On Saturday, March 31st the special called session of the Missouri Annual Conference was held in Columbia. We were called together in order to vote on one resolution, offered by Bishop Schnase’s ad hoc advisory team, “Pathways,” the implications of which would impact the regular session of Annual Conference this June.
The entire resolution from Pathways passed overwhelmingly, though not by any means unanimously. It passed with a show of hands, and from my seat it looked like a 70 / 30 split or so. When the question was called, there were still approximately fifty hands in the air, wanting to speak on the resolution. But a call of the question is not open to debate, and so we voted to vote, which we did, and we were done.
The Pathways recommendations were in response to our denominational trend of declining attendance and membership, and are intended to help reverse those trends. The intention is to provide a “new direction” to the purpose and function of our Annual Conference, toward the mission of creating healthy and vital congregations that are effectively making disciples of Jesus Christ. It is all couched in very positive, upbeat, and hopeful terms. Here’s the nutshell version:
+ The Missouri Conference office will now house a “Center for Congregational Excellence” and a “Center for Pastoral Excellence,” although the particular logistics of these two centers is unclear. Bishop Schnase expressed a hope that these centers would facilitate training events all around the conference year-round, focusing on specific ecclesial issues.
+ Missouri Conference apportionments will now be based only on the local congregation’s expenditures, rather than a complicated formula involving budget, attendance, and membership. The total conference budget will be capped relative to the aggregate of congregational expenditures around the state.
+ The Missouri Conference budget will no longer include financial support of the “Vital Ministries” in our state. The Vital Ministries are mostly the agencies and facilities that are doing mainly social justice work throughout our state and beyond. In Kansas City, that includes Della Lamb Community Services, NewHouse, re-Start, and Spofford.
+ Campus ministries in our conference will no longer be housed in specialized “Wesley Foundations,” but will be carried out by local congregations.
I voted against the resolution, but I went back and forth about it a million times.
On the one hand, I like the idea of centers for excellence, both congregational and pastoral. On the other hand, I do not want to be a part of a congregational system, but a connectional one. In many ways this feels like one more step away from a true connection and toward a loose association of individual congregations.
On the one hand, I understand Pathways’ desire to trim the conference budget. But on the other hand, the conference is the vehicle by which congregations can do connectional ministry: the whole “we can do more together than we can alone” thing. It is important for my congregation that we are able to provide support for an agency to which we would not otherwise have any connection. It feels very Methodist to me, and I like it! The resolution seems to remove that particular aspect of connectionalism.
On the one hand, I love the idea of developing healthy and vital congregations. But on the other hand, I take very seriously the call to ministries of social justice. Our conference’s decision to pull funding from so many social justice agencies all at once leaves me feeling like I’ve been punched in the gut. It all felt very much focused on the bottom line – money, money, money! By outward appearances, it seems that the Missouri Conference has said what matters is filling the pews with people and the collection plates with money, not so much realizing the reign of God on earth, lifting valleys and making mountains and hills low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain, and all that stuff.
On the one hand, I see that the number of students served by campus ministries as we know them now is way low compared to the total number of students. But on the other hand, I suspect that the ratio of students in Wesley Foundations to total college students is comparable to the ratio of Methodists in Missouri to total Missourians, so I don’t really know how fair it is to judge them by these numbers. And furthermore, I see a disconnect between the ministry our admittedly aging congregations are doing and the kind of ministry that college students would find meaningful.
Another thing that feels a bit awkward is Pathways itself. It is a group hand-selected by the Bishop, and supposedly an ad hoc task force whose role was to assess the situation in the conference and recommend a new direction (i.e. a “pathway” forward). That’s great, but now it seems that Pathways is going to be actively involved with the implementation phase, too. That sounds a bit more than “ad hoc” to me. It sounds like we have created another layer of bureaucracy, appointed by the Bishop rather than nominated and elected by the conference. On the one hand, they’re good people and want what’s best for the conference. But on the other hand, what are the conference council, the cabinet, the conference staff, and all of the forty-seven thousand other boards, committees, and teams for?
Now that it’s all done, I’m going to support it. It would not be particularly helpful of me to raise a big stink now, and apparently 70% or so of the conference likes it, so I’m probably over-thinking things. I tend to do that.
On the one hand, I love the idea of a new direction for the church; I use that kind of language all the time. But on the other hand, I’m not so sure this is the direction we want to take.