Sunday, August 21, 2011

the adaptive challenge and the local (united methodist) church

The United Methodist Church, through the work of the Call to Action and the Connectional Table is proposing four offices that will carry forward the programmatic work of thirteen present boards and agencies (note: additional work in areas such as communication, pension and health benefits and financial administration will take place outside these offices). This is for the purpose of responding to the adaptive challenge---to create more vital and healthy congregations. The four offices are projected to be new places for new people, leadership development, missional engagement and justice and reconciliation.

I have writtten before on this blog about the structural realities facing our church, at a macro level, but I have also given some thought lately to this scheme and what it might mean at the local level. If the adaptive work is really that which is given back to the people, what might these four terms mean for every pastor and local church.

Could pastors be encouraged (and held accountable) each year to help create one new place for new people? This could be any missional act of hospitality that engages new people, from a bible study at the local coffee shop to a new faith community. Could pastors be encouraged (and held accountable) each year to develop leaders? This could look like a Bible study, or, more simply, meeting with one or two seekers who wanted to go deeper.

Could pastors be encouraged (and held accountable) each year to lead others in missional engagement? This could be a servant team, in the community or across the planet, or a sophisticated major missional initiative that involves community, denominational and ecumenical stakeholders. And could pastors be encouraged (and held accountable) each year to take concrete action toward justice and reconciliation? In this way clergy leaders would speak prophetically for those who have no voices.

Of course, the accountability of pastors would not be in isolation from a shared evaluation of congregations. Vital and healthy congregations are not sustained, for any length of time, apart from vital and healthy clergy. The opposite is also true: clergy are shaped by their environments. Thus a process of shared accountability, at the local level, is essential. The Call to Action reporting seems also to include a vision for accountability at the Annual Conference level, and so a new set of questions emerges: what would several hundred new places for new people look like in a geographical area? or several hundred leaders who are being discipled in deeper ways? or several hundred servant teams, with major missional initiatives in each area? or clear and strong voices speaking for justice and reconciliation? What kind of leadership, episcopal and otherwise, makes such an outcome possible in an area? And what kind of resources (education, textual and social media) are needed?

A shift toward the adaptive challenge, at the local level, will change every facet of the United Methodist Church's clergy system, from recruitment and formation to oversight and supervision to recruitment. It will require a massive investment in the areas of support and accountability. We will need to resist the temptation to copy models of support and accountability in the secular professional spheres of North America. These have not been a blessing to our culture. The work of the General Boards will likely shift to the creation of this alternative culture----Bishops are simply too engaged in the essential tasks of deploying clergy----and it will likely take a generation to establish. At the same time there are initiatives that are beyond the scope of the local church (the beginning of my list would include Africa University, the Upper Room, United Methodist Women, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Change The World) and simply must be retained as priorities. But those that I mention, and there are others, are largely strong at present because they so clearly engage the local church.

Much work remains to be done on the adaptive challenge. The work of the Connectional Table---at least that which has been shared publically---has leaned more to what Ronald Heifitz would call "technical solutions": rearranging structures and shifting funding patterns. This is necessary work, and yet we have done this work before, and it did not lead to congregational vitality or effective clergy leadership. I am supportive of the movement identified in the Call to Action; at the same time, it is imperative that we begin to think about what all of this will look like at the local level. This is missional strategy, and it deserves careful articulation and the corresponding constructive development alongside the streamlining of work done now by boards and staffs at the general church level.


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