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.