House Proposal

It is odd how little the local church is discussed at General Conference. When you think about “the church,” isn’t it the local church that comes to mind? That group of people who are your people, with all their virtues and foibles, is the church. That building, whether small and wood framed in the country, or brick and pillared in the city, is what comes to mind. People meeting for worship, small groups or to serve others are all a part of what I imagine when I hear the word “church.” At the General Conference, these things are discussed in laity addresses or sermons by bishops, but most of our time is spent talking about the denomination. This is well and good, since our work together, with a nearly $600 million budget, does need to be discussed. United Methodists are in a connectional church. What we do in a district is linked across a conference, which is connected to a Jurisdictional or Central Conference, and all of that is linked to the General Conference.

But when you think of the church, don’t you tend to think of the variety of expressions of the local church that can be found across the globe? It is important to understand that overall, the local church in the United States is not doing well in terms of vitality. Certainly there are many local churches that are vital and viable. But many others are losing ground. That is in the data provided by Don House, the head of the economic advisory committee of the General Council on Finance and Administration of the UMC.

Take a look at Don’s presentation. Let me give you one predicted outcome from his presentation of the numerical decline of our local churches, which began decades ago and has continued unabated until the present:

“By 2030, the denomination in the U.S. will likely have declined to a point in which a turnaround is not possible. By 2050, the connection will have collapsed.”

The central conferences are where United Methodists from a variety of countries work together in the developing world to provide schools, clinics, vocational centers, hospitals and a host of other life-saving ministries. From the living water of the Gospel to the drinking water of a newly drilled well, we are making a difference in so many places.

Here is the big denominational problem: about 97 percent of the current budget of the UMC comes from local churches in the U.S. As these churches shrink and go out of existence, so does that budget. The central conferences that have grown the fastest in Africa and Asia in recent years are predominately in developing economies where poverty is common, the income gap between the very rich and the very poor is large and the middle class is often nonexistent. If the local churches in the U.S. decline to the point that they cannot sustain the current economic model and if the economies of the developing world do not significantly change so that United Methodists there can carry a proportional amount of the budget, the good work our church is doing will simply cease to exist. Canceling our worldwide meeting will be a small concern. The real tragedy is that people who are often very poor will no longer have access to the good things the church offers. Future pastors will lose their scholarships and related funds, our work on numerous social issues will discontinue and new churches will no longer be planted. The list of tragic losses is way too long for this too long blog post.

We state that the local church is the primary arena where we fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We understand that the local churches in the U.S. are the basis of the economic model that provides for the worldwide mission of the church. So it seems odd that we discuss their challenges so little in Portland.

That was why I was pleasantly surprised when Don House introduced a document that passed in the Committee on Finance and Administration on Saturday for a “Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth.” I served on this committee and supported Don’s proposal, which in part reads, “Its purpose is to develop and implement a strategy to first slow the decline in worship attendance and professions of faith, and then to return them to positive growth within the jurisdictional conferences. The strategy’s target is to arrest and reverse the decline by the end of 2024.”

Most people are for the growth of the local church. When this plan goes to the plenary session this week, the problem will be that it calls for a $20 million investment in the local church, which will come from the proposed UMC budget. Yesterday was a day of rest here for General Conference delegates, and I can only imagine how restless this proposal is making most of the general boards and agencies of our church. I am sure that this proposal will be difficult for the delegates to work through. Prioritizing a budget, whether personal, family, church or denominational, is always hard work. I doubt anyone will want to offer up his or her funds for this cause. Friends of mine have told me how hard this will be and what programs it may impact. My response is to ask them what plans the Connectional Table, which is the leadership team for the UMC, has to turn around the current decline of existing local churches in the U.S.? The good work of PATH 1, the group responsible for developing and implementing a strategy to plant new faith communities, is offered. Beyond this, the Connectional Table offers very little.

This makes me wonder, before the debate begins, if no one came here with a plan for local church renewal, and the numbers shared with denominational leaders months ago tell us that in 14 years we will be at a point of no return, does anyone have a better idea than the one offered by Don House?

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  1. John Larsen

    The United Methodist Church has spent years promoting various “return to health” strategies that have each failed.

    My belief is the Church is pushing on a rope and attempting to lead with top-down solutions that have little chance of succeeding at the local level.

    I have attended and been a member of various UMC churches over the years. The churches that have succeeded tended to operate from a zone of inclusiveness and yet from core values. In other words, they didn’t turn away the LGBTI community yet they held to the notion that scripture contains all knowledge for salvation. They put Christ’s LOVE at the center of their message and emphasized that as Methodists we don’t stop by “getting saved”.

    The Methodist churches that I’ve seen fail are those that swing too far to the right (look and sound more like Southern Baptists) or too far to the left (look and sound like Unitarians.)

    That’s speaking broadly through 20+ years of Methodist experience.

    Now, let me speak locally…

    In our town of 10,000 we have a “heritage” Methodist church that has served in the community for more than 100 years. Yet in recent times we’ve seen the church population dwindle. Presently they are lucky to draw in 30 to 40 people on a Sunday in a building that is designed to easily absorb 300 during a service. Based on the age of those in the church, it will close its doors within 5 to 10 years.

    The issues are multitude.
    1) A refusal by church leadership to share power with younger voices.
    2) An insistence by the local church to maintain a committee structure that is for a healthy church rather than implementing a simplified structure that would be more akin to a small church.
    3) A lack of understanding of what it means to truly be Methodist… where we are called to a life of action in our community rather than maintaining a club house.
    4) A “legacy” church building that in no way reflects modern needs including ADA accessibility… where the building consumes so many resources (heating and maintenance) that there’s little left over for ministry.
    5) A refusal by the church body to “GO”… I actually had one member of the church council tell me they became a Methodist because they wouldn’t have to “do” anything.
    6) When the UMC refused to place a pastor directly, the church hired a Presbyterian fresh out of seminary who had not completed any coursework on Methodist Polity. This action further muddied the water in terms of what it meant to be Methodist.
    7) Allowing a Sunday School teacher to talk about Reincarnation as an acceptable Methodist teaching.
    8) An exploration and potential willingness to lease out part of the church building space for Wiccan healers.
    9) A refusal by parents to be actively involved in the spiritual upbringing of their children.
    10) A refusal by the church power structure to refer individuals for ordination who were qualified and had a service record that demonstrated a deep love of Christ and for the Church.

    As you can imagine, I am no longer involved in that church.

    A way forward?

    Methodism needs to re-imagine itself back as a missionary church. Existing small churches in small communities need to be “shaken up” with ministers who challenge and call the church into action… who can stand toe-to-toe against the embedded church that want to live into the status quo rather than being an active “Acts” like church. (I kid you not, one minister was so afraid of doing anything she spent her term “comforting” people… and the most recent minister openly said her call is to simply offer preaching until the church closes its doors… that her goal is to help it close with dignity.) With visions like these, is it any wonder that the church is suffering.

    Methodism needs to get away from hyper-convervativism and hyper-liberalism and embrace the “via media” as much as possible.

    Methodism needs to offer initiatives to help the local church understand what it means to be Methodist and how to live that out on a daily basis.

    Methodism needs to engage the non-religious and nominally religious in an ongoing dialogue that explores faith and belief in an unjudging way… where we encourage people to honestly explore issues in a safe space.

    Methodism needs to demonstrate to younger generations (45 & under) why church is relevant.

    Finally a comment…

    Given the “Christians” I have known who lead church, my faith in church has been repeatedly crushed over 20 years to the point where I no longer personally believe that supporting the local church makes any sense.

    I know Atheists and Gays who have been better models of Jesus Christ in the world (and to me) than church leaders… think about that for a minute.

    Living out the life of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world means nothing in the local churches I’ve been in. “Making disciples” is lip service. “Dreaming Big” is all about HOW MUCH MONEY the church can capture to support itself.

    So there’s my 10 cents from ground zero…

  2. Jim Allen

    Tom,
    Thanks for your comments. Unfortunately, the House proposal doesn’t address local churches, either. It just gives $20MM to a small group and turns them loose with no reporting or oversight. We can do better than this.

  3. David Cunningham

    Before I start, let me say the my church has paid 100% of our apportionments for the last 12 years. But, the percentage of my church’s budget that goes to support district and conference leaves us with little to no funds to improve a church building that is falling apart. There is also very little money for mission and education. We pay are bills, but there is nothing left for the church. For a small church to make it’s building presentable to attract people begins with money. Some of this money either needs to come back to the church from the conference or the apportionment commitment needs to be reduced.

  4. Jerome Wolgin

    Dear Tom,

    15 years ago I led a Sunday School class on the History of the Christian Church in the United States, One thing I learned then, and something I believe still holds, is that those churches which held strongly to the Christian fundamental beliefs as expressed in the Creed, and those churches which practiced a vibrant worship were churches that grew and those that did not began to die. The problem facing Methodists is the same that faced Episcopalians and Presbyterians, and will face even some more vibrant denominations like the Assemblies of God, which in the US is losing its distinctiveness. I believe the first step is to determine what are the key characteristics that divide the experiences of the main-line churches and the non-denoms so as to try to emphasize what it means to worship in a church where Jesus is alive.

    Jerry Wolgin

  5. Rev. Dr. William B. Randolph

    Your assumption is incorrect that very little is being done by the agencies to address the decline of the UMC. Everyday at Discipleship Ministries we work together to help the church grow disciples not only new disciples, but to grow existing disciples more deeply in discipleship. For instance, in my area of expertise in Older Adult Ministry, we are working on a colloquium called Boomerstock, which is designed to help the church figure out how to engage Baby Boomers in the ministry of the church and to attract the unchurched and under-churched like the Spiritual But Not Religious Boomer. Why would we want to do that? It is only the largest generation in the US, 76.5 remain of the 78 million boomers born between 1946 and 1964 as opposed to 72 million births for Millennials who were born between 1983 and 2001). Discipleship works hard and focused for church vitality, especially for the local church which you say you are so concerned about. We actually work with those on the front lines, doing workshops, offering webinars and other training tools, for the individual churches to turn themselves around. If you take money from us it may mean we can reach and teach particularly our smaller churches less effectively, which is where the decline in the membership of the UMC has been so should receive some attention, don’t you think?
    So much of the church’s effort to revitalize itself doesn’t make sense from a practical sense and seems like grasping after straws including the Don House proposal. Every church I served as a pastor said we want to grow, and I would always say no you don’t, because if you really wanted to grow you would be making this a priority already and you would be growing, and your problem is it isn’t a priority for you. Then I would ask them what they had done to grow. The answers were always the same, the latest promoted methodology. The problem wasn’t that the methodology wasn’t working obviously, it was they really weren’t working the methodology because they were wanting to grow for the wrong reasons. This is true for our church. It should be everyone’s focus not just a committee of between 9 and 20. Next, I would gently point out one thing to these churches they had not tried and this was to be in partnership with God through prayer. The House proposal seems to me to be like all of those fad efforts, when we need to just pick a methodology and stick with it through prayer, instead of casting our hopes in what seems like a new direction. You can change directions all you want to, but if it is going to cost 20 million, you better make sure it is the right direction you are changing into. The House Plans provides no evidence that it is a direction the church is being led in by God, which is why I hope it goes by the wayside, not the 20 million it will cost our agencies.
    The biggest problem with House is it is an economic model. It starts with the assumption that we should put our resources directly in the field with churches which are successful at growing, the large churches, and develop entrepreneur type evangelists or to just start up new churches. The part of the plan I would applaud, is developing evangelism entrepreneurs. However, what the House plan fails to see is there are a number of evangelist entrepreneurs like myself already working within our agencies now and there are a number of smaller churches who are beginning to catch the vision this is where God is leading them. Finally these same small churches are beginning to revitalize themselves using our resources and assistance.
    I am sorry the defenders of our agencies and our work here do not actually cite the many churches which have been directly helped with our resources, but there are often too many to name directly and it is hard to quantify how many disciples these resources actually claimed for the church. I am sorry our apologist, haven’t been able to cite programs which are making a difference besides Path 1, but chances are great, many of our programs clergy aren’t even aware exist. Did you know about Boomerstock? I know I was not aware of the many programs available including congregational vitality coaching and consultation, the Field guide Network of our Young People’s Ministry division, or the Face2Face program of Upper Room’s Walk to Emmaus. Before robbing Peter to pay Paul, lets be clear about what has to be given up by our agencies, and what we believe we will directly gain.
    The sad thing is if I had read about the House proposal 4 years ago I would maybe buy its arguments. But having now worked in agency life for just 30 months, I have a completely different perspective about what our agencies do and how they are helping the church. It is not defending turf I am engaging in, but honestly responding to a plan which should be a voluntary plan where those of us really committed to making new disciples should be asked to give additional monies to a plan which has been composed out of faithfulness to God’s call and partnership not out of panic.

  6. Steve Harper

    I think a better plan is to relegate funds to The General Board of Discipleship; that is, to an existing agency, rather than creating yet another one. The designated funds could be primarily used to provide grants to any church (small, medium, or large) that demonstrates a passion and plan fir evangelism in their location. Being big is not a sufficient criterion for the allocation of so much money. And…if this is truly a plan (even if a sort of pilot program for the next four years), it needs to have congregations of differing sizes and contexts (including some outside the USA) involved.

    • Bevwrly Geer

      Steve Harper, Your succicent remarks are the more direct and concret that I have heard since General Conference. Thank God for astute comments, not panic rhetoric my heart breaks for the state of our United Methodist Church and it’s people .
      Beverly Geer

  7. Dave McGovern

    Rev Tom,
    I do not envy those making such difficult budgetary decisions, or the leaders involved in many hours of deliberation and debate at General Conference. Thank you so much for these postings during the conference proceedings. Gives a congregation member perspective on the event.

    Full disclosure, I have no formal divinity training or church planting/growth expertise. I’m a young Gen X’er with the majority of my life being raised in the Methodist church. Of the last 19-20 years I’ve spent (in the few Methodist churches I’ve attended) the topic of evangelism typically induces nothing short of a low hum. Mr. House’s presentation is intriguing and super informative, but with all due respect to him I’m not sure the stated “reasons for downturn” are completely to blame.
    We mark fiduciary data points on a graph, and diligently so, but how many Methodists know their testimony, and how to clearly communicate the gospel? The church needs money to fund the lifesaving ministries, but the answers partly lie in what the church is outputting from a gospel standpoint, not only inputting from a monetary one. I desire outsiders to see our “church” as a lifesaver in more than a physical sense. What comes to mind when I think of “vitality”, is a passion for God’s grace that is fully evident in our church culture.
    In Good Providence,
    Dave M

  8. I agree with you Tom, but I’m afraid that General Conference doesn’t have the stomach or the will to make these hard decisions. Unless we do something soon the church we have both served so long will be gone. It all come back to leadership, any chance of bringing John Wesley back to speak at the Plenary session?

  9. Ron Tant

    Where is the example of Christ in all this? He spoke of fishing and farming, vineyards and sheep. This obsession with “church-speak” drives people away. I could have put up with a lot of disagreement as a Methodist, but the inward focus and squabbling as opposed to outward ministry turned me from a Methodist SS teacher into a “Done.” Tom Berlin’s model makes a lot of sense. Maybe it is time to decide WHICH split causes the least damage and get on with it.

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