Efforts for regionalization move forward

Translate Page

Key Points:

  • Two United Methodist leadership bodies each unanimously affirmed the direction of a regionalization proposal.
  • The legislation is still being refined, and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters plans to vote in August on the legislation itself, for submitting to General Conference.
  • At its July 22 online meeting, the standing committee also heard an update on efforts to add more bishops to Africa as well as plans for a meeting of central conference delegates ahead of General Conference.

A plan to put the different geographic regions of The United Methodist Church on equal footing has received two key endorsements that it is heading in the right direction.

The Connectional Table, meeting online on July 13, and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, meeting online on July 22, each unanimously affirmed the work so far on a regionalization proposal for the global denomination.

The Connectional Table coordinates denomination-wide mission, resources and ministries. The standing committee is a permanent committee of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, and deals with matters in central conferences — seven church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The standing committee is the most internationally representative body in the denomination outside of General Conference.

Together, the two United Methodist leadership bodies in February agreed to form a joint task force to combine two regionalization proposals that aim to provide parity between the U.S. and the central conferences. The successive July meetings gave both bodies a chance to review the task force’s work.

“It was our objective to determine which path will lead us to a regional plan that could be supported by the General Conference to allow us to move into a new future,” East Ohio Conference Bishop Tracy S. Malone, the convener of the task force, told the standing committee. Malone also is president-designate of the denomination’s Council of Bishops.

The task force worked to integrate the Connectional Table’s proposal to create a U.S. Regional Conference and the Christmas Covenant, a plan that central conference leaders introduced shortly before Christmas in 2019. The Christmas Covenant incorporates the U.S. regional conference and goes further to transform the existing central conferences into regional conferences with equal authority.

In combining the plans, Malone said, the task force’s work also included some revision.

Other updates on central conference matters

The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters also received updates on other plans affecting United Methodists in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

The standing committee learned that the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the General Conference are planning an orientation for central conference delegates on April 19-21 ahead of the denomination’s top legislative assembly. The orientation, like General Conference, will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, and central conference delegates are scheduled to arrive April 18 so they can participate.

The goal is to provide equity for central conference delegates, build relationships among them and provide transparency about General Conference procedures, said Germany Bishop Harald Rückert, co-chair of the standing committee.

“We do know that there are a lot of other forces working around General Conference trying to influence our delegates, but this one is the only official orientation,” Rückert said.

He said organizers will work to “secure that the information presented is accurate and presented in a nonbiased way to equip central conference delegates to make their own decisions.”

The standing committee also heard an update on adding more bishops to the African continent.

In 2019, the standing committee previously had submitted to General Conference a plan to increase the number of African United Methodist bishops from 13 to 18. But given the financial stresses the denomination is facing because of the COVID pandemic and church disaffiliations, the standing committee is discerning whether new realities will require revisions to the original plan.

West Ohio Conference Bishop Gregory V. Palmer told the standing committee that consultation is still ongoing between the General Council on Finance and Administration and African United Methodists. Palmer is the chair of the task force that has been working on African episcopal leadership.

The ongoing conversations include a consultation with African bishops when they hold their annual meeting in September. Given the timing and the need for data that is still being collected, Palmer told the standing committee that it will need to continue its work on the plan after the General Conference petitions deadline.

As a permanent General Conference committee, the standing committee has the legislative authority to revise its previously submitted plan on African bishops when it meets in April, just as it does regionalization.

Palmer said the standing committee will have greater clarity early next year. Should it be advisable, the bishop suggested that the standing committee can map out a plan that could provide a response different than the one approved by the 2016 General Conference to add five new episcopal areas.

That’s in part because a lot has changed since both plans were submitted to the coming COVID-delayed General Conference, originally scheduled in May 2020 and now planned for April 23-May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Malone said the task force also looked at what different regions might need that wasn’t included in either proposal.

“Our foundational question is and was: What is the gift that regionalization can give our church?” Malone said.

Regionalization aims to address what many have identified as a longstanding problem in the denomination — namely that it has separate ways of functioning in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.

No structure exists to deal with matters solely related to the United States. The result is that General Conference ends up being largely dominated by U.S. issues and debates.

For example, Wespath — the denomination’s pension agency — collaborated in the work on a U.S. regional conference so that the U.S. would have a place to vote on pension matters that affect only U.S. United Methodist clergy. Wespath has a separate Central Conference Pensions Program to provide retirement security for central conference clergy.

Also unlike in the U.S., central conferences have authority under the denomination’s constitution to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.

However, previous regionalization efforts have gone down to defeat over the years. Creating the new regional structures requires amending the denomination’s constitution — a high bar.

For ratification, amendments must receive at least a two-thirds vote at General Conference and at least two-thirds of the total votes from annual conferences, regional bodies consisting of voters from multiple congregations. The regional conferences planned under regionalization would each consist of multiple annual conferences.

A number of United Methodist leaders see new urgency for the U.S., Africa, Europe and the Philippines to each be on equal footing now that the standing committee is developing a draft of a new General Book of Discipline.

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.

Both the standing committee and Connectional Table decided to integrate the two regionalization plans into a single legislative package so that they would not compete with each other and so that regionalization would have its best chance for success.

Drafters of the original Christmas Covenant also have consulted in revising the combined proposal — what many have started calling Christmas Covenant 2.0.

The 10-member task force included United Methodists from Congo, Germany, Mozambique, the Philippines and the U.S.

The Rev. Deanna “Dee” Stickley-Miner, the standing committee’s secretary and a General Conference delegate from West Ohio, said the collaborative spirit in assembling the combined regionalization proposal offers a model for the denomination.

“This process reflects who we could be as a United Methodist denomination when we slow down enough to listen to each other,” Stickley-Miner said.

Judi Kenaston, the top executive of the Connectional Table, has overseen that body’s work on regionalization and shared a similar sentiment.

“It is encouraging to witness the collaborative work that is producing this legislation,” said Kenaston, who is also a General Conference delegate from West Virginia.

“The hard work, deep listening and willingness to come to a common understanding has shown the best of our connection, and I hope it can be an example of how we can work moving forward.”

Malone emphasized that the core Christian doctrines, such as the belief in Christ’s resurrection and divinity, will remain the same and unchanged across The United Methodist Church. But the plan aims to allow for regional differences in the administration of the church.

Malone said one of the task force’s guiding principles was to help empower each region to make certain decisions in real time without being dependent on General Conference, which typically meets every four years.

The revised regionalization proposal is now in the hands of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The standing committee plans to vote on the legislation itself in August and submit the approved petitions to General Conference by the Sept. 6 petitions deadline.

The Book of Discipline requires that all properly submitted petitions receive a vote at General Conference in one of its legislative committees. All petitions approved by legislative committees, in turn, must receive a vote in General Conference plenary. 

As a permanent committee of General Conference, the standing committee also acts as a legislative committee. That means the standing committee has authority to substitute the combined Christmas Covenant 2.0 regionalization proposal for the previously submitted regionalization proposals. The standing committee also will have the ability to refine the legislation still further when it meets April 21-22, 2024, just before General Conference begins.

Already, there are indications that this effort at regionalization may have greater momentum than earlier efforts. During meetings in November to elect new bishops, all five U.S. jurisdictions approved identical resolutions calling for more regional governance of The United Methodist Church. At least 35 annual conferences in the U.S. and the Philippines as well as the Virginia Conference's General Conference delegation also have endorsed the Christmas Covenant.

“We continue to educate and advocate for regionalization,” said Karen Prudente, a task force and Connectional Table member who was part of the original Christmas Covenant writing team. Prudente lives in New York but is originally from the Philippines.

“We have been meeting with annual conferences all around the world,” she added.

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.

Like what you're reading? Support the ministry of UM News! Your support ensures the latest denominational news, dynamic stories and informative articles will continue to connect our global community. Make a tax-deductible donation at ResourceUMC.org/GiveUMCom.

Sign up for our newsletter!

Children from the Congo lead the recession of bishops from the Memorial du Centenaire Cathedral in Lubumbashi, Congo, following the opening worship service for the Africa Colleges of Bishops retreat that took place Sept. 2-7. Over 3,000 people attended the service where Council of Bishops president Thomas J Bickerton preached about the power of love in troubling times. Photo by Eveline Chikwanah, UM News.

African bishops tackle regionalization

Conversations at a recent gathering of episcopal leaders in Africa focused on regionalization, possible new episcopal areas and the definition of Christian marriage.
Theology and Education
Members of the Mutare District’s women’s organization celebrate the group’s unwavering commitment to education during their district conference at Hilltop United Methodist Church in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Representatives from urban and rural circuits highlighted their accomplishments in establishing scholarship programs and providing educational opportunities to underprivileged children. Photo by Priscilla Muzerengwa, UM News.

Empowering marginalized children through education

Zimbabwe women’s group aims to transform lives, communities through scholarship program.
Young People
West Angola Conference youth pose for a photo during a weeklong Juventude Metodista camp in Lubango, Angola. The gathering, the largest in the group’s history, featured morning devotions, team-building exercises and a gospel concert. Photo courtesy of Juventude Metodista.

West Angola camp helps youth shine

Hundreds of young people gather for a week of fun and activities designed for their spiritual growth.

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

©2023 United Methodist Communications. All Rights Reserved