Commentary on General Conference: Progress made but opportunities missed


      There was great anticipation heading into the 2012 General Conference that our denomination was prepared to make significant structural changes that would better prepare us for the future. From the Call to Action forward, the stated intent was a stronger, concentrated effort to strengthen local churches and foster vital congregations. 
       Many months of painstaking discussions, debates and research went into preparation for the quadrennial gathering in Tampa and the potential for meaningful restructuring of The United Methodist Church.
        What happened? Many people who were involved in the effort, myself included, are still trying to sort it all out. Quite a few of us left Tampa believing that we fell short of our potential.
      This judgment is illustrated in the observation that no legislation from the Local Church Legislative Committee was deemed important enough to come to the floor for discussion. 
     It is true that, for the first time in denominational history, we approved a smaller budget for the quadrennium. In addition, most of the agencies reduced the size of their boards and will, therefore, accomplish some limited savings.   
      Also, the cessation of guaranteed appointments will allow greater flexibility in helping ineffective local churches.
     Part of the intent of restructuring the denomination was to direct the efforts of the General Agencies of the church to concentrate on strengthening local congregations.  While some wanted to eliminate the agencies and form one super-agency and others wanted to re-focus the work of the agencies with an eye toward the grassroots, the real issue was holding the agencies accountable for the directive that they empower and encourage effective churches.
     Over the past couple of years, it became obvious that many of the agencies “get it” with respect to where the emphases should be. Restructuring was to be minimally cost saving but, more importantly, to help the denomination focus on a new day of growth and energy by making a concentrated investment in our congregations and communities.  A few in agency leadership, however, did not want change and celebrated the failure to reach agreement in steps along the way (as was experienced at the conclusion of work in the General Administration Legislative Committee).    
     I came home more convinced than ever that if our church is going to thrive it will require a radical restructure. A softer, voluntary approach will not work. Its evidence is seen in the General Board of Church and Society, which refused to participate in any downsizing when the other program boards made significant reductions. It is recognized in the efforts of the General Commission on Religion and Race and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women to resist any change – not to become one board with two divisions, not to merge with Church and Society, or not to become an office of the Connectional Table. All of these alternatives would have kept their functions alive and saved apportionment dollars.  It is clearly implied that the institutional status quo of these three is more important than any focusing of resources on the local church.
     There is one more critical piece of restructuring, looking forward: It does not matter what kind of plan we craft if the Judicial Council deems it unconstitutional.   This statement is not a criticism of the members of the Judicial Council. They are meticulous, caring persons who cherish our denomination and honor the work of their predecessors. I am confident that the members of this Council have worked in good faith and followed procedures upon which decisions have been based in the past. Yet, if the ground rules are flawed, so will decisions based on them. Now it is time to question whether the utilized precedents are appropriate for our day. Can decisions made a number of years ago hold in the face of a changing world? Do we look at “oversight” in the same way today that it was seen in 1939 or even 1968?  The bases or criteria upon which Judicial Council decisions are made need to be revised.
     Much of the pain and frustration of Judicial Council decisions would be alleviated if there were a freer, easier access for declaratory decisions. An early look at the restructure plans would have saved time and resources and prevented circumvention of the will of the super-majority (i.e., more than 60 percent voted to approve the plan adopted). It is true that the Council of Bishops had the right to request this declaratory decision, but it is also factual that to have done so would have prejudiced the legislative process.
     While not all that was expected was accomplished for the benefit of the local church, I have hope for the next four years. Most of the agencies will give careful attention to empowering local church leadership. While budgetary relief will not be great (i.e., because general church apportionments are only 2 cents on the dollar), some resources will be freed for local use. As Vital Signs (a product of the Call to Action that did not require a vote) are utilized to help churches gather information to enable self-evaluation, point to areas of needed improvement, and cause the discovery of new ministry opportunities, the strengthening of local churches can and should occur. 
      In the aftermath of this General Conference, I am encouraged and confident that the building blocks, the tools, and the resources for a fresh and sustainable church are at the fingertips of North Georgians in local churches, districts, and our annual conference.   
     Ed Tomlinson, superintendent of the Atlanta Roswell District, 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.