by Chris Ritter
I serve a church with a tight Sunday worship schedule. On occasion the preacher is so long-winded that the postlude for one service becomes the prelude for the next. None of us much like the music being played in the UMC currently. But what sounds like a dirge is also the prelude to something new. I once overheard Bishop Ken Carter say (I paraphrase) that the future is already happening and we only need to pay attention to it. United Methodists would be wise to discern long-standing trend lines and the future to which they point. Conflict is inevitable. Combat is optional. Collaboration is the key.
The Global Methodist Church was born trapped in the same gravity well of uncertainly that grips the UMC. Most American traditionalists no longer seek to “win” the institution and desire a new sort of connection. But annual conference exits are off the table for now, disaffiliation costs are high, and the patchwork of conference-level exit processes are complex to navigate. The GMC is sincere in its hope that the African central conferences will eventually join them. And they might… but this can only be partial and fraught with significant conference-level turmoil. Those leaving would cut themselves off from their established brand and legacy funding sources. It also requires they accept a new Discipline with a less authoritative episcopacy. GMC leaders have staked out a position against regionalization, but this creates the significant challenge of finding a single system that works for all. At convening conference, a GMC African super-majority would look circumspectly at the polity crafted for an American context.
UM Progressive/Centrists are frustrated and concerned, too. The exit of U.S. traditionalists could actually result in a net loss in U.S. representation at General Conference. The future is uncertain for plans to either change human sexuality standards or regionalize the global UMC. U.S. jurisdictions will likely be successful in electing bishops unwilling to enforce what the Book of Discipline says on human sexuality. But this small consolation does not get them to the real challenge of reorganizing for the future. What centrist/progressives want is a U.S. regional body to do this work.
Locked horns here in America obscure what is otherwise obvious: Africa is the now and future UMC majority. African Central Conferences are the only sectors that (1) are increasing membership, (2) have built up the UMC brand in their contexts, and (3) largely accept both what the UMC teaches and how it is constituted. Africa is also the part of the church with the greatest potential to translate the UMC institution into significant numbers of new disciples. United Methodism works there for the same reason it doesn’t work here. The tight connectionalism that locks the U.S. in intramural conflict also prevents the church in Africa from falling prey to local politics. Surely any solution for U.S. schism should seek to preserve what is working for the majority.
The fate of the African central conferences is the source of so much uncertainty because we have given our only growth sector three unacceptable options: (1) Leave the UMC they love, (2) compromise deeply-held beliefs, or (3) compartmentalize themselves and look away from what is happening elsewhere in the Church. This post is about a fourth option. What if the next General Conference put the change where it is needed and enable Africa to inherit the current UMC? Hear me out.
I suggest that American Methodists of all stripes unite on a path to bequeath the current constitution and Book of Discipline to the African central conferences. In doing so, we have an opportunity to salvage a bit of our unity… even as we separate. The Judicial Council tells us that U.S. annual conferences can leave the UMC if General Conference approves a process for that. American conferences, as an act of grace and generosity, should take exit as an opportunity to reorganize for the future. This does not mean abandoning United Methodism or Africa. Most general agencies have already poised themselves to be ecumenical organizations (Wespath, United Women in Faith, Discipleship Resources, etc.). General Conference 2024 only needs to change the representation basis for general agency boards to grant seats to all bodies that contributes to their support. Instead of seats being filled by U.S. jurisdictions, they would be filled by participating denominations.
There are advantages to leaving the inflexibility of the UMC structure while maintaining connection through the work of the general agencies. This way forward reorganizes the church while avoiding constitutional amendments. We only need carefully-crafted legislation that (1) allows conference and local church exits and (2) changes how general agency boards are populated. The first part would be a sort of Protocol 2.0. The second would allow the general agencies (including GCFA) to be governed by boards populated by participating bodies. The Episcopal Fund would need to be maintained at a level only that keeps promises to current bishops. Future funding for bishops could be provided by the various episcopal areas.
Building on my past support for the Connectional Conference Plan, I envision a centrist/progressive church formed from through a Protocol-type migration of fifty or so U.S. conferences. These conferences would form a new union to function much like the U.S. Regional Conference proposed in the Christmas Covenant. The name, of course, would be up to them. But “The United Methodist Church of America” (UMCA) has a nice ring to it. This new church would be free to rebrand and reboot as it wishes. It could reproduce the current system of jurisdictions or scuttle that judicatory layer entirely. It would maintain significant representation in the current general agencies.
The same Protocol that allows the UMC in America to form would also enable exits to the GMC. The Global Methodist Church would, I expect, take an al a carte approach to the current agencies, perhaps maintaining a connection with only UMCOR, Wespath, and Global Ministries. The GMC would be a confluence of traditional-minded annual conferences in the Western Hemisphere, Asia, and Eastern Europe under their own General Conference. The Philippines would be free to chart a course with Africa, join a newly forming denomination, or form its own General Conference. The African Central Conferences would become the legacy-holders of the United Methodist constitution and existing Discipline. Linking everything together would be the cooperative work of the UM general agencies.
There is no way to force U.S. conferences to exit. Those that elect to stay, however, would find themselves in an Africa-focused denomination. And they would miss the opportunity to help shape one of the new spin-off denominations. An Africa-based UMC would likely want to call special General Conferences in 2025 and 2026 on its own continent to customize the UMC Discipline to its context.
Getting with the Music
I have long been interested in the space between “United” and “Un-tied.” While the Connectional Conference Plan gained no traction in 2019, there is still an opportunity to build a positive future from what is already happening. Already Africa is inheriting General Conference. Already American conferences are defining themselves apart from General Conference. Already our general agencies are preparing to serve multiple denominations. Already the Global Methodist Church is becoming a space for those who stand outside the Western Mainline consensus. The prelude for the next Methodism is already playing if we put down our clubs and start singing to the music.
There is another possible outcome that may be likely. The Africans should be in the drivers seat at the next general conference. They may insist on maintaining the status quo. They have stated that they have no desire to hold churches in the UMC against their will. Perhaps they will support legislation allowing churches and annual conferences to leave the denomination. This would allow progressives to leave if they don’t like the current book of discipline. It is not in the Africans self-interest to change the denomination just to suit American sensibilities. 2024 may leave us with a UMC that looks like it does today with no prospect of changing the discipline about sexuality.
You wrote: “None of us much like the music being played in the UMC currently.” Our UMC must be an outlier then, because our contemporary service musicians are studio quality and their selections each Sunday have the congregation raising the rafters. Our traditional service includes an amazing choir led by a devoted PK musician. Our hymns are always from the hymnal, and the congregation follows Wesley’s seven “Directions For Singing.” Our organ is recognized as one of the largest in the US, and more than half of the congregation stays for the postlude as our organist displays the organ’s full capacity. We are blessed.
Thanks, Paul. “Music” here is only a metaphor for the mood in the denomination. We all love our worship music just fine, I am sure.
Thanks for continuing to speak into this clash of moments! What is the caveat? Is there a real prospect for a peaceable General Conference 2024?
Thanks, Gary. Lack of trust and good will is the unfortunate reality.
Is this in a way an admission that the GMC has failed to take off ground. I have been following your writings with interest. There was a time you were giving a narrative that Africa will go GMC . Now that narrative seem to have changed.
There was a time when 1 May was like the D-day for UMC allover the world, as you projected that there will be some stampeding of pastors and congregations moving to join the GMC. Now your articles seem to be taking a new twist with a flavor suggesting that GMC is failing to be a denomination with a clear vision and mission.
My opinion being that is because GMC seems to be a denomination whose focus is on what is wrong with the American progressives and then infer to be the image of the whole UMC.
It is hard to start a denomination based on smacking on the face some few people whom you don’t like, and use that as a rallying point to establish a denomination. Generally churches are founded on doctrinal and theological foundations. The GMC seems to have been founded on the foundation of fighting a small group of progressives in the UMC-USA. However, by breaking away the GMC leaders detached themselves from the group they love to fight, therefore they cant create a clear vision and mission for the new denomination hence all the focus is still to prove what is wrong with the UMC rather than what is it that the GMC is there for.
They all the time talking about what is wrong with UMC of which they will be basically referring to a small group of progressives whom they hate with a passion, however, that can not be the basis of founding a denomination.
The 2024 General Conference will be pretty much like any other UMC General Conference and there is no need for the UMC to have our agenda be set by the deserters. Those who have deserted the UMC and formed GMC should forget about UMC and focus on the GMC and let the UMC chat its way forward.
The people who will continue to have a challenge are people like you Chris Ritter whose heart may be in the GMC. But you are now clearly seeing that there is no clear pathway, vision and mission in the GMC besides talking about what is wrong with the UMC. You can still see the life is the UMC, but because of years spend investing energy in the WCA and the formation of a new denomination one gets torn in between towards the two centers. The denomination WCA leadership worked to form is now there but one can not see any light in a denomination because it was founded on hating a few UMC progressives. The option may be trying to spin things around to remain relevant of which the results are articles where one can’t make head or tail of the points.
Good morning, Lloyd. This post suggests a way forward that honors God’s work in Africa and does not destroy the international relationships that are working in the UMC. I would think you would celebrate such a conversation. The GMC will be prosper only to the extent that it keeps its eyes on Jesus. That is true of the UMC, as well.
From this post I don’t think you understand what apostate means. The UMC is just that and God will have nothing to do with it. It has not only become deaf to His Word but dumb in the false teachers’s sermons and literature and blind to the damage it is doing to the Church’s witness. Let us go!! Bishops need to find some other ignorant group to pay them NOT to work. We are sick of being told we are the problem for expecting them to uphold the Church Disipline.
Good morning, Gentry. One thought behind this modest proposal is that an exit path is likely to be more fair and gracious if both warring parties are using. But your point is well taken that there may very well not be the residual trust in our system to collaborate.
Just pony up your exit fee, leave, and those of us who stay UMC will work something out with the conferences across the globe. It’ll be fine.
“Ponying Up” seems to be the main message of a system addicted to money instead of disciple-making. The new UMC majority has many tools at their disposal (and the patience) to shape a different vision for the future.
Chris, I am trouble getting your email sent to my husband. It says he needs a password.
Sent from my iPhone
Good morning, Phyllis! Are you talking about the Team Caffeine messages? This is the first time I have heard of a problem with forwarding these emails. They are not password protected. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com to troubleshoot further.
One thing is clear from the comment box: “The people need you.” Step up the ante!
July 10, 2022 at 7:15 am
What’s in a name? A rose by any other rose is still a rose. Someone once said. The name “United Methodist Church” is gone. It is no longer “United” nor a “Church”. “Methodist” is void of any substantive theology and the remnant of that part of the once named organization is “Method”. An apt name for a convoluted method of disuniting a church.
Chris, thanks for your thoughts. People Need Jesus (love the name by the way… focus on the right place regardless of our theology) has become my go to for keeping up on this mess we’re in. Not surprisingly, I find your pieces generally well balanced and fairly written. And when there are misstatements, humility in correcting them when necessary. I’ve long believed that our polity held the potential to allow us to navigate this storm – if – we would have the patience and ability to set aside the temptation of self (in whatever form you want to assign to it) and make it work for the mission of making disciples of Jesus. What you offer up (apparently again with some modifications) sounds like we agree (correct me if I’m wrong… plenty of people do and that’s okay). Looking forward to more insights from you and others.