I read with great interest Allan Bevere's take on the Cluster Charge Conference (CCC) and wanted to wait until after ours in order to coherently comment. Ours was last night, so here goes...
When our church heard last year that we were going to be going to a CCC last year, the comments went along the lines of:
- there's not going to be any time for a little church to do any of its work
- the big churches will dominate everything
- this is going to last forever
- does the DS (district superintendent, for you non-Methodistische people) even care about a little church like ours, or is he just trying to "get out of work" by doing a bunch at once?
Last Year, we (certainly it wasn't just me?) had a lot of confusion about what was going to happen in the CCC, so we had to have an emergency board meeting the day before the CCC. The CCC itself was indeed not-very-well attended (when compared to our individual charge conference). The CCC itself was kind of boring and church participation was limited to several testimonies about churches that were doing well. As for our church, we had a rubber stamp vote over what the Ad Board had already decided and brought it forward.
This year was different. First of all, our new assistant DS was very clear with us pastors (and other members of the congregation leadership) on what would happen. I was given the agenda for the evening at least three times in advance (including what would be required). Though we still had to sign documents on Sunday, it wasn't because we weren't aware of what was going on.
Our turnout was low - slightly lower than last year, due to unforeseen circumstances with a couple of people who were planning to attend) - though we seemed to have an average number (with respect to the other churches who were there), it was indeed a lot lower than if we'd had it at our church. There were 32 churches represented at our CCC, and that was seen as a plus by the members who went with me. It was neat to see all those churches participating together - more connectional than doing individually.
If I counted correctly, our DS was responsible for 168 churches. There is no possible way to do individual Charge Conferences where the DS (or the Assistant DS) visits each church. No way. Unless each of them visited a church a day for 12 weeks. They've got way too much else to do for that to be their job. And you can't say that another Elder should do them, because one of the objections I hear is that "the DS doesn't care about us" and if it's another Elder conducting the conference, that complaint is still as valid.
Anyway, the agenda included opening music all together, and then we separated into small groups. We pastors were already given the other churches who would be in small groups with us, and we were encouraged to discuss the agenda together. We didn't, but it went OK anyway. I took charge of our group (4 churches, 3 pastors) and each church was given a chance to report on our "Acts 2" data (worship attendance growth, full apportionment payment, baptisms, confessions of faith, church membership growth, and faith forming groups).
Then we "voted" on our reports (including nominations, membership, and budget) - this was a rubber-stamp vote, and we were prepared with a slate of already-agreed-upon reports. This was not meant to be the time for debate, and that's what always bugged me about church conferences in the past anyway - the contentious nature of this voting process (or those who every year didn't understand certain items and made a huge fuss about such things as the pastor's housing exclusion).After the vote, each church was asked to have someone share a short testimony. This was originally scheduled to take place in the large group, but it would have taken over an hour if everyone had taken only the allotted two minutes (allowing no time between speakers). Instead it was done in the small groups, and it was nice.
Then we prayed for one another and shared Communion in our small groups, which was nice, too.
When we went back to the large group, we sang a few songs and the Assistant DS preached. At the conclusion of his message, we brought our voted-upon packets, and the members of the church all came forward and symbolically "left their nets" (small pieces of netting given out in advance) on the packets.
Then we went home.
On the way home, I asked those in attendance what they thought. They all seemed to think it was OK - better than last year. It was kind of strange being one of the youngest people there, and having probably THE youngest delegation there as well. It was primarily blue-hairs who made it for the conference (though I doubt that would have changed if we'd had it in individual churches).
I believe that the business of the church was the least-stressed part of the CCC, which emphasized the autonomy of the local churches (since we had already been given our autonomy to make our decisions in advance, as contentious as we chose to be). The importance the CCC itself was, however, diminished from before.
And not that it's such a bad thing - Charge Conference was really one of the most boring moments in the church that I experienced each year. Maybe part of it is being in a different district, but I believe that the DS (and assistant DS) have worked to make the CCC something new. Not just the old "business meeting" stuff, but a celebration of ministry. And in this, it has succeeded (maybe not as a finished product, but certainly as changing the status quo).