I have reread the UMC Call to Action Study Committee Report several times and think I need to make a few comments. I do have a stake in this because anybody who knows me knows that I’ve been in the trenches of UMC restructuring for a long time. Years ago I chaired our Annual Conference’s Restructuring Committee, have served on the General Council on Ministries of the UMC and helped foment its demise in favor of the Connectional Table, was part of the Transition Team that bridged GCOM to the CT, and have been on the Connectional Table for its first two quadrennia. I have taught UM Discipline and Polity at Emory University for 10 years and have written articles about our UM polity in action. I have been on panels that advocated the defeat of the Worldwide UMC amendments to our constitution because I felt that they were destructive to our connectionalism. I currently serve on the Worldwide UMC Study Committee and am constantly pondering its role in fulfilling Wesley’s claim, “The world is my parish!” I believe in structural change, but only so far as form follows function. That is the problem with too many failing institutions: the structures and bureaucracies have more prominence than the mission.
At first glance the Call to Action report is absolutely refreshing. It focuses on the vitality of local congregations. The 5 recommendations that are the crux of the report are all about helping local churches do vital ministry. I do take issue with the 10 year commitment to local church vitality. I would have been happier if the report said, “1000 years.” Ten years isn’t enough, but I do like how the next 4 items support the local church: better clergy through fine-tuned deployment, assessment, and better exiting procedures; consistent church-wide use of local church metrics to measure how churches are doing which would help me as a District Superintendent to compare apples and apples in resourcing local churches’ ministries through programming and pastoral appointments; reform the Council of Bishops so that all active Bishops are REQUIRED to exercise more residential leadership for church growth in their episcopal area. Absentee bishops are an anathema to local church vitality; and, lastly, consolidate administrative and programmatic agencies of the church and make sure that we don’t fund structures, we fund functions and ministries.
This is all refreshing, but what gives me pause about the report is found at the very end. The report suggests that we (Council of Bishops and Connectional Table) endorse an Interim Operations Team of 5 people to get all this done. Wow, this would be difficult to accomplish in a high trust environment, but will be next to impossible within the low trust reality of the UMC. Sure, it’s a great idea to have a few people actually get something done without having to make sure every constituency of the church is represented, but doesn’t our very constitution place a premium on inclusivity. Think about women and minorities when you’re debating guaranteed appointments, for instance. I still have churches that tell me they want anybody but a woman or a minority for a pastor. We have moved over the last 40 years from a good old boy system of mostly white guys to a system of good old boy/girl/multi-ethnic representatives of personal constituencies. Either way it’s a good old “something” system and that does lead to reports like this one that wants to do away with guaranteed appointments and have 5 people act on behalf of the rest of us. Yes, the CTA report is right that we have Boards of Directors of Agencies that are less adaptive and more reactionary if particular voices or constituency issues aren’t protected. But, hey, I would rather trust a group that is representative of the whole church than 5 people, no matter how expert and full of competency they are.
In this vein, perhaps most troubling to me is that I think that a five-person Interim Operations Team is illegal on several fronts. What got the General Council on Ministries neutered was a Judicial Council Ruling (JD 364) that basically stated that only General Conference has authority over “all matters distinctively connectional” (Par. 16, 2008 Book of Discipline). If challenged, this 5-person group would be seen as an executive body for the General Conference and the General Conference intentionally doesn’t have one! Stripping away the veneer, the 6 persons who will nominate the Interim Operations Team are composed of 4 Bishops and two Connectional Table members, which is more than a little lopsided. Now, I’m all for Bishops exercising their spiritual and temporal leadership, but I’m reminded from our polity that we have a separation of powers; i.e., the two primary constitutive principles of the UMC are episcopacy and conference and they balance each other. However, this report empowers episcopacy over conference; Bishops at the expense of laity & clergy membered conferences. Bishops cannot even speak at General Conference without the permission of the GC, and this report suggests that we should have an employed Executive Coordinator (pg. 30), and I’ll surmise that this will be a Bishop, too! Another huge issue caused by having an Executive Coordinator for the Operations Team is that it strips the UMC of its identity as a nonjural entity, and that only the GC can speak for the church (2008 BOD Pars. 140, 509.1, 2501, 2509). Presently we cannot be sued as a denomination because we legally do not exist! Our churches, agencies, etc. are separately incorporated entities in numerous states/locations. This switch to a centralized polity, though seemingly pragmatic, is against our mission frontier nature. We are a movement not a structure.
So what do we do from here? I agree that we have been funding structures more than funding functions and that there is too much distance between the COB/Agencies and local churches. I do agree this has caused a lack of vital congregations. Clergy leadership and easier exiting of underperforming clergy are challenges that have to be addressed. I do also wonder how long it would be before we actually missed the so-called General Church level of the UMC if it disappeared. Every General Agency of the UMC needs to prove its worth by its actions, not by defensive self-promotion but by word-of-mouth praise from local churches and annual conferences. I do think that Bishops and the whole connectional enterprise that we call the UMC should be focused on the Annual Conference and local churches. The more local we can be, the more effective. Maybe every one of my concerns can be assuaged if the Call to Action’s Operations Team is an advisory one. They weren’t constituted by the General Conference. They are an expression of intent by the COB and CT. Let’s let the General Conference decide, but let’s hold closely to an aptly named Operational “Advisory” Team’s emphasis on vital congregations without surrendering inclusivity, conference as counter-balance to the Bishops, or our status of being a nonjural entity that is poised more for mission than for structure for structure’s sake.