By Dick Harter
Chair, Massachusetts Conference Board of Directors
I have here one of my three bicycle visibility flags. Each flag has a story. One is a Welsh flag, with a fierce red dragon; one commends me -- in Chinese -- for riding over 100,000 miles and advises me to keep on riding; and this one is the flag of the state of Connecticut. I like this flag. It bears the CT motto: Qui transtulit sustinet. Qui transtulit sustinet. The one who transplanted you here will continue to look after you here. The one -- God -- who brought you from fertile East Anglia in England to this rocky -- but not God-forsaken -- province will continue to care for you and look after you now that you’re here. I find this promise comforting. But God does not promise freedom from change or freedom from challenge. God does not promise freedom from tornados or freedom from economic dislocation. These are real; these are here. God does promise to care for those who have responded to God’s call. This is where I want to begin today and where I will end in just a few minutes.
We are the heirs of that promise, even we, here in Massachusetts. We have been called and gathered into churches, from the Bay to the Berkshires. These gathered communities are precious to God and to us, but they are not unchanging. Think back a year or two or twenty to your church as it was when you first came there. What has changed? And why? Think back ten years or twenty to the Massachusetts Conference as it then was. What has changed? And why?
Your Board of Directors, with God’s grace, tries to manage change. In a changing, challenging world, we manage change. To do so, your Board has four principal responsibilities. (1) To recommend to you professional and volunteer leaders for this Conference. (2) To recommend to you broad, but clear policies for implementing the mission of this Conference. (3) To recommend to you basic fiscal decisions for financing the mission of this Conference. (4) To monitor and evaluate, on your behalf, all that this Conference is doing between its annual meetings.
Your Board fulfills the last of these responsibilities by listening to you, here today and out in your churches, and by working with Conference staff month in and month out, asking questions and looking for outcomes. Your Board members come from your churches: from the West Area…from the Central Area…from the Southeast…from the Northeast… and from Metropolitan Boston... From large churches…from medium-sized churches…from small churches…from urban churches…suburban churches…from rural churches... We are from you, and we work with each other. We thank you for the opportunity to serve your churches in this way.
Your Board has, we think, fulfilled for you the first two of the responsibilities I listed -- recommending leadership and recommending policies -- by commending to you for election an energetic and grace-filled Conference Minister and President, Jim Antal, by strengthening the nominating process for volunteer leadership and by commending for your approval four years ago the strategic vision entitled A Still More Excellent Way. If we thought Jim was not the right person for his challenging position, we would tell you. We would have to tell you. But he is! He is -- and more, much more. Thanks be to God! And when we think the vision of A Still More Excellent Way needs correcting or updating, we will be right back to you. You deserve policies that meet your churches’ current hopes and needs.
This brings us to our remaining responsibility: finance, a difficult and challenging responsibility. When the going gets tough, I often fall back on my first literature, nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Here I know I will find truth and solace. You may know the London street cry that has become a nursery rhyme: “If I had as much money as I could spend, I never would cry old chairs to mend, old chairs to mend; I never would cry old chairs to mend.” Well, the Conference does more than mend old chairs. (I’m old; and I’m your Board’s chair.) The Conference does more than mend old chairs, more than mend me. But the Conference does not have as much money as it could spend or even as it needs to spend fully to carry out its mission. But here the Conference is not alone: think of your church; think of your family; think of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Not as much money as needed fully to carry out mission. Walter Kreil and Vilma Thompson, two highly competent and deeply faithful members of your Board’s finance committee, have presented to you our recommendations for the sharing ratio for Our Church’s Wider Mission, for fellowship dues and for our overall spending plan. We worked hard to come up with these recommendations -- recommendations to match available funds with available opportunities for mission -- and we commend those recommendations to you. We commend those recommendations to you. We believe -- and hope -- that the available funds will permit the Conference to carry out, with you, effective ministries of leadership and support, ministries that will further our mission as set forth in A Still More Excellent Way and as called for by developing best practices. But we know that if these recommendations are adopted, some programs will be reduced or eliminated. We will have less to spend at the Conference level on evangelism and church vitality, and we will scale back the Conference’s direct support of Hispanic ministries. We will give less support to ecumenical ministries, and staff salaries and benefits will remain lower than we would like. You may ask, why not decrease the sharing ratio or increase fellowship dues. Your Board actively considered both possibilities and decided not to do so. We considered, particularly, our covenant with the broader United Church of Christ, which Geoffrey Black can tell you is facing its own serious financial challenges, and we considered the financial challenges facing your churches, which would we think reduce the effective yield from any additional fellowship dues increase. And so, here we are. Needing to make difficult decisions, decisions in the midst of change and challenge. Needing still and again to remember that God who gathered us and brought us here, here to this place, will continue to care for us, even us, even here, even now. However we decide to act on your Board’s recommendations. Qui transtulit sustinet.