How Should Delegates Make Decisions?

February 17th, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

Editor’s Note: This article was written prior to the announcement of the “Protocols for Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” agreement.

United Methodists are facing major decisions about our legacy and future in the coming General Conference. Myriad actions taken over many past years have set up an unfortunate win/lose situation, quite common in today’s politics but strangely out of character with the generous spirit of our Wesleyan heritage.  

When General Conference delegates convene, their one purpose is to be stewards of the United Methodist witness in the world. All their decisions should be made to enhance and extend the United Methodist mission and outreach. Most of United Methodism was achieved long before any of us arrived on the scene. That is a good reminder that we and our current opinions are not the center of the universe. We dare not trifle with this pearl of great price as if it belongs to us alone.

What questions should delegates be asking as they assess plans and options offered? What criteria from our heritage might delegates use in making their decisions?

Begin with Humility and Repentance

A profound sense of humility is essential for all who decide the future of the United Methodist Church.

The DCA notes from the 1972 General Conference, where homosexuality was first addressed, contain an observation by a leading social ethicist of the time, Walter Muelder. “I think it is very plain that homosexuality is a very emotional question. The various things that have been said on all sides of this matter,” Muelder said, “indicate that our church as a whole has not yet matured its thought on this very complex matter.”[1] Humility recognizes when God’s wisdom is still in the process of being revealed within a community of faith.

Humility leads to the repentance our faith requires. Albert C. Outler preached a stirring sermon just prior to the act of uniting the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. Words near the end of Outler’s sermon seem to be particularly needed today. Of this “new chance” God is giving us with a new denomination, he hoped for “a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive.”[2] Could repentance be our greatest need in this hour? 

Ephesians reminds us that God has acted decisively in Jesus Christ to reconcile Jews and Gentiles in the church, and this is a sign of the unity God seeks for the entire universe. Despite differences, the “dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) disappears as all become one through Jesus Christ. The fact that the church today is not the symbol of unity to which a divided world can look for hope highlights the need for repentance that can lead to redemption. The church can, with repentance, indeed become a sign of God’s intent for the world.

Empower Annual Conferences and Local Churches

Decisions are best made at the most immediate level that is consistent with their resolution. Larger entities should be careful not to assume tasks and responsibilities that rightly belong to levels closest to the issues and the people involved. Organizations thrive when they permit as much freedom as possible with only as much restriction as is necessary.

This is one reason that The United Methodist Church calls the annual conference the “basic body of the church,”[3] and the local church “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”[4]

Annual Conferences and congregations are older than the General Conference. There were twelve Annual Conference sessions before the Christmas Conference. They continued to meet until the Annual Conferences created the General Conference in 1792. It is time to rethink what the General Conference is—beyond the corporate centralization model of the twentieth century. General Conference can address matters of doctrine, mission, and values while giving freedom in structure and regulations. Different contexts require flexibility and nimbleness.  

What might this mean specifically?

Annual Conference and Clergy Decisions. In United Methodist polity, the Annual Conference is the only body that decides who is ordained. No other body can remove clergy. This right has never been delegated to bishops, seminaries, or the General Conference. Over against this history and polity, the General Conference continues to assume more power over clergy matters than is appropriate at the expense of the annual conference who has the responsibility.

Local Churches and Use of Facilities. Who better than a local church to decide how their facilities are used for events, services, and ceremonies? Yet, again, the General Conference has assumed more power to itself to make such decisions. Is any church member interested in telling another congregation how to use their facilities? I doubt it.

Pastors and Pastoral Judgment. Some pastoral decisions should be left to pastoral discretion, and our history has illustrated that wisdom. Between 1884 and 1962, at least one or more United Methodist predecessor groups forbid clergy from performing marriages for divorced persons with a living former spouse, except for the innocent party in the case of adultery. Calls for increased enforcement by bishops indicate that pastoral situations led clergy to violate this restriction regularly. Beginning in 1928 and ending in 1962, all branches changed their policies to leave decisions about performing weddings to the judgment of pastors.

Presume Unity

The unity in Christ described in Ephesians comes through respect for others as valued children of God. Diversity and inclusiveness flourish best not so much as ends in themselves but rather as byproducts of a faith that unites all kinds of people more tightly than any differences can separate. 

"Overflow" by Lovett H. Weems, Jr. and Tom Berlin. Order here:

Schism never looks so inevitable in retrospect. This is not the first time we have faced schism. There are not many such instances in which we can take pride. There are also times when people might have left the church and did not. The establishment of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction by The Methodist Church in 1939, without a single vote for the proposal from African American delegates, left African American congregations with every reason to leave. They did not.

At the General Conference level, the current debate is driven by those on either extreme who, it appears, can hardly bear being in a church where people disagree with them at this moment about homosexuality. It is true that others vote with them because they share their stance on homosexuality. The crucial difference, however, is that the vast majority may differ on homosexuality, but few of them want to push anyone out of the church and certainly do not want their church dissolved.  

Many United Methodists expect schism because that is the kind of secular world in which we live today. It will be very hard for churches to lead the world in breaking down the dividing walls of hostility while perpetuating division ourselves and building more walls. 

Set a High Bar for Division

Presuming unity means that the burden of proof is strictly on those who advocate any solution that makes for disunity in the church. What might this mean as decisions are considered?

One group leaves. Such divisions have occurred in our history. Race and slavery were the reason for most, though not all, divisions. Departure is a legitimate decision, but bringing chaos to thousands of churches who don’t share such certainty and impatience is not. None of us should try to take a denomination or annual conferences with us. They are not ours to take.

Dissolution and non-geographical conferences. This solution is one in which everyone chooses from two or three options. This is the most complex of the proposed solutions. If even possible, it would take years to accomplish and probably countless legal obstacles. However, this option appears to be supported by those most anxious to separate from those with whom they disagree; it appears to be based partly on the assumption that this vehicle gives them a better chance of garnering more churches to their cause than merely leaving themselves and inviting other churches to follow. 

Some proposals call for non-geographical conferences. Such arrangements do not make for unity and cooperation. One example of Methodist judicatories overlapping in geography is between 1844 and 1939 when the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS) were in existence. There was conflict from day one. In places where there were MEC and MECS churches, conflict and litigation were routine. This especially became true when the MECS started moving into California and the Pacific Northwest, hardly seen to be border states. 

Simple majorities do not make sense. Unity and division are not equal options for a church. The burden of proof rests on those who would disrupt unity. Decisions require more than a simple majority vote to signal the gravity of these decisions.

No forced decisions. Churches can have the right to leave without being automatically removed from their denomination by annual conference action. To the extent that decisions about leaving are made, they should be made at the initiative of local churches. Vital congregations fear being forced to fight among themselves on a divisive issue which they are now handling as a united congregation. The inability of the General Conference to deal constructively with homosexuality issues masks the fact that virtually all United Methodist congregations have found a way to deal with differing opinions without splitting or hindering the work of Christ.  

Leave Room for God’s Spirit to Shape the Future

As with all rule-making bodies, the General Conference has power to act only to the extent that those actions carry with them enough moral authority to be accepted. Legislation must rest on a broadly shared consensus that the legislation is necessary, right, and consistent with John Wesley’s passion that all come to know the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. In matters of faith and morals, Catholic theologian Hans Küng once said, “[N]othing can be achieved simply by voting. If it is impossible to reach some measure of harmony (not unanimity), then, in accordance with the ancient conciliar tradition, the question must be left open.”[5]

We desperately need to find a way to honor the conscience of all and still live together until that day when God’s wisdom for the future is more clearly revealed in our faith community. There is no need to force final decisions as if we have reached “some measure of harmony” when we have not. Time helps and things change. Have you noticed that no one is now defending a bishop’s right to own slaves, or a segregated Central Jurisdiction, or not allowing women to preach  all of which either split or threatened to split the denomination at one time?

One way delegates might think about decisions they make is to imagine that after the General Conference, you will be going to a series of venues where there will be primarily youth and young adults. Your assignment is to tell them what The United Methodist Church did. What decisions would cause those groups to see The United Methodist Church as a faith option for them? Would they see your report representing a church they would like to attend? Would those of no faith be drawn closer to following Jesus? Would they leave the event anxious to tell others their age what they had learned?

As United Methodists prepare for General Conference, let us abandon our pretenses to innocence that prevent any hope of unity, and remember that our unity can never be based on anything but Jesus Christ. And, while we wait for more perfect unity, cannot we unite to become God’s redemptive agent in the world to end war, poverty, and racism—the historic causes of evangelical traditions such as Methodism—and every scourge that diminishes others?

[1] 1972 Daily Christian Advocate, 460. Thanks are owed to retired Bishop Bill Lewis, a delegate to the 1972 Conference, who shared his notes with me in which he captured Muelder’s words.

[2] Albert C. Outler, “Visions and Dreams—The Unfinished Business of an Unfinished Church,” April 23, 1968.

[3] Book of Discipline, ¶ 33, Article II.

[4] Book of Discipline, ¶ 120

[5] Hans Küng, Why Priests? (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 100-101.

comments powered by Disqus