By Rich Peck
Many United Methodists would agree there are gaps between where the church is and where it wants to be. A decline in membership in the United States and growing fiscal problems represent two of many such gaps.
The 12-member Call to Action Committee, meeting April 6-8 in Nashville, set plans to gather data from across the United States to help the church discover ways to bridge these gaps.
The committee is a successor to an earlier 18-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to reorder the life of the church for greater effectiveness and vitality in “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and addressing the Four Areas of Focus endorsed by the denomination’s 2008 legislative assembly, the General Conference.
Led by Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops, the group dreams of a church:
• with more grace and freedom and fewer rules—more accountability to gospel and less conformity to an outdated, bureaucratic system;
• more ministry with the poor and less reticence to link arms with the desperate, the sick and the hungry;
• more dreaming about what will be and less struggling to preserve what was;
• and more trust and less cynicism.
To start their work, the committee employed two consulting groups to gather data from which they can make final recommendations.
Mark Harrison, founder of Manhattan Beach, Calif.,-based Apex Healthcare Group, will conduct an “operational assessment” to provide three to five “doors” that may open pathways to improve decision-making and affordability. He is also asked to find ways to increase effectiveness in addressing the Four Areas of Focus.
Towers Watson, a New York-based organization with 14,000 employees around the world, will provide the committee with information about factors that contribute to church vitality. The agency interviewed bishops, pastors and laypeople to discover six indicators of church vitality. These interviews and responses to a Web survey resulted in the following indicators:
• Average worship attendance as percentage of membership;
• Total membership;
• Number of children, youth and young adults attending as percentage of membership;
• Number of professions of faith as percentage of attendance and membership;
• Actual giving per attendee; and
• Finance benevolence giving beyond the local church as a percentage of the church budget.
Towers Watson staff will mine existing data submitted by local churches and tabulated by the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). The 33,850 churches will be grouped into churches with high, medium and low vitality; and 25-30 percent of churches from each group will be selected at random to determine factors that drive vitality. All individual church information will remain confidential; only the aggregate findings will be used.
The staff will survey all active U.S. bishops, all district superintendents, and pastors and laity in selected local churches. Others will be able to provide insights on a Web site to be announced by May 1.
Once the group identifies structures, policies and practices that encourage vitality, it may recommend ways in which these can be encouraged throughout the denomination. Towers Watson is expected to report its initial findings by late June.
Funded by a $500,000 grant from the Connectional Table, the Call to Action Committee will give a final report to the Council of Bishops in November. The committee will also report to the Connectional Table. Either of those groups could take recommendations to the 2012 General Conference.
Rich Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and a freelance writer in Nashville. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.