What comes to mind when you think of the United Methodist Church? “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ…” comes quickly to mind, but that hasn’t necessarily been our experience in the US, at least in terms of numbers. It is however where our hearts are and where we’re trying to faithfully live out Christ’s call not just in our day to day ministries but also as a general church. I just got back from the joint meeting of the Connectional Table and GCFA (General Council on Finance & Administration) to deal with projected budgets and legislation to reorder the life of the UMC. I am thoroughly excited that the IOT (Interim Operations Team) wants to focus the whole denomination on making vital local churches. I am also glad that we approved a realistic budget that is 6+ percent lower than the previous quadrennium’s budget. This is the first time in our history that we have lowered the budget, which is a really big deal! We also heard and approved in a straw vote of sorts that we would prefer an apportionment system that is based on a flat percentage of local church income, which would be more clear and effective as we seek to fund ministries. These were positive and important steps in our going forward as a denomination.
Connectional Ministries Board
The overall IOT report received mixed reviews. The much talked about move to fewer general church agencies was included in the report, but the solution wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. Basically the proposed solution is to create a 13 member uber-board, right now called a Connectional Ministries Board (CMB), to run the whole church; have authority between General Conferences to reallocate funds and programmatic directions; and have members that represent expertise over constituencies. Wow, that’s a lot of power and responsibility for 13 people (12 member CMB plus set-aside bishop)! I’m not very optimistic that a low-trust environment like GC will trust 13 people to run the church and direct its path financially and programmatically. Replacing the 600+ directors we have now would save millions, but we would lose diversity and proportional representation. It’s hard to imagine 13 people encompassing all the wide spectrum of United Methodism. What do we value: efficiency or inclusivity? It would be great to have it both ways.
Set-Aside Bishop to Lead Connectional Ministries Board
The next potential pitfall is that the Council of Bishops (COB) decided last week to ask for a set-aside bishop to run the CMB. I reiterate that this didn’t come from the IOT, but from the bishops – something that we were told they have wanted for decades. Now, I’m sure that it makes great business sense to have a bishop to be our UMC CEO, but this is fraught with question marks with regard to our polity. Historically, we’ve attempted to balance our two constitutive principles of episcopacy and conference. To have a set-aside bishop takes away the balance. Having a set-aside bishop can appear to empower episcopacy over conference. Sure, a set-aside bishop could hold the COB accountable in terms of outcome-based effective disciple-making in Annual Conferences, but at what cost? As potentially limiting as a 13 person team may be in the great cacophony of voices at our table, having one person directing and running such a team creates a power dynamic that puts an awful lot of authority into the hands of one person.
Let me give you a couple of ways this creates potential problems, problems that we’ve seen before in our history. This over-powering of bishops over conference isn’t new. In 1800 the James O’Kelly schism that formed the Republican Methodist Church was caused by the tension between the power of bishops and conference. O’Kelly had a problem with Asbury’s autocratic leadership, something many take issue with today. O’Kelly wanted clergy to have the right of appeal to the Annual Conference if they didn’t like their appointment. He thought bishops that were too powerful were against the republican ideals of US democracy. The same thing was behind the schism of the Methodist Protestant Church in the 1820’s and later in the 19th century with the Free Methodists. The 1842 GC voted to suspend Bishop James Andrew because he was a slave-holder. Some saw this as the General Conference overstepping its authority and have even argued that the 1844 schism between Methodists in the South and North wasn’t entirely over slavery though that, of course, was the horrible primary issue. Even with all of this history, the primary question we should ask is whether we as a UMC want to go back to the Asburian era of autocratic leadership or an Anglican principle of monarchical (House of Lords) bishops?
Another huge issue caused by having a set-aside bishop 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). It is critical that GC’s equal balance of laity and clergy, representative of the whole of our denomination, are the voices that make decisions and set the course of our church. Not only is this inclusivity of thought and conferencing important, but in practical terms, presently we cannot be sued as a denomination because we legally do not exist! Our churches, agencies, Annual Conference’s, etc. are separately incorporated entities in numerous places. This switch to a centralized polity with a central office and an executive bishop, though seemingly pragmatic, is potentially dangerous. This is a subtle change that can and will have serious intended or unintended consequences whether in lawsuits or perception. To create some sort of episcopal officer who can put a face on United Methodism needs to be pondered more closely. We – the people of the United Methodist Church are the face of the denomination. Our local churches in ministry around the world are the face of the denomination. We, as clergy and as lay people, seeking to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, are the face of the denomination. I think one of the best ways to foster more vital local churches is to empower the bishops in their residential duties within annual conferences. Connectionalism works best when it is horizontal rather than vertical.
There were other interesting aspects to what we heard about the IOT. One is the creation of Advisory Councils in jurisdictions and central conferences to help make the connection between the 13-member CMB and local churches. I hope that this can do what’s expected because right now that’s a key problem in our church. Local churches and annual conferences don’t experience enough connection to what the general church is doing. Advisory Councils representing local churches, annual conferences, and jurisdictions/central conferences are also important because they provide a “feeder system” for church leadership.
Another proposal from the IOT really has me discerning the pros and cons. It proposes to add a “fee-for-service” component to the work of the present general agencies. By the way, the IOT has most general agencies reconfigured into “divisions” of the church. “Fee-for-service” sounds on one hand like a way to make general agencies produce products that local churches actually want to use. This could have potential in terms of practical ministry tools, but it also strikes me as a slam on the churches that can’t afford to pay the fees for the resources. This needs a lot more fleshing out for me to buy into it. I do like the agency-accountability piece of this that makes agencies more responsive to local churches and become self-supporting at the same time, but how it would play out is still a question mark for me.
Read and Pray
There’s more to think about and digest in reading the IOT report, and I encourage you to read all that you can. It’s complex and so important. We CANNOT keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect different results, and we cannot wait until 2016 or later to get it right. The time is now. We need to pray for the IOT as much as we possibly can and trust that God will continue to provide us the grace, clarity and wisdom that we need as we discern and act. The CT and GCFA will meet again in July to hear a final report. I hope that it’s one that will help the UMC truly make disciples for Jesus. That is the main thing and our grace-filled task!