By Taylor Burton-Edwards
I'm not part of the design team for Imagine Indiana, but I was involved in the feedback team leading up to the 2007 Annual Conference and, while continuing to participate in that group, also served on the Conference Design subcommittee leading up to the final plan now before us. I do not presume to speak for the Imagine Indiana Team as such, but rather as someone connected and committed to its work over these past two years.
I agree entirely that questions (of all sorts) and even challenges (of any sort) are good for us to be hearing together and talking about at this point. Asking questions and even offering challenges is a sign that people really care about what is at stake in making the kinds of structural changes being contemplated in the proposal for a unified Indiana conference. And all signs of caring are, in my book at least, good things.
As a participant in the process, I've come to believe that the proposal that has been developed will be good for both conferences to adopt, with whatever additional changes each may believe needs to be made to make it better this year and going forward.
I just want to be clear about what a conference structure can and cannot do. The conference does not make disciples of Jesus Christ. God does that and Christians living out their faith in community with God, each other, and those with whom they are in mission is the usual way that happens. What a conference structure can do is facilitate processes that support and encourage more people in and alongside more congregations to be about living as disciples themselves, engaging actively in God's mission where they are, and supporting others in doing this beyond their local contexts. Conferences can do this better if they are structured and supported in ways that make such outcomes more likely at the local level.
So, as I look at it, there's no good way to separate issues like health insurance, pensions, property, indebtedness and costs of offices and staffing from the question of whether a change in conference structures ends up producing better outcomes. We have to talk about those things, because these are integral parts of what conference structures have to have in place to have the fiscal and human capacity to support this other work well. For me, then, it's not a matter of whether we should talk about EITHER the fiscal/business "side" OR the outcomes side. It's not about EITHER the "movement" OR "the institution." It's always both. Our hope all along, I think, has been to address both in ways we hope will make both maximally effective for United Methodists in Indiana.
I think we'd all admit that what we've produced isn't perfect yet. That's another reason questions that can lead to some further refinements on either "side" ("business" or "mission") are good to have and good to hear. We can't answer every question or concern now - and never will of course. But there can always be room for some improvement. Questions now and at our conference sessions in June can help that happen.
Let's also be clear that what is being proposed is very different in lots of ways than what we have in place now. That means that another way to frame the "transition" into which we are entering might reasonably be to call it a "disruption." For a while, even though the existing structures will run side by side with the one we may vote to bring online, things just won't work the way they used to, and it will take a while for the new structures, once they are in place, to be fully up and functioning to maximum potential. A key question we all have to ask ourselves is whether the cost of the disruption is worth the positive changes we hope will be brought by the new structure.
Some may ask, "Couldn't we just take some of the ideas we've generated from the new conference proposal, and implement them in our current conferences, and thereby reduce disruption?" That's a good question. My sense is that just adding these new pieces (such as clergy accountability groups and clustering of congregations) to two sets of structures that are not designed to support those activities now could be more likely to mean that these helpful "new ideas" end up with less than stellar implementation, because they wouldn't have structures behind them that are built to support them. While just adding these ideas into the mix might be less disruptive, then, the impact of these new ideas would, I think, more than likely end up being diluted, if not sidelined, by the structures that currently exist. That wouldn't have happened by anyone's malice. It's just that structures do what they're designed to do, and they don't do or support well what they're not designed to do or support.
It's a big change we're being asked to consider and decide. Actually, it's lots of changes. And lots of disruptions.
At the end of the day - or in this case, at the end of our transitions - I do believe these changes and the disruptions they are bound to bring will have been worth it.
Taylor Burton-Edwards serves as an Elder of the North Indiana Conference and Director of Worship Resources for The General Board of Discipleship.