To: The members of the Conference Design Task Force
From: Rev. Scott Grotewold, Collegiate UMC & Wesley Foundation, Ames
Re: The Information Sharing and Gathering (“Town Hall”) Meetings
It was with great interest that I attended a couple of the Town Hall meetings scheduled by Conference Treasurer Terry Montgomery and including a presentation by the Conference Design Task Force. One of these meetings was held at Collegiate United Methodist Church and Wesley Foundation in Ames (where I serve) on the evening of December 16. About seventy people from the congregation were in attendance, attesting to their understanding of the meeting’s importance with
regards to possible proposals impacting the future of our Conference.
I found the meeting to be an interesting juxtaposition of two different presentations, one by the task force and one by Mr. Montgomery. In the former, it was shared that the task force was appointed by Iowa Conference Bishop Trimble in 2013 for the purpose of aligning the organizational structures and the staff of the Conference for the sake of the mission and vision of the Conference. Further, it was made clear that there were no financial constraints placed on the task force in its considerations. “Saving money” was not part of the charge; being sure that the recently-adopted Strategic Priorities of the Conference could be successfully achieved is
the aim. (The Strategic Priorities center around the establishment of new communities of faith, increasing vitality in existing ones, equipping lay and clergy leaders to disciple others and transform the world, and ensure that our resources are directed toward these goals rather than “chasing rabbits.”)
The Conference Treasurer’s presentation consisted of a number of graphs and tables which served to underscore a message that I and those with whom I’ve visited all interpreted as a bleak one, financially speaking. Church membership and worship attendance have been declining over the past twenty-five years, the percentage of local church budgets dedicated to paying apportionments (the cost of doing Conference-wide staffing, mission and ministry) is higher in Iowa than almost anywhere else in the country, and we are out of time. The Deficit Tsunami is going to crash in on the Iowa Annual Conference unless some dramatic steps are taken.
The interesting (and, in my thinking, unfortunate) juxtaposition of these two different presentations was the inference that the way to address this deficit crisis is for the Conference to cut way back on its funding of what it calls Conference Missions: camp sites, Parish Development, Community and Institutional Ministries, Mission Education, Hispanic Ministries, Volunteers in Mission, Iowa Nigerian Partnership, Justice for Our Neighbors, our historically church-related colleges, Youth Ministries, the funds for the eight district Connectional Ministries Councils, and, yes, Wesley Foundations. Several funding scenarios were presented. Where there were reductions proposed, Conference Missions were hit hardest, eliminating 10.4%, 50.9%, or 98.6% of their budgets, depending on the scenario. By contrast, the “Conference Ministries” section of the budget (including staff salaries, Conference Center upkeep, and administrative expenses) were reduced by only 7.1% to 12.9% in these same scenarios.
The implication of these scenarios is that Conference administration, staffing, and overhead may have to make minor adjustments to their budgets, while Conference Missions will be gutted. (I’d like to note here that just from 2014 to 2015, apportionment receipts to Iowa Wesley Foundations have already been reduced by over 13%.) While it is true that these were “hypothetical” scenarios and not proposals, I would suggest that such is the way seeds get planted.
As part of an episcopal mandate, the task force seems compelled to bring its report to the Annual Conference – perhaps with some additional tweaking to be done this spring – but largely intact. Rev. Mike Morgan, who represented the task force at the town hall meeting, reminded us all of a time when local church pastors resourced one another. Another pastor on the district, for example, had taken a mission trip to Guatemala; another had started a youth program from scratch; another had doubled attendance. They could be experts on whom we could draw. But it was not the task force’s charge to design a staff configuration drawing toward a reduced bottom line.
But under the concern of these looming deficits, I have to ask: why not? Where is the proposal that decides to do more than a token cut back on conference administrative overhead and staff and building expense – so that mission ministry might be more supported?
I have always believed that the church exists to give itself away to others rather than for its own self-sufficiency. Matthew 25 says we will be judged on how the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the strangers welcomed, the prisoners visited, and thirsts quenched – in short, on whether we are the church for others. If we decide to cast our lot with establishing a structure to “save the church,” but do it by sacrificing our established ministries to others, can we really call what we’re trying to save “The Church”?
I keep coming back to a parable I found a number of years ago. I don’t remember the source and I can’t find it – not even when I search The Internets. There was a brand new power plant on the edge of a city. State–of-the-art. All the bells and whistles, utilizing only forms of clean energy: wind turbines, hydro-electric, solar panels. One passer-by noted, “Impressive! Where do you send the power generated?” The plant superintendent replied, “Oh! It takes all the resources we use just to run the power plant!”
At Bishop Trimble’s first Annual Conference in Iowa in 2009, he exhorted us, “You might have to realign your maintenance budget to grow your ministry budget.” I don’t think we’re following that advice.
To be sure, because I have served in campus ministry settings for 26 of my 39 years in ministry, there will be those who are dismissive of my concerns saying that it is I who am is being self-protective – that I am simply trying to preserve funding to Wesley Foundations for self-interested reasons. I’ve heard that before. I have to confess that commitment to the care and nurture of those who are young leaders of the church now and in its future is a part of this. But I was not called to campus ministry; I was appointed to it. I was called to serve the One who implored his followers to give their lives away to the last, the least and the lost – the One who criticized those who were concerned only with their own safety and security. And then he proved that he meant what he said by going and dying on a cross.
Again, I am a poor example of one who is willing to give up his life for the cause. If I am moved from this appointment, current policy assures me that I would be sent to another one. But I do have an abiding concern for the future of the church and for those whose lives are touched by it. I believe in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church, which has – up to this point – held that there is ministry that needs to be done that can not be accomplished by each local church acting independently. Such ministries – international missions, urban and rural aid, campus ministry – comes by the pooling of resources and the deployment of specialized professionals in those settings. The great irony here is that Methodism started exactly as one of those ministries. John Wesley did not set out to start a new church; he set out to light hearts on fire by reaching beyond the established boundaries of the Anglican church. Have we now traveled so far from our roots and our tradition? May God be with us in our discernment.