Bishop Swanson: 'Call to Action' will hold churches, pastors, bishops accountable for making disciples

Bishop Swanson: 'Call to Action' will hold churches, pastors, bishops accountable for making disciples

Eight months ago, "Call to Action" was to most Holstonians just another wordy report that came from on high.

Today, "Call to Action" is a much-discussed, unavoidable United Methodist plan to "re-order the life of the church" for its disciple-making mission. The plan is in motion and already sending ripples of change (and discomfort) throughout the denomination.

Bishop James Swanson and his staff have planned an Annual Conference (June 12-15) that will inform Holston members of the Call to Action's principles and first steps. Swanson spoke to The Call last week about his own thoughts and obligations regarding the process.

THE CALL: The church has talked for a long time about the need for transformation, but never seems to get anywhere. Why do you think the “Call to Action” is different from any other report calling for change?

BISHOP SWANSON: Because it’s a picture of our reality. If we fail to see it for what it is, we’re literally resigning the church, the United Methodist Church, to its death. The Call to Action gives concrete reality to what we have felt all along, but didn’t know for sure. That is, “We’re in trouble.” 

The research shows that not only are we in the midst of declining attendance and membership, we also have other serious problems. There’s a lack of trust between the units of the church, lack of mission clarity and low confidence in leaders, a tendency to emphasize institutional survival, financial pressures, and a failure to involve younger and more diverse people. This isn’t just conjecture or opinion anymore; we know it’s true. The Call to Action gives us a plan to address those realities.

THE CALL: How will it change the church? What changes will be most obvious to church members?

SWANSON: There will be more emphasis on the local church. The Call to Action is not a plan to revitalize the general church, but a plan that asks, “How do we live into the vision that Christ left for us? How do we help the local church live into its own vision, rather than having the general church or conference tell the local church what to do?”

At Annual Conference, we’re going to talk more about this and also about the “Key Drivers of Vitality” in a local church. When they were doing the research for the Call to Action, they talked to and interviewed people in vital congregations. A lot of times we focus on death and dying in the church, but this time, they asked people questions about what leads to vitality. Researchers found that there are four "key drivers to vitality":

* Effective pastoral leadership including aspects of management, visioning. and inspiration

* Multiple small groups and programs for children and youth

* Mix of traditional and contemporary worship services

* High percentage of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership roles

Again, you will hear more about this from me and [Lay Leader] Mary Ruth Richards in our “State of the Church Address” at Annual Conference. We’ll also have Neil Alexander, co-chair of the Call to Action steering team, there to lead a plenary and discussion.

THE CALL: What changes will the pastors first begin to notice as a result of the Call to Action?

SWANSON: I began talking to clergy about this back in February, at Ministers Convocation. Most pastors have already heard about it from their district superintendents. 

Every local church is required to develop a “Congregational Ministry Plan” before their charge conference this fall. The plan will ask questions about changes and needs in their communities, the church’s challenges and threats, signs of vitality and strength, actions they can take to glorify God, and so on.

The answers to these questions will help the congregation develop a ministry plan that is tailored to their church. They’ll be accountable for the plan and goals they create, because it’s based on their own community.

The “Congregational Ministry Plan” will help congregations see who they are and give them a clearer picture of their communities. It needs to be undergirded with prayer, and I’ve asked [the Rev.] Joe-d DowlingSoka to put together a prayer guide to help us do that.

I will be presenting all of these plans from our churches to the 2012 General Conference as our goal for the next 10 years. All active bishops will be doing that.

THE CALL: Some  people are optimistic and excited about the Call to Action, but some say it won’t work or it holds pastors accountable in unfair ways.

SWANSON: I know that people are whispering, "This is another way to blame the preachers.” Well, there’s enough blame to go around for what's happening to the church. Don’t talk to me about who’s going to get the blame. I don’t have time for that. I would hope that anyone affiliated with the church is going to want to please God. When I read the Call to Action, I hear God saying, “You have not been faithful in helping my church to be fruitful, and we’re going to work together on this.”

The United Methodist bishops are going to be held accountable for this, too. The Call to Action is specific in the ways that bishops will have to assume responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptism, participation in ministries, benevolent giving, and lowering the average age and increasing the diversity of their congregations.

It’s not just about losing our jobs. It’s more about being willing to ask and answer the question: “What are you doing in your annual conference to make disciples for Christ?” Bishops are now willing to stand up and take the heat and offer leadership in ways that have not been done before.

Now, I have had people come up to me and say they don’t like the Call to Action. And that’s fine -- you don’t have to like it. But what are you going to do to win people to Christ? What are you going to do to make that happen?

It’s not enough for us just to come in on Sunday and sing a few songs. Read Matthew 25. It’s obvious that Jesus is expecting us to do something. If you don’t like the Call to Action plan, then give me your own plan. Because if you don’t want to have a plan to win people to Christ, then you can’t be the church.

If you read the Bible, Jesus is always counting, counting. “How many, how many?” God is counting, and I don’t know why we don’t want to talk about that. If you believe God is going to transform this world, then you’ve also got to believe that God is going to ask you, “What did you with the time I gave you?”

THE CALL: What do you think will cause the Call to Action to succeed – or fail?

My biggest concern is not that we won’t get started, but that we won’t follow through. We’ve got to restructure our local churches to follow their ministry plans and focus on building the “Key Drivers of Vitality.” Even if they don’t meet all their goals, they will still become much more productive.
We ought never to be satisfied with our churches just as they are. If we can win 50 to Christ, then why can’t we win 100? We ought never to walk past poverty and abuse and not be concerned about that. We ought never to allow a child to have an empty plate without wanting to do something about it. We’ve got to create a hunger and passion to be the Christ in our hurting communities.

I’m expecting 100 percent participation. I expect our people to be faithful. In order for us to be vital congregations is not an easy task. Anyone who wants to follow Jesus and thinks it’s an easy task, then they’re kidding themselves. I hope that our churches will let the winds of the Holy Spirit blow a change across our communities. I hope they will be creative and try to see their communities with new eyes. 

We have tried so many things that haven’t worked, our people are afraid of failing. But my mother taught me that you can’t be afraid of failing or you will never succeed. We can’t give up. We have to keep trying. If our churches could just see themselves the way I see them whenever I visit
-- I believe they can do it.

I believe they can do it, if they will just challenge themselves. I've seen what they can do when they get excited.

See the Call to Action web site for full reports and resources.