The following is a transcript of the Episcopal Address to the South Central Jurisdictional Conference on July 19, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma by Missouri Conference Bishop, Robert Schnase. You can view the address in its entirety by clicking on the video link on the upper right-hand side of the homepage of The United Methodist Reporter Website
Welcome to the 2012 meeting of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church. Let’s begin simply with Who We Are, What We Do, and then look at What We’ve Been Working On, and then What’s Next.
I. Who Are We?–The people in this room represent 1,725,000 (1,725,081)1 United Methodists and 6,000 United Methodist Congregations (5,937) presently organized into fifteen Annual Conferences serving eight states with an immediate mission field of more than 49 million people. (49,073,767). We represent more than 5,200 clergy (5,229), including Elders, Deacons, Licensed Local Pastors, and Associate members, plus nearly 3,000 retired clergy. (2,902).
5 ½% (5.51%) of our membership is African American compared to over 12% (12.26) of our neighborhoods that surround us; 2% (2.04) of our membership is Hispanic compared to 24% (24.06%) of the areas we serve; and under one percent (.79) of our membership is Native American compared to nearly 1.4% (1.38) of the areas we serve. More than 90% (90.44) of our membership is White Anglo, while the areas we serve are 58% (57.66) White Anglo.
On any given weekend in our Jurisdiction, more than 620,000 (620,603) people attend worship, and according to the end of the year reports we submit so faithfully, nearly four million people (3,848,325) are served regularly through our ministries in our communities.
Now that I’ve numbed your brain with statistics, let’s look at what some of this means. The good news is how robust these numbers are, the size and scope and range and reach of the United Methodist Church in our Jurisdiction is amazing, and more than any one of us can comprehend. There’s something deeply satisfying to think that more than a quarter million children attend Bible School through our churches. A quarter million children! Think about it. That’s enough to fill five huge professional baseball stadiums with children. That’s a lot of lemonade to mix! How’d you like to be responsible for a Bible School program with 257,000 kids? Well, you are!
And yet, these numbers still reveal troubling trends. Attendance in the last five years has declined more than 7% (7.28). However, the decline in the South Central Jurisdiction has been significantly less pronounced than in other US Jurisdictions. That’s good news I suppose, in some qualified sort of way! Thirty percent (30.74) of our congregations have actually shown growth over the last five years. And the annual number of Adult Professions of Faith has increased more than 10 percent. (10.78) On the other hand, 40% (40.45) of our congregations have reported no Professions of Faith over the most recent year.
We don’t report ages in our annual statistics, but we do have ways of estimating them through sampling, and through pensions information related to our pastors.
Missionally, if the only statistic we could fully comprehend about the United Methodist Church in the US is that our median age is approaching 60 while the median age of our culture is 35, we would see with stark clarity the missional challenge we face. There is an age gap of nearly two generations between the average United Methodist in the US and the local mission field God calls us to serve. And across that gap lie significant differences in perception, spirituality, musical tastes, community, life experiences, use of technology, and cultural value.2
Reaching next generations. And reaching our more diverse neighbors that surround our congregations–these remain our most poignant, critical, and strategic missional challenges.
II. Now, let’s look at What We Do–The United Methodist Church makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The most significant arena in which this takes place is congregations. We fulfill the mission of Christ through faith communities that change lives, so that God can use those changed lives to change the world. In fact, it’s really at the margins of the congregations, where those who belong to the community of Christ interact with those who do not belong to the community of Christ where we fulfill our mission, through service and justice ministries and through invitational ministries. It’s where the 1.7 million United Methodists of our Jurisdiction engage our 49 million neighbors that we fulfill our mission.
Annual Conferences exist to lead congregations to lead people to active faith in Jesus Christ. Congregations do not exist to support conferences; rather, annual conferences exist to start and strengthen congregations and to develop the leadership streams to make them fruitful. John Wesley did not established congregations so that one day he would have a conference; he established the practice of conferencing in order to strengthen and deepen the ministries of faith communities. Annual Conferences are one or two steps removed from the front lines of our mission; and yet their work provides the leadership resources and the connections to multiply the work of Christ.
When we gather at Jurisdictional Conference, we find ourselves three or four steps removed from where the mission of the church is fulfilled. It falls to us in this room, to you in this room, to discern together the leadership for our conferences for the next quadrennium through the election and assignment of Bishops. This makes this time together far more than a business meeting, or a political convention, or a collection of competing interests each trying to win advantage for its own sake. We gather prayerfully and conscientiously to consider how best to lead and align our conferences toward the mission of Christ. How do we make decisions, about leadership and assignment, about aligning and strengthening conferences, that foster an increase in the number of vital congregations that reach people for the purposes of Christ?
Let me illustrate by telling about a progression of perspective that many Bishops experience when they take on this work.3 During the early stages of exercising the authority to make appointments, many Bishops find themselves unconsciously or explicitly thinking primarily about the responses clergy will have to their new appointments. Will the clergy be pleased or disappointed, receptive or resistant, angry or happy? Unwittingly, the focus of the system becomes Happy Pastors!
Then some Bishops evolve to a different mental image when they make appointments. They picture the response of congregational leaders to the appointment. Will the Pastor Parish Relations Committee feel well-served and listened to? Will local leaders be content or will they complain? Will they express joy or respond with disapproval when the new pastor arrives? Satisfied Congregations becomes the implicit purpose.
And then some Bishops mature to a different and more nuanced view of their role. They begin to think about the people who live in the community surrounding the church, the mission field. Rather than thinking primarily of pastors or church leaders, the focus turns to the people God created that church to serve. And they ask themselves, who is best suited to reach those people? Who has the gifts, experiences, temperament, and leadership qualities to help the congregation fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ? They picture the people not yet reached, the children no one invites, the young people the church has missed, the poor whom the church has avoided, and the elderly the church has never concerned itself with. Such imagination focuses the mission outwardly, toward the margin, where those who follow Christ engage those in need of Christ. They remember that somewhere out there is a 6-year-old who’s never heard of the United Methodist Church and who doesn’t yet know it, but his or her life is going to be changed forever because a congregation has come alive to its mission and reached out to invite those in the neighborhood, maybe to something as simple as Vacation Bible School.
The risk when we gather for Jurisdictional Conference, so far removed from the front lines of our mission, is that we lose sight of our task. How do we make decisions, about leadership and assignment, about aligning and strengthening conferences, that foster an increase in the number of vital congregations that reach people for the purposes of Christ? That’s our work together this week: to talk one another into greater boldness for Christ, to remember that it’s not about us and our preferences, but about the mission God has entrusted us in Christ.
III. What Are We Working On?–It’s been an extraordinary quadrennium for the South Central Jurisdiction. We’ve seen a remarkable and growing convergence around several critical areas as all of our conferences have begun to experiment and explore common leverage points for change, reversing decline, and moving toward more vital congregations and more fruitful ministry.4 For instance, nearly all of our conferences in recent years have initiated focused work on Leadership Development, Congregational Transformation, New Church Starts, Changing Conference Staff Roles, Extended Cabinet Development, the Role of Laity as Active Learning Partners, the Use of Common Language, the Search for a Decision-Making Center (Those who know Gil Rendle will recognize this language to describe the efforts by many of our conferences to develop effective leadership teams in conferences amidst the diffuse leadership structures most conferences have inherited.) All of this means we are having a fundamentally different conversation about leadership and mission than we were having 10 years ago. And nearly all our conferences have experimented with Reduced Districts, Realignment of Structures, Reduction of Costs, Use of Metrics, Recasting Leadership Roles such as those of superintendents and lay leaders. And we’ve identified more clearly some of the challenges that make this difficult: Restrictive Polity that is not conducive to our mission and limits local contextual response, the unfruitful notion that Meetings are Ministry, the Need for Financial Re-Set, and Difficulty in Reaching Next Generations. But the most fundamental shift we’ve seen across the jurisdiction is a renewed Focus on Congregations as most critical arena for our work.
What also makes this time different from ten years ago is a greater sense of urgency about our task, and a developing culture of experimentation in our conferences. We’re learning a great deal together. Our conferences have discovered that there are certain essential tasks which annual conferences must do with excellence or the church will continue to decline. Conferences must focus on congregational development (starting new congregations and reversing decline in existing congregations) and pastoral excellence (recruiting, preparing, deploying, and evaluating clergy) or else they fail in their mission of leading congregations to lead people to active faith in Jesus Christ, and so we’ve seen the majority of our conferences reorganize around those tasks.
We’re learning many things through this era of exploration and experimentation:
First, we’re learning the importance of a Culture of Learning. While they go by different names, nearly every conference has initiated some level of high quality self-directed, peer learning for clergy, such as Pastoral Leadership Development Groups, Incubator, Abide, Center for Pastoral Effectiveness, Living, Leading, Developing, Clusters, or Clergy Leadership Initiative. District Superintendents and Bishops from across the Jurisdiction participate in peer learning groups sponsored by Texas Methodist Foundation as well as trainings offered through Duke Divinity School and the Board of Discipleship.
Some conferences have initiated Lay Leadership Development groups, or other forms of laity-teaching-laity, or laity and pastors learning together.
Through these and other programs, conferences have taken up the mantle of practical education focused on leadership rather than merely complaining that this is not being taught elsewhere.
A culture of learning is not the only key to a future with hope, but it’s an essential element. It’s impossible to imagine how our churches and leaders can possibly adapt to the changing mission field around us without an active culture of learning at every level of leadership.
Second, we’ve learned the importance of focusing on Clergy Excellence and Accountability. Every conference is re-examining to some degree the methods of supervision and evaluation at every level, and moving toward a greater emphasis on fruitfulness and outcomes and impacts. We’re moving from credentialing systems that operate with the default of “if you have completed all the requirements and have done nothing egregious, then you will be approved” to a default of “you will likely not be approved unless you demonstrate extraordinary fruitfulness in ministry.”
As a College of Bishops, we’ve realized that for accountability to strengthen clergy to greater fruitfulness for the mission of Christ, we also must open ourselves to evaluation, to invite it and to welcome it. We brought all this up, and over the last several years nearly every active Bishop has initiated, with his or her Conference Episcopacy Committee, some plan for evaluation and feedback. Some of these have been extensive and exhaustive. And we’ve invited the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee to explore forms of evaluation and feedback. As you know, this is new territory, and as I look at some of the conflict and hurt and confusion of the last few months in our Jurisdiction, I personally feel that we’re experiencing the pain of changing systems and changing expectations. On the one hand, everyone in this room agrees on the need for accountability at all levels of church leadership. On the other hand, the language and construct of accountability is so new to church life that we don’t have all the systems or processes yet that feel trustworthy to everyone, that are consistent, clear, reliable, and widely-agreed upon. These are necessary conversations that our experience has not prepared us for, and that the Book of Discipline never anticipated. To navigate this new terrain with faithfulness and fairness requires extraordinary care, patience, and love so that what we do and how we do it is for the good of the church and in the Spirit of Christ.
Third, we’ve learned the importance of Starting New Congregations and Transforming Existing Congregations. Our conferences are starting new congregations at a faster pace and with greater success rates during the last eight years than we have since decades ago.
According to the most recent report from Path One, the South Central Jurisdiction is starting more than all other jurisdictions.5
New congregations reach younger people. They reach more diverse populations. They are better at reaching the unchurched. Starting new congregations are critical to any strategy for our mission in the future.
And we’re exploring many new models for starting new congregations. Fifteen years ago, we had two or three models for doing so. Now there are a dozen or more approaches to starting new congregations. For example, we’re encouraging large congregations to help start new congregations, using second-site models, starting churches across conference lines and across jurisdictional boundaries. We’re restarting churches in facilities where other churches have closed, using legacy churches and heritage churches that are located in areas we need to reach. We’re starting churches utilizing remote video and with cooperative arrangements between existing congregations.
And our conferences are experimenting with new congregational intervention systems for transforming existing congregations that have reached a plateau, or grown older than the community they serve, or faced decline but who still have the people resources to turn things around. Many conferences have seen positive results through the Healthy Church Initiative, Holy Conversations, I/Thou, or models based on Paul Borden’s work on how judicatories strengthen congregations.
Fourth, we’re learning the importance of Outward-Focused Ministry. As soon as an organization begins to exist more for the benefit of the insiders than for the outsiders, it begins to die.
Across our jurisdictions, we’re seeing more and more global partnerships forming, congregation to congregation and conference to conference, directly and with little superstructure. In this new “flat world” (as Thomas Friedman would call it), relationships of service and mission form directly, often with minimal support or involvement from conference or general agencies, and this new form of global partnership is redefining the nature of connectionism for the 21st century.
Our Jurisdiction provides hundreds of Volunteers in Mission teams each year for service within our area and for work around the world. We continue to help each other rebuild after hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and fires. And local outreach thrives as churches engage their communities with faithfulness and service. Funding for UMCOR from our conferences continues to grow, and most of our conferences have launched campaigns for Imagine No Malaria to eliminate this killer disease in sub-Sahara Africa.
Fifth, we’ve learned the importance of developing a Common Language to help lead our conferences and congregations and to direct our attention toward our most essential work. Nearly every conference has worked to identify critical expectations, practices, or values that provide a common language that unifies and emboldens churches, such as Fruitfulness, Excellence, Radical Hospitality, Extravagant Generosity, Spirit-driven, or a host of others. These words provide a powerful means of connecting people in a large complex organization to our common mission in Christ.
Sixth, we’re learning the importance of Collaborative Partnerships. Most of our conferences are working more closely with their conference foundations to focus energies and resources toward congregational vitality and leadership development. Our seminaries, St. Paul School of Theology and Perkins School of Theology, as well as many of our United Methodist colleges and universities are working with conferences and congregations through cooperative programs to support the practice of ministry. And our own Lydia Patterson Institute continues to play a pivotal role for leadership development for the future.
During the last quadrennium, our Jurisdiction has faced several other remarkable challenges with grace, fairness, and with a focus on our mission.
We, like all jurisdictions, received a mandate from General Conference to reduce the number of Bishops. I’m proud of the way we undertook this significant work. We took a mission-focused, research-based approach and invited people laity and clergy from across the Jurisdiction into the conversation and deliberation. We purposely chose to act early in the quadrennium in order to maximize the time and potential for high levels of self-determination by those conferences that would be most directly affected. And all conferences joined in supporting the transitions with financial support. Now we celebrate the fruit of this work with the formation of the Great Plains Conference.
I hope the new conference refuses to do business the way they’ve always done it. I hope they interrupt business as usual. I hope they use this opportunity to experiment and explore new ways of fulfilling the mission of Christ through conferences. I hope they lead us to new defining and understanding the nature of our United Methodist connections. I hope they become leaders in our denomination on how to organize conference and align resources according to our mission.
We also celebrate the Unification of Rio Grande Conference and the Southwest Texas Conference. These two sister conferences share a common vision with a common mission field, and the recent decisions are based on years of conversation, undergirded by prayer and sustained by deep mutual respect. I hope these conferences take the opportunity to start over in every possible way, with the mission of the church clearly in focus, and that they teach us all how to do our work differently. I hope they become leaders in reaching bicultural communities, and that they take us with them, and teach us and show us a new way forward.
Now a few words about General Conference and the Call to Action: Many people here may not realize how deeply the Call to Action was shaped and influenced by the bishops, pastors, laity, and congregations of the South Central Jurisdiction. People like Judy Bensen, Jay Brim, Abel Vega, Adam Hamilton, Don Underwood, and Laura Nichol played pivotal roles, serving on the Call to Action Task Force, the Interim Operations Team, and working to interpret the recommendations to the church.
In fact, I find it remarkable that five of the six resources specifically prepared for General Conference to address elements of our mission were written by people from the South Central Jurisdiction.6
The Council of Bishops commissioned the Towers Watson Report, a 250-page in-depth analysis of our denomination. Here’s a brief summary: (graphic of attendance and membership lines dramatically declining while expenses and debt/member dramatically increases over a forty year period) This is an irrefutably unsustainable model for ministry into the future.
How alarming is this? Before General Conference meets again four years from now, the losses of membership and attendance in the United States will be as if we completely closed three conferences the size of the Missouri Conference. Or as another point of reference, the losses would be as if we closed all the United Methodist work in the state of Texas.
The Towers Watson Report identifies numerous reasons for the decline, including a crisis of relevance, our failure to reach young people, the disconnect between leadership and people in the pews, organizational systems not conducive to our mission, and unsustainable financial systems.
Not all the news is bad. The Report identified that approximately 15% of our congregations are vital, with new people joining, increasing attendance, reaching all ages, outwardly focused, and financially strong.
The Call to Action brought Five Recommendations:
- Recommendation One calls for sustained focus and intense concentration on increasing the number of vital congregations.
- Recommendation Two calls for dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.
- Recommendation Three calls for reforming the Council of Bishops with active bishops assuming responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, and mission ministries.
- Recommendation Four calls for consolidating and streamlining program and administrative agencies to align work and resources with a commitment to increasing the number of vital congregations.
- Recommendation Five calls on the church to collect, report, and review statistical information and metrics to measure progress.
Every one of your active Bishops of this Jurisdiction support the Call to Action recommendations. We’ve been asked by hundreds of people, what do the Bishops think about General Conference? Frankly, we’re disappointed and saddened.
Let me share a few observations on behalf of the Bishops that we’ve shared with each other since the close of General Conference:
- First, I don’t think we were overly invested in any specific organizational plan for change, but we were deeply invested in the hope for change.
- Second, there’s a growing perception that the process of the General Conference itself doesn’t work. We experienced paralysis as a conference, like a spider stuck in its own web. As an example, the General Conference spent four hours over two days to debate the Standing Rules before eventually approving them exactly as they had been presented by the committee!
- Third, we’re concerned about the tightening of “the hairball.” Gordon McKenzie, author of Orbiting the Giant Hairball, uses the image of a hairball to describe the accruing of rules, requirements, mandates, and policies until they become so tightly bound that they paralyze creativity. We were disappointed to see an increase of such rules and requirements at every level. This fosters less flexibility, less contextual latitude, and reduced ability for leaders, conferences, committees, and local church churches to form their own responses.
- Fourth, we are concerned about the deep divisions evident in the church, and the intensified focus on personal agendas.
- Fifth, we have not begun to solve, or even understand, the complexities, implications, and opportunities of being a truly global church.
- Sixth, we are concerned about the troubling and persistent tendency for the church to deny and ignore and avoid the critical challenges. Adam Hamilton presented the challenges as revealed through the Towers-Watson Report. He described the reality and urgency of our situation in the US church. People can honestly disagree about how to respond to these challenges, but we cannot continue to avoid and deny them. If we learn from the doctor that three cardiac arteries are nearly completely blocked, and if nothing is done, death is virtually assured, the challenge presents many options. We can consider surgical options, and discuss how extensive and the effects that might follow. We can consider medicine, and what sort and with what benefits and risks. We can consider changes in behavior, including exercise, diet, smoking, stress, and weight control. There are literally dozens of conversations and strategies to discuss and consider. But we cannot walk away and act as if we do not know the truth and deny that the risks are real.
Despite the disappointments and concerns, the Bishops also find reasons for hope
We hope the paralysis itself will help make the case for change. Those present at General Conference remember the moment on Friday evening when we heard the word that the reorganizational plans could not go forward. There was stunned silence, shock, disbelief. Someone had the audacity later to suggest that maybe the Spirit was trying to say something to us. Maybe so. We hope that experience represents a moment of self-awareness and insight about what we have become, and we hope it provides a wakeup call for change.
We are hopeful about how the conversation has fundamentally changed from even a few years ago, and that we are talking more about mission of the church and focused more on the vitality of congregations.
We are hopeful because at least some incremental change took place, with some reduction of costs and downsizing of governance structures.
And we see it as a sign of hope that while many of the most ambitious plans for change were overturned by the Judicial Council, nevertheless, sixty to seventy percent of the delegates voted time and time again for real change.
IV. What’s Next? It’s clear that we cannot look to General Conference to save us, and we cannot rely on General Conference to make decisions that will help us reverse the trends. We need to stay focused on what we are about in our conferences and congregations, focused on the ministry in Christ with excellence, fruitfulness, accountability
We’re convinced as a College of Bishops that the stuckness of General Conference makes what we do in this Jurisdiction and in our Annual Conferences all the more important. We need to continue to learn, to experiment, to innovate. Change in the United Methodist Church is going to happen one person at a time, one congregation at a time, one conference at a time. Change in the church is will happen horizontally as we learn from another, not vertically or from the top.
And so, we bring the conversation back to our local congregations and Annual Conferences.
- How do we increase the number of vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
- How do we reform clergy systems to focus on fruitfulness in service to Christ?
- How do we streamline systems in congregations and conferences, and eliminate systems that are no longer conducive to our mission?
- How do we explore new ways to reach next generations with the gift and demand of God’s grace?
We believe that the South Central Jurisdiction is positioned to take leadership in the United Methodist Church at this critical moment. The conversation that has developed among us, the areas of convergence, the consensus of purpose, the focus on leadership and fruitfulness and accountability, and the clarity of mission is stronger here than in most other areas of the church. For us, the priorities and recommendations of the Call to Action are not finished; they have hardly begun. We’re going to work within the systems of church we have inherited as well as outside existing institutional structures. We still believe the United Methodist Way–our theology of grace, our focus on inner holiness and outward service, our practice of the works of piety and the works of mercy—these form an expression of the mission of Christ that reaches people no one else can reach. It deserves our utmost and highest to foster a future with hope.
We’re clear that there are no short term fixes and no magic formulas. Conference restructuring and changes in the Book of Discipline will not reverse the trends by themselves. But in the long term, it matters how we address issues of clergy recruitment, training, deployment, and accountability. It matters how we realign our resources to start new congregations, develop ways to interrupt decline, and help congregations focus on their mission fields. It matters that our leaders focus on the right questions and deal with issues relevant to our mission around the globe. It matters that we connect our money to our mission. It matters that we leave a legacy to the next generation, not of complex and impenetrable rules and ineffective systems, but of a church that is clear about its mission and confident about its future, and which is responsive and engaged with the world for the purposes of Christ.
Friends, I, along with my colleague Bishops, are committed to focusing on vital congregations. As long as we have breath and serve this role you have entrusted to us, we are going to do all we can to focus on the ministry of Christ through fruitful congregations. The basic focus of the Call to Action is true, and we will do all we can to explore new ways forward and to leave behind the ways that do not serve the present age.
I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I say that it is a joy and privilege to serve as a Bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction, and I give God thanks for every one of you and for all you do for the purposes of the Christ and for the United Methodist Church.
1 All statistics are the most recent available (2010) and are provided by General Council of Finance and Administration.
2 This paragraph is quoted from Remember the Future: Praying for the Church and Change by Robert Schnase, Abingdon Press, 2012, page 16.
3 I’m indebted to Bishop Janice Huie for this example to describe the meaning of mission-field thinking and outward-focused imagination.
4 Dr. Gil Rendle of the Texas Methodist Foundation has done excellent work identifying and fostering these convergences, and I’m indebted to him for helping form this list and prompt my own thinking about these.
5 The chart showing numbers of churches started during this past quadrennium in each of our conferences has been provided by Path One.
6 The five books referred to here are Back to Zero by Gil Rendle, Jesus Insurgency by Rudy Rasmus, Focus by Lovett Weems, Lord I Love the Church and We Need Help by Virginia Bassford, and Remember the Future: Praying for the Church and Change by Robert Schnase. The sixth book prepared for General Conference was The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement by George Hunter.