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The Rev. Darryl Barrow, Connectional Table member, receives communion from the Rev. Enrique Hernandez from the Tennessee Annual (regional) Conference. The Connectional Table met November 15-17 in Franklin, Tenn.
UMNS photos by Ginny Underwood.


FRANKLIN, Tenn. (UMNS) ––The Connectional Table (CT) accepted an invitation from the Call to Action team to create a Interim Operations Team to put the finishing touches on the plan to increase the number of vital congregations in the United Methodist Church.

Meeting Nov. 15-17 at First United Methodist Church, Franklin, the 60-member international panel of jurisdictional, agency and caucus leaders agreed to create a seven-member team to map responses to key issues, needs and challenges identified by two exhaustive studies.  (See the adaptive challenge, five recommendations and key drivers of vitality proposed by the Call to Action team at umc.org/calltoaction).

Ohio East Area Bishop John Hopkins, CT chair, said most of the recommendations from the Call to Action group can be enacted prior to General Conference.

However, in an opening worship service, Hopkins said the task to change the present church culture will not be easy. “We frequently worship the form and not the spirit behind the form,” he said. The bishop spoke about our desire to keep our old wine skins and how difficult –– but necessary –– it is to shift to new wineskins.

The bishop noted that younger generations separate “religion” that focuses on a relationship with the church from “spirituality” that focuses on a relationship with God through Christ. “It’s better to know Jesus than to know about him,” he said.

Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House and co-chair of the 15-member Call To Action team, described the Interim Operation Team as an “advisory group on steroids –– certainly unencumbered and freed up to provide strong leadership and hard/frank and disrupting recommendations –– but never to presume decision-making authority that is currently lodged elsewhere.”

CT members asked two bishops and two laypersons from the CT to select the seven team members. The Call to Action steering group originally called for a 5-member committee, CT expanded the team to seven members.

Bishop Hopkins told UMNS he expects the team to be operational by January, 2011; the group will operate with a $450,000 budget and it will employ a project director. The team will conclude its work by December 2012.

Approved by Council of Bishops

The CTA plan was approved two weeks earlier by the Council of Bishops at their meeting in Panama City, Panama. The bishops agreed with the call for their council to assume responsibility and accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, benevolence giving and lowering the age of local church participants.

Answering critics

Responding to criticism of the studies, Alexander said, “We have heard and considered thoughtful criticisms about the studies. I want to say on behalf of the steering team that we have been careful, self-critical, and exacting in the work related to both projects and after much review and critique, we are emphatically confident that the research offers crucial, accurate and useful clues.”

Alexander noted that insufficient time and money limited the study and recommendations to U.S. churches. “We simply didn’t have the capacity to address issues of language, context and different histories of collecting and reporting certain kinds of data,” he said. He encouraged the church to allocate people and dollars to provide similar studies in other countries.

New apportionment system considered

A 10-member Apportionment Structure Study Group told a joint session of CT and the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) that it is currently considering a proposal that would eliminate the seven general funds to create a single United Methodist fund.

Under the provisional plan, local churches would be asked to subtract designated funds received in a weekly offering and allocate 3 percent of the remaining receipts for the general church.

Andy Langford, a Western North Carolina Conference pastor, argued that such an income-based apportionment would simplify the system and enable GCFA and CT to make budget adjustments to meet emergency situations. Programs supported by the seven general church apportionments would continue to receive funds. “Most people couldn’t care less,” said Langford.

Noting that only 38.2 percent of United Methodist congregations received at least one special offering, the committee also suggests eliminating the six special Sunday offerings established by General Conferences. Annual Conferences and local churches would still be free to receive special and emergency offerings based on needs.

The plan received a cool reception from annual conference treasurers. “Giving may go down as many people want to designate funds,” responded Christine Dodson, president of the National Association of Conference Treasurers. She said a single fund would decrease transparency and an income-based plan could result in “creative reporting.”

“People need a simpler message,” argued Reggie Holder, chair of the committee.
Langford made it clear that “nothing has been set in stone,” and many changes may be made before the committee sets its final recommendations in October, 2011.

Apportionment amounts to be proposed

GCFA is responsible for recommending to General Conference the total amount of money local churches can be expected to give to the general church each quadrennium.

GCFA Economic Advisory Committee is currently proposing a base budget of $610.7 million for the 2013-2016 quadrennium. The committee also calculates a high amount of $644.3 million and a low of $576.6 million. Although the percentage of local church receipts for the general church has gone done each year, the dollar amounts have still gone up because of inflation. If these figures continue to hold, this will be the first time the actual dollars available for general church ministries will be decreased.

Factors that go into the final projection include: church membership, inflation, per-capita disposable income, giving elasticity, net spending, and the gross-domestic product. Even the most optimistic projection calls for a quadrennial decrease of 0.2 percent.

Nine study committees

CT members received and reviewed reports from nine study committees: Apportionment Structure Study Group, Bishops’ Task Force on Theological Education and Leadership Formation, Church Systems Task Force, Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of the UMC, Ministry Study Commission, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, Sustainability Advisory Group, the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order, and the Call to Action

While CT members agreed there is a need for each committee to understand what the other committees are proposing in order to reduce conflict and open possibilities for cooperation, there was less certainty about who would coordinate these committees. Some suggested the new Interim Operations Team could do this; others suggested it was the responsibility of CT, the Committee on Faith and Order, and the Inter-Agency Task Force on Legislation.

Need to reduce confusion

Following reports of the Call to Action and a CT “Planting the Seeds –– Reaping the Harvest Committee” calling local churches to establish goals for membership, attendance, profession of faith and persons engaged in mission activities, Pittsburgh Area Bishop Tom Bickerton expressed the fear that we are confusing people with a “multiplicity of messages” such as the “Five Areas of Focus,” “Five Practices of Faithful Living,” “Seven Vision Pathways,” and recommendations from seven study committees.

“There is a great reason to be passionate about every one of these,” said Bickerton, but he feared multiple messages are confusing United Methodist members.

CT asked United Methodist Communications to develop a less fractured way of communicating these concerns. Minnesota Area Bishop Sally Dyck, president of the communications agency, expressed confidence that the staff could help the church get a handle on all of these important concerns.

Other business

•    CT asked the General Conference Rules Committee to place all legislation dealing with agency structures into a single legislative committee.

•    CT members learned that the World Service Contingency Fund made a $30,000 grant to resolve legal issues surrounding the land on which the Mulungushi Seminary is built in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a $25,000 grant to the General Commission on United Methodist Men to launch DISCIPLE Bible studies in male prisons within five states.

The Connectional Table

CT is composed of 21 jurisdictional representatives, seven Central Conference members, five leaders of racial/ethnic groups; one youth, one young adult, 10 presidents of general agencies, 12 agency executives, the president and top staff executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration, and the president of the Council of Bishops.

Persons serving on the committee to nominate the Interim Operations Team are: Alabama-West Florida Area Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops; Bishop Hopkins; Judy Benson, Oklahoma Conference: and David Beckley, Mississippi Conference.

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