Run So As To Win The Race

Bishop Paul L. Leeland


(Bishop Paul L. Leeland) On March 15, 1808, Asbury Methodist Church in Wilmington, Del. wrote to Bishop Francis Asbury in regard to their minister, John McClaskey. In anticipation of the Philadelphia conference, the congregation did not expect their minister to be reappointed and wrote, “neither do we wish it.” Bishop Asbury noted that among his correspondence, he increasingly heard from preachers who were “unhappy with their appointments and societies unhappy with their preachers.” (John Wigger, American Saint, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 369). 

It seems little has changed in 200 years of American Church history. Or is there another story to be told?
There is a story of many gifted, great churches that have lifted the name and power of Jesus Christ throughout the world. There is a story of outstanding leaders, both lay and clergy, who have sacrificed personal ambition for the Kingdom of God.  There is also a story of remarkable congregations that have been partners in creating valuable institutions to manifest the very compassion and love of Jesus in the world. 
This is the story of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, and it was the theme of the Conference Leadership Summit, held August 28, 2010. During the summit, many of our conference leaders met to identify the essential aspects of our work together. Those in attendance were the members of our AWF Conference: Board of Laity, Board of Ordained Ministry, Extended Cabinet, Council on Finance and Administration, and CORE Team.
When the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian Church, he noted in the ninth chapter that all athletes running in a race compete, “but only one receives the prize” (v.24). Then he advises the church by saying, “Run so as to win” (v.24). 
This was precisely the guidance offered by our conference leadership at the Leadership Summit. The specific responses can be found on our conference website, but I would like to lift before you a brief summary, and an outline of the direction in which we will continue to move in the coming days.
First, our leadership identifies The Great Commission as an essential direction of our conference. Simply stated, we are to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We are to GO - to make disciples, to baptize, to teach, and to obey (Matthew 28:19-20). 
Second, our leadership affirms the request of our churches for fruitful, spiritual leaders, which create fruitful, spiritual congregations. Realizing how essential true leadership is, we have made a priority of creating the necessary steps needed to identify fruitful leaders (lay & clergy) and congregations.
To do this, we will need greater conversation to define what constitutes fruitful leadership and congregations. Hopefully we will avoid the unproductive conversation of pitting “faithfulness” against “fruitfulness.” Obviously, fruitfulness cannot come without faithful attention to our calling and ministry. However, Jesus warned us that one can believe themselves to be faithful, while failing to be fruitful by burying their talent (Matthew 25:14-30).   True leadership must be, and can only be, both – FAITHFUL and FRUITFUL.
Finally, to have a common understanding of fruitfulness, our leadership acknowledges a need to produce clear standards against which we can measure trends and celebrate milestones. We know whether our local ministry or congregation has been fruitful. We understand and keep track of the important, essential trends in our local ministry; but for what purpose? We do this not to simply recite numbers or statistics. We do this to identify trends in our fruitfulness and to account for how we are making disciples of Jesus Christ, knowing every number represents a person claimed by God.
Personally, I am encouraged beyond measure to hear the voices of our conference leadership remind us first and foremost to remain true to The Great Commission; to build fruitful leaders and congregations; and to identify transparent standard criteria for our mission. This is exactly the direction in which we are moving, the direction clearly identified by the collective wisdom of our conference leadership.
There are at least two stories that we can tell. One story is a narrative of lost members, lost resources, and complaints about our churches. Yet the other story points toward the increasing spiritual leadership and fruitful congregations who demonstrably remain true to The Great Commission. The true spirit of leaders can be noted by which story they tell. Which story will you tell?
The word I hear, and invite you to join me in telling, has been recorded in I Corinthians 9:24: “Run so as to win the race.”