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General Conference Priorities: Regionalization of Our UMC Structure

by Molly Vetter, General Conference delegate from California-Pacific Annual Conference

As we get closer to the 2020 General Conference (which will be held starting in April of 2024), it feels like there is so much at stake. I wanted to share some thoughts about issues that I see as critical for this Conference, and why I think they matter for us. Thanks for listening.

A broad coalition of leaders in the UMC, especially but not exclusively from the US, named three priorities for the General Conference that will convene this April in Charlotte, NC. We call them our 3 “R’s,” and they can be listed in any order: Removing anti-LGBTQ+ statements and policies, approving the Revised Social Principles as offered by our General Board of Church and Society, and adopting a Regionalization plan that allows us to better function as a worldwide church in diverse contexts. 

I share urgency for all three of these needed changes. I’ve been listening and learning to other wise leaders about why these changes are needed, and here is some of what I’ve heard about adopting a regionalization plan.

Regionalization of our UMC Structure

Our United Methodist church decision-making structure is outdated, ineffective, and impractical. Over many decades, the denomination has expanded and grown outside the US and declined inside the US. Our structure, however, still presumes that we are predominantly a US church, which requires us to spend disproportionate General Conference time on matters relevant to the US, and asks the regions outside the US to gather separately to discern matters relevant in their contexts. It is well past time to create a regional structure, parallel to the regional structures now called Central Conferences, that would give parallel responsibilities to a US Region.

That this General Conference was delayed for four years illustrates just one of the practical challenges of maintaining a structure where so many decisions have to be made by a worldwide body. Even without talking about the challenges of genuine conversation across the culture and language differences of our UMC, the challenging details of travel visas, language translators, and time zone differences suggest that we should choose which things we need to work through all together, and which details we can work out regionally.

Our current structure is also embedded with the harmful and enduring legacies of colonialism that have too long been a part of our church structure–where there are different structures in the US as compared to elsewhere around the world. One step in dismantling the structures of colonialism is to move forward into a structure that is consistent for all the regions of the church.

Why haven’t we made these changes already? I see two significant reasons:

First, because of amplified division in the church regarding sexuality. Proposals to reform the structure of the church into regional bodies have been discussed–and were even adopted by the General Conference in 2008–but died without being ratified. Regionalization involves change to our Constitution, which requires ratification by delegates to Annual Conferences around the world. In the past, fear and division in our understanding of sexuality has been leveraged to undermine these needed changes to our structure, by equating regionalization to changing our stance on human sexuality. This has effectively paralyzed our ability to adapt to our present reality. To some extent this is also true: a US region of the church would almost certainly choose to remove church rules that have been an obstacle to full inclusion. From my perspective, if we are only able to move toward LGBTQ+ inclusion a region at a time, then it is critical that we be freed to do so. It is beyond time to make these organizational changes, which offer a more practical and faithful way to order ourselves.

Second, concern that regionalization diminishes the significance of our connection. The specific proposals that will come to this General Conference, including the Christmas Covenant, a Connectional Table proposal, and a version that integrates pieces of these two that will come through the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, continue to be worked out through ongoing conversion around our worldwide church. All of these proposals affirm that there is still a significance to our worldwide connection–they all maintain foundational ecclesiological connections, as well as practical connection. Rather than serving to diminish our belonging together, they increase our sense of mutuality by creating parallel systems of authority and accountability that allow attention to be focused in ways that are helpful to the ministry of the church in all the places where it is located.

I am ready to trust the conferencing work of the General Conference as we refine and perfect the specifics of proposals for regionalization that will come before us. Though there are still points of difference remaining among the proposals, there is even more agreement on the basic necessity and the broad-strokes change that is needed, and I join the chorus of people championing this effort. 

This concludes our series on the three priorities. You can read the posts about the other two Rs here: Removing Anti-LGBTQ+ Statements and Policies and Revised Social Principles. I hope that sharing these thoughts is helpful in understanding some of what’s at stake in this General Conference, and how to think and talk about it in our own, diverse contexts. I encourage you to join in or start conversations about your hopes for the future of our UMC, and what we can do in this moment to help us get there. Please feel free to share what I’ve written, or borrow thoughts to use on your own. Although my words focus on decisions that the delegates to General Conference can make, each of these three R’s points toward change that only becomes real at the local level: as we honor the Holy Spirit’s call and blessing in all people, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, as we live out our social principles in our communities and world, and as we embody what it means to be a church not defined by national borders.

I invite you to join this work with me.

Related links:
Ask The UMC: What is regionalization?

African delegates commit to unity, regionalization (UM News)