The first concern of the Call to Action is not structural change. The critical question is how to shift attention, resources, and energy toward enriching and extending high-quality ministries through congregations. In a large complex organization, governance involves forcing future-oriented thinking and cultivating an outward focus. We don’t fulfill our mission in meetings; we fulfill our mission at the margins where congregations engage the community and world around them. The Call to Action redirects our energies toward that mission.
Currently, we have more than 500 board members who govern 13 distinct agencies, each with its own mission statement, financial system, logo, and identity. The proposal suggests unified governance that includes a 45-member council and a 15-person board. The intention is to increase collaboration, align resources, reduce redundancy, and streamline decision-making. Most large churches and many annual conferences have discovered the effectiveness of small boards.
Is this the best organizational plan in the world? There is no such thing. But we can make the best decisions among options when we are guided by proven principles for large organizations. We need a plan that supports a clearly articulated purpose, with high accountability, good horizontal communication and vertical alignment, characterized by simplicity, missional clarity, and the agility to respond to change. This plan offers many of those objectives. Even better alignment, clarity, and simplicity in the future may be impossible until we take this first step that brings people into the same room for decisions regarding the mission and priorities of the church.
How we organize our work at the congregational, conference, and general levels is not merely a structural choice but a missional decision. We cannot evaluate whether a plan is good or bad by looking at charts. We can discern only how various plans affect outcomes. We would never spend time researching and debating whether to travel by train, plane, or automobile until we first determined where we need to go.
Organizational development pioneer, W. Edwards Deming said that organizations are perfectly aligned to get the results they are getting. If the thousand delegates of General Conference and the bishops and general secretaries stayed up all night to intentionally develop a system to foster 40 years of uninterrupted decline, the system we would design would look just like what we have! The functioning, policies and practices of our bishops, superintendents, seminaries, conferences, apportionments, general boards, and congregations—these comprise a system that is perfectly aligned to get the results we are getting. This brings us to the point of change.
Alignment means right processes and right structures for the mission. Some of our systems in congregations, in conferences, and in the general church are not conducive to our mission. They block and restrain innovation, create distance between leaders and members, foster outdated and unnecessary tasks, pull resources and attention toward conflicting priorities, or prescribe process steps that are ambiguous or irrelevant.
The United Methodist Church has many moving parts. What would a more technically elegant system directed toward increasing the number of vital congregations look like? Imagine people working together smoothly, supporting each other in the mission, with excellent communication, and minimal territoriality. Imagine a system where best practices and successful innovations receive support while overlapping functions and unfruitful programs are evaluated honestly and reduced quickly. Imagine a plan that allows continual evolution as contexts change. Imagine reinforcing the mission at the local church while fostering global connections. Imagine a system that is fair, simple, clear, and effective.
Organizational simplicity is both beautiful and functional. In a strange paradox, most United Methodists deeply desire simplicity but choose complexity. We choose complexity through incremental decisions at general and annual conferences that restrain and control rather than support innovation and contextual, outward-focused ministry. How do we shift the conversation from “What’s the perfect structure?” to “What matters most?”; from “Here are a thousand reasons we can’t change” to “Here are the steps we can take to align toward our mission”; from “We don’t have enough money” to “Let’s direct our resources toward what is essential”?
I’ve been involved in restructuring plans since I was 26 years old, and I’ve discovered that if people want to make a new system work, they can figure out the details, snags, setbacks, and resolve legitimate concerns. But if they fundamentally do not want to change, then they can find hundreds of reasons why any plan is impossible. The Call to Action plan is not perfect, but it is a step forward. It leads us toward a new future that we know is unachievable through the systems we now have.
In the short term, growing churches will continue to grow and declining churches will continue to decline no matter what General Conference does. But in the long term, it matters how we address issues of clergy recruitment, education, training, deployment, and evaluation. It matters how we realign resources to start new congregations, interrupt decline, and help congregations focus on their mission fields. It matters that our leaders focus on the right questions and deal with issues relevant to our mission around the globe. It matters that we connect our money to our mission.
Through our decisions at General Conference, we leave a legacy to future generations of United Methodist leaders. Is the legacy we leave going to be a mishmash of convoluted rules that serve our purposes today? Are we going to tie their hands, limit their choices, and draw generations to come into our current territorial struggles?
Or are we going to provide a springboard for creative change, for new models of ministry, for connectionalism that is alive and vibrant and agile and effective? I hope we leave a legacy to the next generation, not of complex and impenetrable rules and ineffective systems, but of a church that is clear about its mission and confident about its future and engaged with the world for the purposes of Christ. I hope we make decisions that lay a foundation for a new expression of United Methodism, the next phase of our mission.
What systems within your congregation are not conducive to your mission because they restrain, dampen, limit, or slow new initiatives? Within your conference? In the general church?
Your congregation (and conference!) are perfectly aligned to get the results they are getting. What new insights occur to you as you think about this idea?
Read John 5:1-18 (NRSV), especially reflecting on the significance of Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?” What does the question imply about our various forms of paralysis?
To delve deeper, read Gil Rendle’s Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement, and George Hunter’s The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement.