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Commentary


Proposed Church Reorganization Increases Bureaucratic Power and Diminishes Biblical Accountability


Concerning the Connectional Process Team Preliminary Report

By Rev. Tim Paulk

The General Conference of 1996 authorized a Connectional Process Team with an estimated budget of $660,000. The CPT was to report to the church by January 1999. In mid February the CPT issued a preliminary report. What did the church receive for the expenditure of over a half a million dollars?

An overview of the report reveals a 22,000-word document divided into seven sections including a glossary. The glossary is necessary to define certain concepts that are essential to understanding the report. The glossary does not achieve what it intends. One is left wondering what exactly is meant by some of the language used in the body of the report.

Three concepts seem to govern the report. They are "Christian conferencing," "Spiritual formation," and "Covenant Council." The last of these is the centerpiece of the report and is the organizing principal for the proposed changes to the structure of the church. It is defined in the glossary of the report as "the main forum of Christian conferencing in each part of the church." Christian conferencing, from the same glossary, "...refers to a forum of Christian conferencing in the Wesleyan tradition in which dialogue and discussion center on spiritual formation, disciple-making, and leadership building. 'Spiritual formation' is grounded in the doctrine of sanctification and calls for a commitment to a spiritual discipline by studying the scriptures and Christian teachings using the Wesleyan context of tradition, reason, and experience; fostering mutual accountability through covenant relationships between clergy and laity throughout the world; and practicing the means of grace - prayer, scripture reading, receiving the Lord’s Supper, fasting, worship, acts of compassion and justice, and conferencing with other Christians."

Exactly how such a system based on these concepts is supposed to work is never detailed anywhere in this report. It appears that this system is one in which people go to a meeting and argue their viewpoints and then vote on it. It is hardly a novel concept. And what does "fostering mutual accountability through covenant relationships," mean? What covenant? And how is accountability to be maintained?

This preliminary report raises more questions than it answers. The writing committee needs to review this report with an eye for clarity. As it stands it is impossible to discern the intended meaning at many points.

The proposed organizational structure working up from the local church is as follows: District; Annual Conference, Regional Conference; Central Conference, and Global Conference. The centerpiece of each is the Covenant Council. This will exist on every level. At the Global Conference level the entire church is divided into central conferences. The church in North America will become a Central Conference. The current general agencies will be attached to the U.S. Central Conference with functions deemed to be global in nature transferred to a new agency, Covenant Council for Global Ministry and Mission, that will exist on the Global level and would be, in theory, accountable to the new Global Conference. This proposed structure is detailed in Section V of the report.

Section V raises many issues that are not resolved or addressed by the report. Do we really want to add an entire new level of bureaucracy to the church? There is already a serious problem with accountability in the current structure. The proposed new structure does not adequately address the issue of accountability and in all probability would make the current situation worse. The proposed new structure pushes the local church further from the top levels of bureaucracy in the church structure. Accountability is decreased and not increased despite all the language in this preliminary report to the contrary. It appears that such a system will allow the global church agencies to become less accountable than the general church agencies are under the current system. This is simply not acceptable.

The U.S. Central Conference would be expected to pay for this reorganization and bear the "lion’s share" of the costs. (Section V, D.2.i) This same section would remove from the U.S. Central Conference, to the new Covenant Council for Global Ministry and Mission, all work being done beyond the geographical borders of the United States.

Section (V, E) details the creation of an U.S. Central Conference. Point c. in this section reads: "The membership of the U.S. Central Conference will be determined on the same formula as the current General Conference, but the total will be smaller since delegates from outside the United States will not be included. Just as all other central conferences, the U.S. Central Conference will have legislative power over maters pertaining to its work and structure for ministry in its own geographical context."

Section V also contains many other changes to the "connectional system." Two, which represent serious changes, are dealt with under Section V.C.2.d. and e. The system of guaranteed appointment is to be abandoned. But of even more import, it appears the Bishops would be given increased authority in the appointment process. Exactly how much change and authority is not spelled out. The following ought to raise serious concern: "The time has come to deal more effectively and compassionately with clergy who need to move on to other vocational calls. This may involve the renegotiation of the historic covenant that guarantees an appointment to clergy who are to accept and abide by these appointments. Consequently, careful attention must be given to articulating the procedures, conditions, and requirements that must be established to accomplish this."

Do we really want to do away with the itinerant system? Elders in full connection are members of the Annual Conference because all the other Elders voted them into the Annual Conference. Do we really want to undermine this authority or remove it? Whom do we give this authority to? Do we give it to The Board of Ordained Ministry? Do we give it to the Bishops? It appears that this report recommends we give it to the Bishops. (Section V.C.2.d) In order to be fair the section mentioned is rather unclear about where this authority would reside in the new system and asks for input from the reader on this issue. Guaranteed appointment was instituted and given to the Elders in full connection to prevent abuses on the part of Bishops. To give the authority to appoint or not to appoint to the Bishop is to give entirely too much authority to the Episcopacy. Any change here would have to be very carefully examined. This report does not reflect that kind or level of examination.

The relationship of retired members of the Annual Conference is also changed. After the first four years following retirement, those in the retired relationship would no longer have the privilege of voting at Annual Conference. (V.C.2.e) "After that, [four years] retired pastors will be welcome at Annual Conference sessions but will have no voice or vote and will attend at their own expense. Retired clergy who are serving as pastors of local congregations will have full participation at Annual Conference sessions." Do we really want to do this? Does "no voice" mean they may not address the Annual Conference? What retired clergy person would feel welcomed at Annual Conference under such a situation? This is unconscionable.

The above critique is more than enough to recommend that the General Conference in 2000 not receive such a report. Once again, it must be emphasized this report is a preliminary report. It is hoped that the committee will address the many questions raised by its preliminary report and completely rewrite it before submission.

Finally, one other issue must be addressed. How should conservative evangelicals view the proposals and language of this preliminary report?

This report contains many instances in which a radical liberal agenda is revealed. This report promotes a false ecumenism that would sacrifice doctrine on the altar of unity. That alone would make it unacceptable to conservative evangelicals. Further, it promotes an "inclusiveness" that violates the basic tenets of Christianity. It elevates "tolerance" to the level of a Christian virtue and gives it such an elevated position that it is used to judge both Scripture and doctrine. While Christian unity is a desirable goal, it is not to be achieved at the cost of departing from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus prayed for unity among Christians, He did not mean that we should abandon His teaching in order to achieve a false unity. It appears that the more radical liberal element in the United Methodist Church would tolerate any doctrinal deviation and even outright sin and rebellion against the Lord of the church in order to achieve "unity" and "inclusiveness." This is not acceptable to conservative evangelicals and should not be acceptable to any Christian.

This report will not promote unity in the church but will promote division.

It also appears that the proposed structural changes would further exclude conservative evangelicals. The proposed "four delegate rule" to the new Global Conference and the reduction in numbers of delegates to the new U.S. Central Conference can only raise concern among conservative evangelicals that its purpose is to further a radical liberal agenda at the expense of conservative evangelicals.

In conclusion, this report is a very expensive report that does nothing to resolve tensions within the United Methodist connection that have been building for years. It promotes the furtherance of a bureaucratic system that will neither transform nor change the United Methodist Church in any meaningful sense. This, because it does not address the problems of accountability and doctrine in a church that has shifted its doctrinal ground and built a huge bureaucracy, does not reflect the desires of its constituency nor the basic understanding of Christian ministry.


Tim Paulk is an elder in the South Georgia Annual Conference


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