Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bishop 4 (Grow or Die)

Moving on to chapter 4 of William Willimon's Bishop, "Bishops Cultivating Fruitfulness."  Previous chapters were:

1. Methodists, Alabama Conference in Motion
2. Summoned to be Bishop
3. Bishops Sending Pastors

Here were the things that jumped out at me in his fourth chapter:

1. This is a chapter about metrics and accountability.  A line he quotes from Lencioni sums it up: "People who aren't good at their jobs don't want to be measured... Great employees love that kind of accountability.  They crave it. Poor ones run away from it" (54, quoting Three Signs of a Miserable Job, 128).

I think we have to forgive Willimon for what sounds like a "capitalist business mentality" because the United Methodist Church is in the early stages of death. Willimon likens his role as bishop to that of a mortician at this stage of the church's history (46).  In the last five decades, they have lost nearly 3 million members and nearly 10,000 congregations. The median age of its membership is fifty-nine years old.

If he were talking to a healthy church, I would say he overdoes the numbers bit, but he is talking to a decaying flesh that could be saved if someone would just do something other than worry about nice little nest eggs for its career clergy.

2. "Few of our pastors know how to handle a congregation of more than 150 in attendance, shrinking a congregation to a size that is less demanding on pastoral leadership skills" (53). This fits with Lyle Schaller's old gem that different size churches require different styles of leadership. Someone in my own church suggested that most pastors simply weren't equipped to lead a church over 200.  His advice was that we do our best to identify those that can and focus church training energies on them.

There is another alternative, of course, which is for the pastor who doesn't have the gifts to pastor a church over 150 to give birth to other churches.  Church plants that are watched over by a mother church have a better chance of surviving than the stand alone plant.  Also, a church can "internally" plant churches by multiplying venues that more or less run themselves.

2. The Wesleyan Church, my church, doesn't look as bad from the trends of the overall numbers, but if you dig down, you find some interesting statistics about my own church.
  • 1 in 20 Wesleyans in North America go to one church, our largest church at 12Stone in Atlanta. 
  • 20% of all Wesleyans attend just the top 10 largest Wesleyan churches.
  • About 30% of all Wesleyans attend just the top 25 of our largest churches.
What these numbers reflect is the fact that the vast majority of Wesleyan churches are small, anemic congregations at best, growthwise.  The numerical success of a small handful of Wesleyan churches hides a host of congregations that may not be quite as old as the average UM church, but are probably not far behind. It is no surprise that Willimon's book got our attention.

3. So Willimon's focus on metrics is perfectly legitimate.  He is addressing a complete lack of accountability for growth in the UM church.  He reiterates over and over that accountability was central to Wesley's own approach to ministry.  He believes bishops should be accountable for something.  They aren't. Their job description is even somewhat vague.

He rejects appointment by seniority and guaranteed appointment as the bane of the church.  Rather, they should appoint the very best pastoral leadership to fulfill the mission of each congregation.  Obviously he supports women in ministry, but he is clearly sick of subsidiary concerns trumping the focal concern of healthy, growing churches.  "Concerns about an individual pastor's career advancement, familial and marital happiness, gender, ethnic heritage, age, and educational background must be subordinate to the responsibility to appoint the very best pastoral leadership for each church" (55).

4. Willimon finds Methodist seminary education sorely lacking.  Twenty new ministers he hired in Alabama had a collective debt of a million dollars.  Meanwhile, one pastor noted that, "My seminary education gave me complex rationalization for leading decline and called what it gave me, 'theology'" (53).  Methodist seminaries, in his opinion, are producing pastors suited for serving people in their sixties who are upper middle class or better.

5. I of course don't think the parable of the fig tree is really about numerical growth.  The parallel cleansing of the temple implies that Jesus is rather condemning the leadership of Israel's injustice toward the poor and the foreigner.  Nevertheless, there is a time to be slapped in the face for being unproductive and clearly Willimon is doing that to the UM church.

There's a lot going on today behind the decline of Christianity in the US. I don't think spirituality is the key to numerical growth, although it is essential.  But a lot of small, dying congregations have bags of spirituality... although probably not a lot of the ones Willimon is addressing, which probably are withered fig trees that are destined for Jesus' cursing.  But it will take good leadership and greater relevance for churches to grow in this day and age, in my opinion.


John Mark said...

My church bumps up to the 300 mark pretty often, but we have never broken it, really. I have times when I wonder if I am a 'small church' pastor in a not-so-small church. We are on the outskirts of a town of 4,000, in a county of about 40,000. In many ways we are healthy, with lots of younger families. As this is my first church and perhaps the only church I will ever pastor, I may be doing pretty well, considering :).
Does Willimon speak of what can be done with pastors who don't possess the skill sets needed to pastor a large church? Maxwell thinks anyone can do what he does. Yet I can't imagine myself ever becoming a Kevin Meyers....I am a borderline introvert, and don't have the kind of confidence or drive I think he has. But I'm sure I'm called to preach. So how do we help, or place people 'less gifted' or less motivated, if that is the case. Does Willimon see hope for the man with a 'small church' mentality?

Ken Schenck said...

Willimon is fun for me because he's quoting the kinds of entry level leadership books I would know :-) I was thinking the other day that we needed a new Schaller, an upgrade for today. I was even thinking it might be a nice team project for some in my seminary.