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.