Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was written last week during Annual Conference.
During our pre-conference budget session, we heard that the budget is being cut by less than 2%. That number is a very conservative response to the deficit we experienced. And it will not be adequate for the continued decline we will experience. Please understand that I am not being pessimistic. I am stating projections that are based on trends that cannot be reversed swiftly. We are declining in people and financial support. We are losing ground in the effort to draw people into our churches. These declines are going to continue for some time. We may see some relief with a rebound of oil and natural gas industry. That cannot be guaranteed, though. And it will only address the financial shortfalls many of our congregations are experiencing. What we can be certain of is that for the next few years, the numbers will slide below the previous year’s. The budget will not be sustainable for too much longer by making minor adjustments. There will come a point when we have to ask the hard questions of what will we cease to do.
But that question of doing does not have to interfere with our being. We are fully capable of continuing in ministry as United Methodists. It may just mean that we do smaller things together and center more things within regional partnerships of churches. Even the district model may be too bulky. There is no effective way to have our southeast, southwest, and northwest districts in ministry together in their respective areas. I believe that we will be required to draw 3, 4, 5, or 6 churches together to make an impact in their region.
I believe one area that will be necessary in the near future (before my retirement) will be returning to a model of ministry that resembled the early circuit riding ministry of frontier “churches”. I put that in quotes because the concept of church will need to undergo a transformation. Ministry will have to be relocated in the members who make up the church. There will not be a pastor available to the congregation full time. It isn’t that we won’t have pastors. Churches will not be able to support a pastor by themselves. It will require that multiple churches together support a single pastor. 3, 4, and possibly 5 churches will need to partner together to support a clergy person.
But if the congregations will become the center of mission, then we have to face the reality that the Annual Conference will not be able to do as much. Some ministries will cease to function. There will need to be a discernment of what is absolutely necessary as a structure. Will that mean that our favorite ministry will be discontinued? It may. And I am not the one to answer the follow up question: which ones? I am more convinced that starting at zero may be the most effective way. By starting at 0 ministry, we swiftly discover the necessities. I realize this is not practical. But neither is continuing to meet the realistic decline with unrealistic adjustments.