Bishops David Bard and Scott Jones recently issued a plan for the future of the United Methodist Church that is already commanding attention on the road to the 2020 General Conference. It casts a big vision and there are many details left to be filled in. This post is a “study guide” to help you sort through the issues and wrestle with the questions that their plan raises.
The deadline for filing legislation is fast approaching and the more conversation and reflection that everyone can do will help with fashioning the best legislation so that next year’s general conference does not repeat the meltdown in St. Louis. Bard and Jones offer us a broad outline to guide those conversations.
YOUR LOCAL CHURCH
To begin the conversation, start with your local church. In the heady conversations about the fate of the denomination it is easy to lose sight of the local church. Yet, one mark of a good plan is whether it reflects and supports our local churches. Of course, this criterion differs greatly from congregation to congregation. Before you take a deep dive into the Bard Jones Plan, ponder these questions:
- What has been your church’s experience with LGBTQ folks?
- Has your church or a group within your church studied the issue of LGBTQ persons and the UMC?
- What has the relationship been like between your church and your annual conference?
- What has been your church’s experience of the appointment process?
THE BARD JONES PLAN
There are four broad issues to consider in the Bard Jones Plan:
1. The Vision:
“We envision a more vibrant and missionally effective Wesleyan movement that no longer spends significant energy debating questions of human sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion. To achieve this, we envision that the United Methodist Church will have no individual members in 2025 and that all current members, clergy, congregations and bishops will join one of two or three self-governing churches. The United Methodist Church would continue to exist as an umbrella organization to facilitate this new form of unity.”
The plan aspires to shape the unity of the new denominations around the Church’s mission. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Methodists were united by a common religious experience—an “orthopathy” (“right feeling”). There was more to our unity than a common liturgy (like Episcopalians) or shared creeds (like Presbyterians), even though Methodists had both. By 1939, the locus of unity had shifted from a common experience to a shared loyalty in an organizational system. Church unity was equated with being a part of the same denomination, and the hope for future unity was synonymous with various forms of organizational connections. The Bard Jones Plan marks a reversal of that trend and asks us to envision unity without being part of a single denomination.
- What unites the members of your local church?
- What is the “Church”?
- What unites all Christians into the Church and how should that unity be expressed?
- What is the relationship between these 3 aspects of the Church: Mission, Unity, Renewal?
Key Scripture: Isaiah 42:5-9; Ephesians 4:1-16
2. The 2 or 3 Self-Governing Churches:
“Each Church will select its own name. It will begin with the current Book of Discipline as modified by the following:
- The Progressive Methodist Church Discipline will include the Simple Plan as presented in 2019, and would be further modified so that full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in marriage and eligibility for candidacy, commissioning, ordination and appointment was clearly affirmed.
- The Open Methodist Church Discipline will include the Simple Plan as presented in 2019. The Progressive and Open Methodist Churches may decide to be a single Methodist Church.
- The Traditional Methodist Church Discipline will include the Traditional Plan as presented in 2019. It will keep the current social principles and standards for ordination.
In 2022 each church will hold a General Conference which will re-write its Book of Discipline by majority vote of the delegates. That conference will have the right to choose whether or not to have a constitution. Each church will have the right to amend its doctrinal statements, adopt a new constitution, set its own standards for church membership and ordination and all other matters of polity and doctrine.”
This crux of this vision is the constitutionality of annual conferences being able to leave the denomination and realign. Judicial Council 1366 ruled that it was constitutional in their assessment of petition 90041, but the petition died in committee at the 2019 General Conference.
Notice that the Simple Plan (which removes the 8 references to LGBTQ discrimination in the Discipline) is the starting point for both the Open and the Progressive branches. The Progressive denomination “would be further modified so that full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in marriage and eligibility for candidacy, commissioning, ordination and appointment was clearly affirmed.” It is assumed that the Open Methodist Church would include traditional compatibilists who reject gay marriage and ordination of LGBTQ believers but who want to be a part of a denomination that includes different perspectives.
The plan also envisions several options for central conferences. Central conferences in Europe and Asia could affiliate with one of the 2 or 3 new denominations. In addition to affiliating with one of these new United States-based churches, African central conferences could become an autonomous affiliated “UMC in Africa”.
Bard Jones raises questions about the nature of these new denominations and the process how annual conferences get there.
- How would an Open Methodist Church practice itinerancy for LGBTQ pastors while accommodating traditional compatibilists who will reject LGBTQ pastors?
- Given that the relationship between centrists and progressives is evolving, does the timeline create a transition period for these identities and relationships to become clearer?
- Should central conferences be treated differently? Why should central conferences be limited to picking only one church to affiliate with?
- How do you avoid an indecision in an annual conference when there are three options and none of them gets a majority in a three-way vote?
- If your annual conference had to vote to affiliate with one of these new churches, what would be your local church’s reaction?
Key Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Ephesians 2:11-22
3. The Trademark & General Church Agencies
The Plan envisions that the name may be shared by all, but no one is required to use it. It creates several institutional points of unity through shared agencies and proportional contributions to maintain them (GCFA, GCAH, Wespath, UM Publishing House, Black College Fund and AU Fund*). The rest of the general church agencies will continue in the Open Methodist Church.
Your perspective of the current effectiveness of the agencies will shape your vision for their future. Are they basically good but in need of upgrades? Or are they dysfunctional in need of vast reforms or even coming being discontinued?
On a deeper level, these issues are shaped by how you see the relationship between “unity” and “reform.” Is our greatest concern “unity” which may include some reforms? Or is “reform” the greater issue that should shape the our “unity”? Underneath our differences as “traditionalists,” “centrists,” and “progressives” is another major fault line: institutionalists versus reformers.
- How important is the name “United Methodist Church” and the symbol to your local church?
- Should the most of the agencies belong to one denomination, or should all of them become independent non-profits the new denominations could contract for services?
- Do we need to keep and share as many agencies and funds as the plan envisions? (For example, does GCAH need GCFA for ongoing funding?)
Key Scripture: 1 Kings 8; Luke 5:33-39
4. Denominational Assets
The Plan assumes that local church assets would go with them, but “divisible assets [of annual, jurisdictional, central conferences and general agencies] will be distributed to the churches in proportion to the numerical strength of their lay membership.” The nature and value of these assets is complex. It is estimated that there are about $1 billion in assets at the general church level, but this does not reflect their liabilities or the percentage of assets that are restricted. How the unrestricted assets of general church agencies are redistributed is related to their future (i.e. Do they become independent or housed with one of the new denominations).
For some, this issue is related to the financial relationship between the central conferences and the churches in the United States. It has been suggested that because the US-based churches give the overwhelming share of contributions they should be given more governance over those assets. Others have said that when an unrestricted gift has been entrusted to the denomination the donor no longer has authority to determine the future of that gift.
Underneath these issues are assumptions about the effectiveness of the conferences and agencies which administer these assets. And the question about good stewardship leads us back to the question about the church’s mission. Depending on how you define the mission determines, in part, whether they have been good stewards of those resources. And this brings us back to the question of whether you see the general agencies as basically sound or in need of drastic reforms. And around and around it goes.
- How does your local church talk about money? How would they define “good stewardship”?
- Have the various conferences and agencies been good stewards of the resources entrusted to them?
- What is “fair”?
- If missional effectiveness drives the Plan, how should the distribution of assets reflect this?
- Should new denominations be given seed money with which to start?
- What might be the advantages of a new denomination not being given some of the assets from the UMC?
Key Scripture: Proverbs 11:1-5; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
A Closing Hymn by Charles Wesley:
“What troubles have
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!
Yet out of all the Lord
hath brought us by his love;
and still he doth his help afford,
and hides our life above.”
*GCFA—General Council on Finance and Administration; GCAH—General Commission on Archives and History (housed at Drew University); Wespath—the pension board for the denomination; Black College Fund—an apportionment fund that supports 11 United Methodist-related historically black colleges and universities in the United States; AU Fund—an apportionment fund that supports Africa University which is located in Zimbabwe.
For more perspective, order my book The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops.