June 8th, 2019

how long

Sobering reports

I spent some time reading the pre-conference reports for the Indiana AC next week. I was shamed into it. My daughter is an Equalizing Member this year, and she was doing her due diligence. I decided that if she still believed in the process enough to read all this guff, I should at least read the parts I thought might be important.

What struck me was the Cabinet Report. This contains, among other things, resolutions for closing churches and moving them from full-time to part-time (or vice versa), realigning charges, etc. Every year, we close a certain number of churches. That's sad, but every human institution has a life cycle, and there comes a time. Some churches have just reached the end of their ability to carry out their mission. No one need assume any negative reasoning.

But I was struck by some of the churches that were moving from full-time to part-time; meaning, they could no longer afford a full-time pastor, especially one with benefits. A couple of these were proud, high-steeple churches whose pastorates were seen as possible stepping stones to the episcopacy. They have huge, beautiful buildings, long-time associations with universities and whatnot. They were the place to be for all the good and great, once upon a time. Yet they can no longer afford their own pastor, but are either to have a part-time pastor or be joined into a two-point charge. How are the mighty fallen.

This is not merely wear and tear. This isn't just normal aging. We have been eating our seed corn, and it is finally used up. There isn't going to be a harvest any more in these places. This is the result of forty years' worth of institutional neglect of our teaching and the cure of souls: not just in these parishes, but all over.

As The UMC begins to fragment, each major fraction assumes that if they could just get free of the others, they could build that newer, brighter future that has eluded us for two generations. The traditionalists warn the progressives that every progressive denomination that has gone where they want to go has declined, badly. But we trads need to take the warning to heart, ourselves. Our churches are declining just as badly in most places. Just escaping the cage match we are currently locked into doesn't automatically mean we finally have a healthy church.

There is an awful lot of work to do.

Scouting and the New Methodism(s)

I spent the day at a board retreat for Hoosier Trails Council BSA. Over lunch, a fellow United Methodist and I talked church politics, of which most of us have had our fill. We were interested, however, in asking ourselves what effect the UM upheaval would have upon our relationship with BSA. (The UMC will become the undisputed largest charter partner of BSA at the end of this year, as the LDS Church ceases to charter BSA units directly.)

Seen from one angle, it shouldn't change much. Even if The UMC fragments into two or three major pieces, all of those congregations that charter Cub Packs or Scout Troops will probably still do so. Congregations of different theological orientations do that now. But there is one new wrinkle.

Looking at the decline of many of our once-flagship congregations, a new thought occurred to me. We have been the community's meeting place. If you want to hold a meeting or have a group hosted -- whether a Library Board or Tri Kappa scholarship committee or a Girl Scout Troop or an after-school tutoring group, in town after town across the nation the doors of the local United Methodist church are always open. This is not merely a matter of hospitality; this has been a dominant model for ministry over the last fifty years. Call it the community engagement model. Churches were urged to not become enclaves of their own people only, but to interpenetrate their communities -- to invite the wider world in, and to get out and mix with it as well. We didn't emphasize calling people to discipleship in Christ; no, the watchword was "presence." Our presence within the community, and our willingness to bring people together in useful ways was supposed to communicate the power of God somehow.

Well, that model is dying along with the congregations that have practiced it. What few growing, dynamic churches we have tend to focus, laser-like, on their particular mission statement. For traditionalist churches, that has been making disciples. For radical churches, that has been understood in different ways, but still . . . the idea that we are supposed to run a community center and call it ministry is not something the people who are building a future for their churches are into.

So, as The UMC breaks up into smaller denominations, each more passionate about their vision of ministry, each more focussed on leaving the current conflict behind them and building the future they think the other side is holding them back from, those who are trying to plant new Scouting units in these congregations will face a more challenging environment. No longer can they assume that just giving the Scouts a home and being vaguely proud of them is something a Methodist church is interested in doing. No, those wanting to plant new BSA units in these more-focussed churches are going to have to make the case that Scouting offers something that will help those churches achieve their mission goals in measurable ways.

If the mission is "make disciples of Jesus Christ," then exactly HOW does chartering a Cub Pack, Scout Troop, or Venturing Crew help make that happen? The question is no longer, "how much (or how little) do you expect of us?" The question will be, "why should we expend limited resources on what looks like a distraction from our main mission?" Yes, yes, we know that Scouting is good for kids. But tell us how it will be good for US. How will it support what WE are trying to do? Don't ask us to help you achieve your goals, tell us how you can help us achieve OUR goals.

Now, I can do that. It's the focus of the Scouting Ministry training I've done for years. But it's hard to get the attention of those who don't think they need to listen. And if I, a fellow clergyperson, struggle to get the attention of these pastors and congregational leaders, then other BSA leaders who don't speak our ecclesiastical jargon and who haven't researched our understanding of our mission will do even less well.

BSA has leaned hard on their UM connection in recent years, and we've been there for them. But most Scouters I know are counting on a particular outlook on the part of Methodist churches, without realizing that they are hitching their wagons to an endangered breed of congregations. In the New Methodism(s), there will be fewer such churches, and thus a diminishing opportunity to place new units in them.

And so, even as I continue to try to explain Scouting to my fellow clergy/church leaders, I try to explain the clergy/church leaders to my fellow Scouters. *Sigh* I probably sound like a crank to both sides. But I want both the Church and the Scouting movement to succeed, and each has so much to offer to the other to make that happen.