Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker: A reflection on the numbers

Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, PhD.
Executive Secretary
The Connectional Table

Reflection on the numbers

At the end of the previous quadrennium, I was known as the “numbers lady,” in our denomination as I sought to bring attention to the numbers that were being reported across the connection in relation to Vital Congregations.  As a trained researcher, I have always had an affinity for wondering what the numbers were telling us.  I am very clear that the numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they do point to indicators in our cultural and contextual landscapes that we ought to pay attention to as leaders of the church.  Here’s what has caught my eyes as we prepare to bring together the story of our United Methodist Connection. 

We are a growing denomination.  Over the past 10 years, we have had a 24% increase in membership throughout our entire connection.  Africa Central Conference has leapt by 329%, while Northern Europe and Eurasia have lost nearly 30% of their membership.  Each of our regions has a story to tell and while one part is challenged and another part is blessed with growth, we belong to a connection in which all parts of the Body of Christ matter, those experiencing pain in loss and those experiencing pain in growth.  How do we tell this story?

We are in many places around the world.  We have 133 Annual Conferences in four regions of the world.  These annual conferences are led by 66 active bishops, who are supported by countless numbers of laity and clergy offering their gifts as principled Christian leaders who are seeking to help make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

In the USA, the numbers tell an interesting story.  There are 46 bishops leading 57 Annual Conferences in 5 Jurisdictions.  Numerically, 26 of the 57 Annual Conferences (a little more than 45%) paid 100% of their apportionments to the programmatic arm of the denomination. 
By Jurisdiction, here are the percentages of AC who paid 100%:
  • North Central = 54% (6/11)
  • Northeast = 80% (8/10)
  • South Central = 27% (4/15)
  • Southeast = 27% (4/15)
  • Western = 50% (4/8)[1]

Out of the USA Annual Conferences, 44.2% (23) grew their budgets between 2014 and 2015.  55.8% (52) of Annual Conferences reduced their budgets. 
  • 61% of the total worshippers in our UMC in the US also participate in Christian formation opportunities.
  • 48% of the worshippers involved in mission in the UMC in the US are also involved in mission experiences. 
  • 30% of our congregations in Annual Conferences in the US are growing. 

This begins to reflect the quality of discipleship taking place in our UMC.  The hope-filled narrative is that people are growing in their love of God through Christian formation experiences.  This may be related to the generosity we are experiencing in the number of Annual Conferences paying 100% of their apportionments.  48% of the worshipping population in the US is involved in loving their neighbor through mission experiences.  This may also be related to the fact that so many people in our connection are visiting one another in cross-cultural, mission and ministry experiences. Places in Africa are growing by leaps and bounds.  Many Annual Conferences in the African Central Conferences note that they have partnerships with Annual Conferences in US.  These partnerships are signs of our vital connection.  We could learn from our colleagues in Central Conferences about growing in mission and ministry in other contexts around the world.  We are stronger when we work together for the God’s mission through The UMC. 

We can choose to see some of these numbers through the lens of crisis and despair.  We, as a church, can respond with fear and trembling.  Or we can choose to see some of these numbers as glimmers of hope, auras of possibility, and steps in which the Holy Spirit is creating something new in the people called United Methodist for the lost, the broken and the needy in our world today.  We started out the quadrennium with an invitation to consider the Divine imagination[2] leading us in the vision for the work of The UMC.  I am hopeful that this vision will continue to lead us and guide us into General Conference.  How do we unlock and allow for the Holy Spirit to enable “permissionaries on the bleeding edge”[3] of the church to lead us into the mission field?  How do we inspire hope and possibility, rather than allow and contribute to the narrative of fear, crisis and despair?  Robert Schnase offers a starting place:

Permission-giving leaders shift from “How can I change those people to get them to do what I want?” to “What are the changes I’m willing to make to unleash people for ministry?” - Robert Schnase, Bishop of the Missouri Episcopal Area

In such a complex system as our beloved United Methodist Church, we must release one another as permission-giving leaders (permissionaries).  None of us knows the full picture of the complexity of our UM connection.  We may get glimpses of it from our own cultural, contextual lens in which we operate, but we will never be able to fully conceive all the people, the places, the relationships that must take place for a vital connection to work for the mission of making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  This is hard work!  So, let us trust God to unleash the work of the Holy Spirit in places and spaces where creativity and wonder can grow!  The Divine imagination of innovation is a wonderful image for the 21st Century Church in our 21st Century Mission field!!

[1] Statistical data courtesy of GCFA Research and Statistics department
[2] Vision offered by Bishop Bruce Ough at the first CT meeting of the 2013-2016 Quadrennium.
[3] Term coined by Mark DeVries and Kenda Creasy Dean from Ministry Incubators.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Connectional Table and Restructuring Proposals

On January 22, 2016 during the Pre-General Conference briefing held in Portland, Oregon for delegates to the upcoming 2016 General Conference, panelists discussed multiple plans being offered to restructure The United Methodist Church.  Panelist and Connectional Table (CT) member Fred Brewington explained the CT's stance on such proposals by reading from a document issued by the Connectional Table that states:

"The Connectional Table neither adopts not endorses any of the current restructuring proposals beyond the process proposal being submitted by the CT.  However, as a part of its mandate, the CT recommends the following principles to assist the church as it discusses, approaches, engages, and makes decisions on matters relating to our future structure, organization, relationships, and processes:

  • do no harm, do all the good we can, and stay in love with God
  • do not act in haste and allow God to order our steps
  • welcome the movement of the Holy Spirit and be open to new revelations
  • engage in meaningful discernment with active listening
  • respect our differences and embrace our unity in Christ
  • be intentionally inclusive of all God's people
  • be mindful of the impact processes have on God's people
  • be willing to reposition the prism through which we view the world
  • engage in radical openness to foster genuin dialogue and cooperation."
To help United Methodists engage conversations about restructuring the denomination, the CT has submitted two non-disciplinary petitions to establish processes inviting jurisdictional and central conference members to: 1) consider how churches in the United States make decisions that only pertain to churches in the US; and 2) discern the needed functions and structure of a council that would serve the worldwide church.  These conversations are in continued response to the report of the Worldwide Nature Study committee to the 2012 General Conference and will supplement the work that the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters is doing on the General Book of Discipline to clarify our identity as a worldwide connection.  The Jurisdictional Process is Petition #60816 and the General Church Council Proposal is Petition #60815.  The English translation of the ADCA is now available online. 

The Executive Committee of The Connectional Table believes these processes will bring the best thinking to the table as we move toward more fully living into what it means to be a worldwide church. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Lent: A Time to Fast and Pray

Greetings in God’s Love!  

The Pre-GC Briefings in Central Conferences have begun!  

A question came to me at the briefing from a delegate in a rural area of the Philippines.  Because I spoke the language, he asked me the question in his native tongue.  Here was the question translated: “Why are our apportionments going up when we in our tiny rural farming community can barely pay for our pastor’s salary and our own ministries?  Why do we have to pay anything when we don’t see the benefits of paying our apportionments?”  As you all know, the Central Conferences are being asked to increase their contributions to the apportionments in some areas in order to get to our “equitable sharing of our God-given gifts” value which we have been conveying across the connection.  I told this man that this is the same question that is being asked in many rural faith communities in the United States and across other parts of our connection.  I did my best to articulate the gifts and graces of being a part of the body of Christ and sharing in blessings of abundance that God gives us when we remember one another and joyfully offer our “widow’s mite” for God’s mission through the Church.  

It really is a hard conversation to have when we see how many people throughout our connection are struggling to offer that “widow’s mite.”  It makes me all too aware of our deep role and responsibility in spending these God given resources called apportionments.  Remembering that they come from the rural farmer in the Philippines who is offering what little he has, entrusting us to do God’s work faithfully with his pesos.  It’s the same with the small rural churches throughout the U.S., who are struggling to keep their doors open as they watch their membership dwindle and they feel the pressure of bills accumulating and yet, they willingly offer to God their apportionments, expecting us to be good stewards of these resources.  This question is not necessarily just about money, it’s more about our ecclesiology and our stewardship.  Who are we as a church?  What are we doing with those resources?  This question is about whether or not this delegate trusts that we, as church leaders, are doing the right things with the precious resources they are entrusting to our care.  How are we building the Kingdom of God?  How are we bringing HOPE to the broken world with the money that has been set aside for this connectional work?  How are we offering Christ through every meeting, every gathering, every dollar that is spent?  Our understanding of our ecclesiology should be a part of this narrative of stewardship.  It’s not about what’s in it for ME (or my local church, or my annual conference, or my agency), it’s about Jesus Christ work in the world THROUGH each and every one of us!

As we continue to prepare for General Conference 2016, I know the delegates are going to be asking more questions like this farmer from the Philippines.  I pray that as the church, we will take time during this Season of Lent to search our own hearts and souls and be prepared to respond openly and honestly about how we have used God’s resources entrusted to us to “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World!”  Let us tell the stories of how Christ has helped cut the death rate of young children in Africa in half because of what he has done through our work on Imagine No Malaria!  Let us tell the stories of how Christ has used these gifts to ensure seminary students across our connection are receiving scholarships and E-reader resources because of what God has done through our collaborative partnerships.  Let us tell the stories of how we as the UMC have joined other ecumenical leaders to engage in deep and thoughtful dialogue about being partners in mission and ministry through our full communion relationships.  There are so many stories to tell how God has multiplied the “widow’s mite” through the people called United Methodist for the sake of the mission.  Prepare your hearts and minds this lent to listen carefully to the whispers of the Holy Spirit so that we might be better stewards of these resources AND lift up the stories that build up the Body of Christ ensuring those who doubt that God is still using the people in and through The United Methodist Church that we are being faithful!

Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, PhD
Executive Secretary
The Connectional Table.