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Bishops endorse church restructure proposals


6:30 P.M. EST November 2, 2011 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)

Bishop Mike Lowry reads questions about Interim Operations Team recommendations at the Council of Bishops meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C. UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.
Bishop Mike Lowry reads questions about Interim Operations Team recommendations at the Council of Bishops meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C. UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.
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United Methodist bishops voted overwhelmingly Nov. 1 in favor of proposals to restructure the denomination and redistribute up to $60 million in church funds.

The vote specifically endorsed a letter, titled “For the Sake of a New World, We See a New Church: A Call to Action,” detailing changes — some requiring action by General Conference, some not.

“We see a new church,” the bishops’ letter says. “It is a church that is clear about its mission and confident about its future, a church that is always reaching out, inviting, alive, agile and resilient.” It asks all United Methodists to “work to do the ‘new thing’ God intends for our church and discover the path God is making for our future.”

The Council of Bishops’ vote came as part of the multiyear Call to Action process, which aims to reverse decades of declining membership and financial giving in the United States and to increase congregational vitality. 

With their vote, the bishops endorsed the proposed consolidation of  nine of the denomination’s 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. Legislation submitted to General Conference by the Connectional Table calls for the center to have a 15-member board of directors accountable to a 45-member advisory board called the General Council for Strategy and Oversight. The council would replace the Connectional Table, which coordinates the denomination’s mission, ministries and resources.

The IOT discussion sparks a question from Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky.
The IOT discussion sparks a question from Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky.
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The vote came after two days of discussions among the bishops in private conversations, small groups and plenary sessions. Even as many bishops stood up to commend the letter, they also said there were parts they would tweak if they could. “I don’t agree with everything” was a frequent refrain.

However, many bishops insisted The United Methodist Church needs some kind of reform.

Iowa Area Bishop Julius C. Trimble likened the letter to a GPS that can guide drivers toward their destination even if it doesn’t always get them to the exact address.

“We cannot get where we want to go without some form of a GPS, and we certainly aren’t going to get close without leaving the house,” Trimble told his colleagues to murmurs of agreement.

Bishops also acknowledged that General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, likely would alter the legislation. General Conference will next convene April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.

What the bishops endorsed

The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table initiated the Call to Action process “to reorder the life of the church” two years ago in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis.

At its November 2010 meeting, the council endorsed the Call to Action recommendations and the “adaptive challenge” to redirect resources toward fostering vital congregations. The suggested structural changes the bishops took up this year originated with the Interim Operations Team, a group of eight laity and clergy working with denominational leadership to implement the Call to Action recommendations.

Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, the Interim Operations Team convener, asked the bishops to “embrace and affirm” the team’s work.

In showing their approval, he said the bishops would be showing “our commitment to lead the church” and use the changes as “instruments in service to vision and mission.”

Palmer also stressed that more than 50 percent of the work the bishops need to do to foster vital congregations does not require General Conference legislation.

Bishops do not vote at General Conference, nor do they address the assembly on legislative matters without special permission. However, there are no limits on conversations with delegates and other church members outside the sessions.

In addition to endorsing restructuring and allowing the redistribution of up to $60 million in general church funds, the bishops, in the letter, urge General Conference to give annual conferences more freedom in how they organize, allow the election of a non-residential bishop to serve as president of the Council of Bishops and provide support for collecting consistent information from all annual conferences about their financial practices.

The council said it favors adopting stronger and more transparent measures and procedures for the accountability of bishops. The bishops also said they would work with appropriate general church offices, seminary leadership and annual conference boards of ordained ministry to strengthen support for United Methodist seminaries, address curriculum requirements and clarify expectations.

The bishops said their annual conferences will strive to improve “recruitment and support of the most fruitful and effective young clergy” and strengthen clergy recruitment, formation and the appointment process to improve vitality. 

Bishops voice concerns

The bishops’ vote, by a show of hands, included a handful of “no” votes. The dissenting voices included Denver Area Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky.

After the vote, she said she would have preferred that the bishops could have registered their support for each legislative proposal individually. Her motion during the meeting to allow that failed.

She also would have preferred more conversation about the proposed Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. “I think a certain amount of humility and doubt about what we do is appropriate,” she said.

Still, she said she would support the action of the Council of Bishops and thinks the Interim Operations Team is trying to lead the denomination in the right direction.

Other bishops also voiced concerns, while some doubted how much effect the changes, if adopted, would have.

Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa pins an Interim Operations Team recommendation on a chart during the council meeting.
Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa pins an Interim Operations Team recommendation on a chart during the council meeting.
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Pittsburgh Area Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton asked what essential functions would be lost if $60 million that would ordinarily go to general agencies over the next four years would be redistributed.

The proposed legislation would authorize the board of the newly created center to allocate $5 million to theological education in central conferences outside the United States, $5 million for young people’s lay leadership development, and $50 million for recruiting and training United Methodist ministerial students under the age of 35 and increasing vital congregations.

The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, the Board of Discipleship’s top executive, told the council it is not yet clear exactly what the impact would be on ministries of the general agencies.

The impact could be severe. Agencies already face a more than 6 percent cut in their funding under the 2013-16 budget of $603 million, which the General Council on Finance and Administration has submitted to General Conference. Potentially, the redistribution could mean an additional loss in funding of almost 10 percent. 

“The list (of possible cuts in programming) is long and extensive, and, depending on priorities and decisions made by folks after General Conference, we would have to make those very critical decisions,” Greenwaldt said, referring to her own agency’s work.

East Angola Area Bishop Jose Quipungo does not expect the proposed restructuring to have much effect on the central conferences – church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. However, he said, "It is good for us to recognize we are not perfect, but the people called Methodist are working toward perfection."

Bishop D. Max Whitfield, left, and Bishop Earl Bledsoe discuss the church restructuring proposal.
Bishop D. Max Whitfield, left, and Bishop Earl Bledsoe discuss the church restructuring proposal.
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A number of bishops said they felt they could put the funds to better use at the annual conference and local church level.

After the vote, Washington Area Bishop John R. Schol – who leads the bishops’ Vital Congregations Initiative – said he thinks overall the changes will better align the denomination to support vital congregations.

“Those are the congregations that are growing over time, reaching out to their communities, and they are engaging more of their laity in ministry,” he said.

“Some of the changes we talked about today are legislative, but there’s far more change that’s really about leadership at all levels of the church – bishops, general agency staff, local congregations – all beginning to say we’re going to do something different,” he said.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Showing 11 comments

  • nelsonpreacher 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I hope that this reform is not just simply changing the clothes but the person still the same. People want to see radical change where there is equality and respect for all people called United Methodists.
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  • MorganGuyton 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    To what degree are these criticisms coming from a populist mentality where if it doesn't make sense to me as Joe Six Pack, it's not worth thinking about. We have a dangerous tendency in American thought to hate any kind of complexity. That's why congregationalist church polity (the Baptist model) is much more popular in this country than a connectional system like the Methodists have. The reason to be connectional is to share resources and accomplish things that individual congregations can't do on their own. It's more efficient to have clearinghouses for sharing curriculum and missions projects instead of having the redundancy of each congregation reinventing the wheel by themselves. I don't understand any of this restructuring talk. I'm just going to focus on being a pastor in my local congregation. But I'm grateful that somebody's putting money aside to support seminary education for pastors in the exploding Methodist population in developing countries. And I hope they're cutting away redundancy and inefficiency so that the agencies can really serve the work of the local church.
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  • shipmatefrank 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Until the UMC, The Church, recognizes that the most important part of the Church is the local congregation it will continue to fail it's membership and the Church as a whole.  The complex maze of leadership and all of the support staff required as well as all of the flowery documents in the world will not change the direction of the Church. The Church is not the Bishops nor is it the local lay leader or the local minister or the district superintendant but that is the way it seems to many, if not most, of the laeity.  Until the leadership recognizes this the Church is going to continue it's downward spiral.  Most people really do not care what denomination they are in.  Most have no idea what is in the Book of Discipline....nor do they care. They could care less about who their Bishop is.  Of course, I speak in generalities.  But I speak the truth.  I am one of the anonymous congregants who care only that my worship experience is genuine.  I care about local missions, I am a Stephen's Minister and have taught Disciple.  I study the Bible.  And I love my small groups of which I am a member of several.  But I really feel that what I have said above is true.  Because of this truth, and until it is recognized our denomination is going to continue it's downward sprial.
    Wes Comer
    Pensacola, Florida
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  • shipmatefrank 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Perhaps I am naive but I truly believe that if the UMC concentrated less on the complex mazes of governance and complicated documents that really have little true meaning except in the abstract, and more on simple language and recognition that the true work of the Church rests in the local congregations then we might, just might, reverse course.  Otherwise all the self important people in the hierarchy of the Church and their flowery language will ultimately fail the Church, Christ, and God.  We will continue our descent.  I am not optimistic.
    Wesley F. Comer
    Pensacola, Fl 32504
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  • 120975 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Church structures is like an internet connection. They transfer to another when it is slow.
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  • KOGseeker 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I have no problem with making these changes, but folks, if we think this is going to keep the ship from taking on water, then I fear we will be sadly disappointed.  There is much more water rushing aboard than we can possibly bilge out. It is time for the church to be church and not play church. Even so, the trend toward post-christian secularism in our culture will continue to take its toll.  Perhaps as the church becomes less mainstream and more marginalized then we will once again be moved to live the Reign of God.
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  • sroyappa 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Reformation of the Church and transformation of the world need to go hand-in-hand. The more the church is being reformed, the better opportunities the church has to transform the world. "Call to Action" reoprt with Interim Operations Team's recommendations sound wonderful in the paper and on the floor but without accountability in place, it won't go anywhere and the church would be back to square one in 2016. UMC is known for being filled with "rubbers" but not one of them hitting the road. How long are we going to get stuck with this model of doing church? I have not seen enough reformation elements that are visible and convincing for a better and brighter future for UMC.
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    (Edited by a moderator)

  • LeeMG 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    The re-structuring would save money and make the church more effecient if the Council of Bishops was funded only for active Bishops.  It could be made even more effecient if only the convening Bishop of each region was a voting member of the Council of Bishops.   Of course most minority bishops would then be excluded, but it would be efficient.
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    (Edited by a moderator)

  • theospilot 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    "However, many bishops insisted The United Methodist Church needs some kind of reform."

    I could not help but roar with laughter at reading that comment by the reporter.  God save us if that is anywhere near accurate.  Could the Council of Bishops really be so out of touch?  Surely not!  You would have had to of been living in a cave not jetting around the world, going to countless meetings, eating donuts and "wrestling" and "struggling" with the theological implications of "being the church."

    That is like saying after the Titanic is at a 90 degree pitch going down in the water, "Does anyone know if we have any pumps?"  45 years of decline?  "needs some kind of reform"?  Duh!

    Our problems are simple.  The answers are simple.  We just want to make them appear complex so we don't have to face up to them and do the tough work to fix it.  The reason being, the reformer will be attacked and called every name in the book and might even be removed just by doing the right thing.
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  • Martin Gutzmer 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    When you have been in the church 40+ years you see the restructuring of ideas again and again. Perhaps the tenth time is the charm!?!
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  • Dinkler 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    The diminishing number of church members is central in our assessment of the decline of the vitality of our church. church.

    We admire justice and costly discipleship but finding them difficult to count, much less identify, relegate the prophetic dimension to obscurity when it comes to the future to which United Methodism is committed.

    More members, higher levels of giving, more attendance, greater efficiency so easily become the operational criteria of the church's vitality. Aren't there ways we can make "doing justice" count as an essential dimension of a vital church ?
    show more show less


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