Layer Cake

by Chris Ritter

“If a sufficient number of management layers are superimposed on top of each other, it can be assured that disaster is not left to chance.”   -Norman Ralph Augustine

I was asked by the chairs of my General Conference delegation to prepare a report on the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Global Restructure Taskforce Plan.  I reviewed it earlier as a conceptual proposal, but was happy for the opportunity to examine the detailed legislation.  It is one of only two structural proposals before General Conference 2016 that I would consider serious and thoughtfully composed.  Unlike authors of other plans, the drafters understand our polity and how it works.  That having been said, the Plan raises concerns on several key points.

If passed, the restructure would be the most sweeping global change since the 1968 founding of the UMC.  It would do away with our 222-year-old General Conference, take key powers away from central conferences, and add yet another layer to our already top-heavy denomination.  The plan’s drafters estimate that it would add perhaps another million dollars to our budgets related to meetings.  Unless I am missing something, the global plan was developed without a representative consultation process with the global church.

A GLARING OMISSION?

Perhaps the most glaring omission of the plan is a statement of rationale.  What is the problem the plan seeks to fix?  Since we are left to assume, I will.  General Conference is dysfunctional on several counts.  Previous plans to make it less so have become swept up into the meat-grinder of our most divisive issue:  biblical authority as evidenced in the homosexuality debate.  Many in the U.S. are tired of a growing number of traditionalist global delegates helping to frame the rules under which churches in the U.S. operate.  The UMC in America is losing 100,000 members a year while the African church is gaining 200,000 members annually.  While the U.S. retains the financial power, our representational legislative power is dwindling.  Before long, we will be a majority African denomination.

If you want to liberalize the UMC stance on homosexuality, you are disheartened to find that the General Conference is actually moving a different direction than U.S. culture.  Legislation to change our stance failed to even make it on the floor of conference in 2012.  There is indication that GC2016 might be more traditional still.

U.S. Traditionalists are wise to the effort to eliminate African delegates who dependably vote as a bloc with them.  Some point out that American Methodists didn’t mind operating under one set of global rules when the U.S. was telling the central conferences what to do.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s many in the central conferences protested that they were not culturally ready for female clergy, for instance.  At the time our international conferences were much smaller and had only token representation at General Conference.  We told them that living under one set of rules was good for the church and the right thing to do.  Now that Africans are helping to make the rules we must live by, some seek to compartmentalize them.

THE PLAN

The heart of the NEJ plan is to create yet another judicatory layer to our denomination.  General Conference would be re-styled as the “Global Connectional Conference” and only make decisions of a “global nature”.  Four new “connectional conferences” covering North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia would do the heavy-lifting currently shouldered by General Conference with regards to clergy standards and other divisive issues.  A thin Global Book of Discipline would stand over four, more detailed, connectional books of discipline.  Underneath the connectional conferences would be “regional conferences”, the new name for our twelve jurisdictions and central conferences.  These would elect and assign bishops for their region.  The plan requires multiple constitutional changes and, therefore, supermajority passage with ratification votes in each annual conference.

Matters of ordination and clergy standards are clearly placed with the new connectional conferences.  There is a new constitutional firewall that would prevent the global conference from telling the connectional conferences what to do in these matters.  The framers of the plan know our polity well and realize that clergy standards and “chargeable offenses” are the front line of our cultural battle. It might be reasonable to  surmise this entire effort is aimed at changing the clergy standards for the U.S. church.

Another feature of the plan should be noted.  Central conferences, our international “jurisdictions”, each lose the power to adapt their own Discipline.  This power is instead conferred upon the new connectional conferences.  United Methodists in the three European central conferences, for instance, currently have three Disciplines in different languages that each can make adaptations to our general discipline.   These changes are modest, but aim to make United Methodism in their region relevant to their location with respect to property laws, etc.  These disciplines would have to go away in favor of a new Discipline yet to be crafted for all the European conferences.  The three African disciplines would likewise need to be abolished to make way for a Connectional Discipline for all of Africa.  United Methodists who have never conferenced together separately would be made to do so under the plan.  They speak different languages and the significant translation costs currently shouldered by  General Conference would presumably fall to them.

DEJA VU

We have seen this movie before.  Something very similar was passed at GC2008 under the Worldwide Nature of the Church legislation.  The plan was sold, at the time, as something that would be good for the central conferences and address latent “colonialism” in our denomination.  By 2010 it was also clear the ratification of the constitutional measures enabling the restructure would be soundly defeated.  The aggregate votes in the annual conferences fell below 40%, strikingly short of the 2/3 majority margin needed for ratification.  The strongest rejection came from African conference where as many as 4,900 of 5,165 votes cast were against the plan.  Only conferences of the Western Jurisdiction and Europe, our most socially progressive areas, significantly supported the restructure (United Methodist numbers in these areas are small and shrinking the fastest).

WHO SUPPORTS THIS?

While the legislation has not appeared before the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference for approval (due to the quadrennial calendar), the 15-member taskforce was commissioned by them.  We will need to judge the legitimacy of a plan for the global church that was created without representative international input.  Some obviously feel it is worthy.   The legislation was echoed in submission by the Northern Illinois Conference and Wisconsin Annual Conference.

The “UM Centrist Movement” has endorsed the NEJ Taskforce Plan.  They state:

This legislative proposal would move to de-centralize authority allowing United Methodists more missional discretion. This legislation aligns with the UMCM call for Regional Conferences that shift decision-making and resources closer to the local church while maintaining a strong global connection. Adoption of this plan further represents a step away from the injustice of colonialism and a US-Centric (sic) denominational model.  We ask United Methodist moderates to encourage your conference delegation to support this needed measure to de-centralize decision-making and resource allocation moving them closer to the local church.

SLICING THE UM CAKE

The UMC does need a global makeover.  Anyone watching the goings on at General Conference understands that it is a dysfunctional body.  I find it distasteful that African delegates have become pawns in a well-funded American game of ecclesial politics.  I think some Traditionalist UM’s lean too heavily on the African vote as a substitute for articulating a compelling vision for the UMC in the United States.  African delegates, for their part, seem to not share in the American angst or be particularly motivated to exploit their expanding position for financial gain.  These concerns seem fueled more by American fears than African avarice.

We need to start our restructure in the place with the greatest dysfunction:  the U.S. church.  Africa is not the problem and neither is it the solution.  Are we not anxiously trying to “triangle” Africa into our inherently unstable domestic relationships?   Let’s be honest.  Would the North America Connectional Conference be more unified and functional or do progressives simply feel they are more likely to win there?  As long as we are thinking within a win/lose paradigm, the conversations in our denomination will be toxic.

I feel it is misguided to add yet another judicatory layer onto our already top-heavy denomination.  We already have an extra layer (jurisdictions) that were designed to help the U.S. church manage our divisions.  The NEJ plan would actually move decision-making further away from annual conferences of the central conferences.  Rather than adding cost and vertical complexity to a system that should instead be “flattening”, our jurisdictional system can be reinvented to help address what divides the U.S. church in our generation.

The Jurisdictional Solutions I have authored call an ideological truce by creating space for a Progressive understanding of scripture to play out under the umbrella of the UMC without requiring the general church to compromise its positions.  Annual conferences, while geographically expanded in some places, will remain mostly intact.  Local votes would only happen in those congregations that a significantly out of step with their annual conference and these votes would be about conference alignment, not human sexuality.

A better way forward for the UMC is to straightforwardly address our U.S. disagreements in 2016 and tackle the shape of the global church in 2020 and beyond.  Ministry moves at the speed of trust and we are in a trust deficit tha will bog all major plans like this one down.  We can do better, and this begins with candid conferencing about our divisions in an effort toward an honest means of addressing them.