All posts in United Methodist

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!

The Chipotle Ministry Model

Ask anyone who has eaten at one of the hundreds of
Denver-based Chipotle Grill restaurants around the country and they will likely
tell you that he or she is at least a once-a-week, regular customer. Chipotle
combines excellent food, using hormone and antibiotic-free meat raised
humanely, made-to-order service, and a focused menu into a restaurant
experience that causes the queue at each store to often run out the door
(though it moves quickly).

started eating regularly at Chipotle when I was serving on the staff of First
UMC in downtown Colorado Springs, walking downtown every Thursday for lunch at
Chipotle. Tim, one of the managers, was always working the lunch shift that day
and we got to know each other fairly well. Unlike many chains searching for customer
loyalty through rewards cards and the like, Chipotle relies on relationships
built with its regular customers. Tim would often say to me, “You look busy, so
the burrito’s on me today” or comp my drink unexpectedly. He told me that it
was part of the business model—that customers will return because you offer
them great food and a pleasant experience and not just because they have a
punch card in their wallet. 

we moved to Utah, the Chipotle brand was not yet in the state. I emailed their
corporate offices to lobby for a store in Park City or Salt Lake City, and I
always received a prompt, personal reply encouraging me to hang in there and
giving me updates on when they might be coming into the area. Eventually, two
stores opened in the Salt Lake valley and I was in line on opening day at one
of them. Turns out that I was not alone, as there were more than a hundred
people in line.

lines at Chipotle move fast because the line staff work quickly and seem to
enjoy what their doing, which has been universally the case whether I’ve been
at one in Colorado, Utah, or Washington, D.C. The menu is very basic—nothing
other than burritos, tacos, and salads. Unlike many fast-food chains, Chipotle
has stuck to their core menu and have resisted adding things like desserts and
specialty items to the menu. They do one thing and do it very, very well,
illustrating what Jim Collins calls the “hedgehog concept” in his book Good to
Great. A simple hedgehog will beat a clever fox every time because it knows how
to do one thing well—roll into a perfect ball and point its quills in all
directions. Says Collins, “[Hedgehogs] are not stupid. Quite the contrary. They
understand that the essence of profound insight is simplicity… Hedgehogs see
what is essential, and ignore the rest” (91). When a customer walks into a
Chipotle, they know precisely what they are going to get in terms of both
choice and quality, and since the food is made-to-order right in front of them,
they know they can trust the process as well.

insights for the church and for leadership have been apparent to me from the
beginning, but are reinforced every time I go to our local Chipotle (ten miles
away at the moment, but we are close to getting one in Monument, CO, according
to the corporate office). They are:

1. Pay attention to the
customer/regular attendee. No matter how the church may be, knowing someone’s
name and a little of their story makes for repeat visits. Help them feel like
an insider, and provide them with one-on-one attention whenever possible.
Loyalty is based on relationships, not programs.

2. Most churches are trying to do a
little of everything, tacking on and pulling down menu items of program
offerings on a regular basis, trying to get people to connect with their
“product.” Chipotle’s strength is that they have not tried to be McDonald’s or
Wendy’s—companies that are always tweaking their menu and tying their product
in with the latest movies, for example. They have a specialty niche, know their
customers, and execute a few things with excellence. Churches and their leaders
should focus on the “customer base” in their community, asking questions about
needs and opportunities. Instead of competing with other churches and “swapping
sheep,” an effective church will focus on its core competencies and promote
them unapologetically. Every church should be able to specifically fill in the blank of the statement, “We are the church who __________,” and do so with confidence that
they are making a difference for the kingdom.

my last visit to a Chipotle (I went twice this week), I noticed some people I
had seen before. I imagine that visitors to our churches are looking for the
same kind of connection—a place of quality, simplicity, and familiarity—and a
place where, eventually, even the manager knows my name.


Source: Collins, Jim. Good to
Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t
. New York:
HarperCollins, 2001.