by Chris Ritter
Growing up on a dairy farm, we often used milk right out of the bulk tank. This large, gleaming stainless steel reservoir was filled from a pipeline flowing from the udders of patiently lactating cows. Grandma pasteurized the milk we used, but it retained its naturally irregular consistency. During breakfast, rich strands of milk fat clung together and rested on top of our corn flakes. What my grandparents called natural, many consumers find disturbing. That is why milk from our farm went through the process of being homogenized at the factory before it was shipped to stores. Some fat was removed and the rest was forcibly blended in to create an artificially uniform consistency.
For all our talk of diversity, United Methodist polity operates mostly on the assumption of homogeneity. Our structures above the local church (districts, conferences and jurisdictions) are based solely on geography. What is good for one church in upstate New York, it is thought, ought to be good for another. We are intentionally naïve to the fact that there might be churches geographically near one another that would benefit from operating under a different approach to ministry.
We see the stress of our shared delusion everywhere. “Open itineracy” of clergy within conferences is our official policy. This means any pastor should technically be able to serve any church. But we all know that no bishop in their right mind would make an appointment without consideration of the “tribe within the tribe” to which both the church and clergy belong. While episcopal discretion manages some of our differences, there are untold people that go un-reached because reaching them would require us to stretch beyond the limits of our standardized approach. (This is one reason why we are actually getting less ethnically diverse as a U.S. denomination in a culture that will soon be “majority minority.”) On the general church level, our chargeable offenses for clergy are currently being ignored by many sworn to uphold the Book of Discipline because our rules are seen as no longer just or relevant in the ministry context of a good number of UM churches. Groups are coming to May’s GC2016 armed for a battle over control of our centralized rules.
When someone moves from our congregation to another community, I cannot in good conscience automatically encourage them to find “a United Methodist Church”. I tell them to find a good church that teaches the scriptures and gives their family opportunities for involvement and spiritual growth. I love it when there is a United Methodist congregation I can recommend. It hurts me to admit that the denomination I love and have dedicated my life to serving provides no guarantee of doctrine, worship experience, or uniform vision for discipleship. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist, the things most important to me are not necessarily defined by our denominational moniker.
As alluded to above, there are bigger problems than simply not getting along. We are losing our capacity to reach our culture. What was once an insurgent, entrepreneurial movement has become as rigid and dead as the church we once sought to reform. Our wine-skins are old, cracked, and dry. We desperately need to create laboratories where new groupings of United Methodists can work together to find a way to expand our mission into new people groups.
Some have called this season the death throws of United Methodism. It doesn’t have to be. If we choose, it can be only the death of our delusion of homogeneity.
But we must be careful.
Some would seek to continue the delusion of homogeneous United Methodism on a national scale. What we need, it is said, is to put the USA under our own rules. You only have to look at the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s plan for global restructure or the “A Place of Reason” plan for a U.S. Central Conference to find groups that assume that United Methodism in the U.S. could thrive under the same homogeneous structures if we only eliminated the cultural influence of the growing African Church. The reasons why these constitutional proposals will fail passage is because they require super-majorities in the global church that do not exist. U.S. traditionalists and Africans have a strong majority coalition that will reject proposals that might interrupt a traditionalist moral vision for our denomination. When a plan to separate Africa from the rest of the church was passed by GC2008, it was rejected in the annual conferences by wide margins (over 90% in Africa and also rejected by a strong majority of United Methodists in the U.S.) I predict these new plans will fare no better.
We would do well to admit that our divisions are based on more than nationality. United Methodist Churches with very different approaches to ministry are to be found in the same town. There are, however, areas where United Methodism is quite uniform. The problem there is not intramural conflict but a diminished capacity to evangelize anyone who would not be drawn to Jesus by that single ministry brand. Many of our domestic mission fields could benefit from the flowering of a different kind of United Methodism that is stifled from even sprouting because of our standardized approach.
We are a church at odds with itself. Do we divest from Israel or support the state of Israel? Do we perform same sex weddings or define marriage as the union of a man and a woman? Do we applaud when a pastor comes out of the closet as living with a same-sex partner or press charges? Do we financially support the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice or fund groups supporting the Right to Life for the unborn? These are not just differences but mutually exclusive options. To support one is to reject the other.
Unlike some of my fellow evangelicals, I am not for schism. Our separation in 1844 prefigured disaster for our entire nation. It is a positive witness when people with significant differences find space to stay at the same table with one another. However, there are productive ways to do this and unproductive. We are currently going the unproductive route. We lock people with incompatible worldviews together in rigid geographic structures and ask them to plan and conduct ministry together. Not only does this not work, but it is the recipe for frustration, conflict, and poor results. Fortunately, there are other ways.
United Methodists in the U.S. meet to conference together on three levels: annual conferences, jurisdictional conferences, and General Conference. An annual conference is a team of clergy serving a particular group of churches. A jurisdiction is a team of bishops serving a particular group of annual conferences. General conference is the global gathering where most of our rules are set. The reason why everyone expects General Conference 2016 to be yet another train wreck is because we are giving it the impossible task of setting rules that will work for everyone. Even rules like “live and let live” do not work when the choices of one group create a crisis of conscience for others, as in the case of openly gay itinerating clergy, superintendents, and bishops. One group’s campaign for social justice will inevitably run counter to another group’s campaign for biblical faithfulness.
I have submitted legislation to General Conference 2016 that would do the following:
- Allow U.S. jurisdictional conferences to adapt the ministry rules of the Book of Discipline by 2/3 majority vote.
- Allow any annual conference to join any of the five jurisdictions in the U.S. and reconsider their choice every few years.
- Allow any local church to join any annual conference willing to provide supervision to their area, within certain guidelines.
- Allow clergy to transfer to an annual conference of another jurisdiction without impediment from the conference they are leaving.
I call it the Organic Jurisdictional Solution (OJS) because this ends much of our strife and allows for a gradual reorganization of the U.S. church. It opens the rigid and often arbitrary geographic borders in our system and empowers churches and conferences to freely select the types of connectional relationships within the United Methodism that best enable their mission. New territory is opened for evangelism by both progressive and traditionalist conferences who would be free to do ministry anywhere they wish.
As an evangelical United Methodist, I support this approach because it allows my more progressive colleagues the freedom to do ministry as they wish without making me complicit (the standards in the Book of Discipline stay in place). I realize there is no way to enforce uniformity of approach with the UMC when divergent worldviews are at work. I can live fruitfully under our big tent as long as I am able to plan and conduct ministry with United Methodists within that tent that hold a compatible view of the Christian life. The others I can stay connected to via General Conference and our general agencies.
Here are a few other highlights of the Organic Jurisdictional Solution:
- This type of approach is not foreign to our present polity. Missionary conference are currently allowed to overlap with other conferences in order to more effectively minister to a part of the population that would not be as well served by the traditional conference in that region. In a manner of speaking, the OJS makes each annual conference a missionary conference.
- Presently, our only current means of addressing decline is to merge one failing conference with another failing conference. This is a strategy that has never yielded a turnaround. Under the OJS, healthy systems would be allowed to gradually overtake unhealthy ones.
- The OJS allows moderate UM’s to craft rules for their jurisdictions that seek a “third way” or nuanced approach. They would do so carefully knowing that constituent conferences and congregations would be empowered to vote with their feet and join another jurisdiction or conference.
- The OJS goes a long way toward solving the issue of guaranteed appointments for clergy. Security of appointment is retained, but conferences that are losing churches to other conferences with a more effective clergy pool would be forced to deal with ineffective clergy by the means currently available (disciplining ineffective clergy for being ineffective).
- Financial measures are put into place that soften the transition for conferences and prevent churches from moving to a new conference simply to keep their present pastor in place.
Homogenized United Methodism is dead. We can continue to cry over our spilled milk, or work together to decide what is next. I believe the Organic Jurisdictional Solution better positions us for the future by allowing freedom, within the system, to take different approaches to ministry. Because the OJS is a fair and merit based plan, I have hope that the majorities needed for ratification might be present among the many UM’s that want conflict to end so we can focus again on mission and ministry.