(UMNS) | An Interim Operations Team dubbed an "advisory group on steroids" was expected to be operational this month (January, 2011), and begin working to finalize a plan for increasing the number of vital congregations in The United Methodist Church.
The Call to Action plan was approved by the Council of Bishops at its fall 2010 meeting in Panama City, Panama. The bishops agreed their council should assume responsibility and accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, benevolence giving, and lowering the average age of local church participants.*
The Call to Action Steering Team proposed creating the new team during the Nov. 15-17, 2010 meeting of the denomination's Connectional Table, a 60-member international panel of jurisdictional, agency and caucus leaders. Its job will be to map responses to key issues, needs, and challenges identified by two exhaustive studies.
Ohio East Area Bishop John Hopkins, Connectional Table chairperson, said most of the recommendations from the Call to Action group could be enacted prior to General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, which meets again in 2012.
However, some recommendations will require legislation which will need to be approved by General Conference. The Interim Operations Team will be responsible for drafting any legislation required.
The Call to Action group originally called for the Interim Operations Team to consist of five members, but the Connectional Table expanded the team to seven.
Charged with selecting the team members were: Bishop Hopkins; Bishop Larry Goodpaster of the Western North Carolina Area (president of the Council of Bishops); and two laypeople from the Table, Judy Benson (Oklahoma Conference) and David Beckley (Mississippi Conference).
The group will operate with a $750,000 budget and will employ a project director. The Connectional Table initially requested $450,000 for the Interim Operations Team, but the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) approved additional funding to support the project over a two-year period.
The team is scheduled to conclude its work by December 2012.
Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House and co-chairperson of the Call to Action Steering Team, called the team an "advisory group on steroids" and added that it will be "certainly unencumbered and freed up to provide strong leadership and hard, frank and disrupting recommendations, but never to presume decision-making authority that is currently lodged elsewhere."
Alexander acknowledged that the Call to Action report has come under criticism for focusing solely on U.S. churches.
He noted that insufficient time and money limited the study and recommendations to U.S. churches. "We simply didn't have the capacity to address issues of language, context, and different histories of collecting and reporting certain kinds of data," he said. He encouraged the church to allocate people and dollars to provide similar studies in other countries.
"We have heard and considered thoughtful criticisms about the studies," Alexander said. "I want to say on behalf of the steering team that we have been careful, self-critical, and exacting in the work related to both projects – and after much review and critique, we are emphatically confident that the research offers crucial, accurate, and useful clues."
New ways to communicate UMC goals
The Connectional Table also heard a report from its "Planting the Seeds – Reaping the Harvest Committee." That report calls for local churches to establish goals for membership, attendance, profession of faith, and people engaged in mission activities.
And the Table asked United Methodist Communications (UMCom) to develop a method for clearly communicating the UMC's various concerns, such as the "Four Areas of Focus," "Five Practices of Faithful Living," "Seven Vision Pathways," and recommendations from seven study committees. While saying, "There is a great reason to be passionate about every one of these," Pittsburgh Area Bishop Tom Bickerton had suggested that congregation members possibly are being confused by the "multiplicity of messages."
Minnesota Area Bishop Sally Dyck, president of the communications agency, expressed confidence that UMCom staff could help the Church in that regard.
In the Connectional Table's opening worship service at First United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, Bishop Hopkins said changing the current church culture will not be easy. "We frequently worship the form and not the spirit behind the form," he said. The bishop spoke about the desire to keep our old wineskins and how difficult – but necessary – it is to shift to new wineskins.
He noted that younger generations separate "religion," which focuses on a relationship with the church, from "spirituality," which focuses on a relationship with God through Christ. "It's better to know Jesus than to know about him," he said.
Apportionment amounts to be proposed
GCFA's Economic Advisory Committee reported, in a joint session of the council and the Connectional Table, that it is currently proposing a base budget of $610.7 million for the 2013-16 quadrennium. The committee also calculates a high amount of $644.3 million and a low of $576.6 million. Factors that go into the final projection include: church membership, inflation, per-capita disposable income, giving elasticity, net spending, and the gross-domestic product.
Although the percentage of local church receipts for the General Church has gone down each year, the dollar amounts historically have still gone up because of inflation. That may not be the case this time. Even the most optimistic projection calls for a quadrennial decrease of 0.2 percent – which would be the first time ever that the actual dollars available for General Church ministries would be decreased.
GCFA is responsible for recommending to General Conference the total amount of money local churches can be expected to give to the General Church each quadrennium.
The joint session of the Connectional Table and GCFA also heard from the 10-member Apportionment Structure Study Group, which reported it is considering a proposal that would eliminate the denomination's seven general funds to create a single United Methodist fund. Under the provisional plan, local churches would be asked to subtract designated funds received in a weekly offering, and allocate 3 percent of the remaining receipts for the General Church.
The plan received a cool reception from Annual Conference treasurers, however.
"Giving may go down, as many people want to designate funds," responded Christine Dodson, president of the National Association of Conference Treasurers. She said a single fund would decrease transparency and an income-based plan could result in "creative reporting."
- The Connectional Table asked the General Conference Rules Committee to place all legislation dealing with agency structures into a single legislative committee.
- Connectional Table members learned that the World Service Contingency Fund made a $30,000 grant to resolve legal issues surrounding the land on which the Mulungushi Seminary, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is built – and a $25,000 grant to the General Commission on United Methodist Men to launch Disciple Bible studies in male prisons in five states.
(This story is a rewrite of an article by the Rev. Rich Peck, a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and a freelance writer in Franklin, Tennessee.)