The Mediocrity of More

Pick up a ball, toss it in the air, catch it.  Take two balls and toss them one at a time, catch them.  So far, so good.  Very few dropped balls.  Take a third and juggle them.  With practice, you become sure-handed and drop very few.  But what about four or five balls?  Much harder to keep them moving without dropping some.  Not so impressive when the balls drop frequently.  Incredibly difficult to keep many balls in the air without error.  There is a basic quality/quantity trade-off.  Those who can juggle five or six balls flawlessly are indeed impressive; but a person who juggles three balls perfectly is more impressive than one who juggles five balls poorly.  I think there is a lesson here for the church.

With the exception of UMCs with more than 2,000 active participants, (so I am only talking about 99% of our congregations) the healthiest churches in our denomination are those choosing to excel in one or two areas instead of continuing to be mediocre at a lot of things.  The awakening to the fact that The United Methodist Church” has become the Phoenix University of Christian churches (according to Jon Stewart… I still love this line…) is not something of which we can be proud.  Our commitment to be a “good” church prevents us from being a “great” church.  Becoming “world class” in one or two areas of ministry is open to a much larger percentage of our churches than being great at many things (reminds one of Mary and Martha, doesn’t it…?), but it requires a bit of a sacrifice.  A congregation may find something in which to excel, but it will have to stop doing other things if it wants to free resources and capacity to be successful.

The same holds true for our denomination — if we want to actually make a lasting impact in the world.  Our four focus areas have given some guidance, but how well have we done keeping these four balls in the air?  Malaria looks good — that’s one ball.  Pockets of ministry with the poor pop up from time to time, but more often than not we’re chasing that ball as it scoots under the sofa.  Our Call to Action is calling us to juggle fewer balls, but the balls to drop and the balls to keep are arbitrary.  There is no clear sense of what we need versus what we don’t.  Yet, we will make decisions about what agencies to keep and what leadership to retain, even though we don’t know what we want them to do…

Our focus is too broad.  We are still trying to be all things to all people.  We still want more people, so we cast our nets as wide as possible, sacrificing depth for breadth.  So much could change if we would only shift our primary focus from size to quality, from “big” to “excellent.”

Another result of our unfocused approach to ministry is that it gives us all something to disagree about.  With so many issues big and small to manage, we can ignore the big things we agree on to bicker and snipe about where we’re different.  This becomes a perfect excuse to not be effective at anything.  We are too busy trying to be right to waste time trying to be effective.

This is a fine example of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Because we are okay with being mediocre, we allow the things we are bad at to drain our resources and prevent us from being great at anything.  The more we try to do, the less we excel, and in many cases the more we damage our reputation and credibility.  An example of this is our current denominational need for leadership.  To attract new leaders, our Ministry Study recommends we lower our standards and shorten our time of preparation, yet we already suffer a crisis of quality in leadership.  Making our credentialing process LESS rigorous not only won’t improve our leadership, but the results promise to be ugly.  The same is true of our denominational plan to downsize before we clarify our missional priorities.  We will simply try to do as much as we always have with fewer resources, shifting our mediocrity to gross insufficiency.  It should be fun.

Form follows function.  Function defines focus.  We have got to be crystal clear about what we are trying to do and why it is so important before we progress too much farther on how and who.  Bigger won’t necessarily give us a future.  Better will.

11 replies

  1. I think your analogy of the Call to Action to determining how many balls we can reasonably juggle is a very good one. I would like to hear your thoughts on the subject of how we do apportionments. It seems to me that more money needs to be left in the local churches for the purposed of encouraging and enhancing local outreach ministries. Yes, this would mean drastically changing the focus of our denominational mission. But it would help the local churches to focus on the local mission field into which all Christians have been called to serve.

    Secondly, I would like to read the document that you say calls for lowering ministry standards. Please, provide a link to where I can read it.

    It seems to me that as a denomination we need to place a greater value on the diversity of education and experience of those who come to ministry from other fields. In the five-year Basic Course of Study (COS) in which I am enrolled, there are MANY local pastors with Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees plus a wealth of real life experiences that have prepared them well for pastoral ministry and in ways that earning an MDiv cannot begin to touch.

    Personally, I hold both M.S. and B.S. degrees and have completed the first two years of the Basic COS. I find COS to be very challenging and rewarding. The COS is graduate level study, thus far every class has been taught by a pastor and/or professor who holds a Doctorate degree.

    It’s a discouraging thing to learn, however that many elders and district superintendents have no idea of what completing the course of study entails. They have little or no appreciation for the amount of dedication, self-discipline, study and sacrifice that it takes to complete the Basic course. My D.S. wasn’t even aware that the Advance Course, if I decided to pursue it will take me an additional four years to complete and is considered equivalent to earning a seminary degree by the BOD. Further, in my conference I’m told by many that I will never be ordained even if I complete the Advanced Course.

    Please, share your thoughts.

    • The Ministry Study can be found at

      Some disagree that earlier and streamlined ordination requirements means less rigorous requirements, and I agree they don’t necessarily have to… unless of course you have paid attention to similar precedents in the UMC and acknowledge the likelihood that we will take the path of least resistance when it presents itself.

      Our credentialing issues are not so much about preparation but about discernment. We often don’t know what we are looking for in our candidates, so we use an arbitrary set of filters. We have pastors serving in a wide-variety of capacities whose theology, polity and doctrine have virtually nothing to do with United Methodism. How did they get ordained? They jumped through all the proper hoops and some Board lacked the courage to say “no.” We have others who are greatly qualified and gifted, but they tripped over a paper or an interview, and we deferred them or showed them the door. Straining at gnats; swallowing camels. Clear standards, serious discernment, intensive evaluation, consistent accountability — this isn’t rocket science.

      • Thanks for posting this. I will read it carefully. I agree with your comments, too about credentialling. It is because of the criticisms you offer that many local pastors (like me) see ordination as a union card.

  2. I count two balls … maximum of four if you want to subdivide:

    #1: Go, make disciples of all nations, baptize (Matthew 28:19 – prevenient grace)

    #2: Teach them to observe (i.e. behavior, not ideas) all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:20 – sanctifying grace)

    Pluralism and diversity in the ministries that result from #2 would allow each local church to differentiate to develop incarnational specialization … differentiation being another powerful tool to reduce the conflict resulting from “herding” (Edwin Friedman) and homogenization.

    And #2, of course, requires us to teach #1 to each disciple so that they can become a disciple maker … as called for in the 2008 Book of Discipline in a revolutionary statement: ¶ 126. The Ministry of the Laity … Every layperson is called to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); every layperson is called to be missional. (This is the new goal.)

  3. Dan,

    Actually, I’m not seeing the Ministry Study calling for a shorter credentialling process, just a different order of events within it. Ordination precedes conference membership in their proposal, but the number of years to become a deacon or elder in full connection is not changed– at least as far as I can see. Perhaps I’m missing something, though.

    Still, putting ordination ahead of conference membership is, I think, precisely a case of form following function. We pray the Spirit’s empowering of these persons for their function– a ministry of word and sacrament (for elders) or word and service (for deacons)– now BEFORE we expect them to fulfill it, rather than sending them to go do that work (under the commissioning regime) without actually having prayed or laid hands for the Spirit to be given for that office and work.

    So to me, this change in the order, without actually reducing the number of years involved to arrive at “full connection” status, may actually be an improvement– a good thing, neither bad nor ugly.

  4. Thank you! It is always so refreshing to hear someone else voice what I learned growing up–and just maybe I got “soem things right”. My mother, a Director of Christian Education in the UMC, often said it was not just about numbers, quality/depth of teaching is extremly important. That is something I am struggling with with my local congregation. After a review of my own faith walk “growing up in the church”, and because things at home during my growing up years were less than God-centered, anything I learned about being a disciple was random and only because I had my antenna out–it has literally been a collection of random people crossing my path, shedding some light and moving on. I view it as, “I put things together as best as I could”. I became an expert church member though. That and my “patchwork faith” did not serve me in good stead when the going got tough at church and in my personal life, simultaneously. After 20 years pretty close to center, I have spent the last ten on the fringes of my congregation. I don’t like the fringes, I know the power of being part of a community, something I very much need right now, especially a Christian one. I can’t help but wonder what would have been the response if I had walked into last Saturday’s leader meeting that was planning for 2012 and asked “And where do I go to sign up to learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, I’m tired of the ‘randomness’?” I talked with a “center person”, a very godly woman, who actually called wanting to know about my extended absence from church (I have been on a sabbatical form all things “church”); when I hinted at questions I had about what the church was doing, I felt the ranks closing–“Well, I don’t have a problem” and gave me list of what all was “going right”–and in all honesty they are “right”, as far as they go and are a start. She couldn’t handle the fact I was even questioning. And her view of “fringe people” raised my eyebrows, although I must admit I used to have something of the same view until I started experiencing “church life on the fringes”. My knee jerk reaction to her response was to extend the sabatical . Fortunately, I turned around and talked to another fringe person; she was very receptive, supportive and encouraging and I will now go embrace my “fringiness” by sitting on my new back pew during worship. Go figure! Is there something wrong with this picture?

  5. You mentioned malaria. I recalled many efforts to get bed-nets to persons in malaria-affected areas.

    There is no doubt that bed-nets have helped tremendously, but the mosquitos have/can become resistant to the insecticide after a few years.

    This is one of the reports dated September, 2011 from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine:

    May we stay with this effort. It may take more of an effort than that anticipated by our official leaders. The report mentions new insecticides for bed-nets, new medications and an on-going effort that seemed longer than some of the goals to eradicate malaria by 2015.

  6. Using the JUGGLING analogy … perhaps, just PERHAPS, if we — collectively GREW A SET and stopped the pervasive Ostrich Technique something Great would happen ?

    Sorry if I offend anyone with this hard talk — but, I am associated with a local congo. that’s been heavy on my heart these past several years………….a once vital, thriving community that’s definitely “at risk” today — in decline, scattered/fragmented — which is SAD ‘cuz not to many years ago “we” collectively built a $1.4M addition to the facility. Today, we struggle to afford the debt. Sad. Not unique, either.

    May God Have Mercy On Us All

    • This demonstrates one big problem in the Church. It was this kind of emphasis on temporal things that irritated the Reformers who saw a pope who was more concerned about renovations of and additions to the Vatican than about addressing the spiritual and missional life of priests and parishioners. Of course, many of the reformers and many generations of their followers have fallen into this type of institutional thinking. Even many elders who remember their years of itineration fail to mention that their goal was to itinerate up to the “better appointments” and positions of influence in the institution. Not too many, I understand, often itinerated solely for the purpose of serving the needs of churches who were facing serious challenges and could not afford a full elder. In the secular world is called the climbing a corporate latter; in ministry it’s called steeple climbing.

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