Monday, June 3, 2019

Darryl W. Stephens - Connectionalism: What Connectional Relationships Really Mean in the UMC

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Dr. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. He is author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press).

While discussing the nature of apportionments, it is helpful to understand the philosophy and intent behind some of these expenditures. The World Service Fund, the largest of the seven apportioned funds, pays for the work of General Conference’s agencies and boards. What is the nature of this form of connection, binding United Methodists from the local congregation to the whole of this denomination?

“Connectionalism” is an often used and seldom understood buzzword in The United Methodist Church. The Discipline states, “Our connectionalism is … a vital web of interactive relationships” (Book of Discipline 2016, ¶ 132). This vague definition becomes more concrete by tracing the relationships that comprise each enterprise of the General Conference, for example the Status and Role of Women.

Connectional relationships bridge the work of General Conference to every level of structure in the denomination. The constitution reserves for the General Conference “full legislative power over all matters distinctly connectional,” including the power “to initiate and to direct all connectional enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration” (¶ 16.8).

The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) is one such board, mandated by General Conference to carry out a specific connectional enterprise, “a continuing commitment to the full and equal responsibility and participation of women in the total life and mission of the Church” (¶ 2102). Every charge conference and every other level of the denomination must connect with this enterprise, according to judicial interpretation of our constitution.

Judicial Decision 411 states, “When the General Conference initiates connectional enterprises and provides boards for their promotion and administration, the functioning of such boards must reach to every level in the life of the Church, from the General Board to the Charge Conference.”

How is this connectional relationship realized? Each annual conference is responsible for structuring itself to further the connectional enterprises of the General Conference.

¶ 610. The annual conference is responsible for structuring its ministries and administrative procedures …. In so doing it shall provide for the connectional relationship of the local church, district, and conference with the general agencies. It will monitor to ensure inclusiveness—racial, gender, age, and people with disabilities—in the annual conference. … (emphasis added)

Thus, the mandates of GCSRW reach throughout the denomination, at every level of conferencing. Each annual conference is required to provide structures to enable the relationships of the ministry of GCSRW, as well as all of the other connectional enterprises of General Conference.

¶ 644. There shall be in each annual conference, including the central conferences, a conference commission on the status and role of women or other structure to provide for these functions and maintain the connectional relationships.

Annual conferences are given some degree of flexibility for structuring these relationships within committees, but the basic requirements are to maintain the function of and connection to the General Commission, which is an agent of General Conference.

¶ 610. 1. Annual conferences are permitted the flexibility to design conference and district structures in ways that best support the mission …. In doing so, an annual conference shall provide for the functions and General Conference connections with all general agencies provided by the Discipline as follows: a) There shall be clear connections between the General Conference agencies, annual conference program and administrative entities, and the local congregations. These connections shall be identified in the business questions of the annual conference each year. …All disciplinary references to “equivalent structures” shall be defined by this paragraph. (emphasis added)

Judicial Council Decision 815 clarifies that “equivalent structures” must be substantive and identifiable:  “In doing this [restructuring], the annual conference may organize units so long as the functions of ministry are fulfilled and the connectional relationships are maintained.” (emphasis added)

Connectional relationships are embodied, functional, and financial. Judicial Council decisions 1198 and 1225 make clear that an “equivalent structure” (for example, a blended committee) must have a designated person and budget to maintain the connectional relationship with each general agency. For example, the annual conference COSROW chair must be nominated and elected by the annual conference, and the annual conference COSROW chair or committee must be given a budget specific to its work—a common pool of funds for a blended committee is insufficient. These responsibilities cannot be delegated—the annual conference (not a committee) must elect a COSROW chair and allocate a budget.

Connectional relationships must likewise reach to every district and local congregation (¶ 610). When every local church has identified a person for the ministry of “a continuing commitment to the full and equal responsibility and participation of women in the total life and mission of the Church” (¶ 2102) and this ministry is coordinated with the district, annual conference, jurisdictional (or central) conference, and general conference ministry of the status and role of women, then we will have achieved “a vital web of interactive relationships”—a glimpse of connectionalism.

So, when we consider apportionments for general agencies, we are talking about more than fees for services. “Unbundling” the work of general agencies would circumscribe the relationship of the local congregation to the denomination as a whole. A system of subscription fees might preserve some of the functions of general agencies (for those who participate) but would not nurture the connectional relationships constitutive of the UMC. The UMC could no longer claim “connectionalism [as] … a vital web of interactive relationships.”


  1. This is a very useful clarification that aptly demonstrates how the concept of a "connection" was perverted by the creation of the United Methodist Church out of earlier forms of Methodism. What is described isn't "connectional" except in name. Instead it is a system whereby a strong centralized body, the General Conference, can impose its will throughout the entire UMC, right down to the local church. It is a system that seeks to implement universal control of the mission by destroying local autonomy. "Interactive relationships" in this system is a joke. The top acts on everything below with neither the possibility nor desire to interact. "Initiate and direct" really just means "command and control." And that is what the General Conference, through the General Boards and Agencies, has done or at least sought to do.

    The current connectional system has become the means by which a bare majority of the church can impose its will (in virtually any realm) on the minority. It is a system guaranteed to nurture rebellion and it has: at one level through withholding of apportionments, and at another by simply ignoring mandates (such as denominational Sunday school literature and worship resources.)

    And of course it breeds frustration when, as we are seeing, there is no means by which a refusal to obey General Conference mandates can be corrected.

    A real connectionism isn't merely a mutual sharing of the burden of missions, and is even less the top-down mandating of the behavior of members, clergy, and congregations. It would be actually sharing in the shaping and support of common goods and common missions without coercion.

    One might hope this will emerge in a future in which the UMC, founded on the principle of highly centralized coercive power, will abandon the desperate failures of the 20th century and embrace a better future.

  2. Reading the blogs of Progressive militants reveals they have no intention of sharing the church with Traditionalists should Progressives flip the church at GC2020.