While driving this past weekend to a Bishopís Confirmation Days event in St. Louis, I made a brief stop at a roadside rest area. As I walked around in the crisp morning air, I paused to read an historical marker commemorating the Interstate Highway system. It told a story Iíd never heard before.
In 1919, a young army officer named Dwight Eisenhower had responsibility for moving a major convoy of vehicles from the east coast to California. It took the convoy sixty-two days! Thatís right. For more than two months the convoy moved down small country roads, stopped at traffic lights, and meandered through back roads because that was the only way to get from the east coast to the west coast.
This incident raised significant questions in the mind of the young officer, questions about the vulnerability of the country, about the inefficiency of commerce, and about a system that slowed interstate traffic to a dangerous crawl.
You probably know the rest of the story. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act that funded and set into motion the creation of our modern interstate highway system. Now everyone from tourists to commercial trucks to military convoys can move from east to west and from north to south on Interstate Highways with moderate ease and great speed. What took sixty-two days in 1919 now takes two or three days.
Sometimes I think that most of our churches and conferences have leadership, decision-making, and organizational systems more akin to the 1919 road connections than to the modern interstate highway network. Take a moment and chart how a mission idea that inspires one of your members moves through your permission/oversight system in your congregation. In many churches, a person deeply moved and called to respond to a human need or community tragedy takes the idea to the pastor. The pastor refers her/him to the Mission Committee which may not meet until two months later. The Mission Committee may be comprised of people who already feel that their agenda is full and who do not share the passion of the person who first raised the concern. They pass along the idea to the Church Council or maybe even to the Finance Committee first. Several months go by, and the energy wanes and the spirit grows weary, and an opportunity has been lost. (For a good description of this process, read the example in the chapter on Risk-taking Mission and Service in Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations)
So many of our systems are not conducive to creative and quick response. Ideas meander through antiquated systems designed in another day, stopping at many traffic lights and control centers. Sometimes our systems impede ministry rather than make ministry happen. They dull congregational responses to critical needs rather than strengthen and make ministries more fruitful. Examples abound of members who are motivated to start new classes, youth initiatives, bible studies, home groups, outreach ministriesÖbut our systems, like the sixty-two day 1919 roads, kill the project by deadening the ability of the congregation to respond.
The United Methodist Church at every levelólocal, district, conference, and general churchómust become more agile, flexible, nimble, and quick to adapt and to change and to respond. Vibrant, growing, fruitful congregations develop systems and practices that allow quick and creative development from inspiration to fruition, from the seedlings of good ideas to fruitful impact on peoplesí lives. Since 1996, the Discipline allows local congregations to organize according to their mission with only a few required structures of accountability, such as the Trustees, Finance, and Pastor-Parish Relations Committees. I hope your congregation is taking advantage of aligning your structure to your mission so that the spirit can move through your church to greater ministry and fruitfulness. I hope conferences adopt ever more flexible and responsive organizational processes so that the ìmovementî that characterized early Methodism can mark our mission and ministry today.
How are your systems organized for creative, innovative, quick response to the needs and ministry opportunities around you? Do you ever trace how ideas move through your organization from the point of inspiration to final fruition? Is there opportunity for your leadership team to reflect upon and improve your systems by which decisions are made so that our ministry becomes more agile, nimble, and flexible?
Yours in Christ,