by Chris Ritter
Last week I posted “Five Rules for a Flat UMC”. The rules aim at addressing some of the most vexing issues facing the United Methodist Church while empowering churches and conferences to make choices about the types of connectional relationships that best assist them in their mission of making disciples. The Five Rules build helpfully on other proposed solutions for the UMC human sexuality crisis, including my Jurisdictional Solution, but work from the starting point of our present jurisdictional structure and allow for a more gradual and organic reorganization. Unlike the Connectional Table and Local Option Plans, these rules avoid open-ended local church and annual conference sexuality debates and allow our U.S. churches and conferences to find a covenant under which they can be effective.
The Five Rules I am suggesting for the UMC are as follows:
- Annual conference borders may overlap geographically (as they do now with some missionary conferences).
- Local congregations may join any annual conference willing to service their location and they may reconsider their conference affiliation once every four years.
- Annual conferences may join whatever jurisdiction they wish and may revisit their jurisdictional affiliation every four years.
- Clergy and ministry standards of the general church may be adapted by the jurisdictions with a 2/3 majority vote of their jurisdictional conference.
- If a jurisdiction falls below five episcopal areas, it is disbanded and its constituent annual conferences must each join one of the remaining jurisdictions.
What do these five rules accomplish?
THE GUARANTEED APPOINTMENT CONUNDRUM IS ADDRESSED
There was legislation passed at GC 2012 that ended guaranteed appointments for clergy. This was passed in an effort to address the problem of ineffective clergy that accumulate in our system. The legislation was struck down by the Judicial Council. Under the Five Rules, guaranteed appointments would remain in place. However, annual conferences with a poor clergy pool are more likely to have local churches elect to exit that body for one with a more effective clergy pool. This creates a clergy surplus in ineffective annual conferences. Those conferences, then, would be forced to remove ineffective clergy by the established but unpleasant means available (bringing ineffective clergy to trial for being ineffective).
Under the Five Rules, clergy become (in a more overt way) stake-holders in the effectiveness of their annual conference. Boards of Ordained ministry work hard at vetting clergy entering the system. (I served on a BoOM for eight years). What we don’t always do well is vetting clergy through the lens of effective leadership in the local church. Most conferences do not have an established means for exiting clergy that become ineffective over time. I believe the Five Rules would provide incentive to correct this. Successful conferences would grow and need to recruit new clergy. They would have the opportunity to evaluate prospective clergy based on their ministry record before granting them membership. Clergy educational standards and continuing formation opportunities could be shaped by the jurisdictions based on what best enables the ministry of the local churches.
THE HUMAN SEXUALITY BOMB IS DEFUSED
Today, we have jurisdictions in open defiance to church teaching. Our covenant is now broken in these areas. Restoring order would take a legislative overhaul requiring a strong majority and even a stronger stomach. Few want to see a season of multiple clergy trials over homosexuality with the ensuing demonstrations, defiance, and bad press. Pushing decision-making down the line to either the local or conference levels would be a protracted nightmare, as I have argued here and here. My work over the past few months has been focused on the jurisdiction as a unit of our church which holds the most promise for helping us reach a comprehensive solution.
For many reasons, not the least of which is the health of our growing central conferences overseas, the positions of our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality must be retained. Under the Five Rules, we simply need to say, after the list of chargeable offenses for clergy and various clergy standards: “Jurisdictions, upon a two-thirds majority vote, may adapt these standards.”
It can be expected that the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions would certainly adapt the standards to allow for same sex weddings and the ordination of pastors in same sex marriages. This would simply formalize what the progressive jurisdictions are already doing. Their constituent conferences would perhaps be joined by Reconciling congregations of conservative jurisdictions (under Rules 1 & 2) who immediately demand a new ministry approach to human sexuality. They might also be joined by whole conferences from other jurisdictions who have a strong progressive bent. These jurisdictions, however, would be required to adhere to the standards of the general church when electing bishops as general superintendents of our church. Individual congregations could leave conferences of these jurisdictions, should they want to do so, and join with any UM annual conference willing to stretch their geographic coverage to receive them.
Moderate jurisdictions could consider more nuanced approaches to human sexuality or grant greater discretion to their clergy in these matters. They would need to arrive at a 2/3 majority to make these changes and be sensitive to the exodus of local churches that these moves might trigger in their constituent annual conferences. An advantage to the Five Rules over other jurisdictional solutions I have proposed is that more space is defined for moderates to seek the elusive “third way” on a jurisdictional level. Reassurance is given to moderates that they will be empowered to address shifting attitudes in the U.S. related to human sexuality.
Conservative United Methodists, however, will always have some place to go under the Five Rules. No congregation would have to violate their conscience in order to remain United Methodist. The standards of the denomination as a whole would remain firm. Local churches who could not in good conscience be part of a conference with clergy in same sex relationships could exit to another conference willing to provide service to their location. The integrity of a clergy covenant established above the annual conference level would be retained. Conferences who might feel out of place in their current jurisdiction can join another. There would be no annual fight over clergy standards at the annual conference level as with other proposals.
THE EVANGELISM DAM IS BROKEN
An under-discussed facet of American United Methodism is the fact that we have extremely large populations living in areas dramatically under-served by existing annual conferences. We are dying fastest in places that are growing the most. Some conferences are too weak to fund aggressive church planting efforts or lack the will or ability to do so. Because our connectional system is currently based on protected geography, we are missing the opportunity to allow other United Methodist conferences and jurisdictions the opportunity to evangelize in places where others cannot keep up.
This tyranny of geography is broken by the Five Rules. Jurisdictions would set the ministry covenant and annual conferences would become something more akin to regional ministry networks tasked with effectively making disciples under that covenant. Any UM annual conference would be empowered to act on the ministry opportunities they see available. There would no longer be protected territories yet our connectionalism is retained.
IT IS TIME FOR CHANGE
The UMC in the U.S. is currently headed for either a destructive schism or an orderly death. Neither of these futures is acceptable. We need a new burst of creativity. We need to shake things up. Having protected territories held by ideological enclaves is not working for us. Where is the spirit of the circuit rider? Where is the missionary movement committed to “reform a nation and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land”, or die trying? We need a new era of evangelism and, for this, we would be well served by a new set of incentives:
- The incentive to efficiently start new churches in areas of high potential.
- The incentive to provide a good value to the local church for the apportionment dollars assessed.
- The incentive to have the healthiest, most effective clergy pool possible.
- The incentive to elect a college of bishops that effectively leads the church in our disciple-making mission. (Surplus bishops from jurisdictions that lose annual conferences or dissolve under Rule #5 would retain their title and be appointed to serve in or beyond the local church).
- The incentive to cater well to the needs of large, effective churches.
- The incentive to communicate with local churches about the value of their connection with their conference and jurisdiction.
- The incentive to keep the ministry of the local church as the focus of key decisions.
- The incentive for clergy to hold one another accountable for the success of the annual conference.
- The incentive to look for emerging ministry opportunities.
- The incentive for annual conferences to specialize in rural ministry, urban ministries, or church planting.
Over time, the Five Rules would tend to reward what works and punish what doesn’t. I am sure we would need to develop some connectional rules for fair play. I imagine that we would establish norms for the way that conferences interact with prospective congregations seeking a change. I take issue with those who have commented that the Five Rules make the UMC into something akin to the Old West. I expect that most conferences and jurisdictions would experience a very gradual re-sorting. The greatest disruption would be in those places that need disrupting the most.
Of course, what we really need in the UMC is a Holy Spirit revival and no structural change can deliver that. Structures, however, can discourage renewal and I think our current ones often do. The approach I am suggesting calls upon those of us with a particular ideology of ministry to prove the success of that ideology in actual ministry over time with the local church holding the deciding vote on whether we have succeeded. I would be willing to take that challenge. I hope we all would. Over a generation or two, we might develop more than one way to effectively be United Methodist. We might also clearly prove what does not work and end up with one, big, effective, U.S. jurisdiction. I think either of these outcomes would be positive and preferable to where we seem now to be heading.
Like many proposed solutions, the Five Rules require constitutional amendments and, therefore, wide consensus. I believe there might yet be time to build this consensus given the urgency and magnitude of the challenges faces General Conference 2016. Thank you for reading this and comments are always welcome.