Black leaders discuss future

By Amy Forbus

Proposals for change across the denomination drove the discussion at a November gathering entitled: “How does the Call to Action affect African-American churches?”

The Call to Action is an effort initiated by the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table with the charge to help The United Methodist Church better fulfill its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The denomination’s Connectional Table has submitted legislation to the 2012 General Conference that, if passed, would consolidate agencies and allow the redistribution of up to $60 million in general church funds.

Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, a leader in the Call to Action process, helped outline the recommendations.The proposals include the integration of nine of the denomination’s 13 general agencies into four offices, plus a shared services office.

The plan is for the offices to be subsumed under a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. Legislation submitted to General Conference calls for the center to have a 15-member board. That new board would oversee general funds that support mission and ministry.

A significant concern among Can We Talk? participants was whether the smaller size of the proposed new leadership structure would allow the voices of ethnic and racial minorities to be heard.

“I’m not hung up on the number,” Palmer said. “The focus on the ‘15’ is potentially delusional.” He said the new proposed structure includes about 230 leaders, roughly one-third of the number of directors now on the church’s general boards and agencies.

He acknowledged the kind of change in the proposal does mean “there is a vigilance that will be needed” to ensure diverse voices remain at the table.

“I don’t have any doubt that those skills and competencies are there,” Palmer said. “We are leader-full. We’re not lacking in that.”

Can We Talk? also included a roundtable discussion led by three bishops: Charles Crutchfield of the Arkansas Area, Robert Hayes of the Oklahoma Area and James Dorff of the San Antonio Area.

The session included tough questions that covered a variety of topics such as whether the financial implications of denominational decline actually serve as the primary motive for change and how bishops plan to measure “congregational vitality.”

“I think what we need is to remind ourselves that this is a work in progress,” Hayes said of the proposal. “It’s going to go to a legislative committee, and it’s going to go before the General Conference. And if we don’t make our voices heard between now and the beginning of May, well, then we’re going to be responsible for not making known our anxiety at a time when we need to.”

Some participants expressed concern that the proposed changes seem driven by fiscal concerns rather than ministry.

“There is downsizing, but that downsizing is done not just to save money but in order to increase efficiency and increase effectiveness in mission and ministry,” Dorff said. “But that needs to be communicated very, very clearly because if all we’re doing this for is to save money, then it needs to be looked at again.”

Hayes said the changes seem to focus on the question, “How do we retool, reboot ourselves to do more efficient, effective ministry with less?”

Discussion about the concept of congregational vitality centered on concerns over how bishops will define a vital congregation.

“For me, it comes back down to the annual conference,” said Hayes. He said he plans to work with his conference office of congregational development and the cabinet to determine what a vital congregation looks like in Oklahoma. “I can’t let General Conference determine for me what’s vital and what’s not.”

The most critical component of a vital church, Crutchfield said, is committed laity.

“We know something about how to hold ministers accountable,” he said. “We have got to find a way — and we have not found it yet — to hold laity accountable to their baptism…. It’s not just the preachers.”

The group spent time drafting a document to identify issues it would like to see considered leading up to the 2012 General Conference. Those issues included the concept of cultural competency; accountability and empowerment of the laity, and concerns already presented by the caucus group Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

Amy Forbus is the editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, the newspaper of the Arkansas Annual Conference. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.