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Strategic Communications in a Restructured Church: GCOC responds to the IOT Proposal

A response from the General Commission on Communication

I. The value of strategic communications

The early 21st century is a time of constant change and challenge. Technology has made every person a global citizen, and information and experiences are shared with an immediacy that has transformed our understanding of time, relationships and messaging.

In this global, wired environment, engaging people with the life and message of The United Methodist Church depends on strategic communications. A mission and ministry in its own right, communications serves as an engine powering the work of the connectional church. Building vital congregations and being relevant in a world awash with competing messages hinge on this crucial ministry.

Strategic communication is about sharing the faith, transferring the faith and representing the faith in the public conversation. It is evangelism, witness and advocacy in carefully crafted messages implemented to effectively communicate the Good News of God's love for all people. If the church is to serve, thrive and grow, it will need the capacity to communicate. This requires careful research, message construction, implementation and evaluation - in short, a strategic communication function.

A church that is savvy and strategic about communications is a church that speaks with power in society, commands attention beyond its membership and shines like a beacon on a hill for a world in need.

II. The need for change

The United Methodist Church operates largely on a model developed in the middle of the previous century. The church knows it must change to be more effective in reaching people for Christ.

The development of a reorganization proposal by the Interim Operations Team is an effort in that direction. However, the proposal still rests on an old-style model that doesn't address 21st century needs in a forward-thinking way.

The General Commission on Communication affirms the need for change. In a straw poll Sept. 24, the commissioners agreed the denomination must change in order to follow God's call. At the same time, the commissioners agreed that the current IOT proposal is not the way to go.

Strengthening the proposal depends on recognizing the strategic value of communications ministry to the church. A strategic communication function must serve the whole church and should not be subordinated into a support service, as proposed. In a media-saturated, horizontal world, communication is a primary driver through which mission and ministry are expressed. Overlooking or downplaying this vital role would seriously compromise the vision for a restructured church.

With this in mind, the commission offers several recommendations for strengthening the IOT proposal. It also raises questions and concerns that came to the surface during a weekend spent reviewing the proposal.

III. Recommendations

Revise the language: The language of the proposal should be clear that communications is not an ancillary service but a ministry in its own right, one that has strategic value and is indispensable to the other ministries of the church. The call to communications ministry is theologically rooted in the Scriptures and reflected in the power of the Gospel story. As an expression of ministry, a strategic communications function enables the church to engage with key parts of communities and individuals around the world, making faith and the faith community more relevant.

Establish six strategic offices: The IOT proposal bases part of the framework of general church ministries on the Four Areas of Focus. The four areas, however, do not define the full scope of the church's work, nor do they encompass two ministry areas that have equal strategic significance to the church: finance and communications.

The number of offices in the IOT organizational chart should be increased from five to six, with specific offices designated for finance and communications. Adding these offices reflects their strategic value and ensures that these mission-critical areas are not relegated to a back-office role or vulnerable to culture clashes among the other ministries.

The designation of a strategic office for communications will enable the development of stronger communications protocols – internally and externally – that help the church advance its narrative and messaging. It also will give the church more impact on a programmatic level.

Build in appropriate leadership and oversight: Each office should be led by a chief executive with professional expertise in that area.

Expertise should be required for members of the 45-person council as well as the 15-person advisory board. These groups should include people who, collectively, have professional knowledge relevant to the work of the offices; theological depth; missional and programmatic skills; financial expertise; digital media skills; experience in evaluating for-profit and non-profit organizations outside the church; people skills; and global experience/perspective.

Institutional memory also should be embedded in these groups. As the church moves into a new structure, it must not forget its history.

In addition to the council and board, the commission recommends that each of the six strategic offices have an advisory council of up to 15 people with expertise on the work of their respective office. This would ensure the input of external professionals who understand the work and challenges of each ministry office.

In all of the boards and offices, inclusiveness and diversity should be high priorities. With this in mind, the commission is concerned that two governing entities totaling 60 members cannot by its very structure reflect the diversity of the global denomination.

Engage the entire church in the conversation: Going forward, more churchwide engagement with the proposal is needed. Taking this step will also help change the tone of the conversation. Together, we can discern the mission and ministry of the church under a vision of what the denomination can become for the 21st century.

As the proposal is interpreted to the wider church, the communications network across the church should be engaged in educating and informing people about it and encouraging people to offer feedback. The church's professional communicators in the annual conferences and general agencies can be valuable partners in widening the conversation.

Make the timetable appropriate to the scope of change: The proposed 90-day transition period should be extended to at least six months and preferably a year. The task at hand involves changing how a 12 million-member global denomination works and carries out ministry, and the basic logistics involved will require more time and a well-managed process.

Share the information and research behind a budget reallocation: More explanation is needed regarding the proposed reallocation of $60 million. How was this figure determined and where would the money be redirected? The reallocation should be delayed until more information is available.

Study the structure and role of the Council of Bishops: The IOT plan focuses on better supporting annual conferences and local congregations in ministry. In order for this to be achieved, the IOT must look at the Council of Bishops and how it operates. Is the council organized in a way that enables it to provide leadership most effectively? Are there inequities that should be addressed in how the episcopacy is structured in the United States and the central conferences? Can a reorganization of the church's ministries be credible and successful without a reorganization of the top leadership structure of the denomination?

IV. Additional points of concern

A study of the IOT proposal, and a plenary discussion with two of its leading proponents, raised several questions and concerns.

  • How is the global church reflected in this plan? What will the impact be on the central conferences?

  • Is the church restructuring primarily as a way to save money? Vision, not financal concerns, should be the driving force of the restructuring proposal and the ministries that it encompasses. Yet the vision for the proposal is unclear – and restructuring without a clear vision can lead to disaster.

  • The proposal needs a stronger foundation for establishing governance and accountability.

  • The hurried way in which the plan was developed reflected limited input. It also has left major questions unanswered. "We ran out of time" is not a helpful response to questions about gaps in the proposal. 

Other questions revolve around how the proposal defines and addresses vital congregations, how it speaks to the need for engaging younger generations and how the new model would be evaluated and held accountable.

V. Looking ahead

This is a time of great possibility for The United Methodist Church. We must change how we do ministry in order to be relevant and faithful to God's call. A small group of church leaders has put much thought into the restructuring proposal in a very short time.

Now, by engaging the wider membership in the conversation and moving forward in a thoughtful way, we can inspire the vision for a church that is designed to follow where the Spirit leads. By recognizing the power of strategic communications and using this ministry to its fullest potential, we can transform the world in new and powerful ways for Jesus Christ.