Recommendations for Revitalization of Annual Conference Are Accepted

Photo by Glenn Riegel
The Annual Conference officers join in singing a hymn during the business sessions. The singing of hymns and prayer marked the discussions of Conference business.

If Annual Conference is to survive and thrive, planners will need to make some changes according to a Revitalization Task Force report. One of the most significant is that economic realities will limit the number of future Conferences held west of the Mississippi.

“There is as strong belief among us,” said task force facilitator Shawn Flory Replogle, “that Annual Conference in its totality is not all that it could be.” He concluded, “The point of the report is to lay a flexible foundation for Conference to be renewed.”

By a nearly unanimous vote, delegates affirmed a recommendation from Standing Committee to “receive the report from the Revitalization Task Force with appreciation and that the four recommendations proposed by the Task Force be approved.”

The first two recommendations affirm the current length (four nights) and timing (June/July) of Annual Conference. The third releases Conference planners from polity approved in 2007 that required a strict geographical rotation covering the entire US. Instead, under the new recommendation, Conference may be rotated among a handful of locations that “maximize sound fiscal stewardship for Annual Conference and attendees”–presumably ruling out most western sites.

As part of the recommendations that were accepted, the Program and Arrangements Committee is charged with offering travel scholarships for all delegates west of the Mississippi River. Replogle acknowledged that western congregations have the most to lose from the proposal, and that the scholarship provision was made in sensitivity to that fact. Currently, he said, 74 delegates would be eligible for scholarships, which would be funded from Conference registration fees.

Fourth, the report charges Conference officers and the Program and Arrangements Committee by 2015 to implement the many recommendations pertaining to management of business sessions found in the 2007 “Doing Church Business” statement. That statement sought to move “from issue-focused Conferences to relationship-centered Conferences,” according to the Task Force.

Photo by Regina Holmes
Past moderator Shawn Flory Replogle, who helped lead a Revitalization Task Force doing envisioning for improvements to Annual Conference, presents the four recommendations that were approved by the delegates.

The Revitalization Task Force was appointed by the denomination’s Leadership Team in 2010 to conduct and analyze research, assess the long-term viability of Annual Conference, and make recommendations about the Conference mission statement and core values and possible alternatives for the format. The concern of a 2010 query from Southern Ohio District, asking how Annual Conference might more successfully fulfill its mission, also was referred to the task force. Replogle summarized the group’s job as doing research, studying trends, and thinking outside the box.

The 15-page paper affirms the current mission statement–“Annual Conference exists to unite, strengthen, and equip the Church of the Brethren to follow Jesus”–and then addresses challenges to achieving that mission and ways those challenges might be overcome. The recommendations grew out of a review of existing statistical data and additional information gathered through an online survey completed by 300 respondents.

Key findings of the survey included:

— Worship, fellowship, and business (in that order) are the most highly valued components of Annual Conference, but the church needs to find a less polarizing way of doing business.

— High costs limit attendance.

— People are largely satisfied with the Conference length and June/July timing.

— Brethren believe many myths about the costs of Conference (which the task force sought to debunk).

In addition to recommendations, the document includes a section called “A New Vision” offering a variety of ideas for future Conference planners to consider. Among suggestions are rotating Conference among three or four recurring locations, naming a spiritual director charged with enhancing spiritual growth through Conference, reinstituting a Wednesday through Sunday schedule, beginning Conference with a shared meal for all, coordinating Conference themes with the denomination’s vision statement, several ideas related to conducting business including increased use of delegate seating at round tables to invite conversation, increased opportunities for training for participants and service and outreach to host communities, more long-range planning for worship to obtain nationally known speakers, utilizing offerings entirely for support of denominational ministries and outreach, rather than using a portion to support costs of Conference, and more.

Delegates spent several minutes discussing the paper in table groups before sharing affirmations and concerns with the whole body. Much of the discussion was on ways to reduce or share costs of Conference. An amendment that sought to expand the offer of Conference scholarships to small churches, regardless of location, was defeated.

Members of the Revitalization Task Force were Becky Ball-Miller, Chris Douglas (staff), Kevin Kessler, Rhonda Pittman Gingrich, and Shawn Flory Replogle.

Don Fitzkee is a volunteer writer on the news team for Annual Conference and a member of the Church of the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board

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