At Clergy Gathering, straight talk on culture change and financial crisis

By Annette Spence

 Stephen DeFur explains Cokesbury UMC
leadership tactics to 370 participants
of Clergy Gathering.

When 370 pastors crowded into the fellowship hall at First Morristown United Methodist Church, they already knew something about the speakers of the day. They were their own Holston clergy, sharing lessons learned in developing one of the largest churches in the denomination.

The pastoral staff of Cokesbury United Methodist Church led this year’s Clergy Gathering, held Oct. 21 in the town considered to be a conference midpoint. Bishop James Swanson followed the learning session with worship and a “love feast” in the First Morristown sanctuary.

The theme was “Healthy Pastors, Healthy Churches, Audacious Hope: Changing the Cultural Context for Effective Ministry.” Senior Pastor Steve Sallee led his staff in explaining how their Knoxville church arrived at 2,700 in current average worship attendance. The experience and hard knocks along the way inspired them to create the Cokesbury Leadership Academy, now in its second year of teaching budding clergy.

“I know that many of you think that at Cokesbury, never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day,” Sallee said. “But in fact that was not true.”

He told of how his appointment at Cokesbury UMC in 1996 coincided with the retirement of a longtime popular pastor. The incoming pastor was not only immediately rejected by many, he was despised when he set out to change Cokesbury because the church had stopped growing.

“Some of our most significant churches in Holston have remained the same size as when I got into this conference,” he said. “Well, that certainly tells you they’re in a plateau or even in a decline.”

To help determine a church’s need for change, he suggested, study the last 10 years of conference Journals. Make a graph showing your church’s membership, worship attendance, Sunday school attendance, and other numbers over that time period.

“Just stare at that graph for a while,” he said, “because that will tell you a lot.” Membership numbers are less important than attendance figures, “because it’s not how many people who are on your roll, but who actively show up.”

If a plateau or decline in the numbers is unrecognized by the congregation, communicating the situation can place a pastor in an “adversarial” position, Sallee said. “But if you don’t have a vision for your church, who do you think will?” Don’t be afraid to use the pulpit to cast a vision or begin changing a church’s behavior, he said.

Yet change is painful, Sallee warned. He told of how Cokesbury attendance dropped from 700 to 350 within two years, and how misery led him to request an appointment change and consider leaving the ministry. He later realized the departure of some members was necessary to allow the church to change and take risks such as buying the former Lowe’s building that is now Cokesbury Center.

Other Cokesbury staff explained how the team had prayed and envisioned where the church could be in so many years, then stuck to their principles to get there. Senior Associate Pastor Stephen DeFur explained how an extensive missions ministry was developed partly by insisting that money would only be sent to projects if church members could also give hands-on assistance. Rebekah Fetzer, minister of discipleship, spoke on the role of small groups and Micah Nicolaus, associate pastor, spoke on “culturally relevant” worship. Gil Smith shared the impact that Celebrate Recovery has had in Knoxville.

Sallee emphasized that programs to reverse decline in any church can only be effective if an effort is also made to the change the culture of the church.

“I can’t tell you how many programs I’ve seen come through Holston Conference in my 33 years of ministry,” he said to applause. “That reminds me of some of the fad diets I’ve been on. You can lose the weight but you can’t sustain it because it isn’t realistic.”

He recommended using outside consultants — not necessarily high priced but perhaps an effective, objective pastor — to help change a church’s culture. Begin by understanding its current culture (studying the numbers and other aspects). Then, cast the vision (“What would your church look like in 10 years if God had God’s way?”).

Finally, begin to change the church’s behavior, beginning with the pastor. “If the church’s behavior is going to change, your behavior will have to change,” Sallee said.

At day’s end, Bishop Swanson preached on the country’s current financial crisis and how clergy should respond to their parishioners’ despair.

“This is not the time for us to go fishing,” he said. “This is not the time to retreat from God’s vision, to retreat from the work that God has put in front of us.”

Swanson urged pastors to “feed themselves” – through prayer and scripture study – so they will be fit and ready to lead others through the crisis.

“You can’t do it on the power of your own strength,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, we preachers have got to get back on our knees and start calling on God for our strength and our help.”

He scolded pastors for complaining that “things are not easy as you want them to be.” He reminded them that they had accepted God’s call somewhere along the way

“You said you heard the call,” he said. “If God says ‘feed my sheep,’ God’s going to give you the bread to feed his sheep.

“Let him fill you up. Let him fill you up. God is trying to feed you. How many of you have ever tried to feed a baby who doesn’t want to eat?” Swanson said to laughter. “Some of you are like that.

“Don’t do some belly-aching. Do some belly-flopping.”

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