Thursday, June 27, 2019

Renewing Congregations: Adaptive Model and Leaders

I'm a field agent serving over 800 churches, and I live at the most eastern edge of the area I cover. So, I get a fair amount of drive time between Augusta and Atlanta. Have you ever driven that stretch of Interstate 20 in Georgia? It's a stereotypical interstate in a rural area without much to see along the way. I've driven it many hundreds of times over the last five years of my current job serving the larger Church.

Car time is my office time, and when I'm not on the phone, or working out a sermon or presentation in my head, I often find myself praying for communities, and churches, and clergy and laity along my path. I do it in that order because as United Methodist who follow the ways of John Wesley we talk about the "world is our parish." Theologically and missionally I know most churches need to break out of their church box and become very incarnationally active among their neighbors. We need to learn how to follow Jesus out in the streets again.

I was in that frame of mind thinking about the beloved communities of middle Georgia around Greene, Putnam, Baldwin, and Morgan Counties when I had an interesting string of thoughts.

A lot of my work these days is about the culture shift, the generational shift, the community shift, and how churches need to adapt our style. How does a congregation adapt itself in style in ways that engage their neighbors? How does a church adjust mission and ministries for today and tomorrow to engage new and different people rather than continuing to replicate past activities for current members? How does the old crowd smoothly and graciously give over the "keys of the car" to the younger generation?

This is a very challenging conversation for many churches as we often change NOTHING intentionally, don't evaluate much formally, and often put a high premium on continuing our congregational traditions which are often deeply rooted in relationships inside the congregation. We haven't changed much in the last 30 years in many places as we've tried to keep all the consumers, the church insiders, happy, present, and giving. So, even if we preach and teach about loving our neighbor, it's another story to put that into practice, and let go of the style church we prefer. We probably love our children and grandchildren, but may not easily give up our preferences much less give the church building, programs, funding, identity over to others. We need to more fully live out more Bible and more theology rather than only talking about the stories. And this calls for a new congregational model and corporate spiritual disciplines that emphasize our neighbors and the church God desires tomorrow.

As the miles were rolling by, and now 90 minutes into the drive with the coffee fueling my brain, I began to think of the hundreds of churches I'd already passed in my urban, suburban, rural trip. Those many churches reflect a variety of locations, different church sizes, sometimes reflecting different eras of life and culture, and certainly some variety of theological traditions that have some roots in their own context and congregational history. Assisting change in one church is a challenge, and across a system of hundreds of churches is demanding and can be daunting.

With this rolling around in my mind, I was most aware of the current culture/ generational shift which also necessitates a church shift. In many churches an outsider might be hard pressed to tell what year it is though the guess may be 1985 or perhaps 1995. I'm 56 years old, and in many congregations I visit I'm one of the younger ones present despite the fact that the median age of the whole population of my north Georgia area is 38. While some churches are content to continue "doing what they do" there are growing numbers of churches who clearly see the problem and are ready for action. Many churches see the disconnect with their community. A key turning point is when the church quits trying to do business like they've always done things and launches into a new spiritual journey in their own community.

I began to wonder about the variety of clergy, and especially laity, that would be most useful for effective churches during the next few years. In Georgia we are seeing many clergy who were educated and became proficient in the day of the Bible belt culture. The church was the center of the community, and church preferences were respected and steered the culture, and laity were very comfortable with this status in their community. The attractional model could work well if folk were looking for a church, so our emphasis was on attractive building, attractive clergy and programming, and having a good show for the consumers. These clergy and laity best know life in one style church that is quickly disappearing. Often the church, and church folk, of the last 40 years were the majority of the community, the power structure, and the cultural guardians and keepers of the status quo. What sorts of clergy and laity leaders are needed if the church is a minority movement, not as institutional, and not in charge in community life?

I found myself thinking about congregations as missional outposts and the pastor as more of a lead missionary, as opposed to CEO, with laity who practice everyday incarnational ministry in the community even more than inside the church building. In many cases clergy are currently more like the chaplain of a family chapel in small and medium membership churches with primary attention inside the church, with laity who run committees and programs inside the church. In a church movement that will likely be smaller, lean in resources, and always eager to engage and involve church outsiders, how does the pastor and church leadership shift in style to become a different type organization? This is where many congregations are currently re-organizing and adapting to the current realities.

These thoughts had me wondering about the best models for church leadership in this next chapter of congregational ministry in the United States. This new model clergy and laity would require different education and experiences than the preferences of the last 50-100 years of the US institutional church. We'll probably return to more the pattern from earlier in history, and around the globe, of a highly missional, discipling, smaller membership church systems. Such lean, highly engaged church systems will be productive in different, deeper ways though we may go through a significant time of adjustment and right sizing. The younger crowd will lead the way in these things, so it will only be the churches who more quickly adapt to reflect their neighborhood and can learn to make adjustments that will still be here in 10-20 years.

Of course, we often put a LOT of emphasis upon clergy, but the laity really determine the trajectory of a church and how much change is acceptable. The laity, and sometimes that may mean a few power brokers in a faith community, are the ones who can become the limiting factor, or the growth factor, of a congregation. If we are so set in our ways, or determined to have our way, that we can't turn over the church to the next generation then we will have already decided our fate as a congregation. If we are content to age or slowly decline and die as a congregation we can easily do that.

So, even if we discuss and can create new clergy models the real challenge will be to create new laity models and renewed church cultures. This shift will be from consumer church to missional, discipling church.

It appears that the next chapter of church must be highly engaging of the next generation. Further, it must be more relational and less institutional than previous generations. It should be highly contextual and adaptive willing to risk and be counter cultural in ways that previous generations would have avoided. This is likely more of a small group movement, of life lived together, with more emphasis on deep relationships, as opposed to the larger group, consumer driven models of attractional church which have predominated for so long.

A missional church, that is more of a minority movement, with emphasis on doing life together and being the church in the community seems to resonate with many people.

For existing churches, and current church leaders- laity and clergy- this will call upon us to embrace new church models & practises rather different, but not totally foreign, to what we've known throughout our experiences. I'm thinking of it visually as the difference between one era of Methodist church that had the circuit rider as the symbol, the last period which had a church building as our compelling image, and the emerging pattern which is likely more relational and everyday looking more like Jesus with the disciples - one named and known and the other mysteriously unnamed- on the road to Emmaus.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What I Love About the UMC

Over the years I’ve served UMC congregations in three states (IN, SC, and GA), plus had the incredible privilege of partnering with UMC conferences and churches in a dozen countries. Due to my work in one of the largest UMC annual conferences in the world, and in connectional partnerships in the larger global Church, I’ve been stretched and grown in ways that are well beyond my early expectations of what I understood it would be to follow Christ. I’ll say more in detail about some of this in another blog on another day. For today, I’m thinking about a few central characteristics I’ve most loved about the UMC..

As I think back to my experiences of UMC people and churches since 1988 I’m reminded of these typical, exceptional features:

Ø  We are contextual faith communities that aren’t closed in on ourselves, but very outwardly oriented toward the community with a lot of freedom to be the church we need to be in our community. Whether urban or rural, in the United States or in any number of countries or contexts, the dynamic faith community is open and engaging of our community. A UMC person and congregation can relate positively to a variety of neighbors in shared lives and witness as a community church. There is a strong flow of the church into the community, and community into the life of the church. At our best we are not controlled by a particular system of power, personality, politics, or race, and instead are more of an outpost of God's peculiar redemptive work which crosses many boundaries and defies easy description. Congregations in the US are particularly encouraged to get after the work and left to our own with appropriate support to be the church for that place, so there is plenty of room for some variety of expression. 

Ø  We are rooted in tradition and dynamic, classical Christianity with strong interest in current, practical expression. We have a history, yet lean into the future, trusting in Holy Spirit. We have a variety of theological and practical threads in our tradition, and in many ways benefit from the strength and tension of those threads. This aids us on a journey to the Promised Land, adaptive, and trusting in God for what is next. My experience has always been that we are a large ship, a big tent, an open table type church. So, we may look more like the variety of disciples Jesus attracted in the Gospels as an unlikely, mixed group. Or perhaps like the church of Acts learning and growing each day. We expect and work for a growing family, involving new and different people of varied backgrounds, with some variety of opinion, yet give room for that variety without getting lost in a dysfunctional family fight. We do not shut the door on people, and are much more likely to swing wide the door to allow more people in. Such churches are also able to reach a more people in the community and are drawn to the edges of community, people crying out for help and for justice, and those who God sees and typically people overlook.

Ø  We allow and encourage deeper levels of thought and questioning in an environment which allows for variety of opinions. We bring our whole life to the Gospel and into the faith community. This also allows a congregation to reach the variety of people in a community, and grow in depth of relationships that fit our context. We focus on the essentials with interest in grace and unity, and recognize opinions and non-essentials of faith as secondary and not worthy of priority. The essentials would be a very short list, and the non-essentials could fill volumes and are often what we focus on when we don't live up to our best. We understand Scripture as God's word, yet focus on God's Word as revealed in Jesus Christ. So, we aren't biblical literalists as we take the Bible seriously enough to appreciate the variety, the complexity, and the abundant life it points to. This engages people in scripture from a standpoint of community and conversation. In this we don't confuse our place with God's in the conversation, i.e. none of us are God with final say and ultimate truth. While theologically motivated, we are not narrowly doctrinally driven. If there were a driving doctrine it would be around God’s grace and our continued response and growth in Christ. In many places the UMC people once had other faith or no faith, and as their old faith or belief system failed they turned to a place of incarnational relationships which allowed for a growing, abundant life. God has often used the UMC people to show another way of life and faith that was healing and redemptive to those who most need us. These approaches stand out favorably in contrast to other religious groups. 

Ø  We have a strong sense of mission and justice. This continues to make us a people with grassroots tendencies with desire to continue growing in expressing love of God and love of neighbor (as we love ourselves, and neighbor as Jesus defined, so that we are always challenged). We have a strong sense of gratitude and giftedness to be a blessing to others with our time, energy, giving, and going in service. We are a church living for others, and get involved from relief to empowerment, with a sense of holistic Christian living that hopes and acts for all to live an abundant life. Our gratitude is shown in our schedules and the ways we use our funding to be God’s blessing to others. We recognize we are stewards of grace, partners with God, and this legacy isn't ours to hoard but to freely share and give away. Such things are both an individual and family lifestyle as well as a congregational culture. 

Ø  At our best we also move beyond only congregational faith life, and experience more and grow more by deepening connections in the larger Church. This might first be at a district or conference level, but then may grow regionally, nationally, and internationally, with focus on healthy mission and ministry (not just meetings). Such a broadening of our life, and knowing and engagement with other Methodist Christians from other places with other experiences, will challenge us theologically and practically. The great good in this is that it can help us get beyond narrow experiences and understandings of God, beyond provincialism or nationalism, and beyond our thinking we have all the answers of life and faith. It helps us experience the ever deeper waters of God’s grace, God’s larger Church, and other Christians who can teach us much about following Jesus. In these redemptive relationships we might also have opportunity to share our lives in a respectful, mutually beneficial, transformational way that helps all of us experience more of God’s Kingdom and offer glimpses of heaven on earth.

These are just a few of the exemplary characteristics I've seen consistently in my years in the UMC. These are not only the property of the UMC, though as I reflect upon the best of our United Methodist churches over the last thirty years, I’ve seen them repeatedly as features of healthy, vibrant Christians and congregations. It's been this way of connectional United Methodist spirituality that has helped me to grow, and continue growing, as a follower of Jesus Christ. The worship, discipleship, praying, serving, and whole of my Christian journey has been framed in this healthy, fruitful context. 

It is this sort of UMC that I love, and that I will continue to support, so that the next generation will have similar opportunities to grow in faith from this sort of transformational theological and practical perspective. As I reflect upon how God has transformed my life through the UMC, a deep gratitude forged of many decades wells up within me. With that I also sense a deep responsibility to both the past and the future, and a greater resolve to help others know and experience such churches and Church as I have known.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Can UMC Learn from SBC?

I first learned of Dr. Nancy Ammerman during the SBC implosion of the late '80's. This was the height of the fundamentalist takeover, and I was a seminary student in Louisville KY, and anyone who was moderate, independent, or not vocally fundamentalist or "drinking that Kool Aid" didn't have a place in the new regime. Eventually, lines were drawn which forced choosing a side. Even if one enjoyed the middle- that's me! as it allows room to go right on some issues and left on others, plus room to follow Jesus and continue to respond to Holy Spirit- soon found there was no more middle ground.

Dr. Ammerman looked at the SBC Holy War from the perspective of sociology of religion and was a helpful voice to assist many of us in understanding what seemed unbelievable and so destabilizing. There were others who would view the large group fighting and fracturing from perspectives of regionalism, hermeneutics, social political culture wars, and one outlier strand within the tradition rising to long term power to name a few other key markers.

Since then it is easy to see that one religious war merely led to others within the group. The SBC has declined similarly to all US religious groups. Despite all the rhetoric of righteousness, holiness, true belief, right interpretation, and drawing a line in the sand, the decline has been steady. And using biblical language and an "either you follow my biblical interpretation or you are an enemy" approach creates an adversarial climate which is challenging to deescalate. A generation of clergy, and diversity of congregations and people, was lost as the SBC moved more in lockstep with each other in a winner take all venture. Once a new normal takes hold it can be almost impossible to return to a previous state of normalcy.

Dr. Ammerman recently posted some tweets that I found helpful in considering the current UMC situation. While there are some differences in time and place there are plenty of comparable issues that are noteworthy. I've mentioned to some that if it took the SBC a decade or more to fracture I'd expect a denominational, connectional body to take even longer if we break up. Being a centrist, I continue to attempt to hold together a middle that may become more and more difficult to keep together. Personally, I find the traditionalist plan unMethodist, draconian, unconscionable as an attack upon the human rights of LGBTQIA, as well as detrimental to the witness of congregations in a great variety of contexts who stand for the vulnerable of society and for those children of God. We'd be much better served to strike the restrictive language from the Book of Discipline rather than continually play out this decades long fight that weakens us rather than strengthen our love of God and neighbor (as we love ourselves). Recalling the wide variety of people Jesus would spend time with in community reinforces a better way for a Christian and congregation interacting with the neighbors. 

Personally, I think the various strands of tradition within the UMC are stronger together as the holiness tradition, peace and justice tradition, mission tradition, revivalists, congregationalists, and others all need each other. We can go our separate ways, fracturing into various Methodist smaller bodies, but even after that it will take a decade or two to find some strength and clarity. If we track like the SBC, the greater likelihood is that we would only know how to fight, would continue to weaken, and after 20 years nothing turns out as expected. The old fight, of one older generation, drags on and on and is of no interest to the next generation, so is only a drain and distraction. God help us if the 60-70 year olds are making the biggest Church decisions that won't be clearly revealed for another 20 years! Better at that point to let folk in their 30's-50's drive these decisions so important to the emerging church.

I'd rather help create a church and Church that is for our neighbors, for the next generation, for people of color, for the indigenous, for LGBTQIA, for people unlike me, rather than known for sounding and acting like an angry religious crowd who are judgmental on some issues and turning a blind eye to weightier issues of vital biblical faith.

Whatever might be new and emerging from current UMC conversations and decisions would do well to learn from the mistakes of other religious groups and not make the same errors. May our prayers, conversations, and votes have the long view in mind for a vital UMC witness that our children and grandchildren will gladly receive and continue to grow.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

I Rediscovered I Have a Blog

How can one forget about their blogging?

Rather easily it seems.

Even easier to forget how to access your blog if you have a new laptop.

My day job is with the conference office of the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church. After 25 years in congregational ministry, in October 2014 I was appointed in a new, different position working 2/3 time for North Georgia with Connectional Ministries with focus on mission, and 1/3 time working with our UMC Global Ministries. Starting July 2018 I became 100% North GA conference employee though I continued to relate to Global Ministries as they are in Atlanta, and so much of my work has connection to mission. For North Georgia, our Connectional Ministries office (relating to the wide variety of congregational ministries) joined with New Church Development to become the Center for Congregational Excellence. Our unit is a stellar crew of program ministry people who serve as true circuit riders serving hundreds of churches as we train, consult, network, and encourage churches in taking next steps in effectiveness. My area relates to mission and disaster response, though much of what I do seems to be community engagement and helping churches become outward focused. In many ways, I continue to be a program director, as I help churches know their context, evaluate what they are doing, and adjust to be more useful to God and neighbor. It's a fun, challenging ride that I love and grow in every day.

I suppose I lost my practice of blogging due to the miles and meetings. If you know Georgia geography, I live near Augusta, and much of my work is around metro Atlanta. Augusta is 2 to 2 1/2 hours away from everything. Add to it that in the last couple of years, we've continued to have major hurricanes in the region, so my disaster response portfolio has grown significantly. I also work with One Board/ Simplified Accountability Structure for congregations, as well as Fresh Expressions. Another fun area is missional discipleship, especially as it relates to being new forms of church, i.e. not cookie cutter institutional congregations but vital, dynamic, contextually adaptive faith movements. So, we add, adapt, and get into more adventures to help churches both in their decision making structures as well as their local outreach and expression.

Don't even get me started on the UMC denominational mess of General Conference, delegates, special conferences, and everyone with opinions. In many ways it seems we opine on the things we can't control, or vote on, and don't attend to what is closest, local, and we can control. It's such a mess, and while I will hesitate to add to the noise, I have some thoughts. Or, more likely, I'll share some of the "best of the best" that I see being shared. My primarily interest will be in the approaches and systems that elevate a United Methodist witness and connectional ministry.

More in the days ahead as I attempt to get back into a routine. The discoveries I share might relate to Church, or farm, or food, or photo, or other things I learn or question along the way. You know, unless I lose my blog again.