A UM Missional Future: Focus Area 1

Part 19 of 21...

Focus Area 1: Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.

For more on focus areas in general, see the previous post on Focus Areas and Focus Area 2.

This focus area is further described by the Connectional Table as follows:

The church must recruit young people for ministry and provide them with the skills necessary to be effective in this new time of opportunity. That includes women and people of color the world over. Similarly, we must offer leadership training for lay people who are in ministry in countless ways.

This Focus Area is one place where the Connectional Table is seeking to respond to the challenge posed by Lovett Weems's research that has noted that United Methodists have the second lowest rate of ordained elders (or their equivalent) under the age of 35 of any mainline denomination in the US at 4.69% in 2005, which is a precipitous fall from 15.05% in 1985. (Only The Episcopal Church has a lower rate of younger ordained priests at 4.10% in 2006). This corresponds somewhat, too, to Weems's challenges in his Provocative Proposals, where he wondered aloud whether perhaps a major metric for the denomination to try to track and improve over the next decade might be professions of faith among people of color, asked if we were really serious about being a global church, and were thus ready to structure ourselves accordingly, and if we were willing to work at issues that both eliminate the endangered species status of younger clergy AND focus more on fostering good clergy leadership than continuing to allow poor leadership to go unchecked.

The issue in all of these questions and the whole first section of this focus area is clergy leadership.

That's not a bad thing to gain greater focus upon. Congregations do need trained and effective clergy leaders of all adult ages, not just older clergy.

The issue is not just recruitment, of course. It's also helping younger persons and other persons who have fewer financial means to get through the financial and other costs of the process leading to ordination, a process that has lengthened, increased in cost, and that has fewer places where it can occur since the Disciplinary changes in 1996 and the continuing reduction of seminaries approved by the University Senate. And more that that, finding appropriate appointments for these younger leaders to serve both as they are preparing and as they are beginning their full-time work as commissioned and ordained elders.

An appropriate appointment for a younger leader may not be as a solo pastor. And it is almost certainly not as the solo pastor of a several point charge of several small and struggling congregations of people of primarily older generations and a vastly different cultural background.

And, if part of the hope for these younger leaders is that they will be effective at helping to reach younger people, then an appropriate appointment might be to places where younger people actually live. Current demographics in the US would identify those places to be far more likely in or near large urban areas, and far less likely to be in small towns or rural areas.

Appointments are not issues that this focus area-- which represents the intentional work of the General Agencies of the UMC-- can fix directly. This is something for bishops and cabinets to work on, and to convince their Boards of Ordained Ministry (which are actually very independent from conference to conference) to follow suit in how they work to support rather than hinder the process of ordination for younger and less financially well-off candidates.

But I digress a bit...

Let me say first WHY this is important. It's because though congregations are not a sufficient form or venue for missional disciple-making, they are necessary. If we don't have strong leadership in the congregational format, that weakens the capacity of Methodist missional groups that may come alongside them to be maximally effective as well. Put in other words, the institution matters, too-- not just the movement. The movement without the institution has no center. The institution without the movement lacks vital piety. It's always both. That this area addresses the institution is no weakness, but rather a form of clarity about one place where such focus needs to be placed-- on the clergy leadership of local congregations.

It is likely to be the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry that will provide the lion's share of the general agency leadership and investment toward supporting this focus area. Others will no doubt assist where they can and should (GBGM, for example, in a number of settings outside the US). The decline in the number of younger ordained elders and the awareness of the deep giftedness and possible calling of all people in all places where United Methodists form congregations are solid reasons to pursue this focus area with diligence and generosity.

But not to the exclusion of the third sentence of it.

Similarly, we must offer leadership training for lay people who are in ministry in countless ways.

I do not read this as an afterthought, even if its rationale is less detailed than that given for a focus on ordained clergy leadership. Rather, I read it as the very heart of our task as missional Christians. Elders serve the work of the kingdom of God in the church in a few specific ways that primarily support the congregational format of Christianity. The rest of us do this missional work in literally countless ways.

I've seen the word "countless" used in such contexts as a sort of a throwaway compliment. "Yes, they do countless things," we say. What we sometimes means in saying that, though, is that we're not really sure what all they do, but whatever they're doing, we're glad they're doing it. At the same time, that means we're not all that invested in coming to understand what those "countless" things are. So we'll make sure we train them to do something-- maybe something we can create another program for or a position in the church (like committees and the like).

Yes, this statement could imply all of that. I'm choosing not to let it do so for me, and I'm hoping you will choose not to let it do so for yourself or others.

The reality, the simple reality, is that if we each take ALL of our own missional contexts seriously, and diligently find ways to act as growing missionaries in all of them-- and to do that we'll have to have the support of a small group that breathes communitas and is sold out to the way of Jesus, something most congregational formats won't be prepared to provide or support well--then, yes, those ministries could indeed become countless.

Let's do the math on this.

If, as Wayne Schwab contends, we all live constantly in perhaps 6 missional contexts, in ADDITION to a local congregation, and we are in a missional/accountable discipleship group of perhaps 6 people-- that's up to 36 contexts just there (unless, that is, we all live and work in exactly the same places all the time!). That's 36 contexts, not 36 ministries. Each of these contexts may offer opportunities for each individual to engage in a good number of ministries, every day, both through organic relationships and through intentional actions. Let's put that number at 3 just to be conservative. So six people now have the opportunity to engage in 108 ministries. Every day.

Now scale that up to a few million people who call themselves United Methodist. Let's call it six million for the sake of similar round numbers. Let's say we have 1 million little groups of 6, sold out to Jesus, living
communitas themselves, while also connected to a congregation. 36 million contexts. 108 million ministry opportunities. Every day. Multiply that by the days in a year. That's 39,420,000,000-- yes, over 39 BILLION, with a B.

That's pretty close to what I'd legitimately call countless. And that's not counting more organized opportunities these people may pursue with each other or through other networks.

You think we're going to create any sort of monolithic, one size fits all national training program that can possibly "equip" people for 108 million ministry opportunities every day? Something that you can purchase and run as a program in your congregation?

I don't. For lots of reasons.

But I know God can equip all these people and all this ministry, and much, much more. Indeed, God has done so. The witness is that we're here, all these generations later. The witness is that the good news continues to spread and form people to be missionaries in every nation on this planet.

And I believe you can. I am convinced the network can. Or to use John Wesley's term-- I believe the connexion can-- when it's about connection and not so much about control. And I think general agencies working to live out this Focus Area can be a valuable part of it. Not as any sort of monolithic program, but rather as cheerleaders and partners and as creators or hosts of platforms or hubs for webs of relationships among missional groups and congregations and communities-- some with the label United Methodist and perhaps many more not bearing that name-- but serving as bona fide learning and teaching partners with us.

Yes, we need leadership training for all the baptized-- including some who will serve primarily within the missional context of the congregational format and other para-congregational formats such as agencies or as District Superintendents or conference staff.

But more than this we need training-- probably more from experienced people who live this way where we already live, or close enough by for us to meet and learn from-- in the ways of
communitas, and in the disciplines of being missionaries, wherever we are, wherever the Spirit blows us.

But above all of that, we need not training, but conversion.

What we really all need, most of all, is to be sold out to Jesus-- and so to seek God's kingdom and justice, following him wherever he leads, going in his name wherever he has sent us.

Even so...

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards