Fishing for a future in Tampa

By Thomas A. Lambrecht

Much of the attention leading up to the 2012 General Conference has focused on the Call to Action report and the implementation of their recommendations and principles. The report calls for radical and far-reaching changes to United Methodism’s culture and structure that will affect every United Methodist, from the smallest local church to the largest general agency.

The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table constituted the Call to Action process in May 2009, which extensively studied the state of our church and proposed some restructuring principles (www.umc.org/calltoaction):

• Make the building of vital congregations “job one” for at least the next ten years

• Reform the way we develop, deploy, and evaluate clergy

• Use statistical information on church vitality to measure progress and adjust strategies

• Make the bishops more accountable to lead the church toward growth and vitality, while creating a culture of accountability in the annual conferences

• Restructure the General Church agencies to align their work with the church’s four priorities and to support our commitment to build vital congregations. This restructuring will include smaller, competency based boards; eliminating diffused and redundant activity; and reducing expenses caused by multiple independent structures.

The Call to Action Task Force then turned these principles over to an Interim Operations Team (IOT), which was instructed to come up with proposals to implement these principles legislatively and programmatically through the General Conference, Council of Bishops, Connectional Table, and General Church agencies. The IOT essentially came up with a business plan for a turnaround of the denomination (www.umc.org/calltoaction) that includes the following elements:

1. More rigorous evaluation of clergy, appointments based on proven performance, and elimination of the guaranteed appointment to allow moving ineffective clergy out of the profession.

2. Annually evaluate bishops on their effectiveness in spiritual leadership and temporal oversight of the church.

3. Elect a non-residential bishop (not responsible for an annual conference) to lead the Council of Bishops and support the work of bishops in building vital congregations.

4. Institute a study process with UM seminaries to adapt the curriculum to 21st century needs and create accountability for meeting expectations in pastoral training.

5. Free annual conferences to structure themselves in the way they believe would be most effective in building vital congregations by making all annual conference boards and agencies optional.

6. Combine nine of our General Church agencies into one super-agency, called the “Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.” The Center would consist of five “offices” that would align the various current agencies into workgroups. (See diagrams).

The Center would be governed by a 45-member General Council for Strategy and Oversight (meeting annually) and a 15-member Board of Directors elected by the Council. The work would be overseen by one Executive General Secretary for the Center, along with heads of each of the Offices and other staff as needed. Current agency staff would be rolled into the new Center and realigned according to needed functions, with the possibility of future staff reductions, as tasks are defined and duplication is eliminated.

United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men would become independent organizations whose place within the structure has yet to be determined.

UM Publishing House and the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits would remain as stand-alone boards that are self-funding. These two agencies’ structures would be studied and adapted for greatest effectiveness.

Additionally, $60 million of our General Church apportionments for 2012-2016 would be set aside for special allocation by the General Council for Strategy and Oversight, with $5 million going to young people’s lay leadership development and $5 million going to Central Conference theological education. The rest would go toward funding seminary education for ministerial students under age 35 and to annual conferences for building vital congregations.

A new task force on funding would study our apportionment and funding systems, looking for ways to reduce costs and increase effectiveness. They propose a more equitable and effective apportionment system across all annual conferences for 2016.

 

Our Perspective

Many of the structural proposals coming from the IOT move in the right direction. Focusing on local church vitality really should be the most important priority of the denomination. Neglecting local church health is one reason we have experienced decline. Holding bishops, pastors, and congregations accountable to pursue the “drivers” that lead to more vital congregations is also a welcome move. The denomination exists to support and extend the ministry of the local church, but too often, denominational leaders have viewed the local church as there to support the denominational structure. This proposal helps get back to the right ordering of priorities.

It is also very positive to move toward combining and streamlining our General Church agencies. Boards should be based more on competency and skills in order to have the best people providing leadership and ideas. Placing most of the agencies under one board of directors and one general secretary ought to help unify and coordinate the work of the agencies, avoiding duplication and “turf warfare.” It will be helpful to have one head person and one board to hold accountable for results and effectiveness, rather than nine. Freeing annual conferences to adapt their structure to local needs may also enable more effective organization for ministry at the annual conference level.

We have some concerns, however, about how the General Council and the Board of Directors will function. First, the Central Conferences are underrepresented on the General Council. While the Central Conferences make up over 36 percent of the church membership, they have only 25 percent of the representation on the Council. Part of being a global church is to reflect fully our global membership and give a representative voice to our brothers and sisters in the Central Conferences. We should treat them as full partners in the work of governing our church.

At the same time, while preserving a sensitivity to representation by gender, ethnicity, geography, and clergy/laity, the members of the Council must be united in their commitment to United Methodist theology and doctrine, as reflected in our Book of Discipline (particularly doctrinal standards). Only through such unity of commitment will the Council be able to give clear direction to the overall mission and program of the church.

A second concern is how effectively a board of 15 people will be able to oversee the work of hundreds of employees that used to make up ten different agencies. They would need to put in 10-20 hours a week and meet monthly in order to keep abreast of what the various Offices are doing and give adequate oversight. These 15 board members and the 45 on the General Council will replace some 560 current board members overseeing the various General Church agencies! Alternatively, the Board of Directors may only be able to set policy and evaluate the effectiveness of the work in general and the Executive General Secretary in particular. If so, why could the more representative General Council not do that job, eliminating a layer of redundancy and ensuring that there are enough people “at the table” to adequately represent the concerns of worldwide Methodism?

A third concern is the dominant role of bishops in the governing process under the new structure. The Council of Bishops (COB) will have an equal voice with the General Council in setting long-term strategies. The COB will have a role in electing the first Center Board of Directors. There will be five bishops on the 45-member General Council, and one bishop will chair that Council, which gives the COB strong influence on the overall direction of programming, as well as the hiring and firing of staff. Bishops already have a leading role in the nominating process of persons to be elected by the jurisdictions to serve on General Church agencies, and the Jurisdictional College of Bishops is empowered to fill any vacancies that may occur during the quadrennium. The COB will have an equal voice with the General Council in approving churchwide financial appeals. The COB is to be consulted in any reallocation of funds within World Service and General Administration budgets during the quadrennium. The COB is also to be consulted on all funding considerations to be set before General Conference, which would include apportionments, budgets, and the amount of the Episcopal Fund.

This extensive involvement of the bishops in the governing of the General Church could prove to be a distraction from the primary responsibility of building vital congregational ministry in annual conferences. One of the greatest complaints heard about bishops is that they are gone from the annual conference too much on General Church business. With the new level of accountability being placed on bishops to lead and motivate clergy and congregations to increase vital local ministry, would it be wise to increase the attention bishops must pay to the budgets and programming of the General Church?

Finally, there are concerns about eliminating the guaranteed appointment for clergy. There is no question that greater flexibility is needed for bishops and superintendents in appointing clergy and removing ineffective clergy. However, we have seen a significant number of cases where bishops or superintendents misuse the power of appointment to intimidate clergy who disagree with them or who hold to a more evangelical theology, even though those pastors may be having an effective ministry. If that kind of abuse of power is happening when clergy have a guaranteed appointment, what will happen when there is no guarantee? The proposed legislation sets up a category for “transitional leave,” but it fails to set up a process that protects clergy from unfairly or arbitrarily being denied an appointment.

The IOT calls for “a just, reasonable, and compassionate process that provides for the transition of low performing clergy from the itinerancy.” However, the legislation proposed by the Study of Ministry Commission establishes a category without creating such a process. Pastors could be out of a job with as little as 90 days’ notice, with no recourse, no opportunity to improve effectiveness, and no support. Clergy surrender a lot of power by agreeing to the itinerant system (going wherever the bishop sends). In exchange, they have been given the security of knowing they would always have a job. If that security is taken away, then should clergy be given more power to accept or reject a proposed appointment? And if guaranteed appointment for clergy is being eliminated, should we not also look at the lifetime election and appointment of bishops, who are also clergy?

All of these issues of structure are complex, and the IOT proposals are welcome, in that they restore the priority of local church vitality, advocate a new culture of accountability, and unify and streamline the structures of the General Church. We need to give careful consideration to these ideas and tweak them to make the best structure our church can have going forward. Surely there will be evolution of the structure, as well, as we try out these new ideas in practice and learn how to operate in a new system. But we must remember that structure is only part of the solution, just as the skeleton is only part of the body. The flesh and blood are the people who will populate the new structure. The best structure in the world will be undermined if the people chosen prove to be ineffective. And finally, the Spirit of God must fill our church once again, in order for it to live and fulfill God’s purpose for us, just as the Spirit needed to bring to life those old, dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley. By the grace and power of God, The United Methodist Church can be vital and growing once again!

Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president and general manager of Good News.  As a member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, he served 29 years in pastoral ministry before joining Good News. Rev. Lambrecht has worked on renewal efforts at five General Conferences.