3 task teams begin work on envisioning a new Kentucky Annual Conference

March 12, 2023
By Alan Wild
CRESTWOOD, Ky. – Three visioning task teams met for the first time Friday, March 10, to begin strategizing about how the Kentucky Annual Conference might look moving forward – a smaller conference but one still laser-focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The teams – made up of clergy and laity – will focus on District Realignment, Stewardship and Finance, and Connectional Ministries. Bishop Leonard Fairley and his Cabinet have charged the teams with envisioning what the future might look like; their work will be passed along to him and the Cabinet, as well as appropriate conference teams.

Addressing the roughly two dozen people gathered at the Conference Office, Fairley said that passionate spiritual disciples are made for moments like this. God will always be doing a new thing, he said. “The question is, can we perceive it? With our human and frail eyes, can we see that we serve a God who specializes in making all things new?”

Much of the day was devoted to receiving information from different conference teams that will be heavily involved in reshaping the conference after the June Annual Conference gathering, when more churches are expected to disaffiliate under Paragraph 2553 of The Book of Discipline.

In his devotion, Fairley noted that Jesus came as a much different Messiah than most people of the time thought he would be. He also mentioned the movement that Charles and John Wesley started that became Methodism.

“It’s clear to me today that God still desires to do a new thing,” and not by putting new wine into old wineskins (from Mark 2), Fairley said. The current moment requires The United Methodist Church, and the Kentucky Conference in particular, to “let go of those seven deadly words: ‘We have always done it that way,’ “ he said.

“Are we reformers in the wings or caretakers of what once was but is no more?” he asked. “Are we afraid to give ourselves over to what we cannot yet see, predict or control?”

It’s time to pivot, he stressed, adding that nothing is off the board. The one non-negotiable is that the work must continue to focus on disciple-making, he said. The goal is for every church to continue to do mission and ministry. “There will be a United Methodist Church in Kentucky, and there is hope for that church.”

The group heard from representatives of several key areas: Rev. David Garvin, the conference treasurer; Rev. Adam Sparks, co-chair of the conference’s New Church Development Team; Rev. Brad Smart, superintendent of the Kentucky East District and dean of the Bishop’s Appointive Cabinet; Rev. Kevin Burney, assistant to the bishop and director of Ministerial Services; and Rev. William Moore, director of Connectional Ministries.

Garvin presented a financial shot of the conference and compared it to a few years ago. In general, the conference budget has been trending down for some years now, and will continue to do so after churches disaffiliate this June. 

To date, 80 churches have left under Paragraph 2553. Of those, 80% average 50 or fewer in worship, Garvin said.

The number of churches planning to leave in June was not provided. Fairley said those numbers will be available later, as churches have until next week to complete the process, but he and the other leadership want the task teams to do their visioning for now without being encumbered by hard numbers or limitations.

Sparks shared a broad overview of how NCD has shifted its focus since 2017, when he became co-chair. That year, the team shifted to a district-driven, grassroots approach for planting new faith communities. New boundaries were established that in general meant that major plants would be funded no longer than five years and up to $150,000 with the hope that they would be self-sufficient after that time. They also were required to form relational connections with an approved coach and the NCD team, he said.

But then came 2020. “COVID has had a tremendous impact on the world of church-planting,” Sparks said, and his sense is that new faith communities have been most dramatically impacted because so many of them are made up of people without strong connections to the churches and often have not reconnected since the pandemic has receded. The ”looming UMC tension” has also greatly affected new faith communities, he said. Church-plant visioning dried up almost like turning off a faucet.

NCD was confronted with the realization that things must be done differently, and he emphasized that “we do see a lot of new opportunities for church development in our conference.”

Among the areas that NCD and others intend to focus on:
  • Caring for what is informally being referred to as the “remnant,” people from disaffiliated churches who desire to remain United Methodist and likely will need help reconnecting with another church.
  • Leveraging strong UMC churches to serve as anchor churches.
  • Reaching new people. “The phrase we’ve been using in our teams is, if we don’t reach new people, we’re dead,” Sparks said.
Sparks also went over seven emerging pathways for the conference,  with a focus on anchor churches; Fresh Expressions and Dinner Churches; partnerships, mergers and cooperative parishes; community discipleship; new church starts using the “remnant” populations; and online communities.

The Cabinet has identified several priority areas for NCD, particularly the Northern Kentucky District, some of the more rural areas of the Heartland District, and the Lexington District.

In response to a question about the focus on the so-called “golden triangle” region, Smart clarified that efforts will not be limited to those areas. These three areas happened to come out of Cabinet meeting discussions, but all nine district superintendents and their teams will be at work in the other areas.

Plans are also in the work for clergy and laity care. In addition to the anchor churches, the conference is busy identifying “welcoming churches,” those particularly adapted to help care for people who are hurting.

Burney said during his remarks that despite this season of uncertainty, about a dozen people are coming forward for either ordination or commissioning this year. He also said that all during his career, he has helped people discern their calling and place them where God is calling them to be.

Much of the clergy care will fall under the auspices of Ministerial Services, such as spiritual formation, including a silent retreat in April. Also in the works is a new  podcast produced by the Board of Ordained Ministry designed to help provide guidance during this season, Burney said.

Moore said during his presentation that many of the things the conference does together fall under the Connectional Ministries umbrella, such as higher education, campus ministries, camps, and young people. He offered up three general areas for the task teams to consider as they think about the future:
  • What is there that needs to be a driving factor of the conference? In the past, tradition and how much money have been among the factors. Going ahead, what are ways that we can work together?
  • What is the capacity of the Annual Conference to do all these things? There will be some financial reduction, but also a reduction in human resources. The conference must begin to think about populating these teams primarily with laity rather than clergy.
  • How do we execute this work? A challenge is that in the past, many of these teams have met, then expected conference staff to execute those changes. As Connectional Ministries staff has shrunk in recent years, some teams have taken off, but others have struggled, he said. This season presents an opportunity to  fully live into the shift.
Representing the Cabinet, Smart emphasized that this is a season for taking risks. He said that “the day I’m longing for” is when the “D word” stands for discipleship rather than disaffiliation.

The Cabinet, he said, is excited about the future and wants to partner with people. There is a very high level of trust with the current members, even in an extremely anxious time, a trust that extends to the bishop. That makes the difficult work easier, he said.

Smart also touched on the diversity on the Cabinet, with more women and minority representation than in the past. Beyond that, there is theological diversity, with both progressive and traditional superintendents, he noted.

He said he’s chosen to remain United Methodist because he wants to be in a church with true diversity and representation. “For me, that’s a picture of what the United Methodist church is and can be.”

During the afternoon, the three groups went into breakout sessions for discussion focused around six questions:
  • Where have you seen glimpses of hope?
  • What stop-do list would you make in your area?
  • What new things would you do and why?
  • What things would help us live effectively in our mandate to make passionate spiritual disciples and leaders of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
  • Who are the stakeholders who should be involved in the changes/dreams?
  • What are the low-hanging groups you see that can give us early and significant wins?
Their answers to these questions and other discussion were sent to Kelly McDonald, Fairley’s executive assistant, so he and the Cabinet can see their recommendations and begin discussions around them.

“Let’s spend this time remembering who we are and whose we are,”  Fairley told the groups before they went into their breakouts.

The larger group reconvened later and shared some of their recommendations and observations, among them:
  • It was encouraging to hear that “business as usual” will not happen going forward.
  • District lines should not affect ministry and the work of the conference.
  • The conference will need to prioritize in a different way and also remove bureaucracy – including breaking down silos.
  • Districts should be restructured not only along new lines but also with new team structures.
  • The conference should provide better education going forward on not just being Methodist, but on what it means to be United Methodists.
Cathy Bruce, associate director of Connectional Ministries for communications, offered some tips on effective communications. One key point: Silence itself is a form of communication, and too much silence causes people to start filling that silence with their own messaging. Also, Rev. Craig Taylor, chair of the Communications Team, shared a timeline of prospective communications that will go out between now and Annual Conference.

During his final comments to the group, Fairley said that because of the nature of the season, he and the Cabinet need to be extremely strategic about appointments. In general, that work is running later than usual because of the various uncertainties.

He said these three groups will take a deeper dive in their categories, with the goal of sharing something concrete at Annual Conference, even if some of the work remains ongoing.

“Thank you for your work today; it’s been tremendous,” he said. He also asked the group to pray for all their leaders in the days ahead.