Mountain Sky Outlook: To-Gether or To-Part? A Lenten Journey Toward a Mission-Shaped Future
February 8, 2016
This week Christians begin the annual 6-week Lenten journey with Jesus to Holy Week and Easter. It starts on Ash Wednesday when some of us will receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign that we aren't as great as we think we are and a reminder that life is short. And we might take on "practices" that help us reflect and put us back into right relationship with God.
In June the lay and clergy members of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences will decide whether to ask for permission to create one Mountain Sky Annual Conference. My Lenten discipline will be to prepare you to make this decision with the best information available, and in a spirit of wisdom and courage. It is spiritual work because I will prayerfully listen to God's leading, remember the many steps that brought us to this decision point, peer into the future to imagine what possibilities and pitfalls might lie ahead, and then try to put it into words that will invite you into your own discernment and a holy conversation.
TO-GETHER or TO-PART?
Years ago one of our young sons coined the term: TO - PART. It is the obvious alternative to to-gether. He would ask: To-gether? Or to-part? Like, are the toy train cars to-gether or to-part? Or, will we drive to-gether in one car, or to-part in two cars?
Will the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain Annual Conferences seek a future to-gether as one conference, or to-part, remaining separate? This question raises a lot of other questions about distances, staff, offices, liabilities, clergy salaries and benefits, representation in the general church. I'll try to respond to these in the weeks ahead.
I believe that the two conferences should become one Mountain Sky Annual Conference, to-gether. But it's not my decision. The two annual conferences, along with the Western Jurisdictional Conference will make the decision. My role is not to convince anyone of anything, but as your bishop to show you what I see as one who knows and watches over both conferences in love. I'll do all this through a series of Mountain Sky Outlooks that will be posted on my website along with other voices and perspectives.
I am at least the third bishop, following bishops Swenson and Brown, to encourage the two conferences to consider becoming one. Along with much of The United Methodist Church in the U.S.A., the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences have experienced steady decline in key vital signs for many years. In both conferences, each year fewer people give more money to support the ministries of the church locally and globally. These trends are not sustainable.
Bishop Brown’s 2001 reflections on the Yellowstone Conference
- There is some real concern for the life/health/future for the Yellowstone Conference. It comes up like fear and foreboding.
- I’m seeing a number of churches that don’t know if they’re going to be here next year.
- Yellowstone has 135 churches. Of those, 85 are 100 or less in membership.
- We’re at the bottom of the clergy pay scale in the US.
Rocky Mountain 2013 Statistician’s Report, by Rev. Dennis Shaw
The number of people who worship in the Rocky Mountain Conference has been on a steady decline. During 2013 worship attendance fell by over 800, which was the 2nd largest annual loss in a decade. Over that time more than 4,000 have left our pews. Much of the decline has flowed from a few of our larger churches. In 2013, twelve churches lost 600 worshippers.
Leaders of the Conferences have looked for strategies to turn things around. Both conferences have experimented with shifting staff configurations, changing district boundaries, new program initiatives. So far, we have not found our way out of decline.
I believe that God is still at work through the United Methodist Churches of the Mountain Sky Area. As disciple-leaders we are charged with noticing what God is up to, and doing the work. That’s what the conversation should be about: joining God at a time when many people are finding their way to faith outside our churches.
God give us the courage to follow where you lead.
We can’t go on like this. Both Conferences are on an unsustainable path of decline. Young people are not institutionally oriented the way their parents’ and grandparents’ were. They are spiritually alive and curious, but they do not expect to find the social diversity, the culture of grace and the spiritual engagement they seek in our churches. What we know how to do will not raise up a new generation of disciples of Jesus Christ to change the world.
IS THERE NO HOPE? Never! But we must face the cold hard facts before we can begin to have the vision and courage we will need to follow Jesus where he is leading us.
Bishop Elaine J. W. Stanovsky