By: Christa Meland
Creating a compelling “why” statement, starting an evangelism academy, getting more churches involved in a transformational process, mobilizing lay leadership, exiting ineffective clergy, and approaching the budget differently are among the steps that the Minnesota Conference is exploring in response to a comprehensive review of its financial situation and related recommendations about how to deploy resources to be more effective in ministry.
For the past year and a half, the conference has been working with the Financial Advisory Consulting Team (FACT)—a team from the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits (GBOPHB) and the General Council on Finance and Administration. The FACT team, which has worked with 15 annual conferences, aims to provide a holistic financial review and help conferences achieve vitality and sustainability. The FACT team conducted private phone interviews and in-person group discussions with clergy and laity, examined financial data, and used the information gathered to list challenges and to name recommendations to address them.
On Monday, about 60 conference leaders from various ministry teams heard about the FACT report and recommendations; they also discussed implications for their work and brainstormed how to give energy and urgency to the task of implementing changes.
Lack of urgency, embracing the evangelistic task
The primary challenge listed in the 65-page FACT report
is a lack of urgency regarding the precipitous decline in membership and attendance in the Minnesota Conference. Over the past 10 years, membership and attendance in the Minnesota Conference have declined twice as fast as the denomination nationally. Only 70 of 344 churches reported growth in average weekly worship attendance in 2014—and 61 percent of churches had no professions of faith from 2014 to 2015.
The related recommendation from the report: “Dig deeper into the Minnesota Conference’s mission and vision, which calls congregations to reach new people, so that there might be a common understanding across the conference as to how reaching new people connects us with the evangelistic task that is part of our United Methodist DNA.”
“Everyone needs to change what they’re doing and allocate resources to the evangelistic task,” said Tim Koch, GBOPHB’s CFO, who presented the FACT findings and recommendations at Monday’s gathering. “What percent of the pastor’s work is allotted specifically to evangelistic task? What percentage of the agenda of the local church council is committed to the evangelistic task?”
Rev. Cindy Gregorson, the conference’s director of ministries, pointed out that the FACT report recommendations represent work that the conference is already engaged in—and the urgency in implementing them isn’t about boosting numbers for the sake of saving the denomination.
“We engage in this work so the movement of the people called United Methodist continues to exist and reach more people with the life-saving love of Jesus,” she said. “We want to be about helping every congregation be that kind of congregation where people discover Christ, where lives and communities are transformed.”
Declining numbers do matter, though, because they represent fewer resources to put into fulfilling our mission, Gregorson said. She listed as a goal increasing the number of numerically growing congregations from 25 percent in 2014 to 40 percent by 2020. Why 40 percent? Because that is the tipping point. If 40 percent of our congregations are growing in worship attendance and membership, experience and research suggests that we as an annual conference will be growing too. This translates to more people who have discovered Jesus, more people who have found Christian community, more people who are connected to a movement of difference-makers, more people who are on fire for God.
Attendees at Monday’s gathering broke into small groups, reacted to the FACT recommendations, and brainstormed how to best accomplish them. In terms of embracing the evangelistic task, some cited the importance of helping people understand why it’s important to reach new people, reclaiming our United Methodist heritage and understanding what we uniquely offer, getting better at sharing our faith stories and talking about what God has done in our lives, and learning about how to be relevant in our communities—which often look different than the makeup of our churches.
Other FACT recommendations
The FACT report listed as a challenge the need to reconcile the Minnesota Conference’s actual financial resources with asset deployment. Recommendations included engaging in an economic projection process, using a zero-based budgeting model (as opposed to building each year’s budget off of the prior year’s budget), increasing the use of unrestricted liquid assets (reserves) for strategic purposes, and reviewing health benefits offered to clergy.
Attendees affirmed all of these recommendations and one small group wondered: What does “all in” mean as we ante up for our mission but hold chips back for our future? We’re living in a dichotomy of not spending all of our reserves but being all in for mission.
Fostering sustainable congregational development:
Another challenge listed in the FACT report is building on current efforts to foster sustainable congregational development. The report recommends incorporating into the congregational development master plan how funds being raised through Reach • Renew • Rejoice will be strategically used for starting new churches and growing existing churches—and strengthening communication plan tactics to incorporate intentional conference-wide knowledge of and urgency for the initiative.
On Monday, one small group expressed concern about a lack of consensus within the conference when it comes to assumptions and definitions related to growth, interventions, multiplication, and starting new churches—and they noted that offering Christ means different things to different people. They expressed the importance of having a clearer understanding of congregational development efforts so that they can be used to empower and involve people at the local church level. They also noted that it’s difficult to translate narrative conversations into numerical metrics—and wondered if we need to be looking at new metrics that are more relevant in the current culture.
Effective leadership recruitment and development:
The final challenge listed in the FACT report is effective leadership recruitment and development, particularly among clergy. The related recommendations are expanding lay leadership; recruiting bold new leaders and aligning them with desired outcomes; and developing a process for exiting ineffective clergy.
Attendees strongly affirmed the need for effective leaders—and they expressed the desire for the conference to help both clergy and laity recapture their passion for the mission. One small group cited the need for an easier process for both the entry and exit of clergy and talked about the need for laity to know and claim their gifts, and to take ownership of the evangelistic task.
A leadership team is being assembled to help move the FACT recommendations forward—and in a closing worship service at Monday’s gathering, Bishop Bruce R. Ough told attendees that we are at a confluence of urgency—there’s the urgency of our mission and vision, and the urgency for our financial and institutional sustainability. They are becoming one, and both must inform our decision-making.
“Dear friends, urgency is not negative,” he said. “Urgency is what causes our biological and spiritual beings to spring into action. Urgency, in fact, often saves our lives because it causes us to respond, to get out of the way of impending disaster, to take positive action to correct, modify, or change our posture. We can no longer afford the posture of maintenance or the posture of ‘it’s good enough.’ We must assume the posture of creating new cultural reality.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.