Friday, January 07, 2011

Gathering Impressions

The Gathering was a meeting of the pastors and denominational leaders of the Wesleyan Church.  I asked myself who I was looking at among this group of worshiping believers.  I was not looking at the believers in the pew.  I was looking at those who stand behind the pulpit, along with their families.  I was not looking at Wesleyan educators, although understandably top college administrators and marketers were here on the job.  Also since many ministry faculty are ministers, some of us were here as well.  And of course those who lead the denomination at HQ were here.

So what did I go out to see?  These pastors are really the operational core of the Wesleyan Church.  Those who were up front, those from HQ, those like me who are educators, we are not the dynamo of the church.  Certainly the people in the churches are most the church, but they do not frame the direction of the church, at least not at this time.  The denominational leaders, educators, and people on the platform can try to influence the pastors, but ultimately, they as a whole, if they share a common vision, are the real influencers.  They signify the church's direction, its future.

So what are my impressions of the direction of the church, after these days here?

First, the pastors of the Wesleyan Church are good people.  I have countless friends here: childhood friends, college friends, seminary friends, former student friends, colleague friends.  I like the people of the Wesleyan Church.  The crowd here (including the Spanish service I went to yesterday) love to sing songs of praise to God.  I thought the worship leader for the conference was excellent.

The primary emphasis of their ministries (my impression) is to get people to pray the sinner's prayer.  Here I think you can distinguish the bulk of these pastors from the large church pastors and young pastors.  The emphasis of the growing churches and the young pastors, I think, is to love people on their way to a true and lasting relationship with Christ and one another.

There does remain a strong stream (I think) that does not like having a woman leader, simply because she is a woman.  If you ask, "But wouldn't you agree that Joanne Lyon is a more gifted leader than anyone else at HQ?"  Usually they will agree.  "Don't you think she has as much vision for the church as anyone."  Usually they'll agree.  I have not been able to find any real reason for this attitude other than an unhealthy bias.

I have a hunch personally that the bulk of Wesleyan pastors are quite "culturally captive," and this is a concern for me.  I am speaking of American conservative culture that takes its cues from the moguls of American fundamentalist Christianity.  It is a culture that has a difficult time distinguishing Republican politics from Christian values.  It is neither historically Christian and certainly not historically Wesleyan.

The second emphasis of the ministries of these pastors (my impression) is to get people to stop sinning.  Again, here I want to distinguish the bulk of Wesleyan pastors from the large church and young pastors.  The successful pastor will preach more "for" things than "against" things.  They preach changed lives for the better rather than against those out there somewhere (the people they preach against aren't usually sitting in front of them) who are doing the wrong thing.  The pastors who are attracting large congregations and the younger pastors want to see people's lives healed.  They want to see marital problems solved, etc (versus preaching against how much divorce is going on out there).

There is some good thinking going on in the Wesleyan Church.  I heard that Wayne Schmidt's presentation was excellent, although I was still on a plane at the time.  Also, more than one person told me that Brenda Salter-McNeil, the African-American women who spoke Wednesday morning, was the best speaker of the entire conference (again, I was uploading material for an online course ;-)

What is most encouraging to me about our denomination is our involvement and empowerment of Hispanic ministry and Dr. Lyon's engagement with bringing "good news to the poor" in our broader society and world.  This bristles some because of the cultural captivity I mentioned, but these may actually be some of the only distinctive contributions our fellowship is making to the kingdom of God at this time at all.

This is a hard word and perhaps I am wrong.  As I looked out at the collection of people I love, I found little reason for us to exist as a denomination.  There are some people with vision, but I don't think the "operational core" of our church has any clear vision or identity.  Indeed, those streams within the church that might most point toward such vision are the very things that cause so many Wesleyan pastors to bristle.

So does the Wesleyan Church have any reason to exist?


Michael Cline said...

When the "young leaders" met together in a somewhat spontaneous Gathering of our own, confusion of identity and direction was probably the #! feeling around the circle.

And as hard as I try to find a reason to disagree, I can't. I'm wondering if the Wesleyan Church's lack of unified identity and direction is a just a symptom of the same phenomenon occurring in wider Evangelical circles. We wanted a seat at the evangelical table, we somewhat got it, and now we share in their confusion.

Dr. E said...


The good news is that this question is being considered at all levels of our group and that we are small enough that we can adapt quickly. (Think of what IWU was twenty years ago compared to today.) The other piece of good news is that if a coherent challenging missional vision is presented, I observed this week that our group is ready to respond. I believe the

Dr. E said...

(Sorry for my last comment being cut short, hockey game temporarily caught my attention.)

I was saying I believe that need the courage to go further than other denominations have gone in their attempts at reorganization. All in all, I was encouraged because we are contemplating these issues.

Ken Schenck said...

See Keith Drury's "half full" equivalent to my "half empty": "The Gathering" Impressions. If you are friends with him on Facebook, his notes are now where he has his discussions of these posts.

JRS said...

I’m not sure why we need a unifying denominational vision.

We are a better described as a connection of local churches than a single organization. And maybe that’s our strength.

Our association with each other is almost entirely voluntary.

A local church can exist without a denomination. A denomination cannot exist without local churches.

District and denominational leaders have no real authority over local churches. In reality local churches cooperate when and if they want to cooperate. Organizational politics maybe the strongest influence that encourages cooperation.

Because of our structure and culture perhaps the best unifying vision is to honor and support local churches rather than to expect local churches to rally behind a district or denominational vision.

Ken Schenck said...

I don't suppose God's needs any specific configuration or existence from us. The gospel would do just fine if every local Wesleyan Church disappeared along with the denomination from existence tomorrow. We really amount to very little in the vast scheme of the kingdom of God.

By the standard of "what a local church can get away with," I suppose the denomination is not likely to sell the property of any local church, even though it owns every local property. It does withdraw the credentials of its ministers when they have affairs, so it could effectively remove a pastor. These are things that don't happen because the denomination is charitable and, let's face it, if a local church doesn't generally agree with the church, why would someone want to be associated with it?

I think you are right to point out that denominational vision casters are not clearly more likely to have the mind of the Spirit than any local pastor or layperson. You just would hope that the reason the church at large has lifted them to such positions is because they do.

My perspective... Thanks for speaking out

JRS said...

I agree with your hope for something (call it vision) that unites us.

My hope is that the vision could (should) be focused on local churches and their effectiveness more than local churches supporting district or denominational initiatives. That would be a truly unifying vision.

One of the key reasons districts and denominations have difficulty rallying local churches to a unified vision is the difference in the people charged with running the organization.

On the district and denominational level the clergy largely dominate. And yes, I think that’s in spite of our laudable commitment to and attempt at clergy and lay parity.

Those clergy leaders then tend to assume that local church pastors will join their vision and support their initiatives.

But even when pastors want to support those initiatives (and that is never a given), local church decisions are made by lay people. There is no parity in the local church. Local churches are run by the covenant members. It is much more difficult (bordering on impossible) for district and denominational leaders to communicate with lay people and convince them to embrace the vision. After all, the first responsibility of lay leaders is to their local constituency and to properly lead and manage their local church. Many times they are looking for help with their own problems rather than seeking opportunities to support someone or something else.

It seems to me we need to recognize the reality of our structure and work within it. Of course, we could try to change the structure, but then organizational culture would need to be changed and that is a huge leap.

David Drury said...

Am I interpreting things right that you missed the two most important speaker sessions (Wayne's and Brenda's) yet wrote this review of the conference?


My impressions of the conference were very different. Ask your students that went to it and I bet they'll agree. I know a few I talked to did.


Ken Schenck said...

I have seriously contemplated regretting this summary ;-)

For the record, it was not a commentary on the leadership of the church, the main speakers, or my students. It was my uneasy sense of current whispered currents.