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?
I think if we were this intent on winning people to Jesus and making disciples, we wouldn’t be wasting so much time trying to appease everyone.
Let’s focus on pleasing God not all the different special interest groups!
Chris, I really hate taking you to task because, as you know, I think highly of your work and admire your sacrificial gift of time and effort on critical issues before us. However, my overall impression of your ideas here strike me as one who (inadvertently?) would move us further in the direction of congregationalism. My experience in local United Methodist churches is that anytime rules must be observed that have not been developed locally, but by the annual conference or General Conference, folks are suspicious and sometimes even resentful. This of course betrays a lack of understanding and appreciation for connectionalism’s values. Often local church folks do not see anything beyond the local church as adding value to their church life. It’s true that increasing bureaucratic structure further isolates the local church from decisions that affect it, leaving folks feeling that “rules are being imposed from above.” But it’s also true that the teaching office of the pastor has been woefully ignored (or even abandoned). Pastors, who represent the connection, carry the responsibility to interpret the values of the connection to the local church. In too many instances, this doesn’t happen. Second, when you say, “it might be healthy for jurisdictions to have incentive to elect the highest quality bishops possible” you insinuate that before now jurisdictions have set out to elect the mediocre. Do you really mean that? Generally as delegates leave jurisdicitonal conference they feel they have labored long and hard to elect “the highest quality bishops possible.” Anything less would be unimaginable! (The same might also apply to your comment about annual conferences’ admission of clergy members. Who’s not already trying to recruit the brighest and best?) Here of course is one of the values of the connection: leadership that has been examined, reexamined, and vetted. Do we always get what we think we’re getting? Of course not, but neither do churches in congregational systems. After 2 stints on the Board of Ordained Ministry totaling 15 years, I believe that overall we labored to admit high quality candidates to ministry. Chris, I really do agree with your basic premise that much could be flattened in our church, but the parts that cannot be flattened should continually be challenged to make certain they are essential to our common life and functioning in ways that empower our mission. General Conference, episcopacy, judiciary, the itinerant system, all need to be constantly re-formed in order to serve the mission. And local churches deserve the highest possible leadership able to help them understand the value of being part of a connectional system.
Thanks, much, Randy, for your helpful comments. This post was a thought exercise on my part as I continue to grapple with the Connectional Table proposal and the Local Option. I am not sure that I agree with you that paradigm described in this post would take us in the direction of congregationalism. (Adam’s plan would, I think.) The A&W Plan (and a few others), suggest that local churches be allowed to leave the denomination. I am suggesting that they be allowed to leave only for another annual conference. This keeps in place our connectionalism, itineracy, episcopacy, and conferencing together. My other proposals for the church allow for a one-time local vote in those churches that feel strongly mismatched with their annual conference. Like my other plans, this one puts the clergy covenant above the local and annual conference levels (something the CT and Local Option does not). I feel this is essential as it prevents issues of sexuality becoming wedge issues in AC’s and local churches.
You are right to take me to task on my comment about providing incentive for jurisdictions to elect the highest quality bishops. I altered my wording in light of your suggestions. I did not mean to imply that jurisdictions attempt to do anything less. Like you, I have served on the BOM and see how deliberate a process we have for commissioning and ordaining clergy. I do feel, however, that there are ways to keep the needs of the local church even more to the forefront. If annual conference had to work at retaining and attracting local churches this might create some healthy tension.
Thanks for the eye-opening, thoughtful, gently outside-the-box ideas for improving effectiveness of umc by addressing decline on several fronts over time and among conferences rather than closing small local churches which never knew there was an oncoming train.
In this instant communication vehicle rich era, we deserve free, real time (& widely broadcast) bullets on goals, concerns, challenges, threats/power struggles, AND SUCCESSES at the local congregation level. (And it shouldn’t take another staff position or overtime since someone is already taking notes, posting minutes, and using mail lists and ‘send’ buttons.)
I’m just a local church member of no position, standing or polity expertise, but there are millions of us who could be millions more if the ground in our church at large were more like the ground at the foot of the cross- level.
Closing churches triggers a climate of fear and incapacitates/undermines so many great possibilities for multiple other equally uninformed, traditional congregations.
Thanks so much for taking time to read and reply! I commend you for staying informed and engaged.
I appreciate reading your perspectives.