April 13, 2016
From Bishop Elaine Stanovsky: Some people in the Rocky Mountain Conference wonder why, if Yellowstone is struggling, Rocky Mountain would want to “take on” the struggling Conference. It’s not a matter of one conference taking on the other. From the beginning we have known that declining trends are similar in the two conferences. But creating a new conference isn’t so we can manage decline. It’s to create a strategic partnership to cultivate a new season of Wesleyan vitality.
Take a look at the vital signs Rocky Mountain Statistician, Dennis Shaw prepared for the Mission Shaped Future Committees (below). Both Conferences need to think afresh about how we engage the people outside our churches in the life-giving ministry of Christian discipleship, and how we use resources to do so. Does it make sense to do this work together as a single conference? Could creation of a new conference be the occasion for revival of the Wesleyan Spirit?
A Few Shared Mountain Sky Area Numbers: Local Church Focus
Rev. Dr. C. Dennis Shaw, Rocky Mountain Conference Statistician
On March 15, Bishop Elaine wrote about conference financial numbers. I will lay out local church numbers from our two conferences. I hope these numbers and implications will sustain the change narrative leading to redesign and resourcing a new mission focus that rekindles the fire of a movement.
At the 2014 Rocky Mountain Annual Conference in Pueblo, Colorado, I spoke on unsustainability. I opened with Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher and mathematician. Russell wrote about the need to be “moved emotionally by statistics.” He called the capacity both “rare” and “important.” I offered then, and re-offer today, numbers moved Jesus emotionally to action. Otherwise, why would he have gone looking for the Lost Sheep if he were not moved? I am mindful not all are moved by numbers, it is rare after all. I invite all of us to be open to the potential to be moved emotionally by numbers: they support a return to the Wesleyan movement.
I believe worship attendance provides us a critical measure of vitality: I will linger first on attendance. Because it will be difficult, if not impossible, to transform the world without disciples, I will linger a little on disciple making.
If we use 2005 as a baseline, where was 2014 compared to that baseline for the two conferences? In terms of attendance the answer is: 87 percent and 78 percent, respectively. Said another way, over the past 10 years, Rocky Mountain lost 13 percent average Sunday attendance and Yellowstone lost 22 percent in the same metric.
If our decline in disciple making were comparable with the attendance decline, those declines would be in the range of 13 percent and 22 percent, respectively. It is not. It is, in fact, much worse. Our decline in attendance is modest compared to our decline in the making of new disciples, as the following chart shows:
Conclusion Number 1: Using time as our gauge, both conferences are struggling in disciple-making key vitality metrics.
We see the changes in terms of geography on chart 2.
We see a north to south drop in attendance. Note that Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountain portion of Wyoming are “relatively” close to each other in changes. Peaks and Plains is the next southern district to Wyoming. If not for the impact of Hispanic Ministries in Metropolitan, drops there would have been sharper.
Conclusion Number 2: Our decline is not uniform across the two conferences.
Amidst that bad news I have some good news – but it is good news that is not sustainable indefinitely. If we use attendance as our “per capita” basis, our giving when compared within both conferences over time is quite positive. The people who are remaining are quite generous. We need to avoid the assumption that this increase in the sharing of local ministry expenses can be borne indefinitely; it cannot.
Conclusion Number 3: There will come a point where the cost of operating smaller and smaller churches will not be sustainable by the faithful present.
Both conferences are seeing slow but steady increases in the number of churches that are under 50 in worship attendance. Clearly, there is no “one size fits all” for where average attendance forces churches into less than full-time clergy coverage. However, assuming no debt, full payment of the apportionment, a building in good repair, and “average” clergy compensation, attendance in range of 130 to 135 at average giving levels should be able to sustain full-time clergy support.
The two conferences here are not at the same place. Rocky Mountain appears to be where Yellowstone was in about 1985 or so in terms of attendance distribution. Again, the impact of Hispanic Ministries in Denver, the profound success of Korean American in Colorado Springs, and the fragile but hopeful multi-cultural setting at Adriance in Pueblo (as well as other examples) have mitigated some of these changes for Rocky Mountain.
Conclusion 4: Churches in both Conferences are moving to viability levels that will make pastoral support difficult, if not impossible.
Demographics are a factor here. Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Colorado have enormous areas with low population densities. The total populations of Montana and Wyoming are roughly equal. I believe it is in the long term interest of a new conference to protect and sustain isolated but low attendance churches in order to preserve a Methodist or Wesleyan presence. What was once a very modest, isolated church in Park City, Utah, is now one of the strongest churches in the conference: time worked to our advantage.
Bottom Line: Do we really believe that what we are doing now will suddenly start working? Do we really believe the way we are currently, jointly, configured that we have the resources to actually bring about the leadership development, lay and clergy that will effect change?
Gil Rendle, who is helping the two conferences in our conversations about a potential shared Mission Shaped Future once said: “We don’t know what to do, so we do what we know.” That suggests to me an invitation to a “fresh expression” of how we do church, and a new conference might provide the climate for renewal that includes the confession we no longer think we know everything we need to know about this new world. For certain, there is need for an intentional consideration of past against a new future. On this Calob Rundell of Salida First suggests: “In a way, maybe this is a forced return to our Wesleyan roots of circuit riders covering vast distances and lay led congregations that see clergy once a month, if that. Maybe this is a time to set our laity free to go forth and be the church.”
I am mindful that the proposal for a new conference is potentially disturbing. Martin Linsky in Leadership on the Line writes “leadership requires disturbing people — but at a rate they can absorb.”
Let’s disturb a few people but not at a rate that causes them to say “no” but rather “tell me more.” Let’s disturb a few people at a pace that can maximize absorption and minimize anxiety.
I know some will see this analysis and recommendations, reflexively, as promoting anxiety. But who gets to define anxiety? Anxiety might be the reaction by the status quo to a call for urgency. MIT change expert John Kotter posits that urgency is required to bring about change. Change by definition will make a difference, by altering the status quo. Anxiety is a possibility given the human condition to cling to what we think we know. If we don’t want to allow the most anxious presence to seize power, and we don’t, we also don’t wish to empower too few to define anxiety, at least without a conversation.
I wonder if on addressing the hard work of change, and at the same time trying to minimize the anxiety, some of us haven’t become numb to the numbers. Linsky writes: “The most difficult work of leadership involves learning to experience distress without numbing yourself. The virtue of a sacred heart lies in the courage to maintain your innocence and wonder, your doubt and curiosity, and your compassion and love even through your darkest, most difficult moments.” It is an observation that warrants us to linger, even if only briefly, in reflection and discernment.
Janet Forbes of St. Luke’s UMC in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, asks in the context of a new conference: “What if we actually stop doing some things in order to do the most important things?” Janet is right. There are many things that can and should be sacrificed so that we can get on with the most important things: deployment of competent and transformative lay and clergy leadership ready to lead churches that are focused on transformation through Jesus Christ.
I am not sure when the precise “tipping point” is on turning around our unsustainable trends. I suspect it is in the next fifteen years or so. In my trip to and discussions with Nashville, it is my perception that the national church is moving to an idea that the best strategy is local, contextual, and more adaptive. I like that. We now have an opportunity to let go of values that are anachronisms and baggage that bogs us down. There are potentially some who might say, not now. I offer: If not now, when?
‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’ is, perhaps apocryphally, attributed to an unnamed Hopi elder. Apocryphal or not: I believe it falls to us, we here now, to rekindle the movement that once burned with so much intensity and power. I believe we can. I believe the numbers speak with a voice of urgency. I believe the numbers are a call, to us, ‘we are the ones,’ we few, for local, contextual and adaptive action. There are potentially some who might say, not us. I offer: If not us, who?
After reviewing a draft of this paper, Jeff Richards at Cheyenne Faith offered me the gift of an excellent bottom line that I share with us now. “The present cannot remain the present, but in the future is the God that calls us toward God’s self. Yes, we must move to a place of faithful anxiety, but, if the Gospel stories of the resurrection teach us anything, it is within that anxiety of something outlandishly new, is the movement of the Spirit. The recognitions and changes you invite require a leap of faith. We also need a proclamation of hope, a renewed trust that God is on the other end waiting to catch us in that leap of faith. With that kind of proclamation, we can turn to the future most faithfully.” Amen.