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Methodists get ready to grasp the finance nettle

Pat Ashworth talks to the quiet man who has to sell budget cuts to his denomination

JOHN ELLIS has the unenviable job of implementing the decision, made by the Methodist Conference last year, to reduce his Church’s central budget by 30 per cent by 2008.

Together with his small group, he has to put a strategy in place for approval at the 2007 Conference in July.

The task is a big one. The Connexional Team — the Church’s central structure — comprises about 200 people, 140 of whom work the equivalent of full-time. The majority work at Methodist Church House in London; others in training colleges, the Central Finance Board, Westminster Central Hall, and the Methodist Publishing House.

Funding for the central staff team comes predominantly from the assessment paid by the churches, their equivalent of the annual parish share. The Methodist Church in Britain has just under 300,000 members. It is wealthy in capital terms, but not in terms of cash flow, and, unlike the C of E, it does not have a historical investment base: this generation pays for what this generation is doing, says Mr Ellis.

Historically, money is held in the circuits, the equivalent of dioceses. This means that in recent years, reserves have been drawn on to fund large shortfalls in areas such as the pension fund for lay employees.

No immediate financial crisis triggered the review. The Church — or at least, those in touch with the centre — had come to the view several years ago that its present size was unsustainable, and had therefore to take seriously the cutting back of costs.

But the more important prompt for the reconfiguration was serious thinking about mission: what the Methodist Church is to do in the 21st century, says Mr Ellis. “We can’t just go on doing everything the way we are now, and therefore ought to rethink how we shape ourselves as a denomination.”

John Ellis is a quiet man who admits to “some background” in change management — a modest statement from someone whose previous work has included restructuring the Bank of England.

Conference formally adopted Priorities for the Methodist Church in 2004. In the light of the report and the debate, a draft paper, Challenging Priorities, was presented to Council members by the joint-secretaries group on Monday. It calls for reflection on what the Spirit was asking of the Church today.

It concludes: “We have much to do . . . to reclaim credibility for the Church as an institution. We have to dispel false and negative ideas about ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ (however widespread they are) and build public trust in our desire to serve the common good and not just our own interests.”

The desire to find ways of engaging with society is paramount, and the agreed priority for the Church as a whole is keeping the balance between evangelism, worship, serving, and social action. “Within that, we’re asking, if the Church is going to be best-equipped to deliver these priorities, how does the centre have to re-shape itself?” Mr Ellis says.

“The test is to start from scratch and ask what the Connexional Team uniquely does, and what it does best in the whole framework of what the Church wants to do. We are looking at different aspects of the work currently done — and potentially at some work we currently don’t do,

but some think we ought to do. We’re asking, is it something we should be doing at all, or does another denomination or Christian agency do it better?

“There are some things where it’s easy to see that, if you’re going to be a Church of the historic formation type, then it makes very logical sense for it to be done at the centre, where there are systems set up. But the answers might be different from a generation ago. A lot of our business today can be done electronically, and committees sometimes aren’t seen as a good use of time.”

The issue touches at the very heart of the denomination. Ask a Methodist what is distinctively and non-negotiably Methodist, and a lot would tend to say the connexional nature of the Church.

“In this they are trying to draw a distinction between the very congregation-centred ecclesiology of the Baptists, or the diocesan structures of the Church of England, or the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church,” Mr Ellis reflects. “It is this rather complicated web of relationships that makes the Church connexional, and means there is a validity and a power in secular terms in the circuits and the districts and the whole Connexion. Ministers, for example, are not ordained in the district as they would be in the diocese, and not ordained by local churches, but by the Conference.”

The membership shows an ageing profile, though the picture is different in London district, where minority-ethnic communities have brought youth, energy, and numbers into the Church. As in the C of E, the priority is the missing generation of people in their 20s and 30s.

“In projecting 20 years forward, the picture does not look like one of growth. Numbers are likely to decline before they increase, which is why we have to be quite realistic about the amount of money given by the people in the pews towards the general structures. We have a bigger central structure, and a diminishing membership paying for it.”

Previous attempts to cut back on costs have entailed everyone trying to pare a little off their budgets, but that is not to be the answer this time. “I think we are strongly of the view that it is better to do a few things well than to try and pare a bit off everybody,” Mr Ellis suggests, while acknowledging that every area of the Church’s work is there because “at some time in the past, someone has said that it’s good to do.

“The question we have to ask is, we may be committed to that work but what if there were a different way of working? Some of the things that people in the past, and more recently, have thought were best done through a central team, may no longer make sense.”

The Connexional Team is engaged in a broad range of issues, most of which have a very small number of people attached to them. The widely regarded Methodist work on interfaith issues is essentially delivered by one person, and the small number in international affairs are concerned with “everything from Israel and Palestine to global warming”.

Short-term, the Methodist Church has done an enormous amount of work on the Gambling Bill, acting on behalf of all the denominations. Over the past decade, the volume of work generally has increased in evangelism initiatives and training.

“I think part of the message of the past ten years is that we actually need greater flexibility to redeploy staff teams around as issues come up. We probably can’t afford to go on having such a fixed pattern of resources. The world doesn’t necessarily run to our agenda.

“In areas like social action, there’s clearly a need to continue to have a staff team that can respond to these things when appropriate — we mustn’t be in a position that, having reduced the size of the team, we have no capacity to respond. That is something the Church would say was important.”

The message very much to be avoided is that “it’s a tick list, and you get paid staff if your area has been approved, and you don’t get the staff if your area has been downgraded,” says Mr Ellis.

Staff will not know their futures until the Conference. They are bound to be apprehensive, he acknowledges. “We are very fortunate that a high proportion of staff are here for vocational reasons: their incentive for staying here is not to be comfortable.

“It’s perfectly clear that there’s no way we can meet all the targets and keep everyone deliriously happy. We can’t avoid people feeling their area has been downplayed or forgotten.

“But we have to be realistic. This is an exercise in trying to take seriously the fact that we are trying to best serve the Church — within the constraints we have to work with.”

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