Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Annual Conference 2008 Wrap-Up

I posted once during annual conference with intentions to post frequently. That did not happen, obviously, mainly “just because.” So here’s my summary post, for what it’s worth.

To say this first: I appreciate the enormity of the task of putting together a session of annual conference, and I am now on the sessions committee who will plan and organize the 2009 session. As hard as one works, one will never be able to please everyone every time. And it is very likely that there were many people who thought this year’s session was good, maybe even one of the best ever.

But I have to confess that I’m not among them. I apologize in advance for this, but here’s what I thought of conference this year. It is all, of course, "imho":

Tongue in cheek, I wonder if the theme of the conference was “You People Suck At Doing Really, Really Easy Things.” Once again, the decline in membership and attendance was a central focus. And once again, a litany of simple ideas you, too can implement in your local congregation in order to get more butts in the pews was presented. Once again, pastors who happen to have very attractive personalities and coincidentally serve in growing churches stood before the conference and talked about their own experiences as if they could be universalized into every context with equivalent results.

That last sentence is not really fair, to tell the truth. There were a couple of people who very humbly said this is what worked for us but you have to do what will work in your own setting. There was one who actually said don’t do anything by the “felt need” of the community or for the sake of being “relevant,” but rather just be the church in all it’s beauty and complexity and ambiguity. Be faithful and don’t worry so much about the numbers. This was my favorite moment of the whole weekend. But he was very obviously the exception.

At a recent event (not annual conference), a conference staffer in Missouri said that your theology doesn’t matter, just the packaging. And that theme definitely carried through into this year’s session. My eyes were glazed over by the shallow, vapid content of the conference. We were presented the idea of putting a church info label on a bottle of water and handing it out as if we were exploring the depths of the trinity. We allowed the health insurance industry to trump the covenant relationship of the clergy in conference as we discussed changing health insurance plans for our retirees – not in the result, but in the way we talked about it. Judging by our conference, you’d think putting up signs and some neat paint around your church building was equivalent to the via salutis.

We did not mention the war in Iraq one single time. Not even in passing.

We did not say anything about earthquakes in China or cyclones in Myanmar.

The emergent church movement was not even a glimmer in anybody’s eye.

One of the most powerful moments of the conference was when Carol Kreamer presented on the conference’s ministry in Mozambique. She told us stories about malaria. She broke down in tears as she related the death of a beautiful young woman to a disease that is running rampant in many, many communities. And yet she spoke of hope as we all wrote letters to senators urging the sponsorship and passage of Senate Bill S2433 – the Global Poverty Act. That was one of the only moments, outside of worship, that really felt like church to me.

There was some other good stuff: We raised enough money to buy a whole heck of a lot of P.E.T.S., which is wonderful. And we raised enough money to buy another whole heck of a lot of mosquito nets, which is also wonderful. And Bishop Robert Schnase threw out the first pitch at a Springfield Cardinals baseball game, and he did not bounce it, which was very not embarrassing in the least. And a few others …

So I guess that one of my things I’ll advocate on the sessions committee is to make the Annual Conference session NOT a collection of workshops. I think the conference should do those throughout the year, with specific foci at various times and places. Annual Conference should be a time to re-connect with the connection, worship together, and do business that absolutely must be done. And further, the re-connection must be comprised of loosely structured time, not just “free time” with nothing in place. And the worship must have some depth, not just more “butts in the pews” stuff. And a lot the business could very well be almost done by the time we get there, if the information we need would be made available online in advance of the actual meeting, and even if some of the rubber stamping … oh, I mean the votes … could be tallied ahead of time electronically.

48 hours is all we would need. 60 maybe. 10 a.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday. Get in, hug everybody, worship, commission some people, ordain some people, have a few votes, have communion, fix the appointments, get out.

But the format doesn’t matter, the length doesn’t matter, the location doesn’t matter – none of the packaging matters, no matter what we are being encouraged to think. What matters most is the content. Churches grow because of the content, not the packaging. Lives are transformed because of the content, not the packaging. Conferences are meaningful because of the content, not the packaging. Packaging impacts content, but we must consider content first.

Fastest growing churches? In Africa, Central America – what’s their packaging like? Cinder block building? Benches under a tree? It’s all about the content!

When we are told over and over again that it’s all about counting heads, and that the numbers of those counts are in decline, and the ways to reverse that decline relate to packaging and are very easy to do (“not rocket surgery” was the direct quote, I believe), and that we are really, really bad at it even though it is apparently really, really easy to do, suffice it to say that one does not leave the event with a sense of “a future with hope.” It all serves to just make us more anxious, more frazzled, and to feel as if all of our hard work is not being valued.

If you’ve read the above and have actually made it to this concluding paragraph, thanks. And you all should know that I know the people who planned and most who led this year’s session, and I love them dearly. My responses are not intended to be personal by any means. However, it is the case that I left the session deflated this year, and very disappointed by the overall experience.


Scott said...

Thanks for posting your very honest thoughts. I am not from your Conference, but you have said what I have thought a lot. It makes me sad, because we UM's are smarter than this. Aren't we?!

Anonymous said...

you have written my thoughts much better than i could have stated them! (of course that really means, my thoughts were similiar but not as eloquent nor deeply thought out)

i love your ideas about AC and how it could be improved. i hope you are able to make some headway with them for 2009.

i kept wondering about why there was no focus on how to help folks grow in their faith once they've stepped through the doors after giving them a bottle of water with our church name on it. for some strange reason, i was under the impression that growth was not neccessarily related to a number.

Barbara said...

thanks for posting your excellent thoughts about Annual Conference. I left feeling rather hollow. By the way, I want to sing "And Are We Yet Alive" at the beginning of AC like we have for at least the last 20 years! thanks, Barbara Bowser

Patrick Moore said...

Don't sell out when you get your chance. You are right on target, and there are so many folks right now longing to hear someone speak what you just said in a large forum of Conference leaders. Please don't sell out when you get your chance.

matt gallion said...

I noticed similar sentiments throughout annual conference, and even approached one "well-known" person who I perceived to be promoting this attitude. When I asked about "discipleship," I was brushed aside and ignored. In the Midwestern context, when so many people have had decent exposure to the church, we're trying to use so many tactics on individuals who already know all of our tricks. For some reason or another, and I assume mostly because we didn't care enough for their needs, we lost them. Now we hope to win them back by gimmicks and big productions, yet we still don't really love them or have any concern for what they are really seeking. We are more concerned with the numbers than with their souls. No wonder we're declining.

Great thoughts! It was good to see you! By the way, you're on the planning staff for '09? AND Ministers' School? I expect 2009 to be the best year in Conference history. But no pressure.

Mr. Slate said...

Not having been to AC, I'm curious if there was any "contemporary" feel to any part of the meeting. Was there fresh music, a band perhaps? Any focus on activities other than Sunday mornings?

I hope that your input into the '09 meeting will shed light on the new and great things that can happen.

RevErikaG said...

Good luck, Andy! Having been the agenda chair in my Annual Conference, I know how very, very hard it is to do that work...and try and bring about effective change. Thankfully, you have a good sense of humor and grace...both will serve you and Sessions well!

Anonymous said...

AC this year also struck as lacking deep of spirit and love. I am saddened that our center for pastoral and congregational excellence seems to have become a hit squad, seeking out the churches they deem from afar to be failing and blaming the pastor for it.

We are not lifting up our congregations and pastors we are pilling on. We are not and never will be in the widget business. Spirituality and connection to God is messy and unique and sometimes we don't know why something worked. God actually might have been in the mix.

We failed to talk about God, we failed to talk with God and we failed to opening talk with on another. When we fail at AC, when the message is based in fear, numbers may change but those seeking a connection to God will not.

Anonymous said...

I felt much the same. It is almost as if the Titanic is going down and there's no time for matters of faith, integrity, theology, or tradition. Just grab a paddle and go to work. I feel quite disconnected. It seems to be a business model, based on technique and, as you say, packaging. My question, where do we go from here? I'm not about to leave the church. I love the church. I want to continue to serve the church. What do we do with this? JB

Anonymous said...

I'm not from your conference, but your blog summed up my feelings about our conference as well... no real answers to the decline we have known for almost my entire lifetime.

However, we did some of those things you propose - taking a cue from General Conference, we adopted a "consent calendar" and put there all of those perpetual agenda items that did not require any real action. This saved us an entire day. Unfortunately, some people still needed their "air time" and we ran 3 hours late of the scheduled dismissal.

Good luck with changing the status quo. I'll be watching and praying for you.

Anonymous said...

Paul Borden speaks of getting rid of pastors. Perform or you are fired! We are going down a fear based bullying leadership road.

Exactly when did the economic invisible hand display love of christ over love of money?

Keith said...

Appreciate how you captured what others are feeling and thinking.

What is the most troubling for me is that I have spent the last so many days trying to get over AC, as opposed to being energized by the spirit of God and by the new opportunities coming from helping hands.

I cannot image that if we talked to our congregations in the same tone and manner that they would grow. So I wonder why we were talked to in that manner. I need pastoring as well as being a pastor.

A failed opportunity that I worry will repeat itself.

Jeremy V. said...

Amen brother. Amen.

sparklesax said...

Can you get any cooler?

Carey said...

A few years ago I came across a book advocating a contemplative approach to youth ministry. At the center of the approach was the idea of youth leaders and parents meeting regularly for prayer and contemplation as the foundation for the youth program. I've always thought that kind of vulnerability and openness would be much more threatening to most of us than planning float trips or even chaperoning lock ins :-) I've been reading Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution, and he contends that the problem with most church youth groups is that we don't dare kids enough. I tend to agree.

In fact, I long to find myself in a "daring" community of faith where I'll be nervous to come to church each week for fear of what it will ask of me.

Larry Linville said...

very well stated. A word that we need to re-capture is "covenant." I was ordained and elder 40 years ago and have always felt the Conference in a special relationship. I think this is missing these days. maybe it's in the "packaging".

Anonymous said...

I disagree...not really but no one else is.


Anonymous said...

Your thoughts are very well put. I do like your ideas for next year and hopefully you can help make some change. However I disagree with you about AC this year. For the first time in three years my church had someone there who came home with a great sense of hope that we can move the church forward. If one or two seeds were planeted then it was all worth it.

Kendall Waller said...

I guess I disagree with Andy as well. I don't feel that the description is either accurate or fair. While some of what was shared was about packaging a great deal of what was shared was indeed a challenge. Numbers are and always will be people. Growing a dwindling number of "faithful" folks "deeper" is not at all what we are called to do. We are called and commissioned to reach new folks for Christ AND grow them in their faith. These are not mutually exclusive. Our culture may or may not have exposed folks to the faith. Frankly I doubt it. In my experience the great majority have no experience whatever. I agree that outreach always begins with prayer and originates in the movement of the Holy Spirit, but nothing gets done if we aren't willing to take risks ourselves. Conference was a challenge to begin. Some heard it some did not. My 2c