by Chris Ritter
There is much to say about the proposals coming before General Conference 2020. But a first step is probably a general summary. The actual petitions will not be translated and published for several months, so no one owns a comprehensive listing of every plan coming to Minneapolis next May. Unlike GC2019, there is no single group charged with surfacing the options. But most groups and plan authors have been kind to offer at least a summary of their work. I share here nine plans of which I am aware along with a few thoughts on each.
The Traditional Plan
Eleven petitions were filed to enactment the parts of the 2019 Traditional Plan that were ruled unconstitutional or otherwise left unapproved. The most important of these is a mechanism for annual conference exits. The assumption of the Traditional Plan is that the teachings of the church should remain consistent and those who cannot abide by the BOD should be granted a free and clear exit from the UMC. Here is a summary:
- Respondents in a Just Resolution process must commit to abide by The Book of Discipline in the future. (1 petition, four paragraphs)
- Board of Ordained Ministry members must commit to abide by the Discipline. (3 petitions, ¶¶ 613, 635, 806)
- Boards of Ordained Ministry must fully examine candidates and shall not recommend unqualified candidates. (1 petition, ¶ 635)
- A definition is provided for “egregious errors of church law” for those times when the church might want to appeal the decision of a trial court. (1 petition, ¶ 2715)
- A new process that allows the Council of Bishops to place one of its own members on involuntary leave or retirement. (3 petitions, ¶¶ 408, 410, 422)
- Revised language is provided for local church disaffiliation. (1 petition, ¶ 2553)
- A new paragraph is provided that allows for annual conference disaffiliation. (1 petition, New ¶ 2554)
The Traditional Plan represents an effort to solidify the direction set at General Conference 2019. It would very likely trigger an exit of progressives and centrists. Some, however, may stay and fight. Progressivism is entrenched in our agencies and other structures, so this plan sets the UMC on a long and bumpy road toward becoming a traditional global denomination.
The UMC-Next Plan
We now have the legislation associated with the plan proposed by UMC-Next, a group comprised of Progressives and Centrists. Twenty-three separate petitions were submitted by Junius Dotson, a co-convener of UMC-Next and General Secretary of the General Board of Discipleship. The key features:
- Creates a commission of 32 people named by the Council of Bishops to bring back recommendations for restructuring the UMC to a specially-called General Conference in 2023.
- Adds new language on inclusivity that decries “ableism, heterosexism, racism, sexism, misogyny, tribalism, and all other forms of xenophobia.”
- Changes the definition of marriage church-wide to omit the words “between a man and a woman.”
- Church support for civil laws that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman is removed.
- Removes restrictions on the ordination of practicing homosexual clergy.
- Removes restrictions on clergy officiating same sex weddings and local churches hosting them.
- Places a moratorium on complaints against clergy for being practicing homosexuals or conducting same-sex weddings.
- Revokes all parts of the Traditional Plan, including updates to the complaint process and prohibitions against bishops ordained or consecrating practicing gay clergy.
- Removes the long-standing ban on general church and annual conference funds being funneled to causes promoting the acceptance of homosexuality.
- Creates a process for congregations to leave the UMC with their properties before December 31, 2025. It requires a 2/3 vote, annual conference approval, and payment of pension liability. Terms are negotiated by the Board of Trustees of the annual conference and GCFA will establish guidelines.
- Creates a process for the Council of Bishops to establish an ecumenical partnership with a new denomination formed from exiting congregations. The new denomination could develop relationships with the general agencies of the UMC.
- Provides for an amount to be added to the 2021-2024 quadrennial budget for the formation of a new Traditionalist denomination. No specific amount is provided in the legislation and GC2020 is to decide this amount.
- Chargeable offenses are removed to being a self-avowed practicing homosexual clergy and performing same-sex weddings.
The UMC-Next Plan is considerably less gracious to Traditionalists than the Traditional Plan is to Progressives. Traditionalists annual conferences are not allowed to leave as a group with their assets. The individual congregations would have to leave and abandon their assets to the minority group. The plan requires that we replay General Conference 2019 all over again. It triggers yet another debate over human sexuality. It is a true attempt to come back and “win” after a stinging defeat.
The bar for voting to leave is also higher in the UMC-Next Plan than either the Traditional or Indianapolis Plan (2/3 as opposed to simple majority). This means that the majority of a local church could vote to leave under the UMC-Next Plan and still not be able to do so. It is definitely a Traditionalist exit plan that creates none of the protections offered to traditionalists under the former One Church Plan.
The Indianapolis Plan
The Indianapolis Plan is the result of negotiations begun at North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Darren Cushman Wood (a progressive and pastor of North UMC), Kent Millard (a centrist and president of United Theological Seminary), and Keith Boyette (a traditionalist and president of WCA) convened the group of twelve over the summer of 2019 to see if there might be a way to avoid repetition of the acrimony experienced at GC2019. In the Traditional Plan, the Progressives leave. In the UMC-Next Plan, the Traditionalists leave. Is there a way for both camps to move into something new? (Full disclosure: I was part of the Indy Group.)
The Indy Plan envisions The United Methodist Church giving birth to two new denominations. Both would be free to use the UMC name as they wish. Both would be legal successors to the UMC. The Centrist UMC would inherit much of the current institution. There would be a division of assets that was not agreed upon in the Indy Group. (Attorney Cara Nicklas submitted a proposal for such an allocation. See the PDF below.) Centrists and progressives were invited to also submit a proposal with the final decision being made by the delegates to GC2020.
Leaders from Africa, Europe, and the Philippines contributed feedback throughout the Indianapolis process. Wespath drafted language to make the plan optimal for pension allocation. The plan seeks to provide as much of a new day as might be possible under the restraints of our current constitution. The UMC is not dissolved but will have its institutional continuation through the Centrist UMC.
The Indianapolis Plan presents two main options for annual conferences and local churches. The Traditionalist UMC (name a placeholder) “shall be a global denomination that will maintain the current stance of the Discipline regarding the practice of homosexuality. It would emphasize unity around doctrine, mission, and standards, leaner denominational structure, greater local flexibility, and accountable discipleship.”
The Centrist UMC “shall be a global denomination that will remove from the Discipline the ‘incompatibility’ language and prohibitions against same-sex weddings, ordinations, and appointments. Centrist Annual Conferences and local congregations would make their own decisions regarding the ordination and appointment of homosexual persons and performing same-sex weddings in their conferences and congregations. It would practice faith with a generous spirit, emphasizing greater local flexibility within a deep commitment to connectionalism, social justice, and missional engagement that transforms the world for Jesus Christ.”
Other expressions could be formed by any group of fifty or more local churches, or by an annual conference or group of annual conferences.
The plan has a very short timeline. Annual conferences would vote by simple majority by December 31, 2020. Local churches would have until July 1, 2021 to vote (by simple majority, also) if they disagree with their annual conference. The doors for reaffiliation, however, stay open through 2028. The annual conferences that do not vote would default to the Centrist UMC. Outside the USA, annual conferences would default to the Traditional UMC if they did not vote.
That last detail is probably the biggest flaw in the plan, constitutionally speaking. The default for the Central Conferences is to leave the current UMC institution. I doubt that will pass muster. The plan has a built-in back-up, however. If this provision is deemed unconstitutional, the default will be the Centrist UMC for everyone. That is not great either, in my eyes. But this was a negotiation not a description of anyone’s ideal.
Local churches will not have to pay unfunded pension liability as this will follow them into their new denomination. Conferences and congregations could begin functioning under their new alignment beginning August 1, 2020, under the auspices of the leadership group of each denomination. Mandatory retirement of bishops would be waived so that new elections could be held after the sorting is done. Separate general conferences would be held in the fall of 2021 and the new denominations would be fully functional by January 1, 2022.
Wespath, UMCOR, UMW, UMM, and UM Publishing House would become independent agencies serving all denominations desiring their services. Archives and History would be housed at a UM seminary as a lean independent agency. All other agencies would continue as part of the Centrist UMC and be also able to contract with other denominations to provide services as desired. General church apportionments would continue to be paid by all through December 31, 2020. A special central conference apportionment would be established for the 2021-24 quadrennium to be supported by all denominations at the current level of funding. All denominations are encouraged to support mission projects and partnerships in the central conferences going forward, regardless of the denomination with which the central conference aligns.
The Indianapolis Plan is the hottest ticket in town. At this point it is the proposal that seems to have the best hope of passage. A website for the plan is coming soon, along with an opportunity for endorsement. The authors will ask the Council of Bishops to request a declaratory decision about the constitutionality of the plan. There is an open question as to whether African delegates will support it.
The United Methodist Communion
Yours truly submitted an entirely new constitution that would transform The United Methodist Church into The United Methodist Communion of Churches. The communion is comprised of autonomous denominations springing from the UMC. A Governing Council of 60-100 people meeting annually replaces General Conference and GCFA. The general agencies of the UMC would adapt to serve all the member churches formed under detailed Transitional Provisions, or else they would be dissolved or reorganized by the Governing Council.
This plan is compatible with the Indianapolis Plan. The Indy provisions would create the quick exit many want and the new constitution would dictate the future otherwise. The plan solves some of the difficulties that may arise from one branch claiming sole control of the institution. Emphasis is given on shared ministry with emphasis given on the continuation of GBGM.
Drafting Teams (like WCA, UMC-Next and UM-Forward) would convene and author a vision statement for a new denominational body. These would be published by UM Communications with opportunity for public endorsement. The vision statements become the basis for annual conference votes on alignment. Local churches, with a simple majority vote, can align differently than their annual conference.
Once the new constitution is ratified, GCFA is given authority to freely amend the Book of Discipline in order to facilitate the Transitional Provisions while the Governing Council is formed. Participation in the UM Communion is voluntary. Trust clauses transfer to the member denominations who may do with them what they will.
I wrote the UM Communion Plan with the needs of Africa and the Central Conferences in mind. Africa wants the United Methodist name/logo, the continuation of GBGM, and the opportunity to continue partnerships with all U.S. conferences. This plan provides for that. The plan also has a face-saving function. The UMC is not disbanding but is morphing into something entirely new. That would be an accomplishment unrealized by other denominations. I hope this option gets a fair hearing.
The Fluidity Amendment
This is not so much a plan as a good interim step toward a new future. I authored a single amendment to Paragraph 41 of the UMC Constitution that guarantees that any local church can join any annual conference from which they can obtain a letter verifying the cabinet is willing and able to provide supervision to the congregation. Likewise (and regardless of boundaries spelled out elsewhere), any annual conference is entitled to join any jurisdictional or central conference that they like.
This simple change alleviates much of the friction currently in our system. No one is held hostage by a geographical misalignment. Borders become fluid. This is not a panacea, but it would allow for a gradual sorting of our denomination and make a future division much less painful. Or maybe we can find a way to live together under this new sort of semi-geographic arrangement. I submitted this piece in case GC2020 is in the mood for incremental change.
The Bard-Jones Plan
Developed by a progressive bishop and a traditional bishop, the Bard-Jones Plan proposes all annual conferences exit the UMC to new expressions. The plan seeks to stay within the parameters of the current constitution, so it falls short of mandating that all annual conferences leave. Among its five associated petitions, it offers a non-disciplinary Resolution that outlines the vision and goals of the plan.
The most significant contribution of the Bard-Jones Plan may be the fact that two brave bishops were the first to say out loud that the UMC cannot continue as it is currently configured. It contains a serious deficiency in that what it wants to see happen it cannot mandate. Opting not to vote may be an attractive option for some annual conferences who stand to lose no matter what is decided. However, the language in the plan is carefully considered in terms of pensions and proposals for the general agencies. The Indianapolis Plan seems to have eclipsed it, and I suspect that is fine with the authors.
The Plain Grace Plan
Attorney Frank Holbrook, a delegate to GC2020 from the Memphis Conference, has authored a very comprehensive proposal for the UMC. The plan was submitted in twenty petitions and creates “Full Communion Expressions” before votes are taken on “gracious affiliation” by annual conferences. The overall process stretches over the next three general conferences.
I count Frank as a friend. He is a wonderful United Methodist who loves Lord and the church. I don’t see his proposal attracting majority support because of its complexity. There are simpler, shorter, and better supported options out there that accomplish much the same thing. But there is great value is having multiple carefully constructed plans in the pipeline. Plain Grace is a worthy effort.
The N.E.W. Plan
UM-Forward, a liberationist group, submitted legislation aimed at dissolving the UMC and organizing four new denominations: A Traditional, Moderate, Progressive, and Liberation Methodist Church. “New Expressions Worldwide” would be formed by a plan developed and overseen by a Transitional Council elected at GC2020 and reporting back to another specially-called General Conference before 2024. In the meantime, there would be a moratorium on charges, complaints, and church trials related to homosexuality.
UMC assets would be divided up. There are no prescribed provisions for the continuation of the general agencies currently in place. It is also fascinating that the UM-Forward group envisions a Liberationist denomination apart from a Progressive Methodist Church. Most of my Progressive friends believe that UM Progressives lack the numbers and resources to manage a denomination on their own and want to be attached to a Centrist denomination. This proposal would divide Progressives even further.
The timeline will be quite long for the N.E.W. Plan. Something like they are suggesting will need to amend the constitution and that process will not begin until a specially-called General Conference two or three years from now. It will take up to two years to ratify what is proposed, if that is possible. And I don’t think it is. But I appreciate this voice from the liberationist wing of our denomination.
U.S. Regional Conference Proposal
The Connectional Table submitted a plan to add a U.S. Regional Conference. (See here.) The goal is to give the same powers of adaptation to the U.S. as those enjoyed by the Central Conferences. There would be, in essence, a U.S.-only legislative meeting before each regular General Conference.
This plan requires constitutional amendments and super-majority support. I predict it will not receive that. Central Conference envy has been a long-running disease in the U.S. church. The fact is that Central Conferences are bound by the same rules, by and large, as U.S. conferences. This is a structural attempt to eliminate African delegates from U.S. decision-making. Plans to segregate Africa failed ratification in 2008 and this effort will meet a similar fate.
If you made it this far, you are really interested in the future of The United Methodist Church. Stay tuned for further analysis, including how the Iron Triangle informs discussions about the future(s) of the UMC. Thanks for reading!