CTA Report: Acknowledging Decades of Decline

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.]

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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5 Responses to CTA Report: Acknowledging Decades of Decline

  1. Rev Ralph Howe says:

    Thanks Ron,

    Decoding the rhetoric of UMC pronouncements is always useful, if tricky. It is quite true that we do not need full agreement of change, just a catalytic number of players. However, these players need to be both horizontal and vertical, or the goose is already cooked. We need bishops and DSs who are prepared to act differently, expect different results, have more guts than previously and trust Christ more than the ways we have done it. We also need to have clergy and lay leaders willing to risk it all for what Christ is doing here and now. Then, we need to have these folks actually work together in the same area.

    Unfortunately, we have far too many WUMLOG’N and WUMCOG’N out in Methodist land. (white united methodist liberal/conservative old girl/guy networks). These enshrine stagnation, even when they spout the rhetoric of change.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Thanks for the reply, Ralph.

      So you think that the “WUMLOG’N and WUMCOG’N” prevent change or, as you put it, “enshrine stagnation”!

      On the one hand, I see the “WUMLOG’N and WUMCOG’N” as understandable features of UMC life, fairly similar to our two-party political system. The UMC is the third-largest religious group in the U.S., is the third-largest religious group presented in Congress, etc.
      It is only natural that the demographics of the culture will be reflected in the UMC.

      On the other hand, I think the goals of the WUMCOG’N are the driving force behind the Call to Action itself, which 1) specifically targets “the Agencies” (read: General Board of Church and Society) as the major cause of the “perceived distance” in the UMC between the conservative membership (Good News and the IRD) and the “liberal bureaucrats” (MFSA), and 2) calls on people to stop lobbying for their “narrow interests,” which I believe is aimed at the Reconciling Ministries Network folk.

      In other words, as “examples,” the people in Good News and the Reconciling Ministries Network passionately believe they represent “what Christ is doing here and now.” Is it right, or logical, to expect either group to restrain themselves? If it is, and if it is possible, then how can each side do it and “save face”? Or is that question offensive.

      Thanks for introducing me to the “WUMLOG’N and WUMCOG’N”, Ralph. The acronyms fit in so well with the welter of UMC hierarchy verbiage!


  2. Pingback: One lay leader’s take on Call to Action | John Meunier

  3. Creed Pogue says:

    I first caught your posts on John Muenier’s blog. I would probably agree with you on a lot of secular political issues, but I strongly disagree with your “paranoid” (your word) take on the CTA report. If the general agencies are performing activities that don’t fit into the four pathways, then they shouldn’t be doing them. There is a major difference between claiming credit for the sun rising and actually doing something. Too much of GBCS’ self-congratulations are of the former. As a progressive, I believe that progressiveism would be better off if GBCS spent its time resourcing annual conferences and local congregations rather than spouting off platitudes and not doing any of the more difficult spadework.

    I do not see CTA as a plot of Good News/etc. Read what they say. They don’t like the idea of doing away with guaranteed appointment either.

    When you actually read the recommendations, they are very thin (to put it mildly) about what changes should be made to the general church structure. What started out as a discussion about how we spend $150 million a year has moved to discussions about local church vitality which is ground that has been traveled over many, many times.


  4. Larry Neal says:

    As a long-suffering, albeit retired, United Methodist clergyman, I have seen both sides of the street. My liberal father decried the actions of any evangelical or conservative and took a very dim view of my choice of seminaries. As a moderate evangelical, I have seen, time after time, the abusiveness foisted upon the group of clergy which I represented. Now, all the studies, all the research, all the reports, all the boards, and all the hierarchy will not fix the problem.

    Pure and simply, the problem is that we have lost our first love–sharing Christ. How many members are EVER visited by the clergy? How many clergypersons have ever been involved in a hands-on mission endeavor? How many of the clergy have done what Jesus would do? How many churches have reduced their missions and outreach budgets, while being forced to continue to add to the pastor’s entitlements? How many of those same churches have banded together and presented petitions to annual conferences? How many clergy and churches bad-mouthed the WWJD movement? How many clergy and churches have ever asked themselves, or anybody else, “What would Jesus do?” and then responded as Jesus would have?

    A call to action? First, we as clergy need to re-adopt the servant model, stop using the calling as a profession, and get back to the ministry we pledged to perform. As clergypersons, we need to stop complaining about our salaries, our parsonages, our furnishings, our travel expenses, and our perks, and get back to living a life worthy of and pleasing to Christ. When churches have to decide whether to pay a travel allowance or support a mission endeavor, it is past time for a congregational reassessment of the “professional” salary package.

    The church started its dismal downfall when it started its withdrawal from the mission field, whether it be in my downtown area or the most remote corner of the world. You don’t have to be a liberal or a conservative to understand WWJD…we just have to do it.

    Until we do this, there is little hope for a future as a viable denomination.


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