An interesting counterpoint to all of my general conference focused discussions on the Call to Action has been my involvement on the local level with the Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools (IS3) grant.
One afternoon as I was pouring over survey data and statistics and numbers and practices for the IS3 grant, I asked myself why these numbers were so important when I was having such a hard time thinking about church numbers in the same way. It has taken me a while, but I think I finally nailed down the difference.
In the Call to Action, we have determined what congregations are vital based upon three criteria: congregational growth over five years, significant engagement of members in ministry and the mission of the church, and an outward focus by making new disciples and giving generously to the needs of others (Call to Action Study Guide, page 8). Now… if our mission as a church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – then we are looking for churches that are growing in the number of disciples and are engaged in transforming the world. Fair enough. The Call to Action then suggest that we need “to redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration to foster and sustain an increase in the number of vital congregations making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Call to Action Study Guide, page 10).
An assumption was made at some point in the process that we should look at what characteristics those vital churches have and then encourage others to implement those drivers. Throughout the reports and materials, the metrics used to determine effectiveness are: professions of faith, worship attendance, # of small groups, # of people engaged in mission, and money given to mission. Pastors, bishops, annual conferences, general agencies are refocusing on these things. What we have not heard in the process is how those resources get redirected. Does it go to those who are already successful? Does it go towards implementing conference wide strategies for growth like our New People for New Places or Co-Missioned or Path One or Healthy Congregations? Does it go to the churches who are failing in order to help them get back on course?
With that in the background, I want to describe a little bit about my involvement with Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools. There is an awareness that “No Child Left Behind” was in large part a failure in its attempts to reform the educational system. In my work with the School Improvement Advisory Committee, we have talked some about how the goals set out for them in that process in many ways creates impossible demands. There are specific goals and metrics that schools must meet and it is not always possible for this to be done. I cannot remember some of the specifics, but an example would be that we need to have 90% of students testing at grade level in reading. We can work with students, we can prepare them, but if in a small school like ours even one student has a bad day or doesn’t test well, then the goals cannot be met. Schools with high achievement scores are rewarded, those that struggle are punished, and the focus of classrooms has to shift to prepare students for tests, rather than education. The measure of a good school is based on student achievement and so academic results are the measure. Teachers are stressed, students are stressed, and it simply is not working.
Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools takes a different approach to the whole thing. The goal in many ways is the same – we want students to learn and succeed – that is the mission of schools in general. But instead of setting goals for testing, this evaluative process asks the question: what is it that helps students to learn and succeed? What are the conditions that need to be in place for real learning to take place? Through research, studies, etc. they have determined that safety, engagement, and the school enviroment are all background factors in student achievement. If a student does not feel safe, they will not succeed. If they are not engaging with other students and adults, they will not succeed. If they do not have a consistent and welcoming environment at the school, they will not suceed. So using this criteria, schools were evaluated in the spring of 2011.
Based on student surveys and hard data from the school, schools were evaluated as to how safe and supportive they were. Then, schools who scored poorly in these areas were invited to recieve funding in order to improve school conditions of learning. Our school district had low scores specifically around engagement and environment and gratefully accepted the grant in order to work on these areas.
But here is the real kicker. The state department of education, in similar ways to the Call to Action, is putting money where their mouth is. They are providing these grants to help create more safe and supportive schools. And in the process, they have provided each district with trained resource people who are walking with us through our particular data sets so that we can determine a particular plan of action for our district. That is why I am pouring over data and statistics. We are trying to determine what are the next steps in our district, which areas we can really focus on, and which will make the largest difference in the success of our students.
I realized as I compare that process with the Call to Action that our denominational iniative feels a lot more like “No Child Left Behind” than it does “IS3.” I look at the drivers and I look at the indicators of effectiveness and I see a lot of ways to measure fruitfulness and results. I see test scores as a measure of success and nowhere do I see the deeper question of “what are the conditions necessary for discipleship?”
What are the background factors that transform someone from a mere member to a disciple?
The Call to Action Study Guide at least lays out some of these things from a Wesleyan perspective – lifting up the importance of the means of grace as a practice of daily surrender and obedience to God… but then we head back to the perils of membership decline, worship attendance decline, decline in offerings and a fear decline in mission engagement.
My take from the Call to Action is that I need to create more programs for young people, train and mentor more people to be leaders, stick around in a congregation for a long time, and have vibrant worship. But do those things really help us to surrender to the will of God in our lives? Do they really help us to participate in the redemption of the world? Some of them are… but many of the things that are layed out are fruits… and I’m not sure that they need to be our focus if we want to see lasting change.
I believe we need to back up and focus on what makes us disciples. I believe we need to get to the root of what we believe a Wesleyan disciple is. I believe we need to work on the things that create the conditions for discipleship and like the IS3, let the fruits naturally follow.
And, a key learning from the IS3 process, I think that as we redirect resources back to local churches, we need to focus on those churches that are not vital and help them to discover what are the ways that they can improve the conditions for discipleship in their local places. Telling a small church they need to add a contemporary service or make a Sunday school class for kids is pointless. Walking beside them as they discover that people are having a hard time believing in God when the factory in town has just shut down and jobs are gone is another. Because in the latter – the solution is contextual, it meets us in our real situtations, and invites the Holy Spirit to imagine with us creative possibilities for community, sharing our resources, prayer, and trust as we depend upon the grace of God to get us through.