Click here to see a recent interview with Shane’s Wesley Report:
In two earlier Bishop’s weekly messages this month I’ve been reflecting upon the journey that we have made as a church, in the past two decades – decades of unprecedented decline for our church but now – thanks be to the work of the Holy Spirit among us, a time of increasing growth. I have highlighted what we have learned and what we are doing differently within the church.
This week I want to name a few of the external, cultural factors that we are struggling with and building upon that make life in the church today such an adventure. As I’ve said before, the main difference between a growing, thriving church and a church in decline is usually the difference between a pastor and church that focus upon the internals as opposed to the externals. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” God loved the world, all of it and we must respond to our world in the name of Christ, loving as God loves.
How our world is changing and how we as a church must change.
- While we were changing, the culture was also changing. Perhaps half of our congregations are now in areas that were centers of population a century ago but where today people are departing. We grew as a church because we went where the people were, willing to make any sacrifice to start new congregations where no other church would risk. At some point in our history we decided to maintain the churches we had and stop moving with the people. This is the single most important factor in church decline. About a tenth of our Conference budget now goes to establish new churches where the people are – that percentage needs to double in the next couple of years if we are to come close to keeping pace with our people.
- Most of our institutions (colleges, children’s homes, and homes for the aging), that we founded in the last two centuries, are no longer totally dependent upon our church for their financial survival. Much of our early growth and development was fueled by higher education. How will we retain these institutions as truly Christian institutions when our financial stake in them has become negligible? Two hundred years ago Methodists established dozens of institutions that would serve other people’s children. We need to recover some of that same spirit in creatively ministering to contemporary needs – particularly because one of our Conference Priorities is reaching a new generation of Christians. We need our institutions to teach us how to reach a generation that we have nearly lost.
- Our VIM teams have experienced some of the explosive growth of the church in our southern hemisphere. Hispanic immigration is presenting our church with some dramatic challenges (Alabama has about the third highest percentage of Spanish-speaking growth of the Southeastern states.). We need to expand our Conference tradition of mission work in the southern hemisphere. We also need to double our efforts to start Spanish-speaking congregations. Thomas Muhomba is giving us great leadership in this area with a half dozen new congregations begun in the last two years, but we need many more.
- We continue to be an aging church, with the average age of our clergy and our membership higher than the national average, particularly in our predominately African-American congregations. While we have had some success in attracting younger clergy candidates (we are about fourth from the top in the Connection), we must do many things differently if we are to buck this trend. Every church needs to make inviting new, young Christians into the leadership of the congregation. This year’s Annual Conference will focus upon this priority and will share some of our successes in this area.
- The past two decades will be known as the time of rapid growth in the number of our very small congregations (churches with under seventy-five members). In many ways the United Methodist Church is organized to support, to find pastoral leadership for, and to produce more small congregations. Our small congregations have shown themselves to be wonderfully resilient. Our medium sized congregations have been those most threatened by present trends. Most of our resources, and most of our pastors continue to support small congregations. We’ve got to find a way to deploy more of our pastoral and financial resources to start new congregations and to take new initiatives to reach a new generation. All of our small congregations were given birth by a church that was determined to go where the people were. We’ve got to show that same pioneering spirit in our time.
I fervently believe that God will continue to bless us and give us what we need to reach a new generation, to be faithful to the mandate of Christ in our time and place.
Recently I was asked to contribute a commentary on the website of the General Commission on Religion and Race. I reprint it here, as a thought piece on this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.
When I saw the racial composition of the delegates to the Republican National Convention I saw a political party that was sadly out of touch with the future of this great democracy. In that vast throng of delegates, no more than thirty-seven were African Americans! Any party that so limited in diversity was doomed to failure in the election.
And yet, as a United Methodist, I grieve that our church is steadily looking more like the composition of this secular political party and less like the Body of Christ – racially speaking. During three decades of programs, agencies, and millions of dollars of funding to foster greater racial inclusiveness in our church, we have proportionally become less racially inclusive. I consider this to be one of our greatest scandals and an affront to the gospel.
We have made some remarkable progress in addressing historic patterns of racial exclusiveness in our church. In the past few decades we have shown growth in the number of Bishops, District Superintendents, General and Jurisdictional Conference Delegates, and Directors and Staff of General Boards who are persons of color. The trouble is, in all these categories, the percentage of people of color represented is much greater than the presence of people of color in the membership of the denomination.
Therein lies the problem. We have tried to address the issue of “racial inclusiveness” in an exclusively top-down fashion – electing and appointing persons of color in a high proportion to positions of authority in our church while failing to make racial inclusiveness a bottom-up phenomenon. The statistics suggest that we’ve got “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” only for people of the racial group that is in decline of the percentage of the American population. Years ago, Bob Wilson and I said (in Rekindling the Flame ) that our church loves slogans about African Americans more than we appear to love actual United Methodist African Americans! African American United Methodists are a shrinking proportion of our church. In my own Annual Conference, 25% of my Cabinet is African American. Yet we are struggling to have thriving, growing predominately African American congregations. The rate of death of our African American constituency is about five times higher than our rate of new African American members.
True, our church shows decline in many segments (though our Korean and Spanish speaking congregations appear to be happy exceptions). My worry is that my African American congregations are declining faster, proportionately, than my non-African American congregations. The age of the average African American United Methodist appears to be even higher than the average age of United Methodists in general (which is already terribly high). We are losing our African American constituency — particularly African Americans of the generation of our new President. Obama is President, in great part, because he marvelously succeeded in appealing to the generation that my church has (be they white, black, or brown) excluded – people under forty.
Though my immediate concern is reaching a new generation of African Americans, I fear that we are having similarly poor response from some other racial minorities. According to a breakdown of conference statistics by GCFA, since 1990 the conference that showed the greatest decline in average worship attendance was the Rio Grande Conference, declining by 30.14%. This decline is particularly sad because this geographic area has been the beneficiary of dramatic growth in Spanish-speaking people.
I therefore find myself in agreement with Dr. Lovette Weems, Jr. of Wesley Theological Seminary who, last fall, told the Council of Bishops, “We need an affirmative action program for ethnic minority United Methodists!” Our church has proved that having more bishops and denominational executives of color, while enriching the quality of leadership of our church, has no positive effect on the number of members of our church who are persons of color. It seems that no African Americans become United Methodists simply because we have slogans about racial inclusiveness and a few persons in top positions. We need a church wide effort to do what we need to do to increase the number of professions of faith by people of color.
Weems noted that, “All mainline denominations have wonderful statements about racial inclusiveness but no mainline denomination has demonstrated that it can reach any racial group other than whites at the same rate it can reach white people.”
If one examines the website of the General Commission on Religion and Race one searches in vain for emphasis on increasing the diversity of our church through making our church more accessible, attractive, welcoming, and inclusive of a new generation of persons of color. It as if the Commission has not heard that “making disciples for the transformation of the world” is the bishops’ priority for this quadrennium. (To be fair to the Commission, most of the other agency websites are guilty of the same omission.) Sadly, it is easier to elect and appoint a few persons of color to leadership positions in our church than to welcome new United Methodists. I wish the Commission on Religion and Race would show the same commitment to set goals and monitor diversity in the areas of evangelism, new members, baptisms, average attendance, and professions of faith that it has shown in monitoring delegates to G eneral Conference.
My friend Nathan Hatch, great American church historian, notes that in the Nineteenth Century, “More African Americans became Christians in 10 years of Methodist preaching than in a century of Anglican.” Our movement, in its first years in this nation, showed a peculiar genius for reaching African Americans for Christ and Wesleyan Christianity. A gracious, ever seeking God can use us again if we decide that reaching a new generation of Christians and making disciples is a priority. We do have a few congregations and pastors who know how to do this crucial ministry. They must teach the rest of us. In my experience, persons of color are attracted to a congregation and decide to join that congregation for exactly the same reasons as anyone else – vibrant, Spirit-filled worship, engaging preaching, a warm, exciting congregational culture, and opportunities for service and witness in the name o f Christ. Though it pains me to admit this, I have never met a single person of any racial group who became a United Methodist Christian because of bishops!
The way to be a more racially inclusive church is not through monitoring, slogans, or the election of bishops – it is by being more racially inclusive in our membership. The youthfulness of the growing racial ethnic diversity in the United States makes its impact even more significant for the future of an aging denomination. Our church’s vitality in the next century will be dependent upon its willingness and ability to respond to the changing face of America.
I would love to see our church move from a vague statement like “making disciples” to set specific goals for reaching persons of color as members of our church. Then we should commit to give pastors the skills they need to lead toward that goal. We should hold bishops like me, churches and pastors accountable to those goals, and we should appoint and deploy pastors on the basis of how well God uses them to reach a new generation of United Methodists who will enable us to be a church that not only talks about racial inclusiveness but embodies, practices, visibly demonstrates inclusiveness in our membership.
William H. Willimon
P.S. Next week, I’ll return to and conclude my messages on A Short Account of a Continuing Journey and focus on how our world is changing and how we as a church must change.
Last week I noted some of the things we have learned about how to grow our church and better to position ourselves for reaching a new generation for Christ. Now I note some of the ways we are doing the work of Christ differently in order to get different results from our labors.
What we are doing differently in order to keep up with Jesus:
- Our pastors are learning the skills needed to be transformative leaders. Most of us inculcated those skills needed to maintain the church, to react to crises in the church, to organize the church on the basis of our Discipline, but we had no training in how to change the church, grow the church, or reorganize the church for different results. Our pastors told us that they needed a new skill set to lead in the ways that the church was asking them to lead. NCD, our Healthy Congregations program, the interventions by the Pastoral Care and Counseling Center, and the attention of District Superintendents who now function more effectively as trainers, coaches, and mentors is making our pastors more into transformative leaders than merely care givers.
- In A New Connection Andy Langford and I urged every congregation to devise a mission statement in order to mobilize and focus for the work that Jesus demands. Little did I know that soon I would be serving a Conference that had one of the most succinct and empowering mission statements in our Connection. When I came here, I inherited The North Alabama Conference has a vision statement, which I have found very helpful in focusing our ministry. The Cabinet and I have utilized that statement to set our Conference Priorities. The statement and the Priorities, now given quantifiable shape in the Conference Dashboard, are revolutionizing the way that our church is led by its pastors.
- We learned how to do community demographics as a way of starting new churches. Methodism is a movement that grew in great part because we obeyed the Great Commission and went where the people were. Having noticed that we had many churches today where the people had left, we became savvy in analyzing where the people were and in finding the resources to move toward them. We moved from being a church that occasionally did good things for marginalized persons to a church that started congregations that are led by and who empower marginalized persons to be the church. Here I’m thinking about new churches like The Church Without Walls in Birmingham, Glen Addie in Anniston, and Genesis in Guntersville.
- We realize that our clergy who seek to be transformative leaders place themselves under more stress, and have a more demanding ministry than if they simply tried to maintain the church as they received it from the last generation. We have therefore encouraged clergy sabbaticals, sought grants for clergy renewal leaves, worked with ICE to obtain training for clergy leaders, and sponsored retreats in spiritual formation and spiritual groundedness for clergy. In addition to this, the Cabinet took steps to exit some of our noticeable clergy non-performers, attempting to deal compassionately with those clergy who seemed unable to function well in a new culture of growth and accountability for outreach.
- We have transformed our clergy recruitment procedures, revolutionizing the way we make visits to seminaries, making our Conference a magnet for talented new clergy, regardless of their place of birth. We have brought in new personnel to help us in our work (like Thomas Muhumba and Eddie Spencer). Our new, young clergy said that they needed better supervision and mentoring so we created the Residency in Ministry program for probationers and we are continuing to revamp our mentoring process.
I give thanks to God not only for the privilege of serving in a transforming, forward moving Conference but also for being able to be the Episcopal leader at a time when, having debated and studied church growth and decline for the last two decades we at last are doing things differently in order to give as a very different future. The things that we are doing differently, the new ideas that we are embodying are all evidence of the renewing, transforming work of the Holy Spirit among us.
As we move into a new year together, our 201st year as a Conference, I thought that the next three weeks would be a good time to assess where we have come from in recent years and where we think God is leading us.
Just over two decades ago we began to wake up and realize that we were experiencing a phenomenon that had never occurred in the two hundred year history of the Methodist Church. Since that time, the North Alabama Conference has been one of the leaders in honestly confronting our contemporary challenges and organizing ourselves to confront the challenges.
What we have learned:
This has been a grand two decades of self-reflection and beginning realignment by our church. Most of our thought has been stimulated by the realization that we have lost nearly 20% of our membership. We could not continue doing church the same way without getting exactly the same poor results.
Church growth guru Gil Rendle (who has been very helpful to our Cabinet in its work) notes some of the stages we have been through on our way toward positioning our church for reaching a new generation for Christ.
- We have confronted our passive barriers to growth. We discovered that we have unintentionally excluded new members and younger members simply by the unintended passive barriers that we erected. Some of our churches had to unlock the doors that lead into the church from the parking lot. We found that many congregations lacked noticeable, effective signage. We placed reserved parking signs for visitors and worked to make our church more accessible. We shortened, and attempted to make more effective our church meetings – dramatically shortening the time expended for Annual Conference, making Annual Conference more accessible for the laity.
- We debated the theological factors that might have contributed to our decline. We learned that it wasn’t a simple matter of conservative vs. liberal (such labels came to mean less and less). It wasn’t a matter of taking controversial stands on social issues (sorry, IRD and Good News, that’s virtually irrelevant to the issue of church growth). We found it was a matter of robust believe in the Trinity – a God who is constantly reaching out into the world, a Christ who is determined to have a family, constantly calling disciples. A faithful church is a church that is always growing, always making new disciples.
- We heard some saying that, for a new generation, our denominational identity had become a problem. People had moved from being apathetic toward denominational labels to being downright hostile. We were told to take “United Methodist” off our signs and letterheads. Eventually we discovered that our denominational identity could be a gift – many people in Alabama have a very positive reaction to the name “Methodist.” We have a great theological heritage and a responsible polity. Furthermore, we have found that our Conference can be a great resource in training church leaders in how to grow their churches (NCD) and a means of growing new churches (while I look forward to the day when individual congregations will start new churches, today ALL of our successful new church starts are attributable to planning and funding by the Conference).
- We realized that too many of our congregations had no expectation that they could grow; they thought that unmitigated decline was their fate. We therefore have been engaged in a decade of training churches in who to move from being inward focused to outward focused, in how to stress mission over maintenance. Although over half of our congregations are still in decline, we have at last communicated to all our churches and pastors that growth is expected, planned, and is God’s will for the church. The new Conference Dashboard is a dramatic, visible means of creating expectation for growth and recognizing and honoring those churches where God is giving a rich harvest.
- We heard those church observers who taught that the fastest growing churches, the churches of the future were “megachurches” – young, large congregations. By my count we have only two of these megacongregations, yet they account for a disproportionate share of our growth. These two congregations – Asbury and ClearBranch – have had a remarkable effect upon dozens of our growing churches, pioneering new practices and changing the attitude of decline to the expectation of growth.
All of these understandings have arisen in the last few years of reflection, critique and visioning. Next week, I’ll focus on some of the things we have learned about transformative leadership and change in our church.
- I am no longer my own, but thine.
- Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
- Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
- Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
- exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
- Let me be full, let me be empty.
- Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
- I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
- And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
- thou art mine, and I am thine.
- So be it.
- And the covenant which I have made on earth,
- let it be ratified in heaven.
as used in the Book of Offices of the British Methodist Church, 1936