This is the first of three emails I will be writing you to provide an “Interim Executive Conference Minister’s Report” at the four-month mark of my time here in the Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota Conferences of the UCC. This email will focus on the staffing pattern for the Tri-Conference Ministries (TCM) that serve our conferences in the coming year. Other emails will focus on our finances/stewardship and Search and Call/church transitions.
It is my hope that these emails will provide information and transparency about our ministry together.
Four days before I started my position as your Interim Conference Minister and Executive Conference Minister (ECM) in August, I attended a meeting at the invitation of the Acting ECM Rev. Bob Molsberry. In this meeting we learned a great deal about our finances and the short-term and long-term trajectory of Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) and ministry. It was at that point that I realized the TCM was in a difficult situation and the changes that were needed to stabilize the ministry and create a sustainable future would be significant. From the beginning I also began hearing from churches about the desire to have more focus on and responsiveness to the local churches and authorized ministers in our conferences.
It was these two issues: (1) Desire for increased focus on local churches, and (2) living within a balanced and sustainable budget, that initiated the discussion and discernment around our staffing pattern in the TCM.
A couple points:
- It was clear to me that we did not have enough resources to “do Conference Ministry” the way we had done it before, and in fact, we didn’t have enough resources to do it how any Conference in the UCC was doing that ministry. We would have to think differently and be creative while doing all we could to meet the needs and hopes of our local churches and authorized ministers.
- It was also clear we would not be able to sustain our current staffing model. All the OCWM we had received last year would not even pay the salary and benefits of current staff. So unfortunately that meant we would have to reduce staffing positions.
- These changes would require us to think about “Conference” differently. It means we need to move from “the Conference” to “our Conference.” The idea of Ecclesiastical Neighbors and “Neighboring” as a theological and practical concept needs to become part of our approach to caring and supporting one another.
- We need to remember: (1) while the model we are considering has been reviewed and affirmed by all Conference Boards and the TCM Board, and (2) this model has significant promise and potential, this particular model not been done before and living into the new model might be a little bumpy here and there.
So what is this new model? Here is a list of the positions:
- 1 Full-time Conference Minister/Executive Conference Minister
- 1 Full-time Associate Conference Minister
- 2 Quarter-time Associate Conference Ministers
- 2 Full-time Administrative Staff
- 10 Part-time (5 hours per week) Conference Deacons
Again, let me make a few points:
- This staffing model is sustainable if next year’s OCWM (2023) is similar to our previous year’s OCWM.
- This staffing model provides several “layers” of connection and support to local churches. Each local church will have a Conference Deacon, an Associate Conference Minister (ACM), and a Conference Minister.
- The Conference Deacons are new paid positions that have some similarities to former programs in the Conferences but have been updated and changed for our needs today.
The major difference in this staffing pattern is the Conference Deacon positions. A Deacon will be a person of faith raised up from among our community with a primary call to focus on connection and support of our local churches. These Deacons will be hired and supervised by the ECM and will be assigned a group of local churches and authorized ministers to support and serve. Deacons will also work with Conference Boards, Association Leaders, and others to make sure we are participating and present in our local churches’ celebrations and events. Deacons will serve an important role in connecting churches and authorized ministers with resources from the wider church and ensure we live out the central belief that the local church is the core of the UCC. Shortly into the new year we will be announcing the search process and timeline for these positions.
Friend, although long this email is not sufficient to discuss all the considerations, thoughts, challenges, and hopes we have moving into this next year. What it does is provide you with a report and an update. It starts the conversation, reveals intentions and hopes, and introduces a path forward that is not simply about survival but creating the space and opportunity for us to thrive as we care for each other and do the work to spread the love of God.
In just a week we will be celebrating Christmas. With all the planning and work that goes into both Christmas and Conference plans, it still all comes down to the moment when our eyes are opened and we see it to be true again…God is with us. In the dark silence or the noisy celebration, Immanuel has come vulnerable and unstoppable, our hearts are stirred and we are called to share the hope and love born on that day.
Blessings to you all,
Rev. R. Philip Hart
Interim Conference Minister
Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa Conferences
United Church of Christ