Tone deafness and the Call to Action

Editorial by Rob Renfroe

It doesn’t happen often that I read something that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me think, “C’mon, he didn’t really say that, did he?” But it happened last week when I was perusing an article from the United Methodist News Service about the Call to Action Committee.

Concerned about the general effectiveness of our denomination and our continuing numerical decline, the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table commissioned the Call to Action Committee in 2009 to bring forward “…a plan of action that will lead to reordering the life of the church.” To its credit, the 16-member committee has taken its work seriously and hired two well-respected, secular consulting firms (Towers Watson and Apex Healthcare Consulting) to study the church and its structures.

More than 400 UM leaders were surveyed and the results were reported in a 95-page summary. One of the findings that did not surprise me was that “general lack of trust within the Church was a pervasive and recurring theme in the majority of interviews.” Nor did it surprise me that Apex reported “lack of accountability was…cited as a root cause of distrust—when people are not accountable for their actions and behaviors, they cannot be trusted.” Specifically mentioned was the lack of trust between “the pew and the leadership.”

Another conclusion, hardly unexpected, was the unfavorable view of the church’s general boards and agencies. They were seen as less than effective in making “disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” According to another United Methodist News Service article regarding the survey’s results, “the autonomous organization structure of the agencies has lessened their value to the church, according to the ‘Operational Assessment of the Connectional Church.’”

Bottom line: people in the pew have a problem trusting our leadership, in general, and our autonomous (read “unaccountable”) boards and agencies, in particular—some, I’m sure more than others.

The findings of these reports should not have been surprising. The results only confirmed what many of us who serve in local churches have known for years. What was unexpected and refreshing was to read a report that was so frank about the problems we face.

The response by our leaders to these finding by outside observers will tell us much about their seriousness and resolve in regard to the renewal and reform of the United Methodist Church.

What absolutely floored me was a remark made by Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, what might be our most controversial, polemical, and distrusted church agency. “People do not join general agencies; they join local churches,” Mr. Winkler told the United Methodist News Service. “If we want to focus on ineffectiveness in making disciples for Jesus Christ, that’s the place to start.”

Astonishing. A credible outside source with no ax to grind, reports that “agencies often fail to collaborate with each other and their boards are too large and meet too infrequently to provide effective oversight;” “the agencies are a cacophony of voices;” and (not surprisingly) the people in the pews of local churches don’t trust our boards and agencies—and Mr. Winkler seems to say: The board and agencies are not the problem, the local churches are.

This is exactly the kind of response that will doom the best intended plans for the renewal and reform of the United Methodist Church.

The local churches that Mr. Winkler references are the same local churches that pay the salary of the General Secretary, correct? These are the same local churches that are being asked to pay $12.4 million this quadrennium in apportionments so the Board of Church and Society can represent (and misrepresent) grassroots United Methodists on the most important social issues of the day, right?

And yet the independent reports confirm that there is a breach of trust between the pew and the upper echelons of power within the United Methodist Church. Why would that be?

Why would we fail to trust a Board that is an official partner of the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice, which believes that there should be no restrictions on abortion—late-term, partial birth abortions are acceptable; so are abortions for the purpose of birth control; so are abortions for gender selection. All of these stances are contrary to our United Methodist position.

Why would we distrust a Board that instructed United Methodists to encourage their Senator not to block a healthcare plan that at the time would have provided federal funding for abortion? The sanctity of life concerns of many persons in the pew were dismissed by GBCS staffer Linda Bales Todd as “one narrow religious doctrine” when she spoke at a National Press Club briefing, sponsored by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Why would we distrust a Board that has had to spend close to $1.8 million dollars in legal fees to defend its use of a trust fund designated for “temperance and alcohol problems”—simply because it chose to use the several million dollars generated by that trust for purposes that had nothing to do with alcohol or temperance?

Why would we distrust the Board of Church and Society when its study on sexuality includes an article written by a Unitarian Minister who teaches that sex outside of marriage, heterosexual and homosexual, can be a moral choice as long as it is consensual, pleasurable, and protected? Why would we be less than trusting when a separate article sent under the Board’s sponsorship argues that expecting single clergy to be celibate is unrealistic and unnecessary?

Why would we distrust a Board that submitted a petition to the 2008 General Conference that would have redefined marriage so that it no longer would have reflected the historic Christian understanding that marriage is the union of a man and a woman?

Why distrust the Board when it has lobbied for decades to change our biblical and compassionate stance that all persons are made in the image of God, worthy of the church’s ministry, but that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching?

Why distrust a Board that receives church monies to carry out the church’s will, simply because it spends so much of its time and resources trying to change the church’s will?

Why distrust a board whose leader openly and publicly stated, “I don’t know if Jesus believed he was the Messiah or not,” as he did when I served on the Board of Church and Society? That kind of language is applauded at fringe theological gatherings such as the Jesus Seminar, but it serves to deepen the hole of distrust that exists between the people in the pews and their United Methodist leaders.

We are often told by our bishops that our people don’t feel good about paying their apportionments simply because they don’t know all the good our boards and agencies are doing. Just tell our story, they say, and your people will be happy to pay. The clear message of the consultants is that our people do know the story, as well as what is going on, and they are not happy.

For example, people all over the connection checked out “our story” after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thanked the United Methodist Church for helping pass the recent healthcare reform bill because of the work of the Board of Church and Society. Grassroots United Methodists went to the Board’s website and they didn’t like what they found. They discovered exactly what I have described above. And some left the denomination. Others called our Good News offices, others wrote letters, and others sent emails—all wondering, “Is this really true? Does my church and does my money really support this Board?”

“Autonomous.” “Unaccountable.” Remember those words in the survey about why we have such a lack of trust in the UM Church? They describe the Board of Church and Society. No one holds the Board accountable.

A much different and more hopeful response to the Apex survey was given by Neil Alexander, a steering team member and president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House. In the same article he is quoted as saying, “As accountable stewards, we must accept the implicit criticisms and make changes that address them. Many of us share deep concern that overall the UMC is not seeing the magnitude and quality of results we aspire to achieve.” “… We have urgent and difficult work to do to deliver high quality resources and services and to persuasively demonstrate how general agencies add value.”

The Call to Action Committee is one of several recent attempts to re-order and revitalize the UM Church. Here’s what the Committee must understand if its work is to achieve its goal. As essential as restructuring is, even the best structures will fail to lead us into spiritual renewal and missional effectiveness, if the church continues to find itself unable to trust the persons who lead those structures.

We plead with and pray for the Committee—please take the results of the survey you commissioned seriously. Please, understand that if you change our structures, but not the personnel who lead them, “a general lack of trust within the Church” will continue to be “pervasive and recurring” and the UM Church will be nothing more than a new wineskin containing the same old wine. We must have leaders who believe in, support, and promote the positions of the church. And we must have leaders who actually believe the local church is who they are called to serve—not the problem they have to overcome.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.

About Adcetera