Revitalization of Annual Conference
“By the manner of their living.” Over the course of the last three centuries, members of the Church of the Brethren have met to pray, talk, deliberate, and discern the nature of that “manner of living.” Beginning in 1742, then in 1763, again in 1775, and nearly every year thereafter, the “big meeting,” “yearly meeting,” and “annual meeting,” as it has been known, has been the place that kept the Brethren unified in Spirit, if not always in practice. To be sure, even the spirit of Annual Conference has been tested, at various times leading to significant dissension and broken relationships, both personally and structurally. We give thanks for the efforts and faithfulness of our forebears who pursue space. While we may not come to the same conclusions on many of those issues from our own vantage point in time, by the grace of God we seek to be equally faithful and not knowingly make the same mistakes.
Today, Annual Conference continues to be the only place within the Church of the Brethren that all members of the community of faith are invited into the same space for prayer, conversation, deliberation, and discernment. To that end, we affirm the current Annual Conference mission statement: “Annual Conference exists to unite, strengthen and equip the Church of the Brethren to follow Jesus.” We commit to its fulfillment not for the sake of Annual Conference, but because of the important role that Annual Conference plays in the life of the Church of the Brethren.
The ability of Annual Conference to fulfill its current and previous missions has been tested in the past several decades. Shifts in generational attitudes – including decreased loyalty to large organizations – have had a negative impact on Conference attendance. Increasing costs for Conference meeting space as a whole, and lodging and food for individual attendees, has further exacerbated this decline in attendance during the past decade and beyond. The rise in more polarized public discourse in society has been mirrored by increasingly contentious debates on the floor of Annual Conference business sessions, leaving persons from many perspectives feeling angry, alienated, and broken. Given the shift in generational importance and decreased attendance, increasing costs, and difficult conversations, does Annual Conference have a vital future for the Church of the Brethren?
Program and Arrangements Committee is charged with oversight of Annual Conference, including its finances and ongoing vitality. In light of declining attendance, more difficult finances, and changing demographics, for nearly a decade this group has discussed the long term viability of Annual Conference. In November 2009, meeting in Pittsburgh, PA, Program and Arrangements Committee recognized the difficulty of its task given its membership composition. Because of both the frequent membership turnover on the Committee by election, and the time constraints required to implement the very next Conference on the horizon, Program and Arrangements Committee recognized that in its current form it could not be the group to envision or implement structural changes that might address Annual Conference’s long-term vitality. Program and Arrangements Committee asked the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team to assemble a task force to do this visioning work.
In January 2010 the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team created such a task force, with the following charge:
• Review compiled information on revitalizing Annual Conference plus statistical research that has already been performed;
• Assess the long-term viability of Annual Conference;
• Research future trends that might contribute to the vitality of Annual Conference;
• Utilize open, creative, outside-the-box thinking;
• Affirm or make a recommendation about the mission statement and core values of Annual Conference;
• Analyze whether Annual Conference should remain in its present format, or recommend viable alternatives.
Prior to the 2010 Annual Conference, the following persons were called by the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team to the Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force: Becky Ball Miller; Chris Douglas (Conference Director); Rhonda Pittman Gingrich; Kevin Kessler; Wallace Landes; and Shawn Flory Replogle. After initially meeting with the group, Brother Wally asked to be relieved of his call for health concerns.
In about the same time period, a group of pastors in the Southern Ohio District began meeting to express their own concerns about the vitality of Annual Conference. They lamented that Annual Conference did not seem to provide the same kind of spiritual leadership that perhaps it had in the past. They dreamed of an Annual Conference that would indeed unify and strengthen the denomination as called for by its mission statement. They cited a spiritual renewal aspect of Conference centered on the celebration of Pentecost and the Spirit’s arrival among the first disciples of Jesus.1 They began to ask themselves:
- “Could Annual Conference be reorganized to better fulfill our mission of uniting, strengthening, and equipping the Church of the Brethren to follow Jesus?
- Is there a way that we can regain the spirit of the mission statement of AC so that attendees can be equipped for ministry?
- In being more equipped to be the Church, are there ways to do so that will send us back home with more excitement, joy, and enthusiasm for being the Church?
- Would it be possible to re-format AC to capture the energy and passion of who we are as followers ofJesus Christ to more fully live out the mission of AC?”
The prayer and conversation of the Southern Ohio group of pastors ultimately led to a query presented to the 2010 Annual Conference, entitled “Query: The Structure of Annual Conference.” The main question of the query was “What ways are there to structure Annual Conference that might more effectively fulfill the mission of Annual Conference to unite, strengthen and equip the Church of the Brethren to follow Jesus?” “The 2010 Annual Conference approved the recommendation of Standing Committee that the query be adopted and that the concerns of the query be referred to the Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force. “2
Work of the Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force
The Task Force met in person on two occasions during 2010 and 2011. Each meeting was filled with the kinds of tasks provided by the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team at its 2010 January meeting. In addition to these items, the Task Force constructed an on-line survey to gather further information and perspective from denominational members. Over three hundred responses were received:
- those who have attended five or more Annual Conferences in the last decade, 17 5 ( regular attendees);
- those who have attended between one and four Annual Conferences in the last decade, 120 ( occasional attendees);
- and those who have not attended an Annual Conference in the last decade; 4 7 (non-attendees).
Persons who had attended Annual Conference in the past decade were asked to rate a series of components of Annual Conference in terms of their value to the responder. There were six possible responses: not valuable at all; slightly valuable; somewhat valuable; very valuable; extremely valuable; don’t know. When slightly and somewhat valuable were grouped together, and very and extremely valuable were grouped together, strong patterns were evident.
Most importantly, the Task Force heard that the role of Annual Conference in the life of the denomination is significant. Specifically, we heard the following:
- There exist three primary aspects to the importance of Annual Conference’s role.
In order of survey ranking they are: worship; fellowship; and business. 87% of occasional attendees, and 83.9% of regular attendees rated worship as the most valuable element of Annual Conference. When further asked what role Annual Conference plays in a responders’ spiritual formation, 64.3% of occasional attendees, and 72.2% of regular attendees said that they were inspired by worship. It rated only behind “I am strengthened through fellowship” ( 66.3% for occasional attendees, and 74.1 % for regular attendees). Among Annual Conference non-attendees, 58.5% of respondents had heard that “worship is inspirational,” tied for first among responses in this category.
- The importance of fellowship at Annual Conference was in a statistical dead-heat with worship.
As noted above, while worship was rated the most valuable experience for Annual Conference attendees, opportunities for fellowship with other Conference-goers was rated slightly ahead of worship when it came to personal spiritual formation. To further emphasize this pattern, 84.8% of occasional attendees said that Annual Conference provides an opportunity for fellowship with Brethren nationwide, while 90.1% of regular attendees said the same thing. Among non-attendees, 58.5% of respondents had heard that “It is a time of fellowship,” tied for first among responses in this category.
- Business – the work of the church – remains an important role of Annual Conference.
In terms of being rated a valuable component, “business” remained the unchallenged third piece behind worship and fellowship. Regular attendees named it 70.3% of the time, while occasional attendees named it 64.3% of the time. Most attendees recognized the value of Annual Conference being a “forum to discuss and make decisions about issues facing contemporary society.” This was named 82.6% of the time for regular attendees, and 73.7% of the time for occasional attendees. Non-attendees also recognized this aspect of Annual Conference. When asked “when you think of Annual Conference, what comes to mind?” 85.7% named “business,” far above the 64.3% for “worship,” 57.1 % for both “controversy” and “fellowship,” and 42.9% for “reunions with family or old friends.” Interestingly, when non-attendees were asked “what word would you use to describe Annual Conference?” the four highest categories were “important” (51.4%), “controversial” (43.2%), “conflictive” (32.4%), and “meaningful” (27.0%). The survey supports Annual Conference as a place of “doing business,” but not just business.
It is also clear that we must find a different way to do business. Business as it is happening is not strengthening, equipping and uniting. Rather it is conflictive, divisive, and polarizing. A strong majority of explanatory comments were about business, its management, and its divisiveness for the denomination. Of occasional attendees, 41.8% indicated they would be more likely to come to Annual Conference if there were a different way of doing business. 34.2% of non-attendees concurred. While most people recognize the relative importance of business in the life of the denomination, they also clamor for a less conflictive way to participate. There is a strong call for the way we do business to match the “manner of our living. “
One trend observed by the Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force is a call to move from issue-focused Conferences to relationship-centered Conferences. The “Doing Church Business” report passed by the Annual Conference in 2007 challenged the denomination in this direction. In the four years since its passage, a number of its recommendations have been implemented by Annual Conference officers, including the production of DVDs and study questions for delegate preparation, the inclusion of process observers during business sessions, special training for Standing Committee delegates, the production of a “Moderator’s Manual” for newly selected Moderator-elects, and acknowledgement that video of business sessions are archived for research purposes. There are some larger relational and structural questions from the “Doing Church Business” report, such as discernment groups and the overall format of Annual Conference that have not been implemented. Along with what the Task Force heard in the surveys, the recommendations in the “Doing Church Business” report highlight that the longterm viability of Annual Conference depends on deepening relationships and finding new forms for decision-making that strengthen those relationships.
- The cost of Annual Conference is a significant factor in relation to attendance.
For example, 79.4% of regular attendees had some percentage of their Annual Conference expenses reimbursed from congregations, districts, or denominational agencies, at an average rate of reimbursement of 83%. When asked if they had to pay more of the expenses of Annual Conference, 35.8% indicated they would still be likely to attend, while 37.7% said they would be somewhat likely to attend; however, 25.2% indicated they were not likely to attend if they had to pay their own expenses.
Occasional attendees, when asked what reasons they do not attend Annual Conference more regularly, cited cost as very or extremely important 55.7% of the time, with another 33% saying cost was at least somewhat important. Non-attendees cited cost as very or extremely important 54% of the time, with another 35.1% saying cost was at least somewhat important. Every non-attendee acknowledged that cost played at least some role in their decision to attend. 51.2% of non-attendees believed Annual Conference was “a place for delegates and pastors.”
- There is consensus on the timing and length of Annual Conference.
The most popular response to the timing of Annual Conference, regardless of attendance frequency, was “no preference.” Added to those who preferred a late June/early July time period, and those who indicated a similar preference in their comments, from the middle of June to the middle of July, strong majorities of respondents see no need to move the timing of Annual Conference: 78% for regular attendees; 83% for occasional attendees; and 86.9% of non-attendees.
Similarly, when queried about the length ( number of nights) of Annual Conference, respondents displayed a strong preference for “no preference”: 55.6% for regular attendees; 41% for occasional attendees and 45% for non-attendees. Occasional attendees and non-attendees displayed a leaning towards a 3-night or maybe 4-night conference, while regular attendees were nearly evenly split between, three, four, or five night options.
- Out of the surveys, the Task Force noted several myths related to cost.
First Myth: Meeting over the Fourth of July holiday is always cheaper. It can be, if a particular city has had trouble filling that time slot with another convention. However, it can be more expensive to meet over that holiday when factoring in the labor costs of convention staff working on weekends and with holiday pay. In addition, Conference-attendees can often be faced with limited food options if some restaurants close on holidays.
Second Myth: College and university campuses are cheaper than big city convention sites. While it is true that lodging costs can be greatly diminished on many campuses, often the facility costs for using arenas and other campus buildings can be quite expensive. Many bigger city convention facilities offer significant discounts to convention buildings with a minimum lodging block. Some cities can also offer free convention facilities on certain harder to book time slots. Also, the room and three meal per day package for a family of four on a university campus can be more costly than staying at a hotel and eating inexpensively, as many Brethren do. Attendees have also expressed a distaste for the great walking distances that often come with university locations. In addition, Church of the Brethren college campuses are not large enough to accommodate the needs of Annual Conference.
Third Myth: Conference-attendees who book lodging outside the Conference block of hotels save money. Conference attendees may save $50 to $100 for themselves over the course of a week. Eventually that savings is lost in increased Conference registration prices. Hotel contracts contain a clause for not filling a minimum number of hotel rooms. In those cases a penalty can be assessed the Conference. For example, in 2009 in San Diego, Annual Conference was assessed an $60,000 lodging penalty, the burden of which gets shared by all Conference attendees in the form of higher registration costs.
Fourth Myth: Geographical rotation is necessary to make Annual Conference accessible to all members of the Church of the Brethren. Among the most frequent attendees of Annual Conference, 52.5% said the geographic rotation had no affect on their decision to attend. At the same time, 77.4% of regular attendees indicated a strong belief that “It is important for Annual Conference to rotate to various regions because Brethren are scattered across the country.” When pushed to consider a simplified geographic rotation to three or four locations, 81.8% of regular attendees said that would have no affect on their decision to attend Annual Conference. While geographic rotation is articulated as being important, for most regular attendees there is no actual effect. These persons will attend Annual Conference regardless of location.
In the 1950s and 1960s, more congregations could send delegates when the conference was in their region of the country. However, in comparing the number of delegates from congregations west of the Mississippi River the past three years, the Task Force found:
–2009 in San Diego – 64 western delegates
–2010 in Pittsburgh – 62 western delegates
–2011in Grand Rapids -74 western delegates
While the relative number of delegates from western congregations remains fairly constant, the costs of arranging Western conferences is not. They range from an $89,000 deficit in 2003 at Boise, ID, to a $259,000 deficit in 2009 in San Diego.
In considering the matter of location, The Task Force analyzed attendance figures to see how the geographic rotation affects registration and found no significant patterns of increased attendance from within host regions. After considerable discussion about the cost factors associated with the current geographic rotation, we determined that a mandated rotation hurts financially. We talked some about the idea of a set 3-4 year rotation and agreed that there may be some value in this if it results in a stronger bargaining position for negotiating contracts. We ultimately felt that it makes the most sense financially to move from a mandated rotation schedule (adopted in 2007), to pursuing the best deal in any given year.
However, some consideration would still be given to geographic distribution. We also felt that the final decision about specific locations should continue to remain with Program and Arrangements Committee.
Furthermore, the Task Force noted that both National Older Adult Conference and National Youth Conference thrive in the same location year after year, without rotating to all parts of the country.
Among occasional or non-attendees, a measurable number of people named “location” as a significant deterrent to attending Annual Conference. Of occasional attendees, 51 % indicated that a “geographical location near where I live” would increase the probability of more regular attendance. 34.2% of non-attendees said the same thing. Attendance at Annual Conference is more complex than simple geography, however. Costs, interest level, personal conflicts with time, geography, and the nature of business in any given year are all factors in a person’s decision to attend Annual Conference. For example, there were more delegates from Western Pennsylvania District at the 2011 Annual Conference in Grand Rapids, MI, than at the 2010 Annual Conference in Pittsburgh, PA, where Western Pennsylvania was the host district. This is not the only example, just the most recent.
Fifth Myth: It always costs more to fly farther distances. The Task Force did a comparison of airfares between a variety of cities and confirmed that many times the cost of the flight is not proportional to the distance traveled. For instance, a recent comparison of lowest cost, advanced purchased tickets showed that a flight from Seattle to Chicago is only $30 more than Seattle to Orlando. It is as expensive to fly from Phoenix to Seattle as it is to fly from Phoenix to St. Louis or Chicago, and within $35 to fly from Phoenix to Charlotte ($258 compared to $293).
Another part of the myth involves the cost of transportation. In the past, “big meeting” locations were often determined by transportation. How far could one reasonably expect to travel by horseback in a day? What distance away from functioning train tracks was the meeting space? What arrangements needed to be made to get a Saturday night stay-over for air travel? None of these questions are a consideration anymore. In fact, in today’s transportation system, finding a convention space serviced by an airport with low local flight taxes and many connecting flights is among the most important considerations for keeping travel costs to Annual Conference at a minimum.
Today making Annual Conference more “accessible” to all Brethren means finding low-cost locations rather than moving it to each area of the country. Brethren are a geographically diverse people. As such, there is no one location that satisfies the needs of all participants. The ease of air travel diminishes this liability significantly. Still, there is a recognition of the fact that a great majority of Church of the Brethren members live east of the Mississippi River, from Indiana to Pennsylvania, and south to Virginia. The Task Force also recognizes that Brethren from west of the Mississippi River still face a significant cost for attending Annual Conferences year after year on the East Coast. Even if the Conference is held in the “west, 11 the distance from the northwest to the southwest can be vast. While low cost airports can be identified, there is still a commitment of travel time involved for the Western Brethren to travel to many Annual Conference locations.
While not covered specifically on the survey, ongoing issues of demographics also play a role in the long-term viability of Annual Conference. Denominational membership has declined for decades, which means an automatic reduced attendance at Annual Conference, and consequently less revenue for Annual Conference. Generational studies show a dear drop in allegiance to organizations and corporations, including religious ones. These dynamics demand the question: can Annual Conference continue to exist if it does not contribute to the vitality of its member congregations?
Based on the above research and discernment, the Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force recommends the following:
- That the timing of Annual Conference remain in a broad time range of mid-June to mid-July, with Program and Arrangements Committee being given the freedom to exercise sound fiscal stewardship in making commitments with convention facilities;
- That the length of Annual Conference – currently four nights – be maintained, and that the Program and Arrangements Committee be released from the requirement of setting Annual Conference from Saturday evening to Wednesday morning, in order to creatively address issues of spiritual renewal, fellowship, outreach, and business;
- That Program and Arrangements Committee be released from the requirements of the Polity updates approved by the 2007 Annual Conference in regards to a strict geographical rotation, allowing them to focus on a handful of locations that maximize sound fiscal stewardship for Annual Conference and attendees by addressing overall costs including, but not limited to, hotel rates, airline costs, and meeting facility costs. If this recommendation is approved, a travel scholarship should be offered by Annual Conference – set by the Program and Arrangements Committee – to every delegate from a congregation west of the Mississippi River;
- That by Annual Conference 2015, Annual Conference officers, with the assistance of Program and Arrangements Committee, will have incorporated the recommendations of the 2007 “Doing Church Business” Paper related to the management of business sessions at Annual Conference, and “discernment groups II in particular. 3 This will require the Nominating Committee of Standing Committee to include in the list of qualifications for moderator-elect the ability to facilitate discernment groups, or a willingness to learn and seek assistance from those who do.
A New Vision
The Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force felt strongly that specific limitations should not be placed on Program Arrangements Committee that might hinder future sound fiscal stewardship for Annual Conference and its attendees. Further, we would prefer that future generations and Annual Conference staff members have the freedom and flexibility to change structural elements of Annual Conference that best promote the fulfillment of the Annual Conference mission statement.
The Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force does have specific ideas of how Annual Conference might look if these recommendations were implemented in the current denominational context, which should not be considered eternally definitive. If the recommendations above are enacted, then the suggested ideas below would become the framework of the answer to the Southern Ohio query: “What ways are there to structure Annual Conference that might more effectively fulfill the mission of Annual Conference to unite, strengthen and equip the Church of the Brethren to follow Jesus?,” and would be respectfully submitted to Program and Arrangements Committee and the Annual Conference staff for implementation.
Annual Conference cannot continue on the same course and serve a vital role in the life of the Church of the Brethren. It cannot thrive or even survive – financially or spiritually – in its current form. We strongly believe that an increase in meaningfulness and inspiration will also increase attendance.
Location. There are clear financial benefits to having three or four reoccurring locations. We do not feel good about the reality that the denomination cannot financially afford to go to the west coast for Annual Conference. In establishing a travel scholarship for delegates from west of the Mississippi River, we hope to continue to encourage the voice of western Brethren to be included and valued. We suggest that the scholarship be established at $150 per delegate and, in light of the fiscal health of Annual Conference, be periodically reviewed by Program and Arrangements Committee.
We also noted that if a set 3-4 year rotation is adopted, this might mean a change from asking the host district to staff all volunteer positions. Rather, individuals with specific skills and gifts might be sought from across the denomination.
Spiritual Life. A desire for spiritual growth was very important to survey respondents. We talked about how to enhance spiritual growth throughout Annual Conference. Spiritual growth does and can happen in many ways at Annual Conference. Another element would be the naming of a spiritual director for Annual Conference, someone who would listen to the spirit of the body during business, coordinate spiritual pauses during business, serve as a consultant on worship, coordinate a prayer room and work with the Annual Conference chaplain.
Schedule. We propose a Wednesday evening to Sunday morning schedule. In the survey results and comments, we heard a strong desire to increase weekend attendance and build towards a strong sending from Annual Conference. This time frame also lent itself well to other ideas the Task Force is proposing for the denomination’s current context. A general description of a proposed schedule is:
Wednesday Afternoon/Evening– Registration/Gathering, Community Meal/ Picnic and Opening Worship; followed by Bible studies/Insights Sessions focused on items of business;
Thursday – Business Session focused on preparation and conversation about business items for delegates and interested persons; with concurrent training opportunities/tracks for local congregational leaders; followed by Evening Worship and Bible studies/Insights Sessions focused on areas of denominational programming and mission as well as stories from local congregational life;
Friday – Day of Service/Witness to the local community; opportunities for earning through visiting local ministries; opportunities for visiting local attractions; also another track of training opportunities in the morning ( allowing delegates to participate); and morning Standing Committee session to follow up on previous day’s delegate conversations; afternoon Business Session for elections and denominational agency/committee reporting; followed by evening of Worship, ice cream, and music/creative presentations, like mini-concerts and video “reports” of the service/witness opportunities;
Saturday– Conclusion of Business Session, with processing of Standing Committee recommendations, and including consecration of new moderator/ elect; concurrent training opportunities/tracks for local congregational leaders; followed by Evening Worship; concluding with a Concert/ Drama/Celebration;
Sunday – Closing Worship/Sending.
Fellowship. Compared to other comparably sized religious conferences, the Church of the Brethren has a very good attendee to delegate ratio. Even if not called to be at Annual Conference by their local congregations there are a significant number of Brethren who come anyway. Many Brethren who come to Annual Conference already create their own fellowship opportunities. The difficulty is that Brethren have tended to create those opportunities within smaller, separate gatherings.
One idea the Task Force heard and appreciated were meal events staged for all conference attendees. In one particular conference where this occurs, it has become a part of the culture of that gathering, an expectation that lunch options will be provided and all attendees will participate.
While we appreciated the idea, we also recognize that relationships and fellowship cannot be mandated. They can be encouraged. To that end we propose beginning Conference with a shared meal. The meal event would be a part of the registration costs, would have a broad time frame for a come-and-go feel, and incorporate a celebration type atmosphere: we have come back together after another year apart!
Theme. It would be helpful for Annual Conference themes to have continuity to enhance our unity of purpose. Even more helpful, Annual Conference themes should relate to the decade long vision statement prepared by the Vision Committee of Standing Committee.
Business. It is dear that we must find a different way to do business. Business as it is happening is not strengthening, equipping, and uniting; the survey results from regular attendees and non-attendees alike were dear on this. It is viewed as conflictive, divisive, and polarizing. One survey respondent said it is weakening the church rather than strengthening the church. The following ideas surfaced as ways of transforming business:
- Empower Standing Committee to view specific items in light of the Annual Conference mission statement by asking the question: “How does this item strengthen, equip, and unite us?” Remind Standing Committee and the Officers of their authority to determine if items are appropriate in light of this question;
- Add a qualification to the query process encouraging congregations/ districts to consider how a particular query strengthens, equips, and unites;
- Move deliberations from debate to conversation by seating delegates at round tables. Encourage a diverse mix of individuals at each table and build opportunities for intentional facilitated dialogue into the process for dealing with business;
- Process an item in conversation around tables. Send notes/recommended amendments to Standing Committee ( on forms signed by the assigned facilitator of a given table), which would then deliberate ( mid-conference, Friday morning?) and craft a recommendation/response to be returned to the floor for (limited) debate and a vote. [See description for possible Friday schedule for activities attendees would be invited to participate in while Standing Committee is discerning]. Significant attention would need to be given to developing the process for conversation around the table to ensure that everyone has a voice. This might alleviate the need for a “Special Response Process” because time for intentional dialogue is built into the process. Standing Committee could come back with a recommendation acknowledging we are not of one mind on a particular issue and a year ( or more) of reflection, study, conversation, and prayer would be helpful. Non-delegates could also participate in “round table” discussions and submit feedback to Standing Committee (their response forms should be a different color than that of delegates). Attention should be given to making sure the minority voice has an opportunity to speak — either through table reports, Standing Committee summaries of table responses, or debate on the Standing Committee recommendation;
- Make available to the moderator a trained process facilitator to assist in guiding the business;
- Agency reports should bring us together and remind us of what unifies us in purpose;
- Intentionally invite youth to participate in this process on one or more business items;
- Provide for a way to regularly review and evaluate the way business is being done. A recommendation for adopting a new way of doing business should specify implementation for a certain number of years followed by a review.
Equipping/Training. When reading the survey results, listening to the concerns raised in the Southern Ohio query, and certainly in light of the Annual Conference mission statement, there is a strong call for more programming to strengthen and equip members for ministry. We also affirmed the idea of setting aside a day away from business in which people could choose from a variety of options – some training, some social, some service/witness. Specific ideas include:
- Offer tracks of coordinated/focused insight sessions;
- Offer one or more significant blocks of training around a rotation of specific themes. These could be concurrent with business sessions since there are many more non-delegates than delegates at Annual Conference. Identify topics that might attract congregational leaders who might not otherwise come to Annual Conference (board chairs, Christian education/nurture chairs, Stewards chairs, youth ministry volunteers/staff, etc.). Topics could include things like family life, evangelism, peacemaking, spiritual formation, etc.;
- Offer tours of local missional/ entrepreneurial churches/ministries;
- Offer fewer insight sessions focused on “show and tell”;
- Of those insight sessions that are offered, offer them more than once;
- Offer a venue for congregations to share stories of congregational mission/ min- istry/ outreach ( community meal, insight sessions, business sessions, etc.).
It would be beneficial to give Program and Arrangements Committee oversight over the totality of these programs, and ask agency staff and local volunteers to plan specific pieces.
Outreach/Witness. Survey results indicated a strong desire to build community and have an impact on the host community. While not mandating specifics, we do feel it is important to follow through on this in some way. Specifics could vary from year to year, depending on location. Long range planning would be important as denominational agencies, districts where Annual Conference is being held, and local congregations consider projects/programs. Although not exhaustive, possibilities might include:
- Sponsor service projects – both out in the community as well as a project or two that could be done in the convention center for persons with mobility issues.
- Offer Mustard Seed Offerings in which participants are given a small cash gift which they can either return as is in an offering or grow. This offering could benefit a local ministry;
- Identify a local ministry or church planting project which conference-goers could support with both time and money;
- Offer social witness events particularly applicable to a certain location;
- Hold a CROP walk.
Possibilities for coordination include: volunteers with past experience (former workcamp staff), or agency staff with related portfolios (Disaster Response, workcamp ). Local volunteers would be invaluable.
Worship. Worship is definitely an important part of Annual Conference, which was confirmed in survey results. We affirmed the following:
- It is important to embrace a variety of worship styles to reflect the preferences of membership;
- It is also important to continue to involve a wide range of people in worship leadership;
- We would encourage continued creativity in planning worship;
- The focus of worship should be on God, not on the particular personalities leading worship.
We noted that Program and Arrangements Committee members responsible for worship, while passionate about worship, may not necessarily have experience and training related to worship. Therefore, they should be empowered to invite one or more persons with that experience to work with them.
Additionally, Program and Arrangements Committee will need to think long range in order to occasionally secure more well-known, outside speakers. We affirm the use of Brethren voices in worship, while recognizing that hearing from other parts of the Christian world is valuable to our worshipping experience. More well-known speakers might also generate higher attendance.
Offering Emphasis. We also expressed a desire to move from the current practice of using at least some of the Annual Conference offerings to offset Annual Conference expenses and to return to the older practice of using Annual Conference offerings to support denominational ministries, perhaps even designating one to support a ministry in the host city.
This will require that Annual Conference be on strong financial footing. While the Task Force is encouraged with the financial direction of Annual Conference, especially if many of the proposals in this report are approved, it may be a few years before this point is reached.
Long-Term Vision. Ultimately, we envision an Annual Conference that:
- Provides a redefinition of our understanding of unity: not that we are necessarily of one mind, but that we are of one purpose;
- Increases participation: Annual Conference becomes an event people want to attend because it is more relevant and it is a place where they are strengthened and equipped;
- Increases congregational vitality: as individual Conference participants are strengthened and equipped for ministry and inspired by visions of what the Church of the Brethren is at its best, they in turn are prepared to strengthen, equip, and inspire their congregations to be their God-given best;
- Improves economics for attendees and planners: decisions about logistics and programming are driven by the mission of Annual Conference rather than finances
- Provides greater opportunities to impact host communities: we do not gather solely for divisive debate, but to actively participate together in God’s mission in the world.
Not only do these ideas provide potential responses to the original Southern Ohio query, they also address many of the questions raised by the committee that prepared the “Doing Church Business” paper. In some form, these ideas address questions of frequency and form, discernment groups and the way in which business sessions are conducted, Bible studies and Insight Sessions related to business items, and length of Conference. In the words of the “Doing Church Business” Study Committee: “As we prayed, as we studied Scripture, as we considered our history, and as we listened to sisters and brothers, we have come to the conclusion that for the spiritual health and well-being of the body, and to enhance and model discerning the mind of Christ, changes need to be made in our manner of meeting.”
We could not agree more. With our unified pursuit of the mind of Christ, exercising sound fiscal stewardship, and engaging in soul-nurturing fellowship, we believe that the future of Annual Conference can be vital and life-giving to the denomination for many generations to come.
Overall the Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force feels that our recommendations, and the possibilities that emerge from them, flow naturally from our research and our attention to the Spirit. We acknowledge that change is always difficult, and sometimes necessary. Further, we note that while the totality of our proposals could represent significant change from current practice, for the most part, the individual components – while having the potential for a significant impact on mood, spirit, and perception – do not feel all that earth-shattering. Most importantly they reflect a commitment to the stated mission of Annual Conference:
Annual Conference exists to unite, strengthen and equip
the Church of the Brethren to follow Jesus
Annual Conference Revitalization Task Force
Chris Douglas, Annual Conference staff
Rhonda Pittman Gingrich, note-taker
Shawn Flory Replogle, facilitator
- For further information, please see “Annual Meeting,” Brethren Encyclopedia; pgs. 32-36.
- 2010 Annual Conference minutes, pg. 222-3.
- 2007 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference minutes, pg. 813.
Action of the 2012 Annual Conference: Annual Conference accepted the recommendation of Standing Committee that Annual Conference receive the report from the Revitalization Task Force with appreciation and that the four recommendations proposed by the task force be approved. (Passed by a 2/3rds vote.)