***Disclaimer: this post is not written by Will Willimon.
I recently received my Olan Mills’ 8 x 10 portrait photograph in the mail this week from our North Alabama Annual Conference clergy pictorial directory. As I looked at the portrait in disbelief, I showed it to my wife and said: “I don’t look like this!” I realized on that day that I have an entirely different mental picture of myself. This mental picture is not based upon how I look right now; it is based on what I looked like six years ago. It is the Facebook affect. We would rather not put the true pictures of ourselves out in social media, and so we post pictures from 2, 5 or 10 years ago.
I love the lyrics to the song, “You Can Do Better Than Me,” by Death Cab for Cutie: “I’ve been slipping through the years. My old clothes don’t fit like they once did. So they hang like ghosts of the people I have been.”
It’s hard to look at a realistic picture of who you truly are. My church is currently going through a ministry assessment and long range plan development as we look ahead to the year 2020. We began looking at the worship attendance for the contemporary worship service I regularly preach and we realized that the attendance spiked in 2004 and 2005. No one realized that this had happened. We thought we were still doing that well. The numbers told us the truth about ourselves. We needed to change the things we are doing that we shouldn’t be doing and we should do the things we are not doing in order to help the service return to its upward trajectory. We also have to be honest that this service may not be the answer for many people and a fourth style of worship may be needed in our congregation.
There has been a lot of buzz online about numbers and clergy effectiveness due to Bishop Willimon’s post and recent news about guaranteed appointments. It seems as though tension is rising in our denomination. We know that we need to turn the ship — to help the United Methodist Church return to being a movement of transformed people rather than a connection of loyalists sustaining a structure. However, it seems as though whenever a suggestion is made to help us transition towards growth it is criticized and shot down. I am starting to feel that we are becoming less like the church in Acts, which prayed things out together, and more like a church that resembles our current political landscape where we shout at each other and ignore the core problems. Just like many meetings in the church, we think that talking about it is actually doing something about it.
And if you think about it, being evaluated by attendance seems so corporate. It seems as though members and visitors are becoming “customers.” We rightly point to the fact that quality is just as important as quantity. But if we are honest, we are most likely celebrating other numbers in our denomination and in our local churches: we count the number of flood buckets sent to Nashville; we count the number of folks that are engaged in mission; and we count the offering which goes to support our buildings and ministry and mission. We care about numbers to an extent, but then there is that invisible line where it just doesn’t feel “Methodist” to count those numbers.
So what does that say about us? Are numbers really the problem or is it the accountability that follows that makes us queasy? My guess is that some do not trust the powers that be with making the right decisions with the reported numbers. If that is the case, we do have means by which to hold cabinets accountable within the Discipline. However, might it also be true that we do not want to know the truth about our own churches and our own ministries? The truth is sometimes excruciating, but at least it has the potential for transformation.
Numbers are not the product or the fruit. They are merely a means by which to access the health of missions and ministry. People matter. So the goal is not simply better numbers but healthier churches reaching more people – making them into disciples. May the numbers be a means of grace and a challenge to minister more fervently!