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Pastor Andy Langford of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference  (Photo credit: United Methodist News Service)

Pastor Andy Langford of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference (Photo credit: United Methodist News Service)

By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)

A prominent United Methodist leader has proposed a creative way for United Methodist congregations to stop funding our denomination’s bloated and often out-of-touch general denominational agencies.

Rev. Thomas “Andy” Langford is a five-term General Conference delegate, a member of our denomination’s powerful Connectional Table, a sixth-generation United Methodist, a former member of his annual conference’s Council on Finance and Administration, and a pastor in Concord, North Carolina. He is known as a moderate, and is affiliated with no caucus group.

In an open letter last year, and then in a more detailed report circulated earlier this year (reportedly with the private encouragement and input of some bishops and conference treasurers), Langford argued that in light of our denomination’s last General Conference and over four decades of unabated U.S. decline, it is time for local congregations to rethink their payment of denominational apportionments out of their offering plates.

Langford summarizes the 2012 General Conference as having “[r]earrang[ed] the deckchairs of a sinking ship,” while “toss[ing] the paying passengers overboard and sav[ing] the lives of the crew.” In addition to failing to adopt lasting, major structural reforms or cut our “general” UMC (i.e., denomination-wide) budget by more than about six percent, he also laments the General Conference’s running out of time for plenary consideration of a single petition focused on “local church” issues.

IRD has reported earlier on how the 2012 General Conference’s history-making lack of productivity was due largely to the Machiavellian tactics of heterodox activists, such as Randall Miller (the gay activist appointed to lead the commission responsible for running the conference), manipulating the schedule to promote their agendas while forcibly silencing the concerns of others.

Langford notes that United Methodists’ top-heavy denominational structure costs four times as many dollars per U.S. member as that of another mainline denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). Since United Methodist congregations have already spent over 40 years apportioning hundreds of millions to prop up general denominational agencies which enjoy great political power within our denomination while we have a continuous free-fall in U.S. membership (projected to continue and even possibly worsen in the near future), the report calls on U.S. United Methodist congregations to stop “contribut[ing] to a failing general church denominational bureaucracy that is a waste of money and faithfulness to God.”

Langford boldly declares that “[t]he single greatest institutional problem that hinders effective congregations is our general church agencies.” While “[a]ll of these agencies are filled with good people doing useful ministry,” they have little accountability, coordination, global scope, or focus on vital congregations.

Langford still embraces United Methodist connectionalism against a “congregational” polity, championing district and annual conference apportionment-funded ministries “led by people known and trusted” by local churches, and also defending general-church apportionments other than the World Service Fund (which funds general agencies) and the General Administration Fund. But he notes that, “being squeezed between the rock of high general church apportionments and the declining income of local congregations,” the recent trend has been for annual conferences and districts to cut their own ministry budgets, to the point where “in the near future the annual conferences will exist only to transfer money from local congregations to the general church.” Even though “the annual conferences, not general agencies, are the primary arena for equipping local congregations.”

Langford argues that continuing church funding of such “a dying system” only encourages the unsustainable status quo, and that “[t]he only way that many of our institutional leaders may listen is to deprive them of money….”

So after a generation of “yield[ing] to the ‘superior wisdom’ of the leaders at the District, Conference, Jurisdictional, and especially the General Church led by the general agencies,” Langford says that local United Methodist congregations now have the responsibility to lead our denomination and “rebuild healthy United Methodist congregations from the ground up.”

In our current system, each U.S. regional annual conference is assigned to pay a certain portion of each of our denomination’s seven general-church apportionment funds. The roughly sixty U.S. annual conferences then in turn charge each local church different portions of the seven general-church funds, plus apportionments for the jurisdiction and annual conference ministries (on top of district apportionments paid by congregations).

Langford encourages congregations to practice “Church-Directed Allocation,” in which the church pays the total dollar amount assigned to it for all apportioned funds, but redirects the amounts assigned to the World Service and General Administration Funds (“the two funds that underwrite most of the activities of the general church agencies that have failed our denomination for forty years”) to instead offer additional support to district, conference, and jurisdictional apportioned funds. Langford argues that a congregation’s laity-led decision to do this would satisfy the letter of its church-law responsibilities for “[p]ayment in full” (Book of Discipline ¶247.14) of its assigned apportionments, and would more helpfully promote vital ministries.

Langford’s provocative call has attracted predictable criticism from the General Board of Church and Society (the apportionment-funded agency which claims to represent United Methodists on Capitol Hill but enjoys rather free reign to violate its own guidelines, oppose our Social Principles, and demonize fellow United Methodists) and the Western Jurisdiction (whose over-supply of bishops, and consequently outsized denominational influence, is subsidized by apportionments from the rest of the U.S.). Less self-interested voices may question his legal reasoning, particularly in light of a couple Judicial Council decisions. But the Langford Proposal reflects rather understandable dissatisfaction with how the denominational establishment has led the United Methodist Church over the past generation, and the way in which, in Langford’s words, “[l]ocal churches appear to exist to support the general agencies, not the other way around.”