Tuesday, February 05, 2008

ABCUSA Reorganization Report January 2008

The General Executive Council (GEC) met December 2-4 as it continued its work on reorganization. The official report of this meeting has already been released (http://www.abc-usa.org/news/2007/20071206a.htm). This is my personal report and brief analysis as part of my continuing effort to keep churches of the Great Rivers Region informed.

My earlier report (August 2007) was extensive and I see no need to repeat it. In that report I identified seven key points in the reorganization work at that time:

1. We have accepted “federation” as the best way to understand a national denomination, and are intentionally seeking to organize ourselves accordingly.

2. The interlocking boards created by SCOR/SCODS 40 years ago would be undone. BIM, BNM and MMBB would once again become self-sustaining boards.

3. The General Board would become the Board of General Ministries (BGM). It also would be much smaller (probably less than 30)—it would no longer be proportionately representative.
These four legally independent boards (BIM, BNM, MMBB, and BGM) would draw their members from a National Leader Development Pool. Every ABC entity would have the privilege to submit names to this pool.

4. The National Staff Leadership Council would consist of regional executive ministers and the executive directors of the boards (about 50 people). It is essentially the present General Executive Council. Its key task would be to facilitate implementation of ideas that come from the Missional Table.

5. The Missional Table is a new concept. This large gathering would consist of local church, denominational, and organizational leaders. It might meet only every two or three years for the purpose of identifying national goals and priorities. These become recommendations or challenges to the covenanting partners. The Missional Table would have no authority to implement, legislate, or create policy. It would be the main connection between the national denomination and local congregations.

7. The Biennial would continue to be a “family” gathering, primarily for worship, education, and celebration. Certain governance tasks would continue to reside with the Biennial, such as the election of officers, and changes to the bylaws.

During this most recent meeting, our work focused on the Missional Table (point 6). We also began discussions on the structure and role of the Board of General Ministries (point 3), and the work of the National Staff Leadership Council (point 5). While there is still much work to be done, we also formed a representative Transition Team to work with legal counsel in formulating documents and process in anticipation of the General Board meeting in June 2008.

I think we did good work in clarifying the role of the Missional Table. Uncertainty remains about the appropriate name for this group. Some have suggested “Mission Consultation, Gathering, Exploration, or Summit,” but I will continue to refer to it as the Missional Table (MT) in these reports for the sake of consistency. Tentative agreements (at least as I understand them) regarding the Missional Table include:

1. The MT has no governance role in the life of ABCUSA (the Board of General Ministries remains the corporate “home” for denominational life). It cannot raise money, it cannot spend money, it has no staff, it cannot speak for the denomination, and it cannot direct anyone to do anything.

2. The MT is a periodic gathering (every two or three years) of the “family” (American Baptist leaders, pastors, laypersons, and organizations) for the purpose of discerning and prioritizing missional concerns for consideration by the entire family (national program boards, region boards, organizations, and churches).

3. The MT is technically a function of the Board of General Ministries and is convened and led by the General Secretary.

4. While the MT will have a “core” of identified membership drawn from national and regional leadership, it will be open to anyone willing to commit the time and money necessary to attend.
There was discussion about the possibility of making the MT gathering an activity during the Biennial.

There are still aspects of the proposed Missional Table which remain unresolved for me. My primary question has been: “Is the configuration and authority of the MT consistent with its stated purpose?” While there is appropriate concern for accountability in the overall mission of the denomination, I don’t see how that can reside with this group. One GEC member has said that “this model assumes good will and collegiality.” That will require a significant change from our present environment. Further, given the limitations of authority (which I believe are essential since this is not a proportionately representative group) it will take considerable effort to attract sustained participation. At the same time, for a congregationally-based denomination like we claim to be, it is essential that we find a way for mission concerns to “bubble up” from our churches.

Regarding the Board of General Ministries (BGM) we discussed:

1. BGM is the legal board of the corporation known as ABCUSA. In other words, it functions as the General Board now does.

2, BGM will be much smaller than the present General Board (probably less than 30), and will no longer be proportionately representative.

3. Because BGM will no longer be representative, it will have limited moral authority to speak and do things in the name of the churches that comprise ABCUSA. Greater discernment and restraint, as well as more modest expectations will be essential.

4. The General Secretary will be the chief employee of BGM and will have legal functions as the corporate secretary.

5. BGM is the “parent” organization for events like the Biennial and the Missional Table.

Unresolved expectations and tensions with regard to BGM and the General Secretary remain. In addition to the legal functions of the General Secretary, we seem to want visionary leadership, care and projection of ABC identity, power to convene groups for a variety of purposes, resourcing regions, resourcing ministry, coordinating funding, and building relationships (both within and outside the family). While these may all be desirable, I don’t know that this shopping list is either workable or affordable.

Regarding the National Staff Leadership Council (NSLC), which is essentially the present General Executive Council, we discussed:

1. The work of the NSLC will be governed by covenant (i.e. a new Covenant of Relationships) not bylaws.

2. The composition of the NSLC should then be related to those organizations that are party to the Covenant of Relationships.

3. The agenda of NSLC should be driven primarily by the implementation of mission priorities identified by the Missional Table.

I support all this, even while there are many points of uncertainty. The present reorganization work was birthed out of a discussion in GEC regarding covenant two years ago. But a new Covenant of Relationships is easier said than done. Based on past experience, it could take five years to hammer out a new set of covenants that define and govern our life together—assuming we don’t get distracted by some other crisis. We must acknowledge that much of the contention for the last 10 years really comes to focus in covenant content, implementation, and discipline. While I agree with point 3, I wonder how accountability will work with legally-independent boards setting their own goals and priorities.

The timeline for organizational change is as follows:

· The GEC will meet again in April 2008, with the goal of finalizing its report to the General Board.
· The General Board will officially receive the report as a “first reading” at its meeting in June 2008.
· There may be a Fall 2008 GEC meeting to respond to suggestions that arise from the General Board.
· The General Board will vote on Bylaw changes at its November 2008 meeting.
· The Biennial in June 2009 will vote on the proposed Bylaws.

In my August 2007 report, I raised two general concerns: funding and covenant. During the December meeting we studied projected costs of the organization under consideration. I am satisfied that the organization we are envisioning will cost about 35% less than our present governance structure.

However, that does not include the operational costs of the Office of the General Secretary. That figure is about $2.7 million. It is unsustainable with current income streams. We looked at a business plan that included three elements. First, the responsible use of endowment (created from about $11 million immediately from the sale of the building, and another $7-10 million in five years) at a 5% draw yielding $550,000. Second, the commitment to a balanced budget through cost containment (OGS operating budget has been reduced about $1 million in the last five years). Third, the development of a new funding plan. It is unrealistic to expect United Mission to fund OGS and BGM operations at a sustainable level. Unfortunately, attractive alternatives have not yet been formulated. Obviously, this will be a major topic for future discussion.

As I said in the comments about the National Staff Leadership Council above, covenant issues remain. I will not repeat what I said in my August 2007 report. While the covenant issues absolutely must be addressed, that cannot happen until after the Bylaws are considered at the 2009 Biennial. And then it will take several years of negotiation. Clearly, we are in this for the long haul.

I have never wavered in my conviction that the church is essential to God’s plan for the total redemption of creation. I continue to believe that denominations can play an important, but subsidiary role in that. However, today we must make the case for denominations in a way that was not necessary 50 years ago.

I covet your prayers for discernment and perseverance.