By Bishop John L. Hopkins*
Look! I’m doing a new thing: now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness. Isaiah 43:19, CEB
God is doing a new thing in The United Methodist Church. There is a new church emerging in our very midst. It is happening at the grass roots level around the world. Bishop Robert Schnase describes it like a heat map of ministry.
There are many signs of hope. Picture in your mind a heat map, where clusters of fruitful ministry activity are lighted against a dark background with the most fruitful and vital ministries shining brightest. The heat map of The United Methodist Church would allow us to see bright spots in unexpected places, concentrations of vital ministry and congregations that are thriving. Some would be in urban areas, some in the suburbs and some in the most isolated of rural counties. Africa would be aglow with congregational vitality and mission partnerships, but also the map would draw our attention to an exceptional campus ministry in one area and to a courageous witness for the homeless in another. A flourishing traditional church would light up near a dynamic merger. Some conferences and seminaries and foundations and agencies would glow brighter as they risk genuine innovation to realign with the mission. Lights here and there, bright spots appear in places we never expected. (“Five Practices” Blog 10/5/11)
Vital congregations introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite them to participate in the redemption of the world. The Call to Action is a sustained effort at aligning the church with these “bright spots” of ministry, where the Holy Spirit is at work.
This call is for every member, local church, annual conference and general agency “to redirect the flow of attention, energy and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” (Source: Call to Action Steering Team Report, p. 8)
Let me share some things you will want to know about the Call to Action.
10. The Call to Action is NOT being voted on at General Conference!
It has already begun! The Connectional Table and Council of Bishops affirmed the Call to Action in the fall of 2010. Since its launch on January 1, 2011, the Call to Action has led to: the Vital Congregations Project (http://umccalltoaction.org), the Vital Signs Project (http://vitalsignsumc.org), efforts to recruit younger clergy, reform in the Council of Bishops, the downsizing of agency boards, and many annual conference and local church initiatives. The General Conference has the opportunity to align our 42-year-old denominational structures to support the increase of vital congregations that will transform the world.
9. The Call to Action is NOT a “top-down” initiative!
The Book of Discipline (¶120) is clear: “Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” Our Constitution (¶33) is equally clear: “The annual conference is the basic body in the Church.” The annual conference is the main vehicle for creating and sustaining vital congregations. The most important changes will not result from legislative action but instead will require different actions and patterns of leadership by each one of us.
8. The Call to Action is NOT about restructuring general agencies!
Denominations that think restructuring at the top will change the direction of churches out in the field are behind the times. Our “bright spots” for the future are in local congregations that are spiritually transforming people and engaging them in ministry. The general church is being asked to catch up with the re-focusing that is already going on in annual conferences and local churches. The proposed legislation to put most of the program general agencies on one board will align resources, unify staff work and provide holistic strategic planning to support a sustained focus on vital congregations.
7. The Call to Action is NOT about giving more power to the Council of Bishops!
It is about giving more freedom and responsibility to annual conferences for the basic work of the church. The annual conference, with a resident bishop and key lay and clergy leaders, is ultimately responsible for strategies to increase the number of vital congregations. That is why the Constitution gives the Council of Bishops “spiritual and temporal oversight” of the church. With fewer governance boards, resident bishops will have more time to work and be accountable for the fruits of the congregations in their annual conferences.
6. The Call to Action is NOT from a small “rump group”!
By our Discipline, only the General Conference, the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table are given “general oversight” responsibilities for The United Methodist Church. They are ultimately responsible for representing the whole and not just the parts of our church. General Conference delegates represent their fellow annual conference constituents. Bishops represent the whole church, their region, and their respective annual conference. The Connectional Table, with well-balanced diversity, represents every region, agency, racial/ethnic caucus and age-level.
From 2005-2008, work was completed to define our identity and mission. During this quadrennium, 2009-2012, the emphasis is on aligning resources for the future of our church. While bishops and conference leaders are responsible for the alignment of most resources in our church, the General Conference is responsible for alignment at the general church level.
5. The Call to Action is NOT just about churches in the United States!
A unified general program board will provide easier access to agency services for every annual conference around the world. This plan frees up money now used for governance to enable more money for mission, especially in those areas that need it most. The decline in the number of vital congregations in the United States is a concern to the whole church, but the 5 jurisdictions in the United States are only a portion of The United Methodist Church, which also includes 7 central conferences around the world.
Conferences in Africa and the Philippines are leading the way in increasing the number of vital congregations. The Call to Action proposes that $5 million be used for theological education in the central conferences, where the need for new pastors is growing rapidly.
4. The Call to Action is NOT to save money!
We are not a church driven by scarcity. Welive in God’s abundance. The recommended budget total of $603 million is actually only a 3.46% decrease (-.87% per year) from what has been apportioned this quadrennium. The Call to Action is recommending a $60 million (10%) shift of general church funds to support the annual conferences and local churches as they focus on vital congregations. However, placing the program general agencies under one board will undoubtedly lead to cost-savings and synergy in the coming years.
Although General Conference is responsible for the entire church, it actually makes decisions for less than 2% of our financial resources. Most of our resources are at the local church level. However, annual conferences send to the general church an average of 26% of what they apportioned to local churches. In addition, fewer than 23% of annual conferences paid 100% of general church apportionments in 2010. Unless we make some bold changes to focus resources on more vital congregations, we will soon face hard choices. (see Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.’s projection of the coming “Death Tsunami” at http://umccalltoaction.org/the-challenge.
3. The Call to Action will NOT reduce diversity within The United Methodist Church!
The world is becoming more diverse and so should our church. We cannot continue to lump people into large ethnic categories and ignore their particular identity and heritage. The Call to Action recommends that we have fewer people involved in governance and more in ministry without reducing our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. The fruits of a more aligned general church will result in more diversity at the grass roots level.
We should be encouraged that more than half of the new churches started in this quadrennium across the United States have been racial/ethnic and multi-cultural congregations. Our strategy for diversity everywhere must be to increase the number of congregations that are reaching younger and more diverse people.
2. The Call to Action does NOT replace our mission and Four Areas of Focus!
Our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is embedded in our United Methodist way of life. The same is true of our focus on developing leaders, starting new congregations, engaging in ministry with the poor and improving global health.
1. The Call to Action is NOT about changing someone else!
It is about changing us. The Call to Action was begun in confession that we have not done everything we could do to strengthen God’s church. The Council of Bishops is already changing to make way for more accountability of resident bishops. The Connectional Table and its staff are willing to step aside to make way for God’s new thing. If we are going to increase the number of vital congregations, we need everyone to take responsibility. What can you do? Be a “bright spot” for Jesus Christ and his Church today.
The recommendations going to General Conference to support the Call to Action are to:
1) Give more freedom for annual conferences to organize for their particular context
2) Revise guaranteed appointments
3) Create one program board and an oversight council
4) Select an Executive General Secretary to guide program staff
5) Revise role of Council of Bishops’ president
6) Reallocate up to $60 million from World Service and General Administration for focusing on vital congregations.
*Bishop John L. Hopkins is the resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church and the chairperson of The Connectional Table.