Sunday, June 29, 2008

2008 Annual Conference Reports

**Update** - Actually, somehow I missed that my own adopted conference Greater New Jersey is also up there year in worship attendance. (The only one in the NEJ.) And Revmommy points out in the comments that North Georgia is apparently up in worship as well, technically.**

It's that time of year again, where my Metho-nerdiness shines through: the 2008 Annual Conference Reports are up at umc.org. (Well, many of them are up anyway.)

I've skimmed through all the posted reports and noticed some common themes, and as always, I like to check out the statistics for membership, worship, and Sunday School.

What I noticed this year:
  • Most conferences are ordaining and commissioning far fewer folks than they are retiring.
  • Missions and outreach seem to be prominent areas of focus at most annual conferences. Most conference take multiple mission-oriented offerings. Many conferences seem to engage in days of service or hands-on times of action during the conference sessions. Nothing but Nets was mentioned in many conference reports.
  • Relationships between US conferences and African Conferences were mentioned in many reports, and most US conferences are supporting giving to the Central Conference Pension Fund, a hugely important endeavor.
  • My friend from seminary, Susan Ledbetter, apparently had a baby! Funny to read about that in an annual conference report! Her daughter, Sadie Joy Ledbetter, was baptized at the Arkansas Ordination Service - pretty cool! Congrats Susan and Justin!
  • Mergers are happening in North/South Indiana, approved by 77-79% of the conference members, and (probably) in my area, where NCNY, Wyoming, Western NY, and Troy will probably merge into one conference, also sending part of Wyoming into Central PA and Vermont into New England. Our area's merger will actually impact the majority of conferences in our jurisdiction!
  • Topics voted on in resolutions: Iraq, war, immigration, Israel and divestment, LGBT rights, etc.
  • A focus in worship on themes raised at General Conference: the four vision pathways, Three Simple Rules, etc.
  • Bishop Schnase observed in his area that sometimes conferences don't experience "measurable growth" but do experiences "observable change." What do you think of that statement?
In terms of the statistics for membership, worship, and Sunday School, I'm afraid that as usual, most conference reported drops, sometimes significantly. I don't think the numbers tell us everything. But they're certainly food for thought. I was proud of NCNY for only being down 19 people in worship attendance! I know it's still a decline, but I think that's the smallest decline I've seen in years!

Here's some highlights of where growth seems to be occurring:
New York - Sunday School attendance is up
Peninsula-Delaware - Sunday School attendance is up
Central Texas - Sunday School is up, Membership is up
Holston - Membership is up
North Alabama - Sunday School is up
North Carolina - Membership is up
North Georgia - Membership is up, Sunday School is up
Red Bird Mission - Membership is up
California-Pacific - Worship is up
Oregon-Idaho - Sunday School is up

What do you make of the fact that of those conferences reporting so far, only one is reporting an increase in worship - and that one is Cal-Pac in the Western Jurisdiction!? I bet not many would have guessed that. But it seems like a lot of numbers this year aren't from the places I'd expect them.

Overall, Sunday School attendance seems to be taking huge hits. Is that true in your local experience? What's notable to you in these reports?

Friday, June 20, 2008

slacktivist: Obama and McCain on Religion, Politics, and Separation of Church and State

Slacktivist has two great video clips up on his blog showing Obama and McCain speaking on the themes of religion and politics, particularly the separation of church and state. Fascinating.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Peace or Sword? A Sermon from Bishop Mary Ann Swenson

As I struggle again this time around the lectionary with Jesus' words, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword," I point you to my favorite-ever sermon on this text, from General Conference 2000, preached by Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. I just re-read it, and I can still exactly visualize her miming swinging a sword. Still powerful. Still inspiring! (The picture of Bishop Swenson is from this General Conference.)

Short excerpt:
"Jesus comes with a sword. The sword cuts to purpose, to results. And I believe that Jesus is extremely impatient for the results. He is impatient for the results because he is passionate about people. It is a divine, consuming love that cuts to the results. It’s that impatience that shows when he says, “Those who put their hand to the plow and look back aren’t fit for the kingdom.” It’s that awareness he has that when we look away from our purpose, we are lost. And he says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” It is a radical leadership that God calls us to within the church and in the world."

Friday, June 13, 2008

An Add-on: Empowering Young People

As an add-on to my previous post, I have to share an example of empowering young people and young leaders that I heard just the other day. I was at an area clergy gathering, and one of the pastors who was there for the first time told us about a unique model of ministry at one of his previous churches.

A young woman came to the church where he was a pastor looking for work as a youth pastor. She wanted to be hired full time, and the church really couldn't afford it. So the pastor thought about what was best and what he hoped for for his congregation, and presented a plan: Hire the youth pastor full time, and reduce his position to part time. That's what they did, and because they really invested in their young people, their ministry with young people grew. Today, that youth pastor is the pastor of the entire congregation.

His story really struck me - we know what we say is important. Doing what we need to do to make those things happen is harder, especially when it means giving up something ourselves - our own status, power, positions. What a gift he gave to his congregation! What do you need to do to really support what you think is important?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

from Bishop Willimon: Empowering a New Generation of Leaders

Just read this post at Bishop Willimon's blog, which concludes:

"[This] story is far from unique. This is what happens when we really focus ourselves upon the priority of a new generation of Christians. I’m recommending that next year our entire Annual Conference be focused upon the single priority of empowering a new generation, that any reports be made exclusively by those under forty, and that every church send lay delegates who are all under forty. [New, young leaders] are in every congregation. We must notice them, nurture them, and empower them for God to use them in giving our church a future. By God’s grace, we will!"

What do you think of the Bishop's proposal? I like the concreteness of the plan - very specific things that will be done to empower young people, young new leaders. But I'm undecided. What would your session of annual conference look like if all or most of the lay delegates were under 40? What would it feel like if presentations were made only by those under 40? How active is the under 40 crowd in your conference sessions already?

My own annual conference, like many, I'm sure, tries hard to support young people. Every year, for example, thanks to Bishop Violet Fisher, we take an offering to support our youth attending the NEJ Mission of Peace. This year, we have two young women going to Zimbabwe, at a cost of $4500/person. The conference gave over $8000 in a love offering for their trip, virtually completing the fundraising efforts for these young people, which is a huge gift. The bishop has a policy of always having a young person seated with her on the dais during sessions, and she usually takes time to personally speak about each of them, since she has come to know most of them personally. Our conference secretary makes sure young people are part of his team taking minutes and following the action of conference. We actually consistently elect at least some young people to General and Jurisdictional Conference. These are just a few of the little ways our conference tries to nurture young people. But for every positive, there is vast room for growth, and more intentional behavior. We have many young members of conference, but still a small segment overall. Many churches still seem unaware of the conference youth ministry programs, despite our annual presentation of what we do. We've been working hard to get the word out about what we do. And, our Young Adult Ministries have been virtually nonexistent in the conference. We're working on that, and I'm excited about some possibilities, but it hasn't been given much attention or support in the past.

How do we best empower a new generation? What would be your strategy for going about that? What do you think of Bishop Willimon's proposals?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Reflections: Community Organizing

This week, I attended a gathering of representatives from area congregations who are having conversations about community organizing. The coordinator of these efforts is Rabbi Joel Moshbacher, from Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, in Mahwah, NJ. I went to check things out and see if I could potentially find a small group from FLUMC to join me. Mike Gecan, from Industrial Areas Foundation provided leadership and training for us. I found the conversation intriguing - I'm not (as I discovered) familiar at all with the process of community organizing, even though I had some assumption or ideas about what it involved.

Mike started by making note of community organizing in the current presidential campaigns. He talked about community organizing as a Broad Based Power Organization. Broad: more than one faith, race, kind, group, etc. Power: ability to act. Good intentions not enough. Organization: built of institutions. Institutions not individuals. Moderates are in institutions. Things are decided by moderates. Can't just be activists - that's too small, and activists alone can alienate moderates. Institutions have leaders, money, and a values base that can raise questions in the public arena.

Community organizing needs a financial base - Money. Dues. Hard $. Not fundraising. Not donations. A commitment to the group through dues. Financial independence.

Community organizing has a mix of leaders. Not one charismatic leader. A collective, a strategy team.

Community organizing enables the group to address a range of issues. Local and broad issues, but not just one issue.

Deep understanding of issues. Finding leaders. Establishing relationships. Conversation in the round - what bubbles up as a need of the community? The beginning of action in community organizing is local.

1) Build a base. (This is where we are at right now.)
2) Do Listening (Who else thinks what I think? What do you need? You act based on what others want to do. You have to have a significant base to act or change won't take place.) Joining similar issues. Throwing support together.
3) Power/Analysis/Research/Action
4) Win!

I'm intrigued by the conversation, and thinking about not only how our congregation could participate in community organizing, but also about how some of these strategies could be used in a single congregation. Some of it - well, it isn't what I want to think works, if that makes sense. I don't want to think in terms of institutions and moderates and needing to have a base for some changes to happen. But it does have me thinking and wondering.

Do any of you have experience with community organizing? What was it like? A good experience? A model that works?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Annual Conference Reflections

Sorry for the blog silence. I've been quite a delinquent blogger lately. I've just returned from NCNY's Annual Conference. The internet access wasn't great (neither is my laptop battery), which makes blogging difficult. I remember after being a delegate to GC in 2000, coming to annual conference a month later and thinking that it was rather boring in comparison. I didn't have that overwhelming sense this year, although I can tell you that hardly any items had debate around them. In fact, we didn't even debate over the budget this year, which has to be a first. How did this happen? The finance team gave us ice cream and cookies right before we voted on the budget. An excellent strategy. :) Some thoughts on the high points:

CCYM -I just finished my fifth year as the conference youth coordinator, which sounds weird to me. I can hardly believe that. When I began working with CCYM in 2003, I have to confess that I wasn't really enjoying my work. It took a while, a long time of transition. But in the last couple of years, due to many factors, I've come to really love working with the youth of the conference. When I was in high school, I actually planned on studying and working in youth ministry. It was only during the transition to college that I felt a call to pastoral ministry. I became somewhat disenchanted with youth ministry. But in the last couple of years, I've really found my joy in youth work again. The young people in NCNY are fabulous. Every year, they lead a worship service for the conference, and every year, they touch hearts and souls with their gentle wisdom. Every year I think: I wasn't so brave, so bold, so articulate, so... when I was that age. Our CCYM has been through some tough times as we prepare for a probably merger with three other annual conferences. In the midst of these changes, our youth continue to do the work of Christ, setting an example for young and old to follow.

General Conference Report - Our delegation focused our report around the Three Simple Rules that were a thematic focus in Fort Worth. We each got a couple of minutes to highlight what we saw as essential action at the conference. For Church and Society 1, I spoke about the Social Creed Litany.

Bishop Fisher's Retirement - We celebrated the retirement of our Bishop, Violet Fisher. Bishop Fisher has done a great job in leading our episcopal area in a time when we really needed some strong spiritual leadership. She commissioned me and ordained me. I'm glad I got to complete my process with her - I know some of my colleagues who will be (likely) ordained in the next year or two are feeling a sense of loss of having their journey to ordination divided between two bishops. Given that we are going to head into a merger, our new bishop will likely be a seasoned bishop. Bishop Fisher came to us as a newly elected bishop, and we certainly enjoyed our time with her.

Ordination - I love attending the service of ordination. (See also Wes Sanders' comments about ordination here.) I just love watching others go through what was for me the most meaningful day of my life so far. I have now also officially handed away my title of "youngest elder" to my friend Richelle, who is eight days younger than me.

Sharon Fulmer
- This year at our memorial service, we said goodbye to Sharon Fulmer, our Director of Communications, who died last month after a long illness, but who had been working with energy right up to the end. My friend Heather, who drove with me to Fort Worth, filled in for Sharon, covering the Conference for NCNY, and she and Sharon spent a lot of time chatting and joking on the phone, just a few days before Sharon died. Sharon encouraged us to have fun and enjoy ourselves (and sent us with a bottle of Advil.) We invite folks to stand to honor their loved ones when their names are read at the memorial service. Nearly every person at conference stood when Sharon's name was read. She was just that kind of person - made you feel so special. Was so loving. A great, fun spirit. She will be dearly missed.

Since NCNY and GNJ hold annual conference at the same time, and my membership is still in NCNY, I wasn't able to attend GNJ conference. Every once in a great while they fall on different weekends, so maybe next year I'll get to check out how another conference does their work together.