All posts in United Methodist

The Road to Nowhere?

Tampa-airport-parking-mapI arrived in Tampa yesterday for the start of the United Methodist General Conference–our quadrennial gathering of UM clergy and lay delegates from around the world who meet to set policy and the direction of the church for the next four years (at least). I am here in two roles: first as an elected reserve delegate and second as a communicator for the Rocky Mountain Conference. My job is to blog and Tweet and Facebook back to the Conference on what's happening here. In that role, I am to be a dispassionate reporter of what is seen and heard. But here, on the Bob Kaylor blog, it's all about personal observation–unfiltered, reactionary, and usually not thought through thoroughly (say that three times fast) before it gets published. Let the reader beware. 

Anyway, I arrived yesterday on a pleasant flight from Denver on Southwest (yes, it's worth the extra $10 to insure an aisle seat). Arriving at the Tampa airport, I called for the shuttle and was told, "It's right outside, all ready to go." Well, the promise proved to be more of a premise. Some colleagues and I actually waited for about 30 minutes until the right shuttle showed up. We climbed aboard for the trip to the hotel. What we didn't know, however, was that we were about to enter a kind of passenger purgatory as the shuttle circled the airport four times, each time returning right back to where we started. It was another 30 minutes before we actually left the airport. The Talking Heads song "Road to Nowhere" was running loops in my head. 

As we rode back and forth across the scenic Tampa airport (scenic, if palm trees and pavement are your thing), I began to muse that this could easily be a metaphor for what is about to happen here over the next 11 days or so. We have all arrived from around the world, we're all beginning a journey together, but there will be times where it seems like all we're doing is circling the issues and continually returning back to the place we started. All the legislation, proposals, and studies; all the wrangling and debating and kvetching may swell into one long chorus of the road to nowhere. We were joking about it on the shuttle, which was filled with delegates–the gallows humor of those who have been down this road many times before. 

But, then again, it's the first day and just like the beginning of baseball season, everyone here thinks that there's a chance–even a small chance–that something great will happen here. I'm hopeful that it will, but I tend to be pessimistic sometimes (you know the definition of a pessimist–it's an optimist with experience). I hope I can push that aside as the conference opens with worship in a little over an hour. Worship may be the one thing that we all want to do well, and it may very well be the only way we're ever going to stop circling and start moving forward. Even in the midst of a mammoth convention center filled with all the trappings of corporate culture, God can show up and great things can be done. 

I'm hoping that at the end of this General Conference, when it's time to head to the airport,  the shuttle runs straight. I'm hoping that during the Conference, the Spirit leads us that way, too. 

A Modest Organizational Proposal

 by Rev. Kent Ingram, First UMC Colorado Springs

Reserve Delegate to General Conference

How we are structured is important. But maybe not that important.  As I read through the many pages of proposals for different structures of the United Methodist Church I had a deep, sinking feeling.  This may not make any difference at all.  We will spend countless hours debating, perfecting, approving, and implementing a new organizational design.  But will it, really affect the way you and I do ministry as laity or clergy in our local churches?  I am trying to be not too cynical about this, but…

So I don’t have a grand proposal to organize the church that will cure what ails us.  But I do have the beginning of an idea that might force a structural change, and I’d like to offer that as a place to begin another conversation.  Before I begin, let me say that I do believe in the connection.  I do believe that we can do some things better together than we ever can alone.  I do believe that it takes concerted, unified efforts to change systems of inequality and oppression. I am not asking us to abandon our historic social concerns and just focus on ourselves.  But I also believe that a hierarchy acting in a disconnected way from the local church will enact little effective or long lasting changes.  In other words, we need the local churches to be the “feet on the ground” for significant social change.  We can model the change we support.

Having said that, I want to remind us that the Call to Action Committee claimed that the adaptive challenge to the United Methodist church is:

“To redirect the flow of attention, energy and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Part of me wants to laugh, or perhaps cry, to think that we spent thousands of dollars to figure out that the flow of resources should be directed to strengthening churches rather than judicatories.  But any of us in the church at the local church level has understood that often we are treated as if we are there to serve the conferences and not the other way around.  But I digress…

So how do we focus on fostering vital congregations?  I think it begins with our leadership. I want to ask some hard questions.  These questions are not directed at any individuals, but to the system.  What happens if out Bishops see as their primary responsibility to pastor, teach and equip “their” congregation?  By that I mean the members of their annual conference, particularly the clergy.  What if the ministry of the bishop centers on teaching us, leading us in worship, challenging us to grow in our understanding of the faith and to deepen our commitments to the ministry of the church?  Sort of like what we clergy do with our congregations.

I have been in the ministry for over thirty years.  Not once have I received communion form my bishop. I have been in services where they presided, of course.  But never have they looked me in the eye and said, “Kent, this is the Body of Christ broken for you…”  I yearn for settings where the Bishop can engage their congregation in deep discussions of the church and of beliefs, so we can better teach our folks.  I want to work side by side with the bishop in a mission project, well you get the point.  If, as I tried to argue in my last blog, one of the functions of a church in the wilderness is to learn their story, I can think of no more important role of the Bishop than to be teachers of the faith. What if the main job was to pastor the pastors?

As far as District Superintendents go, what if they take seriously their role as the extension of the Episcopal office?  What if they are the onsite folks who can help us in specific ways to do our ministry?  Here is where the accountability piece comes in for me.  I need to be held accountable, but frankly my local church will not hold me accountable for the things that are important.  They want to know if people like me, are my sermons interesting, do I get along with older people, do we pay our bills…if so then things are fine.  I need to be held accountable for dynamic and transformative worship.  I need to be held accountable for mission and outreach opportunities in our community and the world.  I need to held accountable for learning and discipling opportunities that are deep and meaningful.  I need to be held accountable for the pastoral care of our folks.  But this can’t happen with a once a year visit. I need someone who knows our church ministry well enough to point out what we do well, and then help us in our weaknesses.

Here’s one of my heresies.   I think we don’t have ENOUGH bishops or ENOUGH District Superintendents.  If we want the flow and energy of the church directed to local ministry settings, we need to have enough leaders in place to lead.

I see a place for the larger work of the church being done by our Episcopal leaders.  But it’s what they do in addition to their primary responsibility.  We have elected wonderful bishops to perform the managing of the church. This idea requires that we elect bishops who can lead, teach, pastor and hold accountable their congregation.

So, if we begin there, how does a structure look that supports this type of Episcopal ministry?  Are our leaders serious about redirecting the flow towards the local churches, or will we be concerned about the power, position and prestige of the office of bishop?  I am aware of the danger of putting too much power in the hands of the general boards and agencies.  I am aware that the bishops would ask me, as one has already asked, what responsibilities do I give up to do all of this?  I said, you give up what doesn’t get done!

I know this is sketchy and incomplete.  I have no “big picture” to offer that is any better than any of the other plans.  But I am convinced that no real and lasting change will occur until our leaders lead theologically and until they lead locally.

I am looking forward to your ideas, thanks for the discussion.


General Conference Candidate Resources

I am running for election as a clergy delegate from the Rocky Mountain Conference to the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, FL. There are a number of great candidates standing for election in our conference, each with his or her own ideas about the future of the UMC. I submit to you a few of my own which can be accessed through the links below:

Access my candidate profile here, which gives an overview of the issues that are important to me. 

For a resume list of my ministry background and experience, click here

For my response to the Call to Action Leadership Summit, which talked about some of the issues being brought forth to General Conference, click here

I have also posted a discussion on pastoral effectiveness, which you can access here

I am not a member of any caucus group, nor do I have a single issue that defines my candidacy. I am running because the time is right for effective clergy and laity from local churches to call for a refocus of the denomination's energy toward the local church, which is the best place for making disciples. 



The “Effective” Pastor: A Response to the Call to Action Study

Pastor As our denomination gears up for its General Conference in 2012, one of the key pieces for consideration is the report of the "Call to Action" steering committee, which has been looking at ways of stemming our denomination's continued decline in membership. Call to Action recommends the following, according to a UMNS news story:

  • Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church's "true first priority" for at least a decade.
  • Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
  • Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement. “We should passionately care about results,” the group said.
  • Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  • Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.

These are interesting places to start a conversation about vitality but, as I posted after Call to Action's webinar in April, these recommendations ignore the key issue underlying effectiveness in churches and church leaders: a passionate and biblically grounded faith in Jesus Christ. In order to make disciples, we first have to be disciples! 

In this post, however, I want to focus on one of the important issues that will be discussed at General Conference, which has to do with measuring the effectiveness of pastors. Accountability to certain metrics is fine as far as it goes, but metrics don't tell the whole story of effectiveness.  According to the study, effective pastors are those that develop, coach and mentor laity in leadership roles; influence the actions and behaviors of others to accomplish change; work with congregations to achieve significant goals and provide inspirational, topical preaching.

All of these are important, though I would replace topical preaching with biblical preaching. I've chatted with enough people both inside and outside the church who are tired of hearing platitudes and heart-rending stories dressed up as preaching. As Senior Writer of Homiletics Journal, I can tell you that our subscribers ask over and over again for more engagement and exegesis with the biblical text, which we are happy to oblige. Congregations are hungry for the transforming Word given in the power of the Holy Spirit and tire quickly of gimmicky preaching like that touted by Call to Action in some videos during the webinar. But I digress…

The Call to Action markers of clergy effectiveness, while not unimportant, fail to realize some of the deeper factors that lead to real transformation in the life of the leader and the congregation. Given the Call to Action definition of effectiveness, for example, a pastor would be able to accomplish any of these markers without any engagement with God whatsoever. Coaching, influencing change, achieving goals, and entertaining speaking are all possible without the Holy Spirit's influence and could as easily apply to a business leader as a clergy person. Again, that's not to say these things are unimportant, just inadequate in and of themselves. 

Over nearly 20 years of pastoral ministry, I've come to realize that there are certain other factors that must first be grounded in the life of a clergy leader in order for them to be considered "effective"–things which are difficult to put on a stat sheet or evaluation form, but are nonetheless vital to a pastor's engagement with a congregation and ability to maintain himself or herself for the long haul. Failure in any one of these areas can domino into tragic personal and professional failure. 

1. A vital, ongoing, personal relationship with Christ. Spiritual disciplines are not optional for effective spiritual leaders, though most of us (myself included) struggle in this area. Daily engagement with Scripture, prayer, and other disciplines become holy habits that drive our approach to ministry. Too often, however, we have pushed these disciplines aside in order to "get more things done." Maybe we're afraid that our congregations will think we're slackers if we decide to pray instead of being in the office to answer the phone first thing Monday morning. Maybe we're too busy for God, even though it's God's work we're supposed to be about. I would like for our denominational leaders to unapologetically push for clergy to develop their own spiritual lives, sometimes over and against more church activity. One of the key effectiveness markers should involve asking clergy, "How is it with your own soul?"

2. The ability to deal with anxiety and conflict. This is probably the number one killer of effectiveness in clergy and congregations. Unresolved conflict, the inability to differentiate oneself, taking on the anxiety of the church's family system, allowing the most anxious people to drive the church–these are major barriers to effectiveness. Training and support for clergy in the area of family systems and conflict management should be a mandatory part of a clergy's education. Too many of our clergy and congregations are chronically anxious and emotionally enmeshed, and the ability to navigate and manage anxiety is a key marker of effectiveness. CTA mentions "principled" leadership, which is a start in this direction.

3. Integrity. Our denomination, like many others, is suffering from an integrity crisis in its clergy. The number of clergy who are being forced out because of moral failure seems to be increasing, and I would venture a theory that it's because the pressure and expectation to be successful and please people becomes overwhelming. When pastors don't know what to do with their anxiety, they will medicate their pain with substances, inappropriate relationships, and a host of other pathologies. I recently said to another colleague that I have redefiined my vision of "success" in ministry to include making it to the end without having done something monumentally destructive to myself, my family or my churches. Finishing well is a process that must begin early in a pastor's career and be guarded constantly. The integrity to be truthful about one's struggles, to confess our sins to one another and to God, and to recognize our weaknesses, is simply not optional if one's ministry is ever considered to be "effective." 

4. The work of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is the factor that undergirds all the others. The Call to Action report disappoints me because it doesn't take into account that the success of the church depends on listening to the Spirit. I preached on this during Pentecost this year. God help us if our ministries depend solely on our efforts!

Again, these are things that are difficult to measure on the stat sheet, but they should be considered as part of our effectiveness process. In the Rocky Mountain Conference, for example, our current evaluation system for clergy looks more like a military Officer Efficiency Report than a true evaluation of these "soft" metrics of effectiveness. A "covenant" system, such as outlined in Gwendolyn Purushotham's wonderful book Watching Over One Another In Love: A Wesleyan Model for Ministry Assessment, would seem to provide a more comprehensive view of a pastor's effectiveness. Additionally, the SPRC is currently the one group that evaluates a pastor, but their exposure is always limited. A 360-degree review process, involving multiple people from the congregation, would seem to provide a more accurate picture. 

I've known many pastors who I consider to be effective who have never grown a "large" church, but who were nonetheless effective at making disciples for the transformation of the world and did so without compromising their own faith and integrity. Our "bigger is better" focus, as outlined by Call to Action, lacks a true understanding of disciple-making. We're still trying to copy the Willow Creek model of building megachurches, when even Willow Creek itself has admitted through its Reveal study that drawing large numbers of people does not necessarily equate to making them disciples. 

We're Methodists, and historically we've been good at making disciples. I truly believe that our future is grounded in our Wesleyan past, where disciple-making, more than worship attendance, becomes our primary goal. Preservation of the institution is less important than the radical move of the Spirit in the lives of individuals and churches, both large and small. 




The UMC Leadership Summit: A View from the Foxhole

Mushroom_cloud Back when I was a young infantry lieutenant, we used to have a class every so often with one of the guys from the NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) branch, who would come to the unit to teach us what we were supposed to do if a nuclear device went off near our foxholes. These guys were usually humorless, and they dutifully explained that once the initial blast wave went by, we were to poke our heads up out of the hole, use a plastic "whiz wheel" calculator to "measure the mushroom cloud," calculate the wind direction, and then, if our radios weren't already steaming hunks of fused metal, call higher headquarters to report all this information and higher math. 

Every briefing, some young butter bar would ask the obvious question: "Sir, will any of this stuff really matter if a nuke really goes off in front of us." 

"Of course, lieutenant," the grim, bespectacled officer would say. "And even if it doesn't, it will at least give you something to do while your world comes to an end." 

At the risk of straining the metaphor to its breaking point, as I sat today watching the worldwide webcast of the United Methodist Leadership Summit, I kind of got the same feeling as I used to get in those grim military briefings. Here's a bunch of things you can do and calculations you can make while your denomination comes to an end. 

I don't mean to be overly cynical, but what I heard today was essentially another repackaged version of the same briefings we've been getting for years: bishops and general secretaries from some bureaucratic agency in Nashville gather us all up to tell us that things are in decline, that we need to change, that we have to do things differently, yadda, yadda, yadda. The solution du jour is now that we are going to focus more on "metrics" such as worship attendance to determine "effectiveness" in ministry. We're supposed to have continuing "holy conferencing" conversations with each other about how best we can "move forward" and "be relevant" in the 21st century (they showed us videos of a pastor picking up cereal off the floor and another with a bunch of cats as ostensibly good  examples of what "relevant" preaching means today. Yes, that sound you heard was George Whitfield rolling over in his grave). 

None of this is particularly wrong, it's just that the solutions that are being proposed by the Call to Action Steering Committee (and other "clusters" of tasks forces and committees–interesting word choice for an old infantryman–let the reader understand) are really exercises in missing the point. We heard over and over again today about the UMC's mission to "make disciples for the transformation of the world"–but nobody seemed to be able to define just what a "disciple" was. And, by the way, a disciple of who? It wasn't until two hours and forty-five minutes into the thing that Bishop Goodpaster finally asked the question, "And where does Jesus fit into all this?" 

Herein lies the basic problem. We're trying to fit Jesus into our structure, rather than altering our structure to fit Jesus and his kingdom. 

Our biggest issues are theological ones, and no amount of rearranging of these procedural and structural deck chairs will save this denominational Titanic without a real and unified sense of what we believe. Any organization that has a large number of its leaders who don't believe in the organization's stated core values, beliefs, and practices is doomed to failure. Any church that does not have at its center a faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, faith in transforming power of his kingdom, faith in the power of the cross to defeat evil, faith in Christ's defeat of death in his bodily resurrection from the dead, and faith in the new creation to come, is a church that does not dispense any real good news–just some occasional bits of good advice. 

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show recently said this about the UMC: "Being a Methodist is easy. It's like the University of Phoenix of religions: you just send them 50 bucks and click "I agree" and you are saved." Sadly, his parody is dead on. The church that once had a rigorous "method" for disciple-making, a transformative theology of grace, an emphasis on "Scriptural Christianity," and preaching and worship that catalyzed a movement that affected whole societies, is now a cultural punch line.

John Wesley structured everything in the early Methodist movement around Jesus and his call to make disciples. Wesley didn't have to wonder what a "disciple" was. He defined them in sermons like "The Character of a Methodist" and made sure that disciples were formed through the rigorous process of the classes and bands. Preachers were admonished with Wesley's famous directive: "You have nothing to do but save souls; therefore, spend and be spent in this work." Our spiritual ancestors were laser focused on one thing: growing into the image of Christ. This was "the one thing needful" for Wesley. 

 I have challenged our congregation with a vision to make our local church into a disciple-making community in the Wesleyan tradition. With 500 churches in our county, and a lot of people who don't know Christ, we're embarking on a particular way of being Christian by truly  being Methodists. We're structuring our Christian education around an intentional program of discipleship training in the Wesleyan model, we're beginning to work on established class meeting groups for accountable discipleship, we're immersing ourselves in the Scriptures, and immersing ourselves in the local community and its needs. In short, I see our church's  future as being grounded in the best of our historic Methodist core values. 

I wonder what would happen if our denomination were willing, really willing, to ask the deeper questions about its identity, compared to its heritage? What would happen if we saw our denominational future as being fully grounded, uncompromisingly, in our classic core values? I applaud the work of some of our bishops like Reuben Job, who has called us to look back at our core values like the General Rules. I appreciate the fact that our own bishop, Elaine Stanovsky, has a missional approach to appointment-making. Our system needs an internal reformation before it can really be a movement again. It can happen, but not without some serious discussion about who we believe we are, and whose we believe we are. 

What I would like to have heard today, instead of a scripted, wooden, bureaucratic dog and pony show, was a frank discussion about what it's going to take to make us a movement once again. Having the general boards and agencies police themselves, when their jobs depend on keeping things the way they are, isn't change. Continuing to bang away at metrics and making up task forces isn't the way to change. The only way to change is through the transforming power of Christ. You want to make disciples? You have to be one first. 

This is a bit of a ramble, but that's the kind of confused state one gets into once the blast wave has rolled over and the cloud begins to form. Forget the whiz wheel. It's time to march in the opposite direction!