A Potter's Perspective on Life, the Church, and Culture

There has been much fanfare about the restructuring plan for the UMC that will be presented to the 2012 General Conference. I just had a conversation with someone who recently came back from a meeting with a general agency of the church where the plan was explained. We had a wonderful conversation about the history of the UMC and our polity as it relates to the proposed legislation.

I have to admit that I am personally involved in this process as both a member of the Connectional Table that approved the proposed new structure and as a member of the Legislative Writing Team that has composed it. Although I disagree with key sections I have been faithful in my responsibility to write good legislation with the hope that holy conferencing and the wisdom of General Conference 2012 will correct the troublesome parts.

A primary concern for me is that we are allowing a business model to dictate ecclesiology. I know we’re in terrible economic times but that doesn’t give us license to overturn our polity for the sake of saving money. Actually I think the money-saving is a smoke-screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops. Our polity is based on the separation of powers. Our two constitutional powers in the UMC are episcopacy and conferences. They must be held in perpetual tension and balance. Judicial Decisions as well as the 2008 Book of Discipline are clear in this matter. For instance, Judicial Decisions 689 and 1156 are important citations. There are more!

The Constitution clearly states that “The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church and shall have reserved to it the right to vote… on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members.” (Par. 36) 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.  (Judicial Decision 689, rendered in 1993)

The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. (Judicial Decision 1156, rendered in 2010)

In addition, Par. 140 of the 2008 Book of Discipline states, “Under the constitution and disciplinary procedures set forth in this Book of Discipline, “The United Methodist Church” as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office or location.” Par. 2509 of the same BOD says that we are a non-jural entity, that we cannot be sued as a denominational whole because we do not exist as a denomination! Rather, our polity has affirmed since our very existence that we are a movement, a group of separately incorporated mission outposts for the Kingdom of God!

Unfortunately, the IOT/CT proposals for restructuring will set up a 15-member CENTER for Connectional Mission and Ministry and have a set-aside Bishop as one of its members and perhaps its chair. This certainly overturns Par. 140 of the BOD by creating both an office/location and an officer! Another frightening thought is that this CENTER’s only oversight will come from a 45-member group (The General Council for Oversight and Strategy) that will meet just once a year. Its chair will be the same set-aside bishop who will either lead or be a member of the CENTER for Connectional Ministry and Mission. For legal and fiduciary protection this is a wrong-headed idea. Legal counsel has already observed that having a denominational CENTER and OFFICER leaves the denomination open for wholesale litigation possibilities. This is a streamlined business model to be sure and saves a ton of money by reducing the costs of separate boards and agencies having to send 565 people to meetings but the cost to our historic polity, balance of powers, and core value of diversity will be greater than any savings.

A 15-member CENTER can hardly be inclusive of all the voices of the UMC. If the purpose of the legislation is to make the denomination more nimble and connect it more closely with annual conferences and local churches then this widens the chasm in my opinion. Voices will not be at the table and will not be heard! Having a quasi-pope from the Council of Bishops may make business sense, but it violates our historic separation of powers. We are a spiritual movement that needs bishops who will be leaders but not with one set-aside bishop. We need ALL the bishops to be set-aside IN THEIR ANNUAL CONFERENCES! We all know how little time bishops actually spend time in their annual conferences. Where are the teaching days? Where is the personal contact and interaction across annual conferences and in local churches? If we want local churches to be mission outposts then bishops must see their primary duty as being in their episcopal areas. How about a promise not to spend more than 21 days outside the annual conference? How about a promise to spend teaching days with laity and clergy in every district at least twice a year? How about a promise to spend time in each district staying in homes getting to know people and scheduling time with every clergyperson in each district over a quadrennium or maybe even twice every four years? How about a promise to be in each charge over a quadrennium? All these things and more come to my mind as a way for United Methodism to regain some of its relevance. It will be possible through personal connections! Personal connections make United Methodist Connectionalism work!

The proposal coming to GC 2012 is out of touch with 21st century flat-world thinking, and bishops and leadership have to be in touch to be relevant! There are cost-savings with the proposal but more centralization into smaller less diverse entities does not offer the hope for change that I’m looking for. It changes us from a spiritual movement into a more bureaucratic quagmire than we already are. I say free  up our bishops to lead on the local level. Don’t vote for a constitutional change that would allow one of them to be set-aside for quasi-pope duty. Don’t vote to abrogate the power of General Conference to set budgets and let the Council of Bishops be able to do it between sessions of the GC. Would you want your pastor to have the authority to change your local church’s budget? Heaven’s “NO!” Our connectionalism works best when the distance between leadership and people is bridged not widened. Connectionalism works best and is more theologically sound when it is horizontal not top down. We have tried top-down and it doesn’t work. I know that I can’t say everything that I need to say in this space, but I wanted to put some food for thought on the table as people are gearing up for next year. May God be with us as we discern together!

Comments on: "United Methodist Pope and Problems of Consolidation" (12)

  1. John Allgood (District Lay Leader, Walterboro) said:

    I thoroughly agree with you, Tim. In South Carolina we are trying to build the connection, but how can this work if General Conference will be moving in the opposite direction? We DO need more involvement in the bishops in their conferences. The people and pastors need to see and to know the bishop and experience the leadership the bishops can supply.
    Please keep fighting against legislation that will take our church in the totally wrong direction just to save money. Money always seems to be at the root of things wrong in the church historically.

    I hope all delegates to GC read and study Tim’s comments.

  2. Your “Pope” language is neither hyperbole nor inflammatory. We were warned in the CTA itself that rule suspension is “A Key Responsibility of Leaders”

    “A key responsibility of leaders is to suspend rules in order to test and assess the efficacy of new, worthy ideas.” (p. 21)

    As far as I know, even popes have to lead and govern within the rules.

    Once people are granted power, they don’t give it up voluntarily. The present financial crisis will not last forever; Papal Authority will.

    http://biblethumpingliberal.com/2011/02/17/cta-says-rule-suspension-is-a-key-responsibility-of-leaders/

  3. Very insightful, Tim. I admit that I am worried and uneasy about the future of the UMC. Could it be that the more we tinker with the model in which Methodism was founded on and the more hierarchical we become the more we drift further from our ability to impact our world? Just wondering. And worrying.

  4. mitch houston said:

    Good word Tim. I think we are going the way of the TEC. Look at thier problems. No local authority with out possibility of reprisal. I am following the controversy of Bishop Lawrence in the lowcountry. I am afraid at some point folk will get tired of paying all the bills and not having a voice…and simply leave. Good work!!!

  5. I agree that the Methodist Church needs to get back to forming relationships. Centralizing the power hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work in the future. What is needed is intentionality and accountability. There is a difference between a sense of urgency and a sense of desperation. Unfortunately many have turned to the latter.

  6. Dr. Maurice Luker said:

    We have enough “popes” in our local churches, thank you!

  7. Darryl W. Stephens said:

    Words to the wise — thanks! I might add, to live into our aspiring “worldwide nature,” United Methodists must do the hard work of building relationships, one person at a time. It costs time and money to include 565 persons on general agency boards. If this were a business, it would make little sense. But if this is the only place that these United Methodists worship, work, and pray with United Methodists from around the globe, perhaps this is a necessary and vital investment in our worldwide connection.

  8. Your right on track with this post and hope that we can get it spread around so more people can see it. Personally I believe the greatest drain on UMC ministry right now is the office of Episcopacy. I would like to see legislation to remove this administrative office from our connection altogether. We can maintain the sacred office for the purpose of ordination but the office of the Episcopacy is irrelevant to ministry at the ground level and in fact I believe often prohibits “nimble and quick” ministry to begin with. We need more closer connection which I see as being at the District Level.

  9. F. Thomas Trotter said:

    I find Tim’s position very helpful in clarifying the nature of our movement. Twenty five years ago I wrote a paper for the meeting of the General Secretaries entitled “From Mission to Management.” Since the “reforms” of 1968 and subsequent adjustments, the UMC has drifted deeper into the corporate model, emphasizing vertical decision making and restrictive rules of operation. The general agencies of the UMC were house-broken and put into bureaucratic formation. Originally they were the result of local initiatives–hot centers of missional concern–like missions, education,social change,women’s issues, temperance. For many years they were autonomous. Finally they were roped in by those who worried about funding and put all agencies under World Service and, later, adding “administration” to the mix. We have lost the urgency of “hot centers” of local initiative because they are outside the management model. Limiting the number of active participantts in the mix is to damage further the spirit of initiative that has been our unique nature. Opening ourselves to litigation by defining ourselves hierarchally is the invite mischief in the contemporary scene. The lessons of Pacific Homes have been lost.

  10. Mark Forrester said:

    Thank you, Tim, for a succinct and nuanced overview of this proposed restructuring model.It’s heartening to see that our GBHEM posted this piece. I’m reminded of one of Martin Luther’s three treatises that launched the Reformation, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” and see the UMC in the middle of a similar predicament, viz. “The Corporate Captivity of the Church.” Bishops, one by one, are holding conferences “accountable” by corporate performance schemes, defining effectiveness, faithfulness and vitality by quantifiable data fed to their remote offices via the net. Concentrated power is now overreaching and overwhelming those with whom the episcopacy needs to re-connect in pastoral oversight.

  11. Methodist Rev. said:

    42 year old UMC minister here. I am one of those evangelicals, but have an open heart. This new structure DEEPLY concerns me. We do not need a “pope” and we need less structure and layers of hierarchy, not more so the local churches can be more fluid and move more with shifts in culture. The structure in England is still working. The superintendents there also pastor churches. They don’t pull a salary for being a D.S. The buisiness model has overtaken our Conferences. We see multiple clergy being put out of the ministry based on ineffectiveness. Many are still in debt for a $30k seminary degree and have spouse and kids to support. They gave thier lives and signed on, but are ruthlessly put out of the UMC. Many are growing their churches but have a small disgruntled group of lay people who don’t like change who cry to the D.S. and Bishop and get them effectively “fired.” This is not church any more. Everything is about the money. Apportionments go unpaid in full and the pastor is blamed, yet they are only one giving unit in a local church. Bishops make corporate salaries. Yet look at Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox bishops who come from monastic orders. We have become to captive to the USA. Where are bishops living out radical Christianity before our eyes? Yet none of them get removed for being ineffective. Yet we want to give them MORE power? This is nuts! My heart is breaking right now for the UMC. I have Methodist pastors in my family for over 120 years! Yet I don’t feel at home in the UMC any more. It is theologically, morally, and structurally adrift. The solution is going back to evangelism and saving souls as Wesley modeled and holding people accountable for living a Christian life as they did in early Methodism.

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