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Proposed Church Council to Oversee Finances

Nov 06, 2002 03:00 AM EST

PITTSBURGH ?A group of United Methodist leaders is exploring the idea of having one agency coordinate both the church’s ministries and its finances ?a move that would mark a dramatic change from the denomination’s history of keeping the money handlers separate from the programs.

The idea of putting money and missions in the hands of a new general church council is at the heart of a proposal to create a common table where the United Methodist annual conferences, agencies and other entities could guide the church’s ministries. The common table would enable church leaders to see the denomination’s work around the world in a comprehensive way.

Though this "Living Into the Future" proposal is very much a work in progress, members of the General Council on Ministries hope their writing team can produce a basic plan that the entire group can approve when it meets in March. If so, the proposal would be refined further and sent to the church’s legislative assembly, the General Conference, which meets in Pittsburgh in 2004.

The plan has changed markedly since last spring, when the council discussed the idea of dissolving the church program agencies?governing boards ?including the council itself ?and having the new common table assume their oversight responsibilities. Instead, meeting Oct. 25-29 in Pittsburgh, the group focused on dissolving both itself and the General Council on Finance and Administration, and combining their functions into the proposed general church council. The governing boards would remain intact, with the addition of representatives from the new common table.

"The basic principle is (having) a table where holistically we can look at our mission and the resources of money together," said Bishop Edward Paup, Council on Ministries president and head of the church’s Portland (Ore.) Area.

All but about three of the 50 or so voting members present supported the basic direction of the proposal during a show of hands Oct. 26. The council later voted to request a 90-minute time slot early in the 2004 General Conference to present the plan to delegates.

While members of the Council on Ministries favor combining money and mission in one place, they acknowledge the difficulty of dissolving the finance agency, as well as coming up with a membership formula for the new council that the church would find acceptable.

"The devil’s in the details of all of this," said the Rev. Thomas "Andy" Langford of Matthews, N.C., a member of the council’s writing team.

"Living Into the Future" is the latest manifestation of the United Methodist Church’s efforts to reorder its work for greater effectiveness. In the late 1990s, a Connectional Process Team spent four years coming up with a plan for restructuring the church, but the take-it-or-leave-it proposal was rejected by the 2000 General Conference. Five "transformational directions" were salvaged out of the CPT plan and given to the Council on Ministries for more work. The Dayton, Ohio,-based council, which would have evaporated under the CPT plan, found itself with a new lease on life.

Dan Church, the council’s top staff executive, presented an initial "Living Into the Future" proposal to the group in 2001, suggesting among other things the idea of a single governing board for most of the church’s agencies. After wrestling with that idea last spring, the council turned the details over to a writing team, which brought back an 18-point proposal to the October meeting.

At the spring meeting, some of the church’s top staff executives had objected to the characterization of their agencies as competitive with one another, insisting that they work collaboratively. The writing team later determined that the denomination’s structure was the problem, finding that it "impeded the ability to have a common table for a holistic view," Church said.

Council on Ministries members offered comments and questions about the latest draft proposal, then directed the writing team to continue working. The feedback included the suggestion that the United Methodist Publishing House and Board of Pension and Health Benefits be included in the mix; those are the only two church agencies that are currently excluded from the proposal. Between now and March, when the council meets in the Philippines, the team will hold meetings and consult with the church’s bishops and top staff executives at general agencies.

With an Oct. 1, 2003, deadline for General Conference legislation, Church is optimistic that the council can get its proposal in shape and have time to share it with the annual conferences. "I see a very aggressive timetable," he said. "?We’ve got enough time if we can get a (council) decision in the spring."

During their discussions in Pittsburgh, members used gentler language than they had last April in Oklahoma City to describe the authority that the new general church council might have. Several suggested dropping the word "governance" altogether, saying it carried a negative connotation of power and authoritarianism. Instead, members suggested words that evoke cooperation, support, interdependence.

More work is needed in clarifying governance, Paup said after the meeting. The new council would provide a "kind of oversight for the programs, resources and life of the denomination between General Conferences," he said. "Governance would be related more to the holistic stewardship of the vision and the mission of the church rather than to micromanage the work of the various agencies."

Two of the thorniest parts of the proposal relate to the idea of dissolving the finance agency and the makeup of the new general church council.

The denomination has historically kept the finance function separate from its programs and ministries as a way of ensuring accountability. However, some people inside and outside the general agencies say this has created a situation in which the finance agency often wields too much clout over programs. Sandra Kelly Lackore, top staff executive of the finance agency, said her governing directors haven’t had a chance to discuss the proposal and she couldn’t comment on it yet.

The Council on Ministries writing team decided that the question of bringing mission and money together had to be answered "before there could be any other consideration about how our life would be ordered," Paup said. He said he has sensed "a lot of support" for the basic concept of combining the mission and money, but added: "I think there are questions people have about how this will happen."

Noted Church: "Suggesting that what has always been at arm’s length from everything else should be brought into the common arena is a major, major change."

Another basic element of the current proposal is that the new council’s membership would be directly linked to the annual and central conferences. Of some 116 seats, the proposal would fill 85 with representatives from the conferences ?one each from the 64 U.S. annual conferences plus three each from the central conferences in Europe, Africa and Asia. The draft also provides for another five members for lay and clergy balance. Representatives from the agencies and the Council of Bishops would round out the table.

Some GCOM members voiced concern about whether lay people or certain groups and jurisdictions would be sufficiently represented. Paup explained in an interview that the table would be built on the belief that the annual conference is the basic unit of church life. "Persons are not coming necessarily to represent their annual conference, but they are coming to be a member of the council through their linkage to the annual conference."

The central conferences would have about 20 percent of the votes on the proposed general church council, compared with about 10 percent on the general agency boards currently, Langford says. "This is going to make us a global church. The conversations that we’ll have are going to be fundamentally different."

That is a source of hope for central conference members. The council’s Marilina DeCarvalho of Angola sees potential in providing a place where the physical and economic needs of Africa, Eastern Europe and other parts of the world can be addressed. "This will help all the global church."

Though they differed on details, the Council on Ministries members affirmed that need throughout their meeting.

"I yearn for a table that takes seriously conversation that is bigger than any one of the agencies can grapple with alone," said the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. For example, she said, Africa needs a strategy that calls for more than the typical approach of building a school, a hospital or clinic. "We need a massive presence of United Methodism," she said.

Members of the council said they sense some progress in their work. "For me, there’s a greater feeling of trust than there has been in the past," said Burnham Robinson of Fort Worth, Texas. He believes the council must work on getting an official piece out to the church explaining the proposal "in its truest form" as early as possible.

In other business, the council:

- Elected the Rev. Randy Day to lead the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries as top staff executive. Day, a board executive, will succeed the Rev. Randolph Nugent Jan. 1.

- Approved a request from the church’s Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns to extend the Rev. Bruce Robbins?term as top staff executive of that agency for another year beyond the denomination’s 12-year term limit. The commission has a search committee in place to find a successor.

- Celebrated the life of the Rev. Thomas Roughface, a council member and superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, who died May 9 from complications related to injuries sustained in a car accident.

By Hoan Soo Lee