Earlier this week the United Methodist Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, and the Call to Action Team hosted a Leadership Summit, involving UMC leaders from throughout the world . I participated in that event as a scribe for Table 9 of the Tennessee Annual Conference gathering, and have been sharing insights from Table 9 on the three “Summit Questions.”
Question 3: The annual conference is the basic organizational unit of the United Methodist Church. Given the challenge of fostering congregational vitality in fulfilling our mission of making disciples and transforming the world, what changes in leadership , organization, and practices do you believe will be most important to make in the next few years in your annual conference? What are you prepared to do individually and as a group that will support change and set in place new ways of working and tracking progress?
I confess that my notes from Table 9 are sketchy by the time we got to this point of the meeting, for we were under pressure to turn them in quickly and I didn’t have a chance to copy some of the points made, so if others at the table feel like I am misrepresenting our positions, they I sincerely apologize.
As was true throughout the rest of our conversation, we continued to focus support for clergy and local churches as the primary task for the annual conference. In supporting this need, there was a belief that while broad, annual conference wide program have value, the degree to which they keep annual conference staff out of local churches must be considered. The group felt that our annual conference staff spends too much time in office, and not enough time in local congregations, evaluating specific contexts and strategizing solutions for congregational problems. Although the group didn’t mention this, I also believe that within the Tennessee Annual Conference we need to direct resources toward having a staff member solely focused on leadership development, working with pastors and congregations to develop the means and vision to lead toward transformation.
Likewise, we believe that the bishop, cabinet, and other annual conference leaders must be more present in local congregations to develop the relational space to support accountability and change. This may require the bishops as a body to rethink their general and global church responsibilities so as to allow for more time in individual congregations. We also believe that the bishop and cabinet should have access to an ongoing congregational profile, which looks not only at the metrics outlined in the CTA report, but also looks at community demographics and trends in community development in the area, congregational identity, including reflections on those crises in the history of the church that undermine relationship s and hinder growth, and other information beyond salary and attendance both to assist in deployment and to evaluate the seriousness of a congregation to address the underlying issues that may be keeping them from vitality.
In conjunction with this, I shared and was affirmed by the group my own belief that one of the great losses in past restructuring was the move from the quarterly conference to the yearly charge conference model. What this has done have been to generally limit input and feedback from the general church to the local congregation (through the witness of the D.S.) to one hour per year, and in most cases pastors and D.S.’s minimize this as a hoop to be jumped through rather than an opportunity for both celebration of what has been done, but also serious engagement regarding the future of the church. The quarterly conference model allowed for more regular ongoing contact with the connection, and allowed a D.S. to engage in more fruitful conversation on the nature of the ministry of the church.
We agreed that D.S.’s have worked to be helpful as local congregations seek transformation, but in fact have few resources to draw on in assisting congregational transformation. While we understand the budgetary limitations we face, we believe that resources must be made available to our leaders to allow them to better meet needs along the way.
In terms of what we are willing to do, the item that stuck out the most for me was an agreement among group members to be honest about our statistics. We recognized that the pressure has always been present to inflate numbers, especially in regards to reporting to the general church and annual conference, and fear that increased accountability on the same metrics we have used in the past may lead some to be less than honest in regards to their reporting. We want to give honest snapshots of where our congregations stand, and likewise (in spite of the opposition of some cabinet members) want to ensure that our membership roles more clearly reflect the active membership of the church, not some snapshot of days gone by that will likely never return.
There were several other suggestions offered along the way, but frankly I can’t remember them. Be watching in the hours and days ahead for some personal thoughts in response to this important event.