Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Should the UMC have missional rather than geographic annual conferences?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

For the last two weeks, I have been looking at the question of how we can structurally support innovation in The United Methodist Church. I have argued that this is a particularly important question for those interested in mission since mission is a primary form of innovation for the church. Last week, I examined the evangelical approach, which is to have a low bar for the creation of new, separate structures to support innovation in churches and mission work.

This week, I’ll look at Catholicism as an alternative model of innovation. For those committed to overarching organizational unity, Catholicism is a good model. Not only does Catholicism have an overarching organizational unity, the Roman Catholic Church is one of the oldest human organizations on the planet. It’s over 1500 years older than the oldest nonprofits and fraternal organizations, a millennium older than the oldest universities, and 500 years older than the oldest companies.

If evangelicals innovate by starting new, separate organizations, Catholics have another approach to innovation – the creation of new units within the larger organization. One of the main ways this has happened is through the creation of new orders. New orders were historically able to pioneer new forms of devotion (prayer, preaching, pilgrimage, etc.) that drew people closer to the church. They were also often responsible for the evangelization of new geographic areas. Thus, the creation of a new order was a way to sanction some innovation in Catholic religiosity or geographic coverage.

Individual orders have had the tendency to become susceptible to the same sort of organizational stagnation I wrote about in my initial post, but since the Catholic church is always open to new orders and sub-orders, it is not dependent on the vitality of any one of these orders. There was a persistent pattern in medieval Catholicism of the creation of new monastic orders that would implement reforms, achieve success, become stagnant, and then decline and need reform themselves. Then the cycle would start over again.

Protestants don’t have orders, so the question is what structures do we have that could serve the same function? The basic structure of Methodism is the annual conference. Annual conferences do several of the same things that Catholic orders do – they recruit, ordain, and missionally deploy clergy. They also carry out a variety of programs such as health and welfare ministries that Catholic orders frequently do.

Yet annual conferences currently have several problems that inhibit them from consistently and effectively supporting innovation. There is a tendency for annual conferences to reflect the same sort of organizational bureaucratic malaise and rigidity from which the denomination as a whole suffers. Also, the geographic organization of annual conferences leads to less innovation when they are not in a pioneer situation with clear margins along which to expand. In most places, the geographic organization of established annual conferences tends to lead to a pastoral and maintenance focus on existing congregations.

The Mission Initiatives sponsored by Global Ministries are good examples of organizational structures that support growing, innovative mission in areas without a historic United Methodist presence. But the question remains of how United Methodists in areas with a long-established presence can continue to be innovative. There are some annual conferences that have effectively supported innovative ministries within their own, long-established geographic limits. The Florida Annual Conference’s Fresh Expressions initiative is one such example. Yet such instances seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

Another possible solution to organizationally supporting innovation in the UMC would be to allow United Methodists to create new units within the larger church that would focus on some particular form of innovative ministry. If annual conferences are the basic units of United Methodism, this could mean the creation of missionally-defined rather than geographically-bounded annual conferences.

This approach has happened before in Methodism. Examples include the various ethnic or language-group annual conferences or the Red Bird Mission Conference. These annual conferences geographically overlap(ped) other (Anglo) annual conferences but were focused on missional outreach to a particular group facilitated by a flexible organizational system controlled by those doing the outreach. While that was usually defined in terms of a particular ethnic and/or immigrant group, there’s no particular reason why that same approach could not be used for other missional foci.

It’s important to say that the people doing the innovation must be the ones in charge of selecting this option and then customizing it for their needs. It can’t be an imposition by others. The Central Jurisdiction is a tragic example of a separate, non-geographically defined structure that was imposed on others because of the prejudices of the dominant group, not chosen by a particular group to give themselves organizational freedom to adapt and innovate. I am not calling for anything resembling the Central Jurisdiction.

Another version of this approach to creating new organizations within a wider umbrella is found in the third, multi-branch model under consideration by the Commission on a Way Forward. The multi-branch model seems to authorize this sort of new structures within a larger system. But these structures are defined only by the one issue of sexuality and are more for the sake of keeping peace than fostering innovation. United Methodists need to be able to innovate in other ways beyond the one issue of sexuality. Moreover, such an approach could happen within a unified church as well as a multi-branch church. The examples cited above were all part of unified churches.

This approach to sponsoring innovation should, though, lead us to think more deeply about what unifies us. Catholics have certain theological, spiritual, and organizational common touchpoints that keep them together despite a proliferation of sub-organizations. United Methodists will have to find our own.

Among the most important must be our understanding of unity. Authorizing new structures within the larger group works when we see unity not as about institutional uniformity but rather as about bonds of spiritual connection. I have argued elsewhere (here, here, here, and here) that a relational understanding of unity is the best approach to unity. Here’s another reason why: Thinking of unity relationally open us up to innovative ministries and mission.

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