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.