The following commentary is by Riley B. Case, associate executive director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.
Dr. Case served for many years as a pastor and district superintendent in the UMC’s North Indiana Conference (now the Indiana Conference), and he has been a delegate to five UM General Conferences.
He is the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon Press).
This opinion piece was originally published in a slightly different form in the Confessing Movement’s e-publication, “Happenings Around the Church.”
Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.
Every four years the General Conference of The United Methodist Church meets to set programs and visions for the next quadrennium (the coming four years), approve legislation that will revise the church’s Book of Discipline, accept a four-year budget for the general church, and consider the church’s position on various issues. The next General Conference will occur in less than three months — April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.
Two proposals “hover near the top of the controversy list” for the conference, according to a recent article by United Methodist News Service (UMNS). One proposal (PDF) calls for restructuring the denomination by, among other things, consolidating nine of the church’s 13 general agencies into a Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry under a 15-member board. The other (PDF) would end job guarantees for ordained elders.
(The UMNS story failed to mention the elephant in the room: homosexuality. Issues related to homosexual relationships, including the church’s general view of moral standards and its understanding of family, have the potential to fracture the denomination. But that is another discussion.)
Restructuring is sorely needed
Evangelicals have been calling for restructuring for 40 years! The 1972 restructuring of the UMC, which came about in the wake of the 1968 merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, institutionalized the radical social agenda of the day.
Just four years after its founding, the UMC adopted doctrinal pluralism, depreciated evangelism at the expense of social action, mandated social engineering by way of quota systems (PDF), created independent superboards, and created impossibly huge and expensive boards of directors for the agencies (the General Board of Global Ministries originally had 160 directors).
Under the 1972 structure, The United Methodist Church in the United States has lost 3.3 million members.
As has been pointed out, if the church were a corporation run by a competent board of directors, the leadership of the church would have been fired and the corporation re-organized long before now.
Finally, within the past few years, the church is facing up to its problems. Even without restructuring, the agencies are facing a 6.5% cut in funding. Staff has already been reduced from 3,139 in 1971 to 1,384 in 2010. The average age of a United Methodist Church member is now 57.
Faced with these facts, the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops ordered independent studies (here and here—both in PDF) to assess why our present way of doing things is not serving us well. The studies came back with several conclusions. Among them: the agencies are out of touch with local churches; the boards of directors are too big (and costly); and there is much duplication of efforts.
Out of the studies came a “Call to Action” report (PDF), laying out principles and a process. Out of the Call to Action process has come an Interim Operations Team that has prepared the legislation for General Conference 2012.
The proposed legislation (PDF) calls for combining nine of the program agencies into four “ministry centers” (a new word for a general agency). Over the ministry centers would be a group — the Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry — that would be directed by a 15-member board. (This body would replace the present Connectional Table which coordinates the work of the agencies.)
The four ministry centers would operate with reduced-sized boards of directors, and, presumably, with less money and probably fewer staff than they presently have. Meanwhile, the overseer body, the Center for Connectional Ministry, would be able to align and reallocate funds in order to focus on increased local church vitality. All of this will be done in consultation with the Council of Bishops.
Battling over turf
The church seems to be dividing up sides on the restructuring proposal.
In other words, turf battles abound. There will be winners and losers. There will be smaller boards, less money to work with, and a different accountability process.
Especially troubling for some is the proposal that the Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry with its 15-member board will be able to reallocate up to $60 million in program funds during the quadrennium. For some, this concentrates too much power in the hands of too few people.
If there are winners it would appear to be the Council of Bishops. The bishops believe the church is suffering from lack of strong executive management, and that the (controversial) 15-member committee can provide that management voice.
But lurking in the background would be the bishops. The plan calls for the 15-member committee to be “in consultation with the Council of Bishops.” That troubles many people. It has been pointed out that bishops do not do “in consultation with” well. Plus the bishops will have a strong hand in deciding the makeup the 15-member board.
Would a new structure be good for the church — or does it have the potential to make things even worse? The answer to that question appears to be based on a prior question: How much do we trust our bishops?
An evangelical view
No place in the current official structure of The United Methodist Church is particularly receptive to evangelical influence, so evangelicals are in some ways disinterested observers in this process. Because they have no real turf to protect, nothing much can be lost. But cutting the power of the boards and agencies and allowing more funds to be used by local churches for mission and ministry would be a positive outcome.
Of course, many UM evangelicals believe the foundational problem in the UMC isn’t structure, but rather theological and moral integrity. None of the restructuring proposals address the underlying issue of United Methodist doctrine.