Friday, September 17, 2010

Is the connection fraying?

Recently someone "deeply involved in budgeting" for a local church contacted United Methodist Communications seeking financial information. When we suggested contacting the conference treasurer, the response was complete lack of knowledge about who, or what, a conference treasurer is.

This is not an isolated occurrence. We often encounter United Methodists who are unaware of how our connection works, what it is doing in the world or what it teaches.

Is the connection connected?

An anecdote does not make a trend. However, when asked by United Methodist Communications researchers if their local church understands the concept of connectionalism, only 18 percent of pastors and 12 percent of laity strongly agree that they understand it. When clergy and laypersons are asked individually if they understand the church's structure, 38 percent of clergy and 17 percent of laity strongly affirm that they understand it.

Couple this with participation in connectional giving and the story is consistent. The most widely observed offering in the church is One Great Hour of Sharing, yet only 28 percent of United Methodist congregations participate in it. This is the highest rate of participation for any of the general church offerings.

At a time when global realities call for deeper understanding of our interrelatedness and interdependencies, the fraying of the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is a cause for concern. The lack of awareness about how we are connected from the local church to the annual conference and from the annual conference to the general church is important, not only to us as a faith community but also to the world.

Let me illustrate. It is noteworthy that the World Health Organization is reporting that malaria is claiming fewer children today than in previous years. What does this have to do with the connection? I believe when the people of The United Methodist Church entered into the fight against this killer disease, we encouraged others and helped, along with other partners, to focus on something the world could do together: tackle a disease of poverty.

It was our scale partnering with others of scale that gave hope that together we could alleviate human suffering and death in a global movement. Our connectedness was, and is, an immeasurable asset in the mission to embody the leading causes of life, to quote Gary Gunderson's marvelous phrase.

If we reclaim an understanding that the connection is about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (that's scale), and that discipleship is expressed through missional outreach to the world (that's scale), we can participate with God in the transformation of the world (that's real scale).

I know there are many complex reasons the connection is fraying. But I'm asking a simple question. What if the connection were viewed less as a bureaucratic organizational model that's a drag on finances and more as a life-giving movement for the healing of the world? What if we viewed it, interpreted it and embodied it in this way? What might happen?
Comments will be moderated.


DrPsyce38 said...

What IF we viewed the Connection as a "life-giving movement....?" But, it isn't a total life-giving movement. It does tons of good in Jesus name, sure. But, it is also a giant cash cow bureaucratic organism. Too large, too expensive.

Allen said...

I have been a UM since I was born which = 38 years. It was not until my child (now 3) was born that I started to look into it. I understood Christianity and went to a UMC but when I looked into UM, I was stunned at what I didn't know. I didn't know there was a book of discipline, the UMC social principles, the judicial counsel, etc. I think the reason mega churches are doing so well (most are very in line with MOST UMC principles) and the UM is not is because Rick Warren and others can control and ensure their church philosphy and spending is on line with their congregation. When you look at the UMC conferences, they are all over the board with thoughts, beliefs, and theology and the UMC must manage all this. In many ways it must be ran as a business and I have asked myself the questions at what point does church quit becoming church and need to be ran as a business because of its size. That being said, only large christian groups such as catholics and the UMC can respoond on a global basis and to mutliple crises througout the world. I didn't know we were at Katrina before the red cross, that we respond in the same way, world wide, to floods, malaria, earthquakes, etc. I think the mission work often gets lost in all rules, debates, etc. and most UM only relate to their church and only think of conference when the repersentative gives their 5 minute talk on what heppened. I think the UMC does a poor job in publizing to its memebers all the great mission work that is done. Being a Soldier, we are always told not to complain unless we have an idea on how to fix it. I am sure I am oversimplifing this, but the pastors should speak on this a couple times a year. That would also help the individual churches know that the money that goes to the districts, to states, and up are going to do great things. (States also do a poor job of getting the word out) The UMC website and the WV website have opend my eyes as to many of the things that the UMC does and many of the resources that are available.

Larry said...

According to the most recent data, of every $1000 given by United Methodists, $845 stays in the local church, $124 goes to jurisdictions, $22 goes to general apportionments and $9 goes to other general funds including United Methodist Women.

In 2007, United Methodists gave $5.1 billion for local church expenditures including program and operation expenses, pastor salaries and expenses, debt payment and benevolences paid directly to the local church.

Allen, Thank you for your overview of the complexity of the church and the recognition of its value at scale. Your suggestion that we increase our education in the local church is helpful. Thank you for your reference to as a source of information. Readers may also want to visit and order the helpful booklet, Together We Can, for a brief but comprehensive resource about The United Methodist Church.

cspogue said...

The general church does a very poor job of communicating the benefits that are generated for the $150 million it spends. Some of that is just a poor job of interpretation and some of it is that some of the spending is not easily defended. If we truly believe that the annual conference is the basic unit of The UMC, then the general agencies should only be doing those things that the annual conferences cannot do separately. Being in a position of substituting the judgment of less than 2,000 general agency employees for the nearly eight million members in the USA who pay the apportionments has not and will not work.

For example, I believe that most people in the pews would be unhappy to learn that OGHS monies are simply used for the administrative expenses of UMCOR rather than relief and that no apportionment dollars are spent for UMCOR administration. Most people would think that UMCOR administration should be a high priority for GBGM's funding from World Service and that OGHS should help fund relief efforts for the disasters that don't get the attention that Katrina or the Haiti earthquake got.

The only way for the general agencies to be viewed as a "life-giving movement" is for them to only do those activities that would enjoy widespread support in the pews. Instead, too much time, money and effort are spent on personal agendas.

Rich Buckley said...

Two somewhat scientific efforts underway to address connectivity from the stand point of evolutionary energy of the specie: Jeremy Rifkin, ( and from the act of mental coherence, the quality of the language between the heart and brain reported by Gregg Braden ( connectivity into the collective consciousness as a possible working instrument for good in the church.

Rex said...

I thought the basic unit of Methodism was the class. Maybe that's why John Wesley opposed becoming a church. Seriously, the structure of The UMC is Byzantine, a collection of ad hoc committees grown permanent with strong roots and independent agendas. This seems to be the general rule of construction, operating at all levels of the church. What starts out as an impulse to be flexible becomes "We've always done it that way." What is missing is a general rule of pruning, to keep the trunk straight and strong and the crown thin enough to let light through.

Or maybe we just need to pray for "the Bishop, the General Conference, and all of it's agencies" each week. Or is that too Catholic?

William said...

It is enheartening to read some of these comments. Perhaps UM's are more aware than I thought of the disastrous and ugly side of agency life in the church. I encourage all UM's to check out the salaries of these 'servants' wonder clawing at each other for survival is the norm. How many of you, clergy, would appreciate a $115+ salary? The agencies are bloated, self-serving and, frankly, ugly instruments. Agencies, be gone!

Allan said...

In the Conference where I live, much of the "dis-connect in the connection" can be laid at the feet of the District Superintendents who are needed to represent the connection in their relationship with local churches. In recent years we have witnessed the advent of group charge conferences -- which may take less of the Superintendent's time and energy -- but also communicate at powerful message to the people who are the UMC, namely, "we don't care enough about you to give you our undivided attention." No wonder, the connection get's short shrift when it comes to paying apportionments.

dadunc said...

I would predict that if every UM knew everything that the "connection" was doing in their name, their would be even more mass exodus. There are those "upstairs" that apparently couldn't give a rip what the the little people of the connection think and feel. You know, the ones that actually pay the bills and salaries. Until that changes, most really don't care about the connection, they just tolerate it.

Rich Buckley said...

I like and especially support the thread of discussion started by Rex above. Praying for our Bishops is likely a good thing in any event. However, the strength of the United Methodist Church over the long run is its laity and a restrained sense of fearlessness, love, humility and willingness to seek truth above all else, even if this shifts some of our closely held dogmas. This format does not appeal or work well for the current economics of church growth but I believe there are cycles of growth and our open system needs to be even more open not more dogmatic in the context mega-churches call "high tension." The best way to achieve the opposite of high-tension currently seems to be to allow free flow discussions on topics lead by laity that fly or sink on their own merits.

Patrick said...

I have taken a particular interest in the UMC recent (last 20 years) decisions regarding "our" stated beliefs and the types of organizations that we support. Frankly, I agree with dadunc above that if local congregants got connected to what the leaders believe worthy of support in our names, there would be even more people leaving our church. Two that come to mind in particular are the UMC statement on abortion in the UMC Social Principles along with "our" financial and moral support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (continued funding supported by Resolution of the 2008 General Conference)
The second example is the UMC support for organizations such as Interfaith Worker Justice. Though their mission and vision looks innocent enough, their associations with other groups and their methods would not be supported by a large percent of the UMC at large. These and other similar examples are, for me, very disturbing as a Christian. I suspect they will be for others, as well, if we get connected. Be careful what you wish for...

Paul Fleck said...

Patrick, your comments about the UMC's statement on abortion and the supposed support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights are as reckless and inaccurate as they are vague (and you made them vague for a reason; because they are not true). I was at the 2008 General Conference. The debated resolution supported "observing" the activities of the RCRC, not funding it or explicitly supporting it. Likewise, your smear against Interfaith Worker Justice is just that: a smear tactic. When you have some facts at your disposal, why don't you present those? Otherwise, leave your innuendo at home where it belong.

Patrick said...

In response to the comments made by Mr. Fleck about my previous post I will add the following: It is correct that the UMC does not provide funding to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, that was my mistake. On the other hand, Resolution 3204 "Support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice" goes much farther than simply "observing" the activities of the RCRC. The resolution states "be it resolved, that the United Methodist 2008 General Conference go on record in support of the work of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and
Be it further resolved, that the 2008 General Conference affirm the continued membership of the General Board of Church and Society and the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice." Additionally, the UMC, through the GBCS holds a seat on the RCRC Council of Governors. Linda Bales Todd, I am told, sits on that Council. This resolution and the UMC Council seat are repugnant to me as a Christian who believes abortion is, in all but exceptional cases, immoral. As a United Methodist I believe our church has gone wrong on this issue. One need only visit the RCRC website to become informed about their mission.

Regarding UMC support for Interfaith Worker Justice, my point is that, like the UMC official stance and support for RCRC and abortion, many of our fellow congregants will be surprised - maybe shocked - at what they are officially and publically supporting. These are only two issues that are controversial. There are many other positions that the UMC takes that, if better communicated, may surprise our parishioners. There are many that we will find common ground on, as well. This is the context within which I made my comments.

Let me close with this, Mr. Fleck, my Christian brother, seems to discover in one paragraph that I am a liar and intent on simple “smear tactics”. I am neither; at least I try hard not to be. I love our church and want it to succeed in its mission to bring people into the presence of Gods grace. We will only achieve this when people of good faith intentionally listen and hear what others have to say. My hope is that all of us will respect each others’ opinions, love each others’ souls and be open to God’s movement in our hearts.