Bishops to change ecumenical agency

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United Methodist bishops have voted overwhelmingly to support folding the denomination's ecumenical agency and its work into the Council of Bishops.

The May 2 vote came at the urging of the Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., the top executive of the agency, the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

Under the proposal, the agency would cease to exist as a separate entity, and its staff members would work for the council as part of the newly created Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. The proposal also calls for transforming the commission's 38-member board of directors into a 15-member oversight group that includes laity and clergy.

The proposal does not call for a reduction of the agency's four executive staff and three full-time administrative staff positions.

"I am elated," Sidorak said after the bishops' vote.

Sidorak said the change will deepen the relationship between the ecumenical and interreligious staff and the denomination's bishops and its ecumenical officer, a position now held by retired Bishop Sharon Z. Rader. He also said it will help the ecumenical staff build strong connections with annual (regional) conferences and give staff members direct access to bishops in central conferences outside the United States.

"We sure think that the Lord is calling us rather clearly to a deeper interreligious engagement not only in the United States but around the world," Sidorak said. "Religiously motivated violence alone is a serious theological concern that our church has to take much more seriously than it is."

General Conference approval

To take effect, the proposal needs approval from the majority of delegates at General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body, which next meets in 2012. If the legislation passes, a discernment/transition team will develop a plan to establish the new office by 2013 or 2014.

If General Conference does not approve the change, the commission will continue to exist but with a board still reduced to 15 members. Sidorak said reducing the size of the board will save the denomination $500,000 in travel, meals and lodging costs every four years.

The bishops' vote comes on the heels of the Call to Action Steering Team's report, which the Council of Bishops endorsed in November. The report said the status quo of a shrinking and aging U.S. church is "toxic" and unsustainable. It also criticized the sense of distance between the people in pews and church leaders, particularly the denomination's 13 general agencies.

"That is a stark realigning of The United Methodist Church. That is the kind of courage that we are inviting people all across this denomination to have." Bishop John R. Schol

Among other recommendations, the report urged the denomination to consolidate agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. In addition, the report said, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.

Washington Area Bishop John R. Schol commended Sidorak and his commission's "courageous step" in responding to those recommendations by saying "we need to go out of business."

"That is a stark realigning of The United Methodist Church," Schol said. "That is the kind of courage that we are inviting people all across this denomination to have. That's the kind of leadership that we're looking for in The United Methodist Church."

'Change is possible'

Rader, the ecumenical officer, was unable to attend the Council of Bishops meeting, but she had earlier shared her support for the change with United Methodist News Service.

"In light of the Call to Action and in light of 30 or 40 years of history in the council, we need to organize ourselves for more effective leadership," she said.

Arkansas Area Bishop Charles Crutchfield shared his congratulations with Sidorak at the end of the session.

"This gives us a platform to say change is possible. We don't have to do things the same way we've always done them," Crutchfield said. "I hope it's catching."

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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