Pathways Team releases findings on Focus Sessions, recommendations

February 18, 2020
Mountain Sky Conference
Focus Group Sessions - Final Report
Pathways Team - February 10, 2020

Download the report PDF 

Summary

Mountain Sky Conference has released the final Pathways Focus Sessions report. The report summarizes the 26 focus sessions held in November, December 2019 and January 2020 that were intended to focus on creating understanding and enthusiasm for the pathways being explored and suggested ahead of General Conference 2020.  The final report summarizes participants views on ways Mountain Sky Conference can help build a unity of purpose and vision.


Introduction

During the 2019 annual meeting of the Mountain Sky Conference (MSC) we resolved to help guide the body through the many different scenarios we might face following the decisions of General Conference (GC) earlier that year so that we could make decisions in an informed manner having heard from many people and places across our area.

To that effect, the plan development was to include listening sessions as a means to interactively communicate the various pathways being explored. The format included a PowerPoint with short video presentations by Bishop Karen Oliveto, Rev. Dawn Skerritt, Rev. Kent Ingram, and Rev. Calvin Hill each followed by a series of questions and time for discussion. Each session was facilitated by a Pathways team member and/or conference delegate and local clergy and lay leaders as available. The participant count in these sessions was in excess of 850 persons.   

Focus Group Sessions Purpose

The intent of these sessions was to focus on creating understanding and enthusiasm for the pathways being explored and suggested and to help build a unity of purpose and vision. The information collected was shared with the Pathways team, the Delegates, the Bishop and the Cabinet for consideration in their work.

These final Pathways Focus Session report is based on a high-level review of the 26 reports submitted following the Focus Sessions held during November & December 2019 and January 2020. It is not a statistical analysis of the responses and represents the opinions of the Pathways team to help guide support for moving forward. 

The sessions intentionally included a final question — “What do you want the Bishop, the Cabinet, and the Delegation to hear?”. Responses to that question are listed in the Appendix at the end of the report.
This report is being shared with the Bishop, the Cabinet, the Delegation and all people of the Mountain Sky Conference. It is hoped that this information will help us reflect on our diversity, strengths, and inclusiveness and allow us to build a unity of purpose as we Move Toward God’s Good Future for our conference. 

Findings

We believe the overall reaction to the Focus Sessions has been very positive. While the meetings have sometimes been contentious as people grapple with the realities of the future of the United Methodist Church and more particularly of the Mountain Sky Conference, they have also shown the spirit of some of our most defining qualities: inclusiveness, respectfulness, and genuine compassion about the future of our denomination. 

The reports from the individual sessions collected a large and unfiltered amount of information. We have transcribed this information for each session into a single document for reference and reflection. Participants were made aware that this was a primary means of collecting feedback and hence they included constructive comments and in some instances, raw emotions.
The following are the major themes gleaned from the Focus Sessions and our comments:

Communication 

While many were appreciative of getting a chance to hear about the work of the conference and the opportunity to discuss and share in our future, there were a number of expressions that it took too long or that plans were developing behind the scenes. 

The Focus Sessions may have been the first conversations many congregations have had about the future of the United Methodist Church following GC 2019. Many were learning for the first time how their local church fits within the puzzle of the connectional church and what it could/should mean for them. This was also the first opportunity to dialogue with other members about the issue of the United Methodist Churches evolving stance on human sexuality. This may suggest that there is an underlying need to be educated about the workings of our Annual Conference in relation to the local church as well as what the Bible teaches about homosexuality. Additionally, it underscores the need to communicate with clarity the many complex relationships both past and present which are shaping the movement and direction of our conference.

Mountain Sky Conference Vision Statement 

Some expressed surprise that the MSC had a vision/mission statement. In some cases, it was read following the first video to help ground the discussion groups in the values of the MSC. There may have been unfamiliar with the idea that beyond our mission to make disciples for Jesus there is a way (vision) that is the expression our conference uses to carry out that mission. 
The creation of the Mountain Sky Conference from the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences produced a shared vision that appears to not be universally known by congregations. This could be an educational opportunity to review this vision and help churches to renew and/or build their own visions.

Scenario Feedback 

Due to the constraints of time and group sizes, not all could fully engage in discussions surrounding all the scenarios presented. Larger groups in particular, were asked to discuss and comment on just one of the scenarios. There seemed to be a general consensus that it was just too much to think about in such a short time. On the up-side however, the sessions did seem to generate a deeper desire to discuss these issues further in their churches and communities. It did appear during these Focus Sessions that participants were generally in support of the potential need for separation from the Traditional Plan — most probably as an autonomous entity. 

In January a new plan was introduced (Protocol for Reconciliation and Gracious Separation) and consequently was not part of the discussions for most of the Focus Sessions. Since this information may represent a substantive shift in the possible scenarios discussed in the Focus Sessions, it would seem important to incorporate a new strategy to re-visit this with all congregations.

Given the lack of coherent discussions about the possible needs for the MSC to be prepared for the realities of GC 2020, we will need to continue exploring and refining our options and bring these possibilities before the members. 

Connections 

In response to question #2 (How does your church remain connected with other churches in the MSC?) following the first video by Bishop Karen, there were the following comments:
  • Local church: While there were examples of church to church connections, there were also admissions that many did not intentionally reach out to other regional churches enough (or at all).
  • Mountain Sky Conference: Most expressions of connection between the local church and the MSC were positive, although some still feel estranged. 
  • General Conference: Although not directly expressed in comments, there seems to be a prevailing opinion that the local church has a very limited connection (or influence) with the General Conference.
Answers to this question reveal lots of good news (churches are and feel connected!) and expose lots of need (churches don’t do enough to connect!). While many profess to understand the nature of connectionalism, the reality sometimes exposes the need to consider it more deeply. Raising the question has introduced the seed. Now the MSC needs to provide the soil and water to help it grow.

Traditional Plan Adherents 

There is support for the premise with regard to marriage as being between one man and one woman. However, there is generally a follow-up sentiment that imposition of punishment may not be warranted although not universally. 

It seemed apparent that many were struggling with a feeling that they haven’t been heard and that the conference (and churches) have marginalized their viewpoint. This may suggest that our churches have been reluctant to discuss matters related to human sexuality and scripture. This is perhaps not surprising due to the complex nature by which we come to and hold our beliefs. Our challenge now is to address this issue at this opportune time and find ways to listen and learn from each other. 

Pastor Assignments 

There were several expressions of concern that the LGBTQ issue might include forced assignment of gay pastors to local congregations. This appears to drive a negative opinion about inclusion of broad LGBTQ support. Additionally, smaller congregations struggle with the potential divisive impacts these decisions (separation) might have on the viability of their churches.
There is a need to address appointments in light of the particular concerns raised. The process in general is perhaps little understood or appreciated and a timely reflection of why and how we approach assignments would benefit all.


Legacy Conferences 

There were lingering comments about the creation of the Mountain Sky Conference not yet feeling complete. This drove a “Rodney Dangerfield” reaction (no respect) that seemed to hinder a discussion about the future of the MSC. 

This topic, while not specific to the thrust of the Focus Sessions, reflects on our newly combined conferences and the need to heal lingering wounds. There is an opportunity now to build a stronger connection by acknowledging the continuing work needed to meld our conferences under a unified vision.

Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace through Separation.

In early January, a new plan was introduced by a diverse group of church leaders to allow for a gracious separation. This late development unfortunately was not available during most of the Focus Sessions and deserves attention.
The Pathways team is in general agreement that this proposal, while still facing many hurdles, represents a hopeful picture for reconciliation at GC 2020. Since we did not include this in our Focus Session scenarios it would seem appropriate that the MSC consider formulating a position on the Protocol as introduced and offer encouragement for its possibilities to do a new thing. 

Recommendations

1. Consistent and Transparent Communications

Following the decisions adopted by the 2019 Special General Conference, members and conferences were presented with a challenging task — to quickly decide how to respond to the direction the Traditional Plan would move the United Methodist Church into the future. 

The Mountain Sky Conference responded by creating petitions for consideration during annual conference a mere four months after. This short period required not only that an overall posture be developed, but that it be communicated to all churches in preparation for voting. While efforts were made (some successful, some not) there was a general sense of being underprepared to “set a pathway” at annual conference, yet that was what was needed.

So it is understandable that some in our conference is just now coming into the discussion. 

While it is difficult at best to communicate a strategy as it is unfolding, we should be working to engage in conversations and education that will help both those who are unaware of the implications of the 2019 Special General Conference decisions and those who have been considering this for a long time. 

And as we are approaching another short timeframe before General Conference 2020 it becomes necessary that we communicate clearly and quickly. 

Therefore Pathways recommends these following actions for consideration.

  • Continue with Quarterly reporting as committed to in MSC09 and include updates by the various teams. Consistent quarterly reporting will allow members to see “behind the scenes” and hear about what actions are happening as well as explanations about inaction due to timing or other issues.
  • Continue high level communications from the Bishop and Cabinet. These are helpful in leading our entire conference and speaking directly to the issue of our direction as an annual conference and our position on human sexuality. 
  • Other?

2. Programs to Explain the Mission & Vision of the Mountain Sky Conference

As noted in the discussion above, there is a general lack of understanding of the mission and vision of the Mountain Sky Conference. Our mission to make disciples we believe is within the grasp of all, but our path or vision of how we do that as a conference deserves greater attention.
Pathways recommend the following for consideration:
  • Conduct webinars on the values and vision of the Mountain Sky Conference. This is presently being introduced in a Zoominar led by Bishop Karen Oliveto titled "Values & Vision of the Mountain Sky Conference” and we applaud this effort!
  • Encourage local congregations to engage in discussions about the MSC vision. Invite conference elders and district superintendents to visit local churches for the purpose of explaining the MSC vision and help answer questions.
  • Invite clergy and lay leaders to integrate our conference vision with the local church vision and values. This would help local churches engage or re-engage in defining their own visions and invite them to integrate the MSC perspective. 

3. Create Legislation for General Conference 2020

With the picture unfolding before us of the many plans and legislation submitted for GC 2020, we will need to consider alternate scenarios should GC 2020 reach an impasse. If some version of the Protocol or other exit plan is approved, we would need to bring forward proposed implementing petition(s). In that light Pathways recommends that we continue to explore directions including:
  • Establishment of an Autonomous Conference. This concept received support in the Focus Sessions and therefore we should have plans in place to move in this direction if there are no viable resolutions at GC 2020.
  • Options for Exiting in Place. This option might be necessary if GC 2020 doesn’t allow for separation and we need to define our values within the existing structure of GC.
  • Other. (This could include refining our core values and vision as well as exploring new organizational structures to lead us into our vision.)

4. Continue Focus Session Availability

The Focus Sessions were the first effort to reach out to the churches of the Mountain Sky Conference with information about our pathways leading into General Conference 2020. Many churches, particularly in rural areas have not been engaged in this process.

Pathways recommends the following:
  • Continue with a modified version of our Focus Session Presentations. Congregations needing additional information could request on-site visits or Zoom Sessions to meet their needs. These materials would specifically condense and simplify the various scenarios based on what we have learned so far.
  • Provide video links to Focus Session materials. These would be “on-demand” resources that could meet the needs of churches without the requirements of scheduling. They could be supplemented through the use of special topics such as those discussed above (Zoominar on Vision and Values)
  • Other?

5. Provide assistance to Local Church Pastors and Leaders

The decisions of Special GC 2019 put into motion the need for deeper conversations about human sexuality and the Bible. Some churches have proactively addressed these matters in their churches and others have not. These are hard discussions and we sometimes have left them out of the conversation for fear of not knowing how to approach our differences. 
The Pathways team recommends we explore some of theses deeper discussions:
  • ​Providing biblical perspectives endorsing inclusiveness. In the Focus Session responses, there were many affirmations that churches feel they are inclusive. Providing resources to help congregations explore what this means in the context of the present direction of the post-2019 GC decisions would be useful. 
  • Engage in opportunities to speak across the table. Some congregations may just now be realizing the need to have opportunities for honest dialogue about their different faith beliefs. Providing resources and opportunities for disparate biblical beliefs to share with one another in a hopeful and loving atmosphere may be helpful.
  • Other?

6. Response to Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation

Due to the late arrival and interest in the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation Pathways recommends the following strategies be considered:
  • Develop materials to help explain the Protocol. Pastors and church leaders should be engaged in explaining the Protocol to their congregations and would benefit from an organized package of information. This could include specific overview text to briefly explain the Protocol, pamphlets outlining and comparing the five major plans, information on the organizational structure of the UMC and video references to further explain the Protocol’s diverse support.
  • Conference endorsement of the Protocol. Given the positive feedback and broad coverage of the Protocol, some message of hope might be appropriate and useful for our members.
The Pathways team appreciates this opportunity to summarize and comment on the Focus Sessions. We will continue to receive and review input and update this report as deemed necessary.