Graphic courtesy of MFSA
Current UMC StructureThe current structure of The United Methodist Church. | Graphic Courtesy of Methodist Federation for Social Action
After Methodism's first century of horseback evangelism, primarily by lay preachers who lived short but vital lives, over the last 150 years we new Methodists have begun to build fortresses of faith. They are designed to comfort our congregations and be museums of our memories; too often now we take to their walls to defend our positions, whether in the pews or at the microphones; too rarely do we go forth into the world, opening our sanctuaries up to be shelters for all the seekers around us. We are too attached to those edifices to let others in.
We have also built fortified places of programming, investing millions of dollars and much of our inter-conference, social-action imaginative thinking in centralized agencies of expertise. They have often served us well, but have lost traction with many of our local churches as the ability to Google one's every idea has replaced reaching for the published volume of United Methodist resources once relied on for assistance.
The United Methodist Church is vastly rich in bricks and mortar, and in talent of a certain age. It is also calcified, having cultivated a regulatory culture that rejoices in a fit of legislative madness every four years, rarely producing even one phrase memorable enough to carry home to our local churches.
We have a Discipline that we proudly carry as a reminder of Mr. Wesley but never open for fear that we will notice that we aren't following its instructions, choosing to ask forgiveness rather than beg permission through antiquated structures. Because of the Discipline's far-too-detailed guidance we as a Church are inwardly-focussed in the extreme, to the detriment of our mission.
What can we do?
We have our divisions, which keep us from acknowledging our common ties. We have our shared history as the people of Wesley, but like the blind experts examining the elephant, we can't agree from our different perspectives exactly what it is that we share. We have our democratic structure, exercising power equally between lay and clergy, but we are stymied by First World - Third World, economic realities. We have dozens of governing bodies claiming authority, but no central way to focus our energies in mission consistently.
The Call to Action initiative laid out by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table offers a running start at reform, framed as it is in both legislative work and bolder leadership commitments by the bishops themselves. Two years in the making, it has emulated our modern Church in every way, winding through three different committees of sorts, and culminating in a eclectic set of recommendations, including economic, philosophic, and structural changes. The petitions containing those changes are already inviting conflict, putting forty years of stated purposes and nearly a thousand jobs in general agencies in question, and altering traditional lines of authority in ways we can't predict completely. It will continue to disturb our trust issues, which never rest easy.
The focus of the Call to Action recommendations is leadership: clergy and lay, from the general Church to the local congregation, with the Annual Conference as the pivot point. The filed petitions recommend deleting the program boards and commissions, and merging their employees into a unified General Church staff in one new general agency. That agency's board would be comprised of 15 people, elected based on their competencies by a representational advisory board much like the current Connectional Table. Another petition also recommends investing $10 million in theological and leadership training in the central conferences, and $50 million in direct support of seminary students and lay leadership in US annual conferences.
In Mr. Wesley's time, his people relied on him to point the way and offer bright-line guidance, which is not to say they didn't argue with him from time to time. When the American Revolution caused the withdrawal of all Anglican priests from the colonies, his colonial people repeatedly petitioned Mr. Wesley to send them clergy to give them sacraments; full-blooded Royalist that he was, it took him eight years to give in and ordain priests for the Americans.
When Mr. Coke and Mr. Asbury arrived on the American shore, they found it necessary to do things differently from their Anglican ways; many years of struggle in the colonies were culminated in the beginning of a new Church, governed by general superintendents elected by their peers. It was a first step toward developing a Christian denomination destined to spread across the world; an experiment mirroring the new American government, it required innovation, and sometimes retrenchment from failed or fatigued initiatives, again and again.
That need has returned. We must be true to our forebears who made us rich in resources, to those who were witnesses in the wilderness. We cannot pass this by, simply because there is conflict. We must remember the faces of all those who came before us and honor their efforts by committing ourselves to seeking whatever change is necessary, even if it means listening as much or more than we speak. We must covenant to be Witnesses to our faith and our tradition as Wesleyans, and strive to ensure the survival of this now-global branch of Christianity. Millions of people across this world are depending on us to stay in the saddle, just as did our frontier pastors of old, until the Message reaches all of them. Make it so. Let us be Witnesses All!
Statement of Purpose
We as laity will witness together in support of core Christian and Wesleyan values, as expressed in the concepts of personal and social holiness, at Annual, Jurisdictional, and General Conferences, as we are able. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are committed through our baptism to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. As heirs of the Wesleyan legacy, we are committed to holding this body of believers together under the umbrella of Wesleyan beliefs.
We believe that:
* We are most effective in our witness when we devote our energies to that which propels the United Methodist movement forward in spite of the tensions that threaten it.
* Mr. Wesley's core beliefs are the only test of our fellowship, not the divisive issues of the current day.
* This Church must thrive, be vital, and consolidate its strengths, and thus, we are obligated to act together to insure its future.
* We need a reformation, not a splintering.
Together we must insure that the UMC:
* Focuses on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world;
* Emphasizes the vitality of local congregations;
* Identifies, develops, supports, and holds accountable principled lay and clergy leaders;
* Reaches younger people, and more people, with the Gospel message; and,
* Again becomes a movement as it was in Wesley's time.