Thursday, June 08, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Hard Question. Part 4.

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was written after returning home from Annual Conference.

The Circle of Care represents our ministry to children in the state of Oklahoma. We operate homes and foster care programs to give children a safe place to belong and a nurturing environment to help them grow healthy. Circle of Care does great work. They announced that they want to build new houses where there aren’t houses to grow this ministry. There is a need for ministry like this happen in the state. Oklahoma has a terrible foster care and child welfare record. There are more children who need a place to belong than there are places for them to go. And we have a strong ministry history doing this work through Circle of Care.

As we move into a reality that asks “what is vital?”, how could we say no to this work? Our overarching mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And there is transformation that happens through children ministered to through Circle of Care. But does that directly impact our declining state? Does the work that they do alter our future course?

Business models are horrible ways to approach ministry. But when we start talking about building homes and increasing support, there is a need to consider returns on investments. What is a life worth? I don’t know that we can weigh what the future potential of a child is over their lifetime. But I know that we have to ask the hard questions going forward. This is one of those subjects. This will present an overwhelming task for our future. I don’t know how we could possibly say, “No, we can’t pay for this ministry to continue.” But as we continue to decline, it may come to that decision and declaration.

Vital ministry isn’t easy to tack down. It is no easier to define than effective ministry. For every child that is a success, that would be a vital ministry. But there is no question that a lot of resource will be paid out to make that child successful. And it will happen in the context of churches continuing to dwindle down in attendance and financial resource.

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The mission. Part 3.

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was begun during Annual Conference last week.

In the Conference Lay Leader report, we heard that we have been desiring the exact same thing for 55 years: to make disciples. In 55 years, we have not found an effective way to do what we claim is our purpose and what we have been entrusted with as our legacy by Christ. And 55 years ago, there was a respect and honoring of what the church represents. Today, that respect is gone and the church does not hold the honor it once did because it is deemed to represent something completely different in the hearts and minds of many. Even within our congregations, there is no wide scale interest in increasing the discipleship of members. Neither is there a sense of urgency in seeking out persons who may be marginally or non-religious. The prevailing attitude remains where it was 55 years ago: people who are seeking something will come to church. That is no longer a viable perspective.

The greatest revelation I have had this year at Annual Conference is the honesty I have heard about the division we are experiencing. I believe that there is some honest declaration of division that exists. And it is causing fear and denial to a greater degree. While we are clearly stating that there is division, there is also a louder cry “we must be united”.

I am completely torn. I have commented in writing and conversation that there are 4 sides in the current dividing atmosphere of the United Methodist Church. The sides are represented by the general description: traditional/conservative, progressive/liberal, united without reference to our differences, and united with respect to our differences. These last two refer to a simpler generalization of “we must be united in spite of our differences” versus “we can be united and maintain our differences”. I argue that we cannot sustain our way forward in this type of environment. I argue that we cannot currently find a common ground because the sides are distancing themselves from one another. I argue that in this environment, we will not be able to continue to work together in ministry. And our witness is only going to continue to decline among the general population.

I do not desire the division and/or dissolution of the United Methodist Church. I dislike the divisions that exist. I believe that we are limping along, and will continue to limp along, in anything that we attempt until there is some clear decision made on how we will move forward into the future.

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Budget. Part 2

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.

Reflection on Annual Conference 2017 part 1

Reflection of Annual Conference 2017. This was written a week ago during Annual Conference.

Each year at Memorial Day, United Methodists from across Oklahoma gather to discuss ministry and functions of administering the life of the people called United Methodists in Oklahoma. Each year we hear reports of what has been happening and looking forward to future efforts.

I am writing this as I sit in session. Contrary to my reputation, I do attend. There are years when it is more difficult to do so. I struggle with my role and my effectiveness (or perceived lack thereof). I struggle with identifying with colleagues. I struggle with being inferior and not worthy of the calling to which I live into every day. This year I am more positive than some years. But I am still struggling.

As I listen to colleagues in United Methodist mission, I think there is a sense of struggle as an Annual Conference. There is an air of unease among the gathered people. There are questions about the future of how we will go forward. There are questions of how we can afford the ministry we desire to do. There are questions of expanding ministry in a period of declining resources. And there are questions of how does a church with significant differences and mounting divisions continue to work together under a single banner of United Methodism.

As we move through the business of Annual Conference, I am making observations. There are things that rise to the surface of my thinking. Things to which there are no easy answers for or solutions to achieve.  I will share some of these observations here and post my understanding and own reflections as I am able.