by Rev. Ken Sloane Director of Stewardship at Discipleship Ministries
One of the greatest joys of my pastoral career was starting a new church. One of the toughest challenges of my pastoral career was starting a new church. I would guess that most pastors who get the chance to have this experience will feel the same way. You empty so much of yourself into that effort. It was during those 12 years that I developed the digestive problems that I deal with today, and I sometimes say I left my colon on the altar of that church, a wonderful visual image, I know.
It’s probably not exclusive to new church pastors to think back on a particular appointment and think of what you would have done differently. When I think on it now, I realize that I was in too much of a rush to get members. We began worship in a school in November, 1989 and we chartered on June 3, 1990. We received 119 people into membership that day, 65% by Profession of Faith including 8 adult baptisms. This was long before the days of the Dashboard, but wouldn’t that have looked impressive!
In 2012 it is clearer to me (and to the rest of the church, I hope) that membership has factors of both quantity and quality. I know that if I were to do that over, I would be every bit as welcoming to whomever came to the doors of that church, but I would also set the bar of expectation of membership much higher.
No longer planting churches, it's my present role as Director of Stewardship at the Discipleship Ministries that got me the invitation to write on Stewardship and Generosity. I think when it comes to local church stewardship, there are few things we can do that have a greater impact on raising the level of commitment and generosity than creating a culture of higher expectation for our members.
My observation I often shared with others about starting a new church was that as the planter I was the first one at this new faith community. There was no history that pre-dated me; likewise, there were no inherited attitudes or cultures. Any landmines should have been ones I had a hand in burying. So setting a culture of high expectation for membership (I think particularly of those vows of giving my time, talent, gifts, service, and now witness) is a much easier task for a new church start pastor than for the pastor who is appointed to old First Church downtown. Changing membership culture in an old church is on a par with walking on water, but it has on occasion been done.
Read about the churches in United Methodism that have the resources they need for mission and ministry and I believe you’ll find these qualities: intentional welcoming of people to be part of the community of faith, but clear expectations, unashamedly articulated, about what it means to be a member and a disciple. Could we ever convince anyone that being a member of a United Methodist Church is important when we allowed persons to go three years without attending or making a financial contribution before we took action to remove their name from the membership rolls (even then with trepidation)?
I often remind people that when Chelsea Clinton was married by a Rabbi and a United Methodist pastor (my good friend Bill Shillady of the New York Annual Conference) comedian and TV host Jon Stewart made the following joke about my denomination: “Methodist is like the University of Phoenix of religions. You go online, click 'I agree,' send them $50, and you're in.” Some folks got upset by the remark, others saw it as a challenge to examine how low, in many cases, we have set the bar for those who become members.
Stewardship is more than successful fundraising and more than meeting the budget. It is creating a culture where full discipleship is valued as something worth working to attain. That happens when we set the bar of expectations high enough to make it something that requires a commitment. It is in that environment that a culture of generosity has the best chance of flourishing.
How do you think we can make members into good stewards of the church's mission? How should we help potential members understand that church isn't a hands-off affair?