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2011 Southwest Texas Annual Conference

Inclusion embodies extravagant hospitality

By Rachel L. Toalson, Managing Editor

More than 1,300 lay and clergy delegates gathered in Corpus Christi June 8-11 for the 42nd session of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference, a session that made history in welcoming the first deaf lay delegate to ever participate in worship services and business sessions. Earl Ryburn, a delegate from New Life Deaf Fellowship in San Antonio, "listened" to business sessions and guest preachers through interpreters using American Sign Language.

Numbers

The Rev. David Seilheimer, conference treasurer and secretary, reported that membership in the conference was down by 50 this year, even while the conference sits in one of the "fastest growing population centers of the United States."

"The trend of that loss is unconscionable in my mind," Seilheimer said.

Hispanic membership, however, increased by 123 from last year, he added. That's a 2 percent increase up to 6,173 members, which is a "very helpful sign," Seilheimer said. The conference has doubled the number of Hispanic members in the last decade, "doing something good that we need to do better." He reminded delegates that 50 percent of the elected General Conference delegation is comprised of Hispanic leaders.

"We have tremendous leadership among the Hispanic population," Seilheimer said. "The Hispanic population in South Texas is the youngest population. Sometimes I think our failure to bring in Hispanics is not the difference of race or language. It's that we're not very good right now at dealing with young people. We need to be reaching out to those people who are younger."

Worship attendance is down by almost 1,000, which Seilheimer labeled "troubling because worship attendance usually foreshadows membership." Baptisms are down by 131 to 1,622. Confessions of faith are up by 40 to 2,226. He said medium churches-those with a membership of 100 to 1,000-are the most effective in producing confessions of faith.

Non-capital local church expenditures from 1989 to 2009 increased from $70.2 million to $107.3 million.

"One of the reasons I mention that figure is that $107 million is a lot of money," Seilheimer said. "We have a lot to work with. We are not a poor church. If our stewardship were better, we'd be even stronger in this area. We have financial resources that will allow us to do our work."

The amount of money churches spend per member has increased at about 1.5 percent per year, but giving has not increased relative to inflation, Seilheimer said. Apportionment giving has remained virtually steady.

Statistics show a trend toward lay staff increasing and clergy staff decreasing, although compensation for both lay and clergy has remained steady between 40 and 50 percent of church budgets. Program expenses have remained flat at about 5 percent, Seilheimer said.

The number of churches per pastoral charge has decreased. This has increased the number of part-time local pastors appointed in the conference over the past 20 years, he added. The number of elders appointed has decreased while the number of full-time local pastors continues to increase, doubling in the last 30 years.

The age of clergy elders had increased significantly, Seilheimer said, with a large number of them eligible for retirement. The average age of full-time local pastors has begun to decrease. Part-time local pastors tend to be much older.

"There is always more to be seen," Seilheimer said. "And our future is not necessarily dependent on our past. There can be important things in the rearview mirror, but there are more important things in what's ahead. We write our own future."

"The time is now," said Bishop Jim Dorff. "The declines in worship attendance and membership in our annual conference, in this mission field God has provided, they're just not what God wants from us. This is a spiritual issue. This just isn't what God needs and expects from us in terms of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"I fully anticipate and expect that all of us will put our shoulders to the plow. When we gather here in this place next year, our report will look different. Our work is not done. There is room to grow in Christ. Unless you are laboring in a mission field in which every single person in that mission field is in a vital, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, we are not done. I have yet to find such a community or such a place."

Benefits

The Rev. Ellen Ely of the Board of Pensions commended the board and the Southwest Texas Conference for "prayerfully working for the conference." Some concerns have been voiced about how the financial decisions of other annual conferences will affect Southwest Texas, but the conference is currently in good shape.

In 2001, the board introduced a new health plan to streamline the out-of-pocket payment process in order to exercise "good management and good stewardship." There has been no major premium increase in three years. This year, a new clergy benefit has been arranged: clergy members who use the Methodist Hospitals in San Antonio will not have to pay out-of-pocket deductibles for services.

Finances

Joe Vasquez of the Council on Finance and Administration said the conference budget this year will increase by 5.3 percent because members of the extended Cabinet in 2010 decided to give their pay increase back to the church.

"We try to do everything we can," Vasquez said. "We realize we're here for ministry, but money is the engine that runs the car, and we need it to run the car in order to do the ministry."

Reports

Patti Zaiontz, director of Mt. Wesley in Kerrville, said the conference center is still recovering from the powerful storm that blew through about a year ago. They recovered enough to "welcome 431 youth and staff for the largest Midwinter ever held," she said.

"We are still conducting repairs on the campus," she said. "We're balancing repairing the buildings and maintaining groups that want to come to us so we don't have to turn anyone away."

New churches

The Rev. Larry Howard is the interim director of New Church Development and Transformation, whose mission is to "make disciples of Jesus Christ through the establishment of new faith communities and the transformation of existing ones." Howard said the office has three goals: start a minimum of two faith communities annually; increase effectiveness by providing coaching for congregations and pastors to increase worship attendance and participation in mission; and grow Christ-centered churches celebrating a Wesleyan tradition of unconditional grace.

Howard introduced the Rev. Ruben Saenz, former pastor of El Buen Pastor in the Rio Grande Conference, as the new executive director of New Church Development and Transformation.

"I enter into a land that has already been plowed by many pioneers for the past 150 years," Saenz said. "I'm grateful for the work that's already been done, and I'm hopeful to continue being fruitful. God is working things out so the growth and vitality and renewal of the Church is somehow recaptured.

"We are in the perfect position to lead the way for the rest of the denomination as we do ministry in this ethnically diverse area. We are learning and working out how to effectively do ministry in multicultural contexts. We have a tremendous opportunity to be applicable to the rest of the church."

Saenz said it takes a $220,000 grant to start one new church, and the conference's goal is to start two a year. Leaders are also looking at starting mission congregations-faith communities or existing congregations that are active in significant mission outreach and disciple-making but limited in resources-because they don't cost as much money.

The first challenge in the office, he said, is to "continually increase the financial support." He said $20,000 will provide 10 new church pastors with training; $30,000 will provide support for two new faith communities/mission congregations to reach out to special neighborhoods that are strategically chosen; $35,000 will gift a coach to work with pastors for three years; $50-75,000 will provide salary and health insurance and housing; $75-100,000 will provide the physical equipment needed to start one new church; $250,000 will start one new church next year; $1 million will start four new churches; and $5 million will endow one new church start "until Christ comes."

The office will continue to identify promising new church pastors and appoint them to "communities where they have a natural affinity." It will also be focusing efforts on gaining Hispanic members. In 2005, Saenz said, Texas became a majority-minority state, with 50.2 percent being Hispanic and 12 percent being African American.

Howard said the office will also be working on improving existing congregations through the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI), an initiative that starts with pastoral leadership development and works its way to church transformation. In August 2010, the conference started a pilot project of HCI with some selected congregations. In September, they will open it up to all churches.

"We want to grow Christ-centered churches celebrating Wesleyan traditions," Saenz said. "We seek to increase the church's reach, to become a people who do no harm and all the good we can do and who stay in love with God. We want to speak to human issues from a sound Biblical and theological perspective."

Delegates also voted 384-325 to petition General Conference with a membership clause that includes people regardless of "race, color, national origin, status, economic situation, sexual orientation, gender choices and gender identity."

Next year's annual conference session will begin one day later in order to accommodate the lay delegates, who typically have to miss three days of work, Dorff said. It will be a "great experiment," he added. Dates are set for June 7-10, 2012.

Membership stands at 118,733, down 50 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 47,521, down 912.

For more information on our annual conference go here: http://www.umcswtx.org/june2411witness#Section24277581