The following commentary is by Riley B. Case, associate executive director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.
He writes below about the “Operational Assessment” of the United Methodist Church submitted in late June to the UMC’s Call to Action Steering Team.
This commentary was published in a slightly different form in the Confessing Movement publication, “Happenings Around the Church.” Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com — Ed.
The Call to Action Steering Team, using the “Operational Assessment” and other data, will make recommendations to the UMC’s Connectional Table for the restructuring and refocusing of the United Methodist Church.
Statistics testify to the need for reform. Ever since the radical and destructive restructuring of 1972, the UMC has been on a downward spiral (to be sure, other reasons besides restructuring account for the decline, but the way the church reoriented itself as a result of the radical 1960s must be seen as one contributing factor). Since 1972, the United Methodist Church has lost 3.2 million members.
During the period from 1998 to 2008 alone, membership declined 7 percent and attendance 9 percent (see statistics from the General Council on Finance and Administration here—Excel file). The number of UM churches declined by 6 percent.
As a percentage, United Methodists have twice as many members over 65 years of age as there are seniors in the general population. At the same time, the percentage of UM members in the 18-44 age bracket is half that of the general population. During the decade mentioned above, the average age of a United Methodist member has increased from 49 to 54.
Professions of faith declined 25 percent in that 1998-2008 period. The number of baptisms declined 13 percent.
Yet the United Methodist Church continues to do things in the same way year after year — evidently believing that what we’ve been doing for 40 years will eventually work if we just try harder, introduce new programs, and have better public relations.
It is time to acknowledge the sickness at the core of our denomination. Revival and renewal are needed.
These will come through a new movement of the Holy Spirit — but first there must be repentance: we have failed to be the church God wants us to be. We have lost our way theologically, morally, spiritually, and organizationally.
The Operational Assessment report is a good place to begin a discussion of why, when, and where we have lost our way, and what must be done for the future. Not surprisingly, the findings reflect many things evangelical groups have been concerned about for decades.
Finding: A general lack of trust exists within the United Methodist Church, leading to a loss of connectionalism and an under-functioning of the processes of the church.
The report specifically mentions a lack of trust within the church with respect to 1) leadership and 2) boards and agencies.
One reason for the lack of trust, the report says, is a general lack of accountability on the part of boards and agencies.
Comment: These findings mirror several of the major concerns of UM evangelical renewal groups ever since the first of the renewal groups, Good News, was organized more than 40 years ago.
The lack of trust the report refers to is result the way curriculum materials have been developed without sensitivity to evangelical churches, in the independent ways of the superboards without regard for people in the pews, in the lack of accountability in the seminaries, and in the actions of many of the bishops.
UM agencies have often functioned as if local churches exist to serve the agencies rather than the other way around. This is not a problem easily fixed. There will need to be a new way of thinking, managing, visioning, and serving. In other words, the UMC will need to develop a new “corporate culture” (i.e., its way of thinking and doing things).
Gaining the confidence of the people will take time. But things cannot continue as they have been. For starters, the present structure of the church adopted in 1972 will need a major overhaul.
Finding: The denomination suffers from a loss of mission definition and relevancy — and an accompanying sense of loss of identity.
Comment: This too has been a major theme of UM renewal groups. The stated mission statement of the church shouldn’t be difficult to understand: “…to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (UM Book of Discipline ¶120). Unfortunately, large segments of the church are unrelated to the mission statement.
An example: for many United Methodists, an obsession with “inclusivism” has effectively served as an alternative (and sometimes competing) mission. Some groups act as if they have fulfilled the mission of the church when they achieve a certain arbitrary mix of ethnic groups, ages, and gender.
Another example: the UMC supports many colleges that are basically secular institutions that have no interest in “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Finding: The church’s way of recruiting ministers is problematic. The Church does not have “birthing places” for call. The process for ordination is far too long. Boards of Ordained Ministry have wide variations in practice. Sometimes the boards serve as advocates, sometimes they serve as adversaries
The Call to Action
Comment: As noted above, many of the UMC’s colleges are United Methodist in name only. They once were “birthing places” for call; they are no longer. (The whole meaning of “church-related educational institution” needs re-evaluation.)
The church’s youth ministry was torpedoed in the 1960s and 70s and likewise is not an effective “birthing place” for call. In fact, major responsibility for the church’s inability to reach and sustain its youth members lies with the failure of an effective youth ministry.
There is no way that “inclusion” of youth as part of the quota system of the church should be seen as related to youth ministry or related to the church’s mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ. (The church should learn from para-church ministries at this point.)
Finding: In many areas, our Wesleyan theological focus has been lost. One part of the report speaks of a lack of engagement and inability to find common, powerful, uniting beliefs.
Comment: This, too, has been a major theme of the renewal groups in response to a downplaying — and sometimes outright dismissal — of United Methodist doctrinal standards. The emphasis on inter-faith dialogue (and even outright denial of Wesleyanism at institutions such as Claremont School of Theology) has been a direct challenge to Wesleyan theology.
The challenge to Wesleyanism on the one hand is “Reformed” theology, but on the other hand, the challenge comes from “progressive” ideology. The UMC cannot be all things to all people.
Finding: There has been an uncoupling of social holiness and vital piety.
Comment: Frankly, the problem here is not just in the uncoupling, but in the fact that the church isn’t doing either social holiness or vital piety very well. We have lost the accountability function of the class meeting.
Further, the Wesleyan term “social holiness” is lifted from its context and is interpreted by progressives to justify an agenda committed to liberal political views.
Finding: The “big tent” approach to being a church — with its emphasis on inclusivity, free expression, and diversity (i.e., where many different and diverse views exist together) — is celebrated, but carries with it many problems, not the least of which is an increasing polarization in beliefs on key issues.
Comment: The so-called big tent concept of the church, in its extreme form, feeds two of the problems listed above — namely, the loss of identity and the loss of theological focus.
The church has diluted its doctrinal heritage in an attempt to enlarge the tent to include all, even those with a questionable commitment to Jesus Christ.
The present emphasis on “no standards” (evidenced by those who sought to rewrite the constitution of the church by amending Paragraph IV of the UM Book of Discipline) can only lead to further polarization. At a time when the church needs boundaries, some wish to do away with all boundaries.
Further, the proposal that on matters such as the practice of homosexuality we should officially agree to disagree would not lead the UMC to unity but to division.
Finding: The general agencies are judged to be “below average” in almost every area of their operation (“below average” might also be described as “flunking”). Specifically, they are “below average” in decision-making and effectiveness of the church’s programs and ministry functions in the areas of “making disciples” and the Four Areas of Focus.
The agencies do not cooperate or collaborate. They operate independently from the rest of the church.
There is much too much “distance” between them and annual conferences and local churches. Sixty percent of all respondents in the study ranked agencies “below average” in accountability for outcomes.
Finding: A major reason for this “below average” rating is that the church generally has been mismatching its legislative role and its operative (or governance) role. It often seeks management through legislation.
The boards and agencies are way too large and do not meet often enough to provide oversight and governance. The General Board of Global Ministries, for example, has 89 members. The cost simply to meet cannot be justified. Most effective non-profit boards operate with somewhere around 12-14 members.
Comment: Because of the confusion (and perhaps for other reasons), staff tends to dominate agency activities. Because the agency boards themselves are so tied up with matters such as quota systems and other concerns unrelated to the church’s mission of making disciples, and because the denomination offers no effective accountability structures, there is a disconnect between the agencies, the annual conferences, and the local churches.
And because the agendas of some agency staff are ideologically driven (with a propensity toward liberal causes), there is disenchantment, distrust, and sometimes downright hostility on the part of ordinary church members toward some of the agencies.
The church would be served better if boards and agencies were drastically downsized, combined, or, in some cases eliminated.
Finding: The General Conference is evaluated as “below average” in such areas as decision-making effectiveness, process effectiveness, decision-results effectiveness, and financial stewardship effectiveness.
One of its main problems is that conference seeks to manage through legislation. In addition, there is no accepted authority to oversee the actions of General Conference in the four years between General Conferences.
Finding: There is no good reason why the UMC in the U.S. continues to have Jurisdictional Conferences. Their purpose is unclear; their cost cannot be justified.
The Operational Assessment report has made a sobering evaluation of the present state of the United Methodist Church. This report will be used it as a basis for the recommendations the Call to Action Steering Committee will make to the denomination’s Connectional Table.
Eventually, legislation will be proposed to the 2012 General Conference that will (hopefully) reform, restructure and refocus the United Methodist Church.
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Related articles and information
|•||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)|
|•||From the margin to the mainstream: United Methodism’s renewal movement (PDF) | Riley B. Case, Good News (November/December 2007)|