Feast Your Soul on This: Church HQ Officiousness

I’m just back from a week in Independence. One of the things I picked up there was an old 1980 souvenir booklet from the sesquicentennial of the church (bought from the Temple Library for 25¢). As we’re approaching another sesquicentennial — the first was 150 years since the organization of the church, next year is 150 years since its reorganization — I was eager to see how the last one was commemorated.

This 48-page booklet, entitled Called to the Work, is a concise summary of the church in 1980. The photos of church leaders were the first thing that jumped out at me. These headshots take up 14 of the total pages. But out of 237 pictured leaders, there was only a single woman: Marjorie Troeh, who was a “staff executive” and “Commissioner of the Women’s Ministries Commission.” It’s incredible how recently and how completely church leadership was a boys-only club.

The institutions section includes a number of church auxiliaries that are still going relatively strong, including Graceland College (now Graceland University), the Restoration Trail Foundation (now Community of Christ Historic Sites Foundation), and Outreach International. Some, like Resthaven (now “The Groves”), have been spun off and have continued on their own. Others are gone. The “San” (Independence Sanitarium and Hospital) in 1980 had just completed a massive expansion, but it has subsequently been sold off and it was ultimately shut down. My understanding is that the church’s relationship with Park College ended badly, although I’ve never heard the full story. Finally, it’s almost crazy to imagine that as of 1980, Herald House had “nearly one hundred employees.”

For all the changes, one aspect of church culture — very apparent in the booklet — still lingers on today, but should go. When I read through old materials published by the headquarters apparatus of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more often than not I’m stunned by the degree to which officious language succeeds in purging any potential for passion. This booklet takes that tone to its soulless conclusion. To cite just one example, concerning the new presidency of Wallace B. Smith, we read:

The church enters the decade of the 1980s with a great degree of hope and promise, resulting from the response of the people to the new program model now being brought into being by the First Presidency.

The Korean Central News Agency (the only news agency of the DPRK, i.e. North Korea) couldn’t have reported on the “response of the people” in a more inspirational way!

As we’ve entered the new millennium, I believe there’s still a great degree of hope and promise for the church. But to convey that vision, we need to finally replace the tradition of officious language with words that inspire one another and our community.

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46 comments on “Feast Your Soul on This: Church HQ Officiousness

  1. FireTag says:

    Prophetic people don’t do well in officious organizations. Their wildness and passion can’t be easily be domesticated.

  2. At the risk of being cynical – another new president, another new “program model”. The more things change, the more the stay the same.

  3. Rich Brown says:

    We do have a long tradition in the church of believing the “next great thing” will blaze a salvation trail for this religious movement. Often it’s been a program (“Faith to Grow”–we hardly knew you, or at least remember you now). Some folks believed changing the church’s name would serve that same function. Section 163 fits this pattern in more recent times, and church leaders currently are pushing the “Enduring Principles” (sort of a Basic Beliefs for the 21st century). Yet there’s nothing really wrong or bad about any of it–other than it didn’t work.

    Until the last decade or so the church went to great lengths to publish curriculum that was, first, RLDS-specific but also oriented to issues relevant to the larger Christian community and beyond. We have no curriculum now. Ignoring basic infrastructure eventually comes back to bite you, usually where you don’t want to be bitten.

    I don’t think it’s just coincidence that things began to change dramatically once church leaders decided to downsize Herald Publishing House out of existence. (Of course, I watched that from the inside beginning in the late 1980s.) Since then, remnants of Herald House were merged into headquarters, and after several rounds of downsizing there’s almost nobody (i.e., writers and editors) left at headquarters whose primary function is to articulate a multi-generational message. That has become an added responsibility of those filling the “leading quorums.” They appear to be pretty well occupied just keeping the ship afloat.

    I have long believed the future of this church rests with its congregations as strong, vibrant faith communities. That’s not something that can be dictated from above, but it can be nurtured. When congregations are left totally on their own, they run the risk of lurching from one crisis to the next (see news reports of the alleged Mohler-family sex-abuse scandal) or simply struggling to pay the bills and keep the doors open.

    Some days I’m not exactly sure why, but somehow I remain hopeful.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      Interesting to hear your insider’s perspective. Would you say that the more responsive we became to the non-North American church, the less responsive we became to the church as a whole? We certainly seem to have struggled with our message over the past 30+ years (as every entity and country have struggled over how to define themselves). I am, however, enjoying the writings of our leaders in the Herald and on the bulletins.

      • Rich Brown says:

        Doug: I think it’s more instructive to just “follow the money.” And money, with a couple notable exceptions (building/endowing the Temple and designated-giving programs, such as Roofs over Africa and Chattanooga), has been hard to come by. Interestingly, the church generally operates out of a scarcity model while at the same time preaching about abundance. The mission and outreach of the church in non-Western cultures the past few decades has been extraordinary and, I believe, Spirit-led. Funding, however, comes from a relatively small number of North American donors (who, by the way, are getting older). Maybe there’s been some sort of guilt trip involved with this, but decisions were made time and again to continue funding new missions first–and I don’t argue with that–with the hope that would inspire church members. But the inevitable consequences were to reduce funding of “domestic” programs.

        Once church leadership got into that pattern it began to have a life of its own. And so we’ve seen program cutbacks, elimination of affiliated institutions, and serial reduction of staff at headquarters and in the field. I’ve had little contact with remaining headquarters staff since my departure last summer, but my guess is that folks there are feeling somewhat beleagured, waiting for the next round.

  4. Doug Gregory says:

    A lot of inteligent, articulate, and informed people read this blog. Most of the articles and comments seem to point to flaws or shortcomings in our church, its leaders, its people, positions, etc. We seem too often to argue over whether there is a pea between the mattresses.

    Allow me to present an invitation:

    Someone please compose a post defining the church as you would structure it for the 21st century, what it should declare, how it should engage with the world, how it should measure itself, who should be attracted to it and in what measure, and how the institution should be organized and managed.

  5. Doug Gregory says:

    Rich, very interesting comments. We create either virtuous or viscious circles, and they lead to predetermined ends. Into this mix of human-led behavior, we look for the intervention of the Holy Spirit to provide the grace we need to escape our self-laid traps.

    What are you doing now?

  6. TH says:

    I think the church is trying to answer that question by putting out the documents on enduring principles and We Share, which are available from the CofChrist website.

    In a nutshell, for the “how the church should be” request that was posted, my opinion is the following:

    I believe that it was Seventy Kris Judd who said in the December Herald that the key was to remember that the name of the church was Community of Christ, not THE Community of Christ. If we acted in accordance with that, the emphasis would be on being prophetic individuals who formed and unformed groups as needed and across communities to do the work of the Spirit.

  7. The life of the church is in it’s congregations and their response to the challenge to build communities of peace, joy, hope, and love.

    For example, our small congregation of 32 has huge involvement in the communities in which we serve. A couple from Neodesha, Kansas from our congregation at Crossroads have immersed themselves in that community. They organize parades and celebrations and meals for Veterans Day and serve on a board for their senior citizens.

    Another of our people works with Hospice and spends a day each week with her dying patient giving her companionship and love.

    Bob, my husband, at 79, still volunteers with the local Red Cross chapter and goes out on deployments for disaster aid. He and I are both active in ministerial alliances in two communities. I am secretary/treasurer for one and have been president of the other. I also serve as a board member and secretary for an area clinic for non insured persons.

    Three of our members are members of a “Living the Questions” group that meets on Sunday evenings in the homes. There are five Methodists, two Presbyterians, and one agnostic in the group as well.

    Bob and I are both chaplains at the local hospital.

    Our congregation financially supports a school in the Dominican Republic, and helps fund two local community programs that assist the poor with food, utilities and rent.

    We collect our own food basket and give it to a needy family when it is full.

    We fill 15 shoe boxes for the Christmas Child project each year. We also adopt a needy family at Christmastime and buy gifts for the children.

    It is very important that our people remain involved in their communities. I write two columns for our two area newspapers and that gives me an opportunity to share my thoughts and community building theology.

    I also send the lifestyle editor an article each week to announce out weekly theme and invite folks to attend our church services.

    I send out a letter every Sunday afternoon to all our members and friends of the church whether they attended that Sunday or not to remind them of upcoming congregation events and invite them back for the next Sunday. I include a bulletin.

    We participate in the Herald in Every Home and all our people and even regular guests receive the Herald.

    We no longer get any assistance or support from the World Church. Most of the correspondence we receive from them is requests for funds. It’s a shame but we have learned that we must conduct our own “programs”. The day is past when the World Church sent seventy to assist us with our evangelism. They’re too busy “evangelizing the world.”

  8. Barb Walden says:

    Wow! It sounds like every congregation needs a Margie Miller. Keep up the great work, Margie! I’m curious to hear how other Community of Christ congregations are finding their own unique ways to serve the needs of their own local communities without the guidance of church curriculum/programs.

  9. Thanks, Barb, but other congregations in my area are doing things similar to ours. Since the World Church is concentrating their efforts on foreign missions, we have to do our own thing….by ourselves.

  10. FireTag says:

    When the WC focuses elsewhere or declines, committed congregations will find a way to pursue their missions. When congregations focus elsewhere or decline, committed Christians also will find a way to pursue mission.

    Margie’s story illustrates both. She works where she finds opportunities to be effective — and she doesn’t seem to care whether it’s in the Community of Christ, cross cutting across denominations, or working with secular groups.

  11. Actually, I think all active congregations could do quite well without the World Church. We would have more money for our programs too. They have eliminated the Theology Colloquies. I enjoy Restoration Studies Symposiums and John Whitmer Historical Association meetings. But those are not functions of the church or even sponsored by the church.

    Some years back, when our youngest son was a youth minister at Far West Stake, he said to us, “you eventually will have to ask yourselves what you are getting for your money.”

    Here’s the thing. We built our building in 1999 and paid it off ourselves in five years. Then we were required to turn the deed over to the World Church so in the event they go completely under, they will begin selling off buildings to maintain World Church headquarters as long as possible.

    When that day comes, if it does, I will move on.

    • John Hamer says:

      Margie,

      So you mention a few things that the World Church is not doing that have left you feeling it isn’t helping your congregation. You’ve mentioned: (1) failure to send visiting Seventies to speak, (2) failure to hold colloquies, and (3) failure to create printed materials.

      Would you have a different opinion if the World Church revived Herald House and produced at least 1 helpful book per month? Example books:

      Books that explain some new theological scholarship (like the Jesus seminar) but in a Community of Christ context, a book of weekly worship resources containing inspirational writings from Community of Christ members throughout history, a heritage hymnal supplement that puts historic hymns in context, a book that helps us read the Book of Mormon in its 19th century context, a book with ideas and examples of how Community of Christ congregations are doing service in their communities, a book describing the experiences of women in the priesthood over the past 25 years.

      Those are just examples. If the World Church were putting out resources like that on a monthly basis, would you and your congregation be interested in some of those resources and would it make you feel more connected with the World Church, and make you think you were getting your money’s worth out of the World Church?

      • Actually, John, the World Church is no longer even writing curriculum. We are now referred some other ecumenical site for our church school material.

        They wouldn’t need to put out those materials on a monthly basis to help us. They just need to be providing SOMETHING other then requests for money and the monthly newsletter which also usually asks for money.

        We do still get the Worship Resources..thank goodness. Their suggestions are very helpful in putting together a worship service and a sermon.

        We’re lucky we still have the Herald although I haven’t been too impressed with it lately either…with Jim Hannah and Rich Brown gone.

      • John Hamer says:

        My question is: Would the above plan, i.e., producing the sort of books I’m describing on a very regular basis, count as the “something” you are looking for? If I’m reading you correctly, you’re saying: Yes, but that’s way too much to hope for.

        In other words, since they aren’t even providing curriculum, you aren’t even getting occasional leftovers, so you can hardly expect a feast. Is that right?

        Back to the original question: If the World Church revived HH, produced books like the ones I mentioned on a monthly basis, each one of which your congregation could use or not depending on whether they were interesting to you, would you feel that headquarters was more useful for you? Would that satisfy your lack, would it still fall short, or would you want something different out of headquarters entirely?

      • I guess that would help. I would really like to occasionally “see” someone from the World Church or even my Mission Center President without having to travel three and a half hours to Independence.

        We’re out here in the boonies and no one comes here…ever. Our Mission Center Conferences are a five hour drive. We are so isolated that you cannot go any further west and still be in our Mission Center.

        But that didn’t used to stop world church seventy from coming once or twice a year to preach and at least show some interest in something other then our money.

      • John Hamer says:

        Ok, so for you the most important thing from HQ would be to refocus leaders from things like international mission and have them make the rounds preaching, visiting your congregation at least semi-annually. Next, you’d like to see a curriculum. Finally, you’d be interested in getting additional resources in the form of books and colloquia.

      • That sounds about right, John. I guess what I really want is just some indication that those of us left stranded and even without resources and on our own, are good for something besides requests for funds.

        I guess foreign missions are just not that important to me especially since according to the most recent proposed resolutions from Central America and Africa those folks want to leave people like you and Michael out of the priesthood and stranded too.

        I guess I’m just on a pity party.

      • John Hamer says:

        Thanks, Margie. I’m glad you’re continuing to do great work even though you’re feeling stranded. I’m just trying to inform myself about the needs of different congregations so that I can present HQ with constructive proposals. I appreciate all the information and all your help.

      • I have to say, I’ll be surprised if anything comes of it. But thanks for caring anyhow, John.

  12. Since attending a local UCC congregation more regularly – it’s been very enlightening working within a more congregationalist setting. Not only is there “more money” for local work, but the congregation seems more engaged and responsible to do the work themselves, rather than just turning money over for “someone else” to affect lives.

    Moreover, the equivalent “world church” is in some ways more helpful. Rather than providing institutional programs, the leadership creates partnerships and helps congregations get involved with mission groups/activities at a national and international level.

    It’s an interesting paradigm shift.

  13. I will admit that during the 2007 huge flood here, the church sent us $10,000…no strings attached to help deal with the losses of the people here. But that was a one time deal of financial assistance.

    When we were paying on our building, we sold a lot that was donated to us by a deceased member and his wife. Until I told them I was planning to use the money to pay on our loan, the world church took the money from the sale. They then applied it toward our loan.

  14. FireTag says:

    John:

    While I think that asking “how can we help you” is an improvement over “how can you help us help someone else” (since we don’t need a middleman to do the latter), I think you can see the great deal of resentment that is building up among both progressives and conservatives in the domestic fields from this thread.

    My concern is almost the opposite from Margie’s concerns above. We get lots of attention from WC because our geographic location is convenient for the church’s international and political justice aspirations. Sometimes too much; we become not their pastoral flocks, but their pastoral props, as they try to put the Community of Christ WC brand on activities in which they play only a relatively small part.

    Or maybe that isn’t the opposite of Margie’s concerns at all, come to think of it.

  15. Doug Gregory says:

    It is interesting, Margie, that in Michigan, when an apostle comes to visit a branch, it is almost impossible to draw people from other branches to the event, let alone our own people. I really love and appreciate many of our leaders, but we have no well-known “heroes” in the church any more. Perhaps the last person I can think of that fit that description was Harry Black.

    • I know what you mean about Harry Black. When he first came over and visited the Tulsa District (in those days) he stayed three weeks with us. Our pastor and both of his councilors had non member wives and all the seventy that came to town stayed with us. We loved it! He was instrumental in the conversion of my husband, Bob.

      I felt the same way about Grant, having met him at John Whitmer Historical Association years ago, I was thrilled that he became president of the church. He had the courage, in my opinion, to stand up for his beliefs and for choosing right over safety. I hated it when he resigned and stepped down. I have never had the same feeling about Steve. When Steve was our apostle in our district years ago, I always felt his theology was typical Tennessee….very conservative.

  16. Doug Gregory says:

    John, as you consider your response to my earlier challenge, a couple of things to consider:

    1. Formed during the agrarian age, the church was highly-centralized around a compelliing figure, as this was the only way to communicate with the flock and to “control” the development of the church.

    2. During JSIII’s time, the church was decentralized, and the branches had a great deal of autonomy and power. This was when most of our branches were formed, and when the feeling of self-determination was developed.

    3. During the industrialization of the midwest, centralized control and command were the watchwords for any organization, and the RLDS church cemented this with the concentration of power in Independence, the building of the Auditorium, etc. It made sense to concentrate resources and then to distribute them through an energetic distribution capability.

    4. During the post-industrial age, the church has struggled to deconstruct the command and control mentality, kind of like IBM in the 1980’s with its “deer-in-the-headlights” glare. Add to that all of the social disruption that began in the 1960’s, and the church was unsure how to respond. Now, we freely communicate (like we are doing right now) and the business model that is succeeding is decentralization and distribution of decision-making to the point of customer contact.

    In my opinion, the church leadership is clueless with how to deal with this (and then add in the complexity of being in multiple countries) as was demonstrated at the conference with business people a couple of years ago. I say this as a strategic planning consultant. For years, it has been my opinion that
    the church’s model needs to change dramatically, and I continue to believe that.

    I’m looking forward to your ideas.

  17. Rich Brown says:

    I can second Doug’s comment: “I really love and appreciate many of our leaders, but we have no well-known ‘heroes’ in the church any more.” Perhaps it’s because we don’t expect them to be “heroes” (meaning, spiritual giants?). Rather, the organizational expectation is that they’ll be good administrators (field and headquarters) and, at times, bureaucrats. The irony is that, having worked alongside so many folks at IHQ, I know how deeply spiritual so many of them are. By the time the enormous administrative aspects are taken care of, however, there’s often little time and energy left over.

    But there’s another side to this, as well. I’ve heard various stories from back in the day of how people like Arthur Oakman would preach and, when pressed, local folks would say he was wonderful but they didn’t really understand anything he’d said (which then proved just how deeply spiritual he was). So was that better than what we have today?

    While this is not the complete answer, I think it’s time for church members to step up and do at least some of the things we’ve expected from WC leadership and staff in the past. For example, since leaving IHQ (that’s the nicest way I can put that) I’ve been writing a Bible study for adults using some of the considerable scholarly work of the “New Perspective on Paul.” I’m also creating a Web-based venture to publish and market the curriculum. My hope, of course, is that this will be the first of many publications aimed particularly at the “progressive wing” of Community of Christ but also beyond that.

  18. I heard Arthur Oakman at my very first reunion 49 years ago and I can only say he was insufferable. He drove his wife’s powder blue Cadillac onto the reunion grounds and set himself up as “God” right away. He spoke about Jesus as a small boy “under the influence of the Spirit”. I was appalled.

    When I was introduced to him, all he could say was “hummmmph”. needless to say, I was not impressed.

    I look forward to your study material Rich, especially since we’re now encouraged to use some ecumenical study material.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      Never knew him, and I’m sure many get caught up in trying to be or live up to being a hero, but I do miss the quiet heroes of the faith, such as Harry Black was to us.

    • FireTag says:

      If a prophet is one who spends time with one foot in this world and one in the next, Oakman spent most of his time with his head in the next, and his personal manner in this world could be as abrupt and grating as Margie says. It’s almost as if this world wasn’t as real as the world he saw in his visions and tried to convey in his writings and sermons.

      I can see how Margie would be appalled, whereas I was inspired by his works as a boy, and even more grateful to him (though I’m not sure if I ever personally heard him speak) because he took the time to come and seek out the woman I would later marry and give her a personal blessing at a time of great need in her life.

      Similarly, I disagree with the efficacy of much of Andrew’s politics, but deeply respect his personal integrity in his advocacy.

      Perhaps the lesson here is that we need a greater variety of leaders to minister to a diverse church and world, and that the homoginizing inherent in a church “corporation” narrows the niche of people we can reach,

  19. Rich Brown says:

    Harry is a resident at Rosewood Nursing Home at The Groves in Independence, Missouri. Sadly, he’s no longer able to do any teaching or preaching.

  20. John Hamer says:

    Of course, I never heard any of the leaders in the past, but I have been continuously impressed by the leaders of the present. I’ve met most of the current apostles and I’ve been impressed with every one I’ve met. I’ve spent a lot of time with three: Dale Luffman, Susan Skoor, and Andrew Bolton. Knowing them as I do, I can tell you that I can’t envision better potential leaders — though extremely different in their own rights, these individuals are an inspiration to me.

    In terms of preaching, I had the good fortune to listen to a sermon Dale preached at a devotional at last August’s Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City. His powerful message was powerfully delivered. He spoke on the topic of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13), why this horrific story is in the Bible, and why it’s important for us to read it — even though it’s normally totally ignored and avoided in church. Unfortunately, I don’t usually think of church as a forum where I hear new, challenging insights. I say “unfortunately,” because if hearing powerful ideas each Sunday was our church experience, I think we would have a great answer to the question, “why should I even go to church?”

    I have been similarly taught by Susan and Andrew — they have both opened my thinking to new directions with their own insights. I can say for myself that I am very impressed with the quality of the church’s leaders (and I flatter myself to think that I do not impress easily).

    • Doug Gregory says:

      My intent was not to “diss” people like Dale, who I have known for 40+ years and respected and who helps mentor my son. Jim Slauter has his own special gifts, I worked closely with Steve V when he was a seventy, and Dave Schall had “the mark” on him at Graceland when his room was next to mine. Fine servants all, and I count it a privilege to be with any of them on any occasion. Perhaps we don’t need stand-out giants or heroes any more, but I don’t believe they have the freedom to be completely spirit-led like leaders of the past often seemed to have. The proffessional expectations on them and the willingness of so many to jump down their throats I’m sure keeps us from hearing as much as we would like to from them.

    • John Hamer says:

      I see what you’re saying. Yes, members need to avoid going nuts when leaders say things they disagree with because it only prevents leaders from saying anything at all. In a church without a creed, people believe different particulars. I don’t imagine that Dale or anyone else believes every last thing that I believe, and so it shouldn’t upset me that he might teach things I might take issue with or object to.

      • I agree that current leadership are excellent teachers and preachers – whether I agree with every part of their particular theology or not. I guess the problem I have, is that leaders need to be more than academics and public speakers. They need to be leaders.

  21. Doug Gregory says:

    I am quite sure this is not a new thought, but am wondering this morning if part of what CofC is experiencing is that we are caught up in the broader death throes of denominationalism. Is it possible that more people relate with the congregation / branch they attend (no matter what their denomination) than they do with their actual denomination? Would this potentially mean that people relate more to a community then they do with an idea or a calling?

    In this time of deconstruction in the western world when the individual seems to matter more than the nation / tribe / group, does the local congregation matter more than the larger body of the church?

    I have often wondered what would happen if a group of CofC members took the basic beliefs of the church, sans the BofM (sadly), and put the same kind of effort into building a community-type mega-church that others do, what the response would be. It seems to me that 90% of our message would find quite an audience as an independent and local church if it were organized and led like other community churches are.

    • FireTag says:

      I pulled down a list of all of the largest mega-churches recently, and found that they were about 80%-@0% conservative to liberal. I’m not sure exactly, what that is telling us, but I don’t think it bodes well as a model for the CofChrist pursuing a radical justice agenda.

      I think the point of closer-to-me = more-important-to-me is true, though. Maybe we need a policy of radical decentralization to lower-than-congregational level to be effective across denominational and even religious/secular lines.

  22. You know, I think the church with it’s idea of community would do quite well if congregations were independent. If we discarded the Book of Mormon, it would even do much better. Many people are suspicious of the entire Joseph Smith story. I have been president of the Independence (Kansas) Ministerial Association. One of my Methodist friends recently asked me if we still accepted the Book of Mormon as scripture. I told him the truth…that most of our church did but that Bob and I neither one accepted it as scripture. He just shook his head.

  23. Doug Gregory says:

    George Barna’s book Revolution seems pretty strong about the receptivity of a broad part of the population to kind of free-association groups that tie individuals together based on a sense of mission. While we may not be able to pull together mega-churches, I’ll bet sizable congregations based on common missions could be built. (On a side note, the concept of Mission Centers is – at least to what I can see – a complete abuse of the word “mission”. They are nothing more than regions. We desparately need a new model.)

    • Rich Brown says:

      Mission centers are, indeed, way too big and unwieldy to accomplish what they were intended to do in the first place. Consider, for example, there are two mission centers in Canada with the dividing line at the Ontario/Manitoba provincial boundary. But even in much smaller geographical areas, such as the Central USA Mission Center where I live, they’re still largely ineffectual except for summer youth camps, reunions, and a limited youth ministry year-round.

      I’ve been intrigued by the development of multi-site congregations within North American Protestantism (and, as you might expect, technology plays a central role in making them work). Maybe this would be a way for a few CofC congregations to engage in targeted ministry within a limited geographical area. This would require, among other things, a new approach to organization and leadership (vocational as well as bi-vocational ministry). Funding for such a model would inevitably be a challenge with the current method of MC assessments and World Church mission tithes.

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