By Eric LeMasters
Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), put it bluntly: “What a lousy time to be a bishop.”
The United Methodist mission agency, faced with negative budget projections in the coming decade, is considering substantive cuts in both programmatic and administrative sectors in order to maintain what it regards as its “core competencies.” This year’s GBGM Annual Board Meeting convened in Stamford, Connecticut, to discuss, among other things, the possibility of a dramatic downsizing of the Board from 89 directors to a potential 30, and a revision of its Theology of Mission Statement and its associated Mission and Vision statements.
GBGM has been very active in humanitarian causes throughout the world, particularly in disaster areas such as Haiti and earthquake-stricken Chile. The Board reported significant progress in its anti-malaria program in Africa, “Nothing but Nets,” where the UM Church is widely acknowledged as being “front and center” in the effort to eradicate the disease from the continent.
Regardless, the agency has seen falling giving rates accompanied by a widespread mistrust of its resourcefulness and relevance.
“It’s difficult to live in a time of ferment and upheaval,” Bishop Ough said. “Especially when it seems our very identity or ministry context are the targets of the analysis and discussion taking place.” This upheaval brought home the need to “bite the bullet on the size of this board,” he argued, to provide more nimble and effective governance and to cut administrative costs. He further stated that studies have shown that the “best practice for non-profit boards is to have 12 to 24 members, and for the boards to meet four or more times a year.”
In the past, the Board has held up to 180 directors.
How and where these cuts should be administered was the subject of contentious debate. The proposals, outlined below, were handed out for discussion among members. They included:
• Creating a Board composed of 30 members. [This figure was put forward by Bishop Ough; the Board recommended a cut that would result in no less than 30 and no more than 45.]
• Dramatically cutting the number of bishops on the board.
• Identifying and utilizing different categories other than geographical boundaries (jurisdictions) to determine representation.
• Developing and utilizing a system of rotating membership among geographical regions (jurisdictions and central conferences) to ensure broad participation over time.
• Utilizing a portion of the administrative savings resulting from a smaller board to creatively engage constituencies and partners beyond Board members in shaping the direction and work of the Board.
• Populate the Board in such a manner that individual directors could “represent” more than one constituency, such as having a portion of the Women’s Division representation be UM Women from the Central Conferences.
After the executive committee’s report, the board approved a measure to “prepare at least three models, describing function, financial implications, composition, and committee structure of each model presented,” based on the proposed board size range.
Challenging the Mission. An engaging debate emerged surrounding the new draft of GBGM’s Theology of Mission Statement. The original, written in 1986, has seen several updates over the years, and at the board’s spring meeting was set to be revised along with other foundational goals.
Thomas Kemper, elected this spring as chief executive of the General Board of Global Ministries, introduced the strategic planning meeting during the second plenary session. The board approved the strategic planning process in April, with the aid of the Novak Consulting Group, to reassess the organization’s direction along with its Theology of Mission and the accompanying Mission, Vision, and Values statements. In his address, Kemper described the newly revised Theology of Mission Statement as “very Wesleyan, and comprehensively Christian.”
Julia Novak, head of the consulting group, first presented the results of an “environmental scan” conducted throughout the summer. This scan entailed gathering opinions from hundreds of UM congregants (labeled “stakeholders” throughout the session) to shed light on GBGM’s perceived direction and relevance. Many of the perception issues, it concluded, could be distilled to a public relations problem and “poor customer service” rather than a fundamental crisis of mission.
The content of the Theology of Mission draft, which was not permitted to be reproduced by the press, was swiftly challenged by several board members when it came time to discuss the changes.
“How can we bring more of the meat of the gospel and Christianity into our strategic planning?” a director from Pennsylvania asked. ”We have been talking about this for so long that … it is sounding redundant, repetitive, and empty. When was the last time a room like this ever knelt down together and came before God as one body, prostrate before God, begging for forgiveness and direction? When is the last time there was a Holy Spirit Moment, when a group of people who love the Lord could actually come out of here filled up again?”
Bishop Peter Weaver from Boston affirmed this declaration by citing Philippians 2:9-11, which helps underscore the centrality of evangelism in the church’s mission for the world: “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
“I find the theological statement an improvement, but not yet quite there,” Weaver said. “I yearn for a clarion trumpet call. This theological statement, I believe, reflects some of the lukewarm-ness of the church. The clarity about making disciples of Jesus Christ—the phrase isn’t even in our theology of mission. The word ‘salvation’ is not even in the Theology of Mission.”
“Let us not forsake, in the time of doing all the tremendous things we are doing, the gift of the Bread of Life, the One who I believe is Lord and Savior,” Weaver continued. “And that language is not even here. I believe that we need to be bold enough to say it in our Theology of Mission somehow.”
“Stable” Financial Position. General Treasurer Roland Fernandes presented the organization’s financial position at the first plenary session. The reports presented what it termed a “relatively stable” position, much due to significant budget cuts in 2009—though the agency has still been largely operating on a deficit for the past four consecutive years. The year 2009 ended nearly $13 million in deficit. Lower projected giving rates prompted more pessimistic planning for the 2013-2016 budget period. Total GBGM spending in 2009 was over $149 million. Total revenue was almost $137 million. Total net assets as of August 2010 were $350 million. In 2009, the largest income source was the World Service apportionment at almost $28 million. Advance Special Gifts accounted for over $22 million. United Methodist Women provided $16.6 million.
Chief executive Thomas Kemper also addressed tightened administrative spending. This year GBGM brought its staff to 288 both at home and abroad, and has downsized to fit three, rather than their previous four, floors of their headquarters in New York City. He also revealed that they were exploring the possibility of future board meetings convening at that location, due to “the likelihood of a smaller board of directors” and to promote improved “interaction between directors and staff.”
Seventeen missionaries were commissioned on the second day of the board meeting. In Kemper’s report during that morning’s plenary session, he related the number of international missionaries as “holding steady at around 225, Church and Community Workers [missionaries serving in the United States] at 50, and Hispanic/Latino plan missionaries in the low 20s.” Kemper made note of the steady decline in missionary support over the past two years, calling it “a troubling trend, made potentially more serious by the likelihood of a reduced allocation from World Service apportionments in the next quadrennium.” All told, there are 714 missionaries worldwide over whom the board has full or partial financial responsibility.
Eric LeMasters is a research associate at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.