Dr. Ed Trimmer
Executive Director of the Cal Turner, Jr. Center for Church Leadership at Martin Methodist College
There is a NEW report entitled Call To Action that you may be hearing about if you have not heard about it already. The Report based on research which was approved by the Bishops may attempt to guide “our” church for the next several years. A close reading of the report (248 pages) confirms things that we might expect but challenges other deeply held beliefs. The confirmation of things we tend to think already will usually become part of our understanding quite quickly. Those that challenge us may never be accepted.
The study, among other things, discovered which churches in the United Methodist system had “vitality” and what were the common denominators of that “vitality.” Not surprisingly, I think, the four areas of vitality that were common in churches both big and small were: a number of Small Groups and Programs that focused on children and youth as well as adults; Worship that was vital and in larger congregations offered both “traditional” and “contemporary” settings; Lay Leadership that was specific, active and engaged where laity were using their gifts in ministry in the local church; and Pastoral leadership that was often connected to longer appointments in one place.
I think most of us would say these things make sense to us. We may not have them at our church BUT the findings that these four are common denominators of vital churches no matter the size of the congregation seem right. More on this in a later column.
Now I am going list four factors around pastors that did NOT have a significant impact on vitality which I believe challenge deeply held beliefs and as such may never be accepted: whether the pastor graduated from seminary or not; how long a pastor has been in ministry; whether pastoral ministry was a first or second career; and the theological orientation of either pastor or congregation. Let’s look briefly at these in the order I listed them.
Seminary education – This challenges the commonly held perception that if one feels called to ministry one ought to go to seminary AND the preferred way into ministry is through a seminary education. There is no evidence that seminary education makes one a “better pastor” and this research simply confirms that concept. You will, however, eventually serve a bigger church and be “more respected” if you get an M. Div. degree from an approved seminary.
Experience of the pastor – Perhaps what pastors are learning from years of experience is not how to get it right but how to keep doing the same “wrong” or “right” things. It seems most pastors are not learning from experience but rather repeating mistakes or success.
Second career – There has been a lot of concern about the aging of the clergy and the lack of young clergy. This seems to suggest that those concerns have nothing to do with the vitality of the churches pastors serve. Pastors, young OR old, can provide ministerial leadership that leads to vitality in congregations AND pastors, young OR old, can provide leadership to non vital, dead and dying congregations.
Theological orientation – Many have believed that the United Methodist Church has become either too liberal (most folks in the southeast jurisdiction) or too conservative (many folks in the northeast and western jurisdictions). This research suggests that whether the pastor or the church is liberal or conservative it does NOT affect the vitality of the church and its ministry. So perhaps we ought to put the theological divide and debate issue to rest. This report suggests that movements such as the Confessing Movement simply take time away from what we really ought to be doing making disciples of Jesus Christ.
These four issues, in my opinion, challenge the common beliefs of many of us AND because they do are likely to be rejected. We ought to know that change is hard and changing any large institution will take time, effort and changing our perceptions. Will we let this research guide us or will we be guided by our own “mis-perceptions”? Time will tell.
What do you think?
Ed Trimmer can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and is the Executive Director of the Cal Turner Jr. Center for Church Leadership at Martin Methodist College.
*Previously published material used by permission