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Now For Something Completely Different

Reflections on #gc2012

By Harriett Jane Olson

I left Tampa on May 5 with hope bubbling up in my thoughts about possible structures for The United Methodist Church. Here’s what I saw:

  • A church taking seriously the results of its current work and engaged in genuine conversation about what should be changed in order to be faithful. It is no secret that we “are not of one mind” about how we should act in this matter.
  • A fair quantity of resolutions which had benefited from the hard work of individuals and groups as well as Legislative Committees was moved forward on the consent calendar.
  • We had some public conversation about the stresses we are experiencing as we are claiming our identity as a worldwide church.
  • Our structures prevent us from making enormous changes without having fully explored the implications.
  • Calls for centralizing authority to address our anxiety about how former “mainline churches” will function in this era do not resonate strongly with enough people (at least not yet) to generate the broad support that would be needed to amend our Constitution.
  • We retained institutional expressions of our commitments to moving our work together as a church and calling the world to move in the long arc toward justice in matters of race and gender. 
  • Proportional representation is an unlikely path toward creating the leadership we need to help us reach a world that is younger, less white, more female and speaking more languages.

General Conference did approve changes provoked by the Call the Action that were proposed by two-thirds of the General Agencies. Of course, as this includes a new relationship with the church for United Methodist Women proposed by Global Ministries and Women’s Division, you would expect me to celebrate these results.

I can only imagine the grief, anger and frustration that members of the Interim Operations Team (IOT), Council of Bishops, and Connectional Table who supported the legislation must feel as the plan in which they had invested so much energy failed to gain the support of the legislative committee or the conference. We must read their posts as expressions of that pain and look for ways to honor them and their work, without necessarily accepting all their analyses.

For example, Andy Langford asserts, “The single greatest institutional problem that hinders effective congregations is our general church agencies.” The General Conference was not convinced of this.

In fact, the studies commissioned by the IOT did not support this assertion. These studies did say that we do not have a single entity which is responsible for the quality of our clergy leadership. (Charge conference, District Board of Ministry, Conference Board of Ministry, Cabinets, Seminaries and General Board of Higher Education and Ministry all have a hand in the process and no one group can take action to affect this group of “principled Christian leaders”).

Who could make an intervention in the current system to see that we have the people, and that those people have the preparation and support that is needed to lead the congregations of tomorrow?

These studies also pointed to the importance of the number of laity in leadership, the vibrancy of worship and the power of small groups, but none of these factors was explicitly addressed by the proposed plans.

Further, none of the plans called for reductions in agency staff. They addressed how the church should govern the agencies—how many directors, who elects them, who would be qualified to serve. All of the plans proposed alternatives for the Connectional Table, but the Conference was not convinced that the proposals were sound, or that they were not in some way a return to something like GCOM, which prior Conferences decided had not produced the results hoped for in 1972.

I suggest that the church might be ready to engage in a serious conversation about some version of what the IOT proposed as the "Adaptive Challenge." 

What would The United Methodist Church look like if our congregations and our connectional expressions (conferences, districts, jurisdictions, regional and global) were missionally driven outposts of a movement that was deepening the members’ dependence on Jesus, opening our hearts to being broken by the hurts of a world that God is working to redeem, and that was impelled to mercy, piety and justice in ways that made others want to join our efforts?

If we could answer the question about what that might look like, we would be ready to ask: what sort of organization should we create to help us to act in that way?

This will mean taking some of the “buzz words” seriously. We will need to be learning organization(s). We will need to share learning and assess and value learning from multiple places in the system—not just from a general agency or from a church over or under a certain size.

If we want to do what we’re doing, learning from the center will be needed. If we want to reach more people in more places, learning from our current edges (margins) will be required.

Instead of being more centralized, we may need to move to a system with more distributed authority that could make change more rapidly in response to local conditions. That would mean trusting each other and engaging in some honest assessment of changes over time--accountability beyond the quadrennium or two in which a bishop is usually in residence in a U.S. Conference.

We will need to act with a view to the whole system. Relationships between one bishop and the mission work in another area, which depends on the personal relationship between the leaders, are episodic rather than systemic. But a long-term development of the capacity of the members of the two annual conferences to be partners in God’s mission could create a framework into which bishops might move as their assignments change.

Some of these relationships could become true partnerships, with each participant committed to bringing gifts to the other—both offering and receiving mission. There is great need to move away from a “center” outward direction of mission, toward an understanding that we are on the journey together, following Jesus in the world.

Of course, to do this, the disciples (members) will need to be engaged in the work. Professionalizing ministry will not take us where we need to go. It is not that we do not need theological grounding--we do. It is not that we do not need skills and background for the work--we do.

But we have amply demonstrated that merely assigning elders to congregations does not adequately spread the knowledge and training we need. Disciple Bible Study, Emmaus, Schools of Christian Mission, and of course Sunday School and VBS contribute to equipping and grounding the people of God for the work of living as disciples. What’s next? What will help us respond to the call of God?

Could it be that we are ready for this conversation? That would be an enormously hopeful result of our sojourn in Tampa. May it be so!

Last Updated: 04/08/2014

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