When Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, Rudy Rasmus, and many other United Methodist Church leaders recently signed their names on an open letter in support of the Call to Action legislation, it got my attention. If you aren’t familiar with this proposal, it essentially restructures The United Methodist Church’s governing boards and agencies to help the denomination run more efficiently and (hopefully) become more effective at bringing people to Christ and making real disciples. It also deals with clergy accountability, and one of the major changes it would make is ending guaranteed appointment for pastors. There are other proposed changes too, including the redirection of up to $60 million in church funds over four years to developing future United Methodist leaders. I won’t go into all the details—you can read more here. But I will share a few thoughts and observations:
Change is good.
In a denomination not known for changing quickly, you’ve got to give props to those who crafted this proposal. Its recommended changes are pretty dramatic. Is it perfect? No. I’m sure most of us would tweak a few things here and there if we could. But more than anything I’ve seen, it seems to “get it." Communication, ministry, and the way we must do church to reach the world are all changing. Even the rate of change is changing! When you only get one shot in four years to reorganize things, any changes that will make a noticeable impact are going to seem like a shock to the system. Is it risky? Perhaps a little, but reward usually only comes with risk. The bigger risk is doing nothing.
Accountability is good.
Some of us are uncomfortable with the idea of using metrics and vital indicators to evaluate clergy, but the reality is, numbers tell a story. Whether it’s baptisms, professions of faith, weekly attendance, offerings, or some other figure, statistics help churches gauge what’s going on in their ministries. Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, but if kept accurately and consistently, they tell a big part of it. And numbers provide a more objective way to evaluate clergy than what we currently have. The proposed end of the guaranteed appointment system seems like a positive step for accountability, although I’m not sure it will be well received without some kind of tradeoff. Many pastors see guaranteed appointment as a “perk” to offset the perceived disadvantages of being part of the itinerancy. The problem is, guaranteed appointment has become (to some) like teacher tenure or “immunity from getting voted off the island”. But systems for evaluating job performance have been ubiquitous in the private sector for years. The same pressure hasn’t existed to the same degree in the public and nonprofit sectors—but in a tight economy where productivity and efficiency matter more and more, that’s quickly changing. If it’s done fairly and consistently, I believe implementing the proposed accountability system will make The United Methodist Church stronger.
Consolidation is good.
I’ve been United Methodist my whole life, and I work for a church agency (the United Methodist Publishing House, which enthusiastically gives me a platform to share my opinions on these matters but doesn’t necessarily endorse what I write.) Yet I’ll admit, even with my UM background, I don’t understand every role and function of every agency we have. But I do know that simplifying an organization every so often is a good thing. Many churches already do it regularly at the local level. Every now and then you have to figure out where you’re duplicating efforts and get everyone on the same page. And sometimes you have to ask honest questions about the amount of leadership and bureaucracy you have. Is the system helping or hindering ministry? Even if you don’t shrink staff at all, streamlining systems and structures makes an organization more productive because it potentially frees up people and resources so the organization can do more things (or do what it’s already doing even better).
Reevaluating spending is good.
With my personal finances, I analyze my spending patterns occasionally and I look for ways to save money. I find areas in my budget where I spend too much money and figure out how I can move that cash to something that’s more of an investment for the future. I also adjust goals from time to time. What was important to me five years ago may not be as important to me today. It’s not a formal process, but I do think about my budget on a regular basis. Perhaps you do the same thing. Now if we’re that thorough with our own money, shouldn’t we at least have the same attitude about money from the offering plate? As a denomination, we’ve decided that planting churches and developing young leaders are going to be high priorities. Part of the Call to Action proposal redirects some church funds to those priorities. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, although I understand how controversial it might be, especially if an area that has a decrease in funding is one you’re passionate about. But in these tough economic times, most of us are having to learn to do more with less—the church is no exception. I don’t see that changing for a while, and increasing apportionment percentages isn’t a real option. For every existing budget item to get at least the same size piece of pie, we need to grow the pie. When the church grows again, the pie will get bigger.
I find it fascinating how our church’s struggles with budgets, priorities, and accountability seem to parallel similar debates taking place right now in our federal government. I’m confident, however, that The United Methodist Church will handle business in a much more civil, mature, and efficient fashion than Washington has dealt with its issues. As for the Call to Action legislation, there’s much I like about it, but I’m keeping an open mind and examining the other ideas too. Those of us who aren’t delegates have an important role in the 2012 General Conference—prayer. Let’s not take the responsibility lightly—let’s pray that God will give the delegates the wisdom they need to make good decisions later this month in Tampa.