SWOT from where I sit

Our new Bishop, Janice Riggle Huie, is leading the Annual Conference through SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis (For more on SWOT, check here and here). The root idea is to consider the Positives (Strengths, Opportunities) and Negatives (Weaknesses, Threats) from the Inside (Strengths, Weaknesses) and the Outside (Opportunities, Threats). I’m a bit unclear what level (or which levels) we’re supposed to be considering. If we’re starting from the point of view of the local church, then the District, Conference, and Denomination are all on the outside. For that reason, in what I provide below, I try to mark identify the perspective I’me working from.

The Bishop’s goal is producing a better alignment of “our mission and ministry and money” within the Conference. There has already been one meeting – see the report here. My first thought is that SWOT would work better if we were clearer on our basic identity and our mission before we considered SWOT. After all, each different understanding of our mission would see a different set of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

Here’s what I have so far:


Wesleyan heritage

o Orthodox theology: In our Articles of Religion we see that our basic theology is for the most part what is held in common by most Christian groups.

o Wesleyan distinctives developed within the context of orthodoxy: particularly the doctrines of assurance and Christian perfection

o Translation of orthodox theology into experiential terms & ecclesial practices: Wesley valued orthodoxy enough to defend it, but thought holiness of life was more important. His application of the former sought to make real the latter.

o An ability to see the work of God across denominational lines: Perhaps because of his early relationship with the Moravians, Wesley was able to see that that Anglican way of doing things, though best, was not the only way. He respected Christians from various backgrounds, editing their works for inclusion in his Christian Library.

o A willingness to try new strategies and structures to achieve desired ends: Wesley held to the core of his message (entering a relationship with God through Jesus and pursuing holiness of heart and life), while adapting methods of ministry.

o Centrality of Discipleship and mutual accountability: Since the goal of the Methodist has been holiness, the methods chosen have been high practical and relationship based.

American Methodist Heritage

o An adventurous spirit willing to take risks to help people know Jesus: The early circuit riders worked hard and burned out young. Even as late as the later 19th century they were planting a church a day and aiming to do two a day.

o A short path to ministry: Centrality of lay leadership & ministry

o Commitment to missions: By the mid 19ths century Methodist were involved in missions – to the Native Americans and to overseas populations.

o Strong commitment to education and scholarship: Methodists started creating schools and colleges in their first decade of formal existence.

o Our appointment system makes it possible to see the big picture: Have a leader who can see the uniqueness of hundreds of congregations and hundreds of pastors and match them up for best fit for ministry can be a great advantage.

o Strong informal institutions for spiritual formation (like Walk to Emmaus, Upper Room, and Aldersgate Renewal Ministries)

o National and international coverage & connections: We’re connected all over and often find ways to experience that connectedness.

o Biblical mission statement: Make Disciples of Jesus Christ

Texas Annual Conference

o Many valuable institutions either within the bounds of the conference or nearby

§ Methodist Health System

§ UM & Texas Methodist Foundations

§ Higher Education institutions

§ Room to Grow

§ Lakeview

§ Campus Ministries

o Faster rate of church planting than most other conferences

o A renewal of interest in Spiritual formation

o Fairly healthy relationships among pastors

o The development of Celebration Ministries in a collegial way with Conference & UMW leadership

o Many large churches that are role models for the whole denomination

o Many resources available to support pastors (ministerial services, financial help for counseling through BOM)

o Unity and relationships based on doing ministry rather than ideological uniformity

Texarkana District

o Far from the center of power, so we’re able to focus on local church ministry with fewer interruptions

o Good fellowship among the pastors and churches

o Good lay leadership in the churches and the district

Pittsburg FUMC

o Beautiful historic sanctuary

o Hardworking, skilled staff

o Large number of trained lay speakers

o High degree of community involvement

o Increase in giving and attendance over the past few years

o Our week day children’s ministry is attracting large numbers of unchurched kids

o We just completed our Feed Store youth center

o A fair number of people who have been to Walk to Emmaus

o Many members who are financially generous, both with the congregation and with people in need

o A great choir

o Healthy relationships with other churches in town


Wesleyan heritage

o Authoritarian tendencies: John Wesley was clearly the authority.

o Uncertainty as to whether we are a church or a society (Parachurch organization): Much of what Wesley said about Methodist ecclesiology was based on the reality of early Methodism’s non-churchly status. When we directly apply what he said on Methodist ecclesiology to our current reality (which sure looks like a church), we can miss the point of Wesley’s original statements.

American Methodist Heritage

o The “other” against which we have tended to shape our identity has most generally been other Christian groups and not the world: We know we’re not Baptists, fundamentalists, or Pentecostals. But how are we different from the world?

o Doctrinal Pluralism has led us to minimize the theological component of our identity: While one might argue that normative doctrinal pluralism was the disciplinary position from 1972, this has not been the UM position since 1988. It often remains the de facto position in UM leadership circles, however.

o We have too often substituted the Lutheran simul iustus et peccator for Christian perfection or the Calvinist variant universalism for the Wesleyan teaching of assurance. In the first case, we too easily say that we’re sinners and always will be, and usually our people lack any hope for anything better than just being forgiven. This is very far from Wesley’s preaching of holiness. In the second case, the place of “good works” in the Christian life has confused many to the point that they think their salvation is dependent on their goodness. Knowing that their being “good enough” is surely in doubt, most United Methodists appear to settle for a form of “I hope so” – or a lapse into an easy going universalism that says everyone will be saved. Both options are quite far from Wesley’s doctrine of the Spirit and assurance.

o We have thought doctrinal clarity is a bad thing: We think doctrine is divisive, so we should settle for ministry. Unfortunately, it is through our doctrine that we understand the nature, purpose and ways of doing ministry.

o We have had an authoritarian, top-down style of organization

o There is rampant distrust on many levels in the church

o An either/or approach has led to the loss of important ministry, specifically:

§ Too often social action has replaced evangelism: We do social action and assume we’re doing all that is necessary in the work of evangelism. We fail to share the Word about Jesus and help people come to faith in him.

o We have a tendency to confuse church growth (a set of sociological and marketing techniques) and evangelism (helping people become followers of Jesus): It’s good to have clean restrooms, an up to date nursery, plenty of parking, and quick follow up of visitors. But that’s not evangelism.

o We too often thought that one size/style fits all (and that size/style emanated from Nashville or New York): Styles and methods of ministry flow out of our basic doctrine but are shaped by the local culture. We have tremendous cultural variation even within the bounds of our own Annual Conference.

o We mirror the divisions of our culture

§ Olden days: The 1844 split mirrored the later national split

§ Now: Too often we look like an amalgam of the American Left and the American Right

§ We don’t have institutional means to use the resources available to develop a particularly Christian politics (Stanley Hauerwas provides us with the fundamental theory to start with): We have some (especially in leadership positions in our Boards and Agencies, if news reports are correct) who sound like the Democratic party. We have others who sound like the Republican party. And we too often see these as the only options and argue about which of the two is the Christian option. Politics is about People Making, not about the various issues that our political culture has chosen to latch onto.

o Despite our commitment to higher education we continue to lose our colleges and many that remain are functionally secular; We lack a unified vision of how higher education might be truly Christian. (My perception is that we lack the unity to recognize this.)

o The path to ordained ministry in the UMC is getting longer and more complex, while in other (growing) denominations the path can be much shorter.

o The denomination continues to age: We are doing a poor job at winning and keeping our younger generations.

o Leadership studies (Built to Last) found that organizations that are ruthlessly clear about their purpose and ultimately flexible in their methods of achieving those purposes last the longest; our strategy tends to be the opposite – vague or pluralistic on purpose, inflexible on strategy

o Those same leadership studies identify planned succession as a key job of effective leaders to maintain continuity of vision. Our polity explicitly rules out this aspect of leadership.

o Lack of a shared understanding of what our denominational mission statement means and entails: What is a disciple? How does one become one?

o A perceived disconnect between the values and goals of the local church and those held on the national level

Texas Annual Conference

o Opaque appointment process: We joke about the cabinet relying on dice & darts. Although churches and pastors have heard about the process of appointment making many times, both groups have seen so many anomalies that they doubt there is any consistent practice.

o Lopsided geography of power & money: Houston is the place to be.

o Church planting is not keeping up with population growth

o Many small churches are discouraged and ruled by fear about their continued existence.

o Little communication about how to access the pastoral support resources. It would be very easy to set up a series of FAQS on the Conference website.

o Historic lack of opportunity for advancement for non-Anglo pastors.

o A tendency to stereotype churches instead of seeking to understand them in their particularity (stereotyping may be the only option when we have over 700 congregations to deal with)

o We lack structures to engage in theological reflection

o We’re often too quick to engage in “happy talk”: “Aren’t we doing well!” “The Texas Conference is a leader in the denomination!” “We have over a third of our membership in average attendance. We’re doing better than most the churches out there.”

Texarkana District

o Far from many conference events and resources. Last year when materials we’re being distributed to the churches, the delivery only went as far north as Longview.

o Many small churches with limited resources: most have to use all their resources on survival and have nothing left to invest in growth.

Pittsburg FUMC

o Old buildings are a constant drain on financial resources

o Limited parking

o No land available for expansion

o Only a small percentage of members are involved in ministry

o Only a quarter of members are regularly involved in some sort of disciple making activity (Sunday School, small groups, etc.)

o We’re a mono-lingual congregation in a bi-lingual community

o We lack the personnel resources to adequately minister to the unchurched kids attracted by our children’s ministry

o We don’t currently have the resources to offer more than one style of worship


Texas Conference and the UMC in general:

o The population is growing on all levels: nationally, statewide, and in many of our communities.

o The world is moving to Houston. Representatives of difficult-access countries and cultures live here. If we can plant churches among these populations we will have the potential of establishing a beachhead among peoples around the world.

o More students are looking for a distinctively Christian education: Many Christian colleges are booming

o We can find ways to allow our vigorous, growing, young congregations (I think of churches like Grace Fellowship, Faithbridge, Windsor Village, etc) to follow the model of growing non-UM churches and become centers of church-planting activity.

o The technological and communications revolution open up new opportunities to make disciples and do ministry. Example: Through the Internet, all churches can have a worldwide ministry at very low cost.

Pittsburg FUMC

o Growth of Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation in Camp County.

o Retirees moving into the area for Lake style living.

o Favorable image in the community

o Many unreached people in the community


Texas Conference and UMC in general:

o Our society contains pockets of strong resistance to churches, ministries and the public expression of Christianity

o Our theories of the separation of church and state fail to take into account the growth of the state, not merely in terms of size, but in the dimensions of public life it has taken over. There used to be areas of social space that were deemed “pubic” but not “State.” Now all public institutions are deemed to be part of the state and to be walled off from Christianity or Christian influence.

o The rising cost of health insurance/care for church employees.

o The rising percentage of church budgets to offer adequate compensation for pastors is hurting many smaller congregations.

o The loss of the biggest membership cohort (speaking age-wise) in the next 20 years

Pittsburg FUMC

o Economy based mostly on a single industry

o Economic factors that make it increasingly expensive to adequately compensate staff

o The residue of years of racism in the community have led to lack of trust, tentativeness in relationships, and strong convictions toward separateness

In the Comments section Mark adds some perceptive observations:

Two threats that you leave off.

(1) The increasing lack of shame about not going to a church. That will increase the cultural tendancy for the lightly-affiliated to stop going to church.

(2) Other evangelical churches in town. Given the weakness in the Methodist “brand,” newcomers to town might be drawn to more openly evangelical churches.

That last one might be more of a weakness than a threat, but it is an area where weakness meets threat, which is the area where you have to watch yourself.

The first of these is certainly a threat all of us in America (or the West) face). In our East Texas culture Baptists are dominant. At the very least our youth have to live with pressure from Baptist peers who have been taught that Methodists represent a watered-down version of Christianity. The strategy of some Methodists in this kind of cultural setting has been to turn on the Baptists. I think this is a mistake and destructive not only to the Kingdom, but also to Methodists. As far as basic Christian doctrine goes, Baptists and Methodists are very close. When we turn on the Baptists, we are ignoring the source of our own weakness, which in my estimate, is our lack of theological depth and articulation. As long as most Methodists are content to summarize Christianity as saying not much more than, “God is love,” and as long as our preaching is centered on this affirmation alone, our people will never have the intellectual resources to stand up with (and when they get confused, against) the Baptists. Even worse, our kids will not be able to answer the Muslim evangelists they’ll encounter when they get to college. They will wither under the attacks of humanistic professors. Worst of all, they will not be able to live God with their whole MIND.
Our fellow Christians here in town may know us as nice people. They may even know us as dedicated and spiritual Christians. But when they want to know what we believe and stand for they will naturally defer to the Methodists who are in the media. That’s part of the price we pay for the disconnect between the disconnect between United Methodism as expressed on the local and the national level.

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4 Responses to SWOT from where I sit

  1. Mark says:

    Two threats that you leave off.

    (1) The increasing lack of shame about not going to a church. That will increase the cultural tendancy for the lightly-affiliated to stop going to church.

    (2) Other evangelical churches in town. Given the weakness in the Methodist “brand,” newcomers to town might be drawn to more openly evangelical churches.

    That last one might be more of a weakness than a threat, but it is an area where weakness meets threat, which is the area where you have to watch yourself.

  2. Richard H says:

    Thanks for the perceptive comments, Mark.

  3. Mal says:

    This post has been removed by the author.

  4. Mal says:

    Check out this SWOT
    of Tesco – are supermarkets the new churches?

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