New Conference Structure Passes
By Rev. Stephen Sparks, Special to The Circuit Rider
Change within any organization is difficult and that it is particularly so within an organization that consists of over 1,000 churches and over 179,000 members served by over 600 clergy from every corner of the state of Mississippi, from the rolling foothills of Appalachia in the Northeast to beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Mississippi United Methodists face a culture that is neither explicitly nor implicitly Christian and in some ways, hostile towards Christianity, or perhaps worse, totally ambivalent toward the Church today. The annual conference is attempting to adapt its processes and structures to its current missional reality and align its resources both human and otherwise to do what the annual conference has always been intended to do, to resource, empower and enable the local church to make an ever increasing number of disciples of Jesus Christ that are in turn growing up into Christ so that they too may become effective disciple makers. To accomplish this task the reorganization creates three areas of organization for the conference-forming spiritual leaders, forming faith communities, and connecting the ministries of the local church, districts, annual conference, jurisdiction and the general church.
Focus on the Local Church
Growing the local church by making new disciples for Jesus Christ will be the area that Bishop Swanson believes can be the most directly affected by these changes.
"This new structure will provide us with a systematic approach to help us fulfill our Biblical mandate to make disciples. The most productive way we can make disciples today is by starting new congregations. This is why we need to develop the office of faith forming communities. The people of Mississippi both laity and clergy have a deep desire to fulfill Jesus' commandment to "...go and make disciples" however given the realities of the day and the climate in which we do ministry this has become a very difficult task for the church. It is my estimation that within the next five years with the right leadership and resources we could possibly start at least 15 new congregations that could become fully self-supporting. We currently have three committees working independently of each other seeking to lead us in this direction. What I want is for those three groups to come together under one umbrella so that we can better align our resources, our energy and we can learn from each other as to how best to impact Mississippi for Christ today and into the future. We cannot afford to do this work in a piece meal way. It must be strategic and well planned taking into account the needs of the people in the various locales of Mississippi. The new structure will better enhance our ability to impact our congregations that worship 75 or less that are currently struggling to stay afloat financially because we can work closely with them and their district superintendent to develop models that will help them to be more vital."
To accomplish this, the second area the new structure organizes around is that of developing new leaders and increasing the skill sets of current leaders. "[We] want to expand the current office of ministerial services to emphasize the need to recruit, train, and develop clergy and lay leaders. Mississippi has a growing need for more fruitful and effective leaders and I believe this office should take on this role."
For new churches, restarts, reboots, turnaround, take backs, vital congregations, leading congregations and everywhere in between, one of the keys for Methodists has always been the strength of our connection, where we are constantly resourcing and learning best practices and creative new or reclaimed ancient approaches from each other. As Swanson notes, "If the annual conference exists to equip local churches, we need a way to be in constant contact with our local churches to hear from them about the vital ministries that are already going on in their settings so that others can learn from them. But we also need to hear about where they are struggling to be faithful to our mission and our core values so I believe that the Vital Congregations Committee will provide us with a unique way of making that communication easier."
Any time change is introduced into a system it inevitably creates anxiety. Swanson and the leadership is asking for our trust, that these changes will improve our systems, make an ever increasing number of disciples for Jesus Christ and do so at no budget increase.
"I realize that there are those that doubt that we can deliver this without an increase in the budget. You look at the bottom line and challenge us if there is an increase of any kind. It is my hope that we will build a porous structure where all parts will work together in synergy and thus increasing efficiency, our creativity and fruitfulness. It is my hope to replicate this on the district level as well. I offer it to you in faithfulness to what I believe was and is God's call on my heart. I also realize that "the new" is always suspect with us. And for this reason and because there are other distractions like even the future viability of The United Methodist Church there are some that are skeptical at best while others are reluctant to get on board. My response is that even while Jerusalem was falling God told his prophet to buy land for the future. You can not stop dreaming and planning for a bounteous harvest because the weather doesn't look right or because of the failures of the past. I hate doing structure work but I went to work on this because I realized that the wrong structure can hinder you from fulfilling your dreams. So I offer this to the people of the Mississippi Annual Conference as a way forward for us to use to make disciples."
Photo right: Bishop James Swanson, Sr. during the State of the Conference address on June 6.
Photo left: Timothy Crisler, conference lay leader stated that members of the conference are on a clear path together heading towards God's preferred future.