In his exceptional biography of Francis Asbury, John Wigger describes the characteristics that made the father of American Methodism an effective communicator. These four traits were:
1. legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience.
2. ability to connect with ordinary people.
3. ability to understand and use popular culture.
4. organization of the Methodist church.
This is the final post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous posts by clicking the traits listed above.)
The fourth trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was his organization of the Methodist church (8). According to his biographer, Asbury was “a brilliant administrator and a keen judge of human motivations” (8). As Asbury travelled constantly, he also paid careful attention to a variety of administrative details related to the Methodist Episcopal Church. Wigger further describes the significance of this aspect of Asbury’s leadership:
The system Asbury crafted made it possible to keep tabs on thousands of preachers and lay workers. Under his leadership, American Methodists anticipated the development of modern managerial styles. No merchant of the early nineteenth century could match Asbury’s nationwide network of class leaders, circuit stewards, book stewards, exhorters, local preachers, circuit riders, and presiding elders, or the movement’s system of class meetings, circuit preaching, quarterly meetings, annual conferences, and quadrennial general conferences, all churning out detailed statistical reports to be consolidated and published on a regular basis (8).
Wigger also highlights the importance of intinerant (travelling) preachers for his system. Interestingly, maintaing this system was also one of the major challenges of Asbury’s career. He fought to maintain it; however, because he was convinced of its significance for the success of American Methodism.
A “less obvious, but equally important” part of Asbury’s systemt was the “necessity of a culture of discipline.” Here, the early Methodist class meeting is discussed, including Asbury’s continuation of the requirement that in order to be a member one had to participate in a weekly class meeting.
Finally, Asbury realized his own limitations and delegated authority to others. He did this at a variety of levels, the most visible being traveling preachers and class leaders.
Asbury was an effective communicator because he instilled a culture of discipline in Methodism that allowed for a sense of cohesiveness throughout a rapidly growing church, and also ensured that membership in the newly constituted Methodist Episcopal Church actually meant something.
Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?
Absolutely! In fact, of the four traits that Wigger identifies, I think this might be the most pressing need in twenty-first century American Christianity.
United Methodism puts a significant amount of time, energy, and resources into administrative functions and details. When I was the pastor of a local church, for example, I remember being almost overwhelmed by the number of reports I had to submit throughout the year. This was sometimes a frustrating experience because the reason for the reports was not always explained to me, and it wasn’t usually inherently obvious.
Contemporary United Methodism also has an array of boards and agencies that engage a wide variety of aspects of Christian ministry.
Outwardly, when one compares the structures of Asbury’s Methodism and the structures of contemporary United Methodism, there is quite a bit that looks similar. There is, however, one major change. The purpose of Asbury’s administrative work was to keep the Methodism movement going in the same direction, to cause there to be a recognizable unity among the “people called Methodists.” Oversight in early American Methodism played an important function because there was clarity about what the goals of Methodism (individually: justification by faith in Christ, the new birth, followed by holiness of heart and life; corporately: spreading scriptural holiness). In the contemporary context, I fear we have kept a passion for counting attendance, members, etc., without the common sense of purpose that originally made these things valuable.
My sense is that this aspect of Asbury’s leadership style would be most easily appropriated by local church pastors. At the level of the local church, someone can cast vision, delegate authority and responsibilities, and articulate expectations for those involved in the life of the church (and hold people accountable for meeting those expectations).
So what do you think? Is being an excellent organizer and administrator important for leaders in the church today? If so, how have you seen this done well? And, since this post concludes this series, what quality or characteristic would you add to being an effective communicator that Wigger did not discuss?
Going from preachin’ to meddlin’: In your own sphere of influence, do you pay attention to the details of how an idea can actually come to reality? Does your church hold members accountable for keeping their membership vows in any meaningful way? If not, what are the implications of people making promises to God in the presence of the entire church and not keeping them?
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