Debate grapples with restructuring

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"More than we need a new organizational chart, we need a new Pentecost."

The Rev. Kim Cape, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, shared that thought as part of a larger debate on proposals to restructure United Methodist agencies.

Joining Cape in the three-hour debate March 31 were Jay Brim, Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference lay leader, and the Rev. Tim McClendon, Columbia (S.C.) District superintendent and candidate to be bishop.

Each of the debaters has been involved in some way in developing restructuring legislation and dealing with the ramifications. All three agreed that The United Methodist Church needs to change, and all agreed that restructuring alone would not achieve the goal of renewed disciple-making.

But, they differed greatly on what good a new structure would do.

Brim spoke of the need for structural change and greater nimbleness in decision-making. As chair of the Connectional Table's legislative task force, he helped draft legislation to consolidate agencies under the Call to Action proposal that launched the discussion.

The Call to Action proposal urges a 10-year focus on sustaining and increasing the number of vital United Methodist congregations - that is, congregations on a trajectory of growth and engaged in their communities.

"There isn't a plan out there that's going to accomplish the Call to Action," Brim said. Still, he quickly added, a new structure can help.

"What we're trying to do with that legislation is find a more efficient and economical way to run our general church staff and to ensure that the way we run that staff will make it easier for us to be the global church we hope to be and are at this moment with tenuous connection," he said.

McClendon echoed Cape's desire for a new "Pentecost" for the denomination, which has been steadily losing members in the United States for more than 40 years.

United Methodists "would have to be blind and unconcerned" not to know that local churches need more vitality and that too many people do not know Christ, he said. However, he disputed the effectiveness of agency reorganization.

"I don't think we can solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution, and I think we have a spiritual problem," he said. "I know that's a simplistic answer, but I think we would be better off if we did a lot of repentance and have a lot of revival rather than tinker with structure."

The United Methodist Men of the Southwest Texas Conference sponsored the gathering at Windcrest United Methodist Church in San Antonio. Gil Hanke, the top executive of United Methodist Men, moderated the discussion, asking the debaters questions submitted by the audience there and online.

The proposals under discussion

Most of the conversation centered on the Call to Action Interim Operations Team's proposal, which would merge nine of the denomination's 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.

The plan would replace boards now governed by more than 500 unpaid volunteers with a 15-member board of directors who also are volunteers. Those 15 board members of the new center, in turn, would be accountable to a proposed 45-member General Council for Strategy and Oversight, which would replace the Connectional Table.

The Connectional Table, which coordinates the denomination's mission, ministry and resources, refined and approved the Interim Operations Team proposal. Brim as well as McClendon, another Connectional Table member, helped to draft the restructuring legislation, though McClendon has since become a vocal critic of that plan.

Brim said the proposal would reduce confusion between sessions of General Conference, the global denomination's top lawmaking body, which convenes every four years.

"What we do right now is we have about 600 people who between General Conferences reinterpret what General Conference did in 13 different ways," he said. "Part of what the (Interim Operation Team/Connectional Table's) petition will do is to take away that complexity of governance and simplify it significantly. It is radical change."

Since submission of the initial restructuring legislation Sept. 1, 2011, other alternative plans have followed. These include legislation titled "A New UM Administrative Order" submitted by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, an unofficial progressive caucus. An ad hoc group also has put together an alternative called "UMC Plan B," for which legislation is still being drafted. McClendon was a consultant on Plan B.

The 2012 General Conference will take up the proposals when it meets April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla. Brim, McClendon and Hanke are all General Conference delegates who will serve on the General Administration Legislative Committee, which gets first crack at the restructuring proposals.

Impact on the local church

One of the main questions the debaters discussed was whether any of the restructuring proposals would make a difference to local churches.

"That is the question we've all been asking," McClendon said.

He pointed out that about 2 cents of every dollar given to the local church goes to support general church operations, including the bishops, Africa University and general agencies. Most of every dollar, he said, goes to the local church, the annual conference and support for clergy pension and health benefits.

"I am not sure we can fix the system by which we see more of the general church resources coming to the local church except making sure that more and more clergy and laypersons read their emails and call up general boards and agencies," he said. "It takes initiative. We need leaders - lay and clergy - who are willing to be proactive and willing to do church in new and vibrant ways. ... I am not sure any of these proposals help the local church be more vital."

Cape acknowledged that many large churches do not need the resources general agencies provide.

"It's the mid-sized and smaller churches that need the general agencies," she said, "although bishops and district superintendents call the Division of Ordained Ministry almost every day."

She added that the Interim Operations Team's proposal to allow the new center's board to redistribute up to $60 million of general church funds during the next four years could drastically reduce resources agencies provide to local churches.

Brim countered that the question about local churches presumes the general church does not make any difference now.

"We believe the general agencies make all the difference in the world globally in who we are as a United Methodists," he said. "Within the U.S., which funds the vast majority of operations at the general church level today, this will make a significant difference if each local church ... feels a greater confidence that the apportionment dollars are being used in ways that make a difference for Christ."

Beyond restructuring

The three debaters also discussed ways to foster vitality beyond restructuring.

McClendon said that United Methodists need to participate more in what he called "friend-gelism" - reaching out to friends, relatives, acquaintances and neighbors.

Brim echoed that sentiment. He and other laity, he said, "are the ones who must go out and ask people to come.

"We've got to be ready to talk to people in our workplace and every place. We've lost that."

Cape explained in detail what she meant by a new Pentecost. She cited Ephesians 4:11, NRSV: "The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers."

"I think in the past generation, the church was asking us for pastors and teachers, and pastors and teachers are great ... But pastors and teachers take care of the folks you have. It's the apostles, the prophets and the evangelists that go out after the folks you don't have. That's why I'm talking about a new Pentecost. God is calling these people, and we need to help them discern their call."

She added that when visitors do show up at United Methodist worship because they have been invited, "Please don't say you're sitting in my seat. Say instead, 'Come sit by me.'"

*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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