Where are the goal posts?
"For my part, I run with a clear goal before me." I Corinthians 9:26 (NEB)
By BISHOP ROBERT E. HAYES, JR.
There is an amusing story of a college professor who said to his graduating class at the end of the semester: "Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to go out from this college to play courageously the game of life."
At once a young man who was obviously having difficulty accepting his newfound independence as a graduate, stood up and shouted from the back of the room: "But how can we professor, when we don't know where the goal posts are?"
The young man may not have known it, but he posed a very serious question for all of us: Just where are the goal posts?
When you stop and think about it, goal posts are of extreme importance. For instance, what would a football game be without the goal posts or the markings for first downs and yards? We can only pray that OU and OSU will be able to find the goal posts this fall. Or, what would a basketball game be without the baskets?
Every game that is played, is played with some goal in mind, otherwise, points cannot be made, victories cannot be achieved, and there would be no purpose whatsoever to play the game.
The same is true of life, my friends. It doesn't matter if you're heading a household, running a business, or overseeing the work of an annual conference. Without a goal, or should I say a goal post, we, too, would drift aimlessly, having no place to go, with no purpose at all. Until we know where the goal posts are, we will only go haphazardly up and down the field of life.
The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians saying, "I run with a clear goal before me." In Paul's letter to the Philippi church he writes, "I press toward the goal." Even our Lord says in Moffatt's translation of the New Testament, "I know where I am going." And if our lives are to have meaning, purpose, and fulfillment as we go about the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ, then we must know where the goal posts are, and we must press toward the goal.
Our Personal Goals
The goal that is most worthy of our pursuit as an Annual Conference is helping people understand what it means to have a strong and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. It doesn't matter if the person has been a member of the church for 50 years, or if the person has never walked into the church before, we must be about the tasks of making disciples for Jesus Christ. But what does that really mean? How and where do we start if we are going to make that happen?
It is no secret that the United Methodist Church has been losing members over the last three decades. Our own Oklahoma Annual Conference has also experienced some losses, though not as drastic as the national average. In my Episcopal address at our conference, I set a goal and challenged the ministers and congregations of our conference to increase overall membership, worship attendance and Sunday school participation by five percent (5%).
Now when you stop and realize that our current membership is just over 247,000 members and our worship and Sunday school attendance have declined as well over the last few years, you can begin to understand why most of the people who were there had trouble breathing. In fact, I had some smelling sauce to revive anyone who fainted-just in case.
The response was instantaneous. "Bishop, five percent represents a lot of people." "Are you sure you want to set that kind of goal?" "Where are all those people going to come from?" "Can you please explain what you mean when you say five percent." To be honest, I expected those kind of responses, simply because they express a very real and legitimate concern that should have been addressed long before now.
However, for some unknown reason, no one has ever felt the need to bring our greatest fear to the center stage and name it for what it is. Our church is dying, and no one wants to admit that. Our grip as one of the leading denominations throughout the world is slipping, and if we are going to be serious about turning this thing around, then we must bring it into the light and address the real issues.
The truth of the matter is, in order for us to achieve the goal, it's going to take a lot of hard work by both the clergy and laity working together, and it's going to take a bishop who is prepared to accomplish the goal by any means necessary.
That is why it is so important for me to share with you how we are going to "get there from here." Let me pass on to you some of my strategies that hopefully will engage you and your church as you seek to make disciples for Jesus Christ. To have a goal is nice, but to lay out a plan to get us there is even better.
In fact, I hope to place a great deal of what I'm sharing with you today on a video that can be played at your Charge Conferences, your Administrative Board/Council meetings, or any other gathering that helps and enables people to "run towards the clear goal that is before us."
Clarify the Vision
The very first thing you should know about the goals I have set has to do with the fact that I did not place this vision before you to achieve the numbers. Numbers are fine, but growth is better. As Zan Holmes says in his book, "Encountering Jesus," "there is a difference between growth and swelling." I am not interested in us just swelling. I am interested in helping us to develop a passion for helping each other as we work together towards a common vision and a common goal.
And as always, the first step is the most difficult. If we are going to reach the goal of increasing our membership, worship attendance and Sunday school by five percent, we must understand that before our circumstances change, we will undoubtedly have to change the way we do a lot of things.
If we keep doing things the way we've always done them, we will always get the same results. On the other hand, if we want something we've never achieved before, we must be willing to do something we've never done before.
And this is where working together as clergy and laity becomes so important. With each congregation being different, it means each church must develop steps to get you where you need to be. Sit down with each other and talk about your church in a way you've never talked before.
Examine your ministries to determine what is effective and what is not. Don't just operate outside the box, but create and develop an entirely new box that will allow you to be creative, visionary, effective, and efficient.
As you plan together, think steps and not necessarily programs. Churches often confuse programs and activity for progress. A good plan has to be easy and simple, obvious and strategic. And as you move forward, clarify the vision all along the way. And don't forget to celebrate the small victories that help to inspire and encourage people who are in the trenches.
The week following our annual conference, I received a letter from a pastor of a small church (100 members) who went home wondering how he was going to meet the goal of increasing membership, church attendance and Sunday school by five percent.
Like most of us, he was very concerned about where they were going to come from and who would be responsible for getting them into church. He wrote in his letter: "On that first Sunday following annual conference, I opened the doors of the church and to my amazement, five people came down the aisle and gave their life to Christ."
What a testimony. What a witness. He ended his letter by saying he had already achieved his goal, and I can only pray that in the weeks to follow he'll be working on next year's goal.
My brothers and sisters, you'll discover a hidden truth that will reveal itself if we roll up our sleeves and commit ourselves to changing our church and the lives of the people we are sent to save. That hidden truth is God will be present in the midst of all of this, and you will come to depend more on God and less on yourselves as you ask the tough questions and seek the best answers and solutions.
You might want to know that the District Ministry Team has joined with Congregational Development and Board of Discipleship to present much of what I am sharing with you regarding evangelism at the Next Step sessions coming up in August and -September (see related article)
Do You Have A Compass?
As I close, I'd like to share with you the delightful story of a sales girl in a five and dime store that was approached by a customer asking for a compass. The sales girl asked: "Do you want the kind of compass that makes circles, or the kind of compass that you can go places with?"
Until the Oklahoma Conference has the kind of compass we can go places with, until we have a sense of direction, until we know where the goal posts are, we can only go in circles.
Our goal post is the assurance of a job well done that is located at the end of our work. It is the feeling of satisfaction we get when we identify our vision, develop our ability to achieve it, and use it to make disciples for Jesus Christ.
When discharging our stewardship with a high sense of responsibility to our Creator, who gave us our talents to test us and see what we would do with them, we are fulfilling the true end of our creation.
So if your team runs up and down the field this fall, with no idea as to where the goal posts are, just be thankful that God has given us a goal, and for our part, we will run towards it faithfully.