Who Will Lead the UMC in 2012?

April 12th, 2012

In Batman: The Dark Knight (2008 - IMDB), Harvey Dent is at dinner with Bruce Wayne and their respective love interests. They start talking about what role Batman plays in Gotham. Dent recounts what happens when a community is in crisis (script linkPDF):

Natascha: But this is a democracy, Harvey . . . who appointed the Batman?

Dent: When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered public service.

Rachel: And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar. He never gave up his power.

Dent: Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Thus, Batman represents a failure in the civic system to deal with a crisis. Since democratically-elected people couldn’t change the tide, Batman stepped in and seized authority as judge, jury, and punisher (not executioner, of course). When the people can’t fix a problem, an executive steps in who uses top-down power to fix the problem.

The United Methodist Church is also dealing with a crisis—this one of declining attendees and giving. As with other periods in history, in times of crisis (or manufactured crisis) the Church has to decide whether to turn to the executive and give more power to smaller groups of people to effect radical change in the church. Their process to decide this is called the Call to Action.

The Call to Action has been a year-long conversation spurred by $250,000 in denominational research that articulated that our current trajectory is not sustainable and that the United Methodist Church will not survive another generation without some drastic changes. In short, change is needed from the bottom to the top of the Church to help it survive.

While the bulk of the need to change is at the local church and annual conference level, one of the biggest flashpoints in the Call to Action conversation is the issue of the global restructure of the Church. Even though the current global structure only amounts to two pennies for every dollar placed in a church’s offering plate, those two cents are important for two reasons.

  • First, they accomplish lots of things that local churches alone or collectively cannot accomplish (Can you see all the Louisiana churches coordinating a Katrina response on par with UMCOR?).
  • Second, the way the highest perpetual bodies in the church are formed says a lot about us as a denomination.

There are four groups (at least) that have proposed changes to the upper echelons of the United Methodist Church. And these four visions of “who is at the head” of the global church couldn’t be more different.

Each of these proposals will have a short summary, a primary characterization, and the number of total board members at the general church level (currently it is 641 people).

Call to Action (Interim Operations Team)

First, the Call to Action committee (the official initiative, more properly referred to as the Interim Operations Teams’ legislation) envisions a Center on Connectional Mission and Ministry to be at the top of the United Methodist Church.

Primary characterization: Executive Authority

  • Analysis: 45-member Advisory Board with a 15 member Board of Directors. There would be a General Executive (lay or clergy) that would chair the Advisory Board. There would also be a set-aside Bishop who would lead the Council of Bishops and be the voice for the whole UMC.
  • Total Board Membership for the General Church: 153 (60 members of the two executive boards, plus the anticipated board memberships of UMM and UMW, and the Publishing House).

Methodist Federation for Social Action

The Methodist Federation for Social Action is the only group to have submitted legislation to General Conference offering an alternative structure with a Coordinating Council at the top of the UMC. Full disclosure: I am a co-signatory to the MFSA plan.

Primary characterization: Forum for Diversity

  • Analysis: 43-member Coordinating Council (plus 24 non-voting members) with required diversity and proportional representation controls. There is no executive board above this Council (i.e. they eliminate the Board of Directors from the IOT legislation), so this Council would be a discussion forum and a leadership body among the diverse elements of the UMC.
  • Total Board Membership for the General Church: 397 (includes the 67 members of the Coordinating Council, plus 33-member boards at each of ten different agency/centers)

Plan B

The Plan B group (primarily the dissident voices from the Connectional Table who did not get their desired changes into the IOT legislation) has recently unveiled their legislation (which they will introduce at General Conference) which includes a revamped Connectional Table.

Primary characterization: Revamp Current Structure

  • Analysis: 40-member Connectional Table with a laity chair elected by the membership. This is a strengthening of the current Connectional Table while keeping most of the rest of the structure intact and separated from each other for primarily legal reasons. However, it also makes the Connectional Table simply one General Agency, so technically it is not higher than any of the other Agencies.
  • Total Board Membership for the General Church: 280 (40 member Connectional Table plus proposed 25-30 member boards at all other agencies)

Western Jurisdiction Bishops and Ethnic Caucuses

The Western Jurisdiction Bishops and Ethnic Caucuses have not submitted legislation but have penned a letter calling for an alternative structure. From theirs, they suggest the following changes made to the group proposed by the IOT.

Primary characterization: Practitioner Leadership

  • Analysis: Each of the 5 boards of each General Agency would be 15 members, of which 3 of them would join together with each other board’s representatives to lead the UMC. Thus the Executive Board would be 15 members made up of the practical leadership of each of the other boards, ensuring connection and competency.
  • Total Board Membership for the General Church: 75 members (5 boards of 15 members each, with the executive board membership drawn from this pool of members)

The Methodist Way

From these four offerings, there are some points of commonality and some points of stark difference:

  • ALL of the plans envision a group of people (a board or council) as the head of the church EXCEPT the official Call to Action team (IOT), which envisions a set-aside bishop to be the voice for the UMC.
  • The IOT and PLAN B plans both give strong executive authority to their respective boards. The MFSA plan sees the council as more like a coordinating body that helps resources flow from one area of the church to the others, rather than being a top-down power.
  • The IOT and WJ plans both place a high value on competency-based membership, whereas MFSA and PLAN B both place a higher value on diversity and proportional representation.
  • Finally, all four plans have different numbers of board members, from MFSA which has the most (due to its commitments to diversity and proportional representation) to the WJ plan which has the least (due to its competency-based membership).

So, given all this, the question remains: which body both looks most like the United Methodist Church that we recognize, and which body is closest to what we need right now?

The key thing for me is to decide if the “Methodist” way of doing things has value. Every faith organization has this identity and structure. For example, when our Catholic friends have crisis in their communities, they turn to the monks. When Cardinal Law presided over the Boston Child Abuse scandal and stepped aside, the RCC went to the Capuchin (a monastic order) Cardinal O’Malley. O’Malley sold the opulent mansion and cleaned house, as far as I can tell.  My worship professor at the time said that has been their process through the ages: when the priestly order falls short (I forget the proper term for Law’s vocational lineage), they turn to the monks whose order is more bottom-up than top-down.

That’s the Catholic way of handling crises. Criticize the results how you may want, but it’s the Catholic way. The Methodist way to handle crises is through representative democracy: elected executives, diversity of opinion, big-tent Methodism, social action in varied stratum of society, committees, boards, and mutual accountability. This has been the Methodist way ever since we lost our chief executive in John Wesley and we haven’t replaced him until, perhaps, now. It is through this unwieldy Methodist connectional system that we find both our bane of slow to respond and our strength of holding together diverse groups.

My Perspective

I’m a young clergyperson and my generation has not seen any segment of society become more centralized. For example, music distribution went from the Big Records to Napster to Gnutella to Limewire (becoming more decentralized at each step). I honestly cannot think of any other organization in the world that is moving toward a “top-down” system rather than away from it . . . other than corporations and 20th century power bases. And yet this move towards centralization and negation of connectionalism is exactly the direction the UMC seems to be heading with the Call to Action movement.

To me, God is found in the back-and-forth, the struggle for consensus in groups, the diversity of belief and passion that large groups bring. They are unwieldy, they are not uniform, they are slow, they are full of sinful humans…but they are Methodist. And it is exactly that quality which I fear is being lost if we choose a proposal that excises difference and consolidates power in the hands of the few. There’s trimming that needs to happen to our family Methodist tree, but I don’t think cutting off the taproot is the best way to go about it.

Thoughts? What kind of church do we need for the 21st century? And will our Methodist heritage, in all its offshoots and mergers and schisms, be suitable to the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

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