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The sign out front identified the beautiful little building as Shady Grove United Methodist Church. The church was a building of no more than three or four rooms. (Shady Grove had fewer than one hundred members.) Proudly displayed in the front hallway of the church was a large chart entitled "Officers and Organizations," which listed all the officers of the congregation, including chairperson of the Administrative Board, chairperson of the Council on Ministries, chairperson of the Board of Trustees, and so on. The vast array of boards and committees, all interlocked through various lines of accountability, presented an impressive flow-chart of organization at Shady Grove. Upon closer examination of the chart, we noted that someone named Emma Smith held no less than six major offices of the church and was a member of eight boards and committees. A total of about twenty names appeared on the chart! There is nothing amiss in a small congregation being led by about a fifth of its total membership. Nor is it strange that one person, Emma Smith, is the main force at Shady Grove. What is strange is to have a small, family-like congregation (a large proportion of United Methodist churches) depicted by a flow-chart as if it were General Motors!

Each United Methodist church has its organization determined by the General Conference. The details of the required structure of the local church, including the required officials and committees and their responsibilities, are specified in the Discipline. This book is published every four years and mandates the polity for all parts of the denomination. The uniformity of organization, which the Discipline maintains, is an important aspect of United Methodism's connectional system; the Discipline is responsible for the degree of consistency that is found among the congregations of the denomination.

The way in which the local church is organized is of the utmost importance because it determines to a great degree those items to which the congregations will give attention. If the Discipline mandates a particular committee and defines its area of responsibility, a large number of local churches will attempt to follow the instructions set by the General Conference. To a greater degree than is probably realized, the program emphasis and the issues the congregation addresses will be determined by the required organization.

We contend that there are two serious, inter-related problems with the structure of the local church. The first is the sheer complexity that results in too much time and energy expended in keeping the ecclesiastical machinery operating. The second is that the primary purpose of much of the organization, which the local church is mandated to have, is designed to meet the needs of the denominational boards and agencies, rather than those of the people in the congregation. These two matters must be addressed if revitalization is to occur within The United Methodist Church.

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An Increasingly Complex Structure

There was a time not too long ago when the structure of a local church was relatively simple. The early years of the Methodist Church, which had been created by the unification of the three branch Methodist denominations in 1939, was such a time. The Discipline of 1940 provided for Quarterly Conferences to be the governing body. The group elected the officers, including Stewards, Trustees, Communion Stewards, Treasurer, Financial Secretary, and the Superintendent of the Church School. The administration of the local church was the responsibility of the Official Board. This body had the authority to elect up to eight optional committees if it was deemed advisable; these were evangelism, stewardship, temperance, music, parsonage, property, world peace and good literature.1 These committees were optional and established only if the Quarterly Conference deemed any necessary.

What is significant about the local church organization of that period is not that it provides a minimum of organization, but that it assumed that the pastor and the congregation were capable of determining and implementing the program and ministry of the local church. Several committees were listed, but these were organized only if needed. Most of these dealt primarily with matters of concern to the local church. Three of the optional committees - evangelism, temperance, and world peace - also had parallel general agencies with the same areas of responsibility.

By 1952, the local church structure was still fairly simple, but more was being required. There was still a required first and fourth quarterly conference with the latter being the annual business meeting. An official board continued to be the administrative body; the several optional committees included nominations, pastoral relations, records and history, parsonage, and social and economic relations. A Board of Trustees was responsible for the property. The Discipline stated, "Four phases of activity are essential to the spiritual life and ministry of every local church: evangelism, education, missions and finance."2 A commission to deal with each of these areas was required in every local church. A Commission on Worship and a Commission on Social and Recreational Activities were optional.

What is important about the required program organization of this period is not only its simplicity, but also that it focused on matters essential to the local church. Evangelism was listed first. Winning converts had a high priority. Education was named next, indicating the importance of nurturing persons in the faith. Missions showed the need for the congregation to participate in outreach beyond the local community. Finally, funds were essential to the operation of the church. Three of the four required commissions (evangelism, education, and missions) had general boards with the same area of responsibility. The trend toward parallel structures at all levels of the denomination was taking shape.

Over the years, the structure of the local church has become larger and more complex. With the Methodist Evangelical United Brethren merger in 1968, the Council on Ministries concept was introduced. This concept (first called the Program Council) had its origin in the EUB church. It represented an attempt to meet a need for a wholistic ministry and to broaden the group making program decisions, which had been the prerogative of the financial agencies. Various changes were made during the merger process. For the local church, it resulted in the creation of a body to "consider, develop, and coordinate goals and program proposals for the church's mission" (Discipline, par. 257).

The general oversight of administration and program is assigned to the administrative board. In addition to a board of trustees, three administrative committees (nominations, finance, and pastor-parish relations) are mandated.

To carry on the program of the local church, it is recommended that ten work areas (Christian unity and inter-religious concerns, church and society, education, evangelism, higher education and campus ministry, missions, religion and race, status and role of women, stewardship, and worship) be set up. It is also recommended that four age-level and specialized-ministry coordinators (children's ministries, youth ministries, adult ministries, and family ministries) be elected. These are in addition to the traditional local church organizations, such as the United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men, the United Methodist Youth Fellowship, and the Sunday school.

In 1980, some sanity prevailed when the General Conference, largely through the efforts of persons concerned with small parishes - the majority of United Methodist churches - authorized a simpler organizational form. This consists of an administrative council, a board of trustees, and the three administrative committees but combines the ten work areas into two (nurture, and membership and outreach). This action actually recognized that a majority of local churches (like Shady Grove) had too few members to have the required large structure and thus were forced to ignore it. It is stated, however, that where resources permit, the larger plan is the preferred model for organization.

The local church organization is based on two implicit principles. The first is coordination. Every activity is supposed to be coordinated with every other activity. It is almost as if there were a conscious attempt to prevent anyone or any group from doing anything, unless their activity were coordinated with every other activity. The result can be delays and a loss of momentum. One layperson commented, "we discuss the same issues in the work area on education, in the council on ministries, and finally in the administrative board. The repetition is boring."

Certain officers - such as the lay leader, the lay delegates to annual conference, and the president of the United Methodist Women - are members of several other bodies. Such persons, if they are conscientious, spend a great deal of time attending meetings. Lay members do not have unlimited time to give to the church. The present structure is not using their time most effectively.

The second principle is involvement of the maximum number of people in as many decisions as possible. The result of this practice is that a large number of people are expending an amount of time and energy in keeping the local church machinery running that is incommensurate with the results being achieved. The proper procedures tend to become an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end.

United Methodists seem to believe that participating in the administration of the local church is the primary task of the Christian. Of course, some administrative tasks are essential and need to be performed efficiently, but such tasks are a means rather than an end. Witnessing to one's faith is exciting; committee work on maintaining the institution can be dull and boring. A reason so many laypersons have little enthusiasm for the work of the church or get such little satisfaction from their efforts is that their time and talents are used in keeping the ecclesiastical machinery operating.

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To Serve the General Agencies

The question United Methodists ought to be asking is why the Discipline continues to set forth as the desirable organizational model a large and complex structure, which a large majority of local churches do not follow and have never followed. The fact is that the general boards and agencies tend to have a dominant influence on what goes into the Discipline. It is no secret that most general agencies establish a task force on general conference legislation to draft their quadrennial desired "mandates." This includes the material on the structure of the local church. Thus the organization of the congregation does not reflect the needs or interests of the parish. The structure is, instead, designed to serve the program and promotional needs of the general agencies.

Bureaucracy expands not only by employing more staff at the national level, but also by getting the church to require parallel organizations at all levels of the denomination. A classic example of the way bureaucracy expands can be noted in the development of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. In 1972, this commission was established by the General Conference for four years, 1973-1976. Four years later, the 1976 Discipline provided for a Commission on the Status and Role of Women but did not give it a time limit. It was clear that there was a new star in the bureaucratic firmament. That year, the influence of this agency was increased by the requirement for each of the annual conferences to establish a Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Four years later, in 1980, this organization was given a greater degree of permanence by the statement that there will be a standing General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Finally, in 1984, twelve years after the original commission had been given a temporary charter, the Discipline provided for a work area on the status and role of women in the local church. The establishment of parallel organizations in all levels of the church was then complete, a textbook case of an agency taking on a life of its own.

The Discipline makes it quite clear that the various units within the local church are to look to the corresponding general agency for guidance. The local church council on ministries "shall receive and, where possible, utilize resources for missions, provided by the District, Annual, Jurisdictional, Central, and General Councils on Ministries, boards, and agencies, and shall coordinate these resources with the church's plan for ministries" (Discipline, par. 257). The chairpersons of the various work areas are instructed to be guided by the corresponding general agency. A typical example of such instruction:

The work area chairperson of higher education and campus ministry shall keep the Council on Ministries aware of higher education concerns and provide locally for the promotion and support of the interest of higher education and campus ministry in accordance with the programs of the Annual Conference and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. (Discipline, par. 261.5a)

The local group, therefore, is the creature of the corresponding general agency.

The problem is not with the work that the general agencies do; much is worthwhile. The problem is that a large proportion of the structure of the local church is designed to serve the interests of the general agencies, not necessarily the mission of the local church. These interests may or may not coincide with the interests and needs of the congregation. An examination of the recommended organization of the local church clearly reveals that the work areas are parallel to those of the general agencies. These are to be the local outlets or branch offices of the general agencies. The agencies need persons to whom they can send material, and a chairperson of a parallel committee in each local church fills this need.

This system of organization has two negative effects. First it communicates to the local people that the really important ministry of the church is "out there" some place, not in the congregation or community. With the overemphasis on the work of the general agencies, what the people and the pastors are doing in the local church is downgraded. This is one of the reasons why so many pastors place such great importance on the work of the general agencies and actually depreciate their own tasks. Second, the agenda for the local church is set by church bureaucrats who have a particular interest and area of responsibility. This relieves the pastor and the local leaders from facing the significant issues and needs in their community. They may complain about the program handed down from Nashville or New York or from the annual conference staff, but passively accept it. By following the program from the denominational agencies, they can have the sense of performing properly while not having to face certain issues in the local church and community.

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Next Steps

The form of organization of a local church can be either an advantage or a handicap. Bishop Richard B. Wilke correctly described the present state of affairs, "Our energies and resources are expended internally. The machinery of the church receives unbelievable attention; we scurry about oiling the wheels of the organizational structure."3 The organization has become a handicap to the creation of a vital church. The situation is particularly insidious because the goals of the various local committees, although often secondary, nevertheless are worthwhile. However, they assume a constituency that has been converted and is committed to the Christian faith, something that does not necessarily exist. Furthermore, they require so much time in complex administration that even the goals themselves become fuzzy.

Three things need to be done. First, United Methodists must realize that the structure of the church is to enable the gospel to be preached and ministries to be practiced. Because these functions are primarily carried out in the parish, organization at all levels should enhance the work of the congregation.

Second, the primary responsibility for the program and ministry of the local church must rest with the congregation, not with the church bureaucracy. The leaders of the denomination must trust the people with the gospel. It is ironic that at a time in which the educational level of the clergy, and probably that of the laity, has never been higher, the patronizing instructions given to the local church, concerning how they should be organized and what they should do, have also reached an all-time high.

What would happen if congregations were left to determine how they would witness and minister? It is likely that issues of importance in the local church and community would be addressed. Whatever happened would be done because the people felt it was important. The people would have a high sense of ownership for the church program, which does not exist today. Detailed, patronizing legislation from on high is a short-cut for convincing people that certain needs ought to be met, an attempt by the national church to achieve through the law what only the gospel can do. We must trust the power of the gospel to create, at the local church level, the sort of church the gospel demands.

Third, the system of having a local unit to parallel the various parts of the church bureaucracy needs to be discontinued. While we do not intend to downgrade the importance of the work of the denomination's agencies, the present structure makes the work of the local churches appear to be of secondary importance to that of the general agencies. This is exactly the opposite of the way the denomination should operate. The primary function of the general agencies is to enhance the work of the local churches. The congregations must have a structure that permits them to develop and to meet the needs of the people, rather than being a branch office for the denominational bureaucracy.

Laypeople often speak positively of their church as being a family. They value the warm fellowship they experience in the congregation. Church structure should reinforce these characteristics. Instead, we have developed a complex organization that is more suitable to running a highly centralized business than to forming a family - a white collar corporate model of organization. This is designed to maintain the institution and to provide local outlets for the programs of the general agencies, as if power flowed from the top down. In the church, power rightly flows from the bottom up - up from strong congregations.

Structure is never changed easily because too many powerful people and groups have a vested interest in the status quo. A vital denomination, however, must have vital congregations. These require an organization that gives the local churches both the freedom and the responsibility to develop their ministry and program. Structure can produce liberation or stagnation. United Methodism needs to move to one that provides the liberation for a vital witness and ministry by each local church.


  1. Doctrines and Disciplines of The Methodist Church 1940 (New York: The Methodist Publishing House, 1940), par. 528-534.
  2. Doctrines and Disciplines of The Methodist Church 1952 (Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House, 1952), par. 219.
  3. Richard B. Wilke, And Are We Yet Alive (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 29.

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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

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