A Bivocational Future for Congregations

What is the fasted growing segment of North American Christianity? So many congregations have lost membership over the past twenty years, this question may surprise you.

Faith Communities Today, “Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview” (Hartford, CT: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2021), https://faithcommunitiestoday.org/fact-2020-survey/, 11.

If you are wondering if there is a pocket of Christianity still growing, you are halfway to uncovering the trick in this trick question. When larger congregations lose members, they become smaller congregations. Small membership churches are thus the fastest growing segment of North American Christianity.

Sometimes current exigencies force us into a creative future. There is hope for smaller congregations willing to consider a bivocational future of shared mission and ministry. I believe that a bivocational future provides exciting missional potential.

Please join me at the upcoming Henderson Leadership Conference hosted by Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on Sept 24–26, 2023, where I will present an online workshop, “Thriving as a Bivocational Congregation.” This workshop provides lay and clergy leaders with a vision and plan for transformation.

Registration and Information: https://www.pts.edu/henderson-2324.

Carpenter Foundation Grant for Diaconal Studies

Diakonia is essential to the church’s mission and ministry in North America. Such is the premise of “Revitalizing the Church through Diaconal Studies in North American Theological Education,” a research project of Warburg Theological Seminary, which recently received a grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation for this work.

The four-person leadership team consists of Craig Nessan, Man Hei Yip, Darryl W. Stephens, and Lori Mills-Curran. We have met monthly since April 2021 to envision, plan, and carry out this collaboration involving 22 scholars and reflective practitioners spanning five continents

Read more about our vision for diaconal studies, international collaborators, and book project here.

Working around Seminary Education

Do mainline churches find traditional seminary education an obstacle to thriving? “As churches shrink and pastors retire, creative workarounds are redefining ministry,” reported Elizabeth E. Evans recently in Religion News Service. A workaround, by definition, is an alternate path used when the main path is not longer serviceable. Workarounds are required when existing structures no longer meet the needs of the people involved. As someone who works in and around seminary education, I see a disconnect between the traditional Master of Divinity program and the creativity needed for mainline churches to thrive.

Scarcities of money and time are forcing a redefinition of ministry in the mainline. Congregations are smaller, attendance is sparser, and budgets are shrinking. The old model of a fully-compensated, professional theologian in the pulpit is no longer viable for the majority of congregations. Financial and demographic realities have foisted many congregations into the realm of bivocational and multivocational ministry.

Multivocational ministry is an existing and emerging need of the church. To fully embrace multivocational ministry as a strategic priority in their educational programming, seminaries would need to explore and identify various changes and initiatives required to reform their curriculum, extracurricular offerings, programs, structure, and ethos around this priority. However, many schools of theology cling to traditional curricula, becoming the obstacle around which churches must creatively navigate.

What if North American seminaries were to risk reinventing themselves by adopting a multivocational mindset? I explore the this question in my open-access book, Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry. Theological educators will be especially interested in my concluding chapter, in which I reimagine theological education in conversation with the work of Justo González on the history of theological education and Daniel Aleshire on the future of theological education. If you have read any of the books in the series “Theological Education between the Times,” you will find this discussion an important addition to the conversation.

Mainline seminaries must determine how they will contribute to the thriving of mainline congregations. In the meantime, churches will continue to find creative workarounds.

The Diaconate of all Christians, part 1

During these summer months, I have been teaching and learning about the diaconate of all believers at Otterbein UMC, Lancaster, PA. We started by sharing how each of us volunteers in service in the community. Then, we asked, Where is God in these relationships?

Listen to our podcast about “Diakonia, how and why we serve God.”

This program at Otterbein UMC was funded by a Dewees grant from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Service is part of discipleship. When a new member joins a United Methodist congregation, the pastor asks, “Will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?” Each new member affirms, “yes.” Then, as a congregation, we respond by renewing our covenant to do the same. But what does service have to do with our faith?

All of us serve others in some way or another. We might offer a kind word, a friendly greeting, or perhaps a meal for someone recently out of the hospital or someone who does not earn enough money to make ends meet. Sometimes we experience such joy serving others that it does not really seem like work.

“Doing good” is one of John Wesley’s three simple rules. Wesley believed that we love our neighbors as ourselves through good works. When we serve others, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. In theological terms, Wesley taught that works of mercy are a means of grace. We can experience God by loving each other!

Wesley was careful to say that we do not earn our salvation by serving others. Rather, service is one way that we practice our faith. We grow in faith by exercising our spiritual muscles. When we attend to the needs of others as if they were our own, we grow closer to our neighbors and to God.

At Otterbein, we learned that every Christian is called to participate in service to neighbor, self, and community. “Diakonia” is the Greek word in the Bible for faith-motivated service. From this word we get the titles deacon and deaconess. Diakonia is the gospel in action, through our hands and feet. Diakonia describes our participation in God’s ongoing activity of love and justice in the world.

Where is God showing up in your life? If you are looking for Jesus, look no further than the persons you encounter every day in our neighborhood. What can you do to serve your neighbors? Through service, we not only participate in the work of the church. We also gain a glimpse of the Kin-dom of God.

No Time for Silence

Today’s post is by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Frank, retired, University Professor and Associate Dean of Continuing Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Wake Forest University. His publications include Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church (2006) and The Soul of the Congregation (2000).

Sometimes it seems like Christians are the worst enemy of Christianity.

If you want to know why so many Americans under 50 are staying away from church, why attendance at Mass has dropped like a stone, I can suggest a few places to look.

Just start by reading the obituary of Pat Robertson. For over 40 years, this “Christian” preacher and TV mogul, this needy narcissist, has dealt with his own guilt over youthful behavior and his feeble self-worth as son of a powerful father by demeaning others. Like too much of Christianity he has manipulated scripture into a gospel of guilt and judgment, mostly about sex. Everything from hurricanes to 9/11 has been “God’s” judgment on America for sexual “immorality.” The viciousness of his attacks on LBGTQ people paved the way for today’s right-wing politics of hate.

Or have a look at anti-abortion propaganda — billboard bombast along our roads depicting an ultrasound and a heartbeat graph, sprinkled among signs that shout “do you know where you’re going? heaven or hell?” The utter cruelty of ignoring the complexities of human reproduction and health, the private relationship of doctor and patient, the personal struggle of women who cannot go through with a pregnancy — this kind of bullying has nothing to do with Christian faith.

Or review the recent history of male clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, who have abused children or harassed women into unwanted contact, and bounced from parish to parish without consequence. Most visibly, both Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist governance has failed to publicly and consistently repudiate this behavior, or bring a reckoning to clergy behavior.

More difficult for me, born and raised Methodist and ordained years ago in the United Methodist Church, has been the disgraceful failure of my denomination (one of America’s largest) to remove language from official documents that denigrates LGBTQ children of God. We have lived with this genteel “mainstream” inhumanity for 50 years, driving out promising young clergy and demonstrating to many of our own members that they have no place to be themselves in this church.

Now we have the spectacle of Christianity taken hostage by right-wing authoritarianism. The religion of guilt and punishment, hatred and exclusion, has commandeered the public stage under the name “Christian”. Little wonder that today’s version of the Republican Party and most of today’s churches gain no traction among young people.

Christians who know that the scriptures are a gospel of love and justice, care for the earth and the well-being of all in the human community, must speak up. I’m tired of going to church and hearing not a word about climate change or gun violence. I’m tired of reading about school board and city council meetings where the only “Christian” voice is the fundamentalist attacking transgender students.

This is no time for silence. We have to show up. We have to meet, write, and call congressmen, senators, state legislators. We have to call or write journalists who depict nationalists and racists simply as “Christians”.

And what better time to get on it, than this. Happy Pride Month!

The Method Matters

Today’s post is written by the Rev. Amy Banka, pastor of Hopewell Church, Downington, PA. Pastor Amy delivered this speech at the conclusion of the Eastern Pennsylvania annual conference, on May 20, 2023. The conference theme was “possibility.” The affiliation and change to which she refers is a bishop-led, “strategic direction” in which the EPA and Greater New Jersey conferences of The United Methodist Church share staff, resources, and programs. Both conferences are presided over by bishop John Schol.

Bishop, I stood to speak three times yesterday and was denied the opportunity. I would like to be received today with equity.

On Thursday, you invited us to share our hopes and concerns, and so today with respect and grace, I offer this . . .

I am not afraid of change. For the last 20 years, I have been a leader of change in the local church and this Annual Conference. During the pandemic, I have been blessed to serve on a church and pastoral staff that innovates, pivots, grows. We do not fear change. We know it needs to happen, not just so we’ll survive, but so that we’ll be faithful of our commitment to Jesus Christ. 

Some of us fear change, but many of us do not. We live in the realm of possibility. And yet, we also know that change brings loss and involves people. It requires honesty and a kindness that lasts longer than speeches. It requires an understanding of and appreciation for the people involved. And it requires the kind of change management that discusses first and then acts … that meets around tables and not behind closed doors.

When it is done differently, people inevitably feel unseen and unheard. The method matters. You’ve talked a lot about pace, but I’m talking about method. It matters.

So with the utmost respect, and desire to succeed together, I want to acknowledge that many of us do not fear change, but we lament feeling those difficult feelings after many years of good service.

We lament an affiliation in which our names remain unknown and our gifts underutilized. Hear our grief. We lament statements and actions that insinuate that the best thing we have to offer to GNJ is our newspaper. Hear our grief. We lament the absence of EPA preachers and musicians and leaders from our Annual Conference at this Annual Conference. Hear our grief.

We know we need to change. We want a holy change, but we want one in which we are included and not replaced or displaced, where our gifts and experience are valued and not dismissed, where our voices are heard and not silenced, where we are part of the adventure and not inheritors of someone else’s. The method matters.

Bishop, we want to be part of a change that honors the spirit and ministry of Jesus Christ . . . one that honors the way Jesus loved and acknowledged the dignity of others . . . one that honors the respectful guidelines for communication we heard about earlier. We want to change, and we want to have ownership and participation in it. And when we see an effort that does that, we will be ready to support it. The method matters.

May my words and spirit be pleasing to you, Jesus. 

A Timely Book on Multivocational Ministry

“Bivocational and Beyond offers an insightful and solidly researched entrée into the strange new landscape of part-time and bivocational ministry, not as an indicator of failure in the metrics of numbers and money, but as a rich, new possibility for calling forth Christ’s people in God’s mission.”

Ross Bartlett, Reading Religion, April 2023

“an ambitious, informative resource that delves into the complexity and diversity of bivocational ministry”

Heather Grennan Gary, In Trust Magazine, Fall 2022

Thank you to Ross Bartlett of the Atlantic School of Theology for taking time to review Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry in the most recent edition Reading Religion, a publication of the American Academy of Religion.

The Injustice of “Just Resolution” in the UMC

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In this day and age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, churches are on the front lines. Assault victims sometimes confide in clergy and other church leaders when they feel there is nowhere else to turn. Churches are also places of violation.

Yesterday, yet another report of decades of abuse and coverup was released. Every week I read news reports about another church leader abusing their power by taking advantage of someone in their care. Of women who attend church regularly, 1 in 33 reported being the victim of sexual harassment or abuse by their own pastor. A 2017 survey of thousands of United Methodist laity and clergy revealed that more than 50% reported having been sexually harassed or abused in the church, its agencies, or seminaries.

Churches have a poor track record of responding justly to sexual assault by their own leaders. Victims too often encounter coverup, denial, and institutional betrayal when reporting sexual abuse by ministerial leaders. The problem is not confined to Roman Catholic clericalism and Southern Baptist mishandling. The United Methodist Church (UMC) also fails to care appropriately for victims and others adversely impacted by sexual abuse perpetrated by church leaders.

Rather than prioritize the care of the vulnerable, church processes are often written to reduce liability and deny responsibility. Denominational procedures are designed to protect the institution. Churches can do better when responding to sexual abuse and harassment. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women provides resources, such as Do No More Harm: A United Methodist Resource for Responding to Sexual Misconduct, to advocate for better practices. To provide justice for victims of sexual assault by clergy, churches must become trauma-informed and display institutional courage. Procedures must center the needs of the victim.

A common failing among churches is the attempt to handle an allegation of abuse through a process that does not take into account power differentials. When power differentials are maintained and secrecy is encouraged, victims suffer re-victimization. Thus, in this article, I focus on the injustice use of “a just resolution” process in the UMC. When there is credible evidence of sexual misconduct by clergy or other ministerial leaders, an informal process of resolution is inadvisable and unjust. When caring for a victim of sexual assault, the procedures are as important as the outcome.

Inadequate Supervisory Response

The UMC provides a supervisory process for handling complaints of sexual misconduct (Book of Discipline 2016, para. 362). “A complaint is a written and signed statement claiming misconduct” and may be written by anyone with knowledge of the alleged offense—either the primary victim or a third party. The person writing the complaint is identified as the complainant; the accused is the respondent. When a bishop receives a complaint, one of the options available to the bishop is to begin a “supervisory response.” This is a point where the UMC’s procedures can begin to fail victims of abuse.

The supervisory response is an informal process for handling allegations. “The response is pastoral and administrative and shall be directed toward a just resolution among all parties. It is not part of any judicial process.” This is an admirable goal: “a just resolution among all parties.” It is important to note that sometimes the supervisory process does not fail the victim. However, the process includes many potential pitfalls. Not only does the UMC’s supervisory process fail to center the well-being of the alleged victim, the process does not even include the victim if the complaint is made by a third party.

The UMC’s supervisory response process is problematic in several other ways. The process assumes no guilt. “The complaint shall be treated as an allegation.” The process treats the parties as equals having a disagreement. Additionally, the process is secret. There is no written record and parties are usually asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Fundamentally problematic, the process to reach a just resolution is patterned after mediation.

Misguided Mediation

The UMC’s informal procedures treat a complaint of ministerial misconduct as a conflict between two persons. “The supervisory response may include a process that seeks a just resolution in which the parties are assisted by a trained, impartial third party facilitator(s) or mediator(s), in reaching an agreement satisfactory to all parties.” However, sexual assault or abuse is not a misunderstanding between two equal parties.

Sexual misconduct by clergy and other ministerial leaders is an abuse of power. When a pastor or ministry staffperson abuses the power of the ministerial office by taking advantage of a congregant sexually, the congregant is in a vulnerable position in relation to the clergyperson.

Mediation in cases of harassment or abuse is inappropriate prior to a determination of guilt. On college campuses, for example, Title IX policy prohibits mediation as an alternative to formal hearings in cases of sexual violence because mediation is not appropriate when there is a power imbalance between the parties. The same is true for churches faced with an allegation of sexual misconduct against a clergyperson or others representing the church. According to the FaithTrust Institute, “If an authorizing body suggests mediation before it has investigated the allegations, it is inappropriately using mediation to avoid action” (p. 135).

In the case of alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by a church leader, the supervisory process can replicate the imbalance of power that enabled the abuse in the first place if proper safeguards are not put in place. If the complaint is treated as a mere allegation, the victim-survivor is still vulnerable in this process, only more so. During the supervisory meetings, the bishop (or designee) may bring the respondent and complainant together, each with a support person. In cases of abuse, this is highly inadvisable: the complainant would be faced with a bishop and multiple clergypersons representing the best interests of the person and institution alleged to have caused the violation. The prospect of multiple meetings prior to determination of guilt creates an environment ripe for revictimization, in which the victim would be asked to repeat their story hoping to be believed. I cannot in good conscience recommend to any victim of abuse within the church to subject themselves to this kind of process prior to a determination of guilt.

Mediation in cases of alleged abuse is only appropriate after guilt has been determined, either by admission or adjudication. Only at this point should the bishop attempt a just resolution and then, only in the best interests of the victim-survivor and others harmed, with their consent. According to the UMC, “A just resolution is one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties.” A plain reading of this definition implies that this process is only suitable after guilt has been determined and harm acknowledged. Otherwise, there would be no harm to repair, nothing to be held accountable, and no need for healing.

Furthermore, the secrecy shrouding the supervisory response undermines the possibilities for healing and accountability envisioned within a just resolution. A confidentiality agreement serves to protect none but the guilty. So-called confidentiality serves only to allow the respondent a degree of control over how others may communicate about their violation of church law and to provide legal cover for the bishop and conference insofar as they might be found liable or complicit in any aspect of the matter. Transparency, not secrecy, is required for the church and its leadership to contribute to justice and healing.

The Church’s Accountability

The UMC’s supervisory process seeking “just resolution” too easily avoids institutional responsibility for holding clergy and other ministerial leaders accountable in cases of sexual misconduct. In many cases, it is up to the victim or a third party to prompt a supervisory response by writing a complaint. It is a lot to ask of a complainant to raise a concern, write a letter of complaint, invest time and energy to participate in a supervisory response, and insist that the terms of a resolution be just. This process seems unduly burdensome, if not punitive, to the whistleblower. What is the role of the church in holding clergy accountable?

In cases of alleged clergy perpetrated sexual abuse, why does the church not hold its own accountable? The Discipline allows anyone to write a complaint—including the bishop or a member of the bishop’s cabinet. For example, a district superintendent could take responsibility for writing a letter of complaint and serving as complainant when there is suspected wrongdoing by a clergyperson under their supervision. The burden of proof is minimal at this point, even less than the “reasonable grounds” required to move a case to church trial. The role of third-party complainant is an undue burden to place on anyone not in a role directly responsible for supervision and accountability.

Perhaps this is the crux of the problem with church accountability: Who is the church? If the church is the laos, the entire membership of the body of Christ, then every layperson needs to be equipped to hold ministerial leaders accountable. However, the secrecy of the supervisory process makes it impossible for laity to do so. Accountability requires transparency. If the church is the clergy, then clergy should hold each other accountable. But, as a layperson pointed out to me, can we realistically expect a clergy member to raise a complaint against a colleague? This is the problem of clericalism. Alternatively, if the church is the judicatory hierarchy, the bishop and cabinet, then it is the responsibility of the bishop to make sure that a complaint is filed, justice served, and healing achieved. This brings us back to the conundrum of supervisory response, in which the whistleblower, rather than the bishop, is expected to bear the burden of holding an offender accountable. Justice and accountability should never be the victim’s burden.

For the supervisory response to work well, even through a just resolution process, it must include agreed upon conditions for accountability and healing, and it must always include creativity, trauma informed responses, and transparency among all involved.

Increased accountability and a victim-oriented process would greatly improve the church’s response. The bishop should proactively assure laypersons, the Board of Ordained Ministry, and the broader church that the allegation is being handled with care. The judicatory should provide support for the primary victim, adversely affected congregations, and other clergy—whose ministry and integrity are implicated every time a colleague violates the sacred trust of ministry. Transparency throughout the process is paramount for restoring trust in the church.

The church can do better in holding ministerial leaders accountable and serving the best interests of those harmed within its structures. The Disciplinary process of supervisory response and just resolution can be implemented in ways that are more just, less traumatic, and more transparent. Bishops are in a position of authority to promote positive change in the way that The United Methodist Church handles complaints about and supervision of clergy. I pray that they will.

Revised April 11, 2023.

Resources

General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Do No More Harm: A United Methodist Resource for Responding to Sexual Misconduct, Lesson 14 of 20, Just Resolution, https://www.donomoreharm.org/#/ (in particular, the video “When is a facilitated just resolution process appropriate?”).

Sawyer, Lauren D., Emily Cohen, and Annie Mesaros, eds. Responding to Spiritual Leader Misconduct. Seattle: FaithTrust Institute, 2022. https://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/news/new-resource-responding-to-spiritual-leader-misconduct.

Shaw, Susan M. “Institutional Betrayal, Institutional Courage and the Church.” Baptist News Global. July 26, 2022. https://baptistnews.com/article/institutional-betrayal-institutional-courage-and-the-church/.

Stephens, Darryl W. “If Churches Were Frat Houses: Title IX Compliance and Clergy Sexual Abuse.” Feminist Studies in Religion blog, April 7, 2016. https://www.fsrinc.org/title-ix-clergy-sexual-abuse/.

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