1:00 P.M. EST June 22, 2010
United Methodist Bishops (from left) Janice Riggle Huie, B. Michael
Watson and John R. Schol take counsel with one another as they discuss
leadership issues during a fall 2009 meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C. A
UMNS file photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.
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Most U.S. annual conferences are preparing, in the midst of or concluding their gatherings.
While I write from a particular region (Western North Carolina,
Southeast Jurisdiction), my sense from conversations across the U.S.
church is that a common experience is occurring. There is a heightened
degree of stress among participants and distrust of leadership. The
economic downturn has contributed to this (fewer church resources,
greater human missional needs, increased costs in areas of health care
and pension), as has decline in denominational membership and largely
unnoticed but very real trends in generational giving.
Related to this is the need to lower the expectations of those
participating in and dependent upon the annual conferences as systems.
Thus, "plum" assignments seem to be fewer in supply, and denominational
institutions that were birthed by our tradition can expect decreasing
levels of support—here I am thinking of children's homes and campus
ministries, colleges and seminaries, missionaries and communities for
The heightened stress can be projected onto the leadership—bishops,
conference or general church staff. This must be a disorienting place to
inhabit these days. These men and women have arrived in positions of
influence through the affirmation and trust of their peers; they now
discover an almost default suspicion, and even devaluing of their roles.
Bishops are secure because of our restrictive rules, but the merger
of annual conferences is a sign of the larger church's estimate of their
contribution to the church's mission. General church agencies find
themselves in a several-year limbo, as the church studies itself (at
last count, by nine authorized or self-appointed groups). Annual
conference staffs, which once mediated between the general church and
council of bishops and the local church, are disappearing, apart from
necessary administrative functions related to personnel, finance and
property. If you think this mirrors developments in corporate culture,
you are correct.
An unfortunate reality
The disappearance of these mediating structures, alongside the
diminished role of the general church agencies, coincides unfortunately
with a reality in most annual conferences that, with exceptions, most
United Methodist congregations are not as strong as they were 10 years
ago. Again, blame can be assigned to leadership (the pastors, or, by
extension, the seminaries), but the factors may be beyond our own
institutions: increased social mobility and dislocation; the explosion
of sports cultures that have become normative for many young people and
their families on weekends; a lower birth rate among Caucasian families
and an as yet unwillingness to assimilate immigrant families into our
Most annual conferences have not come to terms with how to deploy
clergy to the "medium" size churches, which in most instances are
becoming small congregations. And so the average annual conference will
increasingly approximate an ecosystem of a few very large congregations
and a massive number of small ones. Like the annual conference staff,
the mediating structure (the middle size church) will disappear.
I am seeking to be more descriptive here than judgmental. Bishops do
perform a crucial function: to teach the faith, to assign clergy, to
guide the church through a chaotic time, to frame the key questions.
General church staff are essential in developing resources or sustaining
institutions that are beyond the scope of the local church: I am
thinking about Disciple Bible Study and the Upper Room, Africa
University and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Nothing But
Nets and the “Five Practices.” And annual conference staffs are often
populated with very creative and conscientious men and women.
Yet the demands on these persons are increasing at precisely the time
when resources flowing toward them are constricting. The cliche "doing
more with less" is becoming, in real time, "doing less with less."
The Rev. Ken Carter
We convince ourselves that we are connectional, and the annual
conference is the visible sign of this (as is, every four years, the
General Conference). And yet the stark reality is that we are becoming
less connectional, more a confederation of congregations than a
Annual conferences are by economic necessity decreasing the hours of
their meetings at precisely the moment they actually require more time
together, to build ownership for key decisions and to create the
capacity to see them to fruition (this is also true for the General
Conference). There is little agreement on what constitutes the mission
of the church, the meaning of what it means to be a United Methodist, or
even if it is essential that one be a Christian.
The connection is a legacy passed to us from an earlier generation,
but it is now in a fragile state. We gather together, but we cannot give
a clear explanation for what we hope to accomplish.
Signs of hope
There are, to be sure, signs of hope: Our infrastructure can be a
gift to the world in the aftermath of a crisis (Katrina and Haiti are
two recent examples; one wonders if the oil debacle in the Gulf will
bring us together in the same way). There are theologians on a number of
seminary campuses doing remarkable work; I will step aside from my
usual Duke bias by naming Jason Vickers of United Seminary and Dana
Robert of Boston University among them.
There are a few very creative and even visionary bishops. A very
small number of our United Methodist colleges have awakened to the
notion that their historic identity could actually be their niche in an
increasingly secular culture. United Methodist Communications is doing
cutting-edge work in connecting a technologically savvy audience with
hands-on mission. The missional church movement is more aligned with
Wesleyan theology than any other stream of the tradition. And there are
congregations that are taking risks for the Kingdom of God. These are
more prevalent than we sometimes imagine.
These signs of hope are renewing the connection, either by distancing
themselves from the system where possible, accessing the system when
that is helpful, and strengthening the system even when it would be easy
to do otherwise (and here I am thinking of someone like Adam Hamilton).
Yet these signs of hope cannot and should not lead us to the avoidance
of the present reality: The stress that is felt in our system is the
breaking apart of a structure that is no longer sustainable, missional,
or even functional.
Saving our collective soul
Conferencing will increasingly be a gathering place for four types of
participants: those seeking to avoid the chaos of the surrounding
culture as they remember the glory years; others who are seeking to
process their disorientation in a system that cannot provide the rewards
it once promised; those who wonder how much or how little they should
invest in a system that no longer seems relevant; and those who sense
that Methodism can yet be reinvented through, in Dean Greg Jones'
wonderful phrase, "traditioned innovation."
I find myself in this last cohort. I did not really ever participate
in the glory years, and I am fully a part of the denomination, in every
sense of that word and at every level. Many of my friends, and many
clergy for whom I have deep respect are among the most disoriented, and I
can only listen and pray. And yet I believe that there is something of
substance in the Methodist movement; it is the gospel itself, a rich and
broad understanding of grace and a deep and wide perspective about
If we can get in touch with a grace that is lifelong and complex and a
holiness that is personal and social, we will connect with the source
that may yet be the salvation of our collective soul.
My sense is that reformations have always been theological before
they have been institutional. Put differently, they have been gifts from
God. And so the heightened degree of stress is either the end of life,
or the birth pangs of a new creation. My hope is that all of this is the
*Carter is pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C. This commentary was adapted from his blog at http://kenatprovidence.blogspot.com.
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