The next two weeks are going to be a critical time for The United Methodist Church. The Connectional Table (CT), called to bring together all of our connectional ministries, will meet in Chicago next week. I like to envision them meeting at a large round table in Camelot, attempting to bring all of our worldwide ministries together. The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), the money folk and current drivers of so much of our agenda as a denomination, will be meeting May 2 to 3. If you don’t believe me when I say that money is driving ministry, “at the 2008 General Conference, a Petition (#81071) ‘General Church Support’ was referred to GCFA to form a study group, in conjunction with the CT, to explore alternative structures for the apportioned general funds of the UMC.” The result was the CT investing a half million dollars and two years on re-structuring… and the restructuring debacle of General Conference (GC) 2012 was born! Finally, the active Bishops will be holding a closed door, “private meeting” in San Diego on May 5 to 8. They are doing this even though several of us who asked to be present at the Council of Bishop’s (COB) meeting in November were informed that it was “a retreat meeting – and it is closed to ANYONE other than bishops and their spouses.” However, we were reassured “the next open meeting of the COB will be in San Diego in May of 2013.” I guess our Bishops either need more retreat time, or they are weary of growing criticisms and imagined that a closed door session might instill more trust. (Just a reminder for all you Methogeeks out there: Paragraph 722 of the 2012 Book of Discipline says that “in the spirit of openness and accountability, all meetings of councils… of the Church at all levels of the church… shall be open”).
The next two weeks are formational preparations times for these three key leadership groups. They will be focusing on how to lead the UMC through what appears to be four of the most crucial years in United Methodism’s short 45 year history. What are we facing? Financial ruin, societal irrelevance and a dying colonialist institution in a post-colonialist world – interconnected pieces of the global United Methodist puzzle!
Here are five things impacting current discussions that every United Methodist should know:
1) Approximately 33,750 US UM Churches will be asked to pay around $4,500/year (through 2016) in apportioned funds, to support our worldwide, connectional ministries. Of course, that doesn’t mean that’s what your individual congregation’s apportionment will look like. There is a complex formula that GCFA uses to determine the amount of apportioned dollars for which each Annual Conference is responsible. That apportioned formula (on pages 42-45) is online.
2) Another interesting fact about apportionments is that your congregation’s apportionments are impacted by “per capita income for the counties that comprise the conference’s geographic area” and “by adding (1) local church clergy expenses, (2) local church current operating expenses, and (3) payments toward budgeted annual conference costs (excluding general Church apportionments).” In other words, if your Annual Conference is in a more affluent region, your apportionments will be slightly higher. My question for GCFA is this: does this explain why per capita giving is slightly higher than average in the Western, North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions (40% of the US UMC) as opposed to the slightly lower than average per capita giving of the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions (60% of the US UMC)?
3) Last financial fact: Central Conferences (Europe, Africa and the Philippines; representing 33% of the UMC membership worldwide) do not pay apportionments (except for 10% of their Episcopal Fund – all costs associated with their Bishops). This means Central Conferences contribute little more than $2.25 million of the annual apportioned total of over $150 million.
4) The United Methodist Church is declining or stagnate in all Jurisdictions in the US. For the first time, in 2005 – 2008, we saw a decline in Central Conferences. However, the Central Conference decline can be explained by regional difficulties and is expected to revert to a growth pattern. In fact, the Central Conferences are expected to represent 40% of the worldwide UMC by 2016. Also, note that Annual Conferences of Central Conference do not have to do things the same way as US Annual Conferences. They have a constitutional right “to make such rules and regulations for the administration of the work within their boundaries including such changes and adaptations of the General Discipline as the conditions in the respective areas may require, subject to the powers that have been or shall be vested in the General Conference” (UM Book of Discipline ¶31.Article IV.5).
5) Three of our five US Jurisdictions are currently studying how they are and will continue to relate to the overall denomination given the reality that they do not have similar freedoms and latitude as the Central Conferences. Yes, this has much to do with differences in faithful understandings around some heated social issues, but for many who have raised the need for study, this has as much to do with their understanding of being faithful United Methodists and being relevant to the congregations and communities they serve. Some fear this to be the precursor to a denominational schism along Jurisdictional lines. I don’t believe such an action will, or even should, happen! However, unless our highly politicized and divided denomination finds some way to compromise, the continued decline of the UMC in the US, the perceived irrelevance among younger US citizens, and, the rapid movement toward financial ruin is all but inevitable.
I was so grateful to find some hope this week. I found hope within the documents of something I’ve been highly skeptical and critical: the “Vital Congregations” movement within the UMC. The document is called, “Toward Vitality Research Project: Final Report” (TVRP) and I encourage you to read it with an open heart and mind! The team interviewing congregations that had gone through a process of change that they felt led them to more vitality in ministry (not quantitative – numbers, but quality – ministries), found something interesting. “Often congregational leaders who related this experience of change were unable to verbalize what happened. In listening to these stories over and over again, the interview team affirmed that the Holy Spirit had descended on these congregations… The three strands (Eccl. 4:12) that seem to be universal in all the interviews… conducted across all lines of diversity are (1) a clergy leader who is not afraid of change, (2) laypeople in leadership who partner with the clergy leader, and (3) a sense of God’s vision/purpose to fuel mission and ministry. When these three factors work well together, a vital and enthusiastic ministry is the outcome!” I’d invite our Bishops to see themselves as the clergy of their Annual Conference congregations!
As I read through this TVRP report, I couldn’t help but imagine all three of these important meetings taking place over the next two weeks. Everyone worried about what will be the fate of our beloved UMC. Some even behind closed doors in some private (maybe upper) room. Everyone wants to find a way to save what we perceive we had, even though there is no way to revive what was. Instead, we might allow the Ruach, the Holy presence of God to blow through us, so we can start facing the real changes that need to occur to make our people want to be a part of the new thing we are doing. Then we might find support for our connectional work by everyone’s prayers, presence, gifts, witness and service.
Rather than trying to control the outcome and force something that causes the UMC as an institution to implode; “This new understanding commonly involved a decentering of the ministry. Instead of focusing on the pastor, the ministry was focused on the calls and the gifts of the people in the church, with the pastor working to emphasize empowerment, rather than detailed, hands-on leadership… The role of the pastor in these churches was to communicate the need for change and the methods of change, exercise authority where needed, and resolve conflicts that could not be resolved otherwise. For many, this is a new—or perhaps rediscovered—paradigm for what it means to be a church.”
Come on CT, CGFA and Bishops – be those pastoral leaders, don’t try to control the Church, but don’t be afraid to challenge us –really challenge us – either. The fate of the UMC is not in your hands, so let the Spirit flow freely and then invite us ALL in to help create this new and Spirit filled United Methodist Church! We’re waiting… see you in two weeks… travel well and know that our hearts and prayers are with you! With Love, The Church!
Rev. Steve Clunn serves as the Coalition Coordinator for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Clergy in the Upper New York Annual Conference, Steve's work at MFSA focuses on coordinating United Methodist caucus groups in their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the Church.
Photo of Bi-National Couple Courtesy of JeeHye Kim Pak. Copyright 2013. Used with permission.