"I Serve Three Conferences"
Recently, however, I have realized that I am serving and trying to lead three different "conferences" in terms of the three very different sets of congregations in Indiana. I am not talking about church size - these divisions cross all sizes of churches. I am also not talking about our theological differences – I am less and less convinced that our differences in theology make much difference in the way we do actual ministry. No, I am talking about the differences between church FOCUS, between our being inward-focused or being outward-focused in ministry to others. The former focus upon ourselves leads to attitudes of selfishness and negativity, while the latter focus (outward focus) leads to attitudes of hope and encouragement.
Here are the three "conferences" we have in Indiana, as indicated by a statistical study of our churches along with our experiences in those churches:
30% of our churches are vital, growing, outward-focused, and helping people grow both in discipleship and in service to others.
30% of our churches are stressed or dying statistically (both large and small churches) and their steep decline reflects their complete inward-focus in terms of how they use their money, make decisions by personal preference and focus upon their buildings/money/or theological "purity."
40% of our churches are stagnant, declining slowly, wanting to grow but reluctant to change. When these churches get involved in things like Fruitful Congregation Journey, they typically start growing or become more conflicted – over the CHANGE OF FOCUS required.
Serving and leading these three different sets of churches is not easy for me, the District Superintendents, or the Conference staff (especially our Church Development staff). Why? Because those churches want different things:
The 30% vital churches say, "Leave me alone. Don't weigh me down with institutional expectations, but do invite me to collaborate with other vital churches or to mentor those who are ready to change."
The 30% dying churches say, "Help me! Help me survive! But don't expect anything from me."
The large 40% group of stagnant churches say, "We are not satisfied with our situation, but doing more of the same is not helping. Can you help us grow without changing too much?"
Of course many of the churches in the last two categories say, "If you will just send us the right pastor, then we will be fine." Most of our vital churches say, "Don't you dare think about asking our pastor to move and help another church." Meanwhile most of our pastors say, "If you will just send me to a vital church, then I will show you what a great pastor I can be."
It is not easy trying to serve and lead these three very different sets of congregations. And it is not easy to appoint pastors so that everyone gets what they want (or what they think they want).
My biggest hope for 2015 is that more of those 40% stagnant churches will become outwardly focused and find life, energy and spiritual power to be vital. My other biggest hope is that our clergy can be faithful leaders who do more than just take care of their members – I hope that they will lead their congregations to change their focus and attitude toward the Gospel-style of reaching out to others with faith, hope and love in such a powerful way we will make disciples and transform the world.
I serve three different "conferences" today in Indiana. Knowing that helps me to know where to expend my energy, resources, personnel and leadership. If churches want to decline and die, then my job is to help them die with dignity and to leave a legacy of ministry for others to do. If churches want to change from their stagnant current situation, then I am willing to expend our conference resources to help them. If our most vital congregations can see a bigger vision than themselves and want to help other churches, then I sure can use their help. Some days I feel like an ER doctor doing triage and determining where our limited time, energy, resources and personnel can make a difference. That's what it is like to serve three different "conferences" or collections of congregations.
My 2015 hope and resolution: to serve and lead all three of these "conferences" well, but I realize that treating everyone "fairly" does not mean treating everyone to same. So my on-going hope and resolution (ever since the day I was elected a bishop) is for the Godly wisdom to discern where and how and when to use my leadership.
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