Thursday, July 01, 2010

What's the Future of Judicatory Gatherings?

For my denomination, summer is the time for annual Conference gatherings. Quick UCC polity note: while the local church has the ultimate final say for itself, it is grouped with others geographically into Associations and Conferences. At the Conference level, representatives get together every year for an annual gathering featuring worship, workshops, some business items, networking, yadda yadda yadda.

The Ohio Conference Annual Gathering was held a few weeks ago at Heidelberg University in Tiffin (Go Berg!). I didn't attend, because I haven't felt inspired to go in a number of years. I like going to our Association gatherings because I like running into colleagues, it's not as far of a drive, it's not an overnight, and I generally feel much more connected to the Association than the Conference. All that, and a Conference gathering a few years ago that they decided to hold in a reception hall rather than Heidelberg turned me off to the enterprise. Oh, and the cost. Yeah, the cost has been a factor, too.

Anyway, I didn't go. From what I understand there were around 90 people who attended. That's 90 individuals out of 300+ churches in the largest UCC Conference (at least I think we're still the biggest).

I recall Bill Hulteen making a comment while he was Acting Conference Minister that Seiberling Gymnasium at Heidelberg used to be packed for these meetings. Now they don't need the bleachers at all. There's a core group of older folks whom one can count on seeing there. If I'd attended, I'd easily have been one of the youngest there.

To my Conference's credit, it is realizing something about this and has been trying to reinvent the gathering the past few years. Rather than a two-day business meeting, organizers have tried to make it more of an opportunity for people to have conversation around common interests: rural pastors, urban pastors, justice issues, etc. I can't speak to how well this has worked the past few years. My guess is that many people still haven't yet been enticed due to many of the same reasons I listed above.

It's that same cultural shift that has affected churches and denominations in other ways. People don't identify as strongly with denominations and can't justify to themselves making the trip to gatherings of this nature.

I doubt that my Conference's experience is unique. And while I don't want to universalize my reasons for skipping out on this meeting, I'm betting that there's a certain amount of commonality among others who skip as well. I wonder if other denominations are dealing with this at the middle judicatory level as well.

So what's the future of these things? What happens when there's no core group of older, dedicated folks any more? It's a question for local churches, but denominations have a different sort of challenge when trying to answer.

4 comments:

Rachel said...

I'm from across the border in Penn West Conference and we're experiencing the same type of decline. The most recent meeting that I just attended was painful and tragic, making a small, dwindling conference look even worse than what it actually is.

Steve Swope said...

Wow, memories good and sad in this post. I remember the late Bill Hulteen; I started attending Ohio's Annual Gathering in 1973 and only missed a few through 1995. I remember going to Nappi's Pizza every year on Monday night, filling the place and singing hymns over beer and pizza until they closed. This was back when Ohio still had 500-some churches; now it's around 400...sad.

"Re-inventing" is just another way to say "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." The real problem is that mid-level judicatories are no longer seen, by many people, as being valuable enough as settings for mission and witness.

There's some reason for that, particularly in harder economic times. Tons of need at the local level, more than most churches can handle. And, in my opinion, Conferences have not done well at providing broad "value." Particularly in Ohio, where Associations are/were as strong as most Conferences, it can be just another layer of bureaucracy. It didn't really fund camps or colleges; it didn't have anything to do with pastoral placement. And traditional/conservative points of view - long held in many Ohio churches - were less and less respected and listened to; the "community" deteriorated.

I'm no longer sold on the idea that denominations must survive, particularly in their present form. Some years ago Barbara Brown Zikmund wrote an article in The Christian Century about ways in which denominations were antiquated and inefficient, even counter-productive to their mission. And yet we still "re-invent" and "restructure" as if we were the be-all and end-all.

Keith said...

I'm relatively young ( under 30) and attended our conference's meeting for two years. It tried to be valuable too-- a big worship service plus afternoon workshops.

But it was expensive and a long drive, and though I cared about the work, it is hard to justify going back.

The entire business meeting 1) could have been done via the internet and 2) was mostly rubberstamping something already proposed. Perhaps if something more controversial had been proposed, it might have been valuable to talk with other delegates, but the format (short speeches, etc) is not likely to get very deep about much.

Steve Swope said...

Hmm, we may differ here, Keith. I attended the Ohio Conference meetings in the 70's, back when "controversial" topics were all the rage.

Unfortunately, I believe they were part of the demise of the Conference (and by extension, the UCC).

It's not that "justice" is a bad thing, for instance. But that across the denomination, we have some different ideas about how to achieve it.

And if "our" denominational officials really want to represent and serve all of us, maybe they need to be a little more tentative with some of what they say, and at the very least, do a better job of "selling" what they believe to all of us before stamping it as "the UCC opinion."

IMO, the divisiveness has contributed to poor attendance at Conference gatherings, because our positions have trumped our relationships.