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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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*.
- Establish minimum sentences for clergy conducting same-sex weddings.
- 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:
- Constitutional amendments and enabling legislation would be passed at GC2016 along with measures aimed at strengthening denominational accountability.
- 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.
- Ratification votes would happen throughout the UMC on the necessary constitutional amendments.
- 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.
- Annual Conferences throughout the U.S. would vote on whether or not to join the APJ.
- 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.
- 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.
- There would be no local church vote for congregations that can accept the jurisdictional choice of their annual conference.
- 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.
- All Jurisdictions would convene to redraw their conference maps based on the jurisdictional votes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
I was at the West Ohio UM Centrists gathering earlier this month when you addressed that group about your two jurisdiction plan. The question that I have about your plan, this plan, and all the other plans being put out there is quite personal to me, but I know it will affect others. Namely–what will happen to those of us who are in extension ministry? And related to that (since I work for a UM-related institution)–what will happen to our UM-related colleges, seminaries, hospitals, nursing homes, etc? Will they need to choose to affiliate with a specific jurisdiction too? I know that institutions relate primarily to the general church agencies, but the UM-relatedness is usually lived out mostly within the local annual conferences and jurisdictions. Also, hypothetically speaking–what would happen if a person serving in extension (or even appointed) ministry within an annual conference that rejects membership in the APJ chooses personally to affiliate with the APJ?
Just a couple questions–would be interested in hearing your thoughts.
Important question, David. The legislation on the original Jurisdictional Solution gives church-related institutions the authority to review their affiliation. Those appointed beyond the local church would continue to related to an annual conference whose cabinet would need to approve that appointment as legitimate. The Restore & Release plan I put out there today is less developed, but my guess is that it would greatly reduce the likelihood that an institution would change its affiliation. I have not gone through the task of converting the R&R Plan into legislative language. Below is the language from the original JS legislation. Thanks for your interest in the plan.
9. Institutional Affiliation—Any church-related institution that is affiliated, but not owned by, an annual or jurisdictional conference, may choose to change their affiliation and relationship to the church following the organizing of the new jurisdictions and the redrawing of annual conference boundaries. The institution, by its own internal processes, may choose to continue affiliation with the successor annual or jurisdictional conference with which it was previously affiliated, change its affiliation to the annual or jurisdictional conference representing the other jurisdiction from the one in which it was previously affiliated, or seek affiliation in both jurisdictions at the same time. An institution’s request to affiliate with a different annual or jurisdictional conference is contingent upon approval by that conference.
Thanks! That adds some clarity to the situation for me. My concern is that I don’t want the church to leave people in extension ministries in a precarious situation. Care must be taken to ensure a fair process for all. Thank you for responding, and God bless!
After a second read-through and continual reflection on this issue, Chris, I believe (but could be mistaken) that even beyond the extensive constitutional amending you acknowledge, the Restore and Release Plan will need to take seriously the third Restrictive Rule, especially the final phrase, “…or destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency.” If the APJ elects its own bishops whose authority and episcopal ministry is restricted and confined to the APJ only, then are they truly “general superintendents?” Would APJ bishops serve as general superintendents of the whole church, along with their colleagues in the Council of Bishops? If they cannot preside at GC, and if other duties and privileges of general superintendency are removed from APJ bishops, then it appears the Restore and Release plan could be interpreted as “destroying the plan of our itinerant general superintendency.” This, of course, would necessitate an amending of the third restrictive rule, which as you have indicated elsewhere carries with it an even higher bar than amending the constitution. Possible? Yes. Likely? Who knows? (This does not address the fact that APJ General Superintendents in either plan will not be funded by the general church, but only by a specific segment of the church—another indication that itinerant general superintendency is being eroded, if not destroyed.) Our connectionalism really is all-encompassing, isn’t it? Asbury and his colleagues knew very well what they were creating back in 1784!
This is a very helpful and insightful point. I wish the Judicial Council could “score” major proposals before General Conference, but I suppose they are not equipped for such a task. I would argue that the proposal does not “destroy the plan for our itinerant general superintendency”, but I have not been asked to serve on Judicial Council. The interpretation you cite seems very likely. The easy fix is to remove the provision that the APJ bishops cannot preside at General Conference or on our General Boards. This creates some other issues that must be carefully thought through. When I look at how this plan bypasses the entrenched politics of some of our existing jurisdictions, I see it as perhaps our most workable way forward. The challenge would be in crafting the legislation. Thanks for flagging this important potential conflict with a restrictive rule.
Your statement, “our current jurisdictional system is ripe for reform” piques my interest, Chris. I’d love to hear you say more about how you perceive our present jurisdictional system and what in your opinion makes them “ripe for reform.”
A few things I notice:
1) Electing and holding bishops accountable at the jurisdictional level has compromised the role of bishops as general superintendents. Bishops were elected at GC until 1939.
2) jurisdictions are being used to shelter pastors from being accountable to the BOD.
3) the rapid death of the church in the west has made that jurisdiction unsustainable. The WJ bishops cost more than than their jurisdiction pays into the Episcopal Fund.
I would not argue with the idea that there is some advantage to regionalism. Thanks, Randy.
Thanks, Chris. And I would not argue that all 3 of your observations about the current jurisdictional system are valid. There has been plenty of sentiment (outside the SE and W jurisdictions) that it’s time to scrap jurisdictions altogether. If not scrap, at least time for a thorough overhaul, which both of your plans accomplish. I still support either, or both!
I don’t see how this works for clergy. This seems to largely be about Annual Conferences and local churches moving to a new jurisdiction. But it does not seem to address the fact that same sex marriages are performed by progressive clergy and not progressive churches. What if more clergy want to be in the new jurisdiction than there are appointments? What about the annual conference relationships of clergy? My membership if vested in the conference and not the local church. What if my local church votes to change but my AC doesn’t? What if my AC votes in a direction I don’t agree with? I see a lot of thought about what the local church does but not as much, unless I’m missing it, how clergy fit into this.
Thanks for the questions, Timothy. Each clergy would have the option to staying in their native annual conference with their membership uninterrupted. This is the default position for both churches and clergy. Leaving ones conference will not be that popular an option, I would expect. Churches and clergy would be subjecting themselves to a level of uncertainty as they would be placed in a conference operated by another jurisdiction. Jurisdictions are required to develop a process to assist displaced clergy. I expect that there would be several instances of clergy serving outside their home conference in the early years (this happens now under our present arrangement). If your churches voted to be Progressive and you decided to be more Conservative, you could still continue to serve the same appointment with the permission of the bishops involved, at least while things get sorted out. Those clergy wanting security will likely want to go along with the vote of their annual conference. Thanks again for reading the plan over. The full legislation is on at http://www.jurisdictionalsolution.org under the “legislation” tab. There have been significant updates since the posting you commented upon.
The Elephant in the Room is this… under either plan, those of us who believe that the Bible is very clear in its disapproval of the “Gay” lifestyle, are being asked to agree to support a church which approves anti-Biblical doctrines and polity… This is untenable from any standpoint.
And don’t hand me that worn out argument that we have changed our stance on slavery (Yes, we did. Methodism in the US originally opposed slavery, then changed in response to a “progressive” culture which accepted slavery, only to be torn asunder by the issue a few years later.)
I do not see any way to compromise… We can discuss our differences until the cows come home, but they are still incompatible.