The national social action agency of the United Methodist Church, which has led nationwide boycotts to defend the rights of industry workers, has dismissed five of its executives, including one who had served for 37 years, as part of the "restructuring" of the agency.

Three men two women executives of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society were notified three days before Christmas that their jobs were "terminated" as of Dec. 31. One of the dismissed staffers is the Rev. John P. Adams, whose crisis intervention program for a wide variety of conflict situations has brought him national acclaim and criticism.

A sixth staff member, the Rev. Grover C. Bagby, who has been with the board 17 years, elected to retire Dec. 31.

Carolyn McIntyre, associate general secretary of the board, said that the five persons were fired, because "the new job descriptions were totally different from the kinds of things they have been doing," not because of any malfeasance.

Like most church social-action agencies, the Board of Church and Society has drawn sharp criticism from conservative elements in the church for its progressive stance on social issues. It has also been faulted for taking positions that were not representative of the 9.7 million-member denomination.

The restructuring effort, in the works for six or seven years, was designed to make the agency more efficient and more accountable to the wider church. It was also done to counter the effects of inflation, officials said. It reduced the executive staff from 15 to 13.

Under the new alignment, job descriptions of the newly created positions were publicized and applications were solicited, McIntyre said. While the experienced employes were encouraged to apply, they were given no special consideration.

"It was a question of measuring those persons against the qualifications of the new applicants and against the job description," McIntyre said. In addition, she said, "we were committed to affirmative action" in terms of increasing the number of women and racial minorities, although two of the terminated executives were women, one of them black.

McIntyre denied that the board's dealings with its personnel was inconsistent with the agency's traditional strong emphasis on job security and other rights of organized labor within industry. "This is not an organized labor situation," she said.

Although board executives are "elected for one year at a time," she said, with no provisions for tenure or seniority, she acknowledged that the policy has not been stressed in the past. "The operative philosophy around here is that if you're in, you're in. There have been no staff changes in five years. People get into the feeling that they are on a tenure track and that they are unshakeable . . . We simpoly don't have that in the church. aThe church doesn't have the kind of funding to carry someone forever and a day."

She called the board's severance policy "extremely liberal." It includes a month's paid vacation, followed by severance pay based on length of service. "I think nobody will be going off [salary] before April or May," McIntyre said.

Adams said that although his termination was a disappointment, it did not wholly surprise him. "I'm 57 years old, white, male, a Midwesterner and all that . . ." he said of the church's drive for affirmative action. "I would have been here 14 years next June, and considering the fact that I thought I was going to be fired every year, I'm not too surprised."

Adams has attempted to reduce tensions in conflicts as diverse as the Wounded Knee Indian disputes, the Poor People's Campaign in Washington 12 years ago and the turmoil surrounding the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. He came under fire earlier this year for his efforts to improvise a postal service for American hostages in Iran.

The clergyman said his main regret is that his kind of ministry would not be continued. "That's the sad part," he said, "particularly since I think there'll be much more need for it in the months ahead."

Adams, who earlier this week was busy packing his pastor's library from his office -- "I'll put it in my garage until I get relocated" -- said he expected to return to the pastorate, since he had little hopes of finding a slot where he could continue the crisis intervention work. "I don't see a lot of potential for that," he said. "There are not many denominations able to support the kind of blow-torch operation that I get into."