I had a conversation at Annual Conference with a clergyperson twice my age. The elder clergy lamented the emphasis on “newness”: money sent to new church starts instead of revitalizing established congregations, lifting up “young clergy” rather than helping struggling middle-aged clergy, and seemingly everyone at conference with an iPad as a beacon of newness. The clergyperson did not object to those initiatives but felt like if a congregation wasn’t “new” then it wasn’t important…and that showed on the allocation of resources. My heart hurt a bit thinking of how the elder generation must feel about youth and newness being in the spotlight.
Then I heard about First UMC, Tampa, FL…and my heart hurt a little bit more.
First UMC Tampa is a dwindling elderly congregation in the inner city has been struggling for years with vitality and growth and income. They suddenly get a windfall donation from the sale of a property/business. And just as suddenly, the larger UMC gets involved and claims the money. And last week, the Annual Conference of Florida voted to close the congregation and redistribute all their assets to the district and conference level.
While we don’t have all the facts or the full history of interactions, there’s a few problems I see here.
- Problem of Timing. I’m suspicious because the ball started rolling faster towards closing when the money came into the equation. Would it really have hurt to discern a way forward for another year? Surely even if this has been a long process, “enough is enough” would allow for critical new situations to change the timetable.
- Problem of Accountability. We don’t have much information on (a) what the church’s five-year plan was, (b) what the D.S. found “unacceptable” about the plan, and (c) what the history of interactions between the church and district/conference has been. Until we have more information, we are unable to form opinions on whether the Discpline was followed.
- Problem of Relative Value. The church has 150 members with an average attendance of 50. They pay all their apportionments. That’s larger than the majority of UM churches in my conference for sure! And they have a plan (however hastily-built and dependent on staff) to try to revitalize. I could name a dozen churches just off the top of my head in my conference that are not at this level. Why this church? Why now?
- Problem of Idolizing “Newness”. To a bureaucracy, dealing with a fledgling church with money is probably more of a headache than a new church start. As the saying goes, “it’s easier to give birth than raise the dead” there’s less politics in new churches.
Am I on the side of First UMC, Tampa? No. I don’t know them or their situation. I’m sure some of them are loyal to a fault and would stick with their church even if it was painted black and held a Rob Zombie concert. There’s not a church out there without those type of people. But that said, I don’t know the district/conference level decisions, so I’m not on their side either.
But I am concerned about this and I’m of two minds.
- Should any conference allow a local church to sit on top of that much money if the church is not keeping the mission to make Disciples? This was asked by Sandy Pierce on FB. I call these type of churches “Zombie Churches” whereby they have a large enough endowment that if they set everything to autopay or auto-draft from their bank account, they could keep going forever with no worries…and no missions. While they have all the checklists filled out to sustain themselves, are they the best use of resources? When can we close a church that is more interested in maintenance than missions & ministry?
- Should a church be judged as unredeemable and unable to become a vital congregation again? A large infusion of cash would allow the church to hire staff with the skillsets appropriate to essentially create a new church start within the old church. It would doubtlessly cost more money than a new church plant but is not unthinkable and holds onto our tradition at a depth that a new edgy “ROCKETFUEL 360 NEW HOLINESS UMC” could not hope to reach.
In short, I’m concerned about what impact the Call To Action’s usage of the term “vital congregations” will have in Tampa and in the future. Bishop Scott Jones in the Kansas West Conference has a nice blog post here that outlines the concerns over what that term ‘vital’ even means.
Like the header graphic implies, vitality is quantitatively defined by numbers and finances, but qualitatively defined by whatever quality the powers-that-be hold up. Obviously while Tampa FUMC was able to quantitatively sustain itself, was it able to qualitatively be a vital congregation? Would it ever become one? And has our denomination decided that it is of greater value to birth new churches rather than revive old ones?
Troubling times in Tampa as it becomes the first casualty of the movement towards ‘vital congregations’ that is starting to ramp up. What other ‘old’ church or ministry will lose its funding in favor of newness? What kernels of our ‘tradition’ will survive a generation that replaces their iPods and computers every 18 months? And most important, “what would God have us do?” And who is truly dedicated to that question rather than the question of “what must we do to keep the church going?” I’m pretty sure that they are not identical questions.
Thoughts?(Image Credits: “Numbers And Finance” by kenteegardin on Flickr [Creative Commons, SeniorLiving.org], Header graphic from FUMC Tampa website)