by Chris Ritter

The U.S. Regional Conference Plan is coming from the Connectional Table to General Conference 2020. There are mixed signals as to whether or not the plan is offered as a solution to the imminent schism facing the denomination. United Methodist News Service lists it as such alongside The Indianapolis Plan, the UMC Next Plan, and UM Forward’s N.E.W. Plan. The framers, however, are vague on how and whether this legislation might interact with the radioactive hot potato of human sexuality.

High-level endorsements have been rolling in for the proposal. Wespath promotes it as a way to focus the governance of pensions (a laudable goal). Support of the Central Conference bishops was announced last month with great fanfare. But the specifics of the plan are not getting much attention. Those against it don’t seem to take the plan as serious enough to warrant critique. After all, a similar proposal failed to even make it out of committee in 2016 and the plan requires super-majority support to be enacted. Consensus will be a rare commodity at GC2020.

But there are actually two independent stages or parts to the legislation. The first is an interim plan that also serves as a “contingency” in case the constitutional amendments are not ratified. This segment creates a “U.S. Regional Committee” at General Conference, similar to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters (SCCCM). This seems on its face to be a reasonable means for dealing with those issues only pertinent to the U.S. (i.e. pensions). Like the SCCCM, the work of this new committee would come to the floor of General Conference for final approval.

I notice, however, that ALL legislation dealing with matters adaptable by the central conferences are routed to this new committee. It would be helpful to see a full listing of what this might include, but this is not defined. The non-Disciplinary enabling legislation appears to grant power to the petitions secretary to code any petitions for processing by the new Super Committee. But why should only U.S. delegates deal with the adaptable sections of the Discipline, as if they belong solely to us? (U.S. annual conference may make certain adaptations, but they do not lose representation by doing so.) This plan conflates U.S.-only issues with matters adaptable by the central conferences. These are not the same thing.

Most of my questions are reserved for the the second part of the plan. The constitutional amendments and related provisions create sweeping change. We would introduce a brand new animal in our UMC ecosystem: The U.S. Regional Conference. Made up of U.S. delegates, this new connectional layer meets separately from General Conference to write a U.S.-only Book of Discipline.

Another Layer to Fund

Remember Christopher Walken’s “More Cowbell” skit on SNL? The institution keeps calling for “more institution” to solve our problems. The denomination is already hopelessly top-heavy. And the new U.S. Regional Conference can name its own judicial court, create its own U.S.-only agencies, and authorize its own standing committees. Many of us believe the preferred future of the church is found in flattening and simplifying our structures. This plan creates even more bureaucracy for our struggling local churches to fund.

The plan says it will save some money by shortening the length of General Conference. But it is lean on details as to how much the brand new level of conferencing will cost. A hint can be found in the estimated expense for an Interim Committee on Organization, a 22-25 member group that will do advance work for the new structure. They are asking $83-95K for this small group to meet just twice for three days each. Multiply this amount for the hundreds of delegates that will meet at unspecified intervals (the regional conference can call itself into “adjourned sessions” as often as it likes). It is difficult to see how the proposal will do anything but add to the mind-boggling amount that is already spent on meetings in our denomination.

Two Class System

Central Conference Envy is a syndrome that has long infected the U.S. church. It usually surfaces in calls to add a U.S. Central Conference on top of our U.S. jurisdictions… structural overkill (jurisdictions and central conferences do the same work). The leeway given to Central Conferences to adapt the BOD is actually quite minimal. The denomination is already hopelessly U.S.-centric in its very DNA. The Connectional Table Plan fixes a perceived inequity by swinging the pendulum far in the other direction.

Under the plan, the U.S. gets a conference made up of all U.S. delegates while the work of the church overseas continues to be coordinated through a Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. Central conferences are given no votes in the new U.S. body while U.S. representation is featured heavily in the Standing Committee. This is a them/us plan with “them” getting the short end of the stick. The plan acknowledges the terrible legacy of the Central Jurisdiction but creates much the same dynamic on a global scale. Not unlike Apartheid, the U.S. Regional Conference Plan is ideally suited to keep the voting power of poor black Africas from affecting the (94% white) wealthier U.S. church.

Massive Delegated Powers

The new U.S. Regional Conference would have the authority to adapt and publish its own Book of Discipline. This is intended to mirror the powers currently granted Central Conferences. But this new legislation spells out that the U.S. Regional Conference can adapt any part of the Discipline that General Conference does not expressly forbid it from adapting. In new Par. 34.3, General Conference has the authority to confer any power on the regional conference that does not conflict with existing Jurisdictional powers. This goes well beyond the minor adaptive changes that Central Conferences are allowed to make. And these adapted portions of the Discipline are not subject to rulings by the Judicial Council. They are handled by a new U.S.-only court elected by the Regional Conference. The U.S. Regional Conference can meet as often as it wants… and this fact alone will keep it ahead of any General Conference efforts to monitor it.

General Conference can change the boundaries of the new Regional Conference by simple majority… a majority the U.S. will control for the foreseeable future. (In spite of the fact that the U.S. is currently being eclipsed in terms of membership, it will be another generation before Africa achieves an actual General Conference majority.) The legislation allows the new U.S. body to expand and take in other parts of the world. The possibilities for gerrymandering are endless.

Tone Deaf

It is difficult to trust any plan with such willful amnesia about the fact the U.S. Church is hopelessly divided to the brink of formal schism. The plan is either tone deaf or tactical, and neither of these possibilities encourages trust. Unlike bold structural proposals like the Connectional Conference Plan, the U.S. Regional Conference Plan contains nothing to broker peace in the church and provides everything needed for one side to wrest control.

It is hard to see the U.S. Regional Conference Plan as anything other than an attempt to create a General-Conference-like structure without all those pesky international votes… making United Methodism American Again. The legitimate problems the plan proposes to solve can be adequately addressed by a committee of U.S. delegates at General Conference.

Do we need a U.S.-only structure? We already have five of them. They are called jurisdictions. They are empowered to coordinate the mission of the church within their geographic boundaries. The fact that most jurisdictions don’t do much besides elect bishops is a big clue that this work is not really needed. If we want to be a global church, let’s be a global church. If we don’t, let’s be honest about that.

Better Ideas

Couples in divorce court probably shouldn’t undertake a major home renovation together. We need to honestly fix what ails us by allowing new expressions to select their own destinies. (The best simple proposal for this currently is the Indianapolis Plan.) After the UMC gives birth to a Traditional expression, the institution can come together and redesign itself however it wants.

Instead of creating a U.S.-only conference to manage our pension program, why don’t we set Wespath free to capably serve conferences with benefit programs apart from GC oversight? Wespath has smart people that do very good work. They take no apportionment dollars. The biggest risk they face is a group of amateurs getting together and mandating to them how to do their job. We need to let them perpetuate their own board with strong accountability ties to GCFA. The other U.S.-focused general agencies should be transformed to better serve the global church… or be discontinued.

The UMC does need a major overhaul. The people who brought us into these woods may not be the best ones to lead us out. Remember the Connectional Table itself was created at GC2004 to help the UMC “live into the future.” It was supposed to fix the siloed power centers that the general agencies have become. Instead, it has more recently become a lobbying group protecting agency funding against proposed GCFA cuts. The Connectional Table has failed to produce a major legislative proposal worthy of a serious hearing at General Conference. With the U.S. Regional Conference Plan, that record remains intact.