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

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Turning the Church Around - Who Benefits?

In the last two 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 another concern regarding this proposal.  It is a concern that grows out of my previous posting, "Turning the Church Around - Without the Spirit?"

In that posting, I observe that Dr. House's proposal is primarily institutional rather than spiritual.  It could spark spiritual growth, but that is left up to the individual churches that participate in his proposed Benchmark Project.  The project's core concern is to save the United Methodist Church (UMC), to turn it around by getting 998 of its churches to reverse statistical decline by increasing their discretionary income.  The ways of achieving increased income are left to the "experts" on the ground, the lay and pastoral leaders of the churches.  One key measure for participation in the project is local leadership sufficiently capable to achieve that income.

Dr. House's paper leaves the impression that the Benchmark Project's purpose is to save the denomination.  The goal is not local growth.  It does not propose to bring at risk churches back from the brink.  In fact, churches lacking leadership or financial potential are entirely excluded from the project.  One hesitates to call this, "exploitation," because the churches involved are expected to benefit from their higher income, but it does seem to reflect a mentality fairly typical in connectional churches, which is that most of the "connection" flows upward toward the higher "councils".  Local churches are expected to give their strength to support the district, the conference, the association, or the presbytery; but often enough little in the way of effective support flows back "down" to the churches.  One reason that the mainline denominations are not solving decline is because they continue to exhibit a mentality and set of habits that put the concerns of the hierarchy above the needs of the local churches.  The Benchmark Project only encourages and piggy backs on that mentality and those habits.

The ones who carry the burden for carrying out the Benchmark Project, furthermore, are local lay leaders and pastors.  More pressure.  More responsibility.  And 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.  This, too, seems to reflect a mentality that is not actually working out at all, which is that the hope of the churches is in their pastors, first, and then in the lay leadership of the churches, second.  All too many pastors are simply not able to respond creatively to the challenges of congregational decline.  The same goes for lay leaders.  The Benchmark Project does not address this concern in an effective way.