I’ve been following the “Call to Action” debate on the Twitter feeds from the United Methodist General Conference. I realize that I’m just a scrub barely two years out of seminary. I still believe in theories; I still believe that fasting and prayer is the best approach to discerning God’s will. I’ve never had any training in systems theory or corporate organizational effectiveness. I’m the product of what the pundits malign when they say that seminaries should teach pastors practical managerial skills instead of filling their heads with all that !@#$%^&* theology. Somehow I’ve developed this foolish notion that God gives me things to say, and so I proclaim them, hoping that they’re not nonsense. The word that I have been given today is that United Methodists need less anxiety and more kingdom.
I speak as someone who is riddled with anxiety about our congregation’s numbers. There are two people in our church who read through every name on the attendance pad each week: myself and the secretary who enters the attendance in the database. We have been more or less steady at 400 weekly worship attendance for the past year after coming down about 40-50 a year from 800+ at our peak in 2003 (a 50% atrophy in 9 years — wow!). But the last two weeks, we have averaged about 340, which is demoralizing to me for the two weeks after Easter. However, this is mitigated by the fact that we also had more first-time visitors than we had most of the Sundays in Lent. When the visitor attendance reports have to be stapled, I’m a happy man. My dream is one day to hold a three-page visitor attendance report in my hands. I’ll probably spend a good twenty minutes softly rubbing the papers between my fingers if that ever happens. Our giving report is likewise something I obsess over. Our budget requires an average around $20K a week. When we have a $12K week, I feel it like a kick to the kidneys. When we have a $25K week, I do a fist pump.
Brooding over these reports feels like the least spiritually healthy thing that I do all week. I hate myself for deriving so much of my emotional well-being from whether I can hold at least two pages worth of visitors in my hand and for feeling like a failure if the signup clipboard for our new member class isn’t at least half a page full with names that are not written in my handwriting with question marks. When we have bad weeks statistically, it fills my head with all sorts of presumptuous judgments about the people from our congregation who aren’t there. (Why can’t you play golf on Saturdays? I wish I had a house in Rehobeth Beach too! Are you really that hung over? I know church attendance won’t get your kids into Harvard, but maybe it will help them not do as many drugs when they get there. Etc.)