Leaders begin examining health, structure of denomination

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Leaders begin examining health, structure of denomination

By Jenna De Marco | March 19, 2010 {1152}

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo is taking some time in 2010 to study and possibly reshape the future of The United Methodist Church.

Bill Walker (left), former Florida Conference lay leader, and the Rev. Jorge Acevedo report at the 2008 Florida Annual Conference Event on actions taken at the 2008 General Conference. A number of those actions dealt with changes to the structure of the denomination. File photo by Greg Moore. Photo #08-0873. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0861, 5/31/08.

As one of 12 leaders serving on the recently formed Call to Action steering team, Acevedo will spend the next six months with his team members examining the big picture of the denomination.

Following the study period, the team is charged with making formal suggestions for possible changes to the life of the church. The entire process is known as “A Call to Action: Reordering the Life of the Church.”

Acevedo, who is lead pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, is the only team member from the Florida Conference. He said he agreed to participate in the process after consultation with his colleagues and prayer.

“Things are not well for The United Methodist Church as an institution, as a denomination,” Acevedo said. “For the first time in my recollection, from many, many different places in the connection, there seems to be a unified voice around the fact that we are not well. For me, that’s new. I think for a lot of years we lived in institutional denial.”

Within The United Methodist Church, a wide array of people — laity, local church clergy, conference and jurisdictional leaders, executives from agencies and boards, professors and bishops — recognize the church is struggling, Acevedo said.

Factors to consider

In their November 2009 report to the Council of Bishops, members of a separate Call to Action steering committee identified possible areas of change in The United Methodist Church. Their suggestions included developing a church-wide system for measuring effectiveness, rebuilding leadership development with an emphasis on young people, eliminating guaranteed clergy appointments, recasting General Conference, reordering the life of the church, creating a global office for church matters and building a viable financial future.

The Rev. Debbie McLeod, (then) superintendent of the Florida Conference’s South East District, and Rodney Akers, a lay delegate from First United Methodist Church in Seffner, discuss legislation being consideration at a 2008 General Conference plenary session. McLeod chaired the 2004 General Conference subcommittee that presented legislation developing the Connectional Table, which oversees the coordination of mission, ministries and resources across the denomination. File photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0834. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0845, 5/4/08.

The Rev. Deborah McLeod said the process gives her “more hope now, for the denomination, than ever.” McLeod served on the original steering committee that made the recommendations. She is also senior pastor at Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville.

Allowing the current steering team to do its work will be the most effective way to consider significant denominational changes, Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker says.

“My expectation is that the Call to Action (steering team) will propose some very serious reform, (although) it remains to be seen what they will recommend,” he said.

It is important to look at The United Methodist Church holistically, Whitaker said, which might result in “some creative proposals that preserve the spirit of connectionalism, but that reform structures.”

Even if the steering team were to offer a “great report” with some important suggestions, Acevedo said, the changes would likely be subject to approval by the 2012 General Conference.

While there are no guarantees those ideas would be adopted, Acevedo says he is hopeful the process will be productive. Acevedo expects the result will likely fall into one of two categories — “rebooting the UMC” or merely rearranging it. The church’s chances for meaningful change are better, he says, if the church focuses on “allowing our forms to follow our function.”

Among the many issues being debated is the role of the denomination’s general agencies and boards.

“Whatever the shape of the proposal from the task force known as ‘Call to Action,’ it is clear that the church has some ecclesial responsibilities which can be accomplished only through work done at the level of the general church,” Whitaker said.

The conversation could also turn toward eliminating the number of general boards and agencies. That is potentially a “scary thought” for the people who earn their livelihood in those positions, Acevedo said.

The United Methodist Church has operated under what is “essentially the same denominational structure since 1968,” McLeod says, and after 40 years it is necessary to retool that structure to remain effective. Although significant changes to the church structure may be difficult to embrace, she says they could help the denomination in other areas, such as more effective crisis responses, better equipping of young lay and clergy leaders, a more efficient organizational chart, and greater focus on evangelism and discipleship.

Changes could affect clergy appointments

One issue generating debate across the denomination is the possible end to the guaranteed appointment of clergy.

Lay and clergy members and guest celebrated the ordination, licensing, commissioning and recognition of orders of 39 people at the 2009 Florida Annual Conference Event in Lakeland. The new clergy members are among the 895 pastors under appointment with the Florida Conference — 762 to a local church and 133 to extension ministries. Photo by Armando Rodgriguez. Photo #10-1415.

One concern under the current system is that removing ineffective clergy from their posts is a laborious and time-consuming process, Whitaker said. Historically, pastors have entered into a covenant relationship in which the church agrees to protect the clergy person’s need for a place to serve and practice ministry, he said. In turn, clergy agree to itinerate and be appointed where needed.

While it is important that conferences commit to the basic principle of this covenant, “when that becomes something that is codified as a guaranteed appointment, you’ve created a system that goes beyond that covenant,” Whitaker said. The perception is the system is too oriented toward protecting clergy and not protective enough of the church.

Another related issue among members of the Council of Bishops and other leaders is the church’s relationship with extension ministers, who are ordained clergy serving outside the appointment system.

Extension ministry is “something that we should really celebrate” for its work beyond the walls of the church, Whitaker said. But there is concern that if all extension ministers were to make a claim on an appointment at the same time, the clergy supply would far exceed the demand.

“The issue is not the value of extension ministers per se,” Whitaker said. “The issue is whether or not persons who are not part of the itinerant pastoral ministry should have the same relationship as those who are part of the itinerant ministry.”

Whether local churches should be required to demonstrate a standard minimum number of members in order to receive a full-time clergy person is also being discussed. That is probably best answered on a conference basis, Whitaker said.

Numerous factors affect whether a church is able to have a full-time pastor, Whitaker added, including the church’s operating costs and budget and the available workload for the clergy. Even with careful management of health and property insurance, local church operating costs have risen steadily, Whitaker said.

Supporting connection drives Florida Conference changes

Recent and ongoing adjustments to the structure of the Florida Conference are not necessarily related to potential changes at the denominational level, Whitaker said.

United Methodist bishops discuss a report from the Call to Action steering committee during a 2009 meeting of the denomination’s Council of Bishops at Lake Junaluska, N.C. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert. Photo #10-1416.

“The current changes in the Florida Conference reflect an intention to shape the conference structures and processes so that they are more efficient and effective in meeting the needs of the whole connection in Florida,” he said. “Yet, we cannot do our task in a vacuum because we are impacted by the decisions of the General and Jurisdictional conferences.”

The longer-term future of the conference structure and processes will be affected to a great extent by the nature of the reform that emerges from the task force and other variables, Whitaker added.

Even while the Florida Conference undergoes its own changes, its members are invited to stay abreast of the Call to Action process and pray for it and Acevedo, who has committed a significant amount time to participating, McLeod said.

Web site provides project information

According to the Call to Action project timeline, two separate research studies will look at local church vitality and United Methodist church governance, structures and processes. Independent consultants will handle the research tasks and report their findings to the steering team, which is led by Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops.

Sometime between September and November 2010, the steering team will provide its overall findings to the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table, whose members represent a cross-section of the church, including lay and clergy members.

Names and contact information for all steering team members and project managers, as well as Call to Action preliminary recommendations made in November 2009, are available on The United Methodist Church Web site. A project timeline is posted, as well. More information is available at http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.5792195/k.86F6/Call_to_Action.htm.

Related story

Florida Conference begins restructure

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011, tparham@flumc.org, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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