M. Garlinda Burton, top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, speaks about proposed church restructuring on May 2 during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Click on image to enlarge.View more photos.
By a vote of 567 to 384, the 2012 United Methodist General Conference gave tentative approval to a slightly amended version of "Plan UMC" to reconfigure general agencies and downsize their boards.
The plan establishes a General Council for Strategy and Oversight that will oversee the work of The United Methodist Church's four program agencies - the Boards of Discipleship, Global Ministries, Church and Society, and Higher Education and Ministry. Those agencies would still have their own boards but be accountable to the general council.
The new general council, with 34 voting members and 11 nonvoting advisers, replaces the Connectional Table that since 2004 has coordinated the denomination's resources, mission and ministry. The new body will elect an executive general secretary, who cannot be a bishop, to coordinate the work of the top executives of other agencies.
General Conference amended the proposal by a vote of 608 to 338 to increase representation of United Methodists in the central conference regions of Africa, Europe and Asia. The amendment from a Liberian delegate had the support of those who drafted the compromise plan.
"This is something I've been working toward for 17 years," said the Rev. Andy Langford, a Connectional Table member and delegate from the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference. "In this legislation, we focus on the adaptive challenge (to increase the number of vital congregations), and it brings people into alignment in a way we've never done before."
The May 2 vote follows days of ups and downs when at one point, it looked like General Conference might conclude without proposing any restructuring proposal.
Supporters of the Call to Action restructuring plan and the alternative Plan B developed Plan UMC after the General Administration Legislative Committee adjourned without recommending any comprehensive plan to consolidate agencies.
Before final approval
However, the plan still has two hurdles left before it can become church law.
The restructure plan must go before the full General Conference for its vote again after the General Council on Finance and Administration determines the plan's costs. The denomination's finance agency will determine whether the legislation saves money.
The legislative assembly also has referred the plan to the Judicial Council - the denomination's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court - to determine whether the legislation passes muster under The United Methodist Church's constitution. The referral vote was 505 to 344. There is no word on when the Judicial Council will offer its ruling.
One of the critiques offered of the new plan is that it seems similar to the old General Council on Ministries structure that was replaced by the current Connectional Table. The Judicial Council ruled the original legislation that created the General Council of Ministries unconstitutional. The church court stated that the constitution did not make provision for a single body to assume the authority reserved for the General Conference in guiding the work of the church.
Joe Whittemore, a lay delegate from the North Georgia Conference, initially had constitutional concerns about the original Call to Action plan. He said he does not have the same worry for Plan UMC, which he helped draft.
Here are some other highlights of the approved plan:
- The General Council for Strategy and Oversight will have authority to "withhold approval of any programs or activities that represent unnecessary duplication within an agency or between two or more agencies, or otherwise fail to meet established outcomes."
- The general council's voting members will include representatives from each of the U.S. racial/ethnic caucuses.
- The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History becomes a committee within the General Council on Finance and Administration.
- The churchwide Commissions on Religion and Race and Commission on the Status and Role of Women will be combined into a United Methodist Committee of Inclusiveness that reports to the General Council for Strategy and Oversight.
- The General Council for Finance and Administration remains separate and collaborates on budget matters with the General Council for Strategy and Oversight.
- The Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the United Methodist Publishing House, United Methodist Men and United Methodist Women also are separate agencies amenable to General Conference.
- United Methodist Communications (which includes United Methodist News Service) is in the same position it is now - answering to General Conference, but its budget would be determined in consultation with the General Council on Finance and Administration and General Council for Strategy and Oversight.
- The plan reduces the number of agency board members from 669 to 308.
- Annual conferences have more flexibility to organize as they see fit to promote vitality.
It is unclear at this point what impact the new structure will have on the number of agency staff.
Mary Brooke Casad, the Connectional Table's executive secretary and a North Texas Conference delegate, has been a big proponent of restructuring, though she knew it would likely mean the elimination of her job. She said she and the Connectional Table's two other staff members will be moving on.
The Connectional Table staff, she said, have served in the position of "being a midwife and hospice caregiver."
"We were standing in the gap during these years," she said. "I feel good that (the Connectional Table has) been part of the process that's helped us to move where we are today."
Concerns and hopes
During the open discussions of Plan UMC, a number of delegates expressed concern that they had so little time to read and study the legislation. The plan was first published in the Daily Christian Advocate on May 1 and only in English.
Christine Schneider-Oesch, a lay delegate from Switzerland-France-North Africa, tried to use Google Translate to read the legislation in German and said it came back gibberish. The French version in Google Translate, she said, was not much better.
"We are being told this is necessary to address an issue in this country - the decline of the church," she said. "Whether this is the proper measure to take, I don't know. Many of us who are not native English speakers are being asked to just put trust in what people are telling us that this is good."
Kevin M. Nelson, a New York reserve lay delegate, had helped draft the alternative restructuring plan presented by the Methodist Federation for Social Action. No one who developed that plan was included in this week's conversations that led to Plan UMC. "I hope that it works as well," he said. "I think it's an incredible concentration of power (in the executive general secretary), and in my experience, power corrupts."
The Rev. Dan Dick, a Wisconsin Conference delegate, said he wished young people and individuals from the central conferences had joined discussions earlier in developing a restructuring plan. General Conference marked the first time Africans outside the Connectional Table helped develop a restructuring plan.
"I think what we've done is we have settled for something that will help us manage the present," Dick said, "but I don't think we have done much to create or lay a foundation to create something for the future."
Victor Howard, a first-time lay delegate from Liberia, had served on the General Administration Legislative Committee's restructuring subcommittee that developed a compromise, which, to his disappointment, did not win the full committee's support.
Howard, 24, spoke in support of Plan UMC during the plenary on May 2.
"I think we are moving in the right direction," he told United Methodist News Service after the vote. "What we need now to move forward as a church is to unify. We have different cultures and disagreements. But our common denominator is the church."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Voorhees is pastor of Old Hickory (Tenn.) United Methodist Church and a member of the United Methodist News Service team at General Conference.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, (813) 574-4837 in Tampa, Fla., through May 4; after May 4: (615) 742-5470 in Nashville, Tenn., or firstname.lastname@example.org.