I recently wrote about how Methodists separate, but it is even more important to talk about how we have historically stayed together amidst divisive issues. With all the talk of “staying united”, we often fail to acknowledge that American Methodism has never been in full connection with itself. We have always utilized structures to partition off those areas where agreement could not be reached. One of our keys to unity has been “strategic disunity.”
The use of jurisdictions is the classic way American Methodism has allowed ourselves to continue conferencing with each other amidst significant differences. Beginning with the merger of 1939, African Americans were organized into the “Central Jurisdiction” where black clergy and churches conducted their ministry under the authority of black bishops. This was a system, of course, created with the needs of a racially segregated society in mind.
The elimination of the Central Jurisdiction was (thankfully) part of the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968. However, the system of jurisdictions was retained that was created in the 1939 merger to protect the churches of The Methodist Episcopal Church (South) from “Yankee Bishops”. Retaining this regional protection was part of the price for greater unity in 1968. [Thanks to Gregory S. Neal for correcting an error in history in the first version of this post.] Although the regional concerns that birthed our current jurisdictional system are no longer as pronounced, regionally elected bishops provide a level of guarantee that our bishop will be “one of us.”
No one much likes jurisdictions. Eliminating the rightly maligned Central Jurisdiction was a major goal in the creation of The United Methodist Church. Our current jurisdictional conferences are often identified as useless and only the Southeastern Jurisdiction is organized to do much more than elect bishops. However, given the deep division that exists around the issues of human sexuality and biblical authority, might we be able to avoid complete schism through the creation of a system of jurisdictions to manage the issues that divide us in this generation? Consider this as our generation’s experiment in “strategic disunity”:
First, the five geographically-defined U.S. jurisdictions would be replaced by two ideologically-defined, non-geographic U.S. jurisdictions. (This would require Constitutional updates). Both jurisdictions would be national in scope. One would be in keeping with the present language of The Book of Discipline, and the other would take the more progressive approach. These two jurisdictions would be equivalent to our Central Conferences outside the U.S.
Second, each annual conference would vote to be part of the jurisdiction that best serves their missional needs. Conference property would go with the majority. Churches and pastors in the minority who feel they cannot stay in their conference would have a year or so to indicate their desire to be placed in the other jurisdiction. A jurisdictional committee would place these churches appropriately as they redraw the boundaries of their conferences. Displaced clergy could find a new appointment through a jurisdictional structure created to meet this need. In the end, each jurisdiction would have a system of conferences that would encompass the nation. Both would have freedom to do ministry anywhere in the U.S.
Third, the most divisive matters related to ordination standards and human sexuality would be relegated to the central and jurisdictional conferences. The Social Principles could become more minimalist in nature or come under the purview of jurisdictions. The General Conference would continue to function under the rubric of Section II of our Constitution and preserve the global connection of United Methodism.
The general boards and agencies would undergo reorganization to best serve the growing Central Conferences and two U.S. Jurisdictions. For instance, the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits might require minimal change while the work of the General Board of Church and Society might be divided among the jurisdictions. Bishops would need to select a jurisdiction and be appropriately assigned by their committees on episcopacy.
After the reorganization is complete (it would take a few years), a church seeking to change its jurisdictional affiliation would be able to do so only by vote of their annual conference. Clergy could transfer from conference to conference using the same process we currently have in place.
Like all proposals for saving our church, this one is messy and requires radical change. Instead of both sides coming to General Conference 2016 (already given the unfortunate theme, “Therefore, Go”) loaded for battle, what if we treated it more like a “Constitutional Convention” to organize The United Methodist Church for the next generation of ministry?
The strength of this plan is that it, unlike other proposals, avoids making each local church a battle ground for debates over human sexuality. There would be a conference vote and any church that could not live with their conference’s decision would be allowed the freedom to go with the other jurisdiction and remain United Methodist. The majority of each annual conference would remain intact. For many of us, our conference is the primary face of our connectionalism. The plan provides for relatively small disruption in those areas where there is relative agreement. Our united global mission would continue.
It should also be noted that our denomination is due for a major overhaul anyway. Our general boards were already identified in 2012 as ill equipped to meet the challenges of the present day. If we can provide for strategic disunity within the present structure, it will save us from the exit of churches and pastors that find themselves on the losing side of a General Conference vote. Freedom to do ministry in the world without the present in-fighting might liberate us to address the decline that we have experienced over the past 45 years. Some of the work already done in 2008 to reorganize the global church could be brought to bear upon this plan.
When Methodists can’t live together, we create jurisdictions. After a generation or two, we generally reshuffle the cards to address what is ailing us at the time. Is it time for two U.S. jurisdictions based on ideology? I look forward to your comments.
I am not sure that our Social Principals can become anymore minimalized!
I don’t feel like I understand our polity enough to know whether or not this is a good idea, but I’m glad somebody is thinking like a pragmatist.
Thanks for the comment. A realistic plan that preserves our denomination is going to have to be acceptable to both liberals and conservatives.
Whenever I am out of town, my family and I have made it a practice to find a church to attend. As a United Methodist, and a UM pastor at that, I first look for a UM church to attend. I do however run into the problem of knowing if the church I will be attending is my kind of Methodist or the kind that makes my blood boil. This is nearly an impossible task and has led my family over the years to attend churches not of our own tradition, with denominational branding that I can be fairly sure will be closer to who I am as a Christian (which would be if evident if the UM Church was not so divided. I would prefer that we either go our separate ways or stand on the biblical standards we have historically proclaimed, and thus invite those who do not wish to stand on our historical understanding of the scriptures to find one of many denominations who already have been torn asunder by the current crises (i.e. UCC, ELCA, Episcopal, and Metropolitan).
If we were to follow your solution we would preserve some of the unity but we would also have a need to identify who’s who. Most, if not all of our conferences, have churches and clergy whose identity is contrary to the majority of the conference they are a part of, and with the current reality of more than one UM church in the same town – sometimes just a block or two apart, confusion and explanation would be a constant problem. We would have the need of two different names or logos or some other identifier in order to deal with issues involved.
I have a sense that all we are doing with this proposal is remaining unequally yoked. However, I do believe you are correct in saying that the 2016 General Conference needs to be a constitutional convention, as our constitution is very broken.
You are right, Bill. This would not solve the problem of which you speak. I don’t think it would make it worse, however. I am not totally against complete schism. I just thought there should be a better plan out there for preserving the denomination.
I bet the jurisdictions could find ways of identifying themselves if that became helpful. Thanks for taking time to read my proposal.
I appreciate your thoughtfulness. It is very difficult to watch our beloved United Methodist Church. I did not grow up in the UMC but came in shortly after becoming a Christian, and have been nurtured by her for nearly 30 years. I pray daily for our church and for the work of ministry we are called to.
1. So how are we not in schism now; a compound fracture held together by the skin of the bureaucracy? 2. I do not think a two party system will be complex enough to settle a denomination with many divisive issues. 3. What would keep a jurisdiction from further division?
Jay, we are in schism now. I like your description of our present state put into medical terminology. I see the basic difference not over human sexuality but over the reading of scripture. There are certainly more things we squabble over but the current debate is the only one that makes us want to pack up our marbles and go elsewhere. If it is good for the mission of the church for jurisdictions to divide further, so be it. But I feel that this solution will get us through the next generation and allow us space to work on the issues of relevance that we are facing.
Agreed…at its heart, this debate is about how we approach Scripture…Very important point…
Chris, interesting proposal. I will continue to pray about it. I just finished reading “Finding Our Way: Love & Law In The United Methodist Church.” I have to say on the whole I was disappointed. The basic characterization seemed to be that “conservatives” care more about Law& Tradition than Grace & Love; while “liberals/progressives” are like Jesus and care more about Grace & Love than Law & Tradition.
This saddened me, because I believe that (while it is not always expressed well) “conservatives” are also very concerned about Grace & Love. I would raise the question, is it truly loving and grace-filled to tell someone it is okay to do something that may well be harmful? Prov. 27: 6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” A person being “offended” or “hurt” by words is not the best indicator of the appropriateness of what has been expressed.
The book by the 8 UM Bishops finishes with Bishop Job calling for UMs to prayer and fasting for a way forward and being open to new possibilities. I believe your proposal may well fit into that category. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for taking the time to check it out, Charliam. I will have a follow-up post very soon about this plan. There have been over a thousand people check it out over the weekend and I learned today that it has made its way to the Council of Bishops roster of possibilities.
How we approach the authority of scripture is indeed the true fault-line of our times. I was personally intrigued by an analysis on this point by an Episcopalian professor named Phyllis Tickle. She has a series of videos on Youtube called “Emergence Christianity” where she talks about this discrepancy in how we now have differing views on approaches to scriptural authority.
Sorry, but this is nothing more than a gentler road to complete schism. If schism is what you want, then fine, but this sounds an awful lot like the division between the ME and the ME South churches (which were not solely on geography – there were ME South churches in Maryland and the District of Columbia, some practically next door to ME churches). This would NOT preserve the United Methodist Church – we would spend all of our energies trying to get control over any national agencies and over as much property as possible for “our jurisdiction,” instead of seeking disciples of Jesus Christ and living out Christ’s message of grace and love.
Jim, thanks for taking the time to check out the proposal. I agree with your point about the ME South operating outside the South. The United Methodist Church I grew up in was started as a ME South Church. I invite you to take a look at my earlier post about the Schism of 1844. The goal of the plan is to prevent ideological fighting and get on with the work of ministry. The General Boards would be up for a major revision, but it seems like the 2012 General Conference felt an update was overdue. I feel that, if we do this carefully and together, we can avoid some of the future possible conflicts that concern you. If you can think of a way to do this, I would welcome the input. Is there a concept for church unity you favor over this one? Are you any relation to the famous Bishop Tuell? I studied his book on the Organization of the United Methodist Church for License to Preach School years ago while in college.
Yes, he was my father. I was conference treasurer in both the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the South Carolina Conference for a while.
Interesting, However, a couple of points. Since the dissolution of the racially aligned central conferences, the ethnic churches of our conference have lost about 50% to 70% (according to who is counting) of their membership. Will this be the same if we divide out either group? Also, it seems that the number of votes, choices, and conflicts could leave the laity ready to just quit. Any vote taken by the Conference and then handed down (whether it be Jurisdictional or Annual) is going to be divisive in the local church.
Thanks, Glenn. I had not heard the statistic you cited, but it does not surprise me. The entire denomination has been losing membership and influence in America for my entire lifetime. (I am about the same age as the UMC). If your point is that the African American churches fared better under African American bishops and in a jurisdiction of their own, I would be interested in what those pastors and churches have to say about that. This plan, however, would result in somewhat more homogenous jurisdictions theologically. That would be tempered by the fact that whole annual conferences would vote to go one way or another and that some that found themselves in the minority of those votes would opt to stay for convenience, geography, or economic reasons. Some churches and pastors would simply “decide not to decide” and go with the majority of their conference, which is fine. As to your point about the number of choices being overwhelming, there would really be only one vote mandated at annual conference with only two options. The default would be for local congregations and pastors to go along with their conference. Those who could not in good conscience do so would have the opportunity to join the other jurisdiction and be affiliated with a new annual conference. I believe the Hamilton Plan is the one that would result in open-ended votes and battles on both the congregational and conference levels. That must be avoided and I see this plan as a way of doing that. Pray on it. Please check out the new website: http://www.jurisdictionalsolution.org
A couple of questions:
I know that changes in annual conference boundaries must be approved by jurisdictional conference. So, changes in Jurisdictional boundaries would be a GC decision? Does this proposal have constitutional implications? if it does, I don’t have much hope for its passing.
Thanks for the question, Steve. The two jurisdictions would completely overlap and cover the entire nation, so there would be no jurisdictional geographic boundaries to negotiate. The proposal does require constitutional amendments, like the proposals passed in 2008 about the Worldwide Nature of the Church. I am a bit more hopeful about my proposal because the aims are very honest. (There was distrust of the 2008 proposals because it was seen as an attempt to segregate out the African vote on social issues). Our constitution states that geography can be the only determination for jurisdictional boundaries, so this would require amendment. This provision was put into place to insure that the old segregated Central Jurisdiction for African Americans pastors/churches could never be revived. Your post points out that I need to be more clear about how the jurisdictional and conference boundaries might look under this plan. I really feel that whatever proposal for unity is adopted will require adjustments to our constitution because we are going to need more than one set of rules if we are going to live under the same umbrella.
As with anything this complicated, it really sounds like too many people are underestimating the sheer enormity and complexity and immeasurable confusion that will inevitably be thrust upon us all. how many United Methodist churches in the us AND abroad, because we are still in the end a worldwide connectional church (at least we are supposed to be anyway) will then find themselves scrambling to figure out the relevance, incomprehensible implications of this mess out? strategic disunity, whatever that truly means (to Theologians, Seminaries, Bishops. Clergy in Local churches, future Clergy currently in school or deciding on a career path and the call to full time ministry, and to the church lay leadership and the Laity of our congregations) is by far beyond anyone’s ability to imagine what it would take for them to ‘align’ or ‘realign’, or choose sides, or choose which version (politically correct?) of Christ to choose to follow. How is this bizarreness any different from what Paul confronted, the Corinthian Church of the first century (1 Corinthians 1″10 – 17, 18 – 31)? Is the power of the resurrection, message of unity found in looking upon and studying the implications, meaning of the emptiness of the Cross, so completely distorted or truly lost by generations of ‘disconnected’ connection in the Methodist church? Why don’t we stop figuring out how easy it is to resolve this through disconnection?
I take sympathy with your thoughts, Thomas. I am under no delusion that this will be easy and I am not a neutral party on the issues that divide us. We have been talking for forty years (in the wilderness) about this issue. I am saying it is time to move on through a Centrist approach. My proposal was submitted out of discouragement that noted pastors like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter could not come up with a solution that would not put each church and conference in perpetual debate. My plan, if approved, would require a single vote at each U.S. Annual Conference. The default position for each church and pastor would be to follow the direction of their conference. Those that could not do so due to conscience could align with the other jurisdiction. Not easy. Not painless. I just haven’t heard a better idea beyond uniform adherence to our Discipline, which sizable numbers of pastors, churches, bishops, and conferences have indicated they are unwilling to do. I remain open to new proposals.