A Cracked Crystal Ball

I will make a prediction that isn’t much of a prediction.  It is a conjecture based on our current state of indecision, cluelessness, and self-defeating choices.  Within the next few months some well-intentioned, short-sighted “leader” in our denomination will present a proposal for the consolidation and/or elimination of the general boards and agencies of The United Methodist Church.  The reasons given will be efficiency, reduction of redundancy, elimination of waste, and concentration of focus and vision resulting in greater relevancy and value.  The real reason will be to save a few dollars, but no one will say that’s WHY we’re doing it.  The hope will be that everyone will miss/ignore the fundamental contradiction in a church wanting to “grow” downsizing its national/global infrastructure.  What will not be clear is how the proposed change will actually make us better able to serve God and the church.  What will be lacking is a clear rationale for why THIS change (whatever it might be) is the RIGHT change to make.

What such a proposal is likely to reveal is our system-wide lack of understanding of what we are trying to do in the world and why.  Where there is no vision, the house of cards will perish.  Form actually does follow function, so before we make deep structural changes, we’d better know what it is we’re trying to achieve.  Through the restructuring following merger in 1968, our current boards and agencies were primarily designed around missional objectives.  Will our four focus areas define our missional priorities for the future?  Will 2012 General Conference?  Will our Bishops?  Are we becoming a global church, a regional church, or something a little more “re-thought?”  Will we continue the current path of institutional preservation from the last century or are we serious about reimagining ourselves in the new spiritual enlightenment paradigm that is defining global Christianity in the 21st century?  Will we fixate on how many people we can get to come to us or are we going to shift focus to how many people we can mobilize to live their discipleship in the world?  Will we make reactive decisions about our boards and agencies based on current economics or will we plan to fund and support those ministries essential to resourcing the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  Will we be less than we already are while boasting of being more or will we maximize the potential and possibility of who God is gifting and calling us to be?  Will we walk by a reasoned and informed faith or by a limited and blindered sight?  It will be interesting to see.  And perhaps I am being too cynical.  Maybe no one will offer such a simplistic and self-defeating proposal at all.  My crystal ball might not be all it’s cracked up to be…

16 replies

  1. Oh I definitely could see a proposal like this coming up because so many in our country have bought into the “bureaucracy is always inefficient” meme. As church budgets get more and more squeezed, anything that lowers apportionments will be attractive. The real question is who’s going to take care of the poor once our government cuts their safety nets come August. The people advocating for the nets to be cut say that the church should step up. Will these same people be the ones arguing for cutting our missional programs so that the church can’t step up?

  2. There has been little refutation of the survey research findings in the Call to Action report that most people feel there is a disconnect between the general agencies and the people in the pews who pay the bills. There is a lack of trust on the part of the people in the pews who pay the bills about the actions and agendas of the general agencies.

    We should look at whether there is a purpose worth $2.755 million a year for the General Commission on Religion and Race and its Minority Group Self-Determination Fund. Our racial issues aren’t institutional. They are issues of the heart. The same is true for the General Commission on Status and Rights of Women which gets $1.099 million a year.

    The Southern Baptist Convention which has double our American membership spends $3.2 million on its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Why are we spending $3.1 million for our General Board of Church and Society?

    It is unlikely that any major church mergers are on the horizon. It is also true that most ecumenical work is done at the annual conference and local church level. Spending $1.455 million a year for the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns should not continue. We also spend over $1.1 million a year for the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches providing more than any reasonable assessment of our “fair share.”

    Less than one quarter of all African-American students go to any Historically Black College or University. We budget over $11 million for those with a UM connection. While Wiley College is 44% Methodist (which may also include AME and AMEZ), none of the others break 15%. If our goal is to make college more widely available, then we could accomplish that by having each annual conference create a scholarship fund for students who would be the first in their family to go to college.

    Instead of sending a set amount of money to each official seminary even if they graduate very few elders, perhaps the Ministerial Education Fund should become an annual conference budget item to support their certified candidates.

    Instead of sending money to GCFA and then having them send it to the annual conferences, perhaps it would be better to make the annual conference(s) in each episcopal area (at least within the USA) responsible for the salary, benefits and office support for their bishop. Currently, the Western Jurisdiction does not pay for their six bishops much less make any contribution toward the central conference bishops nor the retirees.

    We should remember that the basic unit of The United Methodist Church is not the general agencies but instead is the annual conferences.

    • I am not surprised about the disconnect — it has also been fairly well established that 8-out-of-10 people in the pews have no idea what the general boards and agencies actually do, and there is a whole lot of misinformation being passed along as fact. The bottom line is that our boards and agencies have done little to strengthen ministry at the local level. I do believe that many of the boards do valuable work FOR the church, but that they do not do as good a job equipping the church to do the work. (Global Ministries might be the exception…)

      My point is this: our denomination has not been moving toward a Promised Land for quite some time: we don’t have a compelling vision of what God is calling us to create and do in the future. For this reason, all levels of United Methodism have been wandering in the wilderness — keeping very busy doing good things that aren’t really getting us anywhere. BEFORE we start making decisions about what structure and processes we need, I think we need to clarify where we are going, what outcomes we are trying to produce, how we will evaluate our success, and why it is important that we perform as we will. Until these large questions get answered, and focus on “how” is irrational and irrelevant. Our Call to Action is a call to wander harder and faster, not smarter or more effectively. If we dismantle parts of the system we actually need, it will be much more difficult and much more costly to rebuild them after they are gone.

  3. Unfortunately, you are right about the “misinformation>” Many of the nuttiest things aren’t known. GCRR issuing a report right before Easter accusing The UMC of racism because while we have three times more “racial/ethnic” people employed by the general agencies than their proportion in the clergy and laity, but about 1% less than we had before was counter-productive to put it mildly.

    Waiting until some sort of perfect discernment before taking action to reduce spending that certainly isn’t essential or even important cannot be called wise. Cutting the general agency budget and devolving some responsibilities to the annual conferences would make the connection stronger.

    Do you have a reply to my suggested cuts and changes?

  4. No matter how noble the initial motives were for establishing an agency as time goes on it will make perpetuation of its own existence the number one priority. I will bet most people in the pews can’t even name more than one much less tell you what they do. I once tried to find out where they all are, what their missions were, their staffing level, board members and budgets were by poking around their web pages. I soon gave up. It was clear that they have become ossified, have overlapping areas, too many board members, too little oversight, fail to coordinate with each other and have diluted themselves in the interest of diversity. Might be time to scrape some barnacles off a few hulls and sink those that are not worth keeping.

  5. Dan,
    While I realize that this is not the perfect solution, I have not seen any better answers from the critics. I am a lay person, but I see the main problem starting at the local church with a disconnected laity, and people sitting in Nashville, New York and Washington coming up with answers to questions no one is asking and making up programs that no one fillows. Too many ivory towers. We keep talking about the church being “MIssional” when in fact, most churches of our churhces have turned inward and unwilling to change. There will be much blood in the sand before this is over, but we have known we had a problem for at least 30 years and have been totally ineffective in dealing with any of it. We can’t afford to wait around another 30 years for more pointless “discussions” that accomplish nothing.

    • Bill (and in response to Kevin and Creed, as well),
      It may well be that our general boards and agencies are archaic remnants that have outlived their usefulness (I don’t believe they all have — I feel that there is a huge argument in favor of keeping Pensions and Health Benefits, Global Ministries, and Church and Society — each of these is doing for the church services too large to be handled as well in annual conferences and local congregations). However, a systems approach to the situation is healthier than the knee-jerk reactive, short-sighted, downsize-and-all-will-be-heaven path we are on. Our denomination has been directionless and drifting for thirty-plus years. Once United Methodism got swept up in the church growth movement and sold its soul to the quick-fix, bigger is better mentality, it ceased to give the general boards and agencies clear missional guidance. We made everything a priority (making NOTHING a priority) and changed our direction every four years or so. We made the work of the general boards and agencies “restructuring,” but with no clarity about outcomes. The system is designed for the results it is getting. The corporate growth model was never our strength. We are a missional, evangelical Christian church dedicated to social justice and reform. Once those priorities were buried (lost?) we stumbled. Our current structure is designed for slow decline, loss, and irrelevancy. BUT, before you change the structure, you have to clarify what you want to produce. We don’t know what we want to do! How can we decide the best way to do it? How can we determine what resources to keep and which to dispose of if we haven’t decided what we’re trying to create?? Perhaps all of our boards and agencies will go away… but I hope it is because we have a clear vision of where God is calling us and that we decide to eliminate them based on a clear, critical analysis of the best way to faithfully pursue God’s vision (and not to save a few dollars for a few years, then find out we no longer have what we need in order to be effective).

      • Dan,
        Too often you limit yourself to doing a great job of killing a straw man. I haven’t and don’t advocate clear-cutting the general agencies. However, you seem to be trying to lump together my targeted review of some of the agencies and funds with clear-cutting.

        I would rather see these reductions than cutting missionaries (for example) to meet a target of a 6% reduction. Our general secretaries appear to have decided to play the “Washington Monument Game” (whenever the National Park Service faces a cut they say they’ll have to close the Washington Monument). The Call to Action was supposed to have a hard look at the general agency structure, but instead detoured into drivers of congregational vitality with weak correlations. I want to be more optimistic about the Interim Operations Team but more of them come from a background of trying to redivide the pie rather than expanding the pie or even making more pies.

  6. I didn’t say eliminate GBCS. But, I think we should all ask if $3.1 million is the right number. If SBC is spending about the same and they have double the membership, then shouldn’t we ask the question???

    I will also say that putting in 102 petitions out of the 1,580 that were submitted to General Conference (maybe they’ll *only* do fifty this time) or columns about getting the American flag out of sanctuaries is prima facie evidence that the staff has too much time on its hands.

    • Creed,

      My response was a bit tongue in cheek, though you have made strong statements about various and sundry of GBCS functions — and value — in the past.

      I reiterate what I have said before:
      Yes, there is waste and redundancy at our general church level — it is a bureaucracy
      Yes, there is unfocused and irrelevant work that each attends to
      No, they are not operating at a highly efficient or productive level
      Yes, there is need for significant change
      But, we have a fundamentally flawed and irrational process in place by which we intend to determine value, relevancy, and need, and this is the pinnacle of poor stewardship

      The solution to poor stewardship is not worse stewardship, and that feels like the path we are on. I am in full agreement with your own remarks about our Interim Operation’s Team. They have no more clarity about what outcomes they are trying to produce than the rest of the church, so many of their recommendations feel like shots in the dark. I think our Call to Action is simplistic, redundant, and poorly conceived. Acting on a poor plan and expecting good results is insane.

      Anyway, I thought I would answer you directly instead of in the blogosphere.

      Dan

      Dan R. Dick
      Director of Connectional Ministries
      Wisconsin Annual Conference
      750 Windsor Street
      Sun Prairie, WI 53590
      Office: 888-240-7328
      Cell: 615-491-6319
      Blog: United Methodeviations (doroteos2@wordpress.com)

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