Saturday, May 16, 2009

Possibility of a New Methodism?

I've been asking since December what the plan is for the UMC so we don't go the direction of GM or the Big 3. How do established institutions redefine themselves and streamline quickly in order to remain viable in the current economy? I suspect this will come more easily to businesses which run on "the bottom line," that is finances, as opposed to denominations, religious institutions, and nonprofits.

My fear that the UMC is moving too slowly seems to be confirmed. Anyone who knows me or has read a blog or two from me realizes I'm a fan of the arly days of Methodism when the organization was extremely lean (minimal)and the field workers -clergy & lay- are on the move and in the majority. I'll blog some other time about selling all the conference offices and moving the small conference team into a wing of an inner city church! Remember I'm a deacon called to emphasize mission!!

Here are some of the main issues and something of a response by the UMC. I've known since October that the apportionment giving was shifting dramatically in response to the economy as the campus ministry I lead (like all Wesley Foundations in Georgia) got notice of an immediate 40% reduction of funding from the conference. So, 7 months after this impact upon one of my ministry areas the Council of Bishops has met.

Excerpts are from Realign Resources

"At their spring meeting, the denomination’s Council of Bishops voted to take a pay cut as a sign of solidarity with those affected by the economy. Bishops cited 'the present financial challenges of our general church, general agencies and annual conferences and local congregations,' and approved a rollback in salaries to the 2008 level for the 50 active U.S. bishops. (Effective January 2010, their annual pay will drop from $125,658 to $120,942.)"

Other key notes from the meeting:

"Though the denomination is still rich in land and resources, its annual conferences are hurting financially due to debts, benefit obligations and guaranteed appointment for clergy, said Barbara Boigegrain, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits. 'We are starting to have a cash problem and we need a workout plan,' she said."

The group offered something of a plan though I'm not clear that it is nearly enough. "Immediate challenges for the United Methodist Church include deficit spending of nearly $1.5 million from the 2008 General Conference, and a projected shortfall of over $3 million for the 2012 conference. The bishops will be collaborating with the General Commission on General Conference and the General Council on Finance and Administration to redesign the 2012 assembly."

"Statistics from the denomination’s General Council on Finances and Accountability show that total year-to-date giving has increased in 18 annual conferences by $500,000 compared to 2008, but total giving for apportioned funds is down 16.5 percent, or $2.8 million, from 2008. The church can either let the crisis 'cause us to fail faster,' Ms. Boigegrain said, or 'start identifying available resources and making decisions to realign them so that we can continue to feed people and sustain church activity where people need it most.'"

"The Rev. Kendall Waller, a financial officer from the Missouri Conference, said that while annual conferences are being affected differently, he predicted that within four years, 22 of the 62 annual conferences in the U.S. would not be able to underwrite the current pension program."

"United Methodist schools also have suffered, with endowment losses of nearly 25 percent and less money available for tuition subsidies. 'A number of our schools are seriously hurting,' Mr. Alexander said."

Are the actions fast enough? Are they substantial? Here's where I struggle as I believe annual conferences ought to be "steering the ship" and that we must move more quickly in this economy from our old approaches to new practices. Otherwise, we're like the Big 3 presenting their December 2008 plan to Congress when something more radical is necessary. Check out the response by the agencies:

"In light of the crisis, Mr. Alexander said, the denomination’s general agencies are becoming increasingly 'clear on what is the main thing,' and have cut paper costs, trimmed the length and frequency of meetings and reduced personnel."

"Church leaders also are considering ways to trim costs of General Conference, as well as how to 'retool the structures and practices at every level of the church,' Mr. Alexander said. He called on the church to demonstrate 'creative frugality' and an understanding of 'real-world urgency.'

I know many churches and church leaders have the answers if the agencies are willing to hear what must be done. Many local congregations have been through this process of retooling, showing an annual responsiveness to available resources, and being creatively frugal even when resources shift dramatically. The necessary wisdom for this day is in the local congregation and should be actively sought and followed.

It is time for the UMC to follow the lead of the current circuit rider. The circuit rider doesn't benefit from the work of most UM agencies. The local congregation is asked to give to the UM agencies but receives little or no benefit from many UM agencies. In general the agencies are too far removed from the action in the field by the local congregation in ministry, too far removed from the everyday life and faith of the Methodist laity. Yes there are good people there, and yes they stay busy, but it is time to put our best and brightest back to work in the annual conference and in the local ministry. There must be ways we can express a connectional Methodist system that is vibrant and able to move quickly (economically and organizationally) in this new world order.

If an agency has little or no impact upon the work of local ministry does that express retooling, creative frugality, or real world urgency? Return the majority of resources- finances and people- to the work of local ministry and the annual conference. Without too quickly dismissing this outrageous thought entertain the notion for a few moments on paper, and imagine a new day for Methodism. You might suddenly find a Methodist freedom of funding, personnel, and thought you never believed possible again for our beloved movement.

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