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Effective clergy by the numbers


3:00 P.M. EST June 2, 2010

Bishop Willam Willimon
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.

Facing decline

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 Apostles.

Tell it to John Wesley.

*Willimon is bishop of The United Methodist Church’s Birmingham (Ala.) Area.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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