I recently completed a task for the LaGrange District relating to our End of Year (EOY) Reports. These reports provide information on membership (professing and baptized), income, expenses, assets, apportioned and other benevolent giving, and a pastor’s report (the state of the church plans for the future, and their personal plans for continuing education and the like). These reports are for the calendar year, and are compiled in January by the pastor with the assistance of paid and volunteer staff. This year my role is district statistician. Fortunately, there are five assistant statisticians in our district who help me verify the reports from the 95 churches in our district.
Having a view into the ups and downs of local churches in our area, has led me to think about a number of things about being part of a connectional church. So, here goes:
For someone who prefers to cast the vision and the big picture, and really does not enjoy spending time buried in the details, I have found it amusing that I am often asked to step up to a job that requires great attention to detail: District and Conference Boards of Ministry, District Leadership Team, Georgia Pastors’ School registrar and webmaster, training workshop planner, and now as District Statistician. The last, being extremely detail oriented. In popular slang, God’s sense of humor can be wicked, i.e. extremely excellent or awesome, meriting an LOL.
I know that it is good for me to answer these calls to service; that it helps me in my discipleship. I grow and learn with ever task: in knowledge, understanding, humility, and joy. True, sometimes I want to “snatch’m bald-headed,” as my mother would say. These moments of frustration – often with a fellow pastor who does not read much less follow directions or cannot meet a deadline – are opportunities to develop patience and empathy, and to extend grace. At other times, I have learned that grace can be toxic for individuals and the church. Accountability and consequences are part of being just. Mercy is not always what you think. Unconditional grace is a gift from God, but not always what we should do when we love unconditionally, as many (if not most) parents learn as they strive to raise their children.
Pastors are called to volunteer at the district and conference levels and beyond, just as church members are called to duties at the local church and beyond through participation in annual conference, lay servant ministry, volunteers in mission, District and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry, Volunteers in Mission, disaster response, church and district mission bridges to other countries, to mention a few.
You might be surprised that the District and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry are comprised of half clergy and half laity. This balanced perspective is very important as we examine and evaluate candidates for ordination. Perhaps one of the most important questions we must answer for each candidate for ordained ministry – whether elder or deacon – is one that lay members are uniquely qualified to answer, “Would you want him/her to be your pastor?”
The benefits and blessings for the individual volunteer and their church are awesome. I would argue that lay volunteers can be even more effective than their clergy counterparts when it comes to taking something home to their church from their training or service, and making things happen.
As a lay member of annual conference, you gain valuable information about how to do different kinds of ministry, learn about resources available to us, worship and pray together, and participate in decision making for the larger United Methodist connection. You see the missions and ministry of the church in action, in worship, in celebration, and in crisis at all levels: local to global. Clergy are taught much of this in seminary or during the ordination process, but many began to learn as a certified lay servant (a ministry open to all members in good standing) or a delegate to annual conference (each church gets one delegate and one alternate for each ordained pastor appointed to their church). Conference proceedings are particularly blessed when youth delegates participate in the debates and challenge everyone with their insightful and penetrating questions. (Each district selects its youth delegates from the nominees put forward by local churches.)
Participating in the good stuff has obvious blessings, but what is so great about seeing the church at a crisis point? First, not all crises are equal. Some are moments of choice that do not shake the foundations of the church, but do represent change, or stepping out on faith. Regardless of the portent, some of us thrive in such situations, and others don’t – at least not initially. Hence, choices and change are a crisis and stressful for some members of the body of Christ. Because we are each members of the one body, we give and receive care, when our corporate decisions are stressful. Paul taught this in his first letter to the church in Corinth beginning with chapter 12. (Not that the Corinthians got it, unfortunately.) Participating in the process isn’t always easy, but it is a learning experience that can transform our hearts as we learn to discern together.
Wesley referred to our corporate life – our connectional polity – as holy conferencing, because the Holy Spirit is at work when we gather together. Jesus said that when two or more are gathered, He is in our mist. So, think how much Holy Spirit work is happening when there are a couple of thousand of us at the North Georgia Annual Conference, much less when the world-wide church meets in General Conference.
The tough part is discernment: what God is leading us to do versus what we think or want to do. It can be difficult to agree to disagree, to love in spite of difference, and to remain united as children of God when we are of very different opinions. It is easy to pray that God will change the minds of those with whom we disagree, but much harder to ask that they be blessed, and that we all submit to God’s will and not our own.
In a denomination as diverse as the UMC, discerning God’s will and not our own is even more difficult, but perhaps that is why the Methodist Church is still alive and growing despite the many times we have gotten it wrong and had bad family-fights along the way.
The “conventional wisdom” (the worldly way) does not work this way. We are encouraged to love and care only for those with whom we agree. The way of God’s kingdom is considered upside down and even nonsense according to secular thinking. Jesus said not to think like the pagans: those who do not know God and God’s kingdom, worship other things; and give only to receive; love only those like themselves. Not conforming to the world, but to God’s kingdom is a tall order then and now. Jesus in John 17:11 – 13 introduces the idea that we as being in the world but not of the world. (The letters called 1 John & 2 John develop this idea as does Paul throughout his letters to the church in Corinth.)
Odd, how living in the details leads to thinking about the big picture and the big mission we have as members and leaders of local churches. Maybe it isn’t odd all, but a way to see the big picture lived out in the details of 95 different local churches.
Blessings and thanks be to God for the gift of the church.