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Q & A
Q&A: Bishop makes case for Call to Action Sam Hodges, Mar 9, 2012
Bishop Robert Schnase
Bishop Robert Schnase oversees the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church and is the author of the influential book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. With General Conference 2012 fast approaching, he agreed to share his views for why the UMC needs restructuring and other reforms that have been proposed through the Call to Action initiative. Managing editor Sam Hodges posed questions to Bishop Schnase by email.
Why does the UMC need to change? Congregations are the most significant arena through which the UMC fulfills the purpose of Christ. God works through our congregations to change lives, and through lives formed by Christ, God changes the world.
For 50 years, the number of United Methodist members and churches in the U.S. has faced uninterrupted decline while the population has increased. Our mission in Christ is fundamentally at risk. This deserves our absolute attention, not to save the institutional church but to fulfill our mission for generations to come. Unless we change how our local congregations understand their purpose and re-engage their communities, and unless we fundamentally realign our financial, personnel and organizational systems at the conference and general church levels, the decline will continue and accelerate.
The Call to Action report identifies many contributing factors—a crisis of relevancy, lack of missional clarity, difficulty in reaching young people, structures that are not conducive to our mission. The report also provides examples of vital congregations we can learn from. I’m convinced the United Methodist way—our theology of grace, our practice of service, our global witness—has an extraordinary future, and that God has great plans for us. But we have to change many of our systems of forming disciples and leading faith communities.
Why is the change put forward through the Call to Action effort—specifically, consolidating nine agencies under one 15-member board—the way to go? The first concern of the Call to Action is not structural change. The critical question is how to shift attention, resources and energy toward enriching and extending high-quality ministries through congregations. In a large, complex organization, governance involves forcing future-oriented thinking and cultivating an outward focus. We don’t fulfill our mission in meetings; we fulfill our mission at the margins where congregations engage the community and world around them. The Call to Action redirects our energies toward that mission.
Currently, we have more than 500 board members who govern 13 distinct agencies, each with its own mission statement, financial system, logo and identity. The proposal suggests unified governance that includes a 45-member council and a 15-person board. The intention is to increase collaboration, align resources, reduce redundancy and streamline decision-making. Most large churches and many annual conferences have discovered the effectiveness of small boards.
Is this the best plan in the world? There is no such thing. But we can make the best decision among options when we are guided by proven principles for large organizations. We need a plan that supports a clearly articulated purpose, with high accountability, good horizontal communication and vertical alignment, characterized by simplicity, missional clarity and the agility to respond to change and adapt. This plan offers those things.
There’s been pushback. One objection is that a 15-member board will struggle to represent the diversity of the church. How do you respond? I don’t believe reducing size and moving to a more unified structure means we’re stepping back from our commitment to diversity in any way. A smaller, more efficient leadership model is no contradiction to inclusiveness. And I’m offended when people suggest we must choose between diversity or competency-based models for identifying leadership. These are absolutely not mutually exclusive. Finally, the diversity of the teams that created the Call to Action demonstrates that we can work effectively with smaller teams with great diversity.
One proposal would redistribute $60 million in general church funds for a range of purposes related to boosting the number of “vital congregations.” Do you favor that, and why? The General Council for Finance and Administration’s proposed ($603 million) budget for the next quadrennium is about 6 percent less than the adopted budget in 2008. Since the actual General Conference apportionments decreased over the last few years, the difference between 2012 and 2013 would be nominal. For instance, the Missouri Conference would see a reduction of General Church apportionments of about $30,000 on a $13 million budget, and a few conferences would increase under this plan. This does not address the serious reality of 50 years of fewer churches and fewer members to carry those costs.
Most bishops I know wish we would reduce the budget more dramatically, closer to 15 percent. This has been discussed by the Connectional Table, the Council of Bishops and the Interim Operations Team (who developed the $60 million proposal you describe). Whenever leaders discuss major reductions, two opinions surface. The first is to ask less of annual conferences and churches, and the second is to ask the same amount, but redirect the resources toward new initiatives that align with the critical challenges, including Central Conference Theological Education, young adult leadership development, etc. While I wish the alternative plan for the $60 million were more refined, I honestly would prefer either of the two scenarios to the currently proposed budget reduction of 6 percent. We either need to return resources to the local churches and conferences, or redirect them toward the critical challenges of vital congregations and leadership development.
Another proposal would end guaranteed appointment for ordained elders. But some say guaranteed appointment protects prophetic voices, as well as minority and women clergy who might face barriers—or higher barriers—in a different system. And others say the mechanisms are in place to remove ineffective clergy; it’s the will that’s often missing. What’s your position here, and why? Every bishop I know wants a system that protects pastors from abuse of authority related to gender, ethnicity, theological bias, etc. Reasonable checks and balances through the Board of Ordained Ministry or judicial processes protect pastors from arbitrary abuse of authority by bishops and protect bishops from the accusations of the same. However, most bishops want procedures that allow for quicker assessment and intervention regarding ineffective clergy.
The real issue surrounding guaranteed appointment is not the 3 percent of ineffective clergy. It’s the disconnection between the numbers of people credentialed and the numbers we need to maximize our mission. It takes an average worship attendance of 125 or more people to support a full-time elder without strangling vital ministry. Each year we have fewer churches that can afford full-time pastors. Some conferences have one elder in a pastoral role per 70 people in attendance. This is unsustainable, and we need mechanisms to regulate the numbers to fit the mission. Frankly, we need to move from credentialing processes with a default of “as long as you complete the assignments and we find nothing egregious, you are approved,” to a default of “you are not likely to be approved unless you’ve demonstrated exemplary fruitfulness in ministry.”
One argument that has emerged is that the Call to Action represents a power shift in favor of the episcopacy. Is that wrong, especially given the proposal to create a non-residential or set-side Council of Bishops president? More than 30 bishops now serve on the boards of the general agencies that are affected by the legislation. Fourteen bishops currently serve on the Connectional Table. The proposal for streamlining and unifying governance reduces the number of bishops serving to five. This hardly feels like a takeover! In fact, some have expressed concern that bishops will become too remote from general operations. On the other hand, the new model allows bishops to give more time to their conference responsibilities.
The proposal for a non-residential bishop does not invest new authority in the Council of Bishops over the church. Freedom from residential responsibilities allows a bishop to organize the work of the Council to give priority to creating more vital congregations, and to work collaboratively with bishops, annual conferences, seminaries and general agencies to develop models for redirecting resources toward this task. The new bishop would not have the power to control anything, but would hopefully influence many things through the power to convene.
You’ve been a pastor and a bishop. How confident are you that organizational changes at the general church and annual conference levels can make a big difference in whether congregations are vital? In the short term, growing churches will continue to grow and declining churches will continue to decline no matter what General Conference does. But in the long-term, it matters how we address issues of clergy recruitment, education, training, deployment and evaluation. It matters how we realign resources to start new congregations, develop ways to interrupt decline and help congregations focus on their mission field. It matters that our leaders focus on the right questions and deal with issues relevant to our mission around the globe. It matters that we connect our money to our mission. It matters that we leave a legacy to the next generation, not of complex and impenetrable rules and ineffective systems, but of a church that is clear about its mission and confidant about its future, and which is agile and responsive and engaged with the world for the purposes of Christ.
The proposed restructuring changes seem to put the squeeze on agencies, or at least take them out of their comfort zones. Ending guaranteed appointment would reduce security for clergy. But the reforming of the Council of Bishops seems limited to creating a full-time presidency of the Council of Bishops. Why not give up life terms or something else, to show shared sacrifice? Great question. Actually, I’d invite such a conversation.
What concerns me is the “we/they” sentiment which implies that bishops are asking others to change while we continue as usual. This is not the case. The recommendations come not only from the COB but also from the Connectional Table and from teams comprising laity and clergy. And we are asking nothing of others that we are not willing to do ourselves. First, the number of U.S. bishops has been reduced during the last quadrennium. Second, we support legislation that calls for better evaluation and accountability systems for bishops. Third, more bishops are committing themselves to ongoing case-study and best-practices learning groups to improve mission-focused leadership. Fourth, the non-residential bishop creates a role to hold the Council accountable to the Call to Action. When the Council voted unanimously to support the Call to Action report, we accepted responsibility for reforming the Council of Bishops and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church, including asking the church to hold us accountable for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, etc. We’ve invited others to share this responsibility with us.
For years, United Methodists have ignored, denied or blamed others when confronted with the reality of our decline. We say, “The problem is the bishops, the general agencies, the seminaries, the pastors, the ordination process, the churches, the liberals, the conservatives.” This hasn’t helped. Now it’s time for every one of us, including the bishops, to confess our part in our failure to fulfill the mission of Christ more fruitfully, and to take responsibility for a future with hope. We all have to offer ourselves to being changed afresh by the Holy Spirit.
The 2008 General Conference is associated with establishing the Four Areas of Focus. While in some respects—particularly the emphasis on fighting malaria—those are seen as a success, UM membership and attendance in the U.S. have continued to decline. What would you say about the Four Areas of Focus, and do you think they’re in danger of being lost in the shuffle in the current round of reforms? The Four Areas of Focus are a good summary of the ways that the UMC needs to improve to live into the future God intends for us. Individually and collectively they are fully compatible with the Call to Action’s emphasis on vital congregations. Unless we increase the number of vital congregations, we will not succeed in these four areas. Vital congregations produce principled Christian leaders, address issues of global health and engage in ministry with the poor. Sometimes the Four Areas of Focus are viewed as four separate programs. The Call to Action unites them and strengthens them.
You’ll be doing a lot of writing about these issues between now and General Conference. Explain that effort. Remember the Future: Thirty Days of Preparation for General Conference is a series of blogs/essays that I’m writing that focuses on the mission of the United Methodist Church, change in the church, and the Call to Action using scriptural and Wesleyan themes. People can subscribe to receive daily emails of the blogs which begin March 26. They can sign up now for the free subscription at www.MinistryMatters.com/30Days/.
For delegates who are really torn about reforms—believing there’s a need for profound change, but uncertain about specifics—what counsel would you give? I would ask delegates to vote according to some basic principles: 1. The mission of the church through Christ comes first. 2. Remember the future, and consider the legacy we are leaving. 3. Value simplicity, which includes streamlining, unifying, and creating a clear line of sight between our general work and the local congregation. 4. Be mindful that every single dollar we spend was first placed in an offering plate and offered up to God. 5. Pray without ceasing.