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.


About the Cal-Nevada Conference, Defining Status, and Blogging

I have been involved in two extended discussions about the resolution passed by the California-Nevada Conference defining sexual orientation as a status.

One conversation has been happening here at Untied Methodist in the comment section of my post reporting on the passing of the resolution. John Wilks of A Preacher's Journey and I have been having a spirited discussion about whether the California-Nevada Conference was defying General Conference (as he argues) or taking an appropriate action (as I believe).

Another long conversation has been happening at Locusts and Honey between myself, John the Methodist of Locusts and Honey, and Chris Morgan of Assembled Reflections.

Jay Voorhees of Only Wonder Understands and Methoblog also discussed this issue at some length on his Methocast # 10. (If you have not been listening to Methocast, I recommend it.)

I want to express a word of appreciation to those participating in these discussions, especially those who disagree with my viewpoint. I sense a weariness about this discussion among those who support the church's current position or see no way past it.

If I hear some voices on the Methodist blogosphere correctly, there is a sense that this issue has been debated at General Conference after General Conference. General Conference has consistently voted not to permit self-avowed practicing gay men nor lesbian women to be ordained or to be appointed to serve in our churches.

The efforts of those of us advocating the inclusion of lesbian and gay people in ordained ministry is seen as an expression of rebellion against the clear and consistent position taken by General Conference. Many who agree with General Conference's decision, or who think the church has spoken and we ought to listen, feel we are attempting to defy and undermine the authority of the church, and do not understand why we cannot accept what General Conference has decided. Enough already is the message.

So I am grateful for all of those who have continued to engage, to share and to listen, to wrestle with the issue. Where else but on the Methodist blogosphere has this conversation been taking place? Mostly we are hunkered down in our different camps talking with others who agree with us.

The dialogues here and at Locusts and Honey have helped me understand better the concerns of those who agree with General Conference's position or are tired of us opposing it. They have also helped me to realize that there are aspects of United Methodist's system of governance that some of them do not understand. (It is admittedly not easy; United Methodist polity keeps surprising me, and I have been working at understanding it a long time.) Then, there are some things about which we may never agree.

Let me give you some examples in case you don't want to plow through the 23 comments at Locusts and Honey and here at Untied Methodist.

Here is a concern I now better understand: Actions like the California-Nevada Conference resolution defining sexual orientation as a status can seem gamey to some observers.

Here is a powerful quote from a comment by Chris Morgan:

"... the whole thing seems like another act in a protracted game to me. Move: A prohibitory statement is placed in the Social Principles. Counter-move: It is declared that statements in the Social Principles are non-binding. Move: The prohibition is placed elsewhere. Counter-move: It is declared that the terms are insufficiently defined. Move: Definitions are offered. Counter-move: It is claimed that such statements represent doctrinal standards and were not appropriately arrived-at. Counter-move #2: It is suggested that the whole discussion to this point may violate the very constitution of the church, for after all we're talking about 'status.' And we must wait for the next move. "

Well, I happen to believe that the church's legislative and judicial processes are there to be used, and that using them is an affirmation of the church's order, not a game.

Yet, I can understand how it might seem that we are defiantly refusing to accept the decision of General Conference and looking for loopholes and tricks to avoid what seems to many to be the clear intent of General Conference.

I also think that the strong opponents of gays and lesbians in ordained ministry have been trickier (and more successful) than we have been. They have rewritten formulas to make sure their jurisdictions are better represented at General Conference than ours are. They have wooed central conference delegations and even sent teams to Africa to "train" central conference delegates on how to make speeches and vote at General Conference. They are trying to establish control over the general church agencies. They have tried to stack the Judicial Council in their favor. Our using Disciplinary legislative and judicial processes to challenge para. 304.3 seems tame compared to this.

Still, some of our efforts to challenge the position passed by General Conference may look to others as if we are grasping at straws or majoring in the minors. We need to explain ourselves better. We need to articulate that these are real issues we are raising--as I believe they are-- and not just attempts to irritate, confuse, or undermine.

Then, here is an example of United Methodist polity I have learned some United Methodists do not understand: General Conference cannot do anything it wants to do no matter how badly it wants to do it. General Conference cannot pass legislation that violates the core commitments and foundational principles laid out in the Constitution of the United Methodist Church. At least it cannot do this without expecting such legislation to be challenged and overturned by the church's judicial system.

When we argue that para. 304.3, which says that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve...," may be unconstitutional, we keep hearing that General Conference passed it with a clear majority and that it could not be clearer that General Conference's intent is to not ordain "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

Well, General Conference delegates cannot pass unconstitutional legislation even if they want to really, really, really badly. If they want to pass such legislation, they have to either change the
Constitution first or expect that it will be challenged in the judicial system when attempts are made to enforce it. The Constitution can only be changed by a two-thirds vote of General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all annual conference delegates. General Conference delegates cannot change the Constitution by themselves, and they cannot violate it no matter how much they want to or how strongly they feel about it.

It may yet be determined that para. 304.3 is not unconstitutional, but it is totally proper and appropriate for us to raise the question. No one should criticize us for raising it on the grounds that the majority of General Conference delegates voted for it and really, really, really wanted it. A majority of General Conference delegates is not the final word within United Methodism. The Constitution is.

Finally, there are those things we may never agree about. An example is the disagreement between myself and John the Methodist at Locusts and Honey about how to interpret the Constitution. He thinks the guiding principle of interpretation is what those who passed the Constitution had in mind when they passed it. I think we have to decide how to apply it based on the knowledge and information we have today, not on the basis of the knowledge and information they had back then.

In our discussion about whether the constitutional prohibition against discrimination based on status applies to sexual orientation, John keeps asking whether those who voted to pass this part of the Constitution thought sexual orientation was a status and, thus, meant to include it. I keep saying that this is not the right question. I keep arguing that the question we need to ask is, given what we know today, do we think it is a status. The Constitution establishes the principle; we are responsibile for applying the principle to the circumstance as we understand it. The framers of the Constitution might well have established a principle that has deeper implications than they realized at the time.

I know no way to get past this difference of opinion, but I am glad that John is willing to discuss it, and I am thankful for all of the Methodist bloggers who are willing to explore our differing perspectives honestly and openly. May the church learn from you.


News Story on British Methodists Blessing Same-Sex Unions Was Misleading -- An E-interview with Jonathan Kerry

Locusts and Honey discovered a news story in The Guardian, a British newspaper, entitled "Methodist leaders vote to bless gay couples."

Then, the British Methodist Conference issued a statement suggesting that the news reports were not necessarily fully accurate. The statement said: "Some of the national and local newspapers which have reported on the Conference debate have interpreted this in a way which suggests that the Church has gone further than is actually the case. ... This is deeply regrettable and the Conference is assured that no statement or commitment has been made which goes beyond what the Conference has actually agreed."

The Rev. Jonathan Kerry, Conference Coordinating Secretary for Worship and Learning, oversaw the production of the report at issue. He serves as convener of the Pilgrimage of Faith Working Party which was established by the British Methodist Conference in 1993.

Rev. Kerry graciously agreed to respond to questions about the process that led up to the report and the report's actual contents. Here is the interview:

Rev. Kerry responded to my request for an e-interview by writing:

Thank you for your e-mail. A few introductory comments, then I will answer your specific questions. It is good to know that you are interested in the deliberations of our Church. However, the report in the Guardian was misleading.

I attach a copy of a press release which gives the actual position taken by the Conference. The statement issued yesterday by our General Secretary (which you quote above) was an attempt to clarify the matter.

The Conference agreed that guidance should be issued to assist ministers who may be approached by couples seeking a blessing service or similar. As yet we do not know what form that guidance will take, and it will be provisional until the Conference has the opportunity to consider it next year.

Now to the questions that you asked:

Congratulations. The Pilgrimage of Faith report you oversaw was obviously a serious process of dialogue on what, at least here in the United States, has been a difficult issue. Would you describe the topics addressed and the way dialogue was facilitated?

The aim of the report that we prepared for our 2005 Conference was to bring evidence of how the Methodist Church in Britain is responding to the call to "Begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination" that had been issued by the 1993 Conference, following a long period of intense debate about human sexuality. In effect, we were "taking the temperature." We asked people to write or email to the working party with their answers to the following questions:

What do you understand by the phrase 'a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination' in the context of the issues of human sexuality?

To what extent have the Methodist people embarked on such a pilgrimage since 1993 (please give your reasons)?

How do you see your own story (as an individual or a group) in the context of pilgrimage? How have things changed personally, in the church and in wider society since 1993?

What do you particularly want the working party to hear?

We also met a number of individuals and groups in person, covering a wide variety of beliefs and experiences.

A news story at www.methodist.org.uk/ quotes you as saying: "The challenge for us as a Church is to keep discussing the small number of areas where we disagree, while celebrating and drawing strength from the many areas where we do agree." Would you summarize the areas of agreement and disagreement?

We agree that all people, whatever their sexuality is God's gift, that all practices of sexuality, which are promiscuous, exploitative, or demeaning in any way are unacceptable forms of behaviour and contradict God's purpose for us all.

We agree that a person shall not be debarred from church on the grounds of sexual orientation in itself. We affirm the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality: namely, chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it. We recognise, affirm and celebrate the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the church.

We do not agree over whether the statements just quoted mean that physical sexual activity between two people of the same sex is acceptable Christian conduct, even if that takes place within a long-term, exclusive, committed relationship. Hence we do not agree whether same-sex relationships may be acknowledged and celebrated/blessed within the life of the Church.

A Guardian news story has suggested that the Methodist Church approved blessing ceremonies for same sex couples. Is this accurate? What did the report actually say about same-sex blessings?

The Guardian report was misleading, particularly the headline. What the report actually says is that guidance should be published on how to respond to requests to conduct prayers or services of blessing for same-sex couples, particularly in the light of recent legislation on civil partnerships. This refers to recent United Kingdom (UK) legislation which means that, from December, 2005, it will be possible for same-sex couples to have legal recognition of their "civil partnership," and enjoy many of the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

Is there any prohibition against pastors conducting such blessings (as there is in the United Methodist Church) in The Methodist Church. Are they currently happening in Methodist churches? What do you expect will happen in this regard in the future?

We are aware that some blessing services do take place and that Methodist ministers and others officiate. However, these generally take place off church premises, and there is no national sanction for such services. The demand for such services is expected to increase in the future, and we believe it is important that there is a national policy which either prohibits such services or allows them under certain agreed circumstances.

Does the Methodist Church ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors? Are there congregations who would not welcome a gay or lesbian pastor?

We do have ministers who are openly gay and lesbian. However, they are expected to abide by the agreements on human sexuality quoted above. Some congregations are welcoming, others less so.

Why do you think this issue is so much more controversial in the United States than it seems to be in England?

This is hard to answer, but it probably has to do with the much greater influence of Christianity in public life in general in the United States than in Britain, and also the greater prominence of conservative believers.

However, not all churches, even in Britain, are able to deal with these issues without great controversy. We are glad that our own Church has found a way to disagree on important matters such as this whilst still remaining in fellowship with each other. We believe that this tension can be creative, not divisive.

What theological ideas or principles have most informed your discussion?

Principally, the present exercise has been experiential rather than theological. However, it is in the context of a careful enquiry into the meaning and application of Scripture and the tradition of the Church. We have identified the need for further theological work on the theological implications of being a Church that has to live or contend with different and mutually contradictory convictions.

What else should we know to understand the significance of The Pilgrimage of Faith?

That we are committed to continuing our journey together. To talk of "pilgrimage" is to envision a journey the exact nature of whose destination is unknown, yet one that is worth taking because of the company of other pilgrims whom we encounter along the way. Different people will travel at a different pace; sometimes events may affect the direction, at other times, personal choice may affect the direction.

Our thanks to Rev. Kerry for this thoughtful and helpful conversation.


California-Nevada Conference Defines Sexual Orientation as a Status

The California-Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church passed a resolution June 17 defining sexual orientation as a status. (See here also.)

The exact wording of the resolution is: "The California-Nevada Annual Conference hereby defines the word 'status' as including sexual orientation such as heterosexuality, homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and transgendered."

The conference also passed another resolution explicitly refusing to define the word "practicing." This resolution states: "The California-Nevada Annual Conference hereby specifically refuses and declines to define the words 'practicing' or 'practicing homosexual.'"

According to the California-Nevada Conference record of the daily proceedings for June 18, a member of the conference requested that the presiding bishop, Beverly J. Shamana, make a ruling of law on the following questions:

"Does our adoption of Item 26 defining 'status' void, violate or otherwise pre-empt the force of law of para. 304.3 in the 2004 Book of Discipline?" [Para. 304.3 states that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."]

"Is the definition of 'status' as adopted in Item 26 sufficiently overbroad as to render it ambiguous, unenforceable and/or violation of the principles of due process?"

"Does our refusal to define 'practicing' in Item 27 void and/or violate the enforcement or enforceability of para. 304.3 in the 2004 Book of Discipline in the California Nevada Annual Conference."

"Since 'self-avowed practicing homosexual' is defined in footnote 1 on page 197 in the 2004 Book of Discipline, is Item 27 legal?" [The footnote defines "self-avowed practicing homosexual" as meaning that "a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual." The definition defines "self-avowed," but not "practicing."]

Bishop Shamana has up to 30 days after the close of the conference session to rule on questions of law, so her ruling will be due no later than July 18. It will surely be interesting to read her ruling when it is issued. Decisions of law made by bishops have to be reported to the Judicial Council annually. The Judicial Council, then, has the authority to "affirm, modify, or reverse" a bishop's ruling of law. (2004 Book of Discipline, Para. 51)

Although Bishop Shamana has to issue her ruling by July 18, if I read the Discipline correctly, she really has up to a year to submit it to the Judicial Council for review. It is likely, however, that she will send it in this summer --why wait?-- which means the Judicial Council will consider her ruling during its next session scheduled for October 27 in Houston -- the same meeting during which the council will rule on the Committee of Appeals verdict in the Beth Stroud case. (See here.)

Strictly speaking, the Stroud appeals verdict and the California-Nevada resolutions have nothing to do with one another (Stroud is a member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference which has defined neither "status" nor "practicing"), except that they both deal with the same concern.

The Constitution of the United Methodist Church states clearly that: "In the United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition." (2004 Book of Discipline, para. 4, Article IV)

The Constitution also charges General Conference with the responsibility "to secure the rights and privileges of membership in all agencies, programs, and institution in The United Methodist Church regardless of race or status." (2004 Book of Discipline, para. 16, Article IV.14)

If sexual orientation is a status, we have a conflict between church law and the Constitution that needs attention. If sexual orientation is a status, there is a serious question whether para. 304.3 is constitutional.

However, the logic of the Committee on Appeals decision in the Stroud case is even narrower than constitutionality. The committee's decision is very precisely written and deserves to be read carefully and thoughtfully. It is based significantly on Judicial Council decision 702.

Judicial Council decision 702 says: "[I]n order to do that" --that is, in order to ensure that "the prohibition of an appointment . . . is exercised in compliance with the rights of all persons who are in full membership"-- "the words 'status' and 'self-avowed practicing homosexual' must be defined by either the General Conference or the various Annual Conferences."

The simple point made by the appeals committee in its decision is that neither the General Conference nor the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference has defined either "status" or "practicing homosexual."

The Judicial Council has wisely recognized that it is not its role to make such definitions. The Judicial Council said in decision 702: "It is not the task of the Judicial Council to legislate the meaning of words passed by the General Conference. It is clear that either the General Conference or the Annual Conferences must define for their own use, the words 'self-avowed practicing homosexual.' It might be observed that the latter may not be very successful unless there is a considerable degree of uniformity. Likewise, it is obvious that the term 'status' needs to be defined."

The point the appeals committee decision makes is that neither the General Conference nor the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference has defined the terms under which the trial court found Stroud guilty. It is a violation of due process to find someone guilty based on undefined terms which anyone is free --no, forced-- to interpret subjectively.

The following paragraph from the Committee on Appeals decision is important:

"The Committee stresses that its decision on this point says nothing about the wisdom or theological soundness of ¶ 304.3. The Committee recognizes and respects that the General Conference is the supreme lawmaking body of the Church and that all are bound to live by, and may not legitimately act to nullify, that law. The Committee also appreciates that its decision may frustrate the will expressed by a majority at several General Conferences. On this issue, however, that frustration is a product of the fact that the Committee is obliged to follow the rulings of the Judicial Council when applying the Discipline. The Committee's narrow holding is simply that binding Judicial Council precedent continues to require that ¶ 304.3 cannot constitutionally be applied to prohibit an appointment unless either the General Conference or the Annual Conference has first defined both 'practicing homosexual' and 'status.' Since neither phrase has been defined by either of the requisite bodies in this case, the verdict and penalty must be set aside."

So, even though its resolution doesn't apply to Beth Stroud because she is not a member of the California-Nevada Conference, this particular conference has taken the bull by the horns. The California-Nevada Conference has said that sexual orientation is a status. If a complaint were to be brought against a clergy member of the California-Nevada Conference based on para. 304.3, there would be no way to avoid a discussion about the constitutionality of this particular law -- the very discussion the presiding officer in the Stroud case chose to squelch.

The California-Nevada Conference's decision to refuse to define "practicing" or "practicing homosexual" is equally significant. The introduction to the California-Nevada Conference resolution questions the propriety of defining "practicing."

It says: "It is inherently subjective and speculative to define the word 'practicing' as regards sexual acts. To define 'practicing' as related to homosexual acts without also having to explain 'practicing' as it differentiates in some instances from heterosexual acts is discriminatory and confusing. Further, to define 'practicing' creates the unseemly and humiliating necessity of questioning clergy about their intimate and private sex acts ..."

In other words, the California-Nevada Conference has refused to participate in asking clergy about the mechanics of their sexual relationship, as though (excuse me, I don't like discussing this either) what goes where were the point.

I appreciate this particular resolution because, during the Stroud trial, when the prosecutor asked Beth Stroud whether her relationship with her partner included "genital contact," I suddenly realized that there were certain intrusions into people's dignity and privacy that I hope I will never participate in, even if I thought to justify it by saying that I was merely fulfilling a necessary function in church governance. There are questions we should be embarrassed to ask.
So, the logic is clear:

1. We cannot prosecute people based on undefined terms;

2. It is not the job of the Judicial Council to define General Conference's terms;

3. If General Conference has not defined terms, annual conference definitions should apply;

4. If neither General Conference nor annual conferences have defined the terms, disciplinary rules cannot be fairly enforced.

The Judicial Council, it seems to me, has no choice but to accept the conclusions of the Committee of Appeals in the Stroud case. And it has no choice but to allow the California-Nevada Conference to establish its own definitions. If we are a church of order and due process, how could the Judicial Council decide otherwise?

The other option is to choose popular opinion over reason ... mob rule over order and due process.

On Growing a Church by Selling Spirituality

Spirituality has become a commodity for sale on the competitive capitalist free market.

I was struck by this reality when I read Jeff Sharlet's profile of Ted Haggard, pastor of a magachurch in Colorado Springs and president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), in the May issue of Harper's Magazine.

Let me say quickly that I do not make reference, in this case, to Haggard's philosophy in order to criticize it (as I may have in the past and may again in the future) but to confess that, even though I would never have put it so crassly, he articulates the way I often find myself thinking when I am thinking about how to help my church grow.

In his Harper's article, Sharlet says about Haggard: "One of Pastor Ted's favorite books is Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which is now required reading for the hundreds of pastors under Ted's spiritual authority across the country. From Friedman, Pastor Ted says he learned that everything, including spirituality, can be understood as a commodity. And unregulated trade, he concluded, was the key to achieving worldly freedom." [italics mine]

Haggard argues that just as corporations market toothpaste and consumers vote at the cash register, a church should market spiritual experiences as a way of organizing itself. "He [Haggard] believes it is time 'to harness the forces of free-market capitalism in our ministry.'" Sharlet writes. "Once a pastor does that, his flock can start organizing itself according to each member's abilities and tastes."

Honestly, this is the way I too think much of the time: What do people want? What will attract them to my church? What will keep them? What will they buy? What options can we offer that will fit everyone's tastes and preferences? What new program, experience, type of service, music, or opportunity might bring new people to my church? What can we sell them?

Richard King and Jeremy Carrette, the authors of a new book entitled Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, are concerned that, when we think this way, we are abandoning the greatest contribution that the religions we have inherited have to make to society and to each of us individually.

King and Carrette argue that the very essence of religion is lost when spirituality becomes a commodity. They offer this analysis of religion in the last half-century: Spirituality began to be separated from religion in the 1960s. Spirituality was increasingly cut off from its roots --the historic bodies that had have for centuries passed on spiritual stories, values, and practices from one generation to another. Spirituality became individualized and focused on my fulfillment, my quality of life, my prosperity, my authenticity, and so on.

Religion, meanwhile, came to be associated with oppressive dogma and rigidity. The historic faiths or, if you prefer, organized religion became increasing marginalized as personal self-fulfillment spiritualities were promoted, including by corporations using them as part of their branding strategies in the 1980 and 90s.

However, King and Carrette warn, doing away with organized religion in favor of individualistic spiritualities also does away with the values underpinning many social goods--such as a belief in social justice and respect for the earth's resources.

King and Carrette say the purpose of their book is to challenge "the colonization of our collective cultural heritage by individualist and capitalist forms of spirituality," in order to emphasize what they believe has been increasingly silenced within those traditions, "namely a concern with community, social justice and the extension of an ethical ideal of selfless love and compassion towards others."

In an interview in thesocialedge.com, a Catholic monthly electronic magazine about social justice and faith published in Canada, King --who begins teaching at Vanderbilt University this fall-- says that capitalism (I might say consumerism) has become the new world religion. In fact, King says capitalist ideology is "the new opium of the people" that keeps the masses exploited, isolated from one another, and passive. He believes humanities' best hope is the witness of the historic religions which include a social justice dimension.

King thinks many of the churches (as well as other religions) have been co-opted by the growing tendency to understand spirituality as a commodity for sale. Instead of coming to church asking, "What does the Lord require of us?" people are coming to church asking, "What can you do for me to make me more successful and happier?"

What is wrong with this? "Individualism [or a focus on self] per se is not the problem. Because what's wrong with a bit of freedom and individual self-expression?" King says in thesocialedge.com interview. "The problem is the kind of atomized version of individualism that developed in modern capitalistic societies. It's pernicious because it creates a widespread sense of anomie and social isolation which causes fear, depression and loneliness for people who see themselves as individuals. On a societal level this undermines our ability to feel empathy, care and respect for others."

Haggard would seem to understand exactly what King is saying and to have made a unambiguous and transparent choice for capitalism --or consumerism-- over historic religion's emphasis on community, social justice and the ideal of selfless love and compassion towards others.

"I want the church to help me live life well, not exhaust me with endless 'worthwhile' projects," Haggard writes in his book Dog Training, Fly Fishing, & Sharing Christ in the 21st Century.

Sharlet explains: "By 'worthwhile projects' Ted means building funds and soup kitchens alike. It's not that he opposes these; it's just that he is sick of hearing about them and believes that other Christians are, too. He knows that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than 'moral values' --it needs customer value."

All of this leaves those church leaders in contemporary America who are trying to be faithful to our historic faiths in something of a bind. We feel like we need to respond to people's desire to find a personal spirituality which is self-fulfilling, just as Haggard and other megachurch pastors do. At least I feel this way. We need to offer many options, popular music, high quality worship services, learning and sharing experiences that will meet personal desires, needs and convenience, and lots of options.

At the same time, we also feel the need to help Americans discover a spirituality by which we truly come into the presence of God and into the true fulfillment that comes from selfless love, compassion for others, and self sacrifice. To find our lives is to lose them. (Matt. 16:25)

This is no easy task in a society where capitalist consumption and self-centeredness, maybe even selfishness, has become the doxa -- the uncritical assumption that governs everyday life and that sets the parameters of public discourse -- as King puts it, quoting the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It is no easy task when many of the fastest growing churches --if Haggard is an indication-- have simply abandoned Jesus' invitation to take up our crosses and follow him for a gospel of self-satisfaction and enhancement.

I say this not as an excuse for when those of us in the historic churches are insensitive to people's wants and needs. I am not arguing that we should not be, what marketers call, customer friendly. I am not arguing for worship and programs that are not well planned or conducted. I think we need higher standards of excellence than we usually have.

We need to be effective in telling our story in the marketplace. We need to offer an attractive and inviting alternative to the unchurched. We need to do this without taking on the values and spirit of the competitive and consumer-oriented marketplace. This is the hard part. Is it the impossible part?


Why Is Your Conference Growing? An E-interview with Rachel Simeon

Rev. Rachel Lieder Simeon is conference superintendent of the Alaska Missionary Conference, one of the few U.S. United Methodist conferences reporting growth in both membership and attendance in 2004. The Alaska Missionary Conference, which has 28 churches, ended 2004 with 4,045 members, up 1 from 2003. Average attendance during 2004 was 2,609, up 15 from 2003. The Alaska Missionary Conference covers an area twice the size of Texas with a population of about 600,000. (If you overlaid Alaska on the lower 48 states, it would stretch from Maine to California.)

Some of the conference's mission stations can only be reached by boat, plane, or --in one case-- dog sled. Temperatures can vary as much as 160 degrees in some areas. The Alaska Missionary Conference has no clergy members; all clergy serving in the conference are members of other conferences. Rev. Simeon is a member of the Yellowstone Conference. She formerly served as part of a superintendency team and as pastor of the United Methodist Church of Chugiak. In 2004 she was appointed to serve as the Alaska Missionary Conference's sole superintendent full-time. Untied Methodist asked her to reflect on why her conference grew last year and also to educate us about the Alaska Missionary Conference.

Your conference grew in both membership and attendance in 2004. What caused the growth?

Short answers: Growth in immigrant populations, committed clergy and un-stuck laity, longevity of episcopal leadership, appropriate accountability.

Long answers: The Alaska Missionary Conference (AMC) is experiencing a significant influx of Pacific Rim immigrants, and we are making a concerted effort to address their needs and offer a United Methodist presence.

Currently we have congregations serving the Korean, Tongan, Samoan, Hmong, and Filipino communities. In fact, a predominantly Anglo, older congregation in Douglass, Ala., has requested a Filipino pastor to address the needs of that emerging population in the Douglass-Juneau area. We have appointed a Filipino clergywoman and expect her to arrive in the fall.

We have excellent pastors from every jurisdiction, and soon, from a central conference. Since we have no clergy membership, there are no guaranteed appointments in Alaska. Everyone who is serving here wants to be here. If someone is not effective for whatever reason, we are not required to reappointment them, and therefore are able to find folk who match Alaska well, and match our churches well.

Especially in recent years, as I've recruited from across the country, the folks who want to come to the AMC are willing to be deployed where we believe they are needed. Folks do not come here with one appointment in mind; they come to the whole and, then, are deployed to the places where their gifts are best matched. If the General Conference would ever allow it, we would be willing to be the guinea pig for equalized salaries to further encourage this kind of approach. The trend is for longer-term pastorates, and actually many of the clergy who serve here end up retiring up in Alaska.

The laity are transitory. Though we have some long-time folk here, our population is young, and most of the folks that come to church also come because they want to, not because they grew in the church or their families have always attended, but because they choose to be here. This allows for a kind of creative approach to ministry that enlivens both the clergy and laity. It is rare to hear: "We can't do it that way" or "We tried that before." We typically hear, "Well, let's give it a try!"

For the first time ever, we will have at least 12 years --and possibly 16 years-- under the same episcopal leadership. Bishop Edward Paup came to us with Oregon-Idaho Conference in 1996, and when his assignment changed to the Seattle area, the jurisdictional College of Bishops put Alaska with the Seattle area. He is a creative and relational bishop, and the folks--both clergy and lay--know and love him well. He has pushed us to always see the larger picture, to realize that being self-sufficient is not necessarily a goal for any Christian community, and to stop feeling as though we are "less than" because we are interdependent with the rest of the church. He has helped us understand that our status as a missionary conference gives us a new way to approach our ministry.

The AMC was in the top per capita giver to the Children of Africa appeal, and just recently was number three within the general church in per capita advance giving. This is a direct response to Bishop Paup's invitation and vision, to the spirit of community within the conference, and the way in which this conference views mission and ministry.

Finally, there has been a spirit of support and accountability that has grown over the past few years. At our professional church-workers retreat we have worked hard to be in community together, and it is rare for anyone to miss the opportunity to gather together.

In short we generally and genuinely like each other and try to support each other's ministry. Again, because we are so small, every one's participation within the life of the conference is needed, and that expectation, along with a sense of purpose in our gatherings, has helped us remember that we are in this together.

How old is the Alaska Missionary Conference?

We celebrated 100 years of ministry in Alaska last year (2004).

How old are its churches?

The oldest church is Ketchikan in the Southeast area (100 years), but we have a presence with the Jesse Lee Home in Unalaska that predates that. Our newest church is the First Samoan United Methodist Church of Anchorage, which we chartered last year (2004).

Could you give us some sense of its history?

Perhaps the answer above will have to suffice..... with the notable exception that Alaska was linked with the Oregon-Idaho Episcopal Area in 1960 when the conferences of Pacific Northwest and Oregon-Idaho differentiated. Just last year we were linked with the Pacific Northwest Conference, and will probably always share a bishop.

Which is your largest church and how large is it?

St. John UMC in Anchorage with 718 members.

Which is your smallest church and how small is it?

Moose Pass UMC on the Kenai Peninsula with 22 members.

Is being a pastor in the Alaska Missionary Conference different from serving in other conferences?

Yes ... and no. As stated above, we have no guaranteed appointment. I think that offers a kind of leverage for quality that is sometimes hard to come by.

Many of us often serve in isolated areas, off the road system, on islands. At least half of our churches receive support from outside the conference through the Advance Special, which means pastors in Alaska itinerate and tell the story in the other conferences. We may have a new appreciation of mission and connectionalism because of our isolation and interdependence. There is very little vying for perceived 'plum" appointments, born out of the limited number of appointments and no guarantee of an appointment, and the shared reality that when you come to the AMC you come to the whole conference. And there is the opportunity to work with clergy leadership from all of the jurisdictions. (An aside: I think we could be an interesting study for the general church in how we might find a way to all live together!)

Where we are just like being a pastor anywhere, is that, like anywhere else, our churches flourish under effective, competent leadership. The issues of our churches are very similar to other churches around the United Methodist Church --and the workload is similar with the possible exception of significantly fewer funerals. While I served the Chugiak church from 1993-2004, I had five funerals--only two of which were for members. Sometimes it takes a while, especially when you're serving an urban or suburban church, to recognize what is unique about ministry here, but those of us who have spent enough time here recognize it in due time!

How do you decide to start a new congregation?

In the past, this has been a superintendent-driven process. With one superintendent being the norm and a non-resident bishop, often the superintendent has become a kind of regional bishop, and as that person would travel around the state, he or she would identify places for new congregations. Though I clearly have significant input, we have just beefed up our New Ministry Committee so that the identification of new congregations is a more widely held responsibility. I'll let you know how it goes!

How do you go about planting a new church?

The biggest challenge for us is cost. In the past, we were heavily supported financially by the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). Though the board still support us in major ways, it does not have the resources to offer significant seed money for new churches. It is expensive to start churches here, and usually our growth occurs as a result of another local church offering hospitality to the people of an emerging congregation, and then slowly finding their relative autonomy.

We would love to plant a church, for instance, in Kodiak, but the start-up costs are prohibitive at this time in our life. Another placement that is highly needed is in the villages, but that too requires significant monies for travel, housing, etc. In short, in this time of diminishing resources, it is especially difficult for a small conference (with a total budget of $600,000) to initiate new church growth.

Did your growth in 2004 occur as a result of starting new churches or growth in older congregations?

Fifteen of our churches increased membership from 2002-2003; one remained the same, 11 decreased. Our two largest churches grew, but so did our two smallest. In 2004 we added a congregation.

What causes churches to grow in your conference?

Effective pastoral leadership, good support and accountability from the execs in the conference; flexible laity; missional outreach.

What can other conferences learn from the Alaska Missionary Conference?

I think the answer to the first question may address this. What Alaska has going for it is the desire of folks to be here, the openness to new ideas, the cross-pollination from all the jurisdictions of the church, an ingrained sense of being in mission, appropriate support and accountability by its leaders, and a deep commitment to the power of community to transform.

What else can you tell us that we should know about your conference?

Clearly, I am not all that objective about ministry in this conference. It is not perfect, but it is exciting, flexible and creative. I am delighted to serve here, and would welcome the opportunity to talk with anyone about mission and ministry in this context! I come to the East coast frequently, as I am a director on the GBGM and would be more than willing to be in contact with you in anyway that would be appropriate.

Our thanks to Rev. Simeon for her thoughtful responses. It is obvious from her responses that the unique situation of a missionary conference is an important arena to learn and experiment. I am especially impressed by the commitment of the Alaska Missionary Conference to be deployed for the sake of the greater good. Her e-mail address is rlsimeon@aol.com.


Evangelicalism Today -- A sad time for an honorable tradition

Ted Haggard (pictured right), pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Col., talks on the phone to President Bush or his staff every Monday. Haggard is president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).

Throughout the years, while not always agreeing with its stances, I have respected the NAE. As a senior in college 37 years ago my senior thesis for the political science department was a comparison of the positions of the NAE and the National Council of Churches on issues such as war, economic justice, civil liberties, and the separation of church and state. I found the NAE to be a thoughtful organization -- one, it seemed to me, that was truly trying to take Scripture seriously.

The NAE has had some remarkable leadership during the 50-some years of its existence. It was formed --in large part-- as the result of a vision born and fostered by Park Street Church in Boston. Park Street Church --where I worshipped from time to time when I was a seminary student-- has a close relationship with Gordon-Conwell Seminary, a center of solid evangelical scholarship. Dr. Harold J. Ockenga, pastor of Park Street and president of Gordon-Conwell, was an early leader of the NAE. Ockenga was an evangelical --some called him a neo-evangelical-- who believed that evangelicals need to take scholarship and social justice seriously.

Other evangelical leaders influential within the NAE have included people like Carl Henry, Richard Halverson, Max Stackhouse, Billy Graham, and Ron Sider. These were thoughtful church leaders with theological depth.

None of these evangelical church leaders, not even Billy Graham, talked to the president every Monday. Ted Haggard does.

Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer visited Haggard's church, interviewed him and his members, and wrote an excellent report about his experience for the May issue of Harper's. The article, entitled "Soldiers of Christ: Inside America's most powerful megachurch" is not encouraging. Haggard does not appear to represent the kind of thoughtful evangelicalism that I have historically identified with the NAE.

Unless Sharlet is exaggerating --I don't think he is-- Haggard is obsessed with demonic forces, spiritual warfare, and capitalism.

Here are a few quotes from Sharlet's article about Haggard's obsession with demonic forces:

"He was always on the lookout for spies. At the time, Colorado Springs was a small city split between the Air Force and the New Age, and the latter, Pastor Ted believed, worked for the devil. Pastor Ted soon began upsetting the devil's plans. He staked out gay bars, inviting men to come to his church; his whole congregation pitched itself into invisible battles with demonic forces, sometimes in front of public buildings. ... He called the evil forces that dominated Colorado Springs and every other metropolitan area in the country 'Control.'"

"He sent teams to pray in front of the homes of supposed witches; in one month, ten out of fifteen of his targets put their houses on the market."

Reporting on a conversation with a New Life member named Linda Burton, Sharlet writes: "She reached across the table and touched my hand. 'I have to tell you, the spiritual battle is very real.' We are surrounded by demons, she explained, reciting the lessons she had learned in her small-group studies at New Life. The demons are cold, they need bodies, they long to come inside. People let them in in two different ways. One is to be sinned against. 'Molested,' suggested Linda. The other is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You could walk by sin --a murder, a homosexual act-- and a demon will leap onto your bones. Cities, therefore, are especially dangerous."

Here is a quote about Haggard's obsession with spiritual --and material-- warfare:

"... he believes spiritual war requires a virile, worldly counterpart. 'I teach a strong ideology of the use of power,' he says, 'of military might, as a public service.' He is for preemptive war, because he believes the Bible's exhortations against sin set for us a preemptive paradigm, and he is for ferocious war, because 'the Bible's bloody. There's a lot about blood.'"

And, here are some quotes about Haggard and his devotion to capitalism:

"... Pastor Ted says he learned that everything, including spirituality, can be understood as a commodity. And unregulated trade, he concluded, was the key to achieving worldly freedom."

[Haggard says:] "I want the church to help me live life well, not exhaust me with endless 'worthwhile' projects." [Sharlet explains:] "By 'worthwhile projects' Ted means building funds and soup kitchens alike. It's not that he opposes these; it's just that he is sick of hearing about them and believes that other Christians are, too. He knows that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than 'moral values' --it needs customer value."

"They're pro-free markets, they're pro-private property," he [Haggard] said. "That's what evangelical stands for."

The Slacktivist blog has taken this last quote and used it to create a litany, which begins:

"They're pro-free markets, they're pro-private property. ... That's what evangelical stands for." -- Pastor Ted Haggard

"All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." - Acts 2:44-45

"They're pro-free markets, they're pro-private property. ... That's what evangelical stands for." -- Pastor Ted Haggard

"Thou shalt not turn away from him that is in want, but thou shalt share all things with thy brother, and shalt not say that they are thine own." -- The Didache

"They're pro-free markets, they're pro-private property. ... That's what evangelical stands for." -- Pastor Ted Haggard

"Therefore all things are common; and let not the rich claim more than the rest. To say therefore 'I have more than I need, why not enjoy?' is neither human nor proper." -- St. Clement of Alexandria

(Read the rest of the litany here.)

I know many evangelicals would not consider me one. I am aware that I would not pass many of the litmus tests. Yet, I like to think of myself as warmly evangelical. It is a shame to see the NAE come to this. It is a shame to see America's evangelicals using their political clout to get time weekly on the phone with the president for Ted Haggard.

One more quote, this time not from Sharlet's article but from a New York Times article written by Laurie Goodstein. Largely due to the work of Rich Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the NAE -- a solid evangelical in the tradition of Ockenga and Sider-- the NAE issued a statement this past March calling for action to stop global warning.

Cizik issued an effective sound bite: "I don't think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created."

According to reporter Goodstein, Haggard's contribution to the discussion was, well, a bit more personal. "The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group of 51 church denominations, said he had become passionate about global warming because of his experience scuba diving," she wrote in her article.

Okay. Now if we could just get Haggard interested in rock climbing in Iraq maybe we could end the war.

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.