Thursday, March 21, 2024

David W. Scott: Why the Book of Discipline Matters More in the US

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

When General Conference convenes in just over a month, it will spend most of its time examining legislative petitions to alter the Book of Discipline (BOD), the denomination’s rule book. And the overwhelming majority of those petitions dealing with the BOD come from the United States.

There are many reasons why so much of the BOD legislation at General Conference comes from the US – the relative size of the church there, the historical US-centrism of the denomination, the lack of any other venue for the church in the US to make policy.

But along with these well-documented reasons, there are also cultural and institutional factors for why US United Methodists want and need a Book of Discipline for church governance more than United Methodists elsewhere. That’s not to say that other parts of the UMC don’t use or care about the BOD. It’s just to say that the BOD has a special significance in the US that it doesn’t hold elsewhere.

I’ll briefly survey four explanations:

An emphasis on the rule of law

Light government regulation of religion

A large, distributed, and diverse church

Significant assets

Each of these factors contributes to the greater emphasis on the Book of Discipline in the United States relative to elsewhere in the UMC.

An Emphasis on the Rule of Law

US Americans tend to place a high cultural value on rules, laws, and formal, impersonal systems. When something goes wrong, the US American attitude is often, “There should be a rule about that!” and US Americans often assume that things will go smoothly if everyone follows the rules.

While this attitude is bred in US Americans primarily by our secular legal system, this preference for formal rules carries over into many other arenas, including the church. Having a book of church laws as the central text for a denomination reflects a particularly American veneration for law.

In this veneration of the rule of law, US Americans reflect a general trend withing Western modernity. Yet the large and active lawsuit culture in the United States that is not present elsewhere in the Western world also turbocharges a reliance on formal rules as a way of avoiding bad scenarios.

Not all countries in the world share the same high cultural value on the rule of law as Americans do. Other countries may emphasize personal preferences of a leader, interpersonal or collective systems of arbitration, or implicit cultural standards to tell people how to act and what to do when something goes wrong. These are all alternatives to formal laws and thus alternatives to relying on the BOD for questions of church governance.

Light Government Regulation of Religion

This may seem paradoxical in connection with the above point about the emphasis on the rule of law, but it’s not. One of the foundational concepts in the system of American laws is the separation of church and state. That is not true everywhere, even in other Western countries with a similarly strong sense of the rule of law. The standard in much of the world is for the government to regulate people’s religious practices and organizations.

If the government is not going to regulate religious groups in the US and there’s a desire for those religious groups to be governed by a system of laws, that means the religious groups have to come up with their own laws, since the state isn’t going to do it for them. The BOD is an expression of the US American church’s desire to self-regulate in the absence of much government regulation.

In other countries with a UMC presence, it may not be necessary to put so many rules into the Book of Discipline because the matters addressed, including employment and pensions, may already be covered by government regulation. Thus, having separate church regulation is unnecessary.

A Large, Distributed, and Diverse church

Even after disaffiliation, but especially historically over the past half century, the US American portion of The United Methodist Church is large – millions of members within scores of annual conferences led by dozens of bishops spread across five jurisdictions and every US state and territory. Within this group are very large churches and very small churches; urban, suburban, and rural churches; black, white, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic churches; rich churches and poor churches; and many other forms of variety.

This size, distribution, and diversity mean two things.

First, the church is much too large to operate effectively through informal, personal governance. While there are certainly United Methodist insiders, most United Methodists do not have direct personal ties with one another. Most are not even at one degree of removal, where two parties both know someone in common who could serve as a go-between. In the absence of such personal connections between United Methodists, it is more important to have impersonal rules since behavior and conflict management cannot always be addressed through personal means.

Moreover, there is no central head figure of the church in the United States who could serve as an ultimate personal arbiter within the church. Each bishop is co-equal, and there are dozens of bishops. Short of a miraculous revelation, there is no way to adjudicate a dispute among bishops by appealing to their common superior. Without personal regulation, impersonal regulation becomes more important.

Second, the church is too distributed and diverse for there to be central cultural norms that shape everyone’s understanding of how to act as the church and what to do when things go wrong. Different regions of the country, different racial and ethnic groups, even churches at different stages of the organizational lifecycle will have different notions of what the expectations for church are. Without shared cultural understandings, it is impossible to adjudicate between competing understandings of how to behave in certain situations without some sort of external systems of written procedures.

While this lack of personal or cultural regulation in the United States makes the BOD that much more important there, other countries have stronger systems of personal and cultural regulation that make the BOD less necessary there. The small size of the church in Europe and the Philippines means that many systems for running the church can be established through personal connections and a shared culture without the need for formal regulations. In Africa, the strong power of bishops, who often govern all the United Methodist churches in a country, provides a personal focus for church governance. In many places in Africa, this personal approach to church governance is reinforced by shared cultural, ethnic, and kinship ties.

Significant Assets

Finally, the US UMC has large holdings in property and finances. Pre-disaffiliation, those total assets throughout the US connection were somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 billion. All these assets mean that the financial stakes for church governance in the United States are high. If someone embezzles money, tries to leave the denomination with their church’s property, does something to get the church sued, or makes a bad financial transaction, the ramifications for those actions could be large, at least monetarily.

Thus, there is in an incentive for more extensive formal rules to try to handle and protect this large amount of assets. Regulations on church property, pensions, apportionments, church employment, and other finance and finance-adjacent areas of the BOD are there so that US Americans can manage their church’s assets, especially in the context of a well-developed secular US legal system with significant opportunities for lawsuits. Putting rules in the BOD allows US United Methodists to avoid secular courts more often and set the terms for when cases do end up in secular courts.

The church in all places has some assets. But in no other place is there the same combination of wealth and size that the church has in the US. Thus, no other place has the same financial incentives to put in place a system of formal financial rules through the BOD that the US has.


Ultimately, it is neither inherently good nor bad for the US to rely heavily on the BOD or for other branches of the church to rely less heavily on it. What creates a possibility for misunderstanding is when US United Methodists rely heavily on the BOD, other United Methodists rely less heavily on it, but General Conference proceeds as if the BOD has the same significance for everyone. Delegates should be aware when they discuss the BOD at General Conference that delegates from different places will have different understandings about the role of the BOD in the life of the church and may have different things at stake in the discussion.

If General Conference creates some option for the formation of a US region, it will have the benefit that US United Methodists will have a venue in which they can fulfill their cultural and contextual need for an extensive set of church laws and regulations without needing to negotiate all those laws and regulations across international cultures, where the various parties have different understandings of law and different senses of what’s at stake. Such an outlet for US energy around lawmaking would then free up General Conference to focus more on spiritual, relational, and other aspects of what it means to be the church together.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Jefferson Knight: Embracing Regionalization Over Disaffiliation: Safeguarding the Legacy of The United Methodist Church in Africa

Today's post is by Jefferson Knight. Knight is Program Director of the United Methodist Human Rights Monitor in Liberia and a delegate of the Liberia Annual Conference to the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In recent times, The United Methodist Church finds itself at a crossroads, facing a critical decision that could shape its future trajectory significantly. The proposal of disaffiliation has surfaced, threatening to disintegrate the UMC in Africa and erase the rich history and heritage that our forefathers have diligently preserved over generations. However, amidst this uncertainty, there exists a viable alternative - regionalization - that promises to uphold the unity and continuity of the church while honoring its legacy.

The United Methodist Church stands as a testament to the enduring faith and resilience of its members in Africa and world-wide who have upheld the teachings and traditions of the church with unwavering dedication. Throughout the centuries, African United Methodists have played a pivotal role in shaping the identity and mission of the church on the continent, fostering a sense of community and shared purpose among its members.

The richness of The United Methodist Church in Africa is not measured in gold or silver, but in the unwavering faith of its members, the resilience of its communities, and the love that binds us together. From the bustling streets of Monrovia to the remote villages of Zimbabwe, the message of hope and salvation preached by the church has touched the lives of millions.

When whispers began to circulate about disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church, some voices from across the ocean are suggesting that Africans should break away from the global denomination. But the leaders and members of the church in Africa stand firm, our faith unshaken. We do not need anyone to tell us how to practice our faith. The Holy Bible remains supreme in our hearts and our minds. We will not waver in our devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The prospect of disaffiliation poses a significant threat to the cohesion and stability of the UMC in Africa. By severing ties with the global denomination, African United Methodists risk isolating themselves from a broader network of support and resources, potentially leading to fragmentation and discord within the church. Moreover, disaffiliation could result in the loss of vital connections with sister churches worldwide, hindering opportunities for collaboration and mutual growth.

Furthermore, the dissolution of the UMC in Africa through disaffiliation would represent a profound loss of heritage and history for the church. The legacy of our forefathers, who labored tirelessly to establish and nurture The United Methodist Church in Africa, would be jeopardized, leaving future generations disconnected from their roots and traditions. The wealth of knowledge and experience accumulated over centuries would be at risk of being forgotten and diluted if the church were to splinter and disperse.

In contrast, regionalization offers a path forward that preserves the unity and continuity of The United Methodist Church in Africa and elsewhere while honoring its heritage and legacy. By aligning with neighboring regions and forming a cohesive network within the global denomination, African United Methodists can maintain their connection to the broader church body while fostering a sense of solidarity and shared purpose.

Regionalization provides a framework for collaboration and shared decision-making, enabling African United Methodists to retain autonomy and agency within the church while benefiting from the resources and support of the global denomination. By embracing regionalization, the UMC in Africa can ensure its continued existence and relevance in an ever-changing world, upholding the values and principles that have guided the church for generations.

We are United Methodists in Africa, and we will remain faithful until the day our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, returns.

In conclusion, The United Methodist Church stands at a pivotal moment in its history, faced with a choice that will shape its future for years to come. By rejecting disaffiliation and embracing regionalization, African United Methodists can safeguard the legacy and heritage of the church while promoting unity and continuity within the global denomination. Let us honor the sacrifices of our forefathers and preserve the rich tapestry of history that defines The United Methodist Church, ensuring its enduring presence and relevance for generations to come.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Recommended Readings: European United Methodist Bishops on 2nd Anniversary of Ukraine War

February 24 marked two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, setting off a war that persists to this day. United Methodists around the world marked this anniversary, but perhaps none so closely as European United Methodists.

Bishop Harald Rückert of the Germany Episcopal Area marked the occasion with a joint letter to his fellow UMC bishops Christian Alsted (who oversees Ukraine) and Eduard Khegay (who oversees Russia). In it, Bishop Rückert offered his prayers for both bishops and the United Methodists under their care and expressed his hopes for peace.

Bishop Alsted marked the anniversary of the war by traveling to Ukraine. You can see several of his reports from that trip about worshipping and serving with Ukrainian United Methodists on the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area Facebook page.