UM agency boards being reduced, but not reformed

By Robert Sparkman, Special Contributor…

“We did not restructure the church, but at least we reduced the size of the boards.”

That has been a consistent report from General Conference. Reducing the size of the boards was a recommendation of the Call to Action; the boards wrote petitions to accomplish that; and proposals were passed at the very end of General Conference.

So far, so good. But look beneath the surface.

Robert Sparkman

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry restructured itself in this way: five members, one from each jurisdiction; three members from the Central Conferences; three bishop members; and 11 members elected by “a committee composed of one person from each jurisdiction elected by the jurisdictional conference.”

Each jurisdictional nominating committee will select only one person. Those five will select the other half of the board. The membership of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry is now substantially self-selected.

This five-member committee will probably be people who have served on GBHEM before. Each jurisdictional nominating committee usually selects the people who have already served on a board, and it will only have one nomination. The membership of the GBHEM has now become self-perpetuating.

One member of this powerful committee will be from the 369,000-member Western Jurisdiction, one from the 1.3 million-member North Central Jurisdiction, one from the 1.3 million-member Northeastern Jurisdiction, one from the 1.7 million-member South Central Jurisdiction and one from the 2.9 million-member Southeastern Jurisdiction. Not one of these five will be from the 4.2 million members of Africa. It does not matter how the committee selects the other eleven, the selection of the committee has now become unfair in its representation.

Five people who have probably served before—equally from small and large areas of the U.S., and only the U.S.—will substantively dictate control of the GBHEM. As they pick people who in turn will pick others, they can retain this control forever.

Now that is power.

The General Board of Discipleship was even more direct in becoming self-perpetuating and self-selecting: Under the legislation approved by General Conference, GBOD will have one board member from each of the five jurisdictions; three board members from the Central Conferences; two bishop members; two members elected by the Division of Ministry with Young People; and 10 members elected by “members of the board.”

Thus the first 12 GBOD board members elect the next 10.

That also is power.

Both boards sought with the petitions they put before General Conference to exempt themselves from paragraphs of the Discipline which specify representation proportional to membership. The language in the petitions, “other paragraphs of the Discipline notwithstanding,” may not be enough to overrule paragraphs like 705.4.e, which mandate fair representation. But they specifically try to supersede fair representation.

Even if the selection committee decides to pick people fairly by membership, the selection group is unbalanced. The first bishop selected on the General Board of Discipleship is Bishop Elaine Stanovsky of the Denver Area, so the Western Jurisdiction will already be over-represented in selecting the other 10 members of the board. I think we can expect more universalism, more belief that all religions are the same and more worship in other religious forms as we saw at General Conference. This does not speak to ministry in my context.

What’s more, the process of passing these new board structures was not honest.

In the General Administration legislative committee the restructuring debate took center stage. No one ever debated the points of the board-reduction petitions in the full committee.

On the last Friday afternoon, when the Judicial Council struck down restructuring, we were told that we would come back that night to pass petitions needed to keep the church functioning. At 10:30 p.m. the rules were suspended and these petitions from the boards and agencies were considered. By the suggestion of the presiding bishop, they were considered in an “omnibus” way with a group of other petitions.

The presenter told General Conference only that the petitions were from the agencies and reduced the size of their boards. The board proposals were not widely studied and not debated at all.

What is so bad about the ensuing situation?

Our present structure was found to be ineffective by professional consultants. The language used in the Apex study of the Call to Action is harsh: “. . . our finding is that due to their individual autonomy . . . and their collective impact as a group of autonomous entities . . . the Program and Ministry Agencies add to the ‘distance’ between the General Church and the Annual Conference and to the distance between the General Church and the Local Church.”

The study went on to say that the agencies “‘dictate rather than serve’ . . . based on their own ‘portfolio’ strategies rather than the Annual Conference needs and goals.”

A consultant in my congregation told me that this language is nearly the most derogatory which can be used in a report of this kind.

I understand that the church’s problems cannot all be blamed on the general agencies and boards. And some believe that board members selected by a committee will be more effective—that the jurisdictional nominating committees were not offering prepared and capable people. Furthermore, General Secretary Kim Cape of GBHEM has stated, “We . . . hear the church’s call for change loud and clear.”

Nevertheless, I see little possibility of change with our agencies as long as we have boards that are self-selecting, self-perpetuating and unrepresentative. It is hard to believe there will be any change made by these boards to better serve the church in which I find my ministry.

I offer these thoughts in the ongoing discussion over GC2012 and to begin discussing GC2016. We need reform and renewal, which we aren’t likely to get from our restructured boards.

The Rev. Sparkman is pastor of First UMC in Hartselle, Ala., and was a North Alabama Conference delegate to General Conference 2012.

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