Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Would a flat UMC be a more global UMC?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

Bishop Mike Coyner recently wrote this interesting article, which suggests that the way forward past divisive debates and into better ministry might be for the UMC to give annual conferences greater latitude rather than relying upon the General Conference to set all policies for the entire denomination.  Coyner's basic question is "What if we allowed each AC around the world to make its own decisions on all matters other than those restricted by the Constitution? What if we allowed each AC to be innovative and flexible on all matters other than our basic doctrine and theological task (as outlined elsewhere in the current Book of Discipline)?"  As a flip side to that question, Coyner adds, "What if we allowed General Conference to focus upon its primary task of adopting policies, mission goals, and budgets for the whole of our UMC—without asking the General Conference to micromanage every aspect of the UMC around the world?"

While Coyner is responding in large part to the controversy over LGBT issues and the threat of schism originating in the United States, he recognizes that his proposal could have a number of (potentially positive) consequences beyond providing a way forward on this issue.  I thought it worth commenting about several aspects of his proposal, as they seem to have important implications for how the UMC functions as a global denomination.

1. Coyner also asks, "What if we allowed each AC to modify its own Social Principles and approve its own Resolutions applied to the unique cultural and political settings of its geography and people?"  Such an approach could resolve the current tensions about the US-centric nature of the current social principles, as previously discussed on this blog.

2. Coyner further wonders, "What if we allowed each AC to establish its own standards and processes to train clergy and laity to serve their churches and their unique mission field?"  While this approach would reduce (though certainly not eliminate) conflict in the United States about the ordination of LGBT persons, it would also highlight (and potentially lead to a resolution of) missiological questions about whether the proper educational or other standards for ordination worldwide should be based on Western standards or could be adapted to local circumstances.

3. Coyner suggests a change in relationship between the annual conferences and the general boards in which annual conferences would have more freedom to choose which general boards to partner with on what projects or issues, with support for general boards coming in part through these partnerships rather than primarily through funding from General Conference.  While such a proposal might run the risk of defunding important global ministries, it may also build upon a positive trend initiated by such boards as GBGM, GBHEM, and GBOD in developing close partnerships with annual conferences around the world that lead to productive new ministries in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as the United States.

Ultimately, whatever the other implications of Coyner's suggestions, I think his idea is based on a solid missiological insight: that the ways in which we live out the gospel through effective ministry must be shaped by context.  Annual conferences, which meet more frequently and are more closely identified with particular contexts, may be better able to live out that insight than General Conference.


  1. I affirm processes that move us toward greater indigeneity.

    I also affirm in Bishop Coyner's proposal that we needn't look to GC to provide the one set of answers that tries to "call the shots" for "all things, everywhere." Of course, even currently GC does not, since Central Conferences already have considerable powers to revise vast swaths of the Discipline for their own contexts, and regularly exercise those powers.

    The question, however, isn't whether some things not currently required to be "directed" solely by General Conference by our Constitution, might not be "outsourced" to the annual conferences or other bodies. The question is for WHICH KINDS of things does that makes sense. And that's a question both our Faith and Order Commission (in their work on ecclesiology) and the Worldwide Nature of the Church Working Group of the Connectional Table are taking quite seriously.

    One question everyone is grappling with is funding. Clearly, the current model where, in essence, the US funds the whole global church, is unsustainable and, frankly, unhealthy for everyone involved.

    One question Bishop Coyner's recommendation raises is whether a shift to conferences individually partnering with general agencies to underwrite their work might would turn out to be a better solution globally.

    So let me comment a bit on how the global publishing partnership with GBOD actually works. (I've been involved in this work directly in Congo and now also Tanzania since 2011).

    We're working with a good number of conferences across the Global South (primarily). This is a necessary and expensive undertaking. None of our Central Conference partners has the financial resources at this time to support even a small part of what GBOD is providing in the partnership. GBOD can only do what it does in this partnership because GBOD has funds to do so made available through World Service dollars-- collected connectionally (even if, as acknowledged above, almost exclusively from the US).

    So, assuming World Service dollars collected across the connection were to go away, and GBOD (or other agencies) would have to rely primarily on "direct partnerships with annual conferences" to underwrite their work in the US and globally, what would be the result?

    Well, basically, the conferences that wanted to and could dedicate resources to underwriting ministry partnerships for themselves could do so, and those who actually may have a greater need for such partnerships but lacked the financial resources to underwrite it (which is pretty much the case everywhere in the Global South-- Africa and Asia) could not.

    Do we need to do a better job of enabling mission from everywhere to everywhere? Absolutely.

    But does shifting to a model of "each conference funds what it has the resources to fund and wants to fund" adequately address the real needs for resourcing in a global church? Or even across a US with widely varying resources in each Annual Conference?

    If I were to put it a bit more bluntly, do we want our model for funding ministry at this level to be based more on a vision of commonwealth, or market-driven plutocracy?

    Perhaps we need to be cautious about applying one kind of approach in all possible cases-- whether GC centralization or decentralization to the annual conferences. Often, in real engineering problems, the optimized answer requires a variety of different approaches at once. The "flat UMC hammer" may be helpful for some elements of a vital, united and global UMC, but perhaps not for all.

    1. journeyman37, thank you for the thoughtful comment, including sharing your own experiences with GBOD. I appreciate you raising the question of money, which, as I've mentioned in another recent post, is an important but oft neglected dimension in our discussions of what it means to be a global church.

      I think that you're right that potentially the most disruptive aspect of Bishop Coyner's proposal is the way it would change the work and funding of the general boards and agencies. I'm sympathetic too to your concern that such a restructuring would dry up funds for some of the vital international work already going on at the boards and agencies. Such projects would become reliant on being picked up by wealthy US (or other) conferences interested in investing in them.

      Either way, though, it's primarily US funders that are deciding where ministry money goes, whether its the general agencies deciding out of their pool of allotted money or annual conferences deciding which partnerships they'd like to support.

      I acknowledge the challenges you've raised, but I wonder if there are also any benefits to drawing in US annual conferences as more active partners in the international work of the general boards and agencies?

  2. What if instead of making each AC autonomous we made each congregation autonomous? Would that make the denomination even more global?

    1. Dan, First, I think it's important to note that Bishop Coyner isn't calling for each AC to be "autonomous," just have more decision-making power. Autonomy seems to me to suggest complete functional independence, and I don't think anyone's calling for that.

      Second, one of the things I like about Bishop Coyner's proposal is that it draws upon the historical polity of Methodism by focusing on the annual conference, not by conceding our polity to a form of congregationalism, as a system of devolving power to the congregations would do. Connectionalism is one of the central hallmarks of Methodism, and I think it should be preserved.

  3. Let's all follow who we declare to be our God first. Let's get out spiritual house in order denominationally and then allow God to inform our decisions through the Holy Spirit. Maybe this issue would then be a non issue.