Troubling claims on umvitalcongregations.org
Before Reading: While umc.org and other outlets seem to deem this article as sensational because it challenges a Bishop’s words, the real conflict isn’t between the Bishop and I. We don’t know each other and surely we both want the other to succeed in effective ministries. Rather, the conflict is how to talk about issues in ways that address the critics (people who want to stop the Call to Action completely) and the champions (people like me who see the need and value but disagree over the particulars) in helpful ways. I stand by my words but hope you see it is a call for higher discourse, not a personal dispute. (this note added 2/15/2012)
The stereotype is that bloggers must be sitting shirtless in their parent’s basements typing under a red haze of outrage, disconnected from reality, eating Cheetos. While that is true for some, I’ll admit to only one at this moment: the red haze of outrage. We’ll try to be as non-reactionary as possible from here on out.
Bishop Hopkins from East Ohio, who chairs the Connectional Table, has written a blog post on the new Vital Congregations website. While I respect the man and blessings on his ministry, every point that he’s made to “counter” the supposed claims about the Call To Action seems to spin the reality into something unrecognizable. The piece is entitled “Speak Now” and it sounds like he’s asking for a response. You got it.
As a preacher, I recognize my role is occasionally to be a cheerleader and encourage regardless of the reality because I have a vision I believe in. I get it. However, to whitewash over these counterpoints without addressing the issues behind each may be a concise contribution, but not a helpful contribution to this debate at this late stage.
Let’s go point by point (the bold italic parts are Hopkins’ exact section headers from the blog post)
10. The Call to Action is NOT being voted on at General Conference!
- Claim: Hopkins claims it has already begun and all the GC is voting on is to align the structure of the church to increase vital congregations.
- Reality: The express purpose of the CTA was “to conduct an assessment and offer recommendations leading to reordering the life of the Church for greater effectiveness and vitality in mission.” And the Interim Operations Team says that “the next steps for many of these recommendations will be legislative proposals for the 2012 General Conference to consider.” Thus the arc of the Call To Action necessitates GC action; ergo, the CTA is being voted on.
- Thoughts: Have we already affirmed the need for vital congregations? Yes. Are we doing church metrics? Yes. But with the bulk of the changes being legislative-based…well, I would call that “being voted on” as there’s no significant change without changes in our polity. We are not to make mid-stream changes in our polity like that, and the CTA team was created to analyze and propose, not initiate legislative change. To say it is not being voted on, it is inevitable, it has already begun, strikes me as incongruous with UM polity.
9. The Call to Action is NOT a “top-down” initiative!
- Claim: “The most important changes will not result from legislative action but instead will require different actions and patterns of leadership by each one of us.”
- Reality: Legislative action is what will remove the guaranteed appointment so that Bishops can remove pastors whose church metrics are not on the up-and-up. Legislative action will change the boards from centers of ministry to dispersal units of money. Legislative action will remove the requirements that annual conferences have monitoring agencies (like Religion and Race and COSROW) that remind annual conferences of the values of diversity. It even creates not one but two church executive positions (Executive General Secretary over the board and the non-residential Bishop).
- Thoughts: As any corporate culture theorist would tell you, change that is legislated from the top (even in non-binding ways) creates changes at the bottom that the leadership can point to and say “see the culture is changing!” We call that leadership. So either the CTA is about better leadership (from the top-down) or it is about being better followers (which have no metric for accountability). So…which is it?
8. The Call to Action is NOT about restructuring general agencies!
- Claim: “The proposed legislation to put most of the program general agencies on one board will align resources, unify staff work and provide holistic strategic planning to support a sustained focus on vital congregations.”
- Reality: OMGoodness, are you serious? The first bullet point of the CTA proposed legislation is, entitled, “General Agency Realignment.” The Pre-GC audio tapes are called “General Church Restructure” and received the biggest reactions. How on earth is it NOT about restructuring?
- Thoughts: I understand the Bishop’s expressed point: yes, the local church successes are to be lifted up and possibly emulated, though I wonder if we resonate differently. With a focus on vital congregations, yes, a large portion is focused on that. But a significant amount of money and resources is about to be redistributed and avenues to dispense that money to annual conferences is about to narrow, so to diminish it as “not about the general agencies” strikes me as really disingenuous.
7. The Call to Action is NOT about giving more power to the Council of Bishops!
- Claim: “With fewer governance boards, resident bishops will have more time to work and be accountable for the fruits of the congregations in their annual conferences.”
- Reality: One of the recommendations is to remove Guaranteed Appointment so that clergy do not have to be appointed. Thus, it gives more power to the Bishops to not give them appointments. I would love someone to explain to me how this is not about more power to the Bishops.
- Thoughts: To say that the Council of Bishops will not get more power ignores the CTA recommendations about guaranteed appointment (the Bishop’s power of appointment) and the non-residential Bishop relocates the voice of the UMC from General Conference to the Bishops (the power of voice and position). Even the Good News movement agrees with me that the Bishops will get more power, and when that happens, you know it’s closer to reality.
6. The Call to Action is NOT from a small “rump group”!
- Claim: “General Conference delegates represent their fellow annual conference constituents. Bishops represent the whole church, their region, and their respective annual conference.”
- Reality: Ben Gosden pointed out this section to me asking: “Since when did General Conference become nothing more than a collection of geographical representatives and the bishops become the voice of the whole church? I do believe the good Bishop has it backwards.” I agree.
- Thoughts: In addition, the Connectional Table is diverse and well-proportioned and not a ‘rump group.’ However, the CTA will leave a small “rump group” leading the denomination in the form of the Board of Directors, unlike the Alternative Proposal that makes the group much bigger…than a rump, apparently!
- Disclaimer: I would love a definition of “rump group” so we are talking about the same thing…
5. The Call to Action is NOT just about churches in the United States!
- Claim: “A unified general program board will provide easier access to agency services for every annual conference around the world.”
- Thoughts: Actually, the Bishop and I agree on this one. I haven’t seen many claims come across my radar that claim it is just about US-based changes. Changes to the General Boards, the power of Bishops, and money given specifically to young people worldwide and central conference legislation do involve the whole church and we should take seriously these implications not only in our backyards but around the world.
4. The Call to Action is NOT to save money!
- Claim: “Although General Conference is responsible for the entire church, it actually makes decisions for less than 2% of our financial resources.”
- Reality: I really really need to see this one detailed out. General Conference is only about 2% of the financial resources? Doesn’t GC have some say over the entire pension program? All our properties are held by the UMC. If the GC voted to do away with all connectional entities, that would be a lot of money. I don’t get it…
- Thoughts: I’m not going to go into this one too much as the numbers just don’t add up for me. But we are talking about redistributing $60 million dollars…that is not a small amount. By saying that the General Conference is “no big deal” seems really contrary to our polity and the work that the delegates do for two weeks.
3. The Call to Action will NOT reduce diversity within The United Methodist Church!
- Claim: “The Call to Action recommends that we have fewer people involved in governance and more in ministry without reducing our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. The fruits of a more aligned general church will result in more diversity at the grass roots level.”
- Reality: It is the claim of the Alternative Proposal that the CTA will be less diverse, by removing the boards and centralizing the authority of the church too much with a disproportional representation on the council. The Ethnic Caucuses have claimed the same thing: that the highest bodies of the church, as written, cannot be representational of ethnic diversity.
- Thoughts: It is one of my claims that by turning the Boards into grant-dispersing units that they will tend to favor proposals that match their own makeup. This mirrors the concerns above.
2. The Call to Action does NOT replace our mission and Four Areas of Focus!
- Claim: “The same is true of our focus on developing leaders, starting new congregations, engaging in ministry with the poor and improving global health.”
- Reality: Our mission statement is a perfect marriage of inner-focus (make disciples) and outer-focus (transformation of the world). The four areas of focus are 3/4 inner-focus and 1/4 outer-focus. By contrast, the 16 drivers expressed in the CTA (page 12) are all inner-focus. The church metrics is 4/5 inner-focus with 1/5 outer-focus.
- Thoughts: As I wrote almost a year ago now, the Call To Action calls for a decade of navel-gazing, of inner-focus rather than a balance of both. I am fearful of an inward-facing church for the next decade that doesn’t give a metric for evaluating how we are transforming the world.
1. The Call to Action is NOT about changing someone else!
- Claim: “The Connectional Table and its staff are willing to step aside to make way for God’s new thing.”
- Reality: The Connectional Table gets to choose the next Board of Directors and nothing stops them from choosing themselves. While this legislation will undoubtedly be changed during General Conference, the statement above seems out-of-step with the actual legislation.
- Thoughts: I’m a bit confused about this point. Yes, we confess we have fallen short. Yes, we are proposing changes to make us better. That’s terrific. But where we differ is that these are important changes, legislatively and at the local level, and to say that the most important changes are in your backyard ignores the connectional ethos and spirit of the United Methodist Church.
Look, there’s a difference between being a critic and being a champion: critics tear down without putting up an alternative vision that the champions do. This blog post seems focused on the critics of the Call To Action who offer unsubstantial criticism. That’s fine. But it utterly ignores the reasonable voices and white-washes over us like we are champions of alternative proposals that also contain Methodist values. It lumps all criticism together without recognizing that some of us are in this for the long haul. By God’s grace, I’ll be a clergyperson for 40 more years in the UMC: please don’t treat us with kid gloves.
Let’s be clear: The #CallToAction conversation will not be drowned out by declarations of inevitability or saying General Conference is no big deal. It’s been said again and again that the CTA was meant to start the conversation and the conversation is in full-swing. The facets of the Call to Action report that are voted on at General Conference are highly important, and to say otherwise is incongruous with the conversation. We can do better.
I welcome any official or unofficial responses to this post. Thanks for reading. Thoughts?(Photo credit: “Amateur CLA” by Harry Harris on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license)