By Dr. Riley Case
The United Methodist Church doesn’t have too many more chances as a denomination. It has experienced 43 straight years of membership decline. It has a membership that is growing older. It is uncertain about its mission, about its values, and about its doctrine. There is increasing polarization among various factions in the church. There are financial pressures. With this in mind the Call to Action Committee will be making recommendations to the Connectional Table and to the Council of Bishops about refocusing, redirecting, re-prioritizing, and re-structuring the denomination. These recommendations will be considered by the 2012 General Conference.
It is hoped the Call to Action Committee will recognize that energy in our present day is in the local churches, primarily in the overseas churches, and in America, with the megachurches. This energy is not linked to boards and agencies, nor to the seminaries, nor even to the Council of Bishops. For sure it is not linked to the General Conference. If the church desires to be a movement again, instead of a dead institution, then it must structure itself so that local churches can be freed to follow their passion for ministry without hindrance from institutional distractions. United Methodists outside the United States are thriving without the trappings of heavy apportionments, programs, agencies, and institutions. Mission is best done by local churches and annual conferences and the goal is to move in that direction.
The following is one proposal that would direct the church toward true renewal. The general philosophy of this proposal is that all unnecessary boards and agencies and programs and initiatives and focuses and missional priorities should be eliminated and the functions that are truly helpful assigned to annual conferences and voluntary associations. Since the boards and agencies generally are US-centric, this would free up the denomination for a workable global structure.
A) The General Board of Church and Society should disband. For the first half of the 20th century the social conscience of the church was the unofficial Methodists Federated for Social Action (MFSA). When MFSA moved to the left toward communism the church brought social action into the denominational structure (1950s), believing it would be more accountable. That accountability never happened. Return the social conscience function of Church and Society to MFSA (for liberals) or UM Action (for conservatives). Churches who want to support these groups should be encouraged to do so.
Along with this–no longer print the Book of Resolutions (presently 1,084 pages and out of control). The positions of the church can be summarized by the Social Principles. The Social Principles should carry principles that are relevant to the global church and not just to the United States. The Book of Resolutions as it now stands is not relevant for churches outside the United States, does not truly represent the beliefs of the membership, and is divisive rather than unifying. We do not need 42 resolutions, for example, on Native Americans. We got along for nearly 200 years of Methodism without a Book of Resolutions and can do so now.
B) The General Board of Global Ministries should disband. UMCOR should continue as a free-standing agency. The missionary enterprise can be turned over to the Mission Society and other voluntary but denominationally connected agencies. These can raise funds from churches and annual conferences. The church is already moving in this direction. Mega-churches even now operate their own independent agencies. Annual conferences are joining in partnerships with overseas churches and agencies. The Women’s Division should continue as a free-standing agency and would be accountable to no one except themselves (which will happen regardless of how the church is structured).
The present system of apportionment money going into a big Global Ministries pot where it is divvied out to projects of the board’s own liking would be changed so that annual conferences and local churches would have more say as to how mission funds are used. Disbanding the General Board of Global Ministries would save the church millions of dollars and would actually stimulate giving by local churches who could support projects and missionaries that they would feel a part of.
C) The General Board of Discipleship should disband. All curriculum and discipleship and worship materials and programs should be turned over to the Publishing House. The Publishing House can pay salaries to attract the most creative persons in curriculum and discipleship. Because the Publishing House would be market driven it would be sensitive to the needs of local churches. The Evangelism Division can be a free standing agency and can raise funds from annual conferences and local churches. New church starts would be the responsibility of districts and annual conferences.
D) The Board of Higher Education and Ministry should disband. Official colleges and seminaries should be given the option of dis-affiliation. Institutions which desire to remain United Methodist and are willing to reflect United Methodist values should relate primarily to annual conferences and local churches (which is the way it was throughout the 19th century). All seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools would be approved to train UM students (which is the way it was before the Methodist-EUB merger). United Methodist seminaries would be supported by local churches and annual conferences (if the California conferences want to support Claremont they would be free to do so, but the Georgia conferences would not be forced to) but not with Ministerial Education Funds (MEF). It is quite probable-indeed inevitable-that seminaries that do not produce effective pastors for ministry would need to merge or die. MEF funds would be used for scholarships for students preparing for United Methodist ministry. The University Senate would continue and would set standards for United Methodist affiliation, but would no longer have the authority to approve or disapprove schools for training UM students apart from ATS. In other words, the philosophy would change so that the institutions would serve the churches rather than the churches serve the institution.
Almost all other agencies, commissions, programs, initiatives, emphases, missional priorities, and focuses would not exist. Almost none of these have served the church well. It should be obvious that the 43 years of membership decline have taken place under the watch of the superboards (created in 1972). The Council on Finance and Administration would, by necessity, continue to exist, as would the Board of Pensions. The Connectional Table would continue as a coordinating agency. History and Archives and United Methodist Men would continue as free-standing agencies. United Methodist Communications (UMCom) would function as the marketing and public relations arm of the church. However, because of conflict of interest, the news-gathering function of UMCom would be given to an independent agency such as United Methodist Reporter. The bishops would be responsible for matters related to Christian unity.
Apportionment would be set in part by the General Conference (based on a reduced program budget) but also by the annual conferences. Within the apportionment amounts, local churches would have the freedom to designate funds for approved United Methodist-related ministries (some of which would be voluntary associations), programs, and agencies. Women’s ministries, for example, could be developed within annual conferences or groups of churches that would address the needs of local women’s groups (and would not be restricted by the Women’s Division which has insisted no groups can operate apart from their control).
Since most of the boards and agencies as they presently exist were designed for the church in the United States, to decentralize the functions of the boards and agencies would then open the way for a meaningful structure for a world-wide church. Just as annual conferences in the United States would determine programs and strategies and finances, the same would be true for the overseas churches. There would be partnerships between conferences.
Does a plan like the one just outlined have a chance to be accepted? Probably not. Institutionalism is too firmly entrenched. Such restructuring may only be a dream. But some of us do dream. And that dream is of a church that can become a movement again, and not just an institution.
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