Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” – Matthew 28:18-20

Church developers respond to decline in the denomination

Before Path 1, in the years leading up to General Conference 2008, there was a crisis of decline in the United Methodist Church in the United States. This is a short oral history of that time, taken from the point of view of several church developers who lived it:  

Tom ButcherRev. Tom Butcher was a District Superintendent in the Desert Southwest Annual Conference. He was the first executive officer for Path 1. He is now retired and living in Dallas.

 

Barry CarpenterRev. Barry Carpenter was Director for Church Development for the Kentucky Annual Conference. He now is lead pastor at Destin UMC, in Destin, Fla., in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference.

 

Doug RuffleRev. Doug Ruffle was Director of Congregational Development for the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference. He now works at Discipleship Ministries, splitting time between Path 1 and The Upper Room.

 


 

Tom Butcher:

Most every annual conference, at least by now, has somebody at the conference level who’s responsible for church development. Usually it’s not just new church starts alone. It’s revitalization and new church starts together, maybe along with a few other things. At least now, that’s what the case is. It wasn’t always that way.

There were few annual conferences in the beginning that had somebody in charge of that programming. A council director, and that was about it.

There was this subtle movement among council directors to look into starting new churches. And that led to, “Where do our demographics in every annual conference point to where there should be a new church?”

We began to hire a demographic group called MissionInsite. There wasn’t a lot of communication between council directors. When we all started doing demographics, MissionInsite would have workshops — one in the fall and one in the spring. If you were a client of MissionInsite, you would go to one of their workshops. It just so happened that 30 of our annual conferences were clients of MissionInsite, and nobody knew that.

So we would go to the MissionInsite workshop in the fall or spring, and we would meet these guys from other annual conferences in the United Methodist Church. One night, we just decided to get together and have dinner and begin to talk. And it was so rich in talking to one another we said, let’s carve out a day. The next time that MissionInsite meets, one of their workshops, let’s just come in a whole day early.

Doug Ruffle:

Before Path 1 was created, I was part of the network of annual conference staff whose portfolio included new church development. Most of us worked in revitalization and new church development. So, in one of our network meetings, and it was back in 2005, we discussed how we could try to mobilize our denomination to plant new churches.

We heard a really great presentation by Barry Carpenter, who at the time was the developer from the Kentucky Annual Conference. He spearheaded a movement to help to try to mobilize the denomination to be more intentional about planting new churches.

Barry Carpenter:

Some conferences never made it a priority, never made church-planting a priority. They didn’t have staff people. They didn’t spend money on it like they did social justice, or women’s or children’s ministries, or other more typical programs of the church. Then other conferences were leaders. They spent lots of money. My conference didn’t have a church development director at all and I took on the position and started the office and program. We had never had a Hispanic church, and we started 12 during that time.

I think we all saw some of the evolution that has happened. We aren’t prophets, by any means. We saw where we were heading. We’ve done very well as a denomination in coming up with programs and ideas to manage our decline, and that’s pretty much what we do. We rationalize. We were doing it then, and we’re really doing it now. And because we’re not growing, and we’re not on the cutting edge as a denomination.

Butcher:

From 1870 to 1920, in those 50 years, we started about one new church a day. Our conferences grew and our denomination grew. So we began to talk among ourselves about, wouldn’t it be nice to get back to doing that? I still believe it’s the best evangelistic tool we have, starting new churches.

Ruffle:

At the time in 2005, my recollection is that the denomination was planting about 75 churches per year, which was far away from that goal. And so, the idea was, let’s ramp this up again. That aspirational goal was mapped out from the very beginning, and there was a vision about how to reach that goal.

Carpenter:

Our greatest resource and our greatest gift in whatever we’re doing is our love of God. No matter how gifted we are in other things, if we don’t love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, our neighbor, ourselves, then it’s vanity. It doesn’t last.

So, we concentrated on the spiritual life of leadership, and raising up, with God’s help, a new breed of leader who, like Wesley, believed that this kind of leader, with a passion in his or her heart, is what’s going to turn the United Methodist Church around. I believe it more now than I ever did.