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.
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.