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.