July 20, 2020
This past Saturday we conducted a historic annual conference here in Iowa. For the first time, our legislative session met virtually because the COVID-19 Pandemic prevented our ability to meet in person. We also completed our business in one day.
Clergy and lay delegates, I want to thank you for your patience in attending the virtual town hall meetings so that you were not only well informed about legislation but learned how to vote electronically. And thank you for understanding how much extra time and effort has gone into getting ready for the 2020 Iowa Annual Conference. I am especially grateful for your careful preparation and prayerful decision-making.
I also want to thank the entire conference for the warm welcome that you extended to Gary and me four years ago. Thank you for the notes of encouragement, wisdom, and advice that you continue to send to me. And thank you for the grace that you pour into my life every day as we serve together: difference-makers for Christ. I am incredibly blessed.
Over this past year, I have shared a vision for the future of the Iowa Annual Conference called Vision 2032. First, in 2032 relationships will be more important than theological convictions. Second, innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo. And third, our primary focus will be on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: to go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ and to love God and our neighbor in all that we do.
Little did we know that each part of this vision would already be put into practice in 2020. In the midst of our unresolved struggles around human sexuality, COVID-19, and our commitment to an intentional focus on systemic racism and social justice, our local congregations are reaching out in new and creative ways. Not only are we working collaboratively with each other, but we are also engaging our communities in mission, evangelism, and caring for all those who are in need of the grace, hope, and love of Jesus. Thank you.
As we move forward in ministry, I want to briefly share with you our reality, our hope, and our plan, for God is not done with us yet.
1. Attendance and membership in local churches continue to decline.
2. In some places, our local congregations have been unable to find effective ways to offer Christ to their communities.
3. Our financial situation as a conference is serious and was reflected in the decision of the Legislative Session to:
- Not be bound to pay 100% of General Conference apportionments. This change means that the primary decision to pay GC apportionments is up to the local churches of the Iowa Conference. All GC apportionment payments by local churches will be sent by CF&A to the General Church. CF&A and the Cabinet are committed to paying 100% of our GC Apportionments, but this will require all of the Iowa Conference local churches and pastors to be equally committed to 100% payment.
- The IAC budget line item for “uncollected apportionments” has been eliminated for the 2021 budget. This has the potential to lower apportionments for all local churches in 2021. However, the closure of churches and any local church decline in giving in the past year will affect the way in which apportionments are shared among us.
- The adoption of the 2021 budget included additional reductions in Conference mission and ministry expenses while attempting to recapture the depletion of the spent reserves of last year and this year.
As you know, the only funding we receive to support our conference mission and ministry is through what our local churches contribute. And when that funding is not there, we have no choice but to reduce staff positions, programing, and ministry.
These are times that call for courageous decision-making. Our cabinet is currently reading Gil Rendle’s new book, Quietly Courageous, which I highly recommend to you. Rendle reminds us that we still have many congregations and clergy who just want to go back to the way things were in the 1950s when churches were growing rapidly and believed that if only they followed the program exactly, their congregation would grow exponentially. It worked for many churches, but that day is long gone, and it is not coming back.
- Today, most of our churches are trying to live off the increased giving of a smaller number of people who are getting older. Unfortunately, this plan is unsustainable.
- Our buildings were constructed to be located for easy access to certain distances and travel patterns that are no longer convenient to current demographic shifts.
- The current average worship attendance in US churches is 75, which is not enough to sustain full-time ministry.
- We lament and at times deny the loss of the prosperity and waning influence of the church in our society.
- There’s a lot of nostalgia going on right now. You and I long for leaders to take us back to the good old days. “Why can’t the church be like it was when I was a kid?”
According to Rendle, “Quiet courage in this instance is not to be found in the bold clergy leader who claims to have the answers for others. Quiet courage is with the one who is deeply disciplined in the faith but then stands with the people, helping to name the next questions that they will need to address together in order to be faithful.”[i]
So where is the hope? God invites you and me at this very moment in the life of the Iowa Annual Conference to stand together and move into a future of hope.
- I see hope in how you have responded to COVID-19, in our commitment to address systemic racism, and in our conversations around human sexuality.
- I see hope in the increasing numbers of people who are live-streaming our worship services because they are yearning for meaning and spiritual connection.
- I see hope in our conference transition to circuit ministry and deepening connections among our local churches.
- I see hope in a renewed commitment to shared ministry through the apportionment system that has been a hallmark of our United Methodist connection for a very long time.
- I see hope in a commitment to reorganize our conference boards and agencies and district committees so that they can function more effectively in making disciples of Jesus Christ.
- I see hope in our insistence upon viewing each human being as a beloved child of God who has a place waiting for them at the table of the Lord.
And, finally, what is our plan?
First, in this time, we will need to continue to strategically shrink, for we cannot do everything anymore. We must determine priorities and direct our resources in that direction in a prayerful and purposeful manner.
Second, we will need an intentional missional focus on equipping clergy and laity to lead the church toward its identified outcomes, address adaptive challenges, and increase the number of healthy congregations and fruitful leaders.
And, third, we will need to demonstrate mercy, justice, courage, and hope. At the same time, we must not be deterred in our call to be missional and courageous leaders. Who are we now? Who is our neighbor now? And what is God calling us to make different now?
My friends, Jesus is at work in communities all over Iowa through your quiet courage and the power of the Holy Spirit! What an exciting time it is to be God’s people! Thank you for commitment to ministry in the name of Jesus Christ, and go, be the church! Thanks be to God!
Quietly Courageous; Leading the Church in a Changing World, Gil Rendle, Rowman & Littlefield, Landham, Maryland, 2019, p. 149.