Remix of “Foucault’s Pendulum” by sylvar on Flickr, Creative Commons share
Logo for Jeremy Smith's blog series on the values of the Call to Action
As we said in our last blog post, we are a little under 100 days from the beginning of General Conference 2012, some would say one of the most important GCs in the past two decades. Why? Because the whole church is buzzing about radical realignment, about the restructuring of the church from the top-down from the Call To Action movement. And as we said, it’s time to stop criticizing it as too business-y (which it is) and instead show how its theological affirmations and foundations are in error and not in the United Methodist vein. And it’s time to champion ideas of how to fix it.
In three blog posts, posted each week in January, I offer the following critique of the theological foundations of the CTA movement. I find that the Call To Action moves us away from our Methodist roots and current reality by tending towards values and sins that have no place in the United Methodist Church that we love. I’m basing these posts on a sermon by an Episcopal brother in the faith who articulates a similar drift that the Anglican Communion is having and I fear the UMC is heading towards as well.
Thanks for reading.
The second of three blog posts revolves around the misplacement of the basic unit of the church. We see this difficulty clearly when we consider the question “What is the basic unit of the church?“
- Is it the local church? If that is the case, then each basic unit should be self-sustaining. Is every church self-sustaining? No. They get educated and qualified clergy sent to it, they do not pick their own. They get minimum compensation support for the clergy when they cannot pay for their own. So the basic unit cannot exist without the others.
- Is it the Annual Conference? While they educate and qualify and do beyond what local churches can accomplish on their own, they are dependent on churches for Apportionment moneys, staff, prayers and service. When we close annual conferences and merge their space with others, we show that the AC cannot be the basic unit of the church.
- Is it the General Conference? While they determine doctrine and structure for the UMC, they do not fill it perpetually and meet only every four years. The legislative branch cannot be the basic unit of the church.
Answering this question leads to the third and fourth theological errors (here are the first two) in the Call to Action and its affiliated proposals. The third theological error is the placement of the basic unit of the church at the top of the hierarchy, ie. Centralism. Centralism means that the highest hierarchical rung of the church is the most important and should have the most power. Part and parcel with this is a centralizing of our mission and focus.
The Call To Action has released a Study Guide (PDF) for individuals and small groups to study its proposals. On page 22, it outlines two of the new positions created by the CTA legislation as
- An Executive Secretary (laity/clergy) over the highest perpetual legislative body in the UMC and
- A super-bishop (aka Dumbledore) to preside over the College of Bishops and speak on behalf of the entire church.
Both of these centralize authority and power in response to change. Even if their roles are “nuanced” by GC into being figureheads, they both will still speak with authority over the United Methodist Church and guide the efforts of their groups. In addition, the groups also are replacing hundreds of board members with 15 people who will be the Board of Directors, chosen based on competency not representativeness. So we could have 15 people predominantly from the Southern Jurisdictions running the entire United Methodist Church, as they control the largest voting bloc on the nominating committee as the Alternative Proposal points out:
Although over 36% of the members of the UMC live outside the United States, with the Call to Action proposal the central conferences would only be allocated 11% of the seats on the proposed General Council for Strategy and Oversight. The formula for the remaining seats includes a bias that favors the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the US. Even though the Southeastern Jurisdiction has 24 % of the members of the UMC, it would be allocated more seats than all of the central conferences combined. This approach isn’t consistent with our democratic heritage, it isn’t inclusive of the entire denomination, and it isn’t helpful in growing our church.
So we have executives that may represent a smaller slice of the UMC. Is that the Church we believe in?
Finally, in our previous blog post, we talked also about the Call To Action’s focus on alignment, that is narrowing the focus of the church to vital congregations:
Provide base funding to the reduced number and size of agencies, with competitive access to substantial performance-based financial grants, and specifically using criteria that is tightly aligned with increasing congregational vitality
(Call To Action Report, 28)
In short, there will be fewer people who narrow the focus and if you don’t fall into the narrower focus of fewer people, then your funding gets cut. Executive authority narrows the scope of potential outreach by the church because there is less diversity for funding applicants to appeal to and to see value in. Even as boards try to be as diverse as possible, there’s no shaking the monoculture of privilege that board members tend to represent when we drastically reduce their numbers.
By narrowing the number of people at the top and by narrowing the focus of the UMC, we are centralizing an organization. My problem is that my generation has not seen any segment of society become more centralized. For example, music distribution went from the Big Records to Napster to Gnutella to Limewire (becoming more decentralized at each step). I honestly cannot think of any other organization in the world that is moving toward a “top-down” system rather than away from it…other than corporations and 20th century power bases. And yet this move towards centralization is exactly the direction the UMC seems to be heading with the Call to Action movement.
The error then is that the Call To Action report determines that centralizing authority at the top of the church will “trickle down” to better efficiency and mission focus at the bottom.
The fourth theological error in the Call to Action is the drift towards Provincial Autonomy, what we would call Congregationalism. Autonomy means all the power lies in the local church; Provincial Autonomy expands this to include the Annual Conference.
Here we get to one of the primary claims of the CTA. On page 10 of the Study Guide, it states:
Our denominational resources and attention will need to be refocused on the congregation as the central mission body of the church…[A]ccording to the CTA Report we are challenged to “redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration to foster and sustain an increase in the number of vital congregations.”
Here the CTA makes the claim that seems in-line with the Book of Discipline that states in paragraph 120 that “Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” But as we noted above, local churches depend a lot on resources (clergy, training, awareness) from other bodies. To eviscerate those meta-church bodies so that we could have more money for the local church would be counter-productive.
As well, do we continue to read the rest of that paragraph in the Book of Discipline?
Whenever United Methodism has had a clear sense of mission, God has used our Church to save persons, heal relationships, transform social structures, and spread scriptural holiness, thereby changing the world. In order to be truly alive, we embrace Jesus’ mandate to love God and to love our neighbor and to make disciples of all peoples.
I ask you:
- Would individual churches be as effective in saving persons without the General Board of Global Missions that is responsible for at least part of our skyrocketing success in saving souls in Africa and the Central Conferences?
- Would individual churches be as effective in healing relationships without the Religion and Race and COSROW agencies that keep us accountable to mutual respect in word and deed?
- Would individual churches be as effective in transforming social structures without the collective responses of the Church and Society (at the general board and annual conference levels) amplifying our voices into one coherent whole?
For as much criticism as the renewal groups have for these structures, they do have good works under their belt by any case. Ask Katrina victims if they appreciate UMCOR and even the staunchest Confessing Movement-ista would say yes. These are works that autonomous churches couldn’t accomplish, including some that even Annual Conferences wouldn’t spend the energy or money to accomplish.
We are not a collective of autonomous churches (like the Baptist Conventions) or provinces (like the Episcopal Church). But that sense of autonomy (also called creeping congregationalism, which is also a good band name ) is being codified in the Call To Action.
- By removing the Guaranteed Appointment (which it isn’t guaranteed right now anyways, but why let facts get in the way of more power?) Bishops will be allowed to relieve pastors at-will without recourse, just as they are not allowed to determine appointments at-will.
- At GC 2008 and the JC 1032, we see that church pastors are able to determine membership of gay parish participants without accountability. I’m honestly fine with clergy determining membership, but I’m not fine with it being done without accountability. This is not CTA-focused but it’s a side issue that shows this creeping congregationalism.
- Annual Conferences would be allowed to not have the various monitoring boards (COSROW, History, Religion and Race, Church and Society) that keep us connectional (The proposed language change is from “shall” to “should” to you polity geeks out there). Sure is nice to check our own pockets.
We also see this drift towards congregationalism as we place the blame of our failures on higher rungs of the church. The one point when I stood up and almost shouted “NO!” at Panera Bread while reading the CTA Study Guide was on page 21 where it says “When the thirteen agencies were created, congregations and conferences sought agencies to create resources for them and to do mission for them.” That is an outright mischaracterization of the agencies. They do not replace ministry or mission, they do what individual churches cannot: they collect resources to support missionaries; they undertake huge projects; they respond to disasters in professional ways; they publish books; they help make curriculum that is not localized or theologically narrow…they amplify the tinny voices that only Horton could hear otherwise.
Are they wasteful and erroneous in some ways? Yes. Are more missions and ministries done through the AC and CC level? Yes. But they cannot replicate the impact of the General Agencies. To blunt them is to fall into the sin of Autonomy by assuming the local church can handle everything better than the rest of the Connection.
The error then is that the Call To Action report redirects resources to reinforce a sense of autonomous provinces in the UMC, further exacerbating the regionalism that the jurisdictions create in the US side of the UMC. By codifying power in congregations and provinces, the CTA effectively neutralizes the connection.
Hear the good news: The United Methodist Church resides in neither Centralism or Provincial Autonomy, resides in neither the concentration of power at the top or the discordant wanderings of the unorganized bottom of the ladder. Rather, the UMC’s theological claim is to a system of Togetherness called Connectionalism.
From the earlier question “What is the basic unit of the church?” the truth is that the basic unit of the church is nonexistent.There is no basic unit. The entirety of the church is dependent on each other. Churches are dependent on Annual conferences for clergy and education and support. No Annual Conference can have a bishop unless a majority of the surrounding jurisdiction votes for it. Annual Conferences cannot even determine their borders without the consent of a majority of the other annual conferences at the jurisdiction level. It is often said that the UMC has a parallel structure to the USA government with executive, legislative, judicial branches…but can you imagine Arkansas and Missouri voting on who should be Oklahoma’s governor? Ludicrous! But it is exactly what we have in our UMC: interdependency and mutuality in our connectional church.
As we see, the CTA places power at the top and at the bottom of the UMC, further distancing those who fund the top from the top who make decisions for the bottom. While that looks like connectionalism, it isn’t such when it strains the lines between the two ends. And that’s not the Methodist way. Methodism lies between Centralism and Provincialism. Neither of these is a defining part of United Methodism but both are theological affirmations of the Call To Action movement. Togetherness lies in the middle of the pendulum swing between these two seductive tendencies.
The irony is that the CTA identifies exactly the problem these proposals will exacerbate: the issue of trust. If you further remove the communication and representation of the top of the United Methodist Church from the local congregations, then you create more distrust between the kings and the serfs. My biggest pet peeve is when our largest churches call apportionments “franchise taxes”…how many more churches will they call them that when their leadership looks and acts differently than them when we realize that 15 people cannot represent the diversity of the UMC.
Our claim to Methodism is togetherness: from the first accountability groups to the Class Meetings to today, we lean into each other and support each other. It is hard to do that when the people seem further away, both from the top and the bottom. It is for this reason that I continue to support the Alternative Structure proposed by progressive caucus groups that re-aligns the realignment proposed by the CTA:
- To negate the Centralism of 15 Directors leading the UMC, the Alternative Proposal creates smaller-than-existing boards for each agency with representational requirements, placing more people (and more diverse people) as the heads of the UMC. There is no Super Bishop. By including more representatives from the jurisdictions and the central conferences, the notion of centrality has a more worldwide face.
- To negate the Provincialism shifts, monitoring agencies are still required of the annual conferences, and guaranteed appointment is placed in the hands of the Boards of Ordained Ministries, not the bishops. By making these changes, they bring the leadership and the local church closer together.
As I’ve written before, the key thing is the “Methodist” way of doing things, even in the midst of crisis. Every faith organization has this identity and structure. For example, when our Catholic friends have crisis in their communities, they turn to the monks. When Cardinal Law presided over the Boston Child Abuse scandal and stepped aside, the RCC went to the Capuchin (a monastic order) Cardinal O’Malley. O’Malley sold the opulent mansion and cleaned house, as far as I can tell. My worship professor at the time said that has been their process through the ages: when the priestly order falls short (I forget the proper term for Law’s vocational lineage), they turn to the monks whose order is more bottom-up than top-down.
That’s the Catholic way of handling crises. Criticize the results how you may want, but it’s the Catholic way. The Methodist way is through democracy: elected executives, diversity of opinion, big-tent Methodism, social action in varied stratum of society, committees, boards, and mutual accountability. This has been the Methodist way ever since we lost our chief executive in John Wesley and we haven’t replaced him until, perhaps, now. It is through this Methodist unwieldy connectional system that we find both our bane of slow to respond and our strength of holding together diverse groups. Even though I really can’t stand the abuses of the democratic system by the caucus groups, it’s more acceptable than increased executive power, in my opinion.
In short, there is a praxis of togetherness that we call Connectionalism that is in grave danger of being torn asunder at General Conference. By centralizing authority and removing connectional structures and entities, the very way we work together, or as Paul tells us, to “have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:25). Our networks of mutuality, of relying on each other for interdependent ministry, and of connectional reliance are in danger of being replaced by the idols of streamlining and efficiency. And that’s not the practice of a church I would recognize at the meta-church level.
Change is coming to the United Methodist Church. The only question for our delegates, whom I pray and hope you do too, is whether the Church that emerges better resembles the church worldwide or represents a business mega-conglomoration. One will be efficient in maintaining the institution, and one will be an authentic response to the call of God to create disciples and transform the world. Delegates: For better or for worse, in our representative democratic church…the choice is in your hands.
Help us out: send this article to your delegates (there’s a PDF version here) or print it out and hand it to them in your meetings with them. And comment below and start the conversation. Thoughts?