given by Bishop Benjamin Chamness, Nashville Area Episcopal Leader (interim)
For nine months now I have had the pleasure of serving as your Bishop. It has been a pleasure to get to know many of you and to find ways to strengthen the ministry of this great conference. Although there are areas that can be improved, certainly there are many great characteristics that it offers for the good of The United Methodist Church and the body of Christ.
The church membership continues in the Tennessee Conference to be up. It is up by 284 from December of 2010 to December of 2011. The worship attendance is up 211. There were 62 (or 4%) more baptisms in 2011 than in 2010.
We are making slight gains on payment of the apportionments. Through April of 2012 most of our apportioned funds have received a higher percentage of payment than they had at this point a year ago. In fact, our apportionment payments are up 3.12 percentage points over the same time a year ago. The $3,632,040 (and the 24.17% of the annual amount) through April of 2012 is greater than the amount or percentage received in each of the last six years. We are beginning to track the metrics for the Call to Action.
But one of the least understood concepts about Methodism is the connectionalism that runs through it. We hear about it, but it is a vague concept. For some it is a way we talk about apportionments. But that seems to be the extent of our knowledge of connectionalism. So I thought it might be well to consider what is meant when we speak of the connectionalism of The United Methodist Church. (And I apologize to a few clergy who have heard some of this from me before, but several requested that I repeat it here.)John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, like his father was an Anglican priest. But the time came when he preached in one of the pulpits of the Church of England and was asked never to return. Soon he found himself unwelcome in several Church of England pulpits. Wesley went, at the invitation of George Whitefield and others, to preach in the streets and mine fields where people would gather to hear him. His message found acceptance among the common people who enthusiastically heard the message of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Wesley’s following became so strong and numerous that he began to use lay preachers and organize societies where people would gather weekly for mutual support, admonishment, and to continue learning the way of Jesus Christ. Wesley spoke of the connexion that was a mutual bond between him and the lay preachers and the societies. These societies spread throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland before they moved to other parts of the English-speaking world and beyond. He divided his religious societies and bands for intense accountability and religious instruction.
We know that it was never the intention of John Wesley to start a new church. He started out hoping to find a way to reform the church of which he was a part, the Church of England. But his ministry was reaching people that the established church was failing to reach.
John Wesley made a trip to the new colonies of America. Although he preached and began a ministry there, he soon returned to England somewhat disappointed in his personal ministry in America. However, he saw the need to begin sending preachers he ordained and lay preachers to continue the ministry in the colonies. We know that he finally gave his blessing to the establishment of a new Methodist Episcopal Church that was founded in 1784 in Baltimore, Maryland. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury were named the first general superintendents (or Bishops) of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.
But the connection between Mr. Wesley and the church were never broken. His spirit, his theology, and his organizing abilities were very much a part of the church. The interlocking system of classes, societies, and annual conferences were a part of the connection that Wesley left us. Even the name he and his early contemporaries at Oxford had acquired in derision was forever attached to the church and remains these 228 years later—Methodists. Most of us wear it as a badge of honor today.
Obviously there is more to connectionalism than the apportionments that support our common ministries around the world. Let me list twelve ways in which the connection makes itself evident. To be sure, there are others which you could probably name. But consider these. Connectionalism manifests itself in:
- Apportionments. We will start here. Early in our history there were growing calls for our churches to take special offerings to support valuable causes. Finally someone suggested that we combine them into a few and ask all the churches to support these causes. They range from pure missionary endeavors to funding for connectional support personnel, such as Bishops, District Superintendent’s, and General Board staff. We are proud of what UMCOR does in responding on our behalf to natural disasters, but every dollar going to that effort would not be possible without the support of apportionments that pays the overhead.
- Appointments. From the time a person answers the call to the ministry in the United Methodist Church until he or she goes through seminary, fulfills the requirements of the Board of Ordained Ministry, is ordained and appointed by the Bishop to a local church, careful guidance, education, monitoring, and mentoring have taken place. The Tennessee Conference estimates that $17,000 per year is invested in the clergy person assigned and provided to that church.
- Covenant relationship in the orders of the clergy. The ordinands in the service last evening are becoming part of a covenant relationship that is unlike any other. They will be able to share ministry with the other elders and deacons throughout their years of ministry. They have much in common, and they will share their experiences across the years.
- The Annual Conference. The Annual Conference is still the basic unit of the United Methodist Church. Local churches come together here to join in ministries that no one church could do on their own. Only by combining their efforts and resources are they able to accomplish much of their mission. Across the years I have known hundreds of first-time attendees at Annual Conference who went back to their local churches and gave elaborate reports of the amazing things the United Methodist Church is doing in ministry together. They were overwhelmed. That is a part of the connection at work.
- The Charge Conference. The Book of Discipline states that the purpose of the charge conference is to “be the connecting link between the local church and the general church.” Its purpose is to make, support, and sustain a fundamental connection of mission and ministry.
The District Superintendent. In a similar way I have often spoken of the District Superintendent as the connection between the local church and the general church. He/she is frequently the only person beyond the local church that people know. So the connection is vital for the message of the general church to get to the local church, and vice versa.
- The United Methodist Church connects us around the world. In the Council Of Bishops I have enjoyed getting to know bishops from Africa, Asia, and Europe. I have been able to travel to Mozambique, Russia, and Lithuania to see the United Methodist Church in action. We now have about 40% of our delegates to General Conference who are from outside the United States. We have become a world-wide church. That is because of our connection.
- Curriculum and publishing. Most of our churches use United Methodist curriculum, and they do not know how fortunate they are. It is quality material, and it is based on Wesleyan theology. The publishing house is a great asset to our denomination.
- We can identify a need and join in addressing it. A few years ago it became apparent that our clergy in the Central Conferences work 30-40 years in ministry and reach retirement without any provision for housing, medical needs, food, or other necessities. The United Methodist Church in the United States responded. Several of our General Boards worked together, and we put together a nation-wide effort to raise $25 million to set up retirement funds for the retired church employees abroad. For the first time we had a capital campaign to raise the funds. Now that the United Methodist Church has identified malaria as a disease that can be erased from the face of the earth, a Global Health Campaign is underway likewise to raise $75 million.
- General Boards and Agencies. These have been the avenues by which our churches have connected to do ministry that we could not do separately. They have resourced the churches, the denomination, and the world as we have given our witness in a variety of ways. The General Conference discussed ways to alter their configuration, but whatever we do, we must not forget to provide for the ministry and mission that has been carried out through this great part of our connection.
- Historical support for institutions—universities, colleges, seminaries, hospitals, homes for children, aged, unwed mothers, mentally challenged. The United Methodist Church has started more institutions for people on the edge of society than any other denomination. It is one of the advantages of having the connection that we have.
- Membership in one local church gives one membership in the United Methodist Church everywhere. There is a kinship between every United Methodist congregation.
At times there are local churches that act more like Congregationalists. That is, they do not want to pay their apportionments. They want to select their own pastor. They do not understand the connectionalism of the United Methodist Church. This has seemingly become more prominent since denominational identity has become less important to people who are selecting a church home. They move out of a congregational type church into a United Methodist church and have never learned our form of government. Also, in recent years we have had a large number of pastors from other denominations come into the United Methodist ministry without becoming informed and convinced of the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church. So their leadership toward the connection is weak, or sometimes they even play into the hands of the congregation that wants to be more congregational in nature. It is an ongoing process to help new generations of United Methodist’s be supportive of the episcopal form of government and the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.
The denomination has had a decline in United States membership every year since 1968. Despite that membership decline, financial giving continued to increase until very recently. Now our giving has begun to decrease as well. The United Methodist Church is facing this reality for the first time. Budgets are being reset and lowered at every level of the church—from the local church to the Annual Conference to the General Conference.
The United Methodist Church has recognized its need for change. A Call to Action Steering Team from the Council Of Bishops, was courageous to look transparently at the church. The Interim Operations Team (IOT) was established. After working with consultants and discovering that only 5,000 of our 33,000 congregations measure up to the signs for vital congregations, steps were taken to move to a detailed study and a message to the whole denomination.
The Council Of Bishops issued a Call to Action. That Call to Action is multi-faceted. In one aspect of the effort the focus is on making disciples—not members—and developing more vital congregations. Of course, the local church is at the center of making disciples and developing more vital congregations. Both the Memphis and the Tennessee Annual Conferences are well along the way of setting goals and entering the metrics for charting the path to a better future. Many other conferences are working toward this similar goal. At the recent General Conference in Tampa, Florida, the Bishops of the Church laid on the altar our conferences’ commitment and goals for the future.
Other aspects of this Call to Action challenge us to a spiritual renewal, performing works of piety and works of mercy. It will take turnaround spiritual leaders who are mutually committed and who will take bold and creative steps to lead the church and transform the world. Bishops, clergy and laity are being challenged to practice the means of grace, and to lead the congregations to become more vital mission stations. There are five denominational goals that will be measured:
- Disciples making new disciples—professions of faith;
- Disciples at worship—worship attendance.
- Disciples growing and maturing in their faith—number of small faith-development groups.
- Disciples engaged in mission—number of disciples engaged in community and worldwide mission.
- Disciples givimg generously to mission—the amount of money given to mission.
In addition, the General Conference considered some sweeping changes. Some they approved, and some they did not. What is being called for is a movement.
Gil Rendle, a noted author and consultant, says that “A movement is a group of people who intentionally, at their own risk, join together to make a change in the status quo.”
Isaiah cries out during the time of the Babylonian captivity, “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness” (Isa.43:19 CEB).
God is doing a new thing in The United Methodist Church! The overall direction of the United Methodist Church is set to change. A new movement has been set loose.
It all began with the adoption in 1992 of the newly stated mission of the church, and the later refinement of that statement, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The thrust of the new movement in the denomination is to make disciples and to increase the number of vital congregations. Where once we made members, we now make disciples. That is more than a shift in language. That is a deep and fundmental shift in who we are and what we do.
So the heavy emphasis is on the local church where disciples are made and vitality is measured. The only question, it seems, is how much we will streamline the infrastructure and organization to help with that movement.
What is the motivation for this movement? Is it to save the collapse of our denomination, or is it to recapture the heart of the Wesleyan movement? Is it to appease a handful of leaders, or is it to point to the heart of our cause? Lovett Weems reminds us: “The survival of any denomination or congregation is not a worthy goal. The continuation of a much renewed and changed manifestation of the Wesleyan witness of holiness of heart and life through The United Methodist Church is a worthy goal.”
Gil Rendle goes further by writing: “The particular thrust of the early Methodist movement was ‘to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.’ Being a Methodist was and is meant to make a difference where we live. Methodists were connected by grace—prevenient, justifying and sanctifying. ‘For Wesley there is no religion but social religion; no holiness but social holiness. The communal forms of faith in the Wesleyan tradition not only promote personal growth; they also equip and mobilize us for mission and service to the world.’”
Across the years our denominational life has become more regulatory than missional. Having been going in an institutional direction, the United Methodist Church is now struggling to turn around and head in a healthier, different, missional direction. Rendle says, “Our hope, our testimony, is that this is God refining the organizational church for missional purpose. The new thing that is happening also challenges and changes our understanding and practices of connectionalism.” Rendle goes on to say that “We are now constructing a new definition of connection and connectionalism.” The shared identitiy (Who we are) and the shared purpose (What has God called us to do?) holds us together.
So the institution of the United Methodist Church continues to give us a connection in many facets. And now, to the extent that we adopt the renewed movement within the denomination, we are connected by shared purpose and mission. May our identity always be one that holds us together in the hands of Almighty God.