By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Nov. 5, 2009 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS) United Methodist leaders are seeking to lower the average age of church members by a decade in a decade.
At its fall meeting, the Council of Bishops approved a plan that emphasizes mission work and leadership development among young people to help reverse declines in the U.S. church, which is aging and shrinking in membership.
Part of the plan, proposed by a Call to Action steering committee formed at the May council meeting, calls for an outside consultant to do a churchwide assessment that will encompass annual (regional) conferences, general agencies and the council itself.
"It is critical to the survival of the denomination to lower the age of United Methodist Christians by a decade in a decade," said Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president-elect of the council and chairperson of the steering committee. The average age of United Methodists in the pews is 57, he said.
The bishops' plan seeks to lower the average age to 47 by 2019.
The council also approved creating a 12-person steering committee to be led by Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops, to oversee the new plan. A four-person project team led by a project manager would monitor day-to-day work.
The Call to Action steering committee was formed in May at Palmer's request. While the committee was called at the height of a financial crisis, it was evident quickly that this was not about money, Goodpaster said.
"This is about how can The United Methodist Church respond to the needs of the world in a more rapid way," he said. "We were driven always by the mission of creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
The committee is recommending an Internet-based survey to gather feedback from a wide range of United Methodist voices.
"We must lead our denomination, all of us together, toward a system that breaks through the inertia and reignites a movement," Goodpaster said. "Local church is where disciple making happens."
Series of conversations
Bishop Jane Allen Middleton, Central Pennsylvania, asked why yet another committee was needed. The Connectional Table was created to give the church a way to act on decisions between General Conferences, and there is another committee studying the worldwide nature of the church.
"How is this not just another layer on top of everything else?" she asked.
Goodpaster said the idea came from the steering committee’s consultant.
"He convinced us we needed fresh eyes and fresh spirits, but still need to have some continuity - the reason we want to keep five of the current members on the committee."
The bishops agreed to host a series of conversations in their areas to focus on feedback for reordering the church and for establishing methods of evaluation and accountability.
The steering committee will ask the Connectional Table for funds for the outside consultants and a project manager. A progress report will be given at the spring 2010 Council of Bishops and Connectional Table meetings, with final recommendations made in fall 2010.
Goodpaster assured the council that the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world "is paramount. It is everything, Structure follows mission."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.