|Unprecedented unity builds for mission initiatives|
Worshipers fill the sanctuary of Mision Metodista Unida Adonai in Asheboro, N.C. Revitalizing congregations is one of four mission initiatives being affirmed by church leaders. A UMNS file photo by Neill Caldwell.
By Marta. W. Aldrich
May 25, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
How do you start a movement?
Bishop Bruce Ough
In The United Methodist Church, the hope is to stir the 11.5 million-member global denomination one step at a time, beginning with its agencies, annual conferences and local churches.
In a spirit of collaboration and consensus-building described as historic by denominational leaders, a "unity" resolution is making its way through these structures of the church, identifying four themes as the primary areas of emphasis for United Methodists at the dawn of the 21st century.
Following decades of emotional discussion over polarizing issues such as homosexuality, abortion and biblical authority, this newly articulated United Methodist agenda has received only welcoming affirmation – with little debate – as groups have signed on one by one this spring in a show of unity.
The hope, according to top church leaders, is to give unified focus and resources to the United Methodist mission and to identify concrete actions needed to recapture the Wesleyan heritage toward "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
"This is the first time in many years we've had this degree of collaboration going on," said Bishop Bruce Ough, chairman of the Council of Bishops planning team that started the process.
"It's a huge step forward when the council, general agencies and Connectional Table (of church leadership) can all say that we're working together on the same areas of emphasis."
A new agenda
Developed out of a two-year journey of conversation and prayer among church leaders, the four areas of emphasis initially were known as the four "provocative propositions" but now are being called the church’s "mission initiatives." They are:
- Leadership development;
- Building new congregations and revitalizing existing ones;
- Ministry with the poor, particularly children; and
- Combating the preventable diseases of poverty, such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.
It is a long-term agenda addressing long-term problems in both the church and the world. For instance, in the area of congregational growth in the United States, it has taken a generation for membership to dwindle to the point where 45 percent of United Methodist churches did not report a single profession of faith in 2005. According to church leaders, it likely will take at least another generation to rebound.
The Rev. Larry Hollon
"I think everyone recognizes we will not stem the decline in membership in a short turnaround – that it will take concerted effort over many years," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications. "Similarly, we will not tackle the diseases of poverty and end malaria in a four-year period of time. It will take a generation or more of sustained effort, renewed periodically and consistently."
Hollon says the mission initiatives free the church to concentrate on priorities amid the sometimes frenzied nature of church work. "I think what this reflects – more than anything else – is a great desire in the church for focus," he said. "We try to do many things in a very limited time frame, and sometimes we need to give ourselves more time and the discipline of focus that is necessary to carry an idea from the beginning to a successful conclusion."
An evolving message
Ough emphasizes that these mission initiatives sprang up from the life of the church at the local level – not as mandates from a disconnected church polity. "What we tried to do is to start by asking where our conferences already are trying to lead and follow God's call," he said. "This is not top down; this is bubbling up."
Out of that conversation, the Council of Bishops developed a list called the "Seven Vision Pathways," identifying mission areas where bishops could provide leadership for the church. This provided the breeding ground for the four mission initiatives and four related "calls to action" that are still being developed.
The Rev. Beth Gardner is ordained during the 2006 Florida Annual Conference. Clergy and lay leadership development is an area of emphasis for the denomination. A UMNS file photo by e-Review Florida.
Hollon anticipates the language will continue to evolve as leaders hone the "message of a movement" for presentation to the 2008 General Conference, the church’s top lawmaking body, meeting next April in Fort Worth, Texas. "The truth is that these are still being refined. We need to get folks reacting to them who are not part of the bureaucracy and do not know the language of bureaucracy," he said.
A "messaging task force" is to meet in July for that purpose.
"We're at a critical juncture because we are searching for a crisp message that will bring everybody along as we go into General Conference," said Ough, "and even more importantly as we come out of General Conference. … When we leave General Conference, we want to have a way to talk about this so that the person in the pew can get up and say, 'Oh, I get it. Now I understand what the people of The United Methodist Church are all about.'"
The unity resolution was drafted by Hollon and began circulating among boards and agencies this spring. The governing body for United Methodist Publishing House was among the first to sign on.
"Everyone I talk with affirms the power and promise of these four directions because they are embedded in our Wesleyan DNA, turn our collective attention to a hurting and hungry world, and make clear what is vitally important in our witness and mission together," said Neil Alexander, president of the church's publishing agency.
In approving the resolution, each agency essentially commits to work intentionally and collaboratively on the mission initiatives – and to plan and budget accordingly. The Publishing House, for instance, will work with leaders, congregations, writers and originators of creative programs to develop products and resources focusing on the new agenda, according to Alexander.
Other agencies passing the resolution thus far include Discipleship, Global Ministries, Church and Society, Higher Education and Ministry, Religion and Race, and the Status and Role of Women. The governing board for the Commission on the Status and Role of Women offered the widest discussion, affirming "in spirit" the areas of emphasis but reminding the church that any efforts must include work to end worldwide racism and sexism, beginning in the hearts of each church member and the "bones" of each congregation.
Students at the Mount Makomwe United Methodist Mission School near Marange, Zimbabwe, line up for a cup of Mahewu, a nutrition drink. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table affirmed the resolution as well, and church leaders appear to be backing up the rhetoric with money and resources. During its joint spring meeting May 22-24, the Connectional Table and the governing board for the Council on Finance and Administration hammered out a denominational budget proposal of almost $642 million centered around the mission initiatives for the 2009-2012 quadrennium.
Other agency boards are to take up the resolution as they meet over the summer, and a similar resolution is being circulated to annual conferences and local churches. Leaders of the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table hope the same general spirit of cooperation will trickle down and become embedded in the pews of the church at some point – with the mission initiatives even reflected in local church planning and budgets.
"I think what we're saying is that it's time to be very serious about collaboration," said Hollon. "… I think there's a deep yearning in the church for focus and unity."
General Conference will be asked to affirm the mission initiatives to set the future course of the denomination's work and life. "We don't want to debate these as if they were up or down votes. We want them to be unifying and energizing as a vision," he said.
Building a movement
The four areas of emphasis – beginning with leadership development and starting new congregations – are common-sense quotients for a denomination with an acknowledged "leadership crisis" of ordained clergy in the United States. A 2006 report revealed that less than 5 percent of United Methodist elders are under age 35. Meanwhile, U.S. membership is shrinking at a time when 50 percent of the U.S. population has no ongoing relationship with a faith community. There also is much work to do to respond to the biblical callings of ministering to the poor and the sick – ministries consistent with the social gospel identity of early Methodism.
The Rev. Larry Pickens
"These are no-brainer issues for our church and for all of us as world citizens," said Alexander of the Publishing House.
"These four propositions are not just programs," added the Rev. Larry Pickens of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. "These are initiatives that will guide our work into the next quadrennium and as far as we can see into the future."
Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, who is president of the Council of Bishops, believes it is a good foundation to transform The United Methodist Church into a movement. Following her visit last fall to the West African nation of Cote d'Ivoire – an experience she calls "transforming" because of the Christian energy she witnessed there – Huie called for a new movement of God's spirit in a unified church focused on putting hope into action.
She noted that the Methodist movement was started in Great Britain in the 18th century by a group of highly disciplined and focused disciples that included John Wesley. They responded to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and made Christian faith simple and practical.
"In glimpse after glimpse of the reign of God in the 21st century, I see a United Methodist Church that is guided more by movement than by institution," she said in her spring episcopal address at the Council of Bishops’ April 29-May 4 meeting. "I see a United Methodist Church led more by a clear vision and mission than by rules and regulations. That vision and mission unites diverse groups of people."
*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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Bishop Huie’s Address: “Moving Into God’s Future”
Council of Bishops
General Conference 2008