Smaller Committees and Life-Changing Discipleship

For some strange reason, I have been paying closer attention to some of the United Methodist megachurches. I just ran across this article on Emergent Village by Michael Slaughter. It’s an excerpt from the new edition of his book UnLearning Church.

Two things in this article stood out in my mind. First, some folks might assume big church = many meetings. Apparently this isn’t true at Ginghamsburg,

Older-mindset churches usually require a lot of committees and meetings. Ginghamsburg finds that its people have neither the time nor the patience for multiple committee activities, so we are down to one committee of nine people called the Leadership Board. No more staff-parish, missions, or finance committees. Major businesses operate with one board, but too often tiny churches become immobilized by layers of committees. They spend hours debating about what color carpeting to put in the church narthex, or about the precise wording of the congregation’s statement of beliefs.

Imagine a leadership board of nine people. There are congregations in United Methodism who average fifty people in worship and have 25 people serving on boards and committees. Imagine Ginghamsburg, who averages 4,000 in weekly attendance, with a Leadership Board of nine people. Interesting.

Another thing that stood out is his comment about “listen and learn” meetings,

Fifteen years ago, we would have emphasized getting people to show up for church programs and listen-and-learn meetings. We would have sponsored a seminar and gauged its success by how many attended. Now we measure success by asking “How are people finding life change and purpose through the experience?” People are not looking for church meetings so much as for life meaning.

This is something that really interests me, and it may be something I try to explore more in my D.Min. project and dissertation. Are there alternative ways for people to find life meaning through the local church that we aren’t taking advantage of? I think Web 2.0 and its emphasis on participation, rather than simply receiving information, might be one of those ways. Have any of your churches developed participatory Advent or Lenten studies using some of the newer technology (Twitter, Blogging, etc.)?

I know some of my purist friends will think I’ve lost my mind, and they’re probably right. I simply think we’re going to have to get more creative in our approach to making disciples. It’s too important to ignore. As United Methodists, I believe we have a tradition and commitment to offering in-depth discipleship. I’m not saying we need to “jazz things up” to get people interested. I’m just saying we need to work our tails off to think of creative ways to encourage discipleship via the means people are comfortable with and excited about using.

As always, there will be the argument that this will leave a certain segment of our people behind. That’s the great thing about a world where we can embrace “both/and” thinking. We don’t have to quit doing traditional bible studies, devotionals, and the like. There will be a segment of people who will continue to be powerfully transformed in those environments. We simply need to be mindful of the people that those setups won’t reach or transform. It’s not choosing one or the other. It’s about doing both with excellence.

16 thoughts on “Smaller Committees and Life-Changing Discipleship

  1. I’m intrigued by the idea of trimming the committee structure and seeking a new way of developing and empowering congregational leadership.

    But some of his premise rests on shaky ground — maybe his son earned better grades in college than he did, and did so studying in a typically media-saturated multi-tasking manner. It’s hard to say, though, that a grade earned in college today is equivalent to a grade earned 20 or 25 years ago, and I believe there’s a whole lot of empirical research to stack up against his anecdote about the best environment for acquiring and actually retaining information.

  2. A leadership committee of 9 people and that’s it? In my congregation, that wouldn’t fly. Last survey we did, several people commented negatively about “all the power being with the same few people.”

    We have the usual committee structure, but we only meet when there’s a reason to meet. And we are very aware that there’s no real NT warrant for committees. Just because some congregations have a committee fetish doesn’t mean that the structure is always unusable. On the contrary, committees can be used to train people in discipleship (e.g., monthly board meetings, necessary to keep channels of communication open and accountability in place, are wonderful at teaching us patience and self-control, key fruits of the Spirit.)

    As for people finding “life meaning,” isn’t that what worship is for? (Maybe I’m just cranky. The Westminster Shorter Catechism took care of my search for “life meaning” in the first question.)

  3. I have heard of other UM mega-churches doing this. It is intriguing, I’d love to have fewer meetings, and yet…. One question I have is this: Doesn’t the Book of Discipline require certain committees? Trustees, Finance, SPRC (I don’t have my Discipline with me–and I don’t have it memorized!). There is a lot of freedom to organize for the most effective ministry, but how does a UMC get around some of those requirements? Maybe if you’re Ginghamsburg, you get a pass on some of that stuff. It would be interesting to look at Church of the Resurrection, Frazier Memorial, and a few others to see how they handle this.

  4. John B., it was explained to me that the Discipline requires that certain functinons are filled, but that does not mean they have to be full fledged committees or operate in the traditional Roberts Rules of Order committee structure.

    I believe (my Discipline is downstairs so I may be wrong here) the only committee that has to meet like a committee is the administrative council. I could be wrong on that.

    As for technology-based discipleship, I’m a skeptic. I don’t doubt that it will start happening. But as an incarnational faith, I believe there is something decisive about personal and face-to-face encounter with other Christians. Technology may facilitate communication, but it cannot replace human contact.

    Of course, I’m 40 and therefore practially dead.

    Ever feel like you live inside Logan’s Run?

  5. Thanks for the great conversations all, I had a feeling that this one would get some interaction.

    Keith – You’re not Presbyterian, so you don’t get to use the Westminster Catechism! And yes, you are cranky, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong! Let me press back a bit if you’re still reading. How many people have you seen that have just participated in worship (and how do you define that) who have matured and grown as disciples? We Wesleyans, I believe, would want to include more “means of grace” in the process of deepening as disciples.

    John B. – I don’t know where my Book of Discipline is either, but as you say I know there are provisions for organizing more effectively. I’d have to do a little more research on this.

    John M. – Sorry, but I don’t know what Logan’s Run is. I do understand your hesitancy and skepticism on techno-discipleship. By no means am I suggesting a discipleship encounter that is solely defined by that interaction. Instead, I’m think that might be a point of entry into real Christian disciple-making community.

    I also wonder whether or not that kind of interaction is necessarily the opposite of incarnational (de-incarnational?). Let me ask a few theological questions here. Is Christ still incarnate? If so, is it a face-to-face encounter? How might that relate to this question?

  6. Okay, I probably don’t belong in this discussion, on several counts. I can reach my Book of Discipline without getting up from my chair (and I have a second copy in my leather “preacher-boy bag” in the car). I do remember Logan’s Run (oh, Matt, you are sooooo young — or perhaps I am sooooo old — yeah, that’s it, actually) — a 1967 novel made into a 1976 movie, and soon to be re-made into a 2010 movie — the premise is that society mandates death when you reach 30 years of age (I understand that the 2010 re-make of this old Seventies cult movie drops that age down to 21, by the way!), and Logan goes on the run to escape, et al.

    One of the weaknesses that we’ve begun to see in mega-churches around the nation has been excessively concentrated power and very small groups that have any real accountability oversight on top leadership, particularly charismatic/charming (using “charming” in its ancient sense, not its sappy modern sense) pastors. Some (yes, I realize “not all”) have been shocked to learn that concentrated power and having only a few privy to what goes on with the top leadership and the charming pastors makes it possible for some horrific falls from grace, so to speak.

    I suppose it would make a difference if there is some hierarchichal oversight (episcopal or presbyteral) that carries real clout, as opposed to a stand-alone mega-church.

    Just my thoughts. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Some things are not apparent to the young but become obvious after being battered by life for 5 or 6 decades………

  7. Thanks for your thoughts Robert. As always, I appreciate your insights.

    Now, I know why I missed Logan’s Run – it came out the year before I was born! Don’t feel bad though, my former youth group used to think it was incredibly strange that I was born in the 70s!

    I appreciate your hesitancy on a system that would refuse any kind of ‘checks and balances.’

  8. Matt, I see you’ve already been corrected on your science fiction deficit disorder.

    I appreciate the idea about technology as entry point. I’m sure there are those who did not like it when someone started tape recording sermons and taking them to people who could not come to church.

    And maybe there is the distinction I need to think about. A book, is after all, a kind of technology that we believe the Holy Spirit can work through. Why not the Internet?

    But the line I want to draw is on the ministries of presence. These days, it is not uncommon when a young person dies for others to set up pages on Facebook where they pour out words of condolence and shared grief. That is good, as far as it goes, but it is not the same as sitting with a person in silence and holding his or her hand.

    As long as we don’t lose face-to-face entirely, you are correct, new doors are not bad things.

  9. First, let me just say how psyched I am to hear that they’re remaking “Logan’s Run.”

    Matt asked me, “How many people have you seen that have just participated in worship (and how do you define that) who have matured and grown as disciples?”

    It’s hard to count them. Let’s say that “participation in worship” equals at least showing up for regular weekly worship with the congregation. Look how formative that alone is: You sit near people you wouldn’t normally associate with, you sing some songs you’d never sing at Karaoke night, you pray prayers where you ask God “forgive me like I forgive everybody else,” and you hear Scripture read and expounded upon by a live human being. I know it seems passive, but our salvation/sanctification is not merely our own work, but primarily the Holy Spirit working in us, yes?

    I buried a guy last year who was clear he never wanted to serve on a committee or do anything but attend Sunday worship. He was a doctor in the area, beloved by so many people for his compassion, honesty, and Christian witness that we had to move his funeral to a bigger church building. I saw him grow in that last year that he struggled with his cancer. And this is a story that I believe is repeated over and over. It’s a nice idea to increase the opportunities that the Spirit has to work on us, but frankly I don’t think we make the most of the ones we already have: namely, worship, teaching, and pastoral visitation.

    I realize that I have now put myself in the category you mentioned in your blog-post of “purist friends who think I have lost my mind.” Sorry.

  10. I think I will jump in here because this has been a point of conversation for me in the last couple of months. I serve as a deacon at Asbury UMC in Tulsa. We are a large church and we have an Ad Council, Trustees, Finance Committee and SPRC. These committees work in the area of governance. They work, almost exclusively, as accountability structures as far as I can tell. This means a couple of things. First, there is no such thing as absolute power at Asbury (this is one of Tom’s favorite things about UM polity). Second, these committees are not where the ministry decisions are made. I think the misnomer (spelling) in many churches (some I served in) is that you have to be on one of these committees to make things happen. If that is the case, the church is structured to be inwardly focused. Members and staff should be freed to pursue ministry, and these boards are there to make sure that those ministries (and the people involved in them) are operating above the law and with integrity.

  11. Keith – I had you in mind when I typed the words “purist friends.” There are others, but your smiling face was on my mental screen! 🙂 I think your comments are helpful.

    Yet, even in your post advocating worship as the primary place for discipleship, you mention teaching as one of the opportunities we have. Part of what I’m suggesting is that we simply teach, and teach well, using an additional form of technology (thanks to John for pointing out that books are a form of technology as well!).

    Todd – I appreciate you sharing your experience from within a very large church. I also like you offering the idea that our polity is at its best when it is serving the mission of the church rather than ending up as the mission of the church.

  12. I count it an honor to be one of your purist friends.

    However, it really rattled my chain, what John said about books being technology. I’m going to have to repent of some of my Luddite prejudices.

  13. Hey Matt…

    Interesting post and good comments that follow. After a couple of years I am just beginning to come to terms with how different life in a large congregation is from service to a smaller body. My experience with twenty years (pre-clergy) in a congregation of 85 or so was very typical of that found in many of our UM Churches. I served on the boards, taught Sunday School and led worship on occasion. Several strong families formed the backbone of the congregation and there were relationships that had been in place literally for generations. The one key component was that everybody knew everyone and everyone had a say in what was happening.

    My first appointment was to a congregation with 250 or so in weekly attendance and I found it to be a very awkward size to manage as it was stuck between being a “family” congregation and something larger. We were big enough that we had to segregate some of our activities and oversight, but at the same time everyone wanted to have input on every issue. It was unbearably cumbersome and one of the things that I remember most about the appointment was the hours upon hours that we spent in meetings. My backside still bears the marks of that wicker-seated chair in the conference room. The two of us had become very close over the years.

    The first thing that I (and my wife!) noticed as an associate serving a large congregation was the lack of evening meetings. In my current position I have one standing committee that meets monthly. PPR, Trustees, Finance, Ad Min, the Foundation Board etc. etc. meet under the supervision of the ED (and in some instances the Senior Minister). The committees themselves function in a very professional manner and provide oversight to the ongoing ministries of the Congregation. Leadership, vision, direction etc. etc. generally rise up from within the Clergy and paid staff with these groups working to keep us accountable for our actions (and trust me…they are more than willing to ask the hard questions!)

    What I am finding is that the rank and file of the congregation are not interested in what color the carpet might be or how the hiring process for the new youth ministry staff was accomplished, they are only interested in the result. Are we as the appointed leaders making good decisions on their behalf.

    Again…there are no value judgments assigned here–no “better” or “worse”–just the observation that large congregations are a horse of a different color.


    PS… 45 days and counting!

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