Commentary: General Conference to weigh merits of adopting a New Method
By ED TOMLINSON
Every General Conference has its conversation about the structure of United Methodism. The very name “Methodist” was born out of the clear and concise way the Wesleys carried on their early ministries. The strength of our organizational structure and our constant attention to it has served us well. Proposals for sweeping changes to our current organization will be debated at the upcoming Conference in Tampa.
In May 2009, the Council of Bishops formed a “Call to Action” group and later gathered a Steering Team. In its original report, the first group set out to align all facets of the life of the church with our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The mission would be lived out through the four areas of focus: developing Christian leaders, ministry with the poor, improving global health, and new places for new people.
The new order would produce a nimble, more effective, and financially sustainable church. It would see more participation from youth and value interaction with the marginalized in society. The hope was for growth in worship and for increased trust and less cynicism around the entire church.
Extensive research was commissioned and done across the denomination by two independent firms, Towers Watson and Apex, which reported results to the Call to Action Steering Team. Among findings were calls for more vital congregations, larger worship attendance, multiple worship experiences, empowered lay leadership, better pastoral effectiveness, improved financial giving, heightened engagement in outreach, mission, and witness in local churches, greater accountability for outcomes, streamlined structure, and others.
Key to the Steering Team’s report was an “Adaptive Challenge” designed to “redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to . . . an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The CTA Steering Team named four drivers of vitality. They were effective pastoral leadership, multiple small groups, both contemporary and traditional worship, and laity encouraged to assume leadership. The Team identified five initiatives to complement the drivers. They included a 10-year effort to build effective practices in local churches, to offer better clergy training, deployment, evaluation, and accountability, to implement an improvement in uniformly gathering statistical data across the denomination, to reform the Council of Bishops by establishing a new culture of accountability as well as performance objectives for bishops and “institute and maintain an effective executive management operating function that strategically and practically aligns the resources of the general church in order to focus on increased local church vitality,” and to consolidate agencies with smaller, competent boards.
The Apex study said, “The church has the opportunity to strengthen its existing leadership structures without altering power or authority.” The Steering Team findings were given to a new “Interim Operations Team”. Among its responsibilities were the preparation of recommendations and proposed structure. Then the Connectional Table formulated legislative petitions for General Conference. The new IOT had less than half of its membership with little direct experience or knowledge of the operation of the general church and only a few months to respond.
The result was a new structure that alters power and authority. It merged nine of the existing boards into one super board with 15 volunteer directors. Work by the General Boards (as Global Ministries, Finance and Administration, Higher Education and Ministry, Pension and Health Benefits, and Discipleship) over the past four years to become leaner, more effective, and efficient bodies seemed to be overlooked or discounted. The voices of local lay and clergy representative leadership in decision-making between General Conferences were reduced from 541 to 40. In legislation touting the new structure, the words, “in consultation with the Council of Bishops,” appear repeatedly. In reality, “the executive management operating function” is directly and indirectly handed to the Council. The new governing body, the General Council on Strategy and Oversight (chaired by a bishop), is significantly outnumbered by the Council of Bishops.
On more than one occasion, the Judicial Council has stated that we as United Methodists value our balance of powers. In Decision 689, the Council said, “The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. While the boundaries can become hazy in any particular situation, the preservation of the separation of powers must be observed.”
The original Call to Action with its emphasis on vital local congregations, engagement with the marginalized in society, a focus on youth and young adults, and the four foci of leadership development, global health, ministry with the poor, and new churches and the findings of the professional research has been minimized. It has morphed into the Interim Operations Team/ Connectional Table proposals which restructure the denomination in ways that make only slight and indirect connections to the aforementioned original intent and documented research findings. The proposals are so U.S.-centric that the global character of the church is virtually unrecognizable.
There is no quarrel with the findings of the Call to Action research or the emphasis on vital congregations. Yet, there is concern about the loss of the balance of power that has governed our church. The voices of competent laity and clergy from local churches around the world must be preserved in decision-making.
Over the next several weeks, the North Georgia Advocate will address some of the key issues facing delegates at the upcoming General Conference describe how decisions are made. You are welcome to submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. If space and research time are available to make an adequate response, your submission will be addressed in this effort.
Ed Tomlinson has been elected as a clergy delegate to four General Conferences. In 2004, he served as Chairperson of the General Administration Legislative Committee which formed the Connectional Table. He is a current director of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and a member of the Church Systems Task Force formed by action of the 2008 General Conference.
Clergy elected to the 2012 General Conference Session
Sharma Lewis, Jonathan Holston, James Cantrell, Phil Schroeder, Jane Brooks, Alice Rogers, Ed Tomlinson, John Simmons, Nora Martinez, Jamie Jenkins, Chuck Savage, Steve Wood, David Bevel Jones
Laity elected to the 2012 General Conference Session
Jane Finley, Lyn Powell, Mathew Pinson, Joe Whittemore, Jeff Jernigan, Bill Stikes, Tonya Murphy , Leon Jourolman, Dianne Spencer, Joe Kilpatrick, Richard Williamson, Bill Martin, Marjorie Kimbrough