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Texas unpaid UCG elder attends council meetings, reports

By Dixon Cartwright

BIG SANDY, Texas--When the council of elders of the United Church of God, an International Association, met for five days recently in Tyler, 20 miles south of here, several elders and wives from the region attended the Sunday-afternoon session.

They wanted to get a feel for the workings of the council and to participate in a special meeting that included a question-and-answer session.

One of the Big Sandy men who attended was Ellis Stewart, a 65-year-old nonpaid elder who has been a member of the Church of God since 1956.

Actually, Mr. Stewart attended all five days of the meetings, except for "executive sessions," so he could report on the proceedings for In Transition. He commuted from his printing business in Big Sandy to the conference at Holiday Inn at Troup Road and Loop 323 on the south side of Tyler.

What happened at the conference, Mr. Stewart?

"Mainly, the council members spent an awful lot of time editing documents," Mr. Stewart said. "At this particular meeting they were preparing these documents for the general conference that will be held in March [in Louisville, Ky.]. They were preparing information so the delegates in Louisville will know what they're voting on."

Mr. Stewart said council members were busy formulating a "strategic plan" and "operating plan" to present to the general conference in March. What's the difference in the two kinds of plans?

"The strategic plan is all the things that the church hopes to accomplish down the road, and the operating plan, which comes from the strategic plan, is an annual blueprint that the budget is based on. The strategic plan is more long-range, what the church hopes to do. The operating plan is for the next fiscal year. The general conference must approve both plans."

Mr. Stewart was surprised that so much time was spent in revising and correcting wording.

"There was so much time spent in editing documents that I wondered if a lot of that could have been done by professional writers ahead of time. I know they need to be sure of content and clarity, but it seemed like time could have been better spent in some ways."

The budget took up Friday

Closely related to the strategic and operating plans is the church budget, which has created quite a stir lately in the United Church of God because the money spent in the current fiscal year is several million dollars more than the last general conference of elders, back in December of 1995, had planned for.

"The budget talks took up all day Friday," said Mr. Stewart. "The chairman of the financial committee was Peter Nathan. Helping him on that committee were Dennis Luker, Burk McNair, Leon Walker, Les McCullough and Tom Kirkpatrick. Mr. McCullough and Mr. Kirkpatrick are not actually on the committee or the council. They are advisers to the committee."

Mr. McCullough, of Big Sandy, is a retired on-site administrator of Ambassador College, and Mr. Kirkpatrick, an accountant, is pastor of the North Houston church. Mr. Luker is a pastor from Seattle, Wash. Mr. Nathan is a regional director from West Sussex, England. Mr. Walker, from Big Sandy, is director of Spanish operations. Mr. McNair is a pastor from San Antonio.

Speaking of budgets, how did the church get off budget? And exactly how far off budget is United?

"We're not at the end of the year yet," said Mr. Stewart. "The fiscal year ends March 31. Mr. Kirkpatrick, one of the advisers, talked about the current budget that was approved at Cincinnati. Projected income for this current year was $15.2 million. The operating plan for this year provided for almost $12 million, which would normally leave $3.2 million in reserves.

"It's not that not as much money is coming in as was expected. As far as I could tell from those dealing with finances, we will probably receive what was projected, very close. They seemed to think we're right on target."

So the problem was simply that somebody spent more than the church had planned to spend?

"Tom Kirkpatrick asked Steve Andrews [church treasurer]: `Steve, what do you think the income will be by the time we get to the end of the year?' Then Tom mentioned that on Jan. 1 our net assets were $315,000. Tom asked Steve, `Do you think that the reserves would be built back up by the end of the fiscal year to what was projected, a little over $3 million in reserves?'

"Steve said, `Well, since the 1st we have received $1.1 million in income.' But he said he doubted that the reserves would build up to that much."

Then what were the bottom-line reasons for the budget shortfall?

Not malicious

"They listed a whole bunch of reasons. Peter had some good comments in his opening remarks. He said we need to address a cash-flow policy, and we need to address the 1997-98 budget, and the council itself needs a budget. Apparently they have not had a budget.

"Peter said something like this: `There's not been any malicious attempt to overspend money in the home office. It's easy to assign blame, to point a finger, but it's hard to control costs at the home office and hard to estimate a budget like we had at the general conference in Cincinnati.'&nbsp"

Mr. Stewart said Mr. Hulme, in explaining expenditures, pointed to the difficulty of sticking to a budget when no strategic plan and no working plan exist.

"Mr. Hulme said the church had a budget so to speak, but it was a strategic, wild-guess budget, not a real budget."

Mr. Hulme, president of the church, asked Mr. Andrews to give to the council reasons for the shortfall, which Mr. Stewart remembers as including home-office subsidies of local churches.

Also, between August 1996 and the present United has gone from 15,500 members to 20,300 members, and more members means more money needs to be spent, Mr. Stewart understood the council members to say.

"During that time member assistance, people who are looking to the church for subsistence, went from 18 to 69," Mr. Stewart heard. "Mr. Hulme explained to the council that the cost of administering the churches today is quite different from before. Because we have so many small churches, one of the examples on a chart that was handed out was that 63 congregations in the United Church of God have fewer than 25 people each.

"Mr. Hulme said it's not good business practice to have such small congregations, but our mission is to stabilize the church and provide a home for them to come to."

Mr. Stewart listened to Mr. Andrews comment on the difficulty of budgeting when international offices that had not been planned for spring up, "yet you've got to reach out to people and help them," said Mr. Stewart. "I think in most of the foreign countries the subsidy comes totally from the United States, but there are areas that have hardly anything.

"I think Mr. Kirkpatrick had an interesting question when he asked about local members sending their donations in to the home office. When Steve Andrews said that when the church first started 60 percent of the members sent their money in to the home office, but now there's 84 percent who do so, Tom asked, `So doesn't that mean that more money should be coming in instead of less?'&nbsp"

Mr. Andrews answered: "There is definitely more coming in, although it's tapered off in local congregations. More is coming in to the home office now."

So what was Mr. Andrews' conclusion?

"I don't remember," said Mr. Stewart.

Other spending considerations

During the budget discussions, Mr. Antion brought up the subject of a trip Mr. Hulme and a camera crew took to the Middle East for three weeks to record scenes and sounds for possible future telecasting.

"Gary Antion said because there had been so much concern about this trip that he wanted to know exactly what the trip cost," said Mr. Stewart. "Mr. Hulme said $92,000 covered the trip, but that figure did not include later editing of the films."

Some of the other spending beyond the budget went for summer camps, ministerial travel, regional conferences and new employees.

"Mr. Hulme commented at one point that `I was crazy in Cincinnati when I asked for only two employees. I can't believe I did that."

Is the council determined to stop spending beyond the church's means?

"In all the sessions that covered the financial situation that I was in," said Mr. Stewart, "the council and the financial committee were very determined that this type of thing would never happen again, and in one of the Friday sessions Peter referred to the need for the church to be open and above board, especially when it comes to spending church funds.

"In a teleconference scheduled for Jan. 23, they were to review and approve the operational plan, a U.S. budget, international budgets, the general-conference budget and council budget for next year.

"Resolutions that were passed [at the Tyler conference] were passed so that this would not happen again. There was even a comment I heard that these resolutions will hold the church's feet to the fire when it comes to spending."

Four kinds of education

Four men made presentations in Tyler about the church's educational plans. Council member Jim Franks of Houston made a presentation on general education, pastor Dick Thompson of Atlanta, Ga., on ministerial education, council member Doug Horchak of Denver, Colo., on education for youth and ministerial-services director Richard Pinelli of Arcadia on "focused" education.

These four men make up United's ministerial-services team.

"The evening session on education, Thursday night, was given by the ministerial-services team," according to Mr. Stewart. "The four educational programs include general education, youth education, focused education and ministerial education.

"I felt like there were many good programs, but I had heard almost everything that they presented several months ago at a conference for elders of congregations in Dallas.

"I did think a youth program that was given by Mr. Horchak was interesting, and he talked about possibly having a youth corps similar to what Ambassador College used to have as projects overseas, having to do with archaeological digs and teaching underprivileged kids in other countries.

"I also thought an interesting point he made had to do with certifying camp directors as professionals. This is not only good for them and the campers, but, when they are certified, certain public camping areas will be open to the church that otherwise would not be.

"Mr. Pinelli said that there were 225 church-member volunteers who had signed up to help work with the four educational programs. The coordinators and committees are working with ideas and talents from the membership. I think getting the local churches involved in this program is great.

"One outstanding example that was brought out was Roger Foster and his congregation in Arizona, who are putting together a correspondence course.

"One of the things presented in the ministerial-education part was something that I feel is greatly needed, that the ministry needs to be reeducated because of the nature of today's church. That would go for both members and ministers.

"They need to be reeducated because we're in a totally different church from what we had eight or 10 years ago. The structure, environment, everything is different."

What does focused education mean?

"Focused education is where the church will zero in on various problems that plague our society. God calls people into the church who have problems, and they need help. What are some of the problems? Drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, homosexuality, dysfunctional behavior. And of course these relate to marriages and families. The church needs to focus on these particular problems."

Local initiative

Was anything discussed about encouraging and supporting congregations' responsibility in preaching the gospel, "doing the work," as was originally talked about in May 1995 at the founding conference in Indianapolis, Ind.?

"Well," said Mr. Stewart, "an interesting discussion was started by Mr. Walker. Leon brought the whole thing up, the topic of local evangelism. Leon's point was that provisions for local evangelism should be specifically allowed for in the strategic plan.

"Burk McNair also made a comment along those lines. Mr. McNair said: `There are some out there who feel like these programs, the programs to actually do the work, should come only from the home office. But others feel it is totally the local congregations' jobs. This is something we have to address. If we do not address this, we risk losing the assets of the church.' "

Losing the assets of the church?

"He didn't explain that. I would assume that he means that if the local people are spending money locally they may not send it to a central place, to the home office. Or he might have meant that if we don't address these issues it's going to split the church, and then we're going to lose a lot of supporters and talented people."

Mr. Stewart said Dr. Ward joined in the discussion and insisted that wording concerning the encouraging of preaching the gospel by local means be included in the plan. Dr. Ward also wanted references to and plans for church buildings to be included.

"Dr. Ward mentioned that local-church initiatives, such as evangelism, church buildings, waiting-room programs, public lectures and newsstands are something that we've always done and should be provided for by United.

"There was also discussion about the term local evangelism. Some people don't like that term; they would prefer to use another."

What term would they prefer?

"Doing the work, preaching the gospel. I don't really like the term, either. I know the Bible speaks about evangelists, but you don't really see `local evangelism' in the Bible. I would prefer to use biblical wording such as `preaching the gospel.'think `local evangelism' sounds too Protestant."

Victor Kubik said that, whatever wording is used, "it should indicate working together," Mr. Stewart quoted Mr. Kubik as saying. "We need to use language that soothes instead of language that dictates."

"In other words," said Mr. Stewart, "Victor was saying you don't dictate to local congregations."

One day vs. three

Discussion among United elders via E-mail lately has centered on whether the March conference of almost 450 elders should be three days, as originally planned, or only one day, which was recently recommenced by a majority of the council to save money. Did the council members talk about that?

"Not really," said Mr. Stewart. "It was discussed during a discussion with the local elders and their wives Sunday afternoon when they visited the conference. In fact, that was the main topic of discussion. But I don't remember it being discussed during the regular meetings of the conference."

Apparently the council has decided that the conference should be two and one-half days, including the Sabbath. During the discussion Sunday afternoon, Mr. Stewart's wife, Pat, pointed out to council members that the three-day conference had been approved by the general conference of elders in December 1995.

"We're discussing the pros and cons of a conference, and I want a conference too," said Mrs. Stewart. "But the bigger issue that concerns me is the perceived involvement of the general conference of elders. At the conference the elders voted to have a conference, and I see that decision being changed. That concerns me in reference to future issues on which they ballot."

Dael Baughman, a nonpaid elder from Longview, Texas, commented on the value of an annual general conference.

"It's good that we have them, especially in the infancy of the church, because they provide checks and balances," Mr. Stewart quoted Mr. Baughman as saying. "It's kind of like you're playing ball. If the catcher misses the ball, we act as the backstop."

Mr. Stewart said Mr. Andrews discussed the logistics of letting a lot of people speak at a large conference.

"He said if we give two- or three-minute comments to everyone, as happened in Cincinnati, the conference would grind to a halt. How do we marry the two [corporate business and discussions from the delegates]? We can't just have an open forum; we still have to do corporate business.

"After two hours of discussion, the council decided to go ahead and have scheduled breakaway discussions [in Louisville] on Saturday evening, Sunday morning and then following the three-hour business session Sunday afternoon and then Monday for those who want to stay over."

Three hours? "They've got to have a three-hour window because of time zones to conduct business in Australia and South Africa and other parts of the world at the same time we're voting. But I think we should have a three-day conference.

"Am I happy with it? No. What I would like to see is a conference. The word conference means a meeting for discussing matters of common concern, and with a conference we should have an open forum to discuss matters of concern, propose new ideas and make real decisions after much discussion.

"I really want a conference, not just a polling place. One way to help implement this would be an amendment directing us to adhere to Robert's Rules of Order. Robert's, which is plain old parliamentary procedure like we learned in high school, would promote an exchange of ideas and give us a vehicle to bring them up and discuss them. We simply do not have that now.

"I would like to see what we call a general conference transformed into an open forum instead of just mechanically attending a seminar to make us feel good about what has already been decided for us.

"The conference should be a place where iron sharpens iron and people discuss business issues. If everyone would come, we would have 400-some-odd elders who, with God's Spirit, would have some great ideas to discuss. But there's not an adequate forum for that where you can see and hear them speaking from their heart on the issues."

Reasons for executive session

Do you have any idea of what went on in the executive sessions?

"Well, I had assumed that executive sessions were for the purpose of discussing personnel matters or maybe ministerial credentialing or something like that. But during the home-office-location session Mr. Hulme requested an executive session. Mr. Dick asked the visitors to leave, and they closed the doors."

But the home-office location isn't exactly a personnel matter, and it has nothing to do with ministerial credentialing.

"Yes, but later I checked the bylaws of the United Church of God and found that the wording doesn't say anything about personnel matters or ministerial credentialing for executive sessions. It says that any council member can request an executive session for any reason. So apparently it's legal to call an executive session to discuss the home-office location or anything."

How long did this session last?

"It lasted from, say, 10 o'clock in the morning until late in the evening. There was an executive session already scheduled for 3:30 on the agenda, and there were items that were supposed to be discussed there that never got discussed, such as ministerial credentialing. I think there were specific ministerial candidates who were to be discussed, but it didn't happen."

Personalities at work

Did you notice different personality types at work in the sessions? For example, were some of the votes close? Was there spirited discussion?

"These people all are individuals," said Mr. Stewart. "I think some of the jobs they have are very awkward. When you have two board members working for ministerial services, which works for the president, who's also a council member, to me that complicated chain of command makes a strained situation, because you want to be loyal to your boss. To have board members working for someone that the board has put there tends to, I think, put a strain on people. Is that what you're getting at?"

Not exactly, but that's interesting.

"I do feel," said Mr. Stewart, "that people in this meeting spoke up from their hearts a lot more than I expected. Peter Nathan, in laying the financial ground rules, didn't mince words. Tom Kirkpatrick asked hard questions. Gary Antion asked hard questions. Horchak asked hard questions."

Were the votes all unanimous?

"No, and some did abstain."

Do you think it would be a good idea for the brethren, or at least the elders, to know how their council members vote for or against certain measures?

"I think it would be good, and I think they will eventually come to see that, and it will happen. Right now they have what they call an ethics situation with voting. They told me that ethical considerations determine that they record only names of a person who abstains, and they do not record the names of voters and how they vote. I've seen the minutes [of the council meetings], and they'll say the resolution carried with, like, seven for and four against and one abstained."

What was your overall impression of the time you spent with the council?

"I felt like they got a lot of work done, and I heard that this was the most productive session they ever had.

"But I believe that, if the council of elders keeps working like they have been, I'm afraid they're going to experience a burnout, if they haven't already, if they don't find a way to delegate many of the basic, routine aspects of their job.

"I wonder if all the committees really need to be council members. I am pleased that they are beginning to use some of the church's talents as advisers to the committees. I've heard that, if you're a nonprofit corporation in California, all committee members have to be part of the board. I wonder if this would be true in other states."

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