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Call to Action seeks to increase church vitality


3:00 P.M. EST April 9, 2010 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The Rev. Larry Hollon, 
top staff executive of United Methodist Communications, tells the Call 
to Action Committee about research on how people view Christianity. UMNS
 photos by Rich Peck.
The Rev. Larry Hollon, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications, tells the Call to Action Committee about research on how people view Christianity.
UMNS photos by Rich Peck. View in Photo Gallery

Many United Methodists would agree there are gaps between where the church is and where it wants to be.

A decline in membership in the United States and growing fiscal problems represent two of many such gaps.

The 12-member Call to Action Committee, meeting April 6-8 in Nashville, set plans to gather data from across the United States to help the church discover ways to bridge these gaps.

The committee is a successor to an earlier 18-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to reorder the life of the church for greater effectiveness and vitality in “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and addressing the Four Areas of Focus endorsed by the denomination’s 2008 legislative assembly, the General Conference.

Led by Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops, the group dreams of a church:

  • with more grace and freedom and fewer rules––more accountability to gospel and less conformity to an outdated, bureaucratic system;
  • more ministry with the poor and less reticence to link arms with the desperate, the sick and the hungry;
  • more dreaming about what will be and less struggling to preserve what was;
  • and more trust and less cynicism.

“It is an enormous project,” said Fred Miller, process consultant for the group and president of The Chatham (Mass.) Group. “We wouldn’t be here if everything was OK.”

He asked the group to focus on the big picture and not tinker with “stress-reducing distractions.” He encouraged them to “imagineer (engineer and imagine) what could be.”

To start their work, the committee employed two consulting groups to gather data from which they can make final recommendations.

Doors to effect change

Mark Harrison, founder of Manhattan Beach, Calif.,-based Apex Healthcare Group, will conduct an “operational assessment” to provide three to five “doors” that may open pathways to improve decision-making and affordability. He is also asked to find ways to increase effectiveness in addressing the Four Areas of Focus.

“This is not a performance audit of each general agency and the Council of Bishops,” Harrison said. “It is an aggregate evaluation.”

He plans to conduct interviews with bishops, agencies executives, pastors and laypersons, and he is scheduled to finish work by June 27.

Harrison is not a United Methodist and comes to the position as an outsider with experience in company mergers. Following 20 years as an investment banker, Harrison has also done consulting work for the Red Cross, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Baylor College of Medicine.

Asked his early impressions of the denomination, he told United Methodist News Service that the church appears “diffuse without sufficient alignment.”

Vitality factors

Towers Watson, a New York-based organization with 14,000 employees around the world, will provide the committee with information about factors that contribute to church vitality.

The agency interviewed bishops, pastors and laypeople to discover six indicators of church vitality. These interviews and responses to a Web survey resulted in the following indicators:

  • Average worship attendance as percentage of membership;
  • Total membership;
  • Number of children, youth and young adults attending as percentage of membership;
  • Number of professions of faith as percentage of attendance and membership;
  • Actual giving per attendee; and
  • Finance benevolence giving beyond the local church as a percentage of the church budget.

David B. de Wetter, a Chicago-based executive with the organization, said the agency will categorize churches based on percentage increase or decrease in each item over a five-year period.

The agency also wanted to consider the percentage of persons involved in mission activities, but there was doubt about the consistent availability of that information across all annual conferences.

Bishop Gregory Palmer
 (right), chairperson of the Call To Action Committee, shares  thoughts 
with consultants Mark Harrison and Frederick Miller.
Bishop Gregory Palmer (right), chairperson of the Call To Action Committee, shares thoughts with consultants Mark Harrison
and Frederick Miller. View in Photo Gallery

Towers Watson staff will mine existing data submitted by local churches and tabulated by the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). The 33,850 churches will be grouped into churches with high, medium and low vitality; and 25-30 percent of churches from each group will be selected at random to determine factors that drive vitality. All individual church information will remain confidential; only the aggregate findings will be used.

The staff will survey all active U.S. bishops, all district superintendents, and pastors and laity in selected local churches. Others will be able to provide insights on a Web site to be announced by May 1.

Once the group identifies structures, policies and practices that encourage vitality, it may recommend ways in which these can be encouraged throughout the denomination. Towers Watson is expected to report its initial findings by late June.

Given its limited time, the group agreed to focus only on U.S. churches for this initial work. Other groups, including the 20-member World Wide Nature of the Church Committee, will address international concerns. The church has 7.8 million U.S. members and 11.5 million worldwide.

Number of clergy

Scott Brewer, GCFA senior researcher, told the group it takes more than 100 church members to support a full-time pastor. He noted there are 25,074 charges (including pastors assigned to two or more churches), and 15,527 of these charges have fewer than 100 members; 8,001 of these small-membership charges are served by full-time pastors.

“We are overstaffed if our mission field is existing churches,” said Bishop Palmer. “But if our mission is the world, we are understaffed.”

The first Call to Action committee called for consideration of the elimination of guaranteed appointments for elders. The United Methodist Commission to Study the Ministry is tackling this issue.

Later this year, the Call to Action Committee will host a meeting of current study groups addressing such issues as worldwide nature of the church, theological education, clergy health and apportionments. The groups will consult about developing findings and recommendations for General Conference emerging from each study and consider ways in which they can cooperate.

Funded by a $500,000 grant from the Connectional Table, the Call to Action Committee will give a final report to the Council of Bishops in November. The committee will also report to the Connectional Table. Either of those groups could take recommendations to the 2012 General Conference.

*Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and a freelance writer in Nashville.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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