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Petition drive seeks support for major reforms Sam Hodges, Mar 30, 2012
UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY HEATHER HAHN
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., speaks with Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House, before an update on the Call to Action effort.
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
Call it pushback to the pushback.
With General Conference looming, backers of the first and most aggressive restructuring plan for general agencies of the UMC have mounted an online petition drive. They want to show that, despite noisy opposition and the emergence of alternative proposals, they have broad support from across the denomination.
In under a week, some 1,400 people—clergy and laity—had signed on as favoring the plan crafted by the Connectional Table and Call to Action Interim Operations Team, which would consolidate nine general church agencies under a single Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry, run by a 15-person board and executive director.
“There has been so much pushback from some at the general boards that it was beginning to sound like everyone but the bishops was opposed to the Connectional Table proposals,” he said. “I didn’t think this accurately captured the sense I was getting from many people.” Mr. Hamilton described himself as “thrilled” with the number and diversity of signees.
“You’ve got people on the left and people on the right and a whole lot of moderates,” he said.
Mr. Hamilton, a best-selling author and pastor of the 16,000-member Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., said that pastors from about 90 of the 100 largest UMC churches in the United States had signed the petition.
He believes their endorsement may have weight with delegates to General Conference, which meets in Tampa, Fla., April 24 to May 4. “Many of these pastors have managed to buck the trend in the United Methodist Church by growing a church when the denomination has declined,” he said.
One leading critic of the Connectional Table/Interim Operations Team (CT/IOT) approach sounded unperturbed by the petition drive.
“We welcome everyone looking seriously at all of the alternatives and making determinations as to which plan they feel is best for the church,” said Joe Whittemore, a six-time General Conference delegate from North Georgia who helped craft Plan B, an alternative to CT/IOT.
The Rev. Steve Clunn, coalition coordinator for the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), which has its own alternative restructuring plan (www.mfsagc12.org) said the UMC should be grateful to those on the Connectional Table and Interim Operations Team for pushing for change.
But he took issue with the petition drive, which is drawing signatures from General Conference delegates as well as others in the church. “While individuals have the right to recognize their belief in a need for change, as some delegates have done, to wholly endorse one proposal as the best way to effect change before the process of ‘holy conferencing’ has begun is problematic,” he said.
General Conference is the quadrennial gathering in which nearly 1,000 clergy and lay delegates decide matters of denominational law and policy, as well as set a general church budget.
The lead-up to this General Conference has been dominated not by debate about homosexuality or other social issues, but by efforts to restructure general church agencies, given decades of numerical decline in the UMC in the United States, as well as a shrinking financial base.
Criticism of the Connectional Table/IOT plan began months ago, with ethnic caucuses raising concerns about whether a 15-person board—to be overseen by a 45-member advisory panel—could reflect the diversity of the UMC.
MFSA also weighed in early with that and other objections, and offered a less dramatic proposal for agency consolidation.
More recently, the board of the General Council for Finance and Administration warned that the CT/IOT approach could jeopardize objective financial decision-making and also risks legal problems. Leaders of the General Board of Discipleship said that the agency’s work would be undercut by the CT/IOT plan for consolidation, especially if combined with budget cuts.
Meanwhile, Mr. Whittemore and others unhappy with the CT/IOT plan have come out with Plan B, yet another compromise restructuring plan. The Plan B website (www.umcplanb.org) offers various reasons to oppose CT/IOT, including that it would shift power to the Council of Bishops.
The Council of Bishops offered near-unanimous support for aggressive reform in an open letter titled “For the Sake of a New World, We See a New Church.” But even some of the bishops have lately weighed in with concerns about the CT/IOT plan.
‘Piece of puzzle’
Mr. Hamilton ascribed some of the resistance to fear of change. He noted that his church went through a staff restructuring a decade ago. “It was scary for all of us,” he said. “But when we were finished, two years later, the morale was higher than it had ever been.”
Mr. Hamilton said consolidating agencies under a small board, led by an executive director, will increase the efficiency of the general church.
But he added that he’s heard the concerns about diversity and would be open to having 15- to 20-member support teams for each of the five offices that the CT/IOT plan has grouped under the Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.
He could even see that center with a 60-member board, provided it had a 15-member executive committee.
“That, I think, would be fine,” he said.
But he said there has to be an end to the status quo of numerous agencies with large boards.
“What I don’t think is helpful is when you have 500 board members flying in twice a year, using apportionment money to listen and give their opinions and fly back home,” he said.
Some critics of the CT/IOT plan say they see no clear connection between it and the larger goal of a 10-year emphasis on bolstering the UMC’s number of vital congregations.
Mr. Hamilton said that aggressive restructuring will better position the general church to help with that goal, but added that he’s more excited about another proposal—investing $50 million to recruit and train talented young clergy.
“Restructuring the church is not the answer to creating more vital congregations,” he said. “It’s one piece of the puzzle.”
Mr. Hamilton brushed back criticism that the CT/IOT plan shifts power to the bishops, including by creating a full-time president of the Council of Bishops.
“We need the Council of Bishops to function more effectively at collaborating on strategies in annual conferences that produce more vital congregations,” he said. “It makes sense to me that we need a real president for the Council of Bishops. The current role of president is a very part-time position that is ineffective. I have zero concern that the president will become a ‘pope’ of the United Methodist Church.”
Mr. Hamilton said he’s encouraged that, while opinions on how to reform the UMC differ, there seems to be near unanimity that major change is needed.
Several General Conference delegations have issued statements to that effect, and on March 24, the Arkansas Conference delegation joined them.
“We know that no one can predict with confidence the full impact of any of the proposed changes but we also believe that if we do nothing or only make minor changes our beloved Church will continue to decline,” the delegates said.