The Death Penalty and The United Methodist Church

In addition to being proud of my state, I am proud to be part of a denomination that takes a strong stance against the death penalty.

On the subject of capital punishment, The United Methodist Church says:

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)

This powerful and prophetic stance of my denomination reflects both our deep commitment to grace– the possibility that people can be transformed and forgiven, even after the most terrible actions, and our commitment to restorative justice– the belief that healing for the victims, survivors, and perpetrators of violence comes not through punishment and perpetuating the cycles of anger, pain, and violence, but through building new life and new relationship out of the ashes of past injury. Of restorative justice, we say:

Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community. Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community. The Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)

Most importantly, both the opposition to capital punishment and the practice of restorative justice stand in the legacy of the biblical witness and the life and teachings of Jesus, and are echoed by the giants of non-violence (Christian and not) such as Gandhi and King. For Christians in general and United Methodists in particular, Christ’s example of radical forgiveness is a challenge and a model toward which we strive. For those who consider themselves non religious or participants in other spiritual and religious traditions, the witness of great moral teachers and the desire to live with compassion and love lead us in the same direction.

People of faith and believers in love have an opportunity to speak a powerful word of challenge to the world: it is not easy to forgive and to find healing and restoration after terrible violence, but it is the hope to which we are called.

Justice with Temperance (the Death Penalty and our Better Angels)

Melissa and Ty Jenkins, photo accessed from WCAX.com

I’m proud to live in a state that does not have the death penalty. I’m a staunch pacifist, and I believe that nonviolence isn’t weakness, but requires profound strength. It is by no means easy.

Vermont State Police arrested a couple yesterday, and charged them with second degree murder in the death of Melissa Jenkins. Allen and Patricia Prue allegedly worked together to lure Miss Jenkins out of her home, calling to ask her for assistance with their vehicle. Mr. Prue confessed to strangling the young woman outside her vehicle and then the couple allegedly worked together to dispose of her body and other evidence.

What they have done is beyond belief, defies understanding. It literally disgusts me. There’s no apparent motive,  just deranged behavior, cold-blooded and brutal slaughter. It’s inhuman. On the simplest, most reactionary level of myself, I want to see them suffer for what they did to Melissa and to her son, Ty.

But wanting them to suffer and actually advocating for it, making it happen, are entirely different things. That difference, thin a line as it may be to walk, represents for me the fullness of what it means to live with compassion, temperance, justice, and love. It is what it means to be human and to yearn for the Holy.

The comments sprout up wherever the stories about Melissa Jenkins and the Prues are posted, calling for mob justice for Melissa’s killers (“string them up in the streets!”), advocating torture, hoping for them to be strangled as Miss Jenkins was strangled, and bemoaning the fact that Vermont does not have the death penalty. Again, I don’t begrudge anyone those feelings. They come from our deep sense of moral outrage at a senseless and unthinkable crime. They bubble up out of our shared humanity and the horror of how profoundly the Prues violated the injunction to care for and protect our fellow human beings.

Allen and Patricia Prue, murder suspects in the case of Melissa Jenkins, photo accessed at WCAX.com

But we cannot become the sort of monsters who act out of our most primal instincts. That accomplishes nothing. That doesn’t separate us from the alleged murders.

I categorically oppose the death penalty. My opposition falls into two main categories.

1. The death penalty does not serve any practical purpose. It does not save money to execute criminals as compared to housing them in prisons for the durations of their lives. This is because of the lengthy (and often economically and racially biased) appeals process associated with convicted inmates on death row. Furthermore, it does not deter people from committing murder, as most murders are committed by people who are either criminally insane (and therefore incapable of grasping and being deterred by consequences), or in the heat of passion (and are therefore not thinking about consequences and not deterred by them).

But more importantly in my opinion,

2. The death penalty does not enact justice, and reduces the community seeking justice to the same level as the killers.

It’s not that we are holier-than-thou. We’re not. As I said in my post earlier this week, the fact that we all have to face is that this evil we are confronting, this instinct or propensity toward violence, is in all of us. From that post: “We are the unknown killer[s] on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.” Somewhere deep in our reptilian, fight or flight brains, we all have the potential to be monsters.

What makes us human, what makes us better than our brokenness, is the choice to act not out of that base, reactionary brain. What makes us a human family, a people of faith in something other or more than our own fears and faults, is the choice to live out of love.

We think, in the moment, that vengeance is justice, that it is fair to give to others what they have dished out. Even when we can acknowledge that killing the killers cannot bring back the victims, we can’t help but think it would feel really good to see that kind of retribution served. If everybody in the Northeast Kingdom got to watch the painful execution of Allen and Patricia Prue and then dance around in a modern day Purim ritual, we think that might help us heal. But the truth is, it won’t. Time will help us heal. Compassion will help us heal. Helping Melissa’s family and her son Ty (for example, there is a trust fund set up here) will help us heal. Learning to somehow trust again enough to pull our cars over and lend a helping hand– and I tell you, that will take some time for me– will help us heal.

I said on Monday that there is something stronger than violence and death and despair: Love. Love has the power to pull us up out of the darkness, away from the worst of ourselves. But we have to let it. For people of faith, we have to ask ourselves: if our religion doesn’t make us better people, doesn’t challenge us to rise above instinct, what good is it? If God– whose nature is Love– doesn’t make us more loving, then what sort of god do we serve?

We aren’t any different from the murder suspects unless we choose to be.

Will you join me in calling for justice– seasoned with temperance– for Melissa’s killers?

Spirituality that speaks to the rest of us

I have bad days. Bad weeks, even.

Last week was one such example. I was feeling like “church” was an old, dead concept (I still think this, at least in the way most of us think about church), and that progressives/liberals like myself would have no space whatsoever in the spiritual culture of the future– I even uttered the phrase “Maybe Rick Santorum is right; there are no liberal Christians.” I contemplated entering my backup profession, tending bar, since I would still lend a listening ear, be around people, and have an excuse to mix a mean martini.

But yesterday, more than 3,700 people read a blog post of mine, more than tripling the previous record for most-active day on this blog. And this was not a post about some of the things I normally yammer on about that drum up controversy: homosexuality and abortion and racism and church metrics (hey it drums up *some* controversy).

This was a post about faith. It was a spiritual response to tragedy in my community, and I discussed evil and violence, hope and love, and the need to cling to something stronger and truer than the worst of ourselves: Love, which I name as a synonym for God. I didn’t tone down or hide what I believe and how I understand faith. These are my actual spiritual beliefs.

And apparently, I’m not alone. Like, in a big way not alone. People from my church and other churches, people from my community and other communities, self-professed atheists and agnostics and practitioners of all sorts of different spiritual beliefs read the post, shared the post, emailed and commented and said my words touched them, spoke to them.

And that touched *me.*

Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the only ones who thinks faith can be something other than adhering to a set of laws, and screaming those laws at other people until they adhere to them too, that faith is not so much about what we think, but who we are and how we live, and that the things we name as sacred: God, love, the human heart, the gift of the natural world around us, the power and vastness of the cosmos– that these are all really the same thing, and we call them by different names. But in drawing together around the tragedy of Melissa Jenkins’ death, you all have shown me that none of us are alone. In my extended circle of connection, there are more than 4,000 5,000 people (between yesterday and today) who believe in the power and sacredness of love to conquer over fear and pain, like little ripples of hope spreading out. We’re a megachurch without the churchy part, a living body of heart and soul, bound by compassion and tenderness and fragile hope in the face of terror. We represent a new spirituality, one that lifts up the ways we are connected, not the ways we are apart.

You may not dig on Jesus like I do. That’s okay. It’s never been my goal to convert others to what I believe. It is my goal to build connection between hearts and other hearts, and between those hearts and what is holy and sacred and life-giving and true. It is my belief that faith in anything should inspire us to be better versions of ourselves and to live together with more tenderness and compassion and justice. In this tragedy, and in all the tragedies and triumphs to come, you all have reminded me that we are stronger because we are together, and no one who holds on to the hope in Love does so alone.

The Problem of Evil

Photo from Burlington Free Press

The community where I grew up, affectionately known as the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is reeling this morning.

33-year old Melissa Jenkins, a single mom and a high school physics teacher and basketball coach, disappeared Sunday night. Her car was found late in the evening, pulled alongside the road near her house, running, with her two year old son snug and safe in the back seat.

After a day of searching, police announced last night (press conference on WCAX news) that they believe a body found in the woods a few miles away is that of Jenkins (Burlington Free Press article).

I’m trying to place Melissa. She is less than a year older than I (I’ll be 33 in May), and she grew up in Danville, a few towns away, and taught high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, neighboring and rival high school to my own Lyndon Institute. Our sons are almost the same age. I don’t know that we ever crossed paths, but I went to school with one of her cousins.

Nothing is known or released about the circumstances of her disappearance and murder, but one suspicion that fits with a series of disappearances a few years ago in southern Vermont and New Hampshire is that she may have pulled over to help an apparent stranded motorist, leaving her son in the car to check someone or something (family are now suggesting she may have received a phone call from someone she knew, asking for help or requesting that she meet them someplace). That’s a behavior we pride ourselves on in Vermont: stopping to help a person in need. It’s just a random guess, but might explain why a devoted mom was separated from her son, a circumstance that saved the boy’s life.

A friend posted on my facebook wall late last night, asking what “Pastor Becca” would say to people in pain right now. This was my response:

I don’t speak about or preach about evil often. I don’t buy into some dude with horns and a pitchfork, and I don’t think “evil” has anything to do with political parties or contraception or who marries who. But days like today remind me that evil is real. We don’t get to blame some amorphous devil; it lives in us, in places where we thought it could never be. And the story of faith– any faith, really, not just mine– is that evil doesn’t have the last say. Death and violence and brokenness and grief and pain overwhelm us for a time, but they don’t win. They don’t get the last word. There is something more powerful, more true. I call it Love, which is just another synonym for God in my book.

Our news these past couple of weeks has been filled with violence and tragedy, and as those in the Christian faith prepare for Holy Week, we walk headlong into a story of violence and tragedy. Yes, there is hope at the end, an empty tomb, an open sky. But first there is a mob, a betrayal of trust, a denial of love, a mock trial, a beating, a gruesome execution. Before we revel in the glory of Love triumphant, we must face the darkness of evil. Not evil personified in a person or thing. Evil that lives in us.

It doesn’t matter if a person is 17 or 33, a teacher, a student, or an Afghani civilian, with a baby in the backseat, skittles in the pocket, or carrying a jug of water. No one deserves to die. And the suffering inflicted on them is not some random disaster, but is human evil, the worst of ourselves.

Yes, we are Trayvon Martin. We are Melissa Jenkins. We are the Afghani children. But we are also the soldier who cracks under pressure, firing into a group of his allies. We are the neighborhood watchman, overzealous in pursuit of his vision of justice, harboring prejudices about skin color and clothing choices. We are the unknown killer on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.

I don’t believe in a talking snake and a tempting fruit. I see all the evidence I need to of a fallen humanity, desperately in need of love, grace, and a way to start again.

This is the problem of evil. It is not God’s problem, but ours. It is not God’s creation, but ours. It lives in us; it maims and kills through us. We are a broken, brutal people, and we need a light of hope.

The story of faith– of any faith– is that there is something stronger, truer, deeper, than the darkness that lurks in our communities, our safe places, our very selves. There is something we can hold on to, to pull us back out of the pain and grief and anger and fear. There is something that has the last say over death and violence and despair.

I name that something. Its nature and name: Love.

Sermon: Heart Transplant

“Heart Transplant”

(March 25, 2012) Submitting oneself to a heart transplant procedure must be a terrifying thing, and submitting ourselves to God’s heart transplant and transformation is also daunting. It requires a death of the old so that something new can be born. Are we ready to have new hearts? (John 12:20-26Psalm 51:1-12, Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Letter to the Editor– Associated Press

An article appeared yesterday in the Associated Press with a headline that I felt was way off. Here is my letter to the editor of the AP.

Photo of Trayvon Martin (accessed from abcnews.com)

Dear Editor,

I am writing to express my disappointment and anger over a very poorly worded headline “Was Fla. shooter a vigilante or good neighbor?” article by Mike Schneider, published 3/21/2012.

It seems to me that the outrage and tremendous sorrow that this case has generated stems not from questions about the confessed shooter’s vigilantism or neighborliness, but whether or not that vigilantism tipped over into racially motivated and unprovoked killing. A vigilante, by definition, is a person who takes it upon him or herself to suppress or punish crime outside the sphere of law enforcement (Miriam-Webster). This term indicates taking the law into one’s own hands *when a crime is being committed or is about to be committed.* In the case of the slaughter of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, unfolding evidence– which was in the public eye yesterday prior to the publishing of this article– reveals that this young man neither committed nor was about to commit any crime. In fact, he expressed on the phone to a young woman moments before his death that he felt unsafe because he was being followed.

A more accurate question might have been, “Was Fla. shooter a vigilante or a murderer?” or “Was Fla. shooter a good neighbor or a cold-blooded killer?” The use of two suggested motivations– fighting crime and protecting the neighborhood, neither of which are borne up by the facts (no crime was committed prior to the shooting, and the neighborhood was not in danger)– negates the other side of this conversation, denying that there is something far more sinister and fearful behind Zimmerman’s actions, be it fear, racism, megalomania, or some combination thereof.

Language is powerful, and as our society wrestles with the terrible truth of what happened to Trayvon Martin, we must be as careful as possible to be respectful of both the nuances and the strong emotions enveloping the families of both the victim and the shooter, the community in which this killing took place, and a nation that still has a lot of work to do when it comes to overcoming violence and racism. I feel that your headline yesterday missed the mark, and missed an opportunity to contribute to this national conversation in an informative and sensitive way.

Sincerely,
Reverend Rebecca Clark

I contacted the AP as suggested on their website by emailing info@ap.org. You can also take action by signing a petition at Change.org calling for prosecution of the shooter, and by sending a letter as suggested by the Open Letter Campaign to the Sanford Chief of Police calling for justice (as a tribute to Trayvon, we are asked to send an empty skittles wrapper with each letter): Chief of Police, Sanford Police Department, 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, FL 32771

Sermon: Foolishness and Frustration

“Foolishness and Frustration”

(March 18, 2012) In a passage that reveals a great deal of Jesus’ humanity, we see him angered by how far off people can be in their attempts to live lives of faith. This reminds us that there are times and places for righteous anger, and there are many, many places where we are the ones who are foolish, broken, or downright sinful, and we have really missed the mark. (John 2:13-22)

Diary of a Delegate: Abortion and the language of abuse

The following conversation will be very blunt, and may not be for the faint of heart. Persons having experienced pregnancy loss may want to skip this one.

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

Being on the Church and Society 2 Committee for General Conference means that, in addition to reading and talking about homosexuality a lot, I also have the privilege of reading lots of legislation about abortion.

I have to say that if I had known how hard this particular part was going to be personally, I might actually have requested a different committee. I’m surprised by how challenging I find this reading and this conversation.

You see, my friends, I’ve had an abortion.

It’s not what you think. I was just as surprised as you might be.

I didn’t choose to have an abortion (although– another topic for another day– a woman over the phone representing my health insurance provider BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, the plan *provided by my employer, the United Methodist Church,* hinted that I might consider one because I expressed that I was not going to be able to afford my copays and coinsurance under their plan, which covers only 80% of prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care. This all turned out to be a moot point). I am pro choice, but there’s an emphasis on choice there. My “abortion” was “spontaneous.”

My second pregnancy was a problem from the start. After a year of trying to conceive, I was thrilled to be pregnant, but felt sick– sicker than usual– right off the bat. Several factors caused my OB practice concern and so I had a transvaginal ultrasound at about six weeks. That’s about as uncomfortable and invasive a procedure as it sounds like. Garry Trudeau isn’t far off in calling it rape, although I object to using that word for anything other than actual rape; here, if one did not wish for this procedure, I imagine it’s pretty much the same thing (I’m linking rather than posting because I found it hard to look at and others might too). All the talk in the media lately about requiring this procedure for women seeking medical abortion is painful for me. As people dryly debate whether or not it’s a violation of a woman’s body, I’m taken back to a little room and a little pink hospital gown, and I’m back up on the table. I’ll leave out the rest. There’s a tiny little flutter on the monitor, though. A heartbeat. A living baby at five weeks, five days.

But at eleven weeks and five days (three years ago this past week), there was a different story. First, mild pain and discomfort, but over the course of an evening and a long night, agony. Physical and emotional agony. Praying for it to stop. Praying for it to be over.

Miscarriage sucks.

And a week later, it still wasn’t over. Again, sparing the details, my body needed help expelling the rest of what had been inside. I checked myself into the hospital and underwent the procedure of dilation and curettage. I knew what it was because pro life activists had described it in detail; the only difference between this procedure and what we think of as abortion is that the tissue removed from my body was already long dead. I was drugged, but I cried, and only some were tears of relief.

My scrapbook of cards, notes, words of hope and healing following our miscarriage

Turns out, the only medical difference between my procedure and what we think of as abortion is… nothing. I received the bill for my outpatient surgery. Abortion: spontaneous. I of course had to pay it. At a higher rate. And retroactively pay higher copays for the preceding twelve weeks of care, since it was no longer considered prenatal care as my pregnancy “didn’t result in a natality.” I had to put it on a payment plan, and get monthly bills, with that little header at the top. Abortion: spontaneous.

Much of the proposed legislation for General Conference concerning abortion deals with trying to proscribe how churches should be in ministry with people who have experienced or are considering abortion, and makes numerous assumptions about what people may or may not be feeling. I experienced a whole range of emotions as I processed my pregnancy loss. I wouldn’t presume to know what another woman and her partner, if any, might need when they experience miscarriage or pregnancy loss, and the decision to undergo an abortion is far more complex when there’s an actual decision. We can’t know the reasons– birth defects and rape and threats to the mother’s health and inability to provide for another life and on and on (here is a powerful and painful story). We can’t know the tears shed, if any, and if they were of grieving or of relief or a mixture of the two and more. It is extreme hubris to assume that we can know what it means to “heal from abortion.” I certainly don’t know.

What I do know is this: if we desire to first do no harm, then we have to enter this conversation with extreme care. We have to be aware of how the language and images we use wound people who have experienced abortion of any kind. Some of the language, particularly in the rationales of the petitions, is horrifying, representing what I can only assume are attempts to sway people’s minds by descriptions of procedures and flip references to babies and blobs and everything in between. No, I don’t want to look at pictures of what a fetus looks like, particularly at eleven weeks. No, I don’t want to discuss transvaginal ultrasounds and whether, in the opinion of a person who’s never had one, they feel invasive. No, I don’t want to discuss cookie cutter plans to help a person grieve because we think they should and in the ways we think they should. As with so many other issues, we’re not talking about issues. We are talking about people, and people have walked roads we haven’t walked.

I promise to not use my personal experience to try to guilt or shame others. But I will speak from it to try to convey how these words come across to some, how they come across to me, and how very powerful words are. The last thing a person who has made a difficult decision– or one who has had a decision made for her– needs is to be told what it means and what she should feel about it, and what a legislative body is going to do about it. If we want to show reverence for the beginnings– and middles and endings– of life, we must treat all aspects of it with compassion and humility, and listen to the persons walking that journey in the moment, holding them where they are. That’s how we must be in ministry with people. Not people who have had abortions, just people.

Vital Signs – an alternative report

As I wrote yesterday, I really struggled with trying to input goals for my congregation in the Vital Congregations website. Part of my struggle arises because I do not think that this tool measures the right things and for the right reasons, but the biggest challenge arises because our tradition is one of storytelling, relationship, and connection. There is so much that Trinity is doing around these areas, and so much that we hope to be and are working toward. None of that fits neatly in a number or a chart. Numbers are interesting and important. They are part of how we evaluate our progress toward our goals. But they should not be the goals.

Instead, let me tell you the story of what Trinity is doing, and how we strive to live into our mission: Trinity United Methodist Church is called to become a free and fearless community  where people meet and experience Jesus, grow in love for God and each other,  and live fully and abundantly in Spirit-led service to the world. I believe these goals address the same areas as the Vital Congregations statistics, but with greater attention discipleship and formation, and add a few other areas besides.

1. Faithfulness to our membership, regular attendance and attendance as a percentage of membership – Trinity is in the process of “going digital” with our membership rolls and records, and then using the database to improve the accuracy of our roll and reach out to people we haven’t heard from in a while. We believe that one of the greatest sources of potential new members and attendees is actually the pool of our former attendees, invited back through letters, calls, and/or personal contact wherever possible. An accurate member roll will also help us better care for the members we do have, and make sure we see each active member regularly.
Of course we want more people to come to church for Sunday worship, but also for studies, volunteering time, serving, learning, and connecting. If we are faithful in our ministries and excited about who we are, we believe we will see this happen.

2. Activity in small groups for formation, education, and fellowship - We have found that we have the best response to short term studies or event-based groups. People are willing and able to come together for a finite commitment, or for a set amount of time. As such, we try to have one fellowship activity every 4-6 weeks, and we have had short term bible and book studies during Lent for the past two years, and have seen increased participation through those.

3. People active in mission – Trinity has seen a few members go on mission trips (both through the United Methodist trips and outside groups), but there are many more people who are interested in mission and are not able to go on a trip. Our mission team, which is a new team in the past couple of years, is therefore working to engage the congregation through presentations about mission opportunities and trips, inviting participation in local projects through area mission centers, and increasing participation in mission that happens in and through the church such as serving at the Community Lunch and Warming Center. The Mission team hopes in the future to be able to send a group from Trinity or in conjunction with another church on a mission trip. We wish there were places and ways to report the people who are in mission in the community and church through giving their time directly.
On a related note, the Lay Leadership team asked people to estimate the number of hours they had volunteered for the church, community, and mission in the past year, and the total for the congregation was 7,807 hours. We thought this was a great gift to the glory of God, and hope to see increased giving of talent and time in the years ahead.

4. Professions of Faith – We have no goal set for people joining the church by profession of faith. We understand that to be the work of the Spirit, and the fruit of our faithful ministry. We pray that we continue to see new folks choosing to make a commitment to God in Christ, as this means God’s work is being done.

5. Nurturing and educating new disciples – Trinity’s Christian Education program continues to grow, and we now have a small confirmation class beginning the exciting journey of exploring their faith. We also nurture children and teens through Sunday School, tween night, and a summer program. We know that the children of today are not only the church of tomorrow but the church of right now as well.

6. Financial Stewardship – Our Finance and Stewardship team is changing the way we think about money at Trinity. The chairperson, who is new this year, has brought a heavy emphasis on Stewardship of all resources and celebrating the gifts God gives us, in addition to continuing the important work of financial accountability for the church. He has led the Finance and Stewardship team in setting an ambitious goal of increasing our congregational giving (pledged, non pledged, plate, and special offerings) by about 30% in the next three years. This increase would mean (especially if costs grow only modestly and some of the improvements the Trustees are working on for greater energy efficiency bear fruit) that the ministries of Trinity UMC could be entirely supported by the giving of the congregation and steady income like building use. Church dinners and sales and events would then be for fun and/or to raise funds for specific mission projects.
To accomplish this goal, the Finance and Stewardship team is undertaking a year-round focus on stewardship and stewardship education with the congregation, focusing on a stewardship moment each month and continuing to place finances in the context of faithfulness with all God’s gifts.

7. Natural Church Development – These are the projects that have naturally arisen from our work and our visioning, but we also want to make sure this is where we are called to be and what we are called to do. Trinity has therefore begun the process of the Natural Church Development program, which will help us discern as a congregation one area that may be holding us back from going deeper as a church, and develop ways to address this place in need of growth using our greatest strengths as a church.

8. Pastor’s goals – As pastor I have specific goals for the ministry of Trinity church and the development of its lay leadership. These goals include:

  • At least two new people in new (to them) leadership roles per year
  • At least one new program, created/designed/envisioned and led by lay people started each year (past examples include the Thrift Store, Coffee House, and Warming Center)
  • Nurture and mentor the people who seem to be exhibiting a call to lay or ordained ministries
  • Focus pastoral contact on people who seem tentative about their involvement with church or their spiritual journey and in greatest need of care. See at least one of these persons strengthen, deepen, or begin their involvement with God/church/mission in a given year

Recognizing that there’s no set formula that would work in all places, I submit these stories as what is working here, who we are, and who we feel we are called to be. Perhaps it’s not better than the Vital Congregation program, but right now it seems to be better for us and where we are. I welcome your thoughts.

(Diary of a Delegate) Vital Signs and Flat Lines

This week is the deadline by which my Annual Conference wants me my church to submit goals into the dashboard of the “Vital Congregations” website. Coming out of the UMC’s “Call to Action” report, we are supposed to be working on creating and supporting vital local congregations (which I think is a good idea), by making each church set goals for their worship attendance, membership, and financial giving (which I think is a bad idea– the making of goals in these specific areas, not the financial giving).

I’m not feeling very excited about this.

In part this is because our congregation is in the beginning stages of the Natural Church Development program, which is another discernment tool for helping a congregation assess its strengths and weaknesses and create goals and ideas for addressing the area in greatest need of growth. It seems counterproductive for me to enlist church members in setting alternate goals, and I don’t want to arbitrarily set them myself.

But my objection goes much deeper. As I (only somewhat jokingly) tweeted, I object to making these goals on religious grounds.

My concerns are legion:

  • Practical concern – I have no idea what these goals will mean. We are asked to make goals in five areas: Average weekly attendance, people who join the church by profession of faith, number of small groups, number of members in mission, and dollars given to mission. The only one I think makes sense is members in mission, by which the chart means members who have “gone on” a mission trip. Okay, to meet a goal in this category, we should offer more opportunities for people to go on mission trips. Not a bad goal, although it is rather limited to those who have the bodies, the work schedule flexibility, and the checkbooks to do so. I wonder if there are other ways to measure people *engaged in* mission activity, other than just going on mission trips, which are wonderful, but not the be all and end all of missional involvement.
    As for the other areas, I’m more confused. If I had a goal to increase the number of small groups (note– not the people in them!?!), I could understand that as a program goal. Easy to measure and achieve, especially if I (apparently) don’t care how many people attend them. However, how is that measuring discipleship? What are we trying to accomplish by adding programs that may or may not be used? I don’t even understand which lines are added together to get the “dollars given to mission” on the charts, based on the numbers compared to my statistical data, but assuming this has been entered correctly (*huge* assumption, see below),  much of the money given to mission is a function of events, special offerings, and disaster relief giving that has occurred in a given year. While the trend is academically interesting for me to know (I do love data!), it’s not based on measurable things within the congregation’s control, unless I misunderstand. So how do we set goals? Everyone would love to see an upward trend in average attendance, but how is that at all related to setting a goal of a higher number? What are we going to do about it? If all we care about are warm bodies in pews, what are we counting anyway? And professions of faith– apart from confirmation classes, which I do have planned– there is literally no way on God’s green earth to try to *make* professions of faith happen. They are movements of the Spirit in the purest sense, fruits of the faithful ministry of the congregation. As such, again, the data is significant. But that does not mean we can set or work toward a goal. I’m waxing theological on these last points, but sue me.
  • Practical concern – The statistics are inaccurate and either too small or too large a set to be helpful when compared to each other. The chart online shows five years of data, with the most recent year missing. I’ve been at this church for 3.5 years (2.5 of them shown). Prior to that, there was a, shall we say, unintentional interim appointment, and the statistics reflect a sharp downtick or no report filed. Prior to *that*, we have two years out of the eight of my predecessor, who is a pastor I love and respect, but who will be the first to admit that administration is not his strong suit. The stats entered here (and where I looked at them on the GCFA site for a longer history) are so consistent as to suggest guestimation. And, sorry, but I don’t trust that the guestimates were not a little padded particularly in the attendance department. Show me the past 20 years, and the stats will reflect the slow but steady decline of a mainline protestant church. Show me the three and a half years of my tenure and they will reflect the slow(er) but steady increase of a congregation healing from a bad match and coming back into its own. But this swatch of five years shows an inconsistent jumble of high, bottomout, and incremental increase.
    *Based on this,* the Vital Congregations website predicts a gradual decrease in my congregation’s attendance over the next five years, losing one attendee a year. My time here has actually shown a decrease of one, increase of one, increase of four, and the current year is too soon to count. I’d predict (not goal-set, just predict) a gradual increase on that data, but it’s such a small set that it’s hard. Of course, this is related to two larger problems:

    • The data is only as accurate as the people who enter it. I’m accurately and faithfully reporting my numbers to the best of my ability, but I fear they make me look less effective for doing so, because they are lower than earlier guesstimates.
    • The data doesn’t account for the whole story. It can’t account for purging of membership books, for the intermittent struggles of the congregation, or for the very persistent, uniquely Methodist, frequency of pastoral change. Not to mention that I bet most congregations show significant ups and downs relative to appointment match. Most of our inconsistency comes from that, but we seem unwilling to examine appointment length and strength in this conversation. Again, I digress.
  • Replies to my tweet objecting to making goals.

    The Practical Waxes Spiritual – because there are no stated uses for these goals or even what would be measured and drawn from them, and because they exist in the context of also talking about closure of smaller churches and removal of ineffective clergy, there is a great deal of fear in this system. Clergy fear that if their goals are not high enough or are not met (and those are probably two different things), they will be shown to be a bad pastor to that church or ineffective overall, and moved or removed from the appointment process. Churches fear that if their goals are not high enough or not met, they will be shown to be unsustainable ministries, and will be forced by “the Conference” to drop to 3/4, 1/2, 1/4 time, etc, or merged/closed. Fear is not a great motivator for growth, nor, it must be said, for encouraging faithful reporting. And if you don’t think that fear or appointment status get thrown around in this conversation, I have a wonderful tweet I can show you.

  • Spiritual Concern for our ends – I am not at all convinced that we are measuring the right things. Do we really think that these are what will make us vital? Here we have five “goal” areas, most of which are out of the control of both the congregation and the pastor, and none of which, I would argue, measure discipleship or spirit. Granted, these are things that can’t be easily measured. That’s kind of the point. And again, the information is intellectually helpful. But in terms of goals, I think we can do better. Sitting in church does not make a person a disciple any more than standing in a barn makes you a horse. Let’s try to come up with some ways to measure our “making disciples” not our filling pews. I’ll say more on that when I suggest alternatives. Ultimately, what we are measuring is how good we are at living up to a model of doing church that I would argue is horribly outdated. Church is not about showing up and putting money in a plate, being seen once a week and understanding mission trips to be things that happen out there. It’s so much more than that, now. Do we really want to make goals to be better at a model of church that is broken?
  • Spiritual Concern for our means – The entire process of using statistics and goals entered on a website cuts connectionalism from the conversation. Once upon a time, the United Methodist Church had some pretty decent ways of making goals and sharing them between congregations, clergy, district superintendents and even bishops. At quarterly (and later annual) church/charge conferences, a congregation would reflect upon, report upon, and celebrate the ministry of the previous year, and set goals for and plan for the years to come. This was/is done in the presence of a presiding elder, in many cases the District Superintendent, and reported to the Conference/Bishop. Yes, some forms and statistics are reported. But the heart of the charge conference is the meeting– the time together in conversation and shared visioning, in storytelling. That’s our tradition as Christians and Methodists. We are people of story, connection, and relationship. If you want to know my goals and the goals of my church, come listen to our story, or invite us to share it. Our story doesn’t fit in a 4×5 chart. This is why I have decided, in place of filling in these goals, that I will write a narrative of the goals and activities my church is currently doing (which I believe address all five of those goal areas more accurately, and a few extra besides), and submit that document to the office. I’ll also attach it here, hopefully tomorrow.

Underneath all of this are two very real and inescapable truths: There are ineffective clergy and there are churches that are not sustainable. I get that, and I’ve seen both. I believe that we do need ways to evaluate the effectiveness of our clergy– but you’ll have no better measure than honest and frequent conversation with them and with the congregations where they serve. Likewise, there is no better measure of a church’s sustainability in their ministry and context than honest and frequent conversations with them and with the clergy who serve in those areas. Data and statistics should be used to back up and fact check what is discovered through story, relationship, and connection, never as the first part of the conversation. It’s a tool, but it is not who we are.

Ultimately, I believe our goals need to flow from our sense of who we are, who we are called to be, and the mission that we are called to live out. I think we can do a better job responding to those questions with story rather than statistics.

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