Restore & Release

by Chris Ritter

The future shape of the UMC is a puzzle that must be solved.  All recent proposals and critiques have been helpful in at least defining the problem.  The May 2014 Good News statement and subsequent proposal by Adam Hamilton & Mike Slaughter, while very different, both helped us reach consensus that we cannot continue operating under the same set of rules.  As the clock ticks down the General Conference 2016, it amazes me that the weighty matters before us are being left to ad hoc groups. I praise the individual bishops and reformers who are quietly working to put together the pieces of a sensible and satisfactory solution.

While human sexuality is very complex, our approaches to it fall rather cleanly into two categories based on whether we read scripture to forbid homosexual practice or not.  Our Connectionalism intertwines all United Methodists in such a way that makes local autonomy on this issue impossible.   Any proposal with hope for success must be passed by our somewhat traditionalist global body and stand under the constitutional scrutiny of our Judicial Council.  Serious comprehensive solutions will require constitutional amendments which must be passed by super-majority and ratified by the annual conferences.

My proposal has identified jurisdictions, inventions of our 1939 polity, as the best mechanism for creating the semi-autonomous structures necessary to preserve United Methodism.  In recent conversations with church leaders, I sometimes hear from those who are nervous about the elimination of our geographic jurisdictions.  They wonder if the regionalism of American United Methodism is a feature that is best preserved and managed rather than eliminated.  Is there a jurisdictional solution that would keep our five geographic jurisdictions in place?

It was a United Methodist bishop that first sent me a brief draft of a plan for a “Progressive Jurisdiction”.  The outline was sketchy and the bishop was not advocating for it, only exploring it as an intellectual exercise. Three problems immediately surface for any plan that calls for a sixth, non-geographic jurisdiction:

  1. This approach readily conjures images of the shameful “Central Jurisdiction” that existed from 1939-1968 as a tool of racial segregation.  Some will undoubtedly choose to view this as a “Central Jurisdiction for Homosexuals”.  While I believe this characterization is unfair, it is something to which we all must be sensitive.
  2. Within the current reality, there is not much incentive for a church or conference to consider entering into an alternative, semi-autonomous jurisdiction.  Disobedience to our BOD is already consequence-free in many sectors.  For this reason, the creation of a Progressive Jurisdiction only makes sense when paired with measures that allow us to better enforce our current rules.
  3. A successful Progressive Jurisdiction would likely decimate the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions of our church, necessitating the major reworking of our jurisdictional system that the plan intends to avoid.  If the new jurisdiction is not attractive enough to draw sufficient numbers from other jurisdictions, it will not be successful as a solution to our divisions.

While there are challenges with this approach, I can see at least three reasons why a plan for a Progressive Jurisdiction might be worth considering:

  1. It creates less overall change than my main proposal, which calls for the elimination of the geographic jurisdictions in favor of two based on ideology.  Most American UM’s would get to keep both their annual conference and their current geographic jurisdiction.  The Southeastern Jurisdiction, our largest, might experience little disruption under this plan.
  2. This plan assuages the concerns of Moderates who would feel out of place in a jurisdiction that turned out to starkly be either Progressive or Traditionalist.  While I do not concede that my two-jurisdiction proposal would create such an absolute dichotomy, it is difficult for United Methodists to choose sides.
  3. This plan leaves the majority of United Methodists to operate under our BOD as printed.  The way forward for the general church is perhaps more certain under this proposal.  Higher certainty might well translate into a higher likelihood of support.

What follows is my best attempt at a rubric for an “Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction” to go alongside our five existing geographical jurisdictions.  The term “Affiliate” is meant to indicate that this new structure is attached to the UMC but somewhat autonomous from it.  I assume, for the purposes of this proposal, that the existing jurisdictions would remain fully accountable to the Book of Discipline as printed.

I call this the “Restore and Release Plan” as its two-fold aim is to restore accountability to the Discipline while creating a new structure for those United Methodists who find they cannot, in good conscience, live according to our connectional covenant.  Like all comprehensive plans, this one requires constitutional amendments that must be ratified by the annual conferences.  The new Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction (APJ) would be empowered to adapt some of our Discipline (everything but the Doctrinal Standards, General Rules, Constitution, Ministry of All Christians, Our Theological Task, the Preface/Preamble to the Social Principles, and those parts of the BOD that affect the workings of the general church).  In exchange for this freedom, churches in the APJ would be encouraged to indicate their jurisdiction in their signage/letterhead and would have only partial participation in the general church as described below.

The “Restore” in this Restore and Release Plan is a series of measures intended to provide accountability to our Book of Discipline for bishops and clergy.  The following are measures that might be taken at General Conference 2016 in order to enhance the enforcement of our standards:

  1. Establish a General Commission on Episcopal Oversight (GCEO)  that will receive and review reports of unchecked disobedience to the BOD in episcopal areas.  The GCEO would have authority to meet substantiated reports with reductions in the salary of errant bishops.  It would also be empowered to recommend names of bishops to General Conference for discontinuance under the constitutional provisions of ¶ 16.5*.
  2. Establish minimum sentences for clergy conducting same-sex weddings.
  3. Under the provisions of ¶ 16.5, pass a resolution removing as unacceptable any United Methodist bishop who has flagrantly defied the Discipline. * Any ousted bishop may be granted permission to enter the new progressive jurisdiction and retain their benefits and episcopal status.

The above measures for accountability would be paired with the creation of an Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction that would have liberties similar to those currently enjoyed by our Central Conferences, except that these liberties to adapt our rules would extend to the body of our Social Principles.  The APJ would be required to fund their own bishops and their delegates to General Conference would be restricted from voting on matters that are not binding upon them (like the body of our Social Principles or standards for ordination).  Bishops of the APJ would be members of the Council of Bishops but would not be eligible to preside at General Conference.  The APJ would be eligible for representation on structures like the General Board of Global Ministries, General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, General Council on Finance and Administration, and Judicial Council.  They would not have representation on structures like General Board of Discipleship, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and General Board of Church and Society.   The APJ would need to develop its own structures to fulfill these functions as needed.  Special formulas would need to be developed for the assessment of apportionments for the APJ and also for their representation on the Connectional Table.

The Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction would be established as follows:

  1. Constitutional amendments and enabling legislation would be passed at GC2016 along with measures aimed at strengthening denominational accountability.
  2. A seven-person team would be elected at General Conference to write a vision and mission statement for the APJ.  This team would be comprised of three lay people, three clergy, and one bishop, all of whom subscribe to the stated vision for the APJ.
  3. Ratification votes would happen throughout the UMC on the necessary constitutional amendments.
  4. The Council of Bishops would certify the ratification vote, release the vision and mission descriptions prepared for the APJ, and bishops who wished to do so would opt into the new jurisdiction.
  5. Annual Conferences throughout the U.S. would vote on whether or not to join the APJ.
    1. Churches in conferences that vote to be part of the APJ would have until the end of that year to request a church conference.  By majority vote, these congregations could dissent from the direction of their annual conference and request to be placed in a “standard” conference by their jurisdiction.
    2. Churches in annual conferences that vote against joining the APJ would have until the end of that year to request a church conference and vote to be placed in a conference by the APJ.
    3. There would be no local church vote for congregations that can accept the jurisdictional choice of their annual conference.
  6. Those annual conferences that vote to go into the new jurisdiction by 75% or greater margin would do so with their conference properties intact.  Those who opt into the APJ with a margin less than 75% would be required to divide conference assets proportionately with exiting congregations.  There will be a process of binding arbitration overseen by the Judicial Council that would prevent property matters from entering into civil litigation.  Churches entering the APJ from conferences not opting into the new jurisdiction will have no claim upon annual conference properties.
  7. All Jurisdictions would convene to redraw their conference maps based on the jurisdictional votes.
    1. If a “hole” was created in a jurisdiction due to the exit of an annual conference, that hole could be filled with a provisional annual conference or boundaries of existing annual conference could be adjusted to include these churches and clergy.
    2. In the event all annual conferences in a jurisdiction elect to join the APJ, the individual congregations and clergy not opting into the APJ from that vacated jurisdiction would be organized into one or more annual conferences and await to be placed in a new jurisdiction at General Conference 2020.  Until that time, the new annual conference/s would exercise the duties of a standard jurisdiction of the UMC.
    3. The Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction would convene and create a network of annual conferences that would cover the United States of America.  These conferences would likely be geographically large in some parts of the country.
    4. If over 50% of the aggregate number of members in a jurisdiction leaves to join the Affiliate Progressive Jurisdiction, properties held by the jurisdiction shall be divided with the APJ proportionately.  There would be a process of binding arbitration overseen by the Judicial Council that will prevent any civil litigation related to the division of church property.
  8. The APJ would create a mechanism to assist clergy and bishops displaced by the reorganization.  A plan for continuity of general church funding would need to be in place for all conferences and jurisdictions.
  9. General Conference 2020 would create a new map of geographic jurisdictions that must be ratified by the annual conferences.  It is very unlikely that our current jurisdictional map would continue to make sense after the creation of the APJ.
  10. After the initial establishment of the APJ, local churches may vote to leave it and be placed in the standard conference which overlaps them geographically by a 2/3 church conference vote.   These votes would be binding for at least four years.  Churches in standard UM jurisdictions may join an APJ conference which overlaps theirs with vote of the church conference, the conference they are exiting, and the receiving conference (there is already constitutional language for this).  Clergy may move from the APJ to a traditional conference by interviewing with the Board of Ordained Ministry of the receiving conference and by vote of the clergy session.

I continue to be in favor of a Two-Jurisdiction Solution.  It is fair, non-punitive, and offers a comprehensive re-ordering of our current jurisdictional system which is ripe for reform.  The Restore and Release Plan, however, may find support among those who are uncomfortable with the idea of removing the protections offered by the geographic jurisdictions.  I concede that Restore & Release might have a greater likelihood of passage and that it would provide a comprehensive solution to our divisions while keeping everyone under the umbrella of United Methodism.  It also would do a better job of neutralizing the heated debates at General Conference since the APJ delegates could not vote on matters no binding upon them.

A great challenge of this plan would be to strategically craft the ways in which the new affiliate body would relate to the general church.  Significant constitutional amendments would also be required, as with any comprehensive plan.   The most controversial measures of the Restore & Release Plan, however, are non-constitutional.  If the “Restore” part of the plan was passed by a simple majority at General Conference, I would expect that the “Release” portion would gain the wide support needed for ratification.

If you have made it this far into my post, you really care about the future of the UMC.  What are your thoughts on the Restore & Release Plan as a jurisdictional solution?

*Constitutional ¶16.5 defines the General Conference power  “To define and fix the powers, duties, and privileges of the episcopacy, to adopt a plan for the support of the bishops, to provide a uniform rule for their retirement, and to provide for the discontinuance of a bishop because of inefficiency or unacceptability.”