Numbers Aren't Everything, but They Are Something

By Jeff Gill

Reviewing six different histories of the Restoration Movement/Disciples of Christ in Ohio, and the common theme, even when unintentionally presented, is a radical transformation of form & ministries delivered to and through congregations about every generation. There's the Springfield Presbytery period (actually named for the Ohio city, although it's usually thought of as largely a Kentucky thing due to Cane Ridge, but was geographically as much Ohio as KY) from 1804 to 1832; the Campbellite launch from the Mahoning Association's hiring of Walter Scott in 1827 to the foundation of Bethany College in 1840; from that formal institutional base through the American Christian Missionary Society founded in Cincinnati in 1849 to the Ohio Christian Missionary Society in Wooster from 1852.

The next phases show both elements of continuity and radical restructure even as the OCMS becomes the functional predecessor of the Christian Church in Ohio; there is a formational period from 1852 to 1866 and the death of Alexander Campbell, a retrenchment from 1867 thru 1899 in "the Moffett era" & the growth of the Sunday school movement within the OCMS, the era of causes & consolidations from 1900 (with some roots back into the 1880s) culminating in the formation of the UCMS in 1919, then the International Convention era from 1920 thru World War II to the 1960 decision to pursue what became known as "Restructure."

From 1960 to the first General Assembly in 1968 is a period filled with flux and sorting, seeing many regions including Ohio suddenly lose nearly half their congregations and members. There is an outward continuity from 1949 to the present in the Christian Church in Ohio, but in fact there is one major disjunction in or around 1967 with the DeForest Murch led defection of hundreds of formerly Ohio Disciples congregations, and the internal reshuffling that took place under the guidance of Herald Monroe, the last Executive Secretary of the OCMS, and the first Regional Minister of the Christian Church in Ohio (only finally incorporated as such in 1976).

So by my math, you have significantly different leadership structures and funding mechanisms changing across these periods: 1804-1832, 28 years long; overlapping in time but the other end of Ohio is 1827-1840, 13 years long; 1840-1852, 12 years long; 1852-1866, 14 years duration for the last "single charismatic leader" phase; 1867-1899 in the institutional growth phase largely through Sunday school & early overseas mission efforts, 32 years long; 1900-1919 was a simmering boil of multiple institutions founded "as Disciples' priorities" all competing for congregational support, Temperance being first among many, 19 years worth; then we see 1920-to-The Great Depression with many church closures and schools and programs closing, both in Ohio and where Ohio had commitments, 13+ years; then 1935ish-through-WWII-1960 was the heyday of the "state societies" and the rise of youth, camp, & conference movements alongside of ecumenism, 25 years; the 8 years of Restructure/Revolt 1960-68; and finally 1968-1976 the 8 year transition to the structure we know today, and have known for 38 years . . . or what many of us think of as "how it's always been."

That makes 28, 13, 12, 14, 32, 19, 13, 25, 8, 8, 38 as the years for each structural era (defined as significant changes in how authority & finances flow to and thru ministries beyond the congregation, specifically for the area of Ohio). So the average is 19 years per structure/organizational model. 21 if you want to quibble with my reading of 1960 to 1976 and call it one phase (but I'm ready to defend my view if you want to hear more!).

38 years is long, longer than any other phase of Ohio Disciples' life, but it's not who/how we've always been "church" beyond the congregation. You could also say that there's the Voluntary Association era of 1827-1880, the Shared Resources era 1880-1920, the Organizational Consolidation era 1920-1949, and the Post-War/Camp Christian era from 1949 thru Restructure to the present: 53 years, 40 years, 29 years, 65 years (or 19 and 46 if you see 1967 as a necessary dividing line as I would assert). My take would result in 37 years per era.

We took a run at re-shaping the Christian Church in Ohio in 2002, and instead made modest adjustments that, to be fair, didn't feel modest at the time. Like General Restructure, which either didn't go far enough in reshaping the Disciples' fellowship processes, or made the wrong connections in retrospect, we Buckeye Disciples managed to move the regional offices to the center of the state and gave the personnel authority more clearly to the Regional Pastor and President, and felt like we'd done as much as could or should be done at that time. Looking back, we were just getting started. But the repetition since the 70s of "it's going to turn around soon" of giving and membership and attendance at regional events lulled us even when we thought we weren't listening to it. (Am I being fair to us, Michael Doerr?)

What seems inarguable is that, one way or another, our regional expression of the Disciples' movement is going to be dramatically transformed . . . is being dramatically transformed, even while we talk. What was six or seven ordained full-time staff plus support 25 years ago is now two: that's a pretty dramatic change right there. 14 districts are functionally more like 10, and that's being generous to some; 4 CYF conferences are now . . . 3 weeks? Maybe 2 soon? And so on.

Will the transformation be a subject of general discussion and intentional actions, or will we just slide into mergers and re-sorting of priorities by default, and thru fiscal duress only? A merger between the Ohio Conference UCC & the region is, in some quarters, taken as a given. If so, how will that work out in polity and process? Or will the fig leaf of partnership (in some things, not others) be used for a fan dance? This next era can be a positive step forward in clarity and Christ-like mission, or it can be an awkward and misunderstood stagger to the exits like 1960-67 was.

Let's talk about it.