These three things: key learnings

Phil Bergey

In my two most recent blog entries I outlined a series of trends faced by the church at large and by Franconia Mennonite Conference specifically. This final blog entry—completing the trends trilogy, shall we say, focuses on three key opportunities for learnings that bear additional reflection as I complete my leadership role with Franconia Conference.

The learnings grow out of the need for Franconia Mennonite Conference to strengthen its sustainability and focus its mission. As congregations have been spending more on their local ministry presence, financial giving to the conference and church-wide has been decreasing. So over the past decade FMC has been risking by exploring new scenarios. As noted in the previous blog:

    One [scenario] was to re-organize and/or re-allocate FMC properties so they could help underwrite administrative expenses and augment the decline from congregational dollars. Another was to move some FMC staff to a fee-for-service format, creating Mennonite Resources Network (MRN). And another was to unite all FMC-related ministries into a relational network of Conference Related Organizations (CROs).

A quick look at each.

FMC Properties
board gatheringFrom my perspective church-owned properties are a mixed bag. It’s like the proverbial “can’t-live-with-‘em and can’t-live-without-‘em.” They take a lot of money to build or buy, money and time to maintain, and can overwhelm the purpose for which we originally intended to use them.

Among Franconia Conference learnings in working with properties, it has become clearer than ever that property must contribute strategically to the mission of the conference or they will take more energy than they provide. A simple goal was that the properties would not use up any contributed dollars but that instead they would collectively carry their own expense and even contribute to administrative expenses of running a conference.

In order to assess decisions about properties, Franconia Conference has become more intentional about including the gifts of people who truly understand properties, such as a realtor, property manager, attorney or other profession that works with properties for a living. Keeping the focus on the Conference’s mission sometimes means changing the use of a property and sometimes selling a property.

For about ten years Franconia Conference owned a 12-acre, 3-building campus on Yoder Road in Harleysville, Pa. For multiple reasons it became clear to Conference leaders that it would be to the church’s advantage if the conference would sell this property to one of the long-term tenants, Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania (MHEP). Although some people initially questioned the Conference Board’s decision to move in this direction, most now agree it was a mutually beneficial decision that secures the future of MHEP, the ministry organization that the conference relies on to keep its historical record into the future.

Mennonite Resources Network (MRN)

The concept for MRN emerged around 1997 along with other significant changes that surfaced around that time (including the move from program-based commissions to a board-based leadership model). MRN began originally with two main focii: web-based communications and a platform to provide consulting.

The MRN web site evolved into at least three things: 1) a web site for Franconia Conference, 2) a web site for Eastern District Conference, and 3) on-line sales of resources that eventually was acquired by Design For Ministry, a consulting company which purchased MRN’s assets and liabilities.

MRN’s consulting model allowed Franconia Conference to focus its mission and core processes and to tidy up its staffing commitments that had become too broad and unwieldy for the future. This happened in several ways. At the time Conference leaders were trying to simplify a primary mission (equipping leaders…), the ability to move remaining staff to MRN offered a new start. MRN in turn became a proving ground and launching pad for staff to move into a consulting pattern for ministry.

Along the way a difficult learning was that entrepreneuring within the church is even more challenging than in other settings. Innovation involves risk—relationally, financially and organizationally. Newness requires outstanding communication. New initiatives need to be focused and made tangible for people to value them. Franconia Conference leaders generally, including me particularly, learned some of these fully during the years of developing MRN.

Yet despite the challenges, additional benefits related to experimenting with MRN included several partnerships between Franconia Conference and Mennonite World Conference, income from a creative partnership with Ted & Lee Theatre Works, and opportunities to shape the early stages of Mennonite Church USA. The consulting format of MRN also prepared the way for Franconia Conference to move from overseers to conference ministers and consultants as a way of equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission.

Conference Related Ministries (CRMs)
west_philly.jpgSome of you are familiar with the acronym CRO, which stood for Conference Related Organization. This was an initiative to bring together the many ministry organizations that relate to Franconia Conference from schools to camps to retirement communities to many others. The goals of this initiative was to clarify the relational commitments and shared vision with these many ministries, and to create a relational network that the CROs would help to support financially as they grew. Both of these goals paralleled the congregations’ relationships with the conference.

Along the way it became clear that the term CRO needed to give way to CRM to highlight that these are not simply conference related organizations, but ministries. A key learning for Franconia Conference leaders is that mutual benefit leads to sustainability. CRMs must see ways in which they benefit by participating with the rest of the church. And the church, whether the conference or the congregations themselves, must deepen its ownership of these church-related ministries for a healthy and long-term partnership.

One learning from our shared life together is that some congregations are taking on more of a CRM-like character while some of the CRMs are developing congregation-like aspects. A few simple examples of the first include congregations that also run child-care centers (early education) or have facilities that require staff to run events held there by groups not directly related with the congregation. Examples of the second include retirement communities that have worshipping “congregations” on site and chaplains who are truly “pastors” for those they serve daily, and schools and camps that play enormous roles in discipling young people much like congregations do.

Clearly whatever learnings we’re gaining from developing an intentional CRM relational system have only begun to surface. What seems imperative to me as I leave is that mutual benefit, healthy relationships, and overall sustainability of both CRMs and congregations will need to be central.

In addition to these three areas of learnings above, more could be said about the Partners in Mission relationships that has developed, or about how financial support policies have moved from multi-year subsidies to one-time grants oriented toward impacting change, or about other things that have emerged over the past ten years or so. Other Franconia Conference leaders will surely pick these up.

As trends among us will continue to impact the way we do church together, and as change swirls all around us, we can be assured of at least one thing. God is faithful, and God’s Spirit has been given to us to lead us into whatever lies ahead (John 16:12-15).

*Note: Phil resigned from his Franconia Conference executive role on August 31, 2007, after more than 14 years as conference executive. In additional to beginning doctoral studies in human and organizational systems and executive coaching, Phil continues to provide consulting and coaching services through Design For Ministry, including an executive leadership role with Mennonite Church USA.