We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Turning the Church Around - What About the Followers?

In the last three postings, I've been working on a recent Methodist proposal aimed at turning around Methodist decline.  The proposal is entitled, "A Strategic Plan for Growth in the United Methodist Church"  and was authored by Dr. Ronald R. House, an economist who serves as a consultant with the United Methodist Church's South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee.  In this posting, I would like to follow up with one last concern regarding this proposal.

Dr. House is proposing that 998 Methodist churches participate in the Benchmark Project, which seeks to increase each church's discretionary income to the end that it will experience increased statistical growth, beginning with worship attendance.
  The ones who carry the burden for carrying out the Benchmark Project are local lay leaders and pastors.  In effect, that is, the project puts more pressure and responsibility on congregational leadership without any effective support mechanism other than local advisory committees that are expected to meet only occasionally.  There is no training involved or guidelines as to where the 998 churches are to come up with additional funding.  Everything is left up to the local leadership.  The truth is that mainline pastors and sessions are already struggling with a range of pressures and issues that are the root causes of decline.  One has to wonder (and worry) whether adding further pressure and expectations to a leadership infrastructure that is already highly stressed is going to only make matters worse in the long run rather than better.  At the very least, far more thought needs to be given to support for church leaders participating in the Benchmark Project than is reflected in Dr. House's proposal.

Beyond concern for the leaders is a more fundamental issue that continues to be largely ignored in the mainline struggle with decline, namely the issue of "followership".  A couple of years ago, I posted two items on followership, (here) and (here), which make the point that in any community the health and well-being of the followers are just as important as that of the leaders, if not more so.  The community needs good followers.  The Benchmark Project stresses leadership while ignoring followership.  It is a common oversight but also an all but fatal one when it comes to finding our way beyond decline.

Is the Benchmark Project, then, of no value at all?  While it does not seem likely that it will actually reverse the decline of the Methodist Church, it does serve one important purpose.  It reminds us that financial planning is one aspect of bringing vital new life to local mainline churches.  It is not the key to renewal, but it is an aspect of renewal.  And, whatever else is involved, Dr. House deserves credit for seeking realistic approaches to decline.  He, at least, has not buried his head in the sand, which is the usual response across the mainline churches to decline.