Tennessee Conference Leaders Study Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences
On Saturday, October 25th, clergy and lay leadership from throughout the Tennessee Annual Conference gathered at St. Marks United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro for a special training event to introduce the book and study manual SEVEN LEVERS: Missional Strategies for Conferences. This thought provoking book is designed specifically for annual conferences across the United States and is a pivotal exploration of the decline in United Methodist membership and church attendance over the past thirty years—but then goes on to present positive steps for a growing and vibrant denomination.
The book was written by author and bishop Robert Schnase, episcopal head of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church. Schnase has also written the popular local church study Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations which has gone on to strengthen ministry in thousands of congregations.
Schnase and Bishop McAlilly from the Tennessee Area have a passion for strengthening the ministry of local churches. That passion is well-worded in the mission statement for the Tennessee and Memphis conferences: “The mission of the Nashville Area is to discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that offer Jesus to a hurting world, one neighborhood at a time.”
The biography of Bishop Schnase offers a brief look at his commitment to strengthening local churches so they can effectively reach out to the neighborhood and to the world. “From 1989 to 2004 he served as Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of McAllen, Texas. First Church was recognized for congregational growth, bi-cultural ministry, young adult ministry and commitment to mission as the congregation relocated and built new facilities to serve the Rio Grande Valley. From 1984 to 1989, Rev. Schnase served as pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, receiving the Circuit Rider Award for Church Growth and the Denman Evangelism Award. From 1982-1983 he served the Farnham and Alton Circuit of five churches with the British Methodist Conference.”
In an opening worship service Bishop McAlilly described revitalized local churches in Tennessee that moved forward into new and/or expanded ministries–Good Shepherd, Trinity, Patterson Memorial, and Grimes Memorial United Methodist Churches were specifically mentioned. Thoughout Schnase’s presentation were examples of individuals and local churches who had taken the pathway into new ministries. And the phrase “He/she doesn’t realize the United Methodist Church is declining” was repeated many times.
Schnase traces the revitalization of the United Methodist Church back to a study commissioned by the Council of Bishops. “In 2009, the Council of Bishops commissioned the most extensive, thorough, independent organizational study ever undertaken on a main-line denomination. Based on the analysis of forty years of statistics for more than thirty three thousand United Methodist churches in the United States plus hundreds of interviews with congregations, pastors, and laity across the connection, the 250-page Towers-Watson Report confirms patterns of precipitous decline and long-term financial unsustainability.”
“The Towers-Watson Report offers five recommendations that were accepted and approved by the Council of Bishops, and which became the Call to Action.
“1. Give sustained focus on increasing the number of vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and align resources accordingly.
“2. Reform clergy systems (recruitment, candidacy, mentoring, education, skills training, supervision, evaluation, deployment, and retirement.)
“3. Streamline decision-making processes. . . .
“4. Use metrics to evaluate progress (invite leaders to adopt an unapologetic focus on fruitfulness, outcomes, and accountability.)
“5. Reform the Council of Bishops (mostly involves challenging the Council of Bishops to focus on the previous four recommendations with diligence.”) P. 8-9, Seven Levers
Bishop Schnase does not hold back on his assessed criticism of the Annual Conference or even the General Conference structure. He picks up terms used by other authors, for example “The Giant Hairball” (Gordon McKenzie) to depict what is happening within United Methodist Conferences. The hairball is Gordon McKenzie’s term for the procedures and policies that accumulate in an organization. Rules, standards, guidelines, and accepted models become established an set in stone.” (P. 15)
While “The Giant Hairballs” are in place most conference systems include five to seven layers of organizational approval. Each person or committee has the ability to say No, but nobody has the authority to say Yes. (P. 17)
As a denomination we have not totally realized the changes caused by advancements in communication. For example, 30-40 years ago if a church had an idea for global ministry—let’s say build parsonages in Africa for African clergy—the concept had to go to district committees, then conference committees. The question is then asked “how do we raise money for the program on the Conference level?” That requires involving the Council on Finance and Administration and discussion of apportionments. THEN, the proposal goes before annual conference. Then it goes to national program agencies. How many people have voted, how long does it take? Schnase points out that the process could take three years.
Today, by contrast, it’s possible for a local church leader to do research by computer, social media . . . even to contact persons in Africa directly. . . and to deal quickly with the program idea and to arrange transfer of funds or to send a Volunteer in Mission team. Yet, somehow, we seem to work harder to keep the old way going. BUT, our way of doing things is no longer relevant.
It’s interesting that Schnase uses the word “LEVERS” when he describes the strategies for moving Annual Conferences and local churches into the present world—and reaching those individuals who need to feel God’s love and grace. “Levers are tools that multiply the results of our effort. Using levers, we can move things that otherwise we could never budge.” (p. vii)
The first two levers are a crucial starting place. Without them in place, change is almost impossible. There are other levers, of course, that could be noted—but the following seven seem to float to the top of any lists that have been created
This book is a valuable and essential study for clergy peer groups, for annual conference leadership, and—in some cases—even local church lay leadership . There are a series of questions for each Lever which should keep discussion going for a long time. There are also illustrations of change or congregational enrichment—from the start of special clergy peer groupings, the development of the New Church Leadership Institute, to the formation of the Healthy Church Initiative (a way that churches can make a turn around). From the start it is apparent that conferences must stress congregational excellence and clergy excellence—if we don’t get these right the mission and change will not happen.
- First Lever: A Strategy for Starting New Churches
- Second Lever: A Strategy for Clergy Peer Learning
- Third Lever: A Strategy for Congregational Intervention
- Fourth Lever: A Strategy for Cultivating Clergy Excellence
- Fifth Lever: A Strategy for Aligning Budgets and Resources
- Sixth Lever: A Strategy for Creating Technically Elegant Governance Systems
- Seventh Lever: A Strategy for Reconfiguring Conference Sessions.
Bob Cate, long-time officer in the United Methodist Men, and a trainer in Nonprofit Organization Management, says this about Bishop Schnase’s presentation and the book Seven Levers: “Seven levers in this missional strategy is similar to what I learned in semi profit management. It’s different in that it is outcome based not so much system based, and I’m saying that’s a different attitude in many different areas, not just in the church, but in any type of organization. We have to have not only new technologies, but we’ve got to understand what the goals and objectives are, not just what programs are. Are we making disciples for Jesus Christ? Are we reaching community? It’s not the four walls, it’s the people. And that for me is what the Seven Levers is all about--it’s making people more accessible to the world we live in to make Disciples of Jesus Christ.
“Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences doesn’t posit simple solutions or quick fixes and offers no magic formulas or silver bullets. It describes our current circumstances with honestly . . . . Seven Levers gives permission to experiment and encourages us to draw the energy, attention, and focus of the conference toward the mission rather than toward internal structures.” “The website, SevenLevers.org, includes sample documents, handouts, outlines, evaluations, principles, and practices related to each of the levers for those who want to delve deeper.”
Plus, another workshop possibility for local church leadership; 72+U,
details and resources for the use of this training resource can be found online at 72plusyou.com
Benefits of 72+U for your church. Congregations will . . .
- Identify new leaders in their midst.
- Understand the biblical and Wesleyan principles for equipping ministry in the 21st century.
- Explore the power of the Methodist Connection and identify ways the Connection can help them serve their communities.
- Identify opportunities to engage their communities in mission.
- Explore how the Annual Conference can support their effort to make disciples and offer Christ to a hurting world.
For Your Information--Mission Statement for the Missouri Conference
The Missouri Conference--Leading Congregations to Lead People to Actively Follow Jesus Christ
Christ-Centered, Fruitfulness, Excellence, Accountability, Collaboration
Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, Extravagant Generosity. P. 29