It has been a few weeks now that I have been back from our Annual Conference in Lakeside Ohio. And in these days it has taken me some time to "detox" from my full experience. I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way. There was a lot of good that came from our conference. But there are also some things that I observed that cause me a lot of concern. So that is why I gave this the subtitle of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly!
First of all, in all the conferences I have ever been to in my entire life I can not think of a better location than Lakeside, OH. The environment of this lake community is such that within days you begin to hope that this is something of what heaven will be like some day. I would catch myself marveling at the architecture of the Hoover Auditorium or the beauty of God's creation all around us. It is a marvelous location.
Secondly, when the connectional system that the United Methodists are know for works the way it is supposed to, it is a beautiful thing; to know that we are so much more than just the walls of the church that we serve in can be a refreshing and uplifting thought.
Third, the worship and the teaching is as always, very exceptional. I feel bad about not getting there earlier on Sunday because I heard that the Sunday night service was outstanding. But I did get to the other worship events and teaching times. I thought Bishop Ough was great. He has mad people skills. He is very talented at being real, authentic, and at just the right moments, a touch of humor to break the mood when it was necessary. He will be missed in the West Ohio Conference. He will leave some pretty big shoes to fill. I would not want to follow him.
Fourth, Wade and his team always put together a dynamic and professional program. I got frustrated with myself on occasion because at times I just could not sit still any longer when we were talking about recommendations to amend the amendment of the amendment of the resolution. After a while my brain just couldn't take it any more. I do not have the ability to sit still for very long unless my mind is completely absorbed into something completely amazing like "The Avengers" movie. So with that said, when a meeting would be going on for hours about minute details of legislation I would have to bow out for some time. Unfortunately, it appeared that I developed the knack for leaving at just the wrong moments because every time I left, later on I heard that something completely awesome happened that I missed. Example of something Lisa said to me: "They did this tribute to Bishop Ough that was just as funny as Saturday Night Live. Boy, Scott you missed it! It was a scream!"
Fifth, The Wings of the Morning and the Miracle offering where just amazing. We, as a conference, have been supporting a mission in Africa that is in desperate need of a new airplane. Our goal at conference was the raise $500,000. When we took the offering we came really close to almost breaking a million dollars! What was really amazing is that a person from the audience called out for one more offering to see if we could break the one million mark. As you might have guessed, with the energy and excitement in the auditorium, we were able to get enough pledges to break the million dollar mark. It was an exciting moment. The African pastor was so excited that he gave Bishop Ough a live chicken. That was really actually quite funny. The chicken didn't think so. And I believe that the African minister gave this as a gift in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. I think this idea definitely raises the bar for my next White Elephant gift exchange.
Sixth, we had a 5K race that was the most fun event of the whole week for me. It was such a beautiful morning and to run around Lakeside was just amazing. I was of the opinion that the Bishop should have made the walk/run mandatory for everybody!
I think that the number one thing that always takes me by surprise at every conference is the age and the health of the majority of the people. In fact, when you consider the 10 pieces of legislation that were brought before the conference members, the ones that produced the most conversation were those related to health care and pensions. With an aging clergy there will be a deep concern and worry about wanting to make sure that they will be taken care of. I really don't blame them. But here is my concern: can a denomination really take care of an aging population of clergy when it is not anywhere near balanced with a younger population of people entering into pastoral/church ministries? This is just a microcosm of the national dilemma as the Baby Boomer population is retiring and Generation X (we were called Baby Busters for a reason!) is supposed to absorb the healthcare and retirement cost of that generation. It is impossible. There is not enough money to sustain this without highly taxing the younger generations. And when you see the imbalance of age in the Methodist church we can try to make sure we are covered through arguing the fine points of legislation in conferencing.
But I would like to recommend a new approach that not only will bring peace to those who are aging but benefit the entire church as a whole! We must stop focusing on making sure our future is secure through legislation that really means nothing if we do not have people in the pews. We need to not make our primary focus on "my" future but invest more on "our" future. Here are just a few things to consider:
1. We as a denomination need to be adding life and vitality to our children's ministry and youth ministry. We need to invest time, money and effort in making the ministries directed at youth and children a vital part of every church. I know that my own grandmother could not stand being in her own Sunday School class because she felt that all the could talk about was death and growing old issues. She loved to be around youth and children because it inspired her and filled her with life. The segregation of age groups needs to be reconsidered. Not that we just throw it all out but we need to find ways to build bridges among all ages within a church. This will add to the spiritual and mental health of everyone involved.
2. We need to help the process of becoming a pastor in the Methodist church not be so complicated and stretched out. It becomes a discouraging process for those involved especially when they see their counterparts in other denominations move much faster through the process.
3. We need to include youth in all areas of the Methodist church. The East Ohio Conference puts us to shame in this area. Which now leads me to the ugly . . .
Now I am just going to let loose and rant a little bit here. I left the West Ohio Conference so discouraged and upset this year. But one thing you need to know about me is that I am looking through the "goggles" of youth ministry. There were 2 events that stood out to me that let me know what our conference thinks of when it comes to youth ministry. The first event was when the conference was discussing issues related to the new budget. A representative tried to bring up that the funds for campus ministries were significantly cut from the previous year. This seemed to be brushed aside as no big deal. When you have college age teens and those that represent significant ministries directed at college students I am sorry but that IS A BIG FREAKING DEAL! I was not pleased by how we could not find even a little bit of cash from some other area of the budget to help sustain the funds needed for campus ministries.
But I would say that the thing that really, really pushed me over the edge was the last piece of legislation: to get rid of paintball/laser tag games at all camps and replace them with creation care activities and other such things. Really?!?! I was dumbfounded at this piece of ridiculous legislation. Apparently those that run the camps feel the need to be micro-managed by the conference. I had an entire speech I wanted to give against this but unfortunately I was not called on. Instead, everyone wanted the conference to be over since this was the last thing so everyone moved quickly on this. Two teenagers tried very hard to explain that they enjoy the option of going to camp and playing these types of games. But the camp lady made her case for trying to link actual real gun violence to these types of activities and that camps should be a holy place where kids can learn about creation care. This seemed inconceivable to me. I couldn't help but to think that this was some kind of joke, but it wasn't. So the debate was short and quick, and the vote was hurried so everyone could get out of there. Of course, this will be the deathblow to the camps. No teen is going to attend a camp that doesn't offer these kinds of activities. At least no boy that I know of.
I also began to wonder, what's next? Is it wrong to play capture-the-flag? No squirt guns? Can we not have any competitive games? What about archery? Will we impose these on the Scout troops that use our church facilities? No more b-b guns or archery you gun-crazed Cub Scouts!!
Well, I can say that I have never used one of our United Methodist camps because the closest one I think is over 2-3 hours away from here. But even if I had one 10 minutes away I just couldn't support their logic in what they think camp should be. Instead we have a lot of great camps and retreat centers all around the Cincinnati area that give many, many options of fun things to do with your youth groups as well as great facilities to help foster spiritual development and worship with your teens. What a particular church decides to do with their teens is one thing. To have a camp impose what they think we should or should not be doing just doesn't make sense to me.
Then the last and final thing that just shoved me into a depression was hanging around for the rest of the week at Lakeside and getting a first-hand view of how the East Ohio Conference "does youth ministry". Their teens come up to Lakeside for the weekend and have their own youth conference that is really an amazing event that integrates them into how United Methodist's do conferencing. Not only that but they had tons of fun games, great speakers, worship, etc., etc., etc. I was in awe with all they were doing. They also crafted legislation that they were going to present to the Main Conference of East Ohio once all the people arrived later. East Ohio has seriously invested in their youth in a way that will preserve and nurture the ongoing health and vitality of their Conference.
With all that said, I am grateful for my connection to the United Methodist Church. I have learned a lot over my 8 years of being a part of this denomination. I have been given the opportunity to launch a youth ministry with a church that really truly wanted to invest their time, talent and treasures in creating an effective youth ministry. This has by far been my most positive experience as a youth pastor. But when I look at the bigger picture, I am sad. We have the ability to invest in our youth in a greater way at a conference level but we don't. East Ohio is the model we must follow. If we invest in our youth and children in the way that they have done, this will only do more to insure the state of the future church and the care and dignity of the older populations in our churches.
Here's to hoping that we can learn from our neighbors and re-envision a new approach to ministries directed at our children and teens. The future of the denomination depends on them. It is up to us to lead them and inspire them to want to get involved and believe that they really are the church of today as well as the church of the future.