In 2018’s Marvel movie Black Panther, before the Black Panther T’Challa could become King, he must fight any contenders to the throne at a special ceremony. To make the fight fair, T’Challa must drink a liquid that removes the superhuman abilities granted to Black Panther. The winner of the fight becomes King and gains back the Black Panther superpowers.
This power-sucking image serves as a helpful illustration of the primary effect of the Connectional Conferences plan…to reverse the unique power of United Methodism and reduce us to something less than the sum of our parts. Instead of our diversity being our strength, our diversity becomes our division.
This plan is perhaps the most complex of the three models. As currently written, it would do away with the five jurisdictions in the U.S. and replace them with three (non-geographical) connectional conferences, each with its own theological viewpoint and response to issues related to LGBTQ inclusion. You can imagine a progressive (full inclusion), traditionalist (continued full exclusion), and moderate (each church chooses their own way, basically a small One Church plan) conferences, but there are probably other ways to do it.
These connectional conferences would continue to operate under the big umbrella of United Methodism, sharing common doctrinal standards, jointly supporting mission and ministries outside of the U.S., and utilizing a shared general church administrative infrastructure.
The creation of the connectional conferences would begin at the jurisdictional or central conference level, though annual conferences and local churches may vote by simple majority to join a different connectional conference.
The following outline examines how the Plan affects each circle of United Methodism. This section was drawn from the legislation and prepared by a third party, with some local editing.
What happens to local churches?
- Local congregations may choose to align themselves with the connectional conference selected by their Jurisdictional and Annual Conferences, or they may vote by simple majority to join a different connectional conference altogether.
- Decisions on allowing or disallowing same-sex weddings will be determined by the policies of the connectional conference with which a local church chooses to affiliate.
What happens to Clergy?
- Clergy may affiliate with one or more connectional conferences but must meet specific qualifications and abide by the standards of conduct established by the connectional conference(s) to which s/he belongs.
- Clergy choices regarding affiliation will become a consequential factor in the appointive process, which will still be led by the Cabinet of each Annual Conference.
- Ordinations will be recognized jointly by all connectional conferences. However, fitness for service and ability to affiliate will be determined by each connectional conference.
What happens to Annual Conferences?
- As previously noted, Annual Conferences may vote by simple majority to affiliate with a different connectional conference than the one selected by the Jurisdictional Conference.
- As deemed necessary, decisions about “which connectional conference to affiliate with” may be reconsidered after four years.
What happens to Bishops?
- This plan envisions maintaining the current Council of Bishops but reorganizing the various colleges of bishops so that they are directly affiliated with a connectional conference.
- The Council of Bishops would continue to provide leadership in ecumenical relations and also serve as a creative hub for learning and sharing best practices for innovative ministries.
- Similar to the current jurisdictional and central conference structures, each college of bishops would provide supervision and accountability for the bishops assigned to that particular connectional conference.
- U.S. bishops will be financially supported by their assigned connectional conference; while bishops outside of the U.S. will be jointly funded by every connectional conference.
What happens to Central Conferences?
- Central Conferences can choose to affiliate with a U.S. based connectional conference or create up to five additional connectional conferences of their own.
What happens to the General Church?
- Some general administrative agencies would continue to exist and be jointly supported by all of the connectional conferences: Wespath, the Publishing House, General Council on Finance and Administration, Archives and History, etc.
- The general program boards and agencies would be reorganized and revamped based on the future agreements of the connectional conferences that decide to utilize and financially support them. For example, United Methodist Women would have to be chosen to be supported by a connectional conference, and then they would negotiate funds given and resources received. Given the polarities, I wouldn’t be surprised if every program agency is either cut in 1/3 or 2/3.
- Each connectional conference would devise its own Book of Discipline, using the current Articles of Religion, Confessions of Faith, the General Rules, etc., as a common starting point.
- The Judicial Council would be comprised of two representatives from each connectional conference and would still have ultimate authority over matters of church law. Additionally, each connectional conference will be free to organize their own judicial body to decide matters related to their Book of Discipline.
- A much shorter General Conference would still retain authority over the constitution as well as the shared administrative agencies and services. It would also provide opportunities to share best practices related to mission and ministry.
Here’s a link to the full plan, starting on page 132. The Connectional Conference plan is on document pages 26-54. It’s a lot of legalese that is summarized in the previous section (and this is the most complex proposal), but I do want to draw out three items of note.
First, the timeline for implementation on page 36-37 goes until 2025. That’s a long time of implementation, whereas both the OneChurch and the Traditionalist model take full effect within 18 months of passage.
Second, in the section addressing the General Agencies (page 43), it reads that only Conferences that want support or resources from Church and Society (among others) will pay apportionments to it. Fascinating. The Traditionalists hate our social witness so much they don’t want to pay a dime towards it, and are willing to starve all the program agencies to do it.
Finally, the Judicial Council becomes more representative and less politically charged, with page 45 indicating that each Connectional Conference will elect their own members to the JC (two each). That will keep it from being too weighted one way or another. We should do this anyway in some way!
Hacking Christianity (HX) Perspective
The United Methodist Church has a long history of mergers, schisms, reunifications, and offshoots. Our current unique quality is being both progressive and conservative evangelical together, holding in tension our various streams of social action, holiness, pietism, and others. This plan is supported by most academic circles who see it as the best way to maintain our various streams.
But to HX, what the plan does is take The UMC back in time. Back to before the EUB merger in 1968. Back to the non-geographic conferences created in 1939. It removes our affinity and affiliations to name-only. I doubt it would increase our affections, only our animosity, as the sadly accurate joke goes.
Maybe that’s okay. Maybe we need some breathing space and to prioritize our rigid Traditions over Scripture’s call for mutual growth. But knowing the human tribalism and polarization culture that is at a peak right now, I don’t see an extended time-out helping us grow more together in love.
In conclusion, the Connectional Conferences Plan’s goal is not to create a reconciled church over the divisive debate over LGBTQ inclusion. Its goal is to preserve the institutional structures and cater our programs to our polarities. Maybe at the end of the day, that’s the best we can hope for.
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