1. Beware the hidden agenda of the reformer
It sounds wonderful to clear all the clutter off the table, take out a blank piece of paper, and start designing a denomination that really works. But it matters who is doing the writing of the administrative plan. Everybody’s solutions will just happen to embrace what they already are doing (or want to do). The drafters will inject in the plan all their pet crotchets and peeves and protect their personal projects. If you have a committee largely made up of bishops and general agency poohbahs, it will reflect their interests and protect their positions. If you have a committee largely made up of mega-church pastors, the draft will be for a denomination of, by, and for the mega-churches. In the absence of genuine theological and historical vision, you get . . . politics. And with politics comes the problem of the huge number of under-represented Methodists in the conversation.
2. Bishops are (or should be) just another name for leadership
And we need leadership. Instead of taking the trappings and personal failings of our currently dismal bench of bishops and creating an administrative order designed to make sure they can’t screw things up again, let’s ask ourselves, What do we want bishops for?
Methodist bishops are unlike any other church’s bishops. Their powers and duties were modeled after John Wesley’s own apostolic leadership style. They inherited his role, in effect. Our bishops have far more power in our org than any other denomination’s bishops. Meanwhile, their spiritual role – which ought to be, by far, the most important part of their function – is largely irrelevant.
Anglican bishops in Great Britain, then and now, are largely political hacks appointed by the government to run the Religion Department of the State. Medieval bishops were princes of the church, governing huge swathes of ecclesiastical territory. The bishops who gathered in Nicea in 325, however, were still largely pastors.
We forget that “pastor” and “bishop” were once synonymous. Back when there were no parishes (a system that took a thousand years to complete), no congregations, no dedicated church buildings, even – in the beginning of things, the bishop was the leader of the local church. And “local church” meant all the Christians in a given place. There were bishops of big cities and there were bishops of tiny villages. Every place had its local bishop. It was only when Christianity was made legal and the government offered assistance in church-building and recruited bishops as officers of the State that bishop began to be an administrative job, overseeing local clergy.
We forget also that in Methodism, “bishop” is the name of an office, but it is part of an overall plan of Superintendency. District Superintendents are named by the bishop to assist him in his work, but this is an extra. We need superintendency. But we should note that most denominations’ bishops supervise much smaller collections of congregations and clergy than ours do. Most Catholic dioceses are about the size of one of our Districts. We could multiply the number of Conferences and replace DSes with the old system of Presiding Elder.
In any case, we need leadership that is demonstrated on the local level by superintendents that actually superintend their people. When I started out in the pastorate 40-some years ago, people felt they knew their Superintendents. Some even knew the bishop. They saw them enough that they felt that they knew what was going on. And they were willing to concede them the power to appoint their pastors and resolve their conflicts and set goals for them. They would defer to them. But leaders who withdraw into fortress offices, who surround themselves with toadies with grand titles and clerks who seem completely unhelpful to the hoi polloi, who gives a wet slap what these expensive grandees want?
I think we need superintendents, and for tradition’s sake, we ought to call them bishops. What powers we give them and what duties we assign them, we can talk about. But eliminating bishops because of the obvious deficiencies of those currently in office is not the answer.
3. Efficiency isn’t the same thing as effectiveness
We have too much overhead, they say. I agree. You could get rid of most of the general agencies and not miss them. But at the Conference and congregational level, we have encouraged a merger mania that has not served us well. Human groups are organic, and they grow after their own pattern. If you combine two groups because neither of them are large enough to do what you think they should, you don’t automatically have one, vitally renewed, successful group. What happens is usually that, over time, the newly combined congregation or Sunday School class or Scout troop will shrink down to the size of the largest component that went into the making of it. That’s the size the members know how to be. All you have achieved is a net loss in group membership, and in your efficiency you have eliminated a number of "duplicated" programs that served far more people than you are serving now.
And when we talk about combining conferences, well, all we are really doing is preserving jobs for administrators. When we were talking about combining the two Annual Conferences in Indiana, a friend of mine said, “This is only a good idea if the result is either that we’re going to grow significantly, or save a boatload of money.” We have done neither. A healthy org creates new outlets and when it reaches a particular size, divides in order to reach more outlets; an unhealthy org constantly combines failing outlets in order to keep as many failing managers employed as possible.
4. Appointed vs. called isn’t all that you make it out to be
Everybody hates the itinerant system. But do they hate it because it’s a bad system, or because it has been badly done? Nobody asks that question. I know that for those who have their own personal pear trees to sit in, who don’t want to move any more, the itineracy is a threat. I also know that many of those are among those calling for a new system (see point 1, above).
But call systems (which are what most people propose as an alternative) have the same amount of pastoral turnover as appointive systems. They have the same problems of pastoral burnout, bad match-making, and clergy-killer congregations. Simply going from one system to another doesn’t get you anywhere.
The problem with the appointive system is that we have used it to advance favorites, to bludgeon congregations into accepting pastors who are ill-suited to them, and for other ideological reasons. We haven’t used it for what it could be used for: to communicate a total vision of ministry across a whole territory by the diffusion of a united clergy. That would require, you know, a united clergy or something. That had a vision. And it would require leadership that had a clue about what needed to be done.
5. Elder is the normative form of ministerial office in Methodism
We have become obsessed with credentials, forgetting that degrees are not the same as education. We have not theologized our ordination system, but have treated it as a union card. We have the most complicated clergy system of any Christian denomination I know.
The goal ought to be for almost all full-time, life-long, professional clergy to be elders. We need to make this goal achievable. We need to deliver the education and training necessary for it, and demand that those who feel called to exercise the pastoral office match the qualifications.
Local Pastor ought to be mostly a transitional role, either for those testing out their call and moving on toward the presbyterate, or for those who work directly with a Presiding Elder in a staff or multi-church setting. The office of Lay Exhorter (Lay Speaker) ought to be revived and emphasized.
Deacons are the tail wagging the dog. For the sake of a few church professionals in fields other than the pastorate or higher education, we massacred two thousand years of tradition in order to create the Deacon in Full Connection as a separate office from the Elder. We could have done what other denominations have done and created a permanent diaconate. In that case, those who were on their way to elder’s orders would be ordained deacon as a probationary step; meanwhile, those interested in other forms of professional ministry would be ordained deacon as probationers, then elected to Full Membership in the Conference as deacons when they had completed their trial.
6. Beware the siren song of congregationalism
With the proliferation of Licensed Local Pastors, every congregation can now have its own pastor. But given the lack of training – and support! – we give those LLPs, every congregation having its own pastor is just a recipe for less effective leadership on the whole.
I note that many mega-churches are now planting satellite congregations that are still part of the overall parish. In this way, they are modeling the pattern exhibited in the Post-Nicene Church, as bishops authorized their elders to assist in offering the sacraments in more places across their field of ministry. They are also modeling, in reverse, the circuit system of early Methodism.
In many areas, an elder with two part-time associates could effectively pastor six congregations as a team. That doesn’t mean that each congregation would have 1/3 of a pastor; it means that every congregation – even the tiniest – would have three pastors on its staff!
Organizing to serve the needs of the people and the proclamation of the gospel isn’t the same thing as building your own little brand. We need to be out moving across the land, pursuing our call.
7. We need to talk about how we have abandoned our core processes
Our administrative order has not been proven ineffective in today’s world; it has been abandoned, and we are making it up as we go along.
I hear people talk about returning to Classes and Bands for personal accountability, and I’m all for it. By how about returning to the actual doing of CHARGE CONFERENCES? Where the Superintendent looks you in the eyeball and asks for you to tell everybody else what you – pastor and people – have accomplished this past year. We have reduced Charge Conference to a paper chase and call people together for insipid rallies, sixty or a hundred parishes at a time. We have made our process contemptible, and contempt is all it deserves. There is no real accountability for anything any more.
The same goes for Annual Conferences. The Conference bureaucracy treats the congregations as a market, and the clergy as mere employees. They don’t want to do any real business. Reports are boring! They want all the decisions made in a tiny circle up at HQ, but they want everybody to show up for the annual extravaganza and get excited about . . . whatever it is we think we’re doing. Where are the committees and task forces and responsible officers who connected us and brought us resources and training? Gone with the wind. Annual Conference has become a trade show for an industry that nobody wants to work for, whose products nobody wants to buy.
But the Annual Conference is the key element in Methodist organization. We are organized from the middle out, not from the top down or the ground up. We need to reclaim the mission and work of the Annual Conference, not try to replace it. That means replacing leaders, not re-inventing the wheel.