Saving Regional Conferences
I predict that unless regional conferences make a major course correction, they will be irrelevant in 10 to 20 years, should the Lord delay His coming.
What’s the problem? Some may not even feel that there is a problem. But if you do, I offer some preliminary thoughts on a possible solution.
I do believe that the regional work is soon to be in trouble. I say this as one who started his ministry in a regional conference and remains an employee of regional conferences. I say this as a product, not only of Christian education, but of African-American educational institutions from elementary school, through high school and college. I say this as a student of Black liturgy, a member of the Black Church and one whose ministry has been largely dedicated to reaching the African-American. I say this as one who purchased a home in a city whose demographic is 72 percent African-American.
Please do not misunderstand my prediction of the ensuing irrelevance of regional conferences as being the product of some misguided idealism that we now live in a post-racial America. There could be nothing further from the truth. We did not move beyond the consideration of race with the election of Barack Obama. We can see now how racist tea party Republicans hate this Black president. They run from every good idea he presents like the devil runs from holy water (to use a Paul Begala witticism).
Nor am I not predicting the coming irrelevance of regional conferences because I think regional conferences are no longer needed. On the contrary, I believe they are needed as much now as ever.
The question is whether they will make the exigent internal shifts that will allow them to once again thrive.
Let me hasten to say that do not believe that regional conferences will be gone in 20 years. Ineluctable irrelevance does not equal immediate extinction. I believe that like certain mainline denominations, regional conferences will have enough assets to die a very slow death. There will be enough assets in 20 years for regional conferences to survive for another generation.
But surviving is not what the church was founded by Christ to do. Our call is to grow by making disciples.
There is a stagnation in the regional work. If disciple-making follows baptism, the fact that we are not baptizing significantly and consistently is an indication that we are discipling even fewer.
Many of our baptisms are not of the people we were founded to reach. Those who are coming to us from the islands are bonus. We are happy to have them. But regional conferences were founded for the purpose of outreach to African-Americans. Why are regional conferences, on a whole, doing such a poor job at reaching African-Americans?
WE LEARNED THE GOOD AND THE BAD FROM PARENT ORGANIZATION
The problem with regional conferences is related to the larger problem of the denomination, the allocation of resources. Plain and simply, we don’t have enough frontline workers engaged in reaching those who have yet to come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
We have made the mistake of adopting the corporate mindset of denominational leadership. In state conferences pastoring is a stepping stone to a life of administration or professorship. Many of the leaders outside the regional work have less than ten years of pastoral experience. Some, less than five! Now these amateurs at pastoring are the ones who control the flow of resources and set the agenda for what it is pastors are supposed to do. These administrators make a corporate career out of the church. History shows that when they stopped focusing on their churches as being God’s appointed agencies for the salvation of men, they started dying. Our brothers and sisters outside regional conferences stopped reaching their own people a generation ago.
And we are quickly following them to similar irrelevance.
SEND THE MONEY UP. SEND THE STAFF DOWN.
What’s the solution?
I know some probably think that I’m going to talk about sending tithe dollars back to the local congregation. (That could work, but that’s not my proposal.) My Mom says, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s a crude maxim, but you get the point. There is more than one way to fix what’s broken. I would suggest to you that we don’t need to send one tithe dollar back to the local church, though that discussion deserves merit and consideration on its own. But due to current policies that prevent that, the solution that regional conferences have the power to effect rather quickly is to simply shift our people resources.
If we spend 90% of our local conference budgets on salaries, the answer is to place your people where they will advance the mission and grow the local churches that comprise the conference.
Now whenever a radical departure from the status quo is presented, people spend most of their energy pulling it apart and trying to poke holes in it. But poking holes in possible solutions doesn’t solve anything. It simply delays the inevitable.
HOW DO YOU STREAMLINE CONFERENCE OFFICES?
I believe that most conference departments should be phased out. Conferences are too large to have one person serving as a Family Life, Youth, or Sabbath School leader. The people we put in these positions take a salary, have a travel budget, maintain an office staff, all of which requires expenses related to the execution of their responsibilities. But how effective can one person be in meeting the needs of an entire conference that covers multiple states? It does not work. It’s too much territory for one person to adequately cover.
So, I believe we ought to do away with most departments and select pastors within the regions of the conference who have demonstrated success in the areas where we currently have conference departmental leaders.
What would that look like? The pastor who is best at reaching youth, would be the youth leader for his or her particular region of the conference. It would cut down on travel expenses because that person doesn’t have to cover the entire conference, only his or her region. There is greater accountability because he or she is able to interact more often with the youth leadership from the churches in the area. And the conference could give a little extra salary to that pastor for the extra work being done. That good pastor is still a pastor, still baptizing and discipling people.
What is true of the youth leader is true of the family life leader. People who really need counseling can’t run back and forth between the conference office for multiple weeks of counseling. It’s not practical. Instead of keeping a family therapist or counselor at the conference office, we send the pastor back into a church and make him the counselor on retainer for the churches in his area. He gets a little extra for the extra work counseling. But each area then puts Christian counselors on retainer. Now we have six (rather than one) licensed counselor that the pastors can refer situations to. The counselor does not work for the conference. The counselor is available when people need counseling. The counselor could offer two sessions at no charge to the patient because the conference has retained them. If the members want to continue, they can then work out an acceptable financial arrangement with the counselor. At the end of the day, they’ll get more out of those two sessions with a local therapist than they can realistically get out of a relationship with a therapist located out at the conference office.
I have given two examples with the youth department and the family life ministries. The same is true of Sabbath School, Prison Ministries, Personal Ministries, Health and Temperance, Media, etc.
So what happens to all those departmental directors, all those SALARIES? Well, they return to churches. They were trained to be pastors. Many of them were very good pastors. We send them back to these unstaffed or understaffed churches because we want our churches to grow.
This is where we have to keep our eyes on the prize. We need to be about growth. And churches need staff to organize volunteers to do effective ministry. If we have staff that know they are called by God to reach the lost and bring those yet unchurched persons to Him, our numbers are bound to increase. We just need to get those workers off the back line and back out onto the front line.
THERE IS A BLURRING OF LINES
Now here is another place where I believe regional conferences will become irrelevant if they don’t change. State conferences are courting talented African-American pastors. And the regional retirement plan isn’t quite enough to make those pastors say no. The state conferences still have some real estate in cities, where the vast majority of African-Americans reside. If state conferences are willing to put resources (staff) in the local churches where African-American pastors are reaching African-Americans, state conferences will have positioned themselves better at reaching the very demographic that we (regional conferences) exist to reach.
The lives of urban poor African-Americans can be quite complex. They require more services to disciple. If they or their family members have struggles with drugs, that takes support. If they have children they are raising as a single parent, they need support. If they have not completed their degree, they need support. If they weren’t taught how to regulate intense emotions, they need mentoring. Adventism is a largely suburban person’s religion where middle class individuals have enough income earning power to get their own babysitter, therapist, lawyer, etc. But if regional conferences are serious about reaching Black people in cities, many of those people come into the church with needs that are too many and too complex for one staff person to adequately handle.
If a state conference gives multiple staff to a predominantly Black church on their conference roster, they will have positioned themselves to do a better job at reaching Black people than the church that is in the regional conference who leaves their staff up at the conference office rather than on staff in a church.
We have choices, people. We can keep making excuses for why we can’t do it. We can tell people like me that I have no idea what it’s like to sit on “this side of the table.” We can enumerate all of the challenges and just let time kick our legs out from under us. Or we can make some touch decisions today, begin to correct our course and focus our resources and energies on reaching the very people we say we as regional conferences exist to reach.
If you combine what I have written with the Xer and millennial generation’s attitude not only toward gender but also race, you will see that I’m not a prophet, I’m simply a prognosticator.
Irrelevant. In 20 years. Mark my words. But I hope that we never get to it because leaders, pastors and lay members will push their conferences to not only study these trends, but to make hard decisions about how funds are utilized and, more importantly, where staff are placed and held accountable. I hope that we make the change to shifting unnecessary personnel from conference offices back to churches where every member is baptized, where their babies are blessed, their weddings are legitimized and their dead are memorialized.
OK. THEN WHAT?
What happens when the churches start to grow again? Do we just keep adding staff? The answer is both yes and no. We add critical staff until the church has sufficient staff to organize its volunteers for effective and sustainable ministry. (How many I think a church needs to be staffed is an article for another day.)
Once the conference has staffed its churches, then the conference should study areas that need a healthy church. Take my conference, there are significant African-American populations in Allentown and Lancaster, but the Allegheny East Conference has no church in either city. We would put a staff of, say, three pastors there for three years to start a church. If those three young pastors did nothing but knock on doors and offer Bible studies for the entire first year, they would have a company by the end of the year. They could spend the next two years building it up.
FACE THE FACTS
Why do I write these things? Because I believe we have to do something besides talk about how difficult it is to do anything. Of course, it’s going to be difficult to make change! But if we don’t change, we won’t be around. (And if we are around, we’ll be irrelevant.) Which is worse?
Let us be clear, the aging of our most consistent givers is a fact staring us in the face. More than fifty percent of our giving comes from baby boomers. The baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) will be between 59 and 77 years old in another 10 years. If more than 50% of our giving comes from them, the overwhelming majority of our budget will be gone in 10 years. The war generation will be dead. The boomers will be retired, retiring, dead or dying. While we face that reality, let us also take note that many of the Gen Xers and Millennials have not yet seen the relevance of the regional conference to systematically support it with their tithes and offerings.
How do we make the church relevant to the Gen X and the Millennial generations? Put human resources at local churches. When the children of Xers and Millennials are discipled by youth pastors and families are strengthened because there is counseling support provided to help them navigate the complexities of life, the purse strings will be loosened. These generations want to see how their giving makes an impact.
Something to think about. To pray about. To act upon because if we do nothing, the problem will not simply go away.