Detours from the familiar path

December 31, 2010

Bishop Dyck and I spent two weeks this fall traveling around Minnesota, listening to clergy, seeking to understand the key challenges and realities they face. I invite you to consider with me these questions that our experience raised. I think they merit our further exploration together.

What are the fruits of a faithful church? If we were living the life of faith instead of trying to sustain the life of an organization, what would we be doing? Are we giving people what matters?

It was clear that our churches can point to things they have always done. Inactivity is not our problem. But our activity does not seem to be connecting to new generations. We don’t know how to stop doing what we have done and to start doing what will be more effective and fruitful. In fact, it scares us to think about doing so because it makes no economic sense. We are afraid of losing the people we do have if we make changes.

If I am an effective leader of the church in this time, what would receive my best energy and attention?

There is no question that our clergy work hard. The expectations on their time are great, and they could fill a day just responding to unexpected demands. Many clergy questioned whether they really had a good grasp on the right and best tasks needed to lead a church forward—and if they intentionally focused on those things, how they would handle disappointed people.

What story do we tell ourselves and how is does it shape our actions?

Yes, much of the reality we face arises from changes in our world. We did not create the situation. Just after this road trip I started reading Reality-Based Leadership, by Cy Wakeman (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Beliefs, not circumstances, are the greatest predictor of results, she says. She identified three common stories: (1) victim—it’s not my fault; (2) villain—it’s all your fault (the most often named villain being “the annual conference”); (3) helpless—there is nothing else I can do.

I heard a fair amount of those stories on the road. One that stood out to me in particular was the oft-repeated concern about the lack of discipleship/spiritual depth of our congregants. And I kept thinking, If that is a problem, on whose watch is that happening? As the spiritual leaders of our congregations, do we not find this in our sphere of influence? How do we move toward telling about our results and learning—naming what I personally contributed that led to those results—instead of giving reasons, stories, and excuses about why we didn’t achieve our goals?

How do we break the codependency cycle?

Tell us the answer. Provide more resources. Don’t tell us what to do. Leave us alone. Value us for who we are. Don’t expect more from us. Give us the freedom to risk, create, and fail. Don’t hold us accountable for reaching new people and growing the church numerically. Give us our salary increases.

We heard a lot of mixed messages and it often felt like a conversation that parents and teenagers have. We are stuck in some unhealthy patterns that are deeply engrained in our system. How do we all become mutually accountable, responsible, healthy adults in this new world?

What will urge us to change?

I was surprised by something Bishop Dyck also noted in her column: how much resignation we heard. Many clergy are resigned to the idea that the church will be sidelined in our culture and that the United Methodist Church will continue to shrink. We heard not much passion for reaching new people.

I was surprised that few clergy made the connection made between those realities and the implications for their future employment. And then it hit me. For the last 40 years membership has been declining in the Minnesota Annual Conference, with little consequence. Salaries have increased. Guaranteed appointments kept clergy employed. The clergy pension plan remains strong.

People sense urgency when they have a vision for what is possible or experience pain deep enough to motivate change. As leaders of the church, we have not done well on either front. We have not articulated a compelling vision of who we can be, a vision that would lead us forward. Nor have we helped people feel the pain that is surely coming our way if we do not change.

Where does our familiar path lead?

At the same time, we heard among our clergy a deep call to ministry, a great desire to see people’s lives and the world transformed. They put forth their best effort day in and day out to manage multiple expectations and to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ and spiritual leaders to their community. I heard wonderful stories of creativity, passion, and hope.

And yet, the reality remains that it is not enough to keep on doing what we have been doing. I for one am not willing to call it a day for the United Methodist Church. I will be blogging about these questions over the next few months and I encourage you to join me in the conversation.

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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