The Death of the UMC Connection

This article originally appeared on the Youthworker Movement site.

The idea of connection came unto its own during
a moment in church history that was contentious and dramatic. As America began to find itself as a representative democracy, its citizens began to desire what they saw as a more democratic style of church structure, and they began to turn more and more to congregational styles of organization where each church was on its own seeking its own success and loosely related to the other churches in its denomination.

During this same time the Methodist church came under fire because of its very un-democratic episcopal structure. There were charges leveled against the church of being unchristian and anti-american (which is a totally different from now). We pushed back by saying that our structure was not about being mindless servants of an autocratic bishop, but that we were a single unit that was facilitated by the Bishop and other superintendents. It was about connection.

You saw the connection in how we operated. Yes there were individual churches, but they were constantly teaming up and coming together in small or large groupings to do everything from having a camp meeting to starting a hospital. We were different because we were not duplicating efforts, we were not fighting amongst each other for members; rather, diverse congregations were working together in a network (some might say a body) to accomplish far more for the Kingdom of God than any one of them could do on their own.

Fast-forward to the present and it is difficult to see that radical contrast to the congregational approach being lived out in our Church. The Connection may not be dead, but the signs of its imminent demise are everywhere. Since we are talking youth ministry here, lets use it as our test case. It was not long ago that conferences had thriving youth programs that were a beautiful collaboration between adults and youth from all over the conference. They did camps, retreats, mission projects, evangelistic rallies, you name it. What was even more beautiful than that was the fact that these events grew out of districts that were doing the same thing on a local scale.

Now that is quickly becoming the exception rather than the rule. More and more conferences are dissolving the youth ministry position because it has become irrelevant. If no one is coming or participating in those conference events, there is no need for a staff to facilitate them. Why? The big churches say the events are too low quality (translation: we can do it better by ourselves) and the small churches are concerned that if they join in with the bigger groups, their students might like the bells and whistles somewhere else better and leave.

Wow. How competitive. How unhealthy. How un-methodist.

I'm not sure exactly where it all jumped the shark, but one thing is clear to me now: we are on the brink of losing the beauty of the connection altogether. You know the story. After a couple of conversations with the DS, you get a new pastor. A couple months later there is electricity in the air when he takes to the pulpit to unveil his new "vision" for the church. You are going to have coffee in the lobby, go to the local mission once a month and even start visiting the people who visit your church. People praise him for being a visionary leader and follow willingly. When that pastor moves on, the church repeats the cycle with yet another pastor and yet another vision.

You can't blame the pastors, it's what our culture expects. Jim collins pointed out in Good to Great that over the past several decades, our culture has grown to associate this visionary-hero style leader with the pinnacle of leadership success. Around this leadership style has grown enumerable conferences, books and seminars that help even the most introverted step up and step out to cast their vision to the masses.

The problem is, this leads to isolated, suspicious, non-connected churches. Each church is out for its own success in its own mission with its own members. This is done in part because the churches have asked for a visionary leader and in part because that is how they are evaluated. They are evaluated for individual success. But that's what we want, right? We want vital congregations. We want accountability. We want growth in each individual church.

And there it is: each individual church. Not the connection, not the body, each church must exhibit the same hallmarks of vitality. That is a congregational view not a connectional one. In a connection, each congregation will have different functions. Some might be the thriving evangelistic arm while another might be the missional outpost. One might be the writers and teachers who develop amazing curriculum while another might be incredible at hospitality. There may be churches with a few, committed members that perform a vital function within the connection that allows the connection to be successful and reproductive; while the church is not reproductive in itself.

There is a church like that in our community. It is small. It is not adding members each year. It is not converting people each year, but it is a vital part of what God is doing in our community. That church houses and cares for a host of missional interns that serve our community and reach out to the poor, ignored and oppressed. Those interns are not a ministry of that church (though they are a ministry of the Methodist church). The church doesn't get statistical credit for all the amazing things those interns do, but without that church, that growing, innovative, vital edge of ministry in our community would be crippled if not gone altogether.

I think there is hope, but I think that our treatment for this illness has to have a multi-faceted approach.
The first step is to address that which is immediately under our control: ourselves. We need to get over ourselves as leaders and churches. It is not about us rising to Hybelian heights of leadership glory or growing into another mega-church with a crippling addiction to mortgages. We need to leave our vision meetings and long-term congregational strategy groups and start dreaming together. What could we do together that we could never do apart? What does the part-time youth leader excel at in her ministry that eludes the multi-staff mega church youth group? What would happen if we stopped thinking about our personal success and threw ourselves together for kingdom success?

However, we won't be able to transform our methods if important, vital voices are shut down because they aren't getting the right types statistical success. I work with an incredible pastor who is prone to pithy, wise outbursts that are as true as they are corny. One of them is that you can expect what you inspect. I agree. If we want to be a connectional church, we need to start valuing the types of success that grows from connectional ministry. Congregations that act as isolated, non-connectional bodies need to be seen as less vital (no matter how large or growing they are) than those who are using their resources to do something with the connection to impact their community.

You may be asking why. Why not just give in to our cultural history and go full-congregational? Why not just throw in the towel on an outdated and ineffective system? Because I believe that the connection is the key to our success in the coming era. Look at our world. It is decentralizing all around us. Fifty years ago the best metaphor for almost everything was a building with a foundation, walls, and roof. Now, it is the web. More and more we are giving up these hierarchical silos for nodal, interconnected networks. We are moving into an era of connection, and we have connection in our DNA! We have a system that is ready and has the potential to be far more relevant than anything else in that sort of world. I hope that we can save it before it's too late.