Even before his episcopal appointment to Missouri, Bishop Bob Farr had probably been to more United Methodist Churches in Missouri than almost anyone. But he’s quick to say he hasn’t been to them all, and he hasn’t met all the pastors.
“For those pastors whom I haven’t worked with, I’m just a new bishop. It doesn’t really matter if I’m from Missouri or not,” he said to the group gathered at St. James UMC in Fulton. “There are a lot of churches I have never been to, and this is one of them.”
The stop at Fulton at 5 p.m. on April 18 was one of Bishop Farr’s monthly community engagement meetings. He’s taking care to connect with churches of all sizes, noting that there are more than 620 churches with fewer than 100 people in worship, and 314 of those have fewer than 30 people in worship. In his time working as Director of Congregational Excellence, it became very clear to Farr that there are no easy answers regarding how to bring about church renewal.
“When a neighborhood changes, we have a very difficult time crossing socio-economic barriers,” Bishop Farr said. “What works in the church across the street may not work here.”
Bishop Farr said nearly 20 churches will close in the Missouri Conference this year. The Conference isn’t “closing” them. The people who remain at the churches are asking for them to be closed.
“What usually closes a church is that someone who was writing the check that kept things going stops writing the check,” Bishop Farr said.
That’s not to say there isn’t hope. He said he knows of one church that recently went from having two people in worship to 21. You can’t credit the pastor. The church doesn’t have a pastor, it is being served by four rotating lay speakers.
“One family moved in, started going to that church, then went out and knocked on the door of everyone within a five mile radius, inviting them all to church,” Bishop Farr said.
He told of another church that has grown from 25 to 60, most of which are children, and only has a few empty seats on Sunday morning. “The common denominator I find in growing churches is that someone in that church decided to go out and get people to visit the church. It doesn’t have to be the pastor,” he said. “It just takes a few people to decide to make it happen.”
Three new churches are opening this year. There are 40 new churches in the Missouri that have opened in the past 15 years.
Between his appointment as Bishop last September and this April, Bishop Farr had already met with 45 listening groups comprised of more than 800 people. What he heard frequently is that the church needs to be more engaged in social justice and renew an emphasis on children and youth. Bishop Farr has already addressed this through his primary function, clergy appointments, with the appointment of Rev. Tina Harris as Director of Mission, Service and Justice Ministries, and the appointment of Rev. Jeff Baker as Director of Next Generation Ministries.
“We have a lot of churches that are doing well, and a lot that are struggling,” Bishop Farr said. “I used to say there are five different church cultures. After the listening sessions, I would say there are 35.”