When we took the Landscape survey in September 2015, the 396 respondents indicated a strong desire for change. Yet we also discovered that we as an annual conference have a very low tolerance for change! After the survey results, the Purpose Summit and the Listening Sessions, I think it is safe to say that we’re in the uncertain and messy stage of change. That can create some anxiety about what the changes will be; too much or too little change, what was hoped for or not hoped for?
I want to give an update on what we’re beginning to learn from the Purpose Summit and Listening Sessions. We had 511 persons participate in the Listening Sessions — 262 clergy and 249 laity.
The clergy listening sessions began with conversations about morale. Many clergy expressed the discouragement that is a part of pastoral leadership in a time of declining membership and finances. Pressure is put on the clergy to make the church grow from both laity as well as the annual conference. Isolation and disconnection from other clergy revealed a great desire for relationship-building in the clergy covenant. Deep pain and grief come from bad experiences over the years from the appointment process. Voices called for such things as greater honesty with each other as clergy, including year-end reports that reflect badly on the next pastor, or negative talk about others who differ theologically. But there was a desire to know each other better. This brief paragraph doesn’t begin to express the fullness of the three conversations. We need to continue to figure out how we build relationships and restore hope and joy in ministry.
In both the clergy and lay listening sessions, we had a process that built on the Purpose Summit outcomes and focused discussion on four areas of the annual conference. We asked the question: If the annual conference’s mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by equipping its local churches for ministry and by providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church (Book of Discipline Par. 602),” then what needs to change in our structure, staff, program and budget to do that?
There was a consensus that a simplified structure for the annual conference with a coordinating body for better communication, ongoing strategy, alignment and accountability is needed. The Landscape Task Force will be submitting legislation to annual conference to have a team review our present structure and provide a report and recommendation at annual conference 2017.
Throughout the Listening Sessions, there was an overwhelming message that the role of the District Superintendent needs prioritizing, aligning and clarifying so that they know clergy, local churches and even the communities better. There was a sense that local churches want more of their DS, not less. What does that mean? The Cabinet will be discussing the results and reporting at annual conference about some ways in which they will experiment with change; all of us continuing the conversation as we go along.
Our consultant, Susan T. Czolgosz, always asks the questions, “What surprises you?” when looking at results of the survey and the listening sessions. I will admit that I was surprised by the overwhelming expression of need from local churches and clergy for “local church reconfigurations.” When it came to budget and asset-related matters, this was the highest ranking concern. Conversations about our aging, deteriorating, and overly large buildings were like cries for help. All of us are tired of putting our tithes and offerings into massive buildings instead of ministries.
The Landscape Task Force will be providing legislation at annual conference that will put together a process and training to assess buildings and ministry. This is not an attempt to suddenly start merging and closing churches. It’s an opportunity for assessment for those churches who are ready to free up assets for ministry.
The question continues to loom as to how to staff for programming. The answer is tied up with what kind of programming? A clarion call came for “equipping” or programming to be closer to the local church and its context. Suggested methods for training or equipping included more hands-on, sharing of best practices between churches, connecting with other churches, following up to see what’s been done and to bring training closer to the local church.
Discussions are beginning with Program Council, Committee on Personnel, Conference Committee on Finance and Administration, and Cabinet on how we will staff to meet the programming needs. In addition to the biggest surprise in the Listening Sessions, this would be one of the biggest challenges: how do we do adapt to meet the needs of the local church to make disciples, have healthy congregations, and engage in the various communities and the world?
There’s a laundry list of ideas out of the Listening Sessions that we call “operational” that do not require legislation. These will be given to the various bodies within the annual conference to chew on. They will report in June what they will be doing differently in the coming months to focus the annual conference back on the local church.
All of this work is in collaboration with the development of our 2017 budget. There was one comment recorded about lowering the budget; there were many comments about how we use the apportioned dollars for the annual conference, whether we are using our money in the best and most efficient way, and whether there is a better way to apportion the budget (such as tithing church income)? It was also very clear that we still need to do a better job of helping people understand how the money is used for mission and for the local churches.
Finally, as I read all the recorded statements from the Purpose Summit and the Listening Sessions over and over again some common themes emerged. I call them core values or aspirations for how we want to be with each other as an annual conference. This is my list of what we value:
- Experimentation and risk-taking (with room for failure from which we learn)
- Evaluation and adaptation
- Honesty and graciousness with each other
- Safe spaces for conversation
- Providing resources/services closer to the local church
- Living faithfully within diversity (as a conference and in our communities)
There’s so much more than what I have summarized here. I’m open along with anyone on the Landscape Task Force (click here for list of members) for your input on this thumbnail sketch. More detailed summaries of the Listening Sessions are being written and will be posted.
As we have said throughout the Purpose Summit and Listening Sessions, adaptive change is messy. It’s like a construction site. There are things to tear down and toss out. There are things that need to be vacant for a while in order to know how to build something new. There are things that are starting to emerge like the footers and girders of a building so it’s not really clear what it will finally look like. And then like I-90, we as an annual conference need to be under constant construction!
This is a limited report on the results of the Landscape and Listening Sessions; more is yet to come. We’re under construction as an annual conference. As the sign says in construction zones: Thank you for your patience!
~Bishop Sally Dyck