by Chris Ritter
The recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same sex marriage nationwide has only heightened the anxiety in our denomination over issues surrounding human sexuality. The various responses from United Methodists, including our bishops, highlight the deep divides we bring to our quadrennial General Conference in two weeks. For all the energy being expended around this debate, it is very possible there will be insufficient support to either change our rules or to enforce them. This would mean four more years of continued rancor and distraction with no clear end in sight. Many solutions offered to date prescribe lop-sided victories that perpetuate the possibility of a post-General Conference split. While a structural compromise is no substitute for genuine unity, surely it is preferable to both schism and attempts to enforce shallow conformity to our rules through clergy trials.
Let United Methodists remember that we have a peculiar apparatus at our disposal within the toolbox of our present connectional polity: The jurisdiction. This latest addition to our system of conferences was devised as a way to keep Methodists just separate enough to live somewhat peaceably under the same roof. There are presently five of these structures dividing United Methodists in the USA from one another geographically. Although they have a shameful origin associated with the worst days of America’s racial struggle, jurisdictions provide an extra judicatory layer, something potentially advantageous when re-designing a denomination at odds with itself.
In the Southeast, the largest of our jurisdictions (2.8 million members) has a programming function and is a sort of sub-denomination complete with a headquarters at Lake Junaluska (they have made much of their jurisdiction as the whole jurisdictional system was created to address Southern concerns in the 1939 reunification). In the West, the smallest of our jurisdictions (330K members) is prized by many there as it has served to foster and protect their distinctly progressive brand of United Methodism. Everywhere else, jurisdictional conferences are mostly a place to gather every four years and exercise the political/spiritual process of electing our bishops. The episcopal leaders of a certain jurisdiction comprise its “College of Bishops” and episcopal accountability is charged to jurisdictional structures. A jurisdiction is basically a group of annual conferences led by a particular team of bishops.
My work over the past two years has been focused on re-inventing our jurisdictional system to address the realities we face today. I do not claim that any of these solutions are perfect, only that they are preferable to the alternatives. What follows is a summary that might be useful to those preparing for General Conference. These three Jurisdictional Solutions are in no way exhaustive, but I feel any could be used to help us overcome our current impasse:
1) THE TWO-JURISDICTION SOLUTION
The first Jurisdictional Solution developed replaces our five jurisdictions with two based on ideology. This plan is built on the premise that there are two basic worldviews at work in American United Methodism, drawn from two basic approaches to scripture, and it is most honest to acknowledge this and organize accordingly. Under this plan, the wording of our Book of Discipline would stay in place but each of the two new jurisdictions would be empowered to adapt some parts (ministry standards, chargeable offenses, some social principles, etc.) Existing U.S. annual conferences and bishops would elect to join one of the two new structures. Individual churches and clergy who could not live under the covenant chosen by their annual conference would have an opportunity to affiliate with a conference of the other jurisdiction. The end result would be two systems of United Methodist annual conferences that each spans the entire United States.
For complete details, see here.
2) THE SIX-JURISDICTION SOLUTION
There are those who worry about the long-term ramifications of dividing American United Methodism into two leagues. Might this be a prelude to a more comprehensive split? There are also those who feel that the Southeast and the West would be reluctant to ratify plans that would eliminate their somewhat cherished jurisdictional institutions. With these concerns in mind, I developed a second approach that keeps our five jurisdictions in place to operate under the ministry rules found in our Book of Discipline. A sixth Progressive Jurisdiction would be created for those annual conferences that cannot, in good conscience, live under our global ministry covenant. The Progressive Jurisdiction [call it a Progressive U.S. Central Conference or whatever you like] would have freedom to adapt our rules and be given customized but continued participation in the general church. Like the earlier version, there would opportunities for individual churches and clergy to re-affiliate themselves if they felt mismatched with their annual conference. Progressive Jurisdiction congregations would indicate their affiliation on their letterhead and signage so as to distinguish themselves from the main body of United Methodism. Some progressives object that this would make them second-class citizens of the church. Others realize that without the protections of a separate structure, the rising culturally conservative tide of central conference representation will eventually erase any short-term gains they are currently enjoying. This plan gives sanction to a new progressive body without changing our language of human sexuality in the Discipline.
For complete details, see Progressive Jurisdiction Legislation 2.4
3) THE ORGANIC JURISDICTIONAL SOLUTION
Homosexuality is not our only or even our most important issue. Even if the same sex marriage debate went away, we would still be a declining denomination losing its influence in the larger culture. There is a great need for innovation. There is also a need to address lingering issues like clergy effectiveness.
If we allow each of our five existing jurisdictions to adapt our ministry rules and chargeable offenses for clergy (by 2/3 majority vote), and make it easier for annual conferences to join whatever jurisdiction they wish, we have given our denomination the tools to organically reorganize itself over time from the grassroots. The Organic Jurisdictional Solution is based on Five Rules I developed that would help the denomination seem “flatter” by allowing greater choice into the types of connectional relationships that best serve the mission. United Methodist clergy and congregations would be empowered to locate themselves under a covenant that works for them.
One attractive feature of this third plan is that it allows General Conference to develop a solution without specifically referencing sexuality at all. Instead of dividing the church into structures predefined by ideology, it allows the U.S. church to reorganize itself based on whatever criteria become important. All five jurisdictions would have the opportunity to develop ministry covenants that best enable their constituent annual conferences to make disciples of Jesus Christ. They would do so carefully, knowing that annual conferences out of step with those rules would be free to exit to another jurisdiction. Think of this as taking our current structures and un-tethering them from the bounds of geography so that they can become fluid. It is an attempt to equip our denomination to more nimbly operate in the post-denominational reality (described here and here) in which we seem to find ourselves.
A local congregation would be empowered to join another annual conference if one is deemed by it as better matched and is willing to provide coverage to their location (there are guidelines and limitations placed upon this process). This is congregational empowerment without congregationalism. Is it not preferable that local churches move to another conference within United Methodism rather than exit the denomination completely? Clergy with moral objection to the ministry covenant of their jurisdiction would be allowed to transfer from their conference without interference by their bishop.
To visualize how this might work it would be helpful to consider the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC). Despite its name, this conference actually covers not only Oklahoma but also parts of Missouri, Kansas, and North Texas. Organized with a particular missional focus, the OIMC overlaps with several other annual conferences and proves that United Methodist churches within the same geography can be part of different annual conferences and be accountable to different bishops. This fluid method of organizing allows for diversity within our overall United Methodist organizational unity.
The Organic Jurisdictional Solution applies this concept to the entire United States. Annual conferences would become something akin to regional ministry networks rather than states in our union with protected territories. Jurisdictions would be empowered to customize the global church rules by which these ministry networks operate (whether it be in a progressive, traditionalist, or centrist direction). Effective conferences will tend to expand and ineffective conferences will either need to reform or die. We must remember that many conferences will cease to exist with or without this plan due to our present demographic trends. [Economist Don House has predicted that we will only have 17 of our 56 U.S. annual conferences left by 2050 due to decline.] Allowing healthy systems to gradually gain ascendancy over unhealthy ones is preferable to merging ineffective geographic conferences, a strategy that has never yielded a turnaround and is presently our only structural mechanism to address decline.
This plan retains guaranteed appointments for clergy but conferences that are shrinking would be forced to deal with excess ineffective clergy under the means already available. A minimum size is placed upon jurisdictions to prevent any jurisdiction from becoming too tightly defined over and against the larger church. Bishops of disbanding jurisdictions would be assigned to other duties by the Council of Bishops. Clergy would be clear stakeholders in the success of their conference just as bishops would be in the effectiveness of their jurisdiction.
You can read more about this third Jurisdictional Solution here.
This summary is intended as an aid to those elected as delegates to the 2016 General Conference. All three plans require constitution amendments and, therefore, wide consensus. I hope you join with me in my conclusion that the tools to solve our formidable problems are already in hand. As your fellow delegate, I look forward to meeting you soon in Portland and commit to pray with you for our 2016 global gathering. Specific questions about the plan can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Many other posts about legislation before General Conference and United Methodist issues can be found on my blog, www.peopleneedjesus.net.