Connection in the midst of uncertainty
The Methodist understanding of connection began as a way for the denomination’s founder, John Wesley, to make sure every community of believers could be connected to the church as a whole. That connection continues today in The United Methodist Church as local churches and annual conferences covenant to support one another in the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
One facet of that connection in the Oklahoma Conference is Mission & Ministry, a collection of 14 ministries supported by the conference. These ministries resource, educate and support people in communities that are often socioeconomically disadvantaged. Rev. Derrek Belase, director of connectional ministry for the Oklahoma Conference, said giving to Mission & Ministry is a way for congregations to “be involved in ministries well beyond their local borders and impact lives they will never know.”
“This is a way to live out Matthew 25, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison,” Belase said. “Our local churches do amazing work in their own communities, but for a few cents every week in the offering plate, they can extend their witness even further.”
Rev. Scott Rodgers, who leads Elk City UMC, said the congregation believes it can have a greater outreach in partnership with other churches through those ministries.
“We recognize they can do ministries that we can’t do on our own,” said Rodgers. “It’s important to [the church] to pay those apportionments, those M&M apportionments, because we know the ministry done by those organizations.”
Rev. Adam Shahan believes the church he leads in Stillwater takes the idea of connection to heart.
“At Lost Creek, we believe in shared ministry, and we also believe that we can do more together than we can do by ourselves,” Shahan said. “There are connectional, shared ministries in our conference that are better resourced and better trained to engage with the kinds of people that extension ministries serve, and we feel confident sharing our dollars with them.”
Christ UMC in Tulsa has a heritage of supporting connectional ministries through their giving, according to lead pastor Rev. Bob Feist. He said the church feels that “we need to give beyond ourselves.”
“I think that we just know that we’re in mission beyond ourselves,” said Feist. “It blesses the people we’re trying to bless, but it also comes back to our church.”
Mission & Ministry programs like Project Transformation, a summer outreach program that brings children, churches and college students together through literacy and leadership, impact both the residents and the church of the communities they serve.
“It’s a good way for them to get involved, it’s a good way for them to see the church beyond the local church, and it’s a good way for them to make contact with people in our community we might not normally make contact with,” said Rev. Greg Tener, pastor at First UMC in Bartlesville, which hosts a Project Transformation camp every summer. “It’s important to [the church] because they have a real desire to reach young people with the good news of Christ. They have a real desire to help support the larger church, and they have a real hope to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Rev. Sonja Tobey said the church she leads, St. Paul’s UMC in Lawton, has a strong connection with the Wesley Foundation at Cameron University, part of the conference’s Campus Ministries. She said the church takes mission trips through Volunteers in Mission, part of the conference’s Office of Mission, and is connected with the Redemption Church in Lawton, part of Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries. Though Tobey couldn’t say whether anyone in her congregation was directly affected by any Mission & Ministry programs, she said several ministries have touched people’s hearts.
“Because [Mission & Ministry giving] supports ministries that are in Oklahoma, the way they see it, it’s in their backyard,” Tobey said.
Rev. Mark Jardine said Mission & Ministry opportunities like Project Transformation and Camps & Conference Programming have had a positive impact on children and youth at Chapel Hill UMC in Oklahoma City. He said the church feels the camps are transformational places where people are impacted by Christ, including receiving a call to ministry.
“We feel those are some of the impactful monies we give to the apportionment system,” Jardine said. “We just consider [Mission & Ministry] apportionments are part of our obligation. As far as we’re concerned, those are still apportionments, even if they’re under a different name.”
In 2018, the Oklahoma Annual Conference approved a two-tiered budget system that resulted in a 6.3 percent reduction in apportionments. In his Episcopal Address that year, Bishop Jimmy Nunn said the recommendation for a two-tiered system came after a long-term study by the conference Council on Finance and Administration revealed that rising costs and declining attendance could create an unworkable financial situation.
“When I came to Oklahoma, I listened to many conversations… [and] one theme emerged: beneath the surface of the reports, the conference is experiencing financial distress,” Nunn said in his address. “Without significant intervention, the financial assumptions of the conference are unsustainable.”
With the new budget, apportionments that supported work that could only be managed by the conference office—including CCLI and CVLI licensing, payroll and benefits, clergy development, conference-wide communications—made up the first tier of the new budget. Ministries such as Circle of Care, Cookson Hills Center, Restore Hope, the Skyline Urban Ministry and Hispanic/Latino Ministries made up the second budget tier, now known as Mission & Ministry. First-tier apportionments would continue to be mandatory, but second-tier Mission & Ministry giving would be at the local church’s discretion.
“The idea behind it was to allow churches to give more locally to mission projects if they chose to do that and still participate in the connectional ministries at a rate that was sustainable for their own budgets,” Belase said.
The Oklahoma Annual Conference recently completed its first full calendar year of supporting Mission & Ministry work separately from apportionment giving. Conference apportionments were paid at 81.42 percent, but only 63.62 percent of Mission & Ministry funding was paid. Of the conference’s 469 churches asked to give to Mission & Ministry programs, 90 churches paid zero percent, 74 churches paid less than 50 percent, 40 churches paid more than 50 but less than 100 percent, and 265 churches paid 100 percent or more.
Tener believes Mission & Ministry programs like Campus Ministries provide vital spaces for high schoolers and young adults to connect more fully with the life of the church. He said the opportunities provided by these ministries need to continue to be presented to young people.
“These ministries would be in critical condition if they can’t hire staff or if they can’t expand their reach,” Tener said. “It’d be detrimental to our Methodist witness and detrimental to the witness of the universal church in our communities.”
Tobey said in 2019 she did a sermon series that invited representatives from each Mission & Ministry opportunity to speak to St. Paul’s, after which an offering would be collected for the ministry. She believes that some ministries might survive without giving from the churches, but others would be negatively impacted.
“Some of them would obviously suffer and close or not be able to do what they have been doing,” Tobey said. “Some of them would fundraise and be okay… Fundraising and training the directors is going to be critically important if they’re going to make it without people paying the apportionments.”
Rodgers said that Elk City UMC is working to finish raising money for Circle of Care to build a home for large sets of foster siblings on land the church donated for the project. He sympathizes with the struggle of trying to find money to fund ministry work.
“I know that it’s going to cause every ministry to do some refiguring, refocusing, and doing some things different, but we also do that in the local church,” Rodgers said. “We have to say, ‘this is where we are,’ and make adjustments accordingly.”
Jardine said he is concerned that a lack of funding will cause some Mission & Ministry programs to end.
“My concern would be that many of them would cease to exist or would face some radical, hard decisions that would lessen their impact,” Jardine said. “Some of the larger ones can go out and raise significant dollars, but some could never raise the type of money necessary to fund their ministry.”
Belase said Mission & Ministry staff have had to work harder to raise the same funds they’ve received in the past, even in places that have historically supported their work. He believes that financial support for extended ministries is vital as the denomination moves through a time of change.
“It’s akin to planting the tree that you know won’t provide shade in your own lifetime but you do it anyway,” Belase said. “This a great time of transition and upheaval, and that is all the more reason to participate in the connection and to focus locally at the same time. Our system of apportioning ministry allows us to do both and do it well.”
Shahan believes that communicating a ministry’s story will increase in importance not only for extension ministries, but for local churches as well.
“Our church has committed to paying 100 percent of Mission & Ministry giving, but I do see the need for all of us, not just our extension ministries, but our local churches to get better at telling their story and to be better at shaping a positive narrative of the impact that they’re all making as apportionment giving goes down and as churches close,” Shahan said.
Feist said he doesn’t know what the future holds for Mission & Ministry work, but he does believe seeking God’s provision and communicating with churches will be important.
“When I’ve seen the way some churches are responding to missional opportunities, I realize that it’s a challenging time for all of us,” Feist said. “I think that all of them have been aware that they’ve got to find sources, if they can, beyond giving from the local church, however, I just think that the local church and the connections that come when a congregation is providing support, there’s just nothing quite like that.”
Though Belase recognizes that some churches may feel uncertain about the future of the denomination, he said he chooses to focus on the work still needed in the present.
“One of my favorite quotes come from Abraham Davenport from the late 1700s as a storm was approaching during a meeting of the Connecticut House of Representatives: ‘The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought,’” Belase said. “In this day, I wish the candles to be brought as we continue to do our common, connectional work.” §