"This has been an illuminating process, and we appreciate all who took the time to respond," said the Rev. Kent Siladi, Florida Conference minister, of the 151 groups and individuals responding. "The results help solidify the vision for the Conference, which will be shared prior to our Annual Meeting."
Siladi said the survey used electronic media to determine the scope and depth of the work that lies ahead. "There were very few surprises; the biggest maybe was that the expectation for our Conference staff was lower than I imagined," he said. "The request for online teaching was higher than I might have imagined."
The Rev. Steve Hudder, Conference moderator, said a key piece of feedback from local churches and members involved the importance of connecting churches and members and building networks.
"With the large geography of Florida, stretching 345 miles from Jacksonville to Miami on the east coast and over 400 miles from Naples to Tallahassee on the west coast –– and Pensacola Beach being another 200 miles west of Tallahassee –– you can see the challenge of connecting churches in this state," said Hudder.
Advances in communication technology are helpful but can be costly, said Hudder. "Finding new ways to continue to fund both new avenues of ministry support as well as providing on-going, face-to-face contact are a challenge."
Added Siladi, "We know that we have to be invested in emergent technologies and to have a better connection to them. It is meaningful to have a high-tech, high-touch approach."
In 2011, Florida –– one of the states hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis –– saw its population decrease for the first time in recent history.
"It will be one of the last places in the United States to show recovery," said Siladi. "It is not surprising down here to see a diminishing pattern of giving. I would say that 50 to 60 percent of our churches have been dramatically impacted."
According to the vision report, membership in UCC Florida churches declined by 23 percent between 2000 and 2010. In that same period, giving in support of Our Church's Wider Mission dropped from $921,000 to $527,000. Currently, 24 of the state's 96 UCC churches are served by part-time leadership.
Hudder recently sent a letter to Conference members announcing a downsizing from three regional ministers to two by the end of 2012. Administrative staff will also be cut, the letter stated.
"We are emphasizing the need for a new model of Conference staffing," said Siladi. "Several Conferences are doing this because the traditional role is changing to more of a grassroots effort. That is the shift we are trying to make in Florida. We are trying to discern how we can all learn from each other and share best practices."
Other key tenets of the vision plan include ministering to the many "seasonal attendees" of the state's UCC churches and reaching out to its large Hispanic population and immigrant communities, as well as to young people, said Siladi.
"Most churches do their stewardship drives in the fall," said Siladi, "but in Florida, with all of our seasonal (fall and winter) attendees, we do that in February and March." Giving by those members may be split between their Florida church and the church they attend during spring and summer months, said Siladi.
"We have to be creative in our fund raising and grant writing, said Siladi. "We need to put the needs of churches first, linking them to resources, and they will say, 'OK, good, you heard us, you responded, you're trying.'"