The Council of Bishops president acknowledged Oct. 31 that he does not yet know all the answers to or even the questions raised by The United Methodist Church's proposed restructuring.
But in his morning sermon, Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster told his fellow bishops, "We cannot maintain the status quo."
Goodpaster spoke at the opening of a gathering that marks the first time the Council of Bishops, as a body, will have considered church-restructuring proposals headed for next year's General Conference.
Altogether, 109 of the denomination's 228 active and retired bishops are at the meeting, which is set to conclude Nov. 4.
Among other proposed changes, the legislation would consolidate nine of the denomination's 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. The center would 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.
General Conference, which meets every four years, is the top lawmaking assembly of the church. About 1,000 delegates from around the world will converge in Tampa, Fla., for the gathering next spring.
The recommended restructuring is 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.
Goodpaster reminded the bishops of the challenge they embraced last year at the council's meeting in Panama "to redirect the flow of attention, energy and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations."
"It is a challenge because we, who serve as bishops of the church, active and retired, know that not every local United Methodist church is a place of vitality," Goodpaster said. "We know that to increase the number of vital congregations fully living out the mission that has been given to the church will take an intensive and long-range commitment on the part of the whole church."
The suggested structural changes originated with the Interim Operations Team, a group of eight laity and clergy working with denominational leadership to implement the Call to Action recommendations. Goodpaster, who also leads the denomination's Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference, is part of the Interim Operations Team.
Bishop Charles W. Jordan (left) and Bishop Elias G. Galvan (right) have a discussion at the Council of Bishops meeting.
After the morning worship, the bishops heard an overview of the Interim Operations Team's recommendations and posted their questions, hopes and fears about each proposal on large sheets of paper hanging around the room.
The questions included, "How does aligning the general agencies take into account issues of inclusiveness, diversity and trust?" "To whom will we (the bishops) be accountable?" "How will the central conferences (outside the United States) benefit from this?"
In his sermon, Goodpaster noted that the Call to Action process has generated lively debate and discussion at every level of the denomination. "The recommendations from the Interim Operations Team and many of the subsequent conversations and debates have centered on the institutional organization: How many boards? How many directors? What about inclusiveness and diversity? What are legal and financial implications?"
He noted that these are all "how" and "what" questions, but he desires more conversation about why the denomination and this process exist. "Our missional character of spreading Scriptural holiness, &ellipsis; making disciples of Jesus Christ and transforming the world that's our 'why.'"
After the morning worship, Zimbabwe Area Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa said he thinks the denomination faces a challenge to return to its roots as a movement. He pointed out that this Council of Bishops meeting is occurring near where Bishop Francis Asbury planted some of the earliest Methodist congregations in the United States. At the time, Methodism was rapidly spreading across the American continent just as it is in Africa today.
"My prayer is that we should not be hesitant to look to new horizons," Nhiwatiwa said.
Mississippi Area Bishop Hope Morgan Ward said, "It will be abundantly helpful" for the bishops to talk together.
"It will be important to undergird all we're doing with continued thinking together about our history and our theology as we move into the future."
More than structure
Through much of his sermon, Goodpaster tackled the criticism that the Call to Action process has been short on "ecclesiology" a fancy word for what it means to be the church.
In discussions of the Call to Action and in his own reading, Goodpaster said, "The church is a community of faith active in love, alive as the body of Christ.
"To be the body of Christ means that the church is not so much about structure as it is about the Spirit of God," he said. "It is not so much about committees as it is about Christ. It means that the church is defined not by a top-down hierarchical organization but by the grace and love of God equipping people."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or [email protected]