Getting Ready for the Best Year Yet!

I haven’t written in weeks, but have great excuses. We had Annual Conference which was wonderful under the leadership of Bishop Jonathan Holston. Then the day after it ended I went on a 2 week tent-camping, fishing, and canoeing trip along the New River between North Carolina and Virginia. It was wonderful! There was great camaraderie, superb fishing, rushing rapids, adventurous mishaps, magnificent food, and good reading. Getting back in the saddle as a District Superintendent has been challenging, but I’m ready for this final year as a DS to go well. Oh, yeah, we also made a mad dash down to Florida to check on Narcie’s progress, and we start Cabinet Retreat this Monday with folks connected to Patrick Lencione as we work on what it means to be an Annual Conference team and what are our goals and strategies.

Describing a Bishop, DS’, and Conference Staff as a team should go without saying, but we have all probably heard or seen the opposite. I just reread Lencione’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team for the first time in 8 years when it was recommended in Baby DS School, and am now reading his book The Advantage for the first time. Good stuff! Challenging stuff. He doesn’t say the following things, but it’s what comes to my mind as I think about the church’s organizational health. There are two primary questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?” I can answer the first question with the acronym “MD4C” – Making Disciples for Christ. The second question is a lot more nebulous and complex. Some people want to talk about metrics that suggest an outcome-based answer. Others want to describe a healthy church as one that’s relevant, relational, missional, touchy-feely, and friendly. I want both descriptions! Numbers with a personal nuance!

And I know that you can’t slogan your way to better health as a church or as a person. Slogans and mission statements are usually so pie-in-the-sky that they don’t really mean much anyway. Writing a mission statement makes everybody feel good before the meeting or retreat is over, but then it’s back to the grind where theory is replaced by harsh reality. And in the church we’re too “nice” to care enough to confront reality and sub-par performance in our peers. So we go along to get along and the result is usually mediocrity. Oh, I like slogans and I like them short enough to be memorized and long enough to be memorable, but slogans are only as good as what we do with them.

We can talk a good game about organizational health but sheer talk is mushy rambling without clear action and buy-in as a team. According to Lencione the five stages to organizational health are: trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and results. Put another way, he says that the five dysfunctions are an absence of trust evidenced by a lack of vulnerability; fear of conflict with its artificial harmony; a lack of commitment with too much ambiguity as its evidence; avoidance of accountability whose evidence is low standards; and, finally, inattention to results whose evidence is seen in self-promotion and ego issues among team members. Let me tell you, Lencione is worth the read!

I can say over and over again how I would like our denomination, annual conference, or so-and-so to be better and do such-and-such, but if I never do anything about it or take it to the actionable level, I’m not doing anybody any good. I guess that’s where I am – caught between deciding to make a difference or to just bide my time in this last year as a DS. Do I check out of the process and play the lame duck bureaucrat, or do I fully engage for my own personal growth and that of the United Methodist Church?

If you know me, you know the answer. As a person with at least 15 more good years to give to the UMC, I am going to choose to be all-in. If I can give a canoeing trip my best, or support my daughter with my best, or be a rabid Gamecock fan with my best, how dare I, for one second, not give my best to the church that I’ve seen Jesus use more often than not to save souls and save society? So here goes, “I’mmmmmm baaaaack!” I want to do everything I can to get ready for the best year yet!

Connected Appointment Making

As a District Superintendent I’m about to head to our Appointment-making Week. I just came back in after spending 3 hours walking with one of the Columbia District clergy. Every Spring and Summer I spend three hours with each clergyperson doing whatever they want to do so we get to know each other at the heart level. Last night I had a long church local conference with a fine church that had some issues that needed to be addressed. Without knowledge of that church the impasse would have remained, but everything worked out well. I know them and they know me and that helped tremendously. I don’t think District Superintendents can adequately represent clergy or churches without personal knowledge. Connectionalism only works if we’re really connected.

This was important in my first parish and every parish. In my first appointment I pastored three churches for five years. I moved from seminary in Boston, Massachusetts to the outskirts of Cheraw, South Carolina. Although I grew up in South Carolina, I had never been in the Pee Dee region. As a matter of fact, I was under the mistaken impression that there were only three regions in our fair state: the Lowcountry, the Midlands, and the Upstate. I learned rather quickly that the Pee Dee is a separate region unto itself, with characteristics of the other three.

I had never heard of “funeralizing” someone. “Chicken Bog” sounded like something you could get stuck in rather than something wonderful to eat. I learned the hard way what a “colyum” was. I asked directions to a church member’s house and was told to turn at the house with “colyums.” Only after stopping at a country store and asking did I discover that a “colyum” was a “column.” Every place has a unique story, even vocabulary.

Each of the three churches was unique, as they should have been. Pleasant Grove was closest to town, situated on a four-lane highway. The folks there pronounced “Cheraw” as “Sha-rah” like “que sera sera.” The people at Mt. Olivet near Teal’s Mill pronounced it as “Chur-rah.” The members of the smallest church, Bethesda, pronounced it as “Chee-raw.” Each church was unique in attitudes, worship styles, and socio-economic preferences.

These differences were especially evident in how each “did” church. Pleasant Grove was closer to town and the music and worship reflected this. Mt. Olivet’s choir was more oriented toward quartets. Bethesda had no choir and the congregation primarily chanted their music except when Cindy played the piano for them.

Bethesda loved revivals and baptisms at the creek. Each Sunday for five years my sermons went through a cultural time-warp as I criss-crossed Thompson’s Creek in my used Plymouth Arrow. I preached every Sunday at 9:45 a.m. at Mt. Olivet, 11:15 a.m. at Pleasant Grove, and at 12:30 p.m. at Bethesda. Bethesda loved what I would call “Hard-Preaching.” They wanted the unadulterated truth straight from the Bible, no humor – all with the bluster of a whirlwind with accompanying fire and brimstone with a dash of thunder and lightning.

They didn’t like the Gospel “sugar-coated,” so to speak. Now, understand, this didn’t mean that they lived up to the Word any more than the other churches. These were hard-living people. They had tough lives and were poverty-stricken, but they also exacerbated their own situations by adding their personal fuel (usually moonshine) to their already tenuous existences. I think they needed Hard-Preaching because they knew themselves. They didn’t hide behind fancy liturgies and worship services. They came to church for medicine, and they expected it to taste like castor oil.

I remember one of my first funerals at Bethesda. I thought that I should comfort the family by bringing out all the good things that I could glean from the deceased’s life. He was a rascal by many people’s estimation. I learned very quickly that I needed to tell the truth at subsequent funerals. It was after this funeral that I first heard the pointed joke about the woman who told her son to go check who was in the casket because the preacher had described a man that was a lot better than the one she was married to. The lesson learned was this: if you don’t own up to sin you can’t appreciate grace.

Lent is our time to lay down pretenses and be honest – no sugar-coating. That’s the lesson from Bethesda: grace excels when you need it most! By the way, each of the three churches was the scene of each of our children’s baptisms. Narcie was baptized at Pleasant Grove, Josh at Mt. Olivet, and Caleb at Bethesda. Each of those churches will remain special in many ways. They trained me as a young pastor and taught me how to live incarnationally with diverse and unique individuals. They especially taught me about grace in the midst of judgment. They were and remain vital to our family.

As we make appointments this week I am profoundly reminded that the Cabinet has to know the churches and clergy whom we will consider. This Annual Conference is our family. The Lenten discipline of speaking the truth in love, helpful insight mixed with bared souls is necessary. If we want to do our part to increase the number of vital congregations we have to express an intimate knowledge of every person and church on the table. Effective and grace-filled appointment-making depends on it!

Shared Ministry!?!

I have been conducting Charge Conferences one and two a night except for Friday and Saturday, plus up to four on Sundays. In addition, Consultations with pastors have been every hour on the hour each day through tomorrow. Both Charge Conferences and Consultations have been excellent and informative. There have been some tensions as we finish up the business and I open up a “town-hall” style conversation about ministry. In particular, there has been fruitful seed-planting about a dream that I have to deal with the 16 churches within 5-6 miles of my office.
These 16 churhes have about 3,000 members and around 1,000 in average attendance. They are pastored by mostly elders, 3 retired supply persons, and two Probationers. Each church has its own identity and is doing vital and valid ministry. The situation that presents itself is that these churches are all struggling in a sense. The attendance in the churches starts at 25 with a high of 125. There has been disciple-making, but little numerical growth. The total salary amount for the clergy serving these churches is over $630,000, not counting accountable reimbursement or housing allowances in lieu of parsonages. Only three of the churches have parsonages.
I don’t want to have a cooperative parish system because my experience is that model smacks too much of being one foot already in the grave; i.e., “Let’s continue to do our own thing but get together every now and then until we shrink to the point that we have to be closed.” Another model suggests that larger churches can absorb smaller ones as satellite congregations. This strikes me as a “hostile takeover” no matter how good the intentions are. Another model is where a larger church has an Associate Pastor who serves in that role and as Pastor-in-Charge in a nearby smaller congregation. Then, of course, is the idea of mergers but that creates a mutated DNA mixture that could be deadly.
The model that I’m pondering most has groupings (clusters) of similar churches in close proximity that avoids any sense of takeover and affirms each church’s identity. The 16 churches that I’m specifically thinking about could be grouped into 2 or 3 clusters for a “Shared Ministry.” They would have their own pastor who would be there 75% of the time, but share clergy responsibilities with other clergy from the Shared Ministry Group. For instance, a clergy for a particular church may be that church’s “pastor,” but there would be a degree of rotation in preaching duties to underscore the connectional nature of a Shared Ministry.
I wouldn’t need 16 pastors to handle these 1,000 people. I also wouldn’t need over $630,000 to fund the clergy. But this is much bigger than saving money and stewardship of human resources (After all we do have a clergy shortage in SC). The primary impetus is to help these struggling churches do more and do it together. If I put the slogan that comes to mind for this on a T-shirt it would read, “Together We Can Do More!” Maybe 6 elders would be enough to handle the pastoral needs including several who might be retired Supply. I would want at least 2 Deacons to handle Programming and Christian Education opportunites that can be shared with all the churches in the cluster. Plus, I would want superb persons for Children’s, Youth, Young Adult, and Older Adult Ministries that would be individual and shared. All total There would be 12 clergy and ministry staff persons instead of 16, but MORE IMPORTANTLY there would be so much more opportunity for these particular churches to see growth rather than status quo – “Together We Can Do More!” It is a connectional model that honors who we are.
I’m broaching the subject at Charge Conferences and in Consultations, and the reception is better than expected given the differences between the churches in terms of socio-economics, theology, and race. This would create cross-cultural opportunities that just aren’t happening enough as is. People have responded by saying that this plan reminds them of what we did years ago when we did “Sub-District” events which provided a understanding of our denomination beyond a single church. Maybe they have a point! Please pray that we can make some of this happen, and leave your comments. This is going to take several years to get everyone on board, but the conversation has started. There are big issues to deal with like each church’s autonomy from the Discipline with regard to salary. I would prefer an English model of equalized pay, but that’s not my perogative though I do have the power of consultation for the greater good. I think something like this has to happen not just in Columbia but around the connection. I haven’t see anything written about a Shared Ministry exactly like I’m pondering, but I’m open to new thoughts and the Spirit’s leading. Help!?