United Methodist Call to Action — Some Questions Part 1

I am in the process of reading in detail the Call to Action report produced by a Steering Team at the request of the Council of Bishops. No, really . . . I am reading the document write now, as we speak (uh . . .  well . . . we aren’t speaking, but you know what I mean). So, as I read this, I am going to bullet point some questions that arise in this post which may or may not lead to further conversation:

  • I always have to ask who determined the makeup of the steering committee and is it reflective of a broad cross section of persons within the connection so as to adequately reflect life in the UMC. As I review the list almost half of the members of the team are either Bishops or denominational executives who may or may not be far removed from the day to day realities of congregational life, and who have a vested interest institutional survival. Of the 4 pastors in the group, 3 are lead pastors of large, multi-staff congregations. How does the makeup of the committee define the definitions and solutions that are offered?
  • Do the dreams listed on page on page 11 reflect the desires of rank and file United Methodists? While I would affirm many of the points, I’m not always sure that members of my congregation would likewise see these as values for the church.
  • What are the theological foundations of the project? Are the concerns raised solely institutional or are they based in a theological framework that recognizes God’s desires and purposes for the United Methodist Church? There are many references to our mission statement — “making disciples for the transformation of the world” — but while that is a noble task it is a denominational statement, not necessarily a theological one. Is congregational vitality as defined by the Steering Team driven by a careful reflection on the biblical and traditional role of the church in the world, or by human definitions of success?
  • The definition of “congregational vitality” seems vague. On page 15 the committee recognizes differences in defining congregational vitality, but then suggests that “…research is conclusive that we can stimulate vitality at a minimum…” and then describes some practices that seem to stimulate said vitality without fully defining what vitality is. The steering committee report never gets around to defining vitality, however the attached Towers/Watson report lists the following indicators of vitality “based on steering team input…”: average worship attendance as a percentage of membership; total membership; number of children, youth and young adults as a percentage of membership; number of professions of faith as a percentage of attendance and membership; annual giving per attendee; and financial benevolence beyond the local church as a percentage of church budget. How are these indicators any different from what has been used in evaluating ministry for the past forty years and are they truly reflective of congregational vitality?

  • There seems to be an emphasis on clergy accountability. Why is there no emphasis on congregational accountability?

  • There is a call to centralize “progress updates” to create better systems of accountability. Is this just the accumulation of more data which will then continue to not be acted upon or is there some plan of accountability? Don’t we currently have all the data we need to adequately evaluate congregational effectiveness, but suffer from a failure in using that data effectively?

  • I agree with the call for leaders, and yet the steering committee itself has several persons who have long histories in perpetuating institutional concerns.  How do we move beyond the rhetoric to actually affirming and bringing forth the amazing leaders we have the church, many who are early in their ministries and are serving congregations which resist calls to congregational vitality at every turn?

  • Of the four “Key Drivers of Vitality,” I find myself affirming the fourth point (high percentage of spiritually engaged leadership who assume leadership roles) as perhaps the key in the situations I have been a part of. Yet, are we willing to take the time needed to lead folks into those leadership roles, for that is perhaps the greatest struggle in ministry today.

  • I’m troubled by the statement on clergy leadership that bishops and superintendents should, “Teach and show by their own example that good intentions must be coupled with profound dedication to achieving measurable outcomes and the practice of frequent public accountability for measurable results” (p. 21). Is not our dedication first and foremost to be directed toward Christ and walking in his way? Is there not a potential to create situations where leaders are encouraged to “cook the books” to achieve these measurable goals? Don’t get me wrong, I am for accountability at all levels, but does Christ’s example and ministry focus on the outcome at the expense of process?

  • Is this report in effect suggesting that the Council of Bishops needs more power and authority than currently exists and what does that mean for the rest of us?

Okay, my eyes are glazing over. More questions to come.

3 thoughts on “United Methodist Call to Action — Some Questions Part 1

  1. Jay, I’ve been digging into the “Call to Action” myself, and asked some of the same questions. For example, the so-called dreams on p. 11.

    Take this one: “more grace and freedom and fewer rules.” That sounds fine, as far as it goes. But the Apex section of the report calls for new, vigorous, and “accountable” executive positions throughout the hierarchy in order to speed decisions for church closures and clergy dismissals. Then I read this sentence on p. 21 of the report:

    “Since rulebound structures inhibit innovation, continuous renewal, and viability, a key
    responsibility of leaders is to suspend rules in order to test and assess the efficacy of
    new, worthy ideas.”

    Viability = adequate financial resources. Forgive me, but fast-tracking church closures for the re-allocation of real estate assets held in trust by the General Church is the primary prescription offered in the Apex report. So, a responsible leader (e.g. bishop, district superintendent, pastor) will suspend the rules to experiment.

    Another dream: “more work on the Four Areas of Focus and less on many worthy but ultimately sub-optimal tasks.”

    I hear a definite narrowing of the ministry of Christians here. Yes, the “Call to Action” seems to make allowances for unique local ministries, but I’ve seen looks when talking about our congregation’s bread ministry and its ministry to the homeless.

    The language used in that particular dream, “less [work] on many worthy but ultimately sub-optimal tasks”… is the word “condescending”? “imperious”? “air of superiority”?

    Would fighting against slavery, against child labor, and for the vote for women fit the definition of “sub-optimal tasks”? I’m afraid so.

    Finally, there’s the dream of “more trust and less cynicism.”

    Do you know what I told my daughters to tell any guy who said, “Trust me”?

    Jay, I support the “Call to Action.” I agree with the four-point program of the Towers Watson report. And I agree (God forgive me) with the gist of the Apex report.

    But the fact that “The Steering Committee” had to…stoop…to the rhetorical subterfuge of the Apex report is appalling to me. Makes me feel ashamed. (eyes narrow)

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