“Advisory group on steriods” tackles reform

By Rich Peck

United Methodist leaders have created a team to put the finishing touches on a plan aimed at increasing the number of vital congregations in the church.

The new Interim Operations Team will be an “advisory group on steroids,” said Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House and co-chairperson of the Call to Action Steering Team, which includes clergy and laity.

The Call to Action Steering Team had proposed creating the new team during the Nov. 15-17 meeting of the denomination’s Connectional Table—a 60-member international panel of jurisdictional, agency and caucus leaders.

Alexander added that the group will be “certainly unencumbered and freed up to provide strong leadership and hard/frank and disrupting recommendations, but never to presume decision-making authority that is currently lodged elsewhere.”

Meeting at First United Methodist Church in Franklin, the Connectional Table agreed to create a seven-member Interim Operations Team to map responses to key issues, needs and challenges identified by two exhaustive studies.

Ohio East Area Bishop John Hopkins, Connectional Table chairperson, said most of the recommendations from the Call to Action group could be enacted prior to General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, which meets again in 2012.

However, some recommendations will require legislation to be approved by General Conference. The Interim Operations Team will be responsible for drafting any legislation required.

Changing culture. In an opening worship service, Hopkins said changing the current church culture would not be easy. “We frequently worship the form and not the spirit behind the form,” he said. The bishop spoke about the desire to keep our old wine skins and how difficult––but necessary––it is to shift to new wineskins.

The bishop noted that younger generations separate “religion” that focuses on a relationship with the church from “spirituality” that focuses on a relationship with God through Christ. “It’s better to know Jesus than to know about him,” he said.

Connectional Table members asked two bishops and two laypeople from the Connectional Table to select the seven team members. The Call to Action group originally called for a five-member committee; the Connectional Table expanded the team to seven members.

People serving on the committee to nominate the Interim Operations Team are: Western North Carolina Area Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops; Bishop Hopkins; Judy Benson, Oklahoma Conference; and David Beckley, Mississippi Conference.

Hopkins expects the team to be operational by January 2011. The group will operate with a $750,000 budget, and it will employ a project director. The Connectional Table initially requested $450,000 for the Interim Operations Team, but the General Council on Finance and Administration approved additional funding to support the project over a two-year period. The team will conclude its work by December 2012.
The Call to Action plan was approved two weeks earlier by the Council of Bishops at their meeting in Panama City, Panama. The bishops agreed with the call for their council to assume responsibility and accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, benevolence giving and lowering the average age of local church participants.

Answering criticism. Alexander acknowledged that the Call to Action report has come under criticism for focusing solely on U.S. churches.
Alexander noted that insufficient time and money limited the study and recommendations to U.S. churches. “We simply didn’t have the capacity to address issues of language, context and different histories of collecting and reporting certain kinds of data,” he said. He encouraged the church to allocate people and dollars to provide similar studies in other countries.

“We have heard and considered thoughtful criticisms about the studies,” Alexander said. “I want to say on behalf of the steering team that we have been careful, self-critical and exacting in the work related to both projects and after much review and critique, we are emphatically confident that the research offers crucial, accurate and useful clues.”

Need to reduce confusion. The Connectional Table also heard a report from its “Planting the Seeds –– Reaping the Harvest Committee.” That report calls for local churches to establish goals for membership, attendance, profession of faith and people engaged in mission activities.
Pittsburgh Area Bishop Tom Bickerton expressed the fear that church leaders are confusing people with a “multiplicity of messages” such as the “Four Areas of Focus,” “Five Practices of Faithful Living,” “Seven Vision Pathways” and recommendations from seven study committees.
“There is a great reason to be passionate about every one of these,” said Bickerton, but he feared multiple messages are confusing United Methodist members.

The Connectional Table asked United Methodist Communications to develop a less fractured way of communicating these concerns. Minnesota Area Bishop Sally Dyck, president of the communications agency, expressed confidence that the staff could help the church get a handle on all of these important concerns.

Other business.

• The Connectional Table asked the General Conference Rules Committee to place all legislation dealing with agency structures into a single legislative committee.

• Connectional Table members learned that the World Service Contingency Fund made a $30,000 grant to resolve legal issues surrounding the land on which the Mulungushi Seminary is built in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a $25,000 grant to the General Commission on United Methodist Men to launch Disciple Bible studies in male prisons in five states.

• The 10-member Apportionment Structure Study Group reported to a joint session of Connectional Table and the General Council on Finance and Administration that it is considering a proposal that would eliminate the denomination’s seven general funds to create a single United Methodist fund. Under the provisional plan, local churches would be asked to subtract designated funds received in a weekly offering, and allocate 3 percent of the remaining receipts for the general church. But the plan received a cool reception from annual conference treasurers.
“Giving may go down as many people want to designate funds,” responded Christine Dodson, president of the National Association of Conference Treasurers. She said a single fund would decrease transparency and an income-based plan could result in “creative reporting.”

Rich Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and a freelance writer in Franklin, Tennessee. This article was released by United Methodist News Service.

Apportionment amounts to be proposed

If the General Council on Finance and Administration’s projections hold, the 2013-16 quadrennium will mark the first time the actual dollars available for general church ministries will be decreased.

The General Council on Finance and Administration is responsible for recommending to General Conference the total amount of money local churches can be expected to give to the general church each quadrennium.

The council’s Economic Advisory Committee reported in a joint session of the council and the Connectional Table that it is currently proposing a base budget of $610.7 million for the 2013-16 quadrennium. The committee also calculates a high amount of $644.3 million and a low of $576.6 million. Factors that go into the final projection include: church membership, inflation, per-capita disposable income, giving elasticity, net spending and the gross-domestic product.

Although the percentage of local church receipts for the general church has gone down each year, the dollar amounts historically have still gone up because of inflation. That may not be the case this time. Even the most optimistic projection calls for a quadrennial decrease of 0.2 percent.
— Rich Peck

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