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Happenings Around the Church April 8, 2010

By Dr. Riley Case

It is, at this point, impossible to predict what the Call to Action Steering Committee will be recommending to the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops on how The United Methodist Church can be re-formed, restructured, and renewed. The decision is being driven not only by a 45-year decline in membership, but by financial pressures brought about by fewer members, less vital churches, and the economic downturn.

Could we dare to believe that the superboards (Global Ministries, Higher Education and the Ministry, Church and Society, and Discipleship) could be decentralized and broken up? One of the first steps in true renewal is to recognize that we have not always been well served by our boards and agencies. No one is pleased that the church is facing financial pressures, but perhaps these pressures can be an impetus for renewal.

The re-structuring that came 1968-1972 could not have taken place at a worse time (or a better time according to your point of view). The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB) voted to merge during the time of social, religious, and political upheaval. This was the time of Woodstock. This was the time of Death of God theology, of Harvey Cox’s Secular City, and of liberation theology as the ideology for social change. This was the time of Viet Nam. Student unrest and demonstrations affected not only colleges and universities but also seminaries. After the Weathermen were invited to Garrett Biblical Institute in 1968, the seminary community was so divided that the school actually closed down in the spring of 1970. Otherwise the seminaries were teaching that the Kingdom of God was this-worldly and could be accomplished, not by prayer and evangelism, but political, social, and economic revolution.

In the 1960s Social Action began to move to the head of the table in the former Methodist Church, in terms of the church’s missional priorities. The Board of Social and Economic Relations merged with the Board of World Peace and the Board of Temperance to form the Board of Christian Social Concerns. Of the three boards it was the Board of Temperance that had the money, as well as the building to house the agency. The Methodist building, a choice property on the mall in Washington D.C., had been built with bequests and gifts given for the cause of temperance. The building offered steady income since much of its space could be rented to other agencies. The Board of Temperance, wanting to guarantee that temperance causes would not be forgotten in the new structure, asked that the new merged agency sign a trust that income from the building would always be used for temperance causes.

From the very beginning the trust clause was violated. The new board had little interest in “alcohol,” or the family, or matters of personal morality. The new board interpreted “temperance” to mean anything the board was then interested in. They were interested in racial justice, in economic policies verging on socialism, in opposing the war in Viet Nam, in opposing anti-communism (and almost all causes that would be considered “conservative” or “right-wing”). Meanwhile the General Conference legislated that local churches were to add another required committee to structure: a local committee of social concerns, to tie in with the interests of the general board.

In the 1972 rewriting of the Discipline (because of the Methodist-EUB merger) the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) was created from the Methodist Board of Social Concerns and the EUB social concerns agencies. GBCS thus became one of the church’s four superboards. They are superboards because, as it works out practically, they act independently of any other agency or any group in the church (including, especially, the General Council of Ministry which theoretically was to offer oversight).

One agency, however, the General Council of Finance and Administration (GCFA), did have some oversight. It had the responsibility of auditing the finances of the boards, and it was this agency that eventually would not give a clear audit to GBCS because of the violation of the trust clause on how funds from the Methodist building were being used.

That in turn led to a suit brought by the District of Columbia against the board for violation of the trust clause. That case is still pending, but even if the courts decide in favor of the board, it is only because the wording of the trust clause was ambiguous. In the prevailing corporate culture contracts and agreements appear to give way to the larger agenda.

Meanwhile the board goes its own way, irrespective of the beliefs of the denomination as a whole. Theoretically, the board is made up of representatives of conferences and elected by jurisdictional conferences. In actual practice, the jurisdictional nominating committee is dominated by bishops and restricted by a quota system so that only a few select people are named to the boards. There is no true election. This means, in case of the General Board of Church and Society, that members of the board tend to be the most liberal social activist persons in the denomination. The staff of the board, if it is possible, tends to be even more liberal than the members.

There supposedly is one other restriction on GBCS and that is the General Conference (GC). GBCS (as well as all agencies) must work with the social principles and the Book of Resolutions as determined by the General Conference. The problem here is that, practically speaking, GBCS itself is the primary mover of petitions and resolutions that are considered by GC. And because the agenda of GC is so crowded many of the amendments to the social principles and the resolutions are never fully debated. Health care as a “right” was placed in the Social Principles in 1996 with minimum debate. The 2008 General Conference statement on health care was presented to the GC along with 50 other agenda items at 9:00 PM on the final day of the conference. There was no true debate.

Thus the UM church carries a statement used by GBCS in its active lobbying effort to accept the Democrat’s very partisan bill on health care. The bill was passed and the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, thanked The United Methodist Church for its support, without which the bill might have failed. Actually the UM position is more extreme than the bill that was passed since it calls for a “US Federal Single-payer Health Insurance Program.” But it is reality time: perhaps 98% of UMs (including the UM members of congress) had no idea that the church had a stand or that it was so active in supporting the bill. The negative reaction is thus understandable.

Meanwhile, no one has mentioned that another UM resolution, “Negative Implications of US Deficit Spending” (passed originally as an anti-George Bush petition-see page 617 Book of Resolutions) could have been used by church lobbyists to oppose the health bill.

What is the significance of all of this? The church is badly in need of reform. Reform is a much bigger issue than restructuring but it must include some re-doing as to how agencies operate, how they are held accountable, and how decisions are made.

Some suggestions:

1) The whole selection process on how agency board membership is selected needs to be reviewed. If diversity is important, then diversity in matters of theology and social stances needs also to be considered. Among other things there need to be true elections. Diversity also needs to be considered in regard to staff selection.

2) Restrictions must be placed on the UM Book of Resolutions. The 1964 Methodist Discipline carried 25 pages of resolutions. The 1963 EUB Disciple carried 5 pages of resolutions. The 2008 Book of Resolutions is 1,084 pages in length. In the Book of Resolutions the church takes controversial stands on everything from Earth Day to boycotts to support for the Palestinians. Some of the resolutions are poorly researched. Most of the resolutions are not relevant for the church overseas.

3) Any controversial positions of the church need full debate at General Conference. When this debate takes place-in the matter of homosexuality, or abortion, for instance-the church has often not supported the petitions advanced by GBCS (for example: GBCS has petitioned General Conference to change its stand on homosexuality in every General Conference since 1976 and the GC continually rejects the GBCS positions). If the health care resolution were to be debated today by the General Conference the final statement would probably look far different.

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