State of the Church report encourages dialogue


(UMNS) United Methodists have a deep love for their church and passion for their beliefs, but they are less satisfied with its structure and say too many resources are used in administration and bureaucracy.

They are also both hopeful and concerned about the future of The United Methodist Church.

So say the results of surveys that are the basis for a State of the Church report scheduled for churchwide release in mid-June. The surveys were conducted between June and September of 2006, and involved interviewing a cross-section of about 3,000 United Methodist clergy, lay leaders and members from across the globe.

The report was commissioned in 2005 by the church's Connectional Table, the leadership entity that coordinates the mission, ministries and resources for the denomination. The project represents the first time the church has attempted to produce a comprehensive overview of the life of the church, according to Twila Glenn, a Connectional Table member from the denomination's Iowa Annual Conference.

Emerging from the findings were opinions on topics as diverse as prayer, clergy leadership, church cliques, homosexuality and war.

The surveys found that United Methodists strongly affirm their belief in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Church members generally rank the denomination's open table for Holy Communion as extremely important. And they identify the church's highest priorities as Scripture, children, reaching out to the unchurched and ending racial divisions within the church.

Seventy-two percent of clergy and 61 percent laity who were surveyed agree at least somewhat that the church "uses too much of available financial and human resources in administration and bureaucracy."

Despite this dissatisfaction, 69 percent of clergy and 75 percent of laity say the system of apportionments to pay for denominational ministries and administration is "an effective and efficient way to pay for work beyond the local church."

Stimulating conversation
The purpose of the report is to encourage United Methodists across the globe to examine and discuss what is working in the church, what is not working and how best to work together to fulfill its mission and ministries.

"The aim in all this is to stimulate conversation," said Neil Alexander, chief executive of the United Methodist Publishing House and chairman of the task group spearheading the report. "…Our prayer and urgent plea is that the people of The United Methodist Church will direct their hearts and minds to an inquiring search," he told the Connectional Table at its May 21 meeting in Norcross, Ga.

To that end, the Connectional Table authorized spending about $200,000 to make the report available through an insert in the United Methodist Interpreter magazine, digital formats and printed materials in five languages. United Methodist Communications will launch a State of the Church Web site in mid-June. And a related study guide can be used to stimulate discussions within small groups such as Sunday school classes, youth groups, district gatherings, and groups of United Methodist Men and United Methodist Women.

"Instead of a few people pronouncing the state of the church, we want more people talking about it," said Mary Brooke Cassad, a Connectional Table member from the North Texas Conference. "Out of Christian conferencing, we are able to discern the will of God and gain clarity in a course of action."

Homosexuality is the most polarizing of the issues surveyed. Slightly more than half of clergy and laity at least somewhat agree with the United Methodist position that the church does not condone the practice, reflecting split public opinion on the issue in the United States. However, only 42 percent of clergy and 49 percent of laity say it is extremely important to address the issue of homosexuality.

Among other highlights, the report indicates:

  • While church leaders express a high level of desire to attract young people ages 18 to 30, they indicate less willingness to change practices and invest money to do so.
  • Prayer, regular worship and lifelong Bible study are viewed as extremely important practices of faithful discipleship, while generous and regular financial giving and working for social justice are viewed as less important.
  • More than three-quarters of clergy and laity believe small cliques exert too much influence in churches.
  • United Methodist pastors do not believe strongly they are well trained, expertly supervised and appropriately assigned to churches.
  • More than four out of five pastors agree that pastors have an extremely demanding job and suffer from a lack of time, while three out of four lay members agree with that statement.

Among those who are hopeful about the future of The United Methodist Church, optimism is strongest in Africa and the Philippines. Specifically, 88 percent of African United Methodists told surveyors they are hopeful about the church, compared with 84 percent in the Philippines, 54 percent in the United States and 42 percent in Europe.

Those expressing hopefulness cited strong and growing congregations, good pastoral leadership and younger constituents, while those who are discouraged mentioned divisiveness, poor leadership and declining membership.

Listening to the people
The $350,000 survey was conducted by The Martec Group, a research firm based in Chicago. Information was gathered during three phases that began with a review of existing research. During the second phase, interviewers asked open-ended questions to prompt uncensored sharing of opinions and attitudes from about 300 bishops, pastors, district superintendents, annual conference treasurers and administrative service directors, connectional ministries directors, designated lay leaders and church members.

From those responses, surveyors identified recurring themes and then surveyed more than 2,600 United Methodists by telephone and online. Efforts were made to encourage participation by youth and young adults.

"This is not a prescription," Alexander said of the results. "It is not even a diagnosis. It is a mere report. We asked; we got answered. What we do with (the information) is precisely why we need ongoing conversation."

To further stimulate conversation, the report includes more than 60 essays solicited from United Methodist leaders including bishops, theologians, seminary professors, clergy, lay members and agency executives. They offer a wide range of views about critical issues of the church and will be included on the State of the Church Web site.

"This is not your normal church report reading," Glenn said. "I found it exhilarating … to read these essays."

Added Alexander: "We want to emphasize that these (essays) are not the last word. These are the next word. We hope there will be many more essays posted and various forums for dialogue."