Last week I shared some observations about the five-finger vote in Kansas and Nebraska to gauge support for becoming one conference. A common question asked was "how will becoming one conference result in the changes that you say will happen?" That is the single most important question that we should be asking. Moving from three conferences to one conference is a big deal. It will take a lot of effort. I'm sure every person in the area, myself included, will find at least one change that they will disagree with. We will miss some of what we have right now. If transitioning to one annual conference doesn't help produce some signficant results it's not worth doing. And, unfortunately, simply merging annual conference won't produce a signficant result.
A structural change cannot, by itself, produce a missional change. All three conferences have undergone changes in structure over the years, and yet here we are again. To use language familiar to many of you, the question of how we structure can be a simple technical question. We have X number of moving parts, X dollars to manage, etc., so how do we refine our structure to be more efficient with what we have? When we deal with technical questions, we produce surface answers. It would be a waste of time to delve more deeply. The truism that "a system produces what it is designed to produce" remains in effect and we get more of the same thing. If it's a good thing, then more of it is good.
The question of structure can also be phrased as an adaptive question: "Given our mission, how should we be structured?" The root question here is what is our mission, not how should we be structured. Asking the question of mission again, and committing to a structure that makes us responsive to that mission, encourages us to take a step back to do some much more intentional, deep thinking.
In Exodus 18 Moses visits with his father-in-law Jethro. Moses is getting worn out from all the work he was doing judging between the people, but he knew this was something that had to be done. What could be done? If he was the only person wise enough for the task, he would have no choice. There was no "fix" for the problem. But Jethro was able to take the birds-eye view. Moses' technical question was "how can I judge the people?" Jethro's adaptive question was "How can the people be fairly judged?" The answer was for Moses to train up others to judge most cases saving only the hardest ones for Moses himself. Moses could never have come to this solution because he was asking the wrong question.
I believe that we are asking the wrong questions. "How will (fill in the conference group of your choice) work in one large conference?" is the wrong question. "How can (the group) help make disciples of Christ?" is a better question. "How can we find a place large enough for us to hold Annual Conference?" is the wrong question. "How does holding an Annual Conference help us make disciples?" is a better question.
Structural change in and of itself is not enough to bring missional change. But it is a prerequisite for missional change. A system produces what it is designed to produce. If we are not producing what God wants us to produce then the system must change. This is why the language of creating one new annual conference, rather than merging existing conferences, is so important. Merging three strucutures into one is not the solution - it's a bigger problem. Creating one new structure, a new system, from as close to scratch as we can get while still being United Methodists, gives us the ability to ask questions that we otherwise would not be able to ask. It will be as freeing for us as Moses giving away the right to judge everybody was for him.
We don't exactly have a Jethro to give us the right answer. Gil Rendle has been a great consultant to work with. We have examples of other conferences, most notably Indiana, who have done some things very well, but ultimately we have to find our own way. That's why the transition team doesn't have as many answers as most people would like us to have. If we had all the details figured out already the answers would be wrong. We're looking at creating 5 dream teams this summer or fall that will be able to explore specific adaptive questions more fully, giving them the time and attention that each question deserves.
We are still early on in the process. The whole experience has, for me, been terrifying and exhilerating at the same time. Terrifying because one way or another there will be a real, tangible effect from the work that we are doing. Exhilerating because I believe that the effect has the real possibility of being transformative for the states of Kansas and Nebraska. Please continue to hold the transition team and all of those who will be working on the transition in your prayers.