Wesleyan Wisdom: A struggling congregation must first ‘re-vision’

Several years ago while in Detroit for a church consultation, I read an article in the Detroit Free Press about pigeons. I learned that as a pigeon moves forward, its eyes lose focus. This requires the pigeon to strut only a few feet before it stops and snaps its head sideways, thus reconfiguring the eyes so it can again see clearly.

A church is like a pigeon. We can go only so far on an old vision before our mission is blurred. Our priorities tend to be disproportionately focused on the needs and wishes of the membership rather than those who have not yet joined. Our budget is weighted down with overhead and the cost of maintaining our denominational fees, called “apportionments” in the United Methodist Church.

Since the church is a service institution, it is appropriate to be heavily weighted toward staff salaries and benefits—if staff understand their role to be missional servant leadership. What percentage of staff time and committee agendas is focused on God’s children who are “pre-churched” and “ex-churched”? How much is focused on God’s children who have never internalized the profusion of God’s amazing grace? How much time do we invest in fleshing out Fanny Crosby’s theology of evangelism: “rescue the perishing”?

Donald Haynes

About 7,000 of our UMC churches could be graded as “vital congregations.” That leaves nearly 30,000 in maintenance or survival mode.

The Rev. Susan Pillsbury-Taylor was recently appointed to a church in Winston Salem, N.C., with almost no children in Sunday school. She discovered that 40 children in the church’s preschool weekday ministry had no church home. A mission field was coming to the church every morning and entrusting their children to a United Methodist church but never returning on Sundays! Now Susan is out there meeting every car and welcoming every child with a big smile, meanwhile meeting the parent and making that crucial first impression.

That’s re-visioning. My own ministry was re-visioned a number of years ago when I read a little book by Robert Dale called To Dream Again. I read that and others, digesting their creative ideas and wisdom, and developed a model for re-visioning a UM church.

My model is an on-site intensive weekend visit preceded by lots of homework and selection of a diverse “dreams and vision team.” Having reviewed their data, I meet with them on Friday at dinner for getting comfortable with one other and for two hours of hard work. All day and into Saturday evening, I meet a cross-section of the congregation through 30-minute Q&A sessions.

They see me taking notes of their responses to questions like, “If you were looking for a new faith home, would you join this church?” “Why or why not?” Then I follow with questions like, “Where do you see this church five years from now if trends continue?” “Are the spiritual needs of you and your family being met?” “On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about being a United Methodist?” “To you, what is the basic mission of this church?” “If you could change one thing in your church tomorrow morning, what would it be?”

Saturday night I write in my motel room, blending quotes and tweaking them to conceal their origin. Sunday morning I observe all worship services, and observe at least one children’s and youth Sunday school class. I sit as anonymously as possible in worship. I take a lot of notes in each of these roles and settings.

Sunday afternoon I have more interviews, most of these with chairs of key church councils, boards, committees, teams. Sunday evening I meet with a dozen or so of the elected lay leaders, with no staff present. (If staff feel uncomfortable with this, I don’t accept the invitation.)

Monday morning I interview staff one on one. Monday lunch is with the senior pastor until mid-afternoon. I check some findings with her or him and note whether the pastor demurs. I fly or drive out by mid-afternoon.

In two weeks I submit to the church six copies of my “Blueprint for Revitalizing ______ United Methodist Church.” The dreams and vision team and the senior pastor send me their reviews.

At that point, I make a judgment. Should this revitalization be aborted because of an entrenched leadership that is saying, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead?” If not, I work up a revised blueprint and return to the church. I spend much of an afternoon with the dreams and vision team (pastor or pastors present) and deliver my blueprint in the evening to the whole congregation. I leave the next morning. The blueprint is now the property of the dreams and vision team: to trash it or to water it down or to tackle re-vitalization.

Models for re-visioning abound. Mine is probably like a mule running in the Kentucky Derby! But the precise model is not the point; the point is to challenge people to embrace the future.

If decline or maintenance is the recent story of your church, it is time to follow the way of the pigeon: Stop, snap your head and re-focus. Stop walking blindly! The prophet Joel was God’s voice when he wrote: “Change your heart and not your garments. . . . Then, I will pour out my spirit. . . . Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”

To live out Joel’s prophecy we must build more trust in our connection and in our local church; we must open channels of communication; we must broaden the base of stakeholders in decision making and ownership; and we must be willing to take risks.

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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This article, and the kind of re-visioning process it proposes, represents one of the major problems I see with the church: It is internally focused. How does a process of interviewing those already in the church help us see how to make the church more effective in reaching those who are not? Yet we do it, again and again. Want young people? Talk to young people in the church (who, by their presence in the church, are demonstrating that they are not representative of their generation.) Want a new vision for the church? Ask those who are part of the… Read more »

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