Since 1996, I have attended the United Methodist General Conference as an observer. The climax of pressure and divisions has been increasing each quadrennial. Each past General Conference had its thorny issues at the table. The 2012 conference was buzzing with talk of restructuring. Not that the other issues were not important, but restructuring has been shaking every corner of the denomination, from local churches to seminaries worldwide to the general boards and agencies. This has drawn a lot of attention around the globe where the UMC is. It has also drawn a lot of money, time, and energy.
This issue of restructuring the Methodist Church is not new. Starting with the Wesleyan movement of the 1700s, the two Wesley brothers, John and Charles, but more exclusively John, structured the movement into a well-known Wesleyan revival in England. Within it, the establishing of small groups of Christians, which John had admired from the Moravians, became a structure for reorganizing the movement to assist followers in growing stronger spiritually. The two brothers guided the movement using guidelines titled “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies, in London, Bristle, Kingswood, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, &c.” On the other hand, there were “Rules of the Band-Societies” and also “Directions given to the Band-Societies.”1 As the movement grew, it continued to be restructured in many ways.
When the movement spread into America and a church was born, restructuring was needed again to match the needs of the day. The divisions and merging within and with other denominations throughout the years until 1968, with the formation of The United Methodist Church, also came with a need for restructuring and the right forms to match the times. In The United Methodist Church structure, the process is very clear, and it needs to be followed in order to restructure this great denomination. Throughout the years the process has, in fact, been followed. The question that some still voices were asking this time around was, “Was the process followed in the right manner?”
Regarding this issue of restructuring the UMC, which has been buzzing throughout the last quadrennial, hearts were at the right place. Even so, there is still a need to look at how our church can grow spiritually and in number across the globe, giving us vital, sustainable congregations. The training of theological students, both clergy and laity who are true Wesleyan in spirituality and theological understanding, was and still is critical for the growth of The United Methodist Church. (At the same time, it was very clear from the beginning that the growth of the church will also increase the amount of money that comes in the church’s coffers.)
But from the word go, we as a denomination seemed to have started on the wrong foot. Among the questions many asked were: How well researched globally was the proposed process before making recommendations to the General Conference and the whole church? Were central conferences consulted regarding the cost for restructuring? The cost will be high; can these central conferences afford to implement the proposed restructuring? Some of the questions that have also been raised, from the time the Call to Action proposal came to the table of The United Methodist Church worldwide, were: Is this the right way to respond to a challenge or problem? Is changing the structure of the church going to help strengthen the mission of this great church, which is: “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World“?
When prayers are offered earnestly, God listens. The 2012 United Methodist Church General Conference was lifted up in prayers by many people around the world. I remember my prayer group a number of times raising the issue of restructuring as something that was not clear and seemed to have hidden agendas behind it. Some of the questions we were posing during our prayers were: Is the decline in church membership in the West caused by the size and number of the General Agencies? Is it not because of the relocation of their members to other communities? If it is caused by relocations, what are we doing to replenish the lean congregations left behind? Or is it a spiritual drought in some people (clergy and laity)? If it is spiritual drought, what is causing it, and what are we doing about it as a denomination? There can be no more Christianity of the head; there is a need for Christianity of the heart.
It was very clear for me during the General Conference that the issues of the decline in membership and funding were central in many U.S. delegates’ minds as they looked at this particular legislation. One could see that from the word go the issue of restructuring as it was presented under the Call to Action proposal was going to be an uphill battle, because there were more questions asked than answers provided to the whole denomination. The whole debate from Call to Action to Plan UMC seemed to show that people were fighting to see who would win and who would lose, using their carnal brains rather than their God-given wisdom through spiritual discernment, as if it were no more God’s work but our own—and using their own good ways of articulating the points. People seemed not to be listening to God anymore but to their own “greatness.” There seemed to be no spirit of building the church but of building powerhouses within small groups of people. How in this world could 45 people do the work once done by nine entities that were being dissolved? To begin with, how could we talk of restructuring when, except for the U.S. church, the rest of the world was not at the table for discussion when the whole process started with the Interim Operations Team under Call to Action?
With a number of people now starting to question the “Call to Action” plan of having this small group of people overseeing the whole denomination and the alternatives coming up, someone with a spirit of discernment would see that God was at work and the church only needed to listen. From day one of the General Conference, when all delegates were by now in conversations, seeing each other face-to-face, 1 Corinthians 13:12 had become a reality. The verse says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” As days progressed, it was becoming clear that there was nothing wrong with our present structure, but a few adjustments needed to be made. Yet the majority of the people seemed not to see the implications of having a small group of people managing the whole denomination, because their focus was on finances. They were looking at the situation through a mirror. Although some voices were being raised against the Call to Action proposal and then against Plan UMC, they were silenced by those who “knew only in part” the consequences of the whole plan.
When the Call to Action plan proved to be going down the drain, it was supposed to be the time for the church to admit we had rushed into something we were not ready for. Bringing Plan B, with the amendments from the Methodist Federation for Social Action and other interested parties, proved that people wanted to fight and win the battle even if they do not win the war with regard to the decline of church membership and spiritual drought in some parts. Although Plan B was a better alternative, with a little more inclusiveness in their suggestion of having a few more people (which would give an opportunity for people from outside the United States), there was still selfishness as far as the membership was concerned: the U.S. versus the rest of the world.
What was also sad was that this restructuring was not only affecting the Boards and Agencies; it was also affecting some of the operations of the church. Through the Call to Action proposal, the long-standing operations of the UMC on the security of appointment were taken away, and soon we will reap the consequences. Sadly, some people from outside the U.S. did not even understand what that meant to them back in their respective Episcopal Areas. They were just following their U.S. agendas. From where I was standing, this was moving backwards.
Another good example was the proposed removal of the Commissions on the Status and Role of Women and Religion and Race from being independent entities, and changed instead to committees that will report to the same people they are monitoring. This was a clear indication of our moving backwards. Clearly, it proved that some groups of people had been targeted for being blocked from appointment to churches.
But God is still speaking in the UMC. Unfortunately, following the changes that have been taking place on the different proposals, from Call to Action to Plan UMC, it has become clear that, as a church, we did not think through the consequences of restructuring. Delegates were working while knowing only in part what this was all about.
I strongly believe that before The United Methodist Church started moving toward restructuring at the speed we went, we should have first paused and looked at the changes happening in North American society. They were supposed to be weighed against changes in other countries around the world where United Methodism is growing. These changes within the U.S. have been influencing the spirituality of many mainline churches and leading them to relook at their structures. There are so many old and new schools within our denomination in particular. And within the United States there are so many non-UMC people who are interested in the policies of our denomination for their own good. What the drafters of the newly proposed structures forgot was that we are a connectional church, unlike many denominations in the U.S., which are congregational. Using global lenses, we would have saved ourselves money, time, and energy had we looked more closely. As mentioned earlier, the international voice was not at the table until the gathering of the General Conference in Tampa, Florida. Also, we needed to look at the past to see how, theologically, our denomination has been influenced by the pressures of what was happening in other denominations. Starting from the Wesley brothers’ time, history should have informed us that in the past, Methodism in England, for example, was affected theologically by powerful outside forces, and later by American Protestantism.
To just think that a denomination as large as The United Methodist Church, which is present in so many countries around the world, could be governed by a 45-member General Council for Strategy and Oversight was the beginning of a complicated problem. What was interesting was how, though they were to be chosen to represent every region, from the beginning the whole plan was based on U.S. voices patronizing the rest of the denomination.
Thank God for those who listen to God speaking at times like these. The Reverend Scott Campbell, who called for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on whether any part of the structure plan was unconstitutional, was representing many still voices who were praying, and he was able to save our denomination from making a gross mistake. Thank God for the hard work of the Judicial Council, which made the whole denomination see that for four years we have been going down the wrong path, and on the last day of this meeting, the gavel was up in the air to officialize an unconstitutional plan. The General Conference was going to dismiss and the delegates go home believing we had a well-planned new structure, and yet we had undermined our own system.
God is still speaking; the foundation of the UMC still stands strong. Let us keep on praying for God to show us better ways of revitalizing our congregations around the world so that the world doesn’t lead us but, rather, we lead the world by example.