A Season of Change: Working Into a New Way of Being
Summer is dying and fall is upon us – a time when, in the way that God ordained, nature cycles into its time of rest. It is a very different time for the church – a time, instead, of great activity as charge/church conferences and open houses are held, a new season of children's and youth ministry is launched, and as we move toward all the activities surrounding Advent and Christmas. In the church, fall is a time of rebirth.
This year it is especially so, as we look at how we can live together in a new way in this Conference.
We have many things going for us: talented leaders, committed people, and abundant opportunities. But we have major work to do in order to face our challenges and embrace our opportunities.
One of our challenges is that we have made financial commitments to one another which we do not have the money to fulfill. And therefore, difficult choices have to be made. But I sincerely believe, as I said at Annual Conference Session and as you will hear me say many times, that God has already given us enough for everything we need to do. But we may not have enough for everything we want to do.
The present reality is that we must figure out how we go forward as an organization – because while our church is experiencing tremendous growth in places such as Africa and the Philippines, it is not growing in Europe, it's not growing in the United States, and it's not growing in the California-Nevada Annual Conference.
Last year 234 of our churches did show a growth in membership – but when membership losses across the Conference are factored in, that number effectively drops to 115. At the rate we are dropping in worship attendance and membership, we are losing the equivalent of four to five churches each year, by the attrition of people.
So we need to reshape our model. The changes that we need to make require us to live in our best representation of what it means to be connectional. Relationships are our strength! We need collaboration, instead of operating like lone wolves; networking, instead of operating in isolation; and cooperation, instead of competition.
That's what the circuits are about – as we try to think our way into a new way of being. It is not a "new structure," but it is a process, by which we will invite as many as we can into collaboration, to figure it out together, so that together we shape our preferred future: by supporting one another, sharing what we know about making disciples, and learning what we need to know.
One of the initial circuit activities will be to explore the nature, meaning, and way of doing church conferences within each circuit.
In the past, clergy would receive a schedule, right about now, that assigned their date for the fall church conference. But now, church conferences will be the responsibility of the circuits, which will gather in the early fall to decide how best to implement the process within the circuit.
In some districts the circuit leader will conduct the church conferences, in other districts members of the circuit will be assigned to lead the church conference, and in some circuits church conferences will be held in a group format. The circuits will determine, locally, how best to do this particular work.
Circuits are to be a place of shared ministry development, a place where clergy assigned to the local church can focus on shared spiritual grounding and the common work of disciple making. They are one way that our Conference is returning to living out the connection we share as followers of Jesus Christ in the United Methodist Church.
In this same way, we will be working with the Board of Laity in the coming year, to talk about how to reinvigorate the lay-led movement that is the Methodist people, and empower the laity to play their important role in leading ministry. That work is parallel with what we will be doing this year with circuits.
We have a real challenge. But as surely as autumn follows summer, change will happen. The open question is: Will we engage it to shape it for our preferred future – or will we spend our energy in denial, resistance, or anxiety?
With God's help, and the help of God's people, I believe that we will figure out how to be the church for this century, and we will be a people who will continue to open our hearts to the world and welcome our brothers and sisters, wherever they're from, and we will open our minds to cross the boundaries that divide us.
We are called to have minds that are open enough to the mind of Christ that we are fully available for what God has for us to do. And if we open our hearts, and open our minds, there's no door we can't open!