Is the Answer in Our Polity?

May 5th, 2014

What follows is a series of questions that might not satisfy very many, but might lead us toward some different conversations about the future of our United Methodist Church. I know that our church is divided and struggling with many issues, including the issue of homosexuality, and it seems that our current efforts to resolve these issues through General Conference legislation, acts of protest, or clergy trials have not helped. And so I wonder:

What if a better approach to such issues is found within our Constitution and polity (governing organization) as a United Methodist Church?

Our UMC Constitution declares that the Annual Conference is the basic unit of our church—not the local congregation, not the Jurisdictional or Central Conference, not the Council of Bishops, not the Judicial Council, and not even the General Conference. No, our Constitution says that the basic organizational structure of the UMC is the Annual Conference. Here is that reference:

¶ 33. Article II.—The annual conference is the basic body in the Church and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote on all constitutional amendments, on the election of clergy and lay delegates to the General and the jurisdictional or central conferences, on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its clergy members, and on the ordination of clergy and such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution, with the exception that the lay members may not vote on matters of ordination, character, and conference relations of clergy except that the lay members of the conference board of ordained ministry may vote on matters of ordination, character, and conference relations of clergy, with the further exception that lay members of the district committee on ordained ministry be full participating members of the district committee on ordained ministry with vote. It shall discharge such duties and exercise such powers as the General Conference under the Constitution may determine. 

Article IV also comments on the primary role of the Annual Conference (AC), as does ¶ 604 which describes the powers and duties of the AC. With these understandings about the primary role of the AC, I find myself wondering ...

1. What if we allowed each AC around the world to make its own decisions on all matters other than those restricted by the Constitution? What if we allowed each AC to be innovative and flexible on all matters other than our basic doctrine and theological task (as outlined elsewhere in the current Book of Discipline)?

2. What if we allowed each AC to modify its own Social Principles and approve its own Resolutions applied to the unique cultural and political settings of its geography and people?

3. What if we allowed each AC to establish its own standards and processes to train clergy and laity to serve their churches and their unique mission field?

4. What if we allowed each AC to elect their own bishop and to pay the basic support for their own bishop (except for the Episcopal Fund of the general church covering the costs of bishops to attend to denominational responsibilities and Council/College of Bishops work), perhaps with General Conference setting such term limits or other tenure as the General Conference would determine? What if new Episcopal areas established by the General Conference would have the costs of their bishops paid for the first 4 or 8 or 12 years, but we all understood that part of being a self-supporting Area is to pay for their own bishop based upon a formula adopted by General Conference?

5. What if we allowed each AC to partner with the general agencies of the UMC for such services, resources, and ministries which each AC determines it needs?

6. What if we allowed each AC to establish their own policies about how much latitude they would allow for ministry to gay and lesbian persons, especially taking into account the differing laws of various states in the United States and countries outside of the United States?

7. What if we allowed each AC to structure itself in the best ways to accomplish our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” in each AC’s unique setting?

8. What if we disbanded the Jurisdictions in the US as an outdated structure left over from the racial compromises of the mergers of 1939 and 1968? What if, instead, we allowed Annual Conferences to form affinity groups with other Annual Conferences (including in other countries) to help them best accomplish our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

9. What if we allowed General Conference to focus upon its primary task of adopting policies, mission goals, and budgets for the whole of our UMC—without asking the General Conference to micromanage every aspect of the UMC around the world?

10. What if we allowed our current general boards and agencies to become partners with the Annual Conferences, including permission to raise funds by charging for services rendered, rather than by lobbying every four years for their “piece of the pie” of the general funds of our UMC?

There would be many intended and unintended results of such a “flattening” of our UMC. For example:

  • We would likely see some Annual Conferences establish much more “progressive” policies and practices on various social issues, while other Conferences would maintain more “conservative” policies and practices. Would that be preferable to schism or to the continued battles and disruptive efforts to make us uniform on those issues?
  • We would likely see some Annual Conferences create a very streamlined and simple process for discovering, developing, and deploying clergy leaders. Would that be preferable to our current efforts to mandate identical processes around the world? Would such freedom in each Annual Conference prove to be more effective to reach new people groups?
  • We would likely see some general agencies unable to “make their case” to partner with enough Annual Conferences to be financially viable. Would that be better than having our whole general church budget continue to struggle to maintain the current number of boards and agencies? Would we need to have some “transitional funds” to help those general church boards and agencies transition from their current process of budgeting into a new model of fundraising and partnering with Annual Conferences? Would we still need to fund those responsibilities of general boards and agencies that the General Conference mandates, while allowing those groups to develop other funding sources in partnership with Annual Conferences?
  • We would likely see our UMC around the world becoming less unified in some ways, but could that freedom actually allow our UMC around the world to become more unified in mission and purpose? 

Yes, I am wondering if we could use our Constitution to “flatten” our UMC structure and thus tune our outreach to a more “flattened” world, allowing many more decisions to be made at local and regional levels, rather than trying (unsuccessfully) to mandate uniformity around the world in rapidly changing ministry settings.

I am wondering if a “flat structure” might lead to more “trust” in our United Methodist Church with decisions made closer to the roots of the church.

I am wondering if this focus might allow us to see that the unity we share is in Jesus Christ, the maker and sustainer of the church, and not in the attempted political uniformity which troubles us now.

I am wondering if the Constitutional concept of the Annual Conference as the basic unit of our denomination could help us to fulfill Wesley's vision: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Those are my thoughts and wonderings—what are yours? 

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