The Stuck State of the UMC and Some Therapy



Three significant and unusual things happened this summer in the life of The United Methodist Church.

  1. General Conference passed a re-structuring plan.
  2. General Conference removed “guaranteed appointment.”
  3. A bishop was involuntarily retired because he was deemed ineffective.

The Judicial Council overturned the first decision in a matter of hours. They overturned the second decision exactly two weeks ago. They overturned the third decision exactly one day ago. Every significant decision in the large UMC from this summer (other than the pro forma ones, like elections of bishops) has now been voided.

There’s already all kinds of hand-wringing about this. “Can we do anything?”

The UMC’s Absolute Inability to Make Major Change

Before General Conference this year, I wrote a piece on “Why the American UMC is Dying a (Somewhat) Slow Death, and Concerned Leaders’ Best Response.” In it, I said, “We are a democracy – a large democracy – unready for significant change. Large democracies do not vote for major change. It brings too many fears. It moves too far from too many people’s comfort. The majority cannot effectively be educated to the point that they understand the problems that make such drastic change necessary and the reasons proposed solutions might do better.”

I ended up only partially correct. We have, indeed, established a behemoth of a system, and we’re finding that the system we’ve established makes significant organizational change nearly impossible.

But our problem wasn’t just getting people to vote for change. Despite the near total failure of GC2012 to accomplish anything, they did successfully vote for change on structure and guaranteed appointments.

So now, what we’re finding is that even on the rare instances when we can pull off a large democratic vote for change, there are more systems in place to assure that the change doesn’t actually take place.

What’s a Concerned Leader To Do?

I’ll point you back to the post mentioned above. Part I is about “Why the UMC is Dying a (Somewhat) Slow Death.” I think my experience at an Annual Conference was what we’re experiencing everywhere. But part II, “Concerned Leaders’ Best Response,” is what I hope all the hand-wringers will read and consider. I wrote the piece as therapy for myself. I hope anyone else who is discouraged might find something therapeutic in it.

I think we have great opportunity for change and good things in the UMC. Please don’t let our unwieldy and ineffectual system discourage you to the point of inaction or ineffectiveness. And if you’ve found yourself wondering if it’s even worth sticking with this big system, well, I’ve wondered that myself. I wrote “Why I am (Still) a Methodist” as a bit of self-therapy for that question. Hopefully it might be helpful, too.

Trust, Money, and the Guaranteed Appointment


guaranteedThe United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council just nullified a decision at GC2012 to do away with guaranteed appointment. I’m not going to get into all of the legislative technicalities here. Let’s look at the bigger picture.

The guaranteed appointment issue is about trust – on all sides. Those worried that a Bishop won’t continue a worthy person’s appointment are ultimately saying they don’t trust our Bishops. They believe they need protection from Bishops who might make an ill-informed, prejudiced, or punitive decision.

Some will say this is about a check and balance. The Board of Ordained Ministry determines who will serve; the Bishop determines where they will serve.

Either way, United Methodists commonly hold up the importance of submission in our system. Elders submit to the Bishop’s authority and submit to go where they are sent. Are we saying elders are willing to submit to the Bishop regarding where they go, but not whether they go anywhere or not? This seems backward from the New Testament appointment of elders, which appears to be a submission regarding whether one served as an elder, not where.

If people are willing to submit to where, but not whether they are appointed, I wonder if this is really about a guaranteed income (with benefits), not a guaranteed appointment. We don’t just guarantee appointments to elders. We guarantee them appointments to full-time jobs, where they must be provided a minimum salary, housing, health insurance, and a pension. And as more and more churches face budget crunches in the coming years, there will be concern about whether we can provide all of those guaranteed incomes.

[Major edit: Wesley Sanders notes in the comments that GC2012 passed a petition to allow appointment of elders for less than full-time, and the Judicial Council didn’t nullify that petition. See it here. This is a big deal. It moves everything I’ve said below from hypothetical to realistic. We have effectively done away with guaranteed full-time appointment. In my mind, this is more important than doing away with guaranteed appointment.]

Some will say, “No, I’m concerned about having a place to serve as a pastor, not the income.” That’s a great attitude. I hope it’s true. And what if that’s how we approached guaranteed appointment? What if we stopped guaranteeing a full-time income and benefits to our elders? Guarantee that they’ll have a place to serve, but it might be a part-time position.

Why have we mandated that ordained elders receive a full-time income from the church? Some will claim that ministry requires full-time attention, and that needs to be protected. But then they’ll need to explain all of the part-time local pastor appointments throughout our connection.

Get rid of the guaranteed full-time paid position, and I think many of our other problems go away. I hear concerns over whether to ordain people who don’t speak English fluently. “They can be great in a Hispanic (or Korean, or French-speaking Congolese…) congregation, but we only have four of those in our Conference. What if we have more ordained Spanish-speakers than positions?” That’s only an issue if it’s about a guaranteed full-time income.

But if you thought there was a lot of consternation over removing guaranteed appointments, just wait until you see what happens when guaranteed full-time incomes are threatened. Due to our current financial situation and the further budgetary strains coming, it’s an issue we’ll have to broach sooner or later.

See more United Methodist posts on my UMC posts page.

“Your organizational structures are killing you”

decision making

decision makingI was recently talking with my good friend Eddie, part of the leadership team at a mega-church, and I asked, “What’s a blind spot smaller churches seem to have – from the vantage point of mega-church world?”

Eddie didn’t even hesitate. “Your organizational structures are killing you,” he said.

Me: “What does that mean? How can we organize differently?”

Eddie: “Last year, we had the idea to start a multi-site location one Tuesday. It was the first time we had ever talked about it. Six weeks later, on Easter Sunday, we opened the site. How many committees would your church have had to go through to do that? How many people would have had to approve it? How long would it have taken you?”

At Eddie’s mega-church, there’s a weekly Tuesday meeting of their 6 or 7 primary leaders. He says everything could change on any given Tuesday.

Now we’re not all trying to become mega-churches. That’s not what I’m advocating here. And maybe we would say there are good reasons to move a bit more slowly. But is there a chance your organizational structures are a serious problem? How long does it take to make a relatively major decision? How many meetings have to be called?

How long to make even a minor decision? Are there less-than-earth-shattering things that likely can’t be accomplished in three months’ time because there are too many steps in the decision-making process to get there by then?

[For an example of how the UMC is struggling with this at an Annual Conference level, not to even mention the General Conference level, see here.]

How come a 3,000-member church is able to turn more quickly than churches much smaller? This seems to defeat the whole notion/excuse that “It takes an aircraft carrier a long time to turn around.”

And is there a risk that church politics start to play a bigger role when people know how easy it is to throw a wrench into the middle of plans and grind everything to a halt – or at least slow it enough that it’s likely to die?

Invite some friends to join the conversation –
share this on Facebook.

For anyone in church leadership, you should take the time to read the article “Leadership and Church Dynamics,” by Tim Keller. Thanks to Chad Brooks for pointing it out to me. Find the link here (requires free registration) or download the PDF directly here.

Multi-site church, localized ministry


multisiteAt First UMC of Lexington, KY, where I’m executive pastor, we’re doing something that is becoming quite common in the North American Church — we’ve gone to multiple sites and multiple worshiping communities.

At the same time, we’re doing something very unique, at least from what I have seen as I survey the landscape — we are localizing nearly all of our ministry and mission. This is not a hub-and-spoke sort of model, where one site is the “mother church” with several “daughters.” That’s different from the typical central planning we usually see in multi-site churches, and it’s a very intentional difference.

We’ve begun to see the great opportunities this structure provides. I’m posting below an article that I recently wrote for our church community. I hope you’ll see some of my excitement for what this structure allows. We currently have three communities: Andover, Downtown, and Offerings. I’ve made it no secret that I hope we have at least two more in the next five years.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. There’s plenty more behind all of this, and I hope to share more of it soon.


One Church, Multiple Communities

“What does it mean that we are one church and multiple communities?”

“Why wouldn’t Andover be its own church since they are 8 miles away from our downtown campus?”

“Can we really be one church when we don’t all see each other regularly?”

If you have been around First UMC for long, you’ve probably had some of these questions. I think we all have. Our church is doing something unique, so it’s no surprise that we have all had some questions and confusion along the way.

In the coming months, I’m planning to write a few articles about our structure that might help all of us get a better understanding of how First UMC is organized. More importantly, I hope to show the mission behind why we are organized the way we are.

We are a multi-site church. That’s a relatively new concept. In 1990, there were only 10 multi-site churches in the US. By 1998, there were only 100. By 2005, shortly before we opened our Andover campus, there were 1,500 multi-site churches.

Why multi-site? You may have heard Pastor Mike talk about First UMC’s mission: to make disciples across the street and around the world. That value of making disciples “across the street” takes seriously the importance of being where people are. The Methodist Church has always been serious about that. Until the year 2000, the UMC had a church in every county of the US!

To make more disciples, to reach more people for Christ, we believe it’s important to be across more streets. In the history of the Church, the best way to reach new people has consistently been to open new places of worship. We’ve seen the great value in that at Andover. Our church is reaching people in that community that we never would have reached if we had remained only downtown. I hope you’ve heard Todd tell some of the stories about families who have come back to the Church and people who have been baptized into the faith because of the new Andover congregation.

We’ve also learned that we can do some things better together than we can apart. Why hasn’t Andover become its own, independent church? Because we believe we’re better together. Mike, Todd, and I spend time together weekly to offer each other support, encouragement, and direction in the way each of our communities is going. We have a financial team that is able to handle the church’s finances much better and with less cost than if Andover, Downtown and Offerings each tried to handle finances separately. On high days of worship like Pentecost, we are able to draw on the gifts of people from all of our communities. And should we consider starting a fourth worshiping community – getting across another street to reach more new people – we believe that we can do that better together, too.

We are a very different multi-site church. Yes, there are over 1,500 multi-site churches in the US, but as far as we know, there is only one multi-site church doing what we’re doing! The typical multi-site church beams in a video of one pastor preaching to all of the sites. Or if not, all of the preachers preach the same sermon in their own setting. They have the same announcements at each site. They essentially offer worship site alternatives and keep everything else together. That’s very different from what we’re doing.

Each of First UMC’s worshiping communities has quite a bit of freedom in its worship, its preaching, its discipleship, and its outreach. That has been a very intentional, much-discussed decision. We have decided to be one church with multiple expressions. 

We believe there are a number of good ways to worship and become disciples, and we want to allow each community to embrace the forms that are best for them. We all have the same Wesleyan theology. We all believe in the importance of worship, growth in small group community, and service in the world. We all believe in making disciples. But we each embody those values differently.

Why are we one church? Because we believe we are better together. Because we all share the mission of making disciples. Because we want to maintain a connection of encouragement and ideas, even if we aren’t in the same building on a regular basis.

Why are we many communities? Because we believe we can make more disciples by being across more streets. Because we believe we reach more people through multiple expressions. Because we believe we can become stronger disciples when each community has the freedom to handle worship, discipleship, and outreach just a bit differently.

We have created a structure very different from most you may have seen. That inevitably creates questions and confusion. It has been a learning process for all of us. But I have a great excitement about the possibilities for First UMC’s future. I truly believe our willingness to try new things is preparing us to do great new things in Lexington and around the world. All of this only by the grace and power of God. To God be the Glory!

Grace to you and peace,
Teddy Ray
Executive Pastor

More to come. Why don’t you subscribe for e-mail updates?