UPDATE 3/28/2012: An earlier version of this post included reference to UMC Plan B's lack of transparency about its leadership. The group has since disclosed the names of several of its leaders, and the previous reference has been removed.
Ready for the United Methodist version of "March Madness?" Just as a three-pointer can clinch a win at the buzzer, a Final Four of critiques regarding the denomination's future have scored winning points over the Connectional Table/Interim Operations Teams' restructure plan and enabling legislation for the Council of Bishops' Call to Action.
In other words, the CT/IOT restructure and the Call to Action-related legislation are as dead as a deflated round ball. Not even a Laker Girl could revive their playbooks. Yet the denomination's urgent need for some kind of change remains.
The UMC Final Four consists of leaders in the Western Jurisdiction, the Wisconsin Annual Conference, the General Council on Finance and Administration, and an ad hoc group known as UMC Plan B. They represent four different, yet elemental, perspectives that define current United Methodist identity.
The Western Jurisdiction, a historically progressive region, raises issues of racial-ethnic and gender inclusion in UMC governance in both the Call to Action and the CT/IOT restructure. Among other political realities, the Western Jurisdiction's statement signifies a clear break among bishops regarding the Call to Action. The bishops can no longer pretend they are united in support of its implementation, however much they may agree on the need to stave off the "death tsunami" identified nearly three years ago by the council's consultant, the Rev. Lovett Weems.
The Wisconsin Conference, another historically progressive area, lifts up the change proposals' lack of theological and missional focus on fostering disciples of Jesus Christ through United Methodist congregations. Anyone who's been paying attention to the posts of Wisconsin delegate, the Rev. Dan R. Dick, will note the similarities between the Wisconsin statement and the critiques on his blog. The biggest complaint here is that the form of the denomination should follow its function, namely to make disciples of Jesus Christ, rather than adapting the mission to sustain a structure.
UMC Plan B drafters resist the concentration of power in the hands of the Council of Bishops and the single central agency proposed by the Connectional Table. With its emphasis on governance through local churches, lay and clergy leaders, Plan B comes closest to the creeping congregationalism that has threatened United Methodist connectional identity for decades.
However, the full-court press comes from a task force of the General Council on Finance and Administration. In line with an early critique by the Rev. Tim McClendon of South Carolina, the GCFA task force lays out a truly disturbing scenario in which the consolidation of United Methodist governance into a single entity puts the U.S. part of the church in jeopardy of heightened legal liability and loss of tax exemption.
More than anything, this last threat bodes likely to be the final nail in the coffin of the CT/IOT proposal. Legal and tax risks wouldn't merely threaten U.S. congregations. The reality is that much of the denomination outside the United States still depends on American church dollars for sustenance. Anything that would diminish those donations is not likely to be supported by General Conference delegates anywhere around the world.
Objections to both the Call to Action and the CT/IOT restructure have been as raucous as fans in the bleachers. Many have denounced the Call to Action's focus on numerical increase, exemplified by the metrics stressed by CtA's Vital Congregations effort. Critics such as Rev. Dick and a host of others have decried a missing emphasis on spiritual formation rather than numerical growth. Still others, such as the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the Inter-Ethnic Strategy Development Group, and the Western Jurisdiction have sharply criticized the CT/IOT's restructure plan for decimating historic commitment to including people of all races, ages, genders, ethnicities and economics in United Methodist governance.
All of these factors now will play into whatever emerges from the 2012 General Conference for the future of The United Methodist Church. However, just as statistics about human and economic resources ignited the push toward "adaptive challenge," structures and processes that will protect the denomination's assets are most likely to be the result of coming deliberations. Some leaders trying to craft a workable compromise in the welter of pushback worry that the latest critiques, particularly the GCFA report, will scuttle hope of reaching a majority of support for any alternative.
Remember, however, that the game's not over until the final buzzer. Until then, the ball is still very much in play.