Earlier last week, the clergy of the North Alabama Conference met at Sumatanga in our annual Bishop’s Convocation on Ministry. Our theme was “More,” in recognition of our revised Conference Vision Statement that now includes, “growing more disciples.” Here were some of my opening comments to our gathered colleagues.
Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a rich man who called all of his servants in, gave them everything he had, and left town. (Matthew 25:14 ff.) Isn’t it good to know that God is into grace and giving?
Eventually, the rich man returns and asks, “What have you done with what you have been given.” Isn’t it good to know that God is into accountability?
“Here are five talents you gave me, and five talents more” says one servant. With this gracious God, there is always an accounting. Jesus loves us enough not only to have great faith in us but also to have great expectations for us.
John Wesley invented something on the basis of this little story - Annual Conference. Here was a meeting in which all of Wesley’s traveling preachers got together and, over a number of days, each was asked simply, “What have you done with what you have been given.” Today, in our Conference we continue this tradition with an array of mechanisms of reporting, tabulating, and record keeping, and record publishing, and Charge Conferences. What is the purpose of all this number crunching and number gazing? Answer: Jesus’ “What have you done with what you have been given?”
Seen from one angle, the entire United Methodist enterprise has arisen in response to the principle of numerical, statistical accountability. We don’t think any preacher or church ought to work without being asked, on a regular basis, “What have you done with what you have been given?”
There are clergy who work with a “Lone Ranger” mentality. “Who are you to ask me about my ministry?” There are clergy who think it nosy to be asked by another Christian to go public with their results, the fruits of their ministry, to declare openly how well people have responded to their work. They are not United Methodist clergy.
We’re the sort of pastors who dare to hold ourselves accountable to our results. We, following Wesley, ask not only about faithfulness but also about fruitfulness.
I don’t know whether or not Mother Theresa actually said, “We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful.” If she said it, it was said by her in a weak moment. I’m sure that of all people Mother Theresa knew that Christians have a strange definition of “success” that includes service to those in need and reaching the lost. There is no “faithful” that is unconcerned about the numbers (i.e. human beings who are reached in the name of Christ). Because we are called to be faithful, we are called to be fruitful.
So Wesley asked three questions of his pastors: “Is there faith?” “Is there fire?” and “Are there fruits?” “Fruits” = numbers of people who are meeting Jesus through us. When asked, “Is your new movement faithful to Scripture?” Wesley answered with numbers. When challenged by critics for his deployment of “female exhorters” (women preachers), Wesley responded that no one could deny the obvious fruit of these women’s preaching.
Lovett Weems says that effective preachers are those who have “character,” “competence,” and “contribution.” I confess that in our clergy evaluation and deployment practices we stress “character” and we also work at “competence,” but we have been reluctant to assess “contribution.” We simply must recognize the fruits of ministry, or the lack thereof. We must recognize and affirm those pastors to whom God has given fruit. Sadly, we keep collecting the numbers, but we do not make enough decisions and appointments on the basis of the numbers. This is very “unwesleyan” of us, if not unbiblical too.
Among bishops and district superintendents, those who exercise oversight to our clergy, too much stress, says Weems, is on assessment of talents, gifts, qualities of personality or upon skills, practices and procedures, with little attentiveness toward what clergy actually accomplish. What is said of clergy in general, Weems would surely also say of bishops and D.S’s -- we must look for ways to hold ourselves accountable and answerable to the fruits of our ministry. The Cabinet and I are looking for ways to hold ourselves accountable as we hold our pastors more accountable.
To this argument, some say, “Ministry is about more than mere numbers.” Amen! To those who say that we are now being too concerned about results and numbers in measuring effectiveness, I say, “Don’t worry. When you are part of a church that has lost 20% of its membership without making any major change in the way we work, when you can have clergy appointed to churches without regard to the record of the fruit of their ministry, we have a long, long way before we are being driven by the numbers.”
A major priority for us is not simply to collect data and crunch the numbers - we’re Methodists; we already do that. Our great need is to respond to the numbers, to show that pastors’ fruit is recognized and that our appointive system is responsive to the results of a person’s ministry. Quantification must lead to a greater discipline to fruitfulness.
The Cabinet and I pledge to do a better, more disciplined, more courageous job of honoring the fruits of ministry.
A small gesture, made at this year’s Annual Conference, could well be the most important work we did all year - we modified our Vision Statement’s “to make disciples” to say “to grow more disciples.” There’s a world of difference in that little word “more.” Jesus calls us for more!
William H. Willimon