The Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ is in the midst of considering a new governance and staffing model. A “New Dimensions Team,” of which I am part with other clergy and lay people from around the state, has been working together for more than a year—discussing and envisioning a new way forward as the Conference prepares to search for and call a new Conference Minister.
In July, the Team met with the Coordinating Council, the Conference’s current governing body, to share the current draft of our plan and to get feedback. One of the elements of the plan that is especially exciting to many of us on the New Dimensions Team is a plan to reduce the size of the primary “governing” body, and to focus more time and energy of the Conference on “ministry.” The current Coordinating Council—a large, mostly geographically representative body—spends a great deal of time giving and hearing reports of conference staff, state-wide committees and commissions, etc. The New Dimensions plan replaces the Coordinating Council with a smaller “Mission Council.” Plus, we have suggested various and different ways of engaging in ministry around the conference, for individuals and for groups. The hope is that we, as a conference, will be spending less time “reporting” and more time “doing.”
While the New Dimensions Team eagerly shared our ideas for the future of the Conference, we did not receive an obviously eager response from everyone on the Council. While a couple of younger pastors expressed enthusiasm, the many more older people around the table (the Maine Conference clearly and perhaps even over-emphasizes that Maine is the oldest state in the country) seemed more apprehensive.
On my way home, I thought about the meeting with the Coordinating Council, as well as similar experiences at the church that I serve, Old South Church in Hallowell, where I have worked on reducing the number of meetings for a church of its size and have been surprised by some of the resistance I’ve encountered. As I pondered, I experienced an epiphany of sorts. It occurred to me that for some people, the current arrangements are deeply meaningful—so meaningful, in fact, that they drove hours to attend that July meeting in Augusta, which just happened to be on a gorgeous summer day, after a few days of rain (in Maine, where summers are very short). One person argued that we should actually have more meetings, and not fewer.
While there are some good church people who find meetings enervating, there are other good church people who experience the exact opposite. While there are some who are eager to be “doing” more, there are others who like meetings. For some, particularly older members of the church, I’ve come to realize that meetings are meaningful. They are the ministry.
I’ve been thinking about the hundreds of church meetings I’ve attended over my long career in the church. Through meetings, church folk get to know each other. They work together. They seek to solve problems. And, from time to time, they actually get important things accomplished. Through meetings, relationships develop and there is a sense of the holy—of different sorts of people gathering around a table and trying to strengthen the church. It’s not especially remarkable to determine who will set up communion, who will offer snacks after worship, who will figure out who’s going to plow in the winter. There’s not much excitement around the church budget or negotiating salary with the pastor, especially during lean times. But, in the midst of all of this work, some good church people find meaning—significant, sacred meaning. Somewhere in there is a connection to faith.
For those of us who wish to have fewer meetings, those of us who see more ministry in doing other things, especially the doing of things outside of the church, it’s important that we recognize that some resistance to change is not just resistance for the sake of resistance, or stubbornness. Some resistance is about not wanting to let go of something that is actually deeply meaningful.
Reporting and policy meetings may not be all that exciting to me, but through them, some people have not only come to know others better, but I suspect they’ve also come to know themselves better as well. Through that journey, they have found a closer connection to the holy. They have experienced ministry.
It’s not that we should not change, or alter our structure as church or conference, but to ensure that we maintain and expand varied routes of ministry, and refrain from a judgment that “ministry” only happens outside of church meetings. One person’s meeting is another person’s meaning. It’s not exactly scriptural, but it’s an important truth to bear in mind, and an aspect of the life of the church for which we should have respect and understanding.