A Dystopian Future for the #UMC 04 – Caste Churches


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.”

  1. Multi-site: they worship in multiple locations throughout a community or region.
  2. Piped message: they export their sermons and sometimes entire worship services to multiple locations.
  3. Sermon series: they have 4-8 week sermon series, which in some cases become book deals or curriculum.
  4. 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.

Your Turn

  • 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 SalterCreative Commons share on Flickr)
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  1. The Rev. Holly Boardman says

    My only problem with this post is your description of this as a possible reality of the FUTURE. The truth is THIS dystopia is here NOW–at least in my conference. Connectionalism and itineracy are virtually dead in this conference. When a young pastor decides to answer God’s call and enter the traditional itineracy and ordination process, he/she is already in a lower class than those who are chosen to be on the staff of one of our mega-churches. Bishops are kept out-of-the-loop when a church hires it’s own staff.

    I’m also seeing a trend in the BOOM—those who come before them as candidates are more likely to be endorsed for ordination when they are already on a mega-church staff. One concern I have about this is that I sometimes doubt whether these mega-church staff members have had a personal experience of justifying grace and can answer the traditional Wesleyan ordination questions with integrity. I also wonder whether clergy ordained under such circumstances are truly willing to itinerate–possibly to a church with minimum salary. I doubt it.

    You are not describing the future, Jeremy. This is the current reality–at least in my conference. Those churches and pastors with the most money have the most power– even our bishops seem to accept this as the way things should be.

    Perhaps you understand why I retired early. Money is power in our denomination. The Holy Spirit is NOT the power that controls our church any longer.

  2. Brett says

    As it concerns the idea that the increase of local pastors would be problematic in some way, don’t Course of Study and the new Local Pastors’ academies, like the one that’s operated in southeastern Oklahoma this past year, offer theological education? Certainly neither is as academically-oriented as most M. Div. programs, but is the argument here that they are insufficient theological training for pastors of local churches? If so, and an M. Div.-level education is a requirement to be a pastor at a local church, is the solution a maintenance of local pastors at lower numbers to ensure that the bulk of churches receive M. Div- holding pastors, or an increase in the quality of the training so that local pastor education is better? Do we need seminary-level education or seminary-label education for our pastors? If we believe the value of seminary-label theological education is essential, what do we do about the ridiculously-out-of-control cost of that education in order to make sure smaller, less-resourced churches can afford seminary graduates?

    • John says

      It is worth noting that, according the figures presented by Rodney Stark, the number of Methodists as a percentage of the U.S. population began to shrink when we decided that all our elders should be seminary educated. Perhaps that is an assumption that needs to be reconsidered as we pray about revitalizing the United Methodist Church. Requiring seminary educated elders is more “main line Protestant” than Wesleyan.

  3. Robin says

    Being in a part of the country without any UM mega churches (the largest church in my conference pretty middling by denominational standards), I have little fear of this dystopian future coming to pass anywhere close to here, not that there aren’t other futures equally dystopian for their own reasons out there. And, as I’m reading books about Emergence Christianity, the future may have less and less us of religious professionals as we live into its values and organizational ways. These are but the death-pangs of a dying institution–cannibalizing ourselves. I wonder, now, what you would describe as a better future, one not colored so much by fear of what might happen, rather describing what you hope will happen.

    • says

      The possibility that what we’re seeing in mega-churches is less a dystopian future and more a ‘dying cry of an institution’ intrigues me. With stats coming out this week that even the kings of the mega-church model, the SBC, is now showing a drop in membership, one has to wonder what the telos of a mega-church oriented eccelsiology might look like. I’d agree that the Emergence Christianity trends and a lot of talk in theological schools about making theological education, including the almighty M.Div, bi-vocational in nature, we might be looking at a more ’embedded clergy’ and ’embedded church’ in the 21st century while the denominational institutions chew themselves down to their last pennies.

  4. Kristin says

    I haven’t really seen the mega church issue in action because I’ve never been in a UM conference overshadowed by one. I agree that it is problematic when large churches are focused on a cult of personality or given the power to make all of their own decisions without some oversight. It seems to me, as you pointed out in your last post, that this gives rise to a consumer mentality where it’s all about the product & brand at the risk of losing sight of the essential message and mission. It’s too easy for mega churches to become fan clubs and echo chambers (lack of diversity in staff, preaching).

    I have more familiarity with the local pastor issue. I’ve seen small towns that can’t afford a full pastor, where multiple sites share a single pastor with low qualifications. It is damaging because a. Individual churches do not get the pastoral care, support, and leadership they need, and b. these pastors perpetuate myths and inaccurate interpretations of the Bible.

    I believe an M. Div or other advanced theological education is important. I’ve recently learned that even M. Div or PhD pastors gloss over or avoid important issues that they learn about in the course of their education–historical context, linguistic issues affecting biblical interpretation, etc., perhaps because they are afraid to challenge tradition and people’s personal beliefs. Pastors need to understand recent biblical scholarship so they can provide more advanced lay education to their parishioner and dispel myths.

    Finding out more about what biblical scholarship really says has actually made it possible to remain a Christian, because I no longer feel that I have to believe the fairy tale version of Christianity to be a true Christian. I believe one of the reasons the church is losing young people is that is, more often than not, insufficiently open to intellectual inquiry and exploration. Lack of education, support, and authenticity= young people think that they have no place in the church. This is probably what’s really behind the distaste for “organized religion”.

  5. says

    I think a much-needed part of the conversation is that the UMC has a lot of really bad preachers. We have ordained elders who never learn to teach their churches to be fiscally responsible. We have elders who choose not to live and breathe the scriptures, who refuse to do house calls or hospital visitations, who refuse to do new church programs or submit reports to their superiors. The UMC has a bunch of clergy who are not very good despite their having earned a MDiv. The degree doesn’t seem to make the (wo)man of God. Is it really so bad if some of them can admit it and turn to other resources, even other pastors, to supplement their ministries? If anything, I think this is a promising sign of the return of connectionalism, undoing a lot of the siloing that we have seen take place over the last 100 years.

    The other issue is larger churches finding loopholes around guaranteed appointment by growing the number of positions that can be terminated without the consent of the bishop. But if we look at the early Methodist ecclesiology, we see even more control given to the presiding elder. Rather than having a bunch of staff, Methodist clergy had to rely upon laity to serve in those different functions, and at least in theory they could remove whomever they wanted, hopefully based upon their conduct within the society. The difference now is that we have privatized a lot of ministry, taken it out of the hands of laity, and paid clergy to do it in larger settings. This turn that you describe seems to me to be returning to a more adaptable and effective model of ministry that we see in early Methodism.

    So long as rank corresponds with merit, I really don’t see what the problem of different ranks is within the clergy. I say that as a virtually-powerless local licensed pastor. If I am one of these crummy pastors that I described above, then I’m glad that I won’t be put in positions of influence or power. I don’t think the problem lies intrinsically with rank (what you call caste I think for polemical effect?), but in the ways that our ranking system does not always correspond with skills or merit. Institutional trends toward bureaucracy and cronyism have taken their toll, and I think current attempts at eliminating the guaranteed appointment are working toward undoing a lot of that damage. But what’s needed is a culture shift, too. I don’t think the culture needs to turn against larger churches, as perhaps you have led to here. Rather, I think we need to work toward more open speech around the fruits that churches and preachers are bearing, and how what we see matches up with what we see in the scriptures.

    There was another United Methodist minister who warned of a dystopian future at General Conference last year. You reamed him out pretty badly online for his ‘scare tactics.’ It was Adam Hamilton when he presented the Call to Action and showed the church of the future being vacant. I think it’s okay to disagree with him, if you still do, but I also think it’s also important not to use the same tactics that you condemned him for.

  6. Amy says

    I know you said you had to cut a lot of this post to keep it a reasonable length but to me while it is clear what you are arguing against (private hires) it not clear to me what you are arguing for: a staunchly Wesleyan seminary trained clergy? (I don’t want Calvinists in our pulpits either!), BOM certified clergy? (that’s a whole other can of worms), episcopal oversight? or fidelity to itinerancy and the common covenant of clergy in an Annual Conference? (and if this then we need to articulate why itinerancy is so important). What you value most among those dictates the response we should have to any “trend” you have identified.

    You do ask why churches would choose private hires. One reason might be theological control as you allude to about Asbury in Tulsa. Another reason though would be a lack of available UM clergy who are willing and available to serve in these associate or staff roles. The retirement tsunami plays into this so too do guaranteed appointments that keeps clergy in the system who are not well equipped for pastoral ministry. Another reason would be the incredible cost of adding another appointed clergy person. At minimum salary in KS a full member clergy package starts at $72000. One need not be a mega-church to reconsider if this is the best stewardship of a church’s funds or if private hire staff would better balance the church’s resources with the mission.

    All this is to say, while this is a worrying trend it, more than any of your other posts, points toward the huge institutional issues we have in the UMC. Feel free to argue with me on this point but one thing I have seen as BOM chair this last year (meaning I have a whole new look “behind the curtain”) is that we are leadership poor. We have some amazing and innovate and spirit-filled clergy. But we simply do not have enough of them. God help us be ready like never before to receive and nurture those whom God is currently calling into ministry in the UMC. Our entire future depends on it.

  7. Mark Lee says

    As an outsider, in another mainline denomination, it is interesting to overhear this discussion. One aspect of the phenomena of large churches calling staff specialists is that these folk often are hired at significantly lower compensation packages than if they were serving a regular call. This is particularly true of part-timers. Our congregation employs two part time education people (children & adults) at least in part so as not to have to provide regular clerical benefit packages (especially health insurance). Another aspect of the “Wal-mart” effect in church personnel decisions: multiple, low-paid, specialists. I don’t know if this is the case in the UMC megachurches you describe, but it is definitely a trend in more congregational traditions.

  8. Stephen says

    I have friends that serve on CoRs pastoral staff or have served there. They were Methodists and yes the Senior Pastor did interview them ahead of time. A couple of observations…

    1. Should senior pastors of churches get some say in who is appointed there to serve with them? Did your senior pastor? Mine did. The cabinet asked him who he thought might compliment his style and he picked me. I don’t see an issue in senior pastors having some say on their staff. Right people in the right seats on the bus.

    2. Coming from a rural annual conference. A lot of our local churches don’t have the resources to support a full time elder and all the pension, retirement, utilities, parsonage that goes along with them. Local pastors/associate members make up close to 50% of our conference clergy. I went to license to preach school with some of them. They do great ministry and provide good leadership especially in areas under served and rural areas that are shrinking. Is this a caste system for local churches that are still doing good ministry with a local pastor?

    I don’t have all the answers. I think we have always existed as a hybrid model church between Roman Catholic (priests are sent to various parishes) and a culture of called to a particular place. My d.s. can remember showing up for annual conference and having the appointments read at the end. You had a week to move afterwards. The church will evolve I guess.

  9. Julianne says

    @ Kristin: You said.. ” It is damaging because a. Individual churches do not get the pastoral care, support, and leadership they need, and b. these pastors perpetuate myths and inaccurate interpretations of the Bible.
    I believe an M. Div or other advanced theological education is important..”
    This is a BIG paintbrush, and Big assumptions you are using Kristin. From what I have seen in Methodist Churches these past 30 years, many of our “local pastors” who are called to ministry late in life, come with extensive and very rich life and professional experience. Not, so with straight from college to Divinity school home grown pastors. There theological education doesn’t often find it self transformed into powerful sermons or better pastoral care… Having been a member in both large church and small church settings, I would most always opt for the educated local pastor, Not just the M.Div track pastor.. There are exceptions of course, but that entails using a Much Smaller paintbrush when speaking about local pastors…

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