By Heather Hahn*
7:00 P.M. EDT July 29, 2011 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
East Ohio Area Bishop John L. Hopkins, the Connectional Table’s chairperson, called the proposals “far-reaching.”
“What we’re trying to do is simplify the church and integrate it more,” he said. He added that the changes are intended to help the general church’s programs and resources better serve the needs of annual (regional) conferences and local churches.
The proposals are the result of the church’s Call to Action process, adopted by the denomination’s Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table in their fall 2010 meetings.
The 60-member Connectional Table coordinates the denomination’s mission, ministries and resources, and it is responsible for recommending changes in agency structures. The body voted to recommend:
The role of General Conference in guiding the work of the church remains paramount in the new model. “We really feel that General Conference sets the values of our church, not a board of directors,” Hopkins noted.
The Connectional Table took up and refined the recommendations as part of the multiyear Call to Action process, which has found that that the status quo of a shrinking and aging U.S. church is “toxic” and unsustainable.
The suggested changes originated with the Interim Operations Team, a group of laity and clergy working with denominational leadership to implement the Call to Action recommendations.
The recommendations will be drafted into legislation for the 2012 General Conference, which has final say on whether these structural changes come to pass.
Proposed General Conference legislation from the Connectional Table and other church agencies must be completed by Sept. 1.
Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, the convener of the Interim Operations Team, expressed confidence that the changes will help the church promote vital congregations and address the decades of membership decline in the United States.
“I think some bold directions have been embraced,” Palmer said. “We’re looking at a much more nimble structure (i.e. as in the Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry) that creates some new possibilities of coherence and flexibility.”
Just about every category of church leadership will be affected by the proposals.
The first recommendations dealing with clergy follow on the heels of a number of church studies questioning the sustainability and effectiveness of job guarantees for ordained elders.
The denomination’s current process to dismiss incompetent clergy is unwieldy, said Washington Area Bishop John Schol, a Connectional Table member.
“When we talk about this as bishops, we all recognize that there needs to be a process,” Schol told those gathered. “This isn’t just a decision that’s made by a bishop or district superintendent that we don’t think a person is appointable, so now they are no longer appointable. ... The problem now is the process is so cumbersome and takes so much effort and eventually must be approved by all the clergy that this person might be friends with. It’s a process that just doesn’t work.”
The Connectional Table’s recommendation is conditioned on no other body in the church proposing legislation to General Conference to alter the process for dismissing ineffective pastors. If no other legislation is submitted, the Connectional Table asks that General Conference appoint a team to study and report to the 2016 General Conference a process for transitioning clergy in a way that best serves congregations, clergy and the denomination.
The Rev. Kim Cape, the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, told the Connectional Table that the 2008-2012 Commission to Study the Ministry will issue its final recommendations Aug. 12, and they are likely to include an end to “security of appointment” for elders.
The proposed structural changes have implications for the nearly 1,400 people who work for the denomination’s 13 general agencies. The number of staff positions in the general agencies has decreased steadily, from 3,139 in 1971 to 1,384 as of 2010.
The Connectional Table’s recommendation endorses the move by the denomination’s ecumenical agency, the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, to become part of the Council of Bishops.
In the Connectional Table’s proposal, many of the ministries of the current agencies would be subsumed under the newly created Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.
The new center would have five offices.
The first would be an office of shared services that would include the “essential functions” of the General Council of Finance and Administration, United Methodist Communications and other agencies’ communications staff members, the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, and the denomination’s information and technology support. (United Methodist News Service is part of United Methodist Communications.)
The other proposed offices are designed with the denomination’s Four Areas of Focus in mind, according to Mary Brooke Casad, executive secretary of the Connectional Table. “An intentional effort was made to pull the functions that our agencies are currently charged with into offices that reflect the work of the Four Areas of Focus.”
The offices would comprise:
How the work of United Methodist Men and the Women’s Division fits into this model is still being worked out.
If this recommendation gains General Conference approval in 2012, the plan calls for the transition to be conducted in two phases, with all agencies operating in their current structures initially and then moving to the new organizational chart over a period of about two years.
“I think looking at how the general church can operate more efficiently and effectively is a good thing,” Erin Hawkins, the top executive of the Commission on Religion and Race, told UMNS. “I’m encouraged that we are in the conversation of how we make what we do better and more effective. I think it’s too early to tell what the implications will be.”
Still, Hopkins acknowledged that the merger of the agencies would likely lead to at least some downsizing of people whose roles at different agencies overlap.
“My hunch is that most of the staff will stay where they are,” he said. “They may work in some different ways. We’re not trying to centralize all the staff. … But we’re hoping they will be able to talk to each other better.”
In the new model, staff with similar responsibilities across agencies would work together more effectively. The attempt “is not to squeeze (functions) into one box but to have it so the left hand and right hand are talking as one staff,” he said. “You have a closer relationship with staff that are doing the same thing.”
The Call to Action research found that there is a great sense of distance between leaders at all levels of the church and the people in the pews. Hopkins and others expressed hope that the changes would close some of that gap.
“This is a great opportunity for us,” said Jay Brim, a member of the Connectional Table and lay leader of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference. Brim will lead the drafting of General Conference legislation based on the recommendations.
“The lay leaders are intending to carry this forward,” he said. “An extremely large number of conference lay leaders are General Conference delegates, and we’re asking all of them to work together to bring about this kind of positive change for the church.”
Note: An item from “In other business” was modified on 8/2 to remove a sentence that incorrectly reported the Colorado Historical Society matched a grant of $75,000 for virtual learning portals at the Sand Creek National Historic Site Research and Learning Center.
In other business:
The Connectional Table, in consultation with the General Council on Finance and Administration, approved nearly $457,000 in four grants from the World Service Contingency Fund:
The General Council on Finance and Administration did not recommend a proposed grant of $148,500 to aid the evaluation of all programs and ministries of the general church. Stating that such evaluation was especially important as the general church considers a new structure, the Connectional Table asked the finance agency to reconsider its opposition to the grant.
Members of the finance agency defeated a motion for reconsideration but said they would look at the proposed grant again when the plan for professional assistance and software is more clearly defined.