If you’ve been following my posts over the past year, you’ll know that the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is undergoing a major change initiative. The major impetus for this change – in personal terms – is our bishop, Janice Riggle Huie. In impersonal terms, the impetus is the reality that our churches haven’t been reaching people for Christ. In plain english, we’re doing a lousy job at reproducing – at making new Christians.
If we only look at ourselves, we’re not doing as bad as most annual conferences. We actually grow in membership some years. But when you compare the rate of change of our membership (or our attendance) with the population of our region, you see pretty quick that we’re not even close to keeping up. Instead, we fall farther and farther behind.
So what are we doing about it? After last years district realignment, 2 big things come remain. First, the conference is instituting more minute accountability for pastors and churches. Second, conference finances are being realigned so we can move toward planting 10 new churches a year.
I don’t think the average church member grasps the increased accountability yet. So many other local issues are closer on their radar. We pastors, however, are quite aware. We report our statistics regularly (attendance and professions of faith weekly, people in “hands on mission” and apportionment payment monthly). We’re now all supposed to be in accountability groups. We have more “trainings” and meetings to go to than ever. Some of us are finding it a challenge to find the hours in our schedules to do more things beyond the local church – while being expected to grow the local church.
The local church may notice the financial realignment a bit more. Church camp went from $160 per kid last year to $200 per kid this year since funds have been moved away from our camp. Campus ministries are also feeling the pinch – we hear that some may even be closed. Note: I’m a strong believer in campus ministry. I know we have at least a few in the conference that have been very effective, not only in making disciples, but as places of call for many pastors now in the conference. But I’ve also heard of several where only a few students attend, while requiring all the expenses associated with employing an ordained Elder (we’re much more expensive than our take home pay alone indicates).
Will all these changes work? Will they reverse our decline? Those of us on the bottom of the line – local church pastors and leaders – can get the impression that the folks at the top of the heap know exactly what they’re doing. After all, we’re paying thousands for consultants and new programs. Surely they know what they’re doing.
Personally, I have my doubts. But that’s ok.
Why do I think it’s ok for our leaders not to know what they’re doing? First, because I’m doubtful whether this is an area where one is likely to find certainty. If they went around claiming to know that what we’re doing will bring progress (they’re not), then I’d surely doubt them. Second, while change for the sake of change is frequently not a good thing (though it does seem to be something we Americans enjoy), in this case I think it can serve the important task of breaking us out of the inertia of doing what we’ve always done. We desperately need to break that inertia.
So – do we know what we’re doing? On one level, probably not. On another level, sure we know. We’re trying to follow Jesus – we’re trying to figure out how to lead our people to obey the Great Commission in early 21st century East Texas. And that’s a good thing.