-Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Ritter

The Jurisdictional Plan for preserving the United Methodist Church has received a good deal of attention and for that I am humbled.  (See “Preserving the United Methodist Church through Strategic Disunity”) It calls for the re-envisioning of our U.S. jurisdictions to give us the space we need from each other to pursue our divergent approaches to scripture and ministry.  Well over a thousand of you checked out the plan over the weekend and I am told that it has made its way into the roster of possible solutions being assembled by our bishops.  Comments from both the left and right sides of our denomination indicate it might be preferable to either complete schism or the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal that makes each church and annual conference ongoing battlegrounds for issues of human sexuality.

The proposed solution begins with the premise that American Methodism has historically used jurisdictions to manage the issues that divide us.  This was true in the racially-segregated Central Jurisdiction created in 1939 and the geographic jurisdictional conferences that were retained in our 1968 merger to protect regional interests in the assignment of bishops.  The Jurisdictional Plan calls for the elimination of our (relatively useless) five geographically-defined jurisdictions, replacing them with two non-geographic U.S. jurisdictions organized around our divergent approaches to scripture and ministry.

Once approved at General Conference and ratified, each U.S. annual conference would take a crucial vote to affiliate with the jurisdiction that best meets their missional aims.  Conference property would go with the majority.  Those in each conference who feel they cannot live with the decision of their conference would have a time window in which to join the other jurisdiction without penalty.  Jurisdictional committees would redraw conference boundaries as needed and displaced clergy would be found a new home.  Our U.S. bishops would each choose to be part of one of the two new jurisdictions.  The end result would be two systems of United Methodist conferences that stretch across the United States, providing double coverage everywhere.  The most divisive issues would be relegated to the new jurisdictions and we would continue to relate to one another as a global church under the rubric of our United Methodist General Conference.

What follows is a list of questions and responses based on some of the comments I have received:

What is retained under the Jurisdictional Plan?

The United Methodist Church!  Our global connection would continue as would beloved institutions like UMCOR.  Pensions and property are duly accounted for.   Everyone gets to continue to call themselves “United Methodists”.  The General Conference functions spelled out in Article IV of our constitution would remain unchanged.  Annual Conferences, especially in areas where there is greater consensus, would be relatively unaffected.  Those churches and clergy without strong feelings on either side of our most divisive issue can go along with the majority of their conference and “decide not to decide.”

What would we gain by following this plan?

Restraints placed upon Progressives that wish to conduct same-sex weddings and ordain gay clergy would be removed only within the more progressive jurisdiction.  Conservatives/Evangelicals would gain greater freedom to design mission and ministry in keeping with their vision of scripture.  The likelihood of serving under a like-minded bishop is enhanced.   Churches and pastors who find themselves in the minority of their annual conference would have the opportunity to affiliate with a different conference.  Above all, the goal would be to move past the divisive infighting and focus externally on mission and ministry.

How is this better than total schism?

We are simply trading geographic segregation for ideological segregation.  We would retain our distinction of being the only mainline denomination to not totally split over this issue.  We would not be tied up in endless legal battles like the Episcopalians/Anglicans over property.

How would this be better than the “A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church” Plan championed by Adam Hamilton?

The Hamilton plan puts the local church and annual conference in constant battle over issues related to human sexuality.  Congregations would be subject to pressure from pastors who wish to change their stance and be helpless in preventing their pastor from going a different direction than their chosen course.  Churches could also be targeted by vocal people with an agenda.   A bishop could stack the Board of Ordained Ministry and apply pressure to reject or accept homosexual candidates according to their wishes.  In the flux back and forth, lives and ministries would be injured.  The “Way Forward” isn’t one at all.  (See my post “Four Reasons Why ‘A Way Forward for A United Methodist Church’… Isn’t”) The Jurisdictional Plan, while not painless, creates a safe and stable environment for two different philosophies of ministry to play themselves out.

What would look different under this plan?

Two United Methodist congregations in the same city might well be part of two different jurisdictions, two different annual conferences, and accountable to two separate bishops.  Conference lines would shift to create two networks of overlapping annual conferences that doubly cover the entire nation.  Some churches and pastors might find themselves in a geographically large annual conference, especially those churches that are different than the other United Methodist Churches around them.  For instance, the conservative churches and pastors on the West Coast might find themselves in an annual conference as large as the current Western Jurisdiction.

How could this Jurisdictional Solution be implemented?

There are two ways this plan can be utilized.  First, it could be kept in our back pockets as each side arrives “locked and loaded” to General Conference 2016.  One side will win and one side will lose.  We could pull this plan out of our back pockets in an attempt to keep the losing side from exiting or defying the actions of General Conference.  The better way to use this plan is to come to General Conference 2016 with it in our front pockets.  To accomplish this, key bishops (or even the Council of Bishops itself) could endorse the plan as our preferred way forward.  Endorsements could also be sought from key voices on the right and left, as well as from past General Conference delegates (including those from the central conferences.)  A legislative package could be assembled that would flesh out the necessary changes.  Endorsements by annual conferences and candidates for General Conference could be sought in 2015.    If we went into General Conference 2016 with majority consensus around this solution, it would give our quadrennial gathering the spirit of a Constitutional Convention to equip our church for the next generation of ministry rather than the atmosphere of a bloody coliseum where two enter and only one side emerges alive.

What about our Social Principles?

It is time to re-envision the U.S.-centered Social Principles for the needs of our global church.  I suggest that we keep only the preamble of our Social Principles in The Book of Discipline to serve as the denomination’s vision for the church’s role in society.  The specifics should be fleshed out by the jurisdictional and central conferences.

What about general church apportionments, boards, and agencies?

The goal in implementing this plan should be avoid future conflicts between the jurisdictions around ideology.  One bishop commenting on my plan mentioned that the more conservative jurisdiction might one day object to paying the salary of a LGBTQ bishop elected in the more progressive jurisdiction.  For this reason, it might be logical to move the Episcopal Fund to the jurisdictional and central conference levels.  The University Senate, likewise, is a structure that might best function at the jurisdictional level as ordination standards would rest with the jurisdictions.    I see no reason to radically rework agencies like the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits.  Being someone not overly familiar with the intricate workings of the general boards and agencies, I will rely on greater minds to come along with a proposal for appropriately accounting for their important work.

How could one tell the difference between a progressive United Methodist congregation and a congregation from the more conservative jurisdiction?

I am not sure, but I trust congregations would find a way to make that distinction in those areas where that might be helpful.

Is this similar to what was attempted in 2008?

In 2008 a plan was passed at General Conference for segregating out the Central Conferences from decisions about ministry in the United States.  It was viewed in some annual conferences (which failed to ratify the necessary changes) as an attempt to neutralize the conservative and growing influence of the African vote on social issues.  The Jurisdictional Plan is very honest in its intention and can be assessed at face value.  Some of the legislative work done in 2008, however, can be brought to bear on this new plan.

What would remain of the global connection that is United Methodism?

We need to look at this season as an opportunity to design our church to fit our new global context.  We will be a majority African denomination soon if current trends continue.  Giving more decision-making power to the jurisdictional level of our church will make the general church a bit more like something akin to the Anglican Communion.  The continuing mission would be to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and, hopefully, the Jurisdictional Solution will free us all to focus on that mission more sharply.

Let me know what you think.  Is this something that could work?  Is there a better plan out there?  If so, what and why?