There has been much fanfare about the restructuring plan for the UMC that will be presented to the 2012 General Conference. I just had a conversation with someone who recently came back from a meeting with a general agency of the church where the plan was explained. We had a wonderful conversation about the history of the UMC and our polity as it relates to the proposed legislation.
I have to admit that I am personally involved in this process as both a member of the Connectional Table that approved the proposed new structure and as a member of the Legislative Writing Team that has composed it. Although I disagree with key sections I have been faithful in my responsibility to write good legislation with the hope that holy conferencing and the wisdom of General Conference 2012 will correct the troublesome parts.
A primary concern for me is that we are allowing a business model to dictate ecclesiology. I know we’re in terrible economic times but that doesn’t give us license to overturn our polity for the sake of saving money. Actually I think the money-saving is a smoke-screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops. Our polity is based on the separation of powers. Our two constitutional powers in the UMC are episcopacy and conferences. They must be held in perpetual tension and balance. Judicial Decisions as well as the 2008 Book of Discipline are clear in this matter. For instance, Judicial Decisions 689 and 1156 are important citations. There are more!
The Constitution clearly states that “The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church and shall have reserved to it the right to vote… on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members.” (Par. 36) The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. While the boundaries can become hazy in any particular situation, the preservation of the separation of powers must be observed. (Judicial Decision 689, rendered in 1993)
The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. (Judicial Decision 1156, rendered in 2010)
In addition, Par. 140 of the 2008 Book of Discipline states, “Under the constitution and disciplinary procedures set forth in this Book of Discipline, “The United Methodist Church” as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office or location.” Par. 2509 of the same BOD says that we are a non-jural entity, that we cannot be sued as a denominational whole because we do not exist as a denomination! Rather, our polity has affirmed since our very existence that we are a movement, a group of separately incorporated mission outposts for the Kingdom of God!
Unfortunately, the IOT/CT proposals for restructuring will set up a 15-member CENTER for Connectional Mission and Ministry and have a set-aside Bishop as one of its members and perhaps its chair. This certainly overturns Par. 140 of the BOD by creating both an office/location and an officer! Another frightening thought is that this CENTER’s only oversight will come from a 45-member group (The General Council for Oversight and Strategy) that will meet just once a year. Its chair will be the same set-aside bishop who will either lead or be a member of the CENTER for Connectional Ministry and Mission. For legal and fiduciary protection this is a wrong-headed idea. Legal counsel has already observed that having a denominational CENTER and OFFICER leaves the denomination open for wholesale litigation possibilities. This is a streamlined business model to be sure and saves a ton of money by reducing the costs of separate boards and agencies having to send 565 people to meetings but the cost to our historic polity, balance of powers, and core value of diversity will be greater than any savings.
A 15-member CENTER can hardly be inclusive of all the voices of the UMC. If the purpose of the legislation is to make the denomination more nimble and connect it more closely with annual conferences and local churches then this widens the chasm in my opinion. Voices will not be at the table and will not be heard! Having a quasi-pope from the Council of Bishops may make business sense, but it violates our historic separation of powers. We are a spiritual movement that needs bishops who will be leaders but not with one set-aside bishop. We need ALL the bishops to be set-aside IN THEIR ANNUAL CONFERENCES! We all know how little time bishops actually spend time in their annual conferences. Where are the teaching days? Where is the personal contact and interaction across annual conferences and in local churches? If we want local churches to be mission outposts then bishops must see their primary duty as being in their episcopal areas. How about a promise not to spend more than 21 days outside the annual conference? How about a promise to spend teaching days with laity and clergy in every district at least twice a year? How about a promise to spend time in each district staying in homes getting to know people and scheduling time with every clergyperson in each district over a quadrennium or maybe even twice every four years? How about a promise to be in each charge over a quadrennium? All these things and more come to my mind as a way for United Methodism to regain some of its relevance. It will be possible through personal connections! Personal connections make United Methodist Connectionalism work!
The proposal coming to GC 2012 is out of touch with 21st century flat-world thinking, and bishops and leadership have to be in touch to be relevant! There are cost-savings with the proposal but more centralization into smaller less diverse entities does not offer the hope for change that I’m looking for. It changes us from a spiritual movement into a more bureaucratic quagmire than we already are. I say free up our bishops to lead on the local level. Don’t vote for a constitutional change that would allow one of them to be set-aside for quasi-pope duty. Don’t vote to abrogate the power of General Conference to set budgets and let the Council of Bishops be able to do it between sessions of the GC. Would you want your pastor to have the authority to change your local church’s budget? Heaven’s “NO!” Our connectionalism works best when the distance between leadership and people is bridged not widened. Connectionalism works best and is more theologically sound when it is horizontal not top down. We have tried top-down and it doesn’t work. I know that I can’t say everything that I need to say in this space, but I wanted to put some food for thought on the table as people are gearing up for next year. May God be with us as we discern together!