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First Hand Experience: Plan UMC

June 1, 2012

SUPPORT FOR AND RESISTANCE TO CHANGE IN AN INTERNATIONAL  CHURCH

 The wildest ride at General Conference 2012 concerned  proposals to restructure the denominational agencies. My name was the first  listed when Plan UMC was published as a proposed compromise that had been  developed following the inability of the legislative committee to pass any of  the four proposals it had to consider.

 How did my name get associated with a group primarily from  the SEJ and SCJ, with some nominal participation from NCJ and WJ  delegates?  My involvement began in January at the Pre-General  Conference News Briefing where two proposals were explained: one  submitted by the Connectional Table incorporating recommendations of   Call to Action Interim Operations Team, plus an alternative proposal submitted  by the Methodist Federation for Social Action.  Though I believe the  governance structure we’ve operated under for the past several decades is no  longer sustainable and needs revision, I was one of the people pointing out in  January that both proposals had short comings. Neither would be accepted by  the General Conference in the form they existed.  Subsequently, an  unofficial listserve was created among delegates serving on the General  Administration Legislative Committee, where  we learned about a third “Plan B” proposal developed by an initially nameless  group.

 

From mid-January through late-April, I kept pressing for a  compromise to be developed which a wide breadth of General Conference delegates  would find acceptable.  There was a widely held perception that the most  egregious part of the proposed restructure, a 15 member governing board  replacing the existing general agency governing structures, must be  dropped. I also made clear that I felt it was important for GCFA, GBOPHB  and the UMPH to retain their autonomy and be accountable directly to the General  Conference.  It seemed that beyond those key issues, a variety of  possibilities existed for how we organized the work of the program, advocacy and  other administrative agencies into the future.  Knowing key players in all  three groups bringing proposals to GC ’12 allowed me to talk with those holding  different perspectives on the way forward.

 

When the CT legislative chair indicated to the Conference lay  leaders the weekend prior to GC that they were ready to compromise, I was  hopeful that something could be worked out.  Hence, my involvement.   The legislative committee adjourned without passing a  hybrid worked out in legislative subcommittee, the  proposal from the  Connectional Table, the plan proposed by the Plan B group, or the MFSA  plan, all of which the committee had opportunities to vote on.  Nothing  was reported out of committee. Any recommendation would have  opened the door to at least two other alternative proposals being able to come  forward to GC plenary.

Two primary lessons can be learned from this  experience.
As Larry Hollon has pointed out so well in his blog, the 20th  Century Church and the 21st Century Church collided in Tampa. http://www.larryhollon.com/blog/2012/05/08/welcome-to-the-21st-century/ That collision of  operating styles and expectations manifested itself in the behind the scenes  negotiations.  Since a couple key players backing the Connectional  Table were at an impasse with their counter parts behind the Plan B proposal,  nothing would move forward until they could identify some common ground.   The group involved in the discussions over the next couple days was dominantly  gray haired, white males, along with a couple white women.  Left out of the  conversation until the negotiations were nearing conclusion were the  proponents of the MFSA proposal, primarily young adult delegates, as well as  Central Conference delegates, led by the dominant presence of those from  Africa.  A very sophisticated group of young delegates and the now  powerful bloc of African delegates have made it clear the dated “behind closed  doors” approach to political brokering will not work in the future.   Youth, young adults and Central Conference delegates should have been brought to  the table this time at the outset as a compromise position was being  developed following the failure of the  legislative committee to take action.

 

The second lesson is that even if legislation is able to  obtain support of the majority of voting delegates, it won’t necessarily fulfill  the Constitutional requirements specified in the Discipline.  Some of the most talented and informed  leaders of our church were directly involved in developing proposals leading up  to and during General Conference.  It was  only after a plan was  adopted that there was a request for a ruling from the Judicial Council on  whether our denomination’s constitution would permit the governance changes  being proposed.  The JC said no.  So we’ve come away from General  Conference with a structure largely the same as it previously existed, with two  notable exceptions.  United Methodist Women will now be a self standing  general agency.  Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns will no longer  be an independent agency, as its functions have been absorbed by the  Council of Bishops.

 

So United Methodists move forward, conscious that the next  General Conference will likely be made up of half or more non-US  delegates.  The perspective they bring to the legislative task is decidedly  different than that of US delegates. The church is growing in Africa and the  Philippines, which is quite a contrast to what is widely experienced in the US  and Eurasia.  How we will creatively transform ourselves into living out  our life together as an international church with a diminished US presence is  yet to be defined.

 

Steve Zekoff

[Note:  Steve Zekoff’s reflections were also published at http://www.wumfsa.org/Newsletters/newsletter2012/PlumbNewsletter.5.12b.pdf]

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