Wesleyan Wisdom: UMC should pay heed to the ‘tsunami’ prophets

Two true prophets of United Methodism are Len Sweet and Lovett Weems.  Both cut their teeth in what many people would consider cultural back eddies: West Virginia and Mississippi. Both are being ridiculed in some quarters as prophets of doom because, standing on the bridge of the Titanic, they see what the captain in the control room denies: the iceberg.  Both use “tsunami” as a possible demographic fate looming for United Methodism. Both are prescient and need to be heard in every local United Methodist church.

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

I am not qualified to question recent decisions of the Judicial Council that have negated the action of General Conference regarding its overwhelming judgment that we can no longer afford guaranteed appointment. I do not have the legal mind to question their decision to overrule the overwhelming majority of the South Central Jurisdiction delegates who believed they had both the reason and right to not re-appoint an elected bishop. However, one must take pause when a denomination develops a culture in which grassroots leadership feels overruled by hierarchical authority.

Twenty years ago, a California-based company surveyed United Methodism regarding connectional apportionments.  Of the options for defining the word “apportionment,” the majority chose “franchise tax.”  Since that survey, thousands of churches of all denominations have found that the least important factor in attracting new members is the denominational identity sign on the lawn.  So if apportionments are the cost of hanging out the denominational sign and that sign is no longer an asset, more and more people might ask, “Why pay the “franchise tax?”  Are we paying for a regulation that has become an albatross? In a recent interview, Len Sweet said, “There can be no role for a denomination that tries to regulate its pastors and churches. No one wants to pay to be regulated; they will pay for resources.”

Evidence aplenty

We all know that most print media are fighting an uphill battle for readership in the Internet and e-reader era. However, there is a disturbing underlying message in the decision of the United Methodist Publishing House to close all Cokesbury stores. Does this not have some linkage to the shrinking loyalty of United Methodist people to buy from our denominational resource center? Does it not also indicate that there are fewer students in Sunday School?

For cost and enrollment issues, Saint Paul School of Theology, one of our 13 seminaries, is leaving its campus and moving into a local church.  What a tsunami sign there is in this action! The seminary’s trustees blame loss of members in Midwestern states for a resulting reduction of persons hearing God’s call to ministry and enrolling at Saint Paul.

Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, based at Wesley Theological Seminary, speaks often of the impending “death tsunami” that will severely cripple the attendance and giving base of United Methodism. Many tend to dismiss Dr. Weems’ research as negativism. They point to the handful of growing churches among our 37,000.  Reality is that Dr. Weems does not want to be right, but his research data force him to tell the truth.

We have lost a net of 650,000 members in the United States in the first 11 years of this century, continuing a long trend of decline. Yet when this writer designed a program of comprehensive church growth in 1989 and 30 annual conferences had launch events for “Vision 2000,” critics called the strategy a numbers game that they refused to play.  In most conferences, the leading clergy in the largest churches said, “Include me out.”  The word “comprehensive” meant we must grow “deeper in spirituality, outward in missional service, together in koinonia fellowship, and more in numbers.”  Yet the strategy was called “gimmickry” and “simplistic” and swept aside by the General Board of Discipleship staff.

I remember so well when Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, retired president of Bethune-Cookman University, tried to convince the General Council on Ministries in Dayton that Vision 2000 might be a key to church growth.  She took me to dinner with the man in charge of looking for a program to present to the 1996 General Conference. His response was, “I refuse to support any program that quantifies my ministry.” His state once had the highest percentage of Methodist/EUB membership ratio to the general population of any state. Since the early 1990s it has sadly been “de-quantified” year after year since his “prophetic leadership” refused to support a priority on numerical growth.

The rising tide of the economy until 2008 enabled many marginal churches to eke out a loyal payment of apportionments and an entry-level “minimum” salary package for clergy. Now giving is down and church budgets are being reduced.  For larger churches, this means reduction of staff. For marginal churches, it may mean the tsunami has arrived.

Relatively unnoticed has been another bit of Titanic-like evidence. The loyal United Methodists supporting their church budget have been growing older and older.  Deaths exceed professions of faith in the overwhelming majority of our churches.  Indeed almost no church goes without funerals each year, but thousands have no professions of faith or baptism of youth and adults.  The baptism of infants often involves young parents getting back to their church roots: but only long enough to have the baby sprinkled. The family does not become part of the local church.

In her very important recent book, Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass notes of the declining mainline churches, “The anxiety is such that some may well think it the end times.” But she argues that what’s really happening may just be “the end of a particular set of patterns  organizing church, theology and religious life.” She writes that what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “garment” of faith could be falling apart, leading to something more authentic.

Who was it who said you could not put new wine into old wineskins? Was that not Jesus?  Is the Judicial Council and the vast underlayment of connectional controls an old wineskin?

Hmm.

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.

Join the conversation....

  1. methodistpie says:

    For all the reasons so well-stated above, I wonder if 2012 won't be remembered as a watershed year in the history of the United Methodist Church: When the connectional system had one last chance to self-correct, but was overruled by The Judicial Council. Why anyone would put much hope/energy into the system now is beyond me. Don't get me wrong: I love being a local pastor and find all sorts of reasons to be energized about the congregation I'm blessed to serve. I am very proud of my Methodist heritage and the possibilities the Methodist Church has afforded me. But, in my opinion, this has been American Methodism's worst year since 1844 and it's been painful to watch.

  2. Thanks for this word, Dr. Haynes. By my look at the numbers, and given the analysis of Lovett Weems, I think we're too late to save the institution in a form even near its present one. Even in churches that appear healthy, I'm finding 70% of contributions coming from ages 55+. That's not normal, either. It's new and unsustainable (see my post on the Coming Budget Crunch: http://teddyray.com/2012/07/12/budget-reductions-… ).

    Opportunities to gently prepare for that coming trouble have been mostly ignored. I have watched my own conference increase DS base compensation by 11% (now a total package of $119k + housing) in the last 5 years while the total budget has remained flat. I focus on those because we now have 15 positions consuming over 20% of the budget, and we continue to increase them in the face of a plateaued, and soon declining, budget.

    Your quotes from Bass and Bonhoeffer are very encouraging. I think we have great hope for a strong remnant that will go about ministry and the use of money very differently.

  3. craigadams49 says:

    Okay, heed the prophets of doom. And, for churches and local pastors, what is the implication? Jump ship? I believe the call is to be faithful where you are as long as you can in spite of the death tsunami. Isn't it? Anxiety is not going to make the church wise.

  4. I agree that doom and gloom are not answers, but they are reality checks. Yes we can be faithful where we serve, but we cannot ignore the issues, sorta like a perfect storm, that are affecting the connection. Anxiety, no. Faithful courage, yes. We need a grassroots common cause vision.

  5. paullawler says:

    Great article drawing attention to the seriousness of our plight. Healthy leadership will always define reality and seek to be responsive.

    I think it wise to be mindful that while the tsunami that Weems and Sweet speak of is inevitable, something will emerge on the other side. Therefore, for those willing to labor for new life which flows out of death and resurrection, there is great hope. This is one of the reasons the Rejuvenate Conference in Birmingham, Alabama was created — to foster renewal both in United Methodism and in the North American Church in general. Check out:
    http://www.rejuvenatethechurch.com and . . .
    http://vimeo.com/53340352

  6. chaplainkent says:

    The problem with eliminating guaranteed appointments is the fact that bishops would be deciding who is or is not worthy of appointment. A quick fix would be for the churches to be given the decision as to whom their next pastor will be and then eliminating guaranteed appointments wouldn't be needed. The system would then take care of itself.
    And the author's lament about things such as vision 2000 is misplaced. My conference embraced the vision 2000 program and promoted it from the bishop on down. As far as I can see it did nothing to help reverse the decline of the conference membership numbers any more than Natural Church Development has done for us. Perhaps the church as a community organization will continue to decline because of social and spiritual reasons and there is not much we can do other than pray and seek God, asking for a new wave of the Holy Spirit to come flowing in.

  7. The metaphor of the Titanic is appropriate. The Call to Action reshuffled chairs on the deck, and the elimination of episcopal responsibility to appoint locked the poor below deck and gave the lifeboats to the elite. Is it mere coincidence that the first Bishop to be excluded for ineffectveness was black, or that so many ethnic church pulpits would have lost the support of equitable compensation under the new policy? This was never about ineffectiveness. It was about the bottom line and the conflict of interest between reaching the nations for Christ and sustaining a system where inequity provides incentive and success is defined by social status.

    Before we berate the Judicial Council, we should consider whether the "change" they reversed was actually not change at all but rather a corporate expression of the very value system driving our decline: the utilitarianism, the faithless reliance on our own money and works, the congregationalist cult of personality, the abandonment of itinerancy, and our bias toward the wealthy, easy contexts of ministry that are every day harder to find.

Your thoughts?

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