Dreams for the Future of Methodism-Part 2

In my last post, I began an unraveling of thoughts and dreams regarding the STRUCTURE of what is to come for Methodism (particularly those of us in the UMC). Without repeating everything, my thought process is pretty simple:

  1. We cannot maintain the current structure of the UMC in whatever comes next.
  2. I appreciate the tireless work by those who have gone before to prepare for a better future, but as a young leader who will inherit the structure I want to add my voice to the conversation.
  3. My thoughts right now are simply about structure and less about theology and doctrine, though our theology and doctrine certainly have a large impact on our structure:
    1. Invert the Pyramid Financially (Part 1)
    2. Invert the Pyramid Structurally and Missionaly (This Post)
    3. Rethink Leadership Development
    4. Reimagine Itineracy and Clergy Deployment.

I haven’t yet received any hate mail for the financial post, as most of us are in favor of reducing apportionments, ha! I imagine that this post may be viewed as a bit more radical.

As I argued in the last post, the current structure of the UMC is top-heavy and expensive. We maintain a structure that costs more and more and produces less and less results. Our unwillingness and/or inability to adapt and bring about a new structure has created a structure that is a bit foolish and has perhaps more than a few sacred cows. Let me explain that. Years ago, I heard Tony Morgan of the Unstuck Group talk about churches evaluating their ministries based on comparing the resources used (financial, time and people) to the potential for life change. He introduced us to “The Sacred Cow Quadrant.” At this moment, I haven’t been able to find this in any of the Unstuck Group materials, but I drew it in my notes and have used it over and over again with local church leadership. Here’s my recollection:

Slide1

The basic idea is this, working from lower right and moving counterclockwise. If something uses little resources but has a high potential for life change (ie making new and better disciples), that’s a gold mine. If something has high potential for life change but requires a lot of financial or staff resources, it’s a bold move. Bold move isn’t a bad thing, it’s just bold. If something takes a ton of resources and has low potential for life change then it’s foolish. If something has low potential for life change and uses little resources, then it only exists as a sacred cow. 

This is not to say that there aren’t lives being changed throughout our connection, but I tend to think that much of that is in spite of our current structure. Our current structure from the general church all the way to the local church is rigid and cumbersome. 

I’m imagining a structure that is much leaner and driven by our shared mission and theology. Here’s a scattering of ideas of how to make this happen at various levels of the Church. And at the outset, I’ll admit that I know that most of these changes would require many constitutional amendments. In this regard, a new denomination would have the advantage in positioning for a renewed, modern structure…but it’s not impossible for an existing denomination to make these future-focused changes.

General Conference Level

At present, General Conference gathers every four years to make legislative changes to the Book of Discipline. General Conference is a costly and time-consuming gathering. Little has been accomplished at streamlining our structure (in 2012 a major restructuring plan was passed only to be ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council and left us with virtually the same structure). As our Methodist/Wesleyan witness has decreased in the United States, the regulations of the Book of Discipline have actually increased. I did a quick, non-scientific search of the Book of Discipline PDF and found 4,869 uses of the world “shall” while only finding 1,453 uses of the word “may.” Not to mention that a large chunk of the management legislation is very U.S.-centric while our numbers decline here and boom in other places. This type of oversight by legislation is happening at a time when the Church should be adapting to a changing culture. 

What if the General Conference left more questions of structure to the annual conferences and even the local church? What if the General Conference was more focused on doctrine and the theology behind our mission? Then, General Conference could be more focused on the overarching mission and celebrating what God is doing in each area of the Church and less on management. This could be a truly global gathering.

I think the oversight of the General Conference could easily be moved to every 5 years instead of 4. If issues of structure were left more to annual conferences and local churches, the length of General Conference could easily be cut in half. Also, if COVID has shown us anything, it’s that we can hold decision making gatherings virtually. Think of the cost savings if virtual options were given. I know there would be hurdles to jump when it comes to internet connection in some areas but I think it’s worth looking at. 

General Agencies

I think many of our general agencies are increasingly out of touch with the local church and, in some cases, the direction set by the General Conference. As I shared in the previous post, there are 13 denominational agencies, councils, boards or commissions for the United Methodist Church supported by the $310 million World Service Fund. 70% of the funds the agencies work with come from apportionments. Financially, we must restructure the agencies. 

Missionally, we must restructure as well. In 2012, the Call to Action Report (which formed the basis for the restructuring plan that was ultimately ruled unconstitutional) reported that a large portion of people surveyed saw a major disconnect between the work of the agencies and the Church’s mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” 

The work of the denominational agencies must be focused on equipping the Church for ministry in step with the General Conference. 

I envision smaller boards and fewer agencies. Here’s a rough stab:

Board of Discipleship: Resourcing missions, local church discipleship, church renewal, fresh expressions and church planting. 

Board of Church and Society: (combining the work of several previous boards (UMM, COSROW, GCORR, GCCUIC, GBCS) to enable individuals and churches to seek justice in accordance with the social principles of the Church. 

Board of Higher Education and Ministry: preparing candidates for ordination and providing oversight of approved seminaries. 

Board of Communications: developing communication strategies (print and digital) to resource ministries that increase the Wesleyan witness in various contexts. 

Board of Finance and Benefits (combining the work of GBPHB and GCFA): resourcing the denomination, annual conferences, and local churches in areas of finance, apportionments, clergy pensions and benefits, etc. Maintaining the statistics of the denomination would fall here too. 

We’ve gone from 13 to 5. It just might work. 

 

Annual Conferences

The UMC constitution names the annual conference as the “basic body in the church.” In these regional conferences, local churches and clergy are bound together in connection. The Discipline further states that “the purpose of the annual conference is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by equipping its local churches for ministry and by providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church; all to the glory of God” (italics mine). Too often, the annual conference is viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a bureaucratic force that micromanages local churches and clergy. If you don’t think this is true, look at the varied responses from local churches regarding COVID-19 guidance given by Bishops and cabinets. Further, how many annual conferences are simply viewed as an employment union for clergy where more time is spent arguing over entitlements than increasing our Wesleyan witness?

I think that the best way to fulfill the stated purpose of equipping local churches for ministry is to streamline and simplify the operations of the conference by focusing on how to increase the spread of Scriptural holiness within the geographic bounds of the conference and celebrate the places where that is happening best. Like the suggestions for the general conference, I envision leaner conferences. Many of the boards and agencies can be merged or eliminated just as at the general church level. 

A focus on asking “what is our mission” and “how are we going to do it”, which by the way is a very Wesleyan way of approaching annual conference sessions, would also free up district superintendents to truly be the “chief missional strategists” that the Discipline calls them to be. I have had several wonderful superintendents since I was first appointed as a pastor, but I promise they all wished they had more time to focus on increasing ministry in their district instead of functioning as managers of congregational conflict and enforcers of conference policy.

Back in 2011, Dr. Lovett Weems wrote that “congregations will need much more leeway in how they develop their ministries, even as they are bound by a common identity” (Lovett Weems, Focus, 59.) Streamlining and narrowing the focus of the annual conference will help accomplish this. I will have much more to say about the role of the annual conference in the forthcoming posts on clergy deployment and leadership development. 

 

Local Church

Though I believe that congregations, while remaining in connection with the denomination, should have far more autonomy in developing their ministries…they are not exempt from the need to restructure. It may be at the local church level that the sacred cow quadrant comes most into play. It’s more important than ever for the local church to examine what things are holding the ministry back from fulfilling its disciple-making mission. If it’s foolish or a sacred cow, it’s time to let it go. How much time is wasted in endless committee meetings that don’t accomplish much in the way of ministry? Many local churches don’t understand their capacity to adapt already given in the Discipline. I think most churches would do well to release people, time and money for ministry by looking to a single-board structure. Bishop Bob Farr from Missouri has a really helpful document to help churches begin this conversation. It can be found here.

Here’s my bottom line lest I begin to go too far down structural rabbit holes. Our very American, very corporate structure served us well for a time. If on New Years Day the calendar happens to roll over to 1968 (denominational merger) instead of 2021, our current structure might be perfectly suited. But in the very likely case that 2021 happens, we need a new mission-shaped structure to meet the new missional frontier. 

The structure needs to be drastically revisited, reimagined and revised. As a matter of fact, I believe the structure of our church at all levels (general, annual, and local) needs to die. In John 12:24 Jesus says “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The current structure of United Methodism needs to die so that God can resurrect our Church to new life. Don’t forget, our God specializes in bringing dead things back to life. Dr. Michael Beck writes:

“When we are willing to go into the ground, die to our current form, and yield to the power of the resurrection, we can emerge fully alive for a new season of harvest…Denominational and local church strategies focused on preserving the institution have it backward. Our way forward is a journey of death and resurrection, not more institutional solutions to institutional problems.” ( Michael Beck, Deep Roots, Wild Branches, 41-42.)

As I said in the previous post, this is the only structure and denomination I have ever known. I’m quite comfortable in the system, but I also know that it’s not about me. I’m prepared to see what our God can do with our renewed focus as we reset and reimagine the structure at every level of the Church. 

 

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