Other than the ordination service on Saturday night, this year’s Annual Conference left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. You could say that I have mixed emotions about what happened last weekend. On the one hand, I am so excited about innovation, creative changes, and a renewed focus on outreach and evangelism. But on the other, the astonishing lack of transparency in the process, the insensitivity to those hurt by the changes, and the continued emphasis on numbers – dollars and bodies – rather than on discipleship really disappoints me.
So that you won’t necessarily have to read the entire, long, ranty, post (LRP), I have categorized my larger rant into little mini-rants by topic. Read whichever portions you choose:
1- Money: When the chair of the Finance and Administration Team has to repeat the phrase, “It’s not about the money” a dozen times during his report, you begin to wonder whom exactly he is trying to convince.
2 - Petition Mess: We spent an hour and a half in confused and unorganized debate on a petition that affirmed the definition of marriage that we already have in our Book of Discipline. (Contrast that with a half an hour discussing the 2008 conference budget, which contains in it some huge, radical changes that are going to impact local churches’ disciple-making ministries.) A proud moment in Missouri Methodism it was not.
3 - Pathways Task Force: The speeches from the floor against the two proposed amendments to the budget we actually were allowed opportunity to debate were given exclusively by members of the “Pathways Task Force,” an ad hoc group whose initial task was to envision the future of the Missouri Conference. As they have continued to meet and act, the power assumed by this group has continued to grow, and its work has been done in the shadows from its beginning. One pastor commented, “If the Annual Conference was given a quiz on ‘Pathways,’ we would all flunk.” We have essentially been told, “Pathways knows best; don’t ask questions; just trust us.” Their decisions have spanned areas of budget, apportionment formula, reorganization of conference teams and boards, and changes in conference staffing, in addition to the visioning work that I understood was their initial task. One could argue that this group simply made recommendations that the conference then approved, but I would reply that the conference basically rubber-stamped their work, with little opportunity for open conversation.
4 - Apportionments: In the new apportionment formula, First UMC North KC will be apportioned more than $37,000 for 2008, an increase of more than 11%. That is two and a half months worth of offerings! In the Heartland Central District (the urban Kansas City area) over half of the churches are increasing their apportionments, whereas across the conference around 17% of the churches are increasing, two districts have about 7% of the churches increasing, and one has 5%. Debate on the budget was quickly closed, however (as noted above), before Bishop Schnase glanced my way long enough to notice my card in the air. This is clearly a justice issue, and our rush to approve of the Pathway changes swept it from any chance of honest, transparent conversation.
5 - Insensitivity: In spite of Missouri’s decision to eliminate the Commission on Higher Education and close down most of the Wesley Foundations in our state, there was never any time to honor the ministries and ministers who have served our campuses or the students who felt the calling to ministry there over the years. In fact, the changes were presented in a celebratory attitude that completely neglected the grief the changes are causing so many people. In fact, Higher Ed was not allowed to make any presentation at all, which they discovered only when they inquired a few weeks back as to the length of time allotted them this year. Furthermore, the conference staff position of Director of Communications was eliminated (see Pathways) despite her wonderful work in recent years to facilitate new and innovative communications across the state, and with no offered plan of how communications will be managed in the future. The announcement of these two changes was one of the most poorly handled situations I’ve ever seen.
6 - Just bodies, baby: We were given the standard “Change or die” spiel by Adam Hamilton: change what we are doing to get more bodies in the pews, or the denomination will die. I respect Rev. Hamilton a bunch, but living by the “change or die” paradigm is a formula for death. How do you spell “Self-fulfilling Prophecy”? I prefer “Change to live a life of faith!” (I have written about this before.)
7a- Young Adults: This is one of the most confusing, unorganized parts of the whole thing for me. First off, two college students made a presentation about a new idea they are calling “MC-Squared” (I have forgotten what the M.C.C. stands for, now.) that is going to be, in a nutshell, a college-aged connection across the conference. The bishop immediately stood up and praised the idea, touting it an emerging thing that has an energy and vitality all its own, and the worst thing we could do was impose structure and hierarchy on it. But later on, we approved conference reorganization plan (read, “rubber stamped a Pathways decision”) that included an entity called the “Young Adults Ministries Council,” which included an imposition of structure and hierarchy. I asked from the floor if “MC-Squared” was the same thing as this “Young Adults Ministries Council,” which no one on the stage could answer, and so they referred to our Conference Youth Coordinator, who said that it was. I then remarked that it sure seemed like we were imposing structure and hierarchy on something that the bishop had just said should not get structure and hierarchy imposed on it. The bishop replied that he would take that as a word of caution and we moved on.
7b - Young Adults on Campus: The budget presented included $920,000 for the Commission on Higher Education and Campus Ministry in 2007 and $400,000 allotted them in 2008. I asked in the budget workshop how was it we were allotting resources to a group that we were disbanding. The next day on the floor, the chair of Finance and Administration instructed us to strike the words “Commission on” from the budget so that the remainder of the $920,000 and the $400,000 would be administered by the newly created (by Pathways) “Center for Congregational Excellence” in the form of the Congregational Development Team, I think. It was almost parenthetically mentioned that this money is to be granted by Congregational Development to congregations with campus ministries in the works.
7c - Young Adults in the Budget - There was another line item allocating $1,500 to a group called the “Commission on Young Adults,” but there is no group named “Commission on Young Adults.” I asked about this at the workshop, and was assured that this was the aforementioned, “Young Adults Ministries Council” aka “MC-Squared,” we think. So it looks like, whereas the Youth Council gets $32,000 next year, the Young Adults Council/Commission/Squared gets a mere $1,500. (There's a priority for you!)
Confused? I sure am, and I know I’m not the only one!
If you have made it to this point in this blog post, give yourself a pat on the back for your diligence and dogged determination. When I read back over this thing, I sound so incredibly cynical! I’m really not. It’s not about being opposed to change, either. There has been so much change at the congregation I serve here in Northtown that one member recently remarked, “It feels like a whole different church around here, and I love it!” I just have questions that I feel like no one is answering, and it is frustrating.
The one thing that I am certain of coming out of Annual Conference, 2007 - I am an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, and a Member in Full Connection of the Missouri Annual Conference. That much, at least, I will most definitely celebrate!