by Chris Ritter
As the Commission on a Way Forward concludes its work over the next few months, we wait to understand what it all will mean. Whether some grand plan offered by our bishops is implemented or not, we know things will change. There will be some kind of shifting, cutting, tearing, or stretching of our connectional life. I sense a good bit of confusion about what is really at stake.
My advice: Stop worrying about the general church. Hand-wringing over things like pensions and disaster relief shows that we really don’t understand what is at stake.
The General Church Will be Fine
Wespath Benefits and Investments, formerly known at the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, has been working proactively for years to be ready for whatever may come. The clergy they care for are 100% vested. No one will lose their pension. Wespath is ready to do business with any judicatory, UM or otherwise, requiring their services.
UMCOR will be fine. They are universally applauded and already attract support from beyond the United Methodist tribe. No one will be soon stepping in to duplicate the work of an organization so capably filling its niche. They can continue their non-partisan, faith-based work of disaster relief under a new name if necessary. The General Board of Discipleship of the UMC now calls itself “Discipleship Ministries.” UMCOR could easily become “Relief Ministries.”
The smart, forward-looking general agencies of the church will survive or even thrive in a reorganization. Entrenched, tone-deaf general agencies need to be radically altered anyway. Several general conferences have tried without success to reform our byzantine bureaucracy. One of the few positives of the coming storm might be a window of opportunity to actually make this happen.
Add to this the fact that it would take the average United Methodist months to notice if the entire upper-level structures of our denomination disappeared. I am not saying what happens there is unimportant, just several steps removed from the ministry of most congregations. As long as the support keeps flowing to global missions, the vital functions of the general church will weather the coming storm and may even be improved.
I studied church polity under Susan Henry-Crowe when she served as chaplain at Emory. One of the eccentricities of our system is that the United Methodist Church holds no properties or assets. We consist as a flotilla of agencies, conferences, and other structures, each with their separate incorporation and resources. There is a lot of side-ways energy right now fretting over saving something that does not technically exist.
Except for $22 billion managed by Wespath, the assets owned by general church agencies total a mere $400 million or so. While not chicken feed, this number is dwarfed by the $64 billion in assets held by our congregations. Our local churches spend over $6 billion annually, forty times our $150 million annual general church budget. The real concern in the Way Forward should be focused at the local church and annual conference level. This is where most ministry happens. This is where the resources are located that feed the system described above.
Sorting at the Grass Roots
The tragedy is that our divisions run right through our American annual conferences, the financial breadbasket of our denomination. These bodies fund 99% of the global work of the UMC. Apart from dollars and cents, local relationships are the face of the United Methodist connection for most of us. The reason any given congregation or clergy is United Methodist is because the conference to which they belong is tied to General Conference. Unlike the UMC as a whole, our annual conferences (named the “basic unit” of our church in our Constitution) have properties, membership, assets, and liabilities. Any solution that can mediate our divisions must allow sorting at this level. And this is where the reorganization gets most complex and risky. We’ve spent too little time talking about how this might work.
Annual conferences with a high level of agreement over human sexuality and scripture will find the “big sort” less painful. They will travel together into some sort of new connection of like-minded conferences. Other annual conferences will be torn asunder. This is more or less to be expected because they are already ripped apart by unhealthy internal tensions.
In places where annual conferences closely divide, the effect will not be downsizing, but up-sizing as they merge with other conferences, spreading themselves over more territory. This geographic expansion is inevitable unless we start growing again. Economist Don House has predicted that the number of U.S. annual conferences will drop from 56 to 17 by 2050 due to our demographics of decline. In healthy times, our conferences divided like multiplying cells. Judicatory mergers are a natural feature of the death process.
All Schism is Local
The most painful type of sorting would be at the level of the local church. About the only thing UM solutionists completely agree on is that the local church should be spared, wherever possible, the task of voting on whether homosexual practice is compatible with Christianity. (The “Local Option” is actually the solution that creates the most potential for harm and opens up a long season of localized conflict.) The best way to shield congregations would be to have key votes taken at the level of the annual conference. (Ideally these votes would be about what structure to affiliate with rather than selecting a position on homosexuality.) Most congregations would, by default, follow the decision of their conference and be spared the worst potential harm schism can offer.
But some churches will need to leave their existing conference in order to move forward. A mechanism is needed by which congregations and clergy can dissent and join another body. Local churches will at least need to be notified that they have the opportunity to make a vote of dissent from the direction of their conference. Even “deciding whether to decide” would cause a certain amount of trepidation. A closely divided congregational vote could cause an exodus from the losing side.
Do Less Harm
Because of the inevitable pain involved, solutions should be considered that minimize harm. This leads us to consider what might be the least invasive denominational reorganization available to us, a true solution that creates the least disruption and that can be accomplished under our current constitution.
If a few relatively homogeneous American annual conferences could be pulled out of our jurisdictional system, they would be free from the ministry standards of the UMC and untethered from the borders prescribed in our constitution. Conferences so conceived could stretch out their borders to receive those congregations and clergy who cannot authentically fulfill their vision of ministry in the conference they are in. These conferences would be a home for those most dissatisfied with the current situation and become a vehicle for peace.
True, these autonomous conferences would no longer be fully United Methodist. But neither must they be separate. Custom participation could be negotiated in a comprehensive suite of shared services offered by our current general agencies. (They could receive pensions through Wespath, ministry resourcing through Discipleship Ministries, and offer disaster response through Relief Ministries, etc.) Use of the UMC name, full participation in the general agencies, and seats at General Conference could be part of a concordat agreement that defines their relationship with the general church.
But this is just wishful thinking, right?
We actually have such a magical structure within our present polity. It is called the affiliated autonomous conference/body/church. We currently allow them outside the U.S. and it would only take a simple majority vote at General Conference to allow them in the U.S.
We would need to pair this new status with a simple mechanism allowing congregations and clergy who wish it to transfer to an affiliated autonomous body. Autonomous conferences could elect their own bishops and invent their own system for deploying clergy. The Wesleyan Covenant Association could start one or more of these structures for their churches and clergy who want more structural autonomy from the UMC. Progressive conferences could find the liberty in affiliated autonomous bodies to pursue their own vision of ministry without restriction. These bodies would leave their jurisdictional conference but stay connected at the General Conference level.
Puerto Rico is an example of a conference that left the Northeastern Jurisdiction to become and affiliated autonomous body. They still participate in our National Hispanic Plan and send their bishop, at their own expense, to participate in our Council of Bishops. They operate under their own ministry rules, but have a concordat for shared ministry with the UMC. Delegates from Puerto Rico attend our General Conference, but they also have their own that meets every six years.
The solution we are looking for is minimalist, requiring changes primarily from those demanding it. The solution should be doable. If we can’t achieve it under our current constitution, it likely won’t pass and if it does we will leave General Conference 2019 not knowing whether it will be ratified. The solution should be definitive. It should set a new course so that everyone understands the road ahead. It is time to put this debate behind us.
Having this network of autonomous, Progressive conferences also means that we have a destination for those clergy and churches that decide in the future that conducting same-sex marriage is essential for their ministry. Transfers would replace trials. That is good for all of us.
I will soon share some legislation to accomplish the coming “Big Sort” with as little pain as possible. If we take a minimalist, decisive approach in 2019, we can use the years following to adjust the general church to a new reality.
Chris, as usual, you have clearly presented the issue facing the UMC. One major area that was not discussed, however, involves the points you made about those annual conferences/local churches that leave the UMC to become “autonomous.” Your point: “True, these autonomous conferences would no longer be fully United Methodist” is THE key point. Within our denomination, the point has been made over and over that the progressive-leaning segment of our denomination will NOT be satisfied until full inclusion with absolutely no restrictions is approved as the standard operating procedure in the UMC. Nothing less than full inclusion will be acceptable. That’s where your proposal begins to fall apart because I believe what our progressive brothers and sisters claim, and the principle that these AC’s which they could join will not be “fully” UMC will not fly. As they say in the rural areas, that dog just is not going to hunt, or as they say in government circles, this proposal is dead on arrival. Who or what wants to be a “second class” conference that has always been a part of the “first class” row of seats in the game? Call me a cynic, but I prefer the term “realist” because I just don’t see any of the predominately left or right political groups having the courage to go back to their constituents and telling them “You’ll have to become second class if you want to still be a part of the UMC.” No group will accept that proposal and what we would end up with is local churches/individuals/AC’s continuing to “carry the fight” for full inclusion regardless of what the BOD or anything else stated. The Pandora’s box of arbitrary and open rebellion and repudiation of standards has been opened and very little of substance has been done to quell that movement. Who believes that this movement is just going to unilaterally stop now by itself? No, that’s simply wishful dreaming. Until, or unless, someone develops a system that allows a progressive AC or jurisdiction for that matter, to become fully inclusive AND the BOD language and thrust is totally altered to not only allow but to affirm and applaud full inclusion with absolutely no restrictions whatsoever, the progressive wing of the UMC will not be satisfied nor will it support any other proposal. That’s the very real but honest bottom line. Again, thanks for your efforts.
I appreciate hearing your thoughts, Timothy. I don’t agree this is a second class status. If it is, then Puerto Rican Methodist Church is second class. I would say they found a relationship with The United Methodist Church that works for them. Instead of getting a bishop from the Northeastern Jurisdiction, they elect their own. But they are part of our pension plan and other structures. It is a good deal.
Your concerns are well founded. I just lifted the following quote from an article currently posted on the Reconciling Ministries Network website:
“Our support of RMN will, with God’s guidance, bring in a new day of justice and reconciliation of all kinds within The UMC as we build a United Methodist Church where all are welcome to use their gifts in God’s service.
I urge all who read this to support Reconciling Ministries Network as they: 1) build relationships across The UMC connection, 2) share the joy of the ministry that LGBTQ people already do in our beloved church and 3) model a church that affirms the place of LGBTQ people at the center of the church. Join us in our work to Be the Way Forward! ” https://rmnetwork.org/revcaldwellletter/
The most troubling piece for me is the assumption that congregations will choose to follow one path or the other. I fear that strong popular pastoral leadership, currently appointed will assume to prevail over the whole congregation. I have never served a congregation where the beliefs were sufficiently homogeneous for any vote to be fair along the divusive issues. Indeed, I sense that divisive minded clergy are assuming they will take their current appointments with them. .In addition, it seems to me it is mostly clergy that want to take the denomination to the dividing wall. Whereas most congregations would go with the flow. I pastored to people in all variations of Methodist beliefs and sexual orientations. Deep conservatives and deep liberals have always left the denomination to find new homes more accommodating to their desires belief systems.
Thanks, Russell. I believe the default option would be very strong under this scenario. You are correct that pastors are gatekeepers. There is really no way around that.