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Look at ‘governance,’ not programs

By Paul McCleary*
April 20, 2012

I have read with interest and concern the news articles about the proposed restructuring of The United Methodist Church.

My concern lies in the frequent reference to the “restructuring of the governance structure” of the church. I only wish that were so.

The proposal would affect the “program” structure of the denomination and NOT the “governance” structure.
The boards and agencies are creatures of the General Conference and not the reverse. While they do “manage” and “administer,” they oversee programs.

The governance structure is the conference structure — General, Jurisdictional and Annual. The conference system is the locus of policy and decision-making. The general agencies, as creatures of the General Conference, follow the direction set by the General Conference.

Do not interpret my comments as opposition to restructuring.

The denomination needs a more effective decision-making, policy-setting governance system than what we have now.

General Conference 2012 is saddled with an agenda of impossible proportions. One feels deep compassion for the nearly 1,000 delegates from all over the world who will have to resolve some of the most complex social and ethical problems in less than two weeks. Once they adjourn, the denomination is left without the “legitimate” ability to arrive at decisions affecting the Discipline.

What should have been done some time ago was to create an executive committee of the General Conference to function between sessions of the General Conference. The task of the General Conference would be to set the perimeters of the authority of the executive committee and delegate to the executive committee specific responsibilities that it could advance between sessions. Those developments would be affirmed in the first session of the General Conference after the actions. And, the process would be repeated. Such a governance system would facilitate informed decision-making and create an administrative oversight system parallel to the ecclesiastical oversight of congregations provided by bishops.

An executive committee should be composed of individuals who represent the inclusive nature of the church and allow all of the stakeholders a means to express their concerns and interests. One of the disappointments of the current proposal is it reverses the long-standing concern of the denomination to allow concerns to be expressed and limits participation to a small and apparently unrepresentative body.
It is not appropriate for the Council of Bishops, or any other body, to assume an authority they cannot fulfill and for which they cannot be held accountable. The delegation of authority requires accountability. In our system, this primarily can be done by elections.

Another concern is the lack of detail and specificity in the proposal. For the union of 1939 the delegates to the Uniting Conference were presented with a “Prospectus of the Discipline of The Methodist Church.” The report of the Structure Study Commission was presented as draft copy of the Discipline. When restructuring took place with the1968 union, delegates to that General Conference were presented with the proposed changes in the Discipline.

Two distinct times and very specific legislation. We don’t have it this time.

The proposal before General Conference 2012 neither provides detail nor does it offer any consideration of the consequences of the decisions to be made.

While there can be no doubt on the part of anyone that the United Methodist Church needs to make serious changes, in our willingness and haste to see such changes occur we ought not make the wrong ones.

*McCleary was the staff member for the Structure Study Commission that proposed the restructuring to the 1972 General Conference. He is a former missionary to Bolivia, a former executive director of Church World Service and has worked at Save the Children and Feed the Children.