The Great Restructuring of the Methodist Church

The following is most of a paper I have written for my seminary UMC Polity class on the upcoming amendments being voted on by this year's annual conferences. For links to more online resources, please see the end of the post, and please forward this to your friends and pastors so that we can all be well informed.

In the summer of 2008 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church passed several amendments that focused on the most significant restructuring since the merger that created the denomination. The amendments came from proposals of a six-person task force that were amended and then strongly endorsed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table and focused on the global structure of the church. This paper seeks to explore the purpose and implications of the twenty-three amendments that implement the regional conference structure by looking at all sides of the conversation surrounding the amendments. I will start by looking at the amendments themselves, then at the reasons put forth by those who are supporting the amendments, then at the same for those in opposition followed by the proponents’ response to those objections. I will conclude with my observations on the implications for the church at large.

Explanation of Ammendments

Of the twenty-three proposed restructuring amendments, most simply deal with changing verbiage in the discipline from “central” to “regional;” however, there are five that make more than superficial name changes. The first such amendment is amendment four. Besides the aforementioned name change, this amendment deletes “for the church outside the United States” when referring to the central (now changed to regional) conference in paragraph ten of the constitution. This means that the regional conferences will be a church-wide structure that includes the churches in the United States. Next, amendment ten together with amendment twenty-three extends this concept by altering paragraphs twenty-eight and thirty-eight respectively to make the setting of boundaries and number of regional conferences a General Conference decision.

Amendment 13 is the most significant of the amendments as it grants many powers to the regional conferences of which there are six significant powers to point out. First, for those regional conferences in which there are no jurisdictional conferences, the regional conference will have the task of electing bishops to serve that regional conference. Second, the regional conferences have the power to create boards “as may be required” opening up the possibility for large organizations related to general conferences. The third significant power is that regional conferences decide the number and boundaries of the annual conferences. This seems to be in conflict with ¶27.4 that assigns the same power to Jurisdictional conferences. The next power of significance allows the regional conferences, subject to the General Conference, to adapt the Discipline to the conditions in their respective areas. The fifth significant power given to the regional conferences in this amendment is the power to appoint a judicial court “to determine legal questions arising on the rules, regulations, and such revised, adapter or new sections of the regional conference Discipline.” The phrasing here implies that the regional conferences’ judicial court will rule in three areas: 1. Rules, 2. Regulations, 3. Revised, adapted, or new sections of the regional conference discipline. The final significant power assigned through this amendment is the appointment of an appeals committee to hear appeals from pastoral trials.

The last significant amendment is amendment twenty-six. This amendment establishes a college of Bishops for each regional conference. In those regional conferences without jurisdictional conferences, the college of Bishops would arrange the plan of Episcopal supervision for the annual conferences. For those with jurisdictional conferences, that power would remain with the Jurisdictional conference.

The Supporting Argument

Now that the amendments and their changes are clear it is important to understand the rationale and purpose behind them from those who created and support their propositions. The common reason pointed to by all supporters is the globalization of the United Methodist Church. Proponents point to the fact that our church structure reflects an ethno-centric viewpoint that places the United States at the center with all the other nations as affiliates to the United States’ denomination. Bishop Scott Jones points out that for twenty-five percent of the denomination, their main language is French . Tex Sample offers that by 2012 over 50% of our denomination will exist outside the United States calling our current structure “colonial.” In addition, he points to the Korean and South American Churches becoming autonomous Methodist churches as a symptom of this problem. Kristina Gonzales captures the spirit of all of the supporters’ understanding of this structure when she says that our current “language, processes and structure really marginalizes our central conferences.” Reverend Johnathan Wanday, a member of a central conference, calls this a “bold step from the leaders of the church to make every body feel that they are equal in our communion.”

Also cited as a reason for the changes is the fact that, because of our current structure, a lot of time of the General Conference and the boards of the General Agencies is taken up with U.S.-only issues. In fact, Bishop Ann Sherer states in a video created by the Task Group on the Worldwide Nature of the Church that over half of the work of the General Conference is focused on U.S. Issues adding that “eighty percent of the book of resolutions concerns the United States.”

One of the reasons repeated across all the proponents is that it has been to long of a wait since a proposal in 1996, some tracing the process back to 1964 , and we should not put off such important legislation any longer.

Proponents of the amendments point out that a study committee, chaired by Bishop Jones, has been appointed to bring enabling legislation to the 2012 general conference to flesh out how this structure should work, practically. Jones promises as the head of that committee, they will follow the guidelines given by the General Conference to the best of their ability. The reasoning behind passing the structural changes separate from the practical implementation is because doing both at one general conference, in the words of Bishop Jones, “gets really confusing, that’s hard.”

The Opposing Argument

The amendments are not without their opponents. The chief concern among the opponents is the vagueness of the amendments. In direct conflict with Bishop Jones reasoning of passing the structure and implementation separately, those in opposition see vague wording and open-ended powers that could be easily abused. Maxie Dunnam says that “No one knows what the regional conferences that will be created by these amendments will vote on… We have no idea what issues will be handled separately by regional conferences.” Basically, the opponents do not favor altering the constitution until they have seen a plan of how a restructured church will enhance unity, growth, and development. This repeated concern is that the church is being asked to establish a new structure without knowing how that structure will be implemented. They call to wait until the task force brings its report to the 2012 General Conference. Then, the church can alter the constitution to reflect the needs of how the new structure will operate.

In response to the limiting of the U.S. issues in General Conference and other church-wide agencies, Maxie Dunnam is concerned saying, “we are better in the United States when we hear the perspectives of the poor and the voices of diversity on the issues that are before us here.” He sees the respect that the central conferences have for the Bible challenges the U.S. church to live closer to God’s will for His people. Similarly, Eddie Fox sees this as establishing a national church. His concern is that this idea violates one of the core tenants of Methodism: the connectional system.

Another concern is the implications of creating another level of bureaucracy with its associated agencies, employees, and most important: cost. Eddie Fox is particularly concerned with there being another layer of bureaucracy separating the local church from the general conference asserting that it will have a negative impact not just because of the separation or cost, but also because of the time it will demand.

Possibly the most serious concern of the opponents is the ability of the regional conferences to appoint their own judicial councils and appeal committees. The concern here is that different parts of the communion would begin adopting different practices and beliefs that would ultimately result in schism. Dunnam compares this move to the structure of the Anglican communion and cautions against a similar schism to the one occurring in that communion occurring in the United Methodist Church being a serious possibility in the future because of the potential decisions of these bodies.

The final critique from the opponents of the amendments strikes at the heart of the purpose of these amendments to move away from a U.S. centric model. They assert that these amendments did not come from the persons the amendments claim to help, but were proposed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. They claim that the ammendments were made without serious input from those in the central conferences, and are an example of the “colonial” mindset Tex Sample refers to. In fact, Jerry Kulah, a District Superintendent from Liberia, says that the African church was not consulted on this matter. These opponents suggest that if changes in the United Methodist Church’s structure need to be made, they should be made “not for the church of developing world, but … with the church of the developing world,” asking them to take the lead while we listen.

Response to Opponents

This debate is as lively as one would expect on issues of this level of importance and consequence. Those in favor of the amendments, chiefly Bishop Scott Jones, have tried to address all of the concerns brought by those opposing the amendments. In regards to the need for input on U.S. issues, Bishop Jones cites the difference in the ways churches are planted in developing world and the need for more than one hymnal as examples of the need for separate regional conferences and conversations. In response to the idea that the regional conferences will be more bureaucracy he says, “That’s not the case, there is no level of bureaucracy contemplated here.” Bishop Jones clarifies that statement by saying that the proposal is that regional conference will take up part of the time that is used currently General conference by meeting immediately afterwards. In regards to the concern about a Judicial Council, he says, “That’s not true… there is one Judicial council for our church.” He clarifies this statement by saying there may be “groupings” that talk about issues only relevant to a particular region. When talking about the proposals originating with the people to whom they claim to help, Scott says that the proposal was sent to the central conference bishops who unanimously approved it; additionally, he asserts that the central conference bishops pushed these organizations to make a proposal “something like this.” It is not clear in his statements where in the process the bishops of the central conference were asked to approve what was going on, but is clear that they were not the ones designing the proposal. Finally, Bishop Jones adds that these amendments are completely neutral with regard to the issues of human sexuality, and that will have to be decided by the General conference .

My Observations

It is not something I take lightly to say, but Bishop Scott Jones is being less than truthful in several of his claims about this legislation. First, the idea that regional conference is not additional bureaucracy is patently false. As illustrated in the aforementioned explanation of the amendments, the regional conferences are more than a meeting that happens after general conference as the bishop suggests (in fact, that piece of information is to be found nowhere in the proposed amendments); rather, they are able to have boards “as may be required” to fulfill their mission of promoting “evangelistic, educational, missionary, social-concern, and benevolent interests and institutions of the Church within their own boundaries.” That alone illustrates the bureaucracy that will be created by and around these regional conferences without even going into all the other powers previously discussed that are granted by amendment 13.

Additionally, though there is a semantic difference between court and council, it is difficult to imagine how Bishop Jones’ assertion that there will not be Judicial Councils appointed by regional conferences could be seen as truthful since amendment thirteen grants the following right to the regional conferences: “To appoint a judicial court to determine legal questions arising on the rules, regulations, and such revised, adapted, or new sections of the regional conference Discipline enacted by the regional conference.”

Though it is true that there is no specific act in the amendments in regards to the issue of human sexuality, it does not take a lot of creativity to see how these new structures and rules could and, if history is any indication, would be used by those who desire change in those areas to affect their desired outcome. One could imagine a scenario where the criterion for ordination, which Bishop Jones already noted must be different for different areas of the world , might be interpreted as needing to be opened to practicing homosexual persons. With the regionalization of the church, the debate at general conference would be not only over homosexuality but also over the authority of regional conferences in the area of ordination criteria.

Besides the concern of those in the developing world over not being consulted in a meaningful way in the design of this system, what is clear in this conversation is that the proposed amendments are far too vague. They grant broad power to these conferences to interpret the discipline and make judicial decisions without clarifying what areas are “off limits” to those bodies. They also give to the General conference the power to change the boundaries of and create regional conferences by a simple majority vote which opens up the option of there being separate regional conferences even within one country ( e.g. a western U.S. conference and an eastern U.S. conference) without specifying the process by or reasons for which those changes are to be made. It even causes the discipline to conflict with itself. In short, it is my opinion that the passage of these vague, incomplete amendments is far too dangerous to be considered a viable option.

Links to online resources:
The amendments and resources for download by the authoring group.
Maxie Dunnam on YouTube
Bishop Scott Jones on YouTube
Eddie Fox on YouTube
Tex Sample on YouTube
Jerry Kulah (Liberian D.S.) on YouTube