The Imagine Indiana Design Team will soon bring to the North Indiana and South Indiana Conferences of The United Methodist Church a proposed plan for uniting the two conferences who voted unity this past spring.
Part of the Design Team's report proposes a clustering of churches and the formation of clergy covenant groups, as two important aspects of the new Indiana Conference, to meet the church's goal of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Both of these proposals are designed for congregational support and accountability to meet the church's goal.
Conversations about clergy covenant groups and congregational clusters have been lively the past few months, receiving both strong praise and straightforward criticism during the 18 district discussions with Bishop Coyner and in other discussions with members of the Imagine Indiana Design Team.
Both are proven concepts used in other United Methodist conferences within the church, but for these ideas to be fruitful and strengthen the church in Indiana, they need to be introduced through gracious invitations for participation, not mandated with punitive actions if congregation or clergy decide not to participate out of fear or previous unpleasant experiences. Hospitality needs to be coupled with support and accountability of our congregations and their pastors.
Personally, I look forward to clergy covenant groups. As an ordained elder serving the church in an extension ministry, I have not been part of such a group of four or more clergy and have felt the lack of such support in my own ministry. Yes, I have fear of betrayed trust from past experiences, but being accepted in a group of peers makes such a group inviting despite my fears. I need the spiritual discipline that such a group can offer and I feel my ministry will be better with participation.
I also have heard fears expressed for the clustering of several congregations to work together on community ministry as well. Pastors have expressed an overload anxiety with another meeting to attend in addition to covenant groups. If the clustering of churches is only seen as "another meeting to attend," then it may be nothing more than an anxiety producing event.
On the other hand, clustering to serve the greater community in which we are placed will be a sharing of ministry for the transformation of that community, county and state. Some clusters may very well be a bust, but those clusters of congregations that think with like minds and hearts will be more able to face an evermore secularized society giving witness to the world that God is love.
The genius of John Wesley, founder of The United Methodist Church and other Wesleyan denominations, was his insistence that the world was truly his parish, not the bounds of the parish, the church or its membership. All people are members of God's family. Clusters of congregations working together will give witness that United Methodists are organized and connected to transform the world with God's love in Jesus Christ.
The Imagine Indiana Design Team proposal won't be the end-all plan for bringing the new Indiana Conference into a complete and whole being. If approved, the proposal will physically bring the two conferences into one, however it can only usher in a new conference whose mission, ministry, witness and outreach will be shaped into a reality by those who are nominated to serve as the leaders of that new conference. In Wesleyan terminology, the new conference will continue to be made perfect or whole.
Even at its best, the Design Team proposal is only a plan on paper until it is lived out and reshaped in the lives of those who claim the plan as their own.
-- Daniel R. Gangler