The Three Horizons

The Patterning of Hope

Times of uncertainty and upheaval always come with unique challenges, but it is also in these times when we become most aware of what is working within our systems and structures, and what must change. As the Sustainability Task Force began its work, there was a collective excitement that, while much remains unknown about the future, there is much that we do know and much that we can control. We know that we are called to love God and our neighbor. We know that there are people who need and do not know Jesus. And we know that our Wesleyan theology and intentional systems of connection provide powerful tools and avenues through which the Good News can be shared with the world.

Recognizing these truths and drawing inspiration from them, the task force used Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope to explore best practices for building upon what we know to better position ourselves for what lies ahead. The following excerpts explain the vision patterning which helped to ground the group’s conversations and undergird the pilot program experiments we are undertaking. Beyond these excerpts, you will find a breakdown of the group’s analysis.

Excerpts from Three Horizons

What are the characteristics of the three horizons?

“The First Horizon (H1) describes the current way of doing things, and how we can expect it to change if we all keep behaving in the ways we are used to. The ‘voice’ of this horizon is the managerial voice that is concerned with the first horizon responsibility for keeping things going.

The Third Horizon (H3) is the future system. It is those new ways of living and working that will fit better with the emerging need and opportunity. H3 change is transformative, bringing a new pattern into existence that is beyond the reach of the H1 system. The ‘voice’ of this horizon is one of aspiration and vision, that holds out for commitment to a better way and the opportunity that can be imagined in the minds eye.

The Second Horizon (H2) is the transition and transformation zone of emerging innovations that are responding to the shortcomings of the first horizon and anticipating the possibility of the third horizon. New ways of doing things emerge in messy ways, brought about through some combination of deliberate action and opportunistic adaptation in the light of circumstances. The ‘voice’ of this horizon is the entrepreneurial voice that is eager to get on and try new things (some of which wont work).” 

How does Three Horizons assist us in our work toward sustainability?

“Three Horizons is a way of working with change; it is a foresight tool.” One of its most useful components comes in its ability to help us identify all three horizons as they exist in the present. By looking at our systemic patterns rather than individual events or unexamined trends, we are able to identify the patterns of the future in the actions and intentions of our people and our ministries now.

If we think of our efforts as building a bridge (H2) between the realities of today (H1) and a more sustainable tomorrow (H3), we know that we must identify what exists on both sides of the bridge before we can build it. Through an intentional critique of the first horizon’s challenges and strengths, and through the vision casting of our future, we can more effectively identify those practices which we should stop, start, or maintain in the transitional period of our bridge building (second horizon). It is also through this critique that we are able to reflect on our own intentions and interactions with the patterns that help or harm the sustainability efforts of our Conference ministry and mission.

What is the benefit of approaching this work in this way?

“The essence of Three Horizons practice is to develop both an individual and a shared awareness of all three horizons, seeing them as perspectives that must all come into the discussion, and to work flexibly with the contribution that each one makes to the continuing processes of renewal on which we all depend. ... Future consciousness is the name we have given to this flexible awareness and skill that we can develop together, because it is an awareness of the future potential of the present moment.”

The First Horizon: The Future Potential of the Present Moment

In our present moment, the power of our connection is given expression and purpose in our Book of Discipline; and from the onset, two passages from our foundational documents served as a litmus test for the discernment as it was taking place within the work of the Sustainability Task Force.

BOD ¶132: The Journey of Connected People – ...Our connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships. We are connected by sharing a common tradition of faith, ... by sharing a common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship...” 

BOD ¶ 601 [Annual Conference] Purpose – “The purpose of the annual conference is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by equipping its local churches for ministry and by providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church; all to the glory of God.

As United Methodists our structure is designed, and we are ordained, to be a connected people serving in relationship with God and with one another. While 2020 highlighted some of the most creative, compassionate, and connectional ministry we’ve experienced, it also further exposed areas which require immediate attention. As the task force critiqued our systems and structures through the lens provided by Three Horizons and using Discipline as the filter, several things stood out:

  • There are patterns and habits still in use which no longer serve the current realities of our mission
  • Many of our ministries are not resourced or funded at adequate levels
  • We utilize a complex committee structure that often results in siloed ministry rather than connection and meaningful fellowship
  • Our shared identity is lacking in many ways
  • Our relationships and connection suffer from widespread mistrust
  • Many of our clergy and congregations are in poor health

While this is not an exhaustive list, these are the challenges of our present moment – our first horizon – and they brought this question to the forefront of the Sustainability Task Force’s work: At a time when so much is uncertain, how do we tackle the brokenness that we are experiencing in our structures, relationships, and traditions of faith? As the task force gained insight from Three Horizons, consulted the Book of Discipline, and was inspired by the impactful work of our Conference ministries, the answer became clear. We get back to basics. We use what we know, what we can control, and what is working now as the building blocks for what is yet to come.

The Third Horizon

We know that ours has always been a conference that rises to meet challenges as they come our way, and in 2020, you have shown that once again. This Conference saw need and responded. This challenging season has proven that we are at our best when we live deeply and intentionally into the greatest commandment, and the second like it: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We know that not only are we called to love God and love our neighbors, but that we are called to love God BY loving our neighbors. We are a connected people who know the grace and love of Jesus Christ and want to share with others the power of these relationships.

We can control how we put that love and our relationships into practice. As United Methodists, we put faith in action through the Wesleyan Means of Grace; works of piety and mercy, personal and social holiness.

The Sustainability Task Force, taking into account what we know and what we can control, envisions a third horizon characterized by:

  • Core Purpose:  Making disciples of Jesus Christ who Love God and Love Neighbors
  • Vision:  Loving God.  Loving Neighbors.
  • Guiding Values:  Connection & Collaboration, Diversity, “Level Leadership” & Decentralized Structure, Adaptability, Generosity and Health Leading to Fruitfulness.

But how do we get there?

The Second Horizon

As mentioned above, Three Horizons is a way of working with change, and its insights bore fruit in the early stages of conversation and discernment. What began as a numbers-driven assessment of our Conference’s financial sustainability shifted quickly into a more broad-based assessment of overall sustainability.

Financial Sustainability ≠ Conference Sustainability

Focusing purely on the numbers could result in cost-cutting ourselves out of existence; defunding ministry.

Rather, the Sustainability Task Force believes that:

Conference Sustainability = Fiscal Responsibility + Connection + Vital Ministry

It was at this point that “Financial” was dropped from the working group name.

As the task force worked to discern how to move from the first horizon to the third, two complementary realignment models began to take shape:

  • The Superintendency Model Pilot Program - an endeavor to not only introduce a more cost-effective model for superintending, but one that enables opportunities to strengthen the relationship between the Superintendent and Lay Leadership and better leverage experienced clergy leaders, allowing the Superintendent to focus more of their time as “Chief Missional Strategist” for their districts.
  • The Regional Staff Pilot Program - an intentional shift to position resources and personnel in the areas where they can best serve and equip our local churches.

One of the most important aspects of the second horizon is that it is a time of transition and transformation. New endeavors are untaken in this zone and some of them may not work; but we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. The realities that we are certain no longer work to serve our ministry and mission must give way and make room for those that may do so in the days ahead.

As the practical mechanisms of the second horizon, it is important to know that these pilot programs are experiments. It is also important to acknowledge that they are the result of the prayerful and Spirit-led work of a 13-member task force, with representation from our Connectional Leadership Table (CLT), Coordinating Cabinet, Episcopal Office, and Council on Finance and Administration (CF&A). These members are confident in and excited about the new directions that are emerging from our past and present horizons and the lessons learned therein. Each member is willing to answer questions, share their part in this process, and walk with you as you discern your part in what is yet to come.

For more information, use links provided within the web pages listed on the Sustainability Task Force page menu or connect with members of the Sustainability Task Force listed at