success in ministry

next week is prosper umc's church conference, sort of the annual business meeting of the church. reports are given, my compensation is voted on, the concluding year is discussed, looking forward to the next. part of my preparation for the conference is putting together membership reports. last year our total membership was 380-something. so then we add those who have joined: youth confirmed and adults. some were baptized; others transferred from other churches. if the adults have children baptized elsewhere they are counted in another column. we count baptisms of children, youth, and adults. these numbers, plus things like average attendance, indebtedness, sunday school, and value of property are inputed into a spreadsheet, presumably the purpose of which is to gauge the church's-- and the pastor's-- "success" for the year.

the problem with this is that numbers seldom reflect what is actually going on in the church. if they did, we would automatically know-- instead of simply assuming-- that large churches are successful and small one are not. but that is never true. when christy and i served in england there was a tiny church of about a dozen people. they never failed to meet together. their per capita giving was much more than the other churches on the circuit. yet when the church inevitably closed, was it considered a success or failure?

our love of numbers is further complicated because for some reason membership is still a factor in calculating apportionments (the annual giving each united methodist church contributes to the larger church to fund all sorts of things). so every year someone asks the preacher, "who can we drop from the rolls so we can save on apportionments?" preachers, of course, fight against removing anyone because guess what is a factor in evaluating a pastor's ministry?? yup. numbers.

so this week i painfully filled out my report (i say "painfully" not because of results but because i have to do it in the first place). baptisms this year: 25; last year: 5. new members this year: 55; last year: 30. members removed from the rolls: 71. so we will post a net loss in the charts of 16 people. i have no idea how much that will save on our 2010 apportionment, but i am confident it will not be a drop in the bucket. and i do not care. the whole idea of tracking membership in the first place is silly. if only 10 people join in 2009-- but they are faithful, dedicated disciples-- will that be failed year? will the d.s. (my supervisor) call to ask why we brought in 45 less folk? or if we grow by 100-- but 80 of them come three sundays in 2010--will i be congratulated and given a certificate?

this entire way of thinking represents antiquated processes. Jesus never said, "go and be successful." he never said, "go and pad the worship stats to make the church or yourself look better and improve your chances for that next appointment." he said, "go and make disciples." he said, "you do my Father's will if you bear fruit and become my disciples." those are things that simply cannot be recorded in excel. we need a denominational, missional makeover. and fast.

this week the north texas conference-- and the methodist movement as a whole-- lost a saint, rev. kathleen baskin-ball. i did not know kathleen personally as so many others did, and i will always regret that. but i knew her professionally. i heard her speak. i knew of and experienced firsthand her sense of hospitality. she was a nationally sought after preacher and leader. she was universally beloved like no one i have have ever seen. whenever i would read about her in stories and biographies it was always mentioned that every church kathleen served doubled in membership. suncreek tripled under her leadership. but the growth had nothing to do with numbers. the growth was in discipleship. in vitality. in community. in love.

i once asked a d.s.-- not mine-- how they evaluated the "success" of pastors. after all, it's impossible to hear weekly preaching, sit in on hospital visits and finance meetings, so how do they do it? he said, "we look for fruitfulness." that's the right answer, but i wonder how it's done. i'll probably never know. but it cannot be done by crunching numbers. members of churches should not be excited when someone becomes a member and ceases to be a visitor. they should not be excited to remove long-gone members to save money on apportionments. pastors should not fill out a single statistic, whether the numbers show net addition or subtraction (and yes i would say the same thing if we had a net increase of 16 this year!). we should be excited when we are joyfully, intentionally, methodically participating in God's work, saving the world through Jesus Christ. that cannot be measured by a formula or a calculator. it is evident in passion, energy, and vision. you can feel it when it's there; when it's absent it is just as obvious.

tomorrow we will gather to celebrate kathleen's life. it will be a joyful, and painful service of thanksgiving to God for sharing with us such a remarkable gift. one part of kathleen's legacy will be her enduring witness to each of us-- laity and clergy-- encouraging us to go and make disciples.

now that's success in ministry.

"remember your leaders, those who have spoken God's word to you. think about the impact of their lives, and imitate their faith" (hebrews 13:7).


DogBlogger said…
Great post, Frank. Thank you.