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Change raises trust issues in church

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*
May 15, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Five years ago, The United Methodist Church created a new body – the Connectional Table – to be stewards of the church’s ministries, mission and money, and to help run the denomination more effectively between quadrennial General Conferences.

 
Bishop Marcus Matthews

This year, amid a global economic crisis that is shrinking church finances, the Council of Bishops is calling for the creation of another group to oversee the work of the church and present a plan for reordering the life of the denomination. The task given to the proposed steering committee sounds a lot like the mandate given the Connectional Table by the 2004 General Conference.

Now, some church members are wondering whether the new committee is necessary, as bishops’ council President Gregory V. Palmer said, to help the church be more nimble and responsive to rapid changes in the denomination and the economy. Or is the creation of a new body a sign of a larger issue in the church and society, a lack of trust in institutions in a time of relative famine?

The issue of trust came up repeatedly in roundtable conversations at the May 12-14 meeting of the 60-member Connectional Table.

New York West Bishop Marcus Matthews said people were “raising suspicion as if somebody is not trusting us to do our work.”

When a group comes into existence and does not operate in the traditional way, “what we tend to do in the church is create another group that will hopefully do what that other group was supposed to be doing,” Matthews said.

The bishops’ call for a steering committee to lead the church “is where the issue of trust seems to be evident in this arena,” he said. “There is the fear among many that it will be a power thing.”

In a May 13 presentation to a joint session of the Connectional Table and United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration, Palmer said the current economic crisis has uncovered a need for bold action that will reorder church structure. The current 1970s organization is “not sufficient, nimble or responsive to the fast-changing 21st century,” he said.

 
Jay Brim

The bishops’ proposal calls for a steering committee of bishops and agency executives to design a plan for reordering the church. The plan will be presented to the November 2009 meetings of the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. “This is not a done deal,” Palmer said.

An unprecedented time

The challenges facing the church around declining memberships and budget shortfalls exacerbate issues of trust, some leaders say.

“The church is in an unprecedented time,” East Ohio Bishop John Hopkins said.

“We know that change is necessary, but whenever there is a time of change, there is the question of who is in charge of change and how is it going to affect me,” he said.

“Working through conflict sometimes damages trust in personal relationships,” said Jay Brim of Austin, Texas. When one worries about someone “being on our side,” he said, “we lose track of the fact that we are all believers and working toward building disciples in the world.”

 
The Rev. Deborah McLeod

The Connectional Table itself is a relatively new entity that is learning how to trust, value opinions and ministries and establish relationships among those coming from different backgrounds, perspectives and ideologies in the church, said the Rev. Deborah McLeod of Jacksonville, Fla.

“At the Connectional Table there is an underlying distrust, but I believe we are working and are committed to one mission together,” she said. “I think the way forward is to focus, not on our own interests, but on the mission of the church. … We have excellent leaders who are helping us focus on the mission.”

According to the Rev. Gregory Stover of Cincinnati, “a lack of trust is part of our human condition and comes out of concern for ourselves.”

Some church officials said the issue extends far beyond the church.

The issue of trust in the United States is “a national crisis that has infected The United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. Beverly Wilkes-Null of O’Fallen, Ill. The lack of trust is part of the human condition, and the distrust felt today is a result of the economic situation that has led to a loss of people’s faith in government on the local and national levels.

“There is an erosion of trust, period,” she said.

A U.S. problem

The Rev. Oyvind Helliesen, a United Methodist from Stavanger, Norway, said there is more distrust in The United Methodist Church in the United States than anywhere else in the denomination.

“The church in the U.S. is more divided and more political than the rest of denomination,” he said. In the case of the Connectional Table, “one of the problems is that people are feeling that they are representing some church group and are bringing that background into the table instead of being here as the person they are, not representing anybody,” Helliesen said. “For the rest of the denomination, as I know it, I don’t feel distrust is strong.”

 
The Rev. Beverly Wilkes-Null

In his own Northern Europe Conference, Helliesen said, liberals and conservatives have learned to live together and trust each other. “There is something in this country that has built mistrust against people,” he said.

When distrust is the problem, faith is the solution, church leaders said.

“My trust is about my relationship with God, who has entrusted me with stewardship of myself and of others,” Wilkes-Null said. “Our default button is mistrust because of what we go through politically, socially and economically. We allow those three arenas to override our religious and spiritual selves.”

She said if people allow their religious selves to “become the default button, anxiety levels will be reduced, and I believe trust will rise.”

Grace and truth overcome distrust, said the Rev. Eddie Fox of Hermitage, Tenn.

“One of things we must do to have trust is to have faithfulness and fidelity to the covenant that binds us together,” he said. “Whenever we break the covenant, we sow seeds of distrust.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Resources

The Connectional Table

Council of Bishops

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