Flat UMC

by Chris Ritter

Since reading legislative proposals for GC2016 that would add additional layers to our already top-heavy denominational structure, I have been thinking about what the United Methodist Church might look like if it were, instead, “flatter”.  A flat organization is one in which decisions are made horizontally without vertical layers of approval.  Frankly, we cannot get there under our present structure.  However, there might be some ways to make the UMC more democratic and better reward effectiveness.  The UMC might feel flatter if there was greater empowerment on the local and annual conference to choose how to live out our ministry in the church.

Here are five rules for a Flat UMC:

RULE # 1:  Annual Conferences may overlap geographically.

We already have this in some places, as with missionary conferences.  I am suggesting that annual conferences may service whatever geography they feel they can effectively serve.  Over time I expect they would evolve into something more akin to regional ministry networks instead of geographic states in a union.

RULE #2:  Local churches may join whatever annual conference is willing to service their location and may reconsider their conference affiliation once every four years. 

Local churches should not feel trapped ideologically by their geography.  They should be able to be part of any UM annual conference with which they might find ministry synergy.  Annual conferences, perhaps through the cabinet, should have the ability to negotiate with interested congregations.  To provide stability, these decisions would only be made once every four years.  (A pastor could continue to serve an exiting church as an appointment outside of the conference).  Instead of losing churches to the denomination, would we not be better off to let them find another UM annual conference?  It might be healthy for congregations to think about what relationships best assist them in their mission.  It would be healthy for annual conferences to make sure they are giving a good value to their local churches for the dollars paid in through apportionments. It would also incentivize annual conferences to maintain the highest quality clergy pool from the viewpoint of the local churches they serve.

RULE #3:  Annual conference may join any jurisdiction they wish, and this decision may be revisited every four years.

My friend Chuck Russell shared a resolution offered to the 2015 Great Plains Annual Conference session that calls for that conference to explore aligning with another jurisdiction in which they would enjoy a larger voice in the election of bishops.  Only days ago I was reading comments from a clergy in the West Virginia Annual Conference in which he shared, anecdotally, that many in that conference would feel more at home, theologically and culturally, in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the UMC rather than the Northeast.  As my Jurisdictional Solutions suggest, there is really no reason for jurisdictions to be bound by geography.  It might be healthy for jurisdictions to consider, in a more focused way, the value they add to their constituent annual conferences.

RULE #4:  General church standards related to ministry and chargeable offenses may be adapted by our jurisdictional upon a 2/3 vote of their jurisdictional conference.

I am not the only one to suggest this, and I would not support it if the other rules were not in place.  With the freedoms provided by the other rules, however, it might work.  I assume some jurisdictions would allow same sex weddings while others would not.  Perhaps one or more jurisdictions would seek some sort of moderating position on homosexuality. Local United Methodist congregations could indicate their jurisdictional affiliation on their signage and letterhead where that might provide helpful distinction.  As now, jurisdictions may create new annual conferences and provisional conferences as needed.

RULE #5:  If a jurisdiction falls below five constituent episcopal areas, it must disband and its annual conferences must each join another jurisdiction.

If the culture of a jurisdiction is not helpful to the ministry aims of the annual conferences, there is no reason for it to continue to exist.  Surplus bishops in jurisdictions should retain their title but be assigned by the college of bishops to a local church of that jurisdiction.  Each jurisdiction should fund their own bishops and all bishops, as superintendents of the general church, should meet the Book of Discipline requirements for the office.

Of course, this is not actually a flatter structure as the various layers of the church are retained.  I think it might feel flatter, however, as local churches would have more control over how will be United Methodist.  There are several elements to this plan that provide incentive for effectiveness, an ingredient that is sometimes missing under our present paradigm.

My two and six jurisdiction proposals accomplish some of the same goals.  I guess you might say these rules provide a more gradual sorting.  All plans require major legislative work, of course.

Well, those are the rules.  What do you think?