3:00 P.M. EST June 2, 2010
Bishop Willam Willimon
How do we Methodists define effective clergy? We do it with one word: growth. Effective clergy know how to grow the church in its membership, witness and mission.
In North Alabama, we now have a “Conference Dashboard”
that every church logs in on Monday morning and reports its numbers
for that Sunday’s attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, offering
and participation in mission. Anyone can see the numbers for any church
in our conference over the past three years. The push back we have
received in this endeavor has surprised me. In nearly every group of
clergy in which I’ve discussed our work, there is always someone to
repeat at least one of these mindless mantras: “It’s all about numbers,
is it?” “You can’t measure clergy effectiveness, can you?” “So it’s
come to this: putting the butts in the pews.” Yada, yada, yada.
There may be something to be said for some of these
slogans. Except not in The United Methodist Church. We’re Wesleyans.
That means we believe in the growth of the Kingdom of God. John Wesley
had friction with the established church of his day, not only because
of his vibrant Trinitarian theology, but also because of his refusal to
limit his ministry to the moribund English parochial system.
From the beginning, Methodists were inveterate counters and numbers keepers.
Dick Heitzenrater tells me that in the annual minutes of
18th British Methodism, beginning in 1769, the Circuits that had fewer
members than the previous year were marked with an asterisk. That
year, it was 12 of the 48 Circuits. By 1779, that number had expanded
to 18. The question was asked at the conference, “How can we account
for the decrease in so many Circuits this year?” The answer:
This was “chiefly to the increase of worldly-mindedness and conformity
to the world.”
“We’re Wesleyans. That means we believe in the growth of the Kingdom of God.”
As of 1781, Wesley marked with an asterisk those Circuits that had an increase in
membership, which was the case with 32 of them, or exactly half. This
method was used for a few years until the percentage of Circuits that
experienced increases in membership was 75 percent of the connection.
Our North Alabama Conference once had four full-time
people who spent their whole day collecting numbers from our churches.
These numbers were duly reported and printed in the conference
“Journal.” Yet here’s the thing: Not one single decision was ever made,
by the bishop or cabinet, on the basis of any of these numbers. It was
as if we were all engaged in a studied effort never to notice any of
the numbers we were so assiduously and expensively collecting. Of
course, when the numbers were as bad as ours — over half our
congregations had not made a new Christian in the past three years, a 20
percent decrease in membership — it takes courage to note the numbers.
Tell it on the mountain
Wesley frequently cites numerical growth as indicative
of spiritual vitality. In his sermon “On God’s Vineyard,” Wesley
celebrates that the London Methodist Society grew from 12 to 2,200 in
just about 25 years. Heitzenrater speculates that Wesley was trying to
spur them on, since their membership had slowed to a gain of only 400
new members in the latest 25 years.
Wesley sent pastors to those areas where, in his
estimate, there were the most souls to be saved. He told his traveling
preachers not just that they ought to read, but also put a number on
it: at least five hours a day. Wesley also kept a close eye (with
charts in the annual “Minutes”) on how much money was collected each
year — for Kingswood School, for new preaching houses, for the pension
fund, for operating expenses. The annual conference was invented, not
just as opportunity for worship and fellowship, but mostly for the
purpose of everyone rendering account and confessing their numbers.
“Wesley sent pastors to those areas where, in his estimate, there were the most souls to be saved.”
I can’t speak for other church families.
But in the Wesleyan family, studied obliviousness to results, deploying
pastors without regard to their fruitfulness, pastors shrinking
churches, pastors keeping house among the older folks left there by the
work of a previous generation of pastors, and churches having a grand
old time loving one another and praising God without inviting, seeking
and saving those outside the church, do not make for faithfulness.
“Numbers aren’t important.” Really? Tell that to Jesus
and his parables of growth and fruitfulness. Tell it to the Acts of the
Tell it to John Wesley.
*Willimon is bishop of The United Methodist Church’s Birmingham (Ala.) Area.
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