by Chris Ritter
It is a summer of negotiations. The deadline for petitions to General Conference 2020 is September 18, a mere sixty-six days away. That is two months to draft peace plans aimed at avoiding a super-sized version of GC2019. Meanwhile, the UMC ship is being pushed along rudderless by a storm that shows no sign of stopping.
The U.S. Church is leaking members, leaders, dollars, and missionary energy at an accelerated rate across the board. I am not sure how many conversation groups are at work to forestall further disaster. (I know of four.) No clear multi-lateral plan has yet emerged. What seems clear is that things will not be resolved earlier than next May’s global meeting. No major group is leaving early.
UMCNext is encouraged by their gains in delegate elections and can tout a majority position in all five US Jurisdictions. GC2019 was obviously a catalyzing event for the left and center-left of our church. But they concede their new energy has left them likely short of the number needed to change UMC positions on marriage and human sexuality. For the foreseeable future growth in Africa will continue to take General Conference (as currently constituted) in a traditionalist direction. But enforcement of General Conference’s mandates has fallen apart in most U.S. episcopal areas.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is not leaving yet, either. Traditionalists exiting en masse now while UMC teachings remain traditional is not a practical option. U.S. traditionalists do not generally want to inherit the UMC name and bureaucracy, but that could happen regardless. If GC2020 upholds UMC teachings on human sexuality like GC2019 did, a tipping point will happen on the left. The UMCNext gains realized in recent elections will be a one-hit wonder as progressives seek greener pastures. If GC2020 flips on human sexuality, WCA and the global church will have their own catalyzing moment that will undoubtedly give birth to something new.
Some options for the UMC’s future have effectively been eliminated. UMCNext seems to have moved past half measures like the One Church Plan. Their ideal would now be something like the Simple Plan which eliminates any restrictions on same-sex marriage and ordination. Any plan requiring constitutional amendments will be impractical at GC2020. The ratification process adds length, uncertainty, and complexity to any proposal. Eliminating plans requiring amendments means eliminating dissolution of the denomination and most forms of formal division. Our toxic environment has further diminished the taste for all umbrella plans that will keep us in the same institution (CCP, semi-autonomous conferences, etc). We need a means of full separation that adequately accounts for the properties we share.
What we have learned over the past few months is that there is one basic way to bring about a structural separation under our current constitution: General Conference can legally approve a plan that allows annual conferences to leave with their assets. This clarity was gained with Judicial Council Decision 1366.
In terms of realistic peace plans, that’s all we’ve got.
The Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) envisioned those who cannot live with the current BOD taking an annual conference exit (described in GC2019 Petition 90041). Individual congregations were empowered to transfer in groups of fifty or more from their conference(s) as needed to provide a new homeostasis. This key part of the MTP never made it to the floor for vote… hence the current predicament.
The same 90041 mechanism could be re-written as a Traditionalist exit, but this group enjoys a slim (51%?) majority coalition comprised primarily of Africans and U.S. Evangelicals. Africans want the UMC name and as much unity as possible.
The newly released Bard-Jones Plan rewrites Petition 90041 so that EVERYONE leaves, but this usage of 90041 has not been vetted by the Judicial Council. It would be safer, constitutionally speaking, to leave some of the denomination in place. But that creates winners and losers.
General Conference has one more tool given to it by the constitution: Broad power over the general agencies. This power is not unlimited, as demonstrated in the judicial scuttling of Plan UMC in 2012. The problem then was alterations to the role of the bishops who enjoy strong constitutional protections. Outside of this, our general agencies are amenable directly to General Conference.
Beyond the $1 billion* in assets held by the general agencies, there is nothing much to the general UMC except the name and logo, which is administered by the General Council on Finance and Administration (the technical employer of our bishops). If General Conference could somehow offload the general agencies and negotiate the future of the name, there would not be much left to fight over.
Here are some things I hear talked about for the general agencies:
- Spin them off as independent 501(c)3’s. The boards of the general agencies are currently populated by jurisdictional elections. GC2020 could change this and give them self-perpetuating boards. It would then be up to the agencies to develop a business model to provide their services to annual conferences or other judicatories. But this idea makes better sense for some general agencies than others.
- Share them. Instead of the boards being elected by the U.S. jurisdictions, the boards could be named by successor denominations based on a formula relative to membership or the amount paid into the agencies. This would not preclude daughter denominations from starting their own agencies in addition.
- Divide them up. Some of the existing agencies might fit better with the mission of the UMC’s daughter denominations. They could be divided up by agreement.
- Consolidate them. General agencies could be put beneath a single management board populated by the successor bodies. The goal of the new board would be to provide a fair sharing of resources and assets or oversee a binding arbitration process.
- Liquidate them. There are restricted and unrestricted assets. There are also designated and undesignated assets. Some have proposed pooling all assets not legal tied up (or necessary for short-term operation) and holding them for distribution to successor bodies. It is not clear (to me) whether General Conference can mandate general agencies to surrender their funds. Each is their own legal entity.
- Some combination of the above. The Bard-Jones Plan spins off Wespath and Archives & History as independent agencies. It gives most of the other agencies to the UMCNext (“Open”) Church. The General Council on Finance and Administration is given to successor bodies with instructions to let each new expression use the UMC name and logo with appropriate customization. Many such hybrids are possible.
Urim & Thummim
As stated elsewhere, I question whether the Bard-Jones Plan is on solid footing when it assumes all annual conferences can and will leave the UMC. I wonder if there might be problems, also, when it comes to forcing UMC bishops to leave the UMC. The Judicial Council has a history of jealously protecting episcopal perogatives. Someone should ask the court about this. Absent a ruling, it would be prudent for one group to inherit what is left of the UMC after GC2020 gives away, spins off, or otherwise accounts for the general agencies.
My suggestion is that we cast lots… or maybe flip a coin. General Conference 2020 should approve a generous annual conference exit, provide for easy local church transfers, and fairly discharge general church assets. Its final action should should be to randomly choose either the Traditional or the UMCNext Group to inherit the constitution. This chosen group would have the burden of holding a General Conference to amend by replacement the current constitution. But, again, the UMC name and logo could be shared through the ingenious method proposed in Bard-Jones Plan.
The Early Church cast lots to choose Matthias as Judas’ successor just before Pentecost. John Wesley cast lots during his early days of ministry in Savannah just prior to Aldersgate. What do you do when you don’t have a clear sense of the Spirit’s guidance? Flip a coin. If GC2020 does a fair job of handling the general agencies, name, and insignia it really should not matter who is charged with turning out the lights.
*This rough number does not include Wespath (Board of Pensions) that manages well over $20 billion in assets. These monies are largely held in the name of specific clergy and plans offered by individual annual conferences. Our local churches control around $65 billion in assets.