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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2011 Archives > November-December 2011 > Church restructure proposed to increase vital congregations

Church restructure proposed to increase vital congregations

Moving to General Conference 2012

By Heather Hahn

Talk with denominational leaders, and nearly everyone agrees that after decades of decline in U.S. membership and giving, The United Methodist Church must change.

When General Conference meets in 2012, delegates will take up proposals to alter The United Methodist Church's structure.

They will consider legislation that includes consolidating nine of the denomination's 13 general agencies into five offices that will be part of a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.

The center would have a 15-member board of directors, which would be accountable to a 45-member advisory board called the General Council for Strategy and Oversight. It would replace the Connectional Table, which was created by the 2004 General Conference to coordinate the denomination's mission, ministries and resources.

The proposed changes are to help general agencies work more effectively with annual conferences to support and grow vital congregations, say Neil M. Alexander and Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer.

"A vital congregation bears witness to the saving love of Jesus Christ (and) shows signs of increased engagement, attendance, growth and missional outreach over time," they said in a joint statement. Vital congregations come in all sizes, are from all geographic locations and reflect all racial and ethnic identities. They share a trajectory of growth.

The proposals are part of the multiyear Call to Action process, which found that the status quo of a shrinking and aging U.S. church is "toxic" and unsustainable.

"The proposed changes in structure help us remove walls of separation, consolidate resources, discourage natural competition for assignment of responsibilities and resources, reduce redundant activities and create a much more flexible and efficient way to carry out critically important work," Palmer and Alexander said.

They said one key component of the plan includes "renewed focus on the spiritual characteristics and training needed for vibrant clergy and lay leadership."

Alexander, president of the United Methodist Publishing House, and Palmer, a former Council of Bishops' president, have been leaders throughout the Call to Action process.

Reordering the church

The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table launched the Call to Action Project in 2009 to reorder the life of the church. In early 2010, they named a steering team to gather data about the denomination and make general recommendations. (Interpreter, March/April 2011)

The proposed restructuring originated with the steering team's successor, the Interim Operations Team, eight laity and clergy working with denominational leaders to implement the recommendations. Palmer is the convener and Alexander is the executive coordinator of the team, which began meeting in March.

The Connectional Table refined and endorsed the team's recommendations in July. In August, using email, Connectional Table members voted 26 to eight to send the drafted legislation to General Conference. Nine members abstained.

Changes to general agencies

Declining revenue and U.S. membership have compelled general agencies to eliminate staff and programs. The number of staff positions in the general agencies has decreased every year, from 3,139 in 1971 to 1,384 in 2010. The Connectional Table's proposals would bring even more change.

The Call to Action research identified a "perceived distance" and lack of trust between general agencies, annual conferences and local congregations.

Alexander and Palmer contend the new structure will help build trust and strengthen the connection.

In the joint statement, they said, leaders across the United Methodist connection "tell us our current practices disperse work into disconnected silos, divide constituencies into many different segments, emphasize competition for resources and cause us to wrestle with each other for visibility. All of this inhibits and destroys trust."

The legislation proposes subsuming many of the ministries of the current agencies under the newly created Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.

The center would have an office of shared services to include the "essential functions" of the General Council on Finance and Administration, United Methodist Communications, the communications staffs of other agencies, the General Commission on Archives and History and the denomination's information and technology support. (Interpreter is part of United Methodist Communications.)

The plan for the other proposed offices is designed with the denomination's Four Areas of Focus in mind, said Mary Brooke Casad, executive secretary of the Connectional Table.

The offices would be:

Office of Congregational Vitality, encompassing "essential functions" of the General Board of Discipleship and multicultural ministries. (New Places and People)

Office of Leadership Excellence, doing much of the work of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. (Developing Leaders)

Office of Missional Engagement, responsible for much of the work of the General Board of Global Ministries, including global health, missionaries, Volunteers in Mission and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. (Global Health)

Office of Justice and Reconciliation, encompassing the "essential functions" of the General Board of Church and Society, General Commission on Religion and Race and General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. (Ministry with the Poor)

The center's proposed board would define "essential functions." The first meeting of the directors, selected by the Connectional Table in consultation with the Council of Bishops, would be by July 31, 2012.

Another proposal calls for the directors to evaluate programs and spending at all levels of the church and authorizes it to reallocate up to $60 million during the 2013-16 quadrennium.

The Connectional Table has endorsed the proposal of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns to become part of the Council of Bishops. It also endorsed United Methodist Women's efforts to move from a division of the Board of Global Ministries to its own agency. That agency would be responsible to General Conference as would the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the United Methodist Publishing House and United Methodist Men.

Some voice concerns

Concerns about the restructure plan are beginning to be voiced.

Leaders of five groups that represent the denomination's ethnic constituencies caution that the proposed restructuring is "too drastic."

"It minimizes and will exclude the participation of racial/ethnic persons, and works against the principle of inclusiveness that we see as one of the important values our church has to offer," the Inter-Ethnic Strategy Development Group said in September.

General agency staff and board members "have been far more sensitive and concerned with ... the needs of racial/ethnic communities than (have) annual conferences," said the inter-ethnic group's statement. "Their advocacy and resources have made possible the full participation of racial/ethnic persons at the general church level and helped annual conferences become more inclusive and responsive to the spiritual needs of racial/ethnic persons."

The group includes leaders of the denomination's five official ethnic caucuses: Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Metodistas Asociados Representando la Causa de los Hispano-Americanos (MARCHA), National Federation of Asian-American United Methodists, Native American International Caucus and Pacific Islander National Caucus of United Methodists.

The Rev. H. Eddie Fox, a Connectional Table member and world director of evangelism for the World Methodist Council, said he also has concerns about the proposed restructuring. "We need change in the structure of The United Methodist Church; the time demands it," he said. "The proposed changes do not speak to our greatest need. The agencies need changing, but putting them together does not solve the problem."

The 2012 General Conference has final say on whether the proposed structural changes come to pass.

Heather Hahn is a multimedia reporter with United Methodist News Service, a part of United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

To Learn More

"A Call to Action: Reordering the Life of the Church," Call to Action and Interim Operation Team reports, proposed legislation

The Rev. Eddie Fox
Neil Alexander
Bishop Gregory Palmer addresses the Connectional Table.

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