(May 8, 2007) — The Inter-Agency Forum of the Church of the Brethren marked its 10th anniversary as the group met April 26-27 in Elgin, Ill. The forum was created by the Standing Committee of Annual Conference in 1998, and meets annually to serve as a coordinating group for the life and activities of the Church of the Brethren by providing links among agencies.
All 16 members were present for the meeting including Ron Beachley, chair and past moderator of Annual Conference; the Conference officers moderator Belita Mitchell, moderator-elect Jim Beckwith, and secretary Fred Swartz; Lerry Fogle, executive director of the Conference; Sandy Bosserman of the Council of District Executives; and the executives and board chairs of each of the Annual Conference agencies–Kathy Reid and Wally Landes for the Association of Brethren Caregivers, Gene Roop and Anne Murray Reid for Bethany Theological Seminary, Wil Nolen and Harry Rhodes for the Brethren Benefit Trust, Stan Noffsinger and Jeff Neuman-Lee for the General Board, and Bob Gross and Bev Weaver for On Earth Peace.
On the agenda for this meeting were discussions relating to the effectiveness and future of Annual Conference, the mentoring of potential denominational leadership, implications of several reports coming to the 2007 Conference, outreach challenges for the denomination in relation to the 300th anniversary year, and the call for the church to be more inclusive.
Annual Conference executive director Lerry Fogle reported a steady decline in Conference attendance over the past several years. In response, the forum gave overall support for the Conference but agreed that there needs to be some new ways of doing Conference, such as enhanced worship, more involvement of youth, more insight-type sessions, and consideration of various options for altering the annual status of the meeting, for example, alternating years of a full Conference with years of a delegate-only Conference.
The idea of a program of mentors for young adults and others who may show or express an interest in serving in denominational leadership was initially suggested to the General Board by a Bethany Seminary student. One of the concerns that prompted this idea was the need to have more minority persons in leadership. Forum members affirmed their willingness to provide such mentoring and to be alert to opportunities to do so, and said that mentoring also needs to be encouraged at the local and district levels where it may be easier to accomplish than at the denominational level.
The forum looked at several recommendations coming to Conference from the Review and Evaluation Committee, including a reuniting of the program agencies and the Annual Conference Council under one board of directors for the denomination. There was a common concern that Conference delegates need to have more information on the work of the agencies before making their decision, and that there be no compromise of the agencies’ integrity with their constituents. Agencies are in conversation with the Review and Evaluation Committee to provide this material.
Forum members expressed support for a General Board initiative, sparked by a suggestion from the Missouri/Arkansas District, that calls the Church of the Brethren to consider new mission goals to mark the 300th Anniversary celebration. Included are a challenge to settle 300 refugees during the anniversary year 2008, to call 300 new ministers in the next 10 years, to have 300 more youth participate in work camps in 2008, to recruit 300 more Brethren Volunteer Service workers in 2008, and to invite every member of the denomination to contribute $300 in 2008 to make these challenges a reality.
Issues relating to the inclusiveness of the denomination, especially acceptance of gay and lesbian members, commanded a lengthy discussion. It was observed that the emotions and fears currently accompanying opposing viewpoints on the issue are a real hindrance to a constructive, face-to-face denominational discussion, and that the Church of the Brethren communion, which values its biblical heritage, needs to find ways to study the scriptures together, accepting the Conference recognition that not all agree in the interpretation of scriptures. Forum members also observed that the church’s strength and unity often has been enhanced and expressed by coming together in concrete acts of mission and service.
The forum also received a presentation from Carl Desportes Bowman, project director, and professor of Sociology at Bridgewater (Va.) College, who reported results of the “Brethren Member Profile 2006.” The study, based at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College’s Young Center for the Study of Anabaptist and Pietist Groups, has been supported by the Annual Conference agencies, with generous funding from the other denominations included in the broader “Church Member Profile” project: the Mennonite Church USA and the Brethren in Christ.
The forum’s next meeting is scheduled for April 23-24, 2008, in Elgin, Ill.
–Fred Swartz serves as secretary of Annual Conference and recorder for the Inter-Agency Forum.