Not surprisingly, there have been numerous reactions to the recently-issued United Methodist document entitled, “A Call to Action: Reordering the Life of the Church.” Produced by a steering team and affirmed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table, the “Call to Action” document is intended to illuminate several segments of the journey that will lead the United Methodist denomination out of the numerical decline that it has experienced in recent decades and into a more vital future.
The “Call to Action” document can be found here.
Some have criticized the document for emphasizing ecclesiastical statistics at the expense of sensitivity to context of ministry. Others have denounced the “Call to Action” because they believe that it places the focus on programmatic deck-shuffling and liturgical gimmickry instead of theological reform and missional impulse. Still others have said that the document is far too “top down” in its structure and content to be anything more than just another United Methodist misfire.
Some of these criticisms are deserving of attention because of the valid concerns they raise. How, for example, can a contemporary and institutional “Call to Action” resonate among people that have lost touch with the Biblical “call to action” that must be heard and heeded before any other call can make sense? In other words, what difference will an institutional call to action make among people that have lost their passion for carrying the cross, proclaiming the Gospel, teaching and modeling a Biblical worldview, worshiping in spirit and in truth, forming disciples, and living by countercultural ethics that bear witness to the Kingdom that God inaugurated through Jesus Christ?
And what about the unbridled emphasis upon attendance statistics in the “Call to Action”? Is it not possible to become fixated on statistics to the point of institutional idolatry while losing sight of other forms of vitality that cannot be measured or tracked? And, in light of what the “Call to Action” emphasizes, how much more tempting will it be for churches and pastors to pad their statistics in order to preserve their status?
These are valid concerns (raised by perceptive critics) that will hopefully help all United Methodists to discern both the merits and the limitations of the “Call to Action.”
It must also be acknowledged, however, that some of the critics are fairer than others in their treatment of the “Call to Action.” Some no doubt offer criticism out of fear, or resistance to evaluation, or a desire to rail against the institutional church. Some are so eager to jump onto a pre-constructed bandwagon of negativity toward the document that they fail to examine its potential as a means to greater accountability and vision.
As a District Superintendent in the United Methodist tradition, I am well aware of the fact that I represent the institutional church in unique fashion. As a result, any affirmations that I offer concerning the “Call to Action” will likely be dismissed by some as the ramblings of a denominational bureaucrat who simply wants to toe the party line. And yet, I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that I find myself encouraged by the “Call to Action.” My encouragement emerges from what I perceive to be the document’s primary strengths—strengths that I hope to illuminate in the remainder of this post.
Strength No. 1—A Spirit of Much-Needed Confession and Repentance
The “Call to Action” includes a prayer of confession that is noteworthy:
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 turf and prerogatives, and maintaining the status quo for beloved institutions than with loving you with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. And we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Those who say that the “Call to Action” is without theological underpinnings miss the point of this prayer. If the prayer is prayed authentically, it becomes a long-overdue acknowledgement of our denomination’s passion for institutional preservation at the expense of missional vision. Such an acknowledgement is not to be minimized. It represents the theological foundation that undergirds the entirety of the “Call to Action”: a recognition that United Methodism’s best chance of furthering the ministry of the Kingdom is not to be found in its institutional structures and its organizational compartmentalization but rather in its willingness to lay even the comfort and security of the status quo at the foot of the cross for the purpose of seeing how Jesus might unsettle that status quo in meaningful and redemptive ways.
Of course, there is nothing new about lamenting the denominational status quo. Individual church leaders have been doing that for centuries. But to make that lament the heart of a denominational prayer of confession gives to it new and fresh life, not to mention a noteworthy theological gravity. To confess the sin of “institutional inertia” is to acknowledge that we have all been guilty of perpetuating institutional behaviors that have prevented us from becoming more faithfully the church that God is calling us to be.
Strength No. 2—Well-researched Confirmation of the Drivers of Congregational Vitality
A significant portion of the “Call to Action” is the report from the Towers Watson consulting firm. The firm was commissioned by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table and charged with the task of measuring congregational vitality in a variety of United Methodist Churches in terms of the following areas: worship attendance, growth over five years, professions of faith, and annual giving per attendee.
The firm collected and analyzed data from 32,228 United Methodist churches in North America (of all different sizes, ethnic compositions, theological persuasions, and societal contexts). Of those churches 4,961 were classified as “high vital” in terms of their demonstrated growth and ministry. Among the “high vital” churches, four key areas were discerned as primary drivers of congregational vitality:
1. Engagement of disciples in small group ministry
2. Creative and artistically diverse worship
3. Effective and invested lay ministry
4. Effective, relational, and visionary clergy leadership
Some have criticized these identified drivers for being theologically vacuous and ecclesiastically simplistic. To do so, however, is to miss the doors that these drivers open to further theological dialogue and exploration.
One cannot have a holistic conversation about effective small group ministry, for example, without also having a conversation about the theology and practice of prayer and its communal implications, not to mention the theology of pastoral care (which any effective small group must provide for its participants).
One cannot speak comprehensively about creative worship without also giving careful attention to the church’s sacramental theology, liturgical identity, and hermeneutical priorities.
One cannot form a lay ministry that is well-grounded and well-equipped without also developing an understanding of the priesthood of all believers; an ever-deepening appreciation of the spiritual gifts and their theological meaning in the church’s life; and a relentless devotion to the disciplines of faithful stewardship and relational evangelism.
And, most certainly, one cannot have a healthy vision for clergy leadership until one becomes a lifelong student of the servant leadership of Jesus—the meaning of his incarnation, the profundity of his atonement, the theological revelation of his teaching, and the world-altering glory of his resurrection.
Can there be any definitive and perfectly exhaustive list of primary drivers when it comes to congregational vitality? Probably not, and the “Call to Action” does not claim perfection in this regard. However, I believe that the 4 primary drivers highlighted by the report (and the secondary drivers that accompany them) are biblically sound, theologically provocative, and statistically verified in the ministries of currently vital congregations.
As a District Superintendent, I look forward to helping the churches and clergy on my district to reflect both theologically and practically on the meaning and development of these 4 drivers.
Strength No. 3—A Bold Vision for Clergy Accountability and Leadership Development
Perhaps no portion of the “Call to Action” has generated more conversation than its emphasis upon the desperate need for reform in the development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability of our denomination’s clergy. Some have interpreted the document (wrongly, I think) as being threatening in its tone, especially in its articulation of the need for gracious and prompt methods of exit for those clergy with a demonstrated history of ineffectiveness or inertia. A call for greater accountability among clergy, however, can only be interpreted rightly as a threat if it is devoid of compassion, random in its application, and punitive in its motive. As I read the “Call to Action,” I do not find a spirit of threat in its words. Rather, I find a powerful reminder that clergy are to view their ministry, not as an entitlement, but as a sacred covenant for which clergy must be held regularly accountable.
Perhaps the segment of the “Call to Action” that I find most compelling and exciting is its vision for a denomination that blesses its clergy with “ongoing opportunities for mentoring, learning, and receiving support and constructive help to enhance skills and performance.” How might clergy leadership become more vibrant if an Annual Conference were to create a network of mentoring among its active and retired clergy? How might skill sets be broadened if we were to see mentoring, not only as a step in the candidacy process, but as a lifelong discipline by which clergy continue to learn, improve, and grow? What might it look like in an Annual Conference for retired clergy to come alongside younger clergy in a mentoring relationship; for younger clergy to come alongside older clergy for the purpose of helping them to understand newer trends and patterns in ministry; and for all clergy to be humble enough to acknowledge their need for learning and mentoring?
The “Call to Action” beckons us, not only to raise and contemplate such questions, but also to invest our time, energy, and resources in the kind of mentoring and training that will enable clergy leaders to become more faithfully the leaders that God is calling them to be.
United Methodism’s “Call to Action” is certainly not above criticism or corrective analysis. But it does represent the prayerful work of gifted and passionate souls who long for a more vibrant church. My prayer for United Methodist Christ-followers is three-fold: that we will heed this call where it is right; that we will expand or clarify this call where it is incomplete or misdirected; and that we will allow the call to become a means of sanctifying grace by which God brings the church more deeply into the Way of Jesus Christ, in whose name I humbly offer these thoughts.
Thanks for reading.