Diagnostic Process and the Call to Action

By Lyle E. Schaller

From this professional planner’s perspective, the Call to Action represents one planning model—a focus on designing an action plan or strategy designed to reverse the withdrawal of the United Methodist Church from the parish ministry in the United States. My preferred approach would place a high priority on achieving agreement on the planning model to be used.

One planning model that could be used for responding to the Call to Action would focus on early agreement on the appropriate diagnostic questions to be explored. For example, one of these diagnostic questions could begin by measuring the number of United Methodist members who, when they switch their congregational affiliation, choose a non-United Methodist congregation. The number of intradenominational transfers of United Methodist members plunged from 309,760 in 1956 to 114,251 in 2000 to 80,333 in 2008!

Why have so many United Methodists switched church affiliation to a different religious body?

One component of that planning model could be to interview those “switchers.” Between 1960 and 2002, I interviewed slightly over 2,500 ex-Methodist members who had not changed their place of residence, but had switched their congregational affiliation to a non-United Methodist congregation. When I asked, “Why?” about 30 percent explained, “I married out.” Another 10 percent pointed to the arrival of a new pastor as their motivation for switching. Nearly all of the others explained their objections to the degree of “External Authority” in the UM Church and that was why they switched to a completely autonomous self-governing Protestant congregation.

This, of course, is simply a reflection of the growing demand for self-autonomy among the generations of Americans born after 1960. This also stands out in the research by Roman Catholics in America as they report on the exodus of “Cradle Catholics” to autonomous Protestant congregations.

The closest to a universal response in those 2,500-plus interviews came at the end when I attempted to thank them for letting me interrupt their busy day. Most declared, “No! I want to thank you! You’re the first person to ask to hear my story, and I want to thank you for listening to my story. No one else has ever asked to hear it!”

A second useful diagnostic question could contrast the 1951-1960 decade in the history of The Methodist Church with the decades of 1985-1994 and/or 1991-2000.

Every district superintendent would be asked to identify by name and location every new mission planted in that district in 1951-60 and again every new mission planted in 1985-1994 and/or 1991-2000.

Every one of these congregations would be identified by name and location plus two sets of numbers.

For those planted in 1951-1960, the two requested numbers would be average worship attendance and new members received in 1955, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010.

For those planted in 1991-2000, those two requested numbers would be requested for years 2 and 5 of their history, plus every year beginning with 2001.

These data could be useful in choosing the top priorities in each annual conference between planting new missions or devoting scarce resources to rescue “dying congregations.”

For United Methodists, this can be described as a choice between perpetuating the current trend of an aging and numerically shrinking membership and faithful institutional obedience to Article III of the Restrictive Rules of the United Methodist Constitution versus raising the level of self-governance or self-autonomy in UM congregations.

That conflict was not a significant issue in the pre-1960 era when most Americans affirmed the role of institutions and voluntary associations in “writing the rulebooks” on how Americans should live out their lives. The gradual obsolescence of those “rulebooks” is illustated by tax-funded charter schools, Southwest Airlines, the “G. I. Bill of Rights” of 1944, the emergence of thousands of completely autonomous Christian megachurches since 1960, the organization of completely autonomous retirement centers for the elderly as well as by the guidelines used by a variety of foundations in choosing the requests for grants they will fund.

For United Methodist policy makers, one of the most useful diagnostic tools may be to contrast the rise in the annual death rate among UM members and the decline in the annual death rate among Americans age 14 and over. Back in 1950, that indicator was higher for Americans age 14 and over than for Methodist members. In 2008, the annual death rate was 13.4 per 1000 UM Church members and 10.4 per 1000 Americans age 14 and over.

Those rates crossed on the graph back in the 1970s so this is not new news! One explanation is the cutback on planting new missions designed to reach, attract, serve, assimilate, disciple, and challenge younger generations. A second explanation can be seen in the preference of younger generations of Protestant churchgoers for large congregations contrasted with the increase in the proportion of UM congregations reporting an average worship attendance of fewer than 35.

In summary, what this retired church planner missed in the Call to Action was the diagnostic process that could become the foundation for the prescription in that action. At least a few respondents to the Call to Action contend that in every United Methodist episcopal area the resident bishop is the only person with both the authority and the responsibility to create a strategy team for that episcopal area. That team could and should prepare what could be the first draft of a comprehensive and customized conference strategy that could be, along with an equally comprehensive and customized description of “contemporary reality” in that annual conference, the number one reference point used by strategy teams in each congregation in that episcopal area.

Between 1960 and 2002, I enjoyed the opportunity to serve as the “outside third party” consultant to dozens of regional denominational strategy efforts in a score of Protestant denominations as they designed a three- or five- or seven-year ministry plan for that regional judicatory. One of the lessons I learned was, “Yes, it can be done, but a comprehensive action plan must be based on learnings derived from a comprehensive diagnostic process.”

Lyle E. Schaller is the most widely read and respected writer on congregational life today. He is an ordained elder within the United Methodist Church and the author of dozens of books on congregational vitality. When a national poll was conducted by Hartford Seminary Center for Social and Religious Research of executives of Protestant denominations and religion writers, Schaller’s name topped the list more often than anyone else in response to “who had been especially influential in their thinking about religion in America?” Among self-identified conservatives, moderates, and liberals, Schaller was followed by Henri Nouwen, Martin E. Marty, Robert MacAfee Brown, and Billy Graham.