April 7th, 2010


More for National Poetry Month

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

-- John Milton
how long

Nobody asked me, but . . . Part I

The Powers That Be (primarily, the bishops) have set up a task force to consider restructuring The United Methodist Church. I'm afeared this is going to merely confirm the usual prejudices of the powerful, making a dreadful mess of an already screwy system, without direct benefit to anybody. That's what top-down restructuring proposals usually amount to.

I doubt that anybody wants or would heed my input. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts on the subject.

The UMC has been in a consolidation phase. Conferences keep merging. The number of Districts keeps getting reduced. The Indiana Conference just went through this.

In the run-up to the combining of North and South Indiana, one of my colleagues made a very prescient statement. He said that he could see two possible reasons why combining the two Conferences might make sense: either it would 1) save us a boatload of money, or 2) lead us back to growth in numbers. He then added that nobody had yet made either argument.

They still haven't. Financially, the best we've been promised is that the enlarged Conference budget will be "expense-neutral." As if. Despite cutting staff positions right and left and eliminating most discretionary committee expense, it costs as much to run the new Conference as it did the two old ones, and costs will surely rise as we go forward. So, that's a bust.

As for growth (or renewal, as they call it now, which is a euphemism for "change without improvement"), this is simply laughable. If we were growing, we would be expanding the number of Districts and Conferences and bishops, instead of contracting. All growing enterprises multiply their number of outlets in order to accommodate more growth and reach more target populations.

Meanwhile, as all church growth experts worth their salt have known for years, if you combine structures (Sunday School classes, congregations, Cub Scout dens, Lions Clubs, what have you), within a certain amount of time the combined organization will tend to shrink to the size of the largest component that went into its making. The new, but now downsized, org will be made up of people from all the previous components, but since nobody in the new org knows how to function as part of a larger sized org, their folkways and morés will lead them to shed members until they reach the size they're comfortable being.

This happens even on the macro level, as can be shown by the church mergers of the 1950s and 1960s, including The UMC.

So, what's to be done?

Well, if you want to control costs and spur growth, you've got to change your managerial style. That means . . .

We need to increase the number of Conferences and bishops, in order to better service/lead our congregations. After all, every other episcopally-led denomination has dioceses about the size of one of our Districts. Our bishops aren't pastoral figures, but rather CEOS of huge non-profits.

Increasing the number of Conferences does NOT mean multiplying staff. It means doing more with part-timers and stipendiary volunteers from amongst the serving clergy and lay membership. In effect, each Conference would have a bishop, a paid secretary, and maybe a paid treasurer. Period. Everything else is just dragging us down.

Increasing the number of bishops means reducing bishops' salaries, expense accounts, office staff, prestige, yada yada yada. (Do you see why this will never be seriously considered?) It means the bishop should spend much of his time visiting the congregations he supervises.

Smaller Conferences should have no more than, say, 3-5 Districts. Superintendents should have only part-time secretarial staff, and should spend most of their time wandering about their Districts, visiting/managing pastors and churches.

If you want to manage for growth, you need to position your managers where they can have an effect on what actually happens in the local church, and where they can support new church starts. Making the pile bigger, so that the Grand Poobah can be seated higher atop said pile, just means no one knows what's really going on at the level where progress (in anything) might be made.

Next time, I'll let loose on our screwy clergy system. You have been warned.
how long

Nobody asked me, but . . . Part II

One of the major proposals on the table before the task force contemplating restructuring The United Methodist Church is the elimination of the guaranteed annual appointment. Which provides a neat segue into talking about our messed-up clergy system.

For those of you not in the know, part of the UM clergy covenant is that we itinerate. Well, we elders -- fully ordained members of the union -- itinerate. Which is to say, we go where we're sent. While we might quibble, grovel, or even beg, in the last resort, we have given our "Yes" in advance to wherever the bishop wants to send us, whenever he wants us to go there. In return, we are guaranteed an appointment every year; we cannot be "laid off," so to speak, without cause.

The received wisdom is that this gives rise to mediocrity in the clergy. We have people who ought not to be pastoring churches whom we must give an appointment to, and we can't get rid of them; they have "tenure." So on they go, the havoc-wreakers and the time-servers and the won't-get-with-the-program types. This is a source of deep frustration to the bishops and superintendents who have to put these people someplace.

The clergy defend the guaranteed annual appointment about the way any other union members defend a time-honored perk they've always enjoyed. But there's more to this than just the desire of pampered pastors to keep control of the goodie basket. Many of the same clergy suffer from low morale and low self-esteem brought on by constant criticism and exhaustion; in their weary and fearful worldview, losing the guaranteed annual appointment is just the first step in getting rid of anybody "we" (the Powers That Be) don't like. If your view of the Powers That Be is jaundiced enough, you automatically assume that the elimination of the guaranteed annual appointment is aimed directly at YOU.

Two things need to be noted to give a clearer view of this issue.

1) Many clergy -- in my District, nearly two-thirds -- do NOT have a guaranteed annual appointment, and they do just fine. We aren't sacking them right and left, and we appreciate the good job that they do. These are the part-timers and the unordained "Local Pastors," who are not permanent Members of the Annual Conference. So, many of the fears of the elders are misplaced.

2) But let's also remember that the guaranteed annual appointment is a two-pronged promise. Every elder is guaranteed a church, yes; but every church is also guaranteed a pastor. Which means that when the bishop and cabinet go to make appointments, they're not just wondering which unsuspecting congregation to fob Rev. Doofus or Dr. Crazoid off on this year; they're also wondering whom can we send to Soulkiller UMC, whose last six pastors have had two major health collapses, a nervous breakdown, a resignation, three divorces, and a drinking problem amongst them and their families since setting foot in the place?

Friends, I'm fine with eliminating the guaranteed annual appointment for clergy, so long as we also eliminate the guaranteed annual appointment for congregations. And I'm fine with stepping up efforts to counsel ineffective pastors into other lines of work, so long as we also tell the clergy-killer churches that they either shape up or we'll close their doors. I am the survivor of two clergy-killer churches in this Conference, and I know whereof I speak. The fact that I still believe in Jesus and can talk in a hopeful manner about the church is a testimony to the healing power of God. And I've seen some of our best pastors thrown into situations which damaged them and their families, ruined their effectiveness, or simply drove them out of our connection.

Bad pastors? Bad churches? You can't solve one problem without solving the other. Eliminating the guaranteed annual appointment for clergy while letting dysfunctional congregations go on hurting people (laypersons as well as clergy) is simply enabling abuse.

More on the clergy, per se, in Part III.