Connectional Table aims to restructure

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Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted preaches during the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. The Connectional Table chair gave the opening devotion during the leadership body’s online meeting Nov. 17. File photo by Paul Jeffrey, UM News. 
Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted preaches during the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. The Connectional Table chair gave the opening devotion during the leadership body’s online meeting Nov. 17. File photo by Paul Jeffrey, UM News.

Key points

  • The Connectional Table is looking to cut its membership nearly in half while also becoming more global.
  • The leadership body is responsible for discerning the church’s vision and coordinating denomination-wide ministries and mission.
  • While the deadline for General Conference legislation has passed, the Connectional Table is looking to get its proposal before delegates. 

The United Methodist leadership body that coordinates the denomination’s mission and ministry is looking to become both smaller and more global.

Bottom line: The Connectional Table plans to have fewer seats at its table but a more diverse group of people in those seats.

“There’s a need for a strategic, holistic focus on the whole church — rather than members coming together to represent their own constituencies,” said the Rev. Amy Coles, co-leader of the group’s Membership Makeup Task Force.

Coles presented the task force’s initial proposal for a new structure at the Connectional Table’s online meeting Nov. 17. While the group’s members supported the proposal’s overall goal, many had some changes to suggest.

The task force plans to bring a refined version of its proposal to the Connectional Table’s next meeting in February.

The Connectional Table is focusing on changes to better serve the whole denomination even as leaders expect a coming separation along theological lines.

Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted — Connectional Table chair — referenced the denomination’s internal strife in his opening devotion based on Romans 12:9-17. “I think this is a time to bless each other,” he preached.

The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, the group’s chief connectional ministries officer, told United Methodist News that the Connectional Table’s goal is to create a more nimble body that is more representative of a denomination that stretches across four continents.

The group also hopes to focus more on the denomination’s vision and mission.

“We are laying the groundwork for the church as we move into the future,” Bigham-Tsai said.

The current proposal would reduce the 64-member board with 49 voting members to a 39-member board with 31 voting members.

The proposal removes presidents of general agencies from membership. Most of those presidents are bishops. It also makes other changes.

At present, the Connectional Table has 21 members elected by the five U.S. jurisdictions and seven elected by central conferences — one each from the church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

Under the proposal, the four continents where the church is present would each send five voting members.

In addition to those 20 voting members, the proposal calls for other voting members to include:

  • Six bishops — the Connectional Table chair, a Council of Bishops officer, one bishop from each continent.
  • Two top executives from the denomination’s program agencies chosen by the General Secretaries Table, a body that includes all 13 agencies’ top executives. The four program agencies are Discipleship Ministries and the United Methodist boards of Church and Society, Global Ministries and Higher Education and Ministry.
  • One member representing all five of the denomination’s official ethnic caucuses, chosen by the denomination’s Inter-Ethnic Strategy Development Group.
  • One youth and one young adult chosen by the Division on Ministries with Young People.

The proposal calls for these members with voice but not vote:

  • The secretary of General Conference.
  • The top executives of five agencies: the General Council on Finance and Administration, United Methodist Communications, United Methodist Women, the United Methodist Publishing House and Wespath, the denomination’s pension agency.
  • One representative each from two ecumenical partners — The Methodist Church in Britain and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“At a minimum, this proposal increases the voting members coming from outside the U.S. to 18 voting members,” said Coles, who is also assistant to the bishop in the Western North Carolina Conference.

The proposal is still a work in progress. Connectional Table members discussed the possible new structure in an introductory session and in small groups. They then brought suggested changes to the wider body.

One suggested change would have the U.S. and Africa each send seven members, with the Philippines and Europe each sending three. Proponents of the change see it as better reflecting the balance of the denomination's membership.

Another suggestion would keep the two executives who have a vote but also add the 11 other top agency executives with voice but not vote. The idea here is that nonvoting members would serve as resources when called upon by Connectional Table members.  

Across the Connectional Table, members have expressed concern about the reduced representation from ethnic caucuses. Currently, each of the five U.S.-based ethnic caucuses has a voting member.

Coles told the group that the task force extensively discussed the issue of representation, coming to a consensus that representation of every group is not possible in a denomination of more than 12 million members.

She also noted that the proposal is in line with legislation already submitted by the Connectional Table to create a U.S. regional conference as well as the Christmas Covenant legislation, which expands regionalization to every continent. Both legislative proposals encourage more decision-making and diverse representation at the regional level. The Connectional Table also has endorsed the Christmas Covenant.

The Rev. Jerry DeVine, a Connectional Table member and district superintendent in the Michigan Conference, told UM News that the proposal will require a culture shift from representation of “my group” to a commitment to the whole.

“This will require a sense of ownership of ‘being’ the Connectional Table rather than ‘going to’ the Connectional Table,” he said. “We would need to come to the Connectional Table with a concern for the welfare of the whole denomination.”

The 2004 General Conference created the Connectional Table to be a visioning body for the denomination. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, says the Connectional Table is to serve as “steward of the vision and resources for mission and ministry, provide fiscal responsibility, and establish policies and procedures to carry out the mission of the church.”

The leadership body coordinates ministries among the denomination’s general agencies, works with the General Council on Finance and Administration to develop a denomination-wide budget and strives to tackle emerging issues. For example, the Connectional Table is working with the Council of Bishops and other ministries to promote global equity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Since the Connectional Table’s formation, the preponderance of its members have come from the United States even as the church’s membership has grown more international. The denomination has seen most of its growth in Africa.

Any change to the Connectional Table’s makeup requires the approval of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.

The Connectional Table hopes to bring its proposed new structure as legislation to the postponed General Conference, now scheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis.

However, General Conference organizers are not taking any additional legislation to the coming assembly, twice delayed by the pandemic.

Alsted told the group there may still be a way to get the new legislation before delegates.

Delegates may opt to bring new legislation into discussion of one of the three different legislative petitions already submitted to amend the Connectional Table’s structure. All three of those petitions share the Connectional Table’s goal of increasing membership from Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

“But, of course, there is no guarantee that it will get anywhere,” Alsted said. “But that is our avenue into the General Conference.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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