PANAMA CITY, Panama (UMNS) – United Methodist bishops endorsed recommendations for widespread church reforms during their meeting in Panama Nov. 3-4, including greater accountability for denominational leaders in promoting church growth.

The Council of Bishops’ approval of the Call to Action Steering Team Report on Nov. 4 was heralded as a step forward for a church that has suffered decades of membership decline in the United States.

“What this means is that whatever goes forward, the council is committing itself – and hopefully the general church’s Connectional Table will make the same commitment – that yes, we are taking a stand and these are the levers to pull the church in the direction in which we feel the Spirit of God is calling us,” said Illinois Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, the steering team co-chair. “And that is toward more congregational vitality.”


The major recommendations for reform include:

  • Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church’s “true first priority” for at least a decade.
  • Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
  • Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement.
  • Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  • Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.

Some of the recommendations will require the approval of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. The bishops also supported the creation of an interim operations team, which will be responsible for helping to draft any legislation that will be required to enact this recommendation.

Drivers of vitality

The Call to Action Steering Team’s recommendations go next to the Connectional Table, which will next meet on Nov. 15 in Franklin, Tenn. The Connectional Table helps guide funding of denominational operations, including the work of the proposed operational team.

For two days, more than 80 active and retired bishops at the Council of Bishops discussed the steering team’s report. In 2009, the council and general church’s Connectional Table created a 16-member church-wide advisory group, which includes clergy and laity, to address the decades-long membership decline in the United States.

The Call to Action team based its recommendations on two studies it commissioned from independent researchers. One was an “Operational Assessment of the Connectional Church” that found the church was undergoing a “creeping crisis of relevance” and rated general agencies below average in fulfilling the church’s mission.

Another study, “The Vital Congregations Research Project,” analyzed data from 32,228 United Methodist churches in the United States and classified 4,961 congregations, or 15 percent, as “high-vital” local churches. The study found that four key drivers of congregational vitality in the United States are effective pastoral leadership, multiple small groups, diverse worship styles and a high percentage of spiritually engaged laity in leadership roles.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops is supported through the Episcopal Fund of The United Methodist Church by your Indiana Conference tithe.

Heather Hahn serves as a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

A UMNS photo by Rich Peck

Bishop Gregory Palmer (right), chairperson of the Call To Action Committee, shares thoughts with consultants, Mark Harrison and Frederick Miller, during the group’s April 6-8 meeting in Nashville, Tenn. The 12-member committee is a successor to an earlier group appointed by the Council of Bishops to reorder the life of The United Methodist Church for greater effectiveness and vitality in “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and addressing the Four Areas of Focus endorsed by the 2008 General Conference.