by Chris Ritter

Shane Bishop, the senior pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois, has joined with pastors of other large, former United Methodist congregations to form a new connection called The Foundry Network. I spoke with Shane recently about their vision. He also allowed me to review the founding documents. I extend my gratitude to Shane and The Foundry Network for this exclusive opportunity.

I have known Shane for over twenty years. Not only have we served in the same UM conference, we even served the same student appointment while we each attended Candler School of Theology. Shane has led Christ Church in the greater St. Louis Metro since 1997. During his pastorate, worship attendance has climbed from 200 to 3,000.  Outreach Magazine named Christ Church one of the fastest growing congregations in America in 2018. Shane was named a Distinguished Evangelist in the UMC in 2010 and has served on the boards of The Confessing Movement and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. But in May 2021 both Shane and Christ Church departed United Methodism. Unlike many WCA affiliates, the Global Methodist Church was not to be their destination.

Here is our discussion:

CR: How did the idea for The Foundry Network surface? What was the genesis?

SB: When it became clear to us that leaving the United Methodist denomination was where we needed to go in pursuit of our mission, we began to look around and ask where to land.  It’s one thing to decide you want to leave Egypt. It’s something else to figure out which direction is the Promised Land. We looked at various options and decided that, for us, a denomination wasn’t the best choice. And yet we did not want to be just a stand-alone, independent church, either. I was in conversation with friends around the country in similar-sized churches who found themselves in the same place. Five of us got together and basically just asked: “What if we networked in some way and what would that look like? What do we need from that?  Where would the ‘value added’ be?” We decided that we did not want to be a denomination in any way, shape or form.  And we decided there was some great value added in sharing best practices. We also felt we needed a tribe, a place to hang our hats, a community to be a part of. So we began thinking through what eventually ended up being The Foundry Network.

CR: The name certainly has reference to Methodist history. Tell me why it was chosen.

SB: We wanted to keep some strong connection with Methodist history. We all came out of the Wesleyan tradition denominationally and forming independent churches was not a matter of wanting to leave Wesleyan theology. We wanted to embrace that. So it was important to us that this network pick a moniker that embraced Wesleyan theology and a piece of that history that could serve as a metaphor for what we’re doing. The big idea was when the Foundry was no longer available to Wesley and his movement had to go somewhere else, they had to find another Foundry, if you will. So we found ourselves in a metaphorically similar situation. We didn’t feel we could stay where we were… that we needed to go somewhere else. That became a pretty good metaphor for us to work out of.

CR: Now a lot of the leaders associated with the new Foundry Network have a history with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. And, of course, WCA is throwing their energies into launching the Global Methodist Church. This has led to speculation that there was a breaking of relationship at some point, or issues on which these two groups came to loggerheads.  What can you say about that speculation?  Was there a breakup?

SB:  The notion there was conflict is absolutely incorrect. I was a part of WCA and was on their Global Council for some time. We all are fully supportive of WCA and wish the Global Methodist denomination well. I will say, Chris, that the people I served with in WCA were some of the finest, most principled Christian people I have ever had the privilege of spending time with in my entire life.  So we absolutely wish WCA well. We wish the Global Methodist Church well. But, in our context, we did not feel that being a part of a denomination (whether it aligns with us theologically or not) was in our best long-term interest. But I still think that Global Methodist Church is the right move for at least 95% of the churches out there. Its formation is going to be a great blessing to them

CR: I know you looked at the GMC. Were there specifics of their polity that were deal breakers?

SB:  In our local church we had a team who looked at the future.  I was not a part of that process. They came back with a unanimous recommendation of going independent. I do not know every single factor that went into that. I do know that that one factor was [pastoral] succession.  Also, apportionments. How much value added is there, you know, and those type of things? In the long run, what value added would a denomination of any kind give a church like Christ Church? That leadership team could not see that value and felt our best course was to move forward as an independent, but networked, church.

CR: There seems to a long-standing tension between large churches and the denominations of which they are a part. Large churches are successful, entrepreneurial, and seem to want a different sort of relationship. I understand the Free Methodist Church has a non-geographical conference for their largest churches as a way of giving some autonomy. Do you see any sort of future convergence with the GMC? Is the Foundry Network a temporary place to land after a nasty denominational divorce, or is this the long-term plan moving forward?

SB: I think what’s important to remember is The Foundry consists of independent churches. So each of those churches probably has their own thinking around the boundary.  But, for us, this is the plan.

CR: The Foundry Network is for large churches. How large?

SB:  We’re looking at “reach.”  It’s very difficult to measure attendance post-COVID and it’s been difficult to measure attendance for years. Anybody that does multiple services has tons of double count compared to the old days. So it’s very difficult. But we feel if a church has a reach of around 800 [in worship attendance] or so, that would make them a large church. How they would come up with that would be up to them. For most churches that’s a combined attendance of live and internet. Everybody does that a little differently. But the bottom line is we felt, as a network, we wanted to be networked with churches that we had a great deal in common with. And that wasn’t just theological. It also had to do with size. And so we don’t see The Foundry Network as being a large network. There’s not going to be hundreds of churches in this. We think it’ll be a very small network of large churches for whom what The Foundry has to offer is a good fit and matches their vision for their own future

CR: Who has committed so far?

SB: To be part of The Foundry your church has to be completely disaffiliated. So you can’t be still in the process. The church must be completely disaffiliated and the pastor has to no longer be United Methodist clergy.  So right now we simply have The Orchard and Bryan Collier; we have Christ Church and myself; we have The Story Church and Eric Huffman; we have John Kenney and Quest Church; we have Asbury Church and Tommy Gray. Then, as part of our group, we have Ted Bryant who is the senior pastor at Granger.  But Granger itself isn’t a part of the group at this point.

CR: How many churches do you expect to ultimately join The Foundry?

SB: I will be utterly shocked if we end up with twenty churches. We have several churches, you know, on the “provisional tour” who just aren’t completely out yet. I’ll be shocked if we have 20 churches. We do not see this as being a big thing. And you have to remember that we’re a network, so we have no hierarchy. We don’t even have a checkbook. We don’t have bureaucracy. I mean… we just got nothing of the sort. It is just a very pure network. So getting bigger is certainly not a goal. We are just very quietly making this option available as people ask us. But we’re certainly not out recruiting or anything. We certainly don’t think this is going to be for everybody

CR: Your founding document mentions large church pastors and “innovative leaders.” Who qualifies?

SB: Many years ago, when they started the Leading Edge for the largest hundred churches in United Methodism, I think Christ Church was maybe number ninety-nine.  We just barely got on there. But, by that time, we had been growing exponentially for probably 10 years. So if there’s a church out there that is on a strong growth track, if there’s a church out there that sees themselves as being a large church at some point… maybe they’re a new church start. I don’t know what the situation could be, but we didn’t want the size piece to keep a church away from The Foundry Network at a critical time. If that church hasn’t quite reached a certain standard, we didn’t want to be hard and fast on things.  We can take some things under consideration and that type of thing. If there was a church out there that was trending the direction The Foundry Network is going in terms of critical mass, we didn’t want them to think that we wouldn’t at least give that some consideration.

CR: It seems like the Foundry Network is a connection for pastors. How would a person in the pews experience The Foundry?

SB: I think that’s very fair.  The central bond, the universal joint, is going to be the senior pastors of these churches. That’s going to be the place where a lot of that community happens. Other things are going to flow organically from there.  We think it’s very possible that people who hold similar [staff/lay] positions in our churches will have various and sundry cohorts and they will be in communication, as well. We’re just going to just let things grow pretty organically. We would see that our churches would be familiar with the other churches in the network. We may decide we want to get together once a year and have a time of best practices. Maybe the large churches just rotate hosting that. We just see there’s a lot of options right now. But as far as everybody in the church seeing themselves through the lens of The Foundry Network in the same way they would have a denomination, I don’t think we’re going to be that.

CR: The founding document mentions that those in The Foundry Network have no other associations. What is the intent there?

SB: We just want it to be a place for people who have no place. If you have another place, be there. But for churches and pastors that have no other place, we wanted to be their place.  We’re not trying to recruit folks. We’re not trying to get people to go to us “instead of.” Nothing of the sort. It’s just an option, and opportunity. We wanted churches and pastors that that had no other place to go or felt called to be a part of this.

CR: Foundry is for pastors in the Wesleyan Tradition. Your document includes the Articles of Religion and EUB Confession… but no real statement of what comprises Wesleyan distinctives (like Wesley’s sermons, etc.) Let’s say a pastor started preaching the Perseverance of the Saints (once saved always saved).  Would that be a deal-breaker? Who interprets what is Wesleyan?

SB: One thing from our founding documents — we just need to say again — this is a network, not a denomination. To form the network, we had to agree on the deal breakers. For us, those are in the document. If other things arise, we’ll just take those under consideration. We have no intention of policing things. But we do want to make sure that churches are accountable for practicing what they say they practice, and for believing what they say that they believe. The thing to remember is that this is going to be really, really relational in terms of accountability.  We’re going to be meeting together. We’re going to have regular zoom calls. We’re going to know each other. Accountability is just going to come from that reality and if the network determines that a church has gone outside of what they agreed to or outside of who were supposed to be, then you’re just not going to be a part of the network anymore.

CR: I noticed reference to a Leadership Team, but it really didn’t say who comprises that. Is that the senior pastors of the churches involved?

SB: The five of us who began this actually got very, very close. So we are going to keep a covenant group together with each other. We’re going to stay connected. But as far as The Foundry itself, all the senior pastors will comprise the leadership team. Right now it would be much fairer to say that the five of us who started it have done the leading to this point. We’re going to continue to hold steady with that until we see how many people join the network, where things are going, and then we’ll decide what the best way to structure from there. Again, there’s no hierarchy. Obviously you have to have some leadership. But the temptation is to try to become more of a denomination. We’re not going to have ordination standards. Those are up to individual churches. These are independent, truly independent, churches so that’s going to be an important piece of this.  For us we do not wish to become a denomination… and so we’re not.

CR: Accountability is a huge watchword these days. The UMC system of accountability has failed. Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek stand as examples of networks that did not protect against abuse. How will the Foundry Network be different?

SB: Well, the bottom line is networks, denominations… no matter what you do– you can’t completely protect yourself against bad actors. And so I think it’s somewhat unrealistic to think that because you’re a part of this or that, or you do this or that, [you are protected.]  If there are people out there who are unprincipled, if there are people out there with ill intent, they’re going to be who they are. What we’re really looking at in the network is independent churches with pastors accountable within those churches… just as our (local church) staff, [comprised of] non-appointed people in United Methodist Church, have always been accountable to the pastor parish committee. The pastors will simply fall in that area of accountability.  But if there’s ever a church that would have a problem in which they would need some oversight, we’ll make sure that we’ve got something set up where we could send a couple of pastors in, by request, who are outside of that situation and who could spend a day or two there to get some information and at least make a recommendation on behalf of the network to that local church. This sort of provides one more layer if something would get very, very difficult internally.

CR: In the governing document, I notice: “Accountability to the standard of belief and eligibility for membership in the network is determined by the Leadership Team by unanimous vote”.

SB: To get in, we want unanimous votes. We want to make sure that we all know each other. We knew of each other before. Some of us knew each other well, some of us less so. But we’re not talking about a bunch of strangers here. We’re talking about friends and, for all of us, I don’t think there’s anybody who will be a part of the network that we don’t know pretty well. So we kind of come on the references of one another and we consider people on that basis. We certainly want good leaders — people with high integrity and people that we think are going to represent the network well.  If a time should come that we have to ask a church to leave, I just don’t know that we’ve got a process for that other than the leadership asking a church to leave. That can be for any reason.

CR: Do I understand correctly that each of the member churches and pastors will sponsor a network around them for smaller churches. Is that the vision?

SB: Most of us were already flagships. By that, I mean we have a group of smaller churches who look to us for leadership. So we feel like there will be some small churches —  and, Chris, I’m going to be real honest with you — the small churches who made contact to say, “We are getting out of the United Methodist Church. What should we do?” — I really think the vast majority of these small churches should go Global Methodist. I just do. I think a denomination adds great value to them, particularly around pastors — getting and retaining pastors. But if there are some small churches in our region who just say, “Hey, we are going to go independent. This is what we’re going to do. We don’t want to be a part of a denomination” —  then these flagship churches within the network could offer the kind of leadership that we always have.  Whether it be just a place where pastors can get together quarterly, we would see that these churches would host an annual conference highlighting some best practices —  just pouring into some of these small churches. You’re familiar with our Navigating Change [conference] that we used to do. Chris, it’s that kind of thing. Though our vision is not that that the Foundry Network be of churches of all sizes, we really have a pretty clear vision as to where we want to go.  We also would love to help resource some of these smaller churches who want to be independent. We can help them and we can pour into them and we can partner with them at some level.  

CR: These smaller churches would be separate from whatever satellite campuses the church might have?

SB: That is correct.  And these churches may or may not have previously been United Methodist churches. Some churches probably will have never been United Methodist churches. We are not limited to former United Methodist churches. We are just looking for churches of a certain size who are in that Wesleyan tradition. So, as time goes on, if there are some churches that end up being a part of this that maybe aren’t on our radar now… I would well imagine that we’ll have pastors who were never inside the United Methodist system and lead churches that were never United Methodist.

CR: What will The Foundry Network look like in ten years if everything goes extremely well?

SB: I don’t know. These are large churches. Some have reached several hundred and some have reached several thousand. So we will be representing churches serving a lot of people. But our vision for this is really organic. We want to be a movement not an institution. We want to be a movement rather than a denomination.  So I think we’re just going to see what the Holy Spirit wants to do with this. We are very open to what God may want to do. If this is something God is not in, hopefully it will peter out and it will be done with.  

CR: What did you maybe want to say about The Foundry Network that we did not discuss?

SB:  I think the main thing for me, Chris, is that we are churches that, having decided we wanted to leave the United Methodist Church, looked for a place to land. And we did not find the landing place we were looking for. In dialog with other churches around the country of similar size, we developed a vision for something new.  We realized there was at least a handful of us looking for the same things. We decided to get together and see what might happen. So the network is something that we’ve put together. I am hoping we have strong connections with one another.  I would imagine that people in the network would use each other’s written resources. We might use each other’s songs that we write for worship. But I really think it will be something of value that we can do at absolutely no cost in terms of what churches have paid in apportionments. If there are expenses, we will divide them by how many large churches we have in the network and we’ll assess that. The thing I get asked the most is, “How are you different than a denomination?” The bottom line is no hierarchy, no bishops, no point of power, no checkbook, no apportionments, and no ordination standards.  We don’t ordain. Those are pretty profound differences.

CR: Thanks for providing this information. I know people have been writing their own narratives about The Foundry.

SB: People are always going to argue that this is a mega-church club and that kind of thing. Denominations were formed so that like-minded churches within the same Christian community can turn their attention to their mission. They didn’t have to argue about the basics because they agreed. We can unite toward our mission — and that’s really what we want The Foundry to be. We don’t want to spend one ounce of time arguing about the things denominations are arguing over, whether it be theology or practice. Once we start arguing, we have negated the original advantage of denominations –agreement around a set of core principles. We’re hoping to achieve greater impact by not having to talk about things over and over. That is really where we want to be.


Further Notes:

Mega-churches leaving their parent denominations is not a new phenomenon. See this 2007 study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research: “Growing Up and Leaving Home: Megachurches that Depart Denominations.”

For another presentation on The Foundry Network, watch Tommy Gray of Asbury Church in Madison, Alabama address the members of First UMC in Cullman.

The Foundry Network makes a brief statement on human sexuality as part of a list of ten items in a section labelled “What We Believe and Affirm”:

We affirm that marriage and sexual intimacy are good gifts from God. In keeping with the teachings of Scripture historically and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union. We believe that God intends faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness.