By Steve Wende
As always when I read Dr. George Hunter, I want to say “amen and well done!” when he is finished. However, I would raise a concern—and perhaps a word of hope.
I believe that the damage done by the 1972 General Conference was far deeper and more wide reaching than is commonly recognized. Whatever we may want to accomplish, the decisions of that General Conference have made true accountability at the upper levels of our church, as presently organized, impossible to enforce, and as a result have made a true missional focus for our denomination impossible to achieve.
Let me explain. The 1972 General Conference did much more than change the membership and size of the General Boards. It structured the nominating process and leadership of the key boards in such a way as to make them functionally independent. The consequence has been lack of true oversight. If a board, such as Church and Society, interprets its objectives in a way that is out of step with the mainline thinking of the church, there is no way to bring it back into line with the majority.
Before 1972, such oversight was understood to be part of the role of the bishops. In fact, during the great growth periods of our church, it was the bishops who led. The Council of Bishops understood it as part of their responsibility to help the church grow evangelistically and missionally and to use all the resources of the church, including the Boards and Agencies, in the service of that task.
Now, was life perfect back then? Of course not. As humans, we will always have problems. But when there were problems, the lay leaders and pastors knew what to do: share their concerns with the bishops, who had the authority to influence the situation.
Presently, if there is a problem in the boards or agencies, like damaging publicity or apparent misuse of resources, who do you call? Do you know the names of those in the boards and agencies? Do you have a clue how to get a name or phone number or email address? And if you did find out such information, except perhaps in extreme situations, how much good do you think it would do?
In addition, when you think of the vast resources of the United Methodist Church, wouldn’t it be a good idea for someone to have the authority to coordinate all those resources for maximum effectiveness between General Conferences? Until you read this article, I’ll bet you assumed someone did! In fact, the ability to focus resources in a coordinated way is fundamental to the recommendations made by the Call to Action report. Yet, at present, that is exactly what we cannot do as a church.
You see, what at first seems to be a small organizational difficulty actually gives birth to very significant problems—and these have definite theological and spiritual implications. In fact, it was one of our leading theologians, Dr. Albert Outler, who led the opposition to the reorganization when it was considered in 1972. In the statement he made before the General Conference, he listed the problems that would come out of the reorganization, and they read like a synopsis of the problems named in the Call To Action report: theological disarray, missional confusion, separation of the hierarchy from the people, and on and on.
Does all this mean that the only challenge before us is organizational? Heavens no! Our church needs our best efforts on a variety of fronts. But here is a word of hope: if an organizational decision made 39 years ago has over time given birth to so many problems, isn’t there a good chance that undoing that decision will reduce some of the problems?
Think about it. Pray about it. Who should lead us between General Conferences? How will that authority be expressed and accountability enforced? There are many ideas on the table. What is crucial at this stage is that we begin to understand the breadth of the problem, and to ask the right questions.
Steve Wende is the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston. He serves as contributing editor for Preaching Magazine and has been elected to the last four United Methodist General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Dr. Wende serves as a Director of the Methodist Hospital of Houston, a Director of the Texas Methodist Foundation, and a Trustee of Huston-Tillotson University.