I have recently started rereading Seth Godin’s brilliant book, Small is the New Big, which is a series of blog posts about marketing, management, and leadership. He writes about why managers and mid-level workers are often so unwilling to make decisions and take significant risks, pointing out that the system in most companies is designed to discourage people from taking risks and innovating. By remaining “competent” in their own, often outmoded paradigm, they are rewarded with promotions, raises, and stability. Breaking the paradigm, or doing something that will threaten this competency means that they must risk their personal and economic security, possibly lose the goodwill of their employers, and withstand negative repercussions from the system. Therefore, even when a system (e.g. a business model for a dying company) is obviously not viable, people will avoid innovation, which ultimately guarantees a slow and inevitable death.
For anyone who has ever participated in the United Methodist Church’s system for identifying, training, and deploying pastoral leaders, this situation should sound very common. Think for a second about all the ways our dying church encourages pastors to keep the status quo:
1) Our United Methodist Seminaries- who train our future leaders using an educational paradigm born in the 1950’s, which encouraged pastors to be educated, to reach the people who walked through the doors (rather than those outside their doors), and to value personal and economic security, and send out their students to do supervised ministry with pastors who lead in that paradigm. This means that our pastors are taught about only one paradigm of pastoral leadership (and heaven help that any of our blessed seminaries ever touch anything so *gasp* radical as resources by those *big* churches such as Church of the Resurrection or Willow Creek), a paradigm that emphasizes stability and passivity.
2) Boards of Ordained Ministry- comprised of people trained primarily by the above seminaries, almost all in that one paradigm of leadership, who evaluate candidates for pastoral leadership primarily based on their ability to articulate theology, and who do not reward those who innovate, buck the system, or take risks. The candidacy process designed to serve those who reach the Board of Ordained ministry inevitably describes only stable, non risk-related situations for ministry. For instance, if you’re in the elder track (which were our local church leaders come from), they describe full time appointments in established parishes, rather than the possibilities of innovative and potentially risky ministries (such as church planting).
3) Our System of Appointments- which addresses the concerns of 1950’s pastors by providing people with lifelong tenure (which eliminates the need for training after you leave seminary) regardless of competency, free houses, and free health insurance. This gives our pastors incentive to take existing churches that operate in old models and to lead them their existing outdated paradigms, rather than risking change (and possibly shrinking or even dying) in order to find a better model, since it might put at risk their free houses, decent salary, and health insurance. This model does not fit people who want to risk and innovate (e.g. church planters) because ordination requires economic security (e.g. an elder with a full time appointment MUST have health insurance) and strongly encourages that pastors to be placed in stable old style churches, rather than to grow something new on their own. If you want to take a risk, then you have to work around the system, the system won’t work for you.
4) Our pastoral culture- which encourages people to look out for their salaries, health insurance, etc. before they think about serving the Gospel. (As I’ve talked to people about the possibility of planting a church, I can’t count the number of people who’s first concern was about how that would work with my candidacy process, with ordination, with health insurance, with financial security, etc. rather than talking about the importance of taking such a risk.) It’s also a culture where pastor actively discourage one another from taking risks and discourage those who strive for excellence. (When I wrote a paper on New England United Methodism a year ago, I heard multiple stories of pastors who’s ideas for outreach to their community or collaboration with other churches were ignored and derided by “experienced” pastors. Needless to say, after a few years, these previously idealistic pastors became “experienced” and mediocre as well.)
5) Our attitude of scarcity- if you listen to Annual Conferences or to leadership in local churches, people talk of keeping what they already have, rather than for reaching something new. A good pastor is one who bails out the sinking ship. A “naïve” or “renegade” pastor is the one who decides to build a new boat.
All of this will result in death, if don’t believe me, check out our budgets, our membership and worship attendance numbers, and the morale of our leaders. If we continue in this paradigm, then we will be dead in another thirty years, no doubt about it.
Wouldn’t it be better to risk, and at worst, die a quick spectacular death rather than a long painful one?
Why don’t we radical restructure our seminarians educations to focus on growing churches, on new models for leadership, and on planting new churches, rather than sticking to the safe “theological education” model which has churned out thousands of ineffective leaders over the past few decades? At worst, this model could fail to produce effective leadership, which is where we are right now anyway.
Why don’t we reform the candidacy process to require mentoring for people in on the edge situations with daring, innovative pastors, rather than sending them in to learn old methods from people who were good leaders in 1950? At worst, our pastors won’t learn how to lead churches, which they don’t know how to do anyway.
Why not allocate millions of dollars to recruit and train pastors to plant new faith communities specifically geared to reach postmoderns and Gen X’ers, rather than spending money to prop up a system that supports pastors that speaks primarily to people age sixty and up? At worst, we could go bankrupt, but we are heading in that direction anyway.
In the end, I wish that we would rather go down in flames, trying to do the work of Christ, then shrivel up because we wanted to play it safe.