Before delegates arrive in Tampa, Fla., for the 2012 General Conference this April, Abingdon Press would like them to do a little homework.
And it’s a reading assignment.
The United Methodist Publishing House has issued five new books, available online and in print, called the “Adaptive Leadership Series.” Each book offers an analysis of where the United Methodist Church stands and the changes that are needed to create a viable future.
The series provides “a platform for six prominent church leaders . . . to examine our situation and critique various assertions and recommendations as we make important decisions” about the future of the denomination, said Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House.
The books arrive as General Conference delegates prepare to consider proposals to restructure and streamline the denomination’s general agencies and end guaranteed appointment of clergy. Declining membership and the resulting decreases in contributions are driving many of the proposed changes.
Books in the series vary widely in their applicability to these issues—from practical and specific proposals about cutting costs to broader and more abstract visions of how the church might transform itself. Series authors range from local United Methodist church leaders to church growth experts, like the Rev. Lovett H. Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary.
The new titles: Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge by Rudy Rasmus and Dottie Escobedo-Frank; Focus: The Real Challenges that Face the United Methodist Church by Dr. Weems; Lord, I Love the Church and We Need Help by Virginia Bassford; Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement by Gil Rendle; and The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement by George Hunter III.
All of the authors agree that change is needed for the denomination to survive and thrive. For the most part, the books don’t address specific legislation or urge delegates to vote in some particular way, but rather cast a wider vision for rethinking the status quo and looking for a new vision for the church.
Key themes include: focusing on the church’s core purpose; embracing change; empowering clergy and laity to recover the Wesleyan movement; and meeting hard realities like the end of guaranteed appointment—with hope and resilience.
Books have often figured prominently in the run-up to General Conference. The United Methodist Publishing House has a “longstanding practice” of seeking out commentators and leaders “who bring important perspectives and views to the conversation,” Mr. Alexander said. Abingdon published Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Bishop Robert Schnase in 2007; by the time delegates gathered for the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, Mr. Alexander says, some 40,000 clergy and laity had studied the book.
“Schnase’s work introduced the vocabulary of radical hospitality, passionate worship and other practices that were used in vision casting and shaping considerations such as the Four Areas of Focus that have become core concepts and emphases in UMC life and ministry,” he said.
Similarly, the Episcopal Address at General Conference 2008 lifted up Bishop Rueben Job’s Three Simple Rules, published in 2007.
“The teachings in this extraordinary little book became a recurring part of worship and General Conference conversations as the body deliberated about what it means to live in the ‘United Methodist way,’” said Mr. Alexander.
Five years later, sales are still steady for both books.
So what ideas do authors hope delegates will bring from these new books to the 2012 General Conference? Here’s a short summary of each.
Resetting the baseline
Dr. Weems’ book, Focus, describes a coming “death tsunami” as more and more of the church’s aging membership passes away. But, he says, “The book is not about fear, death or denominational survival.”
Instead of simply seeking to survive, he says, the denomination needs “to reset the financial baseline at every level of the church in order to focus energy on reaching more people, younger people and more diverse people.” Dr. Weems proposes a number of steps, such as addressing the cost of General Conference, converting assets (such as real estate) to funds for new church development, and reducing the size and length of annual conference gatherings.
“Keeping spending within income will free us from the time, energy and focus required to maintain income at unrealistic, higher levels,” he writes. “Just as David found strength in what fit him, so the church today lightens its load, not to retreat, but to engage better the daunting challenges to God’s reign in lives, communities and the world.”
Dr. Weems admits that the book’s proposals alone “will not in themselves produce the new United Methodism we need. But they will give emerging generations a chance to develop that new movement.”
Methodism as a “movement” is also a key theme of Back to Zero, by the Rev. Gil Rendle, a retired United Methodist pastor and church consultant.
Within the denomination “the rhetoric of a Wesleyan movement is gaining traction in people’s speech,” he writes. “Yet the reality is that, despite our change in language, the United Methodist Church and its congregations are still long-established, large, bureaucratic institutions . . . that lumber slowly to make critical decisions.”
He contrasts the church’s “public mission”—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world—with its “persistent private mission of satisfying constituent voices that compete over denominational resources of attention, structure, dollars and importance.”
Proposals before the General Conference, however, likely aren’t enough.
“Finding new ways doesn’t mean to constantly try to fix the old ways,” he says. “We need to find a different way to be with one another and redefine the connection.”
Mr. Rendle cites an observation that the largest United Methodist churches have “found a way to make it work in a broken system.” Moving ahead will mean discarding or even breaking the existing rules of the denomination, he writes, but it must be done responsibly and with an eye toward the church’s central mission.
“Movement” is also at the core of Dr. Hunter’s book, The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement, based in part on a series of lectures he delivered in 2011 at the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism.
“Methodism was once a great contagious movement in North America,” he writes. “Our current mess in United Methodism, and in mainline Christianity in general, is the consequence of many changes over time.”
To transform the church, he writes, United Methodists can look to the example of John Wesley.
“His magnificent obsession was simply to recover the gospel, the theology, the vision, the mission and the contagion of early Apostolic Christianity,” he writes. “It is hard to imagine any way that American Methodism will ever recover its mojo without recovering John Wesley’s theological vision.”
From the edge
Jesus Insurgency authors Rudy Rasmus and the Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, both United Methodist pastors, already see a movement afoot—one that General Conference can’t dictate.
“Change does not happen from the center,” Ms. Escobedo-Frank asserts. “It happens, almost every time, from the edge. The center may hope for and call for change, but here’s the problem with that: it usually is an external cry that has no internal ability to transform.”
She assesses the current situation in blunt terms. “We are dying, if not already dead, and our future is no longer in the hands of positional leaders,” she writes. “There is an insurgency rising up.”
The “insurgency” might look like St. John United Methodist in Houston, which grew from nine members in 1992 to over 9,000 members, about a third of them homeless or formerly homeless. Mr. Rasmus, co-author of the book and pastor of St. John, says that love is the “core ethos” of his church, and he expects it will “change the landscape of the church in the same way that the Arab Spring is transforming the Middle East.”
“If the world sees us as a place that loves unconditionally, regardless of race, gender or social status, then we’re going to be a place that can make an impact on the world like never before,” he says.
In Lord, I Love the Church, Dr. Bassford, a district superintendent in the Central Texas Conference, offers a prescription for the United Methodist Church: Go fishing. Church members must get out of the pews and engage with those outside of the church.
“There is a difference between fishing because we love to fish and fishing to boost the numbers or bring in the bucks,” she writes. “We are supposed to fish because that is what we are called to do.”
Accountability is one of the most important issues facing the General Conference, she says, and that’s creating anxiety and hopelessness. But she asks: “Is our perception that there is no life after death, no resurrection of the body, no hope for the hopeless?”
Cultivating resilience, she says, will help the church to thrive despite adversity. “The paradox of resilience is that the worst of times can also bring out one’s best,” she says.
Thus, changes facing the church need not result in fear. “Disruption opens new possibility,” she writes. “Disequilibrium can lead to growth.”
“Our story is not new,” she continues. “It has been repeated since the first chapter of Genesis.”
Abingdon has sent copies of the books to all active bishops, informed General Conference delegates about the books, posted excerpts online, and featured the books in a special edition of Circuit Rider that all delegates received in February.
This is the first time that General Conference-related books were made available in eBook format as well as print editions, giving readers a few months of extra time to read the books in advance of the print publication date.
Abingdon hope the books will generate insights that spark “a fresh consensus about the values, policies and practices that can lead to greater effectiveness in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” said Mr. Alexander.
And, despite their sometimes disparate ideas, and their calls to face hard truths, all of the authors expressed hope for the future.
“I’m very hopeful about where our conversation, as a denomination, is taking us, even though there are going to be some difficult steps along the way,” Mr. Rendle writes.
Dr. Hunter also expressed hope, if in more measured terms.
“A greater future is not assured, nor even probable,” he writes, “but it is clearly possible.”
By Mary Jacobs, Staff Writer – firstname.lastname@example.org