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State of the Conference 2017

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

So here’s the map. If you want to get from Orient to Syracuse, don’t let your GPS take you through the Holland Tunnel. And if you’re going from Sayville to Tarrytown, consider the Port Jeff Ferry to Bridgeport (even though Connecticut is definitely off the map). If you drive from Corning to E-Town, don’t go through Albany, even though that looks faster. If you do, you’ll miss seeing Lake Pleasant and the East Branch of the Scanandaga. And if at all possible on your way to JFK avoid the Van Wyck Expressway… there is nothing express about it. Always check which Train Lines are under repair, you just might want to take the B or C and hop a cab rather than the 1-Train to 116th Street. And if it is 7:30am on a Monday and you want to get from North Tonawanda to Hamburg, just forget about it. Stay at Paula’s for an extra hour and order an Iced Latte.

But hey, who needs maps when we’ve got GPS, right? Wrong. GPS doesn’t think, it’ll definitely put you on the Van Wyck. And for that matter, maps don’t think either. Only people do, hopefully.

And if you want to “do Church” in the 21st Century, there’s no map that can be of any help. What you need is Vision and then the strategy of a Mission. Freeman helpfully reminds us that Vision is what you see and Mission is how you get there. If you’re not clear on both, you’re not going anywhere. This is true for local churches, for Associations and for this Conference.

This State of the Conference is intended to provide you with a 30,000-foot view of the Vision and Mission of the United Church of Christ in the Empire State.

Last year in my speech I know I caught your attention when I said that financially this conference had three years before we would shut our doors and hang up the “Out of Business” sign on the door. The good news is that we’ve bought some time. You will see in the 2018 budget that the anticipated annual deficit is cut in half. Friends of the Conference giving in 2016 was up substantially, OCWM was up ever so slightly. We reduced programmatic spending. We received the assets of a closed church on Long Island. And as I had proposed a year ago, we have added a tenth Association to our Conference. Reformed Association was chartered on May 4th with seven initial congregations. This was preceded only a few days before with the welcoming of River’s of Living Waters to the Metro Association. UCC National Staff told me that eight new congregations in one week were unprecedented in the UCC. Persons affiliated with the New York Conference grew by over 4000 persons during the first week of May.

And the continuing celebratory news for the New York Conference is that there is every indication that the number of affiliating congregations will continue to grow in the year ahead. In 2009 the New York Conference initiated a challenge for 20 new congregations by the year 2020. As of today we have reached … drum roll please: 20 new or newly affiliated congregations. We achieved our goal three years early. My hat is off to Freeman Palmer for his work toward successfully reaching our goal. I will, however, accept some of the credit for the Reformed Association churches. Now is the time to reset our 2020 goal to 25. Twenty-five new UCC affiliated churches by 2020. In a bit I will make comments on the “why” of this success, but first, I’d like to return to my comments on how we have cut our deficit in half.

Alongside increased revenues, difficult decisions were made on budget reductions. This year our programmatic spending was reduced by 25% under our 2016 level. Next year we maintain this lowered level of program dollars. And we experienced difficult staff reductions. This was emotionally painful; it was done after very careful analysis. The human touch and personal problem solving cannot be replaced by technology. Nonetheless we have found new uses of technology to help us work smarter and provide nearly equivalent services. Kudos to Ryan Henderson, aka Rev Java for helping us move more quickly into the 21st century. Thank you also to Sue Frost for her herculean efforts in assisting us with data entry as a volunteer.

For the most part, the 25% program reduction was an across the board cut. However, at the same time we asked the question: what are the needs of churches, leaders, and New York communities toward which individuals and institutions are willing to invest more financial resources. This year we found two such initiatives.

The first is the Pastoral Excellence Communities of Practice program. Here I give thanks to Marsha Williams for writing and receiving the $20,890 Pastoral Excellence grant on behalf of the New York Conference. There are now 2 Communities of Practice groups up and running with 2 more in the process of beginning and a total goal of having six functioning groups by the end of 2017. Research on the work of the Pastoral Excellence program in other judicatories has illustrated not only a reduction in fitness issues, but also an increase in the satisfaction the minister feels in his or her own ministerial call.

The other programmatic effort for which individuals are willing to make targeted contributions is in regards to our work for racial justice and justice centered race relations. It was the analysis of your staff that while the historic “Sacred Conversations on Race” in which the UCC has engaged were laudable, there was a need for a course correction. The correction would bring the conversations beyond local UCC church groups, it would encourage non-persons of color to speak with each other about their experience of white privilege, and it would target younger audiences. From this the “New and Right Spirit” initiative was born. The one day online giving campaign was very successful, achieving $6000 or our $10,000 goal. With this funding, we will begin to train conversation facilitators this fall that will then be deployed later this year to lead community conversations. There was a two-fold learning for us as conference: First people will contribute to specific programs for which they feel passion; and second, utilizing social media for fund-raising is a mechanism whose day has arrived. This is why you will see social media fund-raising institutionalized in the 2018 conference budget.

There is a connection between the online fundraising success, the growth of Friends of the Conference, and the noteworthy increase in affiliating congregations. One of my UCC Polity Students had a most insightful perspective that I thought tied these things together. Rebecca Anderson serves both a new church start and a “mature” former Evangelical and Reformed Church just outside of Chicago. Rebecca granted me permission to quote her. She wrote:

“As a Christian pastor, I am, as ever, convinced of the importance of the growth of Christianity. Not because I am concerned for the wellbeing of eternal souls in the hands of One who I believe to be a loving, reconciling God, but because I have met people who yearn for that God, people for whom the Christian narrative, texts, and traditions, have been proven inescapably meaningful. Some of those same people have been told or made to feel that those same meaning-bearing stories and communities are not for them — explicitly because they are, for example, LGBTQ persons or implicitly because, for example, “smart people aren’t religious” or “sophisticated people don’t believe in God.” For me, then, the “growth” of Christianity is the kind of expansion that gives faith back to people who have been shut out, in ways that can be spiritually violent and even lead to physical violence (at the hands of others, or self). It is the kind of growth that builds the body of Christ, not for the survival of the institutional church but for the wellbeing of the members of the body and for the good of the world.”

Rebecca articulates that the core of the Christian narrative is indeed one of radical inclusion, unconditional love, and the unrelenting pursuit of justice. Who would have thought that two millennia after the time of Christ, the Gospel message continues to be as relevant as in any previous generation, and more, it is hungered for. In December of last year, General Minister and President John Dorhauer said, “Perhaps the United Church was born for a time such as this.” To which I add: Might it be that with our Mission to be “United in Spirit, and inspired by God's grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all;” and with our Vision being: “United in Christ's love, a just world for all;” we may have just wrestled back the Christian narrative from the fundamentalist corruption of the Gospel? Might this be the reason that whole congregations seek affiliation with the United Church of Christ? If this is so, and I believe it is, the remaining question is how will established congregations reclaim our historical commitment for evangelism. If “evangelism” is redefined from the “conversion of souls” to (using Rebecca’s words) “the wellbeing of the members of the body and for the good of the world” might we arrive in a new place where growth is understood as the depth of discipleship rather than the number of persons on your church membership role? As the one you called five years ago to lead this New York Conference, I re-covenant with you that this contemporary contextualization of evangelism is and will continue to be the core of the entire ministry that you make possible through the work of the New York Conference. I will continue to encourage your ministry team to respond to inquiries such as: “How do we increase of membership? And how do we get more children and young families in our church?” With the response: “Friends, those are the wrong questions and they will not lead you toward a vital ministry. Rather, ask us how can to make disciples for Jesus Christ and what does that discipleship look like in your context?” Every conversation we have in the church should move us toward incarnating contemporary discipleship. And every conversation in which we as conference staff are engaged, must be grounded in our Vision. I suggest to you that if we are not engaged in that conversation then whatever we are doing or talking about is a waste of time. And if we ARE moving toward incarnating contemporary discipleship then every thing we do (whether it is in a local church, in an Association, in the Conference, or in any other ministry setting of the United Church of Christ) it will be directed by the Vision: “United in Christ's love, a just world for all;” and it will be grounded by the Mission: “United in Spirit, and inspired by God's grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.”

I would be remiss not to mention that the Vision for a “just world for all” means we don’t build a wall around New York State and hide behind it. The Mission of the New York Conference will take us out of our communities and out of our places of comfort. Here are a few examples:

Tomorrow we will acknowledge our ten years of partnership with the Evangelische Kirche in Hessen und Nassau, the EKHN in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden. Earlier this month seven New Yorkers from all around our conference spent eight days in Germany learning alongside our partners about how to create welcoming communities for refugees. Our mission is united with the mission of our EKHN partners. And following the terrorist bus incident in Berlin, our conference sent Martha Jacobs to lead our Berlin partners in a workshop on responding to human caused tragedy, which in New York we know something about. Our prayers continue to rise for those impacted by the sad event at Times Square last week. In Honduras we learn side by side with Hondurans about sustainable development. In Nicaragua we follow the lead of Mision Cristiana partners providing educational opportunities to children who would otherwise be on the dangerous streets of Managua. The children in Managua are our children too. From our European partners we learn about the spirituality of “place” where the Holy Spirit has dwelt in sanctuaries that are over a thousand years old rather that our oldest buildings that have seen a mere two or three centuries. We experience in Germany the profound spirituality of “being in one place” and we learn of communities “united in Spirit.” With our Central American partners we experience the lively joy of praising God and expressing what being “inspired by God’s grace” looks like.

Our ministry also extends beyond New York State through the New York School of Ministry that now welcomes students from several New England states. My hat is off to Marjorie Purnine who is highly respected across the United Church of Christ for her development of arguably the most esteemed Lay Academy in the UCC. As the United Church of Christ will continue to debate the future of Licensed Ministry in our denomination, I am certain that NYSOM will be lifted up as the premier model of an alternative path toward Authorization.

I said early in this speech that we have cut our deficit nearly in half. Don’t take a deep breath over that. A $150,000 deficit for any other conference would be considered astronomical; it’s just that in New York we’ve become used to this. We still have work to do. Even when we do add an additional 5-10 congregations, these additions will cause us to review our current staffing configuration which will likely result in increased staffing needs. On the floor of last year’s annual meeting, several persons spoke up about the need for this conference to conduct a capital campaign to grow our endowment. We heard you. The Conference Board has been diligently working through this. We have finished the Vision and Mission Statement, which is the very first step. We have solicited a consultant, who happens to be Ron Buford; the creator of God is Still Speaking, to work with the Board and the Staff on creating a Case Statement (which will be completed by this September). We are working with the Office of Philanthropy at the National Setting to assist us in a Feasibility Study on whether or not it is advisable to launch such a campaign. We anticipate that a Feasibility Study will take place in late January 2018. After that we will have the information we need to determine whether or not a full-fledged campaign is advisable. This is one more strategy to bring the New York Conference to the place when we can have balanced budgets.

The words I would like to leave you with are these: Thank you. Thank you delegates and guests for being here at this Annual Meeting of the New York Conference. Thank you for your partnership in this ministry we share. Thank you for your church’s gifts to Our Church’s Wider Mission. Thank you clergy and laity who advocate for OCWM in your annual church budgets. If you are from Reformed Association, thank you for your UCC Assessments. If you are a contributor to “Friend’s of the Conference” or give individually to “Covenant Share” thank you for your personal support and investment in this ministry. I also thank the staff for your faithful, creative, energizer-bunny work. You ARE the A-Team (internally known as the Herculoids). And I thank my wife for keeping me in line and making me take deep breaths day after day. Thank you New York Conference, you are amazing.

To God be the Glory.

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