by Chris Ritter
“The Commission will bring together persons deeply committed to the future(s) of The United Methodist Church, with an openness to developing new relationships with each other and exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions.” -Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the Council of Bishops, July 25, 2016
Professor Ted Campbell’s statement last week before the World Methodist Conference raised eyebrows: “The question at this point is not whether [the UMC will] divide or not. That, I fear, is a given now.” The newsworthiness of this comment reveals the fact that we are not yet used to hearing this said out loud. Behind the scenes, however, insiders have been there since at least May when frank, high-level, closed doors meetings were held in Portland. While not an insider myself, I have spoken to enough of them from across the spectrum to understand that separation is all but a fait accompli. We don’t hear more about this publicly for concerns that those who name it will be charged with causing it. Only pay attention to recent public statements, however, to discern that schism is acknowledged from the top. The July statement of the Council of Bishops’ Executive Team tellingly spoke of “United Methodist future(s).”
I hope we can process our collective grief in such a way so as to not shoot the messengers. Professor Campbell and Bishop Ough obviously love the church and have no interest in fomenting divisions. The value in their separate admissions is that they allow the rest of the church to begin the process of catching up to those already negotiating the future(s) of the Methodisms in play. We need to talk about it even though it is painful. If we can take a deep breath and accept that United Methodism’s Golden Anniversary will likely be the end of what we have previously known, we can at least begin to talk about what might be next. These conversations must happen both inside and outside the Bishops’ Commission. Beyond schism lies the Next Connectionalism, yet to be defined. The work is complicated. Read on.
When forces of wind and water take a ship in more than one direction, the hull is eventually cleaved and the ship goes down. The UMC is not a ship, however, but a flotilla of ships, boats, and pontoons of various sizes. Legally speaking, the United Methodist Church does not technically exist. It is a collection of boards, agencies, and conferences, each separately incorporated. While each vessel can go its own way, the passengers on the various crafts in our flotilla are not purely identified with either of the directions that have been charted. Thousands will scramble as they find themselves on a craft heading to a destination they never intended. Middling courses, while possible, seem only to be a transition to one of two inevitable horizons. Here are a few of the ships in our flotilla to consider:
Individual Congregations & Clergy
If there is a universal hope among United Methodists it is that individual congregations would be spared from divisive votes on human sexuality. Because United Methodism is constituted primarily as a collection of annual conferences, it would stand to reason that crucial decisions would happen on the conference level. However, some congregations and clergy will be unable to accept the direction of their annual conference. These, at least, will be forced to make a decision about whether to stay in their conference. Because of the democratic nature of our church, this will require a vote.
Some rough math: Assuming that local church votes will happen only in those U.S. congregations out of step with the direction of their annual conference, it will be a clear minority of churches that would exercise such an option should it become available… I will estimate this at 10-20% throughout the U.S. The number will be lower in more homogeneous conferences and higher elsewhere. The votes would presumably be on conference affiliation, not human sexuality directly. Our present constitution mentions both a church conference and a “congregational” vote in our only existing provision addressing how a congregation might transfer to a new annual conference (¶41).
Assuming annual conferences will vote in a formal schism, a majority of clergy will stay in the conference of their present membership. There are already familiar provisions in the Discipline for a clergy to transfer to a new conference. This process, however, requires the consent of the supervising bishop. Conferences and bishops will not, however, want to see the exit of talented clergy, especially if their congregations want to leave with them. A peaceful separation, it seems to me, would include the guarantee of at least the right to transfer out of a conference paired with provisions that keep this process from being used unfairly. (In my Jurisdictional Solution work, I developed several provisions that might keep the transfer process fair and open.)
Even if our constitution did not name annual conferences as the primary unit of the church, we would intuitively know these bodies serve as the face of United Methodism for most congregations and clergy. This is where we link together for ministry (or fail to do so). Local church property is held in trust for their annual conference. AC’s are also the funding link from the grass roots to the upper levels of the church. Changes to annual conference relationships as a result of schism will be the changes that are felt most acutely. Conservative congregations in non-conforming conferences are finding that they are bound to their conference even when their conference is no longer bound to the denomination.
It stands to reason that the more ideologically pure an annual conference is, the less disruption it will experience in a denominational schism. Some conferences, however, are homogeneously moderate and may have difficulty discerning which course to take. Others have a mix of clergy and churches of stronger ideologies with tensions running high between the two camps. Any plan of separation with the possibility of remaining amicable will need to allow new conference relationships to be formed. The real question is what shape this new sorting will take. (I have suggested that annual conferences be restyled as regional ministry networks with elastic, overlapping borders.)
What almost all conferences in the U.S. have in common is decline. Apart from whatever sorting would happen during a formalized schism, annual conferences will face fiscal and demographic challenges. Ph.D. Economist Don House has predicted that we will go from 56 annual conferences in the U.S. to 37 in 2030 and just 17 by 2050, due to present patterns of decline. Our current strategy of merging one failing annual conference with another nearby has never successfully reversed the demographic trend. The annual conferences that “win” in a schism may be the ones that take the opportunity to fundamentally change the ministry model under which they operate, including ways to dramatically improve their clergy pool.
General Boards and Agencies
A well-known large church pastor from the left recently was quoted from Portland as naming the dissolution of dysfunctional general agencies as a potential positive outcome of schism. Remaining intact, he said that these expensive, entrenched, and change-resistant bureaucracies would be the booby prize awaiting the “winner” in a denominational split. He and many from across the ideological spectrum find appealing the idea of starting over from scratch.
Some of our general agencies, however, are extremely capable and are wisely positioning themselves for the future. The General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits of the UMC recently announced that they are now operating under the name Wespath Benefits and Investments. (As I worked on my jurisdictional solutions, I had very helpful interaction with the GBPHB staff, including their General Secretary. It was clear they were proactively studying proposals for the future of the UMC and planning accordingly.) With the name change they announced they are positioned to provide services to any judicatory body (UMC or otherwise) that might require what they offer. Just as they were once Y2K ready, this towering financial institution now stands schism-ready.
The General Board of Discipleship’s name change to “Discipleship Ministries” last year does not appear to be directly related to threat of impending separation. It is an indication, however, of the burden they feel to re-brand themselves and their mission. Each of our general program agencies would be wise to consider their viability apart from a centralized umbilical cord of apportionment funding.
There will be winners and losers. The winners will be agencies that have discovered ways to efficiently provide vital services to congregations and annual conferences from across the spectrum. There is no reason why UMCOR, which enjoys a very favorable reputation, will not be able to continue to receive support from folks of any ideology under a slightly modified banner. (They might even expand to World Methodist Conference denominations to provide a unified Wesleyan witness in times of disaster.) Agencies like the General Board of Church and Society, however, are closely tied to our core divisions and can expect radical adjustment.
Jurisdictions were put into place in 1939 to finally end the decades-long stalemate in reunion negotiations between the northern and southern Methodists. This peculiar additional judicatory layer built regionalism into our church. (Previously, bishops were elected at General Conference.) There are calls to do away with jurisdictions altogether as they have fostered many of the divisions we are facing today. Realistically, this is now impossible. I have suggested that we reinvent our jurisdictional layer to address what ails us in this generation. Freshly conceived, jurisdictions might be places to write ministry rules apart from the general church level. We could then allow U.S. annual conferences to join whatever jurisdiction best suits them. The election of Bishop Oliveto has seriously complicated unity proposals like mine as our understanding of General Superintendency would need to be altered should she remain in office. Bishop Ough’s letter did indicate that the nature of the episcopacy would be on the table in the work of the Commission.
The nature of our current expression of schism is that some conferences, congregations, clergy, and even bishops refuse to answer to the authority of General Conference and have functionally created their own ministry standards apart from the main body of United Methodism. At least technically, whoever inherits General Conference will inherit United Methodism as GC is the only body that speaks for the denomination. And the direction of General Conference seems fairly clear. A diverse group of U.S. and Central Conference UM’s holding a traditional view of scripture are together coalescing as the main branch of the church. This growing majority was poised in 2016 to pass new accountability measures better enforcing the Discipline‘s view of human sexuality. We opted instead (narrowly) for the special commission formed by the bishops.
The commission might suggest we change the very nature of General Conference to become something more akin to the World Methodist Conference where the diverse heirs of Wesley come together to shake hands and hear speeches. It may also suggest a new relationship to non-conforming conferences so as to keep them tethered to the church… something like domestic “affiliate autonomous conferences” with concordant agreements for shared services. Whatever plan is brought by the bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward will have to face the scrutiny of our highest legislative body.
BACK TO DALLAS?
The Executive Team of the Council of Bishops has hinted they are encouraging their council to call a special 2018 General Conference. This would be significant as it would fall on the 50th Anniversary of the formation of The United Methodist Church. Maybe we should even meet in Dallas, the city where the 1968 Uniting Conference was held. Going back to the starting point may help us think about what has worked and what has not.
There may also be an argument for meeting in Kansas City where our 1939 Uniting Conference was held. Jurisdictionalism has been a failure if the aim was a homogenized denomination. If attempted homogenization is itself the problem, perhaps the UMC will double down on compartmentalization, allowing jurisdictions or other bodies to set their own ministry rules. If we do that, we will need some serious conversation about what unites us moving forward. Any structural change that holds potential for averting full division will require significant constitutional updates and the concerted will of General Conference. A constitutional convention may be just be the best Golden Anniversary present we could give ourselves if it turns out we don’t want a divorce after all.