NEJ Plan

by Chris Ritter

The Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Global Structure Task Force has released major legislation for a worldwide restructuring of The United Methodist Church.  Formed by the NEJ’s College of Bishops by mandate from the 2012 NEJ Conference, the group began meeting in the July of 2013 and released their legislation this January.  Although the plan does not reference human sexuality, it is certain to be viewed through the lens of our deepest divisions.

The heart of the NEJ plan is to create yet another judicatory layer to our denomination.  General Conference would be re-styled as the “Global Connectional Conference” and only make decisions of a “global nature”.  Four “connectional conferences” covering North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia would do the heavy-lifting currently shouldered by General Conference with regards to clergy standards and other divisive issues.  A thin Global Book of Discipline would stand over four, more detailed, connectional books of discipline.  Underneath the connectional conferences would be “regional conferences”, the new name for jurisdictions and central conferences.  These would elect and assign bishops for their region.  The plan requires multiple constitutional changes and adds perhaps another $1 million in expenses related to meetings.

We have seen this movie before.  Something very similar was passed at GC2008.  The plan was sold, at the time, as something that would be good for the Central Conferences and address latent “colonialism” in our denomination.  Many realized after General Conference that this actually served to neutralize the culturally conservative votes of African delegates.  By 2010 it was also clear the ratification of the constitutional measures enabling the restructure would be soundly defeated.  The aggregate votes in the annual conferences fell below 40%, strikingly short of the 2/3 majority margin needed for ratification.  The strongest rejection came from Africa where as many as 4,900 of 5,165 votes cast were against the plan.  Only conferences of the Western Jurisdiction and Europe, our most socially progressive areas, significantly supported the restructure (United Methodist numbers in these areas are small and shrinking the fastest).

Some might argue that the fate of The United Methodist Church was decided in 2010 when ratification of this “Worldwide Nature of the Church” legislation failed.  It seems unlikely that the growing number of African delegates would again be convinced that a plan to eliminate them from our key conversations is good for them or the church.  There are signs that the tide on issues surrounding human sexuality may have already turned.  For the first time in 2012, a proposal to change our “incompatibility” language on homosexuality didn’t even make it to the floor of GC for a vote.    In 2016 only 58.3 percent of our GC delegates will be from the United States.   Some have written of the transition of the United Methodist Church “from liberal to global” as an accomplished fact.  Perhaps we live in an awkward time when Progressives have lost their fight for the church and don’t yet realize it.

That we will soon be a non-U.S. majority denomination makes those who hold our checkbook nervous as they puzzle over a future where most of the funds are in the U.S. and most of the legislative power is not.  The “UM Centrist Movement” states in their guiding document, “We are uneasy at the prospect of a decision making body [General Conference] whose make-up reflects the distribution of our membership, but not the distribution of our fiscal resources.  We believe that this arrangement fosters unhealthy paternalistic relationships and creates a growing conflict over the allocation of resources.”  It is unclear, however, what evidence there might be of this perceived conflict.  Have the 30% of GC delegates from Africa worked to secure a greater share of our funds?

African conferences are largely self-supporting.  It seems our general agencies, apart from missions, spend the vast majority of their resources and energy on the American Church.   While African bishops receive more in salary than their conferences pay into the Episcopal Fund, this is also true of Western Jurisdiction bishops.  (It should also be noted that African bishops make less than half their U.S. colleagues.)   The amount it costs United Methodists to make one disciple of Jesus Christ in Africa compared to the rest of the denomination means dollars sent there are the most effective in our church at fulfilling our core mission. The argument rings hollow that we should not force Africans to sit through two weeks of General Conference mainly about U.S. issues.  Instead of shortening the guest list perhaps we should change the nature of the conversation.

The UMC does need a global restructure.  Anyone watching the goings on at General Conference understands that it is a dysfunctional body.  I find it distasteful that African delegates have become pawns in a well-funded American game of ecclesial politics.  I think some Traditionalist UM’s lean too heavily on the African vote as a substitute for articulating a compelling vision for the UMC in the United States.  If Progressive Groups are now funding the salaries of pastors suspended for performing same sex weddings, it is not much of an ethical leap for them to seek to manipulate the African vote.  African delegates, for their part, seem to not share in the American angst or be particularly motivated to exploit their expanding position for financial gain.  These concerns seem fueled more by American fears than African avarice.

There was a time when General Conference allowed our African conferences only token representation in the general church.  Eventually, the injustice of this was acknowledged and they were granted full representation.  In 1939 General Conference segregated people of African descent into a Central Jurisdiction for the convenience of the white churches.  I doubt this 2016 plan to segregate Africans into a “Connectional Conference” will be met favorably.   The 2008 presentation by District Superintendent Jerry P. Kulah of the Liberia Annual Conference about the Worldwide Nature of the Church legislation is worth reading again.  He outlines the long struggle of Africans to gain a full seat at the table.

I appreciate the team from the NEJ for their diligent work on the future of our denomination.  They are undoubtedly good people striving toward toward a good plan.  This having been said, however, this legislation is a non-starter in our present environment.  General Conference should take the clear signal sent after GC2008 and not invest time on a repackaged version of a rejected plan.  I am concerned that the legitimate need to design our denomination for a global future is being overshadowed by desires to accomplish what cannot be achieved through straightforward voting under our present rules.

We need to start our restructure in the place with the greatest dysfunction:  the U.S. church.  Africa is not the problem and it is not the solution, either.  We are anxiously trying to “triangle” Africa into our inherently unstable domestic relationships.   Nor do we need another judicatory layer to our top-heavy denomination.  We already have an extra layer, jurisdictions, that were designed to help the church manage our divisions.  Rather than adding cost and vertical complexity to a system that should instead be “flattening”, our jurisdictional system can be reinvented to help address what divides us in this generation.

The Jurisdictional Solutions I have authored call an ideological truce by creating space for a Progressive understanding of scripture to play out under the umbrella of the UMC without compromising the whole.  Both the two-jurisdiction and six-jurisdiction versions provide double-coverage of annual conferences over the entire United States so that congregations and clergy can locate themselves under a covenant in which they can live and be held accountable.  Annual conferences, while geographically expanded in some places, will remain mostly intact.  Local votes would only happen in those congregations that a significantly out of step with their annual conference and these votes would be about jurisdictional alignment, not human sexuality.

A better way forward for the UMC is to straightforwardly address our U.S. disagreements in 2016 and tackle the shape of the global church in 2020 and beyond.  Ministry moves at the speed of trust and until we stop disguising American takeovers as global makeovers, the level of trust in our system will only drop.  We can do better, and this begins with candid conferencing about our divisions and moving toward an honest means of addressing them.