Waiting for Superman

We had our annual Cabinet Retreat this past week. One night we watched the movie “Waiting for Superman.” It was powerful, sad, riveting, and more. It’s about the school systems in the US and how and why they’re under performing though we’re spending more than ever on public education. As I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but see parallels to the United Methodist Church. Everyone should watch this movie because you might see or experience something very different than me. Do it now! The copy we watched was purchased at Target. I bet it’s online, too!

The gist is that educator Geoffrey Canada (whose brother Dan is a leader in the Columbia District UMC) is a critic of failing public schools. The litany of reasons is long but he targets flunky teachers who get transferred around to different schools in a “turkey trot,” teacher’s unions and tenure systems that don’t reward results, school districts and education silos with their big buildings that are out of touch with what works with real students and their families and are only out to justify and prop up their own existence. I could go on and on. I know the movie offers a simplistic answer: charter schools with excellent teachers and high motivation by all. The sad part is that the only way to get into the few charter schools that are already pretty much full is by lottery. Leaving our children’s future up to chance in a lottery is a shame and disgrace!

There is no way that fixing our schools by charter schools and lottery can be done so easily. In South Carolina education is woefully underfunded and there are no tenured teachers or teacher’s union to blame. School facilities vary from county to county because of school district independence and separate coffers, and a major reason for the lack of money isn’t the big manufacturing plants who pay taxes but the suburbanites who are old or rich enough to send their kids and grand kids to whatever school they want. Their mantra is that they have already paid taxes long enough and it’s time for somebody else to do it. The crime of poorly paid teachers and inadequately taught pupils isn’t their problem, but they’re living in a dream world that will be shattered when their grandchild ends up marrying someone from a failing school or has to go to such a school themselves, or a teenage truant from a school dubbed a “dropout factory” breaks into their home. Then their eyes will open. Yes, the whole situation is more complex than what I’ve written, but this is at least part of the truth.

We all know real life examples. We know that there has been a Nobel Prize winner from the Williamsburg County Schools, one of the poorest school systems in SC. We know that there are bright and exceptional kids in every school, and pray for them to be successful. We know that brave leadership from parents, teachers, administrators, and communities is hugely important. Don’t forget about churches either. There’s a school district in the Columbia District that has been failing. There has been a socioeconomic divide for decades in that town that literally split Main Street into haves and have-nots. The haves built a fine private school. The public school was mostly populated by the have-nots with meager resources. The school district in this poor county was put on probation, lost its accreditation, and was under court-ordered review and investigation. Enter the leadership of key individuals who said, “If I’m going to live here, I want to make a difference;” who said, “If I’m going to live here, everybody will receive a quality education.”

When we’re faced with the reality that Superman isn’t going to come, and that there are no superheroes, then we all become Superwomen or Supermen if we so choose. The newly elected head of the school board  in this poor county did his own heroics and inspired everyone else’s heroics and now the school system is once again accredited. This guy (who recently graduated from the Columbia District’s Lay Empowerment Program called “LeadershipNext”) did what came next in his mind as both a Christian and as a civic leader. He is living the UM mission statement that God doesn’t save us through Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but transforms us so that we can transform the world. I am so proud of this fine United Methodist layperson!

Now what did the film “Waiting for Superman” make me ponder about the UMC? Well, the similarities abound as I hope you’ve already digested in this commentary. I know, for instance, that the layperson who has taken leadership and turned around a failing school district is inspired by an effective pastor. There is no substitute for good leadership in the UMC. We can have every fix-it program in the world but nothing will happen unless we have laypersons and clergy who exhibit leadership! I appreciate guaranteed appointments when they allow pastors to be prophetic leaders who can speak freely from their pulpits without worrying that they might get “fired.”  Such appointments also offer a safeguard for women and minorities who could otherwise be shortchanged by congregations who only desire white male pastors.  Still, this movie has me wonder if guaranteed appointments don’t also turn out to be United Methodism’s version of tenure, teachers’ unions, and the “turkey trot” where under-performing clergy are transferred from one church to another – all of which breeds mediocrity. United Methodist Churches have become dropout factories because lay leadership is uninspired and self-centered and the quality of preaching, pastoring, and leading by preachers is lacking. We have lost our relevancy because we accept the status quo. No more!

Now the UMC has a Call to Action with data that says what we should do, stuff we’ve known all along but haven’t been doing. I admit that I have been critical of the Call to Action report’s  use of metrics. We all know places where metrics, a fancy word for statistics, is incapable of measuring where the Holy Spirit’s wind has been blowing. Nevertheless, I must admit that if you don’t have a target there’s a 100% chance that you’ll miss. Churches and clergy hope that their next pastor or appointment will be their version of hitting the lottery and winding up with a good education, a ticket to a better future. That’s too chancy and I can count on half a hand the number of good preachers my home church has had in its entire history!

We have to do something now about our decline. Maybe metrics will help all of our churches become magnet or charter churches where people will find excellence. We don’t choose metrics simply because we’ve bought into some  hip business or educational model. Rather, the spiritual underpinning is very Wesleyan: sanctification. The reason we measure everything is that we believe in fruitfulness. We believe that if Jesus is real in some one’s life it will produce something, so we measure everything to see if that’s the case. The UMC rolled out yesterday, July 15, its www.umcvitalcongregations.org website. Wow! There’s a ton of stuff here that can help a local church measure up in vitality. The five areas are average weekly worship attendance, professions of faith, number of small groups, amount of money given to mission, and number of people involved in mission outreach. In SC we’re going to introduce this at charge conferences and invite people to come to a District Celebration in March 2012 to announce their results and make their plans for the next four years as a tangible gift to General Conference 2012. In reality it’s a gift to the local church and its people!

As a denomination we are not silo congregationalists. We’re not private schools. We believe there’s no such thing as private religion. We have religion of the heart and life – no holiness that isn’t both personal and social. We belong to a Connection that believes, “Together We Can Do More!” We are and want to be a better Charter or Magnet church drawing all people to Christ. We’re not waiting for Superman or Superwoman. No need to. We’re either the hero or villain in this story. I pray we are the hero.