Mission: the Answer to the Regional Conference Debate
It Must Be About Mission: My Contribution to the Regional Conference Debate
"You are entitled to nothing!" That's a line from the stump speech of the fictional President Frank Underwood. He is trying to shift the focus of the domestic agenda from entitlement programs to an ambitious jobs program called "America Works." The idea is there ought be no welfare for any able-bodied person. The Underwood Administration wants the government to subsidize employers so that all Americans can both enjoy the dignity of work and earn an income that allows them to feed their families.
Entitlement. It is a word that has come to have a negative connotative meaning. When we employ the phrase "a sense of entitlement" the words roll off our lips dripping with disdain. Why? Because society has no shortage of people who move through life with a sense of entitlement. Many times that sense of entitlement was bequeathed to them by well-meaning parents. Parents, who themselves had a hard scrabble beginning. Parents who worked hard to do well for themselves and their families. But parents, who unfortunately, created little monsters who go through life feeling that the world owes them something. When we come upon one of these people we want to point our fingers in their faces and repeat Underwood's phrase, "You are entitled to nothing!"
As the dialogue regarding the relevance of state conferences and regional conferences continues, I would like to introduce a different perspective. Can we move away from the repetition of misunderstood history or even the sentimental idealism and talk about mission effectiveness? I do not agree with the influential preacher who reignited this dialogue, but I am grateful that we are having the discussion. And while it's uncomfortable, we need to have an answer for why we exist. And we need to examine whether we are accomplishing said mission.
When we reflect upon the founding of most conferences we remember that they were started by pioneers who were prayerful, courageous and sacrificial for the sake of reaching the lost with the Good News. While I speak most knowledgeably about regional conferences, I would venture to say that the same is true of the founders of state conferences.
The generations of leaders that have followed these pioneers are like the children of those hard scrabble parents who left things better for their children than they found them. Today's conference leaders have not had the struggle of the founders. They inherited the leadership of conferences with dozens of employees, multi-million dollar budgets and assets. What is missing is a drive and focus born of a sense of mission.
"We exist because …"
Every leader should be able to finish the sentence "We exist because…" Think about it: conferences have spiritual stewardship over ten cents of EVERY dollar EVERY member in its territory faithfully returns.
God calls His people to be faithful to Him. The church is the storehouse. Those tithe dollars are to be used to build up the Kingdom of God. Let me be clearer. Tithe dollars should be used to hire ministers who equip the saints for their ministries (Ephesians 4:11-13). "The church is God's appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world" Ellen White, Acts of the Aposltes, page 9.
Churches exist to save people. A conference of churches exists to help churches be more effective at carrying out its mission to save people. That's it. The conference exists to help the church. Somewhere along the way things got turned upside down. I'm not sure when it happened, but one doesn't have to be around the denomination too long to figure out that churches now exist to serve the conference. Sadly, the mission of the church has become the slave of the institution of the church. The horse needs to be before the cart. Time to restore mission to its rightful place.
Conference leaders owe it to the Lord of the church to stay in dialogue with pastors and churches. A career administrator won't understand what's needed the way a pastor in the trenches knows unless she or he continually asks. They should be inquiring about what they can do as trustees of the storehouse to assist pastors and churches to help members bring their friends, relatives, acquaintances and neighbors into relationship with Jesus Christ.
Beyond continually asking these questions, conference leaders ought to be allocating resources around the answers to those questions. If a conference isn't asking those questions and measuring its effectiveness, the conference has unknowingly become an impediment to the accomplishment of the very mission it exists to promote.
Dear State Conference, you are entitled to nothing! An … uh … umm, Dear Regional Conference, you too are entitled to nothing! Your rich history does not entitle you to continue to receive ten cents on every dollar God's people earn if you're not prayerfully managing those resources to help the lost come into a saving relationship with Jesus.
How much of your annual operating budget is directed at evangelism (winning to people to Christ) and discipleship (educating people in the ways of Christ and equipping them to, in turn, win others to Christ)? Jesus said in Matthew 6:21: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
I am not in a state conference, but I am in a regional conference. Historically, our raison d'etre is to reach unsaved African-Americans, not exclusively, but intentionally. Because of migration, millions of African-Americans now live in the nation's cities. If our heart, our passion, is on reaching our people, do our budgets as African-American administered conferences reflect that? If we're doing what we were established to do, by all means, let us continue.
While these words may make you squirm, I am trying to say that we have a responsibility to God. The discussion is too often framed in terms of loyalty to these historic institutions while forgetting that these institutions are only temporary constructs that exist to bring people into relationship with an Immortal God. The tithe is holy. That means it belongs to God. The organization is not "entitled" to do as it pleases with those dollars. God's heart bleeds for the lost (John 3:16). Every state conference and every regional conference ought to recommit itself to accomplishing its God-given mission. Focusing on mission means CUTTING staff, events, expenditures that are absorbing resources that ought to be used for mission.
God, give us the courage to examine ourselves! Are we on mission? Are we as committed as our founders to the mission of seeing the lost saved? If not, give us the clarity and courage to change. Don't let us excuse ourselves because change is hard. Touch our hearts that we may once again be willing to sacrifice our own comfort in order that we may steer the "ole Ship of Zion" back onto course. Take away the tendency to trod the well-worn path of least resistance doing only what our immediate past predecessors have done and give us an eye single to Your mission and mandate, even if it hurts. Help us to press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.