Friday, May 2, 2008

Financial Futures

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:19-21, NRSV

As it has in quadrennia past, the final day of General Conference approves the general church budget. Throughout the Conference, delegates toed the line to limit requests for additional funding outside the set bottom line of $642 million dollars for the 2009-2012 quadrennium. This represents a 4.8% increase of the previous quadrennium’s general church budget. And, the General Conference overwhelmingly approved the budget without debate.

However, there is cause for great concern about what these funds can actually do to meet the proposed goals of the four areas of focus and other disciplinary responsibilities of the general boards, agencies and commissions. In particular, the tremendous amount of duplicity and multiplicity of funding provided to continue non-collaborative efforts at the general church level is an area left unaddressed by the call to collaboration. Yet another study to consider the organizational structure of the church is not being advocated here; however, it would seem to make sense in the spirit of collaboration to do away with maintaining separate human resources, publishing, communications, marketing, financial and travel services, to name a few. Consolidating these support services would eliminate redundant funding, maximize buying and spending power and provide consistency for the general church. Millions of dollars each year could be redirected to programmatic emphases if these support services were streamlined.

Another example of this duplicity would be the newly created Global Health Initiative to be lodged with the General Commission on Communication, which is not a program agency but an administrative agency. Unless true collaboration is maintained with the program agency already charged with this work on behalf of the church (General Board of Global Ministries), the church will operate two large and separate budgets for Global Health. This does not make sense, yet it went unchecked by the delegates to the 2008 General Conference. If tradition holds, GCOC and GBGM will work independently and often at cross-purposes according to their own interpretations and understandings of the direction of their “collaborative” work, and the church will be much less effective than had it kept this programmatic responsibility with GBGM. In four years, the church will be able to discern the wisdom of its ways.

With $642 million dollars to spend in a quadrennium for general church ministry and mission, the institution of The United Methodist Church, through its general boards, agencies and commissions, ought to be able to accomplish significant work that can personify hope around the world. Unfortunately, a significant portion of this money goes to maintain a system and structure that sustains compartmentalized operations to protect individual agendas and shrug true transparency and accountability. What is needed for authentic collaboration is trust and integrity that holds the best interests of the church, its mission and ministry at heart instead of 13 silos of duplicity, hording and ineffectiveness.

This is indeed a future worth hoping for.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Staying in the Closet

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket,
or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?
For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed;
nor is anything secret, except to come to light.
Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’”
Mark 4:21-23, NRSV

For too long the church has demonized, excluded and condemned those persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning their sexual orientation. Its forty years of wandering in the wilderness should have ended by now, but alas The United Methodist Church has decided to stay on an aimless path to nowhere. Various petitions calling for full inclusion and elimination of the “incompatible” phraseology were rejected (Social Principles ¶161.G) by the 2008 General Conference.

What seems truly incompatible with Christian teaching is the continued spirit of love that is hate thinly veiled. Coupled with those who speak for God, the denomination is perpetually vexed by demons of exclusion. Why is it that “well-meaning Christians” fear a church that is fully accepting of all persons? It would seem that their ver small, immature faith in a wrathful God has convinced them that they will somehow be blame for the “sinful” actions of others.

Amazingly, an African-American man stood to speak about scriptural references to slavery that enabled the church to perpetuate discrimination and exclusion of Blacks for centuries. He reminded the Conference that the church had come to realize it was in error with this interpretation. Then, to great surprise, he suggested that the church’s interpretation of scriptural references to homosexuality was not in error but the true word of God. WHAT? How can one claim progression of understanding in one area of scriptural interpretation and yet retain a blind acceptance in another? One does not have the prerogative to pick and choose which passages are or are not the true word of God. Either it is all or it is none. And one certainly does not have the right to use some scripture to support one’s transgressive thought and embrace others that are self-serving. But, this is what the church has done for centuries, and so it shall continue to do for the foreseeable future.

The General Conference did not go so far as to adopt out-right exclusion of homosexual persons from membership, and some feel the voting was closer to full acceptance than in quadrennia past, but it is the final outcome that counts; and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender persons, in the eyes of the church, do not count for much more than persons of sacred worth, which is to say, “Let’s be nice when condemning them and continuing to exclude them from full participation in the life and ministry of the church.”

Nonetheless, the Conference did vote to adopt a new resolution to oppose homophobia and heterosexism, and it included sexual orientation to the equal educational opportunity clause in Resolution 98. These are small steps in a mature direction for the church but do not go far enough. Instead, the church continues to hold fast to select interpretations of scripture and tradition while completely disregarding experience and reason.

Many had hoped that this General Conference could step out of the closet and shed its decades of cloaked distain for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. Obviously that future with hope has yet to be realized.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Leadership: Scarcity or Abundance

"We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness."
1 Corinthians 12:6-8, NRSV

The question of leadership in The United Methodist Church, and more specifically the lack thereof, is not a question of quantity but quality. The church suffers from a scarcity of vibrant, competent, qualified and compelling leadership and an abundance of recycled, complacent and myopic leadership. Many holding leadership in the church are ineffective yet regard their positions of power and authority as entitlement for many years of mediocre service. In fact, the church often rewards ineffective leadership with promotions and hides the transgressions of its failed leaders behind the shroud of success. Few are able to measure results, maintain financial integrity and elevate the spirits of their followers.

When it comes to considering scarcity and abundance to fund leadership development, the church need only look to the number of active and retired bishops it continues to sustain for life, and even into death. If the church has seen fit to place term limits upon general secretaries (12 years), the same should be invoked upon bishops. Without a better system requiring productive, competent and accountable leaders, future General Conferences will be faced with increases to the Episcopal Fund at a rate three or more times that of the general church budget just to maintain its icons.

Being a leader for life is not an entitlement or a club membership; it is an honor and privilege that is earned each day in faithful service to God and one another.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

21st Century Hymnal

"I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"
Isaiah 43:19a, NRSV

It is a shame that the 2008 General Conference has adopted a petition to establish yet another hymnal revision committee to produce a new, printed hymnal for the denomination. Even though several speeches against came from young people and people of color, the prevailing wish of the older, white delegates was affirmed. This flies in the face of at least three of the new hymnal’s proposed goals:
  • Incorporate new expressions of worship in new and revitalizing congregations to engage all persons, including new, younger, and diverse people.
  • Hold broad appeal across cultural, geographical, age, and congregation settings.
  • Incorporate the newest technologies and ways of communicating the music and liturgy of the book.
The time has come to refrain from printing millions of paper hymnals and move toward more flexible and accessible music and liturgy resources that can be downloaded from the Internet. Most of the new and emerging congregations and forms of worship in The United Methodist Church do not utilize printed songs and liturgies in worship but rather use digital projection to enable those gathered to fully express their faith in word and song. Incorporating new technologies would not preclude printing liturgies and song sheets (with appropriate permissions) for those wishing to have paper in their hands. It would, however, enable timely, emerging and relevant resources to be readily available at a fraction of the cost, if not entirely free. And the funds not expended on printed hymnals would make it possible to translate these resources into languages other than English.

If the church is serious about reducing its environmental impact, it cannot in good conscience authorize the printing of millions of copies of a new paper hymnal. Already the question is circulating: What does the General Board of Discipleship and The United Methodist Publishing House propose churches do with their discarded 1989 hymnals? Please, let’s not suggest, in the spirit of recycling, that we ship them to Africa.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Language Barriers

“Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’;
anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Matthew 5:37, NRSV

Language, or more specifically the words, used to convey meaning are inadequate. At the same time, human communication is bound, in part, to expression with words and their associated meanings. Clarity of meaning and verbal expression is compounded by the myriad languages spoken around the globe. Nonetheless, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church insisted upon perfecting language to express its actions when voting on motions and petitions.

The 2008 General Conference changed its wording from “concurrence” or “nonconcurrence” to “adopt” or “reject”. Then, yesterday from the floor, a delegate appealed to the Conference to refrain from using the word “defeat” when referring to the outcome of voting that rejects a motion. The delegate’s rationale is that words like “defeat” imply a victory for some. As Christians, the delegate admonished, we are all victorious in Christ; there are no losers.

It seems that whether a motion, petition, recommendation or action of General Conference is rejected or defeated, the words are infused with negativity and imply one side adopted or victorious over the other. Couple this with more than eight languages other than English in translation at the Conference and it seems ridiculous to expect any clear understanding of certain words conveying negative or positive meaning. Even though the superseded words “concurrence” and “nonconcurrence” are perceived to be confusing and cumbersome, they seem to be words less infused with energy around winners and losers, at least in English.

Perhaps the General Conference could simply agree, disagree or agree to disagree in the spirit of holy conferencing and basic human interaction founded upon the love of God for all. Maybe a direct “yes” or “no” would suffice.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cell Phone Lobbyists

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause
dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned;
avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.”
Romans 16:17-18a, NRSV

How could one possibly think that giving cell phones to some delegates levels the playing field or smells of anything other than impropriety? Some argue that these gifts give certain delegates—specifically those from Africa—the same access to communication technology as other delegates. Others say the gifts are being used to influence the voting of these central conference delegates. While The United Methodist Church is not immune to lobbyist activity during its General Conference, one would expect the principles of holy conferencing and down-right decency to trump buying votes or showing favoritism to some over others.

Rather than stepping up to the plate of being above reproach, the givers of these gifts have defiled and denigrated the legislative process. Even if these gifts were just gifts, why were they given only to certain delegates? Surely there are other delegates (U.S. and central conferences) who do not have or did not bring cell phones. That these “gifts” raise questions at all is in itself enough evidence to support the fact that their giving was inappropriate and the givers intentions questionable at best.

The church deserves much better than this, and God certainly demands more.