Was doing a bit of surfing tonight as I'm making tons of copies of my dissertation for the Academic Progress Review Committee Asbury requires me to have, and happened across this post by The Thief (a personal blog fav) about Charge Conference. He then linked to this other blog post on Charge Conference by another pastor in Cambridge, Ohio. Can't imagine charge conference would warrant two posts by anyone, anywhere, let alone inspire me to write a post too.
Particularly since I didn't go this year.
It wasn't cause I didn't think it was worth my time or anything like that. I called my DS and asked for a reprieve as the night we were scheduled was the night that my Brother became Brother Esquire at Doc Watson's in Toledo. Had to go see him (and hold the Bible his hand was on) get sworn in after years of (literally) praying him through his undergrad and law school. This sort of things only happens once, and I was determined to be there. Graciously, Tom Tumblin (our DS) gave me my pardon, and I saw legal and Bucher history both made.
So, I don't have anything to report, first hand, regarding Charge Conference.
Note to my Grandmother: Right now, Oh Great One, you, like many of my loyal blog readers, are wondering, "What's a charge conference?" Well, it's like this... every year since forever ago the District Superintendent (who is the supervisor of us peons in local churches) would come visit our church. They'd meet with our Staff-Parish Committee to find out whether or not us pastors were doing our job, then they'd vote on our salary for the coming year, and finally they'd lead what amounts to our church's end-of-year business meeting where all of our officers for the upcoming year, pastors salaries, and the like would be voted on. Since Methodists are into conferencing (as opposed to meeting.. what's the difference? conferences start and end with prayer and generally include coffee) we call this annual end-of-year business meeting a "charge conference" (the word "charge" being an outdated word meaning a place where pastor had been given "charge" of a congregation).
Two years ago, when we re-districted as a part of our downsizing our bureaucracy and it's spending (which, even though we have six fewer districts, didn't end up downsizing either bureaucrats or spending... gotta love decisions made from the top down), it made it impossible for the DS to get to every church every year, so instead, now we meet in what amounts to group charge conferences. I think the one I signed up for included 26 churches. Now, we are supposed to bring all of our paperwork (all voted upon at a previous Ad Board meeting the pastor now leads) and lay representation with us, where it will be collected by a DS or the Assistant DS.
My trusty associate, Charlotte Hefner, went in my place (she was required to go anyway), and after my current lay-leader and future lay-leader both weren't available, I asked Sue Dickerson (a loyal lay person, and all-around great person) to go as our lay-representation. I plied her with promises of a future lunch and the guarantee of a meeting that wouldn't be all that long.
I mean, what's the point? All the decisions have already been made in local churches. There's no debate. Just bring your paperwork, let 'em sprinkle the magic dust, maybe take communion, and go home, right?
First, Shawnee, which is the largest church in the district, brought the fewest lay people (one). Other churches brought 8-12, all of whom were supposed report in small groups created by the Assistant DS, about all the wonderful things happening in their church. Couple that with a worship service, a sermon by the Assistant DS, and final communion, and the conference took over 2 hours (which, Sue informs me, is worth a multi-course lunch at Red Lobster... I don't think I'm in a position to argue).
A 2 hour conference to decide, well.... nothing.
I don't want to bite the hand that fed me. Heaven knows that if our system worked the way its always worked there'd be no way a 38 year old dude who has never been senior pastor would be appointed to one of the 12 largest churches in the conference. I'm an experiment, serving at the whim at the Bishop and with the blessing by my predecessor. So, to insult those who serve as my superiors really serves no good purpose. I don't purport to understand all things, and I'm sure that this new model of conferencing serves a higher purpose (most likely to remind us that we are we "connectional" that needs to cheer on and help one another).
But while Sue is retired, she's still plenty busy. That we upgraded lunch from eating off of wax paper to eating seafood and dessert gives you some idea as to how, well, not all that particularly exciting the conference was. And it makes me wonder what it will cost me next year when I ask Sue to tell others what a great opportunity going to Charge Conference is to other lay-leaders. Most likely, they'll go, I'll end up back at Red Lobster again, and the following year I'll have to find fresh fannies to fill the seats, and the vicious cycle will be completed.
And let's be honest... a bunch of people coming together to talk about all the good things happening in their churches is really only half the truth. Like we've always done, we take the other half and sweep it under the rug, never to be acknowledged by anyone until, well, the church falls apart or closes (which is happening with greater frequency... hence the downsizing). Let's face it... we've got just as many issues as we do triumphs. Why ignore them?
Here's the thing... we in the local church have been promised by our leadership less "business than usual" and more "out of the box" kind of thinking. Bishop Ough at our Annual Conference (that's the business meeting for all the churches, in case you are keeping score) promised that we have entered into a new age of Pentecost, where "whoosh" happens. "Whoosh" being the technical term for that force or energy that sweeps away what has been the way it has been, and replaces it with something new and better.
Friends, replacing what was for 30-40 church people a one-hour conference time where real decisions were made with a two-hour conference time for 8-10 (or in our case, 1) lay-people per per church where nothing is decided is not "whoosh". It's grasping at straws to schedule something less in the place of something more. So, here they are...
My top-ten suggestions as to how improve charge conference:
10) Have each church establish benchmarks for at least three ways the church can realistically improve for the coming year. DS's, Assistant DS's, conference staff, or some other consultant could be used in helping the church assess where it is now, where it can improve, and establishing clear steps and goals toward that improvement. Then, each year at charge conference, the new benchmarks are shared with the body assembled, and help/assistance/advice could be solicited on the part of the other churches present, that way there would be some collective effort and accountability to helping this improvement become reality. All benchmarks would have to be approved, in advance, by the district powers-that-be.
9) Of course, starting in year two, reports on these benchmarks would need to be shared at charge conference. Now, here's where it gets interesting... the body, upon hearing the reports, would vote to determine which church that achieved their benchmarks will receive a 10% reduction in their conference apportionments and 5% reduction in their district apportionments. This isn't a contest. This is a tangible way of investing in ministries that are achieving, while also giving each of these charge conferences something tangible for those present to decide.
8) And how would these apportionments be made up? Well, all the other churches would take on an equitable portion (taking into account church size) of the amount to not be paid by the excelling church.
Now, let's make things even more interesting.
7) At the meeting, the District Superintendent must report to all those gathered, what benchmarks the district is establishing for the coming year. These benchmarks, while not subject to change, must be open to question by the body.
6) After the first year, the DS must report to the charge conference on how the district did on it's benchmarks. The body may question the results, and then vote to determine if they concur with the DS' assessment, or not. If they do, there will be great rejoicing, and if they don't it must reported on the floor of the following year's annual conference. This will give the Bishop an idea of where good cooperation and creative thinking is happening, and where it isn't, across the conference.
How's that for a "whoosh"? Accountability that runs both down and up the corporate structure.
5) Districts that are not meeting their benchmarks must receive some sort of consultation to assess what the issues are, and how they might be dealt with positively and effectively.
(OK... now let's have some fun)
4) At every charge conference, each church must announce the salary and benefits package of each appointed person they employ (or are self-employed... depends if we're talking about the IRS of the Social Security administration). They must also announce the percentage of their annual budget these salaries and benefits consume. Why do this? Well, this can have two possible consequences. First, it could confirm for a church that their pastor is over or under compensated, which will assist in future fiscal planning. Second, it would get churches thinking about how they allocate their resources.
3) Churches would be assigned to particular a charge conference based upon their size. Thus, the 10-15 largest churches would have their own charge conference, and then the other 100-some odd churches would be broken up into six or seven other charge conferences as determined by attendance and size and budget. Each year at each charge conference, it would be reported which churches had moved up, or down into, that particular category of charge conference from the previous year. The theory behind this comes out of how they do basketball and soccer leagues in Europe. There are A, B, C, and possibly even more divisions for pro teams across the continent. Each year, you can play your way up, or down, a division. So, the last place team in the A division in 2007, will find itself playing in the B division in 2008. This isn't to say that bigger is necessarily better... but in an imperfect world, we use imperfect measures to try and get a handle on the issues. Besides, maybe similar size churches can teach one another a thing or two about how to improve ministry as they network across their district.
2) Have each charge conference establish by discussion and consensus, the best missional project one of its church's want to undertake in the coming year. The DS will take the most worthy project of from each charge conference, and decide with one will receive a special $10,000-$20,000 grant to help make that project a reality. The winner will be announced at the District Pastor's Christmas Party.
1) Let any church that gives 120% of its conference and district apportionment the option of missing charge conference altogether.
This is why in four years I'll probably either be a Bishop, or driving a truck for a living. If we weren't opposed to all forms of gambling, I'd put my money on the truck driving.