This post is by Liza Kittle, president of RENEW Network, the women’s program arm of Good News, the United Methodist Church’s oldest renewal ministry.
The assessment was conducted by Apex HG LLC, a firm that helps not-for-profit organizations resolve “critical issues.”
This commentary first appeared in a longer form on the RENEW website. Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com — Ed.
An independent Operational Assessment report released in June 2010 warned that the United Methodist Church “is confronting a ‘creeping crisis’ of relevancy with an accompanying acute crisis of an under-performing economic model.”
The assessment was commissioned by the Call to Action (CTA) Steering Team, a body set up last year by the UM Council of Bishops and Connectional Table.
The task of CTA team is to bring forth “a plan that [will] lead to reordering the life of the Church for greater effectiveness and vitality in 1) the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and 2) addressing the Four Areas of Focus as distinctive ways we live into that mission together.”
The Steering Team’s final report and recommendations will be released in November. Many of the recommendations likely will come before the next United Methodist General Conference, to be held April 24-May 4, 2012 in Tampa, Fla.
Although the current economic climate was factor in commissioning these studies, the main impetus for the Call to Action project is the need to address the persistent decline in U.S. membership (PDF), baptisms, and professions of faith over the past four decades. Related issues include the steady increase in the average age of the UMC’s clergy and laity and the denomination’s general failure to attract younger members.
The assessment report, together with a companion report on “Congregational Vitality” (PDF), provide a good start toward addressing several of these key problems.
Regrettably, the reports are lacking in certain key respects.
For example, there was no input from “people in the pew” for the Operational Assessment and little input from local-church clergy. Only two current pastors were included in the formal interview process — one from a small church in the Western Jurisdiction and one from a medium-sized church in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a large UM church in Kansas City, was selected but wasn’t available for an interview. (The small-church pastor chosen was the Rev. Rich Lang, a self-described “liberation theologian” at Trinity UMC in Seattle.)
It is also disappointing that neither the growing secularization of United Methodist seminaries nor the convoluted legislative process of General Conference was mentioned. Furthermore, the Call to Action studies largely ignored the significant social/political issues that have created division in the UMC and have been a contributing factor to membership loss.
Another glaring omission of the assessment report is the lack of any mention of the UMC’s Women’s Division, the governing body of United Methodist Women that continues to monopolize women’s-ministry choices within the denomination while promoting a radically feminist political/social agenda around the world in the name of United Methodism.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table should be commended for creating the Call to Action Steering Team and placing most levels of the United Methodist Church under scrutiny.
The Operational Assessment Project is based on: (1) an independent analysis of the UMC’s leadership and governance structures; (2) financial and demographic information from the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA); (3) 50 hours of formal interviews with church leaders; and (4) more than 400 written survey responses from church leaders.
The formal interviews mentioned above were conducted with 34 U.S. and Central Conference bishops, as well as top leaders of the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, and the Judicial Council. In addition, 11 general agency secretaries were interviewed, as were four UM seminary deans/presidents, three district superintendents, three Annual Conference leaders, two pastors of local churches, two active lay leaders, and three (as described by the report appendices) “wise thinkers.”
The demographic breakdown for the written survey (423 respondents) is as follows:
|41% District superintendents||4% GCFA members|
|14% Bishops||2% General agency secretaries|
|9% Conference treasurers||2% General agency treasurers|
|9% Board officers of general agencies||2% Deans/presidents of UM Seminaries|
|7% Directors of connectional ministries||2% Call to Action Team members|
|6% Connectional Table members||1% UM Judicial Council members|
The Operational Assessment project concludes that the UMC’s crisis of relevancy is attributable to:
- A sense of loss of mission clarity and identity, both nationally and globally;
- A tension between the institutional and missional purposes of the church;
- Values and culture manifestations (see below);
- Structure and process manifestations (see below);
- Declining U.S. membership/attendance trends;
- Generation-bound demographics of both membership and clergy; and
- The difficulty of attracting younger members.
The crisis of an under-performing economic model is largely attributable to the fact that church entities haven’t matched their expense structures to membership/attendance trends. For example, on average, about 70% of the estimated expense structure of local churches consists of salaries and benefits for clergy and lay staff, building maintenance and improvements, and mortgage principal/interest.
Mission, values, and culture findings
“Mission, values and culture of an organization interact and create the fundamental forces that define and drive its purpose and identity,” the Operational Assessment report notes.
The report identifies the root causes of the UMC’s lack of mission clarity and understanding as (1) leadership shortcomings, and (2) the absence of consistent and inspirational communication of the church’s mission.
These dynamics have led to a situation in which entities within the church tend to create their own mission interpretations, thus diluting a clear and unified mission focus.
A fundamental finding of the study is that having common church-wide mission clarity, understanding, and congruence are crucial for a vital connection and vision for the 21st century.
The report focuses on four themes related to the culture and values in the UMC: trust, leadership, accountability, and inclusivity/diversity. The findings in this area include:
- A general lack of trust is pervasive with the UMC, both personally and institutionally, and is one of the greatest challenges to the future vitality of the denomination. Protectionist agendas, lack of accountability, and reluctance to collaborate were cited as underlying examples of distrust among church leadership;
- “Effective leadership” is poorly defined at all church levels, leading to a lack of measurement and accountability. While there are many talented leaders in the UMC, leaders were consistently described by interviewees and survey respondents as being more effective as individuals than as a leadership team;
- Broad accountability structures are missing on a church-wide basis. Creating a “culture of accountability” would significantly improve the effectiveness, vitality, and efficiency of the UMC;
- A “big tent” philosophy that stresses diversity and inclusivity has created an increased polarization in beliefs.
Structure and process findings
From an analysis of the UMC’s complex structural and procedural processes (leadership, governance, management) and interview/survey responses, the assessment report identifies two specific areas needing positive change: (1) the system of connectional ties has grown far too complex; and (2) the UMC lacks an effective management and leadership structure.
As the UMC has grown in structural complexity, a great “distance” has developed between and among the people of its foundational units (i.e., local church, annual conference, general church), weakening the denomination’s connectional integrity.
Based on its series of formal interviews and written responses, the assessment report researchers found that:
- Smaller annual conference and/or district sizes have a positive effect on creating a healthy and productive connection between the laity, pastors, district superintendents, and bishops.
- The benefits of having Jurisdictional Conferences are not worth the cost necessary for their existence. They were determined (by certain respondents) to be “too remote” with “meetings too infrequent.” In addition, “delegates [are] not adequately informed” and the “role and goal clarity [of Jurisdictional Conferences is] ill-defined.”
- The agencies of the general church were found to have too much individual autonomy and often fail to collaborate. Further, agency boards are too large and meet too infrequently to provide oversight. The report stated (summarizing the views of many respondents) that the agencies are “a cacophony of voices — their ‘brands and communications compete with one another,’ resulting in confusion and dilution of impact at the annual conference and local church levels.”
The assessment report also notes that a decision-making vacuum exists between sessions of General Conference, the primary legislative body of the Church where power and authority reside. The report suggests strengthening the UMC’s existing leadership structures through the Council of Bishops and the Annual Conference.
The report also concludes that “the Church’s reliance on management through legislation (at General Conference) is leading to an increasingly rigid and rule bound culture during a period of time when the Church is attempting to adapt to a changing environment.”
The Operational Assessment Project report is worthy of reading, study, and discussion. It is important for church members and leaders to have a clear understanding of the findings and suggestions.
Let us hope that when the Call to Action Team releases its final report to the Church in November, it will outline a useful strategic and financial plan for the UMC.
Still, reorganizing church structures and processes, however much needed, cannot save the United Methodist Church. Unless the core foundational and theological beliefs of the denomination are addressed, all the restructuring in the world will be in vain.
For reformation and renewal of the UMC to occur, we must return to the historic doctrines of the Christian faith, stand on the foundations of our Wesleyan heritage, build on the teachings of the Word of God, and engage in active mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
|•||Riley Case: ‘Operational Assessment’ shows UMC has lost its way|
|•||Renewal & Reform Coalition releases letter to Council of Bishops|
|•||Riley Case: The future of the United Methodist Church is at stake|
Related articles and information
|•||The United Methodist Church faces a financial and relevancy crisis (PDF) | Liza Kittle, RENEW Network (Sept. 22, 2010)|
|•||Call to Action: Reordering the Life of the Church | Website of the UMC’s Call to Action Steering Committee|
|•||The complete “Operational Assessment” report (PDF) and Appendices (PDF) | Call to Action Steering Committee (June 29, 2010)|
|•||Tone deafness and the Call to Action | Rob Renfroe, Good News (September/October 2010)|
|•||United Methodist ‘Call to Action’ finds 15% of UM churches highly ‘vital’ | Mark Tooley, UMAction—IRD (July 17, 2010)|
|•||Call to Action offers signs of crisis and hope | Heather Hahn, United Methodist News Service (July 13, 2010)|
|•||Momentum builds for major church change | Bishop John L. Hopkins, United Methodist News Service (April 12, 2010)|
|•||Call to Action seeks to increase church vitality | J. Richard Peck, United Methodist News Service (April 9, 2010)|
|•||Church leaders seek consensus on plans for change | Kathy L. Gilbert, United Methodist News Service (Nov. 12, 2009)|
|•||Connectional Table OKs new plan to study church | J. Richard Peck, United Methodist News Service (Nov. 9, 2009)|
|•||Committee assesses life of church | Linda Green, United Methodist News Service (July 22, 2009)|
|•||Bishop Palmer says church is in ‘sweet spot’ for change | Kathy L. Gilbert, United Methodist News Service (May 14, 2009)|
|•||Why Methodist seminaries are becoming irrelevant and dying | Riley B. Case, Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church (July 2009 — via Methodist Examiner)|
|•||Methodism’s coming death spiral | Donald Sensing, WindsOfChange.net (Nov. 15, 2007)|
|•||40 years of vision for United Methodist Renewal (PDF) | James V. Heidinger II, Good News (November/December 2007)|