July 07, 2017
A year ago Rev. Bob Farr stood before the Missouri Conference in appreciation of having support for upcoming episcopal election, and the Conference was saying goodbye to Bishop Robert Schnase, who had served Missouri for 12 years. Now Bishop Farr, elected last July and taking office last September, stood before the Missouri Conference to give his first state of the Conference address.
Bishop Farr recalled that as he started this new path together with the Missouri Conference, he had to think about what it means to be a new bishop, considering questions like how do we have a fresh start together; how do we make something new happen; what needs to go, change or stop; what do we keep or not keep?
“Here’s something we’re going to keep: Our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” he said.
The vision of the Missouri Conference is also similar, but with some refinements, and is tentatively this: The Missouri Conference will relentlessly lead our churches to become outwardly-focused and spiritually-centered Christ followers.
Bishop Farr recalled how Lovett Weems always says that mission and vision statements don’t do any good if they are just signs on the wall, so he followed the vision statement with some “So that” statements.
So that… we will have congregations in every Missouri community that are missional. Who are compelling and competent in visibly demonstrating God’s love.
So that … lives may be changed and deepened in love with God and one another.
So that … disinterested people find Jesus and become shaped by a faith community in the Wesleyan Way.
“I think people need to be in a faith community, and the Wesleyan way is the greatest way to achieve this in America,” Bishop Farr said.
The Missouri Conference will keep the core processes of congregational excellence and pastoral excellence, but is adding lay leadership to the list.
“If the laity doesn’t get it, it doesn’t work,” Bishop Farr said. We are keeping the Five Practices and Five Expectations, and we’re adding the denominations Four Areas of Focus, which are:
Reaching new places and new people
Developing principled leaders
Improving global health
Engaging in ministry with the poor
“We have to figure out how to cross classes and do ministry with the poor,” Bishop Farr said. “We can’t just be a middle class church.”
Since being elected last fall Bishop Farr has spent a lot of time on the road in Missouri. He has done a lot of preaching, but even more listening. He has conducted 43 listening sessions with 435 people.
“I thought I had been on every road in Missouri. I was wrong. I found some new ones,” he said.
He’s also had 80 people participate in “360 Interviews” to gather in-depth opinions from a variety of perspectives.
Through these sessions, he heard a call for an increased emphasis on social justice, and on children and youth, more connection to struggling communities, and an increased focus on rural and small membership churches.
Although it has been a time of listening and discernment, that doesn’t mean that there has been a pause. Many of the concerns that Bishop Farr heard have already been acted upon. A new director of Next Generation Ministries position was created and will be filled be Jeff Baker.
Tina Harris will be the new director of Mission, Service and Justice Ministries, and will be bringing an increased focus on social justice to that area. Bishop Farr has been doing community meetings and prayer walks monthly in economically challenged communities all over Missouri.
A special workshop track developed specifically for small membership churches was added to Annual Conference Session.
In terms of reporting on the overall state of the Conference, for this first address Bishop Farr had some help. As a newly assigned Bishop, he was given a comprehensive report of his area by the College of Bishops. At first he thought he might not need it, having already spent more than 30 years in ministry in Missouri, the last several years focused on Congregational Excellence. But he had some time in his month between being elected and taking office, so he took a look. He found some numbers did surprise him.
There are eight churches in the Missouri Conference that have more than 1,000 people in worship each week – this is an all-time high. There are another eight that have 700 – 1,000 in worship each week, also a high. The next category, 450 – 700, has 16 churches. “That is an all-time low,” Bishop Farr said. “We’ve lost our middle.”
There are 82 churches with 150 – 400 in attendance, and 71 with 30 – 150. Of Missouri’s 790 churches, 619 have under 150 in attendance. About 75 percent of the churches in the Conference has fewer than 100 people in worship.
Worship attendance at United Methodist Churches has dropped by 12,000 in the past 40 years. During that same period of time the population of Missouri has doubled.
Bishop Farr said he is trying to offer a ministry of presence during his first year, and the second year will involve focus and strategy. In his third year, the Missouri Conference will be hosting a special Called Session of General Conference to address disagreements within the denomination related to human sexuality, with the ordination of people who are openly gay and same-sex marriage being two of the major issues to be addressed. Some people are concerned about a potential split in the denomination over these issues. A Commission On a Way Forward has been working on the issues that will come before the General Conference. “A decision is coming in 2019. I don’t know what that decision is. If someone tells you they know, they are lying to you,” Bishop Farr said.
He cautioned that until we know what options are, some conversations can be had too early. But people can start having conversations in a gentle, friendly way, and have some self-reflection on where they fall on the spectrum of being a non-adaptable traditionalist, an adaptable traditionalist, an adaptable progressive or a non-adaptable progressive.
Bishop Farr said he started researching the different ways that Methodists have been structured in Missouri.
“I stopped counting at 42,” he said. “This is not the end of the world. We’ve been in places like this before.”
The special called session of General Conference will be in St. Louis Feb. 23 – 26, 2019.
“I want the Methodist of world to see that Missouri is best place in the world to be,” Bishop Farr said.
Bishop Farr cast down rumors of the death of the Methodists Church. As he has traveled the Conference, he’s seen life is all sorts of churches: big, small, urban, rural, new and historic.
“People’s lives are being changed. All sorts of people,” Bishop Farr said. “We’re in a crazy world. I hate to watch the news. The only hope our world has is hope in the church. Do whatever it takes. Try something new.”