Friday, July 27, 2018

The Connectional Conference Plan and the Scope of the Commission on a Way Forward

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.

As United Methodists look to the called General Conference in February of next year, supporters are lining up behind both the One Church Plan and the Traditionalist Plan. A third plan put forward by the Commission on a Way Forward, the Connectional Conference Plan, does not seem to have a constituency advocating for it.

The conventional wisdom is that the Connectional Conference Plan is a non-starter because it would require constitutional amendments to pass. Prognosticators are not optimistic about GC2019's ability to pass constitutional amendments, which require a 2/3rds supermajority to approve. Moreover, even if approved by GC2019, such amendments would then require 2/3rds of all aggregate votes at annual conferences to become church law. The plan thus faces two high hurdles.

Whether or not that analysis is true, it is unfortunate that the Connectional Conference Plan will largely be dismissed out of hand. There are elements of the plan that raise important questions that can foster conversations from which it might be possible to learn as a denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan, more than the other two plans, rather than trying to solve the debate about gay ordination and marriage in one direction or another, uses that debate to ask fundamental questions about central aspects of Methodism such as connectionalism, conferencing, episcopacy, itineracy, and mission. Whether or not you agree with the answers provided by the Connectional Conference Plan, these are important questions worth raising. The Connectional Conference Plan raises these questions because it proposes to make substantial changes that touch upon all of these aspects of Methodism. That's why it would require constitutional changes.

By contrast, the other two plans seek to make less significant changes to United Methodist polity. The One Church Plan probably makes the fewest changes, removing existing prohibitions against gay marriage and ordination and inserting safeguards for those who do not want to be part of either. The Traditionalist Plan make somewhat more changes, by adding new systems of accountability to United Methodism, but otherwise does not change existing structures.

The Connectional Conference Plan, however, separates at least the U.S. portion of The United Methodist Church into three theologically defined Connectional Conferences with differing positions on sexuality. It also converts all Central Conferences into Connectional Conferences and allows Connectional Conferences to "opt-in" to some current boards and agencies. It thus changes the meaning of connectionalism, how conferencing works, and what sorts of decisions are made at which levels of conference. It limits episcopal itineracy within the Connectional Conferences and establishes rules about clergy itineracy between Connectional Conferences. It offers a missional rationale for this separation and contain explicit references to the church's work in overcoming sexism and racism. Thus, while it may or may not provide the right answers, the Connectional Conference does raise questions about how United Methodists should understand connectionalism, conferencing, episcopacy, itineracy, and mission in the future.

In so doing, the Connectional Conference Plan may go a bit beyond the Mission of the Commission on a Way Forward, depending on how narrowly one construes that mission. The mission mentions "exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions." One could see this mission as only about resolving the debate about gay ordination and marriage. If so, then the Connectional Conference Plan starts with that debate, but certainly is not the simplest way to resolve that debate. Yet if one sees the "light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions" as illuminating issues other than the debate about sexuality, then perhaps the Connectional Conference Plan seems more in keeping with the mission. The conversation with the Commission about this plan (in the Commission Report) makes it clear that while the plan attempts to manage the sexuality debate, it also seeks to accomplish additional objectives related to what its designers see as important changes for the future of the denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan does seem to be the plan that most fully lives out the Commission's scope, however. That scope states, in part, "Therefore, we should consider new ways of being in relationship across cultures and jurisdictions, in understandings of episcopacy, in contextual definitions of autonomy for annual conferences, and in the design and purpose of the apportionment. In reflection on the two matters of unity and human sexuality, we will fulfill our directive by considering “new forms and structures” of relationship and through the “complete examination and possible revision” of relevant paragraphs in the Book of Discipline." The Connectional Conference Plan does all these - it suggests new forms of relationship (connectionalism and conferencing), understandings of episcopacy, etc.

Again, the Connectional Conference Plan may or may not contain the best answers to these various questions. But, given the (admittedly large) assumption that General Conference 2019 is able to provide some sort of resolution to the current debates on sexuality in the denomination, the Connectional Conference does point us in the direction of the next set of questions we need to be asking ourselves as we discern together how to be a people called Methodist in the present age.


  1. "But, given the (admittedly large) assumption that General Conference 2019 is able to provide some sort of resolution to the current debates on sexuality in the denomination,..."

    As the often ignored and completely underestimated person in the pew I have a question about the above statement: What has every General Conference since 1972 been doing if not "resolving the sexuality debate"? I truly do not get why any organization would consider reorganizing itself so that it can hold on to those who refuse to abide by how the church is currently designed to function. Where is the logic?

    When it comes to progressives and their refusal to abide by the decision(s)--and after GC2016 there were two more issues that led progressive annual conferences to declare themselves as non-compliant--here is my analogy of the situation: Nike hires a spokesperson to promote their products and that spokesperson agrees to promote their products. Suddenly, the spokesperson decides they would rather promote Reebok products but they want Nike to keep paying them.

  2. Thank you for raising the visibility of the Connectional Conference Plan, David. You correctly discerned that the purpose of the plan goes beyond resolving the impasse over marriage and sexuality. As one who worked on this plan in the Commission, we sought to also position the denomination to make the kinds of changes that would enhance effectiveness in ministry and mission. You are correct that we raised questions and perhaps changed assumptions about what it means to operate in a connectional polity. I am pleased that you have grasped the bigger issues we attempted to address. Thanks for your perspective.