Call to Action Report: Reform Church in U.S.

October 27, 2010

By Heather Hahn*

The United Methodist Church needs to institute widespread reforms - from consolidating general church agencies to holding bishops and clergy accountable for church growth - to revitalize the denomination, a churchwide advisory group says.
The Call to Action Steering Team's final report, says the status quo of a shrinking and aging U.S. church is "toxic" and unsustainable. The report will be presented and discussed Nov. 3-4 at the Council of Bishops' meeting in Panama City.
"We must reduce the perceived distance between the general Church (including the general agencies), the annual conferences, and local congregations," the report said. "We must refashion and strengthen our approaches in leadership development, deployment, and supervision. … In short, we must change our mindset so that our primary focus and commitment are on fostering and sustaining congregational vitality."
Among the group's recommendations:
  • Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church's "true first priority" for at least a decade.
  • Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
  • Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement. "We should passionately care about results," the group said.
  • Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  • Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.
Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, steering team co-chair, said he hopes his fellow bishops will receive the report as "the faithful, thoughtful and diligent work of other United Methodists who are yearning with hope for the church."
Some of the recommendations also may require the approval of General Conference, the church's top legislative body.
No more 'business as usual'
In the wake of decades-long membership declines, the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table created the 16-member Call to Action Steering Team, which includes clergy and laity, to reorder the life of the church for greater effectiveness in the church's mission to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
The team based its recommendations on two studies it commissioned from independent researchers. One was an "Operational Assessment of the Connectional Church" that found the church was undergoing a "creeping crisis of relevance" and rated general agencies below average in fulfilling the church's mission.

(Bishop Ernest Lyght (right) congratulates the new leadership team for the United Methodist Council of Bishops during the denomination's 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.)
Another study, "The Vital Congregations Research Project," analyzed data from 32,228 United Methodist churches in North America and classified 4,961 congregations, or 15 percent, as "high-vital" local churches. The study found that four key drivers of congregational vitality in the United States are effective pastoral leadership, multiple small groups, diverse worship styles and a high percentage of spiritually engaged laity in leadership roles.
What is not acceptable, Call to Action members emphasized throughout their report, is the status quo.
"Leaders, beginning with the bishops and including lay and clergy across the Connection, must lead and immediately, repeatedly, and energetically make it plain that our current culture and practices are resulting in overall decline that is toxic and constricts our missional effectiveness," the report said.
"Business as usual is unsustainable. Instead, dramatically different new behaviors, not incremental changes, are required."
'Job one'
Local churches don't have to wait for action from the Council of Bishops or General Conference to get started.
Neil Alexander, co-chair of the steering team and president of the United Methodist Publishing House, said the proposed 10-year emphasis to congregational vitality is in keeping with the already-established goals of the denomination. His hope is that the 10-year emphasis will lead the church in its strategic planning at all levels of administration to make vitality "job one."
A big part of that emphasis is holding church leaders accountable for church vitality. The report recommends the denomination create "prompt and humane ways" for under-performing clergy to exit or be declined entry into the professional ministry in the first place. The report also recommends sanctions for under-performing bishops.
"The need for accountability by the church's leadership – especially the bishops – for results in the life of the church is absolutely crucial for the challenges as we go forward," Alexander said.
The Call to Action team is still unsure which recommendations will require the passage of legislation at General Conference to implement, Alexander said.
The team recommends that the Council of Bishops establish an "Interim Operations Team" to determine what legislation is required. The team would also work with the Council of Bishops, Connectional Table and the general agencies to plan the denominational funding and budget that will be considered at the 2012 General Conference.
Ultimately, the message and ministry of The United Methodist Church is one worth saving, Alexander said.
"The Gospel and our Wesleyan view of the way God's grace goes before us and beckons us to God is of such critical importance that it must not be ignored," he said. "The integration of personal and social holiness is a way of being in the world that can redeem a broken and hurting world. That is no less true today than when the circuit riders set out to spread scriptural holiness across the land."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
·         Call to Action site
·         Connectional Table
·         Council of Bishops