2022 Laity Luncheon Address: Setting the Table


Laity Luncheon Address
Russell Davis, North Georgia Camp and Retreat Ministries
2022 North Georgia Annual Conference
June 2, 2022
I’m not exactly sure why Nate asked me to do this…As leaders of your congregations you all are the experts of how to run churches, so I’m not sure that I have anything helpful to bring to this conference “table” today.
In fact, camp and retreat ministries exist because they uniquely offer a change of perspective, an experience of “creative dislocation,” “a different table,” that allows their participants to gain understanding, discover new gifts, and to re enter their normal context differently. So maybe, if I do have anything to offer today, it is a perspective from outside of the day to day leadership of local congregations.
I’ve been at the United Methodist table my entire life. I spent my elementary years in Sunday school and VBS at Monroe First. Was confirmed at Pine Forest in Dublin. Was a part of the Wesley Foundation at Georgia Southern and heard my call to full-time Christian service while working as a part time youth minister in Statesboro. I’ve worked for the UMC for almost 38 years, in four annual conferences, and, my favorite - I’m in my 16th year leading our North Georgia Camp and Retreat Ministries.
Since my presence here, as Director of our camping ministries, might be raising questions about the future of our camping ministries for many of you for the first time, let me address those first: we’re a threshold ministry of the North Georgia Conference, which means we exist to serve the strategic priorities of the conference. Our conference has never been about serving only itself, and neither has our camping ministries. Each year over 40% of the summer camp and retreat participants we serve are from other mainline denominations, non-denominational churches, and unchurched folks. So it is only natural that while we continue to serve the best interest of the annual conference, we will also continue to welcome everyone to Glisson and the rest of our camping ministries. That is the official strategy of the NGCRM board during this time: to welcome to the table and to continue to serve all the churches and all the families we’ve always served.
A big part of the future of our camping ministries will be working directly with families who believe strongly in what we do, like the dad I met this past Sunday during check-in for our first week of camp this summer.

Someone in Americus, Georgia, told him and his wife about Glisson when they were looking for a camp last summer. They registered their son based solely on that word of mouth, and dropped him off to masked counselors, standing outside of the cabins because of last summer’s covid mitigation protocols. Long story short, the camper had a great experience, came back this summer, and a member of a Wesleyan church in Americus made a significant donation to our campership fund.
Stories like these accumulated over decades of ministry give me hope for our camp and retreat ministries. And hope for the families and churches we serve. And for our denomination as well.
The hope I hold isn’t a wishful, uncertain thing. It’s more of a determined resolve. And I believe that this is the type of hope to which we all as leaders will be required to adhere if the churches we serve are to thrive through the challenges that are before us.
I’d like to share my understanding of the challenges we face and the work ahead of us together as we lead churches in this uncertain time. But first I should mention that especially in this time of rapid change, it’s important for us to engage the "Stockdale Paradox," which I learned about in Jim Collins’ book From Good to Great. It was a lesson Admiral Jim Stockdale learned during his imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War: you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. I apologize in advance for any brutal facts I might share today, and ask that you know that I only share my thoughts in the hope they might benefit us all.

There are two significant challenges I believe on the table before us.

The first is that many of us have been approaching our work of ministry as a “finite game” rather than an “infinite game” for decades now. Those terms are found in the work of James Carse, whose book, Finite and Infinite Games, was first published in 1986. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. If a finite game is to be won by someone, then it must come to a definite end. It has fixed rules and known players and will come to an end when someone has won and others have lost. In an infinite game the rules can change and players can come and go, and the goal is to perform well, and there may even be finite games played within the infinite game, but playing well is defined only in ways that ensure the game continues.
In my opinion, the decline in our denomination, and that of other mainline denominations, isn’t theological, isn’t societal, isn’t external at all. It’s about how too often we’ve approached ministry as an “attractional” endeavor that we can “win.” Too often we’ve believed we need a better pastor, active youth ministry, the best music, and to get out of worship in time to get to lunch before the Baptists. There’s a lot more than that to it of course, and lots of good has been accomplished by our churches. But there’s a degree to which we’ve chosen the way of pursuing our mission, of making disciples, that’s about being better than other churches, winning the “finite game” of attracting the most people, getting butts in pews, people to join us at the table.
There was an article in Outside magazine this month about the sense of letdown that amateur runners often feel after an event that they’ve spent months preparing for. The term coined for it is “arrival fallacy,” and it refers to the false belief that by accomplishing a goal we’ve set for ourselves, we’ll have a sense of lasting gratification. Another Outside writer wrote “We think that some external goal will fulfill us, but it’s this very thinking that gets in the way of our fulfillment,” we are better off “enjoying the process and being where you are.”
In 2010 the annual conference charged our camping ministries with the goal of serving double the number of summer campers by 2020. We spent nine years pursuing that goal, serving 4,771 campers in 2019. And then in 2020 we served no campers for the first time in our 95 year history. We believe now that it will take years to recover, just like it will for most of our ministries.
We didn’t experience “arrival fallacy” for our camping ministries because we never did arrive! We weren’t fulfilled by reaching our goal. But rather than be upset about it, we recognized that our camp and retreat ministries had not spent nine years only pursuing the goal, only playing a finite game, but we had been playing an infinite game at the same time. Rather than develop new ministries that would just attract lots of campers, we invented new ministries that would strengthen the old ministries, and would develop deeper levels of discipleship and leadership in our campers and staff.

Because we unknowingly chose to play the infinite game as we pursued winning the finite game of a 10-year goal, our 2020 “failure” allowed us to begin imagining how we might use our new skills and knowledge to benefit congregations. We’ll begin piloting teambuilding and leadership development programs for adult leaders of congregations, for families, and for clergy in the coming months and years.
What would it mean for the ministries we serve to intentionally pursue playing an infinite game? What would it mean for us to invest in people beyond the point of our mission of “making disciples” to whom we then have to offer good ministries in which they can participate? And instead what if we worked together to create a system of ministries and relationships where folks can grow, learn, and mature spiritually to the point where they begin to “transform the world” according to God’s leading?

Could we be willing to embrace a reality that a certain level of discomfort is necessary for all of us to really grow, even though discomfort isn’t normally compatible with attracting large numbers of people?

I believe the first question on the table is how will we lead our churches to face this internal challenge, to change our mindsets, to more intentionally play the “infinite game”?

 The second challenge with which I believe we are wrestling is the rapidly changing, volatile landscape in which we do ministry. In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle posits that approximately every 500 years the major faith communities face a crisis their previous understandings are unable to help them negotiate and, after a time of upheaval and conflict in both the church and society, shared understandings emerge that serve the religious communities for the next 2-300 years. These changes are so significant that we have given them names: the Dark Ages, the Great Schism, and the Great Reformation. If her theory is right, and I encourage you to read the book because she’s very convincing, it would explain the great upheaval we’re in now and that we’ve been experiencing in our churches for the past 50 years. The issues are common to all our churches, not just the UMC, and it’s likely that we have a long time to go before
things settle down again.
In his book, Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger uses the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a metaphor for the unprecedented changes we are facing in the church today and how we might successfully negotiate them. Their mission to find a waterway passage to the Pacific Ocean led them by canoe up the Missouri and Columbia Rivers only to find the Rocky Mountains instead of river navigation to the ocean. The expedition’s expertise at canoeing no longer served them as they pursued their mission. They had to adapt, to rely on their basic skills of wilderness survival, on the skills of others who helped them on their way, and on new skills they learned out of necessity. The alternative would have been to shut down the mission.
For years, when we’ve become aware that change is needed in our church, we’ve reached for technical solutions, often hiring experts to guide us.

When the challenges we faced were technical in nature, that often worked well. But when the challenge we face doesn’t have an apparent solution, there's no quick fix with a talented pastor, a cool building, amazing music, or new program. This is not to say that any and all of those aren't important assets for ministry, just that they aren't sufficient by themselves when facing an adaptive challenge. Like Lewis and Clark when they reached the Rockies, when we face challenges for which a solution is not readily available, like a pandemic, or the current reality of our denomination and society, the abilities that got us to this point don’t mean much. We have to drop back to the fundamental understandings and practices that are reliable as we assess and adapt to the new situation. Good leadership isn’t enough anymore, our churches need adaptive leaders in volatile times.

How will we lead our churches to face these unknown and unknowable external challenges, to prepare ourselves to do ministry in an environment that is ever changing and creating challenges we’ve never faced before?

 Just like survival skills and knowledge of the outdoors served Lewis and Clark well during their adaptive challenge, there are key skills and understandings that will serve our congregations well in adapting to the infinite game and will allow us to navigate whatever challenges are on the table next. We’ve incorporated many of these into our summer camps, the ELI leader program, and our summer staff training.
What are those fundamental survival skills like fire building, hunting, building shelter, and orienteering that will help us lead our congregations through adaptive challenges? Let me quickly offer a few I believe are most helpful, along with strategies we can use to practice them in our ministry settings.
The first skill we need to develop and practice is Christian community. It’s a fundamental practice across all our camping programs and shapes everything we do, from activities to facilities. It has to be more than just nice words - it’s a safe space to share vulnerably with one another. Authenticity and trust happen in safe spaces, and in their absence groups are unable to engage in the risk and loss that adaptive change requires. So as leaders of organizations that expect change, adaptive change, we must get good at creating safe spaces for people regardless of their age, gender, color, or theological leaning.
You might be thinking this is an easy practice for your congregation. But many folks experience church as one of the most uncomfortable and alienating places to visit. And many who have been participating in our congregations for years still would never share their stories, their lives openly, even in Sunday school or Bible study groups. If you have those kinds of deep and vulnerable relationships in your church, you are blessed! Without intentionality on the part of leadership, many in our congregations engage in only superficial connections at best.
Real deep relationships that are authentic require vulnerability. And often the reason we don't pursue those with more energy is that they require us as leaders to be vulnerable first. 14Leaders always go first. But as leaders we’ve come to believe that we should “never let them see you sweat.” It’s not true. Authentic leaders show their sweat, are vulnerable, and by doing so make it safe for the group to do likewise.

Authentic Christian community is safe for creating real, deep, vulnerable relationships. And the connection of authentic relationships reduces the perceived risks of Adaptive Change.

The second survival skill is Discipleship. Because it is core to our mission and identity, and because we use it often assuming everyone knows what we mean, as church leaders we must get clear about our understanding and definition of Discipleship. A disciple is literally a learner, so a disciple of Christ is literally a learner of Christ. To learn one must ask questions and express doubts. This is the reason that creating safe space is so important, because sometimes the church sees those who ask strange or difficult questions as heretics and those who express real doubts as being without faith.
I wonder if that is a reason many have also come to equate certainty with strength of faith? Certainty of belief is not an indicator of strength of faith, and doubting one’s faith is not an indicator of weakness of faith. In fact, the willingness to entertain doubts is a sign of a strength of faith. Belief and faith are not the same thing. We must approach the development of personal faith with humility. The cognitive changes we all go through as children, youth, and young adults require that we think differently about God, and about our faith, as our brains understand everything they encounter differently. By welcoming questions and doubts we are helping faith develop in concert with cognitive development.
There is a passage from Diana Butler Bass that puts it this way: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever” [Hebrews 13:8], I have not stayed the same yesterday, today, and forever. The church does not stay the same yesterday, today, and forever. And so, in a very real way, 21Jesus has changed for me. Jesus changes for the world. Jesus changes for the institutions of faith, for the church  If you’re not doing that kind of
work, of letting the end of one image emerge for you and a new image of Jesus be born for you, you’re probably in a pretty static place in your own faith.”
As we think about making disciples, we have to ensure that people have safe places to practice their faith. Our camp ministries are designed for that purpose. Studies show that, on average, we retain 5% of what we hear, and 75% of what we practice doing. (I’m hoping you’ll choose your 5% of this time together wisely!) If we are serious about making disciples/learners of Jesus Christ, we have to engage them in experiential learning. You’ve heard me re-tell a story I heard from Rev. Wesley Stephens of a Glisson camper in the 70’s who when asked by a visiting pastor, “What is it about camp that you like so much?” replied, “You know all those things we learn about in Sunday school…here we do them.” Maybe retention is the reason James 1:22 admonishes us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”

Authentic discipleship learns, doubts, grows, and practices faith in community. And people of deep, growing faith have the spiritual maturity necessary to engage in Adaptive Change on behalf of the congregation.

The third fundamental skill we must practice with our congregations is servant leadership. We have a saying at camp that relates directly to this year’s annual conference theme, A Place for You at the Table. We refer to helping folks move from “Bibs to Aprons”. Often folks talk about choosing to go to a church where they “can be fed”. Well, the last time I was fed, other than with cake by Becky on our wedding day, I was in a high chair, wearing a bib. It’s difficult to sit at the table when you’re in a high chair. And it’s really labor intensive for the people wearing aprons in a church when most of the people are wearing bibs.
Leaders in aprons not only feed others, but they also feed themselves. It is important for a church facing adaptive challenges to have folks fully at the table when those plans are being made. So moving folks from bibs to aprons is a practice that prepares congregations for adaptive change.
In our camping ministries we also believe that the understanding of leadership in society at large, and so in many of our churches, is in conflict with the example of Jesus. Even business consultants are becoming aware of the power of self-sacrifice, of putting the needs of the team above one’s own, in developing authentic leadership influence. So we understand leadership as the natural extension of discipleship practiced in the context of Christian community. Deep, vulnerable relationships in a community lead to deep trust, and the one willing to sacrifice their self-interest on behalf of others will be their leader, regardless of title, position, or rank.
We all want to develop more leaders and to develop more as leaders, but I think there are a couple of main reasons leaders fail to step forward in our churches. In a conversation with church leaders here in the conference last summer, Tod Bolsinger said that “Leadership formation is a hard and humbling repetitive process of personal transformation.” That’s because if we want to generate change in our team, our group, our church, we must be willing to go first (to lead) by undergoing change ourselves. Personal change is the hard, uncomfortable price of leadership development.
I believe a second, main reason we struggle to develop leaders in our churches is that as leaders we must have the wisdom to name the change, the energy to rally folks to the change, and the courage to withstand the backlash as the change becomes real. In his book, A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman reminds leaders to EXPECT the backlash when introducing change. In fact, Friedman might go as far as to say that if you don’t get backlash, you haven’t introduced real change. Most of us don’t tend to like conflict, so we’ll avoid leading just to avoid the backlash. When you have a leader who is willing to withstand the backlash of the group, you should rush to their support.

Authentic servant leaders are not fed, but feed themselves and others, sacrifice their own self-interest on behalf of others, do the hard work of personal change, and have the courage to stand up to backlash when change is needed. All of these practices are essential for those who would lead adaptive change.

To sum up:
  1. As leaders of our respective ministries we are facing challenges that will require us to hold fast to the determined resolve of hope.
  2. We need to face the brutal facts that we need to learn to play an infinite game, and that change must be expected.
  3. And to prepare ourselves and our congregations for those adaptive challenges, we have to become good at creating safe, Christian community that fosters growing, authentic Disciples who so reflect the sacrificial nature of Christ that they develop into servant Leaders able to withstand the demands of continued growth and backlash of those they dearly love. 
One last thought:

In our annual conference theme, A Place for You at the Table, the “You” isn’t them or they — it’s you. It’s me. Often as leaders we wind up playing Martha so that others can play Mary, so busy doing the work of the church that we seldom, if ever, sit at the table. Why don’t we? Is hard work just a poor substitute for being fed? Is it because we think as leaders we’ve arrived and we’re above needing to continue to grow? Is it to avoid having to consider new understandings, new calling on our lives, change and transformation that requires us to do hard things? Do we play Martha to avoid sitting at Jesus’ feet? “You” and “I” need to sit at the table.
I pray that I’ve offered some thoughts that might set the table for our time of holy conferencing.
May this annual conference time at the table nourish your body, mind, and spirit for your service of Christ’s Church. Amen.