Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase’s newest book, 7 Levers, addresses how we must pry loose the many ‘stuck’ places in our connectional system, so that the church structure supports positive movement. He here answers several questions about the book for The Missouri Methodists.
Who is this book for?
Most of our conferences have a leadership core that involves forty or fifty people, including the cabinet, the conference staff, the lay leaders, the conference council, etc. And then most of our conferences have a larger group that includes all those who serve on our boards, committees, and mission teams, and this may include three or four hundred people or more. And then there are all those who are members—lay and clergy—of annual conference and attend annual conference, and this group ranges from five hundred to two thousand people in most conferences.
I hope that Seven Levers becomes a helpful and important resource for stimulating conversations and refocusing energies toward the mission of the church for each of these layers of leadership. Seven Levers provides a common language for understanding and focusing our attention on those strategies that work.
Why did you choose to write it now?
The difficulty of advancing change through General Conference confirmed what I already knew---that the primary focus of change to fulfill our mission in Christ and to renew the church has to be congregations, and that one of the most important and unique tools we have for influencing and shaping congregations is the conference. Conferences are large, complex organizations with significant resources of people, property, finances, and energy, but most conferences remain unfocused and therefore less than effective.
Conferences rely upon many processes and systems that are no longer conducive to our mission. And there is a growing consensus in research and experience that adopting particular strategies really do make a difference. The time seems ripe to offer a resource for conferences that focuses on what works, what doesn’t, and why, and then demonstrates experiments and strategies that do work. This is the first book that explores conferences in operational terms. I hope it makes a difference and serves as a catalyst for conversation and change across the United Methodist Church.
When you were a candidate for bishop, did you intend to be an instrument of change wherever you were assigned, or has your desire for trying new things come from a necessity that one can only view from the bishop’s chair?
I certainly did not foresee the particular approaches, innovations, and experiments that we’ve developed in Missouri. The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Five Practices of Fruitful Living, the Pathways Task Forces that introduced a common language and restructured our work, the budgeting changes, the Healthy Church Initiative, Pastoral Leadership Development Groups, Lay Leadership Development Groups, the Hannah Project, Exploration Events, the Candidacy Summit, Converge, Surge, SERVE, the changes in our annual conference sessions, the role of directors and the rethinking of how superintendents do their work, or the Seven Levers strategies—none of these were part of a plan I had in mind when I became bishop. Rather, these grew out of a consistent focus on the mission of the church through congregations, a premium on clergy excellence, and an openness to new ideas, innovation, and experimentation. Each of these ideas and projects emerged from the creativity and hard work of laity and clergy of the Missouri Conference working together and learning from each other about how best to strengthen congregations for the mission of Christ.
Do you believe the key for positive change in the United Methodist Church resides at the Conference level?
I think that the fundamental arena for the changes that will shape our mission is the local congregation.
However, the Methodist advantage, when it properly focuses resources, is the annual conference. Annual conferences are underutilized and unfocused, for the most part. Ministries like those mentioned above really do affect clergy excellence and increase the number of vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Describe your writing process for this book.
When I begin to explore a potential topic for a book, I talk to a number of pastors, laypersons, and colleagues about the idea to see if it seems useful and helpful. Then I start taking notes and gathering ideas and identifying resources. During the summer when conference work slows down, I take a couple weeks of leave time to focus on the topic with greater depth and begin writing a few chapters. If the energy remains strong and the ideas continue to be compelling, I keep going. By the end of summer, I’ve usually done the major content work and have a strong outline, and then I continue to write while I fulfill my other responsibilities. I share my work with a few trusted colleagues who can give me good and honest feedback, and then I rewrite. Finally, I work with Abingdon Press on the final edits. At any one time, I usually have two or three ideas percolating for future books.
Have you been engaging any groups directly, as a speaker or a teacher, to discuss the issues you brought up in the book?
The first groups I tested Seven Levers with included the Pastoral Leadership Development group of young clergy from the Kansas City area that I met with last spring, the cabinet, the directors, and the mission council. I also briefly introduced the ideas at annual conference last year. Next, I tested the ideas in a few presentations in other conferences with groups of pastors and laity. With the release of the book, I’ve begun to speak to gatherings such as the Bishop’s Convocation of the Southwest Texas Conference, the National HCI Summit, the Bishop’s Day Apart for the Alabama/West Florida Conference, and the National Association of Conference Lay Leaders. After this first flurry of activity, I have no further presentations until the fall.
How do you expect the Missouri Conference to be different 10 years from now as a result of the implementation of the seven levers discussed in the book?
With the average age of our current members and the strong declining trends in so many of our congregations, I think we’ll see inevitable decline in attendance and numbers of churches during the next several years. But as we remain faithful to the strategies, including starting new congregations, reversing decline in existing congregations through HCI and SCI and other interventions, and by continuing to recruit, train, and support pastors and laypersons with a focus on excellence and fruitfulness, I’m confident that one day in Missouri the United Methodist church will begin to grow again and engage our mission field with even greater effectiveness. The United Methodist witness reaches people no one else can reach, and I think we have a bright long-term future. This is not merely my prayer and my hope, but my firm conviction.
What fruit do you hope this book will bear?
I hope the book becomes a catalyst for conversation and change in conferences throughout United Methodism. I hope the Seven Levers gives a common language to focus our attention on the most critical strategies the same way that Five Practices has focused the work of thousands of congregations. I hope that the book provides support and encouragement to all those laity and clergy who have become discouraged and frustrated by conference systems and processes, and that it gives them hope for the United Methodist Church.