In what is surely a sign of changing economic and organizational needs, at least eight UCC Conferences are engaged in varying stages of dialogue to work collaboratively with other Conferences in sharing resources and reducing expenses.
The Conference council of the UCC's Northern Plains Conference and the board of directors of the South Dakota Conference have passed identical resolutions to explore the possibility of calling one conference minister for the two Conferences.
In addition, the Iowa and Nebraska Conferences are in ongoing discussion about a similar process, and four Conferences in the UCC's West Region are considering a move to employ a single communications director for its Conferences.
"The rationale is to spend less of Our Churches' Wider Mission (OCWM) dollars on administration and more dollars on mission and the support and strengthening of our congregations and pastors," says the Rev. David Felton, South Dakota Conference interim minister. "In order to facilitate this process, our board of directors also voted to suspend our search committee."
Face-to-face and online meetings between the Northern Plains and South Dakota Conferences have set the stage for their May 17-18 meeting in Medina, N.D. The two Conferences, which have shared a media resource center for many years, plan to hold a joint annual meeting June 1-3, 2012, in Aberdeen, S.D.
"This would mean that we would share a Conference minister, a Conference office and probably many other areas," says the Rev. Wade Schemmel, Northern Plains Conference minister, adding that independent councils and church administering committees would remain intact.
"This is kind of a Kairos moment because South Dakota has an interim who's able to stay there as long as they need, but is also ready to leave whenever they need him to leave," says Schemmel of Felton. "And I'm post-65, so that puts me in a position where I can stay there as long as necessary and be helpful, but at the point when that (new) position opens for somebody else, I can very nicely be on the way."
The Rev. Rich Pleva, Iowa Conference minister for the past six years, likens Conferences' current role as adjudicatory bodies to that of present-day public school districts. He said that in rural Iowa, which has experienced a gradual depopulation over several decades, school consolidation was once the norm.
"But now, school districts are talking to one another and saying, 'Hey, we're not interested at this point in formally merging with each other, but we don't each need a superintendent,' says Pleva. "We can share one person to do that kind of supervision and administrative work along with overall goal-setting and mission establishment."
The move, says Pleva, is not about substantial cost savings as much as an allocation of resources, such as having one Conference minister and one office for both Conferences.
"We'd have a combination of backroom functions," says Pleva, noting information technology, financial services and search-and-call process support among those functions. We figure we could combine all of that at a cost probably not much greater than we (Iowa) are currently paying. Nebraska could be melded in, and then that frees up resources on that end to really put into personnel – possibly a full-time associate to provide direct services to local congregations."
The issue of leadership is critical in the current dialogue, says Pleva. "We are at a point of leadership deficit in most of the mainline church. We really need to be investing our resources into individuals who have a vision for the kind of relevancy that local churches need."
Pleva and the Rev. Roddy Dunkerson, Nebraska Conference minister, are both 59. Neither sees retirement in his near future, says Pleva. "If this agreement were to come to pass, one of us would come to be superfluous here. We're very open with each other about this, but it is a practical challenge as we face this possibility."
Says Dunkerson, "Both of our boards have discussed the possibilities of sharing. We just need to firm up the shape of it."
Dunkerson and Pleva have recently met and say they will report back to their respective Conference's annual meetings in June. "The final goal would be to have something to present to our annual meetings either next June (2012) or the following June (2013)," says Dunkerson.
The South Dakota/Northern Plains and Iowa/Nebraska collaborations would bring to three the number of agreements in the past six months involving a UCC Conference seeking to improve utilization of resources. Last November, the UCC's Montana Northern Wyoming Conference and Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) Montana Region voted to form a partnership team to be phased in over the next two years.
Meanwhile, in the West, four West Region Conferences – Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Southern California-Nevada and Northern California-Nevada – are considering a proposal to share one communications director, says the Rev. John Dorhauer, Southwest Conference minister, adding that a job description and contract are being drafted.
"The Conferences are to meet in August and have a far broader discussion about sharing resources and staff," says Dorhauer. "Then they are to come together a second time in September and bring their Conference moderators."
In addition, the Southwest Conference has begun a dialogue with the national setting about Church House staff in Cleveland taking experimental steps to aid the Conference with event-planning, communications functions and church-administration responsibilities.
Other Conference ministers, including those from Wisconsin and Massachusetts, say substantive discussions about specifics of Conference sharing have not been held.
"There's an interest and a curiosity in it, but I think the will is still forming," says the Rev. David Moyer, Wisconsin Conference minister. "It's not strong enough yet for people to take the risk that would be necessary to try to make some of these changes."
Adds the Rev. Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference minister, "For nine or 10 years, the Massachusetts Conference has been developing the Pastoral Excellence Program, thanks to three grants from the Lilly Foundation. Most recently, we have expanded that work to neighboring Conferences with great interest and great success."
Of the current discussions, a South Dakota/Northern Plains may be among the most likely to reach fruition the soonest. After Schemmel expressed appreciation for South Dakota's effort to suspend its search for a settled Conference minister, he added, "After the May meeting, it will come up for a vote of support at our annual meeting. If it proceeds from there, then we're kind of into the thick of it."