Thursday, March 3, 2016

Conferences as about geography, mission, and/or administration and control

I want to thank Rev. Meredith Hoxie Schol for recently inviting me to be part of a conversation for a class on General Conference she is teaching at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The thoughts in this post evolved out of that conversation.

One of the significant questions that General Conference will address in May is whether to revamp United Methodist organizational polity, in which annual conference in the United States are grouped into five regionally-defined Jurisdictional Conferences and annual conferences outside the United States are grouped into one of seven regionally-defined Central Conferences.

While it is easy to think of Jurisdictions and Central Conferences as cognate structures that are primarily about geography, a brief consideration of the evolution of both types of conference will reveal some important differences between the two, differences that also highlight some of the possible benefits to United Methodists in the United States of becoming a Central Conference.

Central Conferences evolved during the Western missionary expansion of the Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the UMC's predecessor bodies. Initially, they were a way to bring together missionaries working in separate annual or missionary conferences but serving similar populations within a geographic region (at first in India in 1885, but then replicated elsewhere). Central Conferences were formed primarily for the purpose of mission. Indeed, until 1920, they had limited administrative powers.

Jurisdictional Conferences were formed at the 1939 merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS), and Methodist Protestant Church. Originally, there was a sixth, racially rather than geographically defined Central Jurisdiction, which included all African-American churches. Jurisdictions were thus formed as a way to segregate African-Americans and preserve some of the regional control that the MEC and MECS had held. The purpose of jurisdictions was not mission, but administration and control. Indeed, the functions of Jurisdictions have continued to be primarily administrative and power-related (election of bishops, e.g.). Mission has been an after thought, if a thought at all.

Thus, when United Methodists around the world come together to discuss how we should geographically structure our common life, it is important to note that Americans and non-Americans may be coming to the table with different understandings of the implications of geography. For many non-Americans, geography = mission. For many Americans, geography = administration and control. Administration is a necessary function in organizational life, so Americans are not entirely wrong.

Nevertheless, I think there is much to be gained by Americans from learning from the history of the Central Conferences and the importance of mission in understanding geography. The American context has been changing rapidly and significantly in the last sixty years. If we can make our plans for conferencing American geography (whatever those end up being) about mission and not just administration and control, it will significantly help us make disciples within the American context and transform the American portion of the world.

1 comment:

  1. The basic structure of American Methodism has been and should remain the annual conference. Its purpose is both administrative and missional. The annual gathering of pastoral and lay members sets policy, fixes budgets, ordains pastors and revives the spirit of its membership. It is also missional as it alone approves the outreach of the denomination within a specific geographic area in terms of planting new churches, creating and supporting service institutions / social programs and providing leadership training opportunities for clergy and laity. The primary and only function of the jurisdictional conference is the election of bishops. Only two jurisdictions (Southeast and South Central) maintain staffing and create programming in areas such as volunteers in mission coordination, conference event center administration and occasional connectional linkage support. Central conferences were created for overseas missionary support within geographical regions that also reduced travel of bishops to the several annual conferences within vast areas to exercise their supervisory duties of overseeing commissioned missionaries and approving/ installing their appointed indigenous personnel for positions of service in their conferences. Today the central conferences convene quadrennially to elect bishops and propose boundary changes to general conference for the annual conferences within their jurisdiction. On the continent of Africa the quadrennial meetings require general church subsidies for expenses for delegate travel and accommodations. Membership is often limited to participants with language facility and parliamentary knowledge. Agendas are restricted to the above rudimentary functions that can hardly be considered missional in nature. Considering the central conference structure as the paradigm for the future of a global church without equally supporting and empowering their purpose and functioning in all regions would be a mistake. A much better option is to focus on the strengthening of the annual conferences where the connectional linkage can be more focused and vibrant in addressing missional concerns.
    Robert J. Harman
    Retired Mission Executive

    ReplyDelete