Why is The United Methodist Church in decline? And what can be done about it? These questions are the focus of a series of articles by David Scott, webmaster of UM&Global. The theme of the series, “The UMC and Institutional Decline,” is complicated. Scott presses his readers to consider the issue from many perspectives. The problem is not just a result of failed leadership, he argues, but also antiquated structures that no longer meet the needs of the institution.
Scott leverages his analysis to provide constructive ideas for moving forward. In a recent post, he suggested that the impending breakup of the UMC is an opportunity for denominational rebuilding. Boards, agencies, and the general way of doing things in United Methodism need to be overhauled. A breakup is an opportunity not only for cleaning house but also renovation.
“General Conference could create a series of commissions to work on denominational revamping,” suggested Scott. For this approach to be effective, I argue, we must learn from past and current efforts. We must examine the institutional history of United Methodist commissions and omissions.
Not so long ago, General Conference approved a major piece of overhaul legislation. “Plan UMC,” as it was called, was celebrated wildly on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. “Finally,” thought many Methodist leaders, “General Conference has broken its pattern of gridlock.” Plan UMC was a bold blueprint for renovating the structures of the general church. The next day, the Daily Christian Advocate headline read, “Delegates approve a new structure.” One delegate from Susquehanna Annual Conference was quoted prominently: “The time is now. The world is waiting to see what we are going to do.” The article was accompanied by a confident picture of Bishop Janice Riggle Huie presiding over the previous day’s session.
Bishops, general agency executives, and delegates from across the connection immediately busied themselves. The full ramifications of the new restructuring plan were still being discovered. Power brokers filled the hallways and conference rooms. Who would occupy the seats of influence on the newly created “General Council for Strategy and Oversight”? General agency staff (I among them) scurried to learn what was left of program offices and mandates. Meanwhile, in other meeting rooms, the legality of the plan was under intense scrutiny (by me and others).
The bottom fell out of this botched renovation job within 48 hours. In a decision announced in the afternoon of Friday, May 4, Judicial Council ruled the entire plan unconstitutional.
We have reviewed the plan to determine whether any part, portion, or all of Plan UMC can be saved and conclude that it cannot. The broad delegation of legislative authority and the commingling of the role of oversight so inextricably permeate the Plan as to render it constitutionally unsalvageable.UM Judicial Council Decision 1210
General Conference’s attempt to innovate outside of normal legislative processes backfired. Backroom dealing and high stakes compromises had resulted in fundamentally flawed legislation. In an aside, Judicial Council noted that “the adoption of Plan UMC by the General Conference came through a tortured course, and outside of the established legislative processes.”
There was a clear precedent for ruling Plan UMC unconstitutional. In a sad situational irony, the crux of the Council’s ruling echoed a very similar judicial decision rendered forty years earlier (Decision 364). Why did this flawed renovation plan captivate and entrance so many church leaders? And why were so many General Conference delegates so unfamiliar with denominational polity that they failed to notice this legislation’s inherent incompatibility with the UMC’s constitution? Perhaps the delegates’ desperation for renovation was fueled by a mounting sense that the denomination was veering out of anyone’s control.
General Conference 2016 picked up where the previous legislative session had left off: amid chaos and division. Within days, the plenary ground to a halt on the issue of human sexuality. An immediate meltdown was narrowly avoided through an appeal to the Council of Bishops to establish a study commission and to call a special session of General Conference.
From an institutional renovation standpoint, however, this was not the only item of business referred. General Conference referred no less than nine major legislative initiatives to various commissions and other entities.
|Issue (petition no.)||Referred to:||Working Entity|
|Human sexuality (“A Way Forward”)||Council of Bishops||new “Commission on the Way Forward”|
|Ministry for the worldwide Church (60509)||General Board of Higher Education and Ministry||new “2017-2020 Study of Ministry Commission”|
|Revision of Our Theological Task (60676)||Committee on Faith and Order||Committee on Faith and Order|
|World-wide Social Principles (60062)||General Board of Church and Society||General Board of Church and Society|
|General Book of Discipline (60276, 60277)||Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, in collaboration with others||Committee on Faith and Order, Study of Ministry Commission, and Connectional Table|
|General Church Council (60815)||Connectional Table and Council of Bishops||new “Missional Collaboration Group”|
|Restructuring General Agencies (former “Plan UMC Revised,” 60945-47, 60950)||Connectional Table, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, General Council on Finance and Admin.||Connectional Table, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, General Council on Finance and Admin.|
|U.S. bishops (60932)||Council of Bishops, in consultation with Inter-Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy||new “Jurisdictional Study Committee”|
|Study of Ecclesiology Document – Wonder, Love, and Praise (60033)||Entire denomination, as well as ecumenical partners||Committee on Faith and Order|
These items were referred to seven existing and four newly created entities of the UMC for the 2017–2020 quadrennium. New commissions included the Commission on the Way Forward, a Jurisdictional Study Committee, Missional Collaboration Group, and Study of Ministry Commission. The creation and work of the new commissions were overseen variously by the Council of Bishops, Connectional Table, and General Board of Higher Education and Ministry—the Inter-Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy was also a consultative partner. The other five referred items were the responsibility of the following additional entities: Committee on Faith and Order, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, General Council on Finance and Administration, and the General Board of Church and Society.
Thus, the UMC already has plenty of commissions to test Scott’s theory that “a series of commissions” will help the UMC “to work on denominational revamping.” Will these commissions succeed in renovating United Methodist denominational structures?
Renovation or Renewal?
General Conference offered little guidance as to how the diverse work of these eleven different commissions, councils, boards, and committees would be coordinated. What is the likelihood that these pieces of legislation will be developed in concert? The debacle of reports and results from the Commission on a Way Forward at the special session of General Conference in 2019 has shaken my confidence in “a series of commissions”—or even one commission—as a viable means of renovating this denomination.
For a church desiring unity, the work of revisioning and restructure requires a comprehensive plan. The Plan of Union prepared for the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968 was years in the making, involving much more than hurried power plays scribbled in the hallways during a contentious legislative assembly. Supermajorities of delegates from both churches approved a new constitution guaranteeing rights and responsibilities. It was not a perfect structure, but it lasted for more than a generation. Scott is right in asserting that United Methodism has outlived the usefulness of that structure. But where do we go from here? Renovation or renewal?
As a church, we should repent of our previous commissions and omissions, seeking not renovation but renewal. Perhaps this denominational edifice, this structure-become-stricture, needs to be left behind in order to grow into the church God would have us become.