No doubt you have been reading, as I have, all of the commentaries on what happened at General Conference. Every one I’ve read laments the fact that after the conference finally voted for a plan of restructuring, the Judicial Council unanimously declared it unconstitutional. I have to tell you I am relieved. In fact, I am grateful to the Judicial Council for the position it took.
As I have reflected on what we were doing, I came to realize that I was refusing to recognize some deep feelings of reservation about the process and the plans.
The original plan was quite a radical departure from our present structure. That in itself should have suggested that more time was needed to discuss the proposal and to refine it before the General Conference started, rather than during the General Conference itself.
In a time of crisis, and that is what seems to be the general opinion of our current situation, what is needed is the full support of everyone. Such support emerges from a shared ownership of proposed solutions. The proposal and the modifications proposed during the conference were not clear to the central conference delegates and were divisive for the delegates from annual conferences in the United States.
There was also a discontinuity between what was being proposed and what the outcome would be. It was difficult to see how a reduction in the number of members of the general boards of program agencies would produce new congregations. Yes, one understands that it would seem to free up resources for new church startups. The leap was just too far. Who would start up the new congregations and what type of oversight and guidance would be given? Who would decide where these startups would be? There were a lot of unanswered questions that called for a leap of faith.
It was obvious that the delegates were so concerned for the future of the church and held such a strong desire to see something accomplished that they were willing to make that leap of faith. The universal recognition of the need for action by almost all the delegates was co-opted by plans that were not well thought out and did not take into account the reality of The United Methodist Church being composed of minorities and cultures from other continents. I don’t think I am being too negative when I say I am relieved.
I could see us coming back in four years wondering why we were continuing to lose members when we had approved and implemented a plan of restructuring. I doubt that restructuring is the answer to our problems.
In fact, I doubt that starting churches is going to resolve our problems. Do we really think our problems can be resolved by focusing on institutional growth? Is the solution to our situation starting new churches or making Christians? Can we just assume by starting churches and signing up church members we are making Christians?
I need to say here that I am a liberal and always have been one. While becoming a member of the church was a meaningful experience for me, it did not measure up to when one of my pastors took me aside and asked if I had given my life to Jesus Christ to do with it as He would. There are things I have done I am not proud of, but I know there is a difference between becoming a church member and becoming a follower of Jesus Christ.
Need for dialogue
What do we mean when we say we are planting churches? Is it taken for granted that we mean inviting persons to give their lives to Jesus Christ? If it is, I think we need to say so and not leave it to chance. There has been enough triumphalism going around about what we United Methodists have done in the past. Can we focus on making disciples without making it look like what we want to do is return to the good old days when we were No. 1 or that our goal is institution building?
Can we recognize that we have an educated ministry and laity who participate as people who love the church and know enough about it to know what some of the problems are? Can we trust them to share in dialogue about what needs to be done and what are some of the best ways to go about accomplishing it? Let’s start now with an openly invited dialogue that will bring forward the best thought and concrete suggestions we all can examine.
No doubt some suggestions for restructuring will come forward. But let’s not wait until the next General Conference convenes to start the debate. Let’s be especially considerate of those whose first language is not English.
*McCleary was the staff member for the Structure Study Commission that proposed the restructuring to the 1972 General Conference. He is a former missionary to Bolivia, a former executive director of Church World Service and has worked at Save the Children and Feed the Children.