Jason Byassee: Fight like a lover

What Adam Hamilton and the Church of the Resurrection teach us about working within a large institution.

How does one go about becoming a nay-sayer for the common good?

I recently visited the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City -- the largest United Methodist Church in the world, with some 18,000 members. What’s even more impressive about its growth from four members at launch in 1990 to a church bigger than the town I serve in is its humility.

As you approach its mall-like structure from the highway, “humility” is not the first word you think of. As we heard stories of the founding of the church from a lay leader, we heard how often the denomination was wrong. “They said we didn’t need a church in this part of the metro area,” our guide said to guffaws. Later, looking at a map of the 90-acre campus, he pointed to a missing piece of land the church coveted. “We used to own that. But the bishop said we’d never need more than 20 acres.” Groans. In a Q&A senior pastor Adam Hamilton was asked what it would have been like to build a church like this outside a mainline denomination. “Much easier,” he said.

Since the church sits near a state line, it straddles conferences between Kansas East and Missouri. Bishops and districts not accustomed to working together had to fiddle with all of the bureaucratic issues that bureaucrats prefer not to mess with. COR just grew so fast it made the structure catch up and follow.

Those stories make COR sound like a bunch of nay-sayers exulting in their own success. Yet one of the points in their purpose statement is “to renew the church.” They pay their apportionments to the Kansas East Conference by February, supplying 40% of its budget. Hamilton and his fellow gi-norma-church pastor Mike Slaughter meet with young clergy to offer coaching and encouragement. He chairs the board at St. Paul School of Theology there in town.

It would have been easy for Hamilton to adopt the attitude many large church pastors have toward their mainline denomination: “I pay them to leave me alone.” Instead, he explains, “When God called me to ministry it wasn’t just to build a congregation, it was to help renew the denomination.” He points out that COR’s campuses sit on land purchased by the very conferences often groaned over.

“When Methodist pastors say our system is broken, I point out we grew from 4 to 18,000 within it.”

I was at COR with members of the Reynolds Leadership Academy, mostly pastors of large churches in western North Carolina. This bunch is angry at goings on at our denomination’s General Conference (for details see here). “We spent 3 hours debating divestment from Israel and not a minute on vital congregations,” one said. They’re most exasperated with our general boards and agencies, the 13 of which focus on different areas, that are housed in separate cities, don’t communicate with one another and are accountable to no one. Some of these pastors are ready to deny them money. While pastors or bishops could be brought up on charges for directing congregations or conferences to withhold apportionments, they could obliquely point out how poorly the denomination is spending its money, and let the groups they lead conclude to withhold it.

But Hamilton said “nay” to this nay-saying. He praised the people on boards and agencies. “I just notice I get more done as a leader through praise than complaining,” he said. “I wasn’t disappointed with General Conference. I never thought the change we need would come from the top. It’ll come from pastors leading churches to make disciples.” Hamilton effuses that he “eats, sleeps, wakes and breathes” his church’s purpose statement: “To build a Christian community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians.”

Then the really sobering news. Hamilton insists he has hope for our denomination. “But 50% of our members will have to die off first.” Lovett Weems has called this the “coming death tsunami” in our denomination -- that most of our leadership, energy and money is north of 60. That loss of half our remaining members will happen no matter what we do. “The question is whether in 20 years our numbers start to trend up.”

This is how you nay-say: You oppose those who say you can’t grow -- not by being a bomb-thrower -- but by loving the church. “The Book of Discipline spoke to my heart as the combination of an evangelical message and a social gospel,” Hamilton said. And now COR slides considerable resources for training other congregations in the denomination into similar passion for the “non and nom,” as I heard staffers call them. Then, when others of like mind and denomination forecast disaster, and plan to pull funds to hasten it, you hold out hope for the very denominational structure that has long made your life more difficult.

This is how you nay-say. You fight like a lover.

Jason Byassee is a fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference.