Today a friend sent me a link to a website entitled ‘Save Methodist Youth Work‘. It is an online petition asking this year’s Methodist Conference to resist making drastic cuts to national support staff for work with children, youth and young adults.
The context is a process called ‘Team Focus’: Conference has required 30% cuts in the ‘Connexional Team’ (roughly speaking, that means our national staff and representatives) by September 2008. This is of course due to church decline and reduced income.
A week ago yesterday I heard a presentation about the general plans at our District Synod. I would not wish to blame the person who made the presentation – she was not long off a plane – but it had to be one of the worst things I’ve heard at a Synod in fifteen years. And believe me, I’ve heard some atrocious stuff. It gave me little confidence in the process.
For a start, we were subjected to over half an hour of endless PowerPoint slides, all stuffed with lots of text, and every word being read out to us. Admittedly there was a lot of information to get across, but we really needed an advance paper to read to have any chance of getting to grips with it.
Then there was the content. Some of it was encouraging: streamlining the way you apply for grant aid in Methodism has to be a good thing. The way things are done at present could not have made more complicated by medieval labyrinth designers.
But some of it was shocking. Naturally with cutting staff from 140 to 100 there will be new or re-jigged jobs. We were told that interviews would be held in November this year, but that job descriptions would be produced next January. Hands up anyone who fancies going for a job when you won’t know for another two months what the description will be?
There was a glaring admission, too. Apparently there is to be a ‘new culture’ for the Connexional Team (which makes them sound even more like New Labour than their average pronouncements). And, you know what? That new culture will be – wait for it – ‘service’. So what in heaven’s name was it before?
One would hope that although financial constraints have precipitated the process the focus would be mission-led. This is certainly the claim in a press release quote back in January from Ken Howcroft. He said:
“although the Team Focus will sadly lead to job cuts, at its heart is a move to liberate the energy and imagination of individual Methodists in carrying forward the Church’s mission in their communities. We do not want our structures to get in the way of new ideas, and we are moving to a vision where the Team supports local churches in ways that suit them.”
I hope he’s right. But the signs right now are not good. Liberating individual Methodists could be a good and daring thing. It might set us free from the top-down structure that has so frequently inhibited mission in the past. But I suspect this isn’t about liberation at all. It’s about saying, “We can’t do it any more, so over to you.” Traditional Methodists will see a threat here of creeping congregationalism and a loss of ‘connexionalism’ (that sense that we are all connected). I am not with them. I think it could bring new colour to a denomination that previously specialised in monochrome. I may be sceptical of what to me is the spin being put on the real reasons, but it could be a real chance. It could shake local Methodists out of the infantile dependency culture that expects things to be done for or to them (the same dependency culture that means a congregation thinks it cannot live without a minister, so we don’t have vacancy periods between appointments, during which time a much-loved minister’s departure can be grieved, and people can get ready for a new approach).
It’s a mixed bag, then. The stuff coming ‘down from the top’ makes me squirm, but if this means a loosening of the grip on the local church it might be a good thing. The great shame is to wonder whether this has come too late. Methodism has lost spiritual entrepreneurs in recent years who might have relished this opportunity. It has taken the money issue to force it, not a genuine desire to liberate. At least, that’s the way it looks. I hope I’m wrong.
Have I signed the petition on youth work? At this stage, no, although I could be convinced. I’d want to be sure that if we did preserve good national support it gave something I could have confidence in. Part of me wants to sign up: my wife and children left Methodism after we moved here, because there was no viable children’s ministry in my churches, or the other nearby circuit churches. But in all sorts of areas of church life I’ve grown accustomed to finding the best support and resources outside Methodism. Is that a tragic admission or a positive one?