One of the privileges of my role with Wesley Seminary is to connect regularly with denominational leaders. While Wesley Seminary at IWU is officially part of one denomination (The Wesleyan Church) and over a third of our students are Wesleyan pastors, we serve students from over 25 other denominations as well.
I’m afraid the more cynical are quick to characterize denominations as dinosaurs facing extinction, and denominational leaders as bureaucrats with their own personal agendas to promote and protect. Now my recent experience may be wonderfully atypical, but I have found denominations and their leaders to be sincerely interested in helping pastors and local churches be more missionally effective. They are not dying, though they face very real challenges. If they are drifting (and we know how rarely drift takes us in the right direction) they are intentionally making efforts to address the drift.
Let’s take my denomination, The Wesleyan Church, as an example. Recently a couple of thousand pastors and spouses met in Jacksonville, FL for “The Gathering.” I was impressed that so many came with a fervency and expectancy to meet with God. Hallway conversations were not preoccupied with political posturing but encouragement to fulfill our calling to God’s family and God’s work.
Our denominational leaders took a decidedly behind-the-scenes role, and when they did speak it was to communicate the results of their “listening tour” involving over 2000 pastors and their own prayerful commitment to sense God’s leading for the future of The Wesleyan Church. They avoided “happy talk” in presenting our current reality while being appropriately optimistic about current bright spots of ministry. And they cast a bold and specific vision for the next few years with a convicting invitation for us to be involved. It was clear that they viewed the local church as the front lines and the denomination’s role to support and equip.
Following The Gathering our Seminary faculty was invited to dinner with Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, the Chair of the Board of General Superintendents for The Wesleyan Church. It was a wide-ranging, free-flowing conversation…we all felt the freedom to fully and honestly participate. Yet there was also a clear sense of direction of priorities that had arisen out of the time spent listening to pastors, and more importantly, the time spent listening to God.
The following list is illustrative (not exhaustive) of some of the focal points of our discussion about how our Seminary could join with the denomination in supporting pastors and local churches for Kingdom advancement. They are from my scribbled notes and not something officially published. Here is a sampler…
…Create a way for pastors to affordably access a life-long learning process that will nourish the spirit and develop the skills necessary for effective, sustainable ministry.
…Contribute to the development of diverse (gender, ethnicity and age) local congregations that effectively reach their communities and reflect heaven (Revelation 7:9)
…Assist churches in determining whether they are “healthy” and how they might build vitality for greater connection with and contribution to their communities.
…Respond to the reality that the church is increasingly global, and the growth of the church internationally has created a tremendous need for national leaders and contextualized education.
…Fuel the development of church plants, especially in the great urban areas of our nation.
While this discussion was specifically related to The Wesleyan Church, the list strikes me as representative of the challenges and opportunities faced by most denominations.
I left that dinner thankful for denominational leaders such as Jo Anne Lyon. I also left thankful that I serve with a faculty of outstanding scholars who have a tremendous heart for and commitment to the local church. One example of the way our faculty is seeking to act on their desire to serve the church is the recent Resource Section created on our website (http://seminary.indwes.edu/Resources/) full of free downloads available to all who seek to strengthen local churches.
When denominations (and Seminaries) lose sight of the fact they serve local churches for Kingdom purposes, the result is a drift that leads to a slow death. When they partner to empower local churches and their leaders, the opportunity for enduring and increasing fruitfulness is enhanced.