‘Onward’ event challenges conference leaders to explore new approaches for ministry

October 15, 2014

By: Christa Meland

“Most of the mission field around us will not be reached through current congregations and conferences using current approaches,” Rev. Bob Farr told almost 50 leaders throughout the Minnesota Conference at a gathering on Saturday.

At the event, “Onward: Fearless, Spirit-Led Churches,” clergy and lay leaders representing a variety of ministry teams gathered at Spirit River Community church in Isanti to learn and dream together. Members of Spirit River Community, the conference’s newest chartered church, led the group in worship; Farr, director of the Missouri Conference’s Center for Congregational Excellence, led a teaching session on missional strategies for annual conferences; and leaders brainstormed new practices to lead the Minnesota Conference into increased vitality.

Among the big ideas that attendees generated for the conference: earlier congregational interventions that are proactive rather than reactive, aligning resources under the director-level staff, instituting congregational peer learning (similar concept to clergy peer learning), designing a way to track and nurture young people and laity experiencing a call to ministry, a mission impact team that includes representatives from a wide variety of ministry teams, welcoming greater diversity in leadership teams (with regard to age, race, culture, faith perspective, socioeconomic background, etc.), and creating a sustainable system for starting new churches and revitalizing existing churches—one that goes beyond the seven years of Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference wrote a book called Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences, and Farr led a teaching session on the levers. Here’s a list of the seven levers, along with insight that he shared about each one:

The first lever: A strategy for starting new churches

“When I started congregations 30 years ago, there was one way to do it,” Farr said. Today, you need 15 models for church planting in order to make new church starts successful. “I think you need to … try a zillion things, and don’t be afraid to fail—and don’t punish your folks who fail,” he said. But always be trying new models and methods.

The second lever: A strategy for clergy peer learning

“We keep saying to our clergy, ‘Go out and get a win,’” he said. “And most of our clergy can do better than they’re doing.” Farr said he’s convinced that 10 percent of clergy are gifted in leadership and are effectively leading their congregations—and the best thing conferences can do is get out of their way to let them lead. Another 20 percent just don’t have the skill set to do what’s required to effectively lead and reach new people in today’s culture. The remaining 70 percent have the ability to take a step forward but can’t do it by themselves; they need opportunities to learn from peers—opportunities that allow them to learn how to apply new information and methods to an old system. “The worst clergy peer learning together is better than the very best workshop you can go to,” Farr said, quoting another church leader.

The third lever: A strategy for congregational intervention

Farr noted that congregational intervention is needed in part because you can’t plant enough churches to overcome the decline that so many others are experiencing. “I’ve never seen any transformation that didn’t hurt,” he said—and district superintendents must walk alongside congregations going through this process.

The fourth lever: A strategy for cultivating clergy excellence

Conferences need to give clergy every tool possible so they can be fruitful and successful, said Farr. For the majority of clergy, leadership is a learned behavior—not a gift. Conferences and conference leaders must help clergy to learn how to become effective leaders. “We have a lot of folks that are the same leader today that they were 15 years ago and wonder why it’s not working,” Farr said. He cautioned conference leaders: “Do not send clergy into the battle fields if you’re not going to come along beside them and help them . . . fight the battle.”

The fifth lever: A strategy for aligning budgets and resources

The Missouri Conference focuses its energy around clergy excellence and congregational excellence. Its teams, systems, priorities, and resources are all focused on achieving progress in those two key areas.

The sixth lever: A strategy for creating technically elegant governance systems

The Missouri Conference has five directors who report to the bishop, and the budget is aligned around the five directors and the work that they do. “You have to get systems that flow better,” Farr said.

The seventh lever: A strategy for reconfiguring conference sessions

“What would it look like if your annual conference was 12 minutes of business, the celebrations we need to celebrate, the worship services, and the rest was learning?” Farr asked. If you spend too much time on business, people leave thinking they attended a business meeting rather than a meaningful gathering of worship, celebration, and learning and discerning who we are, whose are we, and what our collective identity is.

After Farr’s presentation, Bishop Bruce R. Ough briefly shared his thoughts about progress and opportunities for the Minnesota Conference:

Transformation processes: “One of the things we need to continue to give our best efforts to is focused transformation processes,” he said. We are doing an outstanding job with the three Minnesota Conference processes: the Healthy Church Initiative (for mid-sized churches), Missional Journey (for smaller churches), and a just-launched Missional Church Consultation Initiative (for large churches). “We simply need to keep putting our resources there and doing this with excellence.” In the annual conferences that are growing within in North America, at least 40 percent of the local churches within those conferences are growing in worship attendance. In Minnesota, 23 percent of congregations are growing in worship attendance—and we want to continue to increase this number.

Clergy peer learning: We need to move “aggressively, but with care” in developing a clergy peer learning system, and this is where we need to put some of our best energy over the next year.

Clergy excellence: Ough said we must keep working on this, and it’s important for the conference hire a staff champion in the area of clergy excellence. He pointed out that the conference just received a $60,000 Young Clergy Initiative grant that will be used to start an internship for college students exploring a call to ordained ministry—and he said this could be a launching off point for a clergy residency program at some point in the future.

Church planting: Ough said we have a strong tradition of starting new churches in the Minnesota Conference. We need to continue to get better at this and experience “wins”—and we must keep trying lots of models and aiming for different sizes of church starts. All the while, we must focus on how to reach new people and more diverse people.

Reconfiguring conference sessions: We’ve started down the path of reconfiguring conference sessions to have more focus on worship, celebrations, and teaching—and less focus on business, and we need to continue on that path, Ough said.


Watch video of Rev. Bob Farr’s teaching session on the seven levers

View photos from the Onward event

View Journey Toward Vitality outlining Minnesota Conference key focus areas

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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