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Efforts for regionalization move forward (UM News)

July 24, 2023

A plan to put the different geographic regions of The United Methodist Church on equal footing has received two key endorsements that it is heading in the right direction.

The Connectional Table, meeting online on July 13, and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, meeting online on July 22, each unanimously affirmed the work so far on a regionalization proposal for the global denomination.

The Connectional Table coordinates denomination-wide mission, resources and ministries. The standing committee is a permanent committee of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, and deals with matters in central conferences — seven church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The standing committee is the most internationally representative body in the denomination outside of General Conference.

Together, the two United Methodist leadership bodies in February agreed to form a joint task force to combine two regionalization proposals that aim to provide parity between the U.S. and the central conferences. The successive July meetings gave both bodies a chance to review the task force’s work.

“It was our objective to determine which path will lead us to a regional plan that could be supported by the General Conference to allow us to move into a new future,” East Ohio Conference Bishop Tracy S. Malone, the convener of the task force, told the standing committee. Malone also is president-designate of the denomination’s Council of Bishops.

The task force worked to integrate the Connectional Table’s proposal to create a U.S. Regional Conference and the Christmas Covenant, a plan that central conference leaders introduced shortly before Christmas in 2019. The Christmas Covenant incorporates the U.S. regional conference and goes further to transform the existing central conferences into regional conferences with equal authority.

In combining the plans, Malone said, the task force’s work also included some revision.

That’s in part because a lot has changed since both plans were submitted to the coming COVID-delayed General Conference, originally scheduled in May 2020 and now planned for April 23-May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Malone said the task force also looked at what different regions might need that wasn’t included in either proposal.

“Our foundational question is and was: What is the gift that regionalization can give our church?” Malone said.

Regionalization aims to address what many have identified as a longstanding problem in the denomination — namely that it has separate ways of functioning in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.

No structure exists to deal with matters solely related to the United States. The result is that General Conference ends up being largely dominated by U.S. issues and debates.

For example, Wespath — the denomination’s pension agency — collaborated in the work on a U.S. regional conference so that the U.S. would have a place to vote on pension matters that affect only U.S. United Methodist clergy. Wespath has a separate Central Conference Pensions Program to provide retirement security for central conference clergy.

Also unlike in the U.S., central conferences have authority under the denomination’s constitution to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.

However, previous regionalization efforts have gone down to defeat over the years. Creating the new regional structures requires amending the denomination’s constitution — a high bar.

For ratification, amendments must receive at least a two-thirds vote at General Conference and at least two-thirds of the total votes from annual conferences, regional bodies consisting of voters from multiple congregations. The regional conferences planned under regionalization would each consist of multiple annual conferences.

A number of United Methodist leaders see new urgency for the U.S., Africa, Europe and the Philippines to each be on equal footing now that the standing committee is developing a draft of a new General Book of Discipline.

Since 2012, the standing committee has been working to determine which parts of the current Book of Discipline’s Part VI are essential for all United Methodists and which can be adapted. Part VI, the largest section in the Discipline, deals with organizational and administrative matters.

Both the standing committee and Connectional Table decided to integrate the two regionalization plans into a single legislative package so that they would not compete with each other and so that regionalization would have its best chance for success.

Drafters of the original Christmas Covenant also have consulted in revising the combined proposal — what many have started calling Christmas Covenant 2.0.

The 10-member task force included United Methodists from Congo, Germany, Mozambique, the Philippines and the U.S.

The Rev. Deanna “Dee” Stickley-Miner, the standing committee’s secretary and a General Conference delegate from West Ohio, said the collaborative spirit in assembling the combined regionalization proposal offers a model for the denomination.

“This process reflects who we could be as a United Methodist denomination when we slow down enough to listen to each other,” Stickley-Miner said.

Judi Kenaston, the top executive of the Connectional Table, has overseen that body’s work on regionalization and shared a similar sentiment.

“It is encouraging to witness the collaborative work that is producing this legislation,” said Kenaston, who is also a General Conference delegate from West Virginia.

“The hard work, deep listening and willingness to come to a common understanding has shown the best of our connection, and I hope it can be an example of how we can work moving forward.”

Malone emphasized that the core Christian doctrines, such as the belief in Christ’s resurrection and divinity, will remain the same and unchanged across The United Methodist Church. But the plan aims to allow for regional differences in the administration of the church.

Malone said one of the task force’s guiding principles was to help empower each region to make certain decisions in real time without being dependent on General Conference, which typically meets every four years.

The revised regionalization proposal is now in the hands of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The standing committee plans to vote on the legislation itself in August and submit the approved petitions to General Conference by the Sept. 6 petitions deadline.

The Book of Discipline requires that all properly submitted petitions receive a vote at General Conference in one of its legislative committees. All petitions approved by legislative committees, in turn, must receive a vote in General Conference plenary. 

As a permanent committee of General Conference, the standing committee also acts as a legislative committee. That means the standing committee has authority to substitute the combined Christmas Covenant 2.0 regionalization proposal for the previously submitted regionalization proposals. The standing committee also will have the ability to refine the legislation still further when it meets April 21-22, 2024, just before General Conference begins.

Already, there are indications that this effort at regionalization may have greater momentum than earlier efforts. During meetings in November to elect new bishops, all five U.S. jurisdictions approved identical resolutions calling for more regional governance of The United Methodist Church. At least 35 annual conferences in the U.S. and the Philippines as well as the Virginia Conference’s General Conference delegation also have endorsed the Christmas Covenant.

“We continue to educate and advocate for regionalization,” said Karen Prudente, a task force and Connectional Table member who was part of the original Christmas Covenant writing team. Prudente lives in New York but is originally from the Philippines.

“We have been meeting with annual conferences all around the world,” she added.