Rob Renfroe’s editorial in the September/October issue (“Tone Deafness and the Call to Action”) is on target and very encouraging. As a person in the pew, let me also ask a question.
Why should I distrust a Board that continually labels conservative Americans in favor of a smaller government and less debt as racists? I was at the August 28th Restoring Honor rally in Washington, D.C. and I was humbled by the presence of such a large crowd gathered peacefully with no political signs to hear Dr. Alveda King (Martin Luther King’s niece) speak of her uncle’s “dream”; which gathered to honor everyday Americans for their bravery and generosity and stood with over 200 clergy of all faiths (Christian, Jews, and Muslims) in proclaiming the greatness of this country and praying for a return to God as our savior and leader, and for a renewal of our faith and a return to the founding principles of this nation.
Yes, I too hope and pray that the Call to Action Committee will take its charter seriously. Leadership must be trusted to carry out its role and responsibilities based on biblical foundations and not some political agenda.
It might be my own middle-age crisis, but September/October’s “West Coast Lament” pushed several of my buttons. My call to ministry was shortly after the apex of Methodist membership (unification in 1968) and it’s been all downhill since. Like Bishop Swenson, I came west to serve, convinced the world would very soon be transformed for Christ; but as retirement comes onto my horizon, I sometimes wonder what has happened.
Andrew Miller’s analysis and Steve Beard’s story tag some of the probable factors, and George Mitrovich asks directly what might be the other causes for our decline than a failure to honor our Wesleyan heritage. The author asserts that the liberalism that characterizes the West has undermined the Wesleyan witness out here. I would suggest some other factors.
First, I’d like to know why there can’t also be a Christian, Wesleyan church for liberals? Aren’t we eligible for the good news too? Just because there’s not a lot of us doesn’t mean we’re not faithful. Miller’s analysis skips over these facts, culled from the same sources:
• Attendance per member in Cal-Pac is 57.44 percent, while attendance per member in North Georgia is 39.2 percent.
• Despite Cal-Pac’s 16.5 percent decline over the past ten years, giving per member increased 45 percent. In fact, for 2009, per capita giving to the Advance in the Western Jurisdiction is $6.38, with Cal-Pac giving at an even higher rate of $7.37. In contrast, the per member rate for the Southeastern Jurisdiction is $2.74, and specifically for North Georgia, $1.86. If you’re going to compare apples to apples, compare all the apples.
• The article notes the need for a dedicated staff person for church planting. Also reported was the impact of the Pacific-Homes crisis in Cal-Pac—care to guess one of the many places where staffing was cut? Update: since the late 1990s, Cal-Pac has rebuilt its new ministries staff to include an executive director, and directors in both Hispanic and Urban ministries. We’re going in the right direction.
• But wait, there’s more: even though we are committed to planting new congregations by all viable means, Cal-Pac ranks first in the denomination for cost per member to operate a church: $1,297. This indicates the cost of real estate and infrastructure in the second largest metro area in the country. Plainly, this impacts both the vitality of existing congregations, and establishing new ministries, for new people, in new places.
It is interesting to play with numbers and statistics, but personally, I think the reasons for decline are much more personal. The Rev. Adam Hamilton talks about the traditional equation for discipling as “believe, behave, belong.” First, profess faith, as I did in my call experience at senior high church camp. Then learn how to be or “behave” as a Christian and in community and service. The fruit of this for me has become a deep-rooted belonging in the United Methodist fellowship of faith across my life and several western states.
That priority sequence is also at the heart of the accusation that the liberal West has lost its Wesleyan fire and thus its market, its ministry, its witness. But the West is too small to account for the loss of millions of members in the total denomination, and what really drives that loss across much (not all) of our church is not about belief, but how we have behaved. If we take seriously what surveys of those outside the church say, especially those who have actually visited, then the other end of the sequence comes to the front: today, young people in particular come seeking a sense of community and belonging. Hamilton has built his successful ministry by flipping the sequence to begin with belonging, then learning the behaviors (“discipling”), the fruit of which is ultimately profession of faith.
This locates the breakdown at our doorstep. Belonging never gets started because we have not only forgotten true hospitality, we’ve twisted our need for belonging into a cold shoulder. Our need to greet our friends, to sit in our pew, to have only people who look, act, and speak like ourselves to bolster our sense of belonging has effectively closed many of our doors. The root cause is not in our heads, what we believe, but what is in our hearts.
California and the West are booming. It is the mission frontier of our time on this continent. It is packed with folks of all sorts, including more than enough spiritually-rooted, God-seeking persons who are also, by the way, liberal and would welcome Wesley’s open hand, and the idea that Kennedy’s one hundred churches of a thousand members is entirely possible. We will have to deal with the high cost of land and buildings, with multiple languages and colors, and real competition from other faith traditions; but first we will have to open our hearts and minds, and only then should we open our doors. We will have to re-learn and learn anew the ways that match this population—not Georgia’s or anyone else’s. Those who wish to join us in doing so are welcome to go west.
Gary M. Keene
California-Pacific Annual Conference
More needs to be said
Thank you for the very fine article regarding the decline of United Methodism in Southern California and its growth in North Georgia. I appreciate the fact that you were more than fair to Bishop Swenson. But more needs to be said.
The bishop states one reason for Methodism’s decline in the Cal-Pac Annual Conference is its diversity. But the truth is Bishop Swenson has no truly large churches or rapidly growing churches of any ethnic group under her charge. The problem in that conference is not that they have learned how to do “Anglo church” or “Hispanic church” well, but haven’t learned how to do church well for other ethnic groups. Reality is that they aren’t meeting the spiritual needs of any ethnic group sufficiently to make large numbers of disciples—and this in an area where some of the nation’s largest churches of all ethnic groups exist, only they are not United Methodist. A diverse population is not the reason Cal-Pac is failing. There is something systemic that needs to be addressed.
The fact that the bishop points to a financial and public relations problem (the Pacific Homes debacle), which occurred roughly 30 years ago as a reason for a lack of growth today, is both sad and deflective. It is indicative of a mindset that is content with a lack of growth and that is more comfortable with excusing present-day failure than expecting churches to be growing centers of Wesleyan spirituality.
In the past 40 years, the Western Jurisdiction has lost 45 percent of its membership, far more than any other jurisdiction. The reason is not diversity or problems with retirement homes. The reason is systemic. Thus, systemic failure is at hand with the absence of any passion for saving souls; an ambivalence to the poor historical performance; and, as it is with any failing organization, a leadership deflective and blaming like Adam did with Eve. If we mirror contemporary culture, we will be conformed to the world and the world will not need us.
Texas Annual Conference
I was blessed to read “Celebrating James Arminius” by George Mitrovich in the May/June 2010 issue of Good News. It sounded themes of which we United Methodists need to be reminded. As the recent anniversary celebration of Calvin’s birth showed, certain debates are still very much with us. Lesser debates have often consumed more energy than the Calvinism-“liberty of the will” issue. Mitrovich points out that our beliefs have consequences; therefore, the debate must still be joined. Also, unwarranted suffering can result from falsified doctrine.
Methodism came into being for many reasons; one of the most important was recovery of nearly-forgotten traditions. For us, tradition was a positive force, at least potentially. More than a reaction to Calvinism or Lutheranism, tradition was at stake. The Wesleys looked farther back than these Reformations. We sometimes forget that Arminius and all were preceded by at least a thousand years of living doctrine. A bearer of this continuity was the Eastern Orthodox Church, which continues to this day.
The tradition from which Orthodoxy draws includes the Cappadocian (4th Century) theologians. Their message, as I understand it, was a both/and approach. Both God and humans are somehow involved in what we call salvation. It is about synergy, if you will, more than energy. The alternative to “total depravity” is “energy together” (syn-ergy), a potent force indeed. It does not have to be explained to be true. It has been courageously upheld by Wesleyans and Disciplinary statements through the years.
Your magazine is to be commended for its coverage of both the Early (pre-Schism) Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (e.g. Archpriest Hardun, p. 8 in September/October 2010 issue). This provided many connections for us to explore.
I enjoyed Rob Renfroe’s challenge (“calling out”) for integrity from the top in “Tone Deafness and the Call to Action” in the September/October 2010 issue of Good News. Robert Greenleaf, known as the father of the modern day servant leadership model in the education sector, admonished boards and ad councils of organizations across our society to do their job—hold leadership accountable, thus being good stewards (Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, Paulist Press, 1977). Those in any field, not just the church, who push their own agenda at the expense of the common good, assist in the erosion of the core values of the organization. Your article explains this well.
Thank you for reminding us of what is at stake. Those at the top of the chain seem to have so little of an idea of what the grassroots of Methodism really think, and are so thirsting for from the bureaucracy. Simply, the grassroots so thirst for true, ethical, transparent leadership that is not aligned with a political party, or the whims of special interests groups, but aligned with Christ, and the biblical principles Wesley assumed we would know how to cling to.
Joseph “Rocky” Wallace,
Doctor of Strategic Leadership
Foundational and Graduate
Studies in Education
Morehead State University
Thank you for your editorial about accountability and autonomous organizational structure (“Tone Deafness and the Call to Action” in the September/October 2010 issue of Good News).
I am a fairly recent graduate from one of our United Methodist seminaries, and during my four years there, I found myself asking a question over and over: How did it (and how could it) come about that the UM seminaries are not accountable in any truly meaningful way to the UM Church? Sure, we have our six hours of United Methodist classes. But the other 84 hours required for a Masters of Divinity degree will not have much if any focus on Methodist doctrine and beliefs, (and lots of times not even just basic Christian beliefs), unless the student specifically seeks it out.
How did we ever get to this point in the theological education of Methodists? And how can we ever get out if it?
What hope is there for our seminaries becoming accountable, and actually emphasizing and believing Methodist doctrinal beliefs? This would be a major joy and opportunity for renewal.
Thanks so much for all your efforts! Thanks also for not getting all political about everything. No political party is ever going to be our Savior, and I thank you and praise God that Good News magazine does not fall into that trap, but continues to focus on Jesus Christ!
Sedgwick and Bentley UM Churches
Kansas West Conference