11 February 2021

Oversight and Trusteeship in the Methodist Church

Absorbed in the routine of my daily duties, I have to confess that I do not reflect as often as I might on the wonderful privilege that it is to be a member of Christ’s Church. Just occasionally, it strikes me. It did as I was working on this piece and I listened to one of the podcasts, which are published fortnightly by the Connexional Team (https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/news/podcasts/).  Rather as in the pages of the Recorder, stories of Methodists making a real difference in their communities inspire and encourage. They remind me that the Methodist Church is a remarkable gift to the world. Approximately 170,000 members in Britain, each in her or his own place, live out their discipleship to the best of their ability and do that not as isolated individuals, even though it might feel like that at present, but as members of a body dedicated to the purposes of God.

However, the Church is not only defined by what it does; it is defined by what it is. The great 20th-century ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin talked about the Church as a foretaste, an instrument, and a sign of the life of God. The way in which we live and organize ourselves anticipates the life of heaven, contributes to the will of God being done, and points to the fullness of life that God offers to all creation. In order to do that, our structures are those that enable us to celebrate our being God’s people, place us responsibly and effectively in the world, and enable us to invite others to share the joy that is ours and to know the love of Christ for themselves.

That, at least, is the rhetoric. Sadly, it does not always feel like that; sometimes it appears that the very structures that should enable that glorious reality to be apparent are those which impede it. In various ways, questions have been asked which might be summarised as:

  • Do the administrative responsibilities we have to carry so burden us that we cannot express our joy in being God’s people?
  • Are we effective and responsible as a charitable body (which is the legal context in which we seek to do God’s will)?
  • Does our organisation make us effective in mission or hold us back?

Years of reflecting on these and similar questions led to the 2020 Conference receiving the report Reaffirming Our Calling: Oversight and Trusteeship. The report attempted to marry answers to those key questions with the reflections that followed the 2017 Conference, and led the Connexional Leaders’ Forum and the Methodist Council to ask whether Our Calling should be the primary strategic driver for the work of the Church. In doing so, it picked up concerns that have been around for a number of years, expressed in Conference reports or in meetings throughout the Connexion. The concerns are about oversight and trusteeship and about ensuring that we are providing greater support and promoting better coordination. As those engaged in this work sought to reaffirm Our Calling, they recognised that structures designed for mission in a previous generation do not offer us the agility that we need to serve the present age. 

Of course, the Conference last year met differently because the world has changed dramatically over the last few months, and this change will stay with us. Working in this changed world has had an impact on the way we are operating already and highlights our ways of making decisions and our structures that needed a change before Covid19 appeared.

To take one example, the report asked about the size of the Methodist Church’s trustee body. We need to ensure that we comply - and demonstrate compliance - with our obligations as a charity. Expectations of charities have become clearer (some might say more onerous) in recent years and we need to explore if a body the size of the Conference (which has 306 members and only meets once a year) can effectively meet those expectations. However, it is not just a question about compliance as a charity. We also need to ensure that our oversight bodies are appropriately representative and that they offer an effective model of conferring to enable the church to fulfil its calling. Therefore, this work is being done in parallel to the work on the review of the constitution, function and inter-relationship of all Connexional committees.

The conversations about the Conference (the Connexion’s Trustee body) are paralleled by conversations about local churches. The report asked for the minimum size of a church to be reviewed. At present, as few as six members can continue to maintain a local church with its own council. This creates burdens for those members and can leave a Circuit with multiple small decision-making bodies. The Conference asked every Circuit ‘to review the number of Church Councils in the Circuit and encourages Church Councils to work together to determine the best way of working to achieve the minimum number of trustee bodies necessary to fulfil its calling.’

These key areas of work involve the Law and Polity Committee, the Faith and Order Committee, and the Strategy and Resources Committee; conversations are now in train between those three bodies, the Methodist Council, and groups, which the Conference established for the purpose. These conversations should ensure that we are faithful to who we are whilst finding better ways of working. We are thinking about how our structures enable our relatedness, participation and conferring (which is how we have sought God’s will) as we look for ways to provide opportunities to lessen the burden and release energy.

In all this, the Conference asked us to be mindful of the concerns of equality, diversity, and inclusion. With a clear focus on training and equipping those who make decisions, we are not only increasing our ability to demonstrate our compliance with charity regulations but also looking for ways to widen participation in our decision-making structures so that those structures better reflect the diversity of Christ’s Church.

In short, this is a moment of opportunity. The hope of those who are charged with taking this much needed work forward is that it will bring transparency, greater opportunities for service in mission, and means of developing the better use of all our gifts and graces. The outcome will not only shape what we do but also indicate who we are for years to come.

With that in mind, the Conference was keen that all who wished should have an opportunity to contribute to the conversations. The report can be found here.

 I hope that it will be widely discussed around the Connexion and any responses can be sent to SoC@methodistchurch.org.uk

The Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler, Secretary of the Conference

 

This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder

 

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