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Best Laid Plans: Structure struggles continue Sam Hodges, Mar 23, 2012
UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY VICKI BROWN
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
Plan B has become Topic A for many of those deeply involved in efforts to restructure agencies of the United Methodist Church.
With roughly a month to go before General Conference, the main restructuring proposal, offered by the Call to Action Interim Operations Team and the Connectional Table, faces mounting opposition.
That has resulted in the recent emergence of a less far-reaching alternative, which backers are calling simply Plan B.
It’s not actually the first substitute put forward for legislation crafted by the Connectional Table and the Interim Operations Team (IOT).
But there’s a good bit of buzz around both Plan B and the person credited as its main author: six-time General Conference delegate Joe Whittemore, of the North Georgia Conference.
“Joe certainly is offering some interesting alternatives that are definitely a compromise between where we are right now and where IOT/CT would take us,” said Jay Brim, a Connectional Table member and General Conference delegate from the Southwest Texas Conference.
But Plan B too has found critics, both for its approach and how it was rolled out, including the anonymity of some supporting it.
Mr. Whittemore refuses to be drawn into discussion of Plan B’s prospects, and insists his group’s sole goal is to help the UMC to renewal.
“I don’t think this is about the political idea of something that will pass,” he said. “We are genuine in our belief that what we’re offering will be a better plan for the church.”
Lean and nimble
Every four years, the UMC gathers for General Conference, where about 1,000 delegates set the general church budget and decide matters of church law and social policy.
The long lead-up to the General Conference that will occur in Tampa, Fla., from April 24 to May 4, has seen a comprehensive reform effort by church leaders, aimed at arresting the numerical declines of the UMC in the United States, and given the name “Call to Action.”
A Call to Action steering committee drew on two outside studies of the church and settled on the principle of a long focus on bolstering the number of “vital congregations.”
Various controversial proposals to help that happen will be considered at General Conference, including ending guaranteed appointment for clergy and creating a non-residential or “set-aside” president of the Council of Bishops who would help steer reform efforts.
But the proposal that has attracted the most attention was crafted by the Call to Action Interim Operations Team, an eight-member group convened by Bishop Gregory Palmer, and including business leaders and mega-church pastors. The formal legislation was introduced by the Connectional Table, which coordinates financial resources and mission and ministry work for the denomination.
The IOT/CT plan would merge nine of 13 general church agencies under a new Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. The center would be organized into five offices, run by an executive and a 15-member board. There would be an oversight panel of 45 members, which also elects the smaller board and is chaired by the president of the Council of Bishops.
Currently, the agencies have their own boards, with more than 500 members cumulatively. Under the IOT/CT plan, that number would come down to 60.
Advocates see significant cost savings in travel with so many fewer board members, but the main touted advantages are greater efficiency and coordination.
Such changes “are essential in enabling the general church to effectively support congregations in their quest for missional vitality,” said the Rev. Don Underwood, leader of the North Texas Conference delegation to General Conference.
But criticisms of such a restructuring began last year, soon after the specifics of the CT/IOT proposal became public. Ethnic caucuses questioned how a 15-member board could reflect the diversity of the UMC, including its increasingly worldwide character.
That concern was echoed by the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops in a Feb. 6 memorandum to Bishop Palmer and Bishop John Hopkins, key leaders of the reform effort.
“We believe that the proposed competency-based board is too severe a swing of the pendulum in the direction of ease and efficiency at the expense of diversity and cultures represented by our geographies, theologies and ethnic identities,” said Phoenix Area Bishop Minerva Carcaño, writing for the Western Jurisdiction bishops.
On March 9, directors of the General Council on Finance and Administration issued their own statement, expressing “areas of concern” with the IOT/CT proposal. They pointedly objected to GCFA being brought under the consolidated structure.
“The current structure provides an independent, non-political evaluation of the amount of the budget being proposed and is an important part of the due diligence GCFA provides to General Conference,” the board said. “We believe loss of this modeling and review will produce budgets that are more subjective in nature and politically-driven.”
The executive committee of the General Board of Discipleship, another agency targeted for consolidation, weighed in on March 15, arguing that the IOT/CT plan would weaken lay leadership, move the UMC away from connectionalism toward congregationalism and leave GBOD itself—due to the restructuring and proposed budget cuts—less able to support the vital congregations effort.
“The current proposals . . . would greatly reduce, if not decimate, the capacity of GBOD to be a partner in realizing God’s dream for us in the UMC,” said Bishop Charlene Kammerer in an email interview.
The Methodist Federation for Social Action announced in November that its petitions to General Conference would include an alternative to the IOT/CT plan. The MFSA plan would create a coordinating council with 43 voting members and 24 non-voting members, balanced for diversity. There would be some consolidation of agencies, under four “ministry centers” overseen by the council.
But the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and General Commission on Religion and Race would remain separate, and each of the ministry centers would have a 33-member board.
Plan B emerged earlier this month, with its website describing it as the work of “an unofficial task force of lay and clergy delegates and non-delegates to General Conference.”
The website repeats and elaborates on others’ criticisms of the IOT/CT plan, warning of an “elite 15-member board heavily influenced by the Council of Bishops.”
Both the IOT/CT and MFSA plans would ditch the Connectional Table, but Plan B keeps it, reducing the voting member size from 47 to 33, and replacing the executive secretary with a chief coordinating officer experienced in business management. The Connectional Table would have direct responsibility for United Methodist Communications, and would be empowered to evaluate agency functions and performance.
But under Plan B, there would be considerably less consolidation than under IOT/CT. For example, GCFA would remain independent. So would GBOD, the General Board of Global Ministries, the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry and the General Board of Church & Society.
The General Commission on Archives and History would come under GCFA, and the commissions on Religion & Race and the Status & Role of Women would come under the Board of Church & Society.
Under the IOT/CT plan, agency board seats would come down from more than 500 to 60. Plan B would bring the number to 193. Plan B backers argue that it offers a more efficient structure that supports the effort to bolster vital congregations while preserving diversity of input and best practices in management, including the independent GCFA.
Mr. Brim credits Mr. Whittemore with giving the plan appeal.
“Joe has done a very good job of reaching out to the various criticisms that have been made of IOT/CT,” Mr. Brim said.
Work in progress
But while Mr. Whittemore is clearly a leader of Plan B—and explained it at a recent GBHEM meeting—the website did not initially offer names of those working with him.
The Rev. Brian Milford, leader of the Iowa Conference delegation, favors the IOT/CT plan, and of Plan B said: “I do not personally feel it goes far enough in making substantive changes we need in order for our Church to improve effectiveness and have an impact on changing the world.”
He added: “I am also concerned by the decision of the authors of Plan B to remain anonymous. We need greater trust across the connection and that comes with accountability and transparency.”
By March 21, the website had been updated to include 12 names of those helping to develop Plan B, including Mr. Whittemore. Earlier, Mr. Whittemore had identified for the Reporter some of those supporters, including C. Don Ladd, a General Conference delegate from the Tennessee Conference, and Lonnie Brooks, a reserve delegate from Alaska.
Mr. Ladd praised Plan B effusively, and said it recognizes better than the IOT/CT plan the efforts agencies have made already to streamline. But he called the early absence of names on the Plan B website an “error in judgment.”
“This creates mistrust and takes away focus from this faithful work. Our earnest hope and prayer was that UMC Plan B be considered on its merits,” he said.
Mr. Brooks asserted, as did Mr. Ladd, that some had unfairly characterized Plan B as the “Whittemore plan.” He added that the plan had support from across the usual UMC ideological/theological divides.
“Joe and I are certainly not on the same page on many issues that face the church,” he said.
Need for focus
Mr. Brim believes there are pockets of support in the general administration committee (which restructuring legislation will have to clear before reaching the full General Conference) for both Plan B and the IOT/CT plan.
“I do not think the IOT/CT plan is dead, as some have termed it,” he said. “I think what we’ve seen is the natural blowback that comes with any very aggressive plan for change.”
Indeed, an open letter to General Conference delegates, signed by many large UM church pastors—among them the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a member of the IOT—endorsed the principles of the IOT/CT approach and called for bold action. “We implore you not to let fear keep us from the change we desperately need,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, Bishop Palmer and Neil Alexander, president of the United Methodist Publishing House and another member of the IOT, issued a statement in response to questions about the fate of the IOT/CT plan and emergence of Plan B. The statement concludes:
“After all of the ‘yes, but’ talk and debate of counter proposals, what we need most is for the UMC to stay intently focused for at least a decade on creating more vital congregations, assure genuine and sustained alignment in that effort from all parts of the Connection and provide greater accountability for both lay and ordained leaders.”