Saturday, December 15, 2007

Left Behind Ministry Concerns

If you read this blog you've noticed I've give attention to the issue of church growth and the emphasis on revitalization. Lately I especially have focused on small churches being compared to large ones. And you may wonder why - since I serve what many might consider to be a large church. I don't think of it with that adjective, but I have attended the Gen. Bd. of Discipleship's Large Church Initiative events, so I guess it applies.

One of the inside facts about the United Methodist Church is that if you get put on a committee, you've probably also become a member of some other committee. That's a little surprise for laity when we ask them to do something like chair the Nurture Committee (and then they find out later they are members of the Church Council.) Well, if you are asked to serve on the Conference Board of Ministry, you find out you also serve on the District Committee on Ministry (dCOM). It's not so bad. The down side is the additional meetings. The good side is keeping up with, and helping people in the journey into ministry.

Each year the dCOM has to re-certify the Local Pastors for their ministry. We meet with them, review their mentor report and continuing education, and hear from them what's been happening in their lives and their churches. I enjoy hearing about the various ministries going on in these churches, most of them smaller membership churches on charges. What I've noticed however is that nearly every local pastor in some way apologizes that their church is small and doesn't, or can't "do that much." Or I hear them talking about trying to mimic ministries that really are designed for larger, program based churches.

The images of success, and pressures of numerical growth shape these pastors, and it seems the effect is to lower the church's and pastor's self-esteem. I want to find a way to move beyond that. I think we need to lift up more models and measures of ministry than the one denominational bean-counters exalt, the number of professions of faith in a year (or if you're Baptist, the number of baptisms - same difference I guess).

If we really believe that Christ is present whenever two or three meet in his name, and if we believe the presence of the risen Christ means life, then what are we saying when we send notice that two or three has to become twenty or thirty, and then two hundred to three hundred, etc. for the gathering to measure up and reveal a church with vitality?

Believe me, I know that churches can become both stagnant and wayward. I know that some behave like dysfunction families. And I know churches can become stuck in the past. And small membership churches especially can become defeatest in attitude. But why add to those challenges by forcing the smaller church through the large church mold?

I don't expect an easy answer or a simple alternative model for assessing the smaller membership church. I'd just like to keep the issue on the table and to suggest that maybe what we need are more questions.

How is the love of Christ experienced in the congregation?
How is the compassion of Christ expressed beyond the congregation?
How is the joy of Christ seen in the church?
How is the good news of Christ shared?
How is the church's record of paying its apportionments?

OK, that last one was tongue in cheek, but it wouldn't be that bad a question, since for Methodists our connectional ministry is expressed in the apportioned budget to fund those ministries. I'd be interested to know what other questions might get at the heart of what it means to be a vital church, and that's for churches of any and every size.


Jim Elder said...


Good thoughts. I appreciate your insight and challenges about rethinking the "status" and "progress" of the small church. If the conference approached the small church more this way the pastor would probably feel more enthused in his ministry, feel more support from the conference, and the church would see themselves in a more positive way.

I would like to say that my church has grown since I've been here and when I do the numbers game it's easy to get discouraged, and when I do conference it's easy to get embarrassed and worried.

However, my wife reminds me from time to time that there may not be much in the way of increase in numbers but our attendance has held consistent for that last year after some significant losses and struggles. It's easy to lose sight of that when asked, "what's you attendance been?" or "how many new members?" or "how many conversions?"

It also helps when a conference takes a serious look at the "personality" and "cultural" background of a pastor when they are looking to place him/her at a church. I've often wondered how they can place so-and-so who was born, raised and lived most of their lives in the suburbs at a church that is in the country, or whose personality is so different that the pastor's.

I know God transcends these differences, and that's the miracle of it all, but the appointment can be frustrating, difficult, or there's an internal sense of "disconnect" for the pastor.

Keep asking the questions and keeping raising these issues with those in leadership positions.

Joseph said...

Numerical factors are but one of many signs of church vitality. Just as a doctor looks at several vital measurements in assessing the overall health of a patient, so too the Church in general needs to look at numbers as part of the assessment of effectiveness of a local congregation. Yes, those numbers may not change in some settings, but that is not cause to throw them out.

The problem is that numbers have been the only measure of vitality for too long. That needs to change, but numbers (attendance, membership, budget) cannot be ignored.