We complain. We get frustrated with the challenges. We give up.
But the message brought by three young pastors after a year spent in a select clergy network is one of hope and possibility: Get going. Get help. Be strategic. Don't give up.
"We all love the United Methodist Church, but we all have our frustrations with the United Methodist Church," said the Rev. Wil Cantrel, associate pastor at Middlebrook Pike UMC. "Our job is not to complain about it, but to make it better for the people who come after us."
Cantrell was one of 50 clergy selected for the Young Pastors Network, a 13-month development program for future leaders of large churches. The Rev. Don Hanshew, associate pastor at Fountain City UMC, and the Rev. Sarah Slack, pastor at New Life UMC, were also selected. All are currently serving in Knoxville District.
The network was led by two giants in the denomination. The Rev. Adam Hamilton is founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Leawood, Kan. The Rev. Mike Slaughter is senior pastor of Ginghamsburgh UMC in Tipp City, Ohio.
Participants spent a total of eight days from October 2008 to October 2009, learning from Hamilton, Slaughter, and their staffs. Topics included: large church leadership essentials, leading the multiple staff church, strategic planning, preaching and worship, personal spiritual practices of a leader, maintaining healthy relationships, stewardship and capital campaigns, prophetic leadership, building and land issues, missions and community transformation, and evangelistic tactics.
The network was created "specifically for high capacity clergy under 35 years of age, identified by their bishops as future leaders with the gifts and graces to lead the large churches in their annual conferences," according to Debi Nixon, executive director of adult discipleship and catalyst for COR.
Slack, age 30, served her first appointment as an associate at Holston's largest church, Cokesbury UMC, followed by Hixson UMC. Today she is pastor at a church with 45 in average worship attendance.
The Young Pastors Network met four times, but Slack said she was most impressed by an October 2009 barbecue and hayride at Hamilton's home.
"It was an amazing experience, to say that Adam Hamilton drove us around on a tractor," Slack said, laughing. "And his house wasn't nearly as big as I thought it would be."
The young pastors asked direct questions of Hamilton and Slaughter and received honest answers, including frank talk about how overworking had affected their marriages. When Slack inquired how best to "market" her own small church, Slaughter said that in the beginning, Ginghamsburg didn't spend on advertising but depended on outreach and members' word-of-mouth publicity to raise visibility.
Slack has already implemented a COR approach at New Life, which is to promote a New Year's sermon series to guests who come to church at Christmastime.
"I started by asking our Wednesday night Bible study group, 'What do our neighbors need?'" she said. Her church members responded that marriage and divorce are problem areas in the community.
Slack designed a sermon series based on Hamilton's book, "Making Love Last a Lifetime." The series will conclude with something special on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, which falls on Sunday.
The young pastor noted that Holston churches of all sizes can learn from the success stories of COR and Ginghamsburg.
"Our potential for growth is there, even if we think we're all rural and scattered out," Slack said. "Ginghamsburg has a main attendance of blue-collar workers. Church of the Resurrection, even though it has more professionals, was started in the middle of nowhere. All we have to do is get up and do something."
'Not your Momma's church'
In January, the spouses of the Young Pastors' Network were invited to join in a retreat at Jacksonville, Fla.While clergy met with clergy, the spouses met with the wives of Hamilton and Slaughter. Hanshew, age 35, said he appreciated that gathering more than any other.
"That was a very significant and great way to help our spouses understand their role, the future, and what that future might look like," he said. "It was the first time, in my eight years of ministry, for an intentional effort by the leadership to include the spouses and help them understand their essential part of ministry."
After a year of interacting with United Methodist trailblazers, Hanshew said he is now more driven to be "more strategic and intentional with all the layers of ministry."
"This is not your Momma's church. The world is not what it used to be," he said, "and we can't continue to use old styles to reach new people."
For example, at Fountain City UMC, Hanshew is helping to launch a new women's ministry, using data from surveys while working closely with the United Methodist Women.
"To me, the United Methodist Women and their social gospel are central to who we are as the United Methodist Church," he said. "I would grieve the fact that the UMW would become less influential to our social holiness, if their numbers continue to decline."
Hanshew said he believes the UMW of Fountain City UMC could become "power players" in helping to re-create the UMW for the 21st century.
"So the message from the Young Pastors Network -- for me -- was don't give up," he said. "Do what you're called to do, but be strategic."
Don't hold back
Cantrell, age 30, was also motivated to take a proactive approach to ministry challenges.
"We face a variety of leadership challenges, and most of them, you can't expect to be prepared for in seminary," he said. "But you don't inevitably have to be held back. You can complain about the problems, or you can get help from people who have been through it before, and been through it successfully."
Cantrell said he was most invigorated by the final event of the year-long network: the Leadership Institute held Oct. 8-9 in Kansas, also attended by several other Holston members. By then, he had developed relationships with other clergy.
"I also got to see behind the scenes at the Church of the Resurrection, how everything they do is intentional and mission-minded," he said.
Among the lessons he will incorporate into his own ministry is the importance of the welcoming and hospitality team.
"We will always struggle to be welcoming -- to not have that insider's mentality. We will always have to work on that," he said. "So the hospitality team is important and needs to include the pillars of your church -- your most dedicated and spiritually mature people."