This past week approximately 250 United Methodist's gathered in Southlake, Texas at White's Chapel UMC for Bishop's Week. This was the first "Bishop's Week" in a few years. Bishop's Week used to be a learning event for Bishops and their Cabinets. A revisioned iteration exploded onto the scene this year in the South Central Jurisdiction. Titled "Excellence in Ministry: Developing Fruitful Leaders", the event attempted to be a collaborative learning experience to help all our Conferences strengthen clergy and lay leadership. Several of our longer serving Bishops called together the SCJ Bishops, Cabinets, Extended Cabinet and a few other leaders from the Conferences. Other clergy and laity from outside the Jurisdiction also were in attendance. The main goal of the two day event was to refocus our efforts on clergy leadership.
The Missouri attendees included our Bishop, Cabinet and Extended Cabinet, Conference Lay Leader, Chair of BOOM, two younger members of BOOM, our Director of Hispanic Ministries, a few others and me (Chair of Conference Nominations).
The opening session was led by Bishop Janis Huie and was a brief history of our clergy credentialing system and some of the major shifts that need to take place. A brilliant metaphor was shared early on that stayed with me throughout the event. Her talk really hit home. She shared that the traditional view of those entering clergy ministry was seen as a pipeline. Sadly, the pipeline had become rusty at one point and time, and now all together is clogged up. She proposed a shift from pipeline to Ecosystem. The story below is my best notes and recollection of how this metaphor came into existence.
Yellowstone National Park
In 1988 Yellowstone National Park suffered a devastating fire that destroyed nearly 1/3 of the Park.
Why? Before then, the practice of beneficial and necessary burns was deemed to be outside the bounds of normal Park Service activities as many believed that we should try and fight fires instead of let them burn.
In 1996 Yellowstone was suffering in many ways.
Too many Elk, as many were dying from starvation.
Willows along the shores were being eaten by Elk.
Beavers had no willows to build dams with because of the Elk.
Fewer Beaver dams meant less fish as they were swept through the park by rushing rivers.
The response of the Park Rangers was to help try and balance the Ecosystem in two ways.
One- allow for beneficial burns. And since 1988, the Park has not suffered another devastating fire.
Two- reintroduce the Gray Wolf to help lower the population of the Elk.
In both cases, the Park Rangers believed that a healthy balance had been restored. Both were ripe with controversy, as you can imagine. Many were against the “beneficial burn” policy, and even more against the reintroduction of grey wolves.
Was balance restored? I don’t know. But the stewards of the park believe so.
How can we then bring health and vitality into our Ecosystem? Over the two day event many ideas were offered, some of which I will share over the next few blogs. Some acknowledgements to our current struggles with the 37 (yes there are 37) different routes into a form of clergy ministry. Understanding that we all live amidst a complex set of relationships and diverse communities, must be apart of any discussion going forward. Also, as a denomination, we are not reaching people in the U.S. as we once did.
An honest assessment of our old pipelines (Sunday School, UMYF, Camps, CCYM, Wesley Foundations) was given. Basically, those have all but dried up. Ultimately, we need to be willing to change the default setting from “acceptable” or “nothing bad” to “fruitful” (Bishop Schnase’s words).
We live in a complex and complicated ecosystem of relationships and communities. There is not one answer to the decline of the UMC or the decline of younger people going to seminary or seeking ordination. Can it be fixed? Should it? Or, can we through a strong and collaborative effort turn the tide of exodus into new wineskins? A path of fruitfulness and revitalization is possible. In Missouri, we have seen our overall worship attendance grow these past few years, while most other Conferences have seen decline. Through lifting up entrepreneurial leaders, balancing our leadership ecosystem with diversity (age, gender, race) and starting new churches/revitalizing congregations, we have seen a significant shift in our ecosystem.
There is still lots of work to do, but Bishop’s Week helped many of us honestly name the problems before us and we continue the holy work of transforming the world in Jesus Christ.
Go in peace and go with God.