By J. Richard Peck*
Nov. 9, 2009 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, NC. (UMNS)
The United Methodist Church is going forward with a plan to do a systemwide study of national and regional agencies and practices to reinvigorate a denomination that is growing older and smaller in the United States.
The Connectional Table at its Nov. 6-8 meeting agreed to fund a proposal approved by the Council of Bishops earlier this month to consider fundamental changes in the church's structure, from annual conferences to General Conference, from national agencies to the bishops' council.
Among the specifics, the plan calls for consideration of the elimination of guaranteed appointments for clergy, rebuilding the church's leadership development system with special attention to young people and exploring the "right sizing" of general agencies and general church activities.
An outside consultant would study the church under the supervision of a 12-member Call to Action steering committee. The study could result in a series of proposals to the 2012 General Conference.
Call to Action
Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops, set the process in motion last May with a call for bold action to reorder the denomination. A committee led by Bishop Larry Goodpaster developed the plan approved by the bishops and the Connectional Table, a 60-member group responsible for coordinating the mission, ministries and resources of the United Methodist Church.
In addition to approving the direction of the plan, Connectional Table members agreed to provide up to $500,000 for a full-time project manager, online surveys, the employment of firms to conduct operational assessments and meeting costs for the steering team to be led by Palmer.
Members of the group emphasized there are no plans to change the denomination's four areas of focus, developing principled Christian leaders, creating new churches and renewing existing ones, ministering with the poor and improving global health by stamping out killer diseases of poverty.
"Jesus taught us not to put new wine into old wineskins," Goodpaster said. "I suggest that the four areas of focus is the new wine and the existing structure is old wineskin."
A collaborative effort
Palmer said he is excited about the response from the bishops and the Connectional Table. He said the plan's recommendations hold the possibility of supporting the four focus areas and increasing the "fruitfulness and effectiveness of the church's mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world."
There are at least four other groups that could bring proposals to General Conference on topics to be tackled by the new Call to Action steering committee: the Ministry Study Committee, the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the United Methodist Church, The Faith and Order Committee and the Commission on General Conference.
"I'm confident [these groups] will be key conversation partners," Palmer said, "and I trust, where we find convergence, we will cooperate and collaborate."
Gloomy economic forecast
Looking ahead to the next church budget, a draft report from a 19-member Economic Advisory Committee presented a gloomy outlook about funds for the 2013-2016 quadrennium. The forecast is based on increased pension and health benefit costs for local churches, underfunded clergy pension funds, declining reserve funds for annual conferences and a slow recovery from the current recession.
"Although the denomination's emphasis on starting new churches and revitalizing existing congregations may increase the number of persons giving to United Methodist churches in the long term, the committee does not anticipate that these energies will have significant bearing on the economic health of the denomination in the coming quadrennium," the draft report said.
While final figures will not be available until spring, the committee is presently thinking funds for the general church in 2013-2016 could decline by 8.44 percent. The most optimistic forecast calls for an increase of 0.25 percent.
In other business, table members:
- Endorsed an appeal for emergency relief following two typhoons in the Philippines.
- Approved $1.29 million from World Service Special Gifts to recruit and train 250 laypersons to start new faith communities.
- Backed the "Imagine No Malaria" campaign to raise $75 million in five years to eradicate malaria in Africa.
*The Rev. J. Richard Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference. He was the principal writer of legislation submitted to the 2004 General Conference to create the Connectional Table.