Struggling economy creates chance to ‘be the church’


By the Advocate
As families try to deal with the current economic downturn, the Mississippi Conference could become a place to turn for guidance.

Conference leaders made that point clear in an Oct. 20 meeting that examined economic issues for the conference but also looked at how the Annual Conference can become a beacon of hope for those, churches and individuals included, going through difficult economic times personally. At one point, participants broke into groups by district to discuss issues and share ideas.

“We heard that stewardship and tithing are just the starting point,” said David Stotts, conference treasurer, “not just for our churches, but for families, too. It starts with stewardship with our salaries and how we give, and the conference and its apportionments. Everybody needs help right now.”

Conference leaders are expected to being formulating a plan for improving individual and church stewardship when the Stewardship Table Team meets Nov. 6.

The Oct. 22 meeting included Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Stotts, representatives from the Commission on Finance and Administration, the cabinet and two clergy representatives from each district.

“I asked each superintendent to bring two clergy from their district and together with the staff we gathered for a couple of hours in the midst of the economic crisis to remember God’s abundance,” Ward said. “There is pressure on all of us as result of economic times. We talked about ways that we can respond faithfully. We need to increase the understanding across the conference of where we are in terms of our conference commitment, budget and mission.”

While just two months remain in the conference fiscal year, Ward said the meeting focused on what can be done to meet the conference’s 2008 budget of $20,664,572 and prepare for 2009.

“We believe that there’s a lot that can be done in last two months,” Ward said. “As people understand the need, we see great generosity and creativity. We have an opportunity to spread the conversation about generosity into local churches. We want to intentionally take the conversation beyond CFA, the cabinet and trustees. This is something we all own, because we all give to the conference budget.”

Stotts agreed. He said the conference and many churches are taking creative approaches to giving and stewardship, but that needs to be shared. “We’re doing things in our churches and in the conference to be more accountable, but we’re not sharing that information.”

Stotts said the conference will continue its efforts to education congregations about apportionments and the role they play in a connectional church.

Stotts said that as of Sept. 30, 51.19 percent of the conference’s 2008 budget has been received. That’s 2.42 percent lower that at the same time last year, but $664,825 more in dollars. He said that last year, 88.85 percent of the funds received came in during December, while 87.06 of funds received in 2006 came in during December.

Shane Stanford, team leader for the conference Message and Media Team believes these issues offer as many opportunities as challenges. “Yes, the financial considerations are significant and we must address them quickly,” Stanford said, “but, we also have a chance in times like these to really raise the bar on stewardship, financial responsibility among our families, and fiscal accountability among our churches.”

One concern raised at the meeting was how local congregations can educate their members on remaining faithful during these rough times.

“It is incredibly important that ‘be the church’ during tough economic times” Stanford said. “Local churches, all the more, become the places where desperate and hurting people turn for help. Our members must continue to reach out as the ‘hands and feet’ of Jesus.”

The Stewardship Table and conference Council on Finance and Administration will continue to provide leadership and possible solutions to meeting the challenges for our Annual Conference budget. But, more importantly, the challenge of continuing to provide hope and a difference for those in need remains the chief aim of our stewardship.

It is not only our “moral responsibility” but Mississippians, as Bishop Ward reminded the group, have been prime recipients of the generosity of the Body of Christ.

Ward pointed to that connection in appealing for individuals to give generously. “I made a passionate appeal that the Mississippi Conference received the love and generosity of connection in exceptional ways in the last three years. We have got to be faithful as a conference which has received to help others. We can’t turn our backs on a great challenge. People didn’t turn their backs on us three years ago. The connection is still with us in dramatic ways. We’ve got to be good to the connection in dramatic ways,” she said.