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by Chris Ritter

I have suggested Five Rules for the future of the UMC that aim at defusing our human sexuality crisis, motivating clergy effectiveness, and enhancing our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  For those keeping score, this is the third Jurisdictional Solution I have conceived that could assist our denomination in re-imagining its future.  With each proposal, I have sought to move toward a plan that builds organically and helpfully on our present connectional structure.  Each of these concepts has merit, but this one in seen by some as the best at both transcending our divisions and better positioning us for a fruitful future.

The rules are:

  1. Annual conference borders may overlap geographically.
  2. Local churches may join any annual conference willing to service their area and they may reconsider their conference affiliation once every four years. (Change would only happen with a 2/3 church conference vote.)
  3. Annual conferences may join whatever jurisdiction they wish and may revisit their jurisdictional affiliation every four years.
  4. Clergy and ministry standards of the general church may be adapted by the jurisdictions with a 2/3 majority vote of their jurisdictional conference.
  5. If a jurisdiction falls below five episcopal areas, it is disbanded and its constituent annual conferences must each join another jurisdiction.

One recent criticism is that I am somehow plotting the demise of the Western Jurisdiction.  Actually, I feel there is a fair chance the WJ might pick up an annual conference or two under this plan.  It is good, however, for the UMC that we not allow jurisdictions to become so small and so uniquely defined that they become out of touch with the larger church.  Rule #5 is good for the unity of the UMC.

More relevant critiques to the Five Rules have been focused on the ramifications of Rules #1 and #2, allowing for fluid and overlapping annual conference lines.  I have heard this described with rhetorical flourish:  “Competitive”, “Old West”, and “Chaotic.”  The topic of this post is why I feel an element of choice is necessary, helpful, and can be done in the spirit of the highest ideals of our connectionalism.

STARTING WHERE WE ARE

Let’s first acknowledge that we are not beginning from the starting point of health.  The UMC presently has a declining presence in the United States.  Over the next few years, dozens of annual conferences will be forced to either share a bishop with another conference or cease to exist through merger.  Mergers of two declining conferences don’t work any better than the merger of two declining congregations in terms of reversing downward trends.  It is much better for a healthy system to overtake an unhealthy one.  We have a great need for both disruption and innovation.

A second reality is that there is every indication that the America is moving into a post-denominational reality.  A couple generations ago mainline denominations were viewed by the larger culture as trusted brands that insured quality, uniform theological approach, and accountability.  This is much less the case now.  We clergy no longer look as much to our hierarchy for leadership and ministry strategy.  Growing churches and effective pastors draw more of their inspiration from other effective churches and clergy (regardless of affiliation) than denominational leadership.  I am not anti-institutional, but we would be blind not to see that we are a hierarchical church operating in a rapidly flattening culture.

As if decline and obsolescence weren’t bad enough, we are also faced with the credible threat of schism over issues of biblical authority related to human sexuality.   If we do not find a way to continue to live together as a denomination, hundreds of congregations and clergy will be lost through either an orderly or chaotic exit.  Watching the recent fate of Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians should testify to what we don’t want to see happen to the United Methodist Church.

HOLY DISRUPTION

I am proposing that each jurisdictional conference be allowed, by 2/3 majority vote, to adapt the ministry standards of the Book of Discipline or continue to operate under these global rules.  This will yield a diversity of approaches (as now, only legally) and annual conferences would be empowered to choose a jurisdiction that best assists them in their mission.  I am also suggesting that local congregations be empowered, by 2/3 majority church conference vote, to join a different annual conference willing to provide coverage for their location.

One way to look at a jurisdiction is as a set of operating standards and resources, led by a college of bishops, available to assist annual conferences in their mission.  One way to look at an annual conference is as a set of operating standards and resources, led by a particular pool of clergy, available to assist local churches in their mission.  Conferences and congregations are well served by the disciplined rigor of weighing the connectional relationships of which they are a part.  In doing so, geography, ethos, theological bent, and other factors are all grist for the mill.

The ability for a congregation to leave its conference for another is important in our present situation so that violations of conscience are avoided as we allow ministry standards to be adapted.  Allowing blurred conference and jurisdictional lines will prevent congregations from feeling forced to endure blurred moral lines.  If we must have a congregation leave a conference, let us at least agree that it is preferable for them not to leave the denomination, as well.  Conferences would be allowed to stretch their boundaries to receive whatever congregations their cabinet feels they can reasonably serve given their geographic distribution and leadership resources.  Over-reach would be self-defeating as conferences have the incentive of maintaining effectiveness and financial efficiency.

Some conferences will undoubtedly be geographically large and must learn to effectively serve sparsely located congregations.  (I am thinking here of an annual conference of a progressive jurisdiction serving the Southeast or a conference of a more traditionalist jurisdiction serving the West.)   Existing conferences that are presently unified and fruitful would experience little disruption.  I expect that multiple conference options would only emerge in those locations where that might prove helpful.  Innovative conferences will capitalize on emerging ways to use technology in order to be collaboratively connectional.

FAIR PLAY

There are several stabilizing factors that would make the exit of congregations from an annual conference somewhat rare.  I also suggest some rules of fair play that mitigate concern of the “free for all” that some fear:

  • The congregation considering a move would be served by a pastor with membership in the annual conference being considered for exit. It would not be to the pastor’s advantage to lead his/her congregation out of the conference.  Under our current rules, the pastor would not be released to the new conference along with the congregation except with permission by his/her bishop.  Bishops would likely be a bit cool to the idea of releasing a clergy (along with the church they serve) to another conference, except perhaps through a negotiated trade.  Allowance can be made for pastors exiting due to issues of conscience with the ministry standards of the conference’s jurisdiction.
  • I recommend a six-month “open enrollment period” once every four years in which a congregation could consider aligning with another conference. This would minimize congregations leaving in a season of conflict or as a strategy to shed itself of an unpopular pastor.  This election period would follow on the heels of the annual conference’s once-a-quadrennium opportunity to select a new jurisdiction, or not.
  • The cabinet of the prospective conference would have to agree that they could provide supervision to the interested local church. Local churches would not be choosing from all sixty-some annual conferences operating in the U.S., but from only those willing to provide coverage to their location.  (Some places might continue to have only one conference option available).
  • Church councils would have to extend the invitation for a visit from a perspective conference. Cabinet representatives would be sent to interested congregations (or “Skype in”) with the full knowledge of the district superintendent supervising the church.  The conference currently serving the church would have every opportunity to make their best case for continuing to serve the local church.
  • The vote to align with another conference would be made at a church conference chaired by the superintendent of the conference being considered for exit, and would require a 2/3 affirmative vote for a change to happen.
  • Annual conferences have been traditionally geographic in nature and have conference institutions, camps, and shared facilities designed to add value to the churches of that geography. This gives something of a home field advantage to the conference of origin.

It is also possible to have some rules that would assist annual conferences with any financial disruptions experienced:

  • Churches that are exiting from a conference could be required to continue to pay apportionments to their old conference for a period of time in order to allow for conference budgeting cycles to adjust. This time period could be extended for larger churches as the financial disruption would be greater for the conference in these cases.  This would also mitigate conferences recruiting only large churches.
  • There could be reporting mechanisms that would allow general church apportionments to be recalculated to the annual conferences in the case of significant changes.
  • There would be little interest on the part of annual conferences in accepting local churches that do not pay their apportionments, unless they feel they can provide leadership that would reverse this trend. This plan might help increase the percentage of apportionments paid overall.

Yes, every annual conference would love to have Church of the Resurrection paying millions of dollars into their coffers annually.  What would prevent prospective cabinets from offering to make a mega-church its own district, building a district parsonage next door, giving a discounted rate on apportionments, and flying the D.S. back and forth as needed?  Remember that leaving a conference also means changing to a different clergy pool.  There are often several appointed pastors in large churches, all of which, presumably, have their membership in the conference being considered for exit.   A large local church would have to be significantly motivated to leave in order to consider losing their entire pastoral staff.  Prospective conferences could not transfer in the pastors serving the church without the consent of the bishop overseeing those clergy (¶347).

Forcing annual conferences to justify their existence is not a bad thing.  Motivating conferences to maintain the highest quality clergy pool and provide a good return to local churches for dollar paid in is likewise healthy, both for the denomination and the Kingdom of God.  Regardless of ideology, I hope we could agree that we want a system in place that rewards what works and discourages what doesn’t.

OBJECTIONS

“But we won’t get to fellowship with all the other United Methodists around us.”

This sounds eerily similar to local church members that resist starting a second service because they want to continue to know everyone in the church.  Our mission is not to know everyone, but to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  I live close to the borders of both our neighboring Northern Illinois and Iowa conferences.  Our present system does not encourage me to know and work with all the United Methodists around me, unless I make a special effort outside my conference affiliation to do so.  Under our present system, state lines often dissect metropolitan regions which might prove unhelpful to the coordinated witness of otherwise like minded UM congregations in that area.  Let’s empower the local church to have a bigger voice in these decisions.  There is nothing in our present system or the one I am suggesting that would prevent cooperation among local churches of other conferences.

“But we might become like Major League Baseball… the rich New York Yankees and everyone else.”

In our present environment of decline, our competition is not to be found in other UM annual conferences and jurisdictions.  I would again state that some conferences and jurisdictions will cease to exist no matter what due to current demographic trends.  Merging two dying judicatory bodies very seldom, if ever, produces a healthy one.  If we don’t do something like I am suggesting here, we are leaving the merger of failing systems as our only strategy for the future.  It is best to allow healthy conferences and or jurisdictions to develop and slowly, organically gain ascendancy.  Building strong, effective, attractive United Methodist conferences or jurisdictions should not be viewed as a problem or threat. A rising tide lifts all ships except those that are already sitting on the ocean’s floor.   If our system is not rewarding effectiveness it is rewarding something else at the cost of vitality.

“This plan sorts United Methodist too much based on ideology.”

United Methodist jurisdictions are becoming, under our present system, increasingly sorted by theological approach and ideology.  Under The Five Rules, the default option for each jurisdiction is to continue to operate under our current global clergy standards (found in the Book of Discipline).  Only by a 2/3 majority could the pastoral standards and chargeable offenses be adapted.  Some moderate jurisdictions might adapt these to allow for different levels of discretion for clergy to perform same sex weddings or conferences to ordain clergy candidates in same sex marriages.  We might end up with jurisdictions that retain the global standards but specialize in other ways we cannot now predict.  Whatever decisions are made at the jurisdictional level, annual conferences and local churches could decide whether those standards are something under which they want to continue to operate.  Moderation would tend to be rewarded. The central feature of this plan is not that it sorts United Methodists by ideology but that it allows them to sort themselves based on the needs of local churches and conferences, whatever those needs might be.

HEALTHY CHURCHES ASKING HEALTHY QUESTIONS

“The local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” (BOD, ¶201)  Imagine a future where annual conferences promote themselves based on the value they add to their constituent congregations.  Local churches might ask:

  • What percent of the conference’s clergy are leading their congregations to growth?
  • What programs are available to assist local congregations in becoming more effective?
  • What training and enrichment events are offered for laity?
  • How are district superintendents trained to assist local churches and how often might we expect to be visited by our superintendent?
  • How is consultation handled when pastoral changes are anticipated?
  • Where would our conference apportionment dollars go and how are apportionments assessed to the local church?
  • Who are the conference staff and how can they help us?
  • What process would the conference follow in helping an entering congregation assess its strengths and weaknesses?
  • How aggressively are ineffective clergy exited from the conference clergy pool?
  • What percent of the clergy pool have training in Natural Church Development, Vital Congregations, or other local church health paradigms?
  • What percentage of the clergy specializes in rural/urban ministry?
  • What shared missions are supported by this conference?
  • How does the conference insure that clergy remain ethical and effective?

CONCLUSION

We already have geographically overlapping annual conferences in the case of some of our missionary conferences.  The Five Rules builds on this reality by allowing every congregation and conference the opportunity to explore the connectional relationships that best assist them on their mission.  Think of it as Collaborative Connectionalism, an Organic Jurisdictional Solution.  This would be a good idea even if we were not facing schism.  Given our present crisis, I feel it is urgent that we find a better, more innovative way to be the United Methodist Church.  Could we start by talking less about global human sexuality standards and more about making disciples in and through the local church?

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