Spent most of my day today as an ambassador of the Beeson Pastor program, hosting a young couple from suburban Cleveland who came to interview for one of hard to get 12 slots available for the 2007-08 Beeson Pastor Class. It was no big deal... in fact I enjoyed it a lot. We toured a townhouse (ours, so they could see what it's like for a family to live in limited space), they asked a lot of questions, we toured the local elementary school, and then went to lunch at Applebees (so they could see where the WalMart is... seems to be the measure of civilization now).
They seem like a nice couple. The prospective Beeson Pastor (this is the first round of interviews... final decisions on acceptance won't take place until the winter) is ordained in the East Ohio Annual Conference, and appointed as an associate pastor at a church in suburban Cleveland. He and his wife both attended OSU (so we could talk football), and he did his MDiv at Ashland (Ohio) Seminary, which is the school where conservative disgruntled Methesco students (that's the school where I did my MDiv) would transfer after a year of liberation theology and hostility toward historical critical biblical interpretation. He seemed neither disgruntled, nor all that conservative... in fact he's enamoured with post-modern theological thought and practice, which I found interesting. Our numbers, it appears, are growing here in heartland.
Anyhow, we're eating lunch, and I'm asking questions, and in the course of conversation the couple lets it drop that the largest church in entire East Ohio Annual Conference averages less than 500 people in worship. That is to say, that over the course of the past 40 years, while the number of church who averaged a 1000 in worship or more grew by more than ten times in total number in the USA, not one United Methodist Church in the entire eastern half of the state could be considered anything larger than a mid-size church. Not in Akron, Youngstown, Canton..... or even in the Greater Cleveland Metro area.
Wow! That just seems... statistically impossible.
For me, knowing this now, the question arises, what reality are you faced with if you are an Elder in the UMC, leave to do Beeson for a year, and then go back to the East Ohio Annual Conference? If the system in East Ohio apparently defies churches growing large, or even big, and little (or no) money is available for a new church start, what might your work environment look like in your next appointment?
I'd guess that in 2006, in the vast majority of the potential pool of churches you are likely to serve you'll be faced with fighting the "worship wars", where people lay down the gauntlet over whether or not drums will be allowed into a sanctuary, even if nothing but 18th century organ music is played in the service they attend.
I'd guess there wasn't much of an intentional plan of discipleship for people in the congregation.
I'd guess that most of the buildings are older, require a great deal of upkeep and repair, and immense pressure will be put upon you as a pastor to raise the necessary funds to take care of the plant and the bills... let alone do new creative things to reach the populace.
I'd guess that a pastor's success will be measured mostly by whether or not s/he knows everyone's name, visits the hospitalized and shut-in, and tends to the needs of their flock, and less by whether or not the church is actual force for change in the community.
I'd guess that pastor will learn what it means to be blessed in a multitude of ways, but will also understand the words of Paul who said that he desired to know Jesus in his fellowship of suffering. That pastor will become intimately involved in that process. As Kent Reynolds, our resident class sage, told me once, if you step up to follow Jesus as a pastoral leader you get it all... the blessing and the Cross.
I know that was true for me at both Shawnee and Goshen. Tremendous blessings, but also a tremendous price paid. Unbelievable stories of triumph, and incredibly painful experiences. Any church or pastor looking to make serious changes will experience it all.
That's why it impressed me that this young fella understands the landscape, and just wants to take what he could learn, go back to East Ohio, and face not only a secular materialistic culture that is rapidly losing it's Christian memory, but an institution that apparently has not encouraged much creatively over the last forty years. And what's more, then he wants to encourage others to do the same.
So if the Beeson Pastor program big wigs are reading this, here's my take.... put your money on the guy from Cleveland! He's gonna rock the boat for the Kingdom of Heaven in a place that needs its boat seriously rocked.
And to all you faithful Methodists in East Ohio, or any other old-school, slowly declining United Methodist Church in this country, I'd encourage you to heed the words of Jesus and not be afraid. Embrace what God is doing next, so that I one day I can say, "I guess I guessed wrong".