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Giving back: Big churches pledge revitalization help Robin Russell, Sep 12, 2008
PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIST UMC
Worshippers participate in the 2008 Unity Service at Christ UMC in Fairview, Ill., which has grown in a dozen years from 200 to 1,200 members. Its senior pastor, the Rev. Shane Bishop, is among those who want to help renew the denomination.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
ATLANTA, Ga.—Bigger may not be necessarily better, but it still has benefits.
Large churches, for instance, have more manpower, deeper financial resources, the flexibility to respond quickly, and the leadership experience of a senior pastor who runs a staff with multiple departments and a congregation of over a thousand members.
Typically, these resources tend to be focused inward on the large churches themselves, which consume their pastors’ time and energy. Until now.
Pastors at some of the largest churches in United Methodism are now saying it’s time to broaden their extensive resources and leadership experience to help revitalize their shrinking denomination.
“If the denomination is going to turn around, it won’t be from a general board or agency program,” said megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton at “The Leading Edge,” a grassroots, national gathering of large-church pastors held Aug. 25-27 in Atlanta. “If we’re going to have ‘a future with hope,’ it’s going to start here.”
The gathering was a historic first: 80 pastors from the 100 largest churches in United Methodism—those with a worship attendance of 1,200 or more—heard the call to be both a catalyst for change and a source of encouragement to others in the denomination.
Divided into groups of eight, pastors prayed together over two days, shared best practices and personal struggles, and most importantly, talked about how to make a positive difference in the denomination.
In the works for a year, the gathering was organized by a team of 25 pastors led by the Rev. Hamilton, pastor of the 14,000-member Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Leawood, Kan. It was co-sponsored by COR, Candler School of Theology and host church Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
Organizers hope it will become an annual event.
While the United Methodist Church as a whole has lost members since the 1960s, many of its largest churches have continued to grow. And as Methodism founder John Wesley discovered, renewal often comes from those who are effective on the front lines of ministry.
Why are large churches so critical? Mr. Hamilton outlined the reasons in an interview during the event: The leadership they bring to the table, the number of their ministries, the fact they can give away resources.
Calling himself “an incurable optimist,” he urged other large-church pastors to catch the vision of being part of the solution to the denomination’s most pressing problems. “There’s lots of depressing news in the United Methodist Church, but you’re not among them,” he told the group. “If anyone can be positive, it’s you.”
By the time they left, pastors came up with significant goals to lead the church in pursuing the “Four Areas of Focus” recommended by the Council of Bishops and approved by the 2008 General Conference.
They pledged over the next eight years to:
begin 370 new faith communities;
recruit and support 1,000 young persons as they enter seminary; and
contribute, over and above the $200 million in apportionments they already pay, another $256 million for missions and ministries to the poor.
These large-church pastors included senior pastors of United Methodist megachurches—who mirror the demographics of the denomination’s membership (late 50s, affluent and mostly white)—as well as Gen-X pastors whose church plants have skyrocketed in membership over the last decade.
Among those participating were:
Jim Leggett, pastor of Grace Fellowship in Katy, Texas, whose church plant team of two dozen people began meeting 12 years ago in a horse barn; the congregation now draws 3,000 for worship;
Kent Millard, pastor of St. Luke’s in Indianapolis, where too-crowded services prompted the launching of several satellite locations, including a contemporary service that meets in a dinner theater;
Bill Britt, the new senior pastor of Peachtree UMC in Atlanta, who leads a staff of nearly 80 and whose church has become a training ground for pastors interested in a church-planting ministry; and
Mike Slaughter, lead pastor at Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, Ohio—who described the gathering as “a meeting of entrepreneurs”; his church’s overseas outreach programs include overseeing micro-businesses in Jamaica and relief efforts in Sudan.
The groups were diverse theologically and geographically—but not as much in gender or race. Organizers say they want subsequent gatherings to include more women and African-American pastors of large churches.
Still, Mr. Hamilton said he hopes this first gathering will begin the discussion about how to help the denomination move forward.
“You have something to learn from every person at your table,” he told them. “For too long, many have been content to criticize rather than constructively seeking to be a part of the solution.”
At the outset, Mr. Hamilton cautioned against the tendency in United Methodism to communicate in a “downward spiral” by focusing on what’s wrong with the denomination. He urged them instead to be “positive influencers for change.”
When he launched Church of the Resurrection in 1990 at age 26, for instance, other clergy in his conference told him, “We don’t grow large churches in Kansas.” He remained undaunted.
“It’s not about growing a church of 4,000,” Mr. Hamilton said. “It’s about how do you reach those people in your community who only your church can reach.”
What annoys him most, he said, is when he hears a pastor discourage young people who feel a call to ministry by saying, “If you can do anything else, do it.”
“I’m not sure what motivates that comment,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Is it that we have such a noble job and few can do it?
“We have the best job in the world, to teach people about Jesus and to get paid to study one day a week, to be with people in the most tender times of life. It sounds like the best job in the world to me and I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to do it.”
Discussions at tables were lively, with younger pastors asking for counsel about things they said were not taught in seminary: staffing, fundraising and time management. Pastors gave their best ideas on handling the stress of running a large church, protecting study time for sermon preparation and building pastoral planning teams.
At large churches, pastors commiserated about a shortage of staff specialists in technical fields such as graphics, sound, light, camera and computer, especially at churches that broadcast to several venues; children’s and youth ministries; and office administration roles including human resources and accounting.
“And seminaries don’t train specialists,” said the Rev. Shane Bishop, senior pastor at Christ UMC in Fairview Heights, Ill. “I need people who are called to student ministry, not as a stepping stone to the pulpit.”
Mike Slaughter at Ginghamsburg said large churches are changing their strategy to fill staff positions. “The 1990s model was to find young talent and steal it,” he said. “Now we develop healthy DNA and multiply it out.”
At Church of the Resurrection, Mr. Hamilton said junior and senior high students are nurtured for leadership in a “Ministry as Career” track. Students lead VBS, go on hospital calls and visit new members. The church hopes to recruit 200 students for ordained ministry.
Some large-church pastors were concerned about whether United Methodist seminaries are providing the Wesleyan theology young clergy need to help reverse denominational decline.
The Rev. Mark Beeson, pastor of Granger (Ind.) Community Church, said, “You can’t sit on the Titanic and think happy thoughts. There’s a hole in the boat, and we’ve got to fix the hole.”
But Mr. Hamilton said pastors can make a difference even at the seminary level. He shared how he got involved at St. Paul School of Theology by teaching classes and serving as a board member. Eventually he was able to help rewrite the institution’s mission statement to be aligned with that of the United Methodist Church.
Jan Love, dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, said seminaries are also making some changes. She has hired several new faculty members who are United Methodist, including former Peachtree UMC senior pastor Don Harp. “We can’t do what [these pastors] can do for themselves, but we can get the wisdom from recently retired pastors and infuse that into young leadership,” she said.
Some discussion veered on theological issues that threaten to divide the denomination—such as biblical authority and homosexuality.
The Rev. Rudy Rasmus of St. John’s UMC in downtown Houston, which has grown from nine people to 2,700, pleaded with pastors to show genuine love to everyone who might visit their church.
“I just want to make sure that when you leave here today, you make room for people who get off where the bus stops, who don’t have the code for your gated community,” he said.
“You’re good people, but if we’re really going to save this thing, we have to do better than good. We have to love like Jesus. Because somewhere this weekend, someone’s walking in a United Methodist Church hoping to be loved.”
Mr. Hamilton said he hopes large-church pastors will continue the liberal-conservative dialogue, deal with “thorny” theological issues as respected colleagues, and then recommend a way forward for the denomination.
Pastors were also urged to “come alongside” their bishops, rather than complain about leadership in the denomination, and ask how they can work together to move the United Methodist Church forward.
“I’ve never seen a better group of bishops than we have right now,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Bishops, boards, agencies—everybody has a role to play, and large churches have a role also.”
For Mr. Hamilton, the bottom line of his commitment to help renew United Methodism and encourage other pastors to do the same is his belief that Wesleyan theology offers an approach to the gospel that appeals to young people who question a simplistic view of how God works that is so prevalent today.
“If large churches don’t see the vision and understand the importance of our theology for the next generation, we will have really missed the boat,” he said.
Two upcoming events will follow-up on the involvement of large-church pastors to help renew the denomination.
A Young Pastors Network, launched by megachurch pastors Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, will nurture clergy who have been identified by their bishops as having the potential to lead a large church. The first conference will be Oct. 23 at Ginghamsburg UMC, in Tipp City, Ohio. It will be followed by the Change the World conference Oct. 24-25 featuring Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Slaughter. For information, visit www.ginghamsburg.org.
Also, large-church pastors will ask their congregations to participate in a Seven-Day Prayer Campaign Oct. 5-11 for the renewed vitality of the United Methodist Church. Prayer cards that outline the campaign are available at www.cor.org/catalyst. Churches will pray for passionate worship, calling young people into ministry, new churches, ministry to the poor, renewed vitality of the UMC, unity and the Word.
Here’s an outline of the campaign:
Sunday—Passionate Worship: Lord, we pray that United Methodist Churches across the globe would have an awesome encounter of worshipping You in Spirit and in truth today (John 4:24).
Monday—Calling Young People into Ministry: Lord, we pray that You would raise up laborers for the harvest (Matt. 9:37-39). And, specifically, we ask You to raise up 2,000 young clergy in America and call them into the ministry of the United Methodist Church.
Tuesday—New Churches: Lord, we pray that You would raise up 400 new United Methodist Churches in America in places where there is no vibrant witness for the gospel right now (Romans 15:20).
Wednesday—Ministry to the Poor: Lord, we pray that You would use United Methodist churches to alleviate poverty, stamp out malaria and HIV/AIDS, and minister to the less fortunate and overlooked in the name of Jesus (Matt. 25:40).
Thursday—Renewed Vitality of the UMC: Lord, we pray that You would bring renewed vitality to the United Methodist Church (Ezek. 37) and that You would daily add to Your church through professions of faith (Acts 2:47).
Friday—Unity: Lord, we pray for a healthy unity across the United Methodist Church such that the unbelieving world may see and believe in You (John 17:20-21).
Saturday—The Word: Lord, we pray that as the Word of God is preached in our church and other Methodist churches tomorrow that You would bear fruit that will last forever (Isaiah 55:10-11).