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Bishop Joe Pennel has raised some excellent questions in a recent post at the UMPortal.  He indicates that we are not focusing on the right things with Call to Action in the United Methodist Church. He writes:

I cannot prove it but I am of the opinion that congregations that focus on growing in compassion, forgiveness, mercy, kindness and justice have a stronger and more authentic commitment to social witness than those that are not so concerned.

All due respect to the Bishop, but he misses the point by making it. Call to Action creates a structure that more effectively promotes these behaviors at the local church level. Local churches are more likely to get busy if they realize that a national or international agency isn’t doing it for them. I believe that Call to Action will promote local ministry.

The problem is not in our expectations. The problem is in the ability for our local congregations to deliver it. Again, Bishop Pennel makes the case:

When I got back to my office I looked at the calendar of activities for the week and not one had anything to do with learning, experiencing or keeping the spiritual disciplines. How can believers grow in the fruits of the spirit if spiritual practice is neglected?

Call to Action is asking for small group and mission dollar accountability. Unless churches are allowing counting bike clubs and knitting groups among their small groups, the very point of these groups is devotion, worship, mercy, compassion, justice, and love.

The Call to Action Initiative is about expecting more from our churches. It is about numbers and goals, yes, but those numbers represent people. There is no reason for the CTA to replace a seminary education, or a course of study education. If the pastors cannot lead the congregations to set goals and implement the faithful ministry to achieve them, then we should also get rid of Guaranteed Appointment and start raising up leaders who can faithfully transmit the gospel message without squelching the movement of the Spirit.

Churches should be interested in far more than the simple facts and figures. Real ministry must be associated with the statistics that the Call to Action: Vital Congregations program is calling for. My colleague in Vermont, Rev. Rebecca Girrell Clark has written a wonderful piece about the inadequacy of the statistics to tell the stories of our ministries.  I agree with her that our reports are stale and leave out the heart of our ministry without the narratives and testimonials of hands-on ministry. But I also think that there are many clergy and not a few laity who stand up year after year at Charge Conference and tell passionate stories about ministry and changed lives while their numbers dwindle and their finances fail.

There are no success stories in Christian churches. There are only redemption stories. That means that our stories must involve the redemption of hearts and minds — “real, live people” to reuse a tired phrase. And we should require our redemption stories to be tested. Call to Action merely demands a simple test: Does our work bear fruit in ways beyond the heart-warming stories.

There must be narratives of ministry that creates moments during which “hearts are strangely warmed.” But that is not the extent of our collective calling. We must redeem more than hearts. We must redeem minds. We must redeem finances. We must redeem actions. And we must redeem the world around us.

Somehow, folks have gotten the notion that Call to Action is trying to replace our Wesleyan theology with some kind of accounting system. Didn’t Wesley himself demand reports from his class leaders? Didn’t he hold his colleagues in loving, albeit sometimes harsh accountability? This bone dry administrative initiative, ironically enough,  is actually trying to restore our Wesleyan structure so that we can more effectively promote our Wesleyan theology. I’ve already written extensively about the subtle goal of CTA to remove the dollars and other resources from some profoundly non-Wesleyan Agencies.

Hear me carefully on this: Not all agencies are bad. Some are still getting the job done. Others are theologically out of step. Still others are outdated and need to be restructured to reach a new generation — or three.

To quote a friend of mine, “I don’t know where we got the agency structures, but they surely were never meant to replace the effective ministry of the local church.”

The premise, for many, behind keeping the current agencies is that the churches cannot be trusted to do ministry. If that is the case, we should close them all and start over. But we should not continue to use the local churches as a cash farm system for Agency ministry.

The Call to Action is the “what” in what is needed for local churches, Districts, and Conferences to take up the mantle. And Bishop Joe Pennell has very eloquently described the “how.” And in pointing out the inadequacies of some churches to accomplish this, he has also illuminated the “why.”


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Author: Joey Reed

Joey is married to his best friend. Together, they have two children and live in Jackson, Tennessee. Joey serves Grace United Methodist Church, the Jackson District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.