In late January and early February, more than 200 people attended focus group sessions held in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and online regarding the formation of a new, unified conference. The groups were convened by Jim Schnurbusch, President of orgstory, who has been engaged as a consultant for this process.
Below is his summary of what he heard at those sessions:
Focus Group Summary
While many ideas were shared and discussed as participants imagined something new, six dominant themes were most often represented:
1. Technology has a critical role in making the Conference a connecting point for churches to learn and grow.
Participants believe technology will help make the physical proximity of the new Conference support the needs of church leadership and congregants. Specifically, comments included a desire for a more robust web site that included access to more content needed by local churches (i.e. forms, best practices, processes, church directory/contacts). The participants also regularly spoke about having access to more (and vetted) resources that the Conference has compiled from churches in the conference. These resources ranged greatly – from business support (HR, accounting, web site development, social media training) – to a listing of resources that would be valuable to most churches in the Southern New England area (i.e. best providers/pricing on heating oil, church maintenance, protocol for dealing with local community Historical Societies).
Participants felt staying connected via emails, electronic newsletters and on social media would grow in importance; however, an overall expectation is to keep “face-to-face” connectedness between Conference staff and churches.
2. Conference must focus on “big picture” items that help Churches anticipate as well as function day to day.
Many church leaders discussed the need for the Conference to be their connection to the changes in Church; and, be their link to support that will help their local church function. Many discussions centered round the idea of best practices sharing among churches that would be facilitated by the Conference. Church leaders voiced a desire to have access to approaches and programs that other churches are doing that are successful – everything from how to improve church hospitality to attracting new members. The participants feel the Conference can be the conduit to this type of information.
The link between the Conference and the National Setting was also seen as important – especially to provide insights about the direction of “Church” including, and beyond, the UCC.
3. Conference can help in the day-to-day guidance of the local church through shared resources and thought.
The “visual” of the new Conference is one of it being a honeycomb that suggests interdependence with the local church. The interdependence represented in a honeycomb model represents programs, information, best practices, marketing/visibility, resources, contacts and more that become stronger together in relationship with the local church.
Another key part of the honeycomb is that it creates interdependence between the local church and the personal connection through the Conference Ministers and the Associate Conference Ministers. These personal touch points are viewed as very important to the vitality of the local church; “pastor for pastors” and pastor for congregations. The Conference was imagined to be the link to non-UCC denominations – a central “connection point” that would enable local churches to reach beyond the UCC. Some felt the Conference should take the lead in establishing these relationships and be a database for new connections.
4. Conference has a role in making the United Church of Christ visible in New England.
Participants believe the Conference has a role in raising the visibility of the UCC in RI, CT and MA; the Conference has a role in connecting the UCC with the local congregant.
5. Less “institutional”; more relational.
While there was no clear-cut feeling about what to call the organizational body other than “Conference” (some ideas centered around “Collaborative” or “Alliance”; still some thought it couldn’t be anything other than a Conference as that is what the UCC recognizes), many imagined a organization that was less “institutional” and more relational.
There was rich conversation about “sharing” among churches – sharing pastors, sharing youth and adults to create “joint” youth activities/adult activities, sharing building structures for programs needed by the church, by the community. The “New Conference” is viewed as an opportunity to break free from structures that may be suppressing growth possibilities.
6. The role of “today’s” Conference is generally understood and generally important.
When participants were asked about the role of the Conference today, a lengthy list of activities and responsibilities ensued. Even when asked if there was something the Conference should stop doing, most felt the long list of responsibilities/roles/resources (search and call; crisis management; pastor oversight; camps/conference centers; church/pastor relationships) were thought to be important, and needed.
Imagining the new Conference
Below is a sampling of responses from participants about what excites them in imagining a new Conference.
Louder (bigger) voice to help add to secular and church conversations
Diversity in our Conference (racial, age, etc.)
Going to Silver Lake Conference Center (it would make crossing lines (perceived) easier)
Youth development (collaboration)
Larger collaboration among other protestant church denominations
Resources from the joint Conference
Building relationships with other staff, pastors
Stronger advocates for social justice
Open to other covenants – open to progressive Christianity
Being a large presence in the National Setting UCC
Prophetic voice – we need to be that voice that is Jesus – we need to bring back the Christian voice, and the Conference could be a major instrument for that
Stronger voice among the UCC – to help bring more attention to the work of the UCC
Positive message of love is exciting
Increase resources availability
Conference collaboration might set us free of old ideals
Combined resources might help us better address social issues
Shared best practices
Larger worship services
(Might) inspire congregations to join together (i.e. reduction of churches for the greater good and vitality)
Force churches to look beyond Conference for insights on successes and failures
Greater collaboration that can teach pastors and leadership how to do things differently and make them real and successful in practice
Stronger Social Justice and Witness Ministries because each Conference has a specific focus on issues
It must be something entirely new to be successful (rebirth)
Opportunity to create based on a Biblical model versus a corporate function
Witness ministries can be at the center
Opportunity to streamline information
Conference can start fresh and express a vision that can unite
Conference can help inspire people to Be the Church
Opportunity to bring us away from churches’ individualistic mentality
Community and collegiality might be elevated
Potential of critical mass (education, learning, purchasing)
Bring together shared resources
Opportunity for best practices
Opportunity for more connection and shared resources