by Chris Ritter

A question I am often asked these days is what I think the Commission on a Way Forward is going to propose.  I don’t have any insider information. I do have several friends from across the spectrum that are Commission members, but they uniformly stick to referencing the official statements of their blue ribbon group.    The Commission actually “belongs” to the Council of Bishops and our episcopal leaders will get the first peek.  Since the bishops don’t convene again until November, we can expect something of a lull until then.

But, of course, that won’t keep us from speculating.

A press release came out yesterday from the Commission that some have argued doesn’t say much.  I disagree.  I think it says quite a lot.  According to yesterday’s status update, the future they will propose will look very different from the one we have now.  They see a “loosely configured structure” with a “thinner Book of Discipline.”  In other words, they are bringing a massive structural plan that will fundamentally alter our understanding of United Methodism.

I see this as a positive.  It means we are not going to get some sort of weak sauce local option.  It also means that the voice of the global church is being taken seriously.  The fact that the evangelicals and Africans on the Commission are heading down this road means that it will not be some sort of single “U.S. Central Conference” Plan that allows standards for the American church to lurch leftward in some sort of wholesale fashion.  I interpret the Commission’s words to mean that there will be more than one flavor of United Methodism in the United States.  (Those who have been paying attention know this is already the case.)  Since this is a peace plan, we will have more than one team for annual conferences to join, along with some sort of sorting mechanism that will put dissident congregations and clergy in a new group should they wish this.  Peace can’t be achieved any other way.

I know a few things about structural proposals for the UMC, having written several myself.  One thing all large structural plans share is that they impact our Constitution.  Amendments to our constitution must be passed by a 2/3 margin at General Conference and ratified in each of the annual conferences across the globe by the same aggregate percentage.  This means United Methodists will be holding their collective breaths not once but twice.  One will be at General Conference 2019 in St. Louis when the plan is voted on.  (If it fails by five votes, what is the back-up plan?)  The other pregnant pause will last at least a year as annual conferences across the globe vote to ratify.  If we push the timetable, we might know by General Conference 2020 whether the grand plan is acceptable to the church.

Based on yesterday’s press release, the Commission will be offering us nothing short of a “New Connectionalism.”  The United Methodist Church will become an umbrella for several smaller denominations, each with their own ministry standards.

WARNING:  What follows is wholesale speculation on my part.  It is not based on any insider information.  This is just me extrapolating based on what I know of the landscape and the players around the table in the Commission.

REDEFINING UNITED METHODISM

The nature of the UMC would transform into a much looser umbrella organization providing connection and shared services to its affiliated denominations.  It would be more communion than church.  Each annual conference in the United States would be organized out of their current jurisdictions and into one of three overlapping “central conferences.”  (Central conferences are what we currently call the seven regional clusters of annual conferences we have around the world. They are analogous to our U.S. jurisdictions.)  I think the Commission will probably find a new name for these upper judicatory structures, but for now I will use the name we currently have.  Think “little denomination.”  Everyone would be United Methodist, but in another sense no one would be United Methodist.  Each of the ten denominations will have its own name, ministry rules, and Book of Discipline that stands underneath a thin general Discipline.

Why would America be divided into three central conferences?  Why not two?  I believe the Moderates on the Commission would insist on a middle option from which U.S. annual conference could choose.  Rather than being organized solely on geography, the U.S. central conferences would be based on ministry covenants and would overlap on the map.  One judicatory would keep the current ministry standards in the Book of Discipline (and mean it).  For our purposes here, I will call it the Traditionalist Central Conference and I depict it on the maps below in blue.  A second judicatory would be silent about whether LGBTQI persons should be married and ordained so that these matters could be handled at the local church and conference level.  The assumption would be that this central conference would slowly transition to full LGBTQI acceptance.  I will call this the Centrist Central Conference and depict it in green.  A third judicatory would immediately guarantee the right of LGBTQI persons to have same sex marriages in church and for conferences to ordain clergy regardless of their sexual practice.  I will call this the Progressive Central Conference and depict it in yellow.

The U.S. Central Conferences would function much like our current jurisdictions, but with more responsibilities.  They would elect and fund their own bishops.  Instead of being superintendents of the whole church, bishops would be superintendents of their central conference.  I assume here that international central conferences would likewise see an expansion of their responsibilities.  Perhaps the central conferences would determine how long bishops serve, what their level of authority would be, and how clergy are deployed.  The UMC Council of Bishops would become a forum for conversation instead of directional leadership. The college of bishops in each central conference would superintend the conferences under their care under the authority of their central conference Discipline.

ENACTING THE GRAND PLAN

Once this plan is approved, a vote would be taken in each U.S. conference for affiliation in one of these three new U.S. Central Conferences (denominations).  Those local churches and clergy who could not live with the decision of their annual conference would be granted permission to affiliate with the U.S. central conference of their choosing.  That central conference would place dissident congregations in one of their own annual conferences through their remapping process.  Financial arrangements would be made so that congregations exiting their home conference would take with them a fair share of any unfunded pension liabilities.

DRAWING A NEW MAP

I am a visual person.  Info-graphics, charts, and maps graphs really help me understand things.  For this reason, I wanted to develop annual conference maps based on three overlapping U.S. Central Conferences.  Of course, this is an impossible task as it requires clairvoyance into how each conference would vote a couple years from now.

The Progressive Central Conference would, on its surface, seem like the conference of choice for the eleven annual conferences that have officially voted to defy the UMC ministry standards.  However, progressivism is an inherently missionary ideology.  Why would our most progressive conferences vote themselves into an ideological ghetto when they have the opportunity to advance their cause into new territory?  For this reason, I think there stands a good chance that the Progressive Central Conference would be left empty.  But the model I developed nevertheless shows these eleven annual conferences in yellow and as part of their own central conference.

The Moderate Central Conference will be fairly attractive to many United Methodists because it is simply the one in the middle.  We tend to like the middle of the road.  The question remains, however:  Will the middle still be the middle once the Traditionalists are gone?  While there is some legitimate doubt that Progressives would choose the Progressive Central Conference, there is no doubt that many Traditionalists would be leaving to their own judicatory.  This exit will have a leftward slingshot effect on those trying to hold the middle.

Take a look at the Schism Map I recently developed.  You can see where the most stridently Progressive areas of the UMC are (shown in white and light gray).

2017 UMC Schism Map Version 2c

Now, compare this with what we know about America.  We can almost predict the shape of the future three American United Methodist denominations.  Their conferences will be geographically larger in those areas where fewer of their ideology reside.

woodard-umc-map-01
SOURCE

GENERAL ASSUMPTIONS

Every model begins with assumptions.  Here are mine:

  • Conferences in the new paradigm will be built on the foundation of existing UMC conferences. Annual conferences are the basic unit of the church with membership, assets, and liabilities.  They exist as a legal unit whereas the United Methodist Church technically does not.  (The UMC is a collection of conferences and general agencies with no formal legal incorporation).  Almost all annual conferences in this model would have their roots in an existing conference.  That being said, there would be nothing to prevent a U.S. central conference from organizing a brand new conference to cover some of its geography.
  • Almost all annual conferences will become geographically larger.  It stands to reason that dividing the U.S. into three overlapping judicatories will means that conferences (if they retain something close to their current membership size) will generally be covering more territory.  This will be more pronounced in the most divided parts of our nation and less pronounced in homogeneous conferences.
  • When voting to join a central conference, U.S.  annual conferences would not just be choosing a stance on homosexuality, but they would be selecting the group of Methodists they wish to conference with in the future, including in the election of bishops. Abortion, divestment from Israel, and other social issues would also get folded into the discussion along, with apportionment rates, clergy standards, educational requirements, and other dynamics.
  • I assume the eleven conferences that have already broken with the UMC would go into the Progressive Central Conference (shown in yellow). There is a possibility that more would join them, but it should be noted that conferences will be trying to find an option that will keep as many of their congregations in the fold as possible.  This means that progressive-leaning conferences will often choose green over yellow.  In fact (as stated before) there is a high likelihood that no conference would select the most progressive conferences option.
  • Another factor keeping the Progressive Central Conference small will be its lack of strong representation in the South where most United Methodists live.  As conferences and congregations vote, they will want to avoid geographic isolation.
  • The middle option will be very attractive to many in the U.S., except for that the fact that this group will likely slingshot to the left with the exodus of the traditionalists. The middle conference will, by definition, be in flux for the foreseeable future.  Traditionalist congregations and clergy of the Centrist Central Conference could gradually be targeted or otherwise pressured to change their position.
  • Most churches and clergy will stay with their existing conference through inertia. Conservatives motivated enough to make a change will likely change to the Traditionalist Central Conference.  (Those conservatives leaving a Progressive conference would not go to a Centrist conference but to a Traditionalist conference.  Those leaving Traditionalists conferences, however, will likely join a Centrist conference over the most Progressive one.)
  • The Traditionalist (Blue) Central Conference will have a legitimate claim to centrism in that they can argue that they are keeping the current UMC ministry standards.

STATISTICAL ASSUMPTIONS

Here are the statistical assumptions on which my model is built:

  • All conferences will lose at least some churches to another U.S. central conferences and gain other congregations as their borders are widened in the inevitable remapping process.
  • The exodus will be felt most acutely in those geographic areas that are most ideologically divided. A conference like West Ohio will feel much more practical change than the California-Pacific or Mississippi Conference, for instance.
  • The rate of “leakage” is difficult to guess. But here is my attempt:
    • Progressive conferences will only lose churches to the traditionalist central conference, and at an average rate of about 10%. If a church is motivated to leave, they will not just join the Centrist (green) Central Conference, but go all the way.
    • Traditionalist conferences will tend to only lose churches to the Centrist central conference, and at a rate of about 10%. Churches in conservative areas will likely not make two jumps to the left and face geographic isolation.
    • Centrist conferences will only lose churches to the Traditionalist central conference, and at a rate of 25% on average. There will be little motivation for Progressives to leave a Centrist conference because they will have the permissive ministry standards they have been seeking.  The conservatives, however, will leave these moderate conferences in more significant numbers.

Here is where my model resorts to particularly large speculation.  What conferences will go where?  For the sake of a beginning point, I assigned the eleven conferences currently in schism to the Progressive Central Conference.  I then chose a slightly higher number of conferences to go with the Traditionalist Central Conference (shown in blue).  I chose six conferences at random in the South Central Jurisdiction and ten at random from the Southeastern Jurisdiction.  Argue with these assumptions all you want.  This is just a thought exercise.

ACs divided into three colors

Annual conferences vary greatly in size from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Excluding missionary conferences, I calculated the average annual conference membership size in each jurisdiction.  I then extrapolated (using the statistical model above) how many members in each jurisdiction would fall in the Progressive, Centrist, and Traditionalist Central Conferences.

Jurisdictional to Central

The more detail I give you, of course, the shakier my information becomes.  I went ahead and randomly mapped the three new United Methodist denominations based on their projected representation in each of the old jurisdictions.

Progressive Central Conference Map with stats

Traditionalist Central Confernce Map with stats

Centrist Central Conference Map

Using the average conference size, I was able to calculate how many members would be in each new Central Conference in each of the old jurisdictional territories.  Using this VERY rough model:

  • The Progressive U.S. Central Conference would have eleven conferences and 583,000 Members.
  • The Centrist U.S. Central Conference would have 24 Conferences and 3.3 Million Members.
  • The Traditionalist U.S. Central Conference would have 21 Conferences and 3.2 Million Members.

As the maps show, the Progressive Central Conference would be strongest in the West, Northern Midwest, and Northeast.  If this Central Conference had a presence in the South, it would be as an extremely large and sparsely populated missionary conference.  The Traditionalist Central Conference would be strongest in the South with some representation in the Northern Midwest and Northeast.  Its western conference would be geographically very large unless it adapted a new, smaller conference model.

ANALYSIS

Those who followed the development of my Jurisdictional Solutions will recognize the similarities.  Just as I am no longer promoting them, I am not necessarily supporting this model, either.  I simply think that something like this is the only place The Commission can go given their mandate and the current environment.  Of course, their particular model will be diverge from mine in any number of ways.

The final nail in the coffin of the Jurisdictional Solution was, I think, the election of Karen Oliveto as a United Methodist bishop.  When you need separate episcopacies, you need a separate church.  And this is really what this plan involves:  The formation of three new Methodist denominations under the umbrella of American United Methodism.  A necessary allowance for the acceptance of this model would be the dissolution of the general superintendency of bishops.  A bishop in one Central Conference would not have official temporal and spiritual oversight in any of the others.  United Methodism globally will become a confederation of smaller denominations similar to the World Methodist Council.

I expect the American central conference would not call themselves “Progressive”, “Centrist” and “Traditionalist.”  They would choose separate denominational names and logos.  What would these three denominations share?  Along with the seven central conferences that currently exist, they would be part of ten global denominations that comprise a new form of United Methodism.  They would share a long history.  They would be served by and help shape the reorganized General Boards and Agencies of the United Methodist Communion.  There would still be a Council of Bishops, but the role of this group would be reduced as more energy is placed at the College of Bishops level.

There are technically eight books of discipline that currently serve the UMC: One General Discipline and seven subsidiary central conference Disciplines.  The customizations currently allowed in the Central Conference Disciplines are extremely limited and do not extend to ministry standards or Social Principles.  This would need to change under the new paradigm.  Central Conference Disciplines (like the one found here) would become more powerful, unique, and their number would grow to ten. As the Commission has hinted, the global Book of Discipline would be rather thin.  This means the powers of General Conference would be significantly reduced.  Judicial bodies would be needed at the Central Conference level to interpret the various Disciplines.

HOLDING OUR BREATH

If the Commission brings a grand plan like this to General Conference 2019 and it fails the required supermajority passage, there will be a very long and uncomfortable “Now what?” moment.  We could be in for a scramble to find some way to hold our United Methodist flotilla together.  If the plan passes, the church will have a year-long uncomfortable wait as the ratification votes take place. Will African conferences vote favorably upon a plan that allows some United Methodists to take an alternative view to human sexuality?  Time will tell.  If ratification fails, it would be up to General Conference 2020 to make a last ditch effort to avoid dissolution of the connection.

All these factors are very good reasons to redouble our efforts in praying for The Commission.  It looks to me like they are working to put forth a very bold comprehensive plan.