There may be churches that don’t care about growth. But these can’t possibly be Methodist.
How do we Methodists define effective clergy? We do it with one word: growth. Effective clergy know how to grow the church in its membership, witness, and mission.
In North Alabama we now have a “Conference Dashboard” that every church logs in on Monday morning and reports their numbers for that Sunday’s attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, offering, and participation in mission. Anyone can see the numbers for any church in our Conference over the past three years. The push-back we have received in this endeavor has surprised me. In nearly every group of clergy in which I’ve discussed our work, there is always someone to repeat at least one of these mindless mantras: ‘It’s all about numbers is it?’ ‘You can’t measure clergy effectiveness, can you?’ ‘So it’s come to this: putting the butts in the pews.’ Yada, yada, yada.
There may be something to be said for some of these slogans. Except not in the United Methodist Church. We’re Wesleyans. That means we believe in the growth of the Kingdom of God. John Wesley had friction with the established church of his day, not only because of his vibrant Trinitarian theology, but also because of his refusal to limit his ministry to the moribund English parochial system.
From the beginning, Methodists were inveterate counters and numbers keepers.
Dick Heitzenrater tells me that in the annual minutes of 18th British Methodism, beginning in 1769, the Circuits that had fewer members than the previous year were marked with an asterisk (12 of the 48). By 1779, that number had expanded to 18. The question was asked at the Conference, “How can we account for the decrease in so many Circuits this year?” The answer: this was “chiefly to the increase of worldly-mindedness and conformity to the world.”
As of 1781, Wesley marked with an asterisk those Circuits who had an increase in membership, which was the case with 32 of them, or exactly half. This method was used for a few years until the percentage of Circuits that experienced increases in membership were 75% of the connection.
Our North Alabama Conference once had four full time people who spent their whole day collecting numbers from our churches. These numbers were duly reported and printed in the Conference “Journal.” Yet here’s the thing: not one single decision was ever made, by the Bishop or Cabinet, on the basis of any of these numbers! It was as if we were all engaged in a studied effort never to notice any of the numbers we were so assiduously and expensively collecting. Of course, when the numbers were as bad as ours -- over half our congregations had not made a new Christian in the past three years, a twenty percent decrease in membership -- it takes courage to note the numbers.
Wesley frequently cites numerical growth as indicative of spiritual vitality. In his sermon “On God’s Vineyard,” Wesley celebrates that the London Methodist Society grew from 12 to 2,200 in just about 25 years. Heitzenrater speculates that Wesley was trying to spur them on, since their membership had slowed to a gain of only 400 new members in the latest 25 years.
Wesley sent pastors to those areas where, in his estimate, there were the most souls to be saved. He told his traveling preachers not just that they ought to read, but also put a number on it: at least five hours a day. Wesley also kept a close eye (with charts in the annual “Minutes”) on how much money was collected each year—for Kingswood School, for new preaching houses, for the pension fund, for operating expenses. The Annual Conference was invented, not just as opportunity for worship and fellowship, but mostly for the purpose of everyone rendering account and confessing their numbers.
I can’t speak for other church families, but in the Wesleyan family, studied obliviousness to results, deploying pastors without regard to their fruitfulness, pastors shrinking churches, pastors keeping house among the older folks left there by the work of a previous generation of pastors, and churches having a grand old time loving one another and praising God without inviting, seeking, and saving those outside the church, do not make for faithfulness.
“Numbers aren’t important.” Really? Tell it that to Jesus and his parables of growth and fruitfulness. Tell it to the Acts of the Apostles.
Tell it to John Wesley.
Will Willimon is a United Methodist bishop serving in Birmingham, Alabama.