By Walter Fenton
Clearly, the United Methodist Church is in for some serious challenges. True, people have been saying this since the merger in 1968, but the present environment is significantly different. The church continues to face the perennial problems of declining membership and worship attendance, and a rapidly aging church in both pews and pulpits. But the new and very troublesome dynamic is a looming financial crisis.
While the macro-economy has been hard on everyone, it is likely to be especially difficult for the church. The long economic expansion from 1982-2007 was particularly good for the church. Even though membership declined steadily, our largely middle class church reaped the benefit of United Methodists who were able to increase their tithes and offerings. This allowed the institutional structure to at least maintain itself, and even expand in some areas. But those days are over for the foreseeable future. The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) recently forecast that the church can expect an 8.44 percent decrease in funds in the next quadrennium. Frankly, there are good reasons to think that number could reach as high as 10 percent.
There are signs that the church’s hierarchy is fully aware of the looming financial crisis and is swinging into action. The Connectional Table, the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the Church, and various other boards and agencies are working to propose remedies. And now a new entity, proposed by the Council of Bishops and approved by the Connectional Table, named the Call to Action steering committee, is planning to weigh in as well.
The plethora of committees—and the creation of new ones—actually reveals how difficult it will be for the church to deftly and quickly respond to the crisis. Whether a badly Balkanized, territorial, and turf-protecting institution, lacking a robust executive branch, can change course is an open question. And the situation is only complicated by the fact that some of our bishops and general secretaries frequently seem to exhibit a lackluster appreciation for the concerns and cherished beliefs of most rank and file, tithing United Methodists.
It is imperative for laypeople and clergy to pay careful attention to the proposals that are sure to come in the next 12-36 months. Leaders in the renewal and reform movement will not only want to offer fair and nuanced evaluations of coming proposals, but also present their own constructive plans that will enable the church to fulfill its mission even in the midst of challenging circumstances.