This series looks at four techniques of the most successful United Methodist churches in America. While the techniques could benefit any church, they have serious dark sides. A dystopian future could await United Methodism if these techniques become widespread.
01: Vulture Churches | 02: Franchise Churches | 03: Production Churches | 04: Caste Churches
In the United Methodist Church, there are churches and then there are vital churches, meaning churches who have been defined as having the necessary qualities to be strong and vibrant (there’s 16 drivers in all). Over and over again in seminars and books, we are encouraged to emulate these successful churches and use their techniques in our ministry contexts. However, when one looks at these vital churches and the megachurches in the United Methodist Church, they also have in common four other techniques which are, in our opinion, “playing with fire.”
- Multi-site: they worship in multiple locations throughout a community or region.
- Piped message: they export their sermons and sometimes entire worship services to multiple locations.
- Sermon series: they have 4-8 week sermon series, which in some cases become book deals or curriculum.
- One Magnetic Personality: these churches are run by one well-educated and charismatic clergy, who is often a man.
In this series, we will look at these four techniques and examine the dark sides of these techniques and the dystopian future that might emerge if these become more commonplace without serious reflection and persistent accountability.
From Personality Churches to Caste Churches
We’ve talked about multisite and piped sermons, but we haven’t talked about is leadership. At multi-site churches that are vital, “who is in charge?” is a variable question (although the answer is almost always a middle-aged white man). While all share that magnetic central senior pastor, are there local church pastors who decide their own worship services? Are there campus pastors who just facilitate the videotape of the preaching pastor? And does it matter their ordination status? While much has been written about cults of personality–and this blog talked a lot about Celebrity Culture in the UMC–not much has been written about the ecclesial makeup of those churches.
The largest Methodist churches already have a strong hand in the itinerancy process when it comes to their serving pastors. The huge Asbury UMC in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a case study in what role different bishops play in the megachurch’s use of clergy. During “moderate to liberal” Bishop Blake’s tenure before 2004, Asbury had reduced their number of appointed clergy positions, relying instead on Assistant and lay clergy. During “moderate to conservative” Bishop Hayes’ tenure, Asbury has increased the number of appointed positions. Still, out of 10 pastors at Asbury, only 5 are appointed UM Elders (two are deacons, three are retired UM clergy). That means that Asbury has sole hire/fire decision making for half of its clergy staff…and that’s an increase from pre-2004!
Lest you think I’m picking on evangelical churches, consider Urban Village Church, a progressive multi-site church in Chicago that is thriving like nobody’s business. However, an interesting fact is that 3 out of 5 of their clergy are appointed UMs…the other two pastors are not even United Methodist. Is that an acceptable ratio? They are clearly effective and vital clergy, and my friends in those congregations love them. But the question remains: were there not any appointable UM clergy available? While I appreciate that hiring their own pastors could allow people who may not fit into the ordination process to serve a church, it does bother me more to have a high percentage of “hired” rather than “itinerant” clergy at a local church.
I would get really cross-eyed going down the pastoral lists of Church of the Resurrection or Ginghamsburg or Grace Church Florida…so someone else can do that in the comments and see if the pattern holds. The point is that there’s a caste system in place: there are churches that get to “opt out” of the itinerancy process and the appointment system through multi-site or growth so that they can hire and fire their own clergy.
But it could become worse than that. Imagine if these multi-site churches continue to spread and take over appointed church positions in an urban area. What’s to stop them from placing non-appointed clergy over those sites?
In the end, there may be a dystopian future of two types of churches. The upper caste are the megachurch or multi-site churches that rely on one charismatic personality at the top who then leads 4-10 sites that have pastors handpicked by the senior pastor. The lower caste is everyone else that doesn’t fit into the megachurch/multi-site missions and are “the rest of Methodism.”
A Dystopian future of caste churches
The seeds of such a dystopian future lie–oddly–in the hands of local church pastors. Amy Forbus (now editor of the Arkansas United Methodist paper) had an article a year ago about Adam Hamilton’s partner program to offer piped messages to a group of willing churches that are currently being served by local church pastors or by seminary students. Basically, Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection offered to pipe the sermons to other UM churches as part of a partner program. And here’s how it lived out:
On the weeks that Mr. Hamilton preaches for the partner churches, the rest of the service still keeps a local focus and feel.
“[We get] every bit of flexibility,” Mr. Hall says. “The only thing that is required is Adam’s sermon. Otherwise, the order of worship is our own, the music we select is our own; everything else is our own.” Church of the Resurrection also provides shells for worship bulletins to all partner congregations. Mr. Hall receives final information on the Scripture selection and sermon title by Thursday morning of each week to complete the bulletins.
The sermon comes last. Mr. Hamilton preaches at Church of the Resurrection’s Saturday evening service, and that sermon is available for Mr. Hall to download by 9 or 9:30 p.m. He burns two DVDs of it, one for each church to use the next morning.
When I wrote about the program three years ago, I was worried about local church pastors and seminarians early in their career would outsource the sermon to alleviate their time frame. And how did it play out?
In August 2011, Mr. Hall, a licensed local pastor, began coursework at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla…While giving up the opportunity to preach every Sunday may help with time management during the week, it still would give many pastors pause. Such was the case with Mr. Hall.
“You know, I had to pray about that one,” he said, adding that he still considers himself “a rookie pastor.” But ultimately, he remembered it isn’t about him.
“It’s a pretty obvious answer that Adam Hamilton is a far better preacher, so essentially, what’s best for my congregation? It’s not about my ministry, but it’s about God’s ministry, so let’s do this thing. Let’s do everything we can to help this little church start growing again.”
If we multiply this experience over the next few decades, what is to stop local churches from wanting to provide quality worship through piped messages from charismatic pastors…and thus remove the need for the conference invest much in preaching/teaching development for the other clergy? Oh sure, they’ll work hard to identify the cream of the crop–the best of the best, so long as they are under 45–and keep supporting a small number of highly vital clergy to replace the megachurch/multi-site personalities. But the church of the people and where theological education was important may fall by the wayside.
I can imagine a dystopian future where a conference only has need for 50 elders whose emphases are on preaching and worship leadership who pipe their message to 10 churches each. Each of those churches has local pastor technocrats who can manage a church and are chosen for their people skills.
The scary part is that it’s already begun in Oklahoma. 18 months ago, we discussed a plan dividing the Oklahoma churches into such castes: if their budget was over $160k, then they would get an Elder. If it was under $160k, they would get a local church pastor. The goal was to increase the number of local church pastors by incredible percentages and reduce the number of Elders–for a significant cost savings, but at the cost of the value of theological education.
In short, my fear is that the future holds two castes of churches: one that gets all the resources and makes pastoral decisions without itineracy considerations…and the rest who struggle on before becoming absorbed.
- Is it fair that multi-site and megachurches find ways to hire and fire their own clergy–in the face of Connectionalism? Are there good and bad sides to that?
- If multi-site spreads and there’s less need for ordained clergy to facilitate the piped sermons, what might be the effect on the ecclesiology of the church as a whole?
This is a four-part series, and this is the last entry. Check out the rest in the header to see the whole series.
And by popular demand, there will be a fifth section on Monday: From Dystopia to Utopia: what ought multi-site look like? We’ll see what happens when Hacking Christianity constructs rather than deconstructs something 😉 See you then.
Thoughts? Thanks for your comments, both here and on Facebook.(Photo credit: “Abandoned Church” by Ben Salter, Creative Commons share on Flickr)