The Powers That Be (primarily, the bishops) have set up a task force to consider restructuring The United Methodist Church. I'm afeared this is going to merely confirm the usual prejudices of the powerful, making a dreadful mess of an already screwy system, without direct benefit to anybody. That's what top-down restructuring proposals usually amount to.
I doubt that anybody wants or would heed my input. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts on the subject.
The UMC has been in a consolidation phase. Conferences keep merging. The number of Districts keeps getting reduced. The Indiana Conference just went through this.
In the run-up to the combining of North and South Indiana, one of my colleagues made a very prescient statement. He said that he could see two possible reasons why combining the two Conferences might make sense: either it would 1) save us a boatload of money, or 2) lead us back to growth in numbers. He then added that nobody had yet made either argument.
They still haven't. Financially, the best we've been promised is that the enlarged Conference budget will be "expense-neutral." As if. Despite cutting staff positions right and left and eliminating most discretionary committee expense, it costs as much to run the new Conference as it did the two old ones, and costs will surely rise as we go forward. So, that's a bust.
As for growth (or renewal, as they call it now, which is a euphemism for "change without improvement"), this is simply laughable. If we were growing, we would be expanding the number of Districts and Conferences and bishops, instead of contracting. All growing enterprises multiply their number of outlets in order to accommodate more growth and reach more target populations.
Meanwhile, as all church growth experts worth their salt have known for years, if you combine structures (Sunday School classes, congregations, Cub Scout dens, Lions Clubs, what have you), within a certain amount of time the combined organization will tend to shrink to the size of the largest component that went into its making. The new, but now downsized, org will be made up of people from all the previous components, but since nobody in the new org knows how to function as part of a larger sized org, their folkways and morés will lead them to shed members until they reach the size they're comfortable being.
This happens even on the macro level, as can be shown by the church mergers of the 1950s and 1960s, including The UMC.
So, what's to be done?
Well, if you want to control costs and spur growth, you've got to change your managerial style. That means . . .
We need to increase the number of Conferences and bishops, in order to better service/lead our congregations. After all, every other episcopally-led denomination has dioceses about the size of one of our Districts. Our bishops aren't pastoral figures, but rather CEOS of huge non-profits.
Increasing the number of Conferences does NOT mean multiplying staff. It means doing more with part-timers and stipendiary volunteers from amongst the serving clergy and lay membership. In effect, each Conference would have a bishop, a paid secretary, and maybe a paid treasurer. Period. Everything else is just dragging us down.
Increasing the number of bishops means reducing bishops' salaries, expense accounts, office staff, prestige, yada yada yada. (Do you see why this will never be seriously considered?) It means the bishop should spend much of his time visiting the congregations he supervises.
Smaller Conferences should have no more than, say, 3-5 Districts. Superintendents should have only part-time secretarial staff, and should spend most of their time wandering about their Districts, visiting/managing pastors and churches.
If you want to manage for growth, you need to position your managers where they can have an effect on what actually happens in the local church, and where they can support new church starts. Making the pile bigger, so that the Grand Poobah can be seated higher atop said pile, just means no one knows what's really going on at the level where progress (in anything) might be made.
Next time, I'll let loose on our screwy clergy system. You have been warned.