Call to Action, Part VI: Taking Responsibility
This week more than fifty leaders from the Missouri Conference gathered to participate by webcast in the Global Leadership Summit prepared by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table to discuss the Call to Action Report. The Leadership Summit generated lively and helpful discussion, and I commend those who prepared it. (You may view the archive of the Summit by clicking on www.umcleadershipsummit.org and you can check out the Call to Action report by clicking on www.umc.org/calltoaction)
Among the topics our leaders discussed was the call to “reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops 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…” (Call to Action Report, p. 22).
What does it mean to take responsibility for such incredibly complex practices, factors, and results of our common ministry? And why does the Council’s report ask the bishops to take responsibility for these? 1965 was the last year the UMC in the US experienced growth, and our denomination has seen decline in every year since for nearly 50 years. I was eight years old in 1965! How can I be held responsible for addressing the overwhelming trends of declining attendance, closing churches, increasing age of our membership, and unsustainable financial models?
Many times we use the word responsibility to mean blame. “Who’s responsible for this?” means whom do we blame, scapegoat, or demonize. Any organization facing hardship includes many who are ready to point toward others to explain away the challenges. For years, many have variously blamed the bishops, the general agencies, the seminaries, the ordination processes, the liberals, the conservatives, the new generation that “doesn’t get it” or the old generation that’s “stuck.” We’ve blamed DS’s, the appointment system, the apportionment system, the big churches, the small churches, the social activists, the evangelicals, the conferences. I have my share of criticisms for all these various groups and systems and constituencies, and I’ve dedicated a great deal of my time to reforming and reshaping the church to undo systems that are not conducive to fruitful ministry and to challenge practices that stifle ministry, and so have many people reading this. Each of the above factors, and many more, have contributed to our arriving to where we are today. But merely blaming other parts of the system seldom leads to constructive ministry.
As the Call to Action was presented to the Council of Bishops, one of the consultants said, “Bishops don’t need to ask for more authority; they need to take more responsibility.” That thought has lingered with me. What does it mean to take responsibility?
Imagine a large room with several desks facing each other, like an old style newspaper office. At the desks sit several leaders and on the desks are stacked various folders. The people at the desks represent our laity, our clergy, our conference leaders, our general agencies, our seminaries, our foundations; the folders represent the work and tasks before us. Most of the folders are green, and these portfolios include the lively, vibrant, positive ministries that change peoples’ lives. The green folders include the work of our most vibrant congregations, our great mission and service and justice ministries that transform the world. There are green folders for new initiatives in Africa, Nothing But Nets, Imagine No Malaria, and for growing conferences in the Philippines. There are green folders that report the work and strategies and successes of many of our new church starts, our successful mega-churches, our signature homeless ministries in our cities, our healthiest hospital systems and our most robust United Methodist colleges and universities. There are green folders for VIM projects around the world, for youth initiatives, and for all our other most effective and life-changing work. Everyone likes the green folders. Everyone wants to work on a green folder. It’s easy and energizing to pick up a green folder and give our time and talent to the ministry it represents.
But imagine that on one of the desks there is a red folder. The red folder includes the story of our declining attendance numbers for nearly fifty years, the aging of our membership, the closing of hundreds of churches, the unsustainable financial models, the threatening realities of our healthcare and pension liabilities, our failure to reach younger generations.
No one really wants to pick up the red folder. Everyone wants to pass it to the next desk. Conferences want to pass it to the seminaries and seminaries want to pass it to Board of Ordained Ministry. Strong churches want to pass it to the Bishops and Bishops want to pass it to the General Boards. General Boards want to pass it to General Conference. Who will pick up the folder? Who will willingly open it and courageously learn from it and begin to address the issues it contains? Who will take responsibility for it? Who will face it, own it, and work on it? That’s what I think the Council of Bishops is finally willing to do. Others in our system have worked with the folder already to some degree; some laity, pastors, bishops, seminaries, consultants, and conferences have taken some key steps over the years. But now the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table have finally said, “We’ll take responsibility,” and I think this is good.
But the Council can’t do it alone. The Call to Action invites pastors and laity and seminaries and general boards and annual conferences to pick up the folder as well. Ignoring, denying, blaming, or scape-goating does not help. Someone has to pick up the folder. Instead of saying, “They should…,” someone needs to say, “We will…”
Throughout the Call to Action, the language of “adaptive challenge” is used. If you think that the Call to Action report is all about your conference, your cabinet, your congregation, your seminary, your committee, and not about you, then you are not working with an adaptive challenge. The key question I would invite us all to consider is this: Are we willing to take responsibility for the red folder? Are we willing to own our share of the learning, work, and action that will result when we seriously face the crisis of relevancy, the decline in numbers, the failure to reach younger generations, and the lack of clarity about our mission which the Call to Action identifies?
I think this is an extraordinary time in our church. I give God thanks for the tasks we’ve been given, and I pray that we all approach this with an openness of heart and mind to discern the calling of God to new and bolder ministry.
Yours in Christ,