Friday, February 25, 2011

a connection of missional parishes: part one

I recently completed a review or Richard Florida's The Great Reset, which will be published in a journal later this year. Florida works at the intersection of urban planning, geography and economic development. The Great Reset refers to the economic collapse of the fall of 2008, and our attempts since to find some kind of equilibrium (note this week's protests in Wisconsin). In my own thinking (and not in the review itself) I have been connecting his work with the United Methodist system, as it now exists. Gil Rendle notes in the most recent issue of the Circuit Rider that almost one in three United Methodist congregations has fewer than 35 people (10,000 of 35,000 churches). These congregations are vulnerable, their clergy leaders are often dispirited, and the economic models that undergird all of this are neither sustainable nor durable.

We find ourselves in the midst of a great reset.

A part of the reset is the struggle with the provision of a guaranteed or continued appointment for elders (I serve on the Study of Ministry Commission, and this is one of subjects of our research and conversation); another element of the reset, now less defined, is the role of the deacon in connecting the church and the world. And an additional facet of all of this is the ministry of the local pastor, which has becoming increasingly important and almost normative in the missional strategy of most annual conferences.

Our challenge lies in the great number of parishes that simply do not have enough constituents to comprise a sole unit of ministry. The reset in which we find ourselves may end up, with some intentional planning, looking like groups of parishes connected organically to each other. When I entered the ordained ministry our annual conference did include cooperative parishes, particularly in the mountain regions of our state. The introduction of the connectional mission parish model elicits a first response: "oh yes, we did that once". But, actually, I am thinking of a distinct model.

I am beginning to wonder about the possibility of connectional mission parishes that include 8-12 local churches, none less than 25 persons in worship and none more than 100 persons in worship. These connectional parishes would be led by teams of elders, deacons and local pastors. The elder or elders would celebrate communion, preach, teach the clergy team and order the life of the 8-12 churches. The deacon would develop ministries in the community---perhaps related to the needs of hunger, housing, education, immigration, and health. The deacon would spend most of his or her time developing community partnerships. The local pastors would preach and be engaged in ministries of evangelism. Most local pastors would be bi-vocational, and would therefore spend a great deal of their time in relation to persons outside the church as well. Theologically, this is a model that integrates personal and social holiness in its staffing strategy.

Connectional mission parishes might give 10% of their offerings to the denominational structures beyond the local church. The accumulation of these offerings would fund the core components of the denomination, particularly the episcopal fund, global ministries and administrative resourcing of large scale priorities. Stronger connectional parishes might have more than one elder, with one also serving as a presiding elder, or superintendent, an extension of the bishop. But in this model all superintendents or presiding elders would serve congregations.

I am describing a model that will not work, or be needed everywhere. But for much of our denomination it is a way beyond the solo pastor who serves a small and conflicted parish that feels isolated from its community and denomination, and the administrative leader who is not rooted in congregational life. The essential connection, or connectivity of mission parishes could move us to a new place; the identities of two of our categories of clergy leadership would be clearly embedded in the world, not the church; and the three categories of ministry would be organically related, and in fact would make no sense without each other.

Richard Florida sees in the Great Reset our opportunity to invest in infrastructure and transportation, and high speed rail in particular. The purpose of this investment is to bring us in proximity to each other. As our system continues in its slow decline, the options will be blame and competition or connection and communion. The latter may give us the energy to focus anew on the world that is our parish. And in a system that will produce fewer material rewards than in prior generations, we will need to rethink our ecclesial and clerical assumptions. I will reflect more fully on this reality in part two of this essay.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

a vacation

I have seen some of the research about clergy well-being, and some of it related to vacation: many clergy do not take all of their vacation days, and those who seem to be healthy are able to get some distance from the work. We most often get away in the summer, but for some reason we have been able to take some time away this year in the dead of winter, and I can only say that I recommend it. It began with the preaching schedule, that allowed me to be away on a Sunday. My colleague would be preaching, the Scouts (Boy and Girl) would be assisting in the liturgy, and so that worked out. I asked a friend, who is preparing for ordination, to visit on a couple of my hospital days, and that also helped with the visitation load. I communicated all of this with two chairs of committees, whose meetings I would be missing. I promised that I would catch up with them when I returned.

December had been hectic. Advent had been full. End of year giving was a stretch. Christmas eve was a marathon. Then a good friend called on the day after Christmas: her husband was in the process of dying, her son was in from out of town. I went over, and we visited and planned the service, which fell on the New Year's holiday. Then Epiphany. Then guests from Haiti joined us for a few days, and the missionary Jim Gulley was with us, his sermon live streamed across the world via Rethink Church. Then the administrative work leading to the approval of the budget, which, thanks be to God, was better than I could have imagined.

So a week emerged, an opening. Miraculously, it was there in my wife's schedule. Since she is heavily involved in mission work in Haiti, this is not always a given. And so we spent a period of eight days away from Charlotte, three in the mountains of western North Carolina, and five in New Orleans.

We have a small cabin in the mountains, not far from Lake Junaluska, a retreat center of the United Methodist Church in the southeast. It is a restful setting, and one of its great assets is the lake itself: one can walk around the lake, a 2.5 mile exercise, and I do this once or twice any day I am there, regardless or weather. I have made the trek in snow, wind, heat and rain. It clears my mind and restores my body. We see friends there who we don't often get to talk with, and this happened; we discovered two new restaurants, one operated by a young man who was once a member of a youth group we served as interns in divinity school. I recommend it: the Smoky Mountain Cafe, in downtown Waynesville. We did a few odd jobs around the cabin, but not too many. We saw a couple of movies on a makeshift screen with an overhead projector and a laptop, and this was fun. And we worshiped at the early service at First UMC, Waynesville. I enjoyed the sermon, and my only suggestion would be for less talking through the service and more silence. But I recognize this is largely a note to myself!

I then flew to New Orleans, where my wife joined me a day later. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was also there for two very brief meetings: one related to a "Leadership Table" I sit on in my denomination (it is one of our four focus areas, and table is a code word for committee), the other a governance conversation related to Africa University, in my role with GBHEM, one of our denominational boards. Both were brief, constructive meetings where action steps were identified and outcomes named. In between and around these meetings, Pam and I enjoyed more vacation. Years ago Jimmy Carter, in reflecting on his life and hobbies outside of the Presidency, commented that he sought to find ways to enjoy the world wherever his work took him; thus, if he were observing an election in south America, he would make a point of fishing for the wild trout native to that area before or after. I have tried to imitate this, and I recommend it.

So, what do you do in New Orleans? You eat. You listen to great music. You reflect on the tragic and glorious history, over hundreds of years and over the past five years. You think about Louis Armstrong and Tennessee Williams and Fats Domino and Walker Percy. You see the wealthy and the poor in close proximity to each other. You revel in the diversity of a port city where customs, ideas and goods have always been traded and shared. You do the things every tourist does---Cafe du Monde and Preservation Hall---and you locate, by accident or providence, the hidden treasures---Central Grocery's muffaletta sandwich, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Olivier's Restaurant on Decatur, where they can tell you the difference between creole and cajun. You walk a lot. You are in a cosmopolitan place, but it is still the south, and so there is a spirit of hospitality. It was a great destination, and, yes, it appears to be on the way to rebuilding itself, with the assistance from friends all over. But, the people will tell you, the progress is very slow,

Then we were taken to the airport in a cab driven by a young man from New Orleans who had a story, or several of them, related to Katrina and Mardi Gras and other assorted challenges and celebrations. The flight was delayed, but then we quickly got into the air and landed at home, in Charlotte, ready to engage again in life and work here.