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Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy

June 20-21 the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) held a traditional event in a nontraditional location and manner.  For decades (with only occasional lapses) the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction have sponsored a learning retreat at the Mt. Sequoyah in Fayetteville, Arkansas.   This year we focus the learning on leadership development. Participants included all members of the various extended cabinets and up to 10 other leaders selected by the bishop of the area with deliberate participants from Boards of Ordained Ministry, young leaders (lay and clergy) etc.  The bishops provided the leadership with process guidance from Dr. Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant in Church Leadership from the Texas Methodist Foundation.  We deliberately sought additional guidance from two bishops outside of the SCJ – Bishop Greg Palmer, a past President of the Council of Bishops and member of the Call to Action team, and Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, a newly elected bishop serving the North Alabama Episcopal Area. The nontraditional location was White’s Chapel UMC.  Drs. John McKellar & Todd Renner and their staff with a wonderful crew of volunteers were an incredible blessing to the over 300+ church leaders involved.  They not only modeled radical hospitality; they gave the concept new definition! As a part of this event, I presented two speeches on leadership development in the new ecosystem of the 21st century church:  “Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy” and “Following Two Paths – The One We Know and the One We Need.”  The following is an excerpt from the first of those speeches. Steady in Purpose and Flexible in Strategy:  Our mission is clear and unchanged.  ‘We are to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.’ Our purpose [in leadership development] comes straight out of the focus area formula endorsed by the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth.  We have to develop principled Christian leaders both for the church and for the world.  This necessitates deep, focused attention on the second point of the Call to Action.  “Dramatically reform the clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.”[1]  Reforming the clergy development system will dominate our thinking here but should never be divorced from the critical application of a new generation of lay leadership.  Without the two together, our efforts will be for naught. To all of this we will need to balance the closing of churches and the movement of full time charges to part time places.  In the Central Conferences last year alone we lost $801,660 dollars in clergy remuneration.   Holding retirements in one hand and church closings in another is going to be really, really, tough.  General Eric Shinseki’s comment sticks to us like super glue Velcro. “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”[2]  Those who want a preset rule book or cookbook to follow need not to be on either the Cabinet or the Board of Ordained Ministry. Take a look again at the North Star of purpose.  We have to steer to this location – developing principled Christian leaders both for the church and the world!  That purpose is our North Star.  By way of example, our purpose is not upholding the institutional structures of a clergy system of entitlement.  Our purpose is not bolstering the importance of seminaries.  Both institutional structures and seminaries may well further this purpose but they are not the purpose. I think we are beginning, just beginning, to put together some pieces on how we must be flexible in strategy.  I offer a handful for our reflection and tentative embrace.
  • Forget the career ladder and think mentoring.  By mentoring I mean something more than merely assigning the person who has taken the approved training of GBHEM or the Board of Ministry.  I am thinking of the ongoing coaching, encouraging and guidance (including advocacy) of lay and clergy leaders with a track record of fruitfulness beyond institutional maintenance.
  • Explore alternative education that moves beyond the seminary requirement to a real embodiment of Wesleyan theology, leadership ability, and spiritual formation (Christian character).  This may well be some combination of post seminary training, the inculcation of a genuine system of continuing education (which is far beyond continuing education as a perk of pastoral position), and spiritual formation. . . .
  • Figure out how to embrace the spiritual entrepreneurs in our system.  We (the United Methodist system of clergy (& lay!) deployment have by-in-large adopted a position of shooting our entrepreneurs.  To our embarrassment there are highly fruitful and faithful pastors who left our system not because they disagreed with our theology or even our governance but because the rigidity of our system of credentialing and appointment made life untenable for them.  Well over a decade ago, Roy Oswald and Claire Burkat noted in Transformational Regional Bodies (an Alban Institute publication) that in the “screening process for denominations . . . these overly stringent requirements at the front end of the ordination track did screen out the worst candidates, but it also screened out the best.”  They continued, “The more requirements you lay on people before they can even begin to consider a vocation in the ordained ministry, the more you will have passive, dependent types who will endure any requirement you put before them.”[3]
  • We need to bolster the edges of our leadership development system.  We have been risk averse and it shows.  If you step back and look at what we are doing with this Bishops’ Week, the common theme is one of experimentation and development.  We face a bigger danger in being too timid than we do in being too flexible.  Go back and read Wigger’s American Saint on the life of Francis Asbury.  He was forever sending people out into the mission field with incomplete training and inadequate support.  Or, to deliberately change the image to one I have heard Gil Rendle use:  people in the wilderness (that’s us!) are not following a map.  We are making a map.
  • We must continue to develop trust and mutual accountability between bishops & cabinets and their respective Boards of Ordained Ministry.  For those of us on the Cabinet this will require a transparence which we are uncomfortable with.  For those on the Board of Ordained Ministry, it will require a partnership that is far greater than gatekeeping or serving as union shop stewards.  For both groups; we will all be stressed by appropriate issues of confidentiality and differing judgment.
  • I suggest that we need to be open to people coming from other denominations.  This is hard in our tradition.  In theory our committed ecumenical stance should make us open to such options.  In practice our guaranteed appointment, distinctive style of appointment and itinerancy, and inward bent United Methodist ethos makes it difficult despite our best intentions.  Oswald and Burkat’s book Transformational Regional Bodies has an intriguing chapter on such recruitment.
  • Experiment!

[1]           A CALL TO ACTION for The United Methodist Church, Final Report of the Interim Operations Team, September 2012
[2]               General Eric Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army
[3]               Roy M. Oswald and Claire S. Burkat, Transformational Regional Bodies, p. 113