by Chris Ritter
At our February 2 meeting the General Conference delegation of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference (IGRC) unanimously endorsed the Connectional Conference Plan as high-priority legislation. While the restructure plan is not the favorite Way Forward model of most individual delegation members, the group as a whole agreed it would, unlike other plans, hold us all together in the UMC. The CCP is the only plan to receive any sort of endorsement from our delegation otherwise starkly divided on the issues to be debated in St. Louis.
Our unanimous vote was possible, in part, due to thoughtful planning by the Commission on General Conference. This group developed a ranking system for use by GC2019 on Sunday, February 24. Each plan and individual petition will receive a vote of “high priority” or “low priority.” Those plans or petitions voted the highest priority will receive first attention when delegates convene as one large legislative committee on Monday, February 25. This means that the Sunday voting is not a zero sum game: Voting for the CCP on Sunday does not take a vote away from another plan. Instead of a win/lose paradigm, General Conference now has a path toward win/win.
When a few bishops and I came out with posts in favor of the CCP last month (See here, here, and here), a few of my Progressive brothers and sisters did their best impersonation of Admiral Ackbar*. In our low-trust environment, it was viewed as a coordinated effort to steal votes away from the One Church Plan. The voting system devised for General Conference should neutralize those concerns. Whether you like the OCP, Simple Plan, or the MTP, it is OK, in Sunday’s ranking process, to vote for the Connectional Conference Plan, too. One side of the debate cannot force this plan on the other. It will take all of us stepping across partisan lines. If enough delegates do this, General Conference can stop arguing over human sexuality and start planning together for a new future… a UMC 2.0.
Denominations need a major revamp every generation or two. At age fifty, the UMC is overdue. The issues that drove our 1968 structure no longer reflect our current reality. Our system of jurisdictions are a hold-over from 1939 Jim Crow Era politics. The global church has grown and deserves equal footing with the U.S. Our general agencies must adapt to a new reality. Major reorganization will be needed no matter what occurs at GC2019.
The Connectional Conference Plan is the only proposal before General Conference that looks beyond the human sexuality debate and toward a new United Methodism. It rightly acknowledges that our current divisions are a Shibboleth for deeper theological commitments. By creating three new Connectional Conferences stretching across the United States, the plan creates a home for everyone without fear of manipulation, penalty, or coersion. We would become the only Mainline denomination to avoid institutional schism over the issue of same-sex marriage rites.
Here are some features of the United Methodism that the Connectional Conference Plan creates:
A Thin Book of Discipline
Being the Methonerd that I am, I went through and cut out every page that the Connectional Conference Plan removes from the Book of Discipline and makes adaptable by the disciplines of the connectional conferences. It was well over half. The Book of Discipline 2025 will be thin and contain no issues over which United Methodists heatedly disagree.
A Shorter General Conference
General Conference 2024 is moved to 2025 so as to avoid U.S. presidential election years. And it will be shorter and less expensive. One of the frustrations of our current system is that we bring people in from around the world and make them sit through many debates that do no pertain to them (pensions, etc.). The CCP fixes that.
Instead of having jurisdictions in the U.S. and Central Conferences overseas, the UMC will have Connectional Conferences worldwide. The five U.S. jurisdictions will be replaced by three Connectional Conferences based on ideology (“Progressive,” “Unity,” “Traditional.”) which can name themselves however they want. Central conferences can join one of the three U.S. connectional conferences or become their own.
Three United Methodist brands would appear on the U.S. landscape. All are welcome to use the United Methodist name and insignia. All are also welcome to develop their own. This gives us three times the opportunity to reach our culture, coast to coast. Our colleges and universities may develop relationships with multiple connectional conferences.
Redesigned General Agencies
A few of the general agencies will naturally serve all the connectional conferences (Wespath, Publishing House, GCFA, Archives & History, and parts of the General Board of Global Ministries). The remaining ones will receive a level of support determined eventually by each connectional conference. This process is gradual and will favor those agencies that offer direct value to annual conferences. Agencies related to the elimination of racism and sexism would create benchmarks for the connectional conferences. Quadrennial reports on racial and gender inclusion would go to a Standing Committee on Central Conferences.
A thorough process is devised to transition our church to separate episcopacies in healthy relationship with one another. Each connectional conference will decide how many bishops it needs and fund those accordingly. Support for international bishops is retained. Each connectional conferences is led by its own bishops. The Council of Bishops will continue to exist as a place to share best practices and handle ecumenical relationships.
The CCP includes a sorting plan designed to keep voting to a minimum. Each jurisdiction will vote which connectional conference to join. This becomes the default position for all the annual conferences and congregations in the jurisdiction. If an annual conference does not like the choice made by its jurisdiction, it can vote to join another connectional conference. Only those local churches wishing to leave their annual conference would need a vote to affiliate with another connectional conference.
A Word on Timeline and Amendments
Yes, the CCP requires amendments. It will require supermajority support at General Conference and ratification votes in 120+ annual conferences. Shame on us all for thinking that we can shove through a settlement to our divisive human sexuality debate with a 50.01% majority. Fixing the UMC is not like tying our shoe. It is more like repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is. When did easy or simple become an idol for Wesleyans? Are we going on to perfection or not?
We need to remember that any plan that can be approved by a simple majority at General Conference 2019 and be REVERSED by GC2020 (May 5-15 in Minneapolis). We will know whether the CCP amendments are ratified by April 15, 2020. This means that the CCP has a shorter window of uncertainty than the other plans. If ratification fails, General Conference 2020 can always duke it out between the One Church Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan.
Yes, the CCP takes an extended timeline to implement. The Connectional Conferences will not form until 2022, for instance. I once had a 36 year old single mother tell me that she couldn’t go to college because she would be forty by the time she graduated. My word to her was this: You are going to be forty whether you go to college or not. Do you want to be forty with a degree or forty without a degree?
We need to realize that the UMC is in for a decade of major restructure no matter what happens this month. If the OCP passes, churches will leave, lawsuits will be filed, and annual conferences will become unviable. If the MTP passes, there will be similar distractions. Conferences will need to merge. Jurisdictions will need to be realigned. General agencies are already facing a 23% budget cut and reorganization due to decline. We can either restructure intentionally or just let circumstances happen to us. Keeping things the same is not an option on the table.
A Final Word
There is a work of sanctification that happens when we are forced to live with those with whom we disagree. I do not dispute this. But we need not take this to the extreme. If I moved my family into a one-bedroom house, I am sure we would learn a lot about sharing and patience. Our house might also become a frequent stop for the local police. The Connectional Conference Plan allows us all more space. Might this help us love one another better?
Delegates, come to General Conference 2019 supporting your favorite plan. Wave the banner high for the Modified Traditional Plan, the One Church Plan, or the Simple Plan. But keep in mind there is a plan that provides a branch for each of these visions. It was meticulously and thoughtfully constructed by the Commission on a Way Forward to be equitable. Each connectional conference has its own bishops, funding, and conferences. Each is free to pursue its own vision of Methodism. Each can celebrate its United Methodist identity or highlight its own distinctiveness. The CCP is the only plan in St. Louis that dares to imagine a United Methodist Church 2.0.
*Thanks to Gregory Neal for correcting my reference to “General Ackbar.”