Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Next Ten Years in the United Methodist Church

(This is part of a weekly email I send out to the St. Paul congregation.  Some of it is obviously specific to our context.  Much of it, however, may easily apply to your church and situation.)

As we talk about taking steps into the future as a congregation, you need to be aware of some trends taking place in society and how those will affect us in very tangible ways.  To be sure, there are drastic changes coming in the next 10-15 years in how we do ministry.  Those changes inevitable; my hope is that we as a church will figure out, proactively, what we want to do about it rather than simply let the change happen to us.  Again, these changes are inevitable; it your decision to either drive the changes needed to weather what is coming, or just let those changes happen to us.  Here are there factors I want you to consider.

1.       Rising costs.  The costs for overhead operating expenses for churches – health insurance for pastors, utilities, insurance have been rising sharply in recent years.  We expect these costs to continue to rise sharply into the future.

2.       Declining membership and revenue.  Most churches have felt a financial squeeze in recent years, particularly focused around the recession that began in 2008.  We should not expect this to simply “pick up” when the economy recovers.  Why?  Because as Dr. Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington, DC says, in warning us about a coming “Death Tsunami:” The U.S. death rate is currently in a stable period that began in 2003 and continues until 2018. But what follows this plateau is a death wave in which there will be more deaths and a higher death rate than at any time since the widespread introduction of antibiotics and other medical advances. The total number of deaths each year will go up until 2050, and the majority of these deaths will be older non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, the two largest constituencies of mainline churches.”

Think of the number of our members who are “older non-Hispanic whites.”  If we are not reaching more people, younger people, and more diverse people, our chances for long-term survival as a church are grim.

Weems calls for resetting the financial baseline in congregations ahead of the “death tsunami.”  He says, “As with any organization facing the future after 45 years of unabated decline in its constituency, there must be a stepping back to a new and lower baseline in order to move forward. Otherwise, all energy must go to maintaining the old unrealistic financial baseline. 
The purpose of resetting the financial baseline is to free the preoccupation from money to reaching people for Christ through vital congregations. The criteria that matter going forward must be around reaching people, and the whole system needs alignment toward that goal. Money is a lagging indicator. We reset in order to return to the basics on which all giving depends — changed lives and transformed communities. There is no future for churches that cannot reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people. 
The death tsunami is coming. If it sweeps over a church already stretched to its limits to survive financially year by year, the result could be catastrophic. However, if it comes to a church that has reset its baseline and demonstrated the ability to begin growing, then the losses will occur, but will not deter the "field of energy" already moving in the denomination. Such a church will not only survive but come out on the other side as a growing, missional, and spiritually alive instrument of God. The time to make choices is now — while there are still choices to be made. Otherwise, circumstances will make the choices for us in the future.

3.       Availability of Clergy.  To put it crudely, this is a supply and demand issue.  Right now in Western North Carolina, we have about as many clergy as we have appointments to fill.  This is not the case in all conferences; there are already a number of conferences that are experiencing a clergy shortage, meaning every year, there are churches who go without a pastor, often for years at a time.

However, before we breathe a big sigh of relief, we’re not too far away from that.  The average age of the active clergy currently serving in Western North Carolina is 54.  Meaning? Over the next 10-12 years, half of the ordained clergy in our conference will retire, meaning they are no longer available for appointment.

Someone asked, “Aren’t young people coming into ministry anymore?”  And, yes, they are.  Young clergy like me, those who are 35 or under, represent about 5% of the total clergy in the conference.  That figure is expected to remain about the same for the forseeable future.

So in the next 10 years:
·         50% of our clergy will retire
·         Another 5% will come in
·         Resulting in a net loss of 45% of our available clergy

So What?  Good question.  Put all those factors on the table at the same time, and in a few years we have this combination:
·         Exponential rise in costs
·       Decline in revenue
·         Decline in membership
·            Not enough pastors to go around

Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant with the Texas Methodist Foundation in Austin, TX and a leading voice on how these trends will play out, estimates that by 2030:
·         1/3 of existing United Methodist churches will close
·         1/3 of existing United Methodist churches will consolidate, merge, form a cooperative parish, or be joined in a charge (one or more churches sharing a pastor)
·         1/3 of existing United Methodist churches will continue to operate about how they currently are

In short, our largest and most-resourced congregations will be fine.  These also tend to be congregations that are growing and specifically reaching more, younger, and more diverse people.  Their focus is already on mission rather than money or maintenance. Our smallest and least-resourced congregations will have the hardest time.  Those who wait for change to happen rather than planning proactively will have the hardest time of all.  These congregations are already spending an inordinate amount of their focus on money and maintenance; mission is already secondary, and they will not survive.

The question for us to consider is where St. Paul will fall in this.  Change is coming – costs will rise, people will die, resources will be stretched, pastors will be in short supply.  What happens to this congregation as a result of these changes is directly related to the decisions this congregation makes now.  We can make choices now while we still have options, or allow these factors to play themselves out until we have no options.

The time to prepare is now.  What changes and decisions do we need to make in order to weather the storm?  If we wait until all these things are taking place, it will already be too late.

My fear is that if we, and neighboring churches like us, wait until it’s too late, there will be no United Methodist Church in this part of Charlotte.  Whether or not that happens is up to you.  The choices and decisions necessary are yours to make.  The changes are coming, one way or the other.  My hope is that 10, 20, 50 years from now, there is at least one vibrant, healthy United Methodist Church in this part of Charlotte actively engaged in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

What will the future look like?  It will certainly be different.  But how well we live into it depends on the choices we make now.  May God give us the grace and guidance to choose wisely the path that best pleases and honors God.

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