Laura Nichol, a member of the Call to Action Interim Operations Team, facilitates a conversation about the cultural changes The United Methodist Church needs to reverse decades of declining U.S. membership. A UMNS photo by Heather Hahn. 

A UMNS Report by Heather Hahn*

4:00 P.M. ET April 5, 2012

Nearly 30 church leaders came to Chicago on a mission to help The United Methodist Church reverse declining U.S. membership and revitalize its congregations.

They rolled up their sleeves and went to work. After two days of discussions beginning April 2, no final decisions were made. The group learned about the progress the global denomination has made in making vital congregations its true first priority. But, the gathering also talked about the obstacles the denomination faces, including fear and distrust among clergy and laity.

Sometimes United Methodists get stuck thinking “ain’t it awful” and focus only on what they think is holding the denomination back, said San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr.

“We need to shift that conversation to ‘Hey, we can master the work we’re about,’” he said. “We have the positive image in the community. We can be the people we’re dreaming of.”

The guest list was made up of people who worked on various stages of the multiyear Call to Action process. They included lay people, bishops, agency staff, district superintendents and pastors — many who helped develop the Call to Action Interim Operations Team’s proposed merger of nine general agencies under a 15-member board. The Interim Operations Team paid for the event out of its $750,000 budget that the Connectional Table allocated for its work. Those attending all live in the United States. Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany, soon to be Council of Bishops president, was invited but could not attend.

The consensus among those gathered was that no matter what happens with various proposals to change the denomination’s structure, The United Methodist Church needs to change its culture to foster vitality.

In three weeks, the 2012 General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking body — will weigh that proposal and others aimed at streamlining agency governance. While the legislation has sparked debate, just about everyone agrees that it will take more than restructuring to bring about the Call to Action’s overarching goal of making more disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.

Vital Congregations initiative

One cultural change already under way is the focus on encouraging congregations to set clear objectives and use metrics to achieve vitality.

Washington Area Bishop John R. Schol and the Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, who served on the Call to Action Steering Team, provided an update on the work of this Vital Congregations initiative. They lead the project with the help of staff members and financial support from seven general agencies.

The initiative includes the website,, where congregations can set goals for greater fruitfulness, find resources for reaching those goals and share stories of successes.

The hope is congregations will view their goals as “offerings to God,” Barker said.

The website encourages local churches to measure and improve vitality in five areas — worship attendance, professions of faith, participation in small groups, members participating in mission and dollars given to mission.

The initiative also includes the email-based Vital Signs dashboard, put together by the General Council on Finance and Administration, which allows churches to track their progress on a weekly basis.

As of April 2, 16,255 U.S. congregations have submitted goals via the website, and 19,248 other U.S. congregations have submitted goals through some other method, such as their annual (regional) conference.

In 25 U.S. annual conferences, at least 50 percent of congregations have submitted their goals online. Another three conferences — Florida, West Virginia and East Zimbabwe — are collecting goals using their own methods. Altogether, leaders expect some 70 percent of U.S. congregations to participate in goal setting, and those goals will be shared at General Conference.

Facing a culture of fear

The use of goals and metrics to increase vitality is not without its challenges, Schol acknowledged, and one of those is overcoming what some term a culture of fear and fostering a culture of trust and risk-taking.

“The greatest fear out there both among laity and clergy is: How are these numbers going to be used? Are these numbers going to be used to close our churches? Are these numbers going to be used to demote me in my appointment?” he said.

“We really have to think about that and educate people about how to do evaluations with the numbers and see this as a positive evaluation of what are we learning …. We’re really trying to stay away from judgment and help churches and pastors grow.”

Brown, the bishop of the California-Nevada Conference, said during a small-group breakout session that he is concerned about the accuracy of the church data on vitality he receives.

He said he has an unacceptable number of churches that are listed as highly vital that aren’t vital by any measure, including a church that has closed and some that should be closed. At the same time, he said, some churches he knows to be highly vital aren’t showing up. He likened the problem to getting false positives in medical tests.

Laura Nichol, a member of the Interim Operations Team and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, speculated that people are entering inaccurate information out of the fear Schol mentioned.

Brown agreed.

“As a local church pastor, you go into a church and you find you have 200 average attendance,” he said. “But for the last 10 years, the pastor has been recording 500 average attendance. So you grow the church and you report the next year 250 attendance, and people look at you and say, ‘You’re killing this church.’ That’s been a historic problem.”

Nichol suggested one solution might be for periodic independent audits of church attendance.

Brown does see the emphasis on vital congregations as beneficial overall, he later told the full gathering.

“I see a lot of positive response from people who say now we see clarity and unity around our purpose, and that is building a lot of positive momentum in my conference,” he said, “and I see it in a lot of other places.”

Not just big churches

The emphasis on vital congregations follows a 2010 study of 32,228 United Methodist churches in the United States. The study was commissioned by the Call to Action Steering Team, which preceded the Interim Operations Team. The consulting firm Towers Watson measured vitality in terms of attendance, growth over five years, professions of faith per member and annual giving per attendee. Of the congregations it analyzed, Towers Watson classified 4,961, or 15 percent, as “high-vital” congregations.

Repeatedly, Schol and Barker stressed that congregations do not need to be megachurches or even largish to be vital. Towers Watson research also found that highly vital congregations can develop in urban and rural as well as suburban settings.

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor of the multicampus Grace United Methodist Church in southwestern Florida, said that even great size is no guarantee of vitality. Even among the denomination’s 100 largest U.S. congregations, he said, are churches that are no longer vital.

To learn more about the Vital Congregations initiative or share a story of success, or email the Rev. Amy Valdez Barker

Schol later gave United Methodist News Service an example of a small vital congregation in his conference — Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington. Founded in 1850, Mount Vernon Place was the former national church for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, one of The United Methodist Church’s predecessor bodies.

In recent years its attendance had dwindled to about 30 people. But now its weekly attendance is 70 to 90, Schol said. The church has been putting into action many of the practices such as small groups and topical sermons thatTowers Watson research found to be drivers of vitality.

“The last 40 people who joined are all young adults,” he said, “and they’re doing a great job.”

Acevedo spoke of the ability of vital congregations to mentor other churches across the connection — something Grace United Methodist Church is already doing to help churches start recovery ministries.

Missouri Area Bishop Robert C. Schnase, the author of “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” said church leaders are making progress.

“Even if several of the key recommendations get turned down by General Conference, actually I think we’re going to start working on a lot of the right stuff for years to come because of the effort,” he said. “There is no turning back from this conversation.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470

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