assessing and practicing faithfulness

This week, I read this thought-provoking column in The Christian Century by Robin Lovin, former dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and current university professor of ethics.

Our United Methodist conference (Texas) is working through issues of faithfulness, effectiveness, fruitfulness, and accountability in ministry. Specifically, we’re trying to ramp up all of those things in order to better fulfill our mission as the people of God. It seems reasonable to me that Dr. Lovin is aware of our situation. After all, we are in his backyard and our bishop is a prominent national figure within United Methodism who just received a distinguished alumnus award from Perkins this past spring. Whether intentional or not, his column enters into conversation with our actions over the past couple of years.

Dr. Lovin’s column calls into question modern obsessions with results. He points out that our obsession with results opens the door for demons, including deceptiveness in order to measure up and, more importantly to him it seems, “a flight from human finitude that begins by offering others the illusion that you are unlimited and ends in the delusion that you can escape the laws of the state, if not the law of gravity.” He goes on to say that Christians, churches, and pastors are no less caught up in this than the rest of our culture.

Lovin’s understanding of faithfulness, he says, neither excludes “effectiveness,” or automatically entails it. The emphasis for him is not on our end result, but on practicing faithfully the way or means given by God: the process is just as important, if not more so, as the result. I think he’s right to say that simply acheiving the right or desirable results, no matter how noble, is not enough. And further, that it is potentially dangerous because of what we’re willing to justify in order to end with the results we’re looking for. But the Great Commission to make disciples of all peoples seems to have an end or result in view. And to be “eschatological people” (thank you, seminary) is to know that history is moving towards a consummation, an end.

In my thinking, what we seem to be in need of is this: (1) a vision for an end, (2) a vision for a truthful way to that end that should not be compromised, and (3), and this is the linch-pin, an atmosphere that is conducive to practicing the truthful way in responsive obedience to God’s work in the world, which has God’s end in view. The first two are more tangible. They are the kind of things we can write into documents that can be approved at Annual Conference gatherings and the like. But the third, the critical piece, is more slippery to nail down. It is as much or more an ethos that is lived, that is embodied. For the ethos or atmosphere to pervade our life together, it must be lived by those who lead the body.

Our conference has made huge changes in order to be more faithful. But some questions are worth ongoing discussion: With our present power dynamics and organizational culture, do we have the right atmospheric conditions in place? While emphasizing accountability is good, what are we emphasizing accountability for/to? Accountability for the results/end? Accountability to the way? Can and/or should we nurture accountability for both?

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6 thoughts on “assessing and practicing faithfulness

  1. A couple of thoughts.

    1. “By their fruits you will know them.” This sure looks results oriented to me. Our mistake might be in thinking of results quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Is God calling our churches to produce nice people who fit easily into American culture? Or are we called to make disciples? With Bishop Huie’s emphasis on moving beyond 45% of churches with NO professions of faith, I can’t take that as unhealthfully pushy.

    2. You say we need, “a vision for a truthful way to that end that should not be compromised.” Our notions of accountability, power, and career advancement are all mixed up. If our “effectiveness” is measured by [the quantity of] our results, we have pressure to either fudge the results or avoid ministry in risky places where results might be tough to come by. (Considering the rapid growth of some areas is seems easier to grow a church than in areas of non-growth). But we have other ways of fudging. We can water down discipleship so that the price is less and we get more. I don’t want to be motivated by fear.

    3. I like the motivation of love – love for God (shown in obedience) and to others (by sharing life through Jesus with them).

  2. Great post, Guy, and valuable comments, Richard. Effectiveness is not at issue; the measurement thereof is.

  3. I agree. This was part of my working through whether the Centers for Clergy and Congregational Excellence were mis-named. I was concerned that excellence sounded to ‘pie in the sky’and that excellence might be hard to operationalize. But the fruitfulness discussion brings excellence in tension with effectiveness. Fruit alludes to more than numbers (fruit of the spirit, the tree in the gospel that Jesus uses as an object lesson about fruit, manure, and like bearing like). The metaphor of fruit is about more than ‘meeting the bar’ it is about exceeding the bar — not in a ‘career advancement, look at me’ sort of a way but in the continuing striving by the people of God to honor God with their worship through service. We bring our best to worship, to the offering plate, to the altar, and to our leadership of local churches. Anything less than excellence might be fudge-able, might be narcissistic, might be about us.

    Good discussion.

  4. I have been thinking on this topic for awhile. It seems to the old expectations for ministry was put the fires out in a churcg long enough so some progress could be shown. The goals for progress were back-seated to keeping the peace and paying apportionments. Now the reverse seems to be offered. Pursue the progressive goals, be fruitful, and don’t worry about the conflict because the conference is watching your back. I like the new way better!

  5. I agree, I like the missional tone and emphasis now over the old way.

    Yes, we are looking for results. Yes, they are quantitative and qualitative. What I’ve said here seems to be in harmony with the commetns, so, how to we hold the balance that we all seem to be insistent upon?

    Do we seem to have an atmosphere that is true to practicing the proper means and acheiving the desired results? What challenges might we keep ourselves aware of? It seems to me that a healthy thing we can do at any stage is to honestly assess the potential temptations to be less that faithful. Self-awareness–on an individual and communal level. The point isn’t to get bogged down and lose momentum, but rather to insure that our momentum is properly focused and that our trajectory is in good shape.

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