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General Church Mistrust Reaching the Top:

Bishops told trust must be reestablished at all church levels

By Robert Lear*

LINCOLN, Neb. (UMNS)--Trust between United Methodist congregations and the church at the national and world level must be re-established if the denomination is to realize its potential in ministry, the church's Council of Bishops was told April 30 here.

"Trust is crucial to giving and trust appears to be strained in the church today between both clergy and laity," asserted a report from a church-wide task force conducting a four-year study of funding patterns. Bishop Alfred L. Norris, Albuquerque, N.M., heads the study panel which is related to the General Council on Finance and Administration.

The preliminary report distributed to the bishops said that the lack of trust is broader than money issues, although it noted that a few congregations have decided to temporarily withhold their contributions to the general church. "It is difficult to know at this time whether this is a momentary blip on the screen or the beginning of a significant trend," the report said.

Another "significant finding" in the study so far "is that a higher value is being placed today on local ministries. The farther away the mission or ministry seems to be from the local church, the greater the difficulty in establishing credibility and trust...."

The report asserts that a new holistic approach is called for with a church "that is flexible, offering many services and options -- a church which helps people cope with the profound changes facing our society." A key question posed in the report is "how do we get local churches to feel a sense of ownership and pride in what they are supporting?"

Among the task force's preliminary recommendations is making stewardship an emphasis for the 2000-2004 quadrennium, with a similar theme for the 2000 General Conference. "As opposed to a theology based on scarcity, we want to affirm a dynamic theology of abundance based on God's manifold blessings," the report concludes. The task force report included extensive data presented by Donald R. House, an economist at Texas A & M, and a task force member. The statistics dealt with topics such as membership, church attendance, and contributions as a percent of family income, spending at both congregational and national church levels, and formulas by which apportionments to local churches are calculated.

"Membership is falling, but people are giving a higher percentage of their income," House told the bishops.

In another report looking to the future of the church, a team studying church structures said that "to be truly alive, we (must) embrace Jesus' mandate to make disciples of all peoples."

If the "church is to provide spiritual leaders, clergy and lay for congregations," the report asserts, "we must begin at the grassroots by connecting clergy and congregations together in small geographic covenant communities."

Goal of the task force, according to the report, "is to find ways to focus all activities (at the annual conference and general church level) to support the work of local congregations and to carry out essential church functions that cannot occur at the local level....

"In terms of organization and structure we are striving to avoid additional layers of bureaucracy that might stifle our core task of disciple making and our call to serve the world."

Specific recommendations are yet to be developed. The task force will report to the 2000 General Conference.

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*Lear is a retired staff member of United Methodist News Service who resides in Wernersville, Pa.

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