Will Our Church Go Over the Cliff?

Politicians and economists are warning of the approaching “fiscal cliff” that could strike the U.S. on January 1. On that date, a combination of automatic tax increases and spending cuts totaling over half a trillion dollars is scheduled to go into effect. If it does, economists are predicting that we will lose 2 million jobs and suffer a 4 percentage point decline in economic output, driving the country into recession. One hopes that Congress will find a way to keep us from going off the cliff.

The United Methodist Church faces a crisis that is similar to the “fiscal cliff,” but happening in slow motion. Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr. coined the term “death tsunami” to describe this “cliff” facing our church. Because the average age of our members is rising rapidly (due to our failure to attract and hold younger people into the church), a significant percentage of our membership will be lost through death in the coming twenty years. This loss will in turn dramatically shrink our denominational membership, lead to the closing of numerous local congregations, and sharply reduce the money that is available for ministry and mission at the local, annual conference, and global levels.

We can and must find a way for our church to meet this challenge. Good News applauds the work that has been done, but we believe it does not go far enough.

The UM Church is already starting to go off the cliff. In 2010, we saw the largest U.S. membership decline in the history of our church, losing 108,000 members (a 1.4 percent decline). For decades, giving increased even as U.S. membership declined, but in 2009, for the first time in our church’s 40-year history, giving dropped. For the first time ever, the 2012 General Conference adopted a general church budget that was less than the one adopted in 2008.

Membership losses have continued in 2011, with at least 18 annual conferences reporting losses in excess of 2 percent. At that rate, the church would disappear in the U.S. in 50 years.

What to do?

What do United Methodists do when facing a serious problem or crisis? We appoint a study committee!

In 2008, the Council of Bishops finally gathered the will to address this looming “cliff” in our church. They issued a Call to Action, which resulted in a $500,000 study of the church by two respected secular business consulting services.

The studies found that only 15 percent of our 38,000 U.S. congregations are “highly vital.” The Call to Action Committee, using the results of the studies, identified several common characteristics (“drivers”) found in highly vital congregations and recommended that we focus on developing these characteristics in all of our congregations. (The full reports of the studies are available at www.umccalltoaction.org.)

The Call to Action Committee then created another committee, called the Interim Operations Team (IOT), to oversee the implementation of its recommendations leading up to the 2012 General Conference. In the wake of General Conference, the IOT has issued their final report and concluded their work.

What has been accomplished?

The primary result of the Call to Action process was to gain nearly universal agreement that the main focus of The United Methodist Church over the next ten years should be to create and sustain more vital congregations. Our Book of Discipline notes, “The local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs” (¶201). Since “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is our mission statement, it seems likely that we will finally devote significantly more attention and energy toward becoming more effective at making disciples in the local church.

To help the church become more effective, numerous “metrics” (numerical measurements) have been identified that indicate the effectiveness of local church disciple-making. These metrics include such things as membership, worship and Sunday school attendance, baptisms, number of small groups, number of mission volunteers, and the amount of money given to various aspects of the church’s ministry.

As the IOT report observes, many annual conferences are implementing a measurement system to track both congregational and clergy
effectiveness. Clergy in particular will be held accountable to be effective in ministry by leading their congregations in growing vitality. Clergy deemed ineffective may no longer be guaranteed an appointment and may be encouraged to exit from ministry with annual conference support. The Council of Bishops and episcopacy committees have promised to hold individual bishops accountable for improving vital indicators in their annual conferences.

The denomination will make the recruiting and training of younger clergy (under age 35) a priority. Over the next four years, $7 million of apportionment money has been allocated for this priority. Planning groups have already begun meeting to identify ways to improve in this area.

The UMC Vital Congregations Project is helping to build networks for support and shared learning among local church and annual conference leaders. As these leaders work to achieve observable results in growing vital congregations, they will identify strategies that can be shared and implemented more broadly across the church.

The Council of Bishops has adopted an organizational plan that allows active bishops to concentrate more effectively on the work of increasing the number of vital congregations in their areas.

Over the last several years, many of the general church agencies have begun working more cooperatively to coordinate their efforts and focus their resources on priority areas. Most of them have reduced and streamlined their administrative structure in order to become more effective and accountable.

What has not been accomplished?

The IOT recommendations that got the most attention involved restructuring the general church. IOT proposed unifying ten existing
agencies into a new UM Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. It also joined the Council of Bishops in proposing a new “set-aside” bishop position to lead the Council and help move toward greater effectiveness in creating and sustaining vital congregations.

The “set-aside” bishop (which required a constitutional amendment) was not approved by the General Conference. The restructuring proposal was dramatically altered in committee, approved by the General Conference, but then ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.

Proposals to redirect up to $50 million of apportionments over the next four years toward starting new faith communities and revitalizing existing ones did not pass. Nor was $5 million set aside for developing young laity as UM leaders.

Efforts to streamline and simplify the process of moving toward ordained ministry were not approved.

What has been ignored?

In the midst of all this work toward making more vital congregations, several important parts of the picture have been ignored.

There is no clear definition of what a “disciple” of Jesus Christ is. Is it a person who attends or participates in a certain number of activities or worship services? Is it a person who recites the vows of church membership? Is it a person who gives a certain percentage of their income to the church? Is it a person who engages in a certain number of mission projects? What about people who are doing mission that is unrelated to their local church? How do we measure the inward transformation that then changes the way we think and act to be more like Jesus Christ?

Not having a clear definition of a disciple means that we have no commonly agreed upon way of “making” disciples. Does a person need to participate in a small group in order to grow in discipleship? Does a person even need to be a member of a local church in order to grow in discipleship?

The criteria for being a “vital congregation” have not been publicized. What constitutes a vital congregation? What measures were used to identify the 15 percent of congregations that were “highly vital?” How can I know whether my local congregation is vital or not?

Yet to be determined (apparently by each annual conference) is what constitutes an effective pastor? How will a pastor’s effectiveness be measured? Will such a definition of effectiveness take into account difficult ministry situations (conflicted congregations, neighborhoods in transition, etc.)?

The elephant in the room

There is one big problem that Good News believes stands in the way of all work toward growing vital congregations. The problem is that we do not have basic agreement in our church on the essentials of theology. Our message is not focused and our mission is built on an unsecure foundation.

Our United Methodist theology is supposedly defined by the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the General Rules, and John Wesley’s standard sermons and notes. However, surveys over the years have shown that a significant number of UM bishops, clergy, and lay leaders do not agree with UM doctrines like the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ as the Son of God, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the sacrificial death of Christ as necessary for securing our forgiveness, and faith in Christ as necessary for salvation.

How can we work together to build vital congregations when we do not share a common Gospel message? How can God bless a local church’s ministry when that church does not proclaim or live out orthodox Christianity?

We believe that one of the primary reasons for our church’s decline has been our widespread abandonment (in thought, if not also in word and deed) of “Scriptural Christianity,” the orthodox Christian teachings outlined in our UM doctrine. Yet, this theological pluralism is not even considered in the studies or reports.

We believe that one of the essential factors for having a vital congregation is faithfulness to orthodox Christian theology. Yet, the consultants were forbidden from even considering our beliefs when identifying and studying vital congregations. How could a congregation be considered vital when its leaders do not believe that Jesus Christ is Lord (for example)? Is a congregation likely to grow when its leaders do not believe that persons are eternally lost outside of Jesus Christ?

Furthermore, the studies and reports do not take any account of the tremendous drag on church vitality imposed by conflict over social issues, particularly human sexuality. What if all the time, energy, and resources devoted to trying to change the church’s understanding about marriage and homosexuality, for example, were instead devoted to building vital congregations?

How many members have left The United Methodist Church over the years because they disagree with the doctrines being preached and taught by their pastor? How many United Methodists are reluctant to invite friends to attend church with them because they do not trust the message their friends will hear in their local congregation? How many members have left the UM Church over the years because they are tired of the constant fighting over social issues? The studies and reports did not even address such questions.

Where do we go from here?

The IOT report states, “Business as usual is unsustainable. Dramatically different and new behaviors, not incremental changes, are required. We have not yet seen the degree of shared sense of urgency or commitment to systemic adaptations with the redirection of leadership expectations and sufficient resources that our situation requires” (emphasis in original).

The report rightly notes that a change of “mindset” or church culture is required to bring about different results. That is the biblical definition of “repentance (metanoia),” literally “a change of mind.”

Until our church repents of our doctrinal unfaithfulness, ends perpetual conflict over social issues, and develops an urgency to reach a lost world with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ (and not just an urgency to save a declining institution), all the good things we might do to become more effective in mission and ministry will come to naught.

Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.

One thought on “Will Our Church Go Over the Cliff?

  1. I want to commend you on both this article and the response to Thomas Ogletree in the UM Reporter. Well done! Well written and thought out. It is sad, however, to realize that many readers no longer value good logic and sound thinking, but respond from emotion, and an impoverished sense of Biblical knowledge. What ever the future holds, God is there already and steers the course.

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