In the name of the Thinktank, Consultant, & Bubble sheet

The United Methodist Church is about to have a very significant international meeting called the General Conference where major changes are being considered that a lot of pastors like me are anxious about. I’m actually most concerned about an initiative that has already been adopted called “Vital Congregations.” Depending on the outcome of other proposals, Vital Congregations has the potential to do to the United Methodist Church what “No Child Left Behind” did to the public school classroom where I taught. I am not trying to impugn the motives or hard work of those who developed it. I’m sure that they were prayerful about it, and I imagine they sang praise songs to open their meetings and hopefully looked to the Bible for guidance (and not just the reports of church consultant industry thinktanks). But the way this initiative is being communicated makes it sound like United Methodism has replaced Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with a new Trinity –the Thinktank, the Consultant, and the Bubble Sheet.

My concern is particularly with the Vital Congregations’ 16 “drivers of vitality,” which are referred to as “ministry strategies,” even though they appear to be fruits of vitality rather than strategies. A footnote at the bottom of the page where these drivers are listed unwittingly encapsulates my concern perfectly:

While the Call to Action study noted that vital churches give more to missions, some have noticed that other types of mission engagement and outreach are not listed as proven “drivers.” This is because… the research could not quantitatively substantiate mission engagement. But, in conversations with vital congregations, they tell us this is a
vital part of their ministry…
It also should be noted that while the study alludes to spiritual vitality in the faith of the laity and the inspirational leadership of the clergy, one should not see these ministries/strategies as mechanical operations. Rather, they are undergirded or enlivened by a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ.

Here’s the problem. If these 16 measurable “vitality drivers” are the means by which church vitality is evaluated, they will in fact turn ministry into a “mechanical operation.” And if mission is not one of the drivers because its impact has not been “quantifiably substantiated,” then it will be deprioritized regardless of whatever qualifications are expressed in the footnote. Instead of taking our priorities from God’s guidance in each particular ministry context, we are prioritizing the measurable. Perhaps this is an expression of my newly out of seminary idealism, but I really think that the tyranny of the quantifiable within United Methodism is the primary source of our lack of vitality. If pastors are going to be suffocated by even more stacks and stacks of bubble sheets, it will stifle our ability to engage in Spirit-led, locally contextual ministry whose vitality honestly requires subjective, narrative evaluation rather than number-crunching.

When I was a high school teacher under “No Child Left Behind,” I was required to write my learning objectives on the board every day in educational industry jargon that made no sense to my students. This was so that an assistant principal could walk up and down the hall with a clipboard to “measure” our classroom “vitality” by looking in the window without having to assess the subjective unquantifiables that I regard as the true measure of effective teaching or ministry. I’m just not sure what role Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has in a church that privileges quantifiable measurability above all else in its decision-making and evaluation. That’s why I say we have a new Trinity.

It seems from the “Vital Congregations” material that pastors are going to be expected to set goals based on these vitality drivers. So what will that really mean? For example, if driver #13 is implemented — that pastors use “topical sermon series” — is that effectively the end of expository preaching in United Methodism? I don’t think you have to use gimmicky sermon series to preach compelling, inspiring sermons. The more that I feel like I have to make a theme work in my sermon, the less attention I can give to the nuances and context of the Biblical passage. Topical sermon series are popular with evangelical megachurch pastors because they don’t see a problem with pulling individual Bible verses out of context in order to support their themes. But when we engage in proof-texting like this, we are leaving Wesleyan Biblical interpretation behind.

So what about the use of “multi-media” in driver 16? Am I going to have a quota of PowerPoint driven sermons that I’m expected to reach? Or since PowerPoint is old hat now, will I be expected to project twitter feeds in the middle of worship to show the powers that be that my sermons are “innovative” and “conversational”?

I think there’s a difference between having goals and having a vision. Goals are quantifiable while vision is narrative. To set “significant goals through effective leadership” (driver 10), you read a book from a thinktank, hire a consultant, and crunch the bubble sheets. To gain a vision, you listen to God, which is the ultimate immeasurable but indispensable task of ministry. Prayer should not be a ritual you do to “bless” your goal-setting meetings before “getting down to business.” Prayer should be the primary process by which decisions are made. Vital congregations need vision more than we need goals. I’m not sure how we can dream and pray about the kind of church community God has called us to be if we are asked to focus our energy on achieving a set of one-size-fits-all measurables.

I really believe that churches are the most vital when laity have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to do things that are “unreasonable” to the world and thus enter more fully into God’s kingdom rather than just visiting like tourists once a week. Tourists stop coming
when they get busy, but once your heart has been tattooed by the Holy Spirit, you can’t go back to country club Christianity.

John Wesley’s standard for congregational vitality was the “primitive church” of Acts 2. How many churches today would give themselves so completely to the Holy Spirit that they held all their property in common? The more that we stay within the boundaries of “reasonableness” by carefully supporting all our ideas with statistics, surveys, and expert opinions, the less compelling a vision we have to offer our congregations.

What can we do to cultivate true disciples who say to Jesus like Peter, “We have left everything to follow you”? My goal as a pastor is to carve out
the space in small, intangible, and not necessarily “goal-oriented” ways for the Holy Spirit to grab peoples’ hearts and yank them into full kingdom living. I hope the goals of the United Methodist Church will never crush the vision God seems to be giving me.

18 thoughts on “In the name of the Thinktank, Consultant, & Bubble sheet

  1. Hey Morgan,
    Appreciate your thoughts here. Makes me feel less of a lone gunman. We should get coffee or cerveza sometime.

  2. Great post, spot-on analysis of CtA, and there’s not much I can add beyond what has been shared in your post and the comment stream.

    However, I do want to reflect on your comment about newly out of seminary idealism: Our system, like any, is designed to snuff out idealism in favor of plug-and-play, go-with-the-flow, don’t-rock-the-boat, cog-in-the-works uniformity (Exhibit A: CtA). Don’t chalk up your idealism to being newly out of seminary. Chalk it up to sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, who is the supreme idealist, ever-resistant to plug-and-play control and predictability. Regardless of how many years may separate you from seminary and your first experience of God’s call on your life, I hope and pray you will always be what Seth Godin has called a linchpin. Don’t let this system conform you to what it wants unless you are absolutely certain Jesus is leading you down such a path. We need fewer cogs and more linchpins. Realism is one of the things that got us in this mess. Realism lies at the heart of CtA, which will likely drive us deeper into this mess. We need more idealists.

    • Thanks for the encouragement! I really think our vitality is a measure of how unreasonable we’re willing to be under the Spirit’s lead. Our problem is that our people aren’t invested; the more reasonable you are, the less invested you are because your investment is in your objective detachment. The problem is precisely that we don’t let ourselves get carried away like our Wesleyan cousins, those crazy Pentecostals, who may be the most vital branch on the Wesleyan vine right now.

  3. Hi, Morgan. United Methodist Insight would like permission to reprint your post, “In the name of the Thinktank, Consultant and Bubble Sheet.” We’re an educational website sponsored by a local church and covering General Conference issues. Check us out at Please reply to this inquiry at Thank you. — Cynthia Astle, project coordinator

  4. Several of the leaders of the IOT (which developed the Call to Action) are from my conference. I have heard them say specifically that unless a church has more than an average worship attendence of 125 people they cannot support a full-time pastor. I suspect that 125 will become the new “cut-off” point for a church to be considered a full-time appointment. That means that equitable compensation funds will not be used to support churches with smaller worship figures. I am also sure that the figures submitted on dashboards will be used as evidence to help small church pastors to “transition” out of ministry.

    Now THIS part of my comment is liable to sound hyper-sensitive, but I see a pattern developing in Florida that will be used as a model for other conferences. “ineffective” pastors (clergy who have been faithfully serving small congregations) will be removed from their appointments, and these small churches will effectively be handed over to large church pastors. Young proteges of the large church pastor will be appointed to those settings and the large church will gain a new campus. Florida is pouring a LOT of money into such revitalization efforts. We have been receiving an apportionment for “New Church Development” for decades, and have a lot of money stashed away. These young mega-church proteges are being chosen by senior pastors, appointed to these small churches and given starting salaries of $50K with benefits! Mega-churches are bypassing BOOM and even the bishop to a great extent in this process.

    I don’t see much room for the Holy Spirit to work in a process where money has taken control.

    • The ironic thing about all this is I would personally be in a pretty good position to take advantage of this new arrangement as a young cocky wannabe future megachurch pastor protégée. And I’m not sure it’s bad for us to be rethinking how we understand connectionalism in terms of multi-campus regional churches rather than
      dozens of tiny churches who occasionally do superficial “connectional” activities like potato drops on a district level. Maybe there should be half a dozen multi-site churches per district instead of dozens of tiny struggling churches. But if that’s the case, they need to send a memo to the Methodist seminaries to decrease their class sizes by 90% or tell the students that most of them aren’t going to be preaching when they graduate. Regardless, the question I’m raising is whether we’re engaged in a Spirit-led process or a clumsy mimicry of non-denominational megachurches using worldly business world strategies and trusting statistics more than we trust God.

  5. General Conference is not a “national meeting” of United Methodists. We are a global Church. We vote internationally and we legislate internationally. Some of the greatest growth within the UM church is happening outside of US borders. We meet every four years with representatives that are both clergy and lay people. About 38% of voting delegates at General Conference this month will be representing our international brothers and sisters.

  6. This whole things strikes me as a big effort to convince ourselves that we are in fact masters of our own lives and will make history come out “right,” that is, the way we want it to. Openness to the Spirit means I surrender control. My cynical side thinks that this whole quatifiable thrust with drivers and such has come about because there has to be some “objective” way to call out mediocre and lazy pastors out there. I haven’t looked at Vital Congregations directly, but I wonder if there are any incentives or reprecussions for the congregations themselves? Some congregations simply do not want to grow or do not want to put in the effort that it would take.

    • Oh absolutely. This is about establishing an objective means to let ineffective pastors go. It will be interesting if GC doesn’t eliminate guaranteed appointment whether vital congregations will then quietly disappear.

      • I guess I see little reason to assume that, Morgan. The mechanisms to remove ineffective pastors exist now. A key part of those mechanisms is for the bishop, cabinet and Board of Ordained Ministry to define the criteria for determining effectiveness and ineffectiveness. (See Paragraph 334.4). Nothing restrains a bishop, cabinet and BOOM from determining and applying those criteria now. The Vital Congregations findings may help them do so with more clarity than they may otherwise have had,

        So, if anything, I might expect that if the legislation that eliminates guarantees of appointment for all by making all appointments “missional” and all clergy subject to being placed on “temporary” leave at any time, the Vital Congregations piece may actually become even more significant as a source for criteria for determining the standards below which an elder in full connection may be deemed ineffective and therefore subject to discontinuance under appointment.

  7. Oh, this makes me sad. I think the church makes a grave error whenever we try to quantify the work of the Spirit. Yes, we surely have some things we can learn from the world of business. But not nearly as much as all the consultants might suggest. We are not an organization – we are an organism. And them’s is two different animals.

  8. Actually, the Vital Congregations piece is not up for vote. It has simply been implemented. The goals are being collected from each congregation. Many already enter their weekly data into the GCFA-monitored dashboards. The stated expectation is that all will eventually do so.

    Up for vote are issues around structure and whether elders will continue to be appointed provided they remain in good standing in their conference.

    • So it’s a done deal in other words. How is it relevant to a church’s vitality whether it uses “blended” or “contemporary” worship music (driver #15)? How do you measure that on a dashboard? Do you set goals around phasing The Faith We Sing out of worship over time? What if people in your church like “Shine Jesus Shine”? I
      hate The Faith We Sing, but I think the reason that “non-vital” churches do blended worship is because when you’re hovering around 100 weekly worship attendance, it doesn’t make sense to do two services for traditional and contemporary so you do the best you can with both.

      • The part that is a done deal is the Vital Congregations piece to which you referred. It remains up to each bishop and Annual Conference to determine how they will use– or adapt– these resources to address the adaptive challenge of increasing the number of vital congregations. I’m not aware of anyone pressing the “drivers” to say we should eliminate specific resources, or only preach topically. That would be well beyond what the data in the Towers Watson report itself could support. What that data showed, re: styles of worship, is that having multiple styles in a congregation was positively correlated with higher vitality ONLY in the case of congregations larger than 350 in average worship attendance. For those between 100-349, it is a wash. For those smaller than 100, trying to do multiple services is correlated with a higher rate of lower vitality.

        It is also unclear whether Towers Watson measured vitality relative to “blended” worship at all. What they did show is that if you market something as contemporary, but actually don’t use more contemporary music and multimedia, that service is more likely to be correlated with lower vitality than higher vitality.

        On matters related to dashboards, read my article, “Dashboards Everywhere: What’s a Missional United Methodist to Do?”

        For matters related specifically to the Towers Watson findings on worship, read “Congregational Vitality Presentation and Worship” here:

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