by Chris Ritter
Dear NCJ College of Bishops:
Our Illinois Great Rivers Conference just completed its annual conference session and it is clear that the dysfunctions of our denomination have come home. With the help of outside organizers, one side of the human sexuality debate nearly swept the other side in our delegate elections. The fact that our electronic voting system was out of conformity with our standing rules does not change the fact that one side out-organized the other. It was an impressive effort by anyone’s standard. “My side” was conquered, fair and square.
The dynamic of bloc voting is happening across our connection. Who is winning and who is losing varies conference by conference, but we are clearly competing instead of connecting. I expect you see this dynamic played out in your own episcopal areas.
Back in 1992 I attended one of our jurisdictional license to preach schools and sat under the instruction of the late Mary Vick Roth. I will always remember her interpretation of Romans 8:37: “We are more than conqueror through him who loved us.” Rev. Roth said that, through Jesus, we are empowered to look at the world beyond the pagan binaries of winners and losers, victors and vanquished. The Roman world was full of lauded conquerors. But winning the rat race still makes us rats. Followers of Jesus can be more… more than just conquerors.
I am appealing to you as our spiritual leaders to lift a candle of hope. As one who spent the last five years in close study of our situation, I believe you can help bring immediate structural relief to our divisions.
When our church was created in 1968, we instituted protections insuring racial integration would become a reality throughout the connection. Jurisdictional boundaries within our connection can be nothing other than the geography prescribed in our constitution. The lines intended to unify us have now locked us together in endless cycles of conflict. We all hope that General Conference 2020 will bring some sort of remedy, but what this might be has not yet been revealed. There are, however, steps that can be taken within our current Book of Discipline.
As you know, our jurisdictional conferences are empowered to change the boundaries of the annual conferences within their borders. Paragraph 41 of our constitution also provides a mechanism to transfer local churches from one annual conference to another “in which it is geographically located.” This is currently only applicable in the case of missionary conferences, but it need not be so limited. There is no rule against overlapping conference borders. It is within your power to call a special session of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference to consider setting the borders of each of our annual conferences as the full extent of our jurisdictional boundaries. This would have the effect that each annual conference would be free to operate anywhere in the jurisdiction. Following the procedures and approvals cited in Par. 41 (supermajority votes in the local church and both conferences involved), a local church could transfer to any other annual conference in our jurisdiction willing to receive it.
Consider Illinois as an example. In the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, the restrictions of the Book of Discipline around human sexuality are in practical effect. In the Northern Illinois Conference, a different ethos exists. There are churches/clergy in the IGRC that would feel much more at home in the NIC. There are also churches in the NIC that would feel much more at home in the IGRC. Opening the borders of our annual conferences would allow for transfers as an alternative to disaffiliation from the UMC. The NIC might end up with one or two downstate districts and IGRC might end up expanding its northern districts to receive some transferring congregations.
Perhaps organic sorting could go yet another step forward. It seems that the North Central Jurisdiction has a progressive majority, but only marginally and sporadically so. Perhaps something like the Illinois Great Rivers Conference could receive traditionalist congregations in the NCJ west of the Ohio River. Or perhaps one of our westernmost conferences could become a home for traditionalists. Perhaps a conference like the Indiana Conference could receive traditionalist congregations from Michigan and release some congregations in return. It is easy to envision state-wide progressive and traditional conferences developing in Ohio as a means of ending the cycles of conflict there. New branding, conference names, and district maps can evolve over time.
Not a Solution, But…
A great sorting of our annual conferences will come soon under any General Conference plan capable of bringing peace to our connection. Calling a special session of the NCJ would allow orderly migration to begin immediately. Paragraph 41 insures that no annual conference would be required to stretch its operational area beyond that with which it is comfortable. Likewise, no congregation or clergy could be forced to change conferences. But I think it is time to provide our congregations with some immediate options short of disaffiliation.
What I am offering here is no panacea. I am not suggesting the clergy in progressive conferences would not be expected to follow the Book of Discipline or be immune from charges. But ministry ethos goes beyond considerations of marriage and human sexuality. An example: Many churches I know have not sent youth to conference events in many years. There is a lack of trust that what is offered there will be in keeping with the congregation’s understanding of the Gospel. An atmosphere of distrust has contributed to our widespread “stuck-ness” as a denomination. Reframing our annual conferences as like-minding, regional ministry networks within the UMC will go a long way toward developing synergistic relationships. We already have the tools to do ministry across wider geography.
On the last night of annual conference I participated in a forum to discuss General Conference 2019 and its effects on our conference and congregations. The subgroup of ten with which I met was populated by folks from across our ideological spectrum. We heard from those alternately devastated, irritated, relieved, and elated by the outcome. We agreed that the OCP vs. MTP battle placed us all in an unhealthy win/lose dynamic. We want better from our church and for our church. As we await next year’s General Conference, you can help create space for every congregation and clergy within the tent of United Methodism. This solution will not solve all our problems and will not help the situation in every jurisdiction. But it might lift a candle of hope that there are ways forward that do not require vanquishing our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Can we be more than conquerors?