I used to love to plant a tomato garden in the back yard. Every year, I would till the soil, buy the young plants, place them properly in the ground, and nurture them over time waiting for the tomatoes to come. As anyone will tell you, there is nothing better than a tomato ripened on the vine. Those “vine-ripened” tomatoes in the grocery store? I’m not sure what “vine” they were ripened on, but it’s not the same kind of vine I used to grow.
Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to answer this question. What would happen if I did all the prep work, prepared the soil, planted the tomatoes, but left them alone once they were in the ground? Let’s just say I didn’t water them, care for them, or pay them any attention at all. I might get a few tomatoes, but the harvest would certainly suffer. Nurturing anything takes a lot of commitment over a long period of time. It’s one thing to put all your time and energy into starting something (is it fair to say many of us are great at starting things?), but it makes all the difference in the world how much time and energy is put into the long term nurturing. This is the essence of disciple making.
What we pay attention to, what we resource, what we value, and what we devote time to all reveal what matters to us. Over the long haul, leaders shape what really matters by what they pay attention to and by what they nurture.
I’ve been in ministry for almost 20 years and I have seen many programs brought to our attention by the United Methodist Church. Some of these programs and emphases were designed for a set period of time, say four or ten years. Any time a new ‘movement’ begins in the church, a lot of energy and effort goes into getting it off the ground. But the true, culture-shaping power of any program/movement comes only if the leaders devote themselves to nurturing it systematically over time.
I remember in the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church we engaged in a huge study in 1991-1993 called the Futuring Document. Bishop Marion Edwards chaired a team of leaders in our conference. They met for almost two years revisioning how our conference could do things differently to reach the coming generations. They were ahead of their time on some things, like the role and responsibility of the District Superintendent. They addressed the nature of the Superintendency so superintendents could better help local church make disciples. They sought to connect more closely the local church to the conference and denomination – something the Call to Action report desires in 2011. We voted to adopt the Futuring Document in 1993 and I remember that as one of the most exciting Annual Conferences ever. Things were going to truly be focused on making disciples and changing structures to better allow that to happen. South Georgia Methodists would no longer experience decline – or so I thought.
A funny thing happened between Annual Conference 1993 and Annual Conference 1994. We approved the Futuring Document, put together an ‘implementation’ committee and the next thing we knew, the Futuring Document was never heard from again. A very few items led to change, but not many. For the most part, it just sat there. In 2001, not even a decade later, someone referenced the Futuring Document on the floor of the conference and not only could no one remember what the document said about the particular issue…no one could even put their hands on a copy of the Futuring Document. It was the talk of the town with untold hours and effort put in the front end. It ended up doing very little.
All that said, now the leaders of the United Methodist Church have engaged in a massive study called Call to Action spending over $500,000 to study vitality in congregations and what drives vitality. The leaders (Bishops, Connectional Table) are calling for churches to begin measuring worship attendance, membership, professions of faith and missions giving/engagement in addition to other things. The leaders also desire more focus on the drivers of vitality (dynamic worship, leadership development, etc.) The verdict is out on whether the metrics and initiatives will lead to greater vitality or not, but one thing is certain. If the leaders of the United Methodist Church refuse to consistently and systematically pay attention to these metrics and initiatives over time, they will end up accomplishing very little.
So, here is an important question. Will leaders in our denomination make this a long term priority? Or, like many other ideas, will they put massive amounts of time and energy into creating it only to let it phase into another level of statistical tables or programs to be included in a Charge Conference report. We may continue to argue ‘what’ the numbers mean and ‘how’ they contribute to vitality, but one thing is certain. If Bishops and other denominational leaders don’t consistently pay attention to and nurture this focus, the culture will not change. What leaders systematically pay attention to communicates their major beliefs – whether they like it or not.
We love the newest and the latest. We love to be early adopters. We love to have our name on the list of pioneers and founders. But what we really need now are healthy tomatoes. What kind of tomatoes we get, and how many, remains to be seen.