Kim Cape: It isn't about sitting here playing bingo

The church needs vital leaders who can convince people in the pews to move beyond the church’s four walls and be involved in Christ’s life in the world, says the new head of the UMC General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

The United Methodist Church is looking to seminaries to produce leaders who understand that the church exists not just for members but for people who aren’t even in it, said the Rev. Kim Cape, the general secretary of the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

“And that’s no small challenge,” she said. “They are asking for leaders who understand that the church exists for people who aren’t there. It doesn’t exist only for the people who are in it. It exists for the world.”

As a result, the church’s challenge is to prepare transformational leaders who can tell laity, “It’s not all about sitting here playing bingo. We’ve got to get out in the community and be involved in Christ’s life in the world.”

Before being named to her current post in March, Cape was executive director of new church growth and transformation for the Southwest Texas Annual Conference. She has previously served at virtually every level of the UMC -- as a district superintendent in both Austin and McAllen, Texas; on the Upper Room development staff for the General Board of Discipleship; and as senior pastor of four churches in Texas.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership about her new job and the challenges facing seminaries and the church today. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You’ve been a pastor, a district superintendent, an executive with the Southwest Texas Annual Conference and now the general secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. What have been the major challenges in those transitions? What have you had to learn and unlearn?

Each local church I served was a boot camp for the next one in terms of everything from how do you lead a church and how do you lead worship to how do you refinance a mortgage and how do you fix a leaking roof.

But probably the common thread in each of these transitions has been that when you move into a new position, there are always things you don’t know that you don’t even know you don’t know. And you have to figure those out. You have to figure out what you don’t know and then gradually chip away at it.

If you listen, each context will tell you what you need to learn. If there is one lesson I’ve learned broadly, across all these positions, it’s that we need to help our clergy and laity figure out how to be lifelong learners and how to connect what we have to offer in missions in a compelling way.

Q: What has it been like for you as you’ve moved further and further from the local church? Has that been difficult?

There are things that I miss desperately about the local church.

I love to preach, and I get a lot of joy in preparing and delivering a sermon. I still get to preach, but it is much more difficult to preach to people I don’t know than people I do know.

As a pastor, you look out at your congregation and you know that one member’s mother just died and another’s child is in the hospital and this couple is having financial trouble. You know your people, and you preach out of that knowledge. I miss that.

I also miss the 3-year-old that throws her arms around your knees. That doesn’t happen very often now.

Q: You were appointed to your new post in March 2011, which was less than a year ago. Maybe it’s too early to ask, but what are your priorities for the board?

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry has a very broad portfolio. We are charged with clergy leadership development for the United Methodist Church -- schools, colleges and universities, divisions of ordained ministry, boards of ordained ministry and global theological education.

The Call to Action steering team created by the Council of Bishops has said that our priority as a denomination is vital congregations. So our agency’s charge is to figure out how to raise up and nurture vital leaders for vital congregations. You’re not going to have a vital congregation if you don’t have vital leadership.

What the church is asking the General Board to do is different from before. We’ve always been asked to produce pastors and teachers, but now we are charged with producing pastors and teachers who are leaders.

What I think the church is calling us to now is to reclaim Ephesians 4, in which we’re called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Our charge is to think about who are our apostles, who are our prophets, who are our evangelists -- and how do we nurture those folks in order to take the church out of what is often an insular, inward-looking mindset.

You don’t get to be a vital congregation by having everything be about you. You get to be a vital congregation because you are relating to the people around you who need to know Jesus Christ.

Q: What do you see as the role of agencies and boards within the United Methodist Church specifically, but also within other denominations, in light of efforts to decentralize and perhaps even grow smaller?

I think we, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, will get smaller. I think that’s a necessity. We just need to figure out how to do that in a way that preserves the highest priorities of the church.

We’re looking at how to do global theological education with diminishing resources. And we’re doing incredible things all over the world. Twenty years ago, we took $30,000 and started a two-year vo-tech school in Argentina, and today it's a 3,500-student university that offers master's degrees. We just signed a partnership agreement with seminaries in Korea to develop theological education to produce Christian leaders, fight poverty and produce global leaders.

We’re doing wonderful things, and we need to keep doing those wonderful things. The challenge is, how do we produce leaders the church needs over a huge range of settings, whether in Korea or Africa or Little Rock?

Q: What are the challenges facing theological education?

When we say the church needs vital congregations and vital leaders, we’re saying we need somebody who’s an excellent theologian. They need to preach like the apostle Paul, and they need to be a transformational leader.

That’s what the church is asking the board for, and the seminaries, and that’s no small challenge.

They are asking for leaders who understand that the church exists for people who aren’t there. It doesn’t exist only for the people who are in it. It exists for the world. So part of the challenge becomes, how do you prepare people for service to people who aren’t there?

Q: How do you do that?

Well, you have to have leaders who can convert people in the pews, Joe and Edna Methodist, from being so self-focused that they don’t care about the elementary school across the street. You have to have leaders who can help them care about the elementary school across the street and universities in Africa.

Every church without exception characterizes itself as a friendly church -- and certainly, friendliness is an important value. But usually they are friendly to each other rather than to the new person who walked in. So the challenge in many of our churches is and always has been to say to the new person, “Come sit by me,” instead of, “You’re sitting in my pew.”

That’s a conversion experience that has to happen in lots of ways, not only with laity but also with pastors. Church is not all about what happens within these walls. You’ve got to get out to where the people are, whatever places that is, like the soccer field or the volunteer fire department or tutoring kids.

How are we going to revitalize and turn around the Methodist Church out of this decline?

We can’t start new churches fast enough to do that, so we’re going to have to figure out a way to raise up transformational leaders who say to Joe and Edna, “It’s not all about sitting here playing bingo. We’ve got to get out in the community and be involved in Christ’s life in the world.”

In one of his books, Gil Rendle says the questions we need to answer are, “Who are we?” “What are we called to do?” and, “Who is our neighbor?” You have to have leaders who can help people answer those questions.

I think this new emphasis on leadership -- actually, the church has had it since its inception. We just called it something else.

We said we were called to Word, sacrament, order and witness. I think the leadership piece is ordering the life of the church so that the work of the Holy Spirit can take place.

Sometimes, we are not real clear about what ordering the church is. But that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about leadership: ordering the life of the church. If we want a theological connection to the work of leadership, that’s where we need to do more work.

Q: When you were appointed, you said that the agency’s job is to help folks see where God is leading and that “leadership means influencing our community to face its problems.” How do you do that? And what are the problems the United Methodist Church needs to face?

As good Methodists -- and good pastors -- know, people have to trust you and people have to know that you love them before they’ll follow you anywhere. Leadership is relational. And it requires courage, because sometimes you’re going to say things to people that they don’t want to hear.

You can say to people whom you love and who you know love you, “Yes, we are going to have little Hispanic children or African-American children in the fellowship hall. Yes, we are going to do what is needed in the world because that’s what Christ calls us to do, not because we’re comfortable with it,” and you have to be willing to take the heat. The district superintendent needs to back those people up.

As far as the problems we need to face, the Methodist Church needs to do a better job with young people. We live in a culture that’s institutionally reactive. We need an apologetic that helps people understand that the good news of Jesus Christ that we offer in the Wesleyan tradition meets their deepest hunger.

How do we do that? Young people can get invested in the Imagine No Malaria campaign. They can get invested in mission, in ministry, a whole lot faster than they’re going to get invested in doing hospice care for a dying church.

We’re facing a cultural context similar to the one that Wesley faced. The church is increasingly unconnected to the culture. But I think that we can look to our roots and see how our forebears have faced these pretty similar challenges and take heart.

Q: Anything else?

I’m excited. The Chinese curse is, “May you live in interesting times,” and we definitely live in interesting times. But I wouldn’t have taken the position if I didn’t think that God has given us the tools we need and the resources we need to do what God has called us to do.

Now, is there a clear path forward? No, but when has there ever been?