Photo: Bishop Mike Lowry reads questions about Interim Operations Team recommendations at the Council of Bishops meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C. UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.
By Heather Hahn*
LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS) –– United Methodist bishops voted overwhelmingly Nov. 1 in favor of proposals to restructure the denomination and redistribute up to $60 million in church funds.
The vote specifically endorsed a letter, titled “For the Sake of a New World, We See a New Church: A Call to Action,” detailing changes — some requiring action by General Conference, some not.
“We see a new church,” the bishops’ letter says. “It is a church that is clear about its mission and confident about its future, a church that is always reaching out, inviting, alive, agile and resilient.” It asks all United Methodists to “work to do the ‘new thing’ God intends for our church and discover the path God is making for our future.”
The Council of Bishops’ vote came as part of the multiyear Call to Action process, which aims to reverse decades of declining membership and financial giving in the United States and to increase congregational vitality.
With their vote, the bishops endorsed the proposed consolidation of nine of the denomination’s 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. Legislation submitted to General Conference by the Connectional Table calls for the center to have a 15-member board of directors accountable to a 45-member advisory board called the General Council for Strategy and Oversight. The council would replace the Connectional Table, which coordinates the denomination’s mission, ministries and resources.
The vote came after two days of discussions among the bishops in private conversations, small groups and plenary sessions. Even as many bishops stood up to commend the letter, they also said there were parts they would tweak if they could. “I don’t agree with everything” was a frequent refrain.
However, many bishops insisted The United Methodist Church needs some kind of reform.
Iowa Area Bishop Julius C. Trimble likened the letter to a GPS that can guide drivers toward their destination even if it doesn’t always get them to the exact address.
“We cannot get where we want to go without some form of a GPS, and we certainly aren’t going to get close without leaving the house,” Trimble told his colleagues to murmurs of agreement.Bishops also acknowledged that General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, likely would alter the legislation. General Conference will next convene April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.
What the bishops endorsed
The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table initiated the Call to Action process “to reorder the life of the church” two years ago in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis.
At its November 2010 meeting, the council endorsed the Call to Action recommendations and the “adaptive challenge” to redirect resources toward fostering vital congregations. The suggested structural changes the bishops took up this year originated with the Interim Operations Team, a group of eight laity and clergy working with denominational leadership to implement the Call to Action recommendations.
Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, the Interim Operations Team convener, asked the bishops to “embrace and affirm” the team’s work.
Palmer also stressed that more than 50 percent of the work the bishops need to do to foster vital congregations does not require General Conference legislation.
Bishops do not vote at General Conference, nor do they address the assembly on legislative matters without special permission. However, there are no limits on conversations with delegates and other church members outside the sessions.
In addition to endorsing restructuring and allowing the redistribution of up to $60 million in general church funds, the bishops, in the letter, urge General Conference to give annual conferences more freedom in how they organize, allow the election of a non-residential bishop to serve as president of the Council of Bishops and provide support for collecting consistent information from all annual conferences about their financial practices.
The council said it favors adopting stronger and more transparent measures and procedures for the accountability of bishops. The bishops also said they would work with appropriate general church offices, seminary leadership and annual conference boards of ordained ministry to strengthen support for United Methodist seminaries, address curriculum requirements and clarify expectations.
The bishops said their annual conferences will strive to improve “recruitment and support of the most fruitful and effective young clergy” and strengthen clergy recruitment, formation and the appointment process to improve vitality.
Bishops voice concerns
The bishops’ vote, by a show of hands, included a handful of “no” votes. The dissenting voices included Denver Area Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky.
After the vote, she said she would have preferred that the bishops could have registered their support for each legislative proposal individually. Her motion during the meeting to allow that failed.
She also would have preferred more conversation about the proposed Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. “I think a certain amount of humility and doubt about what we do is appropriate,” she said.
Still, she said she would support the action of the Council of Bishops and thinks the Interim Operations Team is trying to lead the denomination in the right direction.
Other bishops also voiced concerns, while some doubted how much effect the changes, if adopted, would have.
Pittsburgh Area Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton asked what essential functions would be lost if $60 million that would ordinarily go to general agencies over the next four years would be redistributed.
The proposed legislation would authorize the board of the newly created center to allocate $5 million to theological education in central conferences outside the United States, $5 million for young people’s lay leadership development, and $50 million for recruiting and training United Methodist ministerial students under the age of 35 and increasing vital congregations.
The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, the Board of Discipleship’s top executive, told the council it is not yet clear exactly what the impact would be on ministries of the general agencies.
The impact could be severe. Agencies already face a more than 6 percent cut in their funding under the 2013-16 budget of $603 million, which the General Council on Finance and Administration has submitted to General Conference. Potentially, the redistribution could mean an additional loss in funding of almost 10 percent.
“The list (of possible cuts in programming) is long and extensive, and, depending on priorities and decisions made by folks after General Conference, we would have to make those very critical decisions,” Greenwaldt said, referring to her own agency’s work.
East Angola Area Bishop Jose Quipungo does not expect the proposed restructuring to have much effect on the central conferences – church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. However, he said, "It is good for us to recognize we are not perfect, but the people called Methodist are working toward perfection."
A number of bishops said they felt they could put the funds to better use at the annual conference and local church level.
After the vote, Washington Area Bishop John R. Schol – who leads the bishops’ Vital Congregations Initiative – said he thinks overall the changes will better align the denomination to support vital congregations.
“Those are the congregations that are growing over time, reaching out to their communities, and they are engaging more of their laity in ministry,” he said.
“Some of the changes we talked about today are legislative, but there’s far more change that’s really about leadership at all levels of the church – bishops, general agency staff, local congregations – all beginning to say we’re going to do something different,” he said.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
The bishops' letter
In their letter, the bishops urge General Conference to:
- Give annual conferences freedom to organize their structures for greater fruitfulness.
- Permit the mid-quadrennium reallocation of up to $60 million from the general church funds for creating and increasing vital congregations.
- Provide for the Council of Bishops to elect a non-residential bishop as council president to help reform the council and focus its energies on core challenges.
- Create a United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry under one board of directors to combine the functions of the Connectional Table and nine general agencies: the Board of Church and Society, Board of Global Ministries, Board of Discipleship, Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Commission on Archives and History, Council on Finance and Administration, Commission on Religion and Race, Commission on the Status and Role of Women and United Methodist Communications (which operates United Methodist News Service). The work would be organized into offices of shared services, congregational vitality, leadership excellence, missional engagement, and justice and reconciliation.
- Move the functions of the church’s ecumenical agency, the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, to an office of the Council of Bishops.
- Set aside United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men as self-funded, official membership-based organizations.
- Provide a support system for collecting consistent information for all annual conferences about financial practices and recommend to bishops and others strategies for reducing costs and increasing effectiveness.
- In showing their approval, he said the bishops would be showing “our commitment to lead the church” and use the changes as “instruments in service to vision and mission.”