Is it time for the United Church of Christ to reconsider how its 38 conferences are aligned? The Southwest Conference of the UCC is asking General Synod this year to carefully consider that question via a resolution that will be presented to delegates when the deliberative body gathers this summer for its biennial meeting.
Conference Minister the Rev. John C. Dorhauer said there were multiple reasons why the issue was important to bring before General Synod 2013, which takes place June 28-July 2 in Long Beach, Calif. One of the primary factors for proposing the resolution to examine conference boundaries — money. In this case, not enough of it.
"A number of Conferences are in financial stress. Quite a few are already talking with other partners about how to cross boundary lines to undertake their work more effectively and efficiently," Dorhauer said. His conference, along with others in the western region of the country, first looked at sharing personnel across conference borders during a discussion last fall.
The resolution invites the General Synod and all settings of the UCC to "engage in a broad and purposeful dialogue" on the subject, and asks that a proposal for conference realignment come from the governing body at General Synod 2015.
The church’s bylaws give General Synod the sole power to set the conference boundaries. Of the 38 conferences in the UCC, a large majority are geographically oriented along state borders, with some conferences aligned across multiple states. The resolution states that conference alignment should be based less on geography, and more on how to better serve the needs of the local churches and their mission in the conference area.
"If we were going to have any conversation about conference boundaries, it had to go to Synod," he said. "To my knowledge, conference boundaries have not been altered in almost 50 years.
"If we look at our total churches from 20 years ago, and total members, we found we could both justify and afford 38 judicatory offices. I don't think that is true anymore," Dorhauer added. "I think the denomination has to look at how many missional resources are wise for us to expend on middle judicatory offices to support the mission of our local churches — and it could well be that 38 is too many."
The resolutions specifically asks the incoming United Church Board — which combines the previous five boards of the church’s covenanted ministries to a single board with 52 members and takes effect at the end of General Synod — that as it considers conference realignment for the next biennium to consult with any conferences that would be potentially affected. It avoids a scenario where a conference would have a decision imposed against them without their knowledge, Dorhauer said.
But time will be critical as conferences, in most cases, have experienced reductions to their budgets and staff. Dorhauer is hopeful that border realignment would prevent a conference from "going out of business."
"We are not making any assumptions about whether or not we need to shift boundaries," he added, "but we are either going to do this by taking a serious look at the big picture, total resources, and current need — or by just waiting for some conference to fail and then reacting after the fact to try and cover the losses."