LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS) – United Methodist bishops voted overwhelmingly Nov. 1 in favor of proposals to restructure the denomination and redistribute up to $60 million in church funds.
The vote specifically endorsed a letter, titled “For the Sake of a New World, We See a New Church: A Call to Action,” detailing changes – some requiring action by General Conference, some not.
“We see a new church,” the bishops’ letter says. “It is a church that is clear about its mission and confident about its future, a church that is always reaching out, inviting, alive, agile and resilient.” It asks all United Methodists to “work to do the ‘new thing’ God intends for our church and discover the path God is making for our future.”
The Council of Bishops’ vote came as part of the multi-year Call to Action process, which aims to reverse decades of declining membership and financial giving in the United States and to increase congregational vitality.
With their vote, the bishops endorsed the proposed consolidation of nine of the denomination’s 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. Legislation submitted to General Conference by the Connectional Table calls for the center to have a 15-member board of directors accountable to a 45-member advisory board called the General Council for Strategy and Oversight. The council would replace the Connectional Table, which coordinates the denomination’s mission, ministries and resources.
The vote came after two days of discussions among the bishops in private conversations, small groups and plenary sessions. Even as many bishops stood up to commend the letter, they also said there were parts they would tweak if they could. “I don’t agree with everything” was a frequent refrain.
However, many bishops insisted The United Methodist Church needs some kind of reform.
Bishops also acknowledged that General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, likely would alter the legislation. General Conference will next convene April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.
What the bishops endorsed
The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table initiated the Call to Action process “to reorder the life of the church” two years ago in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis.
At its November 2010 meeting, the council endorsed the Call to Action recommendations and the “adaptive challenge” to redirect resources toward fostering vital congregations. The suggested structural changes the bishops took up this year originated with the Interim Operations Team, a group of eight laity and clergy working with denominational leadership to implement the Call to Action recommendations.
Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, the Interim Operations Team convener, asked the bishops to “embrace and affirm” the team’s work.
In showing their approval, he said the bishops would be showing “our commitment to lead the church” and use the changes as “instruments in service to vision and mission.”
Palmer also stressed that more than 50 percent of the work the bishops need to do to foster vital congregations does not require General Conference legislation.
Bishops do not vote at General Conference, nor do they address the assembly on legislative matters without special permission. However, there are no limits on conversations with delegates and other church members outside the sessions.
Give conferences more freedom
In addition to endorsing restructuring and allowing the redistribution of up to $60 million in general church funds, the bishops, in the letter, urge General Conference to give annual conferences more freedom in how they organize, allow the election of a non-residential bishop to serve as president of the Council of Bishops and provide support for collecting consistent information from all annual conferences about their financial practices.
The council said it favors adopting stronger and more transparent measures and procedures for the accountability of bishops. The bishops also said they would work with appropriate general church offices, seminary leadership and annual conference boards of ordained ministry to strengthen support for United Methodist seminaries, address curriculum requirements and clarify expectations.
Heather Hahn serves as a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service (firstname.lastname@example.org).