Holy Conversations

January 27th, 2014
This article is featured in the Stuck: Now What? (Feb/Mar/Apr2014) issue of Circuit Rider


What processes, systems, or strategies are the ripest for change in your annual conference? Here’s what some of our readers had to say.

“Any planning process is useless unless it workshops the anticipated barriers preventing achievement of the goal. Afterward, a plan of implementation is crucial, along with a hard-nosed leader, to get the whole plan (goals, barriers, and implementation) into action.” - William Salmon, Workshop Guide, Great Plains Conference (Retired)

“One of the great strengths of the early Methodist movement was that they had a ‘method’ for making disciples. Too many of our churches have lost their vision for making disciples, and they don't know how find that vision. The early Methodists increased numerically and positively impacted their communities for the kingdom of God by spreading scriptural holiness. Too many of our churches are on palliative care or life support!” - David P. Haley, Pastor of Oxford UMC in Oxford, NC

“Two major issues face United Methodism, if it is to be a vital force for the gospel and Jesus-centered good. Both reforms/changes can start at the annual conference level: 1. Take out of The Book of Discipline all references to homosexuality and all limits on how our clergy can minister to homosexual persons. The language in our book is un-Christian, nothing like Jesus, and an offence to our ‘Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors’ slogan. It is hateful and totally dehumanizing language. No really accurate scripture interpretation arrives at this hateful conclusion. In the 1800s, we preached from the Bible to support slavery. We must stop this hate of homosexual persons and allow our clergy as a matter of conscience to minister to them as the clergy see best. 2. We must soon come into Century 21 in administrative policy by ending life episcopacy and going to term episcopacy. These two issues are holding the UMC back.” - Robert Dulaney Barrett, Retired Elder in the New Mexico Annual Conference

“The appointment process MUST undergo changes in the near future to keep the church running. Some pertinent issues are: - the use of spiritual gifts/interests in making appointments (rather than salary); - clergy couple needs; - working spouses; and - year-round appointment making versus an appointment ‘season’.” - Dave Kelley, Pastor of Shiloh UMC in Lexington, NC

"Redirecting apportionments away from general agencies and toward annual conferences is a logical, practical, and effective tool that is not forbidden by our Discipline. Article 4 of our United Methodist Constitution declares ‘annual conferences as the fundamental bodies of the Church.’ Unfortunately, since 1968, our denomination’s leaders have delegated that foundation to our general agencies. When local congregations redirect funds away from nonessential, general church connectional ministries to the core connectional ministries of annual conferences, then annual conferences will have the funds needed to start new congregations, revitalize centers of ministry, and serve the wider world. The top of the pyramid will not change. It is incumbent on the base to turn our organizational model upside down.” - Andy Langford, Pastor of Central UMC in Concord, NC

“I think we need to: 1. get off the same-sex and immigration bandwagons; and 2. get strictly on, only, and nothing else working on evangelism and how to draw the younger generation into the church. Several of the smaller churches I served before I retired were run by the older generation that said, ‘They will comply with us, or else,’ or ‘we refuse to let them have the 10:30 hour and us older people switch to the 8:30 or 9 a.m. hour!’” - Lyle Johnston, Retired United Methodist Pastor in Prescott Valley, AZ

“This probably borders on heresy, but I think that if most United Methodist lay persons knew how much money we spend to support the clergy appointment system, they might become unglued. So much of our annual conference budget surrounds and supports the appointment system. District superintendents, area office, equitable compensation, moving expense subsidies, transitional assistance, and many of our other decisions (clergy benefits, for example) are intertwined with appointments. I think it’s fair to say that at least 25% of our annual conference budget directly or indirectly serves the appointment system.

Yes, I am well aware that bishops and district superintendents do a lot more than make appointments. But it is fair to say that appointment-making consumes a great deal of their time. If there were no appointments to make, perhaps gifted leaders could be available for coaching, mentoring, program assistance, and early crisis intervention.

It is also true that a call system merely transfers expense to the local church, but this could result in longer clergy tenures, which are generally viewed as healthy for churches. Indirectly, a call system could help us to deal with the issues of clergy who are ungifted, uncalled, burnt-out, or toxic.

I understand that a call system could be very threatening to clergy, but perhaps in moving that way, our church could become less clergy-centric and more focused on the needs and potential of the local church.” - Richard A. VanGiesen, Conference Treasurer and Benefits Officer in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference

“As a pastor of a two-charge church in the Alabama West Florida UMC, I would love to see our annual charge conference reporting become less cumbersome. I see no reason why the report of the pastor cannot be combined. We are struggling to pay apportionments, but we are attempting to meet this requirement, and believe in the shared connectional system.” - G. Charles Satterwhite, Pastor of Theodore UMC and Irvington UMC in AL

“What is ripest for change in our annual conference is not a process, system, or strategy. United Methodism (and every Christian church) needs to alter its ecclesiology, or self-understanding, from a hierarchical bureaucracy to a dynamic theocratic organization that is a means of grace: to believe and exhibit the reality that the church exists, under God, in order to provide opportunities for individuals and groups to experience the presence, energy, and power of God (i.e., grace). The church and the world would then be changed in revolutionary ways. Worship would have a meaningful focus, social service would have an actual purpose, programs would be spiritually dynamic, the divine presence would become a living reality, and daily life in the church would be an exciting other-oriented venture.” - Richard P. Heitzenrater, Professor Emeritus of Church History and Wesley Studies at Duke Divinity School

“We should work together instead of apart. After all, we are a connectional church. Larger churches could help smaller churches, or smaller churches could help larger churches. In other words, go with the expertise of, instead of the size of, the church. An idea that came out of our lectionary group was to publicize in a directory those persons with a D.Min. in a certain area. That allows those persons to use their knowledge and benefit other churches at the same time.” - Susan Taylor, Pastor of Bethany UMC in Smyrna, GA

“The voices of gloom and doom must be countered with a glimpse of the greatness of a church that is struggling to be faithful to its heritage but is not compelled to relive it. While we have differences in the way we think and often spar with each other on matters of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, we still are thinking and we are continuing to let think; we haven’t made our doctrine a dogma. While we seem locked into a litigious mentality—putting on trial the offending officiate who performs same-sex ceremonies—we have a process that can be administered humanely, and the means, in time, to correct our past mistakes and our current obsessions. We are a ‘church in search.’ We haven’t arrived. We are moving on to… perfection?” - Charles Schuster, Rocky Mountain Conference

“I would change the itineracy! Maybe not all at once, and maybe not completely, but surely this sacred cow could come in for some careful examination. I know that after a career as a military chaplain followed by nearly a decade serving civilian United Methodist Churches I simply took early retirement because I just wasn’t up to another move—didn’t want to do. My heart just wasn’t in it. It continues to pose real problems for Bishops and cabinets, not only because of two-career couples, special clergy needs, and the ‘untouchable’ pastors of wildly successfully mega-churches, but because the world has changed! We—again—have not changed with it, and I for one am tired of the old double-standard where it applies to some in the system, but not to others (namely those with the ‘right’ political connections). When are we going to get serious about looking at how a change in the system might be a blessing for all? At least give it a serious, in-depth look!” - Sharon M. Freeto, Interim Pastor of First UMC in Hondo, TX

“The most critical need is for leaders to focus their attention on the vitality of the local church. Everything else depends on that.” - James A. Harnish, Pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, FL

“In the past several years there has been a noticeable reduction in the amount of time allocated to Conference Business matters. Certainly, this trend could have been by design. Worship should always be an important and a high priority of any Annual Conference. Less time discussing business issues is of some concern. If the delegates don’t really feel that they have a voice in the policy of their Church; they will have less commitment to the greater organization. We then will continue to see smaller and smaller attendance at our annual conference. If this trend continues, it will be very hard to reverse. For the Church to be robust, it must be a Church of the people!” - Warren Kirk, Pastor of Hope UMC in Hope, IN

“In the Arkansas Annual Conference, we have made significant progress toward deep change: altering the annual conference and district structure; adopting new statements of vision, mission, and core measures of change; establishing new centers for training clergy and laity; and making our connections stronger through technology and ‘circuit elders,’ who assist with district work. We are creating alignment through Bishop Gary Mueller's Annual Conference Mission Plan and district mission plans. Information on these changes is available at www.arumc.org. Our trajectory for the coming years is ‘creating vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world,’ which will involve further use of technology, establishing comprehensive metrics of vitality, and making effective appointments to the mission field.” - William O. (Bud) Reeves, Northwest District Superintendent, Arkansas Annual Conference

“I am an Elder in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference. I have been a parish minister, college chaplain, and since 2000 a Navy Chaplain.

During the 2012 General Conference I was appalled at the ‘boo-hooing’ and sense of ‘divine right’ or ‘privilege’ many Elders feel entitles to as the guaranteed appointment status was reviewed and discerned.

A ‘guaranteed appointment’ or ‘tenure’ is something that is killing our clergy and congregations. In my first two parish appointments I followed bad, ineffective, clergy who did enough to ‘get by’ but not really add much to vibrant or vital ministry. I hear this sentiment echoed throughout our denomination regardless of geographic location and we wonder why our parishes struggle.

The UMC DOES NOT have the obligation to retain clergy who refuse to be or do not have the gifts to be ‘effective clergy.’ Most jobs in the world have an evaluation system the measures competency and performance. In my ministry as a college chaplain and in the US Navy, I have been regularly evaluated. This is a good bench mark not only for myself, but to help me grow in ministry.

The GBHEM, in consultation with Bishops and Board of Ordained Ministry need to make a uniform evaluation tool that measures effectiveness not only in congregational growth or other statistics, but also in spiritual gifts and graces to lead in ministry. Secondly, we have to be brave enough to close dying churches or transform them to other uses. Dying churches that cannot be rehabilitated use clergy gifts and conference finances that can be invested in a new worshipping congregations.” - LCDR John Michio Miyahara, CHC, USN, Apra Harbor, Guam

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