Will restructure give bishops more power?

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A growing number of United Methodist leaders say they fear proposed restructuring will put too much power in the hands of the bishops.

Members of the Call to Action Interim Operations Team that developed the restructure proposal counter that the recommended changes will advance the bishops' work on mission - not their power.

Among the proposals at issue is the consolidation of nine of the 13 general agencies under a 15-member board that would make financial decisions in consultation with the Council of Bishops.

The 2012 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body, will decide on the legislation when it meets April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.

The proposals come after more than 40 years of shrinking U.S. membership and after a number of studies over the past four years showing that The United Methodist Church's status quo is unsustainable.

The stated goal of the proposals is to help annual (regional) conferences increase the number of vital United Methodist congregations - meaning congregations on a trajectory of growth. While critics embrace this goal, their opinions differ on which proposals will work.

"Doing nothing is not an option, but what is done must be done wisely or the negative implications will continue for years," said the Rev. Ed Tomlinson, a district superintendent in the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference and a 2012 General Conference delegate. He said he is particularly wary of the proposed agency reorganization.

The Rev. Ed Tomlinson. Web-only photo courtesy of Tomlinson.
The Rev. Ed Tomlinson. Web-only photo courtesy of Tomlinson.

"The 15-member superboard sacrifices the laity and clergy expertise, which has been crucial to the tasks of the individual boards," he told the North Georgia delegation in a January presentation that also included a representative who helped draft the Interim Operations Team legislation. "The suggested (restructuring) plan gives huge and inordinate responsibilities to the bishops and their chosen representatives."

In part because of these concerns, Tomlinson is among a group of delegates from North Georgia and other conferences developing an alternative proposal to the Interim Operations Team plan. At least two other groups also are offering alternative plans.

Neil M. Alexander, president of the United Methodist Publishing House, and Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer - both leaders of the Interim Operations Team - said they are "perplexed" by concerns the proposals give bishops disproportionate authority.

"What the petitions call for are ways to help assure that there will be greater accountability by and assistance for the bishops," they said in a joint statement. "Their task is to attend to and achieve what the church has long asked them to do (spiritual and temporal oversight)."

Restructuring and finance

The restructuring proposal is part of the multiyear Call to Action process, which the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table initiated because of the 2008 global economic crisis. The Connectional Table coordinates the denomination's mission, ministries and resources, and it drafted the legislation.

Bishop Gregory V. Palmer. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
Bishop Gregory V. Palmer. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Under the restructuring legislation, the Connectional Table - in consultation with the Council of Bishops - would elect the initial 15 board members of the new mega-agency, the Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. A General Council for Strategy and Oversight then would have authority to hire and fire the center's future board members. The new general council would replace the Connectional Table.

Five of the new general council's 45 members would be bishops including the chair, who would also serve as an ex-officio member of the new center's board. That chair would likely be the proposed nonresidential Council of Bishops president, if the new position gains General Conference and annual conference approval.

By comparison, 14 of the Connectional Table's 47 voting members now, including its chair, are bishops.

Alexander and Palmer said the "only new power" the legislation gives the Council of Bishops is to be in consultation with and affirm any adjustments to general church budgets.

The bishops' new involvement in funding decisions is precisely what troubles some leaders - including Tomlinson and Joe M. Whittemore, a North Georgia Conference lay leader, Connectional Table member and General Conference delegate.

They made a presentation on their concerns at the request of their delegation. Both will serve on the General Administration Legislative Committee that will handle the restructuring proposals.

More debate about bishops' role

Other legislative proposals before General Conference are also are coming under scrutiny for their impact on the role of bishops.

They include:

The Rev. Robert J. Williams, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, also offers a historical perspective on efforts to set aside bishop for Council oversight.

Under the legislation, financial appeals between General Conference sessions would require approval of the new center, the General Council for Strategy and Oversight and the Council of Bishops.

The center also would consult with the bishops in making recommendations regarding all funding considerations that go before General Conference. The General Council on Finance and Administration now makes those recommendations in consultation with the Connectional Table.

In related legislation, the new center's board could recommend the redistribution of up to $60 million toward funding theological education, recruiting young clergy and laity, and fostering vital congregations. The legislation says the $60 million would come from the denomination's seven general church apportioned funds. The reallocation first would require the joint approval by the General Council for Strategy and Oversight and the Council of Bishops.

"The Council (of Bishops) would not originate such proposals and only participates to confirm that the needs of the whole church have been taken into account in the planning," Alexander and Palmer said.

Balance of power concerns

Tomlinson and Whittemore contend the bishops' new financial authority would upset the traditional balance of power between bishops, the denomination's executive branch, and General Conference, its legislative branch. At present, General Conference sets the general church budget when it meets every four years.

"One observer noted that this action would be the equivalent of allowing the local church pastor to make whatever changes he/she desired during the year to the budget that was approved by the administrative board," Tomlinson said.

Whittemore said he is particularly concerned the new structure would marginalize laity input into the denomination's financial decisions.

Laura Nichol. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
Laura Nichol. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

"Picture a meeting with 65 bishops and 40 laity and clergy. Conversation will predictably be led and dominated by the bishops," he said. "And when the decision is to be made 'in consultation with the Council of Bishops,' those decisions to approve, veto or amend are based on the bishops voting among themselves - that 51 percent vote is without any laity or clergy involvement."

Laura Nichol, an Interim Operations Team member and business consultant with RIO Advisors, said that by giving bishops more of a say in spending decisions, their annual conferences - and by extension, local congregations - will also get a bigger voice.

"By separating finances from consultation with the bishops, we remove a chance for them to be held accountable for the budgeting and spending of finances that they raise through their annual conference," said Nichol, a member of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston.

The new structure, she said, "provides important alignment between the agencies who are spending the budget and the churches who are contributing to the budget through their annual conferences."

Not an initiative of the bishops

At the Connectional Table meeting on March 4-6, the bishops' role in the proposed agency reorganization provoked debate.

At the meeting, Richmond (Va.) Area Bishop Charlene Kammerer stressed that the Council of Bishops did not request an increased role in financial decisions.

The Rev. Thomas E. Frank. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The Rev. Thomas E. Frank. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Jay Brim, who helped draft the legislation on behalf of the Connectional Table, echoed that point. He said he modeled the General Council for Strategy and Oversight on the legislation that established the Connectional Table, which consults with the Council of Bishops in its work. He said he did not realize he was putting the bishops in an "entirely new position" in setting the general church budget.

The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., raised the concern about separation of powers at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing in January. Frank is also the son of the late Bishop Eugene Frank.

"The proposed legislation appears to me to conflate many powers and duties previously the responsibility of distinct agencies into a single administrative body - a kind of executive committee for the general church," he later told the United Methodist News Service. "With a bishop chairing, this model is almost certain to blur the constitutional separation of powers between conferences and the episcopacy, and between program and finance functions."

Bishops do not vote at General Conference, nor do they address the assembly on legislative matters without special permission. However, there are no limits on conversations with delegates and other church members outside the sessions.

Frank recommends that delegates refer any restructuring proposal to the Judicial Council to settle the question. Judicial Council, the denomination's equivalent of the Supreme Court, will be available to consider matters of church law during General Conference.

"A Judicial Council decision would help guide General Conference in considering any proposed restructure that comes up in the ensuing business sessions," Frank said.

*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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