CONVENTION 2019 & GENERAL ASSEMBLY
The General Assembly of the Church of God in the United States and Canada and its biennial Convention for 2019 have come and gone. The last week of June saw the Orlando World Center Marriott (the largest Marriott property in the world) filled with a couple thousand members of our Church of God family, finding life in the meeting halls, restaurants, reception and conference rooms and, yes, the four swimming pools on site. Hats off to the outstanding Church of God Ministries staff team for pulling off the logistically complex events, seamlessly. By most accounts, the production values of this Convention were steps ahead of anything we’ve experienced before.
But production values were not the driver, neither were the palm trees and startlingly blue sky. This was a meet-up covered by the Holy Spirit. Yes, everything touched by human hands has the capacity to be flawed; yes, there were some things we might have done better but, in the main, there was an unusually sweet and life-giving presence of the Most High throughout. Jesus was there. I believe He experienced us with pleasure. I believe He breathed new life into some corners and held many of the participants close. He mended hearts, touched some bodies with healing, restored hope in others, and called the best out of all of us. I believe His voice was heard and His people were encouraged. I believe He liked it. I really do.
For those who could not be there this year, know that you were missed. Hopefully you are already making plans to join us for the next biennial Assembly and Convention, set for Denver in June 2021. In 2020, three Regional Conventions will take the stage, allowing even greater access for everyone to the singular fellowship that is the Church of God in the United States and Canada. Regional Conventions will open in Los Angeles (April 24–26), Anderson (June 26–28), and New York City (September 18–20). Watch for the specs in the weeks ahead and hold space on your calendars now.
The content and structure of these events is routinely under review. We’re always reaching to up our game. We’re listening right now to the feedback from those attending the Orlando meetings last month; we’re pulling together a broad-based advisory team for the planning of the 2020 Regionals. And, let it never be forgotten: we’re praying to our Father in heaven and listening for His Spirit in all these things, too.
For today, though, let me highlight some of the important decisions taken at this year’s General Assembly. Five motions were passed, a lengthy ballot was cast, and some excellent questions were posed.
Let’s start with the General Assembly’s motions—all five of which passed with large majorities.
Motion One: Budget
The Assembly voted to adopt a biennial budget for Church of God Ministries of over $20 million, for the years 2019-2020. Thanks to every local church that is committed to help underwrite this budget, for the expansion of the Kingdom and reclamation of a world robbed of its first perfect design. In addition to funding the ongoing work of the General Assembly (for instance, providing legal status and tax cover for our local churches and pastors, fielding missionaries and networking with the body of Christ abroad, hosting events like the International Youth Convention and our national meetings, fulfilling unfunded promises made years ago to now retired agency and missionary staff [and some still at work but retiring in the years ahead], and so on), this new budget will invest in four broad areas that will be transformational for the Movement in the 21st century:
(1) Leadership Focus and LifeGivers, leadership development initiatives already engaging hundreds of pastors and some lay leaders, constantly being fine-tuned to bring common purpose and language, uniting the Movement and empowering leaders;
(2) CARE (launched by gifts from the Lily Endowment but matched by Church of God Ministries), providing financial relief and stability to our pastors, working to set them free from the specter of debt and the struggle to survive, releasing them to more fully pour into ministry; so far focused on emerging leaders under 40, CARE is now expanding to help train local church boards on how to protect and prepare their pastors financially, for the health of their church;
(3) Pacific Coast Collective, experimenting and piloting new approaches to church health, development, witness, and being the body of Christ on the Pacific Coast, in a collaborative effort with Pacific Coast regional associations (from Anchorage to San Diego) and Partners in Ministry (like the Interstate Association and Hispanic Council); this bold approach in adaptive change (as opposed to technical change) will be a laboratory that, hopefully, will benefit and strengthen all in the Movement; and
(4) Global Council of Church of God Assemblies, working as the catalyst to create an ongoing table that will bring the Church of God on every continent together routinely to seek the mind of Christ, learn from each other, and pursue the Spirit’s leading theologically (wrestling as one family with the challenges of our time) and strategically (pursuing Kingdom initiatives worldwide as one people of God, not random competitors).
The budget motion was adopted after Church of God Ministries chief financial and operations officer Natalie Farmer delivered a financial report and analysis for the last biennium (2017-2019). The new budget has been conservatively framed by the income and expense actuals of the last. Natalie highlighted the multi-million-dollar debt carried by Church of God Ministries and inherited from the national agencies which preceded it.
In the late 1990s, most Church of God agencies were merged together to form Church of God Ministries. Their combined balance sheets were awash in red ink, to the tune of over $6 million (that would be equal to $9.7 million in today’s dollars); this represents all the assets of the agencies in the 1990s, less their debts. Thus, Church of God Ministries was born with a negative balance equaling $9.7 million in today’s dollars. Our outstanding debt today stands at $2.8 million. This is much better than at our beginning, but still a heavy burden to carry.
Much of Natalie’s reporting sought to underscore our unrelenting efforts to operate in the black and work to further eliminate debt, while at the same time sustaining and fielding ministries for the Movement, both new (like Leadership Focus) and old (like sending missionaries abroad).
As the budget moved to the floor, though, a request was made for “more detail” and the chance to study some “line items” in the 2019-2020 budget. The big-picture presentation, while precise in its summary numbers (projected income versus expenses) did not deliver the detail some had hoped for. This detail was available at the preceding Town Hall meeting, but questions and additional information were not requested then.
To honor these very appropriate data requests, though, we (as the Church of God Ministries staff in general) and Natalie Farmer (as chief financial officer in particular) want to offer some specific opportunities for all those who’d like to “dive in” deeper into the financial information pond.
Natalie is willing to host quarterly Zoom meetings [online video conferencing] with any responsible parties in the General Assembly who would like to explore further information about the 2019-2020 budget, ask questions about its income and expense lines, or inquire about any other dimensions of the finances at Church of God Ministries. We will soon post an open invitation to join such meetings, asking for those interested to RSVP (so that the Zoom online capacity is not overwhelmed). The invitation will also ask you to submit your questions in advance, so that we can be sure to have the data of most interest to you in-hand. Questions in the moment will be welcome, too, of course, but if there are particular areas in which you have special interest, sending those with your RSVP will be a help.
Furthermore, if there are substantial numbers of people in a particular region that would like to have a face-to-face meet-up with Natalie, we can make that happen, too—to be certain you know your questions are heard and answered and that our office welcomes your feedback.
The finances are complex. Knowing what data to present and how to present it in a manageable form for a broad audience (as in the General Assembly) is always a bit of a moving target. In recent years, solvency has been the overriding question posed “from the pews” (and so Natalie sought to drill in on that side of the ledger in her reporting to the Assembly last month). But, there are many other fair areas of financial inquiry, too. Thanks for all who care so deeply about the cause that you are interested in more. Our apologies to any who felt like they did not have enough.
With financial questions—as any others—call us up. Seriously. Don’t just wonder on the sidelines or caucus with others who don’t really know either. Just dial us up. Toll-free. Every business day. If someone doesn’t have the answer on the phone on the spot, we’ll call you back with it.
And, one more word of encouragement: Church of God Ministries has long been a member of the ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability). This is the gold-standard of nonprofit religious accounting and management. To maintain our membership, we must adhere to both broad and specific “industry” standards for accounting and transparency. We are annually audited, for instance—and must make that audit available to anyone who asks. Capin and Crouse (another gold standard in nonprofit religious accounting practice) has been our auditor for many years. Our audit for 2018 is in and has never been better. The ECFA seal of approval is the highest mark in world in which we work; it surpasses the requirements of most (if not all) other professional frames, certainly more rigorous than most of our churches or other associations in the Movement observe.
Natalie and her team (including CPA and executive director of finance and accounting Jen Neal) are continually pursuing excellence in our accounting and financial operations. They are glad to hear from you.
Motion Two: Conditional Deeding
Conditional deeding (first explored by the Church of God in the 1920s and encouraged by the Board of Church Extension and the General Assembly since then) has proved to be a vexing controversy in recent years, for more than one reason. Some of our congregations are fearful of conditional deeding because they imagine it may allow a “take-over” of the local church’s property assets by outside agencies of the Church of God. Hundreds of our congregations have conditionally deeded their real property to the Board of Church Extension, which no longer exists.
No one knows how many churches have these conditional deeds, as no complete record of them exists. Church Extension records are incomplete, some churches added conditional deeding years ago and did not notify Church Extension, and so on. In 2012, the General Assembly attempted to help sort things out by assigning regional associations as the “sole administrators” of the conditional deeding program, but interpreting just what rights and responsibilities came with being “the sole administrators” was variously interpreted.
In 2015, a federal court (which had taken Church Extension into receivership) awarded all the outstanding Church Extension conditional deed interests to Church of God Ministries, thus placing Church of God Ministries in the legal crosshairs for properties abandoned, closed, and/or in other jeopardy (for example, eminent domain rights of way, etc.).
Given the changing legal landscape and subsequent confusion about roles, rights, and responsibilities, the Ministries Council appointed a Select Committee on Conditional Deeding to recommend a way forward. This committee, comprised of voices representing regional associations, Church of God Ministries, the General Assembly, and legal counsel proposed Motion Two, which outlined clear parameters for are all those involved. The Assembly passed this resolution. It’s complex, so I will not attempt to capture it here. It provides great relief to all of us, though, as it should protect us from some of the misunderstandings and missteps on this front in days gone by.
Motion Three: Assembly Constitution and Bylaws Amendments
For some, this is the kind of boring that makes their eyes roll back in their heads. But, still important stuff. The Assembly adopted the amendments, as recommended by the Bylaws and Organization Committee and the Ministries Council. The changes largely addressed two areas: (1) cementing the new Committee on Credentials (originally established by the Assembly in 2017) as part of the Standing Committees line-up in the Assembly’s charter docs and (2) clarifying term limits and qualifications for Assembly offices (defining sections in which there was some room to interpret with different outcomes).
Motion Four: Social Action
The Assembly is no stranger to taking stands on issues in the public square (beginning with a resolution addressing prohibition in the 1920s) and attempting to interpret our world through a theological lens (“what would Jesus do?”), but with mixed results. Our institutions, regional associations, and local churches do not always take their cues from the General Assembly. This motion does not speak to any particular issue per se, but asks all our agencies, associations, local churches, and the Assembly itself (through its office, Church of God Ministries) to be mindful of the need for Kingdom principles to be projected beyond our front door and to be courageous in tackling, head on, injustice and broken places. The motion was proposed by a group of Church of God pastors and brought to the floor by the Business, Leadership, and Resource Committee.
Motion Five: Persecuted Church
The Assembly adopted this motion asking all our local churches to observe a Sunday each November to prayerfully remember other believers around the world who are persecuted for their faith. The statistics are sobering, the suffering is real, the cost of following Jesus can be very high. Some voices in the Assembly reminded us that Christians are not the only ones persecuted for their faith, even as they supported this motion.
Think about marking your November calendar this week to embrace and follow-through with this call to the whole Movement, proposed by Church of God voices in Texas.
Some names on the ballot were up for ratification, others were in paired contests. Raised in modern democracies with secular elections, our church family sometimes is tempted to imagine that an Assembly ballot is similar: a kind of political exercise testing who has the stronger appeal on the merit of résumé or personal popularity.
But the Assembly ballot, in its purest form, is not framed in the way your local poll might be. It is more akin to the “casting of lots” (a process found in both the Old and New Testaments), attempting to discern the will of God. The ballot strives to allow the Holy Spirit to help the body of Christ discover who it is that the Lord has already appointed to the catalog of responsibilities listed. It is not a “win-lose” arrangement, but a “win-win.” Those who are not chosen to serve by the ballot’s tally are held in the Lord’s hand, too, for other assignments He will, in time, reveal.
In addition to the ratification of a new president for Servant Solutions (Jim O’Bold)—one of our endorsed agencies requiring Assembly approval—and the ratification of Andrea Cook (to another term as president of Warner Pacific University)—another of our endorsed agencies—my name also appeared on the ballot, for ratification to another six-year term as general director. My name was vetted and proposed by the Ministries Council. As you will see, the Assembly approved this move, too. I will address this development with remarks published in the months ahead, as I process the what’s next.
As a people without a book of discipline, a largely oral history and set of theological principles, and weak governing structures, the General Assembly (and its attendant Convention) are key to our cohesion, vitality, and future. We’re thankful that 910 people pre-registered for the Assembly this year, knowing that we still have room to grow, engaging even more of those eligible to participate. We are still mining the data from this year’s Assembly and Convention (for instance, what was the distribution of geography, gender, and age in the mix). We will reflect on that analysis in the weeks ahead, as we both look back (with after-action meetings to review the last event in June) and look forward (dreaming about future events).
Thanks, again, to all who sacrificed to be a part. Some were present for the whole, some came late, others left early. But, from start (with the pre-electives and Natalie Grant’s anointed concert and worship service) to the close (with Harvey Carey’s ringing dare, opening the Word for us on Sunday), this year’s Assembly and Convention moved the Movement forward. Thanks be to God. Seriously. For His blessing, protection, and provision.
Be encouraged, Church of God. Jesus lives. And, He is among us. Be bold. Take back something hell has stolen in your community. Give life. For Jesus’ sake. As Jesus was sent, so are we.