“The Search For Excellence In The Church Today”


I am at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (Greenwich, CT) this Sunday morning, October 21, 2012. The Scriptures for this morning, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (B), are Job 38: 1 – 7, (34 – 41); Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; ; and Mark 10: 35 – 45. Their services start at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.

We have traveled many different paths to get to this place in space and time. We traveled some of the paths because we had no other choice, we traveled some rather reluctantly, but there have been some paths that we willingly and joyfully chose to travel. Our lives have been formed by the paths that we have walked and our lives will determine the paths that we walk when we leave this place today.

In 1984 I moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Silvis, Illinois, to begin teaching at a community college there. I was looking forward to making this move because I was going to be teaching again after being in graduate school at the University of Memphis. And because Iowa City was only about an hour and a half from the college where I was teaching, I would be able to complete the work on my doctorate in Science Education. As a side note, if you are interested in graduate work in the area of science education, the best place then and now to do this work was and is the University of Iowa. It was a path that I chose to walk.

That period of time, the mid 1980s, was a time when many in this country felt that the country had lost its competitive advantage and were seeking to regain it. It was also a time marked by an increased interest in the nature of creativity and innovation.

Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr., wrote a book entitled The Search For Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies in which they identified what they thought were the basic principles of modern business management. I was interested in this research for two reasons. First, my father was an industrial engineer who specialized in time and motion study. As a disciple of Frederick Winslow Taylor, he looked at the ways things operated and thought about how to make them work better.

More importantly, I arrived on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City as this search for excellence was being applied to science education in this country. The faculty members at Iowa who would guide, direct and advise me on my doctoral studies were leading this research.  And one mark of the excellence of the Iowa program, at least for me, is that I was allowed the choose the path my doctoral studies would take and I was not required to be part of this research.

The conclusions as to what made an excellent or exemplary program in science education very closely matched the conclusions of Peters and Waterman (see Penick, J. E., Yager, R. E., and Bonnstetter, R. (October, 1986). Teachers make exemplary programs. Educational Leadership, 44(2), 14-20.)

Peters and Waterman began their research by noting that the dominant model for business management was predicated and based on the financial bottom line. Nothing matter but that which improved the bottom line. There was no concern for the goods or products being produced; there was no concern for the workers involved or what the customers truly wanted. A company’s goal was to produce its product at the lowest possible cost.

Peters and Waterman found a blind acceptance of the bottom line as the only truth. But this model, called by some the “rational model” made people, both employees of the company and customers, part of the equation and, because it was an equation, there was no room for creativity and innovation. Management in the more traditional companies stayed away in their corporate offices, relying on analytical reports to give them a sense of the direction of the company.

What Peters and Waterman concluded was that successful companies did things just a bit differently. Such companies did not put a heavy reliance on analytical tools but understood that you had to understand what was happening. The bottom line on a financial picture can tell you one thing but it cannot tell you what is happening at that moment in the factory, the workplace, or the marketplace. Management in successful companies was accomplished by wandering around, seeing what was happening. By the way, how was it that Jesus conducted his ministry throughout the Galilee?

Successful companies focused on the needs of the customer and listened to the employees; they gave the employees the freedom to experiment, to be creative and innovative. It was pointed out that people in the successful companies were encouraged to develop new ideas and try them out without fear of failure. People in traditional companies who sought to do the same were often discouraged from doing so, to the point of perhaps being fired.

When the NSTA group looked at what were considered exemplary and innovative programs in science education, they came away with many of the same conclusions. It was the teachers in the classroom who created the successful and exemplary classes, not the management or administration. Innovation and creativity come from the bottom up and the bottom line is a lousy way to measure productivity. I recall one instance where a school administration told the creator of one of the innovative chemistry programs that she had to have been doing something wrong because all of the students in that particular school wanted to take chemistry classes and it was the administration’s view that only about 10% of the students were capable of taking chemistry.

Now, some thirty years after these studies, I have to wonder if we learned any lessons from them, both in business and education. A number of years ago I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on Total Quality Management (see “To Search For Excellence”). As I wrote then, about half-way through the three-day seminar I began to experience a sense of deja vu. In the end, the only thing that I learned was that I already knew most of the points that were being presented because they were the driving points behind what my father did as an industrial engineer for the United States Air Force, McDonnell Aircraft (before the merger with Douglas Aircraft) and RCA. All that TQM did was take time and motion study and give it a new name. And for the record, this seminar was sponsored by the United Methodist Church.

I am not entirely certain that what Peters and Waterman laid out before us has ever accepted. It seems to me that we still place an overbearing reliance on that traditional model, that if big is better, becoming bigger is even better. In the time since that book was first published, we have seen company after company get bigger, not by work, but by buying other companies. And the American people have accepted that idea that low cost is better than quality. We see in the products we buy; we have pushed the idea in our schools.

And I fear that today, with regards to Christianity and the church, we may be doing the same thing. One of the things that prompted me to title this message as I did was the beginning portion of the conversation James and John had with Jesus that day some two thousand years ago. What does it say about your work when you are more interested in the power of the position than the outcome? How many times in our own churches have we heard such a discussion? How many times have we seen a church destroy itself internally because of similar power struggles?

A recent survey by the Pew Institute indicates that 1 in 5 Americans today no longer claims any religious affiliation. This doesn’t mean that they no longer believe in Christ or God but rather they can find no place where they feel it possible to express their beliefs. What they very well may see in churches today is not the church that was but an extension of the world around them. Those who disavow religion are not necessarily forsaking Christ but they want to know how to deal with the world and they believe that Christ will offer them the answer. But if the church, in general, by denomination, or by building, is no different that the world, how will they find the answer?

And there is that prediction that I am sure that you are well aware of that there will be no United Methodist Church in twenty-five years because there will be no more United Methodists alive. Personally I hope to still be around then but where will I go if I should be one of the few?

I know that my voice is in the minority and there are many out there who would rather that I keep silent on the subject of revitalizing the United Methodist Church. But when I consider how people of the United Methodist Church helped me find the path to walk when I needed that guidance and how that guidance kept me from the wildnerness, how can I keep silent?

I know that there are others like me who see a church that has forgotten what path it is supposed to be walking. There are many out there, laity and clergy, who feel that the present plans and thoughts of the United Methodist Church miss the point and lead down the wrong path. Like me, they are committed to returning the church, both in general and for the United Methodist Church in particular, to a path that leads to the Cross and beyond. Perhaps we are disturbers of the peace that don’t fit well into the traditional model of how things work but then again neither were the prophets of the Old Testament and John the Baptist. They raised their voices, they cried out in the wilderness and in the cities for the people to repent and change one’s ways.

I think about what a blogging colleague of mine, John Meunier, wrote about John Wesley a few weeks back. John is a local pastor out in Indiana and a business communication instructor at Indiana University. We will probably come to a major disagreement of some sort when the Iowa Hawkeyes soundly defeat the Indiana Hoosiers in football on November 3rd but not about Methodism in general. He wrote,

Methodism began because a group of college kids obsessed with holiness of heart and life discovered that such holiness was a gift of grace by faith in the saving work of Christ. They called it justification by faith and they preached it to everyone who would listen and to those who would not listen. Thrown out of pulpits, they preached it in the fields.

It was a movement grounded in spiritual disciplines and convinced that holy living included and required following the moral law of God. As it gathered people, it created new disciplines to help the people grow in grace. They held each other accountable in love for progress toward perfection in love. This was the growth that Wesley cultivated, growth in holiness. He would gut the membership of a society if he thought that was required to increase the holiness of the members who remained. This is what he meant by discipline.

In our 21st century context, we do cultivate independence, as the IOT report says. We cultivate independence from our own tradition and our vows of ordination. We cultivate independence from the doctrine of our own denomination. We cultivate independence from our own connection. Our solution, paradoxically, is to solve our decline by skipping over matters of doctrine and spirit and focusing solely on matters of discipline — but only for certain segments of the connection.

Much of what the Call to Action seeks to do is worthy, but the initiative has missed the words that it has quoted in its own support. If we seek not just the form of religion but its power, we need to grasp hold again of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our movement. One out of three will not do it, I fear. (From John Meunier’s “The final word from the IOT”)

I fear that what has caused our numbers to drop and what has caused people in general to say that they have no religious affiliation is not a lack of belief but an indication that churches today no longer focus on the primary mission of the church. They have become way too concerned about other things, things expressed by the bottom line on a financial statement. Perhaps the one thing that the Peters and Waterman study showed was that when you put people first, you succeed. And if the United Methodist Church is not in the people business, then I don’t know what its business is.

The church, be it in general, by denomination, or by individual building, should be concerned about the people and not just the people who come on Sunday and sit in the pews. It is the people who are outside the sanctuary walls, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the oppressed. Those where the people Jesus came to minister to; those where the ones that Wesley and the other early Methodists reached out when the church ignored and cast them out.

I again turn to John Wesley’s words, words that he spoke about what Christianity should be doing. And I again give thanks to John Meunier for putting them on his blog. John Meunier wrote,

In his sermon “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” Wesley put the issue in plain terms:

Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! See that poor member of Christ, pinched with hunger, shivering with cold, half naked! Meantime you have plenty of this world’s goods, — of meat, drink, and apparel. In the name of God, what are you doing? Do you neither fear God, nor regard man?

How much more would Wesley be horrified by us than he was by them? In practical terms, Methodists abandoned the tradition with regard to the use of money before John Wesley was laid to his rest. And we’ve gone on abandoning him on this point ever since. (From John Meunier’s “What is a Methodist?”

In another sermon, I believe that Wesley pointed out that for those who are physically hungry, there was little comfort in the Scriptures. How can we even begin to find excellence in the church today when our concerns no longer match the reason we are called Methodists?

So I return to the title of this message and ask how we will find excellence in the church today? Let us look again at what Jesus said to James, John, and the other disciples in the Gospel reading for today, if you want the power that comes in God’s Kingdom, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to go out and serve those whom you would lead. And if you are not willing to do that in some way, then be prepared to be left behind.

There are many interpretations of God’s monologue with Job in today’s Old Testament reading. Some will say that the God who spoke to Job and his friends was an angry God, reminding each and everyone of them of His power. For these individuals, God was reminding everyone that He is superior to all and that everyone needed to know it. In this vein, those who dare to challenge God are to be put into their place. I have heard this type of response before, from management who feel that they know my subject better than me and that my ideas are meaningless and worthless.

For the past five years I have served as the registrar for the New York/Connecticut District Lay Speaking, now Lay Servant, Committee. We have discovered that this position, which I essentially invented, may very well be the only such position in the entire United Methodist Church. Others are discovering that such a position is needed as we make the changes in the lay servant ministry. The other day someone high in the conference administration told the individual who took on my job as the registrar that he had a better program for monitoring the work of lay speakers. That’s great but how does he know that his program or method is better than mine when he never discussed it with me?

Would a god (lower case, by the way) more interested in power and authority have sent His Son to this time and place to save us?

If we understand that what God is doing in this case is responding to the request of Job, then we have a better understanding of what is happening. God’s Words are not words of anger but words of revelation. In His words to Job and Job’s friends, God opens up the world for us to see it in all of its glory. Instead of fear, we are to stand in awe.

For me, this monologue is also a statement that God is here, right now, in this place at this time, and if we cannot see Him, it is because we have forgotten who God is and what He looks like. We have become so hung up on the trappings of the church that we have forgotten why we are here in the first place. People do not come to church because of a number at the bottom of a column on a budget; they come to church because they seek God. They have heard of the great things God has done; they want to experience those great things as we have. They have heard the message that Jesus offers hope to the downtrodden and they seek that hope.

And yet, too many times, they are rejected by the people of the church. The passage from Hebrews that we read this morning reminds us that the church of Jesus’ time put layers between the people and God but that through Jesus’ sacrifice, those layers were removed. Can we truly say that anyone walking through the doors of this or any church are able to gain access to Christ or are we more worried about the way they look or act?

I began by noting that each one of us came to this time and place by a variety of paths, some that we choose, some that others choose for us. There was another path that I choose to walk, the path that lead me to Christ. My decision to seek Christ, as is everyone’s decision, was an individual one. The path that we walk to and with Christ is one that we will always walk alone, though others may be on the same path as each of us.

Yes, part of my journey on that path was not by choice. It was my mother who insisted that I, along with my brothers and sister, be in Sunday School and church every Sunday, no matter where we might be or live. With my father as an Air Force officer, we moved from base to base on an almost yearly basis when I was in grade school. It was not easy finding a church but we did and my mother made sure that we were in Sunday School and church every Sunday.

She laid out the first parts of the path that I was to walk and she showed me the direction but it was a path that only I could walk. And when I made the decision to continue walking on that path, I was able to do so because 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church, now 1st United Methodist Church, of Aurora, Colorado was there.

There are others who wish to walk this path to Christ. But can they find that way station, that place of rest and hope that will help them find the way on their own journey? The measure of excellence in the church today is how well each church responds to the needs of those in its community, to find the path to Christ and to continue the journey in Christ. Each church must look at where it is, both spiritually and physically, and ask itself how can we help those in this community begin that walk to and with Christ?

The search for excellence in the church today is a search for Christ. It is also a part of our lives as Christians to seek the perfection that is Christ. We must be prepared to help others find Christ and we must find ways to seek the excellence that is Christ.  The challenge that each church faces today is to find those areas of excellence, the place where our gifts and our talents shine, and see how best they can be used to help others find Christ.

The invitation today is to open your heart and allow Christ to come in. Perhaps you are searching for Christ, now is the time to see Him right here. And perhaps like so many others you are seeking answers, much like Job. Now is the time to hear the answers to your questions. Or perhaps you are looking for ways in which you can help others to answer the questions that so often perplexed you. Now is the time to allow the Holy Spirit to come into your life, warm your heart as it did John Wesley’s heart that night in the Aldersgate Chapel so that when you leave this place, you leave on a new path, committed to the excellence that is Christ.

3 thoughts on ““The Search For Excellence In The Church Today”

  1. Pingback: “Notes for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost” « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response to things I know little of, but since I have felt compelled ( God does have the right to compel) to join in a work of a Methodist Church I am desirous of learning. Pastor M is a man of vision and if I am to be of support I need to learn of things of the Spirit more than discipline within the organization. My natural tendency, what with my business education, needs to be in submission to the Spirit and guided by understanding. What I have read points me in that direction and gives food for thought. Keep pressing on!

  3. Pingback: “The Death of Mark Twain and Other Rumors” « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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