It is the primary goal of the Florida Conference to encourage, help foster and equip local congregations to become vital and faithful communities.
This is our time as the United Church of Christ in Florida. We who are members of the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ have been called to be good stewards of the considerable resources that God has entrusted to us. We are inheritors of a long and faithful history. Those who have gone before us have faithfully proclaimed the Gospel and lived out the call to mission and ministry. Like our forebears we face opportunities and challenges. Like our forebears we are called to be both tradition bearers and trailblazers. We find ourselves in a time of enormous change. The concerns over membership decline, dwindling resources and the pace of change in our culture can at times be overwhelming. Yet we are a people of hope and faith. We are a people who are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are a people who know the power of prayer and the power of action. We are a people who believe that the Spirit of God continues to move in real and powerful ways. We are a people who are called to rise up and sing, “Should the threats of dire predictions cause us to withdraw in pain, may your blazing phoenix spirit resurrect the church again. God of rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar, we your people, ours the journey now and ever, now and ever, now and evermore.” (Julian Rush “In the Midst of New Dimensions”, NCH #391).
Assets of the Conference
It is clear that our churches are our greatest asset. Both our authorized ministers and our lay leaders carry out the mission and ministry of their churches day in and day out. As our congregations transform lives and reach out in their communities with God’s love and compassion, a real and significant difference is made through our congregations. Another asset is our identity as members of the United Church of Christ. The core values of the United Church of Christ: Changing Lives, Extravagant Welcome and Continuing Testament help to clarify who we are and what we value. We are called to speak with a clear voice and to find ways to welcome those who are searching for a church like ours.
Our Conference leadership demonstrates a strong commitment to the mission and ministry of the Conference. The volunteers who make up our Boards and Committees exercise their considerable gifts on behalf of the wider church. The Conference staff is seen as an asset to helping equip the mission of the Conference.
We have been blessed with material assets. The Endowment Fund, the Invested Reserve Funds and Real Properties are a part of our life together and help equip us in fulfilling our mission and ministry.
Challenges of the Conference
The easiest challenge to identify is the diminishment of financial resources that the Conference continues to face. We must no longer rely on two income streams (OCWM and Per Capita) as the sole financial support for the mission and ministry of the Conference. The decline in giving has been dramatic in the last decade. In 2000 our Basic Support OCWM giving from our churches was $921,000. In 2011 the OCWM support was $527,000 a ten year decline of $394,000. We need to continue to develop financial strategies which include: Planned Giving Initiatives, Directed Giving Opportunities for Individuals and Congregations, Friends of the Conference appeals, Fundraising Initiatives and exploration of Grant Income.
Membership decline is another challenge. From 2000 to 2010 membership in our churches went from 32,734 in 2000 to 25,006 in 2010 – a drop of 7728 members in a 10 year period of time – a 23% loss of members in this time period. In the past two years three of our churches have closed. Currently 24 of our 96 churches are served by part time leadership.
Seasonality is a challenge for many of our churches. The impact of the influx of people during the winter is significant for a good number of our churches. The negative impact of decision making and finances are a real challenge to those most significantly impacted by the changes that this reality brings to our churches.
Embracing change is a significant challenge for most of our churches. The fear of loss causes pain and anxiety as we head into the unknown future. We have yet to utilize technology in a real substantial way. Many of our churches are concerned that there aren’t any (or very few) young people present in the life of the church. The models of church life seem outdated yet the resistance to change is present. Our churches are predominately Euro American in background. We have not found ways to date of attracting or starting churches which reach the considerable Hispanic population of our state or other immigrant communities in our midst.
A Way Forward
In 2011, for the first time in recent history the population of Florida decreased. The economic downturn has manifested itself most dramatically in the housing markets as foreclosures abound and people find themselves “upside down” in their mortgages. Funding for public education continues to be cut in dramatic ways; lawmakers have considered enacting harsher anti-immigration laws and the issues of homeless and poverty get little consideration in the public sphere. The accounts of modern day slavery taking place in Florida’s fields sends chills down our spines. We live with a heightened state of anxiety about when the next “big storm” might hit one of our coasts. In the midst of this context, in this time we are moving towards establishing a “culture of experimentation” where we can find ways to share our best practices with one another and to build a community of interdependence across the Conference that reaffirms the notion that we need one another to equip vitality and to provide needed mutual support.
This is not the first time we have had to be flexible and adapt to the changing times. Every generation finds itself facing new challenges and opportunities. When the Conference was born there were very few congregations in place. As Florida began to grow in size and population the establishment of new churches became the priority. Planting new churches became the priority and so we developed a singular focus in establishing new congregations. As the demographics of our state shift we must ask ourselves how we can best be responsive to the needs of the communities in which we find ourselves at this moment in time.
Our core values can help illuminate the way forward. We are a church that believes in:
Offering an extravagant welcome – this is summarized in the phrase we use throughout our churches, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
Transformed Lives – Jesus calls us to a new way of living and viewing the world. Once we have been changed by his radical love we must work with others to change the world.
Continuing Testament – We proclaim that “God is Still Speaking” and that this ongoing story is ours to live and ours to incarnate in our communities, state, nation and world.
We believe these values offer life giving messages for our members – and for those who have yet to come to know us as a church.
‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Matthew 22:36-40
Love God, love neighbor. What would that look like for us to organize our Conference and our churches around the “great commandment”?
Our congregations are the base of the Florida Conference. They are called to be the local centers of ministry and mission. They are the places where the “great commandment” can be lived out in real and tangible ways.
Therefore it is the primary goal of the Florida Conference to encourage, help foster and equip local congregations to become vital and faithful communities.
In order to accomplish this goal the Conference will:
Invest in technologies and social media to build connections among the churches.
Provide a variety of resources to local churches around specific areas of need eg.: worship, evangelism, leadership development, stewardship, financial development, youth and young adults, communication strategies, interfaith resources and promotion of core values.
Build an infrastructure of relationships between and among churches to foster sharing of best practices, learning from mistakes and failures and networking around congregational needs.
Encourage local congregations to multiply as congregations. Develop ways to nurture and train leadership for new church starts or multi-site congregations with an emphasis on Hispanic and immigrant communities.
It is our hope and prayer that this vision will set the course and direction for the Florida Conference for the next five years as we seek to be God’s faithful people in this time and place. Thanks be to God!
God is still speaking