UMC Call to Action Report Assessment


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.

Memories and Calling


This picture says a lot – Great perch except for the doo under your feet. I know folks who can see a pile of manure and believe there’s a pony underneath, and then there are folks who seem to attract trouble. I guess most of us are somewhere in between those that appear to have a Teflon coating and avoid trouble sticking to them, and those that seem to never ever catch a break. Reminds me of the Apostle Paul who said in Philippians that he had learned to have contentment whether well-fed or hungry. How? The answer is in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ.”

Now that’s the rub isn’t it? At least it is for me. Doing everything through Christ is easier said than done. Basing my contentment and joy on Christ rather than circumstances, doctor’s reports, or bank account balances is more than kind of hard for me. For instance, the bird picture comes from a shot I took this past January at Epworth-By-The Sea on St. Simon’s Island, Ga.; beautiful spot and brings back memories. One of those memories is from 2 years ago when I was a nominee for Bishop. I, along with others, had to stand up and speak about our episcopal calling. Then last week I was at Lake Junaluska Assembly in NC where I made the same type speech and where the election was held. Two years ago today I came in second to a great guy. Second, second – beats last, but… am I spiritually up to going through that gauntlet again? There’s a lot of doo and poo that abounds in the process, but that’s life, c’est la vie, n’est pas?

Someone yesterday asked me if I was “running” again for Bishop. Well, it’s not “running,” is it? At least, not for me. It’s a calling, and in the United Methodist Church, you can have a wonderful personal call, but that call has to be ratified and confirmed by an ecclesiastical call via the voters at Jurisdictional Conference. Well, the answer is “Yes.” I still feel called to do the task. Everything I’ve been through has been a school for this calling, but I am not and will not be presumptuous about other people’s clarity about that. I can die content with whatever happens, and I’d trade everything I have in life for my little girl to be well.

Next year’s Annual Conference elections have a lot to say about all of this anyway. That’s who gets a lot of “say” in this, and my hands are full in the meantime as a Dad to Narcie (Mike) and her future, husband to Cindy who was thankful to get her mother’s estate settled today. And, of course, I’m MacMac to Enoch and Evy and will keep on encouraging Josh (Karen) and Caleb. Plus, I love being District Superintendent to the Columbia District Clergy and laity spending time with both. For going on 5 years I have been spending 3 hours with each clergyperson doing whatever they want to do and we’ve done everything from hiking, trips to the zoo, crawling under churches, Frisbee golf to real golf. What we’ve been doing is making friendships, connections beyond consultations in my office or at a Charge Conference. I have spent hours with District laity getting to know the people, teaching in Lay Speaking classes, leading United Methodist Men’s retreats, and more.

To be honest, I think this kind of community-building underscores one of the most important senses of my call about being a bishop. You can’t be a decent one, in my book, if you don’t stay in and know the Annual Conference to which you are assigned. I don’t know why over 4-8 years I couldn’t do what I do now with the Columbia District clergy and laity. If a bishop takes their being on site seriously, there has to be a genuine concerted effort to connect with the clergy AND laity of an Annual Conference. It can be done!!! I’m doing it now, on a smaller scale, every year.

And this is in the midst of everything else on my plate. There’s no way that being a Bishop or a District Superintendent is a part-time job. Next week I head to Emory’s Candler School of Theology for my 10th year of teaching “United Methodist Discipline and Polity.” Then right afterward I head to our Cabinet Retreat, then it’s off to Africa for the Worldwide UMC Study Committee where we will listen to how other UM’s around the world live out our polity and ponder how much do we have in common and what should be in a shared Book of Discipline and not adapted region to region. I’m not for much, if any, diocesan regional adaptation. That’s one of the reasons why we’re UNITED Methodists! I’ll stop in Ethiopia, go to Mozambique, then through South Africa, and end up in Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire). I’ve had enough inoculations to last me a lifetime – wish I’d had some before I went to Manila for the Connectional Table earlier this Spring.

Anyway, in the midst of all this my email from the Columbia District will be answered, and I’ll be in touch with the needs at home with my family. As a potter I know how you have to stay connected to the clay, become one with it, to create art. The emotional oneness is what makes the difference between a craftsman and an artist. I want to be an artist and feel the inner dance of this marvelous life God has given us through Jesus. You can’t enjoy the perch without making fertilizer, right? Ah, but the view is great, and worth it all. The song “The Summons” from The Faith We Singarticulates the call I feel better than I can. Give it a listen.