The Death of the UMC Connection

The idea of connection came unto its own during a moment in church history that was contentious and dramatic. As America began to find itself as a representative democracy, its citizens began to desire what they saw as a more democratic style of church structure, and they began to turn more and more to congregational styles of organization where each church was on its own seeking its own success and loosely related to the other churches in its denomination.

During this same time the Methodist church came under fire because of its very un-democratic episcopal structure. There were charges leveled against the church of being unchristian and anti-american (which is a totally different from now). We pushed back by saying that our structure was not about being mindless servants of an autocratic bishop, but that we were a single unit that was facilitated by the Bishop and other superintendents. It was about connection.

You saw the connection in how we operated. Yes there were individual churches, but they were constantly teaming up and coming together in small or large groupings to do everything from having a camp meeting to starting a hospital. We were different because we were not duplicating efforts, we were not fighting amongst each other for members; rather, diverse congregations were working together in a network (some might say a body) to accomplish far more for the Kingdom of God than any one of them could do on their own.

Fast-forward to the present and it is difficult to see that radical contrast to the congregational approach being lived out in our Church. The Connection may not be dead, but the signs of its imminent demise are everywhere. Since we are talking youth ministry here, lets use it as our test case. It was not long ago that conferences had thriving youth programs that were a beautiful collaboration between adults and youth from all over the conference. They did camps, retreats, mission projects, evangelistic rallies, you name it. What was even more beautiful than that was the fact that these events grew out of districts that were doing the same thing on a local scale.

Now that is quickly becoming the exception rather than the rule. More and more conferences are dissolving the youth ministry position because it has become irrelevant. If no one is coming or participating in those conference events, there is no need for a staff to facilitate them. Why? The big churches say the events are too low quality (translation: we can do it better by ourselves) and the small churches are concerned that if they join in with the bigger groups, their students might like the bells and whistles somewhere else better and leave.

Wow. How competitive. How unhealthy. How un-methodist.

I’m not sure exactly where it all jumped the shark, but one thing is clear to me now: we are on the brink of losing the beauty of the connection altogether. You know the story. After a couple of conversations with the DS, you get a new pastor. A couple months later there is electricity in the air when he takes to the pulpit to unveil his new “vision” for the church. You are going to have coffee in the lobby, go to the local mission once a month and even start visiting the people who visit your church. People praise him for being a visionary leader and follow willingly. When that pastor moves on, the church repeats the cycle with yet another pastor and yet another vision.

You can’t blame the pastors, it’s what our culture expects. Jim collins pointed out in Good to Great that over the past several decades, our culture has grown to associate this visionary-hero style leader with the pinnacle of leadership success. Around this leadership style has grown enumerable conferences, books and seminars that help even the most introverted step up and step out to cast their vision to the masses.

The problem is, this leads to isolated, suspicious, non-connected churches. Each church is out for its own success in its own mission with its own members. This is done in part because the churches have asked for a visionary leader and in part because that is how they are evaluated. They are evaluated for individual success. But that’s what we want, right? We want vital congregations. We want accountability. We want growth in each individual church.

And there it is: each individual church. Not the connection, not the body, each church must exhibit the same hallmarks of vitality. That is a congregational view not a connectional one. In a connection, each congregation will have different functions. Some might be the thriving evangelistic arm while another might be the missional outpost. One might be the writers and teachers who develop amazing curriculum while another might be incredible at hospitality. There may be churches with a few, committed members that perform a vital function within the connection that allows the connection to be successful and reproductive; while the church is not reproductive in itself.

There is a church like that in our community. It is small. It is not adding members each year. It is not converting people each year, but it is a vital part of what God is doing in our community. That church houses and cares for a host of missional interns that serve our community and reach out to the poor, ignored and oppressed. Those interns are not a ministry of that church (though they are a ministry of the Methodist church). The church doesn’t get statistical credit for all the amazing things those interns do, but without that church, that growing, innovative, vital edge of ministry in our community would be crippled if not gone altogether.

I think there is hope, but I think that our treatment for this illness has to have a multi-faceted approach.

The first step is to address that which is immediately under our control: ourselves. We need to get over ourselves as leaders and churches. It is not about us rising to Hybelian heights of leadership glory or growing into another mega-church with a crippling addiction to mortgages. We need to leave our vision meetings and long-term congregational strategy groups and start dreaming together. What could we do together that we could never do apart? What does the part-time youth leader excel at in her ministry that eludes the multi-staff mega church youth group? What would happen if we stopped thinking about our personal success and threw ourselves together for kingdom success?

However, we won’t be able to transform our methods if important, vital voices are shut down because they aren’t getting the right types statistical success. I work with an incredible pastor who is prone to pithy, wise outbursts that are as true as they are corny. One of them is that you can expect what you inspect. I agree. If we want to be a connectional church, we need to start valuing the types of success that grows from connectional ministry. Congregations that act as isolated, non-connectional bodies need to be seen as less vital (no matter how large or growing they are) than those who are using their resources to do something with the connection to impact their community.

You may be asking why. Why not just give in to our cultural history and go full-congregational? Why not just throw in the towel on an outdated and ineffective system? Because I believe that the connection is the key to our success in the coming era. Look at our world. It is decentralizing all around us. Fifty years ago the best metaphor for almost everything was a building with a foundation, walls, and roof. Now, it is the web. More and more we are giving up these hierarchical silos for nodal, interconnected networks. We are moving into an era of connection, and we have connection in our DNA! We have a system that is ready and has the potential to be far more relevant than anything else in that sort of world. I hope that we can save it before it’s too late.

Jeremy Steele has been working in youth ministry for the past fifteen years and now serves as the Next Generation Minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL. He writes for Group Magazine, RETHINK Church and various publications and organizations. You can find a link to all the places he contributes on his website at JeremyWords.com.

4 comments

  1. When I was in MYF(a really old name for youth group), we went to a youth rally the first Monday night of every month. I can still remember some of the people I met there and what a warm connected feeling there was. We were a really tiny church and I remember nothing much about MYF at all but have never forgotten the youth rallies. Just some thoughts from Mom.

  2. Yes, Jeremy.

    And while we’re at it, let’s take it one step further than just UM congregations forming effective ministry networks.

    My wife (Grace Burton-Edwards, now an Episcopal priest) was the founding staff leader of a youth ministry in Plymouth, Indiana created by 5 congregations of five different denominations– United Methodist, PCUSA, UCC, Episcopal and Church of the Brethren. Together, they created a balanced, thriving ministry that no one of them could have begun to do on their own– a youth ministry that connected these congregations and the community in mutual ministry and formation as Christian disciples.

    Grace didn’t create this ministry– the vision was already present, and the plans were underway before she arrived there. But she did coordinate and champion it. I say this not to toot her horn, but rather to agree with your observation that it’s not more “ministry heroes” that we need– it’s champions for what a network of congregations and other groups can do together.

    Congregationalism seems to make sense if you are the “alpha dog” on the block or in a region. But very very few congregations– especially though not exclusively in the UMC in the US– can or should even try to aspire to that status. With the assets we have in congregations, the vast majority of us are far better poised for the more networked vision of “regional” ministry than a congregationalist one.

    It’s time for us to trust the wisdom and empowerment of the Spirit in our heritage and in the current gifts and resources the Spirit has given us to reconnect, act as a body, and consider collaboration, rather than “building our own little empires” to be of higher value.

  3. Interesting proposal.

    Idealistic even…

    We have over 100 churches in our connection that have less than 30 people worshiping there on Sunday mornings. They have been approached numerous times about doing something different, and most of the time they don’t. They don’t want to change worship, they don’t want to reach out to changing neighborhoods, they don’t want to be anything other than the small family church they have become. They might host a mission group coming to do mission work in their impoverished areas, but they won’t invite “those people” (a term I have heard more frequently recently) to come to “their” church.

    Should these churches be deemed vital because they are part of a connection? Because they host a mission team once a year?

    Think about Campus Ministry. We are voting this year whether or not to continue funding campus ministry from the conference office. We have been funding it this way for years. It has produced more silos than any church in our connection. Many of our churches don’t know their is a campus ministry right down the street from them. The campus ministers seldom come by, and when they do it is only to ask for more money for Campus Ministry. Why are we not supporting this on a local level? Why are the churches in the area not banding together to fund the campus ministry? This is true connectional ministry, not conference level mandates.

    Or even in your area of youth ministry…We used to have “District Youth Events” in every district. Youth directors met together once a month to pray for each other’s ministry. It was decentralized and there was no one boss. Different churches offered different flavors of youth ministry, and youth ministers regularly encouraged youth to try this church if they didn’t feel quite right in their youth group. Since funding a “conference youth minister” we have “Conference Youth Events” which are repeats every year of the same event.

    I am all for partnerships, working together, helping one another. Our church supports 4 VBS every year. We do all the work, buy all the resources, make all the sets, volunteer all the support for four churches in the area to have VBS in their church. I just don’t believe this can be “mandated” from the conference office of children’s ministry or youth ministry or any other ministry. I believe our connections must be made at a district level or even a local level.

    To me connectionalism is about so much more than money, it is about relationships.

  4. Jeremy,

    ‘Tis only one more symptom of our beloved church slowly dying with its cousins, and we must find an effective way to save the patient. Abundant, well intentioned books on proposed cures by folks such as Gil Rendle and articles such as yours may encourage and rally but are not resuscitating. Perhaps a return to “How is it with your Soul” in small groups or turning the world on it’s ear by devising a compelling methodology (we were named for it) to provide web based mission opportunity and personal involvement would work.

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