Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Why Is Your Conference Growing? An E-interview with Paul Nixon

Dr. Paul Nixon serves as Conference Director of Congregational Development for the Alabama-West Florida Conference. His conference is one of the few United Methodist conferences reporting growth in both membership and attendance in 2004 ... and one of the very few that has been growing for more than two decades.

Dr. Nixon's ministry includes planning and coaching new church starts, identifying and mentoring potential new-start pastors, supporting the revitalization of congregations, developing cooperative parishes, and consulting on congregational development issues. Untied Methodist asked him to reflect on why his conference is growing when so few conferences are.

Why is your conference growing when most aren't?

Dean, I wish I had a short answer to this question, but I do not.

There are many factors that together contribute to 23 consecutive years of growth in the Alabama-West Florida Conference.

The first is a pastor by the name of John Ed Mathison. He was appointed to Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church in Montgomery 33 years ago when the church ran 150 in attendance, and he led Frazer to relocate to the growing edge of town. He and his leadership exegeted the Montgomery community brilliantly, and then innovated in the early Wesleyan spirit to meet the needs of the varied people in Montgomery's demographic.

Today Frazer is the largest black church in our conference, the largest Hispanic church, (I think) the largest Asian church, and by far the largest Anglo church. Together, they are some 5,000 strong on most Sundays!

Frazier's influence has given cover to enable other United Methodist churches to similarly innovate in ministry and worship design, and has helped create a culture of long-tenure pastorates in our conference. Since John Ed started at Frazer, two other churches have kept pastors for 28 years (Gulf Breeze United Methodist) and 26 years (Christ United Methodist Church Mobile). These two churches, along with Frazer, together account for about 10,000 people in Sunday worship, one sixth of our conference!

Creating a culture where such flagships can sail is a big reason for our conference's continued growth. Some would say that conservative theology is the engine that drives these churches. I feel it is more accurate to say that reaching the unchurched is the passion that drives these churches. A church can embrace such a passion regardless of where they are on the left-right theological spectrum.

I personally served on the pastoral team at Gulf Breeze for nine years, and I have never been accused of being off to the right theologically. But Frazer gave us cover to innovate, innovate, innovate - even to the point of creating a second and third campus - something that would have been inconceivable before John Ed Mathison taught us we could color outside the lines for the sake of the mission.

(Note: Exegete is normally a verb used to mean "reading the text of Scripture wisely". Fred Craddock of Candler School of Theology talked also about exegeting a congregation: reading the needs of people in the church. John Ed Mathison has done those things, but also learned how to read his community and then adapt ministry methods and forms to fit the cultural setting. This is profoundly Wesleyan.)

Another factor in the growth in our conference has been our planting of new churches, new faith communities, and new ministry sites. We did a study last year that showed us that one half of our attendance growth is attributable to our newest 10 churches. These 10 churches netted an increase of 3,500 in attendance, while the other 660 churches netted an increase of 3,500, over a period of eight years or so. Steve Compton's book Rekindling the Mainline (Alban Press, 2004) documents the fact that planting new congregations is the most effective thing a denomination can do in order to grow numerically. Conferences that plant churches are likely to grow; those who do not, or who plant only one every few years, are likely to age and decline.

In Dothan, Alabama, a town of 60,000 people, 10 years ago there were 1,600 in worship in United Methodist churches on a typical Sunday. Today the town has grown by 5 percent, but there are now 3,500 in worship in United Methodist churches. What happened? Well, we planted an incredibly successful new church (Harvest United Methodist Church) that grew to 1,000.

But if you subtract 1,000 from 3500, you find that the remaining churches also grew from 1,600 to 2,500. One church, running 300 in attendance, and stuck at that number for several years, was located only two miles from the new church we planted. That neighboring church (Covenant United Methodist Church) is now also running nearly 1,000 in attendance. Why? Because Harvest raised the bar, and taught Covenant and others some things they needed to be doing to "stay in the game." My studies show that when we start a new United Methodist church in a community, the neighboring United Methodist churches will actually grow about 80 percent of the time.

Finally, at the conference level, two important things: (1) We have had bishops down here who have been content to let long-term pastorates proceed without re-assigning the pastors - so long as those churches were paying 100 percent of apportionments. (2) The current bishop created a new position, a cabinet-level director of congregational development - overseeing new church plants and revitalization initiatives in existing churches. You have a congregational development director in Baltimore-Washington as well. I may be prejudiced since I was the guy who got that job when it was created in our conference; but I think every conference needs such a position, even if they have to reduce the number of district superintendents (as we did) in order to fund it.

Some people suggest that our growth is because we are in the Bible Belt. However, there is as high a percentage of church affiliation in the Dakotas as in our region - and many of our neighboring annual conferences in the Southeast are not growing at all. So I don't put much stock in the Bible Belt theory. In fact, our growth has been stronger in those communities where the percentage of unchurched was higher.

Roughly how much money does your conference invest in new church starts, and how much of your growth do you think comes from starting new churches?

We do not invest nearly enough in new church starts, probably less than your annual conference. I think we are presently budgeted for $120,000 a year in subsidized support for pastoral salaries of new church starts, and another $100,000 for program grants to these churches (with only $50,000 of the latter funded last year due to apportionment shortfall). So that is $170,000 a year. This does not include the office of congregational development and the support services it provides to these new churches. It does not count our demographics contract, etc. It does not count the district investment in pastoral housing and property purchases.

But we started six new projects last year and two more this year on this shoe-string budget. One key has been utilizing persons other than elders as planters - they are often very gifted and far less expensive than elders. Another key has been inviting strong, healthy churches to directly plant other churches and to underwrite much of the cost locally. Finally, we have seen some new churches born and chartered without a dime of conference subsidy. Thankfully, our cabinet has been open to bless new churches that bubble up from the grass roots without it being the bishop's idea. Those churches cost the conference nothing.

As I said above, we have determined that new churches drive about half our growth.

Please describe your process for starting new churches? What principles and processes do you follow?

We have no cookie-cutter process for new church development. Some conferences have a more standardized approach and it works well. We try to be flexible and responsive to the Spirit and the situation in each place.

A few principles that guide us:

(1) We assess pastors prior to appointing them as planters.

(2) We require our planters to get training for their task and to participate in an on-going relationship with a planter coach during the first two years of their work.

(3) We pull the plug on any project as soon as we feel that the chances of its succeeding have diminished; we have too little money to waste any on projects that aren't moving forward steadily.

(4) We encourage new mission projects to develop small group ministries with at least 100 adults involved prior to launching public worship; typically this means a worship launch 15 months into the planter's appointment, in the September of the second appointment year.

(5) The conference is no longer in the land purchase business. If the district wishes to assist, we encourage them to do so. Otherwise, we focus mainly on developing the church first, and then worry about land, when we have enough folks in the movement that they can help in the land purchase. We started a project last year where we anticipate the church being permanently nomadic - never purchasing land. This can be maddening for the district board of buildings and location - since a land-less church is free to meet anywhere they like.

We have just launched another "church within a church" this year, and we are hopeful that it will be a great model for revitalizing United Methodist ministry in urban areas where the original congregation has aged and fallen out-of-touch with the newest neighbors.

How much of your growth comes from existing churches reaching new people? How does this happen?

Existing churches grow when they decide they are willing to do whatever it takes to effectively serve and disciple the people God has placed around them. It's just that simple. Prayer is a big part of that process of a church choosing to let go and lose itself in ministry. I have found that anytime a church decides to love its community and to fling open its doors to its community, good things happen.

Our bishop, Larry Goodpaster, is tenacious in his belief that any church can add one new member by profession of faith in a given year IF they are in love with their community and seeking to reach the least, the last and the lost.

Over the years that I served Gulf Breeze Church in Pensacola, Fla., we reached 120 to 160 folks a year by profession of faith. Why? Because we designed ministry and deployed staff in order to reach the people who had never been in our doors yet. We decided that reaching the unreached took priority.

Some churches think that making disciples can be accomplished within their current membership, simply nurturing the kids and taking the grown-ups deeper. That is an obscene notion, that turns the Christian Church into a club. Jesus sends us out into the bars and out among the people who are not yet a part of a faith community.

So, at Gulf Breeze, we had services in bars, out on the beach, and in a community center in addition to worship in the sanctuary. Hundreds of the people who have helped drive those positive stats for the annual conference are, in fact, the precious people we found, loved and discipled outside the sanctuary in Gulf Breeze/Pensacola Beach.

Are you finding Natural Church Development to be making a difference in your churches?

Not yet, but we are still new into Natural Church Development. Ask me again in two years. We are introducing it in about 30 churches this year.

What can annual conferences do to prepare, motivate, and train pastors to help their churches grow?

Several annual conferences with vital congregational development departments now have pastors' academies of various designs, most lasting between one and two years with several off-site retreats where excellent ministry practitioners teach. I am most impressed with Arkansas Annual Conference's Connected in Christ program. It is likely to put Arkansas back in the growth column again in a few years. Investing in pastoral training beyond what they got in seminary is important, but it takes a while for this to make an impact on an annual conference. We completed our first Academy of Congregational Development with 28 pastors this past spring and will start another round in 2006.

Church-to-church and pastor-to-pastor mentoring can also be effective, so long as we partner churches with churches that are the same size or slightly larger and in a similar community setting.

Do you have any thoughts about how conferences and/or congregations can reach non-European-American cultural and ethnic groups?

The only new work we have started on my watch (that has succeeded) has been in the Hispanic community. A couple thoughts:

(1) We have learned that we can start Spanish-language faith communities very quickly if we use leaders who are gifted and willing to work under the authority of an elder. We do not even have to send them to licensing school, and since they are not appointable, the movement grows without direct control from the bishop. I am not sure that all our Hispanic faith-community developers even have green cards. I am just happy that we are listening to the Spirit and partnering with such talented evangelists and leaders. They can be very sophisticated theologically. Sometimes I am absolutely amazed at the wisdom and nuance with which they can interpret Scripture. In many cases, they will never have the opportunity to attend seminary, but the Holy Spirit worked without seminaries for several centuries in the Christian movement.

(2) The "church within a church" model seems to work okay with the Hispanic community in our area where predominantly Anglo churches offer space and sponsor the new ministry. This takes the financial pressures off the new start in the early years of congregational development. First United Methodist Church of Clanton, Ala., has been our best model of how this can work. Eventually, San Juan, the church that meets in the Clanton facility, may choose to locate in another place, but they have been embraced so lovingly by the Clanton First people that I cannot imagine anyone wanting to change the current arrangement.

Since the San Juan kids all speak English, they are sometimes mixing the two churches' youth and children's groups, so I cannot predict whether or not San Juan will ever choose to be separate from First Church. One of the leaders who came to Christ through San Juan is now planting a faith community in conjunction with the First United Methodist Church of Wetumpka, Ala., about 40 miles away. We hope to plant a third such community in Selma within a few months, and in Mobile within a year -- with pastoral leadership all coming out of San Juan.

What else can you share with us that might help those of us from conferences that are not growing begin to do so?

I would say the same thing to a declining conference that I would say to a declining church. I have long said that I refuse to pastor a dying church. (I just wrote an article in the leadership journal Net Results about this.)

When I am appointed to a church that is declining, I concentrate on discerning the people who have bright eyes and who are ready to embrace God's future. I may find 20 or 30 of them. I take names. I keep that list in my desk drawer. That is my real membership, the people who are stake-holders in God's vision. I disciple those people. I work to double them and to triple them. They are the remnant that God will use to do God's New Thing in this generation.

The same thing is true in annual conferences. As a conference staffer, I look for the churches that are longing to reach people, and I help them to do that. I spend my time with the people who are tired of playing church and hungry to change the world.

This means that I do not track church membership numbers as a primary indicator of God's movement. First, I am tracking disciples. I am tracking small group attendance, the numbers of ministry leaders, the numbers of professions of faith, and possibly the total worship attendance. Seek first the Reign of God and all the other things (including positive membership trends) shall be added unto you, in God's time.

Ken Callahan once told me (and I am paraphrasing to the best of my memory), "Paul, when you coach baseball, you waste your time if you only coach the best players - those who are going to thrive anyway - or the very poor players - those who are never going to thrive on a baseball field. You are wise to work with the average players who want to be good players, and the good players who want to be excellent." I think that was brilliant advice. Conferences need to invest in the churches who are good but ready to be great!

Thanks for the opportunity to share a little of what God is doing in our part of the world!

Our thanks to Dr. Paul Nixon for this inspiring and sometimes provocative interview. Anyone reading this interview should be able to tell why he is helping his conference grow.


Blogger John Meunier said...

The interviews with growing conferences are great. Thank you for doing them.

4:30 PM  

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