United Methodist agencies receive poor grades on mission

United Methodist agencies receive poor grades on mission

A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn

United Methodist general agencies rate below average in fulfilling the church’s mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

A comprehensive study of church structures also found that agencies often fail to collaborate with each other and their boards are too large and meet too infrequently to provide effective oversight.

“The agencies are a cacophony of voices,” said the report commissioned by the denomination’s Call to Action Steering Team. “Their ‘brands and communications compete with one another’ and result in confusion and dilution of the impact at the annual conference and local church levels.”

In short, the autonomous organization structure of the agencies has lessened their value to the church, according to the “Operational Assessment of the Connectional Church.”

The assessment by Apex Healthcare Group is based on survey responses of 423 church leaders, including bishops, agency executives, seminary heads and staff members from annual (regional) conferences. The report also reflects about 15 hours of informal interviews with some of the people surveyed.

The 16-member Call to Action Steering Team, which includes clergy and laity, will use the report to make recommendations to the denomination’s Council of Bishops and Connectional Table in November.

“As accountable stewards, we must accept the implicit criticisms and make changes that address them,” said Neil Alexander, a steering team member and president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House. “Many of us share deep concern that overall the UMC is not seeing the magnitude and quality of results we aspire to achieve.”

The report comes at a time when the church is growing globally, but its U.S. membership is continuing a decades-long decline. In the United States; professions of faith and baptisms also are down.

“Given these realities, it is distressing but not unexpected that the ‘grade’ given the general church part of the whole UMC connection is lower than any of us want it to be,” Alexander said. “It means we have urgent and difficult work to do to deliver high quality resources and services and to persuasively demonstrate how general agencies add value.”

Meeting church needs

The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table created the Call to Action committee to reorder the life of the church for greater effectiveness and vitality in “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The failure to fulfill this mission is not limited to the denomination’s 13 general agencies, church leaders said.

“People do not join general agencies; they join local churches,” said Jim Winkler, the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. “If we want to focus on ineffectiveness in making disciples for Jesus Christ, that’s the place to start.”

General agencies complement the local church, Winkler said. They are responsible for such activities as producing Sunday school material, sending missionaries around the globe, maintaining the church archives and advocating for the church’s social teachings.

Still, general agencies sometimes are not sensitive to the challenges faced at the local church level, said Jim Argue Jr., a member of the General Council on Finance and Administration board and chief executive officer of the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas.

In any large bureaucracy, he said, the path of least resistance is often to spend more money.

“It really violates me for the church to be intentional about doing less because I don’t think that’s the church being faithful,” Argue said. “That was really the mindset I took to the GCFA experience. And yet I’ll be darned if I don’t start sympathizing with those who are looking for ways to do less.”

One of the main challenges the church faces as a connectional system is a pervasive sense of distrust between the pew and the leadership, the operational assessment said. Sources of distrust include territorial behavior and a lack of accountability.

Oversized boards

Contributing to this lack of accountability is the size of general agency boards, the operational assessment said.

The best practice for nonprofit boards is to have 12 to 24 members, and for them to meet four or more times a year, the operational assessment said.

However, the United Methodist agency boards range in size from 24 to 89 members, sometimes larger than the agencies they oversee. These boards generally meet only once or twice a year.

Those meetings can be expensive, Alexander said. Some cost more than $50,000 per session.

“The research accurately asserts that best practices call for smaller boards, populated by people with applicable competencies, that meet frequently enough to perform well-defined governance functions,” Alexander said.

Garlinda Burton, the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, agreed. The boards initially grew in size to reflect the geographical and racial diversity of the church. Burton said boards could still be diverse without having 45 members.

“I would rather have 20 or 25 board members who are interested in the work than to have 45 members without expertise,” she said. “If we’re truly talking about doing a new thing because God is doing a new thing, then some of us are going to have to move aside to let that new thing emerge.”

Changing the boards to meet these practices will require legislation by the General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body that will next meet in 2012.

Burton’s prayer is that church members will listen to each other and listen to the voice of God as they discuss the church’s future.

While the research points to deficits in the general agencies, it does so in light of significant problems with the connectional system, Alexander said.

“As the song says, ‘The hip bone is connected to the neck bone,’” he said. “In looking for denominational health, we’ll want to be mindful of needs for changes and improvements affecting all parts of the body.”

The Call to Action Steering Team welcomes ideas and feedback from church members.

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

United Methodist agencies receive poor grades on mission

Tone deafness and the Call to Action

Editorial by Rob Renfroe

It doesn’t happen often that I read something that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me think, “C’mon, he didn’t really say that, did he?” But it happened last week when I was perusing an article from the United Methodist News Service about the Call to Action Committee.

Concerned about the general effectiveness of our denomination and our continuing numerical decline, the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table commissioned the Call to Action Committee in 2009 to bring forward “…a plan of action that will lead to reordering the life of the church.” To its credit, the 16-member committee has taken its work seriously and hired two well-respected, secular consulting firms (Towers Watson and Apex Healthcare Consulting) to study the church and its structures.

More than 400 UM leaders were surveyed and the results were reported in a 95-page summary. One of the findings that did not surprise me was that “general lack of trust within the Church was a pervasive and recurring theme in the majority of interviews.” Nor did it surprise me that Apex reported “lack of accountability was…cited as a root cause of distrust—when people are not accountable for their actions and behaviors, they cannot be trusted.” Specifically mentioned was the lack of trust between “the pew and the leadership.”

Another conclusion, hardly unexpected, was the unfavorable view of the church’s general boards and agencies. They were seen as less than effective in making “disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” According to another United Methodist News Service article regarding the survey’s results, “the autonomous organization structure of the agencies has lessened their value to the church, according to the ‘Operational Assessment of the Connectional Church.’”

Bottom line: people in the pew have a problem trusting our leadership, in general, and our autonomous (read “unaccountable”) boards and agencies, in particular—some, I’m sure more than others.

The findings of these reports should not have been surprising. The results only confirmed what many of us who serve in local churches have known for years. What was unexpected and refreshing was to read a report that was so frank about the problems we face.

The response by our leaders to these finding by outside observers will tell us much about their seriousness and resolve in regard to the renewal and reform of the United Methodist Church.

What absolutely floored me was a remark made by Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, what might be our most controversial, polemical, and distrusted church agency. “People do not join general agencies; they join local churches,” Mr. Winkler told the United Methodist News Service. “If we want to focus on ineffectiveness in making disciples for Jesus Christ, that’s the place to start.”

Astonishing. A credible outside source with no ax to grind, reports that “agencies often fail to collaborate with each other and their boards are too large and meet too infrequently to provide effective oversight;” “the agencies are a cacophony of voices;” and (not surprisingly) the people in the pews of local churches don’t trust our boards and agencies—and Mr. Winkler seems to say: The board and agencies are not the problem, the local churches are.

This is exactly the kind of response that will doom the best intended plans for the renewal and reform of the United Methodist Church.

The local churches that Mr. Winkler references are the same local churches that pay the salary of the General Secretary, correct? These are the same local churches that are being asked to pay $12.4 million this quadrennium in apportionments so the Board of Church and Society can represent (and misrepresent) grassroots United Methodists on the most important social issues of the day, right?

And yet the independent reports confirm that there is a breach of trust between the pew and the upper echelons of power within the United Methodist Church. Why would that be?

Why would we fail to trust a Board that is an official partner of the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice, which believes that there should be no restrictions on abortion—late-term, partial birth abortions are acceptable; so are abortions for the purpose of birth control; so are abortions for gender selection. All of these stances are contrary to our United Methodist position.

Why would we distrust a Board that instructed United Methodists to encourage their Senator not to block a healthcare plan that at the time would have provided federal funding for abortion? The sanctity of life concerns of many persons in the pew were dismissed by GBCS staffer Linda Bales Todd as “one narrow religious doctrine” when she spoke at a National Press Club briefing, sponsored by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Why would we distrust a Board that has had to spend close to $1.8 million dollars in legal fees to defend its use of a trust fund designated for “temperance and alcohol problems”—simply because it chose to use the several million dollars generated by that trust for purposes that had nothing to do with alcohol or temperance?

Why would we distrust the Board of Church and Society when its study on sexuality includes an article written by a Unitarian Minister who teaches that sex outside of marriage, heterosexual and homosexual, can be a moral choice as long as it is consensual, pleasurable, and protected? Why would we be less than trusting when a separate article sent under the Board’s sponsorship argues that expecting single clergy to be celibate is unrealistic and unnecessary?

Why would we distrust a Board that submitted a petition to the 2008 General Conference that would have redefined marriage so that it no longer would have reflected the historic Christian understanding that marriage is the union of a man and a woman?

Why distrust the Board when it has lobbied for decades to change our biblical and compassionate stance that all persons are made in the image of God, worthy of the church’s ministry, but that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching?

Why distrust a Board that receives church monies to carry out the church’s will, simply because it spends so much of its time and resources trying to change the church’s will?

Why distrust a board whose leader openly and publicly stated, “I don’t know if Jesus believed he was the Messiah or not,” as he did when I served on the Board of Church and Society? That kind of language is applauded at fringe theological gatherings such as the Jesus Seminar, but it serves to deepen the hole of distrust that exists between the people in the pews and their United Methodist leaders.

We are often told by our bishops that our people don’t feel good about paying their apportionments simply because they don’t know all the good our boards and agencies are doing. Just tell our story, they say, and your people will be happy to pay. The clear message of the consultants is that our people do know the story, as well as what is going on, and they are not happy.

For example, people all over the connection checked out “our story” after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thanked the United Methodist Church for helping pass the recent healthcare reform bill because of the work of the Board of Church and Society. Grassroots United Methodists went to the Board’s website and they didn’t like what they found. They discovered exactly what I have described above. And some left the denomination. Others called our Good News offices, others wrote letters, and others sent emails—all wondering, “Is this really true? Does my church and does my money really support this Board?”

“Autonomous.” “Unaccountable.” Remember those words in the survey about why we have such a lack of trust in the UM Church? They describe the Board of Church and Society. No one holds the Board accountable.

A much different and more hopeful response to the Apex survey was given by Neil Alexander, a steering team member and president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House. In the same article he is quoted as saying, “As accountable stewards, we must accept the implicit criticisms and make changes that address them. Many of us share deep concern that overall the UMC is not seeing the magnitude and quality of results we aspire to achieve.” “… We have urgent and difficult work to do to deliver high quality resources and services and to persuasively demonstrate how general agencies add value.”

The Call to Action Committee is one of several recent attempts to re-order and revitalize the UM Church. Here’s what the Committee must understand if its work is to achieve its goal. As essential as restructuring is, even the best structures will fail to lead us into spiritual renewal and missional effectiveness, if the church continues to find itself unable to trust the persons who lead those structures.

We plead with and pray for the Committee—please take the results of the survey you commissioned seriously. Please, understand that if you change our structures, but not the personnel who lead them, “a general lack of trust within the Church” will continue to be “pervasive and recurring” and the UM Church will be nothing more than a new wineskin containing the same old wine. We must have leaders who believe in, support, and promote the positions of the church. And we must have leaders who actually believe the local church is who they are called to serve—not the problem they have to overcome.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.

United Methodist agencies receive poor grades on mission

A challenging future

By Walter Fenton

Clearly, the United Methodist Church is in for some serious challenges. True, people have been saying this since the merger in 1968, but the present environment is significantly different. The church continues to face the perennial problems of declining membership and worship attendance, and a rapidly aging church in both pews and pulpits. But the new and very troublesome dynamic is a looming financial crisis.

While the macro-economy has been hard on everyone, it is likely to be especially difficult for the church. The long economic expansion from 1982-2007 was particularly good for the church. Even though membership declined steadily, our largely middle class church reaped the benefit of United Methodists who were able to increase their tithes and offerings. This allowed the institutional structure to at least maintain itself, and even expand in some areas. But those days are over for the foreseeable future. The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) recently forecast that the church can expect an 8.44 percent decrease in funds in the next quadrennium. Frankly, there are good reasons to think that number could reach as high as 10 percent.

There are signs that the church’s hierarchy is fully aware of the looming financial crisis and is swinging into action. The Connectional Table, the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the Church, and various other boards and agencies are working to propose remedies. And now a new entity, proposed by the Council of Bishops and approved by the Connectional Table, named the Call to Action steering committee, is planning to weigh in as well.

The plethora of committees—and the creation of new ones—actually reveals how difficult it will be for the church to deftly and quickly respond to the crisis. Whether a badly Balkanized, territorial, and turf-protecting institution, lacking a robust executive branch, can change course is an open question. And the situation is only complicated by the fact that some of our bishops and general secretaries frequently seem to exhibit a lackluster appreciation for the concerns and cherished beliefs of most rank and file, tithing United Methodists.

It is imperative for laypeople and clergy to pay careful attention to the proposals that are sure to come in the next 12-36 months. Leaders in the renewal and reform movement will not only want to offer fair and nuanced evaluations of coming proposals, but also present their own constructive plans that will enable the church to fulfill its mission even in the midst of challenging circumstances.

United Methodist agencies receive poor grades on mission

Call to Action seeks to increase church vitality

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.

United Methodist agencies receive poor grades on mission

Editorial: Believe, Experience and Increase

By Rob Renfroe

The bad news, as you know, is that the United Methodist Church is declining. Membership, attendance, and giving have all decreased. In fact, membership in the United States is at its lowest point since The Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church merged in 1968.

The good news is that many of our denominational leaders are now talking about the decline openly and honestly—and it seems they are committed to doing something about it. They are to be commended. Of course the question is: What is to be done?

Several groups have been commissioned to address the issue, most notably the World Wide Nature of the Church task force and The Call to Action Committee. The WWN team has focused primarily on renewing the church through structural change. The CTA, which has only met twice and is still determining its direction, seems inclined to work on structural issues and to determine a list of metrics by which churches and pastors will be held accountable for being vital and vibrant congregations.

We are grateful for all who love our church enough to care about its vitality and its future. No doubt the structure of the church needs to be re-thought and reformed to be effective in reaching a changing world for Christ. John Wesley took the structure of the early Methodist movement seriously, as did Francis Asbury when he came to the American colonies. Because of their organizational genius, Methodism became more than a powerful but brief revival. It became an enduring force for spiritual renewal and social holiness on both sides of the Atlantic.

Believing that churches should grow and developing criteria by which congregations and pastors can be held accountable is not only justifiable—it’s important. Too much emphasis can be placed on numbers. But in the 8,200-member congregation I serve, we look at numbers all the time. Our senior pastor Ed Robb often says, “We count people because people count.” And we count how many people join every year; how many attend church, Sunday school, and small groups; how many are going on mission trips and serving the poor in our own community; and how many give regularly to God’s work, because all of those markers provide some indication of whether people are growing in their faith.

Structural change—certainly necessary. Markers to determine growth—important. But the United Methodist Church and its future will not be transformed by either.

What is required for United Methodism to become a powerful movement of God again cannot be engineered by task forces, boards and agencies, or denominational leaders. They can remove some barriers to growth and they can hold local churches accountable for growth. But they cannot produce the movement of God that will produce real growth and they cannot create the dynamic spiritual leaders who will lead local congregations in effective ministry.

The United Methodist Church will never see dynamic growth again until our pastors and our congregations:

Believe that people are lost without a saving faith in Jesus Christ. John Wesley instructed his preachers that they had nothing to do but to save souls. Of course, he was committed to helping the poor and transforming his culture. But his primary task for his preachers was to bring people to faith in Christ so that their souls could be saved from judgment and hell. I once sat in a meeting of 30 UM preachers who were asked why we need to take the gospel to people outside the church. Many answers were given but they all had a common theme—so people can have a better, more meaningful life. Not one said because their sins have separated them from a holy God and unless they come to faith in Christ they will spend eternity apart from his love. When the pastors believe that the main reason people need Christ is a quality of life issue—it does not create the passion or the urgency found in Wesley’s early preachers who believed that eternal souls were at stake.

Experience the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The work of the church is spiritual work. In fact, it is spiritual warfare. It will not be won in the flesh, no matter how well-meaning or how well-structured or how well-measured we are. When Jesus began his public ministry, in Luke chapter 4, he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me….” He did not begin his ministry until he was empowered by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, after his resurrection he told his disciples not to begin their ministry until the Holy Spirit had come upon them and they had received his power (Acts 1:8). God is free to anoint his preachers and his churches with the Spirit whenever he chooses. But the pattern we see in Scripture is that the power of the Holy Spirit most often comes when persons have committed themselves to times of prayer, worship, and fasting. Personal revival among our pastors, I believe, will be required before we see a revival in the true effectiveness of the church.

Increase their vision for ministry. Some of us by our inherent nature are more visionary than others. But all of us can become more visionary than we are at present. How do we do this? First and foremost, we get our eyes off ourselves and spend time contemplating a God who is sovereign, omnipotent, and passionate about lost people. He is a God who can overcome every obstacle we face and inadequacy we possess. Second, we must spend time looking at a world that is lost. When local congregations focus on themselves and their needs and their problems, they die. When they look at the world God loves and Christ died for, when they care about the lost and the hurting, and when they believe that others are more important than themselves (Philippians 2:3), their hearts and their vision are enlarged. And as a result, their mission increases in impact and effectiveness.

What can our leaders do to help the United Methodist Church grow? Yes, address structural concerns and the issue of accountability. But every bit as important, if not more so, they need to speak to us as if people without Christ are lost and souls matter; call us to prayer and worship and fasting—that we might experience the anointing of the Holy Spirit; use the resources of the church to bring us in contact with the most effective pastors in the country, men and women who are passionate visionaries whose love for God and the lost is inspiring and infectious.

Our leaders also need to pray for us. I’m sure they do already. But they need to pray for our pastors and our churches. This battle for an effective United Methodist Church that reaches the lost and impacts our culture will not be won by power or might, but by his Spirit.

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.