|United Methodists explore church's global structure|
The Rev. Tim McClendon (center) speaks against proposed
changes to the structure of The United Methodist Church during a Jan. 25
panel discussion at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing. A UMNS
photo by Larry Nelson.
By Linda Green*
Feb. 6, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)
Would making The United Methodist Church in the United States a
regional body be the best way for the denomination to function as a
Ten speakers explored that question during a Jan. 25 panel discussion on
"The Worldwide Nature of the Church: What It Means" during the
Pre-General Conference News Briefing sponsored by United Methodist
General Conference, which meets every four years, is the denomination’s
top legislative body. During its meeting April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth,
the 2008 assembly will consider proposed structural changes to the
denomination that acknowledge the fact that the church is growing
outside of the United States and that 30 percent of United Methodist
members now live outside the United States.
Proponents say the structural changes would make the church more
effective and equitably organized for worldwide ministry. Opponents say
the changes may actually serve to fragment the denomination into
national entities, among other things.
"Our war-torn and broken world
needs a better model of unity and interdependence," says Bishop
Ann Sherer. A UMNS photo by
Marta W. Aldrich.
A task force examining the issue has proposed four substantive changes
to the denomination’s constitution in an effort to make regional and
jurisdictional structures similar worldwide. Task force members say the
current structure gives the U.S. church too much influence and
marginalizes United Methodists in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The constitutional changes would pave the way so that legislation could
be proposed to the 2012 assembly that would eliminate U.S. concerns from
General Conference. Those concerns instead would become the business of
a U.S. regional conference.
Specifically, the legislation would make the church's five jurisdictions
in the United States a regional body, similar to the church’s central
conferences that currently exist outside of the United States.
The six-member task force has sent 24 petitions to General Conference to
make changes in 24 paragraphs of the constitution. Most of these
changes are grammatical or change the words "central conference" to
"regional conference." The committee, chaired by Nebraska Bishop Ann
Sherer, also will ask General Conference to allow the task force and the
Connectional Table to jointly continue their study of the church’s
worldwide nature and report to the 2012 legislative assembly.
Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote of General
Conference delegates and must be ratified by two-thirds of the aggregate
annual conference voting members.
Kansas Bishop Scott Jones, a task force member, said the proposal
does not change the number, purpose and function of jurisdictional
conferences; the way bishops are elected or assigned; the purpose or
mission of any churchwide agency; the size or power of General
Conference; the way the Social Principles are decided upon or amended;
or the apportionment formulas and allocations.
The proposal seeks to examine how the church should carry out its
ministry in a world that is increasingly interdependent, he said.
Bishop Scott Jones of Kansas says the proposal seeks
to help the church minister to a world that is increasingly
interdependent. A UMNS photo by
Marta W. Aldrich.
In a videotaped message, Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and
Southern Europe Area said United Methodists outside of the United States
view General Conference as an entity that deals with "issues that do
not directly relate to us."
Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Area echoed that sentiment,
saying that changes are needed in the church's infrastructure and
governance to make the denomination more effective worldwide. In his
videotaped message, Yemba told the gathering that "the church of Jesus
Christ is both local and universal, and we need to struggle with tension
of how to be local but at the same time be a church that is worldwide."
Sherer said the task force is seeking a worldwide structure that "keeps us connected in mission, ministry and discipline."
Echoing Strieff, she said U.S. dominance in denominational governance
damages both the church in the United States and in the world. "It
disempowers central conferences from being fully actualized within the
body and allows the church in the U.S. to escape from dealing with its
internal issues," she said.
Sherer also said there is a sense of urgency to reorganize because "our
war-torn and broken world needs a better model of unity and
"Recent developments in the world and in Christianity call for a new
emphasis on the concept of mission that addresses a world community and
our connectedness that is not impeded by national, cultural and economic
barriers," she said.
Questioning the changes
Two panelists disagreed with the proposed structural changes.
"The church is global. We do not have to make it global," said the Rev.
Eddie Fox, a staff executive of the World Methodist Council. "On the day
of day of Pentecost, it was declared global. God spoke and God
Fox questioned why a "global" proposal would create a national U.S.
entity, particularly at a time when the church is becoming more global
and the number of delegates to General Conference from outside the
United States is increasing. He called changes to the church's
constitution "a very serious matter" and said the proposal's language is
problematic because it would mandate central conferences.
Fox questioned the desire to push international delegates away from the
discussion table on matters related to the United States. "More and
more, every decision we make affects the whole world just as it affects
one spaceship called earth," he said.
"This is not the time for us to be creating national entities," he said,
citing the structure of the Anglican Church. He called the proposed
legislation irresponsible for "asking to change the constitution without
knowing the effects of it."
"This is not the time for us to be
creating national entities," says the
Rev. Eddie Fox, arguing against a
proposal to create a U.S. central conference. A UMNS photo by
Marta W. Aldrich.
What is needed, he said, "is to walk side by side, not separate, so
together we might do our part so the world may know Jesus Christ."
The Rev. Tim McClendon, a district superintendent in the South Carolina
Annual (regional) Conference, said he feared the proposal would make the
church more fragmented instead of more connected.
"We would lose the important voices of those outside the United States,
and we would be left among ourselves debating issues upon issues upon
issues that lead us into schism," he said.
McClendon said that while The United Methodist Church attempts to be
global, "we are not a global church and we need to realize that."
Outside the United States and sub-Saharan Africa, there are only 250,000
United Methodists around the world, he said. Thirty of the 65 annual
conferences outside the United States have less than 5,000 members.
Both Fox and McClendon said the 62 proposed word changes to the church's constitution move the denomination toward the unknown.
Questions of equity
McClendon noted that jurisdictional conferences still will exist in
the United States but conferences outside the United States will only
have regional conferences. "This is an equity issue," he said, and "a
lot of this legislation seems to be about who gets to keep those votes
from conferences outside the United States."
"Who keeps them?" he asked. "I am pushing for the middle to hold us together. I believe in the unity of the church."
Erin Hawkins, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on
Religion and Race, said the church can live into the possibility of a
worldwide church, if it consistently holds in tension the balancing
values of unity, difference and diversity.
Hawkins said it is time for The United Methodist Church to reassess what
it means to be the body of Christ in a global landscape fraught with
the complexities of language, culture, politics and economic inequality.
"The sign of the times point to the fact that the future of the church
lies in our ability to be able to reach and include in all aspects of
the church those who we in the U.S. consider to be racial, ethnic
minority people," she said.
Hawkins said the principal challenge of living in a multicultural
reality in the United States and across the globe is inequality. The
worldwide nature report begins an important conversation, she said, that
could help dismantle institutional racism within the church.
"The benefits of any new worldwide structure or organization must be
distributed justly in order to truly develop a worldwide church," she
If General Conference approves the proposed constitutional amendments
by a two-thirds majority, annual conferences would be asked to vote on
the 24 proposed changes and the exact tally would have to be reported in
order for the Council of Bishops to determine whether a two-thirds
majority of all annual conference members had been attained. Jones told
United Methodist News Service that the manner in which these votes are
taken would be decided by the presiding bishop.
Members of the global nature task force were appointed by the Council of
Bishops and the Connectional Table. The members are Sherer, Jones,
Bishop Ruediger Minor, Kristina Gonzalez, Forbes Matonga and Dora
Washington. Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader serves as staff executive.
For more information, visit http://worldwideumc.org.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bishop Ann Sherer: “(This is) a worldwide movement seeking the best way…to move into God's future.”
Bishop David Yemba: “We need to struggle with the tension of how to be local and worldwide.”
The Rev. Eddie Fox: “The church is global. We don't have to make it global.”
Consultation explores global nature of the church
Plan would pave way for U.S. regional conference
Global nature task force proposes a U.S. central conference
Report from the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table to General Conference
Pre-General Conference News Briefing
2008 General Conference