Tone deafness and the Call to Action

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.

Tone deafness and the Call to Action

United Methodism faces health care bill fallout

By Joseph Slife

In the wake of enactment of controversial health care legislation that will significantly broaden the federal government’s power over the U.S. health care system, United Methodist bishops and other church leaders are trying to mollify laity and clergy upset about the UM Church’s role in supporting the bill.

Following the bill’s March passage, bishops, district superintendents, and pastors issued letters and e-mails attempting to clarify the church’s position and explain the work of the General Board of Church and Society, the denominational agency that played a key role in pushing for federal mandates on insurance companies and other businesses, as well as for a larger federal role in the allocation of health care resources.

Moments before the bill passed the House of Representatives, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out the United Methodist Church as a key supporter.
“[M]ore than 350 organizations, representing Americans of every age, every background, every part of the country, who have endorsed this legislation,” she said on the House floor. “Our coalition ranges from the AARP…to the United Methodist Church.”

The Speaker’s comments set off a firestorm of reaction from United Methodists unhappy with the legislation and the sharply partisan process by which it was adopted. (The bill, which according to polls was opposed by a majority of voters, failed to garner a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate; in addition 34 House Democrats voted against the bill, as did three Democratic senators on final passage.)

The morning after Speaker Pelosi’s remarks, pastors, bishops, and other church leaders began receiving calls and e-mails from concerned United Methodists demanding an explanation. Laity and some clergy also posted their concerns on various websites.

“I am so disgusted with our denomination,” one commenter wrote on the blog of the North Carolina Conference. “While I love my local church and the people in my community, I will not financially support a denomination that thinks [it] can speak for me [in] a political forum.”

A prominent United Methodist pastor noted that the speaker’s remarks about UM advocacy for the controversial bill could further harm the denomination’s attempts to reverse decades of membership losses.

“In my opinion, Speaker Pelosi’s comments give [many] Americans another reason not to be Methodist,” wrote Tim Stevens, executive pastor at Indiana’s Granger Community Church, on his Leading Smart blog.

“I do everything I can to help thousands of Methodist pastors and leaders every year…. It saddens me that the United Methodist Church is often known primarily for its political positions that have nothing to do with making disciples of Christ,” he wrote.

A clergy commenter responding to Mr. Stevens post was more circumspect, but echoed Mr. Stevens’ concerns. “I’m a UM pastor who has had to walk a fine line between having my own opinions and expressing them publicly. I fear that if I side with one or the other publicly I may damage possible opportunities to engage someone that doesn’t yet know Jesus,” he wrote. “I will say this though: The handling of this bill was shady at best and to attach the name of a denomination to it does no one any good.”

Not officially endorsed. Strictly speaking, the United Methodist Church did not officially “endorse” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a point made by bishops and others who responded to concerned church members.

However, the UM General Board of Church of Church and Society (GBCS), an official agency of the denomination, did play a lead role among religious organizations in pushing for increased federal government authority over health care. That emphasis was tantamount to lobbying for legislation likely to be embraced by Congressional liberals and opposed by those who preferred a free-market approach to addressing issues of health care availability and affordability.

In December 2009, GBCS orchestrated a letter-writing and telephone campaign aimed at persuading Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)—a United Methodist—to vote for the same controversial legislation that eventually passed the House. Days later, on Christmas Eve, the Senate passed the bill. Sen. Nelson—the final senator to make up his mind—voted “yes,” ensuring that the legislation would not die in the Senate.

(After suffering a strong political backlash for his vote, Sen. Nelson voted “no” when a slightly revised health bill came back before the Senate; this time his vote did not affect the outcome.)

On the House side, GBCS’ Faith in Action newsletter noted in early March that “[h]elp is needed in the next few weeks as Congress deliberates over final passage of critical health care protections.”

GBCS urged United Methodists to “contact your members of Congress” and “support health care reform.” In the context of the legislative process, GBCS—without actually endorsing the bill by name—was essentially endorsing the bill that had already passed the Senate and was about to come before the House.

Given the General Board of Church and Society’s clear attempt to sway members of Congress to “support health care reform” in the weeks leading up the March 21 House vote, it seems reasonable that Speaker Pelosi (who is not a United Methodist) would construe GBCS’ advocacy as an actual endorsement of the bill by the United Methodist Church, especially since GBCS is an official agency of the denomination.

Grassroots concern. In response to church member concerns about the role of the UM Church in passage of the legislation, Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the UM Council of Bishops, issued a letter that characterized the role of GBCS as simply one of “monitoring Congressional action” and “informing [Congressional leaders] of the church’s stance consistent with General Conference action.”

Likewise, Bishop D. Max Whitfield of the Northwest Texas Conference insisted that GBCS simply promoted principles, not specific legislation. “[T]he General Board of Church and Society has worked diligently to promote key principles of health care reform. Principles like access to health care, for all people, have been promoted by the UMC for many years, and it was behind these principles, not any specific legislation, that the GBCS put their endorsement,” Bishop Whitfield wrote in a message posted on the NW Texas Conference website.

“General Conference believed reform was essential, and in 2008, they did pass a Resolution urging reform of the health care system. However, that resolution did not advocate for any particular piece of legislation,” he wrote.
Other bishops issued similar letters, including Bishop Larry Goodpaster (Western North Carolina), Bishop Scott Jones (Kansas East/Kansas West), and Bishop Janice Riggle Huie (Texas).

No floor debate. It is true that the 2008 General Conference, meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, did pass legislation related to health care, as several bishops noted in their statements on the health bill. However, it is also true that there was no floor debate at the 2008 General Conference on any of the heath care-related resolutions. Instead, three such resolutions were hurriedly passed—in a single, omnibus vote—on the final night of the Conference as delegates rushed to complete action on nearly 50 legislative items.

Less than four minutes transpired between the time the health care resolutions were presented and the vote was taken. One of the resolutions consisted of nearly 6,000 words (stricken language and new language), or roughly nine pages of single-spaced type.

That lengthy resolution, “Health Care For All in the United States” (now Resolution #3201 in the 2008 edition of the UM Book of Resolutions), was authored by Jim Winkler, head of the General Board of Church and Society—the same agency that used the resolution as a basis for its involvement in advocating what became the controversial legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.

Health care as a “right.” Language asserting that health care is a right—i.e., something to which all people are entitled—was first added to The Book of Discipline by the 1996 General Conference. That language was reaffirmed (and expanded) by the General Conference in 2008. However, in neither instance (1996 nor 2008) was the matter was actually discussed on the floor of the conference.

1996: Two years after the Clinton Administration’s health care plan failed to achieve congressional passage, the General Board of Church and Society submitted a petition asserting a “right to health care” to the 1996 General Conference. (In other words, GBCS authored the assertion it now quotes in support of its lobbying on the health care issue.) The petition did not define what was meant by “health care,” nor did it suggest how the cost of such an open-ended entitlement would be borne.

The GBCS petition was approved by the 1996 Church and Society legislative committee and sent to the full General Conference with a recommendation for “concurrence.”

The committee-approved petition did not come to the floor as a separate item, however. Instead, it was bundled with several unrelated items as part of a “consent calendar,” a parliamentary vehicle aimed at speeding the business of a legislative assembly by packaging several “noncontroversial” items as one and having them adopted in a single vote.

The GBCS language describing health care as a right was included as part of Consent Calendar A02, which included 109 disparate items. The Calendar was moved on the floor of the conference and approved with no discussion (or verbal description of the included items) on April 22, 1996.

At that point, or at least when the language was subsequently included in the 1996 Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church officially endorsed the concept of a right to health care.

2008: Two years ago, the General Conference reaffirmed the “right” to health care, again without any floor debate. In a manner somewhat similar to 1996, the legislative petition was bundled with other items, although this time the bundled items—three in all—related to the same topic: health care.

In addition to the petition (submitted by GBCS) reasserting a right to health care (and further expanding the language in that section of the Discipline), the bundled items included a petition from GBCS General Secretary Jim Winkler strongly advocating a “single-payer” (i.e. government-managed) system for health care in the United States.

A third item—a petition from the Norway Annual Conference’s Board of Discipleship/Church and Society—simply declared: “We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.” (Norway has a compulsory, tax-funded health care system.)

All three of these health care-related petitions came to the floor of the General Conference after 9 p.m. on the conference’s final night—May 2, 2008. Rushing to conclude legislative business (as noted earlier, approximately 50 items were on the legislative calendar for that evening), the conference dealt with all three health care items as one. As is common when legislative assemblies are up against a deadline, floor debate was in short supply that evening.

About a half-hour before the health items were presented, with 40 calendar items still remaining and the deadline for adjournment drawing nearer, a delegate from the Oklahoma Conference moved to “suspend the rules and limit debate” so that items could be dealt with even more quickly. With delegates keenly aware of the press of time, the motion to limit debate drew only minimal objection and was passed handily.

The presentation of the three health care items began at approximately 9:10 p.m. and the vote occurred less than four minutes later. With no debate, the General Conference approved the items—which, when taken together, called for creation of an open-ended entitlement to government-run health care worldwide—by a vote of 690-114.

As noted above, the 1996 petition asserting a right to heath care was submitted by the General Board of Church and Society, as were two of the three health care petitions passed in 2008.

Once such items are approved by the General Conference, GBCS is empowered to promote them as official church policy, even to the point of lobbying for specific congressional legislation that would seem to advance those policy aims.

Although competing solutions to particular societal problems may exist, GBCS often lobbies for a specific approach, hence its strong support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the legislation that has become known colloquially as “ObamaCare.”

Joseph Slife is a certified lay speaker in the North Georgia Annual Conference and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Communication at Georgia’s Emmanuel College. He blogs at

Tone deafness and the Call to Action

Good News statement on the health care bill

Good News statement on the health care bill
Commentary by Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton

Good News believes faithful United Methodists are people passionately committed to Scriptural holiness, and that most assuredly includes our founder John Wesley’s emphasis on “social holiness.” Rank and file United Methodists care deeply about the health and welfare of people throughout this country, and in deeds large and small, find many ways to demonstrate that care. Certainly all United Methodists look forward to a time when all Americans possess adequate health care.

However, some have confused support of the specific plan recently passed by Congress as evidence of an individual’s true commitment to health care for all. While some United Methodists consider the health care reform bill signed into law by President Barack Obama as a political triumph, others find the legislation disconcerting and disappointing.

First, we are disappointed that a number of pro-life members of Congress abandoned their commitment to language they themselves insisted upon in the House bill approved this past November. The promise of an executive order that no public funds will be used to pay for abortions simply does not have the same force as a law duly debated and passed by the legislative branch, and signed by the President. As Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn recently wrote, “all that has to happen for…federal dollars to start flowing for abortion is for NARAL Pro-Choice America to sponsor a woman demanding an abortion. The center will initially deny funding, citing the executive order. The woman will then sue, arguing that abortion is a part of health care. Given the legal precedents, and the lack of a specific ban in the actual legislation, the courts will likely agree.”

Second, we regret that a bipartisan approach to health care reform was not adopted. When a bill of this magnitude is passed with the slimmest of majorities and only single party support, it appears that doing business as usual has not changed. In short, the way this bill was passed only feeds the current distrust and low regard many Americans have for Washington.

Third, we find it very difficult to support legislation that does not deal forthrightly about the costs involved. What kind of crushing debt will future generations have to bear? It appears that those who promoted the bill and voted for it either postponed to another day many of the tax increases necessary to fund the massive plan, or they naively—we hope not cynically—convinced themselves that future congressional representatives will have the integrity and courage to tell the American people the truth about the plan’s actual costs. Politically speaking, it is easy to vote for health care for all, but it is far more difficult to honestly explain how we will pay for it.

Finally, we are deeply disappoint-ed with the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). Rather than engage the issue of health care reform in a manner representing the hopes and concerns of all United Methodists, it has once again embraced and advocated for the most partisan and polemical position. Unfortunately, the Board chose to feverishly work for a particular plan that divided United Methodists. A more thoughtful board would have simply promoted the goal of health care for all, but would not have sided with one particular party’s plan. By so publicly making common cause with a partisan plan, many church members will view GBCS more as an agent of a particular political party, and less as an agent of the kingdom of God.

Throughout the debate, GBCS failed to seriously acknowledge or fairly represent other proposals for meeting the health care needs of Americans. Once again, GBCS alienated thousands of United Methodists, and caused many to wonder whether the Board can ever fairly represent them in the public square, even going so far as to advocate for the most extreme iterations of the bill that included federal funding for abortion.

Indeed, despite GBCS’s self-congratulations, it actually failed to convince most United Methodist congressional representatives to support the bill. Forty-four United Methodists currently serve in the House of Representatives, 26 voted in opposition to the bill, and only 18 voted for it. In other words, nearly 60 percent of United Methodist representatives opposed the bill. We are confident that split is far more representative of United Methodists than the far-left views advocated by GBCS throughout the 14-month debate over health care reform.

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News. Walter Fenton is the Chief Operating Officer of Good News.