An Open Letter to United Methodists
I reflect on General Conference 2012 with deep and profound sadness. Many persons are now offering their own opinions about what happened in Tampa. At the adjournment of General Conference, Bishop Scott Jones said that he had witnessed “the death throes of a 1970s institution.” Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the new President of the Council of Bishops, wrote, “Many people were not ready to do bold steps into a new model of structure and oversight and we fettered ourselves with a constitution that saves a dysfunctional system.”
Instead of replaying all the details about what happened, however, a more fundamental question is: How does the United Methodist Church move forward? With the increasing decline of congregations in the United States and impending collapse of our general church structures on the near horizon, how does our denomination live into the future? Which new leaders will emerge? Is there hope?
Even as we soon celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, our church needs passionate laity and clergy at the local level to be advocates for fundamental change, in order that our denomination might fulfill the call from Jesus Christ to make disciples for the transformation of the world. No doubt, these advocates would include pastors from our leading congregations. In addition, members of the Council of Bishops, perhaps in conversation with the Connectional Table, are needed to join in the discussion and guide us toward clarity and wisdom. Currently, we are a denomination without a rudder; we need strong leadership to steer us towards a hopeful future.
I offer this document as one of many invitations from leaders throughout our beloved denomination to join in conversation with prayerful hope and expectation that God will give us the courage and insight we need for this time.
Fundamental Questions About Money
The conversation among church leaders must include serious reflection about our general church’s monies: how the monies are raised, how the income is spent, and who makes such decisions. Money is the fuel that powers our denomination.
Many United Methodists assume that the financial resources and governance we have had in the past will continue into the future. All the evidence indicates otherwise. Closing our eyes and hoping for the best is not a strategy forward. We should instead follow the money and see where our monies lead us.
A Brief History
Let me share some history that shapes my views. Going into General Conference, two mentors informed my perspective. John Wesley once wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” I believe that the United Methodist Church in 2012 has become the stagnant Church of England, which Mr. Wesley sought to reform. As a denomination, too many United Methodists have come to love our established institution and have forgotten the spirit of personal and social holiness that gave us birth.
In 1968, Dr. Albert Outler, our most significant Wesleyan theologian in the 20th century, spoke against the general church organization we now have. Outler believed that the proposed and adopted organizational model would not be faithful to our Wesleyan tradition, would scatter power, and would cause us to lose focus on making disciples. Outler’s fears have proven correct.
Our crisis is most clear in the United States and Europe. We have fewer than 70,000 United Methodists in Europe. Since 1968, the United Methodist Church in the United States has been in decline. We have older members, fewer members, and less money for ministry and missions. Only 15 percent of our congregations in the United States are highly vital. In 2011, the United Methodist churches in the United States saw the largest ever decline in membership and worship attendance. Our General Council of Finance and Administration economists anticipate that the United Methodist Church will receive fewer inflation-adjusted dollars in the next four years for the general church than came in during the last four.
Many United Methodist leaders have seen this crisis coming. Since the publication of Bishop Richard Wilke’s And Are We Yet Alive? twenty-five years ago, many leaders in our church have called for reform. Eighteen years ago, Will Willimon and I, seeking fundamental renewal, wrote A New Connection: Reforming The United Methodist Church. Many others have joined this chorus, including those authors in the new Abingdon Press series on the adaptive challenge facing our denomination.
Over the past three years, our Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, leading pastors and laity, and many other people invested considerable sums, thousands of hours and countless prayers preparing to lead our denomination forward. Many powerful options for reform were offered. Was 2012 to be the year to reclaim the Wesleyan movement for our denomination?
At the opening of General Conference, the report of The Call to Action described the United Methodist decline in the United States in graphic ways. For eleven days in Tampa, at a cost of almost $9 million, many people tried for reform in structures, finances and direction. The Interim Operations Team and the Connectional Table legislation sought not to save our United Methodist Church but to find new ways “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.” No one doubted the analysis of the problems as described by the Call to Action research.
At General Conference, we had significant leadership from many of our bishops. Laity and clergy, female and male, young and old, Central Conference and United States delegates joined in the conversations. Many, many people gave of their time, skills, and prayers.
After the Call to Action report at the opening of General Conference, however, United States congregational decline was never mentioned again in the plenary. The powers and principalities of institutional self-survival were too entrenched. Many of our caucuses, most of our general agencies, and particularly the Judicial Council of our United Methodist Church have proven unwilling and incapable of significant reform. Wesley’s fears of a dead sect were public for all to see.
General Conference reduced the size of the governing boards of the general agencies, including a significant reduction of the number of Central Conference members, yet preserved most of the positions of the independent general agency executive staff. Rearranging the deckchairs of a sinking ship, General Conference tossed the paying passengers overboard and saved the lives of the crew.
At the end of two weeks, not a single petition from the Local Church Legislative Committee had made it to the plenary floor. General Conference debated divestiture from Israel, homosexuality, rules and mandates, and other topics for hours. But annual conferences were again forbidden any flexibility for achieving mission. Strategies to strengthen local congregations were not discussed on the plenary floor. The goal to redirect resources to increase vital congregation was not added to our Discipline. For any movement of redirection to continue, the movement will have to be on a church by church, conference by conference level, not at the general church level. What a loss.
At the end of General Conference, an essay by Maria Dixon Hall in The United Methodist Reporter spoke of “a slow, agonizing, organizational death.” Dr. Dixon Hall, an organizational guru who teaches at Southern Methodist University, believes that “we must dare to tear down to our foundations if we ever hope to be any good to the world.” Further, she asserts, “an 18th century structure cannot sustain a 21st century global organization.”
How does the United Methodist Church, then, move forward? Where should leaders start?
General Church Apportionments
As we look toward the future, major financial and governance issues lurk just below the surface. How are general church funds raised and spent, and who makes those decisions?
I increasingly question the financial support by thousands of local congregations in the United States of our dysfunctional denominational agencies. The emperor has no clothes. Is it time to stop contributing to the emperor’s clothing allowance?
Before General Conference, I spoke with a group of young clergy fearful about the future of our denomination in the United States. I reminded these passionate young women and men that change rarely comes from the top but from the bottom. The 2012 General Conference proved this point. Is it time for pastors and laity in local congregations who seek to save our movement to reassert their leadership and cease funding a system that has led to our denomination’s decline?
Many of our leaders and my friends will continue to be loyal to our system and will pay 100 percent of their apportionments as dictated by our Discipline. These leaders believe that the general agencies now understand the depth of the problems and will voluntarily change. I honor that perspective but believe it to be far too cautious and optimistic.
The looming specter of the “death tsunami,” as described by Lovett Weems in Focus: The Real Challenges Facing The United Methodist Church, indicates that our denomination has only a few years to change before the current funding model of our church collapses. No one has disputed
Weems’ facts. Yet, the only institutional response from our denomination has been to encourage the aging and declining members in the United States to be more generous financially to the existing system.
Continuing to fund our existing system, however, only encourages the status quo and inhibits efforts for renewal. While Jesus Christ will never abandon the Church universal, I believe that ultimately much of our current United Methodist system must die before the Wesleyan movement can be resurrected. The easiest and fastest way to hasten this death of many parts of our general institution is by the withholding of monies.
The single greatest institutional problem that hinders effective congregations is our general church agencies. All of these agencies are filled with good people doing useful ministry. But, we have 13 different agencies with 13 different governing boards with 13 different executives with 13 different agendas. Most of the general agencies do most of their work only in the United States. No one is in charge; the ruling of the Judicial Council indicates that no one should be in charge. There is almost no focus on vital congregations and not enough attention paid to our global connection. Agencies have little accountability. We are like small kayaks paddling in different directions versus a crew of disciple rowers moving together toward a goal.
Why, therefore, are United Methodists in the United States continuing to support those disparate agencies? The only way that many of our institutional leaders may listen is to deprive them of money from local congregations through annual conferences.
By the adjournment of General Conference, our denomination chose to protect the status quo, the existing general agencies, mandates that focus beyond local congregations and annual conferences, and those persons and institutions supported financially by our current organization. The next four years will witness continuing decline among congregations in the United States and thus declining finances.
Why will we continue our support of the World Service Fund or General Administration Fund? These two funds primarily support the institutional status quo that resists focus on making faithful disciples and vital congregations. While monies are needed for vital missions nationally and globally, are the general agencies the most appropriate avenue of giving?
Concurrently, United Methodists should continue to support the missions of our districts and annual conferences. Districts and conferences are the primary building blocks of our connection. Yet, the relationship between monies to be apportioned and sent “without reduction” from the annual conference to the general church is often not understood. Annual conferences, by our Discipline, must send a large percentage of their receipts to the general church. This percentage of the monies apportioned from local congregations by annual conferences ranges from a low of 20 percent in some areas to over 40 percent in other conferences. Who loses in this model?
The annual conferences are stuck between a rock of general church apportionments and the hard place of declining congregational monies. In the last 20 years, annual conferences in the United States have lost many district superintendents and annual conference staff due to budget cuts. The trend indicates that in the near future the annual conferences will exist only to transfer money from local congregations to the general church.
Finally, the Ministerial Education Fund, the Black College Fund, Africa University Fund, the Episcopal Fund, and the Interdenominational Fund all serve vital functions. They still deserve financial support. All of us still want to be part of a connectional system.
Our general church budget for the next four years represents a decline of just over 6 percent from the last quadrennium. This decline reflects the declining number of vital congregations in the United States. What would happen if only 50 percent or less of apportionments were paid? What if World Service and General Administration collapsed? Would anyone in local churches or annual conferences notice any difference? Would anyone in the world notice?
For such a financial realignment to work, this reformation would require a significant number of congregations and conferences to participate. Unfortunately, many clergy live under fear of clergy misconduct charges for non-payment of apportionments (has this ever happened?). Especially with the loss of clergy guaranteed appointments, does non-payment of apportionments give additional power to the leaders supporting the status quo? Are there enough pastors and congregations willing to speak up and act? Can the pastors of our leading congregations lead? Are some bishops willing to support this shift?
Every pastor, every lay person, every congregation, every annual conference, every bishop must ask such questions about general church apportionments. Do our financial investments in the general church encourage or inhibit the fundamental change that our denomination needs?
Global Realignment: Money and Governance
An even larger crisis will face our denomination possibly in four years and certainly no later than eight years: the financial and governance relationship between the United Methodist Church in the United States and our Central Conferences in Asia, the Philippines, Europe, and Africa.
Today, about 99 percent of all general church apportionments come from the United States. Central Conferences contribute to local funding, local missions, and a little to the Episcopal Fund. This giving simply reflects that while United Methodists in America and Europe have monies to give, United Methodists in Asia, the Philippines and Africa have very little financial resources. Almost all of the general church money comes from the declining congregations in the United States.
Yet, at the 2012 General Conference, almost 40 percent of all delegates came from Central Conferences. All of these delegates together shaped the general church budget and other financial matters. For example, all delegates, both inside and outside the United States, voted on the revisions to the pension plan for clergy and church professionals in the United States.
Possibly by 2016 and certainly by 2020, based on current demographics, Central Conference delegates will have over 50 percent of the vote at General Conference. Central Conference delegates will have the majority vote on how the general church budget will be set, how it will be apportioned, and how it will be spent. Will Central Conference delegates vote to lower a budget to which they do not contribute? Will Central Conferences be apportioned funds? Will more of the budget be spent outside the United States?
In the corners and hallways of the 2012 General Conference, many delegates inside and outside the United States wondered about the implications of such a global shift of power. Everyone celebrates the growth of United Methodist membership, especially in Africa. But will United Methodists in the United States still fund a system in which they have a minority vote? Will persons in the United States conclude that they are being apportioned without adequate representation? The most probing questions deal with what will happen to pensions within the United States and the expenditures of the Ministerial Education Fund. I sense real fear from many in the United States.
Is the fear warranted? What is the Christian obligation of the wealthy for those without major resources? Should we have regional budgets and regional governance? Are certain financial issues distinct to certain regions and to be determined there? Everyone knows a fundamental change in global financial governance is coming. How will the change be handled? Who is leading this conversation? Will this shift finally end or strengthen our global connection?
On another side note, General Conference voted down legislation which would have allowed the Council of Bishops to select a non-residential bishop to guide their leadership on this issue and others. While the church cries out for leaders, we also restrict the ability of our temporal and spiritual leaders to lead. Unfortunately, neither the Council of Bishops nor any other body has the ability, or authority according to the Judicial Council, to lead on such significant issues.
To the best of my knowledge, no group within our denomination has even begun to have conversations about what happens next regarding the general church budget and financial governance. This lack of attention reaffirms the lack of leadership from the general church. We have only a few years to make important decisions. Who will lead the dialogue within our Wesleyan connection?
I write out of deep anguish, but I am not without hope. I love the United Methodist Church, but am mourning what we have allowed ourselves to become. Our historic commitment to payment of apportionments has fostered and entitled a dysfunctional system. The possibility of global church division and conflict is real. More than ever before, we need leaders who will lead. I hope that such leaders will emerge.
I am certain, however, that ultimately we are not accountable to a system that seeks 100 percent payment of financial apportionments for a dying system. We need a system that raises monies appropriately from every part of the church to be spent by one other with true collegiality.
Most importantly, we should listen to our living God. During worship at General Conference, we heard Jesus Christ calling us through Scripture to leave our boats, to stop fishing in old ways, and to follow him to a new mission field. Unfortunately, General Conference 2012 chose not to do so.
Our Savior Jesus Christ continues to call us. Will we listen? Will we follow?
Pastor, Central United Methodist Church: Concord, North Carolina
Western North Carolina Annual Conference
Member of the United Methodist Church Connectional Table
Five-time delegate to General Conference
This open letter may also be found at: Pastorandylangford.wordpress.com and comments are welcomed.