After GC2016, Future Murky for Agency Reform


Plan UMC agency restructuring got a chilly reception at the 2016 General Conference. Church leaders still are looking for how agencies can better serve the global connection. Wordle by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

Wordle by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

Plan UMC agency restructuring got a chilly reception at the 2016 General Conference. Church leaders still are looking for how agencies can better serve the global connection.

By Heather Hahn, United Methodist 

Plan UMC has taken an unplanned detour — at least for now.

The 2016 General Conference referred parts of the agency reform plan for further study, while petitions to eliminate three general church agencies died in committee.

That’s a big change from four years ago when the original Plan UMC, which also would have consolidated agencies under more centralized oversight, won nearly 60 percent of General Conference’s vote. That plan would have gone forward had not the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, ruled it violated the denomination’s constitution.

Confident of that popular mandate, a group of United Methodists brought back a revised version they believed would pass constitutional muster.

As the 2016 General Conference got under way, the Judicial Council ruled that some of the revised Plan UMC was still unconstitutional but left much of the proposal intact.

The difference this time was a lack of votes.

“People simply didn’t want to pass it,” said the Rev. Rebekah Miles, a four-time General Conference delegate from the Arkansas Conference. “The votes weren’t even close.”

Ahead of General Conference, she wrote about her support for Plan UMC Revised. Miles also was a member of the General Administration legislative committee — the first stop for parts of the plan.

She said the petitions faced a chilly reception starting in subcommittee.

What happened at General Conference?

Ultimately, the full General Conference plenary affirmed the General Administration Committee’s motion to refer parts of Plan UMC for closer examination.

Specifically, the petition to beef up the authority of the Connectional Table, a denomination-wide coordinating body, goes to three church bodies — the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, the General Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table itself.

The same three bodies will consider revamping agency board membership and altering the board membership of the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency.

Whether any of these proposals come back to General Conference is now up to these church bodies.

Plan UMC’s efforts to reduce church agencies fared even worse.

Plan UMC would have eliminated the denomination’s commissions on Religion and Race and the Status and Role of Women, and move their work to a new Connectional Table committee called the United Methodist Committee on Inclusiveness.

The plan also would have moved the work of the Commission on Archives and History under the denomination’s finance agency.

By a more than two-thirds majority, the Independent Commissions legislative committee opted not to move forward with either petition.

The Rev. Alfred T. Day III, the top executive of Archives and History, observed the Independent Commissions committee at work.

Ahead of General Conference, he and other leaders of agencies on the chopping block talked to delegates and other church leaders about why their groups should remain independent.

For example, he said, the independence of Archives and History means it is deemed an “honest broker” in church disputes, even when those disagreements land in civil courts. The agency houses records from the entire denomination, not just one side of theological debate or one set of power brokers.

“It’s easy for us to fly under the radar,” Day said. “But I think at the end of the day, that information got through to people.”

Miles said many delegates were especially leery of removing the independence of agencies tasked with advocating for women, ethnic minorities and victims of sexual misconduct within the church.

Dawn Wiggins Hare, the top executive of the Status and Role of Women and a General Conference delegate, agreed. The common thread of discussion, she said, “was the concern of eliminating and decreasing the voices of women and people of color.”

Becky Posey Williams, who oversees the agency’s work on sexual ethics and advocacy, wrote in the agency’s newsletter that she spent much of her time at General Conference meeting with bishops and victims to discuss issues related to sexual misconduct.

What happens now

The 2016 General Conference also approved legislation submitted by the Connectional Table, which will permit the body to work with the bishops in developing a proposed General Church Council.

If the 2020 General Conference approves, that General Church Council would replace the Connectional Table.

“A General Church Council would be a geographically representative, intergenerational body exemplifying the diversity of our worldwide connection,” the legislation says.

The Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, the Connectional Table’s top executive, said the referral of Plan UMC dovetails with the work on the General Church Council.

“I think we see it as part of the same idea as we look at: What does it mean to be a representative body of the worldwide connection and what really needs to take place for a worldwide connection?” Valdez Barker said.

The impetus for agency restructuring actually began in the Connectional Table, which proposed legislation to the 2012 General Conference that ended up contributing to the original Plan UMC.

We are kind of right back at square one,” said Lonnie Brooks, one of Plan UMC’s architects and Alaska Conference lay leader.

Brooks said the centerpiece of Plan UMC includes strengthening agency oversight and consolidating the provisions for agency board membership all in the same place in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document.

He is hopeful church leaders will take those ideas seriously as they look for ways to make the agencies more nimble and adaptive to the denomination’s needs.

Miles said The United Methodist Church has a habit of studying matters “over and over again.”

“I would hope the Connectional Table will bring something back,” she said, “and maybe it will be constitutional.”