Lovett H. Weems: It is not enough to be right

Leadership is helping God's people take the next faithful step, says the director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is a pastor, educator, author and researcher, and an expert on leadership in the United Methodist Church.

Lovett WeemsWeems, who has spent many years working with United Methodist denominational and congregational leaders, is a distinguished professor of church leadership and the director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Before joining the Lewis Center, he spent 18 years as president of Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. A native of Mississippi, Weems is a graduate of Millsaps College, Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and Wesley Theological Seminary.

Weems is the author of a number of books, including “Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results” (with Tom Berlin); “Church Leadership: Vision, Team, Culture, and Integrity”; and “Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church.” He also co-edits the online newsletter Leading Ideas.

Weems spoke with Faith & Leadership about the leadership challenges and opportunities in the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What overarching lessons have you learned in your many years of working with United Methodist denominational and congregational leaders?

There are thousands of things about leadership we don’t know, but there are a few things that we do know. One is that it is always about the group. As crucial as the leader is, it is not about the leader but is instead about the group.

A definition of leadership which I have found helpful is that leadership is helping God’s people take the next faithful step.

Q: It is not easy to figure out that next faithful step is, is it?

No, it is not. Figuring out the next faithful step involves being a student of history and understanding the DNA of the context that you are in, because it is not enough to be right.

What I mean is that it is not enough to know what we need to do. A leader has to find a way for the next step to be right for the group and the context.

Another thing that we know about leadership is that it is always about change. And while we of course do not want change just for the sake of change, we must change, because the current state of things is never synonymous with God’s ultimate will. This is true for our lives, congregations and world.

You never can say, “This is what God’s ultimate will is.” So no matter how appreciative we are of our past and present, a key role of leaders is celebrating our past and present while helping people say, “Let us turn to God and discern that next chapter and that next step.”

Q: Where do you see the United Methodist Church now in terms of trying to determine those next steps?

Most of the mainline denominations are in challenging times. They had their greatest strength and presence in this country when the nation was at least 75 percent rural. Today, the nation is about 80 percent nonrural, so you have churches that have been in existence a long time which are located where people used to live.

Even through the middle of the 20th century, Methodism tended to mirror the population of the nation, even sometimes having a younger membership than the general population.

But for a number of years, as the population has gotten younger, more diverse and poorer, the mainline denominations -- including the United Methodist Church -- have tended to remain fairly nondiverse in their membership. Their membership has become significantly older than the general population and increasingly upper-middle-class.

Q: Are there opportunities in this scenario?

Yes. The advantages that the United Methodists and other mainline churches have are that they have tremendous assets. In many churches, there are assets not just in facilities and land but in financial resources. You also still have a strong group of loyal members.

I think that we have a window to rethink how we are doing some things. For example, we are in the middle of a period where the United States’ death rate is at a plateau. But within 10 years, [because of the aging baby-boom generation], the [projected] death rate turns up, and it continues going up until 2050.

The death rate will be higher than at any time in the history of the country since antibiotics were introduced. There will be 50 percent more deaths in 2050 than in 2010. In this surge in deaths between about 2020 and 2050, the overwhelming majority will be non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans, which are the vast majority of the membership of mainline denominations.

We cannot do anything about that. But my hope is that from now until 2018, we can develop some energy around reaching more people who are younger and more diverse. If we continue to keep ourselves in a position of having to do everything possible just to make it through one more year financially, there will not be enough energy in the system to reach children and youth.

That’s why I’m calling for a resetting of the financial baseline. Let’s say 20 years ago, [a church] had a certain membership, a certain attendance and a certain budget. Now, 20 years later, the attendance is down, the membership is down, but the budget, even after inflation, is even higher.

Well, if that gap continues, you really only have two choices. One is to continue to do whatever it takes each year to get through the next year.

When you draw from reserves, drop programs, sell assets, at some point you say, “This is not getting us anywhere. We need to take a step back before we can take a step forward.”

If we reset the financial baseline so that all of our energy does not go to just surviving one more year, we can use that increased capacity to engage the community and to reach more people.

I am afraid that if we do not, when this death tsunami, as I call it, washes over the United Methodist Church between 2018 and 2050, it could very well wipe out the United Methodist witness in vast portions of some states, because the median worship attendance in United Methodist churches is 50. That means about 17,000 -- or half the churches -- have 50 or fewer people in attendance on Sunday mornings. In addition, there’s been a tremendous growth in churches that have fewer than 25 in worship on Sundays. So it does not even take a death tsunami to wipe out those churches.

But if you could head into this high-death era with some energy around professions of faith or increasing attendance, while there would still be the losses, you would be able to move through and come out stronger and more vital on the other side.

I think it is probably better -- whether it is a congregation, a conference or a denomination -- to focus for a few years and really make a difference.

Q: Is preparing to get smaller the other option that you are talking about?

It means rethinking what is essential. It also means that we are not in a survival mode. The reason to do this financial reset has nothing to do with money; it has to do with getting back to our mission of reaching people.

Mainline churches, such as the United Methodist Church, are very mature organizations in the United States. If you want to see what Methodism looked like in its early years, go look at Methodists in other parts of the world, where there is great growth although they may not have a meeting place.

When Methodism in the 19th century went, in just a few decades, from being the smallest to the largest religious group in the nation -- 50 percent larger than the next-sized denomination -- thousands of those churches had no buildings.

It is really very counterintuitive, but the longer a church has been in existence, the less connected and less knowledgeable it tends to be about its community.

What happens in the early years of a church is that it has to engage the community. This is why most of the growth in a church is going to take place in its first 25 to 40 years. When a church is new, the focus of the pastor and other leaders is outward.

But there comes a point where there is critical mass and the church has its own building, pastor, and organ or piano. They get to a point where if no new person comes this Sunday, they are able to continue. Then they get to a point where if no new person comes for two Sundays, they continue; and then later they get to a point [where] if no new person comes for three years, they still continue.

Then the focus turns inward toward what the church is doing for its members and how it is taking care of them. The church tends to get disconnected from its larger community.

Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion who has studied thousands of churches, says that when communities change, churches have five or six options but invariably choose the option of continuing to do things the same way.

Or they might keep doing things the same way just a little harder -- what I call vigorous inertia. It makes no sense, but that is just how it happens.

Q: How critical are young leaders going to be in this transition process you are describing?

They are going to be very critical. To focus on young clergy is not necessarily to say that young clergy are better than older clergy. They may or may not be. The fact that they are younger is important because later we’ll need people who have the training and the years served to have the experience needed to step into leadership positions.

In 2010, for the first time in history, just over half of the active elders in the United Methodist Church were between 55 and 72. The group between the ages of 35 and 54 shrank from 65 percent to 45 percent of the pool in 10 years. The group younger than 35 has stayed in the 5 1/2- to 6-percent range.

While it has been slow, there is a gradual movement upward for the young clergy cohort. There is a much higher sensitivity from the denomination about the importance of young clergy. We issued a 2011 age report in September which showed that the percentage in the oldest group has actually grown a bit more and the percentage in the middle age group has shrunk a little bit more.

But eventually that huge group of those aged 55 to 72 will be retiring. The average retirement age now is about 64. Since we have not had the steady stream of young people filling in the middle age group, that is going to be a much smaller group in the future, so there must be young clergy members to take their place.

The more important question is how we help get young pastors’ ideas and energy into the system in a way that it can really impact the church. When a church has a younger pastor, it makes it more likely that younger people would be willing to come. But what we have learned in our study of young clergy is that if nothing else changes within the congregation, those younger people will not stay just because there is a younger pastor.

For instance, there was a denominational study four years ago which found that laypeople were very interested in having more young people in their churches but were not willing to change either their worship or their budget to make that happen.

Without these changes, young people are not going to attend. What we need is the same thing that any other organization needs: for the wise people who are older to realize that there is no future without a next generation.

Q: What are the skills and capacities that contemporary church leaders need?

They certainly need to be sensitive and able to read the context. One of the increased emphases in seminaries in recent years has been the importance of understanding how much context matters and finding ways to lead so that people in a particular context are responsive.

You also have to realize that true leadership lies in a discerning of vision. I think that a vision is given to all of God’s people. It is often first articulated by the leader, because the leader often is thinking about it more and having access to more information and data. This doesn’t mean that the leader gets it right the first time, but you’re always pointing ahead to what God is calling us to. We need to always be looking to the future while being informed by the past.

Q: What is Christian about Christian leadership?

I like to think about leadership as a channel of God’s grace. So in that sense, as when I talk about being visionary, I’m not talking about a scientific, administrative or management process; I am talking about spiritual discernment.

You are always listening and paying attention. Leadership is what helps a faith community move from one generation to the next, keeping both its theological values and its commitments but at the same time adjusting to fit changing times and needs. Leadership makes possible the continuing story of a Christian faith.