Next week the 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will convene in Ft. Worth, TX. I did not grow up as part of the United Methodist Church, so over the past few years I’ve continued to learn about their polity and the means by which they make decisions. General Conference is an opportunity for delegates from each annual conference in the United Methodist Church to gather and discern the direction of the church. Next week will begin serious debate and dialogue over both the hot-button issues (homosexuality, abortion, etc.) as well as how to address such matters as numerical decline in church membership.
Here is a selection of articles from the UMC website which frame the spirit in which leadership hopes this General Conference will be conducted:
- It’s Time for a New Set of Priorities : Tom Berlin encourages unity, while stressing the good that can come out of this annual conference.
- United Methodists Seek Change in Tone at Assembly : Guidelines for discussion are presented, first among them being, “Every person is a child of God. Always speak respectfully.” The guidelines are found near the end of the article.
- Church Budget Tightens Around Four Areas of Focus : “After months of reviewing a proposed budget that does not keep pace with inflation, the chief executives of the denomination’s program agencies pledged to preserve ministries that address those four areas — leadership development, congregational growth, global health and poverty.” (Emphasis mine)
I’ll be at General Conference for one day. I’m looking forward to observing the action on the floor at the conference as well as surrounding the conference–interest groups will surely be represented and active.
It is interesting to me that budget constraints have narrowed the focus of the church financially, though I’m encouraged by the way in which leadership has discerned to focus their energies. If there are two areas of the church that I am fascinated by, it is church planting (congregational growth) and leadership development. Why don’t we just call congregational growth “evangelism” and I’ll be even more excited.
About three weeks ago I read Lovett Weems and Ann Michel’s The Crisis of Younger Clergy. It is my hope that discussion at General Conference would be impacted by the data presented in this short book. According to Weems and Michel’s findings, “the percentage of United Methodist elders age 35 and under has decreased from 15.05% in 1985 to 4.92% in 2007.” That’s a drop from 3,219 clergy persons age 35 and under in ’85 to 876 in 2007. Not good. Weems and Michel argue that this drop is truly a crisis. They’ve considered other factors (such as decline in the under 35 population), and still see a crisis. They present compelling reasons for new emphasis on youth ministries, a reconsideration of the candidacy process and the terminology used in that process, and the importance of supporting younger clergy persons. They also challenge the UMC to consider how they appoint young clergy (finding churches that fit the young person’s gifts well, rather than sending them somewhere to “do time” and “earn their keep”), they challenge the church to help reduce clergy person’s educational debt, and also press the church to change or face continued decline.
I’ve emphatically shared with close friends that the continual and ongoing crisis of any age is leadership. It has to be developed, emphasized, and encouraged. For churches, this requires that we speak in language of calling–there are those in our midst whom God may be calling into pastoral ministry, and it is the responsibility of the leadership to help people young and old learn to be attentive to God’s voice and respond in faithfulness. I have met young people who are part of United Methodist churches who clearly have gifts for ministry and leadership, but those who are part of their church have never identified and encouraged those gifts. I believe that this is simply because of a lack of vision. If you are not intentionally seeking to identify leaders, cultivate them, encourage them in ministry, and commit to pray for God to raise up leaders in your midst, it is likely that the demands of maintaining a ministry will create a loss of focus on leadership development. Loss of focus in this area is simply something that we cannot afford.
For all Christian people who read this blog, I would ask that you would pray for those who will be at General Conference in 2008, that God would grant them wisdom and discernment as they gather together seeking God’s direction. I also would ask that you would pray God would grant our leadership a vision for identifying, developing, encouraging, and praying for an influx of younger clergy persons. I pray that God would raise up new leaders who would faithfully lead congregations and feel called to plant new churches.
May God’s grace be upon us all.