18. Who's In Charge?

April 12th, 2012

The United Methodist Church has no governing board. That fact surprises many United Methodists. As a Bishop, I receive countless letters that begin, “Why don’t the bishops do something about . . .” and then they fill in the blank with concerns about a policy in the Book of Discipline, a group of pastors, the general agencies, the budget, apportionments, our seminaries, or any of a number of other boards, ministries, or entities related to The United Methodist Church.

Most people picture a hierarchy or organizational pyramid with bishops on top, and with the annual conferences, the General Conference, the general boards, the general commissions, the seminaries, finance and administration, the UM foundations, and many UM-related ministries all somewhere neatly organized underneath with direct, vertical lines of responsibility and accountability. That’s not the case. In fact, a more proper diagram would involve horizontally listing all those entities in a row and then adding the Council of Bishops in the same line up. All of these act autonomously, in response to their own internal and self-determined governance boards. All influence one entity has over another is informal. To be sure, the ultimate authority of The UMC rests with General Conference, but General Conference meets only once every four years and gives direction through budgeting decisions and legislation related to the Book of Discipline. Neither the bishops nor anyone else has control; they merely have influence.

This form of organization brings several challenges. Who performs the essential roles of governance without a governing board?

For instance, who cradles the vision? Who sees it as their work to absolutely and resolutely focus the energies, resources, and activities on the mission of the church: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Who repeats, deepens, and interprets our mission and focuses us on changing lives for Christ?

And who maintains an external focus to the organization? Peter Drucker wrote, “An organization begins to die the day it begins to run for the benefit of the insiders and not for the benefits of the outsiders.”* Jesus said simply, “[I] came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). Older organizations—including churches—risk turning their energies inward, protecting prerogatives, lifting the convenience and preference of the insiders to highest priority. Who makes sure that our decisions and our energies are focused on those we’ve been sent to serve rather than on our pastors, our pensions, our salaries, the survival of our existing forms of ministry, our facilities, our personal agendas, our boards, our bishops, or the mere preservation of our institutions? Who keeps us focused on those outside the church and the needs of a hurting world?

And who forces future-oriented thinking? A principal task of governance is pushing us to think about the next generation, about shifting cultural dynamics, about new strategies and forms of ministry that we cannot even begin to fathom.

And who fosters a continuing relationship of trust between those in the pews who generously and passionately desire to serve Christ and ministries that are two or three steps removed, including the work of our conferences, general boards, and leaders? This also is a principal task of governance.

Who explicitly states the results to be achieved? Who assures performance in achieving those results? Who is charged with focusing and enacting basic, explicit policies that reflect core values and norms that support the mission of the church?

All these are tasks of governance. One may argue that many of the individual entities described above invest time and energy in these tasks for their own organizations. The result is a quilt-like mix of contrasting and sometimes competing inconsistencies. Some unevenness and diverse interpretation of our mission is good for our church. However, the overall result of our approach has been dismal, with extraordinary decline, rampant mistrust, dysfunctional decision-making processes, and financial models that are completely unsustainable.

The Call to Action represents a meaningful effort to bring focus. It suggests ten years of sustained focus on increasing the number of vital congregations, since we fulfill our mission principally through fruitful, dynamic, outward-focused faith communities. The Council of Bishops also supports legislation intended to streamline and align the governance systems of The United Methodist Church. The legislation does not create a single governing board over all our work together, but it does provide a first step toward organizational models that helps us align according to the mission, maintain an outward focus, remember the future, and hold ourselves to a greater accountability in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

*Quoted on leadnet.org.


What concerns do you have about the current organizational model of The United Methodist Church? How is our organization conducive to our mission, and what elements are not conducive to our mission?

Think about your local congregation or annual conference. How do you feel your governance systems provide for the essentials of missional focus, maintaining an outward focus, forcing future-oriented thinking, and fostering good relationships among members and leaders? Are our systems working effectively? How willing would you be to accept change? To lead change?


Jesus had the remarkable capacity to turn every experience into an extraordinary moment of teaching and insight that reminded people of God’s mission in the world and their part in it. Read Luke 5:1-11 from The Message. What would fishing out of the other side of the boat look like for you? What does it mean to redirect our energies anew toward “fishing for men and women?”

For more related to organizing the church for ministry, read The Externally Focused Church by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson; Direct Hit by Paul D. Borden; Simple Church by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger; or Visioneering by Andy Stanley.


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