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2010 Southwest Texas Annual Conference

Southwest Texas Annual Conference
June 2-5, 2010, Corpus Christi, Texas

The 152nd session of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference celebrated the growth of the conference through new church plants, rejoiced in existing churches' financial health and welcomed and bid goodbye to newly ordained ministers and those who were retiring.

About 1,500 clergy and lay delegates met inside the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi on June 2-5 for the annual conference session, themed "Creating a Culture of Growth: Developing Principled Leaders for the Church and the World."

The Rev. David Seilheimer, secretary and treasurer of the conference, reported that the church membership and worship attendance continue to decrease but that, financially, churches are strong, with assets far exceeding liabilities.

Church membership has declined slowly since 2002, Seilheimer said. The church lost 415 members in 2009, ending the year with 118,783 members. The decline, Seilheimer said, represents only one-third of one percent of the total membership, but it is still a loss.

"When small losses continue over time, they become a trend," Seilheimer said.

During 2009, churches in the conference had 2,186 professions of faith, a number than has declined steadily in the last decade. In only three years of the last 10 years have professions of faith increased, Seilheimer said.

"Again, the declines are small taken individually, but they definitely form a trend," he said.

Seilheimer said that sometimes leaders say their members are getting older and that the number of deaths is the reason for decline in membership, but the perception does not appear to be supported by the reporting of the churches. The number of deaths from 2008 to 2009 decreased by 56, he said.

"It does not necessarily follow that our average age is decreasing," Seilheimer said. "However this certainly does not support a claim that the average age is increasing. We still do not have accurate data on the age of our members to support any conclusions about whether the age is increasing or decreasing."

Seilheimer said worship attendance is on a definite downward trend, dropping from 48,651 to 48,433 between 2008 and 2009.

But, on a positive note, Seilheimer said, the number of visitors in worship services has continued to hold steady, with the total number in 2009 at 4,668. That number is up 425 from 2008.

Joe Vasquez, chair of the conference Council on Finance and Administration, said that 89 percent of the conference churches paid 100 percent of their apportionments.

A conference apportionment task force, led by chair Ralph Thompson, reported their research findings regarding the current way the conference apportionments are calculated, which they were commissioned to do last year.

The group examined the tithing model, a method that was tossed out as a good possibility, but they said the model would not work for the Southwest Texas Conference because it would separate each church on its own.

Under the current apportionment formula, the more financially capable churches are able to help support the needs of the less financially capable churches with fewer financial resources.

"This fact has not been adequately communicated," he said. "A radical change will likely be accompanied by a radical change in clergy supply to our churches, especially those that have the least financial capability."

Data from other conferences that use the "tithe approach," Thompson said, demonstrates a lack of long-term viability. Most of the conference use tithes that are higher than 10 percent, usually up to 13 percent.

The tithe approach also necessitates direct billing of all benefits at actual cost to every local congregation, which results in higher total costs to congregations when the lowest paid pastors. Clergy benefits, Thompson said, would more than double, putting more stress on the individual churches.

"It could have disastrous effects," Thompson said. "At this point, we are one of the healthiest conferences in the connection from a financial sense, and we want it to stay that way. We cannot do that unless we address the new questions we discovered."

The group recommended creating an annual conference Sustainability Task Force to evaluate the long-term sustainability of the conference's environment, assumptions and realities, including but not limited to clergy supply and demand, conference finances and financial structures and congregation sustainability.

Thompson said the group also recommended that the Council on Finance and Administration revisit and refine the annual budgeting process, including budget and spending controls.

But until there are "changes in the assumptions which directly impact the budgetary process and the future sustainability of the apportionment funding process, there is not an immediate need to make significant changes in the manner in which the apportionments are calculated."

"I would remind you that we are connectional," Thompson said. "The tithing system we spend a lot of time on, it separates us. Each church is on its own. There is no help from one church to another unless we reach out and do it outside the system, and that can be devastating."

Al Hamilton, a representative from Bandera UMC who has been a vocal proponent of the tithe apportionment formula, said he thinks the conference should take another look at the formula.

"We don't have a problem with the purpose of the apportionment," Hamilton said. "It's a wonderful thing. But neither the conference nor the General Conference has any limitation on their budgetary amount."

Bishop Jim Dorff said the group has raised some important questions that need to be answered as the conference moves into the future.

Ellen Ely, from the conference Board of Pensions, assured delegates that the board is "working heartily on your behalf to provide for the security and welfare of the pastors in the Southwest Texas Conference."

"Since we last met, we know that there's been a lot of concerns expressed," Ely said. "Not just from pastors, but from people in our church pews, people struggling to keep their jobs, to put food on the table. It's not a problem unique to our conference but to the entire denomination."

She assured the group that retirement benefits will not suddenly cease, although the market is volatile.

"Our goal is not to panic or make quick decisions," Ely said. "We will ride it through safely.

"We don't know what the health care reform will do for now. Changes are being implemented gradually, but much of the regulation has yet to be written. We will communicate changes with you as we know them."

The Rev. Kim Cape, executive director of New Church Development and Transformation, said the goal of the office is to start a minimum of two new faith communities every year as well as increase the effectiveness of pastors, increase worship attendance and participate in and grow Christ-centered churches.

The office already has a list of sites lines up where they're ready to start new churches, Cape said. They just need the people and the funds.

"We've learned that while land is very important, that's not where we start," Cape said. "Where we start is with leadership. Leadership is the single most important factor in a successful new church start.

"How do we develop this new leadership? We ask the cabinet to scout talent. We need you to scout talent. The cabinet works with the mother church to appoint the right person to the mission field."

Traditionally, she said, the conference has used two ways to start new churches: the parachute model, where a pastor is dropped in a location on his own, and the Antioch model, where a mother congregation births a daughter church. The Antioch model has had more success than the parachute one, she said.

The mother church provides space, people and money, Cape says. And it requires commitment to birth another church.

New Antioch churches for 2010, Cape said, include Hope Arise United Methodist Church, birthed out of Bulverde United Methodist Church; a congregation near the Clear Springs area off FM 76, birthed out of First United Methodist Church, Seguin; a church near Potranco Road and 1604, birthed out of Northern Hills United Methodist Church, San Antonio; and University West, an extension campus of University United Methodist Church, San Antonio.

Cape said funds from the Offering Christ Today for Tomorrow campaign has totaled $913,763 as of January 2010, and out of the fund, the office has started the Potranco Road project and another church in Austin.

Cape challenged other churches to think about how they could multiply.

"For those of you in smaller churches, helping to start a new church is not something that the larger churches only do," Dorff said. "There is no church in our conference that cannot and should not help start a new church. None. All of us in many different ways can support the beginning of new faith communities, whether in your community or in others.

"I hope you will make this a part of the ministry of your congregation. How can we participate by helping to start new faith communities? I believe that is what God wants."

Rachel L. Toalson
Managing Editor