Should $20 million be removed from general church ministries and reallocated to a new committee on U.S. church growth?
General Conference delegates on May 17 referred a proposal that does just that to the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, for a ruling on whether the plan is in line with the denomination’s constitution and whether it constitutes a conflict of interest. Delegates voted 614-197 to refer.
Donald House Sr., a General Conference delegate from the Texas Conference, is the architect of the proposed Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth.
He has long sounded the alarm about the U.S. church’s decades-long membership and worship decline. Based on his calculations as an economist, he argues the church only has 14 years to make a turnaround in the United States to have a sustainable future.
His plan is to bring “the best among the entrepreneurs of local church revitalization” — many of them church-growth consultants — together on a board. They would develop strategies for growing congregations that they can take national, House said. (The proposal and a minority report are on pages 2210-2211 of the Daily Christian Advocate.)
He proposes to carve out $20 million for this new committee from the proposed 2017-2020 general church budget of $599 million that will go before General Conference delegates from around the world on May 20, the gathering’s last day.
Charlie Moore, a delegate from the Baltimore-Washington Conference who moved for the referral, wants the Judicial Council to rule on whether the plan conflicts with Paragraph 16.8 of the denomination’s Book of Discipline.
That part of the constitution says General Conference has the sole authority to “initiate and to direct all connectional enterprises of the Church and provide boards for their promotion and administration.” Moore argues that the proposed committee would in effect supplant the General Conference’s authority to direct the functions of the denomination’s general agencies.
Some church leaders also have questioned the plan’s ethics. Their concern: The plan would put consultants on a board responsible for administering money that may go to their firms.
Fred Brewington, a delegate from the New York Conference, added to Moore’s motion — asking the Judicial Council also to consider whether the plan constitutes a conflict of interest.
“The weight of this concern and the redistribution of $20 million to a group of entrepreneurs to distribute as they see fit is an abdication of the role of General Conference and its authorized agencies.”
All general agency boards have ethics rules that prevent them from giving church funds to their board members for consulting work.
In an interview with United Methodist News Service, House dismissed the concerns. He argues his plan is the church’s only hope.
“We can talk about conflict of interest, and if we want to play that game, we’re toast,” he said. “If we want to make sure that everything is done by the rules, and if there is any conflict of interest, they (the consultant) cannot be there, then what you have done is you have eliminated the very thing that can address this crisis.”
Does it duplicate work?
The $20 million would come out of $305.7 million for the World Service Fund that supports 10 of the denomination’s 13 general agencies (including United Methodist Communications, which encompasses United Methodist News Service).
Some church leaders have raised concerns that the plan duplicates work agencies are already doing in collaboration with other United Methodist leaders.
United Methodist Discipleship Ministries already brings together successful church planters and successful church revitalizers to exchange ideas. House named some of those same individuals as potential board members of his new committee.
“Part of our job is to connect those from various places to work on vitality, not to go around those different annual conferences and individuals who are bringing new life,” said the Rev. MaryJane Pierce Norton, the interim head of Discipleship Ministries.
The Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, the top executive of the Connectional Table, noted that over the past four years, agency leaders, bishops, pastors and others have collaborated as the Vital Congregations/Four Areas of Focus Collaboration Group to foster vital congregations.
“From our point of view, I think it (the plan) would be in direct conflict with what we are already doing as a collaboration group,” Valdez Barker said May 16 to members of the General Council on Finance and Administration board and Connectional Table.
She also objected to House’s critique that there is no strategy. “The agencies are working together to address these concerns, which are not only U.S., but worldwide,” she said.
The percentage of “highly vital” U.S. congregations has grown from 15 percent in 2010 to 23 percent in 2014. The denomination measures vitality in terms of worship attendance, professions of faith, small-group involvement and mission giving.
Since the 2008 founding of Path1 New Church Starts, part of United Methodist Discipleship Ministries, church planting also has become a higher priority across U.S. conferences. Path1 works with U.S. conferences to provide coaching, training and other resources for new church developers. Between 2008 and 2015, Path1 reports, The United Methodist Church started 1,188 new congregations in the United States.
The Rev. Candace Lewis, who leads Path1, was one of the potential board members House named. But she clarified she has not endorsed House’s plan.
“Path1 is effectively creating new places for new people for the denomination,” Lewis said.
Moore and eight other United Methodists joined in a minority report that urges delegates to vote against the budget, criticizing the proposal’s lack of metrics.
“Its sole basis seems to be the misconception that what our church is trying to accomplish is not enough — and instead it would be better to ‘bet $20,000,000’ by having a group of entrepreneurs determine the best way to spend $20,000,000 of apportioned funds for church growth,” the report said.
Pittsburgh Area Bishop Thomas Bickerton ruled the minority report out of order since it mainly offered an opinion rather than an alternative plan of action.
Mutual desire for growth
Most United Methodists agree that the church needs to look for ways to cultivate more disciples. However, many churchgoers differ on the best ways to go about that effort.
For example, a frequent source of debate is whether the church should allocate more resources toward revitalizing existing congregations or planting new ones.
House estimates his plan will ultimately require a total of $50 million and take eight years to reverse U.S. declines. He said different strategies might work in different contexts, but he fervently believes something big has to happen.
“I want my great-grandchildren to have a United Methodist church to go to, and right now I don’t think they will,” he told UMNS. “That is part of why I’m here.”
House, a lifelong United Methodist and prominent lay leader, has long worked with church agencies.
Agency executives actually already requested a drop in the proposal general church budget from $611 million to $599 million in part because of concerns House raised. If approved, the general church budget would be the lowest in 16 years.
House is the chair of the Economic Advisory Committee, a group of eight United Methodist economists and other financial professionals who advise the budget process.
The group in 2014 recommended raising the general church budget of $628 million. In 2015, the committee reduced its recommendation to $621 million. However, after learning that U.S. average weekly worship attendance dropped by 2.6 percent between 2013 and 2014, the group again revised its recommendation in January to $595.6 million or an optimistic budget of $604 million.
House also holds other United Methodist leadership roles. He is chair of the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee that oversees the work of that region’s bishops.
In addition, he is one of the drafters of the revised Plan UMC, proposed legislation to reorganize the denomination’s general agencies. The plan’s call to eliminate three agencies did not win support at the General Conference’s legislative committees.
He also has been working to execute his own plan to revitalize local churches with an average weekly attendance of at least 125. The Connectional Table, a church coordinating body, in 2014 allocated $100,000 of the World Service contingency fund to help with the plan. So far House’s strategies, initially called the Benchmark Project, have had mixed results among more than a dozen churches. Some report gains in attendance while others reports losses.
A&M United Methodist Church in College Station, Texas, House’s home church and one of the first churches in the pilot project, actually saw its worship attendance dip from 729 to 582 between 2012 and 2014. House noted the church also saw leadership transitions during the same time period.
House’s project is now under the leadership of the Institute for Local Church Growth, a nonprofit established with help from the General Council on Finance and Administration.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].