Building support for U.S. structure

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United Methodists leaders discussed what they see as a growing need for a decision-making body that deals exclusively with U.S. issues.

However, they are holding off — for now — on proposing any changes to church structure.

Leaders of the Connectional Table led the discussion at an international meeting with the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. They also sought the standing committee’s feedback.

“We determined that the need for developing a proposal was not nearly as strong as the need to convince people of the need of the proposal,” said Judi Kenaston, a Connectional Table member from the West Virginia Conference. She has been leading that group’s discussions on what a possible U.S. structure might look like.

For decades, United Methodists have talked about creating a church structure to deal with solely U.S. concerns — like pensions or U.S. social issues. Still, such proposals always have faced stiff opposition.

As recently as 2016, petitions to create a U.S. central conference and other proposed new regional structures didn’t make it out of committee at General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking body. Earlier, constitutional amendments to create uniform regional conferences around the globe gained approval at the 2008 General Conference, only to go down to defeat before annual conference voters.

However, with the advent of a new General Book of Discipline, Kenaston and other church leaders believe General Conference delegates might give the idea a fresh look.  

Since 2012, the standing committee has been working to determine which parts of the current Book of Discipline’s Part VI are essential for all United Methodists and which can be adapted. Part VI, the largest section in the Discipline, deals with organizational and administrative matters.

Any parts the committee deems adaptable, it will recommend General Conference move to a new Part VII in the Discipline. The standing committee is collaborating with three other leadership bodies, including the Connectional Table, in developing its recommendations.

Ultimately, it will be up to the 2020 General Conference to approve any disciplinary changes recommended by the standing committee.

Still, no matter what General Conference decides, United Methodists in the U.S. will not be able to adapt the new Part VII.

Under the denomination’s constitution, only central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — have the authority to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.

“In 1924, when central conferences were established, the central question was: How will the Book of Discipline apply to the central conferences?” Kenaston said. “We’re turning that question around now because the question is: How will the General Book of Discipline apply to the U.S.?”

Know Your Leadership Bodies

The 59-member Connectional Table acts as a sort of church council for the denomination, coordinating mission, ministry and resources.

The 43-member Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, as its name indicates, deals with concerns related to central conferences — the seven church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The standing committee is the only denomination-wide body where the majority of members live outside the U.S. 

Standing committee members encouraged the Connectional Table to keep working on the idea of a U.S. structure, despite past setbacks.

For many, the debate over the structural change has become a proxy in the denomination’s long-term debate over homosexuality — with both opponents and proponents seeing it as a backdoor way for U.S. United Methodists to have different policies than United Methodists in other parts of the world.

But that debate is about to change, said the Rev. Amy Lippoldt, a standing committee member from the Great Plains Conference. A special General Conference in 2019 will specifically consider proposals around how the church should minister with LGBTQ individuals.

“My hope would be that once we get through 2019 with some kind of resolution that this would not be hard anymore,” Lippoldt said. “And I’m not saying there aren’t issues to sort out. But (the current situation) seems to be a remnant of the idea that the U.S. is more important, that all our decisions need to be made at General Conference.”

Simon Mafunda of the East Zimbabwe Conference later made a similar point. “I suggest that in the future, we move to separate some of these very emotional issues from a proposal about structure,” he said. He suggested generating support for the idea up from the grassroots.

Christine Schneider of the Switzerland-France-North-Africa Conference told fellow central conference members that she sees this as “a justice issue.”

“We do have the freedom to adapt things for our context; our friends in the U.S. don’t,” she said. “At the same time, the more I learn about the church in the U.S., the more I realize how much I have to learn still. I feel it’s our duty at this point to step back and listen to what our friends in the U.S. are saying.”

One question the Connectional Table faced is what a new U.S. structure might mean for the current five U.S. jurisdictions, which handle the election of bishops and various ministries.

Kenaston said the Connectional Table is not recommending changing the jurisdictions.

Instead, she said, the Connectional Table members envision any eventual proposal would encompass the whole U.S.

She pointed out that many of the things that are adaptable for central conferences would need to be consistent across the U.S. These include matters such as pensions, which are subject to U.S. federal laws, and clergy preparation, which takes place at seminaries across the United States.

Kenaston said the Connectional Table has considered such ideas as proposing the creation of a U.S. central conference, which would require multiple constitutional amendments. The Connectional Table also has talked about the possible creation of a Standing Committee on U.S. Matters, which like its central conference counterpart would have to bring any changes back to General Conference for a vote.

The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, the Connectional Table’s chief connectional ministries officer, stressed that her group is not ready to draft any legislation at this point.  

“I’m sure additional plans will surface,” she said. “What we are trying to do is help people in the U.S. understand is the need because of what is going to happen once there is a General Book of Discipline.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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