The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
COMMENTARY: Count effectiveness by numbers Bishop William H. Willimon, Jun 28, 2010
Bishop William Willimon
By Bishop William Willimon Special Contributor
How do we Methodists define effective clergy? We do it with one word: growth. Effective clergy know how to grow the church in its membership, witness and mission.
In North Alabama, we now have a “Conference Dashboard” that every church logs in on Monday morning and reports their numbers for that Sunday’s attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, offering and participation in mission.
The pushback we have received has surprised me. In nearly every group of clergy where I’ve discussed our work, someone always repeats one of these mindless mantras: “It’s all about numbers is it?” “You can’t measure clergy effectiveness, can you?” “So it’s come to this: putting the butts in the pews.”
Yada, yada, yada.
There may be something to be said for some of these slogans. Except not in the United Methodist Church. We’re Wesleyans. That means we believe in the growth of the kingdom of God.
John Wesley had friction with the established church of his day, not only because of his vibrant Trinitarian theology, but also because of his refusal to limit his ministry to the moribund English parochial system.
From the beginning, Methodists were inveterate counters and numbers keepers.
[Duke Divinity School professor and Wesley scholar] Dick Heitzenrater tells me that in the annual minutes of British Methodism, beginning in 1769, the Circuits with fewer members than the previous year were marked with an asterisk. That year, it was 12 of the 48 Circuits. By 1779, that number had expanded to 18.
The question was asked at the conference, “How can we account for the decrease in so many Circuits this year?” The answer: This was “chiefly to the increase of worldly-mindedness and conformity to the world.”
As of 1781, Wesley marked with an asterisk those Circuits that had an increase in membership, which was the case with 32 of them, or exactly half. This method was used for a few years until the percentage of Circuits that experienced increases in membership was 75 percent of the connection.
Our North Alabama Conference once had four full-time people who spent their whole day collecting numbers from our churches. These numbers were duly reported and printed in the conference Journal.
Yet here’s the thing: Not one single decision was ever made by the bishop or cabinet on the basis of these numbers! It was as if we were all engaged in a studied effort never to notice any of the numbers we were so assiduously and expensively collecting.
Of course, when the numbers were as bad as ours—over half our congregations had not made a new Christian in the past three years, a 20 percent decrease in membership—it takes courage to note the numbers.
Wesley frequently cites numerical growth as indicative of spiritual vitality. In his sermon “On God’s Vineyard,” he celebrates the London Methodist Society’s growth from 12 to 2,200 in just about 25 years. Dr. Heitzenrater speculates that Wesley was trying to spur them on, since their membership had slowed to gain only 400 new members in the latest 25 years.
Wesley sent pastors to those areas where, in his estimate, there were the most souls to be saved. He told his traveling preachers not just that they ought to read but also put a number on it: at least five hours a day.
Wesley also kept a close eye on how much money was collected each year—for Kingswood School, for new preaching houses, for the pension fund, for operating expenses. The Annual Conference was invented not just as opportunity for worship and fellowship but for the purpose of everyone rendering account and confessing their numbers.
I can’t speak for other church families. But in the Wesleyan family, studied obliviousness to results, deploying pastors without regard to their fruitfulness, pastors shrinking churches, pastors keeping house among the older folks left there by the work of a previous generation of pastors, and churches having a grand old time loving one another and praising God without inviting, seeking and saving those outside the church, do not make for faithfulness.
“Numbers aren’t important.” Really? Tell that to Jesus and his parables of growth and fruitfulness. Tell it to the Acts of the Apostles.
Tell it to John Wesley.
Bishop Willimon leads the Birmingham (Ala.) Area. Reprinted from the North Alabama Conference website.