Keeping an Eye on the United Methodists

We have confessed the harm we have done and continue to do to our siblings and have covenanted to faithfully keep our baptismal vow to follow Jesus Christ in resisting “evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

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We Are In Trouble, America

We are in trouble, America. It’s time for the prophets to rise once again, being clear about God’s vision for a more just and generous world for all.

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A Particular Kind of Courage

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This month I had the privilege of speaking at a regional conference of the United Church of Canada. Set on the shores of the beautiful Port Eglin just outside of Toronto, over 500 church leaders, led by Rev. Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer-Sampa, gathered to talk about the future of their denomination, region and churches. I speak at a lot of these kinds of events; it’s always a gift to talk to leaders about creative possibilities for their future. I must say about this group that they were SO MUCH FUN. They were kind and generous in their listening, gentle in their feedback and engaging in their questions. I haven’t enjoyed working with a group quite as much in a long time.

Part of what made it fun was the issues we engaged. As we faced questions about the survivability of the Church going forward, we made the following observations:

  1. Our communities are fracturing. Neighbors do not know each other. Parents can’t connect with their kids. Schools, hospitals, civic organizations are struggling for funding. The relational fabric that holds us together in community is fraying. The work of the Church must be to reweave that relational fabric in our communities. We are among only a few who can.

  2. The structures of many churches we lead today are designed for an era that no longer exists. Some will be able to adapt to this new world; most will not. That is ok. We can lose the buildings but still be the Church.

  3. We need new liturgies, songs, language and theology to talk about our faith in the world today. We are more comfortable defining ourselves by who we are not than by who we are. That is a problem for effective communication.

  4. Trust between and among us is essential for any change to be sustained. We will have to grant that trust to each other; we don’t have time to earn it. Trust becomes the gift we give one another for the sake of the mission. It’s an essential act of leadership in this age.

  5. When we hit moments of anxiety, stress or turbulence, our instinct will be to cling tightly to what we can control. We should try the opposite. We should hold all of it loosely and become curious. This gives us the space to see what might break through.

  6. Experimentation is essential. We are all now part of the Research and Development Department of the progressive faith movement. We need to test new ideas and report our findings. We might also call this discerning the movement of the Spirit.

  7. God is with us in this. We are not alone. It’s as if God is saying to us, “We are going on a new journey, one faithful to the Way of Love. You are going to have to uproot yourselves and let go of much that has provided you shelter. But don’t be afraid; I will be with you every step of the way.”

Photo by  sydney Rae  on  Unsplash

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Leadership today, especially in systems which are deconstructing (though we call it reconstructing), takes a particular kind of courage. It also demands a particular skill set, one that understands the soft skills of intuition and source-level insight. Much of what will be asked of us going forward will require newly cultivated instincts rather than trained methodologies. What becomes essential is a vision for the common good that rebalances our individualistic culture. This might become Christianity’s greatest gift to this historic moment – we get to remind people that we are better together.

As I closed my time in Canada, I named that we are presiding over the death of the denominational era. We will continue in our patterns of restructuring as we grow smaller and smaller. That is good and faithful work. While that is happening, we must ask the question, “What is next?” Faith is not dying; God is not abandoning us. But our structures are old technologies no longer effective in a new globalized, technology-driven age. We will be freeing significant assets in these next few years, assets that can be used to architect a future focused on the common good for all. The question is: What shall we invest in to ensure our best days are ahead?

My thanks to the wonderful leaders of the United Church of Canada for teaching me so much during our time together. I look forward to our paths crossing again.

Piloting Faith Daily Meditation: Forgive Yourself...

I hate screwing up. In fact, I go to great and exhausting lengths to make sure that I don't. If I do, I don't want you to know about it. I wonder if that is true for you too?!? The problem is that if we put work out in the world today, more people than ever before can see it, engage it...and judge it. It's terrifying. But it comes with the territory. It's leadership. 

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Leading Institutions: Financial Sustainability in the Age of Collaboration

If you're the pastor of a congregation, you spend significant time thinking about money. Your church maybe lucky to have an endowment to sustain the programs of the congregation...for now. But you’re not naïve to the trends; you can see that most of the mainline congregations in the United States are financially unsustainable. What does this mean for our future?

Every congregation we work with in CPR's consulting practice asks this question. Financial sustainability is the leading pain point. How do we maintain these buildings? How do we coordinate ministries without a centralized location? How do we pay for leaders? How do we engage younger generations when it’s clear they don’t want to come on the Sunday morning?

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Congregations are answering this question in different ways. Central Baptist Church in Norwich, CT is discerning selling its building and reinventing as a ”right-sized”congregation in a new location. University Christian Church in San Diego is exploring building a new multi-purpose building that can draw in commercial rental income.

Community Christian Church in Washington DC started a secular 501c3 to access grantfunds to sustain its justice ministries. Lyndale United Church of Christ joined with two other congregations to form the SpringHouse Ministry Center where they share a building and collaborate in community ministry. Leaders are getting creative about how to expand their impact in their communities in sustainable ways.

Inspiring this creativity is the recognition that we are institutional leaders guiding our congregations into an age of collaboration. We run churches that tell people “Come sit in our pews;” the people in our communities say, “Come meet us in our streets.” I was helped in understanding this shift when I saw this TED Talk by Clay Shirky. Many congregations are closed systems. They are systems that you join. You only join one and are expected to make a long-term commitment to its growth. But today those kinds of closed systems are dying from their own organizational rigidity and high maintenance costs. With new technologies, we can now organizing the same ministries with far less infrastructure. We can mobilize neighbors to feed the homeless through apps like NextDoor. We can rally a protest group through Facebook. We can start a book club through MeetUp. We don’t need congregations to coordinate our connections and communication anymore. That means people don’t have to spend a few hours on a Sunday sitting in a pew in exchange for community and connection. They can still live out their faith in the community without joining a church.

This creates a value crisis for us. Many people will respond, “But these people are not worshiping God. That is what Sunday is about.” But they would counter that they experience God many times during the week. Organ music is not essential to that connection.

A couple of weeks ago in conversation with Sue Phillips from OnBeing, she suggested that traditional congregations may be an old technology. It’s a provocative statement but one that I suspect may be true for many, though not all, congregations. Our form is simply outdated. I’ve often joked that when I joined the United Church of Christ as a new pastor, I was convinced that our growth strategy was to wait for boatloads of Germans to come over and fill our pews once again. We are deeply married to our form on gathering, failing to see the ways it no longer serves our function for existing.

And still, I am deeply committed to congregations as an expression of the embodiment of Christ in the world. I am not as committed to the forms we use to gather.I am far more interested in the creative ways we might amplify our new capacities for connecting people together in groups that support them in becoming more loving humans. I am interested in collaborating with community resources more broadly instead of trying to bring all of our ministries “in-house.” I am interested in taking responsibility for weaving the relational fabric of a community together without the need for form an institution to do it.

We are just at the beginning of understanding the possibilities for “being church” in this collaborative world. Our financial sustainability is tied to our courage to imagine new ways of organizing. That is the work that we are passionate about at the Center for Progressive Renewal. We hope to work with you.

A Church on a New Journey

Can a congregation rebound from a declining journey?  If you ask Rev. Matthew Hunt, he will tell you “yes, yes it can!”  Like the majority of other congregations, Salem Evangelical UCC in Quincy, IL had experienced a significant period of decline from its heyday in the 1950’s.  In 2015, facing a decline in membership and energy, they embarked on a new journey. At a crossroads – between pastoral appointment and desiring understanding of what next steps were necessary –the church made a decision to partner with the Center for Progressive Renewal. The decision wasn’t an easy one, but many within the congregation credit Louise Burns, a 90-something-year old matriarch, lifelong member and World War 2 combat nurse, with encouraging the congregation into the process. She said that the church needed to go a new direction and she was not going to watch it decline and close.

The congregation began their journey with CPR beginning with an Assessment. This project encouraged the church to not only look at the things they were accustomed to measuring, like baptisms, giving and attendance, but also dug into the demographics of the community around them and the ways in which the people in their community needed them most. Interviews with congregants, community leaders and local clergy provided real time input on the strengths and challenges of the congregation. They were able discover the larger impact that they were making in their neighborhood and identify the best ways for them to develop additional ministries and programs. Most of all, they were able to understand what made them unique and necessary to Quincy. Journey became such an important word in this process, that Salem Evangelical UCC adopted it as the anchor word for this process.

Through the assessment, church leaders identified that their mainly conservative Midwest city lacked a progressive expression of faith. With an Open and Affirming designation already in place, SEUCC was the perfect community to fill that gap. As such, it became an important part of their transformation. Since then, the church has made a significant impact in the local LGBTQ+ community and many of their new visitors have come through their intentional work in this arena. In the last three years the church has added nearly 30 new members and has another group of prospective members ready to move forward.

As we know, it can be an arduous process to convert visitors to members. Early in the CPR coaching process, Rev. Hunt and the SEUCC Renewal Team identified the need to develop a process to incorporate newcomers into the congregation. This small group initiative, called Journey, has two segments. Journey One works in small groups to orientate prospective members while Journey Two expands the focus of developing meaningful connection, inclusion, fellowship and service through an intentional and intimate group experience. This focus on journey has blossomed into a network of multiple small group experiences.  For a congregation that has an average worship of just over 100 on Sunday morning, they routinely have over 60 adults involved in small groups and classes.

Another identified area of focus that arose from their coaching partnership was using events, social media and local media outlets to re-build connections to the larger Quincy community. In understanding that their outreach was important to share, and that their community wanted to know what they were up to, they became intentional about sharing the news. Following a Blessing of the Animals, the church connected their efforts with a local animal shelter and adoption service to provide a monthly pet food pantry called “Paws & Prayers.” In preparation for Christmas Eve, Rev. Hunt was interviewed on the local TV evening news. In sharing with the community about their services, and their intention to give their Christmas Eve service proceeds to a local organization that was building tiny homes for homeless veterans, the church saw over 260 persons in attendance. Better still was the size of the donation they were able to provide to the local charity.

What’s remarkable is that Rev. Hunt and the Salem Church are far from done.  Plans are underway to create new, updated spaces for a growing children’s program, multiply small group opportunities and create an additional, non-Sunday morning worship experience. Rev. Matt Hunt recognizes that having the support and skills of the Center for Progressive Renewal made a distinct difference in this outcome.

Can a church rebound from a declining journey? Of course, they can.

 

The United Methodist Church Fails the Faithful

By Anna Golladay
Sr. Director of Communications

Beloveds, I’ve returned from the Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church having experienced a fairly even split of harm and hope. I know that many of you watched, prayed and stood alongside us from afar. Please know how much we appreciate your solidarity.

With the passing of the Traditionalist Plan, the United Methodist Church has instigated what will likely be a quick decline and demise of the denomination. Pastors and churches will engage in an even higher number of disobedient actions, many of who have already publicly stated their dissent via social media. Bishops will refuse to comply with the increased punitive requirements making upcoming trials excessive and costly. In walking away from the One Church Plan (although not perfect, and nowhere near as necessary as the Simple Plan), the church has said to current, and more importantly future, generations that they are not welcomed and they will not be honored. This post-General-Conference reimagined version of the United Methodist Church is on life support.


And yet, amidst all the hate speech and police presence, there emerged a scent of hope. The visual representation of persons in rainbow stoles in the observation area was 10 to 1 without. From this point forward, it is impossible for the United Methodist Church to ignore our existence. We know we have already lost a large number of persons who can no longer allow their hearts to stay in this work. There’s been another blow to their already-tender spirit that isn’t salvageable. Every time a friend reaches out to me with the words “I can’t do this anymore” I weep. And yet I also completely understand.

The possibility of new creation was palpable. There is a reimagining beginning. A new movement is possible, now more than ever before. The Holy Spirit is poised to give us a NEW way forward that looks even more beautiful and faithful than anything the UMC could have reimagined for us. There is a new opportunity for inclusion, equality and engagement on the horizon.

HOW YOU CAN ENGAGE

Should you desire to support the prayers and energy around this work in the United Methodist Church, I encourage you to engage with the following organizations. You may support them financially, by sharing their social media posts, or by showing up when public action is planned. Please consider supporting the work of our queer, black and brown siblings first. It will be their voices that make this new vision the most inclusive and best representation of Jesus’ gospel.

CPR has options of engagement as well. 

God’s table is big enough. God decides who is invited to dinner. God will make a way for every, single one of us. Personally, that gives this homeless pastor all the hope I need.

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Can the United Methodist Church Survive?

By Anna Golladay
Sr. Director of Communications

This past Sunday I was able to be with my former congregation at St Elmo United Methodist Church. It is the first time I’ve preached there since my untimely firing the by the UMC. On February 28, 2018, almost exactly a year ago, I was removed from pastoral ministry because it was discovered that I was the clergyperson who married two female congregants at one of my churches. By

I was asked to speak on Jesus’ parable on the wheat and weeds. It was timely for me because this “who is in and who is out” parable can quickly become a litmus test for how we judge one another. This weekend the United Methodist Church gathers in St Louis, MO for a Special Session of General Conference, to have, what many of us pray is, the last major conversation on sexuality. Most Methodists have chosen one of four plans that they intend to support. The plans range from simplistic– in that they just remove the hurtful language from the Book of Discipline and ask everyone to move on, to complex– in that the plan would cause almost every agency within the church to restructure.

In spending time this past week interpreting the parable of “who is in and who is out” what became excessively clear is that we all have a bit of arrogance in our certainty of the answer. All this does is exclude folks all over again. My friend Stan Mitchell says it well. “We have to be really careful as human beings, as we grow spiritually, that we don’t move from one form of fundamentalism to another form of fundamentalism. We have to be careful that we don’t become those people who have now moved beyond exclusion, but we exclude the excluders. We’ve moved beyond judging, but we now judge the judgers.”

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Many of us, specifically those of us closely watching the United Methodist Church, need this lesson more than ever. Will my indignation over who is “in and who is out” overpower the command that Jesus has on my heart to stop the weed pulling and opt for radical love instead? Can I exist in a space where I can love like Jesus and also overthrow power structures that create harm and homophobia?

My queer kin have been harmed, minimized, talked about, fired, berated and spat upon. But they are not the weeds. They are not growing amongst the “good” work of the church and strangling the possibility of the harvested crop. They are not simply existing in order to be reaped at the end and then set aside to be disposed of. They are, in fact, the good harvest. They are the wheat. As I travel to St Louis and do this emotional and hopeful work of the United Methodist Church, my personal prayer is that I’m never a weed that strangles out their goodness.

To keep up with the news coming out of General Conference, follow #UMCGC and #ForEveryoneBorn.

We Could All Use A Little Daylight

I want to know the people in our neighborhood. I want them to help design what happens at our church. I want the people in our neighborhood to connect what happens at our church with meeting or fulfilling a need in their lives. I want to model commitment in such a way that our ministry impact becomes synonymous with our ministry success and everyone who benefits is committed to our shared identity and sustaining our future, together.

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Congregational Change Meets Geese & Dirt - Part One

Change is hard; brutal even. When done well, people are going to leave. When done poorly, people are going to leave. People ARE going to leave. But here's the thing: people are going to leave if you don't change. No one wants to eat stale bread. No one wants to be a part of something that feels so stagnant that movement isn't just uncommon, but nonexistent.

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Sorry...You Can't Have It All

Pastoral ministry is particularly grueling for those of us driven by a sense of moral obligation serve (and save?) our congregations and communities. We feel a new pressure now that our national politics are in such chaos and turmoil. To top it off, we are dealing with aging buildings, committee structures that rarely work anymore and financial strain that can keep us up at night. So, here is the thing: you can keep trying to survive by DOING ALL THE THINGS. Or you can stop.

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Dig Deep and Keep Moving

But I am clear on this. Here is what we can’t do: We can’t give up. We can’t lose hope. In this moment, of all moments, we don’t get to walk away.

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