Ethnic delegates wary of restructuring plan

10/5/2011

By the Rev. Maidstone Mulenga and Heather Hahn*
Oct. 5, 2011 | TRENTON, N.J. (UMNS)

Bishops Felton E. May (left) and Marcus Matthews (center) join with Erin Hawkins for worship during a gathering for ethnic delegates to the 2012 General Conference. UMNS photos by Kevin W. Wortham.

Bishops Felton E. May (left) and Marcus Matthews (center) join with Erin Hawkins for worship during a gathering for ethnic delegates to the 2012 General Conference. UMNS photos by Kevin W. Wortham.

A proposed restructuring of The United Methodist Church is facing criticism from some of the people who will vote on whether the plan moves forward.

A Sept. 14 gathering in Trenton brought together more than 60 United Methodists of color who will be delegates at the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, and the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference. The delegates came from the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s 10 annual (regional) conferences.

Most of the discussion centered on what delegates termed “troubling” legislation to General Conference that would consolidate nine of the denomination’s 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.

The proposed center would have a 15-member board of directors accountable to a 45-member advisory board called the General Council for Strategy and Oversight. This council would replace the 60-member Connectional Table, which now coordinates the denomination’s ministries and programming.

The delegates said they felt the consolidation and concentration of power in the 15-member board would undermine the participation of racial and ethnic minorities in the general church. 

“With this new structure, a small number of voices will guide the church, and it seems to me that many voices will be missing from the table,” said the Rev. Varlyna D. Wright, a General Conference delegate and district superintendent in the Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference.

“As a woman of color, it frightens me. I am not sure that the people who will be put in these positions are aware of the issues that impact people who might be different from them, that they are sensitive to the voices of people who are not at the table.”

The Northeastern Jurisdiction delegates also expressed concern about the proposed budget cuts, which they said would disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities.

The United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration has recommended a budget of $603 million for the 2013-2016 operations of the denomination’s general agencies. The figure represents a 6.04-percent reduction from the previous four years and marks the first time a smaller budget will go before General Conference.

The Rev. Varlyna Wright expresses concern over a proposed restructuring of The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Varlyna Wright expresses concern over a proposed restructuring of The United Methodist Church.

Under a separate proposed resolution, the board of the new Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry would evaluate programs and spending at all levels of the church and ultimately could direct the reallocation of up to $60 million during the 2013-16 quadrennium.

“Whatever restructuring happens, if people are not conscious of how it affects communities of color, then we are always left out,” Wright said.

The 2012 General Conference, which will meet April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., has final say on whether the structural changes come to pass. The legislative body also can adjust the recommended budget. A total of 988 delegates from around the globe, including 114 from the Northeastern Jurisdiction, will have a vote at General Conference.

Call to Action and budget concerns

The recommended restructuring is part of the multiyear Call to Action process, which aims to stop decades of decline in the denomination’s U.S. membership and increase congregational vitality. 

Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, who helped devise the proposed changes, said the new structure would not mark a retreat from the denomination’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. 

“We actually think it increases the opportunity because it will build into the system a greater collaboration,” he said. “It is possible for a smaller group of people to represent the diversity we care about as United Methodists. It is incumbent on all of us to raise the level of cultural competency.”

The proposed legislation specifically recommends that at least 30 percent of a jurisdiction’s membership on the new General Council for Strategy and Oversight be “racial and ethnic persons.” The legislation defines such individuals as Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The suggested structural changes originated with the Interim Operations Team, a group of eight laity and clergy working with denominational leadership to implement the Call to Action recommendations. Palmer is the convener of the Interim Operations Team.

The Connectional Table refined and endorsed the recommendations at its July meeting, and its legislative committee drafted the legislation. A month later by email, the members of the Connectional Table voted 26 to eight in favor of the legislation, with nine members abstaining.

Wright and other delegates agree that The United Methodist Church needs to make changes.

However, Wright said, she feels there should be more conversation about being a more connectional church than about having a smaller structure.

United Methodist Bishop Gregory V. Palmer. A UMNS file photo by Ronny Perry.United Methodist Bishop Gregory V. Palmer. A UMNS file photo by Ronny Perry.

“We need to change people’s mindset,” she said, “and I don’t think the change they’re talking about is going to change people’s mindset.”

Reason for meeting

The Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Multi-Ethnic Center organized the event in Trenton.

Retired Bishop Felton E. May, the center’s executive director, said the center wanted to give the jurisdiction’s delegates of color a venue to discuss The United Methodist Church’s future. May is pastor of Turning Point United Methodist Church in Trenton, which hosted the gathering.

He said he thinks this was the first time the Northeastern Jurisdiction had brought together delegates of color  before General Conference.

“It’s because of the impending import of the changes that are being proposed,” he said. “And, there are no other arenas where persons (of color) can have this discussion. Delegations may not have it because of the minuscule representation that racial/ethnic groups may have in those delegations.”

Other bishops of color in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the Greater New Jersey Conference and Bishop Marcus Matthews of the Upper New York Conference, also were on hand to help facilitate discussion. 

The Northeastern Jurisdiction delegates’ concerns mirrored the reservations expressed in September by leaders of five caucuses that represent the denomination’s ethnic constituencies.

The Inter-Ethnic Strategy Development Group includes leaders of the denomination’s five official ethnic caucuses: Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Metodistas Asociados Representando la Causa de los Hispano-Americanos, National Federation of Asian American United Methodists, Native American International Caucus and Pacific Islander National Caucus of United Methodists.

One of the inter-ethnic group’s main concerns is that the legislation came about with “little or no consultation with the different ethnic constituencies of our church,” the group said in a Sept. 9 statement.

Question of equity

Among the invited speakers at the Trenton gathering was Erin Hawkins, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. She urged the delegates to weigh diligently all the proposed legislation under the criteria of equity and justice.

“Equity should be as much of a value driving decision-making as economy,
efficiency and effectiveness.” — Erin Hawkins

Discussion about the proposed legislation is just beginning around The United Methodist Church. 

Hawkins, inspired by the Trenton gathering, said her agency plans to organize similar conversations in the other four U.S. jurisdictions before General Conference meets. Those events, once scheduled, will be posted on the Commission on Religion and Race website.

Already on the calendar is a discussion of how the Call to Action affects African-American churches on Nov. 18-19 at United Methodist-related Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. The South Central Jurisdiction is organizing the gathering, and Palmer plans to be the keynote speaker. May, a former dean at Philander Smith, also plans to attend. 

* Mulenga is the director of communications for the Upper New York Area of The United Methodist Church. Hahn is a multimedia reporter for the United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.