Future of UMC requires acting on Call to Action

By Bishop Robert Schnase, Special Contributor

Editor’s note: This column is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Bishop Robert Schnase’s episcopal address at the recent South Central Jurisdictional Conference in Oklahoma City.

The Council of Bishops commissioned the Towers Watson Report, a 250-page in-depth analysis of our denomination. It shows an irrefutably unsustainable model for ministry into the future.

Bishop Robert Schnase delivers the Episcopal Address to the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in Oklahoma City. PHOTO BY FRED KOENIG/THE MISSOURI CONFERENCE REVIEW

Before General Conference meets again four years from now, the losses of membership and attendance in the United States will be as if we completely closed three conferences the size of the Missouri Conference. Or as another point of reference, the losses would be as if we closed all the United Methodist work in the state of Texas.

The Towers Watson Report identifies numerous reasons for the decline, including a crisis of relevance, our failure to reach young people, the disconnect between leadership and people in the pews, organizational systems not conducive to our mission, and unsustainable financial systems.

Not all the news is bad. The report identified that approximately 15 percent of our congregations are vital, with new people joining and increasing attendance. These are reaching all ages, and are outwardly focused and financially strong.

The Call to Action, drawing on Towers Watson, brought five recommendations:

Recommendation one calls for sustained focus and intense concentration on increasing the number of vital congregations.

Recommendation two calls for dramatically reforming clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability systems.

Recommendation three calls for reforming the Council of Bishops with active bishops assuming responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith and mission ministries.

Recommendation four calls for consolidating and streamlining program and administrative agencies to align work and resources with a commitment to increasing the number of vital congregations.

Recommendation five calls on the church to collect, report and review statistical information and metrics to measure progress.


Every one of your active bishops of this Jurisdiction supports the Call to Action recommendations. We’ve been asked by hundreds of people: What do the bishops think about General Conference? Frankly, we’re disappointed and saddened.

Let me share a few observations on behalf of the bishops that we’ve shared with each other since the close of General Conference:

First, I don’t think we were overly invested in any specific organizational plan for change, but we were deeply invested in the hope for change.

Second, there’s a growing perception that the process of the General Conference itself doesn’t work. We experienced paralysis as a conference, like a spider stuck in its own web. As an example, the General Conference spent four hours over two days to debate the Standing Rules before eventually approving them exactly as they had been presented by the committee!

Third, we’re concerned about the tightening of “the hairball.” Gordon McKenzie, author of Orbiting the Giant Hairball, uses the image of a hairball to describe the accruing of rules, requirements, mandates and policies until they become so tightly bound that they paralyze creativity.

We were disappointed to see an increase of such rules and requirements at every level. This fosters less flexibility, less contextual latitude and reduced ability for leaders, conferences, committees and local churches to form their own responses.

Fourth, we are concerned about the deep divisions evident in the church, and the intensified focus on personal agendas.

Fifth, we have not begun to solve, or even understand, the complexities, implications and opportunities of being a truly global church.

Sixth, we are concerned about the troubling and persistent tendency for the church to deny and ignore and avoid the critical challenges. At General Conference, the Rev. Adam Hamilton presented the challenges as revealed through the Towers Watson Report. He described the reality and urgency of our situation in the U.S. church.

People can honestly disagree about how to respond to these challenges, but we cannot continue to avoid and deny them.

If we learn from the doctor that three cardiac arteries are nearly completely blocked, and if nothing is done, death is virtually assured, the challenge presents many options. We can consider surgical options, and discuss how extensive it should be and the effects that might follow. We can consider medicine, and weigh the benefits and risks. We can consider changes in behavior, including exercise, diet, smoking, stress and weight control. There are literally dozens of conversations and strategies to discuss and consider.

But we cannot walk away and act as if we do not know the truth and deny that the risks are real.

Reasons for hope

Despite the disappointments and concerns, the bishops also find reasons for hope.

We hope the paralysis itself will help make the case for change. Those present at General Conference remember the moment on Friday evening when we heard the word that the reorganizational plans could not go forward. There was stunned silence, shock, disbelief. Someone had the audacity later to suggest that maybe the Spirit was trying to say something to us. Maybe so. We hope that experience represents a moment of self-awareness and insight about what we have become, and we hope it provides a wakeup call for change.

We are hopeful about how the conversation has fundamentally changed from even a few years ago, and that we are talking more about mission of the church and focused more on the vitality of congregations.

We are hopeful because at least incremental change took place, with some reduction of costs and downsizing of governance structures.

And we see it as a sign of hope that while many of the most ambitious plans for change were overturned by the Judicial Council, nevertheless, 60 to 70 percent of the delegates voted time and time again for real change.

What comes next?

It’s clear that we cannot look to General Conference to save us, and we cannot rely on General Conference to make decisions that will help us reverse the trends. We need to stay focused on what we are about in our conferences and congregations, focused on doing Christ’s ministry with excellence, fruitfulness, accountability.

We’re convinced as a College of Bishops that the stuckness of General Conference makes what we do in this Jurisdiction and in our Annual Conferences all the more important. We need to continue to learn, to experiment, to innovate. Change in the United Methodist Church is going to happen one person at a time, one congregation at a time, one conference at a time. Change in the church will happen horizontally as we learn from one another, not vertically or from the top.

And so, we bring the conversation back to our local congregations and Annual Conferences.

How do we increase the number of vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

How do we reform clergy systems to focus on fruitfulness in service to Christ?

How do we streamline systems in congregations and conferences, and eliminate systems that are no longer conducive to our mission?

How do we explore new ways to reach next generations with the gift and demand of God’s grace?

We believe that the South Central Jurisdiction is positioned to take leadership in the United Methodist Church at this critical moment. The conversation that has developed among us, the areas of convergence, the consensus of purpose, the focus on leadership and fruitfulness and accountability and the clarity of mission are stronger than in most other areas of the church.

For us, the priorities and recommendations of the Call to Action are not finished; they have hardly begun. We’re going to work within the systems of church we have inherited as well as outside existing institutional structures. We still believe in the United Methodist Way—our theology of grace, our focus on inner holiness and outward service, our practice of the works of piety and the works of mercy. These form an expression of the mission of Christ that reaches people no one else can reach. It deserves our utmost and highest to foster a future with hope.

We’re clear that there are no short term fixes and no magic formulas. Conference restructuring and changes in the Book of Discipline will not reverse the trends by themselves.

But in the long term, it matters how we address issues of clergy recruitment, training, deployment and accountability. It matters how we realign our resources to start new congregations, develop ways to 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. It matters that 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 that is responsive and engaged with the world for the purposes of Christ.

Friends, I, along with my colleague bishops, are committed to focusing on vital congregations. As long as we have breath and serve this role you have entrusted to us, we are going to do all we can to focus on the ministry of Christ through fruitful congregations. The basic focus of the Call to Action is true, and we will do all we can to explore new ways forward and to leave behind the ways that do not serve the present age.

I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I say that it is a joy and privilege to serve as a bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction, and I give God thanks for every one of you and for all you do for the purposes of the Christ and for the United Methodist Church.

Bishop Schnase oversees the Missouri Conference of the UMC. He’s the author of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.

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