Friday, October 14, 2011

UMC Districts Are the Solution

I'm continuing to think about a contextually appropriate Methodist Christian mission. And I'm continuing to study that troublesome John 4 passage. Who, in their right mind, would start a Samaritan ministry so early. So, here goes the trouble that's percolating with me these rainy Georgia days.

How does a United Methodist annual conference, or more specifically a district, go about planning for the future of its mission and ministry?

Some clarifications are in order.

I'm a "company man" in many respects and therefore not just trying to cause trouble. Really, I like strategy, love theology, and believe that the stories of faith in the Bible are still being played out today. Add a little Holy Spirit in the mix and I know that God continues to want us to let the Kingdom and His will be done on earth, and even in our denominations!

As I think about this contextually appropriate ministry I don't merely mean a district superintendent, or district committees, that "hand down" from the main office what the clergy and churches are supposed to do. We've proven this doesn't work, that the incentive isn't high, and that while we'll all put on the "game face" that none of us get excited about this institutional game that is so far removed from the work of the Kingdom. We've all been to mandatory meetings that are composed of the same annual business, the same reports, and the same "encouragements and reminders" that neither excite us for mission of the Kingdom or better equip us for leadership in following Christ and helping others to follow Him today. I'm wondering about a denominational approach that is beyond the institutional with strong local impact in mind.

Nor do I mean those district committees where we sit around talking about what we want to offer this year based on the same models and approaches we've used the last 30 years. Now, don't get me wrong I'm not just being ugly because I'm one of these folks and often in the meetings! But I know myself, group think, and institutional approaches well enough to know we get locked into routine rather easily. And the year becomes the decade becomes the career of such things before we know it. Rather, I'm thinking of the ways stronger congregations have a visioning process with focus on mission and ministry particular to their context of demographics, calling, location, and work of the Kingdom here. Such a planning process in a more aggressive, ministry motivated church will often chart a course for the next 5-10 years of impact. Why aren't annual conferences and districts as missionally motivated? It seems a great way to better know the churches and communities, and thereby make better appointments to achieve the goals. UMC districts are in a key missional strategy position yet are severely underutilized in most cases.

Recent conversations and thinking about the Kingdom of God and new ways of being a denomination have me curious about the application, approach, and leadership necessary for a vibrant UMC district. Note that a LOT of the conversation heading toward GC 2012seems to be on annual conference or congregation. I sincerely hope we don't leave out the neglected district. A strategy of renewal and reform MUST engage strategy and leadership in the UMC district!

Let me get rather pointedly specific and use the Augusta District of the North Georgia UMC as a brief case study.

If you don't know us we are a large geographic district, primarily rural, stretching from Augusta to Milledgeville, Greensboro, and Washington. Here's a map of the churches in the
Augusta District UMC
. You can see it spans 11 large counties (and may even sneak across a county line somewhere to include another county). I've served this district since 1994 and still think of myself as a missionary here! We are somewhat detached from the annual conference as we are very unlike metro ATL and retain a distinct middle GA approach to life. Some clergy, OK maybe many, would see an appointment in Augusta District as a problem. Yet some clergy love the people, the churches, and the great opportunities here. You'll find 70 congregations and a few other UMC related ministry settings in the district. Many of these counties are stable to declining, and in recent years continue to see that drain of young families leaving for more favorable economic and educational options elsewhere.

Note these reported Church Membership numbers reported in 2010 and that many of the smaller congregations didn't show a count. Of course, actual worship attendance averages would be less in most cases, half would you guess on a regular Sunday? Yet, to me, this is like a roll call of all those towns and locations you might think of as familiar, as home.

Aldersgate 992
Ararat 38
Asbury 150
Barton Chapel 63
Berlin 134
Blythe 33
Boneville 33
Burns Memorial 291
Central 36
Cokesbury 261
*Covenant 146
Dearing 62
Dunns Chapel 65
Eatonton 859
Friendship 120
Gracewood 116
Greensboro 798
Grovetown 132
Harlem 530
Hephzibah 239
Hopewell 198
Lewis Memorial 863
Liberty/Greene Co 165
Liberty/Hephzibah 218
Lincolnton 307
Macedonia 205
Mann Memorial 251
Martinez 295
Marvin 429
Mesena 105
Milledgeville 1051
Mize 319
Montpelier 122
*Mosaic 293
Mt. Hope 10
Philadelphia 152
Pierce's Chapel 10
Pierce Memorial 146
*Quest 263
Riverview 178
Shiloh 163
St. James 254
St John 611
+St Mark/Marks Church Road 58
St Mark/Washington Rd 579
St Paul 133
Salem 20
*+Transformation 170
Trinity on the Hill 2546
Thomson 825
Walker 225
Warrenton 172
Washington First 349
Wesley 2735
Wesley Chapel 140
White Oak 36
Woodlawn 438
Young Memorial 128

+denotes predominantly African American congregations. While some congregations may have some diverse ethnicity's represented there aren't really any multiethnic congregations at this stage. It is noteworthy that there are 2 cross racial appointments with African American clergy serving predominantly white congregations at Marvin UMC and St. Luke.

*denotes new church starts less than 10 years old. 3 are in growing, suburban Columbia County while Transformation is in stable/declining Richmond County. The factors in urban Richmond County are radically different than the rural situations.

It's obvious that some of these congregations will close in the next decade. Yet, how will Methodism continue to share the Good News throughout the district? Will we create new partnerships among locations? return to earlier forms of circuits or pastor sharing? or develop something new and exciting which helps us to continue ministry through the district?

If you look at the demographics for these counties the UMC efforts continue to be "out of tune" with middle Georgia reality. Most of the counties represented in the Augusta district, with the exception of Columbia County, have significant African American populations. I've always heard that we've left it that way due to some agreement, whether formal or informal I don't know, with the AME and CME churches that we wouldn't establish African American congregations. Thus, Augusta/Richmond County continues in an awful spiritual decline as we do not share the gospel with the whole community and as UMC congregations fail to share the gospel with the next generation of workers and leaders who will fill the pews.

In Augusta/Richmond County the population is 201,949 with an African American population of 107,369. Yet, on any given Sunday, the United Methodist Church probably has only 200 African American brothers and sisters in worship! The spiritual segregation once spoken of as confined to the hour on Sunday has now pervaded the entire community. The younger generation of African Americans have left the historic black churches and now neither the African American congregations nor the white congregations have a voice. What does this say about our mission and ministry in the community? What does this say about our future in Augusta? How can we create a new multi ethnic reality that better mirrors the schools, the malls, the community?

If you dig into the statistics you'll quickly see that I'm not exaggerating about the present dilemma. 43% of families in Richmond County are single parent. You may also know that single parent homes tend toward poverty and myriad issues and challenges which are related to these factors. Add to this that our area has higher than state average for folk never married. The stats don't break out what percentage lives together versus truly always single, but you get the idea. 17,000 families (over 20%) fit that category of struggling city center or "urban grit." While 45% of Augusta/Richmond County considers themselves a spiritual person only 18% think it's important to attend religious services.

There are some very natural bridges here for Methodist style mission and ministry if we mobilized our resources and dreamed with God what the Kingdom might look like in Augusta. What dynamic Wesleyan style ministries could reach out to such folk if we were intentional, and had a concerted denominational effort in ministry? These are the sorts of important efforts which DON'T take place if a DS isn't missional, if districts merely do institutional business as usual, or if an annual conference doesn't engage in strategic ministry approaches in each district.

Don't even get me started on clergy who spend their career in metro ATL or merely pass through a district on their way to a "better appointment" nor on bishops who don't know a district in enough depth to give leadership. But, again, it's the system we've built together. The question isn't so much where we have been, but where we will go from here.

So, some mission questions, as I continue to find myself in a questioning mode these recent weeks:

Who is in charge of the missional/evangelistic/church strategy for UM's to reach a district? a conference? Is there such a strategist?

What directions would we go if we were more aggressive in strategy? What churches will close & what new efforts will be employed? What clergy should deploy here as best matches for the mission? What funding do we redirect so that district, churches, new church starts, Wesley Foundations, and the mission of the district is all on the same page for the next 5-10 years?

I'm convinced that UMC Districts are a driver in the future of the UMC, but we've got to be more aggressive, we've got to be more strategic, and we've got to have the right people in leadership if we are to embrace the Kingdom which is seeking to grow in Augusta.

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