by Chris Ritter

The following hybrid model seeks a synthesis of the three proposals identified by our bishops for the United Methodist Way Forward.  It contains elements of the local option, covenant accountability and the multi-branch model.  It can be implemented without constitutional amendments and allows for a gradual sorting of United Methodists into different ministry standards while keeping us all at the same table.

Features of the Synthesis Model

  • General Conference 2019 would modify the ¶¶570’s to allow for affiliated and autonomous (AA) conferences in the United States (as currently allowed outside the U.S.). Existing U.S. conferences could assume this new status and any seventy[1] congregations could band together to form a new affiliated autonomous conference.
  • The affiliated autonomous status would be sought by:
    • Conservative churches that want more autonomy from the UMC.
    • Progressive conferences who seek to develop their own rules around ministry and sexuality.
    • Conferences who may prefer to do ministry following models not currently allowed under the UM Book of Discipline.
  • General Conference would approve a streamlined process whereby churches could transfer between an existing UM conference and an affiliated autonomous conference.[2]
  • Affiliate autonomous conferences would be in charge of their own borders which may overlap those of traditional conferences and other AA conferences.
  • Accepting the conditions of a standard concordat would be a prerequisite to qualifying for the freedoms enjoyed by AA conferences and the streamlined transfer measures. This concordat would be pre-approved by GC2019 and would define the relationship between General Conference and these affiliated autonomous bodies:
    • These bodies are entitled to proportional representation at General Conference. Entering this new status does not cause a conference to lose their seat at the table.
    • These conferences may use the United Methodist name and insignia if they maintain United Methodist doctrinal and ministry standards in ¶104, ¶ 304, ¶341, and ¶2702.
    • If an AA conference creates their own ministry standards, they may call themselves a “United Methodist Affiliate” as a secondary moniker to whatever name they choose. GCFA will be instructed to develop an insignia for use by affiliate conferences that is distinct from the Cross and Flame but has a relationship to it.  There would be no obligation on the part of the customized autonomous body to use this, but they should not use the standard cross and flame.
    • Affiliated autonomous conferences would have their own Book of Discipline and would deploy clergy and select bishops by their own processes.
    • AA conferences would send their bishops to the UMC Council of Bishops at their own expense and may send a representative to the program agencies of the UMC.
    • AA conferences would be assigned a fair share apportionment by GCFA reflecting support for our international bishops, a share in UMC mission, and their custom participation in general agencies.[3]
    • Mirroring processes currently in place for our central conferences, notice of affiliate autonomous status by our existing conferences would be given to their jurisdictional conference at their regular session. Jurisdictional conferences would remap their traditional conferences to cover the territory ceded by the newly autonomous conference.
    • Congregations that do not wish to follow their conference into the new AA status would be placed in the conference assigned to cover their territory by their jurisdiction.
    • Congregations exiting an AA conference for a traditional conference would be entitled to a fair share of the assets of the conference. Congregations leaving a traditional conference for an AA conference would not be entitled to a share of the assets.[4]
  • Measures would be sought that enforce the ministry rules of the United Methodist Church for conferences not in the special status. No one is forced to take the new AA status, but those who don’t will be expected to follow the group discernment of General Conference.  Ideas for such accountability measures are delineated here.
  • Autonomous Affiliated bodies would be required to select a college of bishops to supervise them until they have supervisory leadership in place under their own Discipline.
  • Current bishops are free to transfer to affiliate autonomous bodies. They would no longer have membership in their college of bishops but would continue to have a seat in the Council of Bishops.
  • Affiliated autonomous conferences are free to organize themselves together in something resembling a jurisdiction should this be helpful to their ministries.
  • GCFA would be charged with officially recognizing new affiliated autonomous bodies and assigned them their apportionments.

Analysis

  • This plan allows for a gradual re-sorting of American United Methodism, starting with those most dissatisfied with the current situation.
  • It is a minimalist approach that seeks to preserve the UMC.
  • Clergy trials would be replaced by transfers. Any congregation could vote to enter an autonomous conference if they cannot live under UMC rules.
  • These autonomous conferences would continue to participate in the general church financially.
  • This plan protects the central conferences from the disruption that would come with a U.S. split or splintering.

Impact:

  • The majority of congregations will stay in their current conference and be spared from any local church vote.
  • Income to the general church should remain stable.
  • Some standard U.S. conferences will become geographically larger as conferences opt out of jurisdictions and their territories are reallocated among the conferences that remain. (Geographic expansion will happen regardless of what plan is adopted.  Economist Don House has predicted that the U.S. will go from 56 to 17 annual conferences by 2050 due to decline.)
  • If progressive conferences in the West, Northeast, and Midwest move to the new status, this may cause the eventual collapse of these jurisdictions. General Conference could remap jurisdictions in 2024 and beyond by processes already defined in our constitution.
  • Progressive congregations in the southern jurisdictions could band together to form affiliate autonomous conferences.
  • Greater missional alignment would be achieved in most annual conferences through the realignments enabled by this plan.

Questions and Answers

Is there any precedent for this plan?

Yes.  The Puerto Rico Annual Conference left the United Methodist Church to become autonomous in the 1970’s.  But they are still remarkably connected.  The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico (Iglesia Metodista Autonoma Affiliada de Puerto Rico) has its own General Conference every six years and holds “annual” conference every two years.  They remain connected to the United Methodist Church through concordat.  They send delegates to the United Methodist General Conference and send their bishop to our Council of Bishops at their own expense.  They are granted one liaison representative to each of the program agencies of the UMC with voice and vote (see ¶705.4). They are part of the United Methodist pension program.  This synthesis plan is inspired by the unique relationship between Iglesia Metodista Autonoma Affiliada de Puerto Rico and the UMC.

How does this not require constitutional amendments?

Affiliate autonomous conferences would no longer be under the UMC constitution.  We already allow UMC conferences outside the United States to become autonomous.  All that is required is a simple disciplinary change that would allow this inside the United States.

Why would affiliated autonomous conferences be given proportional representation at General Conference?

This solution represents a minimalist approach providing an immediate release valve on tensions so that the entire church does not blow up.  Any plan that would lurch our ministry rules to the left or to the right should be avoided.  The ministry rules of the UMC should reflect the needs of the majority of the people at the table.  This plan allows dissent for the minority while keeping us in continued conversation.

We currently allow delegates from autonomous bodies to help shape our rules.  This is true of the ten delegates of the autonomous concordat churches who have seats at General Conference.  There are also matters that our Central Conference delegates vote on at General Conference that can be changed under their individual Central Conference disciplines.

Of course, the concordat could specify that those delegates representing AA conferences refrain from voting on matters not affecting them.  But this is not recommended.  “Status quo” is a time-honored standard in difficult negotiations.  The Way Forward solution need not be a power grab for either side.  Progressives are free to demonstrate how well the local option approach works in their AA conferences and use that data to influence General Conference in the future.  Keeping everyone at the table gives us options for the future.  The AA status may actually become the preferred status for all U.S. conferences.  Jurisdictionalism has not served the American UMC particularly well.

Our constitution gives General Conference the right to designate the representation for affiliated churches.  It is currently set at two delegates per affiliate body, but this is not mandated constitutionally.  The formula of representation would be something to watch very closely.  We would want to make sure that it was not subject to gerrymandering by either side.

How can we maintain a united episcopacy when we are so divided?

The Council of Bishops is a forum for conversation. It already contains bishops from autonomous bodies. This plan divides the funding for bishops to avoid violations of conscience.

What would be the timeline for implementation?

2019:  Plan is approved by General Conference in St. Louis.

2020:  Those conferences seeking immediate relief would vote and communicate their desire to take the new status at Jurisdictional Conference 2020.  Jurisdictional conferences would remap their annual conferences accordingly.

New AA conferences may form at any time by the method prescribed.  GCFA would communicate deadlines for being assigned representation in general church agencies and General Conference.

2024:  General Conference would take a new look at the shape of our jurisdictions and recommend updates by the methods prescribed in our constitution.

Doesn’t this plan just continue the fighting?

Any plan that continues the UMC will continue the fighting.  Methodists will always come together and disagree at General Conference.  This will be true until Christ returns.  The synthesis model begins to draw the venom from our wounds, releases some of the pressure, and keeps us in conversation with one another.  Our connectionalism would gradually and organically evolve.  It does not attempt to solve all our problems, but it hopefully puts us in a better place to work on them together.

[1] The minimum number of congregations for a conference is defined as fifty in The Book of Discipline.  This sets a number slightly higher than that.  There would be a minimum number for the combined membership of new conferences so that they would each warrant at least one lay and one clergy delegate in the UMC General Conference.

[2] A charge conference vote and due notice to the conference they are leaving should be sufficient.  These transfers would happen in the spirit of ¶2548 which describes transfers from the UMC to another Pan-Methodist body.

[3] We could develop an essential suite of denominational services and an optional suite of services from which autonomous bodies could choose.

[4] The formula would be an average percentage of the total apportionments paid over the previous ten years.

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