Photo Courtesy Wake Forest University
Thomas E. Frank
Thomas E. Frank
TAMPA – Noted author and religion professor Thomas Frank challenged the Call to Action restructure proposal Jan. 20 with what he termed the kind of critical evaluation questions that delegates should ask.
Dr. Frank told the Pre-General Conference Briefing that he studied Call to Action's relationship to the United Methodist Constitution, the Book of Discipline and the church's history in preparation for his talk. He and other leaders critiqued the Connectional Table's proposal during an hour-long session.
The scholar's questions and responses:
What are the principles of polity on which a general church structure should be based?
Frank said he found five principles in the United Methodist Constitution regarding church structure:
1. Conference. "Methodists make decisions together in holy conferencing, which is a means of grace," Dr. Frank said. "Methodism never has had a central executive body. Frustrating as it has always been that General Conference only meets every four years, no central body has ever been created despite complaints. The General Conference only creates agencies to carry out its work in the four years between sessions."
2. Episcopacy. "Methodists have always been guided by bishops or superintendents," Dr. Frank said. "The Constitution spells out little of spiritual and temporal oversight. It has left practices to bishops as a council."
3. Separation of powers. "The United Methodist Constitution clearly sets out separation of powers between the General Conference, Annual Conferences and the episcopacy," Frank said. "No conference can delegate power to bishops; bishops can't legislate. Every conference restructure for the past 15 years has had to meet this judicial test."
4. Inclusiveness. "The church's ideal is that all members have the right to participate fully in church governance," Dr. Frank said. "It's not sheer radical democracy, but delegated or represented governance. In its 44 years of existence, The United Methodist Church has gone all-out to demonstrate this in General Conference. This has become part of our DNA. Any body that gathers to work without this inclusiveness is unjust and unworkable."
5. Fiduciary duty in distinction of program and finance. "Authority over program doesn't mix with authority of money [as proposed in Call to Action]," Dr. Frank said. "Money doesn't get power over mission. Separation of these functions prevents consolidation of power."
In addition to the constitutional issues, Dr. Frank asked two operational questions:
- Is the proposed restructure "right-sized" for an organization of the scale and complexity of The United Methodist Church?
- Is the proposed Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry an executive agency for the whole church?
"This proposal looks a lot like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America restructure, except than the ELCA is less than half the size of The United Methodist Church," Dr. Frank said. "Is the proposed UMC structure complex and supple enough to respond to constituencies around the globe with only one council composed of 15 people and only one executive secretary?"
The scholar also noted that Call to Action gives the Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry "sweeping powers over the majority of work on the ground.
"Is its mandate too broad for accountability?" Dr. Frank asked. "Who will be knowledgeable enough to discern what missions and ministries to drop?"
Any United Methodist reorganization must meet both these constitutional and operational requirements in order to be both legitimate and effective, the scholar concluded.
– Cynthia B. Astle