Bishop Robert Schnase gave the episcopal address to the recent South Central Jurisdictional Conference, and United Methodists should heed his prophetic words. He offers a reality check on where we are and what will happen if we do not answer the call to “rise up, ye saints of God.”
Let’s begin with this assessment by Bishop Schnase: “There is a growing perception that the process of General Conference itself doesn’t work.” It has indeed, as he suggested, evolved into a “hairball” with its accruing rules, mandates, policies and modus operandi. Is there a body in the corporate, political or ecclesiastical world that has as many amendments to the amendment, substitute motions, points of order and callings of the question?
Bishop Schnase rightly points us back to the Towers Watson Report, which undergirded the Call to Action legislation that went before General Conference. That report documents what has happened to us since the 1960s and where we will be soon if we don’t change. Here’s one grim snapshot: before General Conference meets again, if present trends continue, we will lose the equivalent of the five conferences in the state of Texas.
Early in his address, Bishop Schnase lists additional sobering realities. The bold type assertions are his; the extrapolations are mine.
1. We have a crisis of relevance. This expresses itself in numerous ways: lifelong episcopacy; district superintendents who resort to “cluster charge conferences” and do not hear preachers preach or visit congregations; seminary faculties who do not foster strong connecting links between academic preparation and pastoral service; a disconnect between societal change and “social principles”; theological confusion that leaves us a sitting duck for extremists of all stripes.
2. We are failing to reach young people. Every local church would do well to have every older family identify where the youth and adults are who were in that church as children. It is true that many are not in church and this in itself is a sad testimonial to our Christian formation ministry. That is not, however, the whole story. Spend one Sunday visiting the independent and Pentecostal congregations in your community and you will find some of our “lost children.”
3. There’s a disconnect between leadership and people in the pews. The economic philosophy, political persuasion and theological convictions of our preachers make lots of sermons either foreign or “over the top” to many in the pews. Our seminaries, two of which I served as faculty member, have been perilously close to developing an adversarial relationship with our parish culture.
4. Our organizational systems are not conducive to our mission. Peter Drucker says that in his first visit to company leadership he asks, “What’s your business?” Many stammer in answering. What would your church leadership say? Then he asks, “How’s business?” To this we must answer: “Not good.”
Let’s look at a couple of organizational issues.
The charge conference was once the connectional linchpin, but now the real work is done by the church council and the charge conference is a rubber stamp. The only attendees are the faithful nucleus or those persuaded by the pastor. The district superintendent should visit churches all year, not just in the fall. The on-site visit should be a consultation process, following some verifiable research which the parish has done and the DS has studied. Then, the session can be a serious look at the state of the church and, when needed, can offer help with re-visioning the church’s mission.
Second, appointment making is rooted in an authoritarian methodology. Laity are less and less likely to tolerate a system in which they have no voice in pastoral appointments. The congregation provides the physical facilities, fills the pews, teaches the classes, sings in the choirs and pays the apportionments. There was a time when congregations accepted non-consultative appointment of their pastor, but the sand in that hourglass is getting thin!
5. We have an unsustainable financial system. Our support base erodes with every older adult death. Recent studies by the Lewis Center document what we have known. People under age 50 are giving less to the church.
From the local church to the general church, we are adopting unsustainable budgets. Draconian apportionment cuts may be needed.
6. Membership and attendance are almost at a hemorrhage level in some areas.
The UMC’s Newscope reports that only a handful of annual conferences showed membership/attendance gains in 2011 and that U.S. membership has dropped to below 7.6 million (compared to almost 11 million in 1968). Our membership continues to get older. The Lewis Center warns us that we must attract younger people and escape the earlier “suburban captivity” of United Methodism.
Ohio once had a higher percentage of Methodists/Evangelical United Brethren per capita than any other state. Its losses have consistently been some of the largest. The county where Des Moines, Iowa is had a very high percentage of Methodists and has lost significantly. Our losses in the Northeast and Western Jurisdictions are reducing our presence almost shockingly. Those regions opposed the jurisdictional system in 1939. Now only that system gives them significant presence at the various connectional tables.
Shakespeare had Cassius say: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves.” We United Methodists must stop blaming societal circumstances and denigrating other religious movements and denominations. We have more boots on the ground than most.
God is not finished with United Methodism. Let every congregation devote a full weekend at the church, from Saturday morning until Sunday evening, engaged in casting our anchor into the future.
Meanwhile, thank you, Bishop Schnase, for your candor. May your tribe increase!
Dr. Haynes, a retired UM clergyman, is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.