The Change We Couldn’t Believe In

Analysis by Thomas A. Lambrecht

Coming into General Conference 2012, the biggest item on everyone’s agenda was the proposal to restructure the general church. After two weeks of disagreement, drama, and negotiation, after the dust settled, our church structure is basically the same as it was. How did that happen?

The push for restructure began with the Council of Bishops’ Call to Action and the formation of a steering committee in January 2009, an endeavor to face our accelerating membership loss in the U.S., determine the causes, and recommend remedies. A study costing $500,000 was done by two secular consulting firms. They came up with five recommendations:

1. A ten-year emphasis on building effective practices in local churches to start and sustain vital congregations, channeling attention and resources in and through congregations as the primary arenas for making disciples

2. Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability

3. Measure progress using statistical information and act on that information

4. Reform the Council of Bishops to assume responsibility and accountability for improving results at the local level and establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church

5. Pursue a restructuring of the church that would

• Consolidate program and administrative agencies

• Align the agencies’ work and resources to build vital congregations and carry out the priorities (Four Areas of Focus) of the church

• Make the agency boards smaller and more competency-based

The five recommendations were approved by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table in Fall 2010. Recommendation #5 (restructuring) was assigned to a small Interim Operations Team (IOT), which came up with the IOT Plan for restructuring. The IOT Plan was amended and approved by the Connectional Table in Summer 2011, giving a sub-committee less than three months to draft detailed legislation to implement the IOT Plan. The fact that few on the IOT who developed the plan were experienced in general church operations, as well as the short time-line for writing legislation, contributed to flaws and shortcomings in the plan.

The thrust of the IOT Plan was to consolidate nine general agencies into one, under one governing board and one executive general secretary. The Council of Bishops would play a key role in determining the members of the governing board, decisions about the allocation of money to the agencies, and the proposed set-aside bishop would lead the group that selected the governing board. The IOT Plan reduced the number of general agency board members by 80 percent, yielding some savings in meeting cost. Primarily, though, the purpose of consolidation was to get all of the agencies working together on agreed priorities and goals. It was also hoped that some administrative services could be combined and unnecessary duplication could be reduced.

When the general outlines of the IOT Plan became known, the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) developed an alternative plan that would not consolidate the agencies. The MFSA Plan reduced the size of agency boards, but kept them relatively separate with minimal oversight by a central coordinating body. The MFSA Plan also aimed to increase the representation of central conferences and U.S. ethnic minority persons on the various agency boards. The Plan kept the Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) and the Commission on Religion and Race (CORR) as separate bodies accountable only to General Conference and not under the central coordinating body.

A third group of diverse individuals reacted against the IOT Plan’s perceived emphasis on the role of bishops in the restructure. They came up with Plan B, which kept 4-6 separate agencies with their own boards under a strengthened Connectional Table to provide coordination and oversight. Its approach could be considered halfway between the IOT Plan and the MFSA Plan. While the principles of Plan B were public more than a month before General Conference, the detailed legislation implementing Plan B was not available until just before the conference met.

Once General Conference began, proponents of all three plans gave presentations to the legislative committee. The committee then voted (56-27) to make Plan B the basis for working out a compromise restructure plan. Three representatives of each plan, plus central conference delegates and youth/young adult members worked for more than a day, trying to put together a plan that would pass the subcommittee. On Saturday evening of the first week, as the deadline for committee action drew near, no plan was adopted by the subcommittee. The original Plan B, the IOT Plan, and the MFSA Plan were all presented in turn to the committee. Each was voted down, so that no plan would come to the plenary session with the committee’s endorsement.

It appeared that the members of the committee were not prepared to compromise. They would vote only for the plan they supported. And since support for the three plans was divided fairly evenly in the committee, none of the plans was able to garner a majority vote.

When no restructure plan was approved by the legislative committee, several representatives each of the IOT Plan and Plan B got together on Sunday to try to craft a compromise plan. Thus was born a fourth plan, Plan UMC! Plan UMC was based on the outlines of Plan B, with some concessions to the IOT Plan. It was written in one day and published in the Tuesday Daily Christian Advocate.

On Wednesday of the second week, the plenary considered Plan UMC and approved it in less than two hours with little change, by a 60-40 percent margin. It was quite an experience watching nearly 1,000 delegates function as a committee of the whole! Plan UMC was then referred to the Judicial Council to determine if it was in keeping with the United Methodist Constitution.

Late Friday afternoon, within just three hours of scheduled final adjournment, the ruling was announced from the Judicial Council that Plan UMC was unconstitutional by our church constitution. It gave the governing council powers of oversight that belong only to the bishops under our constitution. And it gave the governing council powers to allocate apportionment dollars and change internal structures that belong only to the General Conference itself.

Most of the delegates were shocked and devastated. The primary change they had worked so hard and so long to accomplish was now in shambles. Frantic efforts over the supper hour to “fix” the plan to pass constitutional muster were unsuccessful. Plan UMC was dead. The rest of the evening was spent passing revised budgets and other calendar items necessary to facilitate the current structure to continue. Few delegates went home satisfied with this turn of events.

What went wrong? I would point to a number of issues:

1. People who did not have a good understanding and experience of how the current structure works were asked to formulate the new one. They were intelligent, dedicated, and well-intentioned people who lacked the familiarity to see how all the pieces needed to fit together. The thinking was to get a fresh viewpoint on structure untainted by the current reality. But that approach did not work.

2. There was little opportunity for feedback or revision of the IOT Plan in its developmental stages. Only the Connectional Table had a chance to review the plan and make changes (without having any specific legislation to look at).

3. The time frame for writing the legislation was too short for the IOT Plan, and it only got shorter for the other plans as the process moved forward. The drafters of the legislation were all sharp, well-intentioned people who had to do very complicated legal work as lay volunteers in their spare time. Opportunity to review the legislation publicly before it was finalized could have eliminated many mistakes and surfaced problems ahead of time.

4. The proponents of the various plans had a hard time compromising their principles. Some were more willing to compromise than others. It wasn’t until all three plans were voted down in committee that some came together to craft a compromise solution.

5. Part of the reason for the plans’ defeats in committee was the parliamentary requirement for ten persons on each plan needed for a minority report, who then could not vote for any other plan. Our process again hamstrung us.

6. There was great resistance to change from the current boards and agency staff, who stood to lose power and autonomy if the restructure went through. They worked hard to lobby against the plans and to demonstrate how essential their particular agency is to the functioning of the church.

7. The debate and voting surfaced the deep mistrust that exists among members and groups across the church. No plan would be considered unless it was made public who authored the plan. Mistrust of the bishops gave birth to Plan B. Mistrust of the “establishment” gave birth to the MFSA Plan. It got so bad that at one point a delegate asked to physically see the authors of Plan UMC so she could decide whether or not to support it based on who was or was not in the group that formulated it. We are no longer evaluating ideas on their own merits. All we care about is that the “right” people were at the table (however “right” is defined for this or that group).

8. Finally, no one thought to ask the Judicial Council to review any of the plans before or during General Conference to see if they passed constitutional muster. For years, annual conferences have been trying to restructure themselves and finding their revisions turned down by the Judicial Council. We should have learned along the way the need to vet the restructuring plans with Judicial Council. The Council of Bishops could have requested a declaratory decision prior to General Conference. The delegates themselves could have requested a decision on the first day of General Conference. Nobody (including me) thought of it.

The good news is that the emphasis on vital congregations and creating a culture of accountability will continue. Restructure was not going to save the church, anyway. What we missed, at a time when most delegates were ready to vote for change, was an opportunity to make our general church agencies more responsive to the priorities and emphasis of our church. We were unable to create a structure that would channel more of our resources to where they will make an effective difference for local congregational ministry. Instead, our agencies are likely to go on much as they have in the past, supported loyally by our apportionment dollars, to carry on in their own sphere of ministry without considering how it will strengthen local church ministry.

What we also missed was the opportunity to increase the representation on our agency boards from the central conferences. Currently, only about 15 percent of the agency board members are from central conferences, when they have 40 percent of our church membership. As anyone who watched General Conference saw, the delegates of the central conferences are ready to participate in the governance of our church as full partners, not as mission outposts.

If another try is made at restructuring in 2016, I sincerely hope that a detailed plan is made public by the end of 2014. I hope there is adequate opportunity for input and revision of the plan prior to its finalization in 2015. I also pray that we will be able to rebuild some of the shattered trust that permeates our general church. Right now, we are cannibalizing each other and paralyzed from working together for the sake of Jesus Christ and his mission. He and our church deserve better. That would be a change we could believe in!

Thomas Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News and leader of the Renewal and Reform Coalition.