All Systems Go

All systems go!  I remember the words well from my childhood.  Whenever NASA prepared to launch a rocket, these 3 words indicated that each one of the complex systems that work together to send an object into space had been checked and double-checked.  If there was just one potential glitch, the launch was halted until the problem was fixed.  On the other hand, if everything was ready, the countdown continued until the next 3 memorable words, “We have lift-off!

“What systems in your congregation are working well?” I asked a Staff Parish Relations Committee a few months ago.  I was helping them assess their ministries during a time of pastoral transition but was met with a blank stare.  “Every organization, including the church, is comprised of systems, which are nothing more than processes that enable you to accomplish your mission.  These systems are interrelated, interdependent, and interactive and work together to form a complex whole.  Although systems are always in the background and keep everything running smoothly, we certainly know when they are broken.”

Sally volunteered, “I know what’s working well.  Hospitality.  Everyone comments on how friendly we are.  We love each other, and we have great snacks at coffee hour.”  Brad jumped in.  “But if we’re honest, we have to admit that we don’t do a great job with guests because most of us ignore them and visit with our friends.  And what kind of follow-up do we do with guests?  Nothing.  That’s one reason they don’t come back.  Personally, I think our system of hospitality needs a complete overhaul.”

The conversation was fascinating as the SPRC attempted to first identify what systems were operating at Hope UMC.  Then we discussed whether these systems intentionally aligned with the mission of the church.  Finally, we assessed which systems were functioning on all cylinders, which were broken, which were essential to facilitate the ministry of Hope UMC, which might need to be put to rest, and what new systems needed to be developed.  

1 Corinthians 12 gives us a wonderful metaphor for the church as a system.  The apostle Paul writes that the church is the body of Christ and consists of many members.  Think about your own body.  It consists of 11 primary systems: digestive, musculoskeletal, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, integumentary, urinary, lymphatic, immune, nervous, and reproductive.  If a major breakdown occurs in just one of our bodily systems, we will likely become ill because all of the systems are dependent on each other.

Paul was convinced that just as each system in the human body works together to keep us physically healthy, so every member of the church is vital to the health of the whole.  Each one of us is called to use the gifts that the Spirit gives us so that the church can witness to the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.  No one is more important than anyone else.  Moreover, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all together rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)

I find it valuable to analyze the church as a series of systems.  Some are necessary for every local church.  Others may vary according to the context, mission, and make-up of the congregation.  The United Methodist Church has determined that 5 administrative systems are mandatory for each church: Finance, Trustees, Nominations and Lay Leadership, Staff (Pastor) Parish Relations Committee, and the Church Council.  That is, every church needs:

  • a system for promoting stewardship education and commitment, setting a realistic yet challenging budget, and responsibly handling money 
  • a system for caring for and maintaining facilities, administering bequests, and promoting the use of the building for church and community activities
  • a system for identifying, training, equipping, empowering, and encouraging the development of lay leadership
  • system of support and accountability for the pastor and other lay staff
  • a system for making decisions on behalf of the congregation

The United Methodist Church gives freedom for churches to develop other systems as needed.  Worship Design, Hospitality, Marketing and Public Relations, Communication, Children’s, Youth, Family, and Older Adult Ministries, Spiritual Formation, Mission and Outreach, Witness, Evangelism, and Pastoral Care are all systems which can contribute to the fulfillment of a church’s unique vision and mission.  Each system has its own role to play in the health of the whole.

Unfortunately, we often underestimate the critical importance of determining which systems are necessary and whether those systems are running on all cylinders.  All systems are a “go” when they include the right leadership, well-run meetings, agendas sent out ahead of time, timely minutes with follow-up reminders, yearly goals and expected outcomes, and a mission statement that aligns this particular system with the mission of the church as a whole.

As General Conference begins tomorrow, one of the most critical proposals in front of delegates involves restructuring the systems of our denomination.  We have determined that all systems are not a “go” in The United Methodist Church, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to achieve “lift-off.”  Our systems (general boards and agencies) at times function in silos, are top-heavy, and are disconnected from local churches and the average person in the pew. 

We’ve assessed the health of our boards and agencies and have determined the need for re-ordering their size, function, operating procedures, and accountability.  The daunting task before delegates is to prayerfully discern how this vast body of Christ called The United Methodist Church can best fulfill its mission to make disciples and transform the world in a way that includes all constituencies of our denomination.

Of course the systems of The United Methodist Church include far more than our general boards and agencies.  Annual conferences, districts, and local churches are also systems within our denomination that must function effectively in order to achieve lift-off.  However, one of the most neglected parts of our collective body of Christ is the health of our clergy. 

My vision for the past 6 years as a district superintendent has been “Health clergy, healthy churches, healthy world.”  All systems will not be a go in our local churches unless the health of our clergy leaders is intentionally nurtured.  Four years ago the 2008 General Conference directed the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to convene a task force to explore the impact of clergy health on our systems as well as the effect that these systems have on clergy morale and vitality.  The Church Systems Task Force Report is found here:

The report identified 13 health factors that affect clergy effectiveness: personal centeredness; eating habits with work that often involves food; work/life balance; job satisfaction; personal finances; outside interests and social life; relationship with congregation; stressors of the appointment process; marital and family satisfaction; existential burdens of ministry; living authentically; education and preparation for ministry; and appointment changes and relocation.

Each of these factors plays a critical role in determining whether the complex set of systems in a clergyperson’s life are a go.  As family systems theory reminds us, clergy health and effectiveness cannot be understood in isolation but as part of a web of interdependent systems.  Family, financial, church, relational, supervisory, and appointment systems all impact the emotional, mental, intellectual, relational, physical, and spiritual health of clergy. 

There are 11 General Conference recommendations from the task force, including:

  • Develop a plan to reduce seminary debt for candidates for ordained ministry
  • Clearly state that clergy shall take regular vacation/time off
  • Require timely resolution of parsonage issues that affect the well-being of clergy families
  • Remove the word “annual” from ¶334.2 in The Book of Discipline to shift the expectation that appointments are only for one year
  • Preserve retiree health eligibility for connectional service
  • Redefine the role of the district superintendent and provide other spiritual guides and vocational mentors apart from superintendents for clergy throughout their career
  • Create voluntary transition programs in annual conferences to provide “grace-filled” exits from ordained ministry

The best results (i.e. a healthy world) come from healthy leaders working in healthy systems.  Are all systems a go in The United Methodist Church?  Not yet.  Are our clergy, local churches, districts, annual conferences, and general boards and agencies functioning on all cylinders?  Not yet.  But General Conference will take giant steps in that direction during the next 11 days as delegates pray, deliberate, discern, dialogue, and create new systems for a new church. 

On Friday, May 4, you’ll hear the words, “We have lift-off,” but it won’t be at the Kennedy Space Center.  It will be at the Tampa Convention Center as General Conference concludes and we are commissioned go back out into the world as God’s people reinvigorated for ministry and mission.  But lift-off will also happen in each one of the tens of thousands of local United Methodist churches around the world as we are propelled into greater heights of vitality and excellence.  All systems go?  We pray so, we hope so, we intend so, with God’s grace.


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