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The February 23-26, 2019 UMC General Conference in St. Louis has the likely potential of dividing the UMC, local congregations, laity and clergy, and our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  We all weep.

Clergy in North Carolina are dividing into conflicted camps, each asserting biblical and theological superiority.  Laity in local congregations are asking questions and wonder when their voices will be heard.  Congregations are re-considering their loyalty to the denomination.  Young persons in ministry wonder if the UMC is where they should fulfill their vocation.

The Council of Bishops have a vision to maintain a united denomination with a strong episcopacy, dynamic general church structure, and financial stability (primarily pension), in other words, maintenance of the status quo.  Yet many persons and groups are aligning into camps ready to divide over the single issue of inclusion of LGBTQ at every level of the church.

I weep that this issue has become the single issue that will signal the end of the UMC.  We most likely will follow the lead of the Presbyterian Church, USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Episcopal Church in aligning with one party (which party in the UMC will win is still undecided) and becoming significantly diminished in membership and financial strength.  The above denominations are shells of the original selves.  The 2019 General Conference may mark the true end of the old mainline denominations in the USA.

The Way Forward Commission, appointed by the Council of Bishops (COB) with the support of the 2016 General Conference, has made its report.  The Council of Bishops has drafted their initial response and have now presented at least three legislative proposals to the 2019 General Conference.

Initially, the COB will proposed:

  • A model that allows annual conferences to determine their own choices about the ordination of LGBTQ persons and local congregations the option of allowing same sex marriages

The CB initially wanted not to support two alternate proposals:

  • A conservative model to affirm the current Book of Discipline with more accountability
  • A liberal model to remove restrictive language regarding homosexuality and ordination

Now, correctly, the COB has withdrawn from the discussion and will let the General Conference enact its will with even more options expected.

What is unclear is whether to include a “gracious way of exit” for clergy and congregations who wish to leave the denomination. The stated rationale has to do with clergy pension obligations.  Watch what happens with Glide Memorial in San Francisco (the denomiantion’s largest liberal congregation) and Windsor Village in Houston (a mega-African American congregation).

One of the difficulties is that much of the work has been done behind closed doors by the bishops and their consultants. In a contemporary culture that questions authority, many people will question whatever they decide by asking: “who was at the table and was my voice heard?”

The Judicial Council, correctly, refused to allow the COB alone determine the agenda of the 2019 General Conference.  Multiple petitions will be offered.

General conferences have never adopted any major proposal from a Council of Bishops for major legislation.  When the bishops had a model for the ordination of deacons and elders, general conference adopted the opposite.  “A Call to Action” with the unanimous support of the Council of Bishops failed to get out of committee.  The bishops have a higher opinion of their leadership than do general conference delegates.  Lack of trust is the issue.

General Conference, including voting laity and clergy but no bishops voting, alone is the legislative body that votes on any recommendations.  General Conference will substitute, amend, revise, and vote on any proposal offered by the Council of Bishops or anyone else.  Petitions for honorable separation/dissolution by congregations and conferences are being written begun.

I anticipate a major struggle at the beginning of GC over the rules of order, as has happened in the last several general conferences.  With a timeline of only 4 days, rules may never be adopted.  For example, will the legislation be reviewed first by a legislative committee or debated by the entire general conference as a committee of the whole?

If you have never watched an 800+ person committee operate, it is not a pretty sight.  The end result of no rules?  No action.  The status quo continues until the 2020 General Conference, with new delegates (and more from Africa) resumes the discussion.

No outcome is certain.  The Holy Spirit, we pray, may also be involved!

Three Foci

Every option has at least three facets.

One focus deals with theological matters: are non-traditional/heterosexual and other sexual orientations and practices (labeled LGBTQ: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, and Queer) acceptable Christian practice?  The fundamental issue is over theology and biblical interpretation.

On difficulty is that recent sociological/biological studies indicate that there are not just two options – heterosexual and homosexual – but dozens of gender and sexual identities.  See the January 2017 issue of “National Geographic” that explores the complexity.

A second focus is practical: whether pastors may preside at same-sex marriages and may self-avowed practicing homosexuals and other sexual orientations/practices may be ordained?  No congregation is allowed to welcome a same-sex marriage in their facilities.  These practices are currently forbidden by our United Methodist Discipline, yet a number of pastors, congregations, conferences, and jurisdictions ignore the rules.  Or let both options happen depending on conference and local congregation votes?

Such issues deal with real people: our families, our neighbors, and our friends who are heterosexual and LGBTQ.  No one is happy.  Everyone is being harmed.

Both focus one and two will be the matters of most concern to the news outlets and interested parties.  A final focus, however, may ultimately be more critical.

The third and equally important focus are fundamental issues of polity, property, and finances.

 Polity and Financial Implication for the Western North Carolina Conference

What are the polity and financial implications of the actions of the Way Forward Commission, COB, and the subsequent action of the 2019 General Conference on the Western North Carolina Annual Conference?

Some church leaders have sounded the alarm.  Bishop Bruce Ough, former President of the Council of Bishops, wrote, “Let’s be clear, if we divide, nearly all our essential unifying institutional activities would be lost or severely diminished.”  Areas of concern include ecumenical agreements, educational work, prophetic statements, global mission partnerships, benefits programs, communications, publications, and more.

What are the financial implications for the WNCC Council on Finance and Administration, and those of every annual conference throughout the connection?  For example, how will local members and congregations respond in the payment of apportionments?

What are the implications for the WNCC financial connections with the UMC, for example in relationship to WNC pension funds held by Wespath?  Of primary concern is the pension obligations of the conference for pre-1982 pension obligations of $50 million.  Who will pay these obligations?

How will the Trustees of the WNCC respond?  In Mississippi, the conference Trustees were given authority to act to allow two congregations with significant debt to leave.

What are the financial and structural implications for the WNCC Foundation?

Strategies and answers will be needed soon.

Central UMC and Denominational Change

My previous congregation, Central United Methodist Church in Concord, NC, has been part of four different denominations since 1836: The Methodist Episcopal Church, The  Methodist Episcopal Church South, The Methodist Church, and The United Methodist Church.  It is entirely reasonable to think that within the decade my congregation may be part of a new denomination.

United Methodist schism or realignment are not apocalyptic signs of the end of the world.  Communions of faithful people rise and fall.  Mr. Wesley never wanted any denomination independent of The Church of England.  We United Methodists have a full history of schisms and new alignments both in the US and globally.

The United Methodist Church as a denomination just 50 years old.  Some United Methodists yearn for unity and to maintain our current structure at almost any cost.  Yet, survival of the current form of The United Methodist Church should not be an idol to be worshiped.

The United Methodist Church is not the only global Methodist communion nor the only model of a Wesleyan denominational structure.  The World Methodist Council has over 100 denominations in 133 countries around the world containing about 75 million persons who claim the Wesleys as spiritual forbearers.  There are many ways of connecting with one another that are faithful to our Wesleyan tradition.

The Church universal, the living Body of Christ in the world, will last until the end of time.  The United Methodist Church?  Probably not.

We are in a time of flux and chaos, yet we should be confident that in the end God will be with us.

Connectionalism

The UMC is a connectional system that requires a common understanding of doctrine, discipline, and polity.  There is no history of independent Methodist congregations in our own tradition.

Bound together by our Discipline, this book names our common beliefs and practices.  It specifies our common faith and practices as Wesleyan Christians.  Every four years (or three in this case), however, every line of the book (with the exception of the restrictive clauses) is up for debate by elected representatives from the global church.  Every four years, anything can change.

Connectionalism, however, even in our Discipline is not primarily between the general church and congregations.  Annual conferences are the basic connectional body of connectionalism.  Our general agencies are independently incorporated.  The general church emphasis is on a global connection.  Not so much annual conferences, districts, and local congregations.  Who really owns what properties/assets within an annual conference and with the global church?

For example, when a local church is sold, if there are no other restricting covenants, the proceeds from the sale go to the Conference, not the general church.  Our WNCC now has a Church Legacy Initiative helping congregations determine when to close and how to use the remaining resources.

Whatever happens at General Conference will create a mess at every level of the denomination.  One parallel may be the split over slavery in the mid-19th century.  Decades after the split, it took an action of the US Supreme Court to divide the assets of the Methodist Publishing House between the MEC and the MEC, South.

Yet, there are ways to make a transition smooth.  In the late 20th century, the Puerto Rico Annual Conference of our United Methodist Church received permission to withdraw from our denomination and form the independent Puerto Rico Methodist Church.  The Puerto Ricans took with them all their assets without any compensation to the general church yet remained in covenant relationship with their former denomination.  They retained some financial and other relationships with the general agencies and the board of pensions.

A Middle Way Between Two Extremes?

Is there is a middle way?  Both hard right and hard left sides (there are more than two sides) claim the scriptural and theological high ground within our Wesleyan framework.

I believe that the majority of United Methodists are Centrists.  They are distressed that this topic is the major issue facing our denomination.  They understand the position of both extremes (neither of which believes it is extreme), and would like for there to be a compromise.  They see energy for ministry being marginalized as we debate sexual issues.  Instead of focusing on making disciples, we have for almost 50 years debated these topics without any resolution.

The very reality of 50 years of debate without resolution indicates that there is no easy or realistic answer.  Countless groups at every level have tried for compromise.  I doubt that there is a middle way, such as the COB proposes, that all United Methodists can affirm.

The unveiling of the Uniting Methodists Movement (a centrist movement) offered its statement of beliefs.  Some label these leaders as “Reconcilers.”  They want clergy the freedom to choose whether or not to conduct same-sex weddings and conferences the freedom to ordain self-professed practicing homosexuals.  Yet, can you imagine local congregations voting and annual conferences voting on such?  Schism or mass defections could happen quickly.

This consensus model is very similar to “The Third Way” promoted by the general church Connectional Table in 2016 at which I was a voting member.  This “Third Way” was pushed through the Connectional Table after many closed meetings of a small group, no surveys, and less than a hour for discussion.  “The Third Way” never got out of committee or support on the floor of general conference.  Why will this time be different?

If there is just a “local option” compromise, what other items may be compromised?  Standards for ordination?  The Book of Resolutions?  Any other parts of the Discipline?  May congregations/conferences opt out of financial commitments?

Will congregations and pastors be allowed to indicate what kind of appointments may be made?  Will inclusive pastors only be appointed to inclusive congregations? Conservative pastors only to conservative congregations?  What happens when more clergy are inclusive but more congregations are conservative?  The appointive system may collapse.

The opening of Pandora’s box cannot be undone.

The Two Extremes

The moderating/reconciling statement has spurred a furor of statements and analysis.

The liberals/progressives want a complete change of disciplinary language regarding human sexuality.  They emphasize grace-filled Scriptures and receive support from changing perceptions in the US.  They want to offer same-sex marriages (now legal in the US) and the ordination of clergy without any questions about sexuality.  Anything less than complete change is discrimination toward LGBTQ persons.  They want justice and an end to marginalization of some groups.

Follow the developments of the Love Prevails coalition, the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, and Reconciling Ministries.

The liberals/progressives are admittedly violating our Discipline by conducting same-sex weddings within and outside our church buildings, and ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals.  The election of a self-professed, same-sex married bishop in the Western Jurisdiction indicates this direction.

The largest number of liberals/progressives are United Methodists in the western and northeastern parts of our country.

Organizations committed to full LGBTQ+ inclusion, the Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus have issued formal statements rejecting the middle way as perpetuating injustice for the sake of unity

The conservatives/traditionalist insist on maintaining our current disciplinary language on sexuality and increased penalties on congregations/clergy who stand outside the covenant.  Anything less is not aligned with particular Scriptures and disobedient to God.  The subject involves personal holiness.  Follow the developments of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, The Confessing Movement, and Good News.

The largest number of conservatives/traditionalists are United Methodists in Africa and Asia (although not universal).  In the US, we find these folks primarily in the southeast and southcentral parts of this country.  This alliance of conservatives, however, also has its own points of strain.

In practical terms, the conservatives/traditionalists want there to be strict adherence to the Book of Discipline for harsh penalties for those who violate our Discipline.

The April 2017 rulings of the UMC Judicial Council (and subsequent comments) support the positions of the conservatives/traditionalists by overturning the election of a lesbian bishop, insisting that questions about sexuality must be part of candidates for ministry, and the requirement for denominational proceedings against persons who violate the Discipline.

In my own mind, neither extreme will accept any compromise position.  Neither side shows much humility and is self-assured in their own positions.

Let’s be honest.  The human condition of sin leads us to think of ourselves as better than other people and to distrust the other.  Humility is seriously lacking on every side.

I, personally, cannot imagine nor wish to participate in such a debate at our Southeast Jurisdiction or the Western North Carolina Annual Conference.  Within my own congregation, any vote will divide us.  There will be no unanimity at any level, some people will be offended, and some people will leave.

Decline and Division Has Begun

Parallel to these debates, the great majority of congregations in the US have been losing members for the past 50 years.  The loss of membership is most high among the more liberal/progressive congregations and jurisdictions (probably due not to theology but cultural trends).  Yet many conservative/traditional people are also leaving because of the lack of clarity within our denomination.

Two churches in Mississippi [Getwell and Orchard] and one in Kansas have already voted to withdraw to become independent congregations.  The cost of leaving?  The clergy submitted their credentials and payment of 2017 apportionments and purchase of property!  Plus, the congregations kept their debt.  What will happen at Glide or Windsor Village?

As the UMC in the US continues to decline in membership, and our membership grows increasingly older, the future of the UMC in the US is uncertain.  Our membership decline is increasing.  Financial strains are felt throughout the connection.  General Church revenues have hit the tipping point and are in decline.  Irrespective of this issue regarding human sexuality, the UMC in the US faces very deep challenges.

Personal Note

I have attended 8 General Conferences since 1976.  I served on the General Council on Ministries for 4 years and General Church Connectional Table for 8 years.  I have witnessed and participated in many discussions about human sexuality and the impact on the denomination both before, during, and after each one.

My observation is that the debates have become more angry and more divisive every time.  Everyone, including me, leaves wounded.  The reason I asked my fellow clergy not to vote for me to attend the 2016 General Conference was because I had no desire to participate in an even more ugly debate over this topic again.  I do not regret that decision.

Possible Scenarios Based on Voting

While conflict, rivalry, and distrust are the ways of the world, they have infected the UMC.  Pleas for unity are nice but ultimately unsuccessful when it is time to take a legislative vote.

Our system only allows majority vote.  While some look for consensus, ultimately by our Discipline 50% + 1 will decide at the 2019 General Conference.

Below are several possibilities:

  1. No Change: The Conservative Option. If the GC rules fight ends with stalemate, the status quo wins.  Very few will be happy.

2. More Conservative. Maintain current limits on same-sex marriage and clergy restrictions with more accountability.  The liberals will rebel.

What happens to Western, North Central, Northeast Jurisdictions, and Western Europe Central Conferences?

May they leave?  What about property and assets?

Who votes for disassociation?  What about dissenting votes?

Who are their bishops?

What is the impact on General Church apportionments?

What happens to the “liberal” conferences/churches in other areas that are predominately conservative?  May a church in Mississippi join a New England conference?

Will dissenting clergy be allowed/encouraged to leave?

3. Complete Inclusion: The Liberal Option. No limits on marriage and clergy sexual ethics/orientation.  The conservatives will rebel.

What happens to the Southeast and South Central Jurisdictions, Eastern Europe, and Africa and the Philippines?

May they leave?  What about property and assets?

Who votes?  What about dissenting votes?

Who are their bishops?

What is the impact on General Church apportionments?

What happens to the “conservative” conferences/churches in the other areas that are predominately liberal?

Will dissenting clergy be allowed/encouraged to leave?

  1. The Middle Way: The Reconciling Option. Agree on doctrine, differ in practice, multiple organizations under one Council of Bishops.

What about “churches in the middle” who want no part in this fight.  Watch the congregations seeking separation.  They profess publicly that they simply want out of this fight and focus on work for the kingdom of God to make disciples.

What happens when congregations have “split” votes?

Will dissenting members/clergy/congregations be allowed/encouraged to leave?

What about property and assets?

Such an option requires multiple changes to our UMC Constitution that are require two-thirds vote at General Conference and in all annual conferences.  This is almost impossible to achieve.

I doubt that many, in any, churches, left or right, are unanimous.  There will be much pain at the local, district, and conference leave.

No local congregation is stronger if 10% or more of the congregation left on either the left or the right.  The debates themselves will be destructive.

  1. Options for Congregations/Annual Conferences in the Middle. Is “gracious exit” an option?

What happens when conferences have “split votes?

Will dissenting clergy/annual conferences be allowed/encouraged to leave?

Impact on appointments (only liberals to liberal congregations or conservatives to conservative congregations)?

Property?

The assets/ownership/structure of the UM Foundation?

What is our negotiating position with Wespath over WNCC assets?

Again, look at the Puerto Rico example as a model.

  1. Apportionment Payouts

Our WNC policy allows church-directed/self-allocated apportionments.  Fifty congregations now use this model.

How to protect the financial interests of the WNC (and their clergys’ pensions) in the midst of general church chaos?  The #1 priority of any annual conference, I believe, is the health and strength of the annual conference.

General Conference Delegates in 2019

864 (20 from WNCC; WNCC once had 32 delegates)

50% clergy/ 50% laity

(generally laity are more conservative than clergy)

Not one petition to change current Disciplinary language related to these topics of sexuality got out of legislative committees in 2016, nor in any previous years.  These are the same delegates who will be at the 2019 GC.

To add to the uncertainty, the 2020 General Conference can undo any change voted in 2019.  In 2020, Africa & Philippines (Central Conferences outside the US) will grow in their size (45%?) to the whole and other areas (the US and Europe) will decrease.

Region                    Delegates     %       Way Forward Members %

North Central          92                11%             9%

Northeast                86                10%              9%

South Central          108               13%            13%

Southeast               188               22%              22%

Western                  30                3%                 9%

Africa                      260               30%             23%

Europe                   40                5%                 6%

Philippines              50                6%               6%

Other – 10 (usually non-voting concordat churches)

While some persons believe that theology will win the day, votes matter more.  Joseph Stalin was once asked to consider the position of the Roman Catholic Church about a critical issue.  Stalin replied with distain, “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Assume (incorrectly) every NC, NE, W, and 50% of Philippines, Europe, and SC votes for UMC to change = 36% of General Conference (40% of Way Forward).

Assume (incorrectly) every SE, Africa, and 50% of Philippines, Europe, and SC votes no change = 64% of General Conference (57% of Way Forward).

But, if the majority of each area vote like the others from their area, it is clear who will control the final outcome.

Because of change global membership shifts, the 2019/202 gatherings may be the last General Conferences in which US Jurisdictions control over 50% of the votes.  This is the last or next-to-last chance for the US to control denominational polity.

The 2020/2024 General Conference may also then reverse any decision made in 2019.  No decision is ever final in our denomination.

About 40% of all General Church apportionments are paid by the Southeast Jurisdiction.  Central Conferences (congregations/conferences outside the US) pay less than 3% of General Church costs.  Not only the WNCC but also the general church depend on apportioned funds from our local congregations.

What happens in 2020-2023 quadrennial general church budget and subsequent apportionment allocations when 45% of the delegates, who give 3% of the money control decision making?

What are the financial reactions of the WNCC and its congregations to the issue of representation and “taxation”?

 

 

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Amicable Separation?

Andy Langford

June 21, 2014

 

Who am I?

I am Wesleyan.  I love John Wesley, our Wesleyan history and theology.

I am Orthodox.  I believe in the Trinity and the Holy Scriptures contain all that is needed for salvation.

I am Inclusive.  My congregation in Concord welcomes gays, lesbians, African-Americans, Whites, southerners and northerners into membership and leadership.

I know our general church.  For thirty years I have been a church bureaucrat, participated in eight general conferences, been elected by this annual conference five times, now serve for the fourth time on the general church connectional table (previously General Council on Ministries).

I believe that our denomination is only an autonomous entity but part of the global Wesleyan movement and a part of the Church universal (see ¶ 6).

I even own a copy of the 2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline.

In other words, I am United Methodist.

 

Is amicable separation possible?  Of course.  It has happened in our past.

In the early 1800s, the African Methodist Episcopal Church withdrew with the blessing of our denomination.

The Methodist Protestant Church congregations withdrew over slavery.

In the 1800s, the Methodist Episcopal Church South withdrew, along with all its property and institutions.

The holiness movement created separation.

Just a decade ago, the Puerto Rico Annual Conference, a full member of the UMC, created an autonomous, independent denomination.

Amicable separation is possible.

 

Will amicable separation happen over homosexuality?  I doubt it.

General Conference, with the increased participation by Central Conference delegates, especially from Africa, is growing more global and more conservative.

The general conference will not vote in 2016 allow clergy to conduct same sex unions.  Clergy will be expected to remain celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage.  Marriage will only be allowed between a man and a woman.

The Judicial Council, an unaccountable power unto itself, will not consider amicable separation possible under our current Discipline, but will not announce this until the final day of general conference.  

Follow the money.  The Central Conferences and the general church agencies want the continual financial support of all the United States churches, especially the large contributions from the South East and South Central Jurisdictions.  We have the money and they want us to stay.

The forces for union are stronger than the powers to separate.

 

Let us be honest.  Almost every pastor and congregation violates our common practices in ways minor and major without consequences.  That will continue.

Some churches hold raffles!  Raffles are not allowed by our Social Principles.

Some pastors conduct same sex weddings.  A clear violation of the Discipline (¶ 341.6) as “unauthorized conduct.”

Some pastors re-baptize persons baptized as infants and call them professions of faith.  By Discipline (¶ 341.7) actions that are “unauthorized conduct.”

Some bishops clearly have violated their consecration to uphold the Discipline of our denomination by honoring clergy who have violated our Discipline (¶ 401 & 414).

Are these acts of schism?  I do not think so.  These people are faithful to their conscience (which they consider higher than their vows of obedience to the denomination.

Therefore, trials are not the answer.

 

So what do I see in the near future?  My personal perspective.

Persons who want full inclusion of all persons will accept only full inclusion without any limits.  They celebrate diversity without limits.  We should follow the cultural changes happening among us.  They understand their position to be an act of biblical justice.  They cite the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) as opening the church to all persons.  “Love” is the heart of the Gospel.  This is the direction of the Connectional Table.

Persons who want to conserve the traditional language will not allow any deviation from the Articles of Religion and other core doctrines.  We should resist all accommodation to secular culture.  They cite biblical authority and church history.  If God at created us male and female for each other, and Jesus blesses marriages, and the Church is the bride of Christ, our denomination cannot challenge the Word of God.  See the Group of 80 proposal to separate and the Timothy Tennant proposal to separate and multiply.

Most United Methodists are somewhere in the middle.

 

Because everyone on both sides is absolutely convinced that they have the moral high ground, no one will compromise.  Many compromises will be offered.  All comprises will fail.

 Everybody — left, right, and middle — will be unhappy, even angry and hostile toward one another.

 

The 2012 General Conference was ugly.  The 2016 General Conference will be even more ugly.

 

What is lost?  We have lost our focus on making disciples.

We talk primarily about human sexuality not the salvation of individuals and reformation of society.  Holiness of self and community are secondary.

Every congregation is full of sinners in need of transformation and our culture increasingly wanders far from the kingdom of God.  Yet, so much of our time focuses only on one topic that calls to battle political forces on both the left and the right.

 

This lost of focus is especially true at the general church level.  At the last Connectional Table meeting, we spent over half of our time debating inclusion of gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, trans-sexuals, and queers.  That issue is not part of the primary task of the Connectional Table.

We spent almost no time talking about making disciples.  At the general church level we have lost our way.

 

What is my way forward?

Change will never come from general conference.  Top down never has worked nor ever will work.

We began as a grass-roots movement from below.  We must become a grass roots movement again.

The essential connectional body of our denomination is not the general church but the annual conference, such as our wonderful Western North Carolina Annual Conference (¶ 33).  Clergy are not members of the general church but members of an annual conference.

 

Annual conferences such as ours must take charge and lead the way.  Bishop Michael Coyner has proposed such an alternative in “Is the Answer in Our Polity” at the website “Ministry Matters.”

 

Our WNC annual conference has exceptional episcopal and conference leadership.  We have great pastors, some on the left, others on the right, and many, many in the middle.  We have almost 300,000 wonderful laity.  We all want to remain in dialogue and communion with one another.

The property of local congregations are held in trust for whom?  Not the general church but the annual conference. (¶ 7 and ¶2503).  The UMC does not have a legal presence.

 

Pensions are not the property of the general church but are held in trust by the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits for annual conferences and the clergy who hold their membership within the annual conference.  Watch what happens when one of our conferences is unable to pay its pensions and GBPHB tries to take money from other conferences to  make up the difference; then we will truly see how well the global connection works or does not.

 

Now is the time for local congregations to distance themselves from the general church and general agencies and the loss of focus on making disciples.

The proposal to allow annual conference autonomy on some subjects (such as around the issue of sexual ethics) opens the door, but it should also include autonomy around finances, social principles, and all other issues.

Will we then be United Methodists?  Yes.

But we will be united in name only.

 

We must focus on our Western North Carolina Annual Conference and its focus on making disciples here.

In 2015, our WNC conference has been asked to contribute almost $6 million in its budget to support a dysfunctional general church and its agencies.  Why are we giving $6 million to institutions that only want to fight over an issue that has no solution?

Instead, the United Methodist Discipline does not prohibit and our conference rules allow congregations to reallocate that $6 million.  We can give those monies to our own annual conference for congregational vitality, new church starts, missions regional and global, and more.

 

We can begin this new future within the Western North Carolina Conference.

If you want to be United Methodist, I encourage you to join my congregation and reallocate your monies away from a general church that will get uglier and more divided.

 

Will we divide?  No.  What then shall we do?  Focus our attention and money on this annual conference and be faithful to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  

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Response to Jeremy

A recent blog by UMJeremy, “Holding the UMC Hostage” required this response.

While Jeremy’s blog and some comments speak about my document, I believe that they often fundamentally mis-represent my position.

1. Initially, my paper stands in full agreement with the essential principles of the 2011 Call to Action report, as endorsed unanimously by the Council of Bishops and the general church Connectional Table. That call urges the UMC to realign the structure and resources of our denomination to focus on creating and sustaining vital congregations. Our denomination cannot sustain financially the current general church structure and emphases! I agree passionately with that focus. So did the majority of delegates to the 2012 General Conference! Yet, not one part of the Call to Action made it into our Discipline. That is a major tragedy that bodes ill for our denomination.

2. My paper is supported by the essential work of Lovett Weems in “Focus: The Real Challenges that Face The United Methodist Church” and Gil Rendle’s “Journey in the Wilderness.” Read both books for a sobering analysis of the crises facing our denomination, including financial. For example, Weems asks us to “reset” the financial baselines. Rendle expects 1/3 of our congregations to close in the next 15 years. In 2011, the UMC in the US suffered its largest percentage decline in membership and worship attendance in our history; 2012 will probably be worse. Only 15% of all UMC congregations in the US are vital. What are we as pastors, laity, and local congregations doing about these realities?

3. I am a non-conformist. Will Willimon and I introduced these ideas and more in 1992! I celebrate that many of our ideas then, also understood as controversial, are now in our Discipline. This denomination still needs more reformers than supporters of the status quo.

4. I am not aligned with the Confessing Movement, Good News, Methodist Federation for Social Action, or any other caucus group. I am theologically conservative and politically liberal. None of this argument has to be with the current denominational fight over sexuality or a particular position of the General Board of Church and Society or World Council of Churches or anything else. Do not read into the document what is not there.

5. I am a sixth-generation United Methodist. I have been and continue to be active throughout the connection. I sit on the general church Connectional Table and my annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry. I am not a “congregationalist.” I do support the Episcopal Fund (we cannot be United Methodists and not have bishops). I yearn passionately for our connectional denomination to be healthy. But, the answers for healthy congregations will not come from above but from below.

6. My congregation pays 100% of what has been apportioned to us (about 10% of our budget). In fact, we give about 30% of our total income away for missions. We are sponsoring a new congregation. We are deeply committed to sharing our financial blessings with others. There is nothing “selfish” about this proposal.

7. Essentially, the paper offers a strategy that reforms our denomination from the bottom up. It does not ask permission from the top down! I am despondent about the ability of our denomination to change from above. Therefore, in the tradition of the reformer John Wesley, let’s go to the people not in authority and create new models of ministry. Let’s be clear: the Discipline fully allows laity to make decisions about finances at the local level that may or may not be approved by the pastor or district superintendent. Let us trust the laity. They are way ahead of our “leaders” in many of these issues.

8. This paper fundamentally supports the position of our Discipline that annual conferences, not the general agencies, are the essential connectional body in our denomination. Since 1968, that position has been turned upside down. I am asking us to discontinue a system that in 1972 Albert Outler predicted would corrupt our essential Wesleyan tradition. Outler was correct. I want us to return to our true Wesleyan heritage as known for our first 150 years.

9. I have had encouragement for this position from some conference treasurers and bishops (some of whom added to the document before it was released) . Most do not want their names used. I have thick skin. I am simply willing to say publicly what others are thinking privately.

10. I strongly object to characterizations of “holding hostage” or “withholding” or “local.” Read the document. Do not attribute words to me that I do not use.

11. I suggest that local congregations redirect the amount of money apportioned in ways that create and sustain vital congregations, locally, regionally, and internationally. Essentially, let us rebuild healthy United Methodist congregations from the ground up; versus strengthening general agency work that often (but not always) is not focused on vital congregations. For example, my congregation is contributing more to our district mission fund and the conference vitality and congregational development teams. Let’s strengthen existing congregations and start new congregations first. When we have healthy congregations then we will have healthy general agencies.

12. I do believe that it is possible for units of the general church to support the work of vital congregations. For example, my congregation has had recently very fruitful conversations with staff of the General Board of Discipleship and United Methodist Communications. For the first time in years, they may be able to assist our work, and at that time I will reconsider my position, and support those who support vital congregations.

13. Next to last, get the first things first: what can pastors, laity, and local congregations do to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? That is our true mission. The answer from the Call to Action, the Connectional Table, and the Council of Bishops, supported by the most extensive research in our history, is to focus on strengthening existing congregations and starting new congregations. I absolutely agree. My paper suggests one strategy to make sure that local congregations use their money most effectively for the current and future health our entire denomination to fulfill our mission.

14. An invitation to Jeremy and all the readers of his blog, answer this question: what are you doing in your local setting to strengthen congregations and create new congregations? How does the use of your money help or hinder that effort? I look forward to your answers.

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Church-Directed Allocations vs. Proportional Allocations

A Strategy for United Methodist Congregations
in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference
to Focus Apportionments to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ

Andy Langford

How may your congregation direct its financial apportionments to best fulfill Jesus’ commandment to make disciples of Jesus Christ? How may you help the Western North Carolina Conference fulfill its vision to strengthen vital congregations?

Each year, your congregation is notified about the total financial apportionments for your District, our Western North Carolina Conference, the Southeast Jurisdiction, and the general ministries of The United Methodist Church. In many congregations, the total apportionments range from 10% to 20% of the total budget of a congregation.

Most congregations consider all these separate apportionments as one lump sum. The apportionments, however, consist of at least fifteen separate funds from four different levels of our denomination.

The District budget is set annually in each District and includes several separate funds. The Annual Conference budget is set each year at Lake Junaluska and includes four line items. The Southeast Jurisdictional budget is set every four years and includes one budget line item. The general United Methodist Church budget is set every four years at General Conference and includes seven separate items.

Each of the apportionments must be asked from your congregation. Your congregation never “votes” on the apportionments. According to our United Methodist Discipline, our Annual Conference and its leaders must encourage your congregation to pay 100% payment of all apportionments.

There are two ways for your local congregation to pay 100% of apportionments: Proportional Allocation or Church-Directed Allocation. Most congregations are not aware of the differences between the two and the implications. For decades, the financial remittance form from the Western North Carolina Conference has offered both options to every congregation.

1. Proportional Allocation Simply send in 100% of the money requested, without any instruction about the use of the monies. When a congregation chooses Proportional Allocation (or makes no choice), the Conference Treasurer then pays each fund its designated proportion or percentage of the total amount. For example, if your congregation chooses the Proportional Allocation model, the Conference Treasurer sends in automatically 36.7% of all your apportionments to the seven funds of the General Church.

2. Church-Directed Allocation Yet, your congregation has the right to direct your apportionments. When a congregation chooses Church-Directed Allocation, the Conference Treasurer then pays each fund only what the congregation has designated. For example, if your congregation chooses to give more to one fund and less to another, the Conference Treasurer follows the designation of your congregation. No other person or body in the denomination can dictate how your local church pays its apportionments. This is a local church decision.

Which model of giving is best for your congregation? If your congregation supports every fund of the District, the Conference, the Jurisdiction, and the General Church at the percentage set by each level of the denomination, simply use Proportional Allocation. This way allows others to direct your apportionments.

If, however, your congregation supports some ministries more than others, select Church-Directed Allocation and designate your giving.

The process to use the Church-Directed Allocation model is very simple:

1. Your congregation’s Finance Committee reviews each of the apportionments: District, Conference, Jurisdictional, and General Church. Such information is available through the Conference website: http://www.wnccumc.org. The Finance Committee asks which of these funds best fulfill the mission of your congregation? Every congregation may reach different conclusions.

2. Your Finance Committee may then recommend that your congregation pay different amounts to different funds. For example, your congregation may decide to pay more to its District Mission Society (# 521) and Annual Conference Vision and Goals (# 508) , and less to the General Church funds (#513-520). The goal is that the total amount of money paid by your congregation will equal 100% of the total monies apportioned to your congregation.

3. Your Finance Committee must then make its recommendation to your congregation’s Church Council or Administrative Board or other authorized body. This action does not require a Charge Conference and requires only a majority vote by your church leaders. This action does not need to approval of your pastor or district superintendent. This vote may happen at any time, but ideally before the first apportionment payments are made in any calendar year.

4. Your local church treasurer will then submit your congregation’s payments according to the decision approved by your Church Council as a Church-Directed Allocation.

When the Western North Carolina Conference Treasurer receives your payments, the Conference Treasurer then pays the funds designated by your congregation. The Treasurer may not reallocate your payments without your congregation’s approval.

If a fund receives more funds than requested, the Conference Treasurer will remit the additional funds to an authorized body, such as the District Finance Committee or Conference Council on Finance and Administration. Each body has its own policies about how to use the additional funds.

At the end of the financial year, if your congregation has paid 100% of the monies apportioned to it (line 40a of the standard financial report), regardless of where the funds are designated, the Conference Treasurer will certify that 100% of your apportionments were paid (line 40b of the financial report). Your congregation will then have paid 100% of its apportionments in ways that fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples of Jesus Christ!

I encourage every congregation to consider Church-Directed Allocation, with a focus on district and annual conference funds, as your method for paying all apportionments!

The above statement is the personal perspective of the author. Andy, a pastor for 35 years in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, has been a delegate to the last five General Conferences, a member of the WNCC Council on Finance and Administration for 8 years, and serves on the General Church Connectional Table. He has also worked closely with all the general agencies of our denomination.

This paper was written in consultation with past and present conference and denominational leaders, especially persons knowledgeable about our financial policies and procedures. All the above statements are consistent with The United Methodist Discipline and the historic practices of the Western North Carolina Conference.

For more background information on the 2012 General Conference, see Andy’s 15 May 2012 blog at http://www.pastorandylangford.com.


Rationale for Church-Directed Allocation of Apportionments

Introduction

Following the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, many local congregations must seek better ways to use their financial resources to fulfill the mission of The United Methodist Church. In addition, local congregations must reassert that the annual conference is the basic body of our denomination (Article II of our Constitution) by providing more financial resources to their annual conferences.

The 2012 General Conference rejected a new focus on creating and strengthening vital congregations and empowering annual conferences. Not one petition concerning local congregations was even voted on by General Conference. Organizational flexibility for annual conferences was rejected. Instead, our denomination maintained the primacy and status quo of its general boards, agencies, and general church programs.

For over forty years, over three billion dollars have been spent supporting the general agencies and other endeavors of our global connection. And for over forty years, our denomination in the United States has been in decline. For three years, our United Methodist Council of Bishops, the Call to Action committees, and the General Church Connectional Table looked at solutions. As confirmed in a series of Abingdon books entitled “The Adaptive Challenge Series,” we discovered that the general agencies are not accountable for measurable outcomes and that the financial basis of our entire denomination must change. In addition, the annual conferences, not general agencies, are the primary arena for equipping local congregations.

The Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table petitioned General Conference for new emphases on local congregations and annual conferences. Yet, the 2012 General Conference, influenced greatly by the general agencies, minimized any change in our current organization and how it is funded.

It is time for congregations within the United States to follow the example of United Methodist congregations outside the United States (over 42% of all United Methodists) who only pay general church apportionments to the Episcopal Fund and none to the other six general church funds. In 2011, 99% of all monies that supported the general church came from the United States. United Methodist congregations in the United States must use the monies donated to God through them in better ways.

Does a congregation in the United States have the financial flexibility that is now used by United Methodist congregations outside the United States? Is there a superior way to strengthen annual conferences and fulfill Jesus’ command to make disciples for the transformation of the world through our connection? Is there a way for local congregations to reform and renew our denomination from the bottom of our organization?

For a generation, United Methodist congregations have yielded to the “superior wisdom” of the leaders at the District, Conference, Jurisdictional, and especially the General Church led by the general agencies. Today, United Methodist congregations have the responsibility to use their own wisdom and dollars in ways to transform individual lives, local congregations, annual conferences, and the world. Local congregations, where disciples of Jesus Christ are made, lead the denomination!

United Methodists in local congregations must now learn how to set their own priorities. Churches in the United States should no longer continue to contribute to a failing general church denominational bureaucracy that is a waste of money and faithfulness to God. Congregations should use monies in ways faithful to our Wesleyan tradition.

Increasingly, many congregations believe that their monies are better spent on district missions and conference ministries and benevolences, the essential connectional ministries. These ministries are led by people known and trusted. These monies focus more so on creating and sustaining vital congregations and empowering annual conferences.

The following description of the problem, and solution, are one option for congregations to consider as they pay their apportionments to The United Methodist Church.

A Brief History of Apportionments

Apportionments are the way each local congregation in the United States contributes its fair share to the connectional ministries of our denomination for the past 40 years. For the first 180 years of our denomination, all local congregations throughout the world were asked to contribute to the larger church for distinctively connectional ministries, such as the salaries of bishops, conference expenses, and global missions. There were no general agencies other than the publishing house and mission units. At times, specific goals were set. Sharing a common vision of mission, voluntarily and with joy, congregations responded generously.

Beginning in the 1970s, as the bureaucracy of the general church grew to historic number and size financial apportionments became mandatory in the United States. Through legislation written by the general agencies, apportionments were declared to be the first missional giving of local congregations in the U.S. The expectation became, for the first time in our denomination’s history, that every United States congregation pay 100% of all apportionments.

For the past forty years, many leaders of our denomination in the United States have insisted that paying apportionments is the clearest sign of being United Methodist. General church agencies and programs have become the primary connectional ministries. This emphasis denies the very constitution of our denomination that the annual conference is the primary connectional body of our church.

A number of leaders threatened clergy and congregations who did not pay 100% exactly as designated by higher authorities. Three-fourths of all annual conferences in the United States, however, do not contribute 100% of the monies apportioned to them by the general church. With the decline in members in the United States, our denomination has reached the point at which fewer dollars will be available every year for ministry.

Over the forty years, however, more and more of the apportionment dollars have gone not to districts, annual conferences, or jurisdictional missions and structure but to the general church agencies and programs. Local churches appear to exist to support the general agencies, not the other way around. Today, general Church apportionments total 22% of all apportionments in the United States.

Because annual conferences may not reduce any of the general Church apportionments allocated to congregations, over the past years, jurisdictions and annual conferences have cut back significantly missions and ministries. Over a third of all district superintendent positions have been eliminated in the last twenty years. District projects, conference institutions, and jurisdictional ministries have been cut. In 2012, one-fourth of all conferences had to cut their budgets. Bluntly, districts, annual conferences, and jurisdictions are being squeezed between the rock of high general church apportionments and the declining income of local congregations.

For a comparison, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., the Protestant denomination with the second largest Protestant bureaucracy in our nation, has an annual apportionment of $5 per member per year. Our general church and its general agencies expect about $20 per member in the United States per year. In other words, our general church bureaucratic expenses are four times larger than the next largest Protestant denomination. And our denomination continues to decline in the United States.

How Apportionments Are Determined

Each year each annual conference in the United States receives from the General Council on Finance and Administration the amount allocated for each general church apportioned fund ¶808). These amounts are set by the preceding General Conference.

The general church funds then become part of the total annual conference budget. This percentage is different in every annual conference. In some annual conferences, the percentage is as low as 10%; in another conference, as high as 60%. The average is 22%.

The annual conference Council on Finance and Administration must then allocate these monies to local congregations (every annual conference has a different formula for doing so) “without reduction” (¶615). The annual conference may not make any revisions to general church askings.

Annual conferences then allocate the monies for the districts, annual conferences, jurisdictions, and general church in their own manner.

There are seven general church funds: Africa University, Black College, Episcopal Fund, General Church Administration, Interdenominational Cooperation, Ministerial Education, and World Service Fund. Each of these seven funds must be asked from local congregations in the United States.

The Southeast Jurisdictional budget, cut by one half for the next four years, goes directly to pay off the debt of Lake Junaluska Assembly, a valuable resource for our own annual conference.

In the WNC annual conference budget, 36.7% of the total conference budget goes directly to the general Church. By the Judicial Ruling # 1121, an annual conference may not adopt a policy that encourages a congregation to pay less than 100% of its apportionments.

I am not suggesting that local congregations pay less than 100% of their apportionments. I am not suggesting that monies be reallocated to pay a higher salary to a pastor or put new carpet in the sanctuary. I believe that United Methodists want to be generous to others. But, United Methodists should be more direct in how their apportionment monies are spent.

Can a congregation realign apportionment payments to the district, conference, or general church anyway? The United Methodist Discipline provides such flexibility: ¶247.14 Powers and Duties of the Charge Conference: As soon as practicable after the session of annual conference, each district superintendent or designated agent shall notify each local church in the district what amounts have been apportioned to it for World Service, conference benevolences and other general Church, jurisdictional, and annual conference funds. In preparation for and at the charge conference, it shall be the responsibility of the district superintendent, the pastor, and the lay member(s) of the annual conference and /or the church lay leader(s) to interpret to each charge conference the importance of these apportioned funds, explaining the causes supported by each of them and their place in the total program of the Church. . . . Payment in full of these apportionments by local church is the first benevolent responsibility of the church (¶812). Please note, the Discipline does not say payment in full of each individual fund allocated must be paid, only payment in full.

The Charge Conference of the congregation does not take action on the apportionments. The Charge Conference receives the request. There is no vote to accept, amend, or reject the amount. There is no dialogue or negotiation. This method is called in the appendix of the Discipline “notification.” The assumption is that there will be full payment. Again, The United Methodist Discipline does not specify full payment of each fund, only full payment.

United Methodists Are Generous People

All United Methodists want to be generous in their giving for ministries and missions beyond their local congregations. Our denomination has regional and global connectional ministries that are essential to sharing the love of God with others. We cannot focus only on our own congregations. Our Wesleyan tradition is to be extravagant in our financial giving for the transformation of the world. Most congregations believe in paying 100% of the total of all funds that have been apportioned to them.
How to Be Generous?

Each individual apportioned ministry or agency throughout the annual conference budget does not need to be paid at 100%. Three-fourths of all conferences in the United States act this way already. All of the United Methodist conferences outside the United States give nothing to the general church except for the Episcopal Fund.

There are at least two models by which United Methodist congregations may pay their full apportionments. It is up to each congregation to determine which model best fulfills their understanding of connectional ministry.

The first method is “Proportional Allocation.” If a church selects Proportional Allocation (or selects no option), the monies paid to the conference for apportionments are divided between all funds in the proportion of the church apportionment for that line to the total apportionment as indicated by the conference budget.

For example, when a congregation in the WNC annual conference pays all its apportionment dollars in one sum, 36.7% of the total payment automatically goes directly to the general Church. Of those monies, 19% go to World Service and 2% to General Administration (the two funds that underwrite most of the activities of the general church agencies that have failed our denomination for forty years).

Church-Directed Allocation

The second method is “Church-Directed Allocation.” The church treasurer checks the self-allocation box. The church treasurers then pays the designated amounts on those specific fund line items.

No local congregation is required to pay every line item at 100%. The only expectation is to pay 100% of the total monies requested. For example, a congregation may choose to pay more monies to a district or conference or jurisdictional fund and less money to a general Church apportionment.

For example, like congregations outside the United States, a congregation in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference may pay only the Episcopal Fund (#503).

Especially, local congregations should choose not to pay the two general Church funds that are the least effective in the task of making disciples by strengthening local congregations: World Service (#520) and General Administration (#515). These two funds underwrite the general church agencies and their bureaucracies, the very agencies that wrote the legislation to require 100% payout without reduction. These two funds primarily support the status quo of continual decline of our denomination.

The total amount of these two funds in the WNCC budget total 21% of all apportionments; 19% for World Service and 2% for General Administration. If every Western North Carolina Conference congregation redirected just the monies from World Service and General Administration to District Mission Societies, this would be an additional $3.3 million dollars available in the Western North Carolina Conference for mission and ministry! If congregations contributed only to the Episcopal Fund, almost $5 million would be available for other purposes such as new congregations, conference institutions and benevolences, and new mission outreach!

Who Decides?

Who in the local church makes the decision about how much to pay their apportionments? The Charge Conference does not vote on the apportionments, that is not the place. The Charge Conference is simply notified of the total funds requested.

Pastors unilaterally cannot reallocate funds. Pastors are not in charge of congregational finances. Pastors have many responsibilities, including ¶340.2.c.2.c. “To provide leadership for the funding ministry of the congregation. And ¶340.2.c.2.e. “To lead the congregation in the fulfillment of its mission through full and faithful payment of all apportioned ministerial support, administrative, and benevolent funds.” This full payment of all funds speaks to the amount paid not which funds receive the monies. Pastors must allow the laity in their congregations to make such decisions. Pastors, however, may share this paper with their church leaders.

It is most appropriate that a congregation’s Finance Committee recommend to its Church Council or other appropriate body how to allocate its apportionments. By action of the Church Council, the church treasurer would then send in payments as designated.

Note to the Western North Carolina Conference Council on Finance and Administration

The WNCC Council on Finance and Administration has been sympathetic to this approach over the past twelve years. To encourage Church-Directed Allocations, the WNCC CFA should:
1. Continue to design all payment forms to indicate clearly the two options of giving.
2. Encourage congregations to choose the method best suited to each congregation.
3. Establish policies to handle over-payments to districts and the conference.
4. Support 100% payout of the Episcopal Fund as a prior-claim. The annual conference structure depends on the role of the resident bishop.
5. Each district should emphasize their funds, such as District Missions, that may receive additional monies.
6. Instead of just four unified funds, the WNCC should consider adding several more funds to help congregations focus their giving. Such individual funds might include congregational development (to start new churches), church revitalization (to support local congregations with new initiatives), ministerial scholarships (why should 75% of all the Ministerial Education Fund leave our annual conference?), volunteers in mission (for global hands-on missions), and regional and global missions (based on approved advance specials). Such funds would encourage local congregations to increase their giving for missions.
Conclusion

United Methodist congregations must be faithful and generous stewards of their financial resources to fulfill the mission of The United Methodist Church. United Methodist congregations must help re-establish the role of the Annual Conference as the basic body of the denomination?

Every United Methodist congregation in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, and in the United States, should seriously consider Church-Directed Allocation of all apportionments and designate more monies away from the general church and more to district, conference, and jurisdictional funds.

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An Open Letter to United Methodists

Andy Langford — May 2012

I reflect on General Conference 2012 with deep and profound sadness.  Many persons are now offering their own opinions about what happened in Tampa.  At the adjournment of General Conference, Bishop Scott Jones said that he had witnessed “the death throes of a 1970s institution.”  Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the new President of the Council of Bishops, wrote, “Many people were not ready to do bold steps into a new model of structure and oversight and we fettered ourselves with a constitution that saves a dysfunctional system.”

Instead of replaying all the details about what happened, however, a more fundamental question is how does The United Methodist Church move forward?  With the increasing decline of congregations in the United States and impending collapse of our general church structures on the near horizon, how does our denomination live into the future?  Which new leaders will emerge?  Is there hope?

Even as we soon celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, our church needs passionate laity and clergy at the local level to be advocates for fundamental change, in order that our denomination might fulfill the call from Jesus Christ to make disciples for the transformation of the world.  No doubt, these advocates would include pastors from our leading congregations. In addition, members of the Council of Bishops, perhaps in conversation with the Connectional Table, are needed to join in the discussion and guide us toward clarity and wisdom.  Currently, we are a denomination without a rudder; we need strong leadership to steer us towards a hopeful future.

I offer this document as one of many invitations from leaders throughout our beloved denomination to join in conversation with prayerful hope and expectation that God will give us the courage and insight we need for this time.

Fundamental Questions About Money

The conversation among church leaders must include serious reflection about our general church’s monies: how the monies are raised, how the income is spent, and who makes such decisions.  Money is the fuel that powers our denomination.

Many United Methodists assume that the financial resources and governance we have had in the past will continue into the future.  All the evidence indicates otherwise.  Closing our eyes and hoping for the best is not a strategy forward.  We should instead follow the money and see where our monies lead us.

A Brief History

Let me share some history that shapes my views.  Going into General Conference, two mentors informed my perspective.  John Wesley once wrote:  “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America.  But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.  And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”  I believe that The United Methodist Church in 2012 has become the stagnant Church of England, which Mr. Wesley sought to reform.  As a denomination, too many United Methodists have come to love our established institution and have forgotten the spirit of personal and social holiness that gave us birth.

In 1968, Dr. Albert Outler, our most significant Wesleyan theologian in the 20th century, spoke against the general church organization we now have.  Outler believed that the proposed and adopted organizational model would not be faithful to our Wesleyan tradition, would scatter power, and would cause us to lose focus on making disciples.  Outler’s fears have proven correct.

Our crisis is most clear in the United States and Europe.  We have less than 70,000 United Methodists in Europe.  Since 1968, the United Methodist Church in the United States has been in decline.  We have older members, fewer members, and less money for ministry and missions.  Only 15% of our congregations in the United States are highly vital.  In 2011, the United Methodist churches in the United States saw the largest ever decline in membership and worship attendance.  Our General Council of Finance and Administration economists anticipate that The United Methodist Church will receive less money in the next four years for the general church than it received in the last four years.

Many United Methodist leaders have seen this crisis coming.  Since the publication of Bishop Richard Wilke’s And Are We Yet Alive? twenty-five years ago, many leaders in our church have called for reform.  Eighteen years ago, Will Willimon and I, seeking fundamental renewal, wrote A New Connection: Reforming The United Methodist Church.  Many others have joined this chorus, including those authors in the new Abingdon Press series on the adaptive challenge facing our denomination.

Over the past three years, our Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, leading pastors and laity, and many other people invested thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, and countless prayers preparing to lead our denomination forward.  Many powerful options for reform were offered.  Was 2012 to be the year to reclaim the Wesleyan movement for our denomination?

At the opening of General Conference, the report of The Call to Action described the United Methodist decline in the United States in graphic ways.  For eleven days in Tampa, at a cost of over $8 million, many people tried for reform in structures, finances, and direction.  The Interim Operations Team and the Connectional Table legislation sought not to save our United Methodist Church but to find new ways “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.”  No one doubted the analysis of the problems as described by the Call to Action research.

At General Conference, we had significant leadership from many of our bishops.  Laity and clergy, female and male, young and old, Central Conference and United States delegates joined in the conversations.  Many, many people gave of their time, skills, and prayers.

After the Call to Action report at the opening of General Conference, however, United States congregational decline was never mentioned again in the plenary.  The powers and principalities of institutional self-survival were too entrenched.  Many of our caucuses, most of our general agencies, and particularly the Judicial Council of our United Methodist Church have proven unwilling and incapable of significant reform.  Wesley’s fears of a dead sect were public for all to see.

General Conference reduced the size of the governing boards of the general agencies, including a significant reduction of the number of Central Conference members, yet preserved most the positions of the independent general agency executive staff.  For example, only 14% of the members of the General Council on Finance and Administration are from Central Conferences; the General Commission on Archives and History has only one Central Conference out of eleven whereas 40% of the total membership of our denomination are from Central Conferences).  Rearranging the deckchairs of a sinking ship, General Conference tossed the paying passengers overboard and saved the lives of the crew.

At the end of two weeks, not a single petition from the Local Church Legislative Committee had made it to the plenary floor.  General Conference debated divestiture from Israel, homosexuality, rules and mandates, and other topics for hours.  But annual conferences were again forbidden any flexibility for achieving mission.  Strategies to strengthen local congregations were not discussed on the plenary floor.  The goal to redirect resources to increase vital congregation was not added to our Discipline.  For any movement of redirection to continue, the movement will have to be on a church by church, conference by conference level, not at the general church level.  What a loss.

At the end of General Conference, an article in The United Methodist Reporter spoke of “a slow, agonizing, organizational death.”  Maria Hall, an organizational guru, believes that “we must dare to tear down to our foundations if we ever hope to be any good to the world.”  Further, “an 18th century structure cannot sustain a 21st century global organization.”

How does The United Methodist Church, then, move forward?  Where should leaders start?

General Church Apportionments

As we look toward the future, major financial and governance issues lurk just below the surface.  How are general church funds raised and spent, and who makes those decisions?

I increasingly question the financial support by thousands of local congregations in the United States of our dysfunctional denominational agencies.  The emperor has no clothes.  Is it time to stop contributing to the emperor’s clothing allowance?

Before General Conference, I spoke with a group of young clergy fearful about the future of our denomination in the United States.  I reminded these passionate young women and men that change rarely comes from the top but from the bottom.  The 2012 General Conference proved this point.  Is it time for pastors and laity in local congregations who seek to save our movement to reassert their leadership and cease funding a system that has led to our denomination’s decline?

Many of our leaders and my friends will continue to be loyal to our system and will pay 100% of their apportionments as dictated by our Discipline.  These leaders believe that the general agencies now understand the depth of the problems and will voluntarily change.  I honor that perspective but believe it to be far too cautious and optimistic.

The looming spectre of the “death tsunami,” as described by Lovett Weems in Focus: The Real Challenges Facing The United Methodist Church, indicates that our denomination has only a few years to change before the current funding model of our church collapses.  No one has disputed
Weems’ facts.  Yet, the only institutional response from our denomination has been to encourage the aging and declining members in the United States to be more generous financially to the existing system.

Continuing to fund our existing system, however, only encourages the status quo and inhibits efforts for renewal.  While Jesus Christ will never abandon the Church universal, I believe that ultimately much of our current United Methodist system must die before the Wesleyan movement can be resurrected.  The easiest and fastest way to hasten this death of many parts of our general institution is by the withholding of monies.

The single greatest institutional problem that hinders effective congregations is our general church agencies.  All of these agencies are filled with good people doing useful ministry.  But, we have thirteen different agencies with thirteen different governing boards with thirteen different executives with thirteen different agendas.  Most of the general agencies do most of their work only in the United States.  No one is in charge; the ruling of the Judicial Council indicates that no one should be in charge.  There is almost no focus on vital congregations and not enough attention paid to our global connection.  Agencies have little accountability.  We are like small kayaks paddling in different directions versus a crew of disciple rowers moving together toward a goal.

Why, therefore, are United Methodists in the United States continuing to support those disparate agencies? The only way that many of our institutional leaders may listen is to deprive them of money from local congregations through annual conferences.

By the adjournment of General Conference, our denomination chose to protect the status quo, the existing general agencies, mandates that focus beyond local congregations and annual conferences, and those persons and institutions supported financially by our current organization.  The next four years will witness continuing decline among congregations in the United States and thus declining finances.

Why will we continue our support of the World Service Fund or General Administration Fund?  These two funds primarily support the institutional status quo that resists focus on making faithful disciples and vital congregations.  While monies are needed for vital missions nationally and globally, are the general agencies the most appropriate avenue of giving?

Concurrently, United Methodists should continue to support the missions of our districts and annual conferences.  Districts and conferences are the primary building blocks of our connection.  Yet, the relationship between monies to be apportioned and sent “without reduction” from the annual conference to the general church is often not understood.  Annual conferences, by our Discipline, must send a large percentage of their receipts to the general church.  This percentage of the monies apportioned from local congregations by annual conferences ranges from a low of 9% in the North Carolina Conference to over 60% in the Oregon-Idaho Conferences.  The average is 22% of all apportionments from an annual conference to local congregations goes to the general church.  Who loses in this model?

The annual conferences are stuck between a rock of general church apportionments and the hard place of declining congregational monies.  In the last 20 years, annual conferences in the United States have lost almost one-third of all District Superintendents and even a higher level of annual conference staff due to budget cuts.  The trend indicates that in the near future the annual conferences will exist only to transfer money from local congregations to the general church.

Finally, the Ministerial Education Fund, the Black College Fund, Africa University Fund, the Episcopal Fund, and the Interdenominational Fund all serve vital functions.  They still deserve financial support.  All of us still want to be part of a connectional system.

Our finance leaders already anticipate that at best 85% of our general apportionments will be paid in the new quadrennium; and the total amount of money going to the general church will decline by over 6%.  This decline reflects the declining number of vital congregations in the United States.  What would happen if only 50% or less of apportionments were paid?  What if World Service and General Administration collapsed?  Would anyone in local churches or annual conferences notice any difference?  Would anyone in the world notice?

For such a financial realignment to work, this reformation would require a significant number of congregations and conferences to participate.  Unfortunately, many clergy live under fear of clergy misconduct charges for non-payment of apportionments (has this ever happened?).  Especially with the loss of clergy guaranteed appointments, does non-payment of apportionments give additional power to the leaders supporting the status quo?  Are there enough pastors and congregations willing to speak up and act?  Can the pastors of our leading congregations lead?  Are some bishops willing to support this shift?

Every pastor, every lay person, every congregation, every annual conference, every bishop must ask such questions about general church apportionments.  Do our financial investments in the general church encourage or inhibit the fundamental change that our denomination needs?

Global Realignment: Money and Governance

An even larger crisis will face our denomination possibly in four years and certainly no later than eight years: the financial and governance relationship between The United Methodist Church in the United States and our Central Conferences in Asia, the Philippines, Europe, and Africa.

Today, about 99% of all general church apportionments come from the United States.  Central Conferences contribute to local funding, local missions, and a little to the Episcopal Fund.  This giving simply reflects that while United Methodists in America and Europe have monies to give, United Methodists in Asia, the Philippines, and Africa have very little financial resources.  Almost all of the general church money comes from the declining congregations in the United States.

Yet, at the 2012 General Conference, almost 40% of all delegates came from Central Conferences.  All of these delegates together shaped the general church budget and other financial matters.  For example, all delegates, both inside and outside the United States, voted on the revisions to the pension plan for clergy and church professionals in the United States.

Possibly by 2016 and certainly by 2020, based on current demographics, Central Conference delegates will have over 50% of the vote at General Conference.  Central Conference delegates will have the majority vote on how the general church budget will be set, how it will be apportioned, and how it will be spent.  Will Central Conference delegates vote to lower a budget to which they do not contribute?  Will Central Conferences be apportioned funds?  Please note, the Judicial Council at General Conference also forbade the General Council on Finance and Administration from even discussing apportionment allocations with Central Conferences.  Will more of the budget be spent outside the United States?

In the corners and hallways of the 2012 General Conference, many delegates inside and outside the United States wondered about the implications of such a global shift of power.  Everyone celebrates the growth of United Methodist membership, especially in Africa.  But will United Methodists in the United States still fund a system in which they have a minority vote?  Will persons in the United States conclude that they are being apportioned without adequate representation?  The most probing questions deal with what will happen to pensions within the United States and the expenditures of the Ministerial Education Fund.  I sense real fear from many in the United States.

Is the fear warranted?  What is the Christian obligation of the wealthy for those without major resources?  Should we have regional budgets and regional governance?  Are certain financial issues distinct to certain regions and to be determined there?  Everyone knows a fundamental change in global financial governance is coming.  How will the change be handled?  Who is leading this conversation?  Will this shift finally end or strengthen our global connection?

On another side note, General Conference voted down legislation, which would have allowed the Council of Bishops to select a non-residential bishop to guide their leadership on this issue and others.  While the church cries out for leaders, we also restrict the ability of our temporal and spiritual leaders to lead.  Unfortunately, neither the Council of Bishops nor any other body has the ability, nor authority according to the Judicial Council, to lead on such significant issues.

To the best of my knowledge, no group within our denomination has even begun to have conversations about what happens
next regarding the general church budget and financial governance.  This lack of attention reaffirms the lack of leadership from the general church.  We have only a few years to make important decisions.  Who will lead the dialogue within our Wesleyan connection?

Conclusion

I write out of deep anguish, but I am not without hope.  I love The United Methodist Church, but am mourning what we have allowed ourselves to become.  Our historic commitment to payment of apportionments has fostered and entitled a dysfunctional system.  The possibility of global church division and conflict is real.  More than ever before, we need leaders who will lead.  I hope that such leaders will emerge.

I am certain, however, that ultimately we are not accountable to a system that seeks 100% payment of financial apportionments for a dying system.  We need a system that raises monies appropriately from every part of the church to be spent by one other with true collegiality.

Most importantly, we should listen to our living God.  During worship at General Conference, we heard Jesus Christ calling us through Scripture to leave our boats, to stop fishing in old ways, and to follow him to a new mission field.  Unfortunately, General Conference 2012 chose not to do so.

Our Savior Jesus Christ continues to call us. Will we listen?  Will we follow?

Andy Langford

Pastor, Central United Methodist Church: Concord, North Carolina

Western North Carolina Annual Conference

Member of the United Methodist Church Connectional Table

Five-time delegate to General Conference

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Jesus the Teacher: Sermon on the Mount # 1

Matthew 4:23-25 — 16 January 2011

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in the Jewish synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.   24News about Jesus spread all over Syria, and people brought to Jesus all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and Jesus healed them. 25Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed Jesus.

Today, you and I live in a culture without strong moral leaders or clear moral values.  So many voices are speaking from so many different perspectives that we are unable to understand how we should think, speak, and act.  How do we determine what is right or wrong?  How can we decide to do this or do that?  On what foundation do we build our lives?

For example, everyone in our nation has the constitutional right to speak their opinions.  In Charlotte, a Mecklenburg county commissioner calls homosexuals “sexual predators,” compares illegal immigrants to “drug dealers,” and says Blacks “live in a moral sewer.”  His opponents call him a Nazi.  The rhetoric has become intense.  In public, on the internet, on talk shows, everyone has every legal right to say whatever they wish about anyone or anything. 

Yet, does this public leader or his critics have the moral right to speak words that are factually untrue?  Homosexuals are not sexual predators.  Illegal aliens are not drug runners.  Blacks do not live in a moral sewer.  And the one who says all these things is not a Nazi.  Does anyone have the moral right to lie and wound real men and women?  Does hate speech lead us to a more just and whole society? 

How do we, followers of Jesus Christ, determine for ourselves and judge others about what is appropriate to think, say, and do?  On what foundation do we determine what is right or wrong?  How can we decide to do this or that?     

For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, we do live under a higher moral system.  For people who claim Jesus Christ as their friend, our thoughts, our words, and our actions are judged by a standard established by Jesus Christ.  Within the Church, we are not autonomous individuals, who can think whatever, say whatever, and act however we want.  Instead, we Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God.  We are called to imitate a teacher who lived two thousand years ago.

On Sunday, we begin a new sermon series based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

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A Christmas Paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13

(With apologies to Saint Paul, inspired by a meditation by Sharon Jaynes,

and freely adapted by Andy Langford)

Central UMC: Concord

28 November 2010

At Christmas, God offers to us the gift of God’s own son.

For hundreds of years,

               the people of God had dreamed that the Messiah would come.

And then, in a world dominated by sin and death,

Emmanuel, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit,

was born of Mary and appeared in Bethlehem.

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang about the coming of the Messiah.  Zechariah believed that Mary’s child would be the Savior of the world.  In his exuberance, Zechariah sang that the child of Mary would:  (Luke 1:68-72) 

               save God’s people from their enemies,

               show mercy,

               fulfill God’s covenant,

               forgive sins,

               shine on people in the midst of darkness,

               and guide us in paths of peace.

After the angel announced that Mary was God’s chosen servant, Mary sang that Jesus would: (Luke 1:46-55)

               show mercy,

               scatter the proud,

               bring down the powerful,

               lift up the lowly,

               fill the hungry with good things,

               send the rich empty away,

               and help the people of God.

And so the child born in Bethlehem fulfilled all of Zechariah’s dreams and Mary’s hopes and more.

How then shall we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ? 

Several years ago, I read on the Internet a version of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the 13th chapter about love, as adapted for Christmas.  Let me now share with you my own version of Paul’s anthem to love, as adapted for this season of the year.

If I say that I love Christmas,

               but do not have love,

               I may overlook the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem

forget Christ’s presence in my life today,

and lose hope that Jesus Christ will return in glory.

If I read the Christmas story, sing the carols, and say “Merry Christmas,”

               but do not listen to the meaning of the words,

I am just a voice.

If I decorate my house with red bows, twinkling lights, and shiny balls,

               poinsettias, wreaths, and garlands,

but do not celebrate all that is beautiful,

I am just a decorator.

If I watch every football, basketball, and hockey game,

               every high school, college, and professional game,

               but do not care for the friends watching with me,

I am just a spectator.

If I slave away in my kitchen, bake dozens of Christmas cookies,

               and prepare gourmet meals,

               but do not share my table with others,

I am just a cook.

If I watch “A Christmas Carol,” “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,”

               and “Miracle on 34th Street,”

               but overlook the magic of the season,

               I am just a jaded skeptic.

If I shop every sale, search for the best buys,

               and find the perfect gift for everyone on my list,

               but push to the front of the line, haggle with the clerks,

               and buy a present for myself first,

               I am just a consumer.

If I pack my car, fight traffic and airport security,

and  travel great distances to visit family,

               but forget why I hit the road,

               I am just a weary traveler.

If I go to every family gathering, kissing and hugging

               every aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent, grandchild,

               in-law, out-law,

and who was that in the outlandish Christmas sweater?,

               but forget that they are all my family,

               I am just a solitary individual.      

If I listen to Handel’s “Messiah,”

               “Amahl and the Night Visitors,”

               and Elvis Pressley’s “Christmas Favorites,”

               but do not join in the song,

               I am just a member of the audience.

If I give a gift for missions, for the church staff, for the church budget,

for the mail carrier, the garbage collector, the hair stylist,

the paper carrier, the teacher, and who did I forget?,

but do not say “Thank you” to the people who receive these gifts,

I am just a check writer.

If I mourn what I have lost, especially the ones I loved the most,

               but neglect who and what I still have,

I will not find peace.

If I smile and say the right words,

               but do not listen, hug, and weep for those who mourn,

               I am an empty person.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home,

and ring a Salvation Army bell,

               but only think about the next activity on my list,

I gain nothing.

If I set out all my nativity scenes, hang a star,

               and watch a live nativity,

               but see only the chipped paint, broken light bulbs, dirty animals,

               and restless children,

               I miss the wonder of the holy night.

If I trim my tree with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes,

               attend holiday parties, and sing in the choir’s cantata,

               but forget why I do all these activities,

I lose the meaning of the season.

If I attend every service, hear every sermon,

               listen to every anthem, light a candle, and share in Holy Communion,

but do not worship the Christ child,

I have missed the point.

Love stops talking to hear the angel’s voice.

Love stops decorating to enjoy the beauty of the season.

Love stops cooking to hug my family and guests.

Love stops grumbling to say “Merry Christmas” to everyone I meet.

Love mutes the television to talk with friends around me.

Love does not dread everyone coming over to our house,

               but is thankful that we have friends and family who wish to visit.

Love, though stressed out, tired, and frantic, is kind.

Love enjoys each activity during that activity.

Love does not envy another’s home with Christmas china and table linens.

Love does not outdo their neighbors’ lights and yard decorations.

Love worries less about the travel and more about the destination.

Love stops buying to simply be.

Love is less about the gifts and more about the giving.

Love does not show off what I got at Christmas.

Love does not dismiss what you got for Christmas.

Love does not fear the hurting and mourning people around us,

               but summons us to be compassionate friends.

Love does not give only to those who are able to give in return,

               but rejoices in giving to those who cannot give anything.

Love is less about giving to others and more about receiving from God.

Love is less about the worship

and more about the Child being worshiped.

Love bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, and endures all things.

Love never fails.

The Christmas tree will disappear, the decorations will be put away,

the Christmas china will be put back on the shelf, the games will end,

the wreaths will be taken down, the candles will burn out,

the video games will break, the jewelry will be hidden away,

the bills will arrive, the left-over food will be thrown away,

               the car will be unpacked, the television specials will be forgotten,

the golf clubs will rust, the children will go back to school,

and family will disappear but the weight we gained will stay.

But, but, but,

faith, hope, and love remain,

and the greatest of these is love,

the love that came down at Christmas,

the love we find in the Christ child born in Bethlehem.

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