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.