New Bishops face decline

Bishops newly elected and assigned at Jurisdictional Confrences in July have now taken office (as of September 1) in their respective Annual Conefercnes). Newspapers are reporting regularly about these bishops and their first words to their new communities and constituencies. My guess is that all these news items are vetted by or produced in conjunction with Annual Conference staff people.

Bishop Peter Weaver has taken over in the New England Annual Confrence after 8 years in Philadelphia.

The new head of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church on Saturday stood at the altar barefoot and urged members of his flock to do the same.Bishop Peter Weaver passionately urged worshippers to wiggle their toes and feel the world that is under their feet at a ceremony held in the historic Chestnut Street United Methodist Church nestled just off Congress Street behind Portland City Hall.

“I invite you to take the shoes off your souls and be in touch with the reality of the power in God’s presence and the pain of God’s people,” Weaver, 59, said…..

Church membership in the New England Conference of the denomination has fallen by 13,000 over the past decade, according to conference spokesman, the Rev. Michael Hickcox. Tight finances over the two years have forced the church’s New England headquarters, located in a former furniture store in Lawrence, Mass., to downsize its staff.Other challenges facing Weaver include graying congregations and declining Sunday service attendance, which in rural locations in northern New England often means an average of 25 worshippers per service, Hickcox said on Saturday. Aging church buildings often are in desperate need of repair As he took off his shoes and delivered a fiery sermon interrupted by applause and amens, Weaver said that those things would not be the focus during his tenure as bishop.

Yes, the Conference has only lost 13,000 members over tha past decade. Since church membership has been aging for some time, some might think that the majority of this decline is due to the death of members. The most recent copy of the General Minutes that I have is fro the year 2000, reporting data from 1999. In that year the Conference churches lost 1640 members through death, 1017 through transfer to other churches (transfer may be to other UM churches in other areas or to other denominations), and 3654 through Charge Conference action or withdrawal. This third category represents memebrs who have withdrawn from the life of the church either through word or action.

Why have they lost so many?

The fight over homosexuality among United Methodists has made many people in the conference unhappy and caused some to leave for churches with a more liberal outlook, Hickcox said Saturday, adding that the 18th and 19th century music older worshippers often prefer puts off many younger worshippers. Yet success in blending contemporary and traditional worship styles has been mixed, often leaving “everybody unhappy part of the time,” he said.

It sounds like Mr. Hickcox believes the Church hasn’t been liberal enough in their attitudes toward homosexuality. Or their worship styles haven’t caught on with the general worshipping yet on-church-going public. But now everything is under control. They finally have a bishop who will take his shoes off in worship (while not saying negative things about homosexuality, as far as we can tell). He will be positive, feel “god’s presence” and not focus on “those things” – membership decline and an aging church. I can’t help but think that in that kind of situation “those things” would require some focus from the bishop.

Mary Ann Swenson is entering her second quadrennium as bshop inthe California Pacific Annual Conference. (LA Times story requires registration.)

The Cal-Pac Conference, like most the others, is also in decline. The LA Times reports that they lose 2000-3000 a year now. We know the loss is not due to population decline – California continues to grow. Bishop Swenson has a theory why this is:

The bishop attributes the decline in church membership to a material wealth that makes people think they have no need for church, distractions from popular culture, and the church’s failure to reach out enough to new areas and new potential members.

It’s society’s fault for being too rich and too busy. It’s the church’s fault for not reaching out. I spent four years in a UM church in that conference. I know that in general, the church doesn’t reach out – unless by “reaching out” one means doing good works for people. All the California Methodists I met were friendly people. They were nice and well-mannered. What they lacked, for the most part, were articulated reasons for why someone ought to be a Christian rather than something else (or even rather than nothing). The Bishop at that time was Roy Sano. I remember him telling us that his Buddhist heritage and his Christian heritage were so important to him that he kept both the Christian symbol and the yin-yang on opposite sides of this briefcase. I have trouble seeing how the Conference will ever grow – or even reverse its decline – until the leadership develops a conviction that people actaully need Jesus -not just the good deeds done by Jesus people.

I haven’t met Bishop Swenson, but the people I know that serve under her report that she is a very kind person and perhaps the most pastoral bishop they’ve ever met. According to the LA Times, she has a plan. This plan is exemplified in two related things: Her bike riding and her social action.

She sometimes spends a night with homeless people in shelters, marches on behalf of workers’ rights, and has spoken out on behalf of gays and lesbians.

I can imagine that all these are good things. But where is Jesus? Where is the difference between being a Christian and just being a supporter of the ACLU, the Humane Society, the Unitarians or a political party? I just don’t get it.

But then I’m not a bishop.

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