Are we guided by business or mission?

Much has been said and written about the restructuring plan that will be presented to the 2012 General Conference in a few short weeks in Tampa. Whether the problems are financial, organizational or missional — or all three — delegates are aware that much is at stake for the future of our denomination. There is bound to be heated debate. There is bound to be fallout.

The economic situation in which we find ourselves seems to be the driving force behind many proposed changes. Declining resources have affected our denomination from top to bottom, from general boards to local churches. Businesses, by their nature, seem to take the lead on economic issues.

The Interim Operations Team and the Connectional Table have been looking to business models to help define our future. Their Call to Action proposes the streamlining of our boards and agencies to meet the challenges that lay ahead. The boards and agencies will be more “nimble,” but this will come at a loss of diversity. Moreover, the IOT and the Connectional Table are proposing a “set-aside bishop” who will serve as a full-time president of the Council of Bishops.This set-aside bishop would supposedly solve a few problems. First, it would allow more continuity in our dealings with other church bodies than the present system of electing a president of the council to serve a two-year term. Second, it would allow the bishops serving areas to serve fully in conferences and not have to do so while acting as chief executive officer. Third, it would facilitate the implementation of programs across annual conferences without having to look after the affairs of one of the conferences.

However, other problems may come with the new position. Some fear that this further pulls power away from laity in our denomination and, perhaps, from annual conferences which are the basic body of the church. Also, the notion of a United Methodist cleric who is not assigned to a local church, district or annual conference would require some theological gymnastics in our understanding of ministry and calling in The United Methodist Church. And, frankly, some just don’t like the notion of a “quasi-pope” or “The UMC CEO.” In a denomination that prides itself on democracy, it seems more than a little authoritarian.

Guided by business or mission?

All that said, this is not an issue with which we struggle in the Alaska United Methodist (regional) Conference. While the bishops are behind this, it is unclear to some of our members how great the need is for this new position.

Says one member of our delegation, “Much of what the set-aside bishop would be called on to do, according to the supporters of the position, currently isn’t even done by the president of the council, but (rather) by the ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops, who has always been a retired bishop.” On the flip side, while some criticize the formation of a “United Methodist pope,” it is unclear that the position is going to hold any power of which we need to be fearful. This seems much more an administrative move than a power grab.Perhaps the two bigger concerns for Alaska on this issue are whether we are letting the business world, instead of the mission and ministry of the church, define our structure and whether this position would lead to a loss of diversity in decision-making at the episcopal level; it appears our boards and agencies would face the same loss. Would it lead to fewer persons at the table at a time when our mission fields get more diverse and we have a greater need for different faces and different voices in our decision-making?

As we approach our time together in Tampa, I pray that we will be blessed with discernment for God’s will, grace for those with whom we disagree and hope for our future together in The United Methodist Church.*Doepken, a member of the Alaska United Methodist Conference, serves Girdwood Chapel United Methodist Church.

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