THE Methodist Conference has voted in principle to simplify the structure and oversight of the Church to focus on mission and growth.
The Conference was held via Zoom, live-streamed from 25 June to 1 July. A series of proposals to change the current structure of the Church were voted through to the review stage. It will address the number of church councils; a wider review of the constitution; the function of all Connexional committees (which cover areas including vocations and worship, equality, mission, family ministry, and global engagement); and the workings of the Conference itself.
The simplification work, potentially more far-reaching than a parallel process in the Church of England, has been co-ordinated by the evangelism and growth team, which was appointed in 2018. It is part of the Church’s developmental strategy, Reaffirming our Calling.
The secretary of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler, said on Monday: “At this stage, we are not entirely sure what this will mean, because we need to do an awful lot of work; but, essentially, what we are looking to do is to have trustee bodies that are more responsive and more effective in enabling us to carry out our mission.”
At present, each church, provided that it has six members, has a church council; the members are the managing trustees, legally responsible for the life of the church. One of the proposals is to raise this minimum number. The circuit, a group of churches in an area, and the district, a group of circuits, also have trustee bodies. The Conference, which has 306 members, is currently the trustee body for the whole Connexion.
“We are looking to find ways in which those trustee responsibilities can be exercised by a group that is effectively closer to the work for which it is responsible,” Dr Hustler said. “The big question that we have to wrestle is: Can we maintain the supreme authority of the Conference and, at the same time, move towards a simplified structure for trust purposes?”
A separate report, God For All: The Connexional strategy for evangelism and growth, also presented to the Conference, calls for greater ethnic and multi-racial diversity, youth leadership, ecumenical partnerships, church-planting, and for more ministers to be placed in marginalised communities in rural, estate, urban, suburban, and village contexts.
To achieve this, the report states, the structure of the Church must be broken down and simplified. “We know that this will require challenging decisions in districts, circuits, and churches, and in connexional policy.
“Focused attention is being given to potential structural and standing-order changes — including trusteeship, governance, decision-making bodies, district and circuit reviews, resource sharing, administrative and operational streamlining, missional stationing, and releasing ministers for mission — that serve the connexion’s expanding commitment to evangelism and growth.”
The God for All report outlines three core motivational aims for mission — Centred in God, Everyone an Evangelist, and Transformational Leadership — and a further five core areas to drive “fundamental change”. These are: New Places for New People: Church at the Margins; Every Church a Growing Church; Young Evangelists, Pioneers, and Leaders; and Digital Presence: Mission for the digital age.
Implementing this strategy (which is separate to the restructuring proposals) over five years is estimated to cost about £22.7 million, the report says. It was written before the Covid-19 pandemic, however, and is likely to be revised. Currently, the largest proportions of funding are allocated to: Church at the Margins, to place more ministers in marginalised communities (£8.65 million); and New Places, New People, to encourage planting and fresh expressions of church in 80 per cent of circuits within the districts (£6.6 million).
Dr Hustler said: “What we are trying to do is to ensure that money that we are spending is targeted for growth of the Church and sharing of the good news. . .
“Part of the context has been a declining Church. But it has also been a rediscovery of what we said at the turn of the century was the essence of our calling. We don’t exist simply in order to make more members so that we can continue to exist; we exist in order to bring people into the life of the Church so that they might worship God, that we might serve the needs of the communities, and that we might provide a caring environment for all within the reach of the Church.
“Part of the energy is going to be how the Church develops the leaders that it needs from the people that it has, to be the vibrant, growing community of the future.”
The Conference voted to receive the report and agree to the allocation of funds to support the work, which will be reported to the 2021 Conference, with proposals for change from the 2022 Conference. A final report is to be presented to the Conference in 2025.