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GC2012 COMMENTARY: Separating truths, myths about Call to Action Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, Mar 16, 2012
Bishop Gregory Palmer
By Bishop Gregory Palmer Special Contributor
There is a myth that the Call to Action started with discussions by UMC leaders in 2008. But the truth is that it originated when the Wesleys first began organizing the people called Methodists for the work of personal and social holiness.
From its inception, the movement that is shaping today’s response to God’s call to participate in God’s transforming work in the world has been characterized by continuous renewal and enduring relevance.
What propels the Call to Action initiative? Not the unwelcome but undeniable truth of decades of decline in participation and influence in the U.S. and Europe. Not even the necessary adjustments needed in light of the world economic crisis. What compels us to welcome the refreshing winds of reform are vivid visions of a new United Methodist Church, a church that is clear about its mission, is always reaching out, inviting, alive, agile and resilient. We see a church that is hope-filled, passionate, nimble, called of God, and courageous. It is a church that is passionately committed to the mission and vision of the Wesleyan movement. We see a church that takes risks to reach new people, and searches continuously for creative ways to help each person and whole communities grow in grace, love and holiness. Truth: The focus is on creating more vital congregations. The Call to Action (CTA) recommendations are about finding and walking the paths that lead to dramatic increases in effectiveness for thousands of congregations. The aim is first and last to nourish an intense 10-year emphasis to generate and sustain an increase in the number of vital congregations.
Myth: The CTA is punitive toward and mostly focused on restructuring the general agencies. In fact, we have great evidence that the agencies perform important work that supports and extends the ministries of congregations and annual conferences and others parts of the UMC Connection. We also know that our polity sets the annual conference as the primary unit for organizing resources and deploying leadership to support vital congregations. The reason to reorder how agencies are governed and managed with greater cohesion has mostly to do with increasing alignment to support the work of annual conferences. Related benefits include greater efficiency at lower cost, increased clarity about essential outcomes and more agility to adjust to emerging needs and circumstances.
Truth: The CTA proposals strive to promote healthy, vibrant congregations that work for justice and mercy nearby and around the world. Appreciating the need for both personal and social holiness is part of our rich Wesleyan heritage. We are passionate about the interconnections of holiness of heart and mind and making our communities and the world more loving and just.
Myth: CTA recommendations will result in an inward focus on the local church and obsession with institutional maintenance. In fact, the focus on congregations is not in the least about retreat from the world. To the contrary, the task is to assure that we provide the base camps from which we all move out with confidence and passion having been fully equipped and fortified for the journey.
Truth: CTA calls for increased accountability and responsibility for outcomes at ALL levels of the church. Our ministries benefit from clarity about actual results as well as intentions and we improve when we measure progress as well as celebrating more elusive signs of hope. Giving due attention to measures (ex., growth in weekly participation in worship, involvement in ministries of justice and service, number of professions of faith) are not substitutes for the ultimate outcomes we seek, but they provide indicators of fruitfulness.
Myth: CTA places the greatest emphasis on formulas and metrics that will apply cookie-cutter evaluations of pastors and ignore diversity of settings. In fact, reaching genuine shared agreement in each annual conference about ways of monitoring progress and health and then publicly accounting for how churches, laity, pastors, district superintendents and bishops are doing will help us focus and evaluate our work together.
Truth: The CTA proposals call for greater emphasis for resident bishops to concentrate on leading and supporting work that results in an increase in the number of vital congregations in their areas. The proposal for the president of the Council of Bishops to be dedicated (set aside) for church-wide work is to assure that the bishops will have a peer leader to help them share and apply best practices; make vital congregations the centerpiece agenda for the Council of Bishops; provide the chair for the new General Council on Strategy and Oversight, a liaison to align the work of the general agencies; and assign an available and designated leader for key ecumenical relations.
Myth: The CTA plan promotes a consolidation of power by the Council of Bishops. In fact, the CTA proposals provide for no new authority for the bishops whatsoever. What is called for is greater intentionality, capacity and accountability for the bishops to focus on the main agenda of supporting the work in each annual conference to increase and sustain the number of vital congregations.
Truth: The CTA calls for changes in governance of the general agencies. Since the work of the agencies is the “means” of getting work done and not an end in itself, the CTA proposals provide for effective oversight using best practices for non-profit groups while dramatically reducing the more than $8 million currently spent each quadrennium for meetings. The plan also removes many of the structural barriers that cause independent and less cohesive and integrated work among the agencies, streamlining administration to better support and extend the ministries of annual conferences and local churches.
Myth: CTA’s approach means exchanging missional values for business models and reduces the participation of racial/ethnic leaders. In fact, CTA’s recommendations are hardwired to the imperative of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The important change is not adjustments in agency structures or even how to use performance measures to improve outcomes, but choosing first and foremost to focus on the work of the churches and communities where people live, learn to love God, grow in grace, and seek justice and mercy. Our church has not been effective in the U.S. in growing our racial/ethnic diversity as the racial/ethnic demographics all around us are increasing as a percentage of the population. In fact in the U.S. we reflect less and less the way communities look. We aim to make available leadership and resources for explosive growth in the numbers of racial/ethnic people active in existing and new churches.
The CTA proposals reorder priorities and assure intense concentration on cultivating and maintaining more vital congregations. Instead of an emphasis on a few hundred people attending costly meetings far from home, we envision an exciting movement where millions of people in local churches reach out to more children and youth, embrace new immigrants, involve ever more people in vibrant worship and life-changing small group study and prayer; churches that form communities of faith that hold each other accountable, invest in bold mission and love their neighbors close to home and around the world.
The Call to Action has precipitated any number of generative conversations throughout the United Methodist Church. There are also countless cynical quips. One that I have heard repeatedly is “the Call to Action proposals are about merely moving deck chairs and maintaining the institution.”
I see it differently. The Call to Action proposals are about living into the future with determination, laser focus, courage and hope. They are about taking action to move in the direction of our adaptive challenge: to redirect the flow of attention, energy and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Call to Action proposals help us reignite our passion and align our leaders and other resources for the urgent work of reforming the nation(s), and in particular the church, to spread scriptural holiness over the land(s).
Bishop Palmer is episcopal leader of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference. This article first appeared in Circuit Rider (Feb/Mar/Apr 2012) and online at MinistryMatters.com. Follow General Conference coverage from Circuit Rider and Ministry Matters at www.ministrymatters.com/gc2012.