After my first Annual Conference as Bishop in North Alabama, I read the story of that gathering in The Birmingham News. The story was a glowing report of all that we were doing as a church. Impressive. But the story ended with, “this year, as with all previous years, the North Alabama Conference lost four thousand members.” Our bubble was burst. Why is it that good news, no matter how good, always seems to be defeated by bad news?
This year Lori Carden, our Conference Statistician, gave one of the most encouraging reports we heard at the 2009 Annual Conference: Growth! Documented, unavoidable, growth. Lori noted once again that we are an aging church: the death rate for North Alabama United Methodists in 2008 was 8 times higher than the death rate for the state of Alabama. This is what happens when our congregations limit their ministries mostly to people my age. More than 2000 people were removed from church rolls, not by disaffection with our church, but rather by death. Our total membership for the Conference decreased by 852 people. At the end of 2008 total membership was 149,473. Not much good news there.
But then Lori gave us an expanded look at our numbers. The loss of 852 members is THE SMALLEST DECLINE WE HAVE HAD IN TWO DECADES! This past year we cut our rate of loss by two thirds! Lori also noted in 2008 professions of faith increased by 401 people; ethnic membership was up by 689 people and the number of people who were baptized in North Alabama United Methodist Churches was up by 115. She also noted a huge increase in the number of people participating in small groups – 8425 people!
How did we do it? I’m sure that most of this growth was due to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But we also let the Holy Spirit guide us: we defined an “effective pastor” as someone who knows how to lead a church to grow, we began to notice our numbers with the initiation of the Conference Weekly Dashboard, we gave pastors and churches skills (NCD, Healthy Congregations Program, Ethnic Church Development, and New Church Development) in how to produce growth, we started more new congregations, and the Cabinet vowed to do a better job of keeping pastors in place or moving pastors on the basis of a pastor’s ability to grow a church.
These are wonderful numbers that are evidence that we are moving in the right direction. They are also validation that if your church is not growing it is probably because your church has decided (even if unintentionally) that it can’t grow, has not availed itself of the great resources for growth that we now offer, and has therefore decided to decline and die. The good news is that God is graciously granting those pastors and congregations fruit who desire and work for fruit. Thanks be to God!
Is YOUR church growing? Find out by logging into the Church Stats section of our Conference Website: there you will find a picture – by the numbers – of the spiritual health of your church.