How Methodists Could Become More Missional
A few days ago, Steve Knight, curator of the Missional Shift blog, reposted part of my blog entry, The Great Missional Misunderstanding under the headline, Maybe Methodists Are Not So Missional After All.
We’re not. But we do have the capacity, the heritage, and the personnel to be missional. John Wesley was nothing if not the ultimate missional pastor. At the very beginning, the Methodist movement was a living, breathing example of what a sent people looks like. The Methodists were missional monks, transforming their neighborhoods, discipling folks in small groups, and going on to the perfection of entire sanctification. Many elements of our current polity originally arose out of a missional paradigm, such as itineracy, lay preachers, and holy conferencing.
In other words, we have missional DNA. It’s deep in there, way down.
But something happened in the first half of the nineteenth century in American Methodism. It’s all summed up in the image of the itinerant, circuit riding preacher getting off his horse, and becoming “located.” This happened across America as the frontier stopped expanding; preachers decided they wanted to stay home, raise families, and build churches. This was an understandable shift, but it completely changed the modus operandi of Methodism.
I believe that the itineracy is the very place where United Methodists could once again, and immediately, start living out of a missional paradigm.
We could start making truly missional appointments.
In Methodist-speak, an appointment is what a bishop of a geographic region, known as an annual conference, gives to each ordained pastor. Each appointment is officially made for the duration of only one year at a time, and it is made at the discretion of the bishop.
Most pastoral appointments are made to existing local churches. Every year in our conference, a few appointments are made to new church starts. Pastors who feel called to serve outside of a local church may request appointment to “extension ministry.” Common examples of extension ministry appointments include seminary or university faculty positions, conference administrative positions, or chaplancies.
But the vast majority of appointments are to an already-existing congregation, every one of which are heavily invested in attractional ministry and maintenance of a campus. Over time, the best and brightest pastors get sucked into these traditional church settings where they inevitably end up serving the status quo.
A very simple way to change this dynamic would be to create missional appointments, in which pastors are charged with creative assignments, or are tasked to serve a very unique people group.
Let me throw out a few possibilities, using my own conference as an example:
What if we appointed someone to the night life in Deep Ellum? A few city blocks on the east edge of Dallas contain a thriving night scene, including tattoo shops, metal clubs, coffee shops, and artist lofts. But maybe only one church. Where is the reign of God breaking out in Deep Ellum? We have no idea, because none of us are there.
What if we appointed someone to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport? Not only do hundreds of thousands of people fly in, out, and through the airport, but thousands of people are employed at the airport. Could we imagine the airport as a vast mission field, with unique needs, problems, and pastoral care opportunities?
What if pastors were appointed, not to local churches, but to zip codes or neighborhoods? And what if they had no other responsibilities but to live in the neighborhood, spend lots of time in the coffee shop and grocery store, and hang out with people?
What if we appointed someone to a public justice issue, such as the death penalty? Imagine a clergy person spending all her time researching the impact of capital punishment in her city and state, speaking out and educating people in churches about the issue, and making public acts of witness.
What if we appointed someone to be a missionary to refugees? Every year, close to 2,000 refugees are resettled in the Dallas area. They come from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, and Congo, among other forsaken places. They arrive here with their entire worldly possessions in their hands, and are forced to adjust to life in the States in a very short amount of time.
The possibilities are truly endless. I have heard and seen such appointments happening in various conferences around the country, but they don’t happen often enough. Lorenza Andrade Smith, whom I have written about before, is appointed to the homeless of San Antonio, and actually lives on the street with them! I can’t imagine a more creative appointment!
In the North Texas Conference, back in the 1990s, there were a series of creative 3-year appointments like this, thanks to grant money from the General Board of Global Ministries. My friend, Diana Holbert, was appointed to work with the creative, artistic community of downtown Dallas; another friend, Marcia McFee, became the worship consultant for the conference.
Now the reason why appointments like these don’t happen often is very simple — money.
Pastor salaries are paid by the local churches where they serve. Leaving aside the contentious issue of pay equity among clergy, we should note that this means that there is little to no money normally available to fund new missional appointments. Our conference does fund new church starts, often at quite large sums, but the assumption is that these churches will become self-sustaining in three years. Missional work may not ever be “self-sustaining” in the traditional sense. Thus, conferences frown on such work.
In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to be appointed as missionary to refugees in our conference. It’s what I feel called to do. I’ve started a nonprofit refugee ministry called Daraja, which takes up most of my time. My official appointment is to the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which initially helped pay part of my salary. However, now the funding has run out, and I find myself in the position of raising my own salary support, an unusual new job skill which I am learning on the fly. (Not doing it particularly well, yet, so if you feel so inclined, here’s where you can make a monthly pledge!)
Yes, I’d love it if the conference could pay me a base salary, ensuring that I can pay my mortgage and bills, but since working with refugees is not a particularly lucrative business, nor is it ever going to be “self-sustaining,” then they will be wary of this move. I will have to rely on good old-fashioned fundraising.
My point is that our Methodist connection actually does provide us with a network of like-minded, followers of Jesus who could, if they dreamed and dared, find ways to fund, resource, mobilize, and send pastors into unique places for missional purposes. It could happen, and as I said before, does happen from time to time.
But there’s room for more.