Clergy & Church Sneak-Peeks

United Methodist clergy sneak-peeks at their prospective new appointments have been probably been with us since our founding. We’ve just switched from horses and word of mouth, to websites and surreptitious scouting trips. My three children knew the drill. As soon as we heard, we hit the trail. We found the church, checked out the parsonage from a drive-by with everyone semi-ducking their heads. Looked at area schools, even fast-food restaurants and whether the Sonic had a playground. Churches also are tempted to go check out their new pastor ahead of time – a no-no.

As a District Superintendent for 8 years, when I handed out profiles, I told the same thing to SPRC Chairs as I did clergy: “It’s a small state and everybody knows somebody from everywhere. Call those people and find out all you can. Do not go visit their church! We’re not Baptists who judge a preacher on one sermon. Remember no church is as good as you hear it is, and no church is as bad. Start making the transition, and remember you never get a second chance in making a first impression.”

I especially told SPRC Chairs, “If you want to know what your new pastor looks like, just set up a video camera in the church and parsonage’s front yard on the day of and day after appointments are announced. Sometime during that day a car is going to slow down at both locations. Its occupants will be slinked down in the seat peering over the edge of the car window eyeballing everything that they can. Make sure the grass is cut at the church, cemetery, and parsonage and all the trash picked up. Spruce everything up because this is your first-shot at easing the anxiety of a whole family and starting off right.”

Even in this age of internet sleuthing, we still depend upon our own eye-witness judgment. Especially with young children, it is extremely important to give them a peek at their new digs. Waiting to go check things out at an Introductory Visit is too late and formal. So, churches, if you haven’t already, do your own personal drive-by of your facilities. Eye-ball what any passer-by might see. If it isn’t appealing, do something about it. This isn’t just good advice for churches that anticipate a change in clergy. It’s a good idea all the time if you want to be inviting to your neighbors.

I know that when I wanted to avoid rush hour traffic for some charge conferences, I would leave early, get to the church way ahead of time, and do a walk-around. I learned a lot about each church in the district by just looking. How a church took care of its cemetery told me quite a bit how they valued their past, and how they took care of the living.

I remember going to one church whose name and location suggested on paper that it was a peaceful place. In my walk-about around the cemetery I noticed there were multiple spellings of the same last name. That clue explained a lot about the tensions in the subsequent meeting. The bottom line of what I’m trying to get at during this strange season of already and not yet in appointment-making is that we need to clean up our own house first, and get the plank out of our own eye before we start nick-picking the speck in our prospective pastor or church.

Boy, I have seen churches and pastors really get critical over the official profiles. These are handed out to SPRC Chairs and clergy when appointments are released. Those profiles, by the way, are going to be pored over and over and over. Every word will be parsed. Every date will be perused. The length of each appointment will be judged for good or ill. Expectations about ministry will be formed from what’s been written down, so write well! Tell the truth, but don’t throw anyone under the bus. Remember what I said earlier, “No pastor or church is as good as everyone says they are, nor as bad.”

The church that your “friend” had a hard time in may be prime for new leadership, so don’t pre-judge. It might be your best appointment. Churches, please remember that the clergyperson who only stayed two years at their last appointment may be moving for the best possible reasons. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Less than stellar fruitfulness at one place doesn’t mean they won’t be remembered as your most beloved pastor 20 years from now. Timing and chemistry can make a huge difference.

God bless everyone who is taking those sneak-peek rides, and churches that are putting out feelers about their new pastor. All of us, whether we’re expecting a move or not, need to get our act together. We need to clean up our front porch, get rid of dead, faded, or unseasonal flowers in the cemetery, and put our best foot forward on our profiles, and websites. In other words, if we want to make new friends with all the people who are checking us out, we need to look at ourselves through their eyes.

Once again, be gentle with each other, especially children or youth who are being uprooted, plus spouses who will be looking for new work. This whole process is like being on a flying trapeze. You can’t reach out and grab the bar coming at you unless you let go of the one you’re holding. That goes for churches saying “Goodbye” to their current pastor, and clergy saying “So long!” to their current appointment. If you don’t let go of the trapeze bar, you end up stuck hanging in the middle with nowhere to go – a bad place to be. So get ready to let go, and grab hold of that next appointment or pastor. God has great things in store. No doubt, you’ll get what you expect!

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When Is The Right Time to Close a Church?

When is the right time to close a church? The technical process of discernment and action is outlined in Paragraph 2549 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, but the emotional process is much more complex. The bigger issue for me is the distinction between abandoning a church or discontinuing it. I haven’t closed a church in my 8 years as a District Superintendent and, as I’m in my last few months in office, I don’t plan on doing it now. It wouldn’t be fair to the next superintendent.

There have been a few Columbia District churches along the way that have been “on the bubble” in this regard, but I strongly believe what the anonymous author said, “Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again.” If there was enough movement of the Holy Spirit to start a church, why not wait and see if the fire can be rekindled? This seems like a plug for revitalization of existing churches over new church starts and maybe it is. I strongly support doing both!

Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 that “Where two or three gather come together in my name, there I am with them.” That can be an awkwardly low number. I heard about some ladies comparing their previous week’s worship attendance numbers. One said that they had 500 in worship. Another said that they were at the 100-person mark. The last person said their crowd was so sparse that when the pastor said, “Dearly Beloved,” she blushed. Is there a church size that is too intimate to be effective, too small to really be church?

A case in point is Cedar Creek UMC in the Columbia District. It was founded in 1742 as a German Reformed congregation then Bishop Francis Asbury and circuit-riding preacher “Thundering Jimmy” Jenkins came through in 1785 and the whole congregation, including the pastor, became Methodists. There’s a wonderful historical marker in front of the church. Unfortunately they’re down to five members now, all in their nineties. I’ve told the pastor of this three-point charge to go to Cedar Creek and wait, work on the sermon, and if nobody shows up in 15 minutes, move on to the next church. The people are faithful more than they are able at this point, but how dare I close a church that predates American Methodism?

None of the Cedar Creek folks want it on their conscience either so we’ve made an agreement. I will not start the process for their discontinuation. When they have all gone on to meet the Lord or the Lord has come back to meet them, then the church will be subject to the abandonment clause. However, this bothers me somewhat, too. Is there any spiritual value in the difference between abandonment and discontinuation? Maybe there is since you must have a death before a resurrection!

Sure, the Annual Conference trustees will do their best to see that Cedar Creek’s property is used in a way that promotes Christ’s ministry and the funds that they are currently using will be redirected to more flourishing ministries, but there’s still a sense of loss, even death. As Cabinet Secretary for these past eight years I have been the one who has stood in front of our annual conference and presented the resolutions for church closures. It has always been solemn, moving, and a funeral of sorts, except it’s hardly ever felt like a “Service of Death and Resurrection.” The resurrection part has been largely absent except when there’s a church whose assets have been designated to start or fuel another ministry. There’s real gratitude for past ministry, but seldom a hope of future fruit.

What is there to do? Oh, there are lots of avenues that have been explored through our excellent Congregational Development Office, great nearby churches and other partnerships, but in an area where the deer vastly outnumber humans there’s a dilemma. This is true across our denomination and others where demographics have changed. I have seen churches in the U.S. repurposed where a former Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh was turned into a brewery and a Baptist one in New York City has become an excellent Italian restaurant.

What happened? Is there any valid excuse for a church to close? I’m really struggling with this. You can visit Wesley’s Chapel on City Road in London and quickly discover that people don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but they still have an active congregation! In Cedar Creek’s case its near-demise seems to be all about location, location, location, but in New York City and London people can catch a subway or ride the tube to get to church. There are plenty of cars and drivers around here to get people to Cedar Creek, too.

So maybe the problem isn’t as much about location as what happened decades ago or sometime in the interim. I don’t think that this is Cedar Creek’s story, but I have certainly seen it in other places: Many if not most of our declining churches either started as or at some point turned into family chapels and the families have died out. For too long we have counted on people having children who stayed put: duty, loyalty, and inward focus; i.e., too much intimacy without welcoming the stranger and the church has shrunk. If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication.

To replicate the New Testament church we have to sometimes shut a church’s doors for a season in order to squash the old DNA and later reopen it as a new ministry. Frankly, the results have been mixed, but we have to do something. Rocking along propping up failing institutions is a horrible drain on our human and financial resources without much fruit to show for it. Our Wesleyan Movement ends up motionless.

The preferable response to this inertia is worth repeating: If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication. For instance, use the official definition of “replication” in computing. It is defined as: “sharing information so as to ensure consistency between redundant resources, such as software or hardware components, to improve reliability, fault-tolerance, or accessibility.”

Now, that will preach when I think about keeping churches alive and well: sharing information (talking about Jesus Christ and his mission), ensuring consistency (discipleship), between redundant resources (connectionalism-“Together We Can Do More!”), such as software or hardware components (people and buildings) to improve reliability (sanctification), fault-tolerance (loving communities), or accessibility (openness to new people and ideas).

My task as a District Superintendent is to be a “chief missional strategist” (Par. 419.1 BOD). That means that I need to help churches effectively share the Good News of Jesus by using all the resources of replication. In Cedar Creek’s case we might build a buzz and momentum for Christ’s witness by turning it into a teaching church. I have 65 churches in the Columbia District and 58 charges. What if I got at least 52 of those churches and charges and/or their Sunday School classes to go out there and hold services once a week for a year? It would be a chance to hold a lab school of sorts about the early history of Methodism for both adults and confirmands, an opportunity for Lay Servants to hone their speaking and teaching skills, a place to talk about ways to retain relevancy when your demographics change and the need for churches to engage new and different people.

The Board of Ordained Ministry could use it as a place for Residency Groups to learn about the Wesleyan Movement and have their very own class meeting. They would have a chance to get ready for the Proclamation Committee, too, by sharing the Word. Gosh, the Cabinet could meet there as a big reminder of two big questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?” Rather than be repurposed into a bar or restaurant, the Lord’s Supper could be served to Emmaus gatherings and others. There are lots of opportunities that need to be explored.

My wheels are turning, but I need to hear your thoughts and dreams. What do you think that we should do with Cedar Creek and others like it? What are your suggestions? I’m all ears,

tim

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Risk It All for God!

It’s been exactly a month since I last wrote anything. Crazy!? Yes, the holidays were hectic. My mother-in-law got sick. We’ve spent a lot of time on the road seeing the grandchildren, and… I’m not going to bore you with the details of 30 days of pre-Christmas, Christmas, and post-Christmas events, pottery-making, bowl game blues, New Year’s hopes, and our first fake tree ever because we spent the entire 4 weeks on the road and need another 4 weeks of time off to feel normal. Plus, like everyone else, we’re pretty bummed about the economy, wars, and everything else. Epiphany season is just in time plus the “Miracle on the Hudson.” I need an Epiphany season to remind me that God can do the extraordinary- A “Miracle on the Broad, Congaree, Saluda, Wateree, Pee Dee, Edisto, Santee, Black, Savannah, Seneca, Pacolet, Catawba and whatever other Rivers there are in SC!” As we start ramping up for appointment-making, I especially need more than a few “Aha” moments so that we can make sense of the next to none retirements, hunkering down pastors and churches; i.e., few moves. It’s going to be an interesting year to say the least. In spite of it all, my mantra for the New Year and how I’m going to sign off on all my emails is “Risk it all for God!”