Leaders pursue plan for new US structure

United Methodist leaders are pressing ahead with an effort to create a new decision-making body for U.S. matters — despite concerns that it will become another battlefront in the homosexuality debate.

The Connectional Table in its April 3 vote gave the go-ahead to submit legislation to the 2020 General Conference that, if the legislative assembly approves, would offer two steps toward creating such a structure. The 64-member church leadership body acts as sort of a denominational church council coordinating the work of ministry and money.

Judi Kenaston, who leads the Connectional Table subcommittee working on the proposal, made clear that the goal is not to skirt General Conference’s votes on same-sex weddings and gay ordination.

Instead, the Connectional Table’s goal is to have a place for United Methodists to vote on clergy pensions, retirement plans, property matters, resolutions and other initiatives that solely affect the United States — and take some of the burden off General Conference to deal with these matters.

Ordination standards, clergy conduct rules and marriage policies would remain up to General Conference, Kenaston said.

Still, she acknowledged, there are United Methodists who want or fear the Connectional Table’s proposal will do just that — especially after a special General Conference that has left pain all around.

“At this time, we are left with a very good proposal presented at a very difficult time,” she said. “The church is in transition, and our trust is low. We see and understand the risks of offering any legislation. We don’t want this work to be lost.”

The first step in the Connectional Table’s legislation would create a General Conference legislative committee to deal with petitions pertaining exclusively to the U.S. church.

The committee, which would not convene until the 2024 General Conference, would consist of all U.S. delegates to General Conference. It also would include two delegates from each central conference — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The Connectional Table proposes that General Conference’s Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters name these delegates, who will have voice but not vote.

“There is a perspective here that is needed,” the Mississippi Conference’s Bishop James Swanson Sr. explained. “Sometimes something may look like it’s only dealing with the U.S. but may have an effect on other local churches.”

He noted that the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters also includes U.S. members.

The Committee on U.S. Matters, unlike its central matters counterpart, would not be a permanent committee that meets between General Conference sessions. However, as with the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, any legislation approved by the U.S. committee also would need the support of the General Conference’s full multinational plenary to go forward.

Connectional Table members see the committee approach as only an interim step towards creating a U.S. central conference where delegates from across the U.S. could make decisions without going to the full General Conference.

At present, that is how some decisions work in the current seven central conferences. 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.

In practice, that means central conferences make decisions related to administering their own clergy pensions, their own clergy compensation and in some cases, their own clergy’s educational requirements.

Creating a new legislative committee on U.S. matters would only require a simple majority vote at the 2020 General Conference. However, creating a new central conference requires multiple constitutional amendments — a high hurdle.

For ratification, amendments must receive at least a two-thirds vote at General Conference and at least two-thirds of the total votes at annual conferences.

If a U.S. central conference was approved by General Conference and ratified, the legislative committee on U.S. matters would sunset.

Since the 1920s, Methodists have talked about creating a church structure to deal with solely U.S. concerns. Still, such proposals often have faced tough 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. 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, Kenaston and other church leaders believe the development of a new General Book of Discipline gives the effort new urgency.

Since 2012, the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters 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.

The committee will recommend that any parts it deems adaptable be moved 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.

As it stands, the new Part VII will only be adaptable outside the United States — unless the U.S. has its own central conference.

In 2018 — before the special General Conference — standing committee members were encouraging of the Connectional Table’s plans to create a place for U.S. decision-making.

However, when Kenaston spoke to the standing committee again last month, the mood was decidedly different.

Because of the General Conference 2019 fallout, the standing committee already had agreed to delay bringing its General Book of Discipline recommendations for a vote until the 2024 General Conference. Instead, the group plans to ask the 2020 General Conference delegates to give feedback on the work done so far.

“I appreciate all the impulses, but I think we are in a different day,” said the Rev. Amy Lippoldt, a standing committee member from the Great Plains Conference. “I would want to put my energy toward something that goes a lot farther in creating space than this does.”

Other committee members remained unsure about what a new U.S. central conference would do to the denomination’s power dynamics — particularly since the plan keeps the five U.S. jurisdictions for bishop elections.

“Why doesn’t America become something like five central conferences, simply changing the five jurisdictions into central conferences?” asked Simon Mafunda, a standing committee member from the East Zimbabwe Conference. “If they are only going to have one central conference and they still want to hold onto jurisdictions, big questions remain.”

Kenaston said the goal is to have the least complicated legislation. Also, she told United Methodist News Service that the legal contexts for pensions and property are pretty much the same across the U.S.

After the Connectional Table vote to move forward, those backing the U.S. structure were still hopeful but worried it will face strong headwinds.

“From my point of view, it’s a need,” said Benedita Penicela-Nhambiu, a veteran General Conference delegate from the Mozambique South Conference. “I’m feeling this need from quadrennia and quadrennia ago.”

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

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