The “Call to Action” Steering Team just issued a report to the UMC acknowledging decades of decline in membership, giving, and the number of congregations. Released six days before Halloween, 2010, the report is a remarkably frank description of the state of United Methodism. The document is a rich rhetorical resource for people who want to impact the direction of their congregations, their annual conferences, or any unit within the Church.
The “Call to Action” says, “This is not a time for leaders who are ambivalent.” I have a confession to make–I am one of those ambivalent leaders, a lay leader. I am in total agreement with an emphasis on the Four Key Drivers of Vitality. I recognize the chronic urgency to nurture and develop effective laypeople, and teams of lay leaders. I am, however, tarred with what the report says is one of the frailties of UMC culture, a “lack of trust.” (p. 7)
As a general confession of the denomination’s problems, the document is almost startling. The devil is, of course, in the details, in the solution.
As a Church we have pursued self-interests and allowed institutional inertia to bind us in ways that constrain our witness and dilute our mission. We have been preoccupied more with defending treasured assumptions and theories, protecting our respective turf and prerogatives, and maintaining the status quo for beloved institutions. (p. 6)
For any pastor or layleader interested in fostering congregational change, this statement is perfect. It is a general, all-purpose confession with great utility. The vague generalities, however, raise immediate suspicions. What exactly do the authors have in mind?
[We recognize] decades of decline in membership and attendance, less engagement and influence in communities than desired, aging constituencies and leaders, and financial strain. (p. 6)
This emphasis on declining numbers, the graying of the UMC, and the financial worries (especially the financial worries) will resonate for those whose primary worries center on institutional maintenance, although relevance to the general community is definitely first runner-up.
The frailties in the UMC’s culture…include the absence of common definitions for the meaning of our mission statement, lack of trust, low levels of mutual respect, the frequent absence of civil dialogue, insufficient clarity about the precise roles and responsibilities of leaders, and a lack of agreed ways to measure success or assure collaboration. (p. 7)
Three of these “frailties” (Absence of common definitions, insufficient [precise] clarity, and lack of agreed ways to measure) seem to be a case of embedding the solution in the statement of the problem. They all point to a lack of uniformity.
The other “frailties” (lack of trust, low levels of mutual respect, and the frequent absence of civil dialogue) are barriers to uniformity and agreement. The lack of trust suggests a history of bad faith, arrogance, and double-speak. Low levels of mutual respect is a polite way of saying we have viewed one another with contempt and disdain, saying “Raca” to one another. The frequent absence of civil dialogue is quite understandable in situations where theology and ideology hold sway, where the desire to lord it over one another predominates, where power trumps love.
We identify the need for…more clarity and understanding about the UMC’s mission, culture, and values. (p. 7)
I can only hope that “clarity and understanding” does not mean the imposition of uniformity on the congregations. Unfortunately, there are proposals in the report that suggests precisely this. There are also proposals that call for an end to coercive attempts to “legislate morality.” It seems on first reading, however, that the call for uniformity appears to have teeth, and the call to “quiet down” does not. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.
The Steering Team was unflinching in acknowledging decades of decline in membership, attendance and influence; lack of mission clarity and low confidence among many UMC leaders about aspects of Church life; an increasing tendency to turn inward and emphasize institutional survival, increasing financial pressures; and a widespread failure to engage and involve significant numbers of younger and more diverse people. (p. 14)
These are massive problems in a sprawling institution like the United Methodist Church with its history of divisions and unions, and the Steering Team Report acknowledges their complexity in its report. The report’s research-based prescription seems common sense enough, but there is more to it than four Key Drivers of Vitality.
In living out our mission as The United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we must invest more in initiatives that foster congregational vitality and spend less time bemoaning organizational dysfunction or stressing “renewal” as if to restore past achievements. (14)
Part of this could be easily paraphrased as, “Quit ‘yer bitchin’ and do something we can see, count, and put on a graph!” I must say that there are more ways to stress “renewal” than by looking to the faded glory of the past, as the report acknowledges. Renovaré has spiritual renewal at its core, as did the Charismatic Renewal. But seeing as how most other church ills are left vague and un-named in the report, I’m curious why “renewal” was chosen for the honor. Is it probably because spiritual renewal can’t be quantified or measured.
Continued pursuit of the most prevalent of current approaches, structures, policies, and practices is likely to produce the same results with continued decline and decreasing mission impact…. Business as usual is unsustainable. Instead, dramatically different new behaviors, not incremental changes, are required. (p. 18)
“Dramatically different”? Read: revolutionary! A call for revolution. And you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, right?
We need a cadre of mutually committed, collaborative, turnaround leaders that (1) make a compelling case for daring, disciplined, and sustainable actions and (2) demonstrate strong leadership to vividly change what we emphasize, and de-emphasize many current treasured approaches and programs and forego familiar rhetoric that, though valued, does not lead to effectiveness in achieving different and desired outcomes. (p. 19)
We need to unpack this one a little. Perhaps the first thing to note is the full-blooded rhetoric. Cadre–with its Great-October-Revolution associations. Committed, compelling, daring, strong leadership. Turnaround leaders is great for performance-based entrepreneurs; compelling case works for lovers of persuasive logic lovers; and sustainable actions is excellent for the environmentally sensitive. All in all, a well-written piece.
This language resonates. It is vibrant and exciting, especially when juxtaposed with treasured approaches and familiar rhetoric. But the language is wisely written in vague generalities. We don’t know, from this document alone, which treasured approaches and familiar rhetoric the authors have in mind. They do say that their goal is pragmatic, that these effective leaders do what works. Anything that does not lead to effectiveness in achieving different and desired outcomes needs to be de-emphasized, at the very least. It seems clear enough that Scriptural mandate for justice fall into the category of familiar, treasured themes.
And the desired outcomes? Quantifiable, what are called “measureable performance results.” (p. 8 )
This is not a time for leaders who are ambivalent, reluctant, or unwilling to walk forward with humility and courage. (p. 19)
The report calls for a Ten-Year Plan, time enough to affect a change in the culture of both the leadership and the congregations in a generation. Total denominational buy in is unnecessary to fix what ails the UMC. If only 25% of the congregations were to really understand and adopt the “Call to Action” prescription, the decades-old deterioration would be mitigated.
[To see a complete list of Call to Action posts, click here.]