conferences have avoided, denied, or blamed others for too long in their efforts to protect ourselves from the depth of our crisis. A healthy and honest attention to the measurable fruit helps us all remain more faithful and encourages us to seek new approaches and practices.
But many aspects of ministry are immeasurable. What do great results look like for a local congregation, or for a conference? Jim Collins, in his monograph “Good to Great for the Social Sector,” provides excellent insight into how non-profits and organizations work. Just because many aspects of our work are not reducible to mere numbers doesn’t allow us to avoid a focus on results. Where we cannot measure results, we have an obligation to describe results. We nevertheless rigorously assemble evidence—quantitative and qualitative—that helps us understand honestly how we are doing now as compared to how we were doing in the past, and to hold ourselves accountable to how we do in the future.
The Call to Action challenges the church to focus on fruitfulness, on results and impacts and outcomes at every level of the church. This aspect of the report is biblically grounded while also attending to the best of organizational theory and insight. The report is not asking us to become more business-like; it is inviting us to become more faithful to our mission, more disciplined in our planning, in our governance, in our allocation of resources, and in our focus on fruitfulness. What will be your personal response? Your congregation’s response? Your conference’s response? Are we willing to honestly discuss fruitfulness without denying, avoiding, blaming, or scapegoating?
At a retirement dinner for one of our outstanding and long-serving pastors, someone said of him, “Every time he turned in the keys at the end of his service in a congregation, there was “more church” than when he’d been handed the keys on the first day—more mission, more people, more children, more music, more faith, more community, more hope.” What a wonderful celebration of fruitfulness!
Yours in Christ,