Bishops urged to embrace change

United Methodist bishops need to transcend the status quo and abandon church structures and practices that are not working, Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster said Nov. 2 in his presidential address to the Council of Bishops.

"By our decisions and actions this week in Panama, we will either lean into the future or content ourselves with more of the same," Goodpaster told the crowd of more than 80 active and retired bishops from around the global church. "Many of us are convinced that what we have in place will work if we try harder, give more or change a few of the players. That's a recipe for further decline."

On Nov. 3-4, the council will discuss the recommendations in the Call to Action Steering Team report, which recommends widespread reforms in the church from consolidating general church agencies to holding bishops and clergy accountable for church growth.

Some of the suggested changes require legislation at General Conference, the church's top lawmaking body, which will next meet in 2012. But bishops can begin now by leading the charge in helping the church discern a better future, Goodpaster said.

He quoted the Call to Action report, which said, "Leaders, beginning with the bishops &ellipsis; must lead and immediately, repeatedly and energetically make it plain that our current culture and practices are resulting in overall decline that is toxic and constricts our missional effectiveness."

To heed God's direction for the church, Goodpaster asked the bishops to join him in fasting and prayer every week from now until General Conference. He suggested the bishops follow the example set by John Wesley, who fasted every Thursday evening and Friday.

He also asked the bishops to host monthly conversations among clergy and laypeople about how once again to become "a movement of Christ &ellipsis; that, by God's grace, transforms the world."

In the wake of decades-long membership declines in the United States, the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table created the 16-member Call to Action Steering Team, which includes clergy and laity, to reorder the life of the church for greater effectiveness in the church's mission to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

The group's recommendations include:

  • Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church's "true first priority" for at least a decade.
  • Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
  • Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement. "We should passionately care about results," the group said.
  • Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  • Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany, who will succeed Goodpaster as the next president of the Council of Bishops, said she is looking forward to the weekly corporate fasting. Wenner said she is eager to know how bishops can help their congregations gain vitality and help the church overall overcome its fear of structural change.

"If we are going to lead the church," Goodpaster said after his speech, "the spiritual foundation has to be front and center."

Read full text of the address

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

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

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