After one of the recent Pre-Conference Briefings the Directors and I shared in all 10 of the new districts, one pastor stayed to ask me an important question, “What is the connection?” His question was in response to hearing that our new conference budget does not include as much “pass through money” from the local churches to agencies and extension ministries that we have supported in the past. Rather than collecting this additional money through the conference, the new plan is to leave those funds in the hands of local churches to give as they choose to these various Advance Specials. The idea is to ask our churches for a 10% tithe for the conference budget, and a 1% giving to their districts, and to leave the other 2% or “Plus” in the hands of those local leaders who know best which projects and ministries in their areas that they want to support. (By the way, this 2% if it were fully collected would equal nearly $3 million)

His question was a legitimate and serious one. In the past, perhaps we have viewed “the connection” in terms of apportionments collected and dispersed, pensions and insurance for pastors, and other collective ministries we have supported together. The “connection” has been perceived as primarily a financial one. What will it mean if the new Indiana Conference changes that sense of “the connection” to one based more upon relationships (i.e. Ministry Clusters and Clergy Covenant Groups) and mutual ministry decided at the “local” level (what the Imagine Indiana Plan called “inverting the initiative”)?

Clearly we will still be doing much of our ministry together financially. The 2010 conference budget includes $1.5 million in support for our retired pastors, spouses, and surviving spouses’ health benefits, and it includes $450,000 to continue paying the past obligation to pensions for part-time Local Pastors. Our conference is devoting an additional $4.5 million in our pension reserves to bringing all of our retirees with pre-1982 service years up to the highest rate ever ($608). Our budget includes $750,000 to support the camping ministries of both former conferences, which is a large part of the over $2 million we still have in the budget for “connectional ministries.” We still provide medical insurance for our active clergy through a conference-wide plan (which is also the denomination’s Healthflex Plan). We still help pay for clergy to move from one appointment to another, so that is not a cost to the local churches involved. Clearly, we still do many things together financially.

But the question lingers in my mind, “What is the connection?” Is it more than money? Is it more than just a combined budget whereby we do many things together that a local congregation cannot do on its own?

I heard a story this past week which illustrates what “the connection” is all about. At a meeting of the Clarian Health Board, we began as always with a devotional story and prayer by one of the chaplains. This time it was Rev. Laurie Hearn, chaplain at Methodist/Riley/Clarian who told about getting a call from a chaplain at the Fort Wayne Parkview Hospital. There had been a terrible auto wreck, the mother and father were in ICU at Parkview, but their 6-month-old baby was airlifted to the Riley Hospital ICU in Indianapolis. The mother was quite worried about her baby, so the two chaplains worked with IT people from the IU School of Medicine to set up a laptop computer and camera in the Riley ICU and the Parkview ICU. The chaplains and nurses watched as this technology allowed the mother to see and hear her baby. They also observed that the baby's vital signs improved as the baby saw the face and heard the voice of its mother!

This story may help to answer the question, “What is the connection?”

I believe that our United Methodist connection is the relational effort of all the parts of our system to accomplish our mutual mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Sometimes that mission is accomplished locally in a congregation led by a pastor who is credentialed by the conference, supported in education by our Ministerial Education Fund, appointed by the Bishop, and supervised by a District Superintendent. So even when a ministry is “local” it is never separated from “the connection.” Sometimes our mission is accomplished by a Ministry Cluster of churches that work together in some ministries they can do better together than alone. Sometimes our mission is accomplished by our pooling of financial resources and connecting with a special ministry here in Indiana or on the other side of the world. And sometimes, as in the case of helping a mother see and hear her baby, and helping a baby survive by seeing and hearing its mother, it takes an extra effort by our churches and our institutions and our clergy and laity – all working together in the name of Christ

What is our connection? It is first and foremost a SPIRITUAL REALITY which we try to embody through our conference budget, agencies, committees, churches, and institutions.

As we gather this coming week for our first Annual Conference Session of the new Indiana Conference, I pray that God may help us to keep our connection strong and nimble to accomplish our mission.