By Jessica Connor
One of the most significant pieces of legislation slated for the United Methodist Church’s upcoming General Conference is a sweeping church restructuring plan that has many in the denomination concerned.
Now a group of lay and clergy leaders “ including three from South Carolina “ have come up with an alternative to this reorganization.
Calling the alterative UMC Plan B, the new piece of legislation is designed to be a compromise between the current structure and the new legislation. UMC Plan B proposes some changes to the massive denominational structure, though not nearly as dramatic as the changes in the initial restructuring plan proposed by the Connectional Table and guided by the seven-member Interim Operations Team.
S.C. Conference Secretary Rev. Tim Rogers and lay member and General Conference delegate John Redmond joined church leaders from around the world in developing the alternative plan. Columbia District Superintendent Dr. Tim McClendon served as a consultant. The group launched a website in March and is now doing all it can to educate delegates about the options before them.
The restructuring plans were developed in response to a church-wide study and subsequent Call to Action Report done several years ago to revitalize the UMC and stem the rapid membership decline in the U.S. All of the restructuring legislation up for vote at General Conference, April 24-May 4, attempts to create a practical recipe to implement principles derived from Call to Action.
Everyone s on board with Call to Action, Rogers said. The issue is how to implement it.
For Rogers and the others who helped draft UMC Plan B, the alternative attempts to address serious flaws in the Connectional Table s legislation.
What is the current UMC structure?
Currently, the UMC has a very large body of people who organize and oversee the various entities that make up the church. General Conference is at the helm, and three groups equally relate directly to GC: the UMC s 13 general agencies, the Connectional Table (the leadership board that oversees the UMC s ministries generally) and the Council of Bishops. Each of these also relate with each other.
Currently, with 13 agencies, there are 666 people across the globe who meet to oversee the various entities.
The general criticism of the church on the General Church level is that it is too uncoordinated, Rogers said. We ve got all these entities working in silos, doing their own thing, and they are often very slow and cumbersome, very slow to respond.
What is the CT/IOT church restructuring plan?
The CT/IOT legislation attempts to dramatically streamline the current church structure, consolidating nine of the church s 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry, reducing the boards for those nine agencies from 541 to a group of 60, and creating a set-aside governing bishop “ among other changes.
General Conference is still at the helm, and reporting directly to it are the Council of Bishops and set-aside bishop, the new General Council for Strategy and Oversight, and four entities with board and legal separations of assets (the UM Men, the UM Women, the UM Publishing House and the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits).
Under the 45-member General Council for Strategy and Oversight is a 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry, and then an Executive General Secretary who oversees all of the church agencies grouped into five offices.
The Office of Shared Services will house the old General Council on Finance and Administration, General Commission on Archives and History, UM Communications and Consolidated Services. The Office of Congregational Vitality will house the old General Board of Discipleship. The Office of Leadership Excellence will house the old General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The Office of Missional Engagement will house the old General Board of Global Ministries. And the Office of Justice and Reconciliation will house the old General Board of Church and Society, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and General Commission on Religion and Race.
McClendon, who sits on the CT, helped draft the CT/IOT legislation but does not support it. He served as a consultant for UMC Plan B.
My major problem is that the (CT/IOT) plan violates the current constitution and proposes two constitutional amendments that I think upset our polity, McClendon said. It gives the 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry and the 45-member General Council for Strategy and Oversight the power to “ in consultation with the Council of Bishops “ reallocate the budget and set the budget and to consolidate all the boards and agencies. And that s the power of the General Conference.
Rogers cited two major concerns of his own about the CT/IOT plan: One, the number of people in control is so few that it will further foster the isolation many already feel between the local and global church. Two, by consolidating so many entities, it opens the church to the sort of crippling legal liability that forced one Annual Conference to go bankrupt (Pacific Homes lawsuits) and the UMC to pay $21 million dollars in settlement “ a huge sum for 1980.
What is UMC Plan B?
According to legislation sponsors, UMC Plan B is a compromise that lives out Call to Action in a more reasonable way.
Rogers said it is less consolidated than the CT plan but more than the current UMC structure.
Under the plan, General Conference would remain at the helm. As with the CT plan, the Council of Bishops and the four separate entities (UMM, UMW, UMPH and GBPHB) would relate directly to General Conference, as would the existing CT.
Then, under the CT (which would provide evaluation and oversight to these), would be UMCom and five agencies, some of which encompass mergers of other agencies within: GCFA (including the old GCAH and Shared Services), GBOD, GBHEM, GBGM and GBCS (including the old GCSRW and GCRR).
I do think Plan B is a compromise that protects the power of General Conference and our polity and avoids liability issues, McClendon said.
Some South Carolina reaction
Those the Advocate spoke with agreed that a UMC structural change was needed, but had many different feelings about which plan seemed best for the church.
The Rev. Jeff Kersey, senior pastor of Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, was one of more than 225 lay and clergy leaders who signed an open letter to General Conference in support of the CT/IOT legislation. He doesn t necessarily disagree with Plan B, but he appreciates many unique aspects of the CT/IOT plan.
As pastor of one of the largest churches in South Carolina “ and in the nation “ Kersey thinks the lessened bureaucracy will make the church more efficient and effective to help United Methodists get more done, plus potentially more cost effective to lighten the apportionments load that churches are carrying.
Part of the thinking is to try to make us less top heavy so we can do more ministry at home, Kersey said.
Also, he appreciates the unifying voice that a set-aside bishop would create for the UMC. The set-aside bishop who can speak with one voice would help the denomination communicate more clearly who we are and what our m
ission is and what our purpose is than speaking with many voices, and they re all different, Kersey said.
David Braddon, a lay delegate to General Conference, said he is still in discernment about which approach to structural changes is best, but he currently favors UMC Plan B. He thinks simplifying the structure and seeking efficiency without sacrificing effectiveness seems directionally correct. But the CT/IOT plan gives him pause.
I am concerned with a set-aside bishop and a relatively small board, which may be a gain in efficiency but may sacrifice effectiveness by not hearing all facets of issues, Braddon said.
The Rev. Megan Gray, senior pastor of Epworth Memorial UMC, Columbia, said she is in favor of a big change for the structure of the UMC, but she is not sure that the structural changes of the CT/IOT plan will bring about spiritual renewal for pastors, lay people and churches.
I honestly believe that a church could implement all 16 drivers of a vital congregation but not be a vital congregation if their only motive is to fulfill the requirements, Gray said. Our churches have to have the deep desire to bring the abundant life of Jesus Christ to the world.
Gray said she thinks Plan B will help churches used their resources more wisely.
I believe that we as local churches could use this as a model for how to be better stewards of our resources and become better at cooperating with one another so that more people can experience the love of God, the peace of Christ and the joy of the Holy Spirit, she said.
At the end of April, delegates will prayerfully consider these pieces of restructuring legislation, along with restructuring legislation from the Methodist Federation for Social Action and individual agencies already trying to downsize to live into Call to Action.
About 1,600 other pieces of legislation on a variety of issues, from guaranteed clergy appointment to the church budget, will also be up for debate then.
Check the Advocate for in-depth coverage of the quadrennial gathering and how it will impact the church in South Carolina and around the world.