Faith and Fallacies

My Staff Parish Relations Committee and I worked on our evaluation form last night. We dutifully and fruitfully prayed about and discussed the sense of living into Jesus the vine, and then engaged the questions on the sheet. The first one gave us trouble. We felt like the wires were a little crossed.

… Not because our answer is zero, although that also gave us some pause. See if you can guess where we took issue.

Has anyone joined your church by “profession of faith” in the last twelve months?

  • YES (how many?)  What are you doing to make disciples?
  • NO (why not?) What could you do to make disciples?

So, let me see if I get this: If people have added their name to a church membership roster, who have never been part of  church membership roster before, that is making disciples. I find this confusing, since Jesus didn’t leave the disciples with any such rosters when he issued them the Great Commission. And if no one has been added to the roll in this way, clearly that congregation is not doing *anything* to make disciples.

Yes, in part, this is just a poorly-worded question. I don’t want to parse words.

I want to strike at the deeper logical fallacy I see here.

I find it a false assumption in two directions to assume that a “disciple” and a person who has recently joined a church by profession of faith are the same thing. And, because I’ve been appointed in a place where we have some shared understandings of discipleship, or because we’ve been having conversations about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus for four years now, the members of my SPRC do too.

On the one hand, that’s an arbitrary bar to set. Plenty of people grow in and deepen their relationship with God and with others, becoming formed and re-formed as disciples, but do not join a United Methodist Church. Are they less worthy of being termed disciples? Never.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people on membership rolls of various churches who may at one time have met the qualification of having joined by profession of faith, but are not growing or deepening their spiritual lives, and are seeking or in need of being formed and re-formed as disciples. Do we neglect this need for spiritual care and formation because the fruits of this effort will never appear on an evaluation form? Heaven forbid!

It was a member of the team who reminded us that we sow seeds and may never see them take root. It was a congregant who wondered aloud about a person they knew who, having been touched by our church’s ministry, decided to attend a different church, asking, “Does ‘make disciples’ mean make more members of the Methodist Church?” It was a layperson who told the powerful story about our community meal, and how we’ve begun offering a blessing before the meal is served for those who want to participate (many come in closer to the table to share the blessing, while those who don’t wish to participate remain in conversation around the room), and how a couple of weeks ago, when the servers began to serve before the blessing, one guest said, “Wait. Aren’t we gonna pray first?” “Isn’t that man a new disciple?” the team member asked. These are the people of the church, owning and naming their own ministry, recognizing the transformation Christ is bringing in our midst. So I also want to say– are not they new and renewed disciples?

I assure you, our team did not remain in the place of objecting to the framing of the question to the point of missing the deeper exercise. Looking for the question behind the words, we talked about whether we had any new members (yes) and from where they are coming (mostly transfers from other United Methodist Churches). We talked about places for potential new “professions of faith,” including our current confirmation class– an opportunity to receive members who have thought and prayed and reflected and asked questions for over a year by the time they are done, so that is very exciting. We talked about the opportunity to reach out to people who are not affiliated with any church (those potential “professions of faith” such as the ones we had named) and discussed how, if we truly believe that there are some who are on the journey of discipleship, we might invite them to find a spiritual home on that journey at Trinity UMC– not because this will give us something to report on the professions of faith line, but because we believe we have something to offer as a community of faith.

Any question can point to fruitful conversation, I believe, if we can pick at it and pry it apart and uncover the spirit underneath it (or despite it!). This was a tough place to begin, because the fallacy runs deep– in our fear as a denomination, we have long prized the measurable membership numbers over the insubstantial feelings of transformation and growth– but in the end, this small group of people engaged the faith and calling behind the words.

I’m pretty sure that makes us a vital church.

Diary of a Delegate: She Moves in Mysterious Ways

(continued from previous post)

The progressive ad hoc caucus huddles at the communion table. I’m in black, just in front of the person in yellow (picture from afar by Laura Young)

When Judicial Ruling 1210 was handed down at about 4:15 pm on Friday (with the General Conference scheduled to recess at 5 and then return for a two-hour legislative session before adjournment), creative chaos ensued. One of my fellow Church and Society B committee members called for a five minute recess, and a flock of progressives (it’s like a pod of whales) surrounded the communion table. One thing was clear: we had very little time to get a structure in place that would let the church function within the budget that had already been passed, eliminate inconsistencies, and keep any form of the constitutionally unsalvageable and now defunct Plan UMC from resurfacing.

After the five minute recess, the secretary announced that we would recess early for dinner, returning at 7:30, so that the calendar and agenda committee, the Council of Bishops, and other groups could figure out what needed to happen to conclude enough business that the church could move forward.

That’s when we went to work.

Our unofficial caucus group met in a large room. We did not bar the door; all were welcome. We knew other meetings were taking place, and we tried to have conversation with folks that weren’t in the room. We tried to invite representatives from all over the world, although only one international delegation ended up joining us.

Everyone spoke who wanted to. We hashed our possibilities: we couldn’t come up with a constitutionally sound plan to reorder the structure of our global denomination in two hours; there really wasn’t a way to resurrect Plan UMC and amend it into something that we could find palatable (including reinstating COSROW and GCORR); we didn’t want to simply refer Plan UMC because it had already been ruled unconstitutional and would eat up massive resources for study and amendment of a plan that we felt was fundamentally flawed (and we suspected this is what the group supporting Plan UMC would do). This left us with two options: revert to the 2008 denominational structure and somehow try to make it work in the reduced budget that had already passed, or approve the plans that the boards and agencies themselves had made to streamline and come into harmony with the initial findings of the Call to Action reports, and then save further restructure for the four years ahead. By consensus, the group decided this last was the best option.

To make that happen, several legislative things had to happen in very quick succession. The body had already approved a handful of legislation that allowed for some boards to function properly, but now had to bring up, bundle together, and approve several more pieces of legislation from the boards and agencies to enable the rest of them to have streamlined functioning, and then reconcile a few pieces that had inconsistencies.

The larger group disbanded and about ten of us wrote out the plan. I had been taking notes and began typing out an order of approach and talking points. We had an hour.

We wrote the motions for bringing up the legislation and the talking points for why it was important to do it this way: approval of the boards/agencies own plans for independent restructure allows for immediate streamlining while maintaining the functions of each body to do ministries, and leading the denomination into the necessary adaptive change that can take us through the next quadrennium with clear and thoughtful focus rather than hurried scrambling.

We anticipated that there would be a motion to bring up and refer Plan UMC. We strongly objected to this option and wrote talking points anticipating this motion: Referral would delay the option to lighten the burden on local churches because it would continue the structure at the current costs. Further, it would divert the attention, resources and energy of our boards, agencies, and governing bodies from their vital work. Basically, we could hash and study Plan UMC for four years at tremendous cost, or we could get busy making and nurturing disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

We were assured by the committee on calendar and agenda that they agreed, and that the first motion brought to the body would be a motion to consider the plans of the boards and agencies for their own restructure. We were assured this as late as 7:15, when Brad Laurvick took my laptop from my sweaty hands and ran to print and copy our motions and talking points.

Curiously, for whatever reason, that is not how it went down.

When the session reconvened at 7:30, there were people *on the stage and at the podium* who brought a motion to refer Plan UMC. I’d like to think this was a miscommunication. It felt like more than that, but we were deep in politics at that point, so I’m going to err on the side of grace and say we must have had some wires crossed.

Undeterred, our folks jumped down in the talking points and argued against referral of Plan UMC on the basis of its unconstitutionality and the numerous points that we had lifted. And we ran down the clock debating, asking questions, amending and amending. The plan was flawed and unconstitutional. It didn’t in actuality even exist as it had been struck down entirely. It could not be referred. I myself made an amendment that I thought might have helped me feel better about it: that the resulting plan be released prior to all Annual Conferences in 2015, so that those bodies would have time to look at the plan, study it, and offer amendment and suggestion. I felt this would address one of the central problems with the entire process: the lack of grassroots voices and engagement in the future of our church.

Eddie Fox (black shirt, khaki pants) huddles with others during the final recess, just before he would come and caution me against further motions. Mr. Fox later contacted me to add that this was a prayerful gathering, and many of those in the circle are bishops from the UMC worldwide.

But finally it was clear that Plan UMC could not be referred or even dealt with. The presiding bishop was forced to rule that indeed a delegate from the Western Jurisdiction was right: it was unsalvageable and the attempt to refer legislation that didn’t exist was out of order.

We got to the mics. We made our motions. We approved the plans of the boards and agencies and reconciled the inconsistencies. We recessed.

Just before reconvening, I was approached by an older delegate with whom I’d served on committee, and with whom I had frequently—okay always—disagreed, Eddie Fox. Eddie is a man who I’m told had previously seemed to pride himself on using the parliamentary process to advance legislation he supports and kill legislation he does not. He was not in a good mood. Smiling but appearing pretty miffed, he wagged a finger in my face and said something like, Now young lady, I don’t want to see you making any more amendments or speeches tonight. “Why Eddie,” I said, “I want to ensure that we approve the best plan for the future of our church, and that takes time and work, and room for the Holy Spirit. And She moves in mysterious ways.” Smiling tightly and pumping my hand, he wished me safe travels and said he’d enjoyed sharing this wild ride with me (Mr. Fox contacted me in writing, and does not share this recollection of our conversation or of his demeanor or actions. As with all things published on my blog, this is my perception of what I experienced).

We reconvened, heard announcements, and suffered one last attempt to pull a petition to the floor that would have tried to make the UMC withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. I scrambled for my speech, but the motion not only failed to receive the 2/3 that it needed, but it didn’t even win a majority.

Joey Lopez, who had been an outspoken voice for inclusion, especially of young people’s voices, had the honor of making a motion to adjourn.

The Coalition worships in the tabernacle after GC closes, drawing the circle wide.

The Coalition met in the tabernacle one last time for communion, prayer, and celebration. Of next General Conference, one leaders said “In Portland [Oregon], we’re going to need a bigger tent!”

Then out to celebrate together with dancing and refreshments. We made a good choice of an establishment, since they were playing Heather Small’s “Proud” (what have you done today to make you feel proud? oh, so so much!) and later some Lady Gaga, and because the delightful human being behind the bar asked to see my ID. Once again, there seems to be a fear that people under the age of 21 are into buying top shelf scotch. I think we need to refer that to a committee for study. I tweeted: “Best. Day. Ever. Defeat totalitarianism. Protect uteri. Outfox Fox. Get carded in bar. #Winning.”

We celebrated together late into the night, side by side with people I have named as heroes and role models and Methodist celebrities, and with friends I didn’t know or barely knew two weeks ago.The outcome felt miraculous. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was. We’d done everything we could, but I honestly believe the Spirit pulled us through. I was just along for the ride.

Later, I summed up what I felt was accomplished to a group of friends via text message:

1. Ministry with families of all configurations
2. Almost exactly what the General Board of Church and Society (hey it still exists!) wanted to say about abortion
3. Kept the UMC in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
4. Avoided a totalitarian power structure
5. Provided basic structure for the church and its agencies to stay in mission
6. Held the line– didn’t get any worse!– on incompatibility and sexuality in the face of the most conservative General Conference ever
7. Met an amazing group of lay and clergy ministers who believe in grace, justice, and a contextually authentic church

What happens next? Where do we go from here? What does God have in store for the United Methodist Church?

I have some thoughts in the weeks ahead, but the door is wide open. It’s up to the wily Spirit, and up to us to follow where She leads us.

Diary of a Delegate: If I could ask one question…

I mentioned that I happened to run into Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter a couple of nights ago. As is almost always the case, I thought of what I really wanted to say after I walked away. I wrote it down, and sent it to him as a letter. Can’t hurt right? It’s part of our global conversation of church restructuring, so I’ll share it here (minus the greeting and stuff).

Twitter cloud image for 4/30 from @andrewconard

Dear Rev. Hamilton,

Regardless of what plan for the UMC we (move on toward) perfect and adopt, I had one process conversation that I hoped to share. I read the whole report months ago and really loved the theology and push behind it; I just think there’s one more question that needs to be asked.

The Call to Action folks asked what makes a vital congregation. I want to take one more postmodern step back and ask, what makes a congregation? Put another way, what is the model of a local church?

I submit that the presumed model is something like: a relatively fixed congregation that meets in an old (usually) building once a week for worship, and a smaller, more fixed subset of that group that trickles in and out in between to handle the administration and ministry of the congregation.

This model of the church is dying. Definitely. I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing.

There are a few very prominent exceptions, places where what appears to be this model is still very successful, but I believe the Church-of-the-Resurrections and the Glide-Memorials of the world are actually not living this model. They are exceptions that prove the rule.

See, I think the strategists looked at vital and vibrant churches, presuming the current model, and asked, what do these congregations have in common? What do they do that we can measure and teach that makes them the same? From there they developed measures of vitality, some of which are really great, but some of which I feel are trying to make us better at being a church in the model that is broken and dying.

I’d suggest that what makes those magnificent churches vital is not what they do that’s the same, but what they do and have done that has deviated from the presumed model of local church. What makes them different? Because that’s where they are living into a new way of being a local church, and that’s what we need to learn.

I’m not an analyst or anything. I’m a local church pastor with just under eight years of ministry experience behind me. I can’t answer that question, although I suspect it has something to do with smaller, intimate groups of people in prayer and action together, connected to one another and to their context/community, gathering in worship to celebrate, equip, and uplift, and then living out their connection to God where they experience deep and true meaning in their lives in ways that are relevant for them, and engage and transform the world around them.

In any case, if we see what we need to equip congregations in a new evolving model of local church (for example, I am horribly under resourced for how to identify and nurture leadership ability in the laity with whom I serve—been making it up as I go along!), then I think we can better evaluate vital congregations, effective lay and clergy leaders, and the effectiveness of our global church to resource, inspire, and equip those churches and leaders.

It is important to me that this conversation

happen somewhere, because I believe in the UMC of today and tomorrow, I love it dearly, and I want us not to survive as an institution, but to die if we must and rise again to newer and more abundant life. I deeply appreciate your work on behalf of our worldwide church, and passionate, relevant ministry. I am honored to be in this Church—the whole big multi-denominational movement of people loving and serving Jesus—with you.

Grace and peace, and God’s resurrection promise,

Becca Clark


What’s wrong with this picture?

UMNS photo by Heather Hahn

A friend of mine on Facebook pointed out this telling picture from a recent United Methodist News Source story, and the way it captures the heart of the problem with the restructuring proposals coming out of the Call to Action (which I’ve critiqued here and for which I offered a different approach). The flip chart reads “Denominational Goal: 1. Stop Decline. 2. Encourage Growth.”

Now, I’m going to grant that there are times when we need to have strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth, and thinking and praying about planning about how to do those things is not wrong. It’s probably better described as the goal of this particular brainstorming session, but the title “denominational goal” is particularly telling in a Freudian sort of way.

That’s what we’re worried about.

And that’s what we’ve made our focus.

When I came to my current church, this is the exact question that was presented as the congregation’s central concern. We are losing members. We are not growing. Help us stop losing people and encourage growth. Of course in a way, that’s what needed to happen, and we measure our success in those efforts by counting how many people come in or out of the church. Fine.

But we did not develop a church growth strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth. We did one very simple, very difficult thing.

We refocused on our mission.

No numbers. No statistics.

We did our ministry, and let go of the numbers for a little bit.

The decline stopped almost immediately, because there was something about which people were passionate, and they wanted to be a part of it, so they stuck around. The growth is slow and patchy, I admit. But it’s there. Not because we have a goal to increase in number, but because we have a goal to be as faithful as we can be to our mission. Do you know what helped us do that? The strength and connection of the UMC denomination; consultants from the Annual Conference, resources from the Board of Discipleship, connecting back to mission through the Board of Global Missions, the list goes on and on. But that’s what kept us going: our mission.

It reminds me of a story entitled “Panic” in the fantastic book Friedman’s Fables. To paraphrase, a ring of dominoes finds itself in a pickle, as one by one, the dominoes fall. Each domino tries to hold its neighbor up, to stem the tide of crashing dominoes, but to no avail. Finally, one domino manages it; the crashing stops and the dominoes right themselves. The others ask how in the world that one domino was able to stay up, and it replies, “while you were all busy trying to keep others from falling, I just focused on keeping myself from going down.” This one domino held fast to its own strength, its own principle, rather than reacting to the instability around it.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. What if we really tried to figure that out and commit to that? What’s a disciple? How do you “make” one? How do you know you’ve got one?

Instead, we are focused on stopping the crashing around us, on preserving our institution. Has survival of the institution become our denominational goal?

It seems to me that if we are so busy trying to save our (institutional) life, we are sure to lose it. Only when we are willing to die, really die, when we are ready to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel, will we find our life saved and worth saving. Death is not a restructuring, and certainly not a consolidation of power. Death is a surrender, a release, a return to those things that have birthed us and carried us, a loss of self in the wholeness of God.

And if we can’t hear that story, today of all days… well, then perhaps we are already entombed.

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.

Counting the Unaccountable

It’s that glorious time of year when United Methodist Churches hunt down, compile, and report their statistics for the year. For a growing number of us, this is now part of a larger system of reporting of statistics year round, designed to help us measure our churches’ “Vital Signs” (part of the Vital Congregations program).

My concession: Numbers are good to have. I do think that we need to set goals and have ways to measure them. Although I try not to live my life by the thrill and agony of my weekly attendance numbers, I do believe they (and their near-consistent flat line) are relevant and important information in both my ministry and the ministry of the church where I serve. Although it by no means tells the full story, I do believe that the pledged giving on my church’s budget articulates a piece of the spiritual health and growth (and sometimes the lack thereof) of my congregation. Numbers of new members, and where they came from, do tell us a little about how the congregation stretches beyond itself in a time and place. These are part of how we measure and account for ministry, which on the whole is a nebulous, hard to grasp, amorphous thingy.

We thought the Doctor had it hard trying to measure spacetime. We need his thingamajig detector that goes ding when there’s stuff to measure the wibbly-wobbly, spirity-weiridy stuff we call ministry.

The problem, as every pastor I know will repeat, is that the numbers that we measure do not tell the whole story. Of course not. Ministry isn’t about numbers, nor is discipleship about statistics. There’s the wily, uncountable, unaccountable Spirit. Jesus himself seems to have preached his crowd of several thousand down to a core congregation of 12– and some of them weren’t too great at showing up consistently. Poor Thomas missed the best sermon in the series, and Judas fell in with another congregation entirely. All that costly perfume and the extra baskets of bread meant their budget never balanced, and the lay leader and chairman of the trustees (brothers of course) never could stop arguing long enough to fill out their forms in triplicate.

Numbers try to describe the number of people in Bible Study, but don’t tell how one person’s life was saved when he stumbled in by mistake and found a community of care. Numbers count the people who ate at the soup kitchen (maybe, if you fiddle with them), but don’t account for the way the meals were served and shared with mutual compassion and respect, rather than pity. Numbers tell us who came to worship, but not who left transformed– or who left hurt and angry and vowing never to enter a church again. Numbers tell us how many people gave how much money to the church, but can’t figure out which pennies were the widows’ mites. And numbers never tell us the tears shed, the hands held, the dignity upheld, the hope gained, the faith shaken or restored, how often God was revealed or pushed aside.

And this is all okay, if we treat numbers as only part of the story, if we ingrain in our system ways to tell the rest of the story: annual meetings, for example, where the congregation tells their story to one another and to their District Superintendent; structures in which the DS and the Bishop know the pastor and the church and hear their stories; organization from top to bottom that communicates that size matters less than faithfulness– something we find hard to measure but accept, because after all we serve a God who cannot be contained in our tables and figures.

But as we move more and more toward a corporate model, and give our numbers more power in the decisions about appointments of pastors and churches, we have a problem. The elevation of statistics itself is a problem, to be sure. But if we’re going to rely on all this counting, can we at least try to count more of what matters?

Just as an example, the Vital Congregations program defines marks of a faithful disciple of Jesus, saying a disciple “worships regularly, helps make new disciples, is engaged in growing in their faith, is engaged in mission, and shares by giving to mission”. I don’t disagree with that, but…

  • We count the number of people who come to church. Can we count the people who follow up on an aspect of the worship service by joining a volunteer opportunity or engaging in a reflection suggested in the sermon? How do we know people didn’t just attend but worshiped?
  • We count our new members overall, but a new member is not a new disciple. Last I checked, Jesus did not tell us to “go make of the world members of your church,” nor is the mission of the UMC to “make professions of faith for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” How do we measure our follow-through with visitors and new members to encourage them to grow in faith? Speaking of which…
  • We count the number of people who attend small groups or studies, but can we somehow measure how we “growth in faith”? How would we even begin?
  • We count the number of people who go on United Methodist mission trips, but what about other forms of mission in our communities? What about those who give of their time and talent to the background work of mission?
  • We count how much money people give to God and God’s mission, but what about the gifts of time and talent that people give?

In an effort to at least address that last one, this year I invited my congregation to report the time they gave to God in service both within and outside the church. Teams, committees, projects, meals, town boards, camp directing, and state committees are all up for the counting. Many people filled out little cards in worship to report back, but I also had to call some folks that I knew volunteered and ask them for their estimates. In a couple of cases, the numbers were larger than I expected, which gave me the chance to hear about projects and passions that my congregants give to beyond the church. In several cases, the numbers were lower than I expected, in which case I called or emailed the person and rattled off all the stuff I know they do for the glory of God, and we recalculated and celebrated.

And at the end, I was pleasantly stunned. In 2011, the people of my little 65-person average attendee congregation volunteered their time for the church and the community an estimated 7,807 hours.

That’s 325.3 24-hour days, or 10.8 months. If that were a 40 hour-a-week job, we would have worked 195.2 weeks. That’s 3.9 years (with 2 weeks vacation a year). If we calculated a wage based on the lowest estimate for what a volunteer’s time is worth ($17.79/hour), we would have given the equivalent of $138,886.53 (almost 85% of our entire budget) to the glory of God!

There are still many things we can’t account for: boxes of tissues and theological wrestling matches, hardships weathered and forgiveness offered. But in telling our stories, even in part, we seek to honor all we have done in God’s name, celebrate our faithfulness, confess our shortcomings, and challenge ourselves to greater service in the times to come.

What would you like to count? Better yet, what stories would you like to tell?

Sermon: Stepping Out in Faith

“Stepping Out in Faith”

(August 7, 2011) Peter responds to Jesus’ invitation and steps out of the boat into the water, only to find himself beginning to sink. We can relate to that, because sometimes when we try to move forward, we find ourselves sinking instead. However, like Peter, if we call out to Christ, he can lift us up. Where as a church to we feel that we are being carried? Where are we afraid of sinking beneath the waves? (Matthew 16:13-20)

At the beginning of the message, I played a clip of my son, Will, taking some of his first steps. This video can be viewed on YouTube here.

This message is very particular to Trinity UMC, and I use some charts and data specific to our congregation:

Pastors only work on Sundays, right?

Today was one of those days. One of those wonderful, glorious days when it may have looked like I did very little to edit a church bulletin or craft a brilliant sermon, but the church and the people of God were foremost on my mind.

I began the day with a meeting in Barre (next town over) with a couple dozen people who are looking into some sustainable and long-term means of providing housing and shelter for people who need it, both in emergency cases, and more importantly, in transitional and long-term independent settings. I may have mentioned that this is a burning passion of mine, and has been for most of my life. This group, while still in the very beginning stages, is looking at the intersection of emergency shelter needs, long-term housing goals, employment opportunities, and sustainable independent living for the approximately 250 persons without housing in Washington County (according to the Vermont Point In Time study conducted to count the homeless [~190] and precariously housed [~50] people as of January, 2010). Once again, it is wonderful to be with so proactive and empowering a group of people. We have a long way to go yet, looking at some big questions, to try to determine where to focus time and resources, assuming financial resources can be made available in these days of shrinking budgets all around. Still, to have a room full of people, some who provide food, some who provide shelter, some who provide job opportunities, some who provide state services, some who have been beneficiaries of some or all of the above, all committed to tackling these multi-faceted issues, it does my heart worlds of good. It may one day (soon we pray) do the community worlds and worlds of good.

I returned to church, to one such sustainable and empowering ministry (our community meal) already in progress, to take a lunch together with the directors of two other meal programs as we made progress in discussing ways to make our shared structures more efficient, accountable, and legally sound through seeking some sort of joint incorporation, all to ensure that people who need food get it, and maybe the systems by which foods are distributed can become more just and sustainable. Or at least, for the time being, the programs in place and function smoothly, effectively, and in ways that keep the IRS and the Secretary of State happy with us.

I thought about my sermon for a little bit.

I ended the evening with a half-hour finance meeting followed by a two-hour church council meeting (but, as we’re not meeting in July, it is my last until after maternity leave ends in October!). Over the course of these meetings, I witnessed incredible excitement (and only moderate frustration) about the vast number of programs Trinity is doing, and almost frenzied discussion of keeping all of the pieces in place amid the many events on the horizon. And I saw one congregation make a commitment to be gracious, generous, and deeply loving to another, beyond what I’d even hoped or imagined they might do. It literally brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t think it was just hormones.

There are days when ministry is frustrating, draining, pushing-a-rock-up-a-perpetual-mountain exhausting, when I end the day more frustrated and distant from God and my own sense of calling than when I started (yesterday was one of those days!). There are days when I not only fail to do good, but when I question whether I have actually done harm in my broken attempts to be who I am called to be. There are days when I am sure that I should chuck it all and go tend bar somewhere, because I can still lend a listening ear, but the drinks flow more freely and the tips are better, and no one is going to pester me about the color of the hymnals or the fingerprints on the banisters.

But then there are days like today. They are rare, to be sure, but they are special, and one of them can make up for months of the others. I live for days like today, days when I feel like I made a difference, days when I am surprised by grace and joy and the way God works in and through people in ways I didn’t anticipate because maybe it’s not all about me and whether or not I make it happen. These are the days I blog about, to remind me of why I do what I do, to tell you why you might consider doing it (or something like it) too, and to give thanks to the One who does make it happen, through and despite my best efforts.

I’ll sleep well tonight, thanks to some passionate people in Barre, some committed foodies in Montpelier, a congregation excited about its ministry and open to sharing its blessings, and the Spirit that spoke to me through all of them for the past fourteen hours.

Book rec and priority check

bread close up artOur congregation decided this year to use the stewardship program “Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity” by Adam Hamilton. I ordered one study guide and the program book, and I have been thrilled with what I’ve seen so far.If you’re looking for a program for your church, whatever the size,I highly recommend this one.

The $10 study book is a concise, easy to read collection of what I assume are sermon manuscripts, filled with personal examples, relevant supporting information, and thought-provoking discussion/reflection questions. The program guide, which I purchased at the above link for just over $23, is filled with great resources and information, and comes with a DVDrom that knocked my little worship and program planning socks off: powerpoint templates (that I’ll tweak), pre-written letters that you can make specific for your congregation, quality clip art, gift resources that you can print out or order online in glossy form, and video clips for use in worship services. Did I mention that was all for less than $30?

But what I like most about this program is the approach itself. Adam takes the entire thing from the perspective of inviting people to change their relationship with money. The program encourages tailoring the letters for recipients based on where folks are in their journey toward tithing and supporting the church’s ministries with their time and talents. The sermons focus on financial health and looking at finances from (gasp!) a spiritual perspective. The central message in both the program and the study guide is to live into one’s life purpose to serve God and love one another and use our money and resources to achieve that purpose. From the study guide:

“Each of us is called to be a blessing for others. We have a life purpose that is greater than our own self-interests, and how we spend our God-given resources reflects our understanding and commitment to this life purpose or mission.”

Adam also reminds the readers of Christ’s statement that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. I got a reminder of that myself this week. Yesterday, when I tried to get a little cash back from a check I was depositing, I learned that my bank account was overdrawn by $900 and still falling. Somehow, while we were in Montreal last month, someone was able to clone my debit card. Although I still have my ATM card, hundreds of dollars were being withdrawn from various ATMs in Montreal. Over the course of 48 hours, in five transactions, my account was robbed to the tune of $1800.00. Now of course, I’m sure it will all be put back in the account once the bank gets through my dispute paperwork, but that’s going to take a couple of weeks, especially since it’s an international crime.

Now, this stinks, and makes paying rent and daycare at the beginning of the month a little rough. It’s a nasty, icky feeling, too, and does make my stomach a little jittery at the thought of negative quadruple numbers in my checking account. But. But. It’s just money. It’s not really even my money, because that’s why banks are insured, right? Of all the things in life, it’s the one with the least value. I’ve had about a half a dozen people offer to lend me money, which I really don’t need, but I know that if it were stolen for good there are people who would help us out. Everyone is safe, and my biggest regret was that I didn’t have cash on hand to help buy some extra pies for our church dinner.

So, Adam Hamilton and your “enough” program, and faceless Montreal crook, thank you for the reminders that our money only means as much as we let it, and is only as important as the people and ministries we support with it.